Thursday, February 12, 2015

2. Fifty Miles Out of Bajada

Fifty Miles Out of Bajada

            The highway stretches out for what seems like eternity. To the east, the desert is all smooth dunes, like slow waves over a yellow ocean. To the west, the vast El-Katha Oasis accompanies the highway, not daring to get too near and provide the cool of shade.
            The day seems like it is going to last forever. Ivan squirts more sunscreen on his skin and rubs it. Eris lets her eyes drift as he does this. He cannot seem control himself as he sensuously rubs the lotion in a repetitive pattern into his muscles, or perhaps she is projecting her own insatiability onto him. His hair is sun-bleached, far too white, especially given how the tanning and burning has made his skin dark. Eris has been careful. She has managed to avoid getting burned.
            She has a hard time keeping her eyes off of his arms as he rubs the lotion deep into his skin. Her attention lapses, and in that moment, she does not see the dog wander into the road.
            There is a horrible sound, a yelp accelerated. She slams on the brakes. Ivan drops the sunscreen bottle, and it launches itself at the windshield, splattering its contents all over the dashboard.
            “What was that?” asks Ivan.
            “Dog… I think it was a dog.” She is trembling. She has never hit an animal before. She loves animals. She had a dog once when she was a child, and immediately she imagines the pain that the dog’s owner will be feeling when she finds out what has happened. And then a selfish thought occurs to her. She imagines the horrifying gore that could be left on her car. She was traveling at a high speed. There could be blood and intestines. In her mind, the insides are all intestines, those horrific, unwinding worms that seem to come out of a body, or so she imagines.
            Ivan is frozen, a stupid, open-jawed look on his face. He had distracted her. It was his fault, though even in her panic and anger she also realizes that this is idiotic, and that it is her fault.
            It takes her an eternity to open her door. She steps out of the car and, eyes clenched nearly shut, so that her vision is nearly dark, but for a few bright sources of light, she walks forward.
            “Do you want me to look?” asks Ivan.
            “No!” she shouts back.
            Now panic sets in. What if it wasn’t even a dog? What if it was person? Or a child? She considers how this one moment might have ruined her life. If she had killed a child, she would go to her grave knowing that she had done that.
            And it occurs to her that even if it is a dog, she will still never forget this moment. The memorable moments are so horrific. She thinks about how it is always best to live in those unmemorable moments, when one can perhaps reflect on the memorable ones from the safe distance of time.
            She opens her eyes.
            The car is undamaged. There is no blood.
            She looks back behind the car. There is no dog. No smeared trail of gore and viscera, nor any sad lump of fur and skin. There is no dog there at all. No child. No garbage left to fly off the back of a truck.
            “Ivan?” She is not relieved.
            He gets out. He looks back down the highway. He clearly sees nothing either. “Maybe it got thrown from the road?” The highway is raised, and there is a slope a few feet tall that leads down to the desert floor. Eris walks to the side of the road and looks down. Still, there is nothing. She goes back to the front of her car and inspects it once again. There is no damage. None of the blood or intestines that she had imagined flying out from the dog.
            There is a horrible sound, a yelp accelerated. Every muscle in her body tenses up. She looks up to Ivan, who has turned his head. He is looking back behind the car. He is nearly motionless. His eyes appear to be tearing up.
            “What did you see?”
            Ivan shivers tremendously. He steadies himself on the car. He cannot seem to speak. His mouth opens, and he inhales, as if about to speak, but no words come out. He closes his mouth.
            Eris walks around the front of the car, standing just out of reach of him.
            His mouth opens, and he inhales, as if about to speak, but no words come out. He closes his mouth.
            There is a horrible sound, a yelp accelerated.
            She watches as the dog, bursting like a bloody balloon, vanishes forty feet behind where the car had stopped.
            She steps closer to Ivan. Her mouth opens, and she inhales, as if about to speak, but no words come out. She closes her mouth.
            A brown dog with light fur on its face slowly climbs up the slope toward the highway. It is a fairly large dog, but not unusually so. The dog sniffs the black pavement and then begins to walk out onto the highway.
            There is a horrible sound, a yelp accelerated.
            Eris watches as the dog, bursting like a bloody balloon, vanishes.
            A dark cloud is forming in the sky above. It is not a rain cloud, because rain doesn’t come in this part of the desert at this time of year. The sky is growing darker, and the air is growing colder.
            A brown dog with light fur on its face slowly climbs up the slope toward the highway.
            Eris gets back in the car. “Get in, Ivan,” she says. He does, and as he closes the door, there is a horrible sound, a yelp accelerated.
            The car begins to move, and they travel farther down the highway. Behind them, the sound of the dog grows fainter, but it does not become inaudible.
            Ivan’s mouth opens, and he inhales, as if about to speak, but no words come out. He closes his mouth.
            The cloud grows larger and lower. It is no longer a cloud, but fog. The fog is thick and wet and grey. The highway is dark now.
            And an emaciated man with dead eyes appears in front of the car. The car stops.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2015)

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Stalav's Bane

            The sun was going down. Hopefully it would be the last sunset they saw before coming home. Far Watch was gone. It was painful to think how quick the journey might have been if they had had the time to take one of the trucks, but the long dredge through the snowy woods was finally coming to an end.
            “Rest. Eat this,” said Lisenrush. She handed Ana a handful of berries.
            “Berries? Really?”
            “They won’t fill you up, but they’ll keep you going. How are the shoes?” Ana’s deerskin moccasins had almost fallen apart, and she was forced to readjust them frequently. The hides that they used as jackets now smelled beyond terrible, and Ana was sure that they would have to take a large dose of antibiotics each when they got back to Port O’James after having held the rancid things on their backs for so long.
            Or at least Lisenrush would have to. Ana had been sick before, but never seriously. As she understood it, a cold was pretty much the basic response of an immune system to anything foreign, which meant that it could mean nothing other than an allergic reaction. She had survived a gunshot wound and her heart had stopped for twenty-two hours. Maybe she couldn’t really get sick. It was strangely unnerving to think that she might be perfectly safe with this rotting thing on her back.
            Doctors. It had been a doctor that had turned her over to Lisenrush in the first place. “What happens when we get into town?” asked Ana.
            Lisenrush sat down and took a swig from her canteen. She had filled it with snow, which melted into perfectly safe water thanks to the warming temperatures. “We’ll tell them what happened at Far Watch.”
            “And what happened?”
            The Ranger-Captain looked up. “What do you remember?”
            “Let me hear it from you first. You’re the one they’re going to listen to. If I say anything, they’ll call me a liar.”
            Lisenrush nodded with resigned agreement. “There was some kind of presence at Far Watch. Something invisible, but it was affecting my men. And they were being transformed into something very dangerous.”
            “That’s a lot of somethings.”
            Lisenrush glared at her, but Ana could see that she was aware of the problem. “And then the buildings changed into tall… nondescript buildings.”
            “Yes, but… there was something odd about them. It was like they were only meant to evoke buildings. No glass in the windows.”
            “And no doors.”
            “Yes! Yes, there weren’t any doors.”
            “What do you think we’d find if we went back there?” asked Ana.
            Lisenrush shook her head. “We’re not heading back there. Not yet. Not until we can regroup.”
            “Did you see the faceless man?” asked Ana.
            Lisenrush didn’t answer.
            “Did you see it?”
            “I saw… something.”
            “Well, at least there’s that.”
            They were quiet for a moment. Ana ate some of the berries. They were small and oddly tough, and they had barely any flavor.
            “What happens to me when we get back to town?”
            Lisenrush sighed. “I don’t know…”
            “You don’t know? Lisenrush… Lydia. After what we’ve been through, I would think… no, you know what? Never mind.”
            “I won’t let them kill you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
            “If that’s even possible.”
            Suddenly, Lisenrush dropped low. Ana followed her suit. “What is it?”
            The Ranger-Captain swept the surrounding woods with her eyes. “I thought I heard something.” She waited a few more seconds. “No, never mind.”
            “Have you been sleeping?” asked Ana.
            “Not well. You?”
            “No.” Lisenrush relaxed. She rubbed the back of her neck. Ana’s eyes widened. “Is it worse?” asked Ana. There was a small grey square on the back of her neck – colorless and formless.
            “I’m not sure. Maybe you should take a look…” And she turned around just in time to see the sword swinging toward her face.
            Lisenrush ducked as the sword buried itself in the tree beside her. The arm that yanked the sword loose again with tremendous force was thin, wiry, and a kind of sickly grey. The arm belonged to a tall, armored draugr.
            Ana fell backward. There was no time to think where the thing had come from, only time to react. She noticed, as she leapt backward, that the draugr’s other arm was missing, and instead ended in an unworldly white block, where the flesh was robbed of all its descriptive features.
            Lisenrush punched forward into the draugr’s leg, causing its knee to bend. The draugr stumbled forward, slashing at Lisenrush as he came down. He grazed her, tearing through her sleeve and slicing into her arm. Lisenrush screamed in pain and anger, but the blade was dull, and the cut was shallow.
            Ana pushed herself forward and struck down at the draugr’s arm, trying to aim for his wrist and maybe make him drop the sword, but she only hit his forearm, and in an instant she felt his elbow connect with her face, crunching into her nose and sending her stumbling to the ground. Thankfully, she fell on her ass at the moment that the draugr swung the sword at where her face had been, and it sailed above her.
            Lisenrush kicked forward, planting her boot directly in the draugr’s abdomen. This was finally enough to throw him off balance, and he fell backward, the sword falling from his hand.
            She kicked again, this time aiming for his face, but he caught her foot and twisted, and then threw her off. Lisenrush yelped in pain as she landed on her broken ankle. In the blink of an eye, the draugr was up again and grabbed Lisenrush by the back of her neck. The draugr yanked her forward and smashed its skull into her face. Then, it threw her into a nearby tree, and the Ranger-Captain crumpled like a rag doll.
            As Lisenrush was moaning on the ground, the draugr turned to Ana. She looked into his pale blue eyes – the same blue she had seen in the hold of the Ostrich an entire life ago. The draugr took a step forward, and then there was a horrific sound.
            It took her a moment to realize that the sound was coming from the draugr. It was screaming. The draugr took its head in its remaining hand, shutting its eyes tightly and… was it sobbing?
            Ana’s heart was pounding. Everything had happened so quickly, but now the draugr had stopped. She looked down. Lisenrush’s rifle was on the ground between Ana and the draugr.
            If she didn’t kill it, it would finish Lisenrush.
            And without Lisenrush, they’ll burn you to death.
            She could get the rifle if she dove for it, but the sword was within his reach as well.
            No time to delay.
            And just as she was about to dive, the draugr grew slack. It opened its eyes. The pale blue glow was gone. Its eyes had become black spheres, and the colorless white of its shortened arm spread across his skin. The skin grew more solid, less translucent. The tears and flaws of death and decay faded.
            She dove.
            The draugr bent down and took the sword in its hand. With a deft twirl, it brought it into a stabbing grip, with the blade pointed down.
            Ana took the rifle in her hands and rolled onto her back. The draugr raised the sword above her. She aimed, and the sword hung in the air for a moment.
            She fired.
            The bullet shot right through the back of the draugr’s head, leaving a clean hole going through from one side to the other. For a horrible moment, Ana believed that the draugr had survived.
            But then the sword fell from its hand. The blade fell on her, but it turned as it fell, and she was hit only with the flat of it. The draugr’s neck grew slack, and its head lolled over to one side. The body followed suit, falling down to the ground.
            Blood was pouring from Ana’s nose. She wiped some of it away with her arm. It hurt like hell. She felt as if she could fall to the ground as well, but then her eyes fell on Lisenrush’s crumpled frame.
            “Lisenrush!” she cried out. She ran over to the Ranger-Captain. “Lisenrush… Lydia, can you hear me?” Carefully, Ana ran her hand along Lisenrush’s back. There was no obvious break in the bones, though Ana was not sure if a break like that could be so easily detected.
            Ana rolled the Ranger-Captain onto her back. Lisenrush’s face had been beaten badly. Already it was swelling and purple where there wasn’t actual blood. “Lydia, Lydia, listen to me!” Ana yelled.
            Lisenrush was making a strange, animal-like sound. Ana hoped that she was moaning with pain.
            “Lydia, listen to me, I’m going to get you home. I’m going to get you home. The draugr’s dead.” Ana glanced over. Yes, the thing was still there, perfectly still on the ground. She got up and picked up the thing’s sword and tossed it a few yards away. “You’ve got to… Can you hear me?”
            Lisenrush didn’t respond. If she was conscious, it was only just barely.
            “Shit! Shit!” yelled Ana. She took a deep breath. She examined Lisenrush. She could not take her boots. Ana had heard the crack of Lisenrush’s ankle breaking, and it wouldn’t do to take those boots off of her.
            Shuddering, she looked to the draugr. It had boots, of a sort. They were really more like greaves, but under the plate metal there were leather shoes. Her moccasins were nearly useless.
            The draugr’s boots were tight, but they fit her. Now that she could examine it, she realized that the draugr was actually shorter than both her and Lisenrush. The armor was built to fit it, and looked positively ancient.
            Just to be safe, she put two more rounds in the skull.
            “Ok. Ok.” She breathed deeply again. Lisenrush was quiet, but her chest was rising and falling. Slowly, Ana bent down and struggled to get her arms underneath her. She heaved, and grunted loudly as she brought the Ranger-Captain up onto her shoulder.
            She nearly fell down, and stumbled a little before she could regain her balance. She reached out to the tree, coincidentally putting her hand on the gash that the draugr’s sword had made.

            “First step’s the hardest,” said Ana, and she made her first step toward Port O’James.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2015)

Tuesday, February 3, 2015


            Muiggenschire spread out before them. The end of the tunnel had come suddenly. One moment she was in pure darkness save the beams of torches next to Darron, and the next, Nascine was looking out into a green, wet woodland.
            The ruins were disappointingly small. The whole thing was just a relatively small amphitheater made of stone. The Woodfolk were still something of a mystery. The general theory was that they were just old pagans who still worshipped the Wild Spirits, but went north rather than south to Hesaia, and later intermarried with the Narcian colonists who settled Retrein. There were some more outlandish theories, though, that made them out to be people who had actually been made of wood, or people who could walk through trees as humans moved through air. Other legends held that they were a fair-skinned species that was not quite human, with a culture and mentality utterly alien to that of humans.
            They seemed to be gone, much like the Djinn of the Sarona. Though Nascine was of the opinion that the most rational explanation was the correct one, and that in all likelihood many of her own ancestors had been among them.
            Darron zipped up his jacket. He was shivering slightly at the cold, though it couldn’t have been less than fifty-five degrees. He would not be able to draw his gun. Nascine made a mental note of this.
            “Up this way,” said Darron. He walked up the steps of the amphitheater, to the top of a hill. There was a metal gate that had been padlocked shut. Darron withdrew a small key and let them out, placing them on a paved path. There was a display with historical information overlooking the amphitheater. Nascine was surprised to find that the entryway to the mine was not particularly hidden. Still, it had the look of a part of the ancient architecture. For all she knew, the walls of the mine were covered in the graffiti of bored teenagers, but it was unlikely any had ventured all the way through the mine, given the sheer distance that needed to be covered.
            “There’s no one here,” said Nascine.
            “It’s a holiday.”
            “Which one?”
            “Queen’s Crowning,” said Darron. That gave her a bit of a shock. If it was Crowning, she had been gone for months.
            They passed through a gateway marked “Retrein Historical Society Heritage Site – Muiggenschire” and came to a rather small parking lot. There was a nondescript car in the lot.
            “Driving back to Ravenfort?” asked Nascine. She had made up her mind not to go back to the Rookery, at least not until she had spoken directly to Elona. The challenge of actually getting in touch with the Queen was enough of a problem – all her previous meetings had been initiated by Elona – but she had hoped there might be some time between her escort by Darron and her arrival at the hospital in which she would be left alone. Perhaps, she thought, it would be unwise for Darron as an agent of the House – the “real, good House,” or whatever – to be seen with her. But if she was stuck in a car with him, it would be considerably trickier.
            “That’s the idea,” said Darron. “Here’s the part you’re not going to like.” And with that, he opened the trunk. There was a set of blankets and a pillow inside.
            “We can’t have anyone seeing you in the car with me. I’m just going to be driving in there, visiting a friend who’s sick, and once I’m out of the car and my guy tells me there’s no one in the garage to see you, you’ll pop out of the trunk and head to Doctor Levinson’s office on the sixth floor.”
            Nascine stepped back.
            Darron smiled. It was a charming smile. Darron was handsome. She wondered if that was calculated – if that was why he had been sent to escort her back and convince her to get into the trunk of a car. “You’re understandably hesitant,” said Darron. “I totally understand. Is there any way we can make it more comfortable for you?”
            “I’m not going to ride in there,” she replied. You’re accelerating the conflict here, she thought.
            “Ok,” said Darron, his hands up. His fingers were shaking a bit from the cold. “It’s fine. We can get a different vehicle. It’ll just take some time.”
            “No,” said Nascine. “I’ll get there on my own.”
            Darron frowned. “You’re not claustrophobic, are you?” Nascine knew better than to bluff him by saying yes. There was nothing really for it now.
            Darron’s tone changed. “Get in the trunk. We have to go now.”
            “I’m ok. I’ll go,” said Nascine, putting her hands up and moving toward the car. Darron stood behind the car, one hand resting on the trunk’s door. She lowered her head and stepped forward, allowing Darron to get close.
            “Ok, now watch your head, because…”
            She swung around and grabbed his head with both hands, smashing him into the trunk door. Darron yelped as blood squirted out of his nose. He lunged forward at her, but Nascine caught his arm and pulled him around into the trunk. She surprised herself with how easily she had done it – even his feet were inside. His fist flailed out at her, grabbing the hem of her shirt. She brought the door down hard, and Darron yanked his hand back to prevent it from getting crushed. The trunk was closed, but her shirt was still caught under the door.
            She yanked at it, pulling as hard as she could until the fabric tore and she broke free. She stumbled back, breathing heavily. She was shocked that she had been able to trap him so fluidly. She smiled to herself, allowing a moment to savor a short-term victory that was sure to lead to new complications down the road.
            BANG! BANG!
            Two holes appeared in the trunk door. Nascine leapt back. The gun – Darron had fired his gun. She looked down to check herself for wounds, but other than her torn shirt, it looked like everything was intact.
            She moved away from the car. Darron fired again, but if he was aiming for the locking mechanism, his strategy was proving ineffective.
            And then she heard footsteps. Up the road, three people in grey and black were running at her.
            “Get him out of that trunk!” called the one in the lead, an athletic-looking woman who seemed about Nasicne’s age. “I’ll get the girl!”
            Nascine took a half second to process all of this, and then she ran across the road and into the forest.

            The Agents chased Nascine into the forest. It was an old forest, filled with gnarled trees and large ferns. The figure – one could not call him a man, even if he looked like a man – could see them even though he was not looking in their direction. They were so young, but then, everyone was so young. Even his darling Elona was young, and she was counted ancient among her subjects.

            The figure closed his eyes and rubbed his head – balding, but never bald. There was a shadow cast by one of the great Ockwood Trees, though it shouldn’t have been there, as the sky was overcast and there was a light rain. Still, the shadow was there, and the figure stepped into the shadow and was gone.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2015)