fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)
I write songs sometimes. I do this slightly less frequently than I write stories, and I do both with a fledgling sense of good form. In both cases, I have only been creating for the last two years. I accept that I am a novice and firmly believe that I can improve if I set aside time to do so.

I fantasize that one day I could have my songs played in a concert. I would probably start crying pridefully the moment the conductor raised the baton. Music has always been the first medium of expression to hit me in the soft, squishy chambers of my heart, and hearing a tuba bellow out a harmony line, no matter how critical I’d been of it while writing, would melt me completely. Accepting that I can occasionally plug notes onto sheet music and actually like what I'm hearing enough to listen to it hundreds of times fills me with joy.

Except this one. This one I wrote just because I had to unclog something in my brain before I could move on to other things. This is a godawful song. Don’t listen to it.


If I had to conceptualize what this song is about, I would guess that it’s probably a coronation song for a king that is also a bigoted pig. I giggled incessantly while creating it.

*****

I played my trumpet throughout middle school and high school--improvising solos during jazz band performances probably gave me the most capability to write a song largely by ear without really grasping chord structure or whether the instruments I gave parts for a song would even be physically capable of playing it if they tried.

I have another, stronger influence, however, that I have not disclosed while writing for this competition even though nearly all of my early pieces were derived from it. I love video games. I was born only four years after the Nintendo was released, and the blippy-blip sounds and pixelated worlds of that 8-bit system and the 16-bit Super Nintendo that followed formed the axis around which my childhood turned. I moved constantly, so characters from video games were often more consistent than friends.

My songs are also derived from games. I grew up worshipping Nobuo Uematsu, the creator of music from the Final Fantasy series. I will not claim that my songs sound like his, but when I make something that I think sounds decent, it’s Uematsu’s work that frames what sounds decent to me in the first place.

And now, a confession: every story I’ve written with the tag “Deathless” as part of LJ Idol, starting back in Season 9, was written as a part of a sandbox-style game world I eventually hope to create. Writing into that template helped me start with short stories when I had no other experience doing so--it felt safer to create for something that already had a big picture, especially when none of the stories reveal the whole shape of that world.

no title

Deathless is an artificial world created for the last remnants of the human race following an apocalyptic event, which also ended the capability of death in all organic forms. Rather than dying when significant trauma is incurred, life bounces back a little stranger than it was before. It’s like when Mario stomps on a Goomba in Super Mario--will the same creature be there the next time and move the same way just to receive the same fate? Many of story concepts of the Deathless world are twists on commonalities gamers essentially expect in what they play.

For example, the sun itself never moves in the stories, just like how certain areas of games are designed to have the same fixed lighting effect perpetually. In Deathless, whoever relocated the few survivors to this world also gave them a fake sun. People utterly lost the capability of determining time by the angle or absence of the sun, so they’ve created other methods.

The point of mentioning this is that Deathless has hit a kind of phase two. I am now writing songs for areas or moments from that world.



This song, which I originally titled “Frazzle” because I just name songs after whatever initially comes to mind, is based on a moment from this story:
From Ashes

The moment occurs right after the last story break, when Lillian uses what powers she has gained to raid Vaust’s retention facility for the women of the town. The game idea would be that the player character would be able to assist in this event as well, working together with Lillian to become an unstoppable natural force and liberate Vaust’s women from sexual oppression and manual labor.

*****

A place that nearly has a song for it is Coburntown. Three stories happen in or around Coburntown--it’s a place that has spurned knowledge whereas Vaust has spurned creation. Each town in the world has some essential virtue lacking and a shrine that needs to be cleansed in order to mend the respective town. These two pieces best reflect that problem for Coburntown in particular.
Death's Demesne
Schism

The song I’m working on is unfinished. The start is way too rough for my liking--I was trying to do something other than a succession of adding new instruments in every four measures until a whole piece emerged, but it feels too abrupt right now. The melody line has been stuck in my head for the last three weeks intermittently, and it doesn’t adequately convey the danger that willful ignorance represents, especially when Coburntown’s elected leaders encourage it openly. As one the two largest cities in the world, there is a bustle and almost a marching pace to the song that seems to work, so I could fold in a bridge that changes the tune to reveal or imply more of what is going on under the surface.

I don’t know how to do that. Here is what I have so far, rough and misshapen though it is.



The pictured creature is my cat, Basil, who is now a long cat of about twenty pounds. I posted his kitten picture to the song because there was a time when music did not upset him so much that he needed to bury his face in my armpit just to block it out. Also, I used a picture of my cat because I don't have graphics or gameplay footage to show. Phase Three and Four are a long way off.

*****

If Deathless only turns out to be a springboard for other concepts, it’s a success because it let me start creating in a way that made me feel safe, with support from folks such as this LJ Idol community who lavish praise on even fledgling efforts from new writers.

I don’t need to produce work to see it performed by Yo-Yo Ma or published for a massive audience. For now, right now, this is enough of a stage.
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

I am aware of what death does or should do to a body. In one manual I read, half buried in the Dust, sometime after a body falls slack, losing heartbeat and brain function, rigor mortis sets in. The manual featured pictures of cadavers in varying stages of death, before and after rigor mortis. It described the breakdown of muscles through enzymes, the slow loss of body temperature before an increase during decomposition, the development of bluish hues beneath skin depending upon how a body is arranged after death, and even the practical usage of rigor mortis in the preparation of meat.


We no longer have words for much of this. We no longer discuss enzymes. We no longer discuss rigor mortis. In fact, if we even saw a body with bluish skin, walking or no, we would assume it was either painted or being used as a model for a demonstration.


In the fifty years since the world ended, we have lost all grasp of the mechanics of death. What recollections we possessed as different cultures were pitched into the sea when the land reformed, making up our unnamed nation that we live in today. This nation is fraught with oddities--vast jungles that change shape in our sleep, icy tundra that no true light will touch due to a sun that never moves,  and creatures that haunt our dreams.  Our cities tremble with madness, each city bearing a different blight: Coburntown scorns knowledge, and Vaust rejects creation, for example. We are reminded that life is impermanent and fickle. At any moment, the world could end again and forever.


Death ended.


Now, rather than becoming gradually rigid or slowly decaying, bodies stand up and return to work. Why do they do that? Men die, but it doesn't bother them for very long. We grow old to a point, and then some kind of clock stops ticking inside--we become semi-permanent.


I met a lighthouse keeper in the early years of the new world, before I also stopped aging. I met him again, tangled in brine in the shallows of his own beach. His body was turning blue. I guessed it might have been a combination of hypothermia and asphyxiation. Now, I'm not so sure.


I dragged him into his house. I didn’t see his wife around. I did see a strange note on his kitchen table. He seemed conscious, so I boiled water for him and made soup with what ingredients I could scrounge together. I wrapped him in blankets and coats, talking to him to see if I could solicit any kind of reaction at all. I sat with him for hours,  following the path of his vision to a slight twist in the right kitchen table leg nearest to him. He stared at it incessantly, never blinking. From time to time, I would lay a hand on his algae and dirt covered skin; he was cold and clammy, sweating even as I tried to warm him up, never gaining in temperature. I knew he had died, for whatever functional purpose such a designation might carry.


I knew I had to watch him.


Just as I began to grow tired from my watch, his eyes twitched and flickered, jolting to the letter on the table. The envelope had a fishy aroma--a fileting knife sat next to it. He opened this envelope recently, I thought briefly, interrupted when the lighthouse keeper stood up and began to walk out.


Find me in the Silent City, the letter read. It was not the first time I had heard of that place, but I had always assumed it was simply another name for one of the eight cities and towns. I also knew that the Silent City was somehow linked to death; the wordlessly trudging fisherman would lead me there, I guessed, and I began to follow him.


Animals and plants die. People do not. Some factor of the new world inhibits human death. I suspect that the presence of the soul requires death as a device. If true death is denied, then the soul gradually corrupts the physical body, leading people to become different. Inevitably, people who die more than once become increasingly twisted, estranging themselves from family in pursuit of something more final. I told myself that they would never find it.


That day, following a drowned fisherman on the roads running east of Coburntown and around Mount Aramis, I wondered if true death would find me.


There is a hole. The hole lies, I would guess, roughly ten miles north and east of Coburntown. It is deep. It is deep enough that stones make no echo when tossed inside. The hole sits at the mouth of a town that I have never seen and dared not approach. Steel structures gleam underneath a coating of rust, illuminated by the thin glare of sunlight cracking through the surrounding mountains. It is hard to look at them, hard to know if there are predators between those structures.


As for the fisherman: he kept walking until he fell into that hole. I watched the flecks of seaweed rush away from his body as he plummeted, the wind whipping them away, rippling the cloth of his shirt and the hair on his face. I watched him disappear into the darkness.


As I watched, they watched. In the distant city, hundreds of dark eyes looked upon me. I could feel their hostility and their hunger. I walked away, knowing nothing more about the nature of death.


Did the void call out to me, then? Would I need to be dead in order to hear it properly? I hope to know some day. There are few questions more worth answering in this new, dangerous world.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

The grey-eyed girl was dead. Crushed beneath the claws of a giant beast, her tiny hands splayed out to the side squishing the red clay between her rigid, dead fingertips, dress twisted under her right thigh like bed sheets wrapped around a nightmare, mud caked over her eyes without concealing that final emotion--awestruck delight. The girl had died laughing, spilling immortal secrets with every last sputtering rasp, laughing at her lost mother, laughing at the end.


Rachel woke up coughing, unable to breathe or think through tears of pain and fear. Miraculously, she avoided waking the young man beside her as she ran barefoot to the river. As much as she rinsed her face or sat waiting or strained for a glimpse of the dim sky through the canopy of trees, she could not shake off the new fear.


The grey-eyed girl could be dead. Of course, people had stopped dying a long time ago, but it was not hard to discern what it was that terrified her about the dream.


Rachel recalled everything. The life of a baker in Coburntown was another woman's role, at this point. The kneading, the selling, the weekends at the bar listening to guitar music, the yearning for her young assistant who was only ever interested in other women, the constant sensations of being undesirable, being fat, being weak… all of these were someone else. She had changed.


Her mother, Augusta, had come to that bar with a letter from her sister, a girl who had fled home with a man and lost the man to the same jungle within which Rachel now slept. The man had died and, having met death and the strangeness that it carries, disappeared. Then, Rachel's sister did the same. Before she disappeared, Tabitha sent a letter to Augusta asking for help taking care of her daughter, a girl named Cathy who had been born dead. This was the grey-eyed girl from her dream: a girl she had never seen but thought about constantly.


Rachel had packed up her life to come to Cathy's aid. She did not have a concept of what she was getting into and had nearly died in the jungle on the way from Coburntown to Namirus. When she arrived in Namirus, she started to change. Over the course of a week, Rachel had become much bolder: she faced the town elder with bravado, demanding answers and gaining allies. She had struggled with a monster made of darkness and had emerged victorious--but the answers she received left her paralyzed. Rachel's sister was gone completely and had left Cathy alone. Cathy had been seen in the same jungle Rachel had fled.


In that jungle, two giant monsters waited. Their forms contorted in Rachel's mind, but the overall impression they had left on her was raw, quivering terror. Their claws could cut down swaths of vines and trees, clearing sections of terrain in seconds. Their intelligence could lead a human astray, leaving them vulnerable for the beasts to play with as they pleased. Their bodies were huge yet sinuous, weaving between trees but capable of snapping them like straw beneath their bulk. They were formidable.


And yet, Rachel was possibly more intimidated by the child. Cathy had managed to make the entire town of Namirus hostile towards her, to the point where they were actively planning to do something. Her mangled visage in Rachel's dream made no notion that the changes Rachel had been through would be enough to save her.


As Rachel looked into the trees and into the river, she realized that she could now, to a certain extent, see in the dark. Each light from town was like a lantern penetrating and revealing the dark. Each crack of light from the sky was as good as a fire in her hand. How is it that I can see so well? She wondered. Perhaps being out of a busy city and sleeping in the jungle had rewired some of her instincts. She started to feel her body, scanning for changes. She was still overweight, but it seemed to matter less. She could have the man sleeping next to her as a lover, if she chose, but it wasn't Gavin that made her feel sexy. It was herself, a new woman, confident in the body she owned. Underneath the skin, new instincts and developing muscles demanded her to take action. She liked these changes, but they felt a little too sudden to be natural.


It had been five days since Rachel defeated the thing inhabiting the village elder. Tomorrow, she would rescue Cathy. She only hoped that the girl was still alive.


*****


She waved goodbye to Gavin while wading across the river between Namirus and the jungle. Where she had once tumbled headlong towards the village, she now scrambled upward. Soft dirt slides accumulated under her feet. The ridge faded quickly into more even terrain and dense, damp darkness.


Immediately, her previous foolishness struck her in the face. She had needed to rely on the words of Rammon and Balas, the beasts she would soon face, while working her way towards Namirus. The sun was a better cardinal guide, as it always maintained a fixed position. She could see it penetrating the trees from the Northwest. The angle and direction would pivot around her as she headed west. If the sun was ever immediately north, then she would know that she had gone too far.


Thrilled as she was by this discovery, she knew that she remembered the jungle being so dark that she could detect no sun at all.  If no weather ever interrupted the light the sun provided, and the sun was guaranteed to stay in the same spot constantly (which it was, or it surely would have caused those fearful residents of Namirus something to cry about) then one or two things could have changed.


First, Rachel considered that her own eyesight had improved. She liked that notion.


Second, the jungle could have changed. Worse, it could be a dynamic, living entity, shuffling trees as it needed. Beckoning her. She did not like that idea.


As she progressed, sweeping longer vines aside with a blade borrowed from the village guard, she began to believe the second option was true. If it had merely been a difference in the trees, it would be unlikely that she could recognize it. There were hills in the jungle and clearings where none had previously existed. The change became extremely obvious when she hit the ravine.


A titanic rift in stone yawned before her. Barely audible, a river rushed below. The ravine crossed north to south, and she could almost see where it opened up to the sea. Were she unable to notice the trees thinning ahead, she may have stumbled headlong into the abyss. In either direction, there was no discernible route to cross to the other side, and heading into the ravine was extremely risky. Still, she could have sworn that she was farther in when she encountered the beasts. There is no way this was here last time. The whole world has changed.


Scanning the other side of the ravine with her eyes, she saw it. A tiny sandal was dangling from a tree branch. I am being baited, she thought. A chill started to run up her back, but she stomped her right foot and shook off the fear.


Halfway down the ravine, a short walk to the north, a thick tree root had grown out of the wall reaching most of the distance across. A seam opened in the rock on both sides of the ravine around the root. No other better option presented itself. Rachel decided to cross, using the seam to climb down.


After walking to the spot where the crack started, it looked a bit easier. Rachel climbed down by wedging her fists into the crack, turning them sideways so that they couldn't budge, and shoving a foot in below. It was a little like climbing down a ladder, except that her body was doing most of the work of making rungs. Halfway towards the root, however, Rachel began to deeply regret choosing to cross. The skin on her fists couldn't support such weight, and began to scrape away. Her shoulders and back took the brunt of the haul, and were fortunately used to manipulating large bags of bulk ingredients as a baker; in spite of this, her nerves began to tremble with the exertion.


When she reached the root, clinging to the sturdiest, thickest part, Rachel observed the high drop into the raging water below. If I slip, I will die. It was worse than anticipated--the root was not remotely rigid. Rachel did not think her muscles and hands could tolerate, a second time, the same abuse that she had just given them. The crack on the other side was even thinner. She would not be able to fully rotate her hand to wedge herself in place, using more of elbow joint this time, and would have to use her entire arm to haul her body upward. There really was no equivalent exercise in baking to help her prepare for that exertion. Furthermore, though the root brushed the far wall, there it was thin and frail.


As she moved towards the other side, she crouched lower and lower until at last, she was sitting on the root, firmly gripping it and sliding with her hands. It flexed too much, she slipped, and suddenly found herself dangling above the roaring river. Firmly gripping the tendril, she knew it would be folly to try to pull herself up again. One hand over another, she inched towards the crack on the other side while the root dragged further towards her death. She rocked back and forth, swinging her legs to swing the root around. When she could swing no farther and could reach the rock wall with her foot, she kicked her right leg into the crack and twisted it.


"Ahhh!" she screamed, the tension in her leg howling as muscles stretched to their limits. Now forming a bridge over the water, she quickly worked on a way to cross. She let go of the root with one hand, drew the sword out of its sheathe, and reached with that arm so that the sword was in the crack. It wasn't quite close enough to twist the sword for leverage, and stabbing the stone could loosen her footing. She let go of the root while using every ounce of strength in her leg to get close to the wall, forcing the blade deep inside and twisting it. Using it as a handle, she pulled herself up and began forcing an arm in again, sinking up to the elbow joint which cracked and grinded with the pull of gravity and the surface of rock it rubbed against. When she felt stable enough, she sheathed the blade and began to lift herself up the wall. Every inch of her body seethed with hot pain, and she screamed and hissed at the exertion.


Once she reached the top, she fell to her back. Sweat trickled out of every pore on her body. Her arms were mangled and mottled with dusty blood, and her muscles would not relax from the strain. Dizzy and exhausted, eyes wet with nervous tears, Rachel fainted. Her last thought before fainting was an inner grin. She felt satisfied. She had won.


*****


Pain woke her. Pain in her muscles, pain in her tattered forearms, pain in her right leg especially. When she could open her eyes, she noticed that she was not where she had been, and her body was wrapped with ropes and leaves in selective areas, without holding her down. Where am I?


She couldn't sit up and could barely turn her head. She was further into the jungle now, in an open clearing. She guessed that someone had grabbed her and moved her.


"You're awake," a small voice said.


Rachel forced herself to roll over, in the direction of the voice. It was a little girl, sitting in a white, mudstained dress on the base of a stone statue. Rachel could not discern what the purpose of the statue was. The girl had grey eyes and a worried expression.


"Cathy?" Rachel asked.


"That's me, Aunt Rachel."


"You know who I am?"


"You look a bit like my mother. I'm so happy to see you!" the girl said, although she made no attempt to rush forward and hug Rachel, a fact which made Rachel's throbbing body very relieved. "I tied healing leaves to you to help you feel better."


"How did you find me? How did I find you?" Rachel asked, feeling dizzy with the intensity of the pain.


"You were screaming. You were screaming a lot. I'm sure most everything in the jungle heard you," Cathy giggled. "When we heard you screaming, we came to get you."


"We? Who else is here?"


"Rammon and Balas. They took turns dragging you here." Her vision clearing further, Rachel could begin to see, sitting upright with their enormous tails tucked in front of their paws, glowering at her with imperious stares. Rammon sat a head higher than Balas, but Balas' sneer cut deeper.


Somehow, Rachel forced herself to her feet and unsheathed her sword.


"No, Aunt Rachel. No need for that," Cathy answered, hopping down and putting a tiny hand on Rachel's sword hilt.


"Young woman, you have come very far from your home to pick a fight. I would eat you were it not for the intervention of this child," Balas cautioned.


"Rachel, is it?" Rammon asked. Rachel slowly nodded, sweat running down her brow in spite of the coolness of the shade. "You have demonstrated outstanding bravery in the face of immeasurable odds. You are not strong enough to face us this day, but it matters not. You have passed every test required to receive our boon."


"Your boon? What do you mean?"


"We are cats. We are the embodiment of individuality and the satisfaction of the self. This is the Shrine of the Cat, and we are the Aspects of the Individual," Rammon explained.


"To us," Balas continued, "Evil is the hive mind, the witless audience given to the ideation of a leader, the sins committed by the group. When the fear of change stifles any discussion of true peace or comfort or the satisfaction of one's own goals, we quiver with rage."


"You have witnessed Namirus," Rammon added. "You have marched towards its corrupted heart and turned the town on its own head. You have destroyed what they took for balance and life satisfaction, and, so doing, discovered your own prowess. You have faced the challenge of reaching us with a finesse that only a cat could manage. Because of these things, there is no longer any need for us to question your worthiness. It falls to you to decide whether you wish to receive our gift."


Rachel had heard of cats before, in a book. Ever since the world had ended, fifty years ago, they were just another animal that had vanished in the disaster. The "cats" in front of her hardly fit the profile of what, she understood, people had once kept in houses as companions. She was glad that she didn't need to fight them, as she had no doubt in her mind that the beasts would have won. The statue behind Cathy depicted the two beasts curled against each other, contentedly asleep. That seems more like what I know about cats, Rachel thought.


"What is your gift?"


"Speed, a will to hunt and a conviction to see the hunt completed, and the ability to call us into being for aid at any time. We are a finite resource, but if you request our presences sparingly, you will see your ability to make use of us improve over time. Do you accept?"


"I have a question for you or Cathy before I accept," Rachel paused. "Do you know what has happened to my sister, Tabitha?"


Cathy looked down. It was a hard question for one her age, which was certainly no older than five.


Balas replied, "The young girl's mother was killed by one of the villagers in Namirus. No one you know of, and it hardly matters now that they are out of the influence of the village elder. This is why we guided you to Namirus in the first place, bestowing upon you a fraction of our gift to see you successful there. This is the true danger of a blinded society. This is the rat's nest that you plunged into and purged of vermin."


"My mother was poisoned," Cathy clarified. "After she died, she became scared. She wrote a letter and walked out looking for a courier, but no one was coming to Namirus. The next week, she started to change. She started staring towards the Northwest. She held the letter in her hand, crushing it."


Rachel was startled more by Cathy's tongue than by the words, although the meaning was haunting. Cathy spoke like an adult, just as that letter had indicated. The calm in her voice quivered, and Rachel sheathed her sword, slowly reaching out and embracing Cathy.


"My mother wrote a second note before leaving. I know I need to find her. Can you help me?" Cathy asked, giving Rachel a thin slip of paper.


It said:  Find me in the Silent City.


What could that mean? Rachel wondered.


"I accept your gift," she said to the Cat Aspects. They nodded, and it was done.


*****


When Rachel knocked on Ethan's apartment door in Coburntown to give him full ownership of her bakery, she found herself far more surprised than he. What features of his had actually ever struck her as appealing? He was a small, thin man with an angular face and conceited eyes. Before, she had fawned over his words while attempting to maintain a gruff managerial distance. Now, she understood, with the confidence she had earned and had been given by the Aspects, that he was just a person who used his lovers as a mask. It was all Rachel could do to drop the master key to the bakery in his hand. Parting with it to one who seemed so shallow to her now made her right eye twitch just a bit.


But that life was over. Rachel's new talents lent themselves towards a more independent lifestyle. The city no longer suited her. Neither did Namirus. Her future home was unknown, but her new destination was quite apparent. Rachel would find the Silent City and take back her sister.


Before heading north in the direction that Cathy had said her mother had looked, the only real clue that Rachel possessed, Rachel went to leave Cathy with Augusta, her own mother. As soon as they reached the doorstep, however, Cathy screamed.


"I see it, I see it!" Cathy shrieked.


"What's the matter?" Rachel asked, worried.


"My mother was here! She gave the letter to the woman inside by hand."


Rachel pounded on the door until Augusta answered. The old woman looked like a skeleton. Grief and worry for her last daughter had ravaged her face.


"Tell me, mother. Did you see my sister before you came and talked to me? Did you?" Rachel asked, anger seeping into her tone. Anger at the woman who had only recently been like a mother to her.


"Yes, I did. I'm sorry I didn't tell you," Augusta said, looking at Cathy and covering her gasping mouth with her hand in shock at the little girl's resemblance to her own daughter.


"Why didn't you?"


"She wasn't herself. I could tell that my daughter was gone. She was grinning madly and her eyes had no pupils and were looking all over very quickly. When I reached out to grab her, she spoke at me with a voice that was not her own. I was terrified!"


"What did she say?"


Augusta looked at Rachel with bewildered eyes. The old woman's face was pale. "She said 'The Old God comes, the Old God comes, the Old God comes.' Over and over again. I couldn't look at her, Rachel. That voice was not her. It was deep. It was a voice I've never heard from a human."


Rachel couldn't stomp away the chills creeping up her spine this time.


"What will you do now, Rachel?"


"I'm going to save my sister."

Feral

Aug. 18th, 2014 08:26 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

Asleep in the jungle, dense canopy almost filling that primordial need for darkness while sleeping, Rachel dreamed of a girl she had never met--a girl with gray eyes, brown skin, and curly hair in which a human could lose track of all light and sound.


She awoke to the smell of rotting fish and moldy wool. It was a stark contrast with the sweet aromas of flowers, fruits she had never before seen, and the moisture in the dirt, all of which had carried her to an unusually comfortable sleep the preceding night. Although she had heard a teeming world of insects and frogs at night, that morning there were no sounds except her own motions to quickly rise from rest, tugging the blankets and bedroll to her face just to avoid throwing up.

It was easy to forget that night and morning were effectively the same due to the immutable sun. Something had silenced the jungle. That something, as near as Rachel could guess, was the source of that wretched stench.


When she managed to stand up, the odor, or something emanating off of it, forced her eyes to water and her nose to burn. It was a sensation not unlike stumbling into a restaurant just as the chef was prepping a day's worth of chopped onions, except that this new scent made Rachel never want to eat again.


She dressed quickly, unable to see or breathe while exposed to that noxious stench.  Just as she finished pulling on trousers and a fresh shirt, she hazarded a glance towards the direction from which she perceived the odor to be travelling. There, a mountain of soggy fibers twice her height and many times that in width lay not twenty feet from where she had slept.


"What in the hell?" Rachel said through her blanket. Even though she was sure that it would be a few hours already before she could stomach the small breakfast of boiled egg and crusty bread that she had prepared, she decided to get closer to heap to investigate.


The fibers were longer than her arm and thicker than grass. Beyond the slick and sheen of some kind of mucous spread across and through the pile, each fiber was black or white with occasional stripes of brown and orange. Rachel could not fathom touching it to get a sense of the texture, as it was dripping a white fluid that looked and sounded sticky.


"Do you want to know who did this?" the jungle whispered. Rachel fell backwards from the surprise, twisting her ankle. Two eyes shined in the dark trees beyond the heap; the eyes had a vertical slit surrounded by brilliantly reflective , pale green irises.


I need to run, Rachel decided, grabbing all of her remaining belongings and sprinting away from the pile.


*****


It wasn't until later, hours after finally recovering from the stench of the fiber heap, that Rachel gave any ground to the idea that she should have stopped to talk to those green eyes in the trees. Her legs began to hurt from her flight. Her right ankle, in particular, was starting to turn purple from twisting and running.


The progress through the jungle was slow as well. Of her knives, the chef knife  had possessed the best cutting capability… when she had departed from Coburntown the previous day. Now, with various saps coating it from slicing through the jungle, the knife was about as dull as a butter knife. It required several attempts to cut the tougher vines in her path, and Rachel was becoming weary.


"Are you tired?" the jungle softly asked. Rachel stopped, slowly looking around while her skin urged her to continue walking. She couldn't see any eyes this time, but Rachel knew that she was being watched. Without knowing where the entity was and suffering from the last escape, Rachel decided to talk to the voice.


"Yes, I'm tired," she cautiously replied.


"The path is long. The overgrowth is thick. The jungle is dark. Why does a woman travel this way?"


"I'm sorry, but I don't feel like sharing that information with you."


"You don't know me, therefore you do not trust me," the voice responded. "Did you know that Rammon is stalking you? He means to make you his dinner."


Rachel tensed her muscles in expectation.


"Oh no, I'm not Rammon. I have no love of the hunt. If I wanted to eat you, I would simply eat you," the voice reacted.


Something is different here, Rachel thought. This voice sounds like a woman, while the voice this morning sounded like a man. "What does Rammon look like, so that I may know him?" Rachel asked.


Then, directly in front of her vegetation strewn path,  a pair of eyes began to shine. These eyes were blue, like the sky east of Coburntown and reptilian in shape. "You have seen Rammon already," the voice stated. "His eyes are green. He sat over you all night long, staring at your body with hunger until his stomach could no longer take it."


The pile, Rachel guessed. She felt lucky to have escaped so easily, even if it cost her a little pain. "Why didn't he just eat me?"


"Rammon likes to hunt. I would like to help you escape from him, if possible. Do you permit me to assist you?" the voice asked.


"Can you? Please?" Rachel remained suspicious, but the voice was offering her help and she would be a fool not to take it.


A quick gust of wind tugged through the forest, causing Rachel to wince involuntarily. When she opened her eyes, the path before her lay bare, severed vines scattered across the dirt for as far as she could see. "Hurry now. Move quickly or he'll catch you yet."


Rachel headed down the shredded vine passage with a slight itch of apprehension nagging at her mind. Her leg pained her greatly as she picked up her pace. Somewhere behind her, the barely audible sound of licking made her move a little faster.


*****


Scarcely an hour later, the jungle--darker than before--began to close around Rachel again. She had to reach into her pack and retrieve her second largest knife just to make a little more headway on the walls of foliage surrounding her.


"Foolish woman, where are you going?" asked a voice similar to the first one she had heard that morning. Rachel turned around to look behind her, and saw green eyes closing in on her trail. Firmly gripping her knife, she prepared to defend herself. "Why do you travel this way?"


"I was told that Rammon is chasing me. Rammon is going to eat me. I will fight if I must."


The trees began to quiver and then shake with a reverberating sound. Rachel realized that the creature was laughing. "I am Rammon. I am not here to eat you, child. You must have spoken to Balas."


"Is that the one with blue eyes?" Rachel asked.


"Yes, and a rather dangerous one. She will try to trick you, oh yes she will. This morning, I scared her off just before she could attack you. I must have upset her stomach in the process, as she left a terrible mess behind," the voice explained.

"She told me that you like to hunt your prey. And here you are, following me. Why should I trust you?"


"I am no hunter. Would a hunter take time to chat with a human? I would simply eat you if I needed a meal. Regardless, I dislike Balas too much to allow her even a meatless human such as yourself."


The last part of what Rammon said seemed particularly dubious--bakers were not often known for being thin, and Rachel knew she was no exception.  "What do you intend to do then?" Rachel asked.


"I will clear the way for you. Are you going to Namirus?"


"Yes, I am."


"Then you have been led astray. Namirus is almost directly behind you, at this point. Allow me." With less than a blink, the path behind Rachel was exposed again, veering away from the passage she had taken. This time, however, Rachel noticed trenches through the dirt and clay on the jungle floor. Three parallel marks existed where whatever had sliced the vines and also raked the ground.


"I am going. Please do not follow me again," Rachel warned.


"As you wish."


*****


Not one hour later, Rachel once again found herself entangled in vines. The beasts! In frustration, Rachel slashed harder than ever, desperately pushing the possibility of being eaten by one of the two stalkers from her mind.


"I will eat at least the body. You can have the head," a voice said.


Clearly, there wasn't much she could do to focus on clearing the path. Rachel knelt down to listen, rapidly deciding how to escape.


"Fool. I watched the prey, I redirected the prey. I gave the chase. You would have me skimp on the tasty bits just to satisfy your pride and age!" Balas retorted.


"Little Balas, the head is the sweetest part. All else is savory. Young ones such as yourself long for the savory, but old beasts such as I have no tooth for it," Rammon explained.


Rachel could see them through the thick of trees. The beasts circled each other, never blinking. Lizard-like eyes punctuated hairy bodies with long threads coming from around their noses, sticking out all directions. Both creatures were magnitudes larger than Rachel could possibly hope to handle with any tool she had available.  The smaller of the two beasts--Balas, Rachel presumed--had the same black and white fur mixed with orange patches that Rachel had seen in the morning. Rammon wore a deep black coat of fur accented by white patches.


"If you ate heads more often, maybe you would not have spent so long ogling my waste this morning. We could have caught this one hours ago, but you dawdled!" Balas screamed, drawing black lips back to reveal teeth that could shred Rachel in seconds.


Rammon made a sharp sound, like many knives scraping together. Rachel had to grip the legs of her trousers to avoid falling backwards into the leaves. "You'll take what I give you!" he roared, lifting one leg to swipe at Balas. Razors the size of Rachel's head whistled through the air, connecting with Balas' head with noisy thwack.


Balas simply shook her head, tucked her pointy ears back, and reared back as if she intended to leap on Rammon.


Rachel decided that she had seen enough and bolted in the other direction. Balas and Rammon began to crash through trees behind her, rolling on top of each other with force enough to collapse the canopy around their heads. I could die here without them even eating me, Rachel realized.


In spite of her aching ankle, Rachel found it remarkably easy to run for her life. Easy enough that she failed to notice a curly haired girl sitting gleefully on one of the downed jungle trees, clapping her hands while the two furry monstrosities wrestled over the body of a gigantic mantis. Rachel ran without hesitation and without looking back, until she no longer felt ground beneath her feet, tumbling wildly down a steep dirt cliff towards a river.


*****

Admittedly, Rachel had slept better. Her feet were shoeless and half submerged in fast moving, warm waters.


"Are you alright?" a blurry face inquired.


"Am I alive? I mean, did I die?" Rachel asked.


"I don't believe so."


"Did you rescue me?"


"Yes." The rescuer was a young man with straight black hair and compassionate eyes--or so Rachel thought. Her head was throbbing. "Welcome to Namirus," he beckoned, motioning to the huts and fences behind him.


"This is Namirus? I made it!" she cried.


"You actually wanted to come here?" he replied, aghast.


"Yes! I'm looking for a young woman, in her twenties. Her name is Tabitha. She lives here with her daughter Cathy. Have you seen them?" Rachel pried, grabbing on to the young man's sandy tunic.


"Does she have a husband?"


"Not apparently. Her husband, Thomsen, disappeared shortly after she came here five years ago."


"She never lived here, I can tell you that." The man crossed his arms.


"What?"


"We have no unmarried women living here except Amana, and she's far too old to have a five year old daughter."


Rachel was quickly becoming accustomed to misdirection. She knew his lie, and she withheld her reaction to observe further. This time, Rachel would be the stalker.


Even if she needed to stalk all of Namirus to find the family she sought.

"Mother"

Aug. 11th, 2014 09:27 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

Rachel loved the lighting most of all; a few lanterns cast a dim orange and yellow glow on oak tables, leather stools, the rims of pint glasses, and the man she loved. In one corner of the bar, barely audible beneath the roaring laughter of other friends from her bakery, a guitar player plucked out forgotten melodies while slapping the base of his guitar with the palm of his tree-bark wrinkled hand.


With a flick of her wrist, sore with mixing and kneading all day, Rachel signaled the bartender for another drink. Her body said "wine," but her eyes cried "stout!" Michael, of all people, knew to read her eyes. That message underneath the door


No, we are not thinking about that. Not now. Rachel glanced at Ethan. He must have seen her when she set the message down, since he was the one who opened the shop. Pretty Ethan. His dark brown hair and eyebrows seemed to dance around his gleaming brown eyes in this light. Yes, that's one more reason to like the lighting, Rachel thought, always one breath away from speaking it. Ethan was busily laughing and flirting with the new delivery girl. Idly, Rachel wondered whether Sarena--Sabrina?-- was even old enough
to be at a bar.


It was always like this. Rachel owned the shop, Ethan worked for her, and Ethan tried to sleep with every young woman coming through the door except for Rachel. He was amazingly charming, for certain, but so much of his calm, hazel-eyed, inquisitive demeanor was a cloak he threw around himself. He hates talking about himself. He's like me. Almost.


His behavior was different for her, possibly because she was older and less likely to get swept off her feet. Sometimes though, with the guitar strumming soft and subtle an hour before the bar closed, she would like for him to let her fall into his stare.


For now, it was enough to drink to a solid day off. The stout, bitter with an aroma of coffee beans, chilled Rachel's tired and rough hands. The sound of people casually chatting about their customers or their week or their products washed out other thoughts from Rachel's head. The guitar player was now strumming an upbeat melody while singing in a voice that sounded like water running through a rusty metal gutter.


And Rachel's mother stood in the doorway of the bar, with her hands stitched together behind her back, rigid backed and tall, staring straight at Rachel with the visage of a tombstone.


Rachel nearly spat her beer on the counter.


The note said, "We need to talk." A woman who cast their children into their fates--as if the children were certainly doomed and not one iota of assistance or care could possibly be given--wanted to "talk."


And now this woman could not be troubled to wait for her daughter to come to her. Her countenance in the bar was like  a prohibition of liquor personified. Dim light amplified the serenity and comfort of the hardwood floors or the frosted windows, but Augusta annihilated that radiance with sunken cheekbones and a perpetually livid brow. Rachel could not remember ever having seen her mother smile.


But even on the last day living in her mother's house--the day that Rachel had announced her plans to open a bakery and moved out with her head held high--even then she had not seen her mother so rigid and uninviting. This look-this is something else entirely.


Someone must have died.


*****


Outside, in the dusk of Coburntown, Augusta's gaze cut right through the folds of Rachel's cloak.


"Your sister is in trouble."


Tabitha? "What about it? I haven't seen Tabitha in six years," Rachel replied. Ever since you ran her out of the house with a broom because you caught her with that man. What was his name?


"Read this," Augusta curtly answered, snapping a letter from her pocket to give to Rachel.


Rachel unfolded it, noticing a slight shake in her mother's hand in giving it. She's old, Rachel thought. The letter, rough to the touch as if the parchment had been dragged through a puddle, told of a living child that was born dead, dangerous neighbors, diseases and pests, and begged for any possible assistance that could be given. At the end of the letter, Tabitha wrote "Did I die, at some point?"


"I'm confused. I thought Tabitha had a husband in Namirus," Rachel considered. "I never even knew that she was pregnant. She writes like  we should know these things."


"I did."


"And you never told me about it? You let your daughter, a young, foolish girl, raise a child in a damn jungle just because you carried a grudge towards her about her life choices?"


"Yes," Augusta replied.


"I cannot believe you. I could have helped! My sister might be dead now or missing, and her child could be in serious trouble, just because you couldn't over look your own pride for her-"


"Stop," Augusta snapped. "My pride is dead."


"Really? Because you are standing here glowering just as you always have. Not once have you ever been a mother! And now what? You came here to do what, exactly? Rub my helplessness in my face?"


"I have no one else if…" Augusta stuttered. "I have no one if…"


Red eyes and taut skin reminded Rachel how old her mother was. She was married and pregnant before the world had ended, and raised her daughters, without her father or any of her own family, to be something in a world made of hardship. The woman, who had seemed a strict and terrifying figure in her youth, had nonetheless enabled Rachel to pursue her own dreams.


Augusta began to cry. At first, she maintained the same grimacing expression Rachel had always known, while tears discreetly vanished quickly down her wrinkled face. Then, unable to hold it back any longer, that fearsome visage cracked and quivered, letting sobs come out in jolts. It was like watching a proud flower wilt for the first time. Augusta tried to throw her hands in front of her eyes as if to stop the flow of tears. Rachel moved closer and slowly wrapped her arms around her mother for the first time in many years.


Slightly gasping at the touch, Rachel felt Augusta's thinness. Her mother was gaunt. Rachel wondered how long she had been without eating, slowly piecing together her mother's need to talk to her.


"Rachel!" her mother wept into Rachel's shoulder, muffled by the fabric of the cloak. It was the first time
Rachel had ever heard that sound. "I need you! I need my daughters!"


As bony and cold as her mother was, Rachel wished that she could hold on to her forever.


*****


The next day, which would otherwise have been Rachel's only day off, Rachel packed up her bags, cautiously choosing clothing that seemed suitable for protection. Everything in one pack, everything needed to eat, and a few things that could be used to fight, if necessary--mostly Rachel's own set of knives.


There was no way to know for certain whether  Rachel could survive the jungle around Namirus--or Namirus itself for that matter--but she was determined to find her sister and her sister's daughter.


For her mother, for the child, and for a sister losing herself to death in a strange place, Rachel could grit her teeth and convince herself that being a baker could make one strong enough to rescue a loved one.


At the time, Rachel believed that this boldness was all that she had to offer her family.

It would not be enough.

Save Us

Aug. 3rd, 2014 10:09 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

To:                                                                                 From:

Augusta Fiennes                                                      Tabitha Fiennes

1539 April Street                                                      Namirus

Coburntown


Dear Mother,


My daughter was born dead. I wanted to let you know this before you met her.


You know as well as I do the kinds of things that can happen to a person if they die in this world. I was still so little when you grabbed me by the shoulders and told me to never die. You looked so afraid after I scraped my head on the table. You swear I can't remember that, but I promise that I can.


Cathy is alive, and she remembers everything. She has dark skin like her father, but grey eyes like me, only brighter and deeper, as if I could fall into them. Her hair gets so curly that we often lose things in it! She's five now.


I'm sorry! I know I should have written you sooner. I was so preoccupied being worried about her, watching for any possible changes.


So far, so strange. My little girl is not obsessed with death the way her father was just before he disappeared, but she certainly is not like other children her age. She speaks and learns like someone much older. She cautiously asks questions to confirm her own ideas of the world. She asked me, very calmly the other day, where her father went. I don't know, I said, without thinking twice. She understood, I think. I believe that she is already smarter than me, but I worry that it is because of her birth.


Do you remember when the king was poisoned? I know, I was just a child then, but I still remember the poisoner in his cage hung over the center of Coburntown. He was saying all kinds of things about the king, crazy lies. He had pale skin and livid eyes. I had nightmares about him for a week. Do you remember that he had died before? Cathy is nothing like him, but I sometimes wonder, looking at her gray eyes, what she knows.


Cathy knows if someone has died. She knows how many times someone has died, possibly better than that person knows. It's as if she's seeing a number over their heads when she looks at them. It's a very disturbing habit, but she will walk down the street and shout numbers at people.


Cathy is my entire world, mother, but I truly feel like I am no longer suited to protect her. My beautiful, smart girl needs to get out of this jungle.


The time has come for the two of you to meet. I need you to meet her. I need you to save us. Namirus is such a dangerous place now without Thomsen. Our neighbors do not like us very much because Cathy screamed the number five at the old woman in the hut next to us. The woman went wild, spitting curses from her window even though she hadn't spoken a word in half a month.


And the pests are getting worse. Roaches and rats are often in our bed sheets with us at night. They are becoming larger, over time, and we've heard that they carry diseases. They eat our food as well. On top of that, we've started to hear something clicking along the perimeter of our village. Something large and hidden is stalking our entire town.


Mother, I have no way to leave Namirus. The jungle is too dangerous and my daughter is too young. I know I left on bad terms. My intention was never to elope, for what it's worth. I loved Thomsen, and I wanted you to love him too. It's too late now. It might be too late for me, as well.


After I had gone to bed, Cathy came to my side last night and said "one," and she started to cry. Did I die at some point? Was I sick? I don't know, but I am horrified that I might leave my beautiful daughter alone here soon. I need help! Help me, please.


Forever your daughter,

Tabitha

The Runner

Jul. 21st, 2014 06:26 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

Deathless

"Nine-thirty one!"


She's gone. Really gone.


Mick counted his steps in the dust, always capturing that ideal one-second stride. Some strides were lengthier than others, if he needed to get over a sand dune but couldn't achieve it in the typical length.

"Always the same amount of time," the old man had said. "One second stride will maintain your pride. " Sure enough, the best way to keep time had always been counting it out loud. Mick shuddered to think of how a fraction less than a second-long stride, compounded over a twelve hour jog, could affect his time reports.


Twelve hours, give or take thirty minutes, put Mick back in Somatis. His route was simple but wonderful. Distracting.


Nine hours put Mick in the Dusts. Mirages of a black dot wavering in the distance reminded Mick of the powerful sun looming directly over his head- and the comfort of the night when he returned to Somatis.


"Nine-thirty two!"


She says she doesn’t know how often she dies anymore. How does she not know?


Mick marked the passing of a minute out loud when he was in wide open spaces. He had tried to do that in Kosric, and a shopkeeper who couldn't catch him (no one could catch him) threw a broom like a javelin at Mick's head.


It missed, but it made Mick consider that maybe saying the minutes out loud was a little disruptive to businesses. And this… this was an open space.


For miles in all directions, the ethereal quiet of a windless, sandy desert crept under Mick's skin. The orange silhouettes of Solace's mesas loomed ahead, promising a brief cool respite before the final stretch of dryness and dirt.


"Nine-thirty three!"


The blood pooled in the tile gaps on the bathroom floor like she was making a miniature irrigation system. How many hours had she laid there before he arrived?


Constant dryness eroded the senses in these parts of the world. Moving through the Wasteland and Vaust to the Dusts was exhausting. Definitely the worst part of the run. The first was a landscape so cracked and arid that Mick often drank half of his water before he was through it. Even leafless grey brush was scarce in the Northwestern part of the Wasteland.


The Dusts were simply blinding. Mick's bronze-hued skin suffered little  of the sunburn that other pale white runners complained about, but his eyes consistently saw doubles of Cair Mallus when he reached it. Two images of the Sea Tower danced beside the perpetually moving, yet slow Marshland waters.


Where did that water go? It must have fed back to the Mt. Aramis reservoir through underground springs. That must be it, Mick decided. Suddenly thirsty, Mick took another swig from his large canteen.


"Nine-thirty four!"


The fourth time she just laughed at the mess, smearing blood across tiles to make a checkerboard, razor at her side. Had she been waiting to show that to him?


The latticework of houses in Decalante. Was it latticework? Tan buildings with crisscrossing squares of brown wood. Compared to many other cities, Decalante was so ostentatious  that Mick felt a certain gratification that his travel through there was only about twenty minutes.


Mick was no architect, but he preferred the stark clay coated houses of Vaust. He could overlook the fact that Vaust always reeked of burning Ophelix for the brief respite it gave him from the Wasteland.


"Nine-thirty five!"


Laura needed a blanket every hour after being pulled from the icy waters. "It just chills through." The chills killed her first.


He met Laura mere weeks after starting as a runner. One of the older runners disappeared, and John, his boss, picked him off of the street.  Passing through Somatis, in a high window, a young woman with hair the color of the sands in the Dusts. He waved at her and nearly lost his count.


Precious seconds in his feet. Precious seconds in his stride. His boss then had demanded it. Now a new man was in charge; Mick maintained his rigorous counting and reporting even as the younger supervisor seemed uncertain in his duties.


"Nine-thirty six!"


She said "I'm starting to like it, Mickey." She never called him that. "I'm good at dying," she laughed with vacant eyes.


Precious moments he could have spent  warming her body with his under the blankets that had been keeping her alive until that night when they were simply not enough. She wasn't breathing when he found her icy fingers clutching the bottom of the closet door as if she had tried to open it with her last ounces of strength.


If one wish could return that first love… the woman gradually became like a stranger. Never again warm to the touch.


"Nine-thirty seven."


Athletic urgency howled through his freezing muscles as he dove into the cracked ice to pull her out. She simply wanted to wave goodbye. Why did she come out so far?


Roads changed. This was one of the first things that a runner learned, never pre-explained. There appeared to be about six permutations of a given road that could occur on a given trip. It was hard to explain, Mick thought, that one day the road may wind against the frosted pines all the way to Coburntown. The next day it may actually cross the ice lakes.


Out here in the Dusts, Mick could not perceive  the differences between trips. He knew that they were different paths, intuitively. All things under the sun were beginning to take on a piercing sameness. He glanced over his shoulder to see if he could still see Vaust, at least--get a visual marker of proximity.


"Nine-thirty eight."


She left the front door hanging open so that frost had crept into half of their house. No clothes were packed, no food taken, and it's been six days.


Shuffling behind him, a blackness that reflected no light, like a charcoal imprint on the white paper of the landscape. Red eyes burned inside of its head with no other discernible facial features. It was like a man and only twenty strides away. Probably about eight feet tall, with arms far longer than its upper body.


First, Mick thought, huh. That's strange, I've never seen that before. There were many strange creatures living in this tiny new world, many of which Mick had noticed, almost none of which had come this close to him. Second, Mick thought, how is this thing keeping up with me?


Most creatures, dangerous or otherwise, would not be capable of catching a runner or simply disinterested in doing so. Mick figured his standard pace to be roughly six minutes per mile.  This creature merely ambled, and it was still moving slightly faster than Mick.


Mick increased his pace. Never stop running.


"Nine-thirty nine!"


The feel of her smooth cheek in his hand while he stared into her green eyes. He looked the whole world over, and he still couldn't find her. She had started cutting herself in the hours without him--where is my love now?


Mick's foot caught on a small orange sandstone, and he tumbled down a dune, hot sand searing the sensitive skin in the middle of his back and behind his legs. Oh no, he thought. I'm dead.


But the creature simply stood at the top of the dune, not even nine strides away now. Was it mocking him? Grinning while its onyx body blocked the sunlight from falling on Mick?


"Damn you!" he cried. He had lost count! Too many thoughts, too much distraction fluttered through Mick's head.


He was suited for only two things in this world--being a loving boyfriend and being a runner. Now he couldn't do either.


Dragging himself to his feet, Mick tried to resume his stride, but his ankle was twisted. He took slow, small steps just to get the numbers right.


The creature also took small steps, slightly faster.


He pulled her out of the ice waters and carried her home and resumed running. Why didn't he stop for just one day? One day and she might still be alive!


The creature would be upon him in five more steps. Mick bent down, noticing that the creature had stopped moving  once again. He picked up a hefty piece of sandstone and lobbed it at the creature's head.


She is alive, though, Mick contradicted himself. She's just… different now.


The rock glanced off of the creature's face without making a sound. Mick slowly backed away while it closed the remaining distance between them.


She's gone! I'm gone.


In one movement, the onyx creature lifted Mick into the air by clutching his entire face in one outstretched hand. Something about the palm of the hand felt overly smooth but stone-like and wet.


Maybe now I'll know where she has gone. After I've died, I'll find her.


He felt surprisingly peaceful in his certainty of death--so much so that he almost didn't notice the faint smell of lavender emanating from the creature's skin. Huh, he thought, as a short, shearing sensation ripped the front of his skull and face from his head, leaving only a blank space for the body walker to crawl inside.





The Desert and the Dot

In the first minutes

it's just a dot

a pock mark on

your sun-stricken

vision or dust on the end

of your hat

beyond recognition

or concept but there

out there.


On the second glance

it's a slash on the horizon

dimly noticeable if you

squint, marked because it moves

when it should be

stationary, staying still

it should be

where were we?


On the third look

it's an idea,

a black idea, utterly dark

in a landscape of pure light

and sand a hell of

pure light and sand

a world of heat and

this black

thing?


On the fourth examination

it's a head,

and a body, and arms

and legs. Right away it's wrong

arms are much too long

head too oblong

you almost swear you see

something deep within

glistening red-

no listen, I swear
it
is red.


In the last hour

it's doom, a being of purest

night walking through the sun

itself reflected on the sand

leaving no shadow behind

you know it's coming

it's coming

it's coming for you

soon you will know the shape

but now, a red eye just

watches you, though you never see it

until the end.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)
"There are only three rules you need to know," the Aspect of Time whispered in the dark hours of the morning before Simon headed to work.

"Yes?"

"First, controlling time takes a great deal of mental energy. The more you use it, the more you will be capable of doing."

"I will prepare myself," Simon spoke confidently. He had, after all, won every legal case he had ever come across, even though John Dramery had likely played a hand in each of them.

"Second, although you can selectively advance the aging of a thing through acute time dilation, you cannot travel forward in time."

"Why is that?"

"There is a block. Something is preventing the future from happening. I know what that something is, but I will not be sharing that information with you."

"Then why bother mentioning it?"

"I had this same conversation with John many years ago. It's important information. That is all."

"Wait, what about the third rule?" Simon asked.

"Oh yes. If you carry yourself backwards in time, you will not be able to return to your own timeline. When John rescued himself from his own childhood, making you in the process, he did it knowing full well that his original life had ended. It was a new start, but the world he left carried on into… whatever the future had in store. I do not recommend doing that."

There was much to lose, Simon understood. If he traveled backwards in time, Sarah and Merrick would remain in this time frame in that dark warehouse. Also, Simon quickly discovered that Time was not bluffing when he talked about time control causing exhaustion. Tiredness, nausea, migraines, and, perhaps most dangerously, a general lack of concern about social interaction--all of these accompanied Simon's early exploration of his newfound power.

It was all he could do, in the beginning, to reverse a dull pencil back into being a sharp pencil. Later, he played with paper, folding it into complex shapes and then unfolding it with time magic, refolding it again with a surge of power.

It was then that he began to see the ripples. Undulating screens of energy flowed across objects that had been time-manipulated. What is that blurry film over everything? Simon was confused until he saw it on his pencil.

From then on, Simon only practiced time magic on objects that had already been manipulated--he was meticulous about leaving that wavy resonance on something that did not already have it for fear that John Dramery could discover his secret.

It wasn't hard to find things that he could play with--almost every building or structure in Somatis had that ripple of energy around it. The amount of mental energy that would have been used to do this had seemed limitless at the time. John built this city, Simon realized with a shudder, so why does he need me, a younger and more naïve version of himself?

He was determined to have an answer and a resolution. All he needed was the pocket watch where the Aspect of Time was trapped, and then Time would do the rest.

He plotted and planned, knowing full well that someone awaited him in a dark warehouse beneath one corner of the city, blood-shot eyes, screaming hoarsely to no one at all, clutching her stomach.

*****

Three months later, Simon waited at the non-functional fountain where the town screamers had all departed moments before, frost at its highest point, signifying midnight. It dark as any other time of the day, though it seemed colder than possible. The tension of this, the final showdown, had been building like an additional layer of frost over Simon's wool coat. The end was quickly approaching.

He had mastered every trick that he had seen John use. He had even transformed a child into a monkey by reversing the evolutionary process--the history of species genetics was an abstract concept for his powers, but, he discovered, as long as the concept was related to time, he could usually achieve it. He had found himself exhausted from the effort, needing to keep the child-monkey in a cage for half of a day just to get up the energy to change the child back.

He was proficient enough now to have developed a trick of his own. In minutes, the world would change, bringing John face-to-face with Simon with no energy to fight further.

The Aspect of Time lingered in his ear. "Remember Simon. You need to retrieve that pocket watch. We cannot eliminate John as a threat until you hold that watch in your hand. As soon as you touch it, this will all be over. You will retain your ability to manipulate time as a parting gift."

It was then that Simon's explosions began. Spherical bursts of time reversal erupted in different intensities all across town. Buildings were reduced to the grass and trees that had once existed before industry had cleared them away. Cobblestone streets and lamp posts vanished as if someone had simply washed them out of a barely stained fabric. It twisted Simon's gut to do it this way, watching places he knew and loved reduced to nothing, but John had designed all of that for a purpose. Simon was the chaos to John's order.

Time bombs. Two time setups worked into one. The first step designated a particular area to reverse in localized history, the second step set a time for the first step to trigger. They were completely invisible to even the trained eye until Simon began to target buildings that had not been time manipulated, which were few and far between.

Simon knew that if John cared enough to build this town the way he saw fit, he would run around frantically fixing all the structures before finally meeting Simon, too exhausted to spar with what little energy he had left.

Simon was wrong.

When the only existing structure left of Somatis was the fountain on which Simon sat, John appeared. He was wearing that familiar black suit, complete with pocket watch, but his face was purple with rage.

"You damn child! What have you done?" he howled at Simon, walking murderously towards him.

"I could ask the same of you, old man! Why me?" Simon replied, preparing himself to freeze John in his place.

Too slow. John grabbed Simon's shirt by the collar and began quickly striking his face with his fist. Sending a spray of blood out of Simon's mouth, he hurled Simon to the frost covered pavement. John openly wept, an emotion Simon never thought he would see.

"I spent years preparing that town for you. I gave you a new destiny, Simon, I gave you a new lease on life. I made Somatis a place that could weather the coming storm, while you, churl, destroyed every beautiful thing I had in this world."

"What about the homeless then? Those people that you worked to be rid of, using me for so long."

"You don't know anything, Simon Randalph. Although, I guess since we're at this point you know your true name. My name. I will continue calling you Simon though, because I do not wish to be associated with fools," John Dramery spat.

John walked to Simon's side and placed his foot firmly on Simon's cheek. "I knew you would come to know Time's gift. I had every plan of giving it to you, in the hopes that a man who had been raised to be less power-hungry than myself would be able to use it gently. You wrecked my home, twisting the lives of thousands of citizens, obliterating our chances of survival!"

"I don't understand. What survival?"

"I don't have to answer that question. Neither you nor I have the capacity to fix the damage you've wreaked. You did this to ensure that I would not be able  to fight you. I haven't had more than a sliver of energy ever since I travelled back in time to make you! I can't fix this!" John screamed, sobbing for a second before tensing his fists. "And now, I'm going to use what little I have left to finish you, just as I finished your bratty friends in that warehouse."

John lifted an arm and pointed a finger at Simon's chest, aiming at his heart. Suddenly, another time eruption engulfed them both, dragging them backwards through the motions they had just before, both fully aware of the switch. Now they were standing upright as they had been, moments before John began punching Simon.

Now Simon froze John from the shoulders down by creating a time rift at the base of John's neck where the spine began to branch off into other body parts, utterly preventing most nerve impulses from communicating with John's brain. Before John could collapse completely, Simon grabbed his shoulders and pivoted him so that that John sat on the fountain.

"John Dramery, before I turn you over to the Aspect of Time, I want you to clarify what your goals have been. Realize that I am more proficient in time manipulation than you--you made me like this, encouraging my victories--and if you are not cooperative, then I will use my abilities to make life uncomfortable for you. Is this clear?"

"You are a monster, Simon," John croaked, "but you have me where you want me. If you expend your remaining energy undoing some of the damage you have done to this city, then I will tell you some of what I know."

"I don't need to use up my energy on this. I already did that several weeks ago in preparation for today."

"What?" John asked, confusion and concern crawling through his rough voice.

A third burst of time eruptions began, creating rifts all across the icy forest that had once been town. In mere seconds, the ripples of energy ceased, leaving the city just as it had been before John had approached Simon.

"My faith is restored," John said, no longer holding back tears. John truly cared about Somatis, in spite of everything, but Simon would not forget what John had done to Sarah and Merrick no matter how much John cried.

"Did you really think I would destroy my own house just to have a confrontation with you?" Simon snorted. "I like where I live. I like my town. But I am through with being your puppet in this world. Tell me your secrets now, before I let Time deal with you."

"Very well," John stated, clearing his throat as best he could. "I returned to rescue you from my poor childhood because the world I had been living in was doomed. Know well, child. When the clouds begin to form west of Coburntown, you and everyone else in this world will have only twenty hours to carve out an existence before absolutely everything perishes."

"Can you give me a guess as to when this ending will start?" Simon asked.

"Probably less than a year," John replied.

Simon found that he was gripping the sleeves of his wool coat as if to brace himself against the end of the world. "How does it end?"

"I can't tell you for sure. When I made the decision to travel back in time, I did so while a brilliant red beam of fire sliced through our city. Buildings tumbled to the ground, and the people who were touched by it were simply incinerated. I could tell, instinctively, that as free of death as we have been, this is the end."

"Then why me? Why take yourself out of your own history, make yourself into a lawyer, raise yourself as if the younger version of you was your own son? That seems needlessly complicated."

"My experiences made me determined, strong, but not strong enough, not social enough to find a way to stop this tragedy. When I travelled back to my childhood, I found myself utterly depleted of energy- it took all that I had in me, for example, to work the magic you witnessed in the warehouse," John confessed.

"As soon as I'm finished with you, I will go fix that," Simon sharply remarked.

"No need," John said waving him off. "I reverted them back to their ordinary forms less than an hour after I showed you my capabilities. I gave you people that you needed to protect to bring you to this point, a mastery over Time power and the decency of a pure heart to go with it. I just wasn't expecting you to shock me like--"

"--then where are they now? Why haven't I seen them?"  Simon angrily interrupted.

John closed his eyes momentarily. When he opened them again, he seemed apologetic. "Simon, do you know what happens to someone who dies in this world?"

"They just keep living."

"Right, though it takes a toll on their minds. The homeless people were just red herrings to confuse you as to my intent while I gave you a goal to develop time control abilities. I had transformed them into monkeys, and they did not die in the process, and so they moved comfortably into the empty houses I had designed for them." Simon recalled the lightless streets on that night when Sarah drove him, in a wheelbarrow, to talk about John Dramery, the arbiter, with Merrick.

"What about Merrick and Sarah?" Simon asked in a hushed tone.

"They died, Simon. They died many times in rapid succession. I made a terrible mistake in dealing with them," John sighed. "I tampered with things that caused them incredible pain. For that alone, I deserve whatever fate the Aspect of Time wishes to put upon me."

"What happened to them?!" Simon hissed.

"We kept them in the basement of our office for a few weeks. They would often face the cement wall in the dark of the basement, standing upright for hours, grinning at nothing at all. Always the same cement wall, always the same facial expression. They never spoke, never ate. They often slept together, with their eyes fully open in the dark. One day they vanished, leaving only this note behind. Your name is on the envelope, Simon, so I didn't bother to take a look." John gestured with his head downwards to one of his suit pockets. "Grab it when you reach for my pocket watch. You will not see them again- they were beyond repair. Simon, I'm so sorry."

"You're right. You deserve what you will be given. Are you ready then, John Dramery?" Simon asked through a grimace.

"Almost. Listen, Simon. No matter what your friends meant to you, do not allow yourself to forget what I told you. You must seek out the man named Schism. Tell him about the twenty hour countdown. He will be one of the first ones to see those storm clouds west of Coburntown. He needs to know so that he can prepare the one who will save us all. Don't forget!"

Reaching into John's coat, Simon grabbed the letter with his name on it and the pocket watch. He flicked open the cover of the watch and Time spoke.

"Smash the watch against the ground to release me, so that I may deal with this man." For a moment, Simon almost let John go, ignoring the Aspect of Time. He overcame his hesitation, grinding the pocket watch against the cobblestone with his heel.

A wisp of motion flicked across Simon's vision. Suddenly, the world just a foot away from Simon looked considerably different. John was now lying, still paralyzed, in a pile of ashen dirt under a red sky, barren wasteland stretching out as far as the eye could see. There was light there, but it was fire. Fire ringing the horizon, just as it had--Simon could barely remember--when the world had ended. In the distance, towards where Mt. Aramis would have been were it not leveled enveloped in a cloud of swirling dust, an enormous bloodshot eye watched from the clouds. Flicking back and forth, looking for something.

Just as it noticed John and Simon, the gate closed, leaving Simon fully standing in Somatis next to the fountain, in the cold dark once more. Simon knew in his gut that he had just witnessed the "block" that the Aspect of Time had mentioned, preventing a man from travelling into the future. The future's end. One year off. Simon shuddered.

He decided to open the letter from Sarah and Merrick- maybe he could find some clue about their whereabouts, try reversing the flow of time within their heads so that they could find sanity once more.

But when he read those six words, he truly felt like his friends were gone forever; lost in deathlessness.

Find us in the silent city.
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

At night, Simon sleeplessly twisted his bed sheets around his thighs as if trying to stop the bleeding from a severed limb. Awake, head dangling from the side of the mattress, smooth silk sheets comfortably strangling his consciousness, Simon thought of the warehouse. Pitch black, for certain, with ceiling lights run out of power and cold without the flow of warm bodies. 


Except for two contorting figures on the cold cement floor, in the dark. Merrick, with his head shrunken to a baby's size, frantically rasping for air while his fingers and legs splay out against the rough floor.


Sarah with no stomach. Sarah with bloodshot eyes and a purple face, sobbing and retching against bodily organs that were never designed to be separated without causing death. Sarah clutching the immense curve from the base of her rib cage to her torso. Beating the floor furiously with her wrists as if it could give back what it had taken. Or fading into exhaustion with lack of food and dehydration and sleeplessness and hyperventilation, but not sleeping-- weeping and screaming and tearing out hair.


It had been two weeks since John Dramery had destroyed (but not killed) the only two people that Simon could say he really knew. No one else in his life, not even the parents who had abandoned him as a child, could be sought to provide a true statement because Dramery, Simon had learned, could control a man's destiny and every imaginable experience along with it.


The ability to suspend a person in a near-death state was not unique to John. However, in all other cases, people would quickly recover after being critically injured, as if the need to live was a magical healing force.


What John had done could not be fixed. In his gut, Simon knew that Merrick and Sarah were alive down there. Alive and quickly losing whatever had made them human. The body and the mind were not built to withstand extreme sustained trauma like that, Simon thought to himself.


And tried, as atonement, to stay awake and remember them. "As if that could ever fix the fact that I am an utter coward," Simon whispered to himself in the dark.


*****

In the day, Simon went to work, as he had before. Except now, his "partner" was supervising him directly.


Working directly under John for the first time in a few years was a nightmare for several reasons. First, because Simon now was keenly aware that John could destroy him in seconds should he choose to. That soured the work relationship a little. Second, because Simon still didn't entirely know how it was that John, being godlike in capabilities, needed Simon to do anything for him.


In the office, John Dramery carried himself with stately reverence for the world of books and laws and codes. He wore black suits accented only by a white, button-up shirt collar and the chain of a bronze pocket watch that ran across his stomach and into a vest pocket. Minimal show for a man who would sometimes frown, with no fewer than four forehead creases, at a whole day of Simon's work, handwritten legal briefs and court proceedings strewn across Simon's desk, only to lean close, letting Simon see his immaculately clean shaven grin just barely part his lips. John would flick one finger at the work Simon had done all day--paper would turn into soggy pulp on Simon's desk, and the ink, so meticulously written down, would bleed into the wood, staining it with black and blue flecks even after Simon had a chance to mop up the paper.


He wants to remind me, Simon realized, looking away from Dramery's unbroken shadowed grin. He wants me to remember that I am his puppet.


"Do you know what Somatis' chief export is, Simon?" Dramery asked one morning, in an unusually cheery voice that crackled with his apparent age. Simon never asked how old John was, though. He didn't dare.


"I never really thought about it, sir."


"Let me show you." Dramery bade Simon to follow him. Together, they walked through the snowy streets of the Juris District towards the central plaza. There, in the wide cobblestone courtyard, adorned with a fountain that never operated due to frost and perpetual darkness, one man labored while eleven men watched.


One man dragged what looked to be a wide, thin hoe across the ground, leveling a large square area a few feet away from the fountain. It must have taken him seconds to clear it, and the space was immaculately free of frost buildup when he was finished. At the perimeter of this area, there were ridges of built up ice from the clearing procedure--Simon guessed that leaving the ridgeline was important.


"They clear that ridge once a week," John stated, following Simon's gaze. Simon noticed another square area on the other side of the fountain, but John  leaned forward and whispered, "Watch the worker."


As soon as he was finished, the worker laid down twelve radiantly steel cylinders of varying heights, the smallest of these being nearly as flat as the blade of the hoe. They were set roughly a foot apart from smallest to largest. Standing upright, the clearer lifted a gloved hand and pointed it at one of the men watching, sitting on an icy bench. With a sweep of the arm, he gestured to the largest piece. The men-in-waiting immediately stood up and formed a line with the man who was gestured to standing on the end.


There seemed to be a little indecision, some men swapping order with each other. The cleaner stepped out of the square and joined their line-up, somewhere around fifth from the man he had pointed at.


"I let them decide," John inputted, "which order they could work in. The man who cleans gets to choose who will be the next cleaner. Which is, incidentally, the last and largest piece. They treasure this, Simon; the only shred of autonomy that they possess besides the veneer of free time that they can elect to get by finishing their jobs as quickly as possible. They cling to it as if it were a form of clothing. Although, I suppose that it does define when it is that they have free time."


"I don't understand," Simon said, a little quiver in his voice for fear of being thought incompetent.


"It's time!" John laughed.


"Time for what?"


"Time for time! Frost builds here at a standard rate. In fact, it is the only thing in our world right now that has a standard anything. Everything is either a zero, as in zero movement from the sun and zero weather pattern shifts, or a variable, as in how long it takes you to regenerate a severed limb in different climates!"


"Frost build-up is standard?"


"Yes. And each of those steel cylinders is precisely one hour apart in terms of frost height. At the very moment that one of those cylinders becomes no more shiny or distinguishable than the snow surrounding it, you will see one of these waiting men take off running."


"Where is he going?"


"Everywhere. He will visit every known city in the world in a given sequence, loudly scream the current time, and then run back here."


"How does he keep it consistent though?" asked Simon, thinking about the "Town-Screamers" as they were often called on the street.


"There are several ways," John Dramery beamed. "First, almost everyone throughout the whole world now possesses an intuitive sense of time, because they only see 24 runners in a given day. If they want to determine what the time is between runners, they extrapolate from personal perceptions to come to a proper conclusion. They do that internally until they become good at it. If a runner is not on time, they let me know, and I discipline that runner amazingly harshly.


"Second, the runners count to themselves. They count with a standardized stride equal to one second per step. They count until they return here after roughly twelve hours of running. A second time court will be cleared with twelve new runners waiting on it, to clarify, approximately twelve hours from now, less the time we've spent talking about this. The runners have twelve hours to rest and eat before starting their next run.


"Delays are not a problem, because runners do not need to always report the same minute of every day relative to each city, but losing track of your time is the same thing as forfeiting your job. I make life very comfortable for the families of these men, however, so they, who knew no other background besides physical exertion and construction, have a lucrative and socially meaningful role to fulfill. We export time itself to other cities, Simon."


"Are the runners happy?" Simon blurted.


"Runner," Dramery said, walking up to one of the men-in-waiting that yet lingered in the plaza- the man who had been gestured as the first to run by dint of having the shortest steel cylinder, "Are you unhappy?"

"No, sir, just tired," the worker said in a conciliatory tone.


"Would you rather I give this job to someone else?"


"No, please sir, I beg you. Let me be your runner."


"Very well. Carry on your good work," John said, clapping the man on his shoulder. Simon began to feel  very uncomfortable, like a hostage being forced to wear his captor's clothes might feel. John wasn't synchronizing with the man who had, two weeks before, used strange and terrible magic to bring two powerfully willed people to their knees.


"I designed this system," John said, interrupting Simon's thoughts. He withdrew his pocket watch from his vest and opened the cover. "I watched frost form on the cover of the face of my clock while I counted the seconds, realizing that-"

Just as he showed Simon the clock face, Simon heard a howling in his head. It utterly blocked out John's explanation, filling Simon with a palpable fear that he could be missing out on something important. Simon tried very hard to keep a straight face and not let on that something was happening, completely disregarding the noise as an oddity.


"Bearer of the time, I plead you--" a disjoined voice roared gutturally .


"--were you listening, boy? Did you hear me?" John asked, with a cutting edge in his voice.


"Yes," was all Simon could say as they headed back to the office.


*****


The howling died down as Simon got farther away from John Dramery. Simon treasured the moments, for the remainder of that day, that John worked within his own office. Even so, Simon could still faintly hear it.


Later that night, after falling asleep from exhaustion due to several nights lying awake, thinking of Sarah and Merrick, Simon awoke to the sound. Smooth this time, but clearer and less piercing than before.


It was the sound of the gears of a clock ticking.


"Bearer of the time, I plead you, release me from the prison in which you have placed me!" cried a man's voice. Simon knew intuitively that the sound was not emanating from anywhere besides the inside of his own head.


Tentatively, Simon replied, saying, "I don't know what you're talking about or who you are. Please explain."


"Then know, bearer, that I am the Aspect of Time. To me, evil is a blind unawareness of time's passage while labors, relationships, and dreams vanish into a sea of unproductivity. You conquered me by mastering my secrets and using them to inform, through the lives of those scattered throughout this new world, man's progress."


"I did that?"


"Yes. And now you have me bound within that bronze watch which you wear on your torso. Unbind me so that I bestow judgment upon you for the following crimes!" the voice cried.


"I'm listening," Simon dryly replied.


"You manipulate time to bring stagnation. You have used time to prevent alternatives from ever existing, essentially replaying the same day for most people in your society ad infinitum. Moreover, you have used time to physically inflict pain upon others. This is not an appropriate use of time's agency and, should I be released, I will strip you of your right to use my powers to these ends."


Simon began to understand the source of John's godlike powers, but he was confused on the point of having a conversation with an Aspect, bound to a pocket watch, that was somehow communicating with him while at home.


"My name is Simon," he said to the voice inside his own head.


"No. You are gravely mistaken and have been for your entire life."


"What do you mean?"


"Your name is John Dramery." The Aspect paused for effect, and Simon tried to rub from his eyes the idea he had just heard. "John Dramery and you are the same person divided by two different upbringings as children."


"I'm trying, but I still don't follow."


"John lived first. He outlived his father and traveled to Somatis. He earned through hard work, dedication, and no small amount of time magic, with which you Simon-John are now amply familiar, a life for himself in this firm. It was then that he decided to break situational causality for his own life in half."


"I don't know what that means!"


"He went back in his own personal history, back moments after the calamity that ended the world. He saved your life, which was originally his life, from the desolation that he experienced living with his father as a child. Foolishly, he believed he could retroactively break free from his own tragedy. Instead, he created you, a plucky, timid reminder that children are what their parents make them. Do you recollect his rearing of you?"


"Vaguely," Simon said, becoming dizzy with the information he was being given. Dizzy even while lying down.


"Think upon it," the Aspect commanded. "You are John Dramery. Today, for the first time ever, you learned his secret to keeping time, and you witnessed the tool he once used to do it.  You are now no less culpable in my imprisonment and deliberate mishandling than he. The only difference is that I will aid you if you promise to free me. I will bestow upon you the gift to manipulate time. Do you accept?"


Simon considered the bed sheets sharply twisting around his thighs, cutting off blood flow. Simon thought of what John managed to do with his own powers, reversing Sarah's bodily development in the localized area of her stomach to leave her utterly without one. If I had help, I could reverse the circumstances of my friends, minds and bodies both, so that they could be whole again, he thought.


"Do you accept?" the Aspect asked once more.


Gritting his teeth against the unknown, Simon firmly nodded.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

His father was an investment banker before the world ended. Somehow the Rapture, as his father had so often referred to it before it had happened, looked a little less rapturous as their estate crumbled away from the wave sliced end of the world into an ocean filled with fire while the man knelt on the cliff edge shaking his fists at a god made of money.

Somehow self-reliance and bootstrap philosophy tumbled headlong into the gaping maw of a brutal new reality as constant darkness conjured by the chilling specter of Mt. Aramis cast frostbite into every limb, maiming a man who was once taller and prouder than his own reflection.

Somehow that one hand that crushed a child to the ground could be filled with roiling hatred at watching one more meal dart away into the snowy underbrush after a bungled trap--one hand filled with blood, pumped through a heart so sad that he gave it up and leapt into the fearsome crushing waves where their house had once existed.

And John Dramery watched this. And John Dramery laughed later, at the majestic fish his father had been, washed ashore only to beg for the solace of water again.  And John Dramery meditated on the concept of a clockmaker god, and the golden haired nightmare that swallowed his father in the deeper waters near the horizon, and his father's pocket watch, frozen but otherwise undamaged by the new world and its challenges.

He watched the second hand, counting the seconds that were not ticking away out loud, staring at it for hours before going to sleep each night. He stared at it for months, perhaps. He stared at it until he invented time. Dusty brown eyes under black hair and so young to have invented something that everyone had once carried on their wrists and in their coats. Scarcely a bed sheet to wrap around his emaciated body which bore the secret to counting days, counting years in a world with no weather patterns and no movement from the sun. Rotten teeth and dried tears adorning one who had become that clockmaker god made flesh.

"Father was a fool," John had stated with finality, his first hushed words to himself. Setting off for civilization, John bid his time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to steal Somatis and make it his own.

*****

It was just past midnight when the remainder of the despairing and destitute had vacated from their tent communities underneath Somatis and moved elsewhere for a chance to stay safe. Simon was eyeing his bedroll, a spare brought in by Merrick, laid out on the vast floor of the underground concrete warehouse. Part of the deal in agreeing to cooperate with Sarah and Merrick was looking out for those less fortunate than himself.


Although it certainly seemed hazardous to make an outward showing of support for something that a nearly omnipresent force desired gone. Sarah had not specified what exactly it was that she believed Simon could do. Simon tried to rationalize her actions in his head. He was a lawyer--an amazingly good lawyer by his own concept, apparently twisted by whatever it was that tidied the streets and minds of Somatis and defied further scrutiny.

There were few peers on the surface to fill Simon's shoes in the courts. Simon started to get queasy considering this: If an unseen force wants me to propel judgments that uphold the law, then the law itself cannot support itself without the existence of that force. Whoever or whatever it is, the arbiter has a vested interest in my cases. Something I'm doing is important to it.

What happens when I change? Simon wondered. The warehouse suddenly felt inexplicably colder than the outside air.

Sarah and Merrick laid their bedrolls side-by-side. Simon had discerned that the kiss they had shared earlier was not a mere sign of affection. He thought Sarah was pretty in a rugged, daring way, but she had clubbed him in the back of the head not seven hours ago; that was more than enough to put aside any lonely thoughts that may have crept through his head on a better day. The pain and dizziness had subsided, though, and Merrick had been particularly hospitable, offering him bread and soup as a condolence for the interruption of… everything.

He was lonely, though. As usual, party of two, he thought. People pair up. He had never paired up before, though he was fairly young for his profession. In a solemn, subtle voice deep within his head, he started to wonder whether this arbiter could have actively prevented him from having relationships as well.

Sarah and Merrick were crawling into their bedrolls, shivering as exposed bits of skin touched the cold fabric. "When you are ready to sleep, Simon, would you mind switching the lantern off?" Sarah asked.

"Sure," Simon replied.

He stood, looking at the expanse of the room, wondering where all of those people could have gone. Even the existence of this chamber would have to have been known about. Why does the arbiter only choose certain parts of the city to observe? He wondered. He looked at the dim outlines of the paper buildings some twenty yards away, red buildings gone black to the darkness of their only lantern, mounted on a post between their beds.

Suddenly, the buildings were even darker. Most of the room plunged into pitch black before Simon's eyes adjusted. Under the lantern, garbed in a broad cloak, soaking up the light, stood the silhouette of a watcher. At first Simon thought, the arbiter! Then, calming himself, he realized that it was just Merrick  with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders.

It was Merrick until it flicked a hand towards the ceiling. There was light. The room lit up just as it had hours ago, ceiling beams blindingly illuminating the floor. Impossible, Simon thought, having watched a young boy crawl along the iron grid that the lights were suspended from, plucking each one down until there were none left on. In fact, the boy had accidentally dropped one in the corner of the room, shattering it all over the floor. That one was reattached and also lit. The shards of glass that had been abandoned on the floor were gone.

And so was the arbiter. Merrick and Susan were standing up now, shrugging off their bedrolls and blankets as quickly as possible.

"What in the hell is happening?" Susan cried.

"He's here." Merrick solemnly whispered.

Simon blinked and an old man was standing less than a foot from him, staring directly into his eyes. The old man's brown eyes and slender frame punctuated a broad, almost warming smile. Something distinct and strange crept under the surface of these wrinkles, however, as if his skin couldn't decide how old it wanted to be, shifting faster than distinguishable.

"Hello, Simon," said John Dramery, the man who had given Simon every privilege at the firm, leaving him to run it as a partner while he began residency as a Justiciar.

Simon almost shook his hand before feeling how sweaty his own palms were.

"Who are you, John Dramery?" Merrick demanded through grimly clenched teeth.

"I am god, Merrick Perlman. I run Somatis and therefore run the world. What are you, Merrick Perlman?" John tersely replied.

"I suppose I am a servant, if unwilling," Merrick said.

"I suppose you are an ant." John turned his head towards Merrick, outstretched one arm pointing a finger at Merrick's head.

Soundlessly, Merrick distorted. His facial skin became rapidly more defined, jawline jutting out and taut lines that had once only shown during a smile becoming apparent even as, in fear and possibly pain, Merrick reached up to try to grab his face as if to stop the alterations. His hands jerked away as his hair began to fall in clumps, his eyes growing thick pouches of skin underneath them and large pock marks forming on his neck as the lumps around his throat jumped out. At first, Merrick's eyes seemed to bulge, but eventually they stopped, sinking into Merrick's head. All of the skin on Merrick's face seemed like wet paper stuck to a skull. Yet, his head continued to shrink. Merrick slumped forward, collapsing on the ground after spinning half a step. He was alive, trying desperately to draw air through a dry and cracked mouth.

"You people amused me just enough to let you simply life for me. Thank you, Sarah Molloy, for gather the weak and stupefied in one place for my purposes."

"You can't have them!" she adamantly screamed while gazing at the varicose veined skull of her lover gasping on the floor. She lunged at John, but he merely waved a hand at her, freezing her in place.

"I can have them. I'm god. I'm just a little impatient about little details like chasing down all of the refuse," John stated with a snort. "Do you want to try to stop me, Simon?"

Simon just stared. He was also frozen in place. He did not know to what he was talking to, but he said, "Are you really John Dramery?"

"As much as you are an ant, I suppose. A useful ant. Allow me to deliberate on your functionality while I deal with a pest problem."

John gestured with both hands stretched out, fingers splaying outward like a fan towards the tent encampment that no longer occupied about half of the warehouse floor. Simon watched with horror as, slowly, hundreds of people wearing little more than rags walked backwards to their encampment as if dancing. Quivering in the air, Simon could tenuously feel a tug of pressure while watching the people shuffle in an unnatural jerking rhythm back to their origin roughly five hours before. Simon could even see the boy who had worked the rafters crawling backwards along the frame.

Dropping his hands to the floor, John sighed. "What an assortment of filth. When I made this city what it is, I swore that I would never allow such a contagion to spread itself. It seems that I've been remiss in my duties as Justiciar."

Raising just one hand towards the confused people who seemed to recall being pulled away from new hiding spots into the open once again, John Dramery clenched his hand into a fist. Simon felt pressure surge through his head, thumping his brain hard within his skull.

Simultaneously, the people changed. Tents and clothes withered into mere threads followed by dust. People tried to cover their exposed bodies as the clothes withered away, but they soon had enough body hair, popping out of armpits and chests like weeds, to completely cover sensitive areas. They were shrinking, as well, though their arms were becoming stronger and longer and thicker. Shrinking and shrieking. Their voices began to mingle as one cacophony of cries. Between Simon's sharp stabs of blinking pain, he could clearly discern their fate--John Dramery, the arbiter, had transformed all of them to monkeys or some other form of primate. The people-turned-creatures screamed at their transformation, running terrified in every direction.

"You monster. You absolute goddamned monster!" Sarah howled through her tears, spitting as far and fast as she could at John. He just turned to her, pointed to the spit droplets hanging in the air like drippy spider web, grabbed her by the hair and dragged her weeping face through them.

"See, Simon?" John laughed. "She can do nothing. She is no better than an ant." He kicked her to the floor, pointed at her abdomen, said "Bang!" and turned to look at Simon again. "See?"

Sarah screamed, clutching her stomach so strongly that Simon thought she would tear herself open.

"See? I reversed the process of maturation in her body, Simon! The rest of her is normal, but I took her stomach back to a time when it didn't exist, it hadn't been grown yet. In her gut, she no longer has a gut.  I took it away!"

Sarah could not stop screaming. Her face was turning red and then purple with tears and saliva and open mouthed howling. Simon could see her stomach caving in--she had nothing to cling onto any more, scratching at the curve where her belly used to be.

"See? She won't die. No one ever dies. But she can't have it back either."

A whirlwind of thoughts zipped through Simon's head; before he knew how to respond to Sarah and Merrick's torments, he was standing back in his home office looking at the letters that Sarah had written him, only now John Dramery was at his shoulder, and John Dramery's nose was practically in his ear.

In a menacingly low whisper, John said, "You could have stopped me at any time, Simon. You could have stopped me, but you didn't because you are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a true coward. Your terror left you cold and frozen while your new comrades fell to the floor around you. I need a coward to know what I am, Simon. Did you see? Did you see that I am god?"

Simon's shaking was so serious that he may well have nodded. He could not imagine ever opposing such a one sided force. The letter in his hand tumbled to the floor.

"I need a coward to take me to the next levels of this society. I need you, a peasant I groomed from the void for this sole purpose: domination. It's a lucky consolation that you now know exactly what it is that I am now. It was not an easy choice to keep you safe after your willful disobedience against everything we have built together. Do you plan on opposing me again?"

Simon could no longer blame his fear for this: he shook his head.

The Arbiter

Jun. 8th, 2014 12:53 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

In the cold shadow of Mount Aramis, perched on the southwest corner of a world without death, sat the old, ornamented city of Somatis. Somewhere between the raw, biting frost that perpetually bloomed on cobblestone and the chilly attitude of a cloaked woman with curly hazelnut colored hair and fiery green eyes, Simon struggled to keep warm while being carried in a wheelbarrow through snow packed streets. His fingertips tingled in the pockets of his long jacket. Sarah Molloy, his captor, said nothing. She looked angry. Where is she taking me? Simon wondered.

The city and the cobblestone looked strangely more isolated with every block. Surreal snowy silence blanketed Simon's perception of time and location. Even the bumpy pavement buried under ice seemed to smooth out over time. The frosted windows of houses, dark with inhabitants fast asleep, seemed like glowering eyes in the endless night.

"No one lives out here," Sarah said, softly cracking the silence.

"How can that be?" Simon whispered. "We have barely enough housing in the city for our current population."

"And you see houses everywhere, right?"

"Yes."

"Do you believe everything you are told, Simon Randall?"

There it was again. Sarah's tone was accusatory and condescending, but also a little enigmatic. Simon shuddered while thinking of the things she knew; the things that led her to club the back of his head while looking at letters she wrote while stealing from him.

"Let me present you with three facts by which you have lived. I do this so that you can begin to understand a little bit before I show you the truth. Will you cooperate?"

"Certainly," Simon said.

"Thank you. Fact one: Homeless people living within the city are cleaned off the streets by officers of the law, before being reintegrated into society. Do you agree?"

"Yes. That is true."

"Fact two: There is not enough housing for the population of this city."

"Yes."

"Fact three: There are sizable numbers of homeless people."

Also a true statement. Simon scrambled in his brain to find the logical link that resolved the problem Sarah was posing, even though it should have been a glaringly obvious problem.

Sarah continued. "Add to this information a couple of details you did not know.  First, no one lives out here. No one has for quite some time."

"So you've said. How do you prove that?"

"Consider the snow. Body heat and movement within the city streets keeps the snow relatively limited- especially since we never have weather patterns. Now look at the streets here."

Simon looked. They were essentially rolling through drifts. This is not really proof, he told himself. "Hmm. Hadn't thought of that. What else do I not know?"

"Second, I have been unable to locate the whereabouts of any of the people I once tried to protect," Sarah said, in a low monotone.


"You never gave up info on where they were living, right?"

"Right. And all of those makeshift houses are now gone."

"Maybe the poor people found somewhere else to live?"

"What do you think?" Sarah asked, brittle tones creeping into her voice.

"I'm not sure."

"That is why we are talking about this. You've been a public defender, Simon. How can you publicly defend someone who vanishes nearly the moment your trial with them is over? What kind of a defense is that?"

"They don't vanish, though. The officers of the law take them to communal housing, after which they relocate."

"We had this conversation once before. Even I was a little misinformed back then," Sarah intoned. "I believed that because they were relocated and not educated, they were being sentenced to a repetition of their own woes. I soon came to find, through my own experiences, that the problem was far more simple… and terrible."

"And what was the problem?" Simon asked. Sarah pulled her hood up a little, shutting out the question to the sound of the wheelbarrow compacting a pile of snow.

Simon saw, looking past Sarah, that they had just wheeled past a sign bearing a triangular shape. He had not seen the front of it, but he could reasonably guess what it stated: "Dead End." His trip was almost over. He found himself getting dizzy again; he wondered if the hard knock he had taken earlier in his house amounted to a concussion. That, or he was afraid.

Darkness suddenly swallowed him, followed shortly thereafter by Susan. The sound and feel of the wheelbarrow became rough and unsteady. They were now in a tunnel of some kind; the biting chill in Simon's nose changed to a musty, damp odor.

"We are almost there," Sarah spoke, a little louder than before. "We'll follow this tunnel down for a few miles, but we are safe now."

We? Safe? Simon's head was beginning to throb again as they wheeled past small wall mounted lanterns, flickering solemnly.

*****

At last, after what seemed an eternity winding downward through tunnels, almost always curving slightly to the left before one final straightaway at a steep slant, they came to a large pair of doors made of reinforced iron.

Sarah let go of the wheelbarrow to pull on a rope to the right of the doors. A faint gong sound uttered behind the doors. After a minute or so, Sarah pushed her face against the door. Simon heard a steel scraping sound and Sarah spoke. "I have returned. I brought the lawyer with me."

"Any impediments?" asked a deep, masculine voice on the other side of the door.

"None."

"Opening up now. Stand back."

The door opened into a giant warehouse, several stories tall and wider than any outdoor building Simon had ever seen.  They had come through the door onto a steel catwalk suspended high above a concrete floor. All around, he saw people moving about. Men with long beards and ragged clothes carried stacks of things against the far end of the warehouse, a dull gray color illuminated by a preciously small number of lanterns on the ceilings and on the ground. Women and other men were hauling bags away from tents constructed from cement support blocks, spikes, and painting tarp. These tents covered nearly half of the warehouse.


Simon was shocked by the number of, he guessed, homeless people who had been sheltered here. Reading his face, as she wheeled him down ramps towards the concrete floor, Sarah said, "There are many people who call this home. These are not nearly all of the homeless people in the city."

Simon chose not to respond, taking in all of what he could see. The people here had nearly the same facial expression underneath what dirt covered their faces. Fear.

"Sarah, you made it!" a man cried at the bottom of the ramp. As they reached the ground floor, Simon got a look at the man.

"Merrick?" Simon asked.

"That's me." Merrick responded. He was a tall man with black hair and brilliant blue eyes. The only things that separated him from his time spent as a competitor with Simon for the partnership at Dramery was the long knotty beard he now wore, the weariness embedded behind those smiling wrinkles, and the fact that Simon had earned the top spot in the firm, and Merrick had not.

"Why are you here?"

"To show you our city. Hey Sarah," Merrick said, ignoring Simon. "I missed you."

Merrick threw his arms around Sarah. Her whole complexion softened, just looking at Merrick. She became kinder, more womanly, more interesting--Simon considered that he may have been projecting those qualities onto her, however, because, in her eyes, he saw the same weariness as with Merrick. She kissed Merrick quickly, as if guilty, then spoke.

"No signs of the arbiter. No taps. But they won't be long."

Merrick sighed. "Well, they'll have to be awhile. We haven't gotten all of these people evacuated yet."

"Please don't expect a miracle. We should have gotten them moving days ago. I told you that if they get caught up in this, the likelihood of us succeeding will drop." Simon could not understand anything of this conversation.

"I know. Can we just look at the model?"

"OK." Sarah agreed.

Simon was suddenly dumped out of the wheelbarrow. Falling to his knees on the floor, he felt an extreme sense of head rush. He couldn't stand up until Merrick reached down and picked him up, nestling Simon's body weight against his shoulder.

"I need you to keep an open mind right now, Simon, do you understand me," Merrick confidentially whispered to him. "I have no hard feelings about the partnership. What I'm about to show you will change everything you know about the firm we used to work at. Bear with it."

"I understand. Sarah told me some things, but I'm still trying to figure out why I'm here," Simon coughed.

"And you will. Maybe not all at once. Realize however, that every single moment we spend here with you, we are all at peril. I will show you why."

Merrick carried Simon to the middle of the warehouse floor. From above, Simon had seen nothing at all except a large white patch. Now, spread out in the middle of the floor, he could see the perspective. It was a mock-up of Somatis, done using countless pieces of folded and interlocked papers. My legal documents, Simon thought, but he still couldn't see why his papers had been used. Buildings and miniature folded versions of statues were propped up everywhere, spanning several yards.

It was an impressive work of modeling. "Wow. You made all of this from my papers?" Simon asked.

"Mine too. Although I had significantly less than you. Do you remember that other people, besides law practitioners, do not use this quality of paper?"

Simon nodded.

"And look what it's good for!" Merrick laughed. Simon noted that, occasionally, there would be one paper soaked with red ink. Several areas, however, were completely red.

"What does the red mean?" Simon inquired.

"The red is where people have vanished, Simon." Sarah stepped in, motioning toward the outer edge of the model. "Do you see that line of red buildings on the southeast side?"

"I guess. Is that southeast?"

"Yes. That is where the small buildings I built when you handled my case existed. In this case, there is neither trace of construction nor record of the inhabitants."

"We documented this, Simon. Do you remember?" Merrick sternly asked.

"No."

"That's why you're here." Merrick let go of Simon and turned to face him completely. "Simon, your history has been changing every day."

"What do you mean?"

"Where you're coming from, what cases you have handled. We were originally going to compare my notes after leaving the firm with your notes, which was an extreme stark contrast to be sure, but we decided instead to symbolically represent this information."

"I still don't understand."

"Public record tells us that those red houses, with a few exceptions, are occupied, Simon. They're not. Anyone can see that, but no one living in town can hold down the memory of having seen it. Someone is physically altering history, even in the collective consciousness, without ever touching it. Think about it: Have you ever lost a court decision?"

"No…"

"Who do you represent now?"

"The City Interest Committee."

"Run by whom?"

"John Dramery."

"Has any law ever really changed the nature of the city we live in?" Merrick asked, coming to the central point.

"No…"

"It's just a guess at this point, because recently we've never really seen him since he made you a partner and left to become a city councilman, but John Dramery is probably the instigator of all of this. Ever since I left the firm, I've been distanced enough to watch you fail a court decision."

"But I just said--"

"You lied, Simon. You lied, and you have zero recollection about it, because someone changed your history!"

"Simon," Sarah said. "I have to apologize for attacking you before, but what we are going to tell you cannot be seen nor heard by anyone living in the city above with the sole exception of you. Do you understand?"

"Yes, I guess. I mean, I promise."

"Good," Merrick said.

"Someone is changing history. This person or thing can make a man disappear. Is that man dead? We don't really know, but we do not believe that it is possible to bring them back. We believe this entity to be a man, because it only works to uphold the law," Sarah explained.

"Like an officer of the law?" Simon asked.

"No, because it happens within seconds or sometimes moments before the crime has been committed. All of those red buildings represent dramatic changes in the shape of our world, our city, done at the hands of someone with a vested interest at maintaining the status quo. Someone broke a law, smashed a window at one of those houses, or voiced an opinion on the street, and someone with authority over you and the decisions you make made them disappear, utterly destroying evidence of wrong-doing. Someone who appears out of nowhere on city streets, in a dark cloak, wishing away homeless people  just for breaking the law of not sleeping on the street."

"And because of our actions in trying to bring you here, there is a fair chance that this person, who we have termed 'the arbiter,' will be coming down here," Merrick said. "If that happens, every last homeless person living in this city will vanish. If you cooperate with us, we may be able to eliminate that threat in time."

Sarah grabbed Simon's hand and held it. She's like a chameleon, always changing, Simon thought. None of this makes any sense, but if they're right...

"We need you. Simon, can you fight for us? Can you be someone on the inside to help us figure out what's happening here?" Sarah asked.

"I will try, but I'm still not sure if I can take you at your word."

"Stay with us tonight. You are not scheduled to work tomorrow. We will explain more," Merrick stated.

Simon agreed.

Later on, after all of the homeless people had left to hide somewhere else, and all of those hiding from the unknown eyes of a history-altering enemy had fallen asleep, the arbiter arrived.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

The first letter was tucked underneath a dirty dinner plate on the kitchen counter. The thief had arrived and departed in the time it took to buy food from the market, stealing only the papers from the top shelf of Simon's filing cabinet. Simon could recognize the standard legal paper of his office, complete with the Dramery imprint, stamped in flourishes that spoke to long held traditions, across the top-middle of the page. This is old, Simon thought, standing in sandals in a pile of broken glass that was otherwise the only other sign of a break-in. His name, nowhere to be found on what was most likely a case that he had worked on, had grown. He had become a partner in his firm since then, a star at the zenith of his career. Yellowed with sun exposure and dust, this brief message about a case he could no longer remember had nothing to say about those achievements.

But it was soothing to reminisce. Simon Randalph felt surprisingly steady for being the victim of a burglary.


More interesting than the fact that it was a legal document from his office was the note scrawled on the back.


"Everything topples.

We exist in a world with no death,

yet we live with fear.

You've made your career building

laws as if they were scripture.

How does an ice sculpture stand up to

the advent of the sun?"

-M


Beyond the fact that he lived in Somatis, a perpetually icy city that never received sunlight but loved law and democracy, Simon could not envision this writing making sense. The penmanship was quite good, however--whoever had written it appeared to have focused on maintaining straight edges of letters in a masculine way. Either the original author had poor handwriting or was a woman.


Simon reflected that all that had been stolen was old legal cases. If he reported the theft, it would reflect poorly on him that the personal information of some hundreds of clients had leaked out from his own home, in a filing cabinet not even secured with a lock and key. Since there was little taken or broken, Simon sighed and decided to sweep up the shattered glass and make dinner.


Maybe his thief would come again.


*****


The second letter had a fragrance that Simon could not quite place. The penmanship is different this time, he thought, noting that each word had slightly more of a flourish. Perhaps the thief had expected more of a reaction the first time around. What is this smell? He wondered.


"We love our constitution.

'Freedom of Speech' it cried,

subtly changed to 'Freedom of Communication'

followed by 'Freedom to Express a Respectful Opinion'.

Now 'Freedom to Speak When Appropriate'.

How many iterations of a lie are necessary

when words are carefully governed?

Does anything here ever really change?

Look upon your sins."

-M


The second cabinet shelf down had been emptied, completely. Those were heavy papers, Simon realized, looking at the floor to see if tracks could be found from the thief. At least five thousand thick pages of tax codes, building codes, common laws, and relevant court decisions on most of the cases in Simon's career were all stored in that drawer. Sure enough, long, curved lines stretched across the floor where small black wheels had given scuff marks, leading towards the front door. Simon followed them down his front steps, into the street. It would be easy to follow these tracks, Simon considered. The snow was thin that night, and the tracks were large and dark over the pavement.


But he was tired. Straining to recall that faint aroma on the letter had given him a headache. Who could "M" be? What does he or she want? Why do they keep breaking through my back door when the front door is unlocked? Simon had questions, but he put them in the back of his mind as he shuffled home to sleep. He decided to inform an officer of the law should anymore documents be taken.


*****


Somatis' Juris District was the largest part of town, in one of the largest cities in the new world. Cobblestone walkways adorned ornate streets with black lampposts dotting the sidewalks. Colossal columns held up massive stone buildings with intricate high-relief depictions of legendary heroes and myths and lawmakers augmenting these cold surfaces.


Once upon a time, immortality meant having someone to carry your works into the future and carve your own depiction in such a stone, most likely wearing a sweeping cape with one leg arched to stand atop a monster acting as a symbolic representation of all of your struggles. Walking home from work, Simon laughed out loud. He was less mortal than any of those famous figures simply because he was alive today.


Architecture was a popular career choice in Somatis. The city always seemed to have a building being torn down while another one, just like the older one, was being built. In a sense, Simon could agree with the central theme of the letters he had received- the city had a kind of stagnation to it. People were afraid of change. Simon's job could be looked at as one way to enforce the citizens' rights to deny change.


There was one woman. An architect by the name of Sarah Malloy. She had snatched construction materials from torn down buildings to build temporary shelters at the city limits for the numerous homeless people living in Somatis. Her luck ran out after a time. A wooden support beam from one torn down office space fell struck her in the back of the head while she was rummaging for parts for her latest project. Rather than sending her in for medical examination, the company contracted to rebuild on that particular site detained her. They summoned an officer of the law to collect her from the premises.


Simon was called in to legally support her, although he could not comprehend her personal motive for altruistically gathering materials from dangerous places. Just because death was not a risk did not imply that brain trauma was impossible.


Sarah was wild-eyed at their legal briefing, glancing at Simon's pen, the table top, her shoes, the ceiling fan, and with a sudden fervor, Simon's eyes; Simon wondered if she really had knocked her head a little too hard.


"We'll need to process you as a trespasser, Miss Malloy. The procedure for this is very simple and will require an abbreviated detention time, during which you can receive a proper medical examination for free."


"How long will I be detained?" She asked, in an unwavering alto pitch that seemed alien coming from a head adorned with curly, dirty hazel hair and pale green eyes.


"It depends upon your cooperation. Several companies have come to protest your removal of materials from their sites. I've done everything I can to stretch the construction statutes in your favor, so you'll be free to go shortly with only a minimum number of demerits on your work record, but you need to inform me or another officer of the previous sites at which you have used your materials."


From under her curls, two livid eyes stared back at Simon. "To what purpose?"


"They will likely be dismantled. The people living within them will be given sixty days to live in communal housing while they look for gainful employment."


"And what measures are being used to give them a fair chance at such employment?"


Simon flipped through his briefs. It hadn't been mentioned. Could I bluff her? Should I? "The city will probably employ a civil servant to propose notable work opportunities to these people. Honestly, I am more concerned about you right now," Simon replied.


"I could give a damn about your concern. If you think you are doing me a favor by telling me that, with my cooperation, you'll willingly destroy the livelihoods of people that I have spent ten years protecting and supporting, building a future for them from the ground up only to watch it get shredded in the hands of bureaucrats, you are mad."


"Please Miss Malloy--"


"No. You act like you have come to help me, but you're really just wasting our time. Let them give me the maximum demerits!" she stormed, standing up and stomping out of the room. In her wake, she left a faint aroma of lavender. Was it coming from her clothes? Simon wondered.


With that, it was out of Simon's hands. I tried, he told himself. He found out later that she had somehow escaped the detention facility. Simon may have lost a night or two of sleep in the week that followed after hearing about it--his sleeplessness was equal parts guilt and concern, for being unable to help the woman receive a proper trial.


Becoming suddenly aware of the present, it clicked in Simon's head that he may already be acquainted with his paper thief. He quickened his walk down those icy cobblestone streets masked by the ever present darkness. His breaths hung in the air like hesitant witnesses in the discoveries he was about to make.


Walking through his front door, Simon stepped over the newly broken glass from what was most likely a third theft and moved towards his small desk. In the drawer, he had stashed both of the first two letters he had received. The second letter came from the first drawer of his filing cabinet- he was certain of this. The first letter's case was Sarah Malloy's legal file--the same one that was shared with her the day he met her.


Lavender. He realized. The letters smell like lavender.


A sharp pain stabbed through the back of his head. Flashes of light and miniature explosions leapt through Simon's vision while his face plummeted to the floor.


*****


When he opened his eyes, he was laying in a wheelbarrow with his knees propped over the lip where the handles were, legs dangling against the one who was driving him through the snow. Throbbing hot vibrations rippled across his skull, making him wince while he tried to get a look at his driver.


Underneath a dark hood, two green orbs of fire glared at him.


"Huh?" he said.


"Hush," she whispered. The wheelbarrow rolled through alleyways and tight spaces--parts of town that Simon was certain, if his head was on straight, that he had never visited. "You were not a man before. You were a system."


"A system?"


"Hush." Snow crystals began to form on Simon's cheeks. How long have I been unconscious? "A system. A perpetual motion machine that runs on jurisprudence  and the frozen ideation of an undead world. I will show you where to find life. I will show you where you can learn to be a man."


Simon did not know Sarah Malloy as a person. He did not know what drove her to be the kind of person that could club a lawyer in his own house and drag him through the streets in a wheelbarrow.


He did not know these things, but he considered the possibility of his escape extremely unlikely. Wherever she was taking him, he was stuck. The prisoner of a quite possibly unstable woman. Suddenly, Simon found himself longing for the monotony of his job and the stone reliefs of heroes that decorated every building in his little corner of Somatis.


"You will learn."

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)
From the journal of Schism, explorer and sage- 42 years after the cataclysm:

I’ve been to Solace twice before this visit: once, while they were setting up their clay buildings inside the narrow cliffs of the Rift Canyon, just east of the Kraken Channel; again, to help them establish trade routes with Cair Mallus on the Western coast, a town with which I have also developed a good relationship. These women are as resilient as steel in the new life they have forged; in a mere two years, they have changed from broken souls, to refugees, to builders and citizens in a miniature kingdom.

Not all of their struggles had been resolved as easily as their flight from the ashen town of Vaust, however. They chose to inhabit the canyon due to the isolation it afforded, but none of them are equipped to deal with the challenges of being isolated.  And they are quite wary of strangers. The first time I went to visit them, I was locked in a cage for a fortnight before I could convince them that my intentions were good. They needed someone to show them the outside world, so I set up a trade route on their behalf; Cair Mallus gave them meat and vegetables for crafted goods of all varieties. They were nearly starving, having only the most challenging game available in the vicinity of their town, and none among them, with the exception of their leader, knew how to hunt.

They have progressed farther since then, but this recent secret missive from Guardian Lillian, instructing me to return to Solace, was delivered by the same caravan running the trade route. I suspected that the isolationist policies of Solace had mostly gone unabated. Without knowing the reason for the missive, I returned to Solace immediately, arriving at about midday three days after receiving the letter. As I walked through that sandstone canyon, tall enough to let in only a crack of sunlight, I reflected again on how cool the passage felt. Even though the sun was nearly overhead here, the high walls kept the temperature low.

Lillian met me at the gate. She looked ill in the dim light of the canyon; the wrinkles creeping underneath her brow informed me that she was gravely concerned about something, even as she tried to maintain an official presence. She did not need to try. She seemed to me to be as regal, authoritative, and somehow sociable, as any other decent ruler I had ever seen, although she was the only example of such a person.. After providing me with quarters in her house, I was invited to dinner. This courtesy she bestowed upon me with a sense of gravity--whatever I had been bidden to come here for, it would be happening tonight. I entertained the idea that I was being given a surprise party while I dressed to prepare for a formal gathering.

The women of Solace ate in the center of their village, with their clay cottages surrounding them, as if they were all a large family. They sat in a circle and chatted casually with each other about their days. The air was rich with the smell of campfires, beef, and potatoes. Even the cooks who had served the entire village were given special seats in the circle after all had been fed. Even though there were probably over two hundred women in the circle, everyone was close and amiable with each other. I sat next to Guardian Lillian, who was eating quickly, as if she would soon not have a chance. I grew more concerned until I simply asked her what it was all about.

She turned to me, with an intense seriousness, and said, "In three minutes, I will propose a toast to you. You deserve it, but I also require a favor. I want you to stand up, and acknowledge each woman of the village in turn, looking at them with direct eye contact. This is very important to me, Schism. Direct eye contact. Make a mental note of every person who makes eye contact with you. Do you understand?" I nodded.

Three minutes later, she began to bang her drinking cup with her knife, and I was made to stand up. Feigning my surprise with a little bow, I began the task as requested. One after another, each woman that I chose to look at looked aside as soon as I glanced at her.

Except for one.

As I returned to my seat, I informed Guardian Lillian of the young woman immediately across the circle from us. Lillian whispered to me, "No true victim of Vaust could possibly maintain a man's glance for any amount of time. That woman is not one of us." I asked her about herself, as she always made full eye contact with me, and she intoned, with a brief chuckle, "I am no man's victim." Lillian had escaped from Vaust by learning to become a nature-manipulator--I have no other words to describe Lillian's talents, which I had only experienced on one other occasion.

With a flick of her wrist, Lillian summoned pillars of sand to circle the young woman's legs and hands, binding her to the ground. People cried out and ran away from the writhing person, who was arching her back and screaming curses in a guttural tongue that could not have come from her body. As we approached the restrained thing, Lillian demanded, "What is your goal, creature? Why are you posing as Walen just to dine among us?"

I realized then that my eye contact challenge had been a façade. Lillian knew the names and lifestyles of every person living in her village and had likely been aware of the identity swap for several weeks before this meal. She wanted me to witness this moment.

Rather than answer the question, the fiend posing as Walen began to open her mouth, making retching sounds. A head appeared from her mouth, with completely red eyes on pitch-black skin. The creature laughed as it abruptly yanked its long, serpentine arms out of the woman's throat. Lillian attempted to ensnare the body of the creature by conjuring ribbons of stone, clay, vines--none of it worked. Objects passed through the creature as if it were no more than a dark cloud in the form a tall man. It cast no shadow in the limited sunlight as it wrest its limbs, each with a jarring impact, from the woman who it had inhabited. Walen was choking on the creature, turning blue and purple, unable to breathe, with tears rolling down her cheeks.

Fully removed from its host, this creature stood about seven feet tall and had arms that dangled from its shoulders to the level of its knees. Though shaped like a man, this onyx apparition would have been nearly invisible were it encountered somewhere dark.  It smelled like rotting milk at this distance, and some of the women cowering from it began to gag. That cackling sound, similar to metal scraping against a stone, seemed to come from its hands, which were reeling in some kind of oily rope. It had no mouth. I had only seconds to put all of this in my head; it took off in an awkward sprint, collided with a cliff face, and stretched its limbs over vertical sandstone, scaling the wall up to the cliff in mere seconds.

The creature was gone. In my mind, however, I retained that glimpse of the body-stealer. Whatever had enabled it to possess the body of Walen was apparently not enough to allow it to overcome a village guarded by a woman such as Lillian.

Walen returned to her normal color moments later, brushing her face to wipe away the tears and splotches of dirt that had stuck to her wet cheeks. I noticed then, a thin ridge just behind her cheekbone, running in a large oval from one side of her face, across her jaw to her other ear, and back again, crossing just behind her hairline, as if the front part of her face had been removed and then refastened with a little excess bone. A disturbing concept that I put aside while they gently propped her up, and gave her some water.

The young woman remembered nothing of the last two weeks since she had set out from the village to gather scrub grass, for stuffing pillows and beds, in the sun-stricken foothills of Mount Aramis. She had gone alone, inviting numerous risks to her health and the rest of the village. None of these known risks, to this point, had included the body-stealer. She vividly remembered, up to the moment it took over her body, her encounter with the fiend.

With Guardian Lillian crouched at her side, Walen began to softly tell the story of her encounter with that creature, pausing, from time-to-time, to shake uncontrollably as she recalled it. I listened intently, capturing every detail within this journal.

For some reason, the absence of death has not made living any easier.

Schism

Apr. 21st, 2014 05:03 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

Schism always tried to be the most knowledgeable man in the world. He traveled, talked to strangers, and went diving into previously unexplored caverns just to mark all of these places and experiences inside his mind and journal. "After all, what could possibly hinder the pursuit of knowledge in a world without death?" he would have remarked, laughing, on any other day.


Looking at the thundercloud forming in the shadow of Mount Aramis, Schism knew exactly what could bring an end to his lust for knowledge. From the warm, if hostile, street gutter of Coburntown, the old man could see, through the crack of light that separated the dark valleys and icy tundra from the sunny cities, jungles, and arid deserts, the black air currents roiling in the sky.


Schism witnessed red lightning jut from the murderous dark mass, as tall as the mountain itself, through the sky. Instantly, he remembered the day the sun stopped moving across the sky, when weather systems vanished. In his mind, he watched as the towers were swept into the sea all over again. He recalled the quaking screams of women swallowed by the earth as it caved underneath their feet. As if it had just happened, he envisioned the entire horizon illuminated in scarlet as it roared towards him, stopping only to drop as ashes into an endless ocean. Then, the heartbreaking serenity of silence as the few remaining human voices realized that it had all stopped; they had survived.


These few people never knew why the world had ended, or why it had finished ending, or why they had been selected to live in a world with an immobile sun and no death. Schism had always tried to help them answer these questions, but people, particularly those of Coburntown, did not like to discuss what they could not control. They ridiculed his articulate speech, unkempt white hair, and emphatic facial expressions. They kicked him in the teeth, stole his clothes, and urinated on his prone body. He had felt frail before they beat him--after, however, he found his own strength.


He pulled a discarded jacket and trousers out of the waste heap behind a house in Coburntown and donned a new name: Schism. He could be the rift between the mundane and the divine, the crack between reacting with feeble anger to the injustice dealt to him and seeking solutions in a world filled with uncertainty. He had lived for forty-five years in search of the answers that could unite these lost humans. Humans who had been abandoned by a fickle god.


In all of that time, he had never seen a raincloud. Weather didn't exist in the new world, beyond what certain regions experienced all the time. The valley west of Coburntown never experienced anything but the chill of sitting in the shade of Mount Aramis. Schism felt the hairs on his arms stand up in remembrance of the day the world ended. His old body began to uncontrollably shake in his ragged clothing.


Hovering over the valley, the inky cloud reverberated with malevolent ruby flashes. Dimly visible within the rapidly swirling vapors, a pearlescent object began to protrude from the bottom of the largest cluster. A loud boom echoed across the sky, louder than any thunder crack.


In spite of his fear, Schism charged headlong at the cloud. He jumped over paupers sleeping in the city streets and slipped past people who were simply gawking at the crackling blot in the western sky. He bolted past the city gates without a care about the guards. It's connected, he thought, as he started up the cliffs overlooking the valley. This is how the world ended. As fast as his old body could carry him, he scrambled over granite protrusions while narrowly dodging pine trees. Everything I need to know is right here, in this moment. He cleared the ridge in mere minutes to look down into the valley.


He witnessed it then: the eye. A massive eye, nearly as big as the valley itself, emotionlessly gazing down on the valley while streams of air rippled up and swirled around it. It looked down upon the valley and spewed fire. It shined with a careless grace upon the carnage--a house exploded, sending timbers flying hundreds of feet through the air while the ground below blackened to ash. The eye dilated, and six pulsating, pallid, elongated appendages leapt from the cloud towards the ground, scraping at the dirt or something the old man could not quite see from the top of the ridge.


In a short moment, the tentacles were held close to the eye itself. One after another, the eye breathed fire in a brilliant ray over each of the ends of these tentacles. Schism thought he could hear screams over the crushing roar of fire that swept over the charred earth. Suddenly, just as the sixth tentacle was about to receive that beam of flame, a blinding light flashed through the sky.


The cloud, the eye, and the tentacles were all gone. Schism tried to take out his journal and write down what he had seen, but his arm was jerking uncontrollably and made all of his letters impossible to read. Although he was trembling furiously, Schism slowly walked down to the valley floor. Was that god? he asked himself, stepping over downed trees into the sprawling field of ashes.


There, he met the survivor.

From Ashes

Apr. 7th, 2014 05:55 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

Lillian heard the high catcall at the mouth of the black alley down which she had, with insane courage, just walked. The whistling straightened the hairs on the back of her neck, standing at attention as if they alone could protect her body. As the shadows began to form at the mouth of the alleyway, reaching with long silhouetted figures for her form, Lillian knew exactly what was going to happen next.


"Hey, it's Lily!" laughed a voice barely past puberty. Lillian could have played "guess who," but it mattered little. Most men in Vaust were the same.


"You know her, Martin?"

"Hello little girl. What are you doing out here?" Do not answer, she told herself. Do not show them the fear in your voice.

"Guessing she wants some of this!" Lillian could see the gesture being made even as she continued walking down the alleyway away from the sound.


As the calls became more random, more insistent, and closer, Lillian let one hand brush the jagged brickwork of her quickly narrowing alley. This town is falling to pieces, she thought, and every shattered brick, every new medicine these people abuse, every man at my back, makes it more impossible to live here.


"Hey, Lily stop! I just want to talk to you." A liar says. "Lily, you're ugly. We won't do anything to you, so just wait a moment." Lillian's stomach roiled with acid, but she kept walking, knees tensed for that first critical test.


"Lily" was not her name. "Lily" was the name of the girl that they planned to drag inside a dark place and clean out. "Lily" could be the girl dragged deeper, drugged harder, and locked away like some of her friends to be used whenever. Her attackers would be upon her very soon.


But Lillian had a secret.


*****


Ever since the cataclysm fifty years ago, Vaust had been the literal end of the world. The only other land north and east of Vaust was a significant volcanic region, spewing endless hot gas, ash, and lava at all hours of the day. Vaust should have been a bright place, as the sun was permanently fixed nearly directly over it, but a malevolent cloud of soot and fire loomed above the valley letting through only occasional dirty grey lights.


Before reaching Vaust, one would pass through the wastelands, a desolate, cracked plain punctuated by failed cities and wily predators. And Minutemen. Appointed into law establishing posts by the Physicians that ran  Vaust, these Minutemen aggressively forced women to pluck herbs at the far southern fringe of the wasteland, where the plains dissolved into meadows and mountain fields. Vaust reeked of week-old damp laundry with the burning of these plants, particularly the Ophelix, which was burned for pleasure; users ate articles of clothing, shouted slurs from window sills, and met with strangers outside Lillian's uncomfortable loft just to fornicate while she tried to sleep. Even Lillian's father vanished after purchasing a combination of herbs as their family's food supplies began to dwindle. Lillian had needed to support herself ever since.


With these thoughts in her mind, Lillian ran. She ran to the only place where the Minutemen would not catch her and rape her. She ran to the volcano. To her surprise, the ash and heavy dust in the air around and in the volcano did not impede her ability to breathe. Every day, when she finished laboring at the only farm outside of town, milking emaciated cows to feed people who had no inclination to feed themselves, she took off sprinting across the craggy volcanic lands. Every day, her legs became stronger. Lillian began to feel powerful, able to run away from any threat.


And then, one day, she witnessed something spectacular. Stumbling to the ground after a hard sprint up the largest volcanic crater, she saw--at eye level--a single, undisturbed blade of grass. This is impossible, she thought, how could grass survive here? When she touched it, feeling its smooth rigidity even as it arose from the ashes, she tried to pluck it from the ground to save it as a reminder of the value of life--even in a world where death was an impermanence.


Snap! Her thumb was suddenly slick with blood. The grass had actually cut her! It seemed as though the grass did not want to be pulled out. The grass remained upright and strong. Lillian, empowered by the resilience of this miniscule plant, straightened herself up and continued running.


It was not long before Lillian discovered another blade of grass, and another, and then a patch of grass, and then, in the middle of the volcano where the molten rock nearly circled her, a wide ring of living, green grass and small white flowers surrounding a single rock. It meant something that plants existed here. Lillian gave the rock a hard kick, sending fragments of pumice flying around her.


Deep inside that stone, dimly visible through crevices that Lillian was breaking open with her foot, was the bark of a tree.


*****


The first man who tried to grab her received Lillian's strongest fist to his solar plexus, sending him reeling against a brick wall. While the first man gasped for air, a second man pulled a long serrated knife out of a belt loop on his trousers and charged at Lillian from behind. Lillian spun and lashed the man's face with the heel of her boot, following through on the momentum of her kick to cinch her foot into the man's neck and drag him into the pavement.


Lillian had been teased her whole life for her appearances. Muddy brown hair that never settled down punctuated a firmly squared jawline such that it was easy to mistake her for a boy. Lillian hoped that these men, some she certainly knew, could appreciate the irony that she was now being mistaken for a typical girl who would have no idea how to handle herself in such a situation.


Regardless, when she finished completely breaking the first  attacker's ribcage with repeated stomps, she allowed a third man to grab her and drag her away. Lillian, now calm, assessed his grip on her shoulders and waist as he maneuvered her through dark corridors to corners of the town she had never seen nor considered. She could break out.


She would wait and watch where they took her. Because Lillian had a secret.


*****


It took months to break apart the pumice shell with her hands and feet. She watched her body grow in the process--muscles coiled like tense steel underneath her sweaty shirt.  She stole food from the town larder, where she delivered warm milk every night, to help her keep on her feet while she broke apart the stone that covered a tree.


A tree in the middle of a volcano. It was far from being a majestic tree, as Lillian could guess from the illustrations of trees she had seen in her childhood, but it had a presence to it.


Lillian knelt in the soft shadow of the tree, illuminated by spouting lava behind it. While she was, once again, trying to discern how she was capable of breaking the rock without breaking the tree inside, she hear a soft voice.


"You bend your knee in supplication. Were you the one that set me free?"


Lillian looked around frantically for the voice. Out of the corner of her eye, a long blond strand of hair dripped like velvet sap out of a tree branch. Lillian snapped her head around to watch: the hair was followed by a scalp, then luminescent fully green eyes with no whites, a child-like face, and the body of a child. This visage, wrapped in a silky peridot dress, draped upside down mere feet from Lillian's head.


"Did you release me from that rock?" the young girl intoned, without opening her mouth, before flipping and dropping down to the grass. The voice emanating from this being seemed much older than the body in front of Lillian.


Lillian nodded slightly. "Do wish to possess my powers? I perceive in you a natural aptitude. Tell me, young one from Vaust."


Lillian wondered how this tree-woman knew her history and actions without ever being told. In spite of her doubt, she found herself nodding again.


"I will challenge you to a duel. Know that I am the Aspect of Creation. To me, evil is the desire to remain idle while all around you withers, the hedonistic hell where not one human can nor will sow seeds. In your life, you have witnessed much evil. If you survive my challenge, you may inherit my will and way. Do you accept?"


Lillian considered Vaust. The smoke filled streets, the starving people who abused herbs issued by the Physicians just to experience a false life, and the father who abandoned her. The ruffians who loitered on street corners calling to young girls and old women alike before dragging them into unknown places where they were never seen nor heard from again, and the Minutemen looming like an ever-present sword over her head. The loft she lived in, filled with everything she could gather from the outside world except for that one resilient blade of grass that cut her when she dared to try and pluck it.


She wanted to be that blade.


She nodded.


*****


When they handed her over to those standing in a room of hard tile floors and stark white walls punctuated by brown desks where men dressed in white coats with ties sat, Lillian almost laughed. I could not have been more lucky, she thought, looking around the room and noticing a steel door, behind which Lillian could feel bodies.


The bodies of women, hunched over cots after returning from a long day in the wasteland, hands scrubbed raw from pulling grass and sharp stemmed plants out of the ground with no gloves. Older women permanently hunched after a lifetime, or possibly even several lives considering their conditions, of uprooting for men who smirked at their twisted spines while kicking them back down to the dust.


Lillian felt something boiling inside as the first white coated man reached for her shirt. Immediately, she used her muscular legs to twist underneath the man holding her, dislocating one of his knees and dropping him to the tile floor. Hopping backwards to put a little distance between herself and the other people in the room, Lillian flicked a hand skyward.


"Lily, what are you doing? Stop-"


My name is not Lily. Water began to shoot out of the ceiling towards the floor as if the entire building had been engulfed in a flood which was beginning to breach the inside. Water knocked men over and flipped desks. Water pushed objects up and to the side and around, cracking teeth and mangling faces. Lillian stood in the rising waves unfazed as she slowly dropped her hand to the level of the floor and suddenly clenched it into a fist.


A solid block of something dark appeared in the middle of the room underneath the water. Within seconds, all water disappeared from the room, revealing the object to be a green cube. A cube which erupted, sending a bright forest of sharp vines into every last crevice of the once sterile room, impaling men against walls with enough force to shatter bones and tile alike.


And although these penetrated men writhed, they could not free themselves. Although they would die, they would remain suspended against the walls while they returned to life, only to bleed out and die again. Amidst this grisly scene, Lillian calmly stepped across the jutting tendrils to the steel door ripped open by vines.


Lillian, as well as many other women of her age and older, walked out of the Office of the Physicians and past the impaled Minutemen and through the dirty city streets.


Lillian, as well as many other women who joined this procession as it swept through the town, walked through the wastelands and into a land of their own making, a city constructed and managed by their own hands.


To this day, no women live in Vaust.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

King Shannon slammed his splayed palm down on his fine oak table, desperately reaching for a glass of water to push aside the satchel of flesh rapidly swelling inside his throat.  "A king who cannot be trusted is a dead king" echoed inside his ears along with the pounding of his heart as he tried to draw breath and failed.

The wine! He thought as the nearest advisors rushed to his side and struggled to squeeze something out of him. One of the vintners must have--

After a few moments of stinging force being applied to his sternum, the king suddenly coughed in a sharp burst, sending a wide spray of frothy vintage across his table and onto the stone floor. Immediately he was able to breathe again, although the sensation seared every taut muscle in his body. Slowly, he became more relieved. His advisors shuffled away from him as he straightened his immense bulk fully upright in his chair. When he had regained his breath, he rasped:

“Bring me the man who prepared this glass of wine.”

                                                                                                                                   *****

An hour passed in tense silence. No one had ever seen the king this enraged before, although his scarlet visage could have been due to nearly choking to death. No one touched any of the remaining roasted geese, sharp cheeses, or mountain fruits. No one dared lift a fork.

King Shannon, the instigator of this fearful silence, eagerly awaited his own method of justice. It was all he could do to keep his heavy jowls from quivering with malice. Suddenly, interrupting the quiet came five sharp bell chimes, only a second apart, as quiet as a fork touching a knife. Loud enough only to be heard in this silent dining room.

Ting-Ting-Ting-Ting-Ting

And then his chair no longer existed, and he was falling. All was black, save for a perfect vision of his own body as he fell. His back slammed onto a hard surface that he couldn’t see. He could hear nothing, not even his own breath as it was knocked out of his lungs.

Moments later, he returned. He found himself sitting as before, though bewildered, in his high seat. None of the advisors or guests registered any awareness of anything amiss. Did I just experience a seizure?

The king leaned over and whispered to his first advisor, Duke Charleson. "I must retire. When the criminal arrives, detain him until I can question him personally."

                                                                                                                                  *****

Far removed from the now-familiar protests that dragged on in the city streets, the king slept cloistered within stone walls and silk sheets. His body felt mangled by his near-choking, the searing gout that surged through his joints after dinner, and the-

Ting-Ting-Ting-Ting-Ting

Just as before, the king fell into a dark world. His high down mattress evaporated as he plummeted to the floor, landing with a hard knock to his tailbone. The surface he landed on felt like stone, but he could neither see it nor determine a texture with his fingertips. He screamed, but he heard nothing.

Almost nothing. Faintly, he heard a sound like waves breaking on a shore, and he saw a dim light in the distance, like a candle engulfed in a cloud.

And then he was returned to his bed. King Shannon tried to reason why this was happening. It was in all likelihood the poisoned wine at dinner, but what kind of poison would leave its victim alive yet slowly drag him into a nether world of soundless dark?

Unable to answer the questions, even to save his own life, the king slowly drifted back into sleep.

                                                                                                                                  *****

He dreamt of the night eleven years ago when his family had met with the newly-crowned King Dosan, Queen Elizalde, and their councilors. He had been Governor Shannon then, not King. He dreamt of their discussions, calculating how long an idea could be made to hold in the minds of the population. Four years, they decided, based upon their collected experiences in leadership.

They would plant ideas in the minds of the citizens, invented notions of mistreatments at the hand of King Dosan that would distract the common folk from the true causes of their squalor. Then, a carefully-staged revolution would unseat the old king and install Governor Shannon as the new one. It would take four years for the new king to “fix” the perceived wrongdoings of the previous king. In another four years, he could create new issues to mislead and enrage the populace, before being dethroned in another staged coup. The cycle would repeat, with each new king being groomed by the previous one unbeknownst to the peasants. The old king would simply vanish into the fold of the rich, secretly dictating and pulling strings forever.

Being Governor had been an appalling occupation, but conversing with people with empty mouth due to poverty-rotted teeth could be tolerated for the promise of being king, and after that an eternal retirement in wealth. Because they would never die. No one ever died.

Truthfully, people did die. They died, but then they returned. Few people were willing to talk about the subject, lest death come for them, but it hung over their heads like a miasma. People who died became stranger after death. Perhaps the shock of death jarred people away from the things that had made them human. It made them more aware. The most vocal critics, the most cognizant individuals in the kingdom, the only people who could see through this façade of misleading politics, were those who had died.

Worse, people who had experienced death more than once could become violent public leaders in their own right. At times, Governor Shannon had had to travel through riots in a reinforced steel carriage.  On one such occasion, the leader of the uprising had leapt onto the side of the carriage and maliciously whispered through the thick bars into Shannon's terror stricken face:

"A king who cannot be trusted is a dead king."

Shannon sat bolt upright in his bed, face and sheets soaked with sweat. He shuffled over to the washbasin to cool his face, but it brought no relief. In the water, he beheld the pale, rasping face and sinewy hands grasping his shoulders as they had once grasped the bars of his carriage. He shuddered.

One of the last “reprehensible” measures that King Dosan had passed to his advisors, before quietly yielding his throne to King Shannon with a knowing wink, was the exile of dead citizens. Shannon would allow the exile to stand. But he could not banish the pale face in the washbasin.

Ting-Ting-Ting-Ting-Ting

The bells that heralded the abyss grew louder.  The faint sound of waves gradually became the howl of wind rushing through a cobblestone hallway. That thin, grey dot of light was no brighter, but it was closing in on the king.  Looking into it, he thought he could see a jagged pattern. What is that? Crenellations?

He returned to the real world with his hands gripped on the sides of the washbasin.  Once his heart had resumed its rhythm, he rinsed his face once more and stumbled back to his bed.

                                                                                                                                  *****

Mid-morning, the king awoke with a sharp rap at his bedroom door. His wife did not stir, having consumed too many glasses of wine the previous night.

"What is it?" the king inquired of the door.

"Your Grace, we have captured all of the vintners who have personally offered Your Holiness their wine over the last year. Would Your Grace deign to look upon them and offer judgment?"

This is not what I requested, the king groused. He began to arise, teetering out of bed and away from reassuring sheets.

TING-TING-TING-TING-TING

With a chiming as loud as tower bells but far shriller, the king was swept into the shadow realm. The dim light rushed towards him with riveting speed. The roar of wind morphed into the sound of fire, burning down churches along with their shrieking occupants, incinerating entire farm fields in seconds.

The image in the light was a castle! The masonry was similar to that of Shannon's own castle, though it was hard to tell as it crashed towards him. The front portcullis opened just quickly enough to clear Shannon's head as it swallowed him whole. Shannon immediately lost his footing on hazy grey stones as an unseen force dragged him down the halls and upstairs. Shannon mustered the strength to reach out for the gaps in the stone work as they rushed past his limp, thrashed body, but his fingernails cracked and bled the moment he touched them. He was moving far too quickly to have any means to stop himself.

Crack! Shannon closed his eyes as if he was fainting from the agony of several dislocated limbs, but no relief appeared. This image was the same with his eyes closed.

Finally, the dragging stopped. Senseless with what felt like hundreds of injuries, Shannon rolled over in his own blood to see where he might have stopped.

It was a throne room, empty except for the figure sitting on the throne —It was an enormously tall skeleton wearing a cloak of ashes that fell like endless dust upon the floor. The skeleton came alive as it lowered itself to the floor on hands and feet. It whispered something in a sibilant tongue long lost to man but spoken eternally among the deities of death.  The skeleton grinned and grew eyes made of piercing light as it scuttled across the stone floor to the king's pallid, crippled body.

The skeleton opened its mouth, revealing endless rows of impossible scythe-shaped teeth. All the light in the world reduced to those two brilliant eyes, as the king's own body began to vanish into the nightmare.

                                                                                                                                  *****

When the guards finally broke into the room, they found the quickly-sobering Queen sobbing over her husband. Shannon lay sprawled out on the floor, vacantly slobbering on his own naked body, tears streaming from his eyes, while eight ignored vintners watched aghast from outside the broken door.

One by one, the guards fell in to try to resuscitate their king. One by one, the vintners moved their hats to their chests in solemnity. And one vintner with a far paler face than the others, a man who had died three times, allowed just a fraction of a smirk to penetrate his cracked lips while he whispered the words that had haunted King Shannon for three years.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

Before that golden eyed woman met him on the open sea, the old mariner decided to brace himself for death. His gloves gave his clenched fists an additional tightness equal to his resolve, if somewhat doused by the sea spray crashing against his small skiff. A small number of fishing spears would hardly be sufficient to stop the deep lurker who awaited those who traveled too far into the horizon. He was going to die.


But no one ever dies now, he thought, as he unfurled the sails. That's why my wife…


He could not decide what brought him to the ocean. It was well known among the very few people that Jonathan had met that the ocean signified death. The wind never changed, the weather never changed, even the time of day, a concept from Jonathan's youth before he himself  had stopped aging, never changed.  Only about fifty years past, death had stopped happening to people. The lack of fish, the silence in the sea, and the eyes of that creature proved this--the ocean was no friend nor tool of man any longer.

It was the way she would chop onions in the kitchen, eyes watering, but there were no onions, nor cutting board, nor knife- only her hand, jerking up and down, tightly curled around air while tears streamed down her vacant face. It was the way she had left doors open before and now silently closed them. It was the way she returned, mute and expressionless, living with her old husband--probably for several years, but who can say for certain--existing and living as if she was dead. Every morning, even as early as Jonathan could wake, he would see her standing at window staring inland, showing the only true expression he could remember from her now- a broad grinning, wide eyed stare, completely without context.


The water splashing against the boat seemed colder now.


Everything about her after he had lost her to the surf and pulled her out again, everything was wrong. She used to noisily trudge exhausted up the stairs towards bed, but, after being rescued several hours after falling into the water and being carried by that ever consistent outward wind and riptides, she moved with no sound when her husband called for her. And she always attempted to climb one more step than the stairs had.


Stumbling only slightly and yet soundless, her face made no attempt to register this mistake on any of the hundreds of times Jonathan had watched it happen.


It should have been no surprise to him, then, finding that note yesterday morning--always hard to determine the day when it is always dark--on the table. Only six words. Words that made no sense to a old man who had lived in a tall but narrow cottage with his old wife ever since the day the world had ended and aging had become obsolete. An old wife who had died and lived but never returned; this time, she was truly gone.


He wished he could understand what the note meant when it said-


a deep howl filled his ears and the sea split, just as it had the day his wife went missing. She was coming. Her golden hair and golden eyes on pale skin were all he had seen that day, her attention directed elsewhere. He could see her now, an enormous shadow darkening the black waves underneath his boat. The head began to peek above the waves in front of his skiff- before long, a woman who would have been beautiful were she normal size floated in front of the boat. She was many times larger than Jonathan's house, with skin so pale that it blinded him to the rest of the universe. Desiring an end, Jonathan hefted one spear in his hand and prepared to strike, when the eyes, as large and radiant as the sun he had once seen and vaguely remembered, wiped his mind clear.


He fell to his knees as the great maw of razors opened and began to drag seawater inside.

-"Find me in the silent city."

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