Nothing better than rolling the window down and letting the wind blow back your hair…
For those who have waited, be it known that Book 2.5 of Valerian has been completed and will soon be published. Note, this story picks up at the point where Kaelynn is beneath the museum with Sir Henson, and ends with her waking up on the flight back to the States… for those of you who do not know what this means, go buy Book One as soon as you can…
To all my loyal fans… enjoy.
When: Thirteen years ago… almost to the day.
Where: British Museum of Antiquities and Arts
Circumstances: Prior to Kaelynn’s flight back towards the states…For a moment it was all she could do not to break out in hysterical laughter. “Something’s definitely wrong,” she repeated, looking down at the three paintings before her. As if on cue there came another thump, this one seeming much closer than the last. Again, it was followed by a general dimming of the lights overhead. “That can’t be good.” she observed. Just like the insanity of the paintings before her- like this entire situation! At the same time Henson’s eyes widened, his hand going to his throat, as if fear needed a physical expression. “We need to get out of here!” he said, hysterics in his voice. In his rush to get around her he clipped her knee, stumbled and fell, clipboard and pen flying from his hands. Before she could say anything, or even help him up, the door to the room burst wide open; darkness engulfed the both of them like a tidal wave. Instant chaos and pandemonium, muffled shouts and scrambling about- most of it by her. In one corner of the room something large toppled and fell, obviously knocked over by whatever accompanied the darkness. The sound of its breaking echoed throughout the chamber like rolling thunder on a summer’s eve. Without warning, wings, claws and beaks seemed to fill all the space around her, and with them scratching and pecking and jabbing at her arms, hands and face. She raised a hand to protect her eyes the best she could, the other she kept tightly gripped on Hilliard’s book.
Henson had been right all along; they did need to get out of here. Funny, in the midst of all the chaos and scrambling, bird attacks and darkness, she thought she’d freeze, that or play the helpless female in a hack and slash flick, however, and with some effort, she did neither- freeze or scream helplessly, instead she managed to crawl towards the direction of the door, even as the ‘presence’ and sound of many bodies began to surround her, fill all the remaining space. The room felt overcrowded. She felt overcrowded, like her brain was about to explode- With luck she was able to exit the room and enter the just-as-dark, but much emptier feeling, hallway. Blinded, eyes wrapped in darkness, she managed to stumble her way down the hall, back towards the elevators, (or so she hoped) before catching her foot and tripping over something on the floor. She fell down so quickly and unexpectedly, that she made little effort to catch herself. As a result, sudden and intense pain lanced up from her knees where they cracked against the floor. She cried out, but the sound of her voice was drowned out by the larger struggle going on within the room she’d just exited. For a moment she just lay there feeling helpless. She considered crying out to Henson; beg for his assistance and rescue… only to draw up short. Since the darkness had washed over her, she hadn’t heard a peep from him, either by design or by accident. Which should tell me something, she realized. That maybe I should keep my big mouth shut for the time being. Perhaps the darkness would work to her advantage as well as her adversaries. Biting her lip, she managed to painfully crawl her way back to her feet, using the wall to steady herself. A couple deep breathes and then… sudden muffled cries from somewhere behind her caused her to turn- they sounded a lot like Henson’s. More muffled cries… then no time to even scream as a roughened hand closes about her face, choking off her airway and causing her head to snap back. Instantly violence fills the air, someone stands beside her, blows are struck; someone violently stumbles against her- what feels like a body, and then more blows. The entire time she struggles to break free from the hands that hold her. As her breath begins to burn in her chest and her eyes water, someone begins to pull at the book in her arms, threatening to rip it free. Desperate, she strikes out and connects. There comes the sound of someone falling, at the same time the hand leaves her face. She is free. Strangely, in the midst of all this a sudden memory crashes in, a childhood dream, a vision perhaps, of a time when giants strove to save her from the wretchedness of a night and all she could do was cry out and scream for her mother and father to save her. In the end, and far beyond her dream, her mother had succeeded- but at such a price. As the memory began to fade a blinding series of flares cut the darkness before her, like sparks from a grinder. Off balance, she topples forward, as the floor is torn out from beneath her. Losing her balance entirely, she falls to her knees in a spray of what feels to be sand. What she sees when she opens her eyes is by far worse than even her worst nightmares. *** She’s no longer in the hallway, or even beneath the museum- she’s been cast into purgatory instead. This can’t be happening. This can’t be real… The skies, (as in two) that vault overhead make no sense. They reminded her of two gigantic wheels tipped up on their rims. As such, they appeared to be grinding, one against the other, like two gigantic dinner plates slapped back-to-back. In that space where they met in eternal battle, where one wore against the other, madness and fire literally rained, white-hot meteor-like streaks of fire trailing all the way down into darkness and night. The wheels were like two sides of the same coin, one side wearing darkness as pitch black as night; the other, the side she was on, radiated bright, as in brilliant, all-illuminating light. Once again, a singular thought rang through her mind that this can’t be happening. This can’t be real… But it was real- all too real. In the distance, off to her right, sprawled a featureless plain, flat as a pancake and desert in scope, an endless burning vista of no-man’s land. Its vastness radiated a heat that was stifling in its degree and furnace hot. While behind her it was the exact opposite. An unhealthy jungle of darkest green, massive and sprawling, it seemed to consume the border between desert wasteland and deep foliage. A forest as primitive and primeval as any she’d ever seen or heard of. The fact that it reminded her of the Siberian wilderness, a taiga some 1.5 million square miles in size, did not escape her. A murky haze seemed to grip this darkened land, and beyond the haze, more distant still, were what appeared to be mountains, an entire range of needle-sharp broken rock, stabbing up from the earth as if in defiance of the very sky. On the sides of those mountains were a series of dark, forbidden, keeps. (The structures she could see, even at this distance, were gigantic and frightening, horrendous in size and proportion- like some nightmarish scene from a 1930’s black and white horror flick.) Once again, where on God’s green earth, was she? And more importantly, was there even a God to hear her cry out? This can’t be happening. This can’t be real. Please God, I just want to go home! “Mr. Henson?” Her words fell from her lips to flat at her feet. It is as if the very air itself were void of life. She might as well be screaming into a vacuum. “Mr. Henson…” she tried again. Same result… silence. A sudden thought occurred to her then, even as that old enemy, fear, began to wrap its cold, bony fingers around the base of her spine. What if I am all alone…? What if Henson never even made it out of the museum? What if…? A quick look around only confirmed her fears. She was alone, absolutely alone. Obviously, we’re not in Kansas anymore. If only Toto were here… Out in the open, she felt vulnerable. She needed cover, shelter, anything safe- in other words, the cool, darkened, confines of the nearby forest…? Upon entering the woods- only as far as the furthest outstretched limb- she tried to relax. But the woods made it hard. The nearest tree, its trunk twisted and gnarled, laid complete darkness, an eerie sort of night that seemed to absorb her very being and thoughts. Its depth both beckoned and repulsed- a siren’s song of seduction… deception. Only then did she realize that she had been weeping the entire time, tears were running down her cheeks and leaving salty trails on her lips and tongue. It was obvious, as she took stock of her situation that she was either stark-raving mad- as in losing her freaking mind, or that she had been knocked unconscious beneath the museum during the struggle, and was hallucinating. There was a third possibility as well, one that she hated to even contemplate- that she was dead, as in ‘dead as a doornail’. It was one of the three. (There was possibly one other one as well- were she was trapped in the darkened hallways beneath the museum, unable to move, get away, or even realize reality, one that had her imagining all of this- a truly inescapable hell.) So pick your poison, Mrs. Contestant… chose your fate. Which one will it be, Door number One and insanity, Door number Two, tripping on LSD or Door number Three, being dead. She had to start somewhere, so she pinched herself on the leg- Ouch!
One answer down- she obviously wasn’t asleep or dreaming this happening. (She also realized that maybe next time she shouldn’t pinch herself so hard, either.) Next, she placed two fingers just beneath her chin-.. .. .. Yep, that’s a definite heartbeat, so she obviously wasn’t dead. (Which was a good thing…?) Then again, if she were dead she could just be imagining a heartbeat… which left stark-raving mad, and who in their right mind could answer that question since all the crazy people in the world think they’re the only ones ‘not’ crazy; or… as crazy as it sounded, she really was here- as ‘in this place for real.’ It sure as heck felt real, from the blistering heat in front of her to the cool, shivery, shade behind. A line from Dante’s Inferno rose unbidden to her mind: “Midway upon the journey of our life,
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straight foreward pathway had been lost.” Great. The last thing she needed was to be comparing this place to Dante’s Inferno… From beneath the trees she took a good long look around, hoping to spot anything at all that might tell her where she was or how she could possibly get out of this ‘place’, only to see nothing really obvious, nothing that is, except for the aforementioned vistas of blistering heat and sun, or choking forests of darkness and gloom. The sands before her, stretching all the way to the horizon, had been bleached bone-white by the sun. Within them nothing stirred, nothing even moved, other than the eternal watery-haze drifting just along the surface. (Once again, they reminded her of the Great Salt Flats in Utah. Her parents had taken her and her brother there, on their last family vacation, in what seemed a lifetime ago.) Just like their real-life counterparts, these too seemed barren and sterile, as well as endless. The forest behind her, on the other hand, was just the opposite. From within its confines, cool breezes tugged at her hair and clothing, bringing the sickeningly sweet aroma of jasmine and rose. Beneath these were even deeper scents, darker somehow, like shadows cast at mid-night, of cinnamon, cumin, and curry. There was something else as well, more than just a scent or a breeze, something that lurked just beyond her reach, nearly hidden by the darkness of the trees- something indicating primeval. The dampness permeating the air left tiny drops of dew behind, coating her clothing, forearms and face. As a result, she began to shiver. (Whether from terror or from the cold, she could not tell.) As noted before, the trunks’ of the nearby trees where thick, dark and gnarled, twisted as if suffering from paralyzing arthritis. While clumps of pale, clammy, lichen clung to their sides, and/or waved in the breeze from branches. The leaves each tree bore were green, thick and heavy, easily the size of her palm, some bigger still, and seemed to wave at her in some sort of silent sinister language. (She might have imagined that last part.) While beneath her feet, the soil lay rich dark and dank, bringing to mind images of spilt and dried blood. For some reason, at that moment, her mind leapt to a game she used to play as a child, a game she too still taught groups of school-children who would visit her museum. It was a game her father liked to call Survival. The premise of the game was simple enough- you were one of the lucky (or not so lucky, depending on how you looked upon it) survivors, of a plane crash. The object of the game was to gather up various supplies, in order of importance, while waiting to be rescued. Gameplay consisted of each child being given a sheet listing approximately twenty to twenty-five items, from flashlights to matchbooks, blankets to compass. The idea was to list those items in order of importance, starting with the most important and ending with the least important, that would be necessary for survival. One wrong decision and you die a gruesome, horrible death! (Pretty morbid game, if you think about it.) On your mark, get set, go… This time though, it was for real. This wasn’t a game. She really was stranded. Her only problem this time, being that she had no real supplies to begin with, other than Hilliard’s book and a few odds and ends she managed to grab in her mad rush from the hotel. Oh, and there was also, no real hope of a rescue, either. Other than that, though… Feeling her mind start to wander, she resisted the urge to run even further into the woods; (something in her gut said no.) instead, she began focusing on the moment, and what may, or may not have, taken place to bring her here in the first. (Personally, she was beginning to feel a whole lot like Alice, just fallen down the rabbit hole.) The last thing she clearly remembered was being in one of the rooms beneath the British Museum of Arts, with its curator, Mr. Henson. At the time they had been looking at some of Hilliard’s more ‘questionable’ paintings; paintings that showed Theo, Phillip and a few others, including herself, dressed in 16th Century garb and posing like Royalty. The thing was they’d never, ever posed for such pictures, not even in spoof or for fun. Secondly, and more importantly, she hadn’t been alive during the 16th Century. She’d been born in the late 70’s, as in nineteen hundred and seventy-four- a good four hundred years after the supposed paintings had been created to begin with! Deep breaths, Kael… take deep breaths. Just close your eyes and get your shit together… This she did. Regardless, of how she felt, or even how impossible her current situation might appear to be, one thing remained- she absolutely needed to figure it all out, and get herself back to reality- as in her vision of it. (She hoped that when she opened her eyes, that she’d be back in the labyrinth of hallways beneath the British Museum, along with a certain Mr. Henson, and that all this craziness going on, the hallucinations, this world and such, would turn out to be nothing more than some god-awful nightmare.) With this singular thought (and hope) in mind, she slowly opened her eyes to what lay before her…
Chapter 2The trees remained; the plains and the heat remained, the madness in the skies remained. The book in her arms remained, as well as the sickeningly sweet gag of roses. The madness in her head remained, much like the pain in her knee where she had fallen during her escape from beneath the museum. In fact, nothing whatsoever had changed around her, what she saw, what she smelled, how she felt… not one iota- other than the fact that a large furry creature was kneeling in front of her, now, studying her with a look of deep concern in its eyes. A figure with horns on its head and cloven hooves for feet- It couldn’t be, but by gosh it sure seemed to be- “Boo,” said Puck.
After an indeterminate amount of time she finally came to, not that she’d been asleep or knocked unconscious, mind you. No, and that was part of the problem; she’d been awake the entire time. On top of all that, she was intimately, and painfully, aware of all her surroundings as well.
No way. No way in hell that what I’m seeing can possibly be. This has to be madness- pure and simple. And now I’m face to face with a mythological creature- an honest to goodness satyr.
I am so screwed…
All she could remember from before, right after opening her eyes while getting her shit together, was running- of clasping Hilliard’s book tightly against her chest and running for all she was worth- anything to escape the madness dancing and frolicking before her.
Trees and branches had flashed by in streaks, their skeletal-like fingers reaching out, clawing at her in an attempt to slow her down, scratching at her face, ripping at her tee-shirt, leaving behind streaks of muted green lichen and red sap.
Like sacrificial blood being spilt…
Still she ran.
She ran until the very air burned in her lungs like molten lead, and spots filled her eyes, till it felt like her heart was threatening to rip free from the confines of her chest.
She ran and she continued to run, sobbing and screaming like a mad-woman, eyes and face hideously wide. She ran until her legs finally gave out and folded up, causing her to fall and tumble head over heels, down a long and ridiculously soft, hillside covered in a carpet of fallen pine needles and soft fragrant grasses.
How long she lay there at the bottom, sprawled without a care to the open sky, she knew not. Only that the running and the madness surely had to end.
She could taste blood; its coppery bitterness filled her mouth, muted her senses. (She must have bitten her tongue sometime during her flight, that or on the long tumble down the hillside-) “Peace be unto you childe, peace for but a moment longer, I pray.” The voice fills her ears like sweet music, lyrical and stilted. It effect like a drug. In that moment the coppery taste in her mouth is replaced by the sweet tang of honey. She could almost feel the course wildness of an autumn wind whipping through her hair, stirring her very soul. Turning her head, she finds herself staring into the deepest, darkest brown, almost black, eyes she’d ever seen. Wreathing the irises were small speckles of gold. As such, the eyes are set within a broad kind face, a face that was brown, like a wrinkled apples skin. A ragged goatee of chestnut reflects the wild mane crowning the man’s head. It also covered his strong muscular arms, forearms, and back, completely masking the man’s legs- legs ending in cloven hooves of palest white and walnut brown. The figure- as she struggled to push herself up off the turf and into a seated position -is at least six feet, if not more, tall. The ‘satyr’ withdraws then, without a word spoken, and begins to crisscross the hillside, gathering up the fallen documents of Hilliard’s book. Some of the pages he leaves behind, no rhyme or reason that she could see, others he shuffles in his broad hands like playing cards, rearranging them back into the split leather binding that is Hilliard’s book. “Tut, tut,” the figure scolds, “mustn’t let the wily wind have its way now shall we? No. And quite the tumble you took back there little missus, all the way down the hillside, from crown to stream. Goodness, but you ran to and fro. It was all poor Puck could do, just to keep up.” Gathering up the remaining sheaves, he then proceeded to approach, stopping this time, about an arm’s length away and kneeling to better meet her eyes. Before him, he held the now re-assembled book. “I fear you may have dropped these, yes indeed.” The book wavered before her, demanding that she either take it, and the creature holding it, at its word and worth, or turn her back on the both of them altogether. Decisions… decisions… Running her fingers through her damp and tangled hair, she reached out and slowly accepted the offered burden. “Thank you,” is all she can say, and even that consumes pretty much all of her remaining energy. This creature has no idea what he is asking of me, what I have to give up. To accept this ‘gift’ from him is to believe he is offering, and to believe he is offering is to believe he exists, which means that I am truly and hopelessly trapped here in this place. “If I may ask, “Where am I…? What is this place? Am I in danger?” A dull twilight seems to fill the space around them, as the ‘bigger’ grinding skies vaulting overhead, continue to silently bleed fire. “You are safe for the moment.” the creature replies. “And this place…?” “Absentia…?” The word comes out of his mouth as a hoarse whisper, like a millstone tied about his neck. The word reminds her of the meaning of a word- burden. “Absentia…” The word felt strange on her tongue, like she’s eaten something upsetting or spoiled. “Discordant…,” explained Puck, “both a dark and light place?” “Still, it is a place. Can you be more specific?” She couldn’t tell if he was being evasive on purpose or by accident. Either way, a point of reference would do wonders for her right about now. “Then I suggest Realm of the Fallow King… Attendant Lord of Anguish and Rage in the Desert of Sovereignty, a Shadow of Shannon…” As he spoke he began to shrug his massively hairy shoulders. Like anything he said made any sense… Maybe his answer was like one of those joke bombs- you know the kind, ‘two guys walk into a bar, the third guy ducks…’ “And you?” She queried, giving up on the first question and moving on to the next, “What are you exactly?” I know what you appear to be, but that can’t be… satyrs don’t really exist. At her words a giant crease line cut the creature’s broad forehead, underscoring dark curls of mane. It was obvious she had hurt his feelings. “Why… Puck, of course,” he answered, as if there could be no other explanation. At the same time he stood and executed a curtsy with exaggerated flourish. Finished, he straightened up, crooked grin on his lips. “Now that you know my name, I would ask the same of you- And whom might you be, my dear?” he asked with devilish delight, at the same time extending his hand. That’s just what I need, a big, naked, hairy suitor come a-calling. Starting to answer, she stops. Something didn’t seem right. (Obviously) And some little voice inside her head seemed to be whispering ‘not to trust this creature’ fawning so favorably before her. Not for the last time did she listen to it. “Call me Elizabeth,” she replied, using her mother’s middle name. “Likewise, I too am honored to make your acquaintance.” At her answer Puck’s grin turned upside down, displeasure radiating from his eyes. “Ah, Elizabeth is it…” a short pause as he measured her up and down. “If I might say so, you don’t look like an Elisheva.” (He replied, using the olde English pronunciation for Elizabeth.) Another measured and mischievous grin crosses his features, “Yet we shall see. Yes indeed, we shall. Lies before truth, yet truth finds a way.” At which point he stood back up to his full height, his face turned towards the hilltop on the other side of the stream. He seemed to be sniffing, rearing his head back and snorting the air, “They’re close,” he said, turning to face her. “They who…?” She is suddenly very much afraid, and she has all right to be, even if she didn’t know why, exactly. First, if this was all a dream, then this was not your average every-day, dream, of that she was only too aware. And she wasn’t asleep and she wasn’t unconscious either, no witch’s apple had crossed these lips lately. Her heart and mind told her that this place was real, all too real, which made it that much more dangerous. Besides, who in their right mind would dream up such a place, such madness, to begin with? Like everything else as of late, she needed to have faith, faith that somehow, someway, this would all make sense someday. (Only it wasn’t someday, it was now.) Secondly, if what she was experiencing was indeed real, (which it appeared to be the longer she was here) she needed to be aware of any and all consequences that might apply in the situation. She couldn’t help but think of the mythical figure of Persephone, who had been tricked into eating a pomegranate kernel because of her ignorance, a result that doomed her for an eternity in Purgatory. The last thing she wanted was to be a ‘‘Persephone.’ At the moment she was pretty much clueless when it came to the rules around here, but that didn’t give her an excuse to ignore any of the warning signs that her gut was sending to her brain, either. She needed to take this place seriously. There would be time later, hopefully, for logic and understanding. In the meantime, like the satyr before her, she could sense something wicked was this way coming, the scent of its arrival ‘seemingly’ imminent. Electrified ozone filled the air, as if before a sudden storm. “The Fallow King and his entourage have arrived,” Puck responded, stamping with his left hoof and digging at the earth. It was only then that she noticed he had an ancient, cracked, horn of what appeared to be ivory looped around his neck and slung across his back. Three bands of what appeared to be crudely fashioned gold were wrapped around the bone-white instrument. They seemed to be the only things holding the horn together. “So, what do we do now?” she asked, jerking her eyes off the instrument and back to the creatures face. Puck considered her question for but a moment, then, “A calling hound indeed, leads them here,” he said, “and young Miss Elisheva is placed into danger. Hide her away, I say, lead the Fallow King astray.” At this point he reached out toward her with a beckoning hand. After a moment’s hesitation she took it. “Allow me to carry you and there is still time,” he said. “Depend upon your own and all will be lost.” With this last part he looked straight at Hilliard’s book. Immediately she could feel her ‘hackles’ rise. Are you kidding me? You expect me to just jump into your arms- ignoring everything my gut keeps telling me to be cautious, to take things slowly –and to put myself entirely in your hands? A moment’s hesitation to make up her mind, weigh all her options, juggle all the pros and cons, then… heck yeah! “Let’s go,” she said. After all, what did she really have to lose, besides her remaining sanity? *** At first she couldn’t see them, even from their current vantage point- hidden amongst the darker clumps of trees surrounding and enfolding the vale. What at first appeared to be a shifting mist began to roll in over the nearest hilltop, the one leading down into their valley, vale and stream. It wasn’t until Puck whispered into her ear how to look at them, that she could see them at all. “Don’t stare directly at them,” he whispered, “or you won’t be able to discern them. You have to look off to one side, almost like you’re trying ‘not’ to see them. Use just the corner of your eye.” And he was right; as soon as she averted her eyes off to one side, she could see them- well, sort of see them. (The beings that were cresting the hill-top, reminded her of one of those stereographic 3D pictures, the kind where you have to stare at a certain point for so long, causing a three-dimensional image, once hidden amongst all the shapes, to suddenly leap off the page and appear right in front of you.) Only what crested the hill-top before them was no image or picture, but all too real. The only way she could, in all actuality, describe ‘them’, and there were a lot of ‘them’ was like this- ‘Not all at once, but ‘slinking’ over the hill-top in pairs till more than twelve but less than two score, appeared- ‘They’ came on panthers. No… horses. No, rather they were large hounds made up of shadow, vapor and mist, with eyes of red and mouths filled with razor sharp teeth- Whatever ‘they’ were, these creatures that served as ‘their’ mounts, seemed more vapor, less form, than anything else, and their shapes kept forming, reforming and changing continuously beneath them- flowing like smoke through water. Again, these were just the ‘mount’s ‘they’ rode upon. You’d think that would be madness enough, but you would be wrong. As for the ‘men’ themselves, the riders, they seemed human enough at first –but monstrously huge, with every square inch of their bodies encased in brilliant armors of bronze, copper and gold. Dark slits alone, marked the locations where their eyes, nose and mouths should be. In their hands, each rider gripped a long slender pole from which ragged, diaphanous banners waved. The colors of these banners was the same as the morning sky moments before a violent thunderstorm, a canvas of swirling light and dark hues, of violet, purple, reds and blues. (Common sense told her that the banners they carried must surely become entangled in the tree limbs as they rode beneath them. Then again, common sense should have reminded you that these men and their mounts couldn’t exist to begin with. Much like this very place she currently found herself residing in.) So much for common sense- The ‘riders’ were easily seven feet tall, with large, naked broadswords strapped across their backs. The toes of their boots were wickedly pointed and all wore spurs on their heels. They rode their mounts, such as they were, without signs of saddle, tack or harness. How they maintained themselves astride was beyond her. At their lead was a giant figure, and the mount he rode upon was larger still. “Is that him,” she asked, “the Fallow-?” Puck hissed and clapped his hand quickly across her lips. Beaming seriousness, he leaned in until their noses actually touched. (Being this close to him, she was reminded of nature’s woodland smells, wood smoke, dry leaves, and fresh turned soil.) “Do not let his name cross your lips,” he hissed. “He can sense those who speak his name. He can hear such utterances from across a hundred leagues. You may very well call forth our doom if you do so,” he finished.
She barely managed to swallow the rest of her words, before tearing her eyes off Puck’s face and back towards the menacing figure crowning the hilltop. She had come so close to exposing them… The entire time, Puck maintained his grip upon her forearm, he did let go of her face, however. Everything in his huddled stance alerted her to the fact that more than just mere discovery awaited them if they were somehow discovered. Rolling over the hilltop, the mist continued to grow and swell, roiling and twisting along the ground, making its way ever nearer to the location where they currently lay hidden. The Fallow Ki– was dressed in every way like his men, except for his face, which was left uncovered. Here his pallor was pale and white, the face of a corpse, his eyes two pools of incredible darkness. In place of a crown, he wore a simple band of gold, which encircled his head and matted his colorless hair against his brow. As she remarked upon his mannerisms, the Fallow Ki—suddenly stood tall as if hearing something. He was now looking directly at the spot they were hiding. In his gaze she could feel her skin crawl. The entire time she found herself holding her breath, afraid to even breathe least that alone give them away, expose their position. Had they been found out? Was it only a matter of time before he had them? Fear gripper her mind like an iron fist, squeezing at her brain. She was suddenly hot and cold at the same time, her palms sweaty- After an immeasurable amount of time, the Fallow Ki—, much to her relief, sat back down, apparently content at finding nothing. At least nothing he was ready to reveal. From far way came the mournful howl of a lone wolf echoing. Besides the chuckling stream, it was the only other sound in the forest that she could hear- other than her own heartbeat, which sounded thunderous. Back on the hilltop, the mounts beneath those assembled, continued to stream and flow like smoke rolling through water. They neither snorted nor pawed, but they did shake their heads up and down as if agreeing with their masters, that there was nothing unforetold amiss. At least nothing they wished to reveal openly. Then, with not a single word spoken, the vanguard simply withdrew, flowing back up over the hilltop and quickly pulling away, out of sight-
Back into the eternal moonlight and the darkest of night! Once again, they were alone, just the two of them, one crazy impossible satyr and one completely lost Twentieth Century girl. Funny how realizing that didn’t make her feel any better. To her eye, it was now so much darker than before. Only then did it occur to her that the light had also been taken from them, for you see, each rider, as they rode, along with their banners, also carried a pair of pale, moonlight-white lanterns hanging from poles, the light of their passing cutting the eternal night and turning it into a gloomy sort of day. With their passing, now that ‘day’ was gone. Suddenly, all she could do was weep, her shoulders jerking with each and every terrified, pent-up, sob. She had no idea why she was crying, exactly, only that she felt suddenly so very, very sad, alone and scared. While she wept, Puck remained quiet, stoically by her side. When she finally finished he simply said that ‘they needed to go,’ his hand resting lightly upon hers. His touch seemed to calm her fears, reminding her of who she was, even though she didn’t have a clue as to ‘where’ she was, or why she was even here. Glancing off to one side, and from the corner of one eye, she realized that the contingent on the hilltop had finally, and with finality, moved beyond them. Only tendrils of dark vapor remained, stealing along the ground like blind serpents, withering and twisting. “It seems they seek bigger prey,” her host explained. And what could that be? She wondered. (At the same time, her thoughts were enough to give her the chills.) In the end, she decided she really didn’t want to know. “Perhaps we should take advantage of our good fortune and move on.” He added. On this she wholeheartedly agreed.
Chapter 4She wondered if she looked as much the drowned rat as she felt. It had been raining solid; as in sheets, for the past eight and a half hours, ever since they narrowly escaped the clutches of the Fallow King and his monstrous entourage. Since that time a cold spirit had descended upon her, invading her bones, her very soul, making her shiver and shake, causing her teeth to chatter. She still had no idea where she was, or how she was ever going to return home. All she knew for sure is that she wanted to feel Theo’s arms around her one more time, and to feel the sun on her face and the breeze on her skin… to walk the streets of Manhattan, to watch movies in Central Park- If she ever found herself there again, at home or in his arms, she promised she’d never let either go. Puck, meanwhile, appeared to be immune to the cold, as well as the leaden downpour of spirit. Like water off a ducks back, the furry man-creature would stop from time to time to shake himself dry, always without warning and always unexpectedly, like a dog coming in from out of the rain. The first time this occurred, he’d simply stopped walking. Curious as to his behavior, she’d followed suit, keeping close, fearful that perhaps the Fallow King had found them after all. Instead, beginning with his head and working his way down, a strange sort of quiver seemed to erupt throughout his body, showering her, and everything around them, with a nasty smelling mist that reminded her of wet dog and butt. All she knew for sure is that it was utterly gross, by anybody’s standards. Throughout it all, Puck just grinned from ear to hairy ear. “Where are you taking me?” The one question she would ask him each and every time he stopped to shake himself. And each and every time his grin and silence would be her only answer. So they would continuously move on, mile after seemingly endless mile of darkened and dreary landscape, through massive stands of trees and wide dales of waist high grass with edges as sharp as broken glass. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before drudgery and exhaustion set in, as the landscape to either side continued to slide further and further into miry darkness mixed with fog, an effect obscuring everything around her, including any landmarks she might see. (No longer could the burning wastes be seen or even imagined. Her whole world had gone drearily out of focus and light.) She was literally the blind being led by the blind, or so it seemed anyway. It was as if the satyr had no place to be or go, and that he was simply wandering and taking his sweet time getting there. It was all she could do just to keep up with him while maintaining her grip on Hilliard’s book. “How much further?” she again asked for the umpteenth time, her breathe ragged. There for a while he had carried her on his back, piggy-back style, to give her legs and feet a break. This made everything seem a whole lot easier, but then, after what seemed like even more endless miles- he had set her back down. Now she was on her own again.
As if they had been playing a game of Statues, Puck froze in mid-motion, his head turning to stare at her. “In Absentia, time is not measured in words like ‘further’ or ‘far’, neither is it measured in miles, feet, nor inches. Distance simply is. The space between places and things is only as far as the imagination makes them.” Then, with a look of seriousness, he added, “We will arrive at our destination when enough time has passed for us to reach our destination.” This was an explanation he seemed totally pleased with. Altogether though, it meant absolutely nothing, just a bunch of nonsense, and this is what she told him. His reply was to shrug, and then it was Statues all over again. An eternity later, they stopped again. (And she still had no clue as to the when or the why of their stoppage, only that they did- thank God!) Once again, it seemed like they had been running, moving, walking, for forever, which is why she decided she’d rather die right where she was, than move even one more inch. They were currently on a road. It wasn’t much of a road, more like a half-cleared hunters trail winding its way ever deeper into the trees, but it was a road nonetheless. On either side of this road darkness seemed to hold sway, seeping from beneath the trees like spilled ink flowing over paper, slowly creeping in and stealing what remained of the day, at least what passed for day around here. “We’re stopping?” she asked. “We are,” Puck replied. At this point she collapsed to the ground, her legs feeling like rubber bands beneath her, her chest heaving for oxygen. “You need to stay here. I’ll find us some shelter,” the satyr volunteered. Needless to say, she waved him on. As soon as the creature vanished into the woods she began fumbling in her jeans pockets for her cell phone. (Why hadn’t she thought of this before now?) Setting the book down, she began waving her phone around, trying to find a signal. Zero bars, no signal… And what did she expect? It’s not like they were anywhere even real anymore. Besides that, she hadn’t seen a cell tower in like, since her arrival. For some reason this struck her as funny. Talk about your 20th Century dependence… here I am trying to locate the nearest phone tower so I can call home… I really am going insane. Thumbing her phone off, (no use in running her battery down unnecessarily… you never know.) she began to take stock of what she did have with her, realizing that rushing around in the middle of the night and following some crazy Englishman out of her hotel room and down to the museum, had taken her quite by surprise. As a result, she was all kinds of unprepared for journey through Wonderland. Currently she was wearing her favorite flannel sweater and NOTW tee-shirt; (she had to laugh at the irony of it all.) Both were completely soaked by this time, and smelling like wet dog, as were her jeans. (Thank God she had decided to wear her tennis-shoes and not her flip-flops.) She had her phone, now off, the keycard to her hotel room (room 323), a handful of soggy bills- about two hundred American dollars- and her trusty MasterCard. Other than these, she was pretty much on her own. (She’d left her purse in Henson’s car. As for her luggage and the rest of her belongings, it was all still safely in her hotel room.… Oh well, she’d always wanted an excuse to re-wardrobe. Now she had one.) If only she made it back to civilization- A sudden crunch from behind her caused her to spin around, eyes wide-
It was Puck. The satyr was lugging an armful of busted-up branches and limbs, which, once he arrived; he began fashioning into a frame of sorts, like a doorframe standing up in the middle of the muddy road, in the rain. Only there was no door for it to frame. Clearing her throat, “Ummm, excuse me?” No answer… which didn’t surprise her in the least, as silence seemed to be the creature’s best suit. So she waited. After all, what else was there to do? Whistling the entire time he worked, Puck continued to wind and fit the branches in and amongst each other and themselves, till at last, when he was finally done, he stepped back- It was exactly a door’s threshold that he had formed, an empty threshold. “If only we had a building to put around it,” she mused, sounding wistful, “then we’d be getting somewhere.” Why this creature decided to build such a contraption now, and what it was for exactly, was beyond her. As if on cue the creature stuck up his index finger, “Ah-ha,” he said, a broad smile cracking his craggy face. “I have an idea. Can you draw a door?” he asked, gazing upon her. She could only imagine the look on her face as she answered him, “You want me, to draw a door?” she asked. “Yes, a door.” “What kind of door?” She plied her question with as much sarcasm as she could possibly muster. He smiled a sad little smile, “The kind you draw in the dirt,” he said. A satyr’s version of sarcasm no doubt. She actually gave it some thought before answering. “Yes I can. Why?” “Are we really going to play this game?” he asked. She didn’t know if he was ‘tsk-tsking’ her or what. With some resignation she continued, “Yes I can,” she answered, “draw you a door if you want me to.” “That’s just it. It’s not a matter of me wanting; it’s a matter of you willing.” he replied. Seriously! Huffing a deep breath, she stuck her finger in the muddy trail beside her and began to draw a small rectangle the size of a shoebox, with a small round handle on one side, and what could have been hinges on the other. “Satisfied,” she said, slinging some sarcasm and mud of her own around, “ta-da, a door.” There’s a way you look at small children who are undoubtedly slow, realizing they may never figure a thing out for themselves, but showing eternal patience with them the entire time. That’s the way Puck was looking at her now. “We can’t possibly squeeze ourselves through that,” he said, “unless you have Jinn on call. You’ve drawn it too small.” “A ‘what’ on call?” she asked. What in the world was a Jinn? Was he meaning a genie? In the next breath, however, “You never specified a specific size did you? You just asked me if I could draw a door… so I drew you a door.” Again, with that look in his eyes. “Fine- you want a door, I’ll draw you a door.” Getting to her feet she grabbed up a broken stick and began sketching lines in the mud. This time it was a door big enough even Puck could go through it. “Are you satisfied,” she asked, tossing the stick to one side in disgust. “As a matter of fact, yes,” Puck said, with a grin stretching from ear to ear. In that instant he jumped up, reached down and made to grab at either side of her ‘drawn in the mud, door.’ “Again… seriously?” she said. She was about to say more when he ‘raised’ her drawn in the mud door, out of the mud, shook it vigorously to clear it of any fallen and trampled leaves- picked off a footprint she had accidentally left behind while drawing it, and began to approach his threshold. “You’ve got to be freaking kidding me,” she began, even as the creature situated her ‘door’ between the upright sticks of his fabricated threshold. A moment later he was stepping back to admire his and hers, handiwork.
Her eyes were drawn first, to the rectangle of mud hanging in the air between some sticks, then the similar shaped hole in the road from where she had drawn it- back to the ‘door’ and then to the creature. “How?” she began, at a total loss for words. Looking pleased, Puck gestured her forward. “After you,” he said, reaching out and opening the door. A rectangle of warm light lay just beyond the opening. It looked like the entrance to a room, a library as a matter of fact.
“Are you kidding me?” she asked. “I think not,” he said, still gesturing. “But how…?” A sinister look then entered her eyes, “Could you have done such a thing all along,” she asked. Puck averted his eyes, but not before she could see the amusement and answer shining there. “You son of a- “Ah-ah,” the satyr said, wagging his broad finger at her, “language. There are children about.” “Children… where?” she shouted. She could feel the heat swirling up deep within her chest. Her head began to feel like it might explode. “We ran all this way… all the while with you spouting some crap about distance and time and ‘further’ and then you build this… this thing. Are you kidding me?” The problem was he didn’t look like he was kidding. Picking up Hilliard’s book, she crushed it to her chest. “Do what you want,” she said, “But I’m not going anywhere near that thing. And there’s nothing you can say or do that will ever make me change my mind.” Enough was enough. In her mind it was time to make a stand, show this ‘creature’ lounging before her, who the boss really was around here. “Children…” Puck said, the smile fading from his eyes. In that moment he was looking beyond and behind her. “You keep saying that,” she began, “children. But there are no children here, just us and the mud and the rain, (my hairs never going to recover) and this crap and the dark and this crazy freaking place. I don’t even know where I am or how I’m ever going to find my way back home, or to Theo. I’ve lost my home, all my belongings… my cell-phone refuses to work… and I’m supposed to be documenting the 16th Century with Henson.” She was about to continue on ranting and raving when a deep, rattling, growl sounded from somewhere close behind her, breaking her concentration. She turned to find two very large, very dark and very angry, wolves crouching just behind her, glaring at her and Puck, through menacing red eyes. “Children,” Puck matter-of-factly repeated. This time though, all the humor was gone from his voice. Could her life get any crazier? “Help,” she said. In that instant the wolves, no further than twenty or so feet back, leapt forwards, fangs barred, hackles up and ears back. Never had she seen such a frightening display of raw animal power in her life. It was all she could do NOT to freeze in place. Screaming bloody murder she ran towards Puck and his ‘magical’ door of mud. “If this doesn’t work…” she threatened, even as he entered first and pulled her in after. Whatever else she was going to say was swallowed up by the fearful yelp she let out as the doorway of mud and woven tree limbs collapsed in a heap behind her just as the two of them leapt through. From somewhere in the distance- the sound of rolling thunder and the frustrated whines and barks of wolves fighting. In the next instant she was all elbows and knees, sprawled across the floor, her feet tangled up in a bright reddish-brown rug. Soft, candle-like light filled the room. *** “Wait, wait, wait… that can’t be right,” whispered Festus, teeth chattering. It took all his strength, but he managed to grasp Kaelynn’s wrist. He lightly squeezed it. At the moment the fever that had been raging within him ever since they’d rescued him from Cinder and the entryway, was eating him alive. “What can’t be right, honey?” questioned Kaelynn, wiping sweat from the boys brow with a damp rag. In the darkness of the boy’s old room, in the silence of his parent’s ‘empty’ house, his face looked pale and scared. His lips were cracked. His right eye was almost swollen shut, and a deep purple bruise marked his right cheek. All together, the boy was lucky to be alive. (Now, if only they could break his fever.) Outside the house, amidst the fallen gloom, all of winter’s fury howled unmercifully. “You can’t really make a door out of sticks and mud,” the boy croaked. His tongue felt swollen, so did his lips. Occasionally Kaelynn would dribble a few drops of water between them to quench the boys thirst. In response, Kaelynn smiled. “Well, it seems in this instance you can and we did.” she said. Before the boy could answer, however, her son Phillip entered the room. “What do you think?” he questioned, his emerald eyes brimming with concern. Behind him, further in the room, Henson paced like a caged animal; the Englishman’s eyes constantly going outside, beyond the window, into the fury of the storm. It was true; Ash had managed to get them out of the Valerian house safely. However, surviving a Montana blizzard during the dead of night with supernatural hunters on the prowl, might prove to be another thing altogether. “I’m not sure,” Kaelynn replied, pressing the back of her hand to the Festus’s brow. “He’s still burning up with fever. Whatever hold Cinder has on him, is slowly but surely trying to kill him.” This last part she whispered so quietly that only her oldest son, Phillip, could hear. This was a good thing, considering that her two younger children were always within earshot it seemed. (Ash was as good as attached to the boy’s hip. And where Ash was, Eli was sure to be.) Phillip nodded, “Then just keep on doing what you’re doing,” he said, reaching out and ruffling the boy’s hair, “regaling the boy with tales from before. Regardless of what it appears, we’re actually working on a plan to get all of us out of here, aren’t we Henson?” At his question, the Englishman stilled his prowl long enough to nod, only to then resume. Phillip continued, “Henson thinks it best that we wait till in the morning, after the sun comes up. He figures Cinder and his boys are much less likely to be hanging around during the daylight hours trying to find us. To some degree, I agree. However…” “If anyone knows Cinder, its Henson,” Kaelynn interjected. After all, Henson was the one that spent the most time with the man and not by choice either. “I say we trust his instincts on this.” Phillip nodded his mind and thoughts a million miles away. “At least you’re doing a good job of keeping him calm,” he added, indicating how she’d been taking care of Festus since they’d rescued him. “I’m just trying to keep him awake,” she said. “At least until we break this fever. I’ve already maxed him out on pain relievers.” She was about to continue, when her daughter, who had just entered the room, grabbed her by the arm and began pulling at her attention. “What is it, baby?” she asked. “Is Festus going to be all right, mama?” asked Ash, her eyes filling up. Ever since arriving at the boy’s home, the only thing her daughter kept closer than the boy was her sketch-book. Her daughter seemed content to hold the boys hand every chance she got. From the end of the bed, her twin brother Eli looked just as concerned. “He’s going to be fine, guys, just fine.” And yet, despite her best efforts, tears still managed to leak from her daughter’s eyes. She wiped them away while doing her best to control her own. “Is there something more I can do, momma?” Ash asked. “You can keep on doing what you’ve been doing all along,” Kaelynn said, “holding his hand. You’re doing a lot just by being here.” Ash’s smile was so slight it was almost invisible. “Eli,” she added, “you need to help Henson and your brother plan our escape. Can you do that?” Eli nodded, relief washing across his face. He had never been one to endure waiting well, she acknowledged. She waited until Eli had joined Phillip and the Englishman, and Ash was setting on the floor next to Festus’s bed, before closing her own eyes and saying a little prayer for the boy in her arms. Even beneath the blankets, his little body felt like a furnace burning on high. She only hoped he could hang long enough, so she could get him some real help. Now I know how you must have felt, my love. She was thinking back to a time when Theo had carried another boy home, to their apartment in New York City. That boy had turned out to be Phillip. It had been right after the two of them had been attacked in some alleyway down by the river. She can remember being so pissed off at the time, not so much now, however. In her mind, the memory seemed like it had occurred almost a hundred years ago. Perhaps it had, she thought. Since that time, and the horrible days that followed, all the way until that huge battle in Central Park, her life had become one giant blur, most of the times happy, (her getting Theo back, their subsequent marriage, her ‘adopting’ Phillip, and then the ‘twins’ birth) other times bad, (the death of Aaron and Lycan, everyone deciding to leave New York, forsaking her home and career) to times of terrible change, (Theo losing his ‘real’ wife and daughter, Catherine and Katrina, Phillip losing both his mom and his sister, the permanent banishment from their home, and the complete loss of a land called Nostalgia). She shook her head trying to reset the memories’, trying her best to stay positive. “I sure wish your momma was here,” she said, looking down into the boy’s glassy, fever-ridden, eyes. “She’d know what to do far better than I.” The last time she’d seen his mother, Maggie, she’d been standing next to Theo going toe to toe with the guardians of the catacombs beneath the Fallow King’s keep. “You take care of my boy,” shouted Maggie. “Promise me you’ll take care of him and keep him safe until we get back.” She had indicated she would. In that moment the darkness at the far end of the hall seemed to pulse, to move as it were, and intrude upon them, seeping from the corners and the crevices, wherever stone made ninety-degree angles. Theo, still bleeding heavily from a head wound, was leaning into the only door left, separating them from the darkness in the hall. (He had put up one heck of a fight as they were being taken from their home and brought here to this place- so had Festus’s parents.) Currently, he was doing his best to keep back the night. Thank goodness Festus’s father had joined him. Working together they had managed to wedge the door shut, but for how long, that was the question. After all, it was only a matter of time before the darkness would win out. They were in ‘his’ domain now. As if on cue, the darkness at the end of the hallway became complete, utterly black and eternally deep. Now it was only a matter of time before the fortress and its guardians claimed them whole, sealing them beneath the slow grinding corridors of Fallows Keep. There is a saying, old and true-‘Time may grind slowly, but the stones beneath Fallows Keep grind slower still.’ She now knew what that meant. “I promise,” she shouted, all too aware of the tears coursing down her and Maggie’s cheeks. “I’ll take good care of him, as if he were my own.” And still the obsidian walls of the dungeons around them continued to turn. In that instant, as Theo managed to open a way home before her, she took one last glance at the trio remaining behind, her beloved Theo, Maggie and Carter, Festus’s father. ‘True love always requires sacrifice,’ she thought. As the darkness at the end of the hall finally broke, despair washed over her. Like a tidal wave, bodies of infestation, the living and the dead, began to pour forth like the plague, driven by the Fallow King himself. As one, they headed towards the only door left standing along the hall, the one Theo and Carter were currently hiding behind- And then it was too late to look back any longer, as the window of opportunity before her began to fade. ‘All I have to do is get away, even halfway means escape.’ (The idea of what this opportunity would cost them, all of them, was almost more than she could bear. She knew well that the veil before her, the one separating this world from her own, had been torn asunder by Theo’s death and rebirth on that fateful night in New York City, all those many years ago. Since that time, not only had they lost Nostalgia, and their only way back, but a little of themselves as well. ‘So much lost, so little gained…’ she thought. Pathways may still exist, but first she had to get away. The next thing she knew, she was being pulled from without a wall by her children at the top of some stairs. As the vision slowly faded, and the realities of the bitter cold night settled back in, Kaelynn took one last opportunity to brush back the boy’s hair. “One thing about good old Maggie, she sure can put up a fight when she has too… especially when she’s defending all that she loves.”
Words as Recorded
“Five brothers… three are dead, one has become something I’d rather not think about. The other one is me.” – Pinthar, Oracle of Bansu.
You fool; Arriack’s land is dead and full of memories.
You fool; Arriack’s land is full of dead memories…
This wasn’t home.
“Pox, where are we?”
Two voices, one questioning and wary, the other metallic and faint, both alien to this world. It was the metallic of the two that answered.
*at the moment unable to coordinate. tracking systems indicate that we are no longer on tensure*
‘Obviously.’ The six distinct shadows cast at his feet had alerted him to that fact already.
They weren’t supposed to be here; that much he already knew. Something had gone wrong; the brilliant yellow glow surrounding them only confirmed it. ‘If this were Tensure the sky would be deep purple, with scarlet sands rippling in blinding brilliance beneath…’
Confused, he tried once more to grasp the situation before him.
Fact of the matter was, this place didn’t reassemble anything he had ever seen before. In fact, the only example he could even think of was Terra, some 140 parsecs towards the Rim. And according to every record he had ever seen, Terra was nothing more than a charred orb orbiting a singular Class O star.
With an audible sigh his visor faded from view, causing his nictitating membranes to clamp down over his milky white eyes. He raised one hand to further shield them.
*atmospheric and environmental readings, nominal*
Reaching out he placed a hand over the six-sensor array of Pox, his environ unit. “Anything else?” he asked.
*not that I can detect*
Turning, he allowed his eyes to wander over the eight-legged metal arachnid at his side. “You do realize that our lives are rarely this simple, that if we are here and not back home…” the rest of what he wanted to say he left unfinished.
With a sound like thunder, the environ unit retreated further into stasis. In the moment that followed, a solitary figure remained on the smoldering hillside.
The land before him played out flat and featureless; a long series of boundless plains carpeted with knee high grass. In the far distance, what he judged to be the direction north, were hills leading further towards a range of mountains. Directly behind him lay sparser grass, broken shards of rock and further barren plains-
His revere was broken by a faint hiss, as his armor once more patterned itself after the world he now indwelled, dressing him in the all too familiar folds of protective tension mail and mesh. With a grin he closed his eyes, taking the time to run his fingers through his hair, tucking strands of it behind his angled and somewhat pointed ears.
‘I could learn to love a place like this,’ he began, ‘not as hot as my own world, or as crowded.’ Tensure’s three azure suns had burned his people’s skin coal black and their hair nearly colorless. Compare it to this world, where the ground actually seemed to breathe life, cool air and moisture. In the distance and all around came to him the sounds of life, chirping, clicking, and larking.
In retrospect, Tensure was a graveyard.
“If I were to muster out of the cadre, I’d do well to find a place like this. Just enough out of the way, hidden from the Extreme…”
*you may not have to wait* Pox interrupted.
With a moment’s hesitation his armor began to re-pattern once again, this time outfitting him in a short sleeved tunic and long thick pants. Beneath these he still wore the familiar, always present, tension mesh.
By his side Pox’s arachnid-form still crouched in stasis, the confluence of his presence, as well as his own confluence, distorting the jaundiced light and landscape around them.
*hostile life form indicated*
“Meaning what,” he asked? And in that moment he was someone and someplace else- with some effort he returned. Little would be gained if he were to replay his past, at the moment they appeared to be in danger. “Can you at least give me a tactical,” he inquired? With this he turned to face what could possibly be an adversary-
Only to see nothing… at least nothing he could readily identify or classify as a threat. Only more barren plains dotted with squat, evenly spaced structures on the horizon.
*unable*, Pox began before ceasing. *unable to quantify at the moment*
“That doesn’t make any sense,” he said, giving his companion a questioning stare, “To change our appearance while perceiving no imminent danger.”
Pox responded with what would have been a mental shrug- if a machine could shrug.
“And that’s it?”
“Can you at least tell me why we are here, what we are supposed to be doing?”
Resigned to the fact that, at the moment, they appeared to be stranded, and sensing no further communication between him and his machine, his lifeline to home, he decided to strike out towards the east, away from Pox’s perceived danger of earlier. Walking would give him some time to think.
Besides, at the moment he may appear to be both lost and confused, but he wasn’t stupid. Sooner or later he would figure this place out. Also, unless he could find something familiar there would be no return home trip, or anywhere for that matter, an absolute fact in jump-to-navigation.
The only real question left to ask then, was ‘why he had been brought here to begin with?’ A question he had no immediate answer to, but one that desperately needed answering.
On the Watchtower
‘A miserable life sucking hell,’ the man thought, while shading his eyes and peering over the wind blasted and worn battlement. In the distance, beyond the border, lay the blasted and lifeless wastes of the Great Expanse, an empty desert like land of cooking sands, relentless heat and hopelessness. Ribbons of heat radiated upwards from the land bringing the illusion of wetness, movement and mirage.
Giving vent to his frustration, he turned his back to this bleak scene and slowly allowed himself to slide down the wall till he was seated on his rump. Sweat seemed to roll off his brow like rain, running the furrows and lines of his sunburned and weathered face. In a haphazard fashion, he wiped the sweat from his eyes, running his hand over his stubbly chin and neck. “I swear,” he began, cursing his god, people and nation. “I spend one more year out here, one more day, and I’m going to kill somebody.”
If only there was someone else about to hear him. For the past year and a half he’d been stationed here, pretty much exiled to the ends of the earth, only to keep watch over the Great Expanse… “The same as watching nothing,” he exclaimed. “And all for what… love of duty, sense of honor?” ‘There must be worse duties,’ he thought, but at the moment he couldn’t think of any.
‘This place is like a bump on the arse of the world.’
The watchtower he commanded, one of a hundred or so, lined the last remaining boundary between what once was, and what little remained of the Great Empire. ‘Each one manned by some unlucky soul whose ill-gotten luck had landed him here as well.’
Using the toe of his right boot to draw lines in the sand, sand which pretty much covered everything around him, he closed his eyes and leaned back into the blistering heat of the rock behind him.
At the moment he was forty feet off the ground, ‘and that much closer to the heavens,’ he thought. But this distance and thought did little to bring him any relief. It had been so long since he was away from here; he could hardly remember what green and growing even looked like, much less the coolness of day. From dawns light to twilight, eternal blistering heat was the only thing the blasted lands around him seemed to give.
As a child he had dreamt of doing something grand with his life, which is why, when he was old enough, he’d volunteered for service… ‘For land, King and country,’ was the motto that had taunted him- how disillusioned was the reality of his life as an adult. He’d amounted to something all right. “As my ex-wife would say, Gerald, you’re a shit, just like the life you lead.”
Problem was, for the last year and half, he would have had to agree with the bitch.
When the sound first came to him, it began so subtle, so soft, as to almost lull him into believing that what he was hearing never truly existed to begin with. That the heat had fried his brain and his senses-
But the noise grew. With each passing moment, the see-saw raucousness of cicadas continued to grow, working its way through his brain like fingernails being drawn across a wall of slate. It began to set his teeth, what few remained anyway, on edge.
“What the hell is that,” he asked, while peering over the upper battlement of the watchtower. He’d left the lower battlement earlier, which had been stationed halfway up the height of the tower, for the very top, another twenty or so feet further up from where he had been. “At least there’s a breeze up here,” he murmured.
Once again peering over the sandy rock wall, he lifted the veil covering his face, and used his hand to shield his eyes.
There. Right there was blight upon the expanse, what appeared to be a shadow wavering and dancing its way through the folds of radiant heat, seemingly making its way, ever so slowly, towards his position.
“What in hell would be coming from the Expanse,” he questioned of no one. A year lost in solitary and you would be talking to yourself as well.
He continued to keep his eyes peeled, mesmerized as the darkened blotch continued to meander its way across the blistering sands before him, with each passing moment growing ever closer. In fact, it wasn’t until the blight took on a recognizable shape and the see-saw cicada sound following it grown, that he reacted at all, and by then it was too late-
A man-sized darkness had materialized from within the wasteland and was upon him. No explanation forthcoming that he could see. All he could do now was hunker down behind the protective wall of the tower, his hands clamped over his eyes and ears, and hope the nightmare walking below him would pass on by- instead, the sound grew and grew, to the point where it became a living breathing thing, eating away at his brain like maggots eating into dead flesh, gnawing at his mind and leaving little trails of madness behind.
Porous holes leaking sanity, like sweat, pouring from his mind and brow.
The sound then ceased.
Tears, like sweat, dripped from his nose. He refused to open his eyes or unclamp his ears for fear that the shadowed shape had somehow gained entrance to his tower, climbed the series of steps leading up from the ground below, and had somehow spiraled its way here, to the towers peak, to stand before him, and was even now, looming before him, demanding to make its presence known.
Words were forming in his mind, in the madness swirling there, pushing past all his defenses and exposing him, leaving him naked and defenseless before this new presence.
“I have not come to bring you harm,” the voice seemed to say, before clarifying and withdrawing completely from his mind. The next he heard was with his ears. “I am lost and seeking direction, that is all.”
Whimpering, he wiped at the string of snot leaking from his nose with the back of his hand. In his fear he has soiled himself. He is ashamed. With no other recourse but to throw himself over the side and escape, he managed enough courage to at least open his eyes. What he sees before him causes him pause to consider the madness of this place.
“What do you want from me?” He weeps. He is unable to keep his eyes fixed on the figure wavering before him, it’s as the very air surrounding it seems unstable, like it could break up at any moment and fall away.
“I seek direction. Where am I?” It is that same still voice.
At least the deafening roar of cicadas is gone. The stillness following is almost as bad, however.
“I’m sorry. I can’t help you,” he replies, his eyes leaking tears. The whisper of a bitter breeze reminds him again, that his bowels have let go. Once again, he is ashamed.
“Do not be afraid,” the voice repeats. “I come in peace. Lower your hands… let me look upon you and you me.”
It is a request he cannot deny.
As he removes his hands from across his eyes, the darkened blight which he spotted earlier is indeed here, has indeed climbed the stairs of the watchtower, and even now stands before him- and the blight isn’t alone. Suspended in the air beside him is a lesser blight the size of a small pony, a monstrous darkened beast that refuses to take identifiable shape, or reflect any but the brightest of lights. The two are enshrouded, inscrolled, in swirling vapors of darkest night that seem to dance and wither.
“Who are you,” Gerald inquires. “Are you a god?”
“I may appear to be,” the vaporous shadow replies, “But I am not.” A slight pause, “neither am I like you, however,” The shape adds. “In all truth I am a stranger to this world, and am in need of information.”
“I have nothing to offer that you need,” Gerald manages to stammer, while raising his hands in piety. “Can you not see that I am without worth?”
If he is expecting an answer from the shape wavering before him, he is sadly mistaken.
A longer moment passes.
When Gerald finally manages to open his eyes again, sometime later, it is to find that the blight has gone; the watchtower is all but deserted except for him.
Pitching his weapons over the side, Gerald pauses for only a moment at the lip of the battlement- before joining them. The last thing he cares to remember, before striking the stacked rock some sixty feet below, is how the darkness from the Expanse had touched him. It had burned him clear to the bone.
What was there to say, exactly, other than madness seemed to fill this place like a plague.
Some time ago he had left the solitary structure and its crazed occupant behind. It was obvious that little hope or guidance could be gained from either one. In fact, no sooner had he done this, left the structure, then the life that had been there had ended, its thread ceasing almost as quickly as it had begun.
“It is obvious, even to me,” he began aloud, if only for the benefit of his companion, “that the man couldn’t fly on his own. And yet, that did not persuade him from leaping over the side of the structure to his death.
*I fear that our appearance was the cause of his distress* the unit responded.
“Did I not reduce our stasis,” he asked, still confused by the actions of the unstable man. After all, he was well aware of the noise their combined stasis fields created when fully deployed. “This isn’t the first time we’ve had dealings with other races and species.”
*I am aware. however, this may have been his first encounter with our particular culture. You are aware of the perception between technology and primitive perceived magic. often they are mistaken, one for the other*
‘Of this I am only too aware,’ he thought. “Have you had an opportunity to place our location yet? Are we still as ‘miss-placed’ as we seem?”
*having cross-referenced our location against all known and mapped quasar/pulsar combinations, i have yet to determine our exact location*
And why didn’t this surprise him?
It was obvious his first run in with the local’s had been a disaster. Still, it could have been worse-
Only he couldn’t quite think of how exactly. After all, dead was dead.
Twice he’d sent Pox into stasis, only to have the unit return figuratively empty handed. They still had no clue as to their location, or any probable mission. Granted, at first he assumed they had been sent here on purpose. But what purpose? This place held little strategic value, at least none that he could determine. Some sort of training exercise then…?
And yet he didn’t think so.
“Something is definitely there,” he said, “Something alive.”
Pox remained quiet.
About an hour’s travel past the first tower, the ground began to ‘green up’. Not so much prairie, but more like sparse tundra. In the distance he could see a broken column of red stone. Circling the column was a singular dark mass. Occasionally the mass would stall, veer towards the column, only to pull away before resuming its elegant, yet lazy spiraling flight once again.
“Any idea what that is,” he asked?
*an indeterminate lifeform*
At that moment, during a particularly long spiral their direction, the mass broke free of its circling and began to head in their direction.
‘Great,’ he thought. ‘I go from really lost, to completely lost and about to be found.’ He wondered what the mass might be- what sort of creature? Was it intelligent? Was it friendly?
Would it try to eat him?
He didn’t have to wait for long. In no time at all the creature had begun to take on identifiable shape, and that shape at the moment seemed to be large and avian. A set of pale, almost luminous green eyes, seemed to glare his direction.
Before he could inquire of Pox-
*possible antiquitarian. unable to clarify. shall I continue* Pox’s warning seemed to blare across his senses like a flare shot against a blackened night.
To say he was surprised would have been an understatement of epic proportions. “Do whatever it is you need to, just don’t leave me ignorant of our situation.” Normally the darkness of their shared stasis was enough to cloak them from most prying eyes. Obviously not this time, however.
Unconsciously he stretched out his stasis field until the very air around him wavered on the brink of instability and collapse.
*initial analysis: reptilian, possibly ballistic. heavily armored*
*at the moment, no. check that*
“A creature of Terran myth… have we inadvertently arrived in the Sol system?”
*sol has been classified off-limits. it has also been silent for more than a millennia*
‘So that’s a big no!’ “At least arm me,” He said. His words were followed by distortion- Pox now resembled a long slender blade with a corded metal hilt.
“Seriously, you see something like that ‘thing’ headed our way and the best you can do is become a sword? Do you realize how close we’ll have to be before you become effective?”
By now the large brown shape had taken on identifiable form, just as Pox reported, reptilian, winged, trailing two iridescent tendrils of pale blue flesh like a split tail.
It was at least twenty meters in length and probably weighed a couple of tons-
*according to directive* Pox began.
“To hell with the directive, all I know is that trying to use a weapon like this on a thing like that is akin to whacking a Volgan with a yo-yo stick.” In his mind’s eye he could picture the Volgan’s twelve massive legs, each punching out 1500 kilogram pockets of earth as it charged towards him head on-
A yo-yo stick was a child’s toy, a padded stick about a meter or so in length and used mainly in practice and self-defense.
*the blade will suffice. i have adjusted your cortex reaction time accordingly*
“Unless you’ve underestimated its abilities-” It had happened before. Exasperated he let the matter drop. Pox knew exactly what incident he was referring to.
Shifting his center of balance, he allowed the aerial predator to glide a little bit closer- carefully bidding his time.
When to attack is all about sizing up your enemy, before you even swing.
His first run-in with a life form here had ended badly; the man had ended his own life. It appeared this time; the creature in question left no doubt as to its true intentions. It was about to become a moment of kill or be killed.
In those last few moments before combat; the giant creature suddenly broke skyward, all the while bellowing a deafening shriek- loud enough to crack the world.
In that moment the world beneath him seemed to waver and shift, as if it were suddenly a mirage, then-
*warning* came Pox’s cry, but by then it was too late, as everything around him turned into an ever expanding ball of intense heat. With something akin to a metallic shriek, Pox contorted once, before vanishing entirely from view, possibly back into stasis-
End result, he was suddenly and completely weaponless.
As his armor began to re-pattern and change, he managed to bring his hands up to cover his eyes in an effort to protect them- even as the all consuming flames continued to expand around him. The resulting aftershock of the creature’s (?) attack threw him almost twenty feet to the south, where he lay sprawled across the earth, gasping for breath, his armor and mesh steaming and popping from the intense heat. Beneath him the ground had been charred a deep smoldering black.
‘Now is not the time for Pox to pull a vanishing act. Minus the unit’s capabilities, I am pretty much defenseless.’ He thought.
From where he lay he could no longer see the beast, but he could feel it, struggling in the air above him. At the moment it seemed to be held in place, as if trapped. The entire time concussion waves continued to rattle their way down the hillside, breaking large stones into pea-sized gravel and dust. The aftershocks of the creature’s attack seemed to roll on forever.
With absolutely no clue as to what to do next, he managed to make it to his hands and knees, frantically rubbing at his eyes, anything to try and clear them- in that same instant there came an ear shattering blast, a sound reminiscent of the sodium storms back on Tensure- In the midst of this second wave he is slapped to the earth by what he later describes as; ‘a giant’s hand.’ After this darkness falls so quickly he has no time at all to react, not even for surprise.
The first thing I hear- “It lives, I see.”
As I came to- the comforting buzz of my stasis seated firmly behind my eyes, its energy dulling the aches and pains I surely knew to exist, I struggled to set up. This I managed, even though my arms were bound securely behind my back.
Before me burned a small fire, a handful of wood stacked knee high beside it. The fire offered heat and/or light into a world gone pitch black, so black in fact that there were no stars in the sky overhead.
Across from me set a man, an old man complete with long straggly red hair and a pinched face. His skin was a fine even brown, the color of burnished bronze. He was watching me, the slightest hint of a smile pulling at his lips.
“Who are you?” I asked. “And what the hell did you do to me back there?” The idea that on this primitive ball- at least I assumed this place to be a primitive ball –that someone or something had been capable of damaging my armor or even me, was enough to cause me stress.
In answer to my question the old man got up, brushed a twig from his clothes, and approached me. Kneeling before me, he reeked so deeply of freshly turned earth that I almost gagged.
“What is this that you wear,” he asks, drawing his thumbnail down across the front of my tension mesh. He is pressing down so hard that his thumbnail actually leaves an indent. I can feel the weight of his touch on my chest- it causes me incredible pain.
Another pause for concern, nothing here should have been capable of hurting me, much less touching me.
After he did this, and before I could answer, he withdrew. It was as though he intended for us to remain separated by fire forever.
“Before I say anything, I want answers,” I said. This, even as the first real stirrings of fear entered my soul. “Where is the beast that attacked me earlier? And who are you?”
In answer he smiled. “For the sake of argument, let us just assume that the ‘creature’ you are referring to has withdrawn for the moment.” His eyes reflecting firelight, “Why do you ask?”
“Why do you care,” I snapped back. But who was I kidding? Something had definitely attacked me, an antiquitarian from what Pox had indicated. But the last known antiquitarian had been eradicated some years back, a couple hundred at least if memory served me right. So there should have been no possible way- In fact, the only reason I even knew about them was because of Pox, and that had only been in passing, vague rumors, hinted at references… legends mainly. Supposedly they had all come from Sol sector, weapons of an earlier war now abandoned.
Then again, supposedly they were all dead as well.
The question remained; something had definitely attacked me, something powerful enough to send Pox running back into stasis.
Trouble had found me- as usual.
The old man before me acted like he was still waiting for me to answer, I saw no real reason to lie, so….
“It’s carbonite armor,” I said, “sort of like steel, but a hundred times stronger. It’s as natural to me as skin is to you.” ‘And it’s alive,’ I wanted to add, but thought differently about. After all, it’s not like he would gain any advantage from having the exact composition of my tension mesh. Carbon was carbon. Good luck in destroying that.
At my answer he dropped his eyes, “The names Regadev,” he said, surprising me.
“Rastus,” I replied.
“You’re not from around here.” It wasn’t a question.
“Neither are you,” I stated. I didn’t know this for a fact, like him I was only guessing. As I said before, magic is the presumed appearance of technology to the untrained… “Care to unbind me,” I asked, turning my body sideways to show him my bonds.
He no more than gestured then I was free.
“Thanks,” I said, “How did you do that?”
In response he smiled, a smile which caused me to involuntarily shiver, as if I were suddenly cold.
“What now,” I asked?
“That’s pretty much up to you,” he replied. “It’s not like you’re a prisoner or anything. Feel free to go at any time.” The entire time he spoke he kept his eyes focused on my feet.
After a moment or two, and seeing me going nowhere- after all, where was I going to go, he looked up.
I still had no clue as to where I was.
He continued, “I know how you feel,” he said, “believe me. It’s not fun being the one on the outside looking in?” I feel he was obviously referring to my being here, while at the same time, at a loss to explain my presence here. “Still,” he continued, “In time you may even begin to comprehend what has taken place. Until then, I would ask that you keep an open mind about you.” It was a command.
“I’m already surprised,” I said. “Are you sure you can’t tell me anything more about where and why I am here-?”
I waited for him to shrug before I attacked-
Leaping across the flame I grabbed for him. I was hoping to catch him off guard, take him to the ground before he could defend himself-
But I didn’t. Faster than I could imagine he dodged my attack, only to reach out and grab me by the throat, spinning me around and pinning me against the side of a tree.
I was back to nowhere, and now barely able to breathe.
He leaned in until our noses almost touched.
“The last thing you want to do is mess with me, boy. You may be a badass where you come from… but you have no idea what a badass can truly be until you’ve meet me.” In that instant an image came to mind, of an immense creature of legend, leathery wings spanning meters to either side, leather-like scales for skin and eyes radiating a time before I was born. The image quickly faded. “I may be the last of my kind,” he continued, “but let that serve as a warning to you as well- I am the last of my kind for a reason.” With this he let me go.
I slide down the side of the tree and set on my rump, rubbing at my throat.
“You may be wondering why I have spared your life, when I have taken so many before.” Brushing his hands against his robe as if trying to wipe off the feel of me, he continued. “Most of us are born spending the better part of our lives searching and seeking, striving to answer the questions of our being here. I am here to remind you of yours, at the moment you serve me. You were called by me to be in this place at this exact time and in this exact moment for a purpose. Yours is simply to watch and learn, and when the moment is right, I will reveal myself fully to you. Until that time, be content in the knowledge that you play your part.”
Riddles and games. “And what if I don’t,” I began, “What if I chose not to be content merely to serve? What then?” After all, Tensurian’s serve no one.
A look of extreme sadness fell across the old man’s face. I could tell he was putting on a show. “Well then,” he began, “you’d simply cease to be of any real value. In fact, you’d become more of a burden than an asset, and burdens simply need to be gotten rid of.” With this he got up and began to move into the night.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I began.
“And therein lies the mystery,” came his reply. “For all you know, I may be just a figment of your imagination, drawn here by the extent of your injuries. Then again, maybe not.”
I set for what seemed an eternity, questioning my sanity, questioning my mind. For all intents and purposes the old man was gone. I was sure of it.
I tried to stand-
“You are to remain where you are seated,” came the old man’s voice. And even though I could no longer see him he was obviously still here watching over me.
In that next instant I felt like I was being crushed, again. And this time there was no recovery, no quick dream. This time true darkness settled in, it seemed to erase everything, including my world.
Roman and Kiera
Roman hawked and spit, even as his mount crested the long hill, the one looking out over the Great Expanse, “As well as the one signifying the last remaining vestiges of humanity,” he remarked. Beside him, likewise mounted, likewise attired, and likewise minded, was Kiera, his riding mate.
Shadow to light, brother to sister, Kiera was everything he was not. Where he was heavily muscled, she was lean. Where he was pale and crowned with a shock of long blond hair, she was dark, brown as the earth, with masses of darkest umber falling from her head to her shoulders.
Occasionally she would stop to brush the tangles from in front of her face. He didn’t have that problem, preferring to wear his hair pulled back tightly, and bound by a heavy iron clasp… a clasp that their late mother had given him just before she passed.
He reached up to touch it briefly, remembering.
The land before them was a nightmare of cracked earth and fallowed ground. Only the hardiest and most foolish of plants seemed to flourish here. Great clusters of pine green shoots, meters high, their leaves pointed and serrated along the edges. Here and there, the occasional burst of white bell shaped flowers swinging from a toughened reeds and withered stem.
“Hell of a place to call home,” he began, clearing his throat and spitting again. Beside him, mute as the day’s light is long; Kiera nodded in agreement. Then again, in this period she was both blind and mute. What could she really say or see?
“And yet you continue to point us in this direction,” he adds, continuing their talk of earlier. For some god-forsaken reason she’d convinced him to travel twelve days hence from their home, only to wind up in this place. Had she brought him here only to kill them both from exposure?
He hoped not.
In his mind he could feel her words, even as she answered him, assuring him that this indeed, was the place, that in her mind’s eye she had not only seen fire fall from the heavens, just as the Oracle had predicted, but that the fire had indeed, landed in the very expanse and wasteland they now seemed to be treading.
‘I do hope you know what you are doing little sister,’ he added silently. And yet, these thoughts did little to ease his troubled mind.
In the distance he could just make out the wavering totems of watch towers dotting the vast border between the Greater Plains and the Great Expanse. ‘And to think, some poor slob has the honor, if you can call it that, of guarding this place. But from what? What could possibly be out here that they would need guarding from?’ In all his thirty-seven years he still didn’t have a clue.
He caught a look of irritation flirt across his sister’s face. Only then did he realize that she’d been facing him for quite some time, her blank face revealing nothing until now.
“What is it,” he asked? “Is everything okay?” He would be glad when this season passed, and her voice returned, until that time however-
She seemed to indicate that they should continue, deeper into the Great Expanse if need be. He half-heartedly agreed.
“This master of yours can be as vague as the morning fog,” he began. It was at this point that Kiera dismounted, handed him the reins to her mount, and began to run her fingers gingerly along the ground, as if searching for something. But what exactly was she searching for? The hilltop they had just crested was nothing more than a windblown pile of rock, sand, and a few scrubs of bitter weed.
His unspoken question was answered when she suddenly straightened, producing a few strands of crushed green grass in her hand. “So he has been through here,” he exclaimed. In response she held the twisted grass under his horse’s nose, long enough for his mount to pick up the bitter sweetness and gobble them up. Her mount managed to twist its head back long enough to appear jealous, before dropping its own head and feeding as well.
With everything going on, this much he knew- they were after a man. In fact, this man was the entire reason for them being out here to start with, that and the Oracle’s insistence. According to Kiera, the falling fire in her vision and the man they were seeking were one in the same- whatever that meant, such ideas were her gift, not his. His gift was with the bow and sometimes the blade. Put something needing killed in front of him and he’d kill it for sure. If more than this was involved… well, that is what his sister was for.
It was warm for spring, much too warm for this early in the year by far. But for the two small figures perched on the edge of the woods, one in brown patched jerkin, the other in woven wool and shawl, the unusually warm day simply meant earlier out to play.
The boy stopped just as sudden as he had started, his breath coming in ragged pants as he crouched amidst the tall waving grass of the boundless plains, the heat of the day causing sweat to trickle itchly down his nose, leaving his heart alone to pound in his ears. Running ahead of him was Ravin, his only companion since he could remember, a girl similar in age, but different altogether, her night to his day. The drifting lilt of her laughter continued to wave back towards him, carried on the pirouetting tips of prairie grass.
For a moment he was adrift in a slow moving sea of green, the wind spelling out hidden, and probably cryptic, messages in the tall-uncrossed plains.
To the north lay the beckoning coolness of tree shade, that and the moist mossy dampness under leaf and bough. However, this is not where his quarry lay, that would be before him, emblazoned in the midday heat. For even now, as he rested, she continued to flee further and further from his grasp.
“Fly if you must,” he roared. “But you cannot escape me forever wench.” On purpose, he clipped his words with precise abruptness. In doing so he seemed more aged than his youthful eleven years. Gripping his ever-faithful staff, a knotted and beaten branch of aged oak, he slowly rose up from his partial hiding place to once more gain sight of his ever-dwindling foe. Distantly he could pick out her flaring ebony hair, dark as a raven’s wings, and appropriate to her namesake. In less than a heartbeat, it simply vanished from sight.
Only her laughter remained.
“Laugh at me if you will,” he said, “but no one has ever escaped the grasp of the world’s greatest warrior. Why I myself have bested the best of the best in single combat, and I shan’t lose to the likes of you- a girl at that.” With a warrior’s cry still lingering on his lips he leapt forward, his staff flailing about. As he ran towards his dark haired foe, he imagined how heroically he must have appeared to anyone watching, his weapon of choice in hand; long-flowing coppery curls now matted with sweat, his body outlined against the mid-afternoon sky. He felt about ten feet tall, like he owned the world. No. By all the oaths he couldn’t really utter less Nam, his guardian, wail his legs- this women, as willful as she might be at times, was testing his patience. She would not be getting the best of him today.
“I’m still coming Rav, just you wait and see.” With laughter bubbling from his lips, he once again raced through the wavering walls of grass, darting first to the left, and then to the right, before, in a headlong rush, he broke free at last upon the well beaten path leading back into his village walls. He found himself on road. Ravin was nowhere to be seen.
“Now where in the world has that stupid girl gotten herself into?” Quickly becoming annoyed, he took a swipe at a passing fly. “She can’t have gotten too far ahead of me, surely,” he exclaimed to no one in particular. Pausing a moment more, and scuffing up a cloud of dust with his feet, he hurriedly scampered along the perimeter of the path, searching dolefully for any sign- some ‘mashing’ of the prairie grass, scuffed trail, where she could have possibly broken through from the grass. Try as he might, however, he just couldn’t find her. He couldn’t even hear her laughter any longer- it was as if the earth had simply opened up and swallowed her whole-
What he heard next, caused his staff to fly from his quickly numbing fingers. It clattered to a rest some three feet from him, right up against where the dusty brown path met the wavering sea of green grass.
Had that been a scream? Short and quickly muffled, but a scream nonetheless?
Suddenly his stomach didn’t feel so good, like he’d spent too much time out in the heat without a drink. “Rav,” he shouted, his voice breaking fearfully. And just like that, he was all of his eleven years
And he really wasn’t even eleven, but ten and a half’sy.
“Rav, this isn’t funny anymore.” She’d better hope something had happened to her, he was saying, otherwise-
As he rounded the slight bend in the path ahead, a path that continued on for some distance to what had seemed so harmless and inviting only moments before, the shade-drenched woods lying just to the north of their Ville, now seemed terribly daunting. Fearfully dark and forbidding, the woods now resembled, at least in his mind’s eye, a gaping toothy maw threatening to swallow him whole, if only he were unwary enough to enter them.
“Come on,” he muttered, his hands locking into fists by his side. Stooping he peered as best he could into the darkened lane beyond the plains, but could see nothing out of the ordinary.
“I’m going home now- and get Nam,” he threatened. Still he couldn’t keep the shakiness from his voice. “Boy, will he be angry when he hears you’ve gone and entered the woods,” he said, swallowing thickly. Step by step he slowly approached the end of the path, the spot where prairie met tree, till the boundary separating grassy brown earth from sky, had all but been swallowed up by leafy bough and knotted trunk.
Was that his imagination, or was that a goose-bumpily breeze wafting from the yawning chasm of dim darkness now rearing up before him.
At this point his heart was hammering painfully in his chest. Despite this fact, his feet continued to approach the woodland boundary, as if the dare to enter far outweighed the logic of turning and running home.
Crouched on its perch, a large black crow continued to watch the boy, even as the boy began to scream before turning and running home. Unbeknownst to even the crow, the darkness, that had dwelt just moments before within the confines of the woods, had withdrawn. What the darkness left behind, however, still wearing the shape of a little girl, would have been far kinder if it just kept her.
I can remember waking up to the sound of voices, one male the other female, both heavily accented and speaking in a language unlike any I’ve ever heard before. And this wasn’t one of your standard run of the mill wake up calls either, this one hurt- and it shouldn’t have. My pattern should have taken care of whatever injuries I might have sustained in the old man’s attack.
Obviously it had tried.
During the initial attack I can remember being forced to my hands and knees, after that, pretty much nothing until waking up and facing the old man… Regadev, I think he said his name was?
When I woke up this second time, after the old man had threatened me with my life, I found myself on my back; my head propped up. Surprisingly my confluence had been extinguished as well.
Do you realize how much power that would have taken? I would hate to even hazard a guess, and in this place, of all places, no less.
As before, no more than four meters away, blazed a small fire similar to the one the old man had set; only this one was spent, used up, only ashes remained.
Beyond the flame set two beings. Willing my pattern to continue its healing, I did my best to get a good look at them, without appearing so.
The male, whose voice was a deep rumbling baritone, seemed to be inquiring of the female, as to my condition.
“How should I know,” she said, “I’ve never seen anything like him before. As far as I can tell, he might be dead.”
“It was your vision that brought us here. We are now a full three days journey beyond the Expanse, and still you do not remember the reason for bringing us here?”
At first she seemed hesitant to continue, then- “We do what we must. We bring him to Bansu. We get some answers, other than that-.”
A long pause… during that time the male seemed to be considering. “Do you still believe he fell from the sky?”
“Aye, how else do you explain the looks of him,” she replied. “He burned my hand when I first touched him, remember. He wears strange armor unlike anything we have ever seen before, and his appearance is beyond description…”
Further lines of silence- only this time they run deeper.
“Despite how he arrived here, no one should have survived that attack, and yet, here he is.”
“Had not been for our timely arrival,” she began.
“If you hadn’t returned to me before the battle,” he replied. “Thank god whatever it was that held him fled of its own volition?”
“Yes, thank god… it couldn’t have been our attacking it, driving it back. No, it must have been some ‘god’ that helped.”
“You know what I mean,” the male continued. “I’m just glad it fled, that’s all.”
Riddles and more riddles, their language and this situation I found myself in.
In the end they quit discussing me any further, intent upon eating their meal and readying their camp for the night. I decided to cut them some slack and remain motionless, allowing the comforting numbness of my healing to continue unabated.
From the sounds of it, I would be needing my strength in the coming days.
With as little motion as possible I began to earnestly test my bonds, only to find that my hands and feet were still free- just as Regadev had left them -they’d just become numbed by my laying on them. Seeing that I had nothing left to lose I decided to drop the sleep act and set up… rather clumsily I might add, but still I managed.
For the moment I kept my static confluence as withdrawn as possible.
Talk about being surprised-
I’ll admit; I rather enjoyed their startled looks. However, much to my chagrin, they quickly recovered their composures, a little too quickly if you ask me.
The male, dressed in some sort of patchy tan jerkin, his long blond hair pulled back in a beaten iron clasp, immediately reached for what I took to be a weapon, a long curved bow of wood that had been bent into an arc and strung. The female on the other hand, clad in chain similar in design to mine, and darkened leather, just as quickly hefted a shimmering blade of steel from where she had been sitting.
“We seem to have reached a situation,” I began, keeping my voice as neutral as possible. Not that I was all that worried, after all, I’m pretty sure my armor could stop any of their primitive weapons. Then again, I’d been proven wrong before. Just recently in fact. The groove in my armor attested to that.
“I’m not seeing your point,” replied Roman nonchalantly. “Explain to me this ‘situation’.
“I’ll just take my leave and thank you for the company,” I continued, ignoring the man’s bravado. “Just point me to where I you found me, and I’ll be out of here.”
They both set perfectly still.
“Perhaps I’m not making myself clear,” I began, my stasis field flaring. Ripples of darkness began to swirl in eddies around me- the distant see-saw of cicadas behind me gearing up. From the pained expressions on both their faces I could tell they could hear me.
It was the female who finally broke the silence.
“We’re not deaf and we’re not dumb,” she began. “In other words we can hear you just fine. And you can drop the theatrics, we’re not afraid of your noisy darkness. Now, as for you going somewhere, as in leaving here, I’d highly advise against that.”
“Or what…?” I asked, amazed at how quickly they had assimilated by confluence field.
“Or this….” And with these words the female rose and advanced with her blade in hand. She stopped just as the tip of it rested on the armor beneath my chin.
I managed to remain still, as black flares of confluence began to worm their along her blade towards her hand.
She never even batted an eye.
“Like I said before, it seems we’ve reached a stalemate,” I began.
“A stalemate only occurs when both parties, each similarly armed, feel compelled to wait the other out because there is nothing to be gained from mutual annihilation.”
“Not exactly- that’s my point. You’re not armed, we are. For all intents and purposes we have the advantage, so it’s really not a stalemate… more of a checkmate.”
The females added response confused me, “So what do you propose,” I asked.
“We wait,” added Roman.
And wait we did, with neither of us adding to or subtracting from the issue at hand, mainly how to manage me. After all, being handled once by these primitive peoples was enough.
It was Roman who made the first gesture that he wanted peace, by slowly laying his weapon back down.
“It does seem we have reached an impasse,” derided Kiera. “What say I skewer him now and save us this trip altogether.” All this and she never even batted an eye. She never even turned around to face her partner; she just kept her eyes locked on mine, as if she were trying to read my mind.
“That we could do, Kiera, we really could- or we could hold off for now.” With a gesture he indicated that she should withdrawal. “We might as well let him have his say, though. I suppose you can always ‘skewer’ him later if you like.” From the expression on his face he acted like he’d faced this dilemma many times before.
“But think of the time it will save us if I cut him up now,” she said. “No long explanations, no bothersome or awkward questions like why and how come….” At this point she paused, her blade tip never wavering, “No one will ever need to find out, especially if we bury the body deep.”
I’d heard enough. “Now hold on a minute,” I said, hands out, “I’m unarmed here.”
“Then you should have armed yourself,” she said, as serious as death. At this point Roman was beside her, his hand forcing her blade to one side.
“I said, let him have his say, Kiera. We’ve got a long road ahead of us, and you and I both know we need to deliver him to the Oracle in Bansu… in one piece, mind you.” At this point he was looking her in the eye. Her response, was to huff mightily and turn away, reseating herself on the opposite side of the fire.
At least for now I had some working room, if only I had some leverage as well.
The male was right. At the moment I was completely at a loss as to where I was or what I needed to do. My armor may be more than enough protection against their weapons, but I was still pretty much defenseless without Pox And even if I managed to somehow escape, I’d still be just as lost.
Besides that, it was dark.
What was it the antiquitarian had said, ‘listen and learn…?’
I’d always been such a lousy student.
Leaning back I willed myself to close my eyes and take a deep breath. The last thing I needed was to go off half cocked and ready to rumble. We needed- no, let me rephrase that- I needed to take a step back and regroup. We were at a crucial point in negotiations; and at the moment, I needed all friends I could spare.
Overhead, only starless pitch could I see.
As before, the unique ‘alien-ness’ of this world astounded me, and that’s saying a lot, because I’ve been to a lot of strange places and worlds- if only to kill what lived there. Still, if I were anywhere even close to being on a normal run of the mill planet, there should have at least been stars blazing overhead.
Here there were no stars.
“Aren’t you the least bit scared,” I asked them on a whim?
“Scared of what,” Kiera responded. Beside her Roman merely shrugged.
“Usually, the first time people see me…”
“We are not your average people,” Kiera shot back. “And you’re certainly not the first freak we’ve ever seen. Let’s move beyond that point, shall we?”
At least I managed to swallow nervously before answering in the affirmative. For some strange reason, these people made me feel uncomfortable and nervous. Then again, nervous and uncomfortable is easy when your alone, stranded in the middle of somewhere- who knows where –and completely defenseless with no known way home…
Her reply as to seeing ‘freaks like me’ did peak my interest though. To what and whom was she referring?
“So you have seen others like me?”
Totally blank and unreadable, their expressions, which only confused me more. “In that case,” I continued, “then at least allow me the privilege of introducing myself.” And this I did, though at the time I wondered just how much of the truth I should reveal to them. “Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that I’m from a very far and very distant land,” I told them. As I did so I gestured generally off to my side.
Which was a mistake… it was obvious, by the look of disbelief on their faces, that what I had done out of reflex, gesturing, they took literally. Because of this misunderstanding, maybe my generally coming from the direction I had gestured wasn’t the best of places to be from.
Maybe what they hated and feared most lived there…
It was at that moment I realized that I could have used a guide book of some sort, that or subtitles… subtitles would have been nice.
“I’m sure,” chuckled Roman, leaning back to stare overhead. “In my time I’ve heard of many strange things coming from the West,” (must be the direction I had gestured.) “However… and I must profess, however, never a man of your- shall we say -looks and bearing. And yet, now is not the time for such discussions, the Oracle of Bansu is more than capable of clearing this all up.” It was at this point that the big man seemed to grow sober. “Only Stram’s and the Thrane exist beyond the Great Expanse my friend. And if you be of either…” he left the rest of what he wanted to say go unsaid. “Let’s just say this,” he finished. “Coming from either place would not be a good thing.”
Looking down I noticed I was still attired in tension mesh, the thumbnail mark of the antiquitarian obvious and glaring on my chest. “May I ask one more question?” I inquired.
Roman shook his head, “Of course,” he said.
“How many times have you moved me since you, shall we say, discovered me?”
“Are you in league with the antiquitarian?” I asked.
Still no answer, though they did inquire of each other at my asking. Perhaps they had some other name for such a creature here. I had no real way of knowing. “Then may I ask one more question…?”
It was obvious that my continued interruptions only served to raise the males’ curiosity; Kiera however, had pretty much written me off. Ignoring me completely she had busied herself with cleaning up what remained of their dinner.
“I was wondering if either of you have seen, or possibly heard anything about an odd metal creature wandering about?” I wasn’t sure how to describe my giant arachnid-like friend to them. Instead, I managed to sketch out an approximation of what he might have looked like in the dirt beside me.
Needless to say, they both shook their heads no. They did seem intrigued at my ability to draw though. I don’t think they even knew what to say. “Why… is this, ‘thing of metal’ important?” Roman asked.
“More than you’ll ever know,” I replied. “Can you at least tell me where you found me…?”
Still, answers were not forthcoming. In fact, the two of them looked at me, then each other, like everything I was saying was crazy.
“Perhaps you wish me to wait?”
“Perhaps,” Kiera replied.
Sometime after our discussion, and after I’d managed to choke down some of their awful food, (cast iron gut) I finally managed to fall into a fitful sleep-
‘Most of my dreams are stupid and make little sense, and those are the ones that I remember. As for the others… the ones I can’t remember, who cares.’
I am standing on a cliff overlooking the rocky banks of an unfamiliar body of water. It isn’t just ‘any’ body of water either, but a lake, a big blue lake being fed by two large rivers, both crawling in from the north. A third river, joining from the south, seems to be leaving. All of this, the rivers, the lake and the cliffs seem to be encompassed by a rolling rail of rock-crested hills and tree-lined mounts-
It is fall. The trees have long since passed from green to red and gold.
I am not alone-
Beside me stands a man small in stature, and pale, with long copper colored hair. I cannot see his face but I don’t have to, there is something about him that seems familiar to me, like I should have known him already.
We stand like this, beside each other on the cliff, for what seems an eternity. Everything around us is silent, with only a slight breeze left to tug at our clothing. When suddenly, over distant hilltops, breaks a brilliant beam of radiant silver light, its glare blinding me, causing me to turn away. When my sight returns I am looking down, realizing for the first time that the figure standing beside me has cast a shadow; it resembles a sword.
All I can do is stand there and marvel at this strange apparition. ‘What does this all mean, this shade, this shape?’
Without a word the man turns toward me, his hand/blade reaching out and grasping mine… bringing sudden and lingering pain. Looking down I realize that between his fine-boned fingers and mine there is blood.
But whose blood is it, mine or his?
His voice begins as a whisper, rises to a shout, “You have to let me go; but at the same time you cannot leave me here like this all alone either-”
Needless to say, after this I am wide awake.
Rubbing furiously at my eyes, I struggled to set up, while at the same time, saying goodbye to the night, goodbye to that stupid dream as well.
I notice that the fire of last night has fallen into ash and ember. Using this as a rough guide, I’d say I’ve been out of it for six, maybe seven good hours. It is still dark around me, but getting progressively brighter minute by minute, breath by breath… absolute darkness giving way to formless gray haze. As for Roman and Kiera, they are already up and about, packing and placing, folding and storing, tying and strapping, readying their equipment and provisions for what appears to be a rather long journey ahead. This got me to thinking, ‘Did these two ever sleep?’ and if so, ‘When exactly?’
Beyond our immediate camp stamped three long faced creatures. It was to their backs that many of the camps provisions were being tied to.
‘Must be pack animals of some sort.’
All this action and circumstance left me feeling pretty much helpless, the proverbial third wheel, in that everyone seemed to have a job except me… Oh, that’s right; my job was playing ‘prisoner’ at the moment, now I remember.
Rubbing my hands together, I flashed a wayward glance towards Kiera, my ‘none too friendly’ hostess. From her expression, I’d say she didn’t appreciate the look or the noise I was making… I turned away. Finding it much easier this second time around to ignore the woman and her pinched and sour face, I turned to find Roman, who at the very least, ‘appeared’ to tolerate my existence.
The giant archer was little more than an inky blotch against a lighter gray pallet, his face, at the moment, turned away from the encampment, his attention drawn elsewhere. As if he was waiting for something unexpected-
Confused, I turned back towards Kiera, who, much to my surprise, was doing the exact same thing, looking towards the exact same spot, the distant horizon. My curiosity tipped, I couldn’t help but follow their lead, half-expecting… I don’t know- something ‘big’ to happen.
“Days dawning has found us,” breathed the archer.
In retrospect, his words seemed entirely too inadequate to cover what occurred next. Far to the north the tiniest of glows flared into life. At first it seemed to flicker then dance, in its brilliance illuminating distant mountaintops. Then, with a rumble reminiscent of rolling thunder, an iridescent glow began to pour forth from that tiny flame, as if some ancient being had toppled forth a great caldron of liquid brass. Beneath the lights advance the very land itself seemed to murmur and stretch, yawning, as if welcoming the new day, while high overhead, the line separating darkness from light, raced by like a carpet being rolled up and put away.
Needless to say, all I could do was stand there, completely dumbfounded, the light of day breaking nothing short of majestic. An awe-inspiring grandeur far surpassing anything I’d ever seen on any other world. Within minutes the entire sky was filled to the brim with a brilliant, yet cool, yellow glow. Riding on the heels of this event, a low rolling rumble, as the racing light seemed to crash against the southern horizon in an explosion of cascading color.
And then it was done.
Kiera was the first to notice my open mouth and awe struck demeanor, “What’s the matter Rastus; you look like you’ve never seen the light of days dawning before.”
As I turned her direction she flashed me a brief and rare smile, before turning back towards Roman, and with a slight gesture, continued packing.
I turned to find Roman staring back at me, the most curious of expressions on his face, hovering somewhere between sadness and empathy. “I see my earlier assumption to be correct, in as much as concerning where you claim to have come from my friend. You must have indeed, fallen from the sky.” With a chuckle he continued, “Fear not, all your questions will soon be answered.” Stepping forward, he held his hand out, gesturing for my blanket, which I reluctantly handed over. As his hands began to go through the ritual of folding it, he continued, “Before we go much further let me continue with what I was saying last night— if I may?”
At my nod he expounded.
Of all the places I had ever been, the color of my skin never seemed to be in question or a problem. In this place however, it seemed to be an obvious point of wonder and question. “My friend,” he began, “it is obvious that you are a stranger among us.” He seemed just as curious to my features as I was of his. Where I was jet black, he was pale, where my hair was white, almost colorless; his was a light golden brown. Height wise we were pretty much the same. We both had two arms, two legs and all that… after all, humanoid was humanoid. And yet, despite our similarities, subtle differences remained. As a whole, he seemed overly fascinated with my eyes, possibly the nictitating membranes that clouded them, as well as the shape and function of my armor.
“You are indeed, very strange,” he said, not in an unkind way. As he spoke he laid his hand atop mine, wary of touching my armor. He obviously remembered how it had burned Kiera’s hand the first time. “And yet,” he continued, “you fear nothing.”
For the sake of their sanity, I’d withdrawn my stasis field completely. Talk about freaking someone out. After all, I’m pretty sure it’s not every day these people run into a race that can completely surround itself in a field of relative energy, shrouding one in darkness- that or wearing living armor. Then again, how many other races had been born and reared on a planet trapped between triple suns? And who, when their planet ventured between these same stars every five thousand years, would hibernate in underground cities for a thousand years or more?
“I know you have your questions,” he continued, “and we have ours as well. I can assure you though, our mission, the entire reason for us being here, is to deliver you safely to the one place in all the land, that can truly answer your questions.”
He was obviously referring to this ‘Bansu’ place again. They had briefly mentioned it last night; it’s where this Oracle person was supposed to be, a man beyond all time and measure- a man of knowledge, and an under stander of everything known.
I decided to keep an open mind.
“My friend,” he continued. “I do not profess to know why you are here, and from your expression, I’d have to say that you are as unaware as we. So I will ask this one small favor if I may.” At this point Kiera slid us another one of her incredulous looks. She’d obviously passed her own judgment on me already. “I would ask that you neither attempt an escape or do us harm.”
“That’s asking a lot,” I said. “As you mentioned before, I’m not from around here. Perhaps I would like to go home.”
At this he smiled.
How do I answer that?
“I realize we are strangers,” he said, “and no soldier worth his salt would gladly or eagerly cast himself into bonds without at least some fight, however, we do not consider you a prisoner, and by no means have you been captured.” Here he slid a sidelong glance towards Kiera, “despite the words from my companion stating otherwise… What we wish to accomplish here is important. You yourself are important, and the outcome of our future meeting with the Oracle even more so. So I would ask you again,” he paused, “No, I beg your patience and trust in us… trust that we have your best interests in mind as we complete our mission and deliver you freely, upon the steps of Bansu.”
At his slant towards Kiera, the young woman rolled her eyes and walked away from us, to finish packing on the furthest outskirts of our camp.
“I guess what I’m trying to say,” He continued, barely suppressing a grin, “Is that your word as a fellow warrior would set well with me, to us,” he gestured towards Kiera, “Can you at least agree to this,” he asked?
‘Did I really have a choice?’
Reaching out I laid my hand on the man’s bow, “Upon my honor, I swear to neither plan nor attempt any action which may in any way endanger our lives.” After we reach the keep of course, or once something looked familiar, this might change, but I didn’t want this to sway his response, so I didn’t add it.
As I finished, Roman began to smile. This time his words were lighter. “I believe your oath to be true Rastus. Now come and join us in a bit of breakfast before Kiera packs it all away. She has a tendency to be very thorough and knowing her as well as I do, she’d sooner hear our bellies grumble then feed us a second time.”
And like that, I guess you could say… we were friends.
Trusting little souls aren’t they.
But it was long ago and it was far away, oh God it seems so very far, and if life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car…
(1993) Album notes for Bat out of Hell II: Back into Hell by Meat Loaf [booklet]. Virgin (CDV2710 – 7243 8 39067 27)
It was obvious from the stench that the animal had been dead for at least a week, distended abdomen, matted fur, riotous feeding frenzy of flies playing tickle and tease with the foxtail lining the ditch.
For fear of death he chose to steer clear.
High overhead the sun beat down on the highway, the countryside, life in general, like a hammer against an anvil, without mercy but with purpose. It had been ninety degrees plus for more than a month now, and it looked like today would be more of the same. There was no breeze to speak of, only cloudless sky, as expected. Over his left shoulder, dual strips of asphalt bled off into the distance, motionless except for their watery haze. Before him lay much of the same, which is why he chose the off-ramp in the first place, he needed to find someplace else, someplace different then before.
With the weight of the world upon his shoulders, and what remained on his back, he continued his slow shuffle west, one dusty footstep at a time.
‘No one ever said it was going to be easy, or this hot.’ He suggested to no one but himself. But what could he really do about it other than complain. “I guess I could always break into some sort of rain dance…?” Then again, one look at the heavens said no, deadpan and steel blue with not a cloud in sight. It would take a hell of a lot more than a rain dance to break the current drought. It would take a miracle.
Having reached the top of the off ramp it was time to make a decision. He could cross the road before him and return to the highway below, in essence continuing his previous journey into the sun, which, at the moment was the direction his shadow seemed to be leaning- he could hang a right and head towards more of the same low rolling hills previously traversed, or he could veer left towards the town of Summersville and its citizens, whose sign said numbered around six hundred and thirty some souls- Despite the promise of his water running low, judging from the hollow slosh hanging from his left shoulder, the last thing he needed was to be around people. He remembered what happened the last time he was around people, ‘bad days’ as he put it, ‘bad days ending in gunfire.’ And the last thing he needed was more gunfire.
“Looks like I’ll be hanging a right after all.”
An hour later found the highway he’d just exited all but swallowed by the hills he had just entered. In an effort to escape the heat, his shadow had all but fled, what with the sun now directly overhead. During his journey he’d stopped once, long enough to take a sip of water, brush the hair from his eyes and shift the pack on his back. His tee-shirt, weathered and worn, lay thin on his shoulders, and continued its pattern of stick, un-stick, and sticking to his back. ‘It is a little warm to be wearing blue jeans,’ he thought, though at the moment he was wearing his Sunday best. Soon or later he would have to stop and change back into the only pair of shorts he still owned.
Whether blistering hot or chilly as all get out, this part of the country couldn’t quite seem to make up its mind- and the further west he went, the worse this condition became.
He had been born in Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi, to a good solid family. His father, though strict at times, had taught him everything he would ever need to know on how to survive and become a man. His mother had taught him all the finer things in life, such as what herbs to pick to flavor a soup just right, or how to care for his wounds, and also how to enjoy some of the simpler things… how shadows grew long in the fall, or how a particular beam of sunlight can break free from the clouds and hi-light a particular patch of ground in the distance, (such as after a gentle spring rain.) Or how the clouds seemed to roll and roil just before a mid-summer’s storm, building white upon white, higher and higher until swollen with violence they would suddenly let loose what had built them up in the first place-
The silence in the fields around him momentarily drew his attention elsewhere, away from his memories, until he realized that these fields were the same as all the other fields he had recently passed thru, non-descript and knee high in weeds and rolling green.
A single speck trolling a sullen sky caused him to absentmindedly reach for his journal. He had a habit of chronicling his journey, had been since the beginning. He often found comfort in the art of sketching what he saw, nothing grand or all that inspiring, but like his mom, he found joy in the simplest of things. Once he’d discovered a wild flower, white petal, green leaves, struggling against the elements, eking out its existence between the cracks of an old asphalt highway. Another time it was a weathered and oddly tilted fence post. The fence itself had long ago vanished, having returned to rust and dust, but in mute testimony the post had remained, another bent and aged squatter dotting the greater plains, much as himself. According to his latest figures and calculations, he had covered almost three hundred miles since his journey began, thirty since this morning. Not bad considering that his feet ached, his back ached, his shoulders ached, in fact, it would be a whole lot easier if he were to list what didn’t ache at the moment, rather then what did.
The sun was a good three fingers from the horizon when he came across the unexpected mile marker, a reflective green and white rectangle approximately twelve inches long and half as wide. The sign itself was attached to a galvanized metal pole and held approximately five feet off the ground by two galvanized bolts; it read ‘Mile Marker 244’. Allowing the pack to slide from his back, he gently lowered it to the ground before opening two of the three top straps. Reaching in, he quickly and carefully retrieved the first of three objects. The first was the most important, his father’s ancient sextant- this instrument he kept in its worn and threadbare padded black bag. The second object was equally as important as the first, but for an entirely different reason, his journal, chronicler of all events. The third and last object to be retrieved was his well worn and much thumbed copy of The Farmer’s Almanac dated 1982.
Three quarters of the way through his journal lay a thin red ribbon. Opening it at this point; today’s entry, he hesitantly lifted the ribbon, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.
The faint scent of lilacs remained, and continued to amaze him even after all these years. The girl it had belonged to, long since forgotten.
Lowering the ribbon, he set the opened journal across his knees and removed the sextant from its protective bag. With nary a shadow behind him, he raised the sextant to eye level, sighted in on the Moon, merely a silvery smudge barely a fingers width above the horizon, and measured the angle between it and the sun. Locking and rocking the instrument, he made note of the indicated angle in degrees and seconds in the left hand margin of his journal. He then opened the Farmer’s Almanac, cross checked the angle he had just measured to the correct table to find his current time in Greenwich Mean, he then scribbled this figure down, before comparing it to the intricate watch he wore on his left wrist.
‘I’m still off by more than a minute,’ he thought. Considering that his watch was constantly being updated by the atomic clock buried deep beneath the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington DC this seemed all but impossible… a possibility he chose to ignore.
Things had changed; the world was a different place now.
His next two measurements, which he also jotted down, indicated his current location in the world, 38°25’2.08″N by 96°33’25.35″W. Finished with his recording, he carefully repacked each and every item, tightened each strap, and then re-shouldered his backpack before continuing his journey once again. There was a place he needed to be, sanctuary some would have called it, others Nirvana. He simply called where he was heading, home. According to his latest calculations, he still had a very long way and time to go.
Nightfall would catch him stretched out in a local grotto, his eyes heavy, and with his heels kicked up to a velvety dark sky full of unknown stars spinning high overhead.
That night he dreamt-
When he was yet a child his father would take him out into the great dark night and point his face towards the heavens.
‘Do you see that’, his father would ask?
He would shake his head no, ‘See what Daddy?’
With, his father’s voice only inches from his ear his father would answer, ‘Those seven stars right there?’
Following his father’s lead, he quickly spots them.
‘That is the Big Dipper, a very important group of stars, son. So important, in fact, that they could save your life one day.’
‘But how Daddy…?’ How could pinpoints of light possibly save his life?
‘Do you see how those first three seem to form a handle, while the last four form the dipper portion itself? Now let your eyes follow those last two stars son… the last two stars of the dipper.’
He was confused- but did as his father asked.
‘Now imagine a straight line being drawn across the sky with its beginning, its point of origin in those two stars of the Big Dipper.’
‘I can see it now Daddy.’
‘Good. Following our imaginary line, notice that after only a few degrees, we run into what appears to be a much smaller dipper, one in which the handle seems inverted, as if flipped inside out.’
‘That bright star, the one the Big Dipper points too, that’s Polaris, son, what we call the Northern Star.’ His father, now fallen to one knee is facing him. ‘If you are ever lost, my son, if you ever loose your way, just seek out the Northern Star- it will lead you home.’
This would be a lesson he would never forget.
The next day-
In many places he went, like old bones; shale, granite and limestone had thrust themselves upward from the barren earth, while high overhead continued the same desolate sky. He would be destined to suffer three more days of this same heat, this same desolate terrain, before running across any first real signs of ‘them’ since coming across the diner all those many days and miles back.
Like a mausoleum, it had been raised from the rocky soil, with its sand blasted walls, dusty brown paint and aged and streaked glass. An abandoned, long abandoned, filling station, shadow streaked in ochre blush and bone white. One large garage door was all that remained of its three, and it was closed. The remaining bays, minus doors, were nothing more than blotches of darkness glaring out across the highway-
Like a dead man dreaming in the noonday sun, the entire structure seemed to be slumbering. The large plate glass window in front, amazingly, had remained intact, and was streaked in ripples of gold and blue… rainbows of refracted and reflected light. There were no signs hanging in those windows- at least none that he could see. The stations pumps were long since gone, only the twisted remains of rusted pipe poking up through an oval shaped concrete island beneath what used to be a canopied awning, itself now skeletal and torn. All that remained were four large posterns pointing at odd angles towards the sky. Beneath all this lay asphalt, broken and shattered, with tufts of prairie grass waving in-between. In and around were mounds of debris, yellow and stiffened newspapers, some folded, some burnt.
As a whole, the filling station was pretty much a pop-up picture opened to the American countryside in a book about dirt.
Forty years prior, however, things had been different- the first time he had come through-
Entering the station proper, with my father by my side, my senses were immediately overwhelmed by a variety of smells: the deep damp stench of oil, gasoline and compressed air- the sharp tickle of fresh rubber, and what was that, Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum? There was something else as well, something I couldn’t quite place- not back then anyway, the slight odor of decay perhaps?
Across the grease smeared and much scratched counter top stood a register, unattended of course, much like the station itself at the moment, beside it set a three-tiered rack of the aforementioned Wrigley’s chewing gum, with rows of green, blue, and yellow.
On the other side of the register lay a stack of ratty edged road maps, a cup full of broken and chewed on pens and pencils and one of those four by four boards with a nail driven through its center. Impaled on the nail lay a mish-mash of old receipts stacked at least an inch thick.
The wall across from the counter held a dusty black rack of Ever-Ready car batteries, beside it a dented can overflowing with greasy shop rags. A tattered year old calendar turned to the month of December seemed to round things out, hanging limp above the battery rack. Other than an overturned swivel chair behind the counter, and a coat rack holding an umbrella beside the door, there was not much else to catch my eye or hold my attention-
Like I said, that was forty years ago. The world had moved on quite a bit since then.
With one hand on the door frame, I cautiously enter the station. This time, instead of oil, gas and compressed air, my senses are assaulted by the stench of dry rot, disuse and dirt. Yellowed wallpaper, peeling in great curling strips, lay on the worn linoleum floor along with mounds of dried grass clippings, an old bird’s nest of daub and mud and a few tumbles of weed. A stack of thumb worn and much fingered phone books lay haphazardly stacked against the far wall. The glass countertop of yesteryear had been replaced with a piece of old plywood, and was covered in much disturbed dust. There was no register to be seen. Also gone, were the days of Wrigley’s chewing gum, paper widgets holding business receipts, and the year old calendar opened to December-
I paused a moment to gather my senses, freeing my left hand while reaching with my right-
Sudden thunder, thunder, thunder… as the wall next to me hammers twice; ragged clumps of sheet-rock lift outward and explode, disintegrating in a cloud of powder and white dust. Instantly my hearing is gone, as what was initially sharp pain has become muffled silence. My ability to see clearly, as I immediately dropped to the floor, with fragments of wall raining all around, had been broken by the three brilliant flashes, strobes of brilliant light which seemed to reach out towards me in ever expanding rolls, breaking free from the darkened confines of a backlit back room.
My world has become one of cordite and gunpowder, smoke, dust and debris.
The entire time all this is going on I’m instinctively reaching with my right hand, before suddenly finding and bringing forth lex talionis. In one smooth motion I bring the comforting weight of its steel to bear.
The last time I had been in this situation had been back at the diner- another bad day indeed! Three souls had lost their lives that day, all by my hand, and all because of ‘them.’
As always, they seemed to be ahead of me, while I remained what I felt to be, a good three steps behind. At least at the diner there had been some warning, some notice given, I simply hadn’t wandered in oblivious… not like here and now. Back then my entrance into the diner had been preceded by a star, its shape seemingly painted by a child’s hand, chalk white, on the top step just below the front entrance. Next to the crescent moon, I’d learned to keep my eyes open for them. Not this time though, there had been no star painted outside, no crescent moon above the door, no upside down ‘For Sale’ signs propped up or hanging in the front window… only ambush and gunfire.
They were definitely getting smarter-
Strained silence- after images chasing and darting, while outside a golden red coyote pauses in mid-stride, seemingly caught halfway between this side of the highway and the next, its head turns towards the station, ears cocked, tail tucked. Between one breath and the next she is gone, vanishing into the afternoon silence and glare.
The coyote had been at the diner as well, only afterwards, not before.
Rolling to my right will bring me up beyond the counter and into the space between it and the wall directly in front of the backroom’s entrance. I feel it to be my only chance at surprise, and probably what the other party feels to be my only recourse as well. A moment before I act my eyes are drawn to my right hand, to the word ‘Justice’ tattooed in blue across the knuckles there, crosshairs emblazoned across the first and second joint of my index finger, and with this thought in mind I-
Roll out and bring ‘Justice’ to bear, at the same time squeezing off two thunderous rounds, filling the space between us with afterimages of light and smoke. I continue on through with the motion, bringing myself up next to the door frame, out of breath but heartbeat steady. My back pack remains where I suddenly dropped it, just outside the front door and in the sunlight.
Silence reigns yet again.
A quick glance back towards the highway assures me that the coyote is gone, only then do I notice the sign, a star, finger smeared in white and ochre across the linoleum floor just inside the threshold where the sunlight meets floor, where light trumps shade.
While behind me… agonized silence, countless minutes, brass shell casings on the floor-
‘Ayin tahat ayin…’ I chant, as a bead of sweat breaks free from my brow and runs down my nose. With my left hand I brush a few errant strands of matted hair away my face, from in front of my eyes.
As the silence continues, there is movement, fugitive, and then stillness. I lean to the left, just in time to catch her under the chin as she steps forth from the room. With a single shot, a thunderous roar, the top of her skull lifts, showering the ceiling and doorway with brain and splinters of bone, a literal wash of red. Just as quickly I roll to the right, sparing myself most of the mess that follows. But not all, as one tiny tear of red rolls a course down my cheek.
I wait, for most of the time they hunt in pairs, lie in groups-
Not this time though.
I stand above her, my hands on my hips, lex talionis holstered. For all she has become, a child she remains, dirt smeared face, vacant eyes, with dark stringy hair in disarray. Dressed in rags she has lost a shoe in the struggle afterwards- the struggle to hold onto life as it burbled and gurgled its way past her lips. Still clasped in her left hand lies ancient iron, its barrel still smoldering, her right hand is clawed and crowned with broken, dirty fingernails, the word ‘Croatoan’ has been carved in the center of her right palm. Her wrists are chaffed and torn, evidence of her countless bids for freedom. The hand that holds the gun also carries the smudge of white and ochre, I notice also, the long fingered smears drawn from knee to thigh of her blue jeans.
‘Close this time, so very close. One day, maybe not so close, and on that day it will be my time to lose a shoe- but not today.
Today I was lucky.’
That night, with the stars burning bright, a small fire flickering between me and the mid-night shadows closing in, I weep, not for today, not even for the girl I’d killed, though I have wept for such before- no, I weep instead for the promise of tomorrow, and all the long tomorrows to follow.
Sometimes I feel like the only thing standing between our world, and the world they wish it to be, is me. And I would be right. ‘Ayin tahat ayin,’ be it blind or impartial, justice will find a way.
I move on.