I don't own any of the characters, placenames, locations or rights within the Wardstone Chronicles, if I'm not mistaken they're the property of Joseph Delaney. Just another quick note to say this: text in italics is a flashback, bold is third-person narrative, and regular is Tom's view.
My master and I originally set off into the marshes to deal with a reported number of water witches, re-animated into full strength by a group of the bitter-minded goat mages we had fought just weeks earlier. We had been informed of the witches' presence by the priest of a small church within the boggy terrain, and so we were reluctant but persuaded to aid him in removing them. The revival of the water witches was a rushed act of revenge, but it was foolish of my master and I to have misunderestimated them so much as to take only basic precautions. Armed only with a brand new chain and staff each, we had to fight our way out shortly after we'd entered their marshland territory. Fortunately, we had managed to kill or mortally wound a large number of the group, but we'd both suffered terrible bruises and cuts of our own. The problems began when my master sent me to the church to tell the priest we would have to retire and attempt this attack another day. While I made my way to the church, my master was attacked by a water witch armed with a blade that was laced in poison, and though he quickly felled her, soon grew weaker and ill. I had returned from the church to find my master lying against a fallen oak tree, skin as pale as bone and his face looking more aged and weary than I had ever seen. Once more I was commanded to return to the church, to retrieve an antidote my master knew the priest had in his possession.
The sky was an unnatural black, despite it being an average late Autumn evening. I'd always had a good sense of time, but this evening things were different - I felt uneasy and had no idea what time it should be. Moving through the thick marshland at a steady pace, I left thick, expansive footprints in the mud which bubbled and sucked as my worn-out boots stumbled less than gracefully through the marsh. I could taste blood flowing without relent into my mouth, and the copper-tinged taste left me spitting furiously. I needed to find the church, for only then could I retrieve the antidote to my master's poisoned state. Allow me to explain. Stumbling carelessly through brambles and low branches, I breathlessly urged myself onwards, back to the church. By this time the ground had grown hard with an inexplicable frost, and tendrils of mist had begun snaking their way through the lush undergrowth. Gasping for air, fit to burst with the effort of jogging for nearly an hour now, I finally came within sight of the church. Clasping both huge iron wrungs with tight fists, I forced the church door open and threw back my tatted, torn hood. I was inside; my master would surely be saved now.
"Father! Mr. Gregory is dying! A blade dipped in poison has left him weak, have you anything to help him?" I cried desperately to the figure kneeling before the alter, who strangely I had yet to learn his name. I began to stride down the aisle of the small church, and was about to ask again when the priest rose from the kneeling position and stood up straight.
"You needn't worry, Thomas. I have foreseen such a tragedy and have been praying for your master's soul this past hour." I took a tentative step closer; the priest sounded eerily calm and his head was tilted back at a bizarre angle, as if he was talking to the ceiling. I heard a rattling, shallow breath being drawn by the priest, and moved closer to inspect what was causing his irrational behaviour. A gutteral choke was heard to my left, and I swivelled round to face the cause of that sound: the very priest I'd come to seek out. His eyes were bulging with fear, his mouth open in a silent scream of pain. His throat had been cut deeply (which explained the vast pool of blood he was sitting in) and he was leaning against a pew for support, his nails cutting into the wood in desperation.
Realising the real priest was dying on the floor before me, I whirled round instinctively to challenge the imposter at the alter. The "fake" priest was equally as quick, and drew a vicious scimitar to meet my staff. There was a clatter as I fumbled my staff from the shock of the impact, no doubt weakened by the previous journey through the rough marshland. Forced to act quickly, I drew my chain with my left hand and stepped back, taking in every aspect of my target to size up my chances of binding it. The fake priest was some form of shapeshifter, which was obvious due to the fact that its skin was stretched and the head still leaning back. My immediate guess was that the shapeshifter had taken on the shape of the priest as the priest was speaking to the heavens, as only then would the head be permanently leant back in such a way. Using my chain as a lesser version of a knight's mace, I swung it about my head and lashed out at the shapeshifter's head, causing it to narrowly dodge my strike and almost overbalance. Taking advantage of the shapeshifter's stumble, I kicked it hard in the stomach and drove it into the closest hardwood pew. Snatching up my staff, I released the blade hidden within it and jabbed into the vulnerable, soft neck. Turning away from the spurt of dark blood, I kicked the body aside and rushed to the real priest's side. With shaking hands, the priest pulled a bottle of light blue liquid from his pocket, and I realised with horror that this was the antidote. The priest had indeed seen that this was going to happen, but he had gone to tremendous efforts to bottle me an antidote. Taking it gratefully, I looked hard at the bottle before me; my master's life depended on this vial of liquid. By the time I looked back at the priest, his eyes were wide and unseeing, his hands limp against the floor, his life over.
Alice Deane couldn't take the waiting anymore; she had to get out and see if Tom was safe. She knew that Tom and Old Gregory had gone into the marshland, but she had sniffed out more witches than was comfortable for the two defenders of the light. She crept out of Shey's house and sprinted off in the direction of the marshlands, for she could smell danger. Now aware of her new dark power, Alice feared nothing and cared for nothing except Tom Ward. Leaping clear of bogs and swampground, she moved through the low willow branches and marsh reeds with effortless ease. All that mattered to her was Tom's safety, and nothing would dare to get in her way if it knew what was good for itself. She could sense that Tom was near, but before she ran in the direction of the church she had heard Tom and Old Gregory speak of, she heard a hoarse voice scold her.
"Are you incapable of listening to a thing I say, girl?"
"Old Gregory..." Alice said with a weary sigh, turning slowly and expecting to meet his hard gaze. Had she been her younger self, she would have rushed to his aid and gasped in horror at the state he was in, but as a more mature and wiser woman now, she approached his crippled figure with a fearless stride. It was clear to her that The Spook was dying - there was no doubt about that, but she felt little surprise to find that she felt no pity or anxiety for the man lying before her against an oak tree that frankly looked more alive than him.
"Have you no respect, girl? I am your master as long as there's breath in my body. Tom would be very disappointed to hear such language." The Spook retorted, taking in big gulps of air after the effort of speaking. Alice cocked her head to the side, faintly smiling, finding herself in a rare moment of power over the old man.
"We both know I've got much more power than you, Old Gregory. Ain't that so?" Alice slyly shot back, smiling in the growing moonlight.
"You should know, girl, when you sneer like that I can hardly tell you from your wicked mother!" The Spook spat back, his voice rising enough to cause a fit of coughing and spluttering from his broken body. Anger flashed across Alice's face, and she dropped to her knees before the Spook, her eyes burning into his with cruelty. Before he had time to react, Alice seized the Spook by the throat in an impossibly strong grip, chanted 4 words in the Old Tongue and scratched his neck with her other hand. The Spook's eyes widened in fear as blood began to pour from the tiny scratch in the side of his throat. Alice ran her finger over the cut and lapped up the spilled blood hungrily, feeling a colossal power growing inside of her. She was a blood witch now, there was no doubt about it, and The Spook had forced her into the dark with his cruelty and mistreatment.
"I didn't want to become like this, Old Gregory. You forced me into it. If only you'd been nicer to me, could have saved you tonight, I could. If only you'd let Tom and me be friends. Would that have been so hard?" Alice said out loud, not paying any attention to the limp body before her. The Spook opened his mouth as if to say something, blood dribbling out of the corners of his mouth, but Alice silenced him with a bloody finger to his lips. "Goodbye, Old Gregory. Tom will be here soon, he'll take care of you." Alice added, standing up and delicately dusting herself off.
I brushed a willow branch aside as the moonlight pooled ahead of me in the clearing, the oak tree hidden from the silver light. I walked into the moonlight and instantly knew that something was wrong. My master was no longer supporting himself on the trunk of the oak tree, instead his figure was slumped against it with his staff fallen from his hands. I would have fallen to the ground and wept had it not been for Alice, who moved out of the shadows holding a handful of her healing herbs.
"I tried to help him, Tom. He just... didn't last the hour" She said quietly, coming forward to grasp me in an embrace. Though I felt the warm tears sting my face as they ran down my cheeks, I bit my lip and refused to cry in Alice's presence.
"Thank you for trying, Alice." I managed shakily. "Did he... Did he have a message for me?" I asked, hoping beyond hope that my former master would have imparted one last piece of wisdom onto me. Alice hesitated, then nodded.
"He said an old Spook's saying. He said you'd know what it meant... He said 'Tell Tom to always remember this: It's important to tell the difference between waking and dreaming.' That's all." I held Alice suddenly at arm's length, and eyed her with puzzlement. How was that relevant to me now? Alice grinned and pushed me backwards hard onto the ground. Unprepared for the impact, I flailed my arms in panic and disbelief.
I opened my mouth to scream, and felt my body fall for much longer than it should have. I screamed loud and long, throwing my arms about in a fit. The world spun and I lurched into a sitting position, sweating and breathing rapidly in my bed at Shey's home. I was safe and warm in bed, the candle at my bedside burnt down to a small stub of wax. It was all a dream. A very lucid dream, but a dream nonetheless. When you're a Spook, or even a Spook's apprentice, you should always be able to tell the difference between waking and dreaming. It just might prove useful.
It's a one-shot with a cheesy ending. Written over an hour and a half (with a tea break), hope you liked it. Feel free to review, favourite or whatever the hell you want to do with this story. Thank you for your time.