Friday, May 17, 2013

The Fall of Far Watch

            Lisenrush had scrambled to her command post, with Ana trailing behind her, slower because of her lack of shoes, the pain in the wound that was still just barely held shut by thick black thread, and the fact that frankly, the Ranger-Captain was in far better shape than she was.
            The faceless man had not followed them. As far as Ana could tell, it would not need to follow them to be where they were. She had seen it appear in many places, but it always seemed to just be there and then not.
            The path from the building in which she had been held to the command post was paved – a sort of sidewalk without a road that ran down the length of Far Watch. It was nearly covered with snow, except for a few spots where salt had been spread to keep the snow from building up. Whoever had had the job to spread the salt had done a terrible job, though. Ana felt herself slipping on more than one patch of black ice – the biting cold sending spikes of pain up her legs.
            Just as she was running up the ramp that led to the command post’s door, Ana heard Lisenrush’s voice over the PA. “Alert, alert. This is the Captain. We have an intruder. Hostile code Torem. Repeat, Hostile code Torem. All personnel, report to…” and then there was a screech of feedback and the sound cut out.
            Ana ran through the door. The interior of the command center was not that different from the enforcement station in town, but she realized then that she had no idea where in the building Lisenrush might be.
            She ran down the relatively wide hallway that the door opened into and found herself in a large room – what appeared to be the mess, with tables and benches and a kitchen in the back.
            “Captain?” she called. No response. Ana’s stomach groaned. It was a very odd thought to come at this moment, but she was suddenly aware again of how hungry she had become. Ana ran toward the kitchen – a few slices of white bread would be perfect, and if she could find some cold meat in the iceboxes, all the better.
            Is this the time for that? thought her more rational side. Yet as her stomach churned and groaned again, she shut out such thoughts and went into the kitchen.
            It was so cold inside. The whole building seemed to have had the heat turned off, and the tile floors were almost as bad as the ice outside. Ana flung the door of the largest icebox open. Indeed, there was a lot of meat – sausages, jerky, sliced roast beef. She pulled out a package and stuffed several slices into her mouth.
            Ok, now you move.
            It was enough – she would use the energy to continue her flight. It occurred to her that in the long run, this might have been a far better idea than just fleeing into the woods right away.
            And that was when she saw the dead men on the ground.
            There were three of them. One had been shot in the head. An other had been slashed viciously across the shoulder and throat. The last, lying facedown on top of the other two, seemed to have been beaten with some blunt object.
            The food nearly came all the way back out. Ana leapt backward, smashing her back into the door of the icebox. She winced in pain, but then turned to run back out through the dining area of the mess.
            She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw that there was someone standing there. It was one of the militia, a corporal, Ana thought. He stared at her with a blank expression.
            “Where’s Lisenrush?” asked Ana.
            The man just looked back at her, his mouth half-open, his eyes unmoving. He was pale – ghostly pale, with snow-white skin and jet-black hair.
            He was dripping something that had formed almost a pool around him. There was a strange, sharp smell to it. It took her only a moment for her to realize that it was the coffee from those strange dreams.
            As if her recognition was all that was needed, the man opened his mouth and the coffee began to flow freely from it, as if he were a fountain. The liquid filled his eyes, and soon he was covered in inky blackness.
            He would be able to intercept her either way she ran, and as far as she knew, the kitchen had no back exit. The man groaned loudly – a pained and whistling sound.
            Ana’s eyes shot around, hoping to find a butcher’s knife or a rolling pin or anything she might use, but she was relatively isolated on that side of the kitchen. Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw movement among the pile of bodies.
            The dripping man lurched forward, faster than she had ever seen someone do so. She tried to slide to the left to dodge him, but he was too fast. The man took hold of her hand and gripped it hard, the slick liquid that was now oozing from every orifice doing nothing to mitigate his vice-like grip.
            She pulled back, hoping to break his balance, desperately trying to remember any of the unarmed combat skills she had learned in basic training years ago. She kicked up at his crotch, but even when she connected, the man did not flinch.
            He opened his mouth wide now – wider than a human mouth should be able to open. His teeth had transformed into something like a metal beak. There was nothing fleshy inside the mouth – it was as if the human shape she had seen was a mere disguise – a shell over something utterly non-human.
            The man’s head rocked to the side as a bullet ripped through it, nearly a quarter of it showering outward across the room. There was no true gore – simply more of that dark liquid Ana instantly decided to no longer refer to as coffee, and some shards of what looked like dark metal.
            The man still held his grip, the beak of teeth gnashing as she pulled away from it.
            Another shot, this time lower, removing the head altogether. Finally, the claw released, and Ana ran all the way to the other side of the mess.
            “Are you ok?” asked Lisenrush, as she chambered another round in her bolt-action rifle.
            “Not even remotely, but I’m intact,” said Ana.
            Lisenrush looked over the dead man – or really, the dead thing. Ana was not even sure if what had attacked her had ever been a man.
            “Jorgensen,” said Lisenrush.
            “That was Jorgensen. Decent soldier. He seemed fine an hour ago.”
            Ana looked to the kitchen. “There’s more in there,” she said, pointing.
            Lisenrush walked in. She fired three times, apparently one into each body, but thankfully Ana could not see, her view blocked by the kitchen counter.
            “This scare you, Sweeney?” she said. Ana realized she was shivering, though it felt more like the effects of adrenaline and the cold than fear. Fear was making her stomach feel like a ball of lead. “The draugr’s the one who’s scared. Right,” she said as she put another magazine into the rifle.
            “We need to get back to town. We need to warn everyone.”
            “And tell them what? What is happening to my men?”
            “How should I know?”
            “They’re coming back as draugar, but Jorgensen wasn’t even dead. I didn’t think the Icelord could turn living people.”
            “Captain, I don’t think these are draugar.”
            “What do you mean?”
            Ana tried to point to Jorgensen, but without a head, he would not prove her point. “Their eyes. They aren’t blue.”
            “The Icelord’s draugar have glowing blue eyes. The thing that attacked me didn’t.”
            “You don’t have glowing blue eyes,” said Lisenrush.
            Ana sighed. “Exactly.”
            Lisenrush looked around, checking the doors. “So what are we dealing with, then? That was one of my men, but if he’s not a draugr, then…”
            There was a loud sparking sound, and then an explosive blast outside. The lights went out. The room was suddenly dark, except for the blue light reflected off the snow outside and in through the windows.
            “They got the generator,” said Lisenrush. “We need to get moving. Get outside and make for the trees. Head east until you hit the road, then follow it south to town.”
            “Right,” she said, trying not to imagine the hours of hiking through snowy woods with no shoes. “Where are you going to be?”
            “Best case scenario, right next to you,” she said. “But just in case I’m not, I want you going that way.”
            They quickly made their way back to the door Ana had entered the building through. Lisenrush gestured for Ana to take cover by the side of the door. Ana did so, and Lisenrush kicked it open.

            Only minutes had passed, but the scene that met them was utterly unlike the base that Ana had run through.
            The ground was flat, almost like sandstone but grey and colorless. The air was exactly room temperature, and the only sound was the patter of a light rain – one that smelled dirty, somehow, as if it had caught foul chemicals on the way from the clouds to the ground.
            Rising up on either side of this central road were immense buildings – perfectly rectangular, with evenly spaced dark windows. Beyond, she could see the wintery forest, but it stopped suddenly, as if someone had painted over the reality of Far Watch with this new, strange fragment of a city, leaving a seam along the edge where the world she had known ended and this new one began.
            And the faceless man was standing in the center of the road.
            “Give me the rifle,” said Sweeney.
            Lisenrush shot her a skeptical look. “Absolutely not. I’m not arming…”
            “GIVE IT TO ME NOW!” roared Ana, and rather than waiting she pried the rifle out of the Ranger-Captain’s hands. She had no time to process how easily she had removed the gun from the other woman’s grip, and instead aimed and fired.
            The faceless man simply ceased to be there, and she even heard the bullet ricochet off the ground.
            “Sweeney,” said Lisenrush, reaching for the rifle. Ana hushed her with a gesture. She scanned the road, trying to see if the faceless man had simply moved too fast. She poked her head out of the door, checking both sides. Satisfied that she did not see anything to threaten them, she stepped out.
            “Sweeney, give me the rifle back now,” said Lisenrush. But Ana ignored her. It was silent. The rain was falling, but she could not hear it as it touched the ground. “I’m warning you, Sweeney…”
            She turned back to Lisenrush, who had stepped out of the command center. “You can’t see them. Not consistently at least. The rifle’s useless for you. Now… Oh fuck me,” she said, as she looked at the skyscraper that now stood where the command center had been literally seconds earlier, not two feet from where they were standing.
            Every single window, stretching up the dozens of stories that the building rose to, every single one had a faceless man standing there.
            Lisenrush followed Ana’s gaze up at the building. “How the hell…?”
            “Run, now!” yelled Ana, and the two of them did. They sprinted out toward the trees, the ground suddenly growing soft and textured as they leapt over the seam between where they had been and the real world.
            After they had been running for nearly fifteen minutes, Ana risked a look back. They had gone too far to see the buildings, and now all she could see were trees, snow, and rocks. But she knew Far Watch was gone – eradicated. Lisenrush slowed her pace and turned. “Sweeney, keep moving, or I’ll leave you behind.”
            “Yes, sir,” she responded, and they made their way farther into the forest.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)

Friday, May 10, 2013

Corridors of the House

            Nascine rode back to her flat immediately. She would file away Tartin’s strange actions – how he had broken into that strange tinker shop by the Finger’s Market - and deal with that when she could. For now, she wished only to process what Harren had told her.
            One thing of which she was certain was that the notion of Elona as an Agent of the House was impossible. Even in her most paranoid imaginings, Elona could not be a deep-cover Agent. If anything, Elona was probably the House’s greatest adversary.
            You think that fairly confidently for someone who did not believe the House existed until recently.
            Nascine hurriedly made for the lift, nearly forgetting to put the cord in her bike’s cable-plug.
            Harren had come to her. He knew she was investigating. The man was Thiefmaster of the Rookery, a position that was hardly low-clearance, or one to be given to a man who could, even within the slightest realm of possibility, be an enemy, or so she had thought. Could Harren himself be the Agent that Yasik had warned her about? Or perhaps he had been deceived – fed false information in order to foment chaos that might throw the Rookery off the real Agent’s scent. Either way, when it was his word against that of a woman who had ruled Retrein for almost three thousand years, Nascine felt it was Elona who deserved greater trust.
            She would have to be decisive. Every moment she held on to this meeting with Harren, she was declaring herself in his camp. Even staying home for the night could be unwise.
            The Queen seemed to prefer setting up their meetings herself. Nascine had never been the one to initiate. She would need to call upon the queen. She knew not to fret about judgment and interpretation – a good scout would tell only what he or she saw. She would tell Elona what Harren had said, and where, and when.
            A cup of tea. She needed one. Nascine went to the kitchen and put the kettle on. She stood there for several minutes. She passed the time by looking at the photos magnetically attached to the icebox. One of them was the old picture of her grandmother meeting the queen. It was a strange thing, to see this weathered and faded photograph portraying a woman that looked exactly as she did today. There was something unsettling about it. Those eyes that had seen so much – far more than any other human alive, Nascine was sure – and yet they looked just as clear and white as a healthy young woman’s.
            What are you, Elona? she thought.
            The kettle began to whistle. That seemed fast. There had not been much water in there, so perhaps she had merely overestimated how long it would take. The real point was that tea would be there soon.
            She tossed a bag of Terely Tea into a mug and poured the boiling water over it. The steam rose up, and for a moment she felt a calm wash over her. She stirred the tea to cool it – she required no milk or sugar this time – and finally took a sip.
            As if the tea were a potion, Nascine felt every muscle in her body suddenly relax, She smiled, rejoicing in the relief and allowed her mind to drift to less worrying thoughts.
            She put the mug down on the counter. It slipped and fell on the floor, shattering.
            She stumbled backward, her eyelids growing leaden. The feeling rushing through her was pleasant. It was shockingly pleasant, like the moment that one feels as one truly drifts away into sleep.
            When she hit the ground, it didn’t even hurt. Or rather, it hurt distantly, a mere memory of pain.

            The world flowed around her, as if everything she could see was a projection on a fountain’s spray. She seemed to be sitting in a chair upholstered with fake leather. Everything was totally silent – it was as if her mind had simply shut off the notion of sound.
            She stood, feeling totally weightless, and drifted down the corridor in which she had found herself, her bare toes occasionally brushing the black and white tiles on the floor.
            The corridor opened up, and she found herself floating above a still, cold lake high above the tree line on some cold mountain. The sky was marbled with grey and white clouds.
            There was a cacophonous howl of wind, so intense that she felt tears streaming from her eyes. She suddenly felt as if she were in a different place, below the mountains, in a forest. She did not know the place.
            She was walking now – her feet touched the ground – but she still felt that this could not be real, that she was still having some sort of dream.
            They (and she was not alone now, was she?) came to a small clearing in the woods. There was a thatched-roof hut, very small, that she felt pushed toward. The entrance was perfectly dark, and she felt trepidation well up inside her like a rushing river of frigid water.

            “Easy now,” said the man standing over her. “Just try to breathe.” The room was very dark, and she could barely see the man’s face, just enough to note that he wore a pair of spectacles. The only illumination seemed to be an oil lamp on the other side of the room.
            She was soaking wet. Her hair was saturated with water. She had been wrapped in a thick wool blanket, and, she realized, she was naked underneath it.
            She tried to sit up, but found that her muscles refused to do the job.
            “It’s only been about twelve hours. You’ll have to give yourself a little more time,” said the man. He had a Narcian accent, and spoke with a confident quickness that made her think he might be a military officer, or at least someone who considered himself very powerful.
            “Where am I?” she tried to say, though it came out more as “Ere m’I?”
            “We’ll have to talk about that when you’re more fully recovered. Suffice it to say that we just pulled you out of the Lockey River.” Nascine’s vision was growing clearer. She could see that he was an older man, perhaps in his late fifties. “My name is Barclay,” he said.
            Nascine blinked. She could now see that they were in a small room, with a doorway that led off to the rest of the building she was in. It was similarly dark in there, also dimly illuminated by lanterns.
            She could make out a few figures there. They were bustling around, but beyond the movement and the impression that they were probably men rather than women, she could not tell anything else.
            “Who?” she managed to get out in a decently audible manner.
            “We’re friends. You drowned. You’re very lucky we’re the ones who found you. Someone slipped you a powerful drug - something most people wouldn’t look for, wouldn’t know how to treat.”
            Nascine tried to stretch her vocal muscles internally. They felt stuck, as if someone had allowed a layer of paint to dry over them. “I’m… gracious.” The words came out weak, and it felt as if something was scratching her throat as she said them. “But who are you?”
            Barclay smiled awkwardly – an odd expression on his weathered veteran’s face. “Well, technically speaking, we’re the House.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)