Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Unnamed Shack

            Officially, there was no reason to stop them. The North East Colony had a very simple treaty with the Wastes – a mutual recognition, the potential for trade – but that did not make it any easier to convince a town full of people worried about the undead in the forest to the west to welcome a bunch of undead from a place two oceans away into their home.
            “You can’t expect people to just sit back and let these… abominations walk their streets? Those things are walking nightmares. The people are scared enough as it is.”
            Mayor Harlaw sighed and rubbed his eyes. “You know how many patrollers have gone missing out in the forest?”
            “Not off the top of my head, no,” replied Harrick.
            “Twenty. That’s a third of our defense forces. Most of the best rangers are gone. Do you know Clive Rickard?”
            “Maybe. Think I met him once or twice.”
            “Well, he’s one of the few rangers to come back. Had some disturbing news. Says the Thanatos Trees are growing. Worse – he went to Giladra’s cabin and found her sliced up, the whole place ransacked.”
            “You won’t see me shedding any tears,” said Harrick.
            “No, but it’s concerning. The point, Max, is that things are getting pretty dire. I’ve been looking through the histories, and it doesn’t check out. The Icelord’s MO was always scattered raids. No disappearances, just quick attacks, a village massacred here or there, unless they were beaten back, and then nothing for a few years.”
            “Like Altonin. I don’t see a change in the pattern. Just took him a really long time to start up the raids again.”
            “It’s possible. I won’t deny that, but the rest of it… What about the boats filled with draugar?”
            Harrick took a sip of coffee. “What about them?”
            “Nothing in the books about anything like that.”
            “Maybe the old guy’s finally changing up the tactics. He’s waited for us to lower our defenses, now he wants to take us down once and for all.”
            The Mayor shook his head. “And lose his supply of bodies? The Icelord always made sure to leave enough people to repopulate. He had a perfect system, and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it thanks to those Thanatos Trees. We just had to dig in and fight them off as best we could.”
            “So he’s changing up his game.”
            Mayor Harlaw got up to look out the window. Outside, a great, four-legged skeletal construct with two horse skulls walked, escorted by a team of enforcers. The construct appeared to be conversing with them, gesturing with two arms attached below the heads. One could not fault the Bone King for a lack of creativity. Tension ran through the Mayor’s face, as he frowned at the morbid sight. “We need their help. I don’t like it. I know they make you uncomfortable, because they sure as hell make me uncomfortable, but that’s the sad fact. The Icelord has living agents.”
            Harrick sighed. “Which, again, is nothing new. These things’ beloved Bone King was one such agent back when he was alive.”
            “You think they’re here to help him?”
            “I didn’t say that. As I understand it, there’s quite a bit of bad blood between the Icelord and the Bone King. Or at least there would be, if either had any blood. That doesn’t exactly make the Bone King our ally though. For all we know, they just want our corpses for themselves.”
            The Mayor closed the window shades. He sat at his desk. He looked even more tired than Harrick felt. Max Harrick had known Ted Harlaw for over forty years. Harlaw’s once-dark beard was now almost entirely white, with only a hair here and there clinging to its pigment. The recent events had hit him hard. Harrick hadn’t realized the Mayor was capable of showing such care in his face. “At least one of our people is a traitor.”
            Harrick shook his head. “You don’t know that.”
            “No, I don’t, but it’s more likely than not. We’re the biggest town north of Port Sang. If the Icelord’s stooge is anywhere, it’s probably right here in Port O’James.”
            “What do you want me to do?” asked Harrick.
            “You’re head of Enforcement. Do your job. Find this piece of shit and get everything you can out of him. But by Ashtor, be discreet about it. These skeletons are bad enough, the last thing we need is a witch-hunt.”
            Harrick stepped out into the cold. The snow was picking up again. Normally it didn’t come down when it was this cold, but nothing was acting as it was supposed to these days.
            In fairness, the skeletons… bone constructs… whatever they were supposed to be called weren’t really crowding the streets. Ranger-Captain Lisenrush, head of Port O’James’ militia, was talking with that Mraxinar one about the patrollers who’d gone missing. Other than Mr. Horse-head, he had only seen two guards posted outside the Black Ship they’d come in. The guards were simple, human-looking skeletons, though either because of the armor or some strange aspect of the Bone King’s methods, they seemed bulky, the bones far thicker and larger than a human skeleton had any right to be.
            It was a hell of a gamble that Mayor Harlaw was taking. It was hard to trust people who didn’t have muscles to twitch or eyes to dart.
            They must be damned good at bluffing in Marker. If they play Marker, that is.
            Harrick’s next shift didn’t start for an hour and a half, so he decided to nip down to the Unnamed Shack – his favorite dockside eatery. He’d have a nice lunch of lobster or crab, maybe with a bit of mashed potato, and a hot mug of coffee. His mouth began to water at the thought, and he picked up his pace.
            He was just putting his hand on the door handle when the loud CRACK stopped him. The sound was followed by a thunderous BOOM, and the air itself seemed to shudder at the sound.
            Harrick looked wistfully into the restaurant, even as the diners stood up to look out the window toward the dock. Harrick groaned in frustration, reluctantly turning to look down at the docks and confirm his suspicions.
            The Black Ship was completely wrecked, blown wide open. An enormous cloud of pitch-black smoke poured out of it, darkening the sky. One of the guards who had been at the dock was crawling away from it using only the thing’s arms, as the explosion had taken out everything below the ribcage.
            Harrick looked wistfully once more into the restaurant. Couldn’t have let me have one square meal, could they?

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Day in the Nightlands

            The fourth stash had been a little trickier than the others. The cold winds that blew through the Nightlands had torn off the bright green flag Milton’s benefactor had attached to the marker. Milton was somewhat tired just from the effort of walking through the desert, and his muscles ached, but all told, he was not in any great discomfort. His benefactor seemed to have plotted Milton’s course out in painstaking detail, so every time the water in his bottles got low, he found a new stash with additional supplies.
            The identity of Milton’s benefactor remained a mystery. He was relatively certain that “D” stood for “Diplomat,” the shadowy figure who had provided Milton both with the foul “coffee” that had revealed the faceless man, and the knife that he had employed to make his escape. Yet even if this theory were correct, it gave him little information. He had never seen the Diplomat’s face, and had only felt a leather glove when he had touched his hand. All he truly had of the Diplomat was his voice. Beyond that, he knew nothing.
            Overhead, the sun passed through the night sky. It was still painful to look at, but the illumination it granted was only equivalent to a full moon. Here in the Nightlands, the sun was content to share the sky with the other, more distant stars. The periods of time that should have been called days were no warmer than the true nights. Milton had never really felt the depth of the sky before – the array of stars, that so often looked flat, like a dome with points of light set in it, was somehow more clearly a vast, vast, space.
            And up, in the center of the sky, he could see the thin, gossamer thread the Ancient Arizradna called “The Path of Aeoes,” marking the trajectory the Creator had traveled from the center of the universe to the Earth, which they called “Sarona-Ki,” meaning, roughly, “solid ground.”
            He’d been walking for several hours, and the sun was setting. Despite the temperature remaining the same, the sun’s passage did serve to mark time relatively well. Milton found a decently flat place to set down and spread out on his back.
            “You dead?” Milton awoke with a start at the sound of the voice. It was not familiar. He pulled the knife the Diplomat had given him from its sheath and held it at the ready.
            The man who had spoken jumped back in surprise. “Easy there, easy. Just checking to see you’re alive.” The man had an accent, though Milton could not easily place it. It was as if the man spoke deeply and from his belly, despite not having much of a belly at all. He was very thin and very tall, and wore only a sort of brown kilt, a beaded mantle over his shoulders, and dark sunglasses. He leaned on a long staff that sunk somewhat into the sand.
            “Who are you?”
            The man nodded in a polite bow. “Senjib is my name.”
            “Mine is Milton… er, Jack Milton.”
            “Hello Jack Milton. Are you lost here?”
            Milton propped himself up. The man looked old, but still capable of giving him a good thrashing with that staff. “No.”
            “I travel the Nightlands, looking for travelers who have gone astray. In the Daylands, there is not much hope. Those of water soon dry up, and I am too often too late. In the Nightlands, though, those of water may yet live, so I search here and bring them to the village of the Arizradna to the northwest.”
            “Those of water?”
            “Like yourself. The desert is a dry place for one so wet.”
            Milton stood up. Sand fell from his clothes. The sand here was incredibly fine, just shy of being powder, and it was cool. “Why the hell are you wearing sunglasses?”
            “These are the Nightlands.”
            Senjib smiled and nodded. “That is why. Where are you going? A man of water should not journey through the desert alone.”
            “Well, as it happens, I’m going northwest.”
            “This is good! We will walk together.”
            The strange, tall man began to walk. He seemed to walk through the desert as easily as Milton would on a paved sidewalk. Milton struggled a bit to keep up, but Senjib soon noticed this and adjusted his pace accordingly.
            They’d been walking for a few minutes when Milton decided to try again. “So, the sunglasses. I’m still a bit confused.”
            “I must not let my light shine on the Nightlands. It would show disrespect.”
            “Your light?” And then it suddenly made sense. “Wait, so by ‘those of water,’ you meant human?”
            Senjib nodded. “Yes.”
            “Which makes you…?”
            “I am of the Djinn.”
            That explained it. Milton had heard stories ever since he was a child about the Djinn. Instead of liquid blood, it was said that fire burned in their veins, and that the light of that fire shined out of their eyes. But there was another part that didn’t fit: “I’m confused. The stories all say that the Djinn died out.”
            “Well, Jack Milton, look at me. Those stories are bullshit.” He laughed deeply, making a sound that did not seem possible from his slender frame. Looking at Senjib and knowing what he was, Milton was struck by the sudden realization that his skin was a dark greenish blue. Previously he’d written off the strange hue as a result of the pale illumination of the Nightlands, but now this too made sense. Senjib continued. “The stories passed down say that there were once many more of us, and that we had great cities throughout the Sarona Desert, but that was many generations ago. There are fewer of us now, but we are not gone.”
            They came across another stash. There was a bit more wind here, and the package itself had been revealed as the sand was blown away. Milton offered Senjib some of the food, but the djinn refused. “Your food is too wet. Besides, I am not hungry.”
            “You’ve been walking for as long as I have.”
            “Yes, but there is a fire in my gut that still burns hot.”
            “Suit yourself.” Milton devoured a piece of cornbread.
            The color of the sky began to turn. It was gradual, almost imperceptible, but soon it became clear that they were leaving the Nightlands. Three hours after Milton had noticed the shift, the sky had returned to its pure, light blue, and the stars were once again hidden.
            They had come across a long line of rocky cliffs. The ground here had hardened, and even little blades of rugged grass poked out. When they came to the last stash, there was a well-worn dirt road nearby. The stash came with another note:
            If you’re still alive (and you are, I hope,) you’ve reached the last of my little care packages. Follow this road north for about four miles (give or take) and you’ll find the town of Harisha. Lovely place. Bit hot, but what can you do? I’ve got you a room at the Maize House Hotel – first class accommodations and one hell of an upgrade from your previous room, I can guarantee that – under the name Zweibel. I can’t tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to having a chat with you. – D
            Milton rolled up the note and uncovered a package complete with fruits, breads, and an expensive-looking bottle of bluewine.
“Who is it that left this note for you?” asked Senjib.
            “A friend,” said Milton. “I hope.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Le Café de l'Hesaie

            The sun rose over a crisp morning in Omlos. It wasn’t cold, exactly, but every now and again the wind picked up, and anyone on the streets was suddenly reminded that, yes, it was still winter. Reston Square sat in the middle of the neighborhood known as In-Town. For a time In-Town had been Omlos’ artistic and cultural center, but in the past few decades a number of skyscrapers had been built there to accommodate various businesses, and many of the starving artists had been forced to move away. Despite this, In-Town took advantage of its old reputation, drawing tourists to its famous institutions like MTG, a bar where many now-famous musicians had gotten their start.
            Given Nascine’s cover, it seemed like the ideal place to meet. Exposure like this wasn’t exactly safe, especially given the fact that they were going after an assassin, but there wasn’t much they could do entirely alone. Tarson was staying in as much as possible. He was only a few years younger than Nascine, but he hadn’t joined the Rookery right out of college, as she had. She had to remind herself that he didn’t have her near-decade of field experience. It would be prudent to keep him inside and out of sight. She imagined he was quite bored in there – a communications operative on a mission that had gone silent – but in a hostile situation like this one, boredom was a good thing to be desired.
            She sat at a table outside of the Café de l’Hesaie, one of In-Town’s old institutions. It was actually quite pleasant. She took a bite of her ham sandwich and washed it down with a cup of very strong black tea. Her contact, a man named Yasik, sat down at her table.
            Yasik was very tall, and muscular. He wore a business suit and a kofia on his head. Nascine could hardly recognize him.
            “You look different,” she said. It was true. Every time she had seen Yasik before, he had been a short, somewhat rotund half-Arizradnan with deep red skin. Now his skin was the color of milk chocolate, and his hair was short and extremely curly.
            “It’s the hat, right?”
            “That must be it.”
            Yasik picked up a menu. “Hm. Is it too early for wine?”
            “It’s nine in the morning.”
            Yasik smiled. It was bizarre, despite the fact that every feature of his face had been changed , the smile was exactly the one she had always known. In truth, she didn’t know all that much about Yasik himself, but Tartin had introduced him to her as a trustworthy man. Tartin had always thought he was Narcian Intelligence, though one of the more outlandish theories circulating through the Rookery was that he actually worked for the University of Carathon. Still, his dossier dated back over forty years, and he’d never done anything to raise any suspicions he was not a friend.
            “I heard about your cat. I am very sorry.”
            Nascine nodded. “Thank you.”
            “You know, there are quite a few stray cats in Omlos these days. Far more than usual.”
            “Is that so?”
            “If you want, I could leave out some milk, get you one.”
            Well that was easy, thought Nascine. “You know what kind of cat I’m looking for?”
            “Oh, I’ll get you a real mouse-killer.”
            “I should warn you, though. This cat of yours. She’s a stray, certainly, but she’s got a few friends.”
            “Oh? What sort of friends?”
            “House cats.” Nascine’s stomach seemed to drop three stories. She stared at Yasik for several seconds before she regained her composure. The House? She could hardly believe it. For a moment, she thought she must have misinterpreted what Yasik was saying, but he gave a very slight nod to confirm that, yes, The House was in play here.
            Even in the Rookery, most people doubted The House existed. Yet ultimately, it made a lot of sense. Why would Queen Elona herself put Nascine on a mission to bring in Rosanna Jaroka? The Stag’s Head Cult was certainly a danger, and Jaroka was, if the intelligence was correct, a very notorious assassin, but now… This was the plan. To get to the House through Jaroka.
            She hadn’t been told. Nascine set aside her personal offense, now wondering what purpose it had served not to let her know. Yasik was talking now, so she turned her attention back to him.
            “How’s your friend? Is he enjoying the sights?”
            “No, he’s sleeping in.”
            “I’d love to pick his brain about something. Please let him know, would you?”
            Tarson? Why does he want to talk to Tarson? Maybe he just wants to check him out. Yasik’s eyes lit up when the waitress came. “Ah, my dear, I’ve been waiting for you all my life. Latté rouge et quatre beignets, s’il vous plait.” The waitress nodded and walked away.
            “Good, I was worried the servers here didn’t speak Hesaian anymore.”

            Yasik’s man was supposed to meet her at The Cave, a dive bar in Eastwatch, a somewhat less “tourist friendly” part of town. Nascine made sure to check out the place before she went in. Yasik she trusted, but this unnamed friend, she did not. The bar had two doors, one in the front, the other emptying out onto a small alleyway to the side. The alley was only about five feet wide, where the building squeezed up next to a hair salon.
            She sat at the bar with a glass of soft cider. She’d made sure to dress down as much as possible. This wasn’t exactly a singles bar, but the last thing she needed was some drunk asshole hitting on her. She had little control other than body language. She hunched her shoulders, kept her head down, and leaned on both elbows with equal weight.
            Someone came in. She glanced at him, just long enough to get a read. Instinctively, he looked out of place. He wore a plaid flannel shirt that was slightly worn, but something about it – maybe it was the evenness of the wear – looked artificial. There was a slight hint of some sort of hair product that wafted in when he entered, too. Nascine thought this must be Yasik’s man.
            He sat down right next to her, which seemed to confirm it.
            The man flagged down the bartender. “Pint of Banafel Pale Ale.” He waited for the bartender to bring him his drink before he spoke to Nascine. “We’re very flattered.”
            Nascine was confused. She glanced over at him. Despite his clearly artificial shabbiness, he held himself and spoke with great posture and form. “You’re my professor’s friend?”
            The man shook his head. “No. And I’m not speaking in code, Ms. Nascine. We are, truly, flattered. Sometimes it can be frustrating to be the ghosts, to hear people deny you even exist. Queen Elona, well, she’s been wanting to find us out for a long time. It’s an honor to be considered by such a radiant and great woman. Sadly, Ms. Jaroka has some… assets… that we are not quite ready to part with. You do understand, don’t you, Ms. Nascine?”
            “You’re with the…”
            The man put his hand on hers, a calming gesture. “No dear, let’s not discuss private matters here. I’ll tell you what, why don’t you come with me? Once we’ve left, you and I can ask each other as many questions as we like.”
            There was something in the palm of his hand, like a small flat lever. Nascine twisted his hand around hers, yanking it upwards so that his sleeve fell. There was some kind of device attached to his forearm with a leather strap. The device had two glass globes filled with some kind of powder or paste, and a long spring-loaded syringe tucked near the wrist. Nascine brought the man’s wrist down on the edge of the bar as hard as she could, smashing the globes and from the sound of it, some of the bones in his arm.
            “Now!” he half-yelled, half-yelped. Another man, sitting at a table on the far end of the bar, stood up, pulling a submachine gun from his coat. Nascine was down in an instant, ducking the bullets flying overhead before she registered hearing the gun go off.
            Back door.
            She burst out the back door, fleeing the shouts and screams coming from the bar. But not all of the shouting was coming from within. There were more from around the next corner, where the alley turned to meet the street.
            “Round back!” she heard. That way was blocked. She turned around, but the alley ended in a dead end offering only a dumpster.
            They were already coming. Nascine looked up at the walls of the alley. The rooftop was only one story up. She silently said a little prayer to whatever god looks after trapped thieves and bounded toward the dumpster, leaping on to it, then scrambling up the wall and pulling herself to the roof.
            She ran as far as she could along the rooftops, finally landing on the street when she ran out of roofs. Miles she ran, and by the time she got back to In-Town, her heart felt like it was going to explode. They hadn’t chased her. In the adrenaline-fueled flight, she hadn’t dared look back, but now she realized they had not followed her any farther than one city block..
            The House is patient.
            The she burst out laughing, eliciting strange looks from her fellow pedestrians.
            I guess that confirms it! The House is real.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Friday, June 15, 2012

Hula Girl

            Ana Sweeney could tell it was a dream because she was wearing the jacket Arthur had been wearing when he drowned. She had been fourteen when their father’s boat had capsized and she saw her brother for the last time, sinking, thrashing as he was dragged down into the dark water. The jacket was sewn over with patches displaying the names of various bands he liked. Four years older than her, Arthur was Ana’s idol. Her brother had intended to become a professional musician, and played in a band with his friends. Ana still claimed her brother’s band, which was called “The Oaks,” as one of her favorites, even though now, eleven years later, she knew it was essentially just disorganized adolescent thrashing.
            In the dream, she was sitting in a strange room. The room was extraordinarily narrow, and the floor was checkered with black and white tiles. The walls were concrete, and the light was harsh and tinged with a kind of greenish grey, like the light under the ocean. The chair in which she was sitting was upholstered with shiny red plastic in a half-hearted imitation of leather. The plastic was cracked in places, exposing dry, crumbling foam underneath. It was not remotely comfortable.
            To her side, there was a lightweight metal table with a large coffee mug. It seemed to smell just like real coffee, and yet through her dream-logic she knew it was something very different.
            A voice behind her spoke: “We use it to make a different sort of connection between the mind and the brain. It’s a sort of reverse hair-of-the-dog technique. You know that many antidotes are derived from poison? And that vaccines are just a crippled version of the disease?”
            She took up the mug and looked in. It was empty.
            “This is a dream.”
            The voice spoke back. “Yes. Specifically a lucid dream. The illusion of control.”
            “My mug is empty.”
            The voice behind her snorted. It was an obnoxious sound, and one that was painfully familiar. “Of course it is. That’s what I just told you.”
            “Shouldn’t I have some of it?”
            “You don’t need any. That’s for… other people.”
            Ana stood up. The chair groaned from the movement, and as it did, the coffee mug fell and shattered on the ground. The floor was covered with the runny black liquid, and the horrid smell wafted up to her, much stronger now. She tried to look across the room in front of her, but for some reason it was too bright to see anything, so she turned around.
            Behind her there was a mural that depicted a sunset over a tropical beach. The picture was framed with lazy, slanted palm trees, and the sky faded from deep, blood red on the horizon to cool dark blue at the top. There was a table behind the chair in which she had been sitting, and on it sat a little plastic figurine.
            The figure was only about four inches tall. It depicted a dark-skinned and dark-haired woman – with a cheap, cartoonish look to her – wearing some sort of grass skirt and a ring of flowers around her head. The figure was topless, her breasts covered by her long hair. The figure seemed to be suspended on a spring, so that as the wind from the beach flowed by, she jiggled slightly from side to side.
            Ana walked onto the beach. 
Still a dream. It’s still a dream, she thought.
There was music in the air. It wasn’t quiet, exactly, but it seemed somehow distant. She could recognize a bass, and a snare drum, and some other instrument she didn’t know that made a kind of wailing sound.
She turned to the side. There was a man there, standing on the beach. To his side, on the ground, was a thin briefcase. The man wore a black suit and did not have a face.
“Sorry I spilled your coffee, mister,” she said. The faceless man shrugged.

Cruelly, she woke to the smell of coffee, but this time it smelled like real coffee. The wind was howling outside, but there was only a light dusting of snow sprinkling down past the window. She was off duty today, for the first time in two weeks. Ever since the whole thing with the ships and the guys getting lost on patrol, Enforcement had adopted a more thorough policy – checking out anything out of the ordinary. It did a lot to make the citizens comfortable, but everyone on the force was spread a little thin.
Karin was at the kitchen counter, eating a piece of toast. She smiled when she saw Ana come down the stairs. “Morning, you.”
Ana smiled politely, then wondered if she should give her a kiss. They had been seeing each other for nearly three weeks now. Ana was not one to rush into domesticity, but after the catastrophic ending of her last relationship, she had resolved to put in some effort, try something new, and try to be a little accommodating.
Every day, Ana had to fight the nagging voice telling her that it would fall apart just like the others did. Karin was great. She was stable, seemed sane so far, at least. Even George, Ana’s oldest friend, had taken her aside when she first introduced Karin to him and told her what an improvement this one was. Yet doubt still hovered over her.
“You ok, Ana? You seem… did you sleep well?”
Ana forced a smile. “I guess. Just had a weird dream.”
“Want to talk about it?” asked Karin.
Ana took a breath. Yes, sure, why not? It’s not like there was anything embarrassing in it.
Upstairs, Ana’s phone began to ring. “Hold on.” She ran up the stairs and grabbed the phone off the nightstand. “Sweeney here,” she said.
It was Harrick. “Detective, hope I didn’t wake you.”
“No sir, I was already up.”
“Good. I need you to meet me at pier 9 when you can.”
Ana deflated. “Not another boat full of draugar?”
“Not exactly. Seems we’ve got some visitors.”
Ana took a very quick shower and got dressed. She walked down the stairs as she strapped on her holster. Karin, still in pajamas, looked mildly disappointed. “I thought this was your day off.”
“Sorry,” said Ana. She leaned in and kissed Karin on the cheek. It felt ok. Ana grabbed a piece of toast as she was pulling on her coat.
Harrick was waiting at the docks among a modest crowd at pier 9. He was leaning on his cane, something he complained about endlessly despite her reassurances that it made him look dignified.
The ship docked at pier 9 was like nothing she’d ever seen. It was not very large, barely bigger than a yacht, but it was made entirely of black metal. It almost looked skeletal, with black pipes and rib-like support beams crossing back and forth all over it. Three enormous tubes poked out of the top of the ship, choking out dense black smoke. The smell of it was everywhere. It reminded her of the coffee in her dream for some reason.
They waited as the ship came to a stop. Cables that appeared to be made of the same black metal as the rest of the ship unfurled and, as if they were alive themselves, they gracefully tied themselves around the bollards. There was a cranking sound as an opening appeared in the side of the ship, and a gangplank – again, made of the same black metal – extended down to the dock.
The figure that walked down was quite strange. From the waist up, it appeared to be a human skeleton, albeit an oversized one, wearing thick brown robes and an ominous monk’s hood. Yet below the waist, four spider-like legs chattered as the skeleton walked down toward the dock.
The skeleton’s eye sockets burned with an icy blue fire.
Ana’s hand was at the ready, very aware of the position of the gun beneath her coat. The skeleton-thing stepped off the gangplank and stopped in front of the group of people who had come.
“Good people of Port O’James, I am Mraxinar, emissary from his majesty, the Bone King of the Wastes.” Mraxinar bowed low, his two front legs folding into a kneeling position. He looked at each of the people, apparently waiting for a response.
It was Harrick who answered him. “And to what do we owe the honor of this visit, Maxi… Mrax… sir?”
“We understand that this area has been having some difficulties with the risen dead. We are here to lend our expertise.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Square of Day

            Mercifully, it got dark within the hour. Milton had thought it was morning when he made his escape, but then again, he had thought he was an hour outside of Reben as well. The Sarona spread out in front of him endlessly – in truth, given his knowledge of geography, it could be thousands of miles before he hit civilization.
            He looked back at the facility. It seemed so small behind him. He had no way of knowing if it had looked that way in the mountains, but actually, the rocks and sparse vegetation surrounding it did almost look like they could fit on a mountainside. He’d heard a theory that there were certain locations that were “shared spaces” – that you could walk into it one way and walk out on the other side of the world – but he never knew it to be anything more than highly theoretical arcane physics, let alone that anyone would actually put the principle into practice.
            The desert was sandy here. It made it difficult to walk, and Milton worried that water was going to be hard to come by. At least it meant there wouldn’t be too many insects. Of course, becoming a mummified corpse wasn’t exactly the alternative he was looking for.
            It was the Sarona, though. He was about eighty five percent certain of that. The sand had rubbed most of the blood off of his feet. Despite the difficulty in walking, the actual sensation of cool sand on his feet was pleasant. He imagined it would not be so when the sun came up. Without water, he wasn’t even sure he would make it to the next sunset.
            Milton was not entirely excited about the prospect of death out in the middle of nowhere a whole continent away from home, but it was better than that cell, and that damned faceless man. He’d resolved to never go back to that place again, but it was clear that he had been insane to try to make it out in the desert. The faceless man was gone. Probably. All that remained in there were the bodies, and those didn’t bother him as much. There could be water there. Or clothing. Or he might even be able to find a way to go back to Narcia.
            He decided to climb the next dune. If there wasn’t an oasis or, gods be good, a town, he would turn back and try the facility again. Just the thought brought back the image of the faceless man to his mind. He strained with it, trying to block the thought out from his mind. As a child, Milton had seen something – maybe it was a horror movie, or just an advertisement for a haunted house for Reap’s Eve festivities – a decayed corpse in a shower. He became convinced that the monster could be waiting for him, so he if he entered a bathroom and the shower’s curtain was drawn shut, he would whip it open to make sure it wasn’t there. He wasn’t so frightened of walking corpses these days but the habit stuck with him. He recognized that fear now, looking back at the facility in which he had been kept. It was like one giant shower with its curtain drawn shut. Only he had seen the monster within, had seen what it could do.
            It took longer than he had expected, but finally he came to the top of the dune. It was the highest for what looked like a long way. And there was a light. It was far away – maybe even miles, the air was so clear that distance seemed to shrink – but he could definitely see it. There was a light, somehow golden and blue at the same time.
            Well, he thought, it’s not an oasis, but this calls for some investigation.
            He plodded carefully down the dune, losing balance now and again, only to regain it before he fell. Despite the coolness bordering on cold, he was well aware of the dryness. His lips were beginning to chap, and his skin felt tight. It took him nearly an hour before he got close enough to see what the light was.
            It was day. There was a square of daytime, standing at the top of a dune. The closer he got, the more overwhelmingly bright it seemed. Around him, the sky was inky black and sprayed with a million stars, but through this square, the sky was robin’s egg blue, and the sand was golden and bright.
            When he reached the square, he noticed that there was something else there. It was a long, narrow log, like sun-bleached driftwood, sticking a few feet out of the ground. There was a piece of paper stapled to it, with flowing but very legible handwriting on it:
            “Great to be outside, isn’t it? Please find the package under this log. I recommend sticking to the Nightlands, but then I do prefer the cold. Either way, do bundle up. Stick to bearing 348, as best you can. –D”
            Milton pulled the log out. Sand rushed into the hole left by it, but with some effort he was able to find a rather large bundle wrapped in a tarp. Inside, he found a large backpack, and what seemed to be a kind of belt-harness with two large bottles of water slung from it. Inside the pack, other than a compass and a cigarette lighter, there were several vacuum-sealed packages with flatbread, hummus, and falafel. He tore one open and attacked it like an animal. It was, perhaps, the greatest single thing he had ever eaten in his life. Either that or he was hungry.
            Finally, there was clothing. The clothes were incredibly light, flowing robes, something he believed was called a thawb, including a sort of headdress, both of which were midnight blue. Milton put the clothes on and then donned the harness and the backpack. On one hand, he felt far more prepared, but on the other, all the weight made his steps even more awkward than they had been before.
            The day-square was just there, unchanging. This seemed to confirm it, he was in the Sarona. The Sarona was filled with weird, incongruous things. He’d heard about the street lamps growing out of the ground on the eastern side, and there was a story he’d heard of a group of office buildings that seemed to have sprung up from nowhere in the north. Milton had always assumed that these were just old Djinni ruins that only looked that way because they were so old, but this… this was no Djinni artifact. This was a square of daytime in the middle of night.
            He hoisted the backpack up, tightening its straps, then turned back once more to see if he could see the facility behind him. He could not – it was hidden by the tall dune he had climbed over – but what he did see was the sun. It had risen, judging from its height over the horizon, about half an hour ago. And yet the sky remained inky black, and scattered with stars.
            The Nightlands indeed, Milton thought. He pulled out the compass and began to walk.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Sunday, June 10, 2012


             “At 2:15, a steamcart traveling at twenty miles an hour ran through an intersection, striking Kilarny. According to the coroner, Kilarny was thrown to the sidewalk, and it was the impact of her head with the pavement that was ultimately responsible for her death. Enforcement has been unable to find the driver or the cart, but the Rookery believes it is unlikely they will have any luck. Project Sardok Gold is still in operation, but agents are advised that hostile elements are suspected. Relocation and silence advised.”
            Nascine put down the paper tape. Tarson had the little device sewn into his pants. It was flat, but she still could not imagine it was particularly comfortable. It was made of brass, and there was a small bump for the wheel that fed the paper through the machine.
            “It could have been an accident, though, right?” Tarson seemed paralyzed. He was new to all of this. Retrein had always romanticized the life of a thief. They had touted their non-violence, replacing brutish armies with subtle, nimble thieves, but many rookies were shocked to discover that not everyone played by their rules. Really, the Rookery didn’t play by its own rules either, not when it was inconvenient.
            Yes, it was theoretically possible that Kilarny had just been the victim of horrifically bad luck, but it would be ill-advised to assume that to be the case. The receiver came up with the books and a metal rubbish bin. “The good news is that I never filed your papers. Even if someone’s reading our books, they’d only know you were here if they were inside the building.”
            Nascine nodded. “And if that were the case, there’s not much we’d be able to hide from them anyway. Besides, if we’re going silent, there’s no way we’re going to be able to get new covers. We’ll be out of here as soon as we can.”
            The receiver flashed a grim smile. “I’m on the next ship home. Crow’s Nest is burnt. Are you two staying here or going home?”
            Tarson and Nascine exchanged a hesitant look. The receiver picked up a stack of files. “Right, forget I asked.” He dumped the files in the bin, struck a match, and tossed it in with them.

            The hotel they found was fancier than the Crow’s Nest, but not nearly as homey. The Crow’s Nest had been set up in a residential apartment building. As far as anyone knew, the receiver was just Tom Cart, a perfectly ordinary freelance writer who had friends over on occasion.
            Now, however, they were staying in the somewhat sanitized “Vindicator Suites.” Tarson had collapsed on his bed, throwing his bags to the ground and seemingly falling asleep the moment his body hit the mattress. Nascine, exhausted as she was, could not yet bring herself to lie down. She closed herself into the bathroom. The light here was somewhat soft, almost yellow. She stared at herself in the mirror.
            It would have been immediately obvious to anyone who knew her that she had just spent a long time at home. Abroad, her skin always darkened and even freckled, but when she was in the cozy, rain-drenched dreariness of Retrein, her skin returned to its natural ghostly white. She had considered bleaching her jet-black hair for the mission, but ultimately decided against it. Sometimes less is more.
            Kilarny was dead. Nascine had only met her once, back at the Rookery. She felt only a kind of intellectual sadness at the fact. For now, she didn’t want to think about the mission. She took a washcloth and wiped some of her makeup off. Despite what most people assumed, she never wore eyeliner. As a teenager, she had started wearing makeup relatively young, less because she wanted to look any better, and more because it made her eyes seem ordinary. At home, she had learned to embrace this about herself, but on the job, it was best to hide any distinguishing features.
            The shower took ages to heat up, but when it finally did, it was ecstasy – it was like her entire body was drinking a cup of tea. Sometimes Nascine dreamed that she could bathe in tea. She realized it was a bit of a national stereotype to be so obsessed with the beverage, but she lived up to it. She’d even filled her canteen with tea when they were out in the Sarona, at least until they ran out. Tartin loved to make fun of her for it, though of course, these days he didn’t like to talk about the Sarona trip much.
            When she got out, the view out the window had darkened. It had been slightly careless to leave the curtains open, but on the other hand if anyone knew to be looking in, all they would have seen was Tarson sleeping on the bed. Her fifteen minute vacation was at an end. She put on a pair of trousers and a t-shirt and sat at the cramped desk the hotel provided.
            Jaroka was out there. It was possible, if not guaranteed, that she had killed Kilarny. That made this a bit more difficult. The mission was not exactly a conventional one. Jaroka was a heinous criminal, really more akin to a terrorist, given her work with the Stag’s Head, but they were not there to arrest her. Queen Elona wanted to talk to her – that was all. But Nascine could imagine that a woman in Jaroka’s line of work wasn’t just going to come with the first Rookery Thief who invited her to meet the queen.
            All they had were a bunch of unlikely leads. Supposedly, Kilarny had been close to finding their mark, but any information she had was lost when her head collided with that sidewalk.
            Nascine finally went to her bed. Tarson was almost motionless in his sleep. His chest rose only slightly with each breath, but Nascine could not hear the breath at all. It was odd, though. Somehow, in sleep, he seemed older. Nascine closed her eyes, hoping she would dream of home.
            Tomorrow would be a difficult day. Jaroka didn’t want to be found, that was clear. That left them one alternative. It was time that they let Jaroka find them.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)