Monday, December 30, 2013


            There was no room left for doubt in Eitan’s mind. They were inside the house. Rinn, the dog, had yelped once, but then was silent. He’d kill them for that. He’d make them suffer. But even in the state of utter fear that Tall Man felt overtaking him, he knew that he would not stand any chance if he did not leave immediately.
            He was too high up to just jump from the window. He could break a leg, and that would doom him for sure. There was a gun on the top shelf of the closet, but he’d only fired the thing a few times at paper targets.
            There was an audible footstep downstairs. They were moving.
            He tip-toed to the closet and pulled the pistol from its shelf. He nearly forgot to take the box of ammunition with it, but the thought occurred to him before he went to leave the room.
            To get out, he would have to descend the stairs, and he was almost certain that they were already walking up them. So Eitan took a breath and stepped into the upstairs corridor, slipping into the bathroom.
            He could not hear any reaction to his movement. They had not heard him. Thankfully, the house was built of solid concrete, and the floors were just carpet over the solid surface. Hardwood floors might have creaked.
            He had anticipated this move. Maryam and Karis had already left town. He only hoped that the people who had come to kill him would dismiss his hosts as unrelated to the conflict – not worth the effort.
            Why the hell am I worth the effort? Tall Man thought to himself. Well, maybe he hadn’t been, but as soon as Mr. Flow brought him into the loop, he’d become a target. The old djinni was supposed to be on his way to pick him up, but Tall Man could not be sure he would make it – or even that Flow was still alive.
            They would be checking all the doors. He would not simply be able to wait them out. This thought occurred to him too late from him to see if jumping from the bathroom’s window would be safe enough.
            The solidity of the floor now became a liability, as he had a hard time hearing the killers as they made their way up the corridor. Still, they were close, and the moment came.
            He slammed the door outward, knocking a woman hard into the opposite wall. She fell to the ground, dropping her gun. Tall Man gave her a solid kick to the stomach and then came around.
            He had barely gotten clear of the door when a short man punched him hard in the stomach. The man punched him again, and then a third time, and Tall Man stumbled back.
            The gun fired, and the man who had punched him dropped to the ground. It took a moment for Tall Man to realize he had even aimed and pulled the trigger.
            He ran down the stairs, stumbling, and he missed the last two stairs, falling to his knees painfully when he reached the brown tile floor. He quickly got himself up and ran past poor Rinn’s body.
            Someone fired a gun and the little shrine-statue in the front hall exploded in a hail of splinters. Tall Man kept his head down and ran for the front door. It was already open. He came out into the chilly night.
            There were three men there, all in dark masks, all with guns. They looked about as surprised to see him as he was to see them. The surprise gave way, and Tall Man ducked to the side as they opened up.
            But the gunfire was very short-lived. Tall Man heard the squeal of tires and a loud thump, followed by a pair of short cracks.
            “Get in!” Tall Man heard a familiar voice say. He blinked hard and then ran toward the car.
            Mr. Flow was at the wheel, and another man who was called Iron String leaned out of the back seat with a shotgun. The assailants were all down in the street.
            Tall Man rushed around the back of the car and climbed in the passenger seat.
            “He’s in! He’s in! Go!” yelled Iron String.
            Mr. Flow slammed his foot down and the car lurched forward.
            “Tom, get back in the car before…” but Mr. Flow was cut off by the sound of shattering glass. The rear windshield exploded and Tall Man’s side mirror was suddenly obscured by blood. The car rocked as Iron String’s body fell out the window.
            “Fuck!” cried Mr. Flow.
            A block away, things were suddenly quiet and almost calm. Tall Man could hear the whistling of the wind through the broken windshield.
            He looked over at Mr. Flow. There were two circles of light in his arm and shoulder that were glowing orange, like a burning log. “Flow, you were hit.”
            “I know.” Mr. Flow bit back a wince of pain. “Eitan, you’re not looking so good yourself.”
            It was true; he was covered with blood. When Iron String got hit, it had sprayed all over him. Tall Man sighed, feeling extremely tired.  His stomach still hurt considerably from being punched. He held his hand over it.
            And when he pulled his hand away, it was covered with hot, wet blood.

            “Oh shit,” said Eitan, his head spinning. “I think I got stabbed.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Beautiful Harmony

            The forest was a set of shapes to him – shapes that changed gradually, but he took note of all that he saw. In life, he might have thought of the forest as a static thing. It had been many years, many lifetimes before his unhindered mind emerged and he was able to glimpse the undulating, writhing mass that was the forest.
            To him. To him.
            Every second of every day, every moment of every year for countless years, the same words drummed within his mind.
            To him. To him.
            And that was Stalav’s purpose now, as it had ever been. He would serve his master even when he could no longer hear the lord’s commands. The drumbeat remained, but its beautiful harmony – the master’s voice – had vanished.
            For long ages, Stalav’s mind had resonated with the calming words of the master. “You are of me,” he would say. “We are one.”
            When the faceless man took had taken hold of his arm, Stalav could no longer hear the master. He heard only one thing – a refrain that threatened to drown out even the drumbeat.
            We are one in the machine. We are one in the machine.
            No voice chanted these foul words – the words existed only in concept and theory, and even those were faded and dim.
            The arm that had been his even when he walked the world a living man was no more. It had been consumed entirely.
            “The flesh is weak,” he remembered the Icelord had said. “And blood will abandon you in time.” Stalav cut the arm, flesh, blood and bone.
            His foot connected softly with the ground as he heard one of the women speak. Her voice was light and feminine, yet there was a pain underneath it, and a roughness that seemed to contradict what he had observed of her nature.
            She had been raised, of that he was certain, though someone had gone through great care to preserve her. She was not of his master’s children.
            The other was deadly and strong. Hers was a lower voice, both in pitch and volume. She barely left tracks, but the stench of life was strong from her. He had met many of her kind in his days. Stalav himself had not been dissimilar in life.
            His people were long gone, the tribesmen who lived in the southern mountains. The Icelord had been less concerned with conservation in those days.
            The rough one would fall eventually – this did not concern him. It was the other – the dead one – that gave him pause.
            She did not seem physically dangerous. No, it was the implication of her. She might obstruct him in his plan. He would have to warn the others, but he could never come within five miles of Port O’James without being destroyed on sight.
            The first wave of exiles had made a mess of it for the rest of them, panicking and killing the crews of those ships, only to be destroyed themselves. All that they had accomplished was to warn the living, to put them on their guard.
            Stalav had been afforded his own intelligence. In fact, he had learned quite a lot since his death. He could fight, he could track, and he could keep hidden. He had served in the Icelord’s legion, and he had brought thousands of his brethren to be raised and join in the Icelord’s dominion.
            Memories of glory. Of victories and success. But the memories were fading. Ever since the faceless man touched his arm, he could feel details slipping away. Even now, with the non-arm severed and discarded, the memories had not returned.
            We are one in the machine. The chorus continued, as if broadcast via radio across the entire forest.
            At their current pace, they would reach the town in two days. He would have to decide what to do quickly. He had tracked them ever since they found his arm. They were fleeing the faceless men just as he was. Their efforts against them could prove valuable, but he could not imagine a scenario that would lead to an alliance.
            The rough one would try to kill him on sight. It was not unthinkable that she could succeed, so he would have to catch them unaware if that was how he wished to proceed. The other one…
            His hearing cut out again, replaced by a dull whining sound. He stood there for a moment, waiting for it to return.
            Yes, the other one was an unknown factor. It would be safer to butcher them in their sleep. Start with the rough woman and then move on to the dead one. The inhabitants of the town would merely think they were lost to the woods.
            Or perhaps he would be better off merely leaving them, letting them go. They had seen the arm, but they did not seem to know what to make of it. They could not have gleaned his intentions from his malformed arm alone.

            Ana took the first watch. Lisenrush only slept for three hours at a time, so it was not too bad. They stayed very close to the fire. The deerskin cloaks served as their bedding. Ana kept her back to the flames. While having the heat radiate onto her face would be more than welcome, she had an easier time seeing into the woods.
            Animals would probably be frightened away by the fire, but it wasn’t the animals that she was afraid of. There had been no sign of the faceless men since they had escaped Far Watch. Had they managed to evade them? Was that even possible?
            She wore the cloak over the front of her, exposing her back to the fire. She felt raw. She had not showered since the day she was shot. Or had she even done so that morning? It could only have been a matter of days – two weeks, at most – but time seemed to have elongated.
            The heat was isolated to only one surface of her body, but it called to mind basking in the sun on a tropical beach. She could almost picture herself out there on the sand, perhaps a nice cool drink, with lazy palm trees hanging over her. People splashing in the water…
            Her eyes closed and her chin began to drop.
            The awareness of the cold forest around her remained, but it seemed to be pushed into the background.
            Not doing very well at the watch, now, are you?
            The beach was bright and sunny, but the shade in which Ana was lying kept things remarkably cool. She could feel goosebumps on her arms.
            The man sitting next to her adjusted his glasses and touched her lightly on the arm.
            “It’s all right, Ana. You’re doing very well. You’ve been so brave.”
            She turned to him. He was short, with messy brown tufts on either side of his head above the ears, and rosy red cheeks.
            “I’m trying to keep guard.”
            “Well, she’ll be up in a few minutes anyway. I need to talk to you briefly.”
            The man stood up and walked over to her. Even standing, he was only barely taller than she was when seated in her beach chair.
            “Do you remember me, Ana?”
            Ana looked into his small, brown eyes. “I’ve seen you before. Not here.”
            “Yes, Ana.”
            The fact that his eyes looked so small even with the magnifying effect of his glasses did not seem to make sense. She thought they should look bigger.
            “This is a dream, then,” said Ana.
            “Yes, for the most part.”
            She shrugged. She realized she would be in trouble with Lisenrush for falling asleep while on watch duty, but she figured she would deal with that when she woke up.
            “Ana, I’m Doctor Meldi. You remember me?”
            “You started seeing me after your brother drowned.”
            “I remember that.”
            “All right, Ana. I need you to listen to me. It is important that you get back to Port O’James safely. Your fellow citizens are operating under a false premise. You have to make sure that Lisenrush gets there with you, or the people won’t believe a word you say.”
            “Yes, I think I had thought of that.”
            “Well, there’s a hitch.”
            “What is it?”
            “There is a draugr following you.”
            Suddenly, the beach was gone, and the forest was back, the trees illuminated by the orange flame and the dark shadows receding back into the distance, and…
            “Lydia,” said Ana. “Lydia, get up.”
            The Ranger-Captain was on her feet faster than Ana could have imagined. “What is it?” she said, the rifle already in her hands.
            “I…” Ana scanned the forest. It was utterly still and silent. The pops and crackles of the fire were the only thing she could hear. The forest stretched out into the distance, still and unchanging.
            But for a split second, just as she had woken up, she could have sworn that in that deep black darkness, she had seen a pair of pale blue eyes staring back at her.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)