Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Castle of Dusk Revisited

         Mraxinar did not sleep. For the comfort of the people of Port O’James, he confined himself, along with the surviving members of his entourage, to a hotel room. He knew that mortals had a deep and instinctive aversion to skeletal forms, not to mention a rather practical (from an evolutionary perspective) tendency to experience fear at a greater intensity at night. Death was something to be kept warded away, secluded in cemeteries, where bodies were buried or burned to hide them from the living. There was, of course, the terror at seeing loved ones reduced from animate, living beings to shriveled ruins or unrecognizable ash – an emotional threat. But there was, of course, also the practical threat – a dead body could no longer defend itself as microorganisms consumed it, bacteria multiplying and producing not only unpleasant olfactory phenomena but also genuine danger in the form of infection.
         The sun would not rise for several hours, but this far north, the glow of the pre-dawn twilight was already beginning to illuminate the streets, dimming the stars by comparison. Mraxinar noted that even this early there were people moving about – there was a man on the street below walking briskly in a jacket that seemed too thin for what was sure to be below-freezing temperatures outside. The man was holding his arms around his chest. Mraxinar pitied him, theorizing that the man was a vagrant – not something he believed common in the North East Colony, but he had heard of such people in some human countries.
         Magic required imagination to take form. Undeath, the state of once-living material brought back to an animate state, was presumably born from nightmare – that these things that were dead could become an active and deliberate threat rather than simply an object that needed to be dealt with.
         And now he followed, with fascination, the story of Ana Sweeney, a woman who had only recently discovered herself to be undead, as she navigated the delicate challenges of reintegrating herself into the society to which she had previously belonged. Yet Ana was far from the kind of rotting corpse the humans feared. Her body was mostly still functional, still capable of fighting off disease and infection. Hers was not a shambling gait, and her odors were rather ordinary for a living human woman of roughly a quarter century in age. Her brain was the only thing one could call lifeless, but the magic that had reanimated her body had allowed her spirit – the ethereal and fundamentally mysterious mechanism of experience – to assume direct control over her functions. That mind, Mraxinar speculated, might one day grow beyond the limits that had been imposed on it by the physical structure of her brain, but such a development, if it ever happened, was likely not to occur for a great long time, and for now, the mind that had taken the form of a human brain would continue to function very much like one, even in its maturation past the death of the physical brain, calling into question the very abnormality of this woman’s nature. She certainly looked and acted normal.
         Mraxinar had never looked like an ordinary human being. Presumably the previous owner of his skull had, at one time. A thousand years earlier, there was, evidently, a man roughly in his forties who died and left bones behind. And later, the Bone King, in his vast and broad power, would make use of these remains and others to construct a being called Mraxinar. This individual, this bone construct, felt only a distant connection to that man. In truth, the way he saw it was that he and that long-dead man shared as much as a human who ate a piece of beef shared with the cow, or even the other humans whose bodies had fed the grass that had fed the cow that had, in turn, fed the beef-eating human. It was the same physical matter, but not the individuality. Having no illusions of being some human soul placed in a different body, Mraxinar saw himself as kin to the golems of the Redlands – beings of stone and metal and glass who had, long ago, been imbued with minds and animation and set about on their journeys.
         The man who had been walking down the street stopped not far from the hotel. Mraxinar gazed down, vaguely concerned that he might give the poor fellow a fright if the vagrant were to look up at the window and see a skull with deep blue flames for eyes staring back at him from above. Mraxinar decided it would be best to step away from the window just in case.
         In his idle times, such as these window-gazing times, he contemplated the crimes his creator had committed in order to build the nation called the Wastes. In a thousand years the Bone King had not extended that destruction elsewhere, and as an envoy of his sovereign creator, Mraxinar was convinced of the Bone King’s earnest good intention. But he also knew that the mortals had every reason to distrust. A nation had died to create the material for Mraxinar and his kin to exist. Mraxinar had not taken part in that monstrous deed, but he owed to it his existence. It was a question of philosophy to what degree that made him complicit, though Mraxinar had long ago concluded that whatever guilt he might share, there was no action he could take to make up for it, except to do what he could to assist humanity in whatever capacity he possessed.
         Now he found himself here in northern Elderland, the very place that the Bone King, when he was a mortal man known initially as Natano Gordenni, the respected doctor, and later as Mogra Thesh, the reviled necromancer, had gone to learn his arts. Gordenni had, of course, learned of this land by studying the autobiography of Paul Airbright, who had briefly been allowed to publish from prison only for his books to be seized in an extremely rare case of Narcian censorship. Gordenni had been forced to twist some arms and bribe some law enforcement officers in order to secure a copy, succeeding presumably only because Narcia was in the midst of its tragic Brothers’ War at the time the “good doctor” had decided to pursue this line of research.
         “Mogra Thesh” had come to these lands before there was a Northeast Colony. The colony was founded by Sardok exiles during the fascist period, which came hundreds of years later. So when he landed on the shores, most likely in the Northwest, across the continent from the future site of the Colony, there were only abandoned villages from some long-since vanished civilization. The mountains formed a barrier that protected the nation of Fealdoraga to the south, and so the man who would eventually come to be known as the Bone King must have seen no one but perhaps the occasional Redlander or Feal fisherman before pressing into a forest populated solely by the undead.
         There was a power in the forest. They called it the Dusk Forest because the light never seemed to shine bright there. After weeks of travel through dense foliage, one came to the Thanatos Trees. Hard as rock and seemingly lifeless, the Thanatos Trees were grey and menacing. And mortals who strayed beyond them were almost never heard from again.
         But Mogra Thesh was heard from. And that was because he had done his research. He knew of the one who held sway over those forests. A being called Hazhed-Funir. The Ice Lord.

         The Castle of Dusk:

         Mogra Thesh was forced to walk into the Dusk Forest – the horses refused to enter the woods, and he could see why. The trees grew extremely close to each other, sometimes forcing him to step up and squeeze between them. Even though it was noon, the sky was dark, almost as night, and a low, painful, howling wind blew. The trees were either dead, or they had learned to feign death lest someone notice them.
         There seemed to be no color in the forest except for the patterns in his thick traveling robe or the horse blood on his hands. He had slit the horses’ throats when they refused to enter, and smeared the blood in sweeping glyphs on the Thanatos Trees – those eerie sentinels that marked the beginning of the Dusk Forest.
         An offering was required to enter the forest, but it was only the first toll of many. As soon as he had passed into the forest, he felt the eyes around him. He feared a torch would give the lord of the castle offense, and so he walked in the dark. Yet he was a learned man of Spire, and darkness was easily remedied. He cast a spell on his own eyes, and now they glowed green. The world around him had been monochrome before, and that it remained, but everything seemed illuminated once again. The dark figures that he had thought were only barely near enough to see now appeared immediately on his left and right, mere feet away.
         Thesh kept his pace, terrified but also excited. He gripped his staff, using it to steady himself as he climbed over another enormous root - or perhaps it was a rock. His hand began to ache, and he realized he had been gripping the staff so tightly that he had cut off much of the circulation.
         The dead eyes surveyed him, the bones now audibly clicking with each step. How quiet they had been! Yet now, knowing they were there, he felt as if there was a cacophony of bending sinew and grinding bone as the dead walked around him. He could not deny his fear now, but still he pressed on.
         It may have been night when he arrived at the castle, but it had been so dark during the day that he hardly noticed a difference. The castle seemed more like a ruin than a stronghold, half-buried, with a deep slope leading down toward the small iron gate that led within. He had studied every reference to it he could find in Spire’s libraries. Much of the castle was beneath the rocky hill that rose beside it. A nearly frozen stream flowed by the castle, hardly two feet across. The trees seemed to fall away, averting their gazes.
         Thesh might have felt disappointed had he not done his research. This was no dark tower, rising into the heavens, projecting terror across the land. Yet altogether it was more sinister than that. Truly, the castle was dead, as was the forest, and the very earth itself.
         As he approached, the gates creaked open, the dark and cavernous pit allowing him entry. He walked down into the castle, taking care not to allow his thoughts to linger on the bones that crunched under foot. He allowed the spell to fade from his eyes, for there was not a speck of light to amplify. He was blind.
         And yet, ahead, after several minutes walking very slowly through the tunnel, he finally spotted an orange flame. A torch – the Ice Lord had allowed him a torch! This boded well, but still, Thesh would not allow himself to feel relieved. The Ice Lord had him in his grasp, and this gift of light was no guarantee of safety.
         He climbed a spiral staircase. He was inside the hill now, of that he was sure. When he emerged in the castle court, what would have been an open yard in an ordinary castle but here had a ceiling of stone, he saw a hundred sets of glowing blue eyes staring back at him. As he approached, the dead receded from the light of the torch. In front of him, the double-door into the Great Hall opened. Here, he saw that two torches burned, and at the end of the table the Ice Lord sat.
         As Mogra Thesh walked in, he glanced behind him. He could see two enormous dead servants closing the door through which he had passed. They did not like the light, it seemed.
         The Ice Lord sat at his table. A dish of rare, delicious looking venison and a golden goblet full of wine sat at the place next to him. A chair had been placed there as well.
         “Sit, Bone King,” said the Ice Lord. Thesh did not think the Ice Lord could be referring to anyone else, so he sat. “Eat. Know that this meat is the flesh of the dead. So do you eat it and so you are dead as well. Drink. Know that alcohol is poison. So do you drink it and so your blood runs with poison.”
         The Ice Lord was ancient, a pale human-like form, gaunt and severe. Yet he sat upright, clad in ceremonial armor, all patterned to appear as if it were bone. Ice coated the armor. Before him, on the table, sat his helmet – a great steel skull, also covered in rime. To his side was an enormous executioner’s axe.
         “What is it you called me?” asked Mogra Thesh.
         “I called you by your true name. For when time has washed away all memory of Mogra Thesh, only bones will remain.” Thesh clung to each word like scripture. He looked into the Ice Lord’s eyes. They were grey and clouded, yet he was sure the being before him could see.
         “I have commanded you to eat, Bone King. This is my lesson.” Thesh did. As he bit into the meat, its juices running down his throat, it dawned on him that he had not eaten since before he had crossed the Thanatos Trees. He tore at it with his teeth, ripping it from the bone. When the meat was gone, he lapped at his plate like a dog, and he drained the goblet in one go.
         “You gave me blood to enter my house, Bone King, for blood is what you had. Look now, do you see blood?” Thesh looked down. No, he had licked all the blood clean.
         “Blood is fickle, and blood magic is fleeting. The rains wash the blood away, and the blood dries and flakes and scatters like so much dust. Blood will desert you when the fire comes.”
         These last words sent a jolt to Thesh’s heart. He shuddered and coughed slightly. The Ice Lord pointed to Thesh’s plate. “See what is left, what your hunger has left to time.”
         All that remained on the plate was a flat piece of bone.
         “Bone,” said Mogra Thesh.
         “Bone,” said the Ice Lord.
         Thus began the education of Mogra Thesh, Bone King of the Wastes.

         The memory of his first meeting with Hazhed-Funir was one that the Bone King had shared with Mraxinar before the envoy was sent to this town. There were other envoys, one sent to Port Sang and others sent to each of the major cities of the N.E.C.
         The Bone King had always been honest with them about what he had done in life. Even after living far longer than a human would, Mraxinar had never been able to determine if the Bone King’s honesty was his way of expressing regret. The Bone King had, of course, once been a human being, unlike Mraxinar or his kin. Mraxinar wondered if death and the expansion of his mind to encompass an entire nation had given the Bone King the perspective to see how heinous his actions had been.
         But as he contemplated his current position, Mraxinar now wondered if perhaps the Bone King had given them only what information would be needed to deal with the threat.
         He had not been authorized to tell the humans the nature of the god that inhabited the central forests of the continent, or that he knew the way in. Yet as Mraxinar played the memories over in his head – not mere information, but a perceived experience that Mraxinar could recall as if it were his own memory – he began to wonder if perhaps the story given to him by the Bone King was itself a call to action.
         He had been sent with the explicit directive to help the humans of Port O’James defend themselves against the undead menace, and that seemed straightforward enough at the time. But as Mraxinar had discovered the truth about Ana Sweeney, shocked just as much as any of the living to find out (well, except perhaps he was not as shocked as Ana herself,) it sparked a new concern – that perhaps everyone had had it wrong. Perhaps he had been given that memory merely to show how far things had changed from their natural state.
         Xirrik, one of his entourage, was pieced together to look more like a conventional human skeleton, though the bones had been warped and stretched to be larger than they had been in life, reinforced with metal, and placed within a suit of armor. He stood motionless, as did Gersic, the one built from primarily bovine bones. They did not breath, nor did they have blood to pulse through them, and so involuntary movement was far subtler amongst their kind.
         “What are you thinking about, Mraxinar?” asked Gersic.
         “The Ice Lord.”
         Gersic’s two bull skulls nodded. “He occupies a unique position in the humans’ culture. They barely remember him, but the shadow over the forests to the west looms large in the collective unconscious of their society.” Mraxinar wondered if Gersic’s lack of human bones made him a less threatening presence for the humans. He had spoken with many within the community during their time there.
         “He presses them with these incursions. They are worried about a sudden invasion,” said Xirrik, who, being a guard, always seemed to think in terms of combat.
         “An observation,” offered Mraxinar. “We all hear the voice of the Bone King – the rhythm that binds us to him.”
         Indeed, they all paused for a moment, and the soothing voice throbbed through their thoughts:
         I am with you. I am with you.
         The thought had been a constant for each of them since they were first created, the Bone King’s silent voice chanting this mantra of stability.
         “The Ice Lord was the one who taught our sovereign the great secrets of necromancy. The Rhythm of Will is one of those secrets. We know that the Ice Lord had his own.”
         “’To him,’ as I recall,” said Gersic. “Simple and effective, but one could hardly expect less from a god.”
         “Listen for it – the Ice Lord’s,” said Mraxinar. And once again they all grew quiet. If any had had eyelids, they surely would have closed them.
         “Nothing,” said Gersic, his voice betraying his astonishment. “Perhaps it does not reach this far?”
         Mraxinar shook his head. “Our own sovereign reaches us here. I would be shocked if Hazhed-Funir’s Rhythm does not reach every point on this planet.”
         “Then we are not attuned to it. We already have our sovereign’s Rhythm. Perhaps that is why we are unable to hear…”
         “What was that?” asked Xirrik. “I think I heard it. Or… no…”
         “You hear the Ice Lord?” asked Mraxinar.
         “No. It’s the wrong Rhythm,” he replied.
         “What do you hear?”
         “’We are one…’ but it’s strange. I think there’s more to it, but it doesn’t sound like words. It is hard to explain.”
         Mraxinar listened. He could not pick up anything. He glanced out the window. The vagrant he had seen down below was no longer there. It was a detail that in retrospect, he would regret having ignored.
         “’We are one’ is a perfectly decent phrase for a Rhythm. A bit hive-mindish if you ask me,” said Gersic. “But I suspect the Ice Lord has never quite shared our sovereign’s respect for individuality.”
         “It’s not just ‘We are one,’ though,” said Xirrik. “And it’s… it’s very odd.”
         “Odd?” said Gersic.
         “Disturbing, actually, like the words don’t even form properly. It is like the idea of an idea, without any word or voice to communicate it.”
         Gersic gave a gesture, rocking his heads back and forth, which Mraxinar had long ago come to associate with a kind of frustrated dismissal. Indeed, Gersic had always dismissed what he deemed Xirrik’s paranoia. What had been a fun intellectual exercise had now been dragged into dour threat analysis.
         Xirrik held up a hand. “Wait, I… I think I can hear more of it. Like it’s getting louder.”
         “Why would it be getting louder?” asked Gersic, though Mraxinar could tell from his tone of voice that Gersic was now interested in moving onto a different subject.
         Mraxinar took a step toward Xirrik. It was highly unlikely that hearing some other necromancer’s Rhythm could override their sovereign’s, but the Ice Lord was not your typical necromancer. Mraxinar began to wonder if it would be best if they stopped all this experimentation.
         “It is getting louder. ‘We are one… in…’ Ok, let me see if I’ve got it. ‘We are one in the… machine?’ ‘We are one in the machine,’ isn’t that what those odd mortals from that Machinist sect are always chanting?”
         There was a knock at the door. Mraxinar surprised himself with how relieved he was to see Xirrik distracted from this subject. Xirrik looked up. “Yes, who is it?”
         There was no answer, except that there was soon another knock. Xirrik looked up to Mraxinar, questioningly.
         “How can I help you?” asked Xirrik, not yet moving to open the door. The entourage had not experienced any direct violence after the bombing of their ship shortly after they had arrived. But that event had encouraged caution.
         “Mayor’s office. You’ll want to come with me,” said the voice on the other side of the door. It was an odd voice, low and… Mraxinar detected something that almost sounded like gurgling.
         “Bit early for that,” said Gersic. “But I suppose duty calls. Very well, Xirrik, if you’d get the door?”
         Mraxinar listened again. He heard the Rhythm. It was coming loudly from just behind the door.
         (We are one in the machine.)
         Mraxinar put up a hand. “Wait, Xirrik, don’t-“ but Xirrik had already opened the door.
         Mraxinar immediately recognized the man standing there. It had been the one in the thin jacket down on the street. Now he looked at him – the man’s skin had grown a sickly grey, and dark fluid dripped from his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. The fluid looked something like petroleum oil, a substance the Bone King had produced to fuel the industries of the Waste.
         And the man had a vest rigged with explosives.
         There was no time to react. Xirrik stared at the man in confusion, and Gersic was still cheerfully trotting toward the door when the man detonated his vest.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2018)

Saturday, March 24, 2018

A New Pantheon

            We’re still figuring it out ourselves.”
            Jack Milton, who had been going under the name Jack Cart for a good while now, found himself walking down the hallway of his childhood home, back in Eliot, a suburb of Entraht, the capital of Narcia. Their house was nice, though perhaps not any nicer than the average Narcian home. There were three stories and the only eccentricity to the architecture was a small room that rose above the third floor with large windows that allowed for a relatively unimpeded view of the night sky. Of course, being so close to the capital meant there was a fair amount of light pollution, so only the brightest stars in each constellation were visible and the Path of Aeoes was so faint you could never be sure if you were not merely imagining it.
            The area got winters with some snow, but as he walked through the house, he could not reconcile the powdered street outside with the humid summer heat he felt indoors. Oddly, it was not this discrepancy that convinced him he was dreaming. It was instead the fact that Tessa was standing next to him.
            Jack had two sisters, both younger. Gwen was only two years his junior, and he had always thought of her as one of his best friends. She was artistic in a way he always admired and envied, and lived in Omlos, working in independent film. The youngest Milton kid was Sandy, who had gone straight from college to law school and had somehow beaten both of her older siblings to settling down with a spouse and was a year away from starting her own law firm. Sandy had always been far more competitive than her older siblings, which bred not exactly animosity, but a slightly greater distance than any of them would prefer. Jack and Gwen were a unit, of sorts, and while Jack had only the faintest memories of Gwen as a bump in his mother’s belly, the two of them had had four years together before Sandy came along to be this strange entity: a third Milton kid.
            They walked past Sandy’s room and Jack had a moment of dissonant emotion: he saw Sandy, not the ambitious young woman in her mid twenties with a wife and house and a future all kicked into high gear, but the little eight-year-old who used to draw pictures of spaceships and cute aliens.
            “Am I ever going to be able to show this to you?” he asked Tessa.
            “Do you want to?”
            “I think I do. Is that insane?”
            Tessa shrugged. “You should probably talk to me about it when you wake up.” There it was: that was just his own words coming from her mouth. He felt the frustration of having accomplished something only to realize it was merely in his imagination that he had done so.
            Play-acting as a couple with Tessa had been an odd experience. Staying in Kapla all this time, they had not really talked about it. He was no mind reader, but he suspected his feelings were reciprocated. On the other hand, there was a nagging thought at the back of his mind – Tessa’s role had been, initially, to recruit him. But with the House collapsing all around them, that mission had to be on hold.
            Hadn’t it?
            She had told him how she was recruited – the awful man who had married her mother, the strange gentleness of the man who had killed her stepfather. It was a surreal story, but sounded genuine. Gwen would have called it Jack’s “Knight Complex,” but the story had enhanced his protective instincts toward the agent called Dust. The nagging doubt was whether that had all been by design. Perhaps, Jack thought, it was the design of her superiors, though he could not help but worry that Tessa herself was interested in manipulating him.
            And yet…
            He had torn that faceless man apart. He still did not understand it, but he did feel as if there were something within him that had come online, waking up for the first time. And he had no clue as to what it was.
            He walked with dream-Tessa up the stairs into that observatory at the top of the house. But as they climbed far too many stairs, he realized that they were actually walking down – down, down, down into the Lower Block of Castlebrook Prison. Maybe that was why there was snow outside.
            It was winter when his team came to the ruins of the White Citadel and found the remnants of what seemed to be a battle. There were as many as twenty bodies, some torn apart as if by a huge beast, others sporting burns from some kind of arcane spell effect, but most sporting gunshot wounds from one hell of a powerful firearm.
            When they searched the area, they spotted a blonde woman carrying a sword, standing over the body of an extraordinarily pale man, his wound and the weapon both dripping with colorless grey blood. Jack was the first to spot her, and his hesitation gave her a chance to escape. There was something about the woman that awed him. The best he could ever do to describe it, even to himself, was that he felt as if he had been looking at some kind of religious scene – something that would one day be made into a stained glass window, that artists would strive to portray.
            She ran, and it took another week to finally track her down. When they did, she had been oddly cooperative. Never, even with several enforcement officers holding guns pointed at her, did Jack ever believe she was in any danger – at least not from them.
            She was arrested, awaiting formal charges, but they had a judge grant a special dispensation to have her held in the Lower Block, believing that she was likely a powerful enough arcanist that a mundane holding facility would be unable to contain her.
            And yet, even Castlebrook Prison opened for her like a wet paper bag. The reports said she simply opened her locked door – a door warded with about fifteen layers of magical protection – stepped right past the silver golem who guarded and cared for the prisoners, and walked up the stairs and out the door as if the building were not a prison at all.
            So it was perhaps inaccurate to see her down here, in the Lower Block. But he figured it was forgivable, as that had been the last time he saw her.
            “Commander Milton,” said the woman. “Long time no see.”
            “Jack’s better.”
            “Jack. Ok.” Even in the moment, Jack thought it strange how much their words lacked that typical dreamlike surrealism.
            Tessa walked across the room and sat on the bed. The prison cells in the Lower Block had to be granted some exemptions to the ethical guidelines for incarceration, primarily access to windows and sunlight, not to mention outdoor communal areas for exercise and socialization. Generally, the kinds of creatures they kept in the Lower Block did not miss such things. Still, while subterranean, the cell was rather well-appointed, with elegant landscape paintings in a far more respectable style than you’d expect in a motel. There was even a little fireplace that the more responsible prisoners were allowed to light. Milton recalled the history of the prison, which was that it had been built over a mansion owned by a man named Paul Airbright, whose horrific crimes lost his family this property. Airbright had been the prison’s first prisoner, which was perhaps a little odd in that it was a sort of house arrest.
            Still, Milton reasoned that the cells, particularly here in the Lower Block, were probably part of the original mansion, which could explain the luxurious design.
            “I’m sorry I left,” said the woman. “Well, not sorry that I left. Sorry that I did so without answering your questions.”
            “Too bad you can’t answer them. This being a dream, and all.”           
            “Well, not really.”
            Jack cocked his head to the side. “What do you mean by that?”
            “Well, as I said before, we’re still figuring this all out for ourselves. A dream is just a kind of healthy hallucination, right? Like, your brain interpreting all these random impulses that happen while you sleep? It’s like, the stimulus is just random, but it lets your brain sort things out.”
            “So I’m imagining you so that I can sort out all this stuff about the House and the faceless man and this… thing that I’m becoming?”
            “No, I told you, it’s only partially a dream. You and I are talking.”
            “Right now?”           
            “I mean, I think. Either that or you’re my dream.”
            “I’m talking with you right now?”
            Jack nearly woke up from surprise.
            “Stay calm. Stay loose. I bet it’s way harder to do this if you’re awake.”
            “What are you?” asked Jack, though he had meant to ask “who?” He felt his control drifting, this lucid dream threatening to sink back into an uncontrolled, drifting one.
            “We’re humans.”
            “From where?” he thought about the stories of the Redlanders coming to Sarona-Ki in massive ships from another world – the very ships that his sister Sandy would draw.
            “Boston. I mean, I grew up in L.A., but Sky here grew up just outside Boston.”
            The names meant nothing at first, but then he thought of something. “Is that near New York?”
            The woman smiled. “Yeah. Same country. Closer to Boston than L.A.”
            “So it’s real. New York. Central Park. Those are real places.”
            “Yes, they are real,” said a low, masculine voice. They were not in the Lower Block anymore. Now they were sitting on smooth rocks somewhere in a large desert – presumably the Sarona, though that hardly narrowed it down, given that the Sarona was the size of Asia, though as he thought of the comparison, he also puzzled over the question of just what Asia could be.
            He turned to face the owner of the voice. The man’s age was hard to place – the shape of his face was that of a young man, probably under thirty. But young as he might be, the man was weathered. He was thin – not sickly, but sinewy. He was dark, both in skin and hair, the latter of which had grown into long dreads that were tied back. If this man were less than thirty, it seemed as if he had seen enough for ten men in their 90s. The man’s eyes were a piercing, icy blue, slightly magnified by a pair of round-framed spectacles.
            It was odd, now, looking at the two of them, somehow youthful and yet also primordial. He was more convinced than ever that he was looking at the beginnings of a new pantheon.
            “Why are you contacting me?” asked Jack.
            “Is that what’s happening?” asked the woman. Sky was not looking at him, apparently scanning the horizon, a look of cold pragmatism on his face. “I thought maybe you had contacted us.”
            “I’d never heard of Sky before,” he responded.
            Sky let out a puff of air that might have been a chuckle.
            “I told you, we’re still figuring it out. I’m not sure I’ll even remember this when I wake up.” She then slapped Sky on the shoulder. “Hey, Sky, one of us should mention the dream to the other so that we’ll know it’s real when we wake up.”
            “Ok,” his voice was quiet, as if he had not expected he would need to speak and had thus not given his vocal chords enough air. “Except I’m not asleep right now.”
            “What?” said the woman.
            “I’m on watch right now. Tarra’s resting her head in your lap and Ec’s out hunting. It’s like four in the morning. The sky is getting that faint hint of blue before the sun actually rises. There’s a light rain, pretty cold, but we’re taking shelter under a really big fallen tree.”
            Jack stood back. Around them it was a sun-blasted desert, but he could now smell the faint scent of rain and trees. “Who?”
            “Friends of ours,” said Sky. “Yeah, June, this guy is pretty far away.  Somewhere in Arizradna is what I’m getting. But yeah, he’s real.”
            The woman turned back to him. “You got all that?”
            “I’ve been doing this a lot longer than you have, June. You’ll get the hang of it.”
            “And this guy, you think he’s awakening?”
            Now Sky leaned in and looked closely at him. Jack felt his breath grow shallow. Nothing in this experience had dispelled the notion that this woman, or indeed this man, were gods. But as Sky’s piercing gaze fell upon him, he reflected that even the most benevolent gods were capable of terrible deeds.
            “Never seen one of us from Otherworld before. But, you know, first time for everything.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2018)

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Faithful Servant

            It had been too fucking long. Richard Airbright had lost patience and decided that it was now time for him to assess matters directly.
            The whole point of binding such a foul and spiteful creature to his service was that he could hang back and keep a low profile, focusing on the protection of his daughter.
            The RAS could hang for all he cared. Thall had sent his “femme fatale” to provoke Richard, and the latter believed he had been clever in sending his familiar in response. It had been reckless and foolish and it was time for him abort the mission.
            The townhouse was a cobweb of protective wards. He had even consented to instruct Isabelle in the basics of their workings so that she would know if something were amiss.
            Meanwhile, the killings had slowed, but not stopped. Most prominently, Sir Roderick Candel had been slain in something that looked like a botched job – forensics had had a difficult time piecing together the sequence of events from the mangled wreckage of the cab and the two corpses. Only after about a week of investigation did they seem to discover that half the driver’s head had been sheered off by what any halfway decent arcanist could easily identify as a frostfire bolt. There were no runes surrounding the body. Presumably the ritual that Candel would fuel would have been performed post-mortem and the old bastard had attempted self-defense (pity he had been on such a high road at the time.)
            There was an article about some foreign spy being discovered at the Rookery the same day – just another sign of how chaotic things had been lately (he had even seen something about a string of violent incidents in Arizradna, of all places.) He had spent enough time reading newspapers and so he began tweaking his summoning spell.
            Whispering Jim was bound to him: bound to obey, but also bound in the sense that they shared a connection – one that Richard knew would be difficult for even him to break. And so the fact that Jim had not come when called after Richard had tired of what he was beginning to feel would be a fruitless task gave the old warlock pause. Now, days later, Richard had begun toying with the nature of his spells, not yet willing to imagine the nightmare scenario: that Jim had somehow escaped his binding and gone on to sow murder and mayhem across Ravenfort, as was his wont.
            He had invested months in securing Jim as an asset. He imagined this Clara woman had been Thall’s in one night. Despite himself, he had almost enjoyed their verbal sparring session, at least until she saw Isabelle. He was amused at the time that Thall thought a pretty face would set him off balance, and yet that was exactly what she had done, though not with her looks. There was a part of Richard that looked forward to performing violent acts on the young woman for shaking his sense of paternal security. The thought disturbed him, though. She was, after all, not that much older than Isabelle. And violence toward women had always left an especially bitter taste in his mouth - call it sexist if you cared to. After seeing what Thall had done to Chloe after he transformed, the specific and pointed cruelty toward the person who had been kindest and warmest to him, Richard could not help but feel that in even the direst circumstances, a man should reserve some degree of practical mercy for his female enemies.
            He would kill her if he had to. But he would make it quick and easy. Indeed, whenever violence was called for, that was his general policy. But for Clara, he would not allow Whispering Jim to tear her apart like those people at the law office in Wolfsmouth.
            “Dad, do you need help?” Isabelle had come downstairs. She was getting another cup of chamomile, dressed in her pajamas.
            “No, thank you, dear,” he said. The less she was involved in demonic summoning the better. He also doubted that she could understand the complexity of the spells he was performing, given that he barely understood them, so customized and twisted they were.
            “Is it Jim? Is there something wrong?”
            “Nothing, dear. I just need to concentrate.”
            Isabelle watched him as his hands went through the motions. Richard’s beard began to itch. Isabelle took a step forward. “Dad?”
            “Isabelle, give me a moment, please!” he said, catching himself before he could raise his voice.
            “I only think… You’ve got some tangled arc-lines, between your left ring finger and your right thumb.”
            He looked down. Indeed, the configuration of his hands had been in error. He had lowered his right thumb in order to push the range of the spell outward, but that had interrupted a gesture that searched for altered demonic frequencies in the right hand. He corrected his gesture and not only did the magical energy feel more solid, his hands also felt less cramped.
            “Bell, when did you learn about that?”
            “Just watching you for the past few days.”
            Damn, he thought. The child has talent. Now, of course she did. She was an Airbright. But his nonmagical ambitions for her seemed to be gradually disappearing off in the distance.
            And then he felt a tug. It was not that much unlike fishing (or so he imagined, having never gone fishing himself,) and it seemed he had caught a big one. He continued to make the gestures, whispering an incantation to draw on latent energies nearby to boost the signal, as it were.
            “What the hell was that?” Isabelle exclaimed. It had come from upstairs.
            Certainly not Jim. Whispering Jim was, after all, a being made of magical smoke, and did not tend to thump.
            Shit! thought Richard. In all of his experimentation to summon Jim had he inadvertently summoned some other demon? He was not prepared for a binding, and he was not eager to slug it out with some infernal monstrosity in his own living room.
            This time it had come from the neighbor’s house. That did not bode well. Just what in the hell had he summoned? Richard began to think back through the, in retrospect, insane number of rituals he had performed in the last three days, desperately hoping that there was no careless mention of Sadafeth, who had given him nightmares when he was a small child (he had not repeated his father’s mistake of training children in demonology before they had stopped wetting the bed.)
            This one was very close. In fact, it seemed to have come from the front walk.
            “Isabelle, did you lock the door when you came home from school?”
            He glanced back to catch a slow, guilty shrug from his daughter.
            Before he could perform a quick telekinetic snap on the door lock, the door was opening.
            And standing before them was Sweet Clara.
            Before he even knew what he was doing, balls of dark purple flame were forming in his hands. His mind began rattling off which wards would protect against this woman, a woman he had been so sure was a simple, mundane human being, but now…
            “Uh…” said Sweet Clara. “Sorry, this isn’t what it looks like.”
            Richard’s heart was pounding and he could feel his entire body grow hot (not from the nightfire in his hands, which consumed but did not generate heat.) “Tell me one good reason I should not burn you alive right this moment,” he said, immediately wishing that he had told Isabelle to avert her eyes.
            And then Sweet Clara opened her mouth, but it wasn’t her voice that came out. “Because it’s me, master,” said Whispering Jim. And then Sweet Clara (or was it Whispering Jim?) smiled widely and held out both hands as if she had just performed a magic trick. “You rang?”

Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2018

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Down in the Hole

Down in the Hole

            The time that had passed was abstract. True to the style of the House, the torture was not physical, but a forced disorientation. The last span of darkness, he was sure, had lasted over forty-eight hours. But how long it was beyond that he had no way of knowing. He had been stripped of his clothes other than his underwear, which was rank with the smell of sweat and had gone from a clean white to a filthy tan. There was actually a little toilet – one of those portable devices a person can put on a yacht that isn’t attached to any plumbing, but sequesters away waste until it can be extracted and disposed of. There was a bottle of hand sanitizer that they provided him with, though it wasn’t enough that swallowing it would put him beyond their reach.
            The room had a concrete floor and a large glass window facing outward onto what seemed like a dark garage or bunker – a space wide enough to accommodate a pair of large trucks and was featureless save for a few light bulbs that were bare except for simple plastic cages. He could not see the end of that space to the left of his cell, but the cell’s right wall was shared with the back of the room. The glass wall between his cell and the open space seemed to be a couple inches thick, but was manufactured precisely so that it would not distort subjects on the other side.
            His own cell was about seven or eight feet wide and maybe twelve feet deep. There was a door in the back wall that they would use to access him when it came time to inject him with psychotropic drugs. He could only theorize that this was accomplished while he was asleep or somehow sedated by an invisible gas, as he could not remember seeing anyone come in the door nor remember receiving injections, but his arm was covered with little spots where the needle had clearly gone in, and the mind-warping experience of the drugs spoke for themselves.
            He had come, in his less lucid periods, to doubt the existence of gravity. He had a very specific memory of sitting on the wall, with his back to the ceiling, bawling his eyes out over an obscure line of poetry that, in a dream-logic sort of way, he could not remember. There was a line from this poem – a poem of which, in his right mind, if such a thing existed, he had never heard – that chronicled irony and arrogance:
            “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
            He was consumed, in that moment, and thereafter as if experiencing aftershocks of an earthquake, with an unsettling note of horror: had the engraver, or the king he claimed to quote, known of his fate, and left those words not as a boast but as a warning?
            The House was dying. Or rather, the House was mutating, evolving into something mad and cruel and, the man who was variously called James Tarson and Chris Thatch and Four Eyes feared, self-destructive. The House was meant to emerge as a new god built of people, rational, immortal, and eternal. Yet here were those who would have it become some writhing mass of destruction, destined to burn out its host and thus perish along with it like a cancerous growth.
            When the lights came back on, it was usually Question Time. A tall, handsome black man, about fifty years old, would pull up a metal folding chair and sit down. He was dressed in a cheap, moth-eaten suit that seemed utterly wrong on him. This was a man who was clean-shaven without a hint of stubble and looked as if he had his hair cut on a weekly basis, with a perfect fade and flat-top that never seemed uneven. He was the only human face that Four Eyes had seen since he was captured, and he found him beautiful, and that just made the suit feel all the more wrong.
            Mr. Cheap, as he had come to think of him, popped open the document case that doubled as a clipboard. He seemed to review his notes for a solid twenty minutes before he spoke, and Four Eyes had gotten in the habit of waiting in silence rather than fruitlessly attempt to engage his captor.
            Making a little note, Mr. Cheap finally looked up. “Four Eyes, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but Six Coins is dead.”
            Four Eyes took a moment to process this. Could be a lie, meant to make him feel less on solid ground, or it could be true. Four Eyes decided he would try not to let the information change his behavior.
             “When did he recruit you?”
            Four Eyes remained silent. He knew better than to offer up information without any incentive.
            “Fair enough,” said Mr. Cheap. “Orville Sacker, thirty-three years old. Born in Kelmar, Omlos Province to Mayla Proudley, born Sacker. Half-sister Jaina Proudley. You attended Aligheri University, graduated with honors age 21, worked at Reben Arts Endowment before dropping off the map at age 25. We assume that’s when you were recruited, but I’d appreciate it if you could confirm.”
            Four Eyes had to fight not to wince. Yes, Orville Sacker had become just one of many identities for him, and he had long ago accepted the possibility that threats could be made against his family in a situation like this, but it was never enjoyable to see such a hypothetical see realization.
            He hadn’t spoken to his mother or his sister in a long time. He had not faked his death, as some Agents were known to do when they entered the House. It had never really bothered him to think that they might be concerned with him. The House had not chosen them, and that meant that, ultimately, they were not all that important. The House had a way of detecting remarkable people and bringing them into the fold. He had a general sense that he would prefer these two women to live comfortable and happy lives – he did not feel any resentment toward them – but again, it did not concern him terribly.
            What did concern him was that he was having trouble imagining a scenario in which he walked out of this cell alive.  It was possible they had taken him out of fear that he might reveal something he knew about the House. A panicked thought shot through his mind that it was his own faction that had captured him. But if they wanted him dead, that would have happened a long time ago.
            “You haven’t killed me yet. So I have something you want.”
            “That’s an interesting theory.”
            Four Eyes smirked. “Right, so there’s nothing you want me to tell you? I’ve got to be costing you a thousand tolls a day at least, with all the drugs you’re putting in my system. So clearly I’m worth something to you.”
            “Not to us, no.”
            Ok… thought Four Eyes. Don’t let them know you’re confused.
            “To be honest, Mr. Sacker, my main purpose here is to keep you engaged and focused. I’m here to keep your mind from fraying on the edges. Do you know what prolonged isolation can do to a person’s mind? It can lead to intense depression, self-destructive behavior, and even hallucinations.”
            “The drugs seem to be taking care of the hallucinations just fine.”
            “Drugs?” Mr. Cheap made a note on his pad. “What drugs?”
            Four Eyes chuckled. “Ok, look, if you’re going to fuck with me, I’d appreciate it if you put in a little more effort, I mean, look at the tracks on…” and with that, he looked down at his arm. All the pinpricks were gone.
            “What makes you think I’m fucking with you, Mr. Sacker?”
            “That… uh…” Four Eyes backed away. The lights in the outer room were blinking off one by one. “Where am I?”
            “You don’t need to know, Mr. Sacker.”

            And with that, the whole outer room went dark, and Four Eyes could not see anything but his own reflection in the thick glass.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2017)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

ISA Kids

         They had been playing the music a little softer in Laren’s these past few months. There was a time, not so long ago actually, though it felt like the distant past, when Laren’s had been noisy. In the first decades after it was founded, Laren’s had a reputation as the toughest bar in Port O’James. Law enforcement officers were almost as regular as the customers.
         This was around the time the Industrial Stimulus Act, called ISA, passed in Port Sang thirty years earlier. The government invested in modernization, automating a lot of the harbor’s services while promoting new industries and services. Port O’James was still a port town first and foremost, but there was a growing tech industry thanks to ISA’s tax incentives and education investment.
         This allowed Port O’James to escape from an economic slump, but it also created a gigantic rift between generations, with a lot of resentment toward the “ISA Kids” on the part of those who were a generation or half a generation older. Children descended from long lines of longshoremen and sailors now had access to world-class educations and white-collar careers.
         Laren’s became something of a battleground in the resultant culture war. But over time, the old regulars started to give way to new regulars, and the rough reputation transformed into a charm in its own right. The rambunctious fervor of the bar metamorphosed into an ironic imitation of itself.
         But the volume of sound, ironic or not, had died down in recent months. And so when Ana walked into her favorite bar, there was something dreamlike to it - an incongruity that, at least in her current state of consciousness (something she was pretty certain was genuine wakefulness,) refused to be contradicted.
         There was no denying that if people recognized her on the street, they tended to either stare or avert their gaze. She had never felt so self-conscious, but after weeks of this treatment, she thought she had gotten used to it.
         Walking in to see a quiet Laren’s, though, confirmed for her something that until this point she had only understood subconsciously. It was not just her. The city was on edge.
         And to be fair, it had felt on edge since the Ostrich sailed into port. But in the time that Ana had been gone, the town had gotten skittish.
         She thought about the faceless men, and how the soldiers at Far Watch had behaved strangely, unable to see them. She took some consolation that she had not seen any of the faceless men since Far Watch, and she preferred a town that was scared over one filled with people numb to near catatonia.
         Nick and George were at a table in the back – not their usual one, as there was a group of Arizi sailors taking that spot. For an instant, she considered turning around before her friends saw her, but her feet kept taking her forward.
         “There she is!” cried George. He got up from the booth and immediately went over to hug her. Ana bent down to accept the hug – George had achondroplasia, and so was over a foot shorter than she was. George wrapped his arms around her and held tight. Her eyes began to well up. George whispered into her ear “You’re back, Ana. And we’re never letting them take you away again.”
         Ana released a sobbing guffaw. “Thank you,” was all she could think to say. They had been friends since elementary school. When things got heated with her parents, Ana would stay at George’s house. One hug brought back almost two decades of friendship. It was a little overwhelming.
         Ana stood up again when Nick came to hug her. This was a quicker moment, one-armed due to a glass of beer in his hand. And there was the awkwardness inherent both in the fact that they had seen one another fairly recently at the station and the perpetual subtext of his hopeless infatuation with her. It had been her hope that, if there was any good to come of her shocking revelation as undead, that he might finally lose this attraction, but she suspected that he had not.
         That was not a problem she felt ready to confront – it was low on her priority list.
         “So,” began Nick. “How’s the process coming?”
         “Fully debriefed. Legally recognized as the same citizen I always was.”        
         “And at work?” asked George.
         “Taking a leave of absence. Harrick suggested it.”
         “To cover himself?” George has always been skeptical of law enforcement, and Ana’s choice to join the force had been met with something like shock – though the shock was couched in unconditional support, as it always had been with George. Ana had chosen the career partially because of her grandfather, Bjorn, who had always been her favorite. He had died early enough that she was able to idealize him and ignore the likelihood that he would have held to the same conservative views that had alienated her from her mother. On principle, she also decided that if she wanted a society with a more progressive and ethical law enforcement, people like her would have to join. Max Herrick had confirmed for her that she wasn’t the first person to have this idea.
         Ana shook her head. “He didn’t pressure me into it or anything. I… It’s still kind of a blur to me, you know?” She allowed a server to place a beer that one of her friends had apparently ordered for her in front of her. “I mean, objectively, I’m not back to normal. In a sense I’ve never been normal, you know?”
         “Sure, sure,” said George. It had sounded like he was going to follow this up with something, but instead he turned his attention to the bottom of his nearly-empty glass.
         Nick leaned forward. “After I got suspended, George took point on trying to get you back.”
         “I kept trying to get that Lisenrush fascist’s office, but-“
         “Lisenrush, I was trying to get in touch with her to complain. I was beginning to think they were ignoring me.”
         Ana’s own attitude toward Lisenrush had been fairly confrontational to begin with, but after their trek through the forest, she did not seem like an enemy.
         Yet Lisenrush had been the one to take her against her will to Far Watch. That had been dubiously legal. The Rangers had authority to deal with the undead – an authority that dated back centuries – but as far as Ana knew, the doctors had only put forth the idea as a hypothesis when she was taken.
         Still, she had bristled at George’s description of Lisenrush. She had been forced to put her trust in the Ranger-Captain. They had seen something that was almost unthinkable even after having witnessed it. She had expected she would get more questions from the Port Security Service, the North East Colony’s main intelligence agency, though they seemed satisfied with her statements. Perhaps they were in the process of corroborating her statements with those of Lisenrush.
         Maybe there was reason to dislike, even hate Lisenrush. But that all seemed irrelevant, given the threats they both knew existed.
         Coming back to Port O’James had felt so strange partially because it didn’t look like the world was ending here. Was it safe here?
         “It’s like something out of a nightmare,” Ana said to herself.
         Apparently it had been out loud, though, because George piped in. “Hey, Ana. We’re going to make things like they were. It’ll be ok.” George, the good friend he had always been, seemed to have adjusted to the revelation of her… physiological status with ease.
         But that wasn’t what she was thinking about. In a strange way, it almost felt like finding out she was undead was a kind of relief – a release of built-up pressure. It had been shocking at first, but she was beginning to acclimate to the notion.
         The nightmare was the faceless men. The outpost had transformed almost instantaneously. How could she be sure that the faceless men would not come back?

         Lisenrush could not feel her legs. They had her on an IV that seemed to be pumping in a lot of pain meds. Though, she supposed, not enough to prevent her from realizing she was on pain meds. And not enough to prevent her from feeling pain.
         Maybe it would be worse without the meds.
         She had never let pain get to her. When she was a kid – ages ago – she used to get into fights. She was not the best student, or even the most gifted athlete. But she had an edge in fighting, because she did not let pain bother her. She could fight stronger kids and simply outlast them. It was a way that she could win.
         Her spine had shattered when it hit that tree. The draugr had looked so frail and thin, but that was the thing about the undead – their strength was not human, physical strength. It was all channeled through mysticism and magic, not earned through practice and grit.
         Through standard medicine, she would have been confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Nothing below her abdomen would have had any function again. But all that was changing in this new, interconnected world.
         The Arizi used magic for everything, even though the doctor that the hospital brought in insisted that “magic” as it was understood by most people, wasn’t really magic in the strictest sense.
         She was not interested in philosophical debates. She could barely stay awake for two hours at a time. She suspected that was partially the boredom of being in a hospital bed.
         Sleep had been… not difficult, but it almost didn’t feel like sleep. There was a comfort, a pleasant sensation to sleep, when the mind’s logical thoughts were allowed to relax and drift on a timeless sea. Yet when she slept now it just felt like numbness.
         She looked up at the clock. It was three in the afternoon. She used the remote to turn on the television. She looked up – she just wanted to check the news – but she had the strangest sensation. She could hear the anchors talking about some sort of uncharacteristic violence in Arizradna (something that gave her a certain nationalistic smugness) but she could not see the television.
         She was staring right at the screen, but she could not tell what the picture showed. She squeezed her eyelids shut and opened them again. Was it her vision? The draugr had given her a painful head butt, and perhaps that had jostled her eyes or even her brain. But she turned her head and looked at one of the medical posters – something about proper handwashing procedures over the sink – and she could read it just fine from across the room.
         Yet when she looked back up at the television – or rather, where she was certain the television was – she did not see it.
         And strangely, she suddenly thought of Ana. Ana had seen things that weren’t there – faceless men, she said. Ana said something about seeing buildings sprouting up around Far Watch when it fell. Buildings full of these men with no faces.
         What did you see there, Lydia?
         She couldn’t say. She had not seen anything. Not that she had seen the old Far Watch in ruins or an empty patch of forest. She had simply not seen things in the places where she had looked.
         And now she was not seeing this television that was only a few feet from her eyes.
         Even at Far Watch she hadn’t felt this level of fear. She tried to think rationally why that was as her heart began to pound and she found herself desperately trying to get out of the bed as if her legs were not useless weight and her spine was not shattered into a million shards of bone.
         Ana saw them. She thought. Ana saw them. Maybe Ana can stop them.
         And then she could see the screen. There were pictures of what looked like a satellite telescope that had fallen onto a building. She could see the television with ease, its power button and volume controls, the cord reaching from the back to a plug nearby in the wall. It was perfectly ordinary.
         After all, the faceless man had moved out of the way.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2017)