by Maureen Bowden
I first saw Melusina perched on a rock alongside the narrow river that runs through our local park. I assumed she was wearing a swimsuit, but her long auburn hair concealed it. She didn’t notice me, but I was close enough to see her pupils dilate when she looked at Freddie, who was posing with a football, showing off his prowess to the neighbourhood bimbos.
I sat beside her. “You fancy him, don’t you?”
She turned to me. Her eyes were so dark, I felt like I was teetering on the edge of an open coalmine. “Why does that concern you?”
I took a mental step back from the black chasm. “I’m his sister.”
She laughed, and a shiver ran down my back. “Relax. Your sibling’s safe. I’ve vowed never again to get involved with a mortal, but there’s no harm in looking. Right?”
“Right,” I said, “but are you telling me you’re not mortal?”
“I’m not telling you anything. I was thinking aloud.”
“Well, keep doing it. I’m interested.”
She turned the coalmines on me again. “What’s your name?”
“Fiona. What’s yours?”
“Melusina. I’m a river witch.” She slid off the rock, into the water, and I caught a glimpse of her true form. “You can Google me.” She flicked her tail and swam away.
Google was illuminating, as always, but not necessarily true. No problem, I thought. I’ll check the details when she comes back. I knew she would. How could a badass version of the little mermaid resist Freddie with his pop-star smile and ballet dancer grace?
The following Saturday afternoon I spent an hour in the park sketching my brother, as he lounged on a lakeside bench, playing his guitar and singing a self-penned protest song about oppressed workers: ironic, as he was a stranger to anything resembling work. The song was mediocre but he was a good model: blond hair gelled to rigidity, high cheekbones and hips as slim as a Barbie Doll’s. You know the type.
I finished the sketch, packed my pad and pencils into my satchel and left him basking in the adoration oozing from his latest squeeze, Sophie Melancamp, the receptionist from Vision Express. She lay on the grass at his feet.
I walked alongside the river that fed the lake, and I wasn’t surprised to see Melusina swimming close to the bank. We reached her rock. I sat on it. She stayed in the water.
She didn’t preamble. “What’s your brother’s name?”
She sighed. “That’s what I used to call Siegfried. He reminds me of him.”
“Google said Siegfried was your one true love. Was he?”
She shrugged. “I don’t remember. A thousand years is a long time to hang onto trivial emotions. What other pearls of wisdom did Google cast before you?”
“You left him and your children because he spied on you taking a bath. Why so modest?”
“I didn’t wish to see fear or repulsion in his eyes when he witnessed my transformation.” She pulled herself out of the river. Her tail shed its silver scales and divided into long slender legs, and she draped her hair across her shoulders, covering her naked body.
“Yet you allowed me to witness it.”
“You’re not a man.” She made it sound like a dismissal. Why should she care about my reaction? I didn’t matter.
“Was he frightened or repulsed?” I said.
“I didn’t stick around to find out. I’d warned him. I’d stay with him if he promised never to watch me bathe. That was our bargain. He broke his promise.”
“But how could you abandon your children?”
“I knew they’d manage without me, and they did. One of their descendants married the English king, Edward IV. Your royal family are of her bloodline.”
“Do they grow tails when they’re in the bath?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen them in the bath.” She reached for my hand and kissed it. “May I stay with you for a while, Fiona?”
My stomach fluttered. This was a disturbing turn of events. I knew she was dangerous and I should scream and head for the hills, but she fascinated me, and I didn’t pull my hand away.
“You may, if you let me paint your portrait.”
“You’re an artist?”
“Trying to be.”
“It’s a deal. Bring me some clothes.”
I brought her a summer dress, sandals and underwear. She pulled the dress over her head, slipped her feet into the sandals, and threw the bra back to me, “That won’t fit,” followed by the panties, “They’d get in the way if I had to transform in a hurry.”
I took her home to my one-bedroom flat and led her into the living room that doubled for a studio. “You can have the bedroom,” I said. “I’ll use the bed-settee in here.”
She looked at the paintings leaning against the wall. “They’re good. Have you sold many?”
“Not yet. I make my living illustrating children’s books, but if I can get together enough paintings to hold an exhibition I hope people will start buying them.
“I can make it happen.”
“I’m a witch, remember? Put my portrait in your exhibition.”
We began next day. She posed naked. “Can you make the tail come?” I said.
“No. I can only transform when I’m submerged in water.”
“I could fill a bucket and chuck it over you.”
“If you do I’ll hit you with the bucket.”
I painted the tail from memory.
Our time together was the happiest I’d ever known, but I knew it wouldn’t last. She was interested in Freddie, not me. She examined my sketches of him serenading Sophie in the park. “Is he a musician?
“No, he’s a university student.”
“What’s he studying?”
“Social interaction via the medium of graphic novels.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’ve no idea, but it doesn’t seem to involve much work.”
“Does he visit you often?”
“Yes, whenever he wants money.”
He turned up one evening with an empty wallet and a winning smile. Melusina was sitting in my antique rocking chair plaiting her hair.
Freddie ignored me, sat cross-legged on the rug beside her, and said, “Hi. I’m Freddie.”
“I know,” she said, sliding out of the chair, and joining him on the rug. “I’m Mel.”
I sketched them getting acquainted: the whispers, sly, predatory smiles, and touching fingers. The following week she moved in with him. I coped with my desolation by focusing on my artwork. The sketches would form the basis of the final painting for my exhibition.
It was a success. Agents for two foreign businessmen offered me obscene amounts of money for my portrait of Melusina with the tail. I sold it to the highest bidder for enough to finance a comfortable lifestyle even if I never sold another painting. I did, however, sell others, and continued to do so as fast as I could produce them. My reputation as an artist grew. So did my bank account.
I found a new apartment. It had a large studio situated to catch the setting sun’s blue and gold light, and two bedrooms, in case Melusina came back. I had everything I wanted except her. Freddie had her.
I sent them details of my new address. They sent me a ‘Good Luck in Your New Home’ card, bearing a picture of a country cottage. I suspected it came from The Card Factory’s discount shelf.
Six months later she turned up at my door, pale, trembling and her hair in a mess. She sat in the rocking chair, gave a deep sigh, and closed her eyes. I placed a cushion behind her head and poured her a brandy. “What’s up?” I said.
“Your brother’s given me a gift I didn’t want.”
I knew what she meant. I’d anticipated this. “You’re pregnant.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I came here to say goodbye. Freddie won’t want a child and he’ll lose interest in me. I’m leaving before that happens.”
“Don’t go,” I said. “When the baby’s born bring it here. We’ll raise it together. I’ve always wanted a child.”
She drained her glass and passed it back to me. “So, why don’t you have one of your own?”
“I don’t like men.”
“Use a sperm bank. You can afford it.”
“I’d still have to give birth and I don’t want to do that. Please bring your baby here.”
“You may not like men, but I do.”
Of course she did. I’d been fooling myself. “So you’ll flick your tail, swim away, and in a thousand years or so another pretty boy will take your fancy.”
“No. I’m done with mortals.”
“You’ve said that before.”
“Yes, but I’ll have my child with me this time.”
“I thought it was a gift you didn’t want.”
“It was, but maybe motherhood will help me to grow up.”
“Mel, please don’t go.”
Her dark eyes seemed to see into my soul, and I knew she understood. “You don’t want just any child. You want mine.”
“Yes, if I must lose you.”
“Alright. I’ll stay until the baby’s born, I’ll give it to you, and then I’ll go, but there’s a condition.” I held my breath. “I’ll come back in seven years time and you must allow the child to choose between us.”
I had to agree. If I refused I’d never see the baby.
I spent the next five months stocking up with everything a new baby would need. I was terrified, but happy. Seven years might be all the time I’d get to be a mother, but it was better than nothing.
She returned late one night. Her belly was distended and she leaned against me for support. “When’s the baby due?” I said.
“Sooner the better. I’m in labour.”
My throat dried and my heart pounded. “I’ll call an ambulance.”
“No,” she screamed. “Nobody must see it when it’s first born. I know what to do. I’ve done it before. You can help me.”
I barely remember what I did, but it was an easy birth. After we cleaned and dried her son his tail split into legs. We laid him in his cot and he slept.
I made her comfortable. “Will you be alright?” I said.
“Yes. I heal quickly. Thank you, Fiona. Now go to bed.”
When I awoke next morning her bed was empty.
Later that day Freddie came looking for her.
“She’s gone,” I said.
“I don’t know, but she’s not coming back.”
He glanced at the baby in my arms. “Is that—?”
“Yes. It’s your son.”
“What am I supposed to do with him?”
“Leave him with me. It’s what Mel wanted.”
He looked puzzled, but not distressed. He was always too selfish to be distressed for long. He and Mel had made a good match. I wondered if the outcome would have been different if she’d revealed her true nature to him and he’d accepted it. I doubted it. “I suppose you expect me to give you money,” he said.
I laughed. “Oh sure. Like I expect the Tooth Fairy to show up when required, and leave a gold coin under his pillow. Close the door on your way out, Freddie.”
A month later he phoned to say he’d left University and was taking a gap year, exploring the Australian Outback with Sophie Melancamp. It’s more likely that they were sunbathing on Bondi beach.
I named the baby Alexander. Each time I bathed him his chubby legs fused into a golden-scaled tail. I took him to a deserted beach on moonlit nights, and we played in the breakers. He swam, dived and twisted, gurgling with contentment in his natural element.
I sketched him, painted him, and added his image to one of Melusina’s portraits. I told him stories about his mother: the beautiful mermaid. He was interested, but she couldn’t compete with Spider Man and the Ninja Turtles. I also told him about his father, but as Freddie had no super powers to recommend him he had no place in Alexander’s list of priorities. I did. He called me Auntie Fi, he loved me, and he was dearer to me than his mother had ever been. We were happy, but a dark dread haunted me
On his seventh birthday I took him to the river. Melusina was sitting on the rock where I first saw her. “Xander,” I said, “this is your mama.”
She slipped into the water and beckoned to him. “Come and swim with me, Xander.” I resented her using my pet name for him.
He pulled off his clothes and joined her. His legs fused into a tail and he laughed and reached for her hand. I sat on the bank and watched them. He waved to me. I waved back and tried to smile while my heart was breaking.
“Would you like to come and swim with me in the sea?” she said to him.
He called to me, “Can I, Auntie Fi?”
“Yes, if you’re sure you want to go with her, but she won’t bring you back.”
“You can come with us.”
“I can’t, Xander. I don’t have a tail.”
Melusina said, “You can come, Fiona. I’ll transform you, and I’ll take care of you and the boy.”
I thought about what she was offering me: a life of freedom, roaming the oceans with the only two people who were ever important in my life. If I refused I might lose them both, but I knew she’d never change. She’d continue to leave discarded lovers and children scattered across the five continents, and some day she’d discard us too.
“Thank you, but no. I’m a mortal and I belong on the land.” I turned to Alexander. “You have to choose between us.”
He pulled himself onto the bank, transformed, and ran into my arms. I kissed his wet hair and held him close, waiting for his answer. “I want to stay with you, Auntie Fi.”
The fear that had oppressed me for seven years scuttled off into the sunset. Good riddance. It could take the river witch with it. I looked at her, expecting to see either sorrow or anger in her coalmine eyes, but I saw relief to equal mine.
She inclined her head in acceptance, dived beneath the rippling water, flicked her silver tail, and was gone.
by Melanie Bell
“On the other side of the mirror there’s a real forest,” Gavin said.
“What are you talking about?”
“You should know, Sabrina. You’re the one who gave me that box.”
A treasure box had seemed like the perfect birthday gift for a little brother who was always collecting things. At six, it had been hockey cards. At seven, the bones of whatever unfortunate animal carcass he could find around the yard or the beach. At eight, dried leaves shaped like needles and ovals and squares. At nine, the sayings from every fortune cookie received by family members in Chinese takeout packs. He’d needed a place to put all that.
◊ ◊ ◊
Sabrina had picked the treasure box out herself, bought it with saved-up allowance, and she was quite proud of it. The lacquer shone on the wood. She’d learned about the different types of wood and chosen oak because it meant strength. She’d picked this particular box because it was big and had a mirror inside.
“Let me see that forest?”
“Maybe later. I want to keep it to myself for now.”
“Then why are you telling me about it?”
“Because you gave it to me, stupid! I thought you’d like to know.”
He walked off, fists swinging, back to the room and that stupid box.
It was a year ago that they’d stopped playing pretend games. How many times had they hidden themselves in the big hall closet, hoping to run into talking beavers behind the bedsheets and cleaning supplies? It had all ended one day with Gavin’s folded arms and declaration, “Beavers can’t talk. That’s stupid.” The truth had struck Sabrina one night as she was failing to get to sleep, distracted by cars rumbling sporadically outside the window: she’d needed the games more than Gavin had. And now that there was some magic landscape in the box, he wouldn’t show her.
Forests weren’t that exciting anyway, she told herself. There was one just down the road. It had raccoons and skunks in it. If that’s what he wanted to imagine in his box, let him imagine it.
◊ ◊ ◊
First, Gavin made sure that his door was locked. His parents didn’t like him locking it, and would yell at him if they discovered he was keeping others out, but sometimes it was necessary. He ran his hands over the smooth, shiny wood. Slowly, he opened the lid and looked into the glass that lined the top.
His features stood out crisply, and then began to blur. Bushes bloomed over his nose. A spruce sprouted from his forehead. He watched as a tiny rabbit tracked across the ground—boing, boing, boing. Branches moved with the stirring of a minuscule wind. Soon there was no face in the mirror at all.
◊ ◊ ◊
Sabrina took her book into the yard, which smelled of decaying leaves and sounded like cars rumbling past. She was on the last installment of the Chronicles of Narnia. The battle was bloodier than usual for that kind of book… Tash was revealed to be an evil god, Aslan a benevolent one…almost to the end now…
◊ ◊ ◊
It was past Gavin’s bedtime, and raining. The kids in Narnia ascended to heaven, a disappointment. Susan was excluded because of her interest in lipstick. Sabrina decided that if she ever wrote a book, the queens would wear lipstick and no one would care.
She wondered what was going on in Gavin’s forest.
She hadn’t meant to do it, but her hand moved to her brother’s doorknob. It wouldn’t turn. It wasn’t like Gavin to lock the door. “Best leave him alone,” sang her mother’s voice in her head, while a younger, stronger voice called out “Go in there!” She’d read a detective story that explained how to pick a lock once, and practiced on her old diaries until she could produce that satisfying click. She’d never tried it out on a real door, but she did have a hairpin.
Her feet clumped through the dark room, past the night light with its tiny flicker, to the lump on the floor that was the treasure box. On the bed, her brother stirred and Sabrina stopped in her tracks. His breathing remained even.
Slowly, slowly, she knelt beside the box. Lifted it. Stood up, careful not to make the floorboards creek. Carried the box into the hallway, where the light was on.
Fingerprints smudged the gleaming oak surface. If she’d known the box would smear so easily, she would have bought Gavin a different one. No—they weren’t fingerprints but paw prints, tracks left by an impossibly small animal. Her breath caught in her throat as she lifted the lid.
by J R Alfieri
Autumn leaves lightly showered the midnight road. Moonlight drenched it.
The roar of his engine and the sharp whisper of the wind cut through his open windows. Slipstream fingers reached in with the noises and tousled his hair. Beneath skeleton branches that scraped across the black ocean known to mankind as the night sky, Arthur drove. With every mile he put behind him, the world itself seemed to grow more distant, as if it were only a waypoint on a road he had so long ago visited. A road his memory darkened with night and shrouded with fallen leaves. A midnight road.
Upon reflection he saw staring back at him in the mirror of his mind only two things, that his Latin mother had named him Arthur and that something called Bliss had been stolen from him. Which was a most disturbing discovery, especially when considering the pools of blood brimming the two backseat footwells.
Whose blood, Arthur could only rule out himself, as no one else occupied the car with him, bleeding or otherwise. For a peculiar reason, though, perhaps because a vague shape was manifesting itself in the mirror of his mind, the blood seemed to Arthur perfectly natural—a memento he had taken from that waypoint the world, a trading token, maybe, he had once exchanged for that stolen possession of his called Bliss.
But like the world, the blood swished and swayed behind him. And soon the road would ribbon behind him too.
Up ahead drew his inevitable destination, the light at the end of this forest tunnel. Through darkness, through dead and dying leaves, through the black ocean he saw it rising ahead. And when his engine whimpered and the wind shushed, when slipstream fingers withdrew from his open windows and his hair flattened, he found himself there, parked at the entrance.
The skeleton branches had swapped themselves for a porte-cochère, and the midnight road had clumped itself into cobblestones. Before Arthur could even motion for it, his car door swung outward—an arm presenting his destination, saying in its silent way of gesture, “After you.”
Arthur hesitated, and not because the door took him by surprise, but because the valet boy who pried it looked nothing like a valet boy and everything like a cancer patient.
Huckleberry-kissed lips, skin so anemic in the right light you could probably see his organs failing underneath, eyes sunken and haloed with purple rings that attested to sleepless nights, the only thing missing was the hospital gown, and maybe also a grieving parent to be his personalized storm cloud, always raining teardrops over his buzzed head.
“Good mornin’, mister,” the valet boy grinned, his voice as crumpling as his appearance.
Arthur, who understood morning as the time of day when the sun yawns and night as the time of day when darkness gathers, gazed past the boy at the gathered darkness, and yet, upon validation, found he had not the heart to correct him. “Good morning, son.”
Overly pleased with the response, the valet boy now regarded Arthur how a child might regard an adult who just agreed to imaginative play.
“Take it before you step out of the car,” the boy urged in a low, prison-yard whisper.
“Take what?” Arthur whispered back. For the briefest of moments he thought, I have no buckets.
It was only when the boy said, “look in your glovebox,” that Arthur realized the backseat blood wasn’t of reference here.
With a yank and a click, the glovebox’s lower jaw hung open. Inside the gaping oyster Arthur closed his hand around a pearl he had seen before, had caressed and squeezed before, a Glock 22. When he returned his eyes upon the valet boy—questions springing from his expression before they could spring from his mouth—the valet boy bounced an index finger off of his pursed lips.
“Shhh,” he caution furtively as his eyes sprang about searching for eavesdroppers. Then, in a louder, more official voice that almost seemed to invite spying ears, he announced, “Welcome to Here. Is there anything I can help you with before I valet your car?”
Arthur burrowed the pistol into his waistband, veiled its identity with the hem of his shirt and stepped out of the car. He too scanned the porte-cochère. Though his search came up short of eavesdroppers, it came up long of oddities.
The first among them was the lighting source, which was exclusively firelight, absolutely no electricity whatsoever. Medieval torches sputtered their spiral flames and tallow candles wept their teary wax.
At the heels of that was the vacancy of this place. Why the valet boy had felt the need to whisper, Arthur couldn’t tell you. But he could tell you that even the air smelt strangely hollow, strangely dead.
And finally, lastly, most importantly, what mystified Arthur more than the boy too young to be a valet driver, too sick to be alive, was that he had not the slightest clue what this place was or why he had come here.
“Yeah,” Arthur said as he pressed his car keys into the boy’s ice-cold palms, “there is something you can help me out with. Where am I? And what is this place you call ‘Here’?”
Sunken, cancer-punched eyes skittered to and fro before they fell still upon some point of interest behind Arthur. The boy gave a curt nod to whatever, whomever it was, and in that official voice again announced, “Why, you are at the end of the midnight road, of course. And this place,” he presented it how Arthur’s car had presented it, with a sweeping arm, “is home now.”
As the car spun its tires and left Arthur dallying under the porte-cochere alone, the target of the valet boy’s final fixation revealed itself; a man standing in the hotel doorway, who by his mess jacket and flaring lapels could only be a bellhop.
“Come, come!” the bellhop beckoned.
As Arthur crossed the cobblestones, he noticed that the flare of the bellhop’s lapels came not from their size or particular style, but from the rose brooch pinned above his left breast.
“No luggage, I take it?” the bellhop asked.
Closer now, just about in handshaking range, Arthur wobbled his head no.
“Not to worry, good sir. Inside you’ll find everything you could ever possibly need. Let’s head in and get you squared up with the concierge.” Just as the bellhop said this, he turned into the hotel doors and the abundant candlelight glowing within.
Arthur, as he passed through the hotel threshold and into the steady light, thereupon recognized that the bellhop’s rose brooch wasn’t a brooch at all, but a dried wine stain, or some other form of liquid capable of producing a likewise hue.
The inertia propelling him forward soon did as an Easter lily might do under direct sunlight; it shriveled, wilted and died. His legs stiffened, his heart stiffened, and he stopped moving altogether. Though being stationary, being idle, made absorbing what laid ahead no easier.
Among the torches and candlelit sconces mounted onto the walls, Arthur noted and duly felt the eyes of a hundred beasts weighing down on him. All horned, black-eyed, and awash in the many flicking tongues of firelight, the taxidermy on display appeared almost sinister. And amidst this heat, that appearance seemed less of an appearance and more of a reality.
This heat, this godforsaken, rolling, wafting, energy-sapping heat that swam about the lobby crashed over him. Opening all hatches, all windows, he gaped his mouth, flared his nostrils and tried siphoning as much air as possible. But this heat, this godforsaken heat only apportioned him shallow lungfuls.
“Oh now, Arthur, it’s not that bad! You look like a fish out of water!” the bellhop chuckled as he clapped Arthur on the shoulder.
Arthur wished he hadn’t had done that, chuckled. The lobby and its undercurrents of dark air needed no chuckling or, for that matter, clairvoyance. A fish out of water was exactly how he felt—plucked from his world and thrown into a frying pan.
“What’s wrong with the AC?” Arthur asked. He hooked his one finger into his collar and stretched it out.
Another chuckle, this one slightly more unhinged, “Hasn’t work in ages, Arthur, in ages!” The bellhop retook the lead and began escorting Arthur across the lobby to the concierge’s desk. But before they reached it and parted ways, Arthur slipped in one final question.
“My name, how do you know it?”
“We all know it, Arthur.” Just as the words rolled off the bellhop’s tongue, they approached the concierge’s desk.
The woman behind it verified the bellhop’s claim almost immediately, “Good evening, Arthur.”
Evening…good evening the concierge said, whereas the valet boy had declared it morning.
Muddled, discontented and now wearing a headband sown of sweat beads—one that was coming apart and running down his face as quickly as his sanity—Arthur wanted to know, “how?”
The bellhop and the concierge traded looks. And also grins.
“Because we’ve been expecting you,” the concierge said matter-of-factly, as if this were as obvious as the color of the sky, or perhaps more appropriately, as obvious as the time of day.
The grin smeared across the bellhop’s face split wide like clamps on an operating incision, and from it bellowed that chuckle, that awful, sinister-accentuating chuckle. “For about as long as the AC hasn’t worked! Ages, Arthur! We’ve been expecting you for ages!”
Even after the bellhop and his chuckle strolled out of sight, the concierge held onto her grin. She was, by far, the oldest woman Arthur had ever set his eyes on. Looking like the great grandmother of Father Time, she reminded Arthur of someone he had formerly known, someone he had met at that waypoint the world. From the rather peculiar manner in which she grinned at him, he had a feeling she reciprocated this notion.
When Arthur spoke next, he unintentionally sprinkled salt on the curved slug that was the concierge’s lips. “Have we met before?”
Her grin squirmed a bit before it dissolved. She leaned her torso left so she could peer behind him. Then with cataract-clouded eyes she combed the lobby. It wasn’t until she rectified her lean that she whispered, like it was their little secret, “Once upon a time, my dear boy.”
Then, with a much more pronounced voice, she covered up and buried her whispers, “You’ve arrived just in time, Arthur. Tonight the Master will be throwing a grand feast in His chambers. And He has personally asked that I extended to you the invitation. So what do you say? Shall we send you up?”
“Thank you, but my appetite—”
“Oh, but I insist! It would be exceptionally improper to decline the Master’s invitation. So few are every graced with such an honor.” She paused, flashed her cataract eyes at him and under the concealment of her breath mumbled, “Please. You have the gun. Save us. Save yourself. Kill—”
Eclipsed by her own secondary voice, “The Master is waiting, Arthur!”
An internal battle seemed to wage across her entire being, two sides fighting over and only momentarily attaining control. “Shoot Him in the head, Arthur. Not the heart. I don’t think He has one.”
The instant Arthur had retrieved the Glock 22 was also the very instant he had concealed it, its nose shoved between his belt loop and hip bone, its rubber grip cloaked underneath his shirt. So how, how could this hoary old woman see past the white film blighting her eyes at the faint outlines of the pistol?
Before Arthur could parrot this question and for the millionth time utter the word ‘how’, he bit down on his tongue. He knew no answer would satisfy because even the true answer, one naked to the ambiguity these folk seemed so fond of, would be an impossibility, just like the valet boy’s omniscient knowledge of the gun in the first place, and the sheer existence of this hotel, which, Arthur was now concluding, was not much of a hotel at all, but a point at the end of the road, a dead end.
So Arthur no longer concerned himself with the understanding of ‘how’ and instead shifted his attention onto the two reflections he saw staring back at him in the mirror of his mind, that his Latin mother had named him Arthur and that something called Bliss had been stolen from him. Everything else melted away at the feet of that.
“This Master,” Arthur said and henceforth dived into the rabbit hole, “does He know anything of Bliss?”
Something embedded within his voice must have pricked the concierge, for the clouds of cataracts in that old woman’s sorry eyes were now releasing their rainwater. Tears streamed down over the wrinkled gorges and riverbeds carving up her wizened face.
Her reaction answered him far better than any words.
“Where? Where are the Master’s chambers?”
Choking on her sobs, she hefted a gnarled, arthritic-inflamed finger down the nearest corridor. “There’s a stairwell at the end. It’s connected to the tower, where the Master resides. Take it all the way to the top. That’s where you’ll find all that you seek. Hurry, now.”
Then the whispers wrested and ultimately won control, “And don’t forget what I told you.” That gnarled, arthritic-inflamed finger curled inward and tapped her forehead, right at the junction of eyes, brow and nose.
On last look at her and Arthur couldn’t help but to feel the familiarity she vented. “I’ll remember,” he promised, and little did he know how much that promise would cost him. With that he made way for the corridor. As he treaded through its carpeted throat, he heard her shout behind him, the final warcry of her whispers, who at long last achieved their victory.
In both comprehension and agreement, Arthur reached near his belt, chambered a round into his pistol, and entered the Master’s tower. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Spiraling stairs and spiraling senses, Arthur rose up through the madness of it all. Past the first floor, the second floor, then the third and fourth, as he breezed by the fifth he began intercepting the smells. Sour wine and spiced meat fused the air. But, quite queerly, noises of the feast never reached him…except for the subtlest gnashing of teeth.
Whirlwinded and dressed in a full gown of sweat, Arthur shouldered through the door marked with the number 6.
Expecting another corridor and instead finding a grand banquet hall, he stopped dead in his tracks.
One long refectory table extended before him, overlaid with candelabras ablaze and cutlery untouched. Flopped dead along the table were suckling pigs chewing on apples and other such forms of roasted meat. The benches sat about thirty men and women on each side, all of whom had turned to stone upon Arthur’s entry.
Some were clutching onto drumsticks, others were stuffing their fingers into their mouths, and a few were even caught lapping at the trickle of blood that had escaped down their rolled-back sleeves. Half-chewed meat puffed some of their cheeks, and mouthfuls of sour wine pruned some of their gums.
Whatever pose they struck, they struck it so while gazing at Arthur. These hundred or some odd eyes weighed down upon him heavier than the horned beasts decorating the lobby walls. And heavier yet, heavier than all, was the cast from the head of the table, the only figure who hadn’t stilled on Arthur’s arrival, the Master.
So youthful He looked, so entitled and regal, Arthur might have mistaken Him not as a master of this place, but as a prince of something else entirely. Arthur might have made this mistake, had it not been for first the eyes—possessive of their targets, seeming to know a million secrets—and second the voice—defiler of sound, seeming to carry with it unlocked wisdom.
“Welcome,” it resonated across the banquet hall, slicing through the distance against an opposition of none. “Arthur, sweet child of mine, my heart sings to receive you. As do the hearts of my lieges.”
At that, the stone mold fragmented. Everyone lined along the refectory table nodded in accord.
“Do sit, Arthur,” the Master waved His arm at a chair set all the way at the end of the table, a few steps from where Arthur was standing. “Please, I implore you, indulge beside your brothers and sisters. You must be rightfully ravished from your travels.”
Only half obliging the request, Arthur squatted down into the seat, but he did not help himself to the nearest apple-gnawing pig. “Thank you, but I’m not hungry.”
“No?” the Master titled His head askew. “Can I not interest thee in even the slightest tastes of nourishment? The apples, Arthur, the apples. You must try them. I am confident you will find they are most pleasing. Down here they are just…”
And at that exact point in time Arthur saw clearly, across the entire table, a repulsive development occur. The Master began salivating from the corners of His mouth.
“…they are just oh so decliousss.”
“No,” Arthur refused rather bluntly. In response the candelabras ablaze burned deeper, hotter, as the red tips of their branches turned a dead-lip shade of blue, a huckleberry blue.
“A taste, my child, a bite, a nibble, you must, you must. Otherwise however will you know? However will you open your eyes and see that it is neither night nor day?”
“The hour is of no concern to me.”
Those eyes, opened and drowning in the million secrets they harbored, simpered with elation. “Ahh, but I know what is. I know all things, for I have not only tasted the fruit, but have planted the seed myself. You and I, Arthur, we are one and the same. Both the victims of theft. Something has been stolen from me, my Kingdom. And something has been stolen from you, your Bliss.”
Silence, during which the Master allowed time for His words to sink in and grow a new strain of thought, a strain much like a seed that would soon germinate and bear fruit.
“Eat of the apple, child, and the fog enshrouding your memory will surely evaporate. You will see all. You will see Bliss.”
Just then the apple nearest Arthur wiggled free from its entrapment and rolled itself until it filled his empty plate. Arthur looked down upon the orb, its stem sprouting a single leaf, its skin a twilight blend of sunrise yellow, blood red and emerald green.
“How do I know I can trust you? That this isn’t poison you’re feeding me?” With this question Arthur unintentionally watered the seed of the Mater’s words.
“Because you know me. All your life you’ve known me.” That simper in His eyes now spread down to His slobbering lips.
“Know you? I don’t know you.” And with this Arthur unintentionally nursed the sapling.
“Oh yes, child, you do. How could you not? You walk with me every day. You sleep with me every night. I am the shadow on the face of the moon. I am the dead space between the stars. On your left shoulder I sit. And in that same ear I whisper. When it is not my voice you hear, it is the countless works brought up in my name that you see. I am everything you have ever feared. And most frightening of all, I am almost everything you have ever loved.”
“Almost,” Arthur echoed over the eyes reflecting firelight, the meat oozing blood, and the wine inviting indulgence.
“Yes, almost. There are but two loves of yours I cannot claim as my own. Two, I must admit that is quite impressive. At least double that of the average man. One is what you seek. Bliss. Bite into the apple and I will show you both.”
So there was two, then. Two footwells in the backseat of his car brimmed with blood. Yes, two.
Arthur knew who the Master was now. He knew the temptation that manifested itself as a twilit orb. He knew the sapling had blossomed in full. And for all that he still picked the fruit of the tree. And for all that he still bit into the apple.
And the very moment his teeth sank into its juicy, acidulous flesh, he felt it. Chaos, anarchy, the sense that whatever natural order had upheld his life thus far, with its many rules and restrictions, had just disbanded, tucked tail and vanished, or as the Master had claimed, evaporated. Freedom would be one way of putting it, though not freedom in the sense of a caged bird released, but of an astronaut untethered and drifting aimlessly through the deep chasms of space.
And his eyes shucked open, all three of them. Memories swam around and around in the pool of his irises, like ships orbiting a maelstrom, or exiled members of an asteroid belt tracing the rim of a black hole, soon to be sucked into the vortex, into the darkness.
And so he fell. Into the wormhole. Into the memories where Bliss lied.
And in the past he landed. As an unseen shadow pitched against the wall, Arthur fixed his eyes on his childhood room, and on the boy sniffling under the covers. His carousel nightlight, which circled around and around just like the memories, just like madness and chaos and order and life, staved off so little of the night, and the monsters who dwelt within it.
And the sniffles coming from underneath the covers grew in volume and intensity. Arthur remembered then, the childhood monsters who had harrowed him so. Not imaginary ghosts, ghouls or goblins hiding in his closet, but imaginary fathers hiding in his dreams, who explained to him why they had left, and why they were never coming back.
And for the third time this week, the nine-year-old Arthur wailed, “Mom! Mom!” Footfalls raced outside his door. The shadow pitched against the wall knew who would come to the rescue before she came to it. With his third eye open, Arthur knew all, and that knowledge cost him dearly. He paid for it in a currency of unmeasurable pain.
And his bedroom door blasted open. Through it whisked a woman whose smile lines would in time beget wrinkled gorges and riverbeds, and whose eyes would in time cloud with age.
And now the nine-year-old Arthur wasn’t the only one wailing after his mother. The shadow pitched against the wall wailed after her too, though no one could hear or see him. His mother sat down on his bed. Clasped in her hands was his favorite book, The Once and Future King—an account of the man he shared a name with, King Arthur of Camelot. His mother had long ago decided that if no father figure could be the hero in her young son’s life, King Arthur would have to do.
And as his mother cracked open that book, she stifled his sniveling with just four magic words, four magic words that weren’t in the text, but were in her heart and in his, “Once upon a time”.
And Arthur understood then that the concierge, his mother, had said those very words to him after he had asked her if they had ever met before—a desperate attempt to breathe life into his memories, to keep him from the apple that would forever tarnish his soul. Though now it was too late, as his eyes were open and he was seeing—
Adulthood. Invisible, occupying the passenger seat of his car, he looked upon the driver and there looked upon himself. He heard some woman moaning discomfort behind him. Twisting around and peering into the backseat, his heart imploded.
Legs splayed, hair plastered across her brow, hands clawed onto her bulbous belly, Arthur’s wife roared, “SHE’S COMING, ARTHUR! THE BABY IS COMING!”
Then they flew beneath a red light, honking their horn and blinking their hazards. Sirens whooped and blared not far behind, but Arthur, the driver, showed no sign of slowing. In fact, he gave the steel rocket they soared on more juice. Those sirens belonged to a buddy of his, his partner on the force who was catching up to escort them.
“WE’RE ALMOST THERE, HONEY! HOLD IT IN!”
Then they were killing themselves laughing, absolutely loosing it at the absurd prospect of ‘holding in’ a child as if it might be some urgent bowel movement.
Then amidst their laughter, their bliss, his wife’s relaxed, unclenched pelvic muscles released to them a gooey sack of crying life.
Then they were all crying together—their first activity as a family. The ghost in the passenger seat wept with them, though not out of joy, but out of pure heartbreak. Arthur, the driver, gazed up at the rearview mirror and beheld his two loves clutching each other in backseat. Just when he lifted his attention off the road hurtling below them, the ghost screamed, screamed and hollered and blubbered through his tears. But no one could hear.
Then his wife whispered, “Welcome to the world, Bliss,” and Arthur, the driver, repeated the name on his lips just so he could enjoy its taste. “Bliss.”
Then as they flew beneath another red light, the world offered Bliss quite a different welcome. It slammed into them in form of a diesel truck, T-boned them in the center of a four-way intersection.
Then glass shattered, life shattered, bliss shattered and the all the lights flicked off. When Arthur came to, and peeled himself up from the steering wheel, he reached over the ghost bawling in the passenger seat, pulled open the glovebox’s lower jaw, and retrieved from it not a pearl, but the instrument of his doom.
Then the police-issued Glock 22—which he had carried with him always, thinking of himself as King Arthur armed with his modern day equivalent of Excalibur—rose up and pointed its nose outside the passenger side window, where, past a dented hood and behind a spider-webbed windshield, sat the man who had crashed into them.
Then Arthur fired two bullets into that man’s head, that man who was no longer a threat. One bullet for his wife, one bullet for Bliss.
Then Arthur spun around, saw blood brimming the two backseat footwells, and thereafter fired a third bullet, this one for and into himself.
And, then, the drowning, reminiscent pool spat Arthur back out. At the end of the midnight road, sitting at a feasting table inside the Master’s chambers, in the tallest of towers in the highest of rooms, Arthur dropped the apple.
That twilit orb bounced off his plate twice. The skin he had bitten through showed him an inner ugliness that so starkly contradicted the apple’s outer beauty, an ugliness infested with worms and maggots and tiny little spiders. He went to regurgitate his bite, but he had already swallowed and digested it, and now there was no getting rid of the foulness inside him.
As the worms and maggots and tiny little spiders crawled out of the apple, they began inching their way across the table, back towards the place from which they came, the Master.
Warming His perch at the head, calling upon His throng, the Master raised His arms towards Arthur, “Behold my lieges! It is he, Arthur, great King of man!”
With disconcerting obedience, all sixty heads rotated through the firelight and found in Arthur a new home for their gaze.
Suddenly there came an abrupt peep, a hiccup, really, that sounded like maniacal laughter. The Master had birthed it, and his lieges raised it. Soon the entire refectory sung a cackling chorus, one that knew no rhythm, structure or order.
The hysterics, with all their horrific, high-pitched, hyena-giggling inflections, blew through the lieges uncontrollably. Laughing so hard, clutching themselves, slapping their knees and pounding their chests, they too raised their arms at the butt of the joke wallowing at the butt of the table, Arthur, the hero who wound up here, sharing a table with murderers and thieves.
All at once the merry winds died, killed by the screech of the Master’s pushed-back chair. As He gained His feet and stood tall, He flattened the wrinkles on tunic.
“King,” He said lingering above His seat, chewing the word and addressing Arthur. “It seems to me all you are King of is self-destruction and woe.”
But Arthur, trembling softly in grief’s cold embrace, wasn’t paying the Master any mind. All his efforts were instead concentrating on remaining whole, on not collapsing beneath his agony and succumbing to what felt like a barbaric torture device pilling him apart limb by limb.
“My mother,” Arthur mumbled to no one in particular.
Incited, the Master cupped a hand around his ear and bent far over the table. “What’s that now? Don’t be shy, speak up, speak up!”
Arthur spoke up. “My mother!” he cried and for the first time since emerging from the memories reared up out of his hunched-over position.
Initially he thought the tablecloth had changed colors. But after a moment’s hesitation he realized that no, those were just the worms, maggots and tiny little spiders, the hundreds and hundreds of worms, maggots and tiny little spiders that now blanketed the table, rolling, squirming, and skittering about, pushing themselves out of pig eyes, apple cores and unseen burrows hidden inside raw meat.
Worse than all this, Arthur saw the sixty men and women at table eating off of it, cherry-picking this juicy worm over that spindly spider, and tossing said creatures down their throats.
As swift as a jump is to a fright, for this was essentially his action, Arthur floored back his chair and shot up. Now he and the Master stood tall together, both above the ensuing smorgasbord.
“What’s the matter, Arthur? Lost your appetite?”
“My mother, you have no right to her!” he said as a tear he never felt slipped down his check.
This seemed to only spur on the Master. “Oh child, faithful son, you are dearly mistaken. My hold on your mother’s soul could not be more firm. But you should know this. And in fact you do. Look, Arthur. Look, and you shall see.”
Arthur was too afraid to look, too afraid to slip under again and experience another train wreck he couldn’t prevent. So he wagged his head and closed his eyes. “Wake up, wake up, wake up,” he begged himself, though he knew no matter how many times he said this, or how many times he clicked his heels, he would not wake up. For this was no dream. This was no nightmare.
“Let’s not get silly, now. We’ll want to keep our heads for what’s next.”
“What’s next?” Though he squeezed his eyes shut, he could sense a grand smile rumpling across the Master’s face.
“You refuse to look, so I am afraid I must show you. I must tell you how your mother came to be in my possession. Before—”
“No,” Arthur said and restored his sight. “Please, no.”
But the Master had already begun. He had turned and was now striding towards Arthur, down alongside the feasting table, His hands folded behind His back, His presence composed and oh so superior to the carnivorous mayhem.
“—you were born, your mother committed adultery against her fiancé, the man she had accepted a ring and then a house from. I would call him your father, but he had as much involvement in your raising as he did with your birth. You are the product of infidelity, Arthur.”
About halfway down the table and drawing nearer with each step, each word, the Master’s approach forced Arthur back.
“Furthermore, you are the only survivor of that treacherous womb, where two fetuses met their deaths at the point of a coat hanger. Your mother would sooner exterminate the lives inside her than exterminate her relationship with her fiancé. But you, Arthur, ruined all that. The coat hanger never reached you, and when your mother’s fiancé realized the child wasn’t his, he left.”
“You’re lying. You’re lying!” Arthur howled as he retreated. Only an easily-bridged gap separated him and the Master.
“A bastard, not a king. A misbegotten child. Fatherless and—”
BANG, the Glock 22 ruptured fire and lead. The bullet easily bridged the gap. Then it drilled a hole into the Master’s forehead, right at the junction of eyes, brow and nose.
Before blood, ichor or crawling critters could seep from it, the hole mended itself. Just as the last stretch of skin grafted over the hollow, Arthur felt the deepest pressuring welling up inside his own forehead, right at the junction of eyes, brow and nose. He inspected the area with his fingers, and upon contact, the slightest touch, bone caved in.
Skin followed and a black rose bloomed. Arthur took on the likeness of his corpse, of the shell his brothers in the force had lowered six feet under and had fired a three-volley salute over, of the dead driver who had consigned himself to oblivion.
The Master reached out and molded His hand over the gun barrel, which puffed into black, smoky wisps. And like sand those wisps escaped through their fingers.
“False hope,” the Master explained. He guided His arm upwards and tenderly grabbed a hold of Arthur’s jawline.
At this intimate range, Arthur could make out details previously indiscernible. The Master’s eyes, they held the darkest shade of the deepest night, yet among their blackness glistened a million stars, a million secrets.
“There’s nothing crueler than giving hope where there is none. And no better way to welcome a new resident. You thought you carried with you Excalibur. So did everyone else. For they too have bitten into the apple, and know all that they wish to see. Excalibur, yes, and here I, an evil Merlin, wicked sorcerer who was supposed to fall beneath your heroism. Quite a tale, Arthur, quite a happily-ever-after.”
Arthur pulled away. Three backpedaling steps later, his heels clouted into the chamber door.
The Master let out a series of clucking noises in the same mantra as tsk, tsk, tsk. “But you know now that such tales are folly. This,” the Master looked back at the lieges gobbling up vermin, the firelight and the spilling of blood, “is your happily-ever-after. So without further ado, I would like to welcome you to Hell.”
Fear rode his bloodstream. Grief settled itself into his heart. And panic set fire to his world. Arthur flipped over and jiggled the doorknob, but it refused him. Locked, trapped, condemned…
Then those dead, merry winds took to the air again, resurrected and back in full force. Laughter from everyone, from the lieges snorting and howling through spider legs wedged between their teeth, from the Master throwing His head back and shouting rejoice at the ceiling, and maybe also at the heavens past it, laugher from everyone.
Amidst His glee, the Master flicked out His arm. The door magically brushed open. Just how the car and valet boy had presented Arthur his destination, the Master presented him the spiraling staircase, and the madness of it all.
Arthur hurled himself through the frame. As he descended upon the stairs, he heard the Master’s disembodied voice chasing after him, “You can check out anytime you like, Arthur,” and, after an interruption of cackling, “but you can’t ever leave!”
And Arthur never did.
J R Alfieri
by Pierce Skinner
The current roared over the black clay of the plains of Shoorm, carrying with it the thick burnt scent of the volcanic wastes. Sunlight was scarce this close to the Verge, falling to the plain like a bloodfog.
Jaltha swam beside a litter of males, harnessed by barbed wuorn-tentacles hooked through their beaks’ dorsal ridges, their bellies scraping the plain. Ten had already died, since the caravan had set out from the kryndyr city of Chorgaan three days ago. It had happened yesterday when a strap on a handler’s yoke snapped, and the litter had been freed. The idiot creatures had immediately swum toward the sweet, seductive aroma of a grove of bloodsponges, the only things that survived the bleak lifelessness of Shoorm. The entire litter had been caught by the sanguivorous things, and only three had been able to be saved, though not unscarred.
Rilask, the caravan’s leader, had punished the clumsy handler, who was called Malune, by forcing her to take the place of the males in the litter that pulled the bladdercart loaded with heavy criggn shells.
It was Malune that had first noticed the callused scars upon Jaltha’s belly.
“What happened to your Mooring?” Malune had asked, rather abruptly last night. Typically, the caravan’s hired guards formed their own sleep circle around the males and the shells, while the traders and male-herds kept to theirs. Malune, however, being shunned from the latter, had found her way to the former. It was death, after all, to sleep alone on the plains of Shoorm.
Jaltha had been unsure of how to respond, for she was always careful to keep the past concealed beneath the kelp-leather harness that held her sheath.
“My mother wore such scars,” Malune had said, meeting Jaltha’s scalding glare, “The scars of one who has drawn a warclub from the sheath a thousand times. The only ones with such calluses are those that have lived long enough to become Chieftains, or have suffered the scathing halls of the monasteries.”
Jaltha had bitten off another strip of uilka skin.
“It would be strange to be here,” Malune had continued, “hired by an aging, desperate trader like Rilask to protect a few pearls’ worth of males and criggn shells, if there still were a Mooring to protect.”
Anger had flashed through Jaltha, and she’d known that the lightning brightness that surged through her would be visible in the darkness. Over the years, she had ground many a young salathe’s beak into the sand for such impertinence. The young, it seemed to Jaltha, always had a laughing lilt that accompanied their words like a persistent gamra fish. And yet, her anger faded almost immediately. In its place, something else rose, like a domefish from beneath the sands. Somewhere within her, near the swell, a voice stirred.
Can it be? it asked. Jaltha, the wanderer—
Jaltha grunted, silencing the voice within her.
“I am no chieftain,” she’d answered Malune, “I have no Mooring.”
Malune’s beak had clicked in the darkness.
“Then you are a Shaman,” she’d deduced, “Serving your Penance by traversing Shoorm. What god do you serve?”
Jaltha’s body had gone rigid. She stared through the darkness, the lifeheat pulsing through Malune the only way she was still visible in the utter night of Shoorm.
“No god,” Jaltha had said.
Malune had chittered irreverently, perhaps taking some joy in the discomfort she was causing the way that males seemed to cherish the chaos they caused when freed from their bindings. It was the way of the enslaved and the punished to find joy in the misery of others. And, yet, Jaltha looked upon this creature, the exiled daughter of a deposed chieftain, lashed now as a common slave, who laughed from within the darkness. Jaltha felt something stir within her. For so long, she had thrown herself into her own past, seeking that fulcrum, desperately hoping to find a single moment where things could have gone one way, but instead went the other. Here, now, she looked upon Malune and realized that such a quest had been futile. Here, in the dark and lifeless night of Shoorm, where so few things were brave or desperate enough to venture, was precisely where she belonged. The tangled tentacles of the Fates had led her here, she knew, and finding a discernible pattern within them was impossible. The feeling that welled within Jaltha as she stared at Malune’s lifeheat was a confusing blend of terror and freedom. Here, Jaltha knew. This is where she would always have been. For here, too, was Malune.
The voice stirred within her, as it was prone to do whenever she found herself too deep in reverie.
What is it about the darkness that brings out such things in fleshcreatures?
She hissed at the voice.
“Very well,” Malune had laughed, backing away, believing the hiss to be directed at her. “I’ll ask no more tonight.” She had laughed again, and then slept. Jaltha had watched her lifeheat cool as her breaths slowed, and before long Jaltha, too, had settled herself on the plain, focusing on the breaths passing through her gills, perfectly still but unable to sleep.
The following night had been the same. Only this time, Jaltha had not been so terse. The two had shared an uilka skin and Jaltha had listened to Malune tell stories of her old Mooring, which she had fled after her mother, the chieftain, had gone mad and nearly killed her. Jaltha nearly spoke, but stopped herself several times. Malune’s life was too eerily similar to her own, with only barely enough variations in her history to prove she was, indeed, a separate individual and not Jaltha’s own reflection, or an illusion produced by the cursed plain. Yet somehow, instead of the wrathful beast Jaltha had felt herself becoming over the past several seasons since Fate had razed her life to the sands, Malune looked upon the detritus of her life and laughed, as though the world were not a wild, carnivorous thing, but a clumsy creature causing only accidental mayhem in its blundering. It was this, perhaps, more than anything else that drew Jaltha to her. She did not say so, unsure of how she would be interpreted if she did, but remained silent and contented herself to listen until Malune’s voice was replaced by the soft roar of the currents, and both fell asleep upon the plain.
Morning had come with the ferocious barking of Gaka, Rilask’s second in command. Malune had been taken and strapped into a yoke beside the males that pulled the bladdercart. Jaltha had taken her position with the other twelve guards. The journey resumed.
Jaltha looked up from the litter of males to the bladdercart, the criggn shells rattling against the cheruon bones, the whole thing rocking on the air bladders onto which it was lashed as the currents picked up, lifting a thin haze of silt from the black clay. Malune struggled, thrashing her tail wildly with the males, desperately trying not to lose the cart. If she did, Jaltha would not put it past Rilask to have her killed. She swam toward the cart, drawing the attention of two other guards who followed her, struggling to steady the cart by pushing against it while Jaltha took up a barbed cord from a fallen male and helped tug the cart beside Malune.
Malune, breathless, her beak grinding, her gills flared as wide as they could, her whole body thrashing, managed to nod thanks at Jaltha. One of the other guards shouted over the rushing current, pressed her flank against the cart, stabilizing it.
“Twice have I been to Olm-Daki by this very route,” the guard cried, “and never have I seen such a storm!”
The guard beside her shouted in reply, “Let the kryndyr have trade with Olm-Daki! Let the damned crustaceans brave the black plain! This is no place for a salathe!”
It was strange, and they had all thought it so, that the Mooring of Olm-Daki should be so secluded. None knew the history of the Mooring, only that it had always been within the caves at the base of a dormant volcano beyond the plains of Shoorm, just west of the volcanic wastes, and that it only survived because the currents that swelled out of the abyss beyond the Verge scattered the volcanoes’ poisonous clouds north. The journey to Olm-Daki was one of several days across bleak emptiness, the only life the immortal bloodsponges that anchored themselves upon the stones and the fossils of ancient monsters that rose from the plain like jagged black teeth. The journey was, however, a worthwhile one for those salathes like Rilask brave or desperate enough to take it. The Mooring of Olm-Daki was, after all, carved from pure volcanic stone. The obsidian’s weight in pearls could make a trader wealthy enough to retire or, at the very least, as in Rilask’s case, pay off dangerous debts.
Jaltha pulled at the cart, every muscle taught and burning. Malune struggled beside her, their long, sinuous bodies slamming against one another as they thrashed against the screaming current. Jaltha was aware of male-herds shouting through the building gray cloud kicked up by the storm, and of guards and traders panicking, thrashing against the current.
“The plain doesn’t seem to be all that fond of us,” Malune managed to laugh between pained gasps.
A tearing pain tore through Jaltha’s body and she howled, though she kept her claws wrapped firmly around the barbed cord. She looked down. There, across her tail, a gash as long as her forearm, leaking a cloud of blood that blended with the gray mist before being carried away by the current. Beside her, Malune screamed. Jaltha turned her head and saw a similar wound open across Malune’s back, just below her gillmound.
Then, all around them, screams of pain and clouds of blood. Jaltha saw the two guards beside the cart abandon their efforts, fleeing into the storm, vanishing in the haze, desperately trying to escape the sideways hail of wounds that the plain was throwing against them.
Malune screamed once more. Jaltha released the cart.
“No!” Malune bellowed as another wound widened across her bare shoulders, where the yoke was lashed to her. Jaltha unsheathed her warclub as the cart toppled in the gale, the leather lashings coming undone as the invisible daggers slashed them into tatters. The air bladders ruptured, great silver bubbles gushing out of them. The cart’s detritus tugged Malune back with it, the yoke strangling her. Jaltha brought her obsidian-spiked warclub down on the yoke, shattering it, freeing her friend. The males were gone, pulled backwards into the blinding haze of silt and blood. Jaltha pulled Malune down with her, pinning her to the plain by pressing her left arm across her gillmound. More pain came, more wounds opened across her back, and the silt clogged her gills. All around, the sounds of screams, thinned and muffled by the current. Jaltha threw her gaze in every direction, but could see nothing but gray…
Then, a flash of silver…and another…like brief daggers of moonlight slashing through the world…
“Razorfish!” Jaltha screamed. A great swarm of them.
Pain lanced into Jaltha’s left arm, just below her elbow. She looked down and saw a razorfish, its small, dagger-shaped body lodged in her flesh, her blood clouding its black eyes…but then, no…its eyes were not black, for it had no eyes…nor scales, nor flesh…only bones…
She panicked and released her hold on Malune, flailing to be free of the thing. As she turned, her fins caught the current. Jaltha tumbled through the haze, screaming Malune’s name into the storm.
When Jaltha woke, she was alone. Her body had come to rest only a few tail-lengths away from the Verge itself, beyond which there was only eternal night. Only a few more moments, or a slight shift in the current, and she would have awoken to the crushing death and utter blackness of the abyss. She flexed her muscles, felt the wounds from the razorfish throb. Her bones and muscles ached, but none of the injuries seemed particularly life-threatening. Her left arm hurt the worst, and she suspected that the razorfish had struck bone before becoming dislodged. Her first full thought was that she was, indeed, alive.
Her second thought was Malune.
Rilask, Jaltha knew, had plotted their path a full thirty miles north of the volcanic wastes, slightly closer to the Verge than was typical for treks across Shoorm due to recent rumors of increased volcanic activity. Still, their caravan never skirted closer than ten miles from the Verge. Tales abounded of the ancient strangeness that lurked near the abyss. None in Rilask’s employ would have permitted her to push them any nearer to it.
And yet, here the storm had left Jaltha, at the very mouth of it, a day’s journey at the least from their course, where the storm had struck. She looked around, hoping to see a scrap of debris or, miraculously, another salathe from the caravan, even a voiceless male, anything that would mean she was not utterly alone, here.
She found it. A shard of cheruon bone, stark white upon the black plain. She swam to it, lifted it, sniffed it with her gills…traces of the nall-leaf oil used to strengthen it…the scent of the males lashed to it…the sharpness of salathe blood…
Jaltha dropped the bone, sensing something drawing near, from behind her. She spun, flaring the spines from her elbows and around her gillmound.
There, only three tail-lengths away, floating through the thinning gray haze leftover from the storm, was a creature Jaltha had never seen, though she knew it well from the sleep-circle tales of her fellow guards. A grogglin, it was called. Its body was as wide as Jaltha’s was long, a massive, quivering white sphere from the sides of which jutted long bones that stretched translucent, veined flesh into torn, tattered triangles. Its jawless mouth was a permanent circle lined with a thousand teeth, each as long as Jaltha’s arm from shoulder to wrist. The teeth were set into muscled organs that each flexed and relaxed on their own accord, so that its mouth was ever in motion, the teeth rippling within like the tentacles of an anemone. The eyes set into the sides of its loathsome girth were nearly as large and hideous as its mouth, the milky darkness behind them soulless and ever-hungry. The tales the guards told claimed that the grogglins lived in the abyss, and only ventured out of it when they were near death from starvation, driven mad by hunger.
She reached for her warclub only to find her sheath empty. The voice from the aether sang through her mind.
Now may be a fine time to bring me forth.
“No,” Jaltha hissed. The grogglin was still drifting lazily, as though it had not seen her. She knew better. If the stories of the guards were true, the monster was incredibly fast. When it decided to strike, Jaltha would be rent to pieces by the autonomous teeth before she’d be able to scream…
Call me! The voice insisted.
“Silence,” Jaltha murmured. She remained perfectly still, hanging in the water. The grogglin’s pulsing white mass drifted nearer, following the Verge, one of its fins hanging over the black sand, the other jutting out over the abyss. She watched its tail fin ripple gently, almost hypnotically…the muscle at its base throbbing softly beneath its pulpy flesh…
Damn you! If you die, do you know how long I’d have to wait for someone to—
Jaltha leapt sideways, toward the abyss, spitting forth a black cloud of fearspores. The venomous cloud trailed her, and it was through this that the ferocious maw of the grogglin darted, its speed incongruous with its bloated, ugly form. The monster brought itself to a halt, thrashing its ugly spheroid body, trying to expel the toxin from its gills. Jaltha took the opportunity. She fled, swimming straight out over the abyss, following the Verge, taking care not to look down at the infinite nothing below her and the horrors it held…
Something slammed into her left shoulder with the speed and force of a god’s fist. She screamed. Her body went rigid as her vision went white with fear and pain. She fell…
Her vision cleared and she saw above her the grogglin, descending toward her, the Great Wall of the verge rushing past her, retreating toward the light as the world was swallowed by darkness.
You’re going to godsdamn die, here, Jaltha.
Jaltha felt the pressure building as the light retreated, the grip of the angry, ancient dark tightening around her. The last of the light formed a ring around the grogglin, a macabre eclipse as the monster’s maw reached her, and she felt the heat from its flesh, felt its teeth dance across her skin, almost gently, like the touch of a lover…
“Malune,” she thought she said.
Pure blackness, then. No light.
Jaltha’s eyes opened as quickly as she could force them. Her vision was blurred. There was soreness in her wrists, in her tail and across her back. She looked down at her hands…
Below her webbed claws, two holes had been punched through her wrist, between her bones, leaking wisps of blood. Below the wounds were shackles attached to thick chains of kryndyr steel. Her tail was similarly bound. She followed the chains to hooks set into the the wall behind her. The wall was a strange, porous stone, and pure black. There was a wide, circular opening in the wall not far from her beyond which was thick darkness and the sound of groans. The sound of torture. The mouth of the cave was only two or three tail-lengths away. Beyond it, she could see the last remnants of day sift down through the world like offal.
Jaltha swam backwards, pressing her aching body against the wall. How she had come to be here, when her last memory was of the grogglin’s devouring maw, she had no idea…perhaps, she reasoned, this was the afterlife…
Don’t be foolish, the voice from the aether trilled, You are still very much alive.
She tried to speak, but pain and exhaustion had weakened her to the point of muteness. The aether knew her thoughts, however, and answered them accordingly.
The grogglin brought you here, it said. Some sort of cave network, set into the wall of the Verge. The aether paused. Jaltha could feel it withholding something. She closed her eyes and focused, directing her thoughts to the aether.
What? Speak, damned thing!
The voice seemed to sigh.
When we arrived, Rilask was already here.
Jaltha’s eyes opened.
It was Rilask that bound you, so. It was she that put you in chains.
Jaltha’s mind raced. What the voice claimed made little sense to her. Still, it meant that Rilask was alive, at least—
No, the voice said, She isn’t.
What? Jaltha asked. You said—
Jaltha, this is very, very bad, the voice interrupted. The grogglin venom in your blood has slowed you. I…I do not think you can summon me…your mind is too weak to call me forth…
Another voice cut through the aether. It spoke aloud, not in her mind.
“You have a touch of magic in you, Strange One,” it said.
Jaltha turned to see two figures swim through the wide circular opening to her left. Salathe females, both of them. In the darkness, she could barely see them but for their lifeheat. They swam over to her, their tails wafting lazily in perfect unison, until they came to a stop midway between Jaltha and the mouth of the cave.
There, by the soft almost-light beyond the mouth, she could see her captors. The one nearest to her was an Eldress. Her hide was thick with pus-colored calluses, her beak nearly white with age. She wore the kasp-leaf robe of a Shaman, but somehow Jaltha knew this was no mere God-Speaker. There was a sinisterness to her, an unmistakable aura the color and viscosity of venom. Beside her, there was Rilask.
“Rilask!” Jaltha coughed, snapping the chains taught as she strained against them, “Rilask! What is this? Release me, now!”
Rilask did not respond, did not move at all except to wave her tail to remain in place. Jaltha shook her head, unbelieving.
“Rilask!” Jaltha barked. Rilask did not move. Razorfish wounds, hundreds of them, crisscrossed the trader’s body from the top of her skull to the tip of her tail. One of her eyes had been ruptured, its milky remains drifting out of the socket like a wuorn-tentacle.
Rilask, Jaltha knew, was dead. The Old One clicked her beak and swam closer to Jaltha until her beak nearly touched Jaltha’s own. The clouded eyes bored into Jaltha, played across her.
“But it is not a magic I know,” the Old One whispered, “and I know many. Still, it has touched you. As such, I have decided to keep you near.”
Something stirred in the darkness behind the Old One, and Jaltha shook as she beheld it…the grogglin, swimming lazily past the mouth of the cave. For the first time, Jaltha noticed the enormous black gash in its side, behind its eye. A great chunk of flesh was missing from the animal, its translucent bones and milk-colored organs bloodless and decayed. The grogglin, she realized, was dead. It was dead, and yet it moved, serving the will of the Old One. Jaltha’s mind trudged through her memory until she found the razorfish buried in her elbow…its eyeless head, its near fleshless body…
“You…” Jaltha croaked, “you are a necromancer…”
The Old One chittered, flared the spines around her gillmound. “The dead are often more willing servants than the living,” she shrugged, and chittered again. “The living require either pain or reward. The dead ask only to live. Once that price is paid, they will do whatever is asked of them.”
Jaltha quivered, straining against the chains.. It was useless. The toxin reduced her body and mind to mere caricatures of themselves…crude illuminations…
“I am called Olak-Koth,” the necromancer declared. “And you are called Jaltha, once chieftain of the Olmregmai.”
Jaltha edged away, her back colliding with the wall. Olak-Koth continued.
“I have seen your mind, as I see all of my prey. It is rare, but it does sometimes happen that one of the living may be worth more to me alive than dead.” She extended a bony claw towards Jaltha. “I believe you to be one of those.”
Jaltha, I kept her from what I could, the voice said. It sounded frightened. Her magic is strong, though. She knows I’m here—
The necromancer’s eyes twitched, her beak jerked upward, her gillmound quivered. Her eyes rolled and the protective white membranes flicked over them sporadically.
“I…can feel it…your mind, reaching out and touching it…near…it is very near…” the necromancer lowered her head, composed herself, ground her mandibles together before continuing. “What magic is it, Strange One, that speaks to you? That guards your mind from probing claws? What darkness is it you carry within you? Answer, fool! For it is this, alone, that has saved you from the fate your friends now suffer!”
Jaltha heard the groans of pain once more, echoing out of the cavern behind her…
“Malune!” Jaltha cried.
She pulled hard at the chains, throwing her tired weight against them, felt them bite into her flesh, felt them draw blood, but the kryndyr smiths were stronger than she, and the grogglin venom made her dizzy and filled her vision with tiny blinding suns. After a moment, she became still once more, drifting limply to the cave floor.
Olak-Koth swam nearer to her, looked down upon Jaltha. “Once,” the necromancer croaked, “you had a Mooring. Power. This, I have seen, and I needn’t have looked within your mind to see it. You were feared. Adored. Some felt that hate which is reserved only for gods and chieftains. And now, behold! Ruled by a fear strong enough to force you into the service of a fool trader,” her claw jabbed backward toward Rilask, still hovering in the water, staring ahead, seeing nothing.
“Though, somewhere along your path, magic touched you. You know its name. It speaks to you, protects you. It is ancient. Strong…” The necromancer’s voice trailed off. Her eyes rolled over white. Jaltha felt something like a breath of cold, putrid current across her thoughts. Within her, the voice roared like a guardian beast. Olak-Koth’s eyes opened and she shook her head, flared her gillspines, clicked her beak. She grasped Jaltha’s beak in her claws and stared into her eyes.
“Do you not crave what you have lost? Do you not crave that power?”
Jaltha tried to open her beak, but Olak-Koth’s grip was too strong.
“I can give you that power, Strange One. I can give you a world that fears you.”
Jaltha! The voice screamed through her, making her body go rigid, Jaltha, I know! I have seen it, what she plans!
Jaltha shook her head free of the necromancer’s grasp.
“I have seen enough of magic and those enslaved to it,” she spat, clicking her beak in disgust. “Do what you will with me.”
Jaltha, what are you doing—
“Silence!” Jaltha screamed. The tiny suns burst, leaked blindness through the world. She shook her head, which only made things worse. She shut her eyes and breathed. Above her, she heard the necromancer’s voice.
“So be it, wretch,” said Olak-Koth. “What comes next will shake the very foundations of the world. If you will not surrender your magic to me, your blood will suffice.”
Jaltha… the voice strained to be heard, but was drowned out by the grogglin venom, the pain in her broken shoulder, the gashes in her flesh…
The grogglin’s venom seized her, then, having had its time to settle within her. Her body spasmed once, and then was still, as if molten iron had been poured into her bones. She could not move, could scarcely breathe as she settled on the cave floor like a cheruon bone. The blindness faded, though her gaze was as fixed as her bones. All she could see was the mouth of the cave beyond the shadows of the necromancer and her revelation slave.
She heard Olak-Koth say to Rilask’s living corpse. “Take her to the others.”
Rilask’s strength was otherworldly as she dragged Jaltha’s paralyzed body through the dark corridor toward the sounds of torment.
They entered an immense cylindrical chamber, lit by ancient bubbling kryndyr flames set into sconces in the walls. The walls were rounded, following the curve of lengths of strange stone, almost like the ribs of some giant beast. As Rilask swam through the chamber, Jaltha’s unmoving eyes beheld the horrors within.
There, upon the curved, rib-like stones, were the members of her caravan…Gaka, the second in command…Dejeme the male-herd…Kalmara the navigator…all writhing, screaming, their eyes wide portals that opened onto worlds of agony. Gouts of black fearspores erupted from the vents below their beaks, instinctual, animal reactions to fear and anguish.
They were all bound to bloodpsonges. The vampiric things lined the rib-like stones, clustered upon it, and the salathes hissed and died slowly, slowly, as their life was drained from them…
Rilask shifted Jaltha in her claws just as they passed the bound, quivering form of Malune. Her arms were stretched out, her tail torn, broken. Malune’s life was reduced to a weak light behind her eyes that dimmed as it was pulled into the bloodsponge on which she was bound.
Rilask turned and swam toward the wall, toward an empty bloodsponge further up, directly above Malune. Rilask spoke, then, though not with her own voice, but with the rasping hiss of Olak-Koth. “I have seen your affection for this one,” the revenant chittered, “You may watch her die.”
Rilask turned Jaltha’s body so that she stared into her dead, eyeless skull. Though Jaltha knew what was happening, the truth of it was still a distant thing. Buried beneath confusion and pain and the harsh magic that held her limbs, there was the voice, crying out to her through the void.
Pain like sunfire burned across her back, down her tail, from her wrists down her arms, through her veins and everywhere, everywhere at once. She gasped, flaring out her gills, and tried to move. She felt the mind-numbing toxins of the sponge’s million mouths as they hooked in and sucked at her flesh, draining her slowly…slowly…
She screamed. Olak-Koth laughed loudly through Rilask’s beak. A cacophony of screams, of terror and blinding, pulsing agony, the laughter of the necromancer…the scent of the blood-infused sponges…Malune just inches below her, helpless, all of them…all of them doomed…all of this blended, melded at once into something pure and solid and white, the way a pearl is made of a million broken stones…
Jaltha! The voice screamed. She could hear it, now. She could focus. Rilask’s corpse swam away, back toward the entrance to the chamber of horrors.
I cannot heal you if you cannot summon me, the voice said, The grogglin venom will soon be overtaken by the bloodsponge’s own toxin. It will numb your mind as well as your body.
The voice paused for a moment.
Jaltha, it said, I am afraid.
All around her, the screams fused together into a deafening silence, and then there were only the sounds of her own blood and the voices within it.
What…what is happening?
The voice answered, When she entered your mind, I was able to enter hers, but only briefly. I have seen what she is, what she plans.
Jaltha was able to move her eyes again. She strained against the bloodsponge’s suction, but the combined venom of the undead grogglin and the sponge itself took the strain and turned it into a tearing nausea that threw acidic vomit out of her beak and caused her bowels to rupture. She moaned low and was still, casting her eyes about the vast fire-lit chamber, the twisted bodies, the blood leaking from the gluttonous things upon which they were dying.
This is not a cave, the voice continued. It is a massive skeleton, the fossilized remains of a gargantuan beast from your world’s prehistory, a kind of predatory serpent. By my estimates, the skeleton is nearly three hundred tail-lengths long. It has been hidden here, beneath the sediment, set into the wall of the Verge for eons. Olak-Koth had found the monster years ago, and sought a way to bring it forth from death.
Jaltha’s eyes were torn reluctantly down, to Malune, whose eyes were closed behind white membranes. Jaltha closed her own.
She practiced her death-magic here, within the skeleton, until she found a way to bring life to the dead by use of bloodsponges, transferring life from a living thing to a corpse with the vampires as the medium. Here, she waited, capturing stray travelers across the plain until our caravan came, and she drove the storm of razorfish to scatter us toward her.
The voice threw visions of the past upon the surface of Jaltha’s mind…visions of the past…Olak-Koth, once a revered Shaman of Olm-Daki, draped in silken leaves and pearl and obsidian jewelry…a black dagger in her claws…imprisonment…banishment…years wandering the black plain…the yawning maw of the predatory beast, trapped within the stone, its ancient, empty eye socket like a cave within the Verge…
With these lives, the voice said, with this blood, the beast is soon to rise from its tomb. Guided by Olak-Koth’s terrific will, it will be a siege engine with which she will visit her vengeance upon Olm-Daki. At the end of it, she will have more slaves. More lives. Enough to fill the bloodsponges set within the ribs of a hundred more fossils…enough to raise an army of the prehistoric dead…
She saw it then, painted upon her mind, twisting and fading and reforming with the surges of bloodsponge venom…Olak-Koth’s vision for the future…all of the Moorings of the salathes and the cities of the crustacean kryndyr razed, all of Dheregu United beneath the skeletal claws of an undying Empress of Death and her army of blood-stained bones…
Why do you show me this? Jaltha thought. She could almost hear the screams again, could feel the burning, gnashing pain of the bloodsponge’s mouths start to numb into a soft, almost pleasant sensation. If I am doomed to die, what does it matter to me the fate of a world none can save?
The voice answered, We can stop this. We alone, perhaps, can end this before it begins.
Jaltha opened her eyes, looked down at her weakened corpse. The color was already almost gone from the flesh of her tail.
You said…I could not summon you…that my mind…was too weak…that it was impossible…
It is, the voice said, and Jaltha felt it tremble. But you must try.
Jaltha’s gaze drifted past her tail, past the monster upon which she was splayed…to Malune. The only creature toward which she’d felt drawn since her Mooring was slaughtered, since she had inherited Nakaroth from the mad fiend Kalzahj, since she had been broken and scattered to the wild currents of Dheregu. In Malune, she felt the pull, the almighty command she had once felt in the gods she had abandoned, and she knew not why, only that she must obey it. In this, for the first time in a hundred seasons, she felt the mighty cry of purpose.
Focus, Jaltha! You must try!
The walls shook, suddenly, and would not stop. The great ribs of the creature to which the hapless salathes were bound trembled, dislodging themselves from the stone in which they were entombed…
It is beginning…the voice said.
The screams were drowned out by the thunderous crack of stone, and a booming, echoing voice roared through it all, the voice of Olak-Koth, speaking empowered words no living tongue save hers could form as the mighty, long-dead beast shook itself free from the cliff-face, alive once more, fed by the blood of a hundred salathes and the will of the necromancer in its eye…
A stone struck Jaltha as it fell, and the last thing she saw was the darkness of the abyss opening below her, a mountain’s worth of stone pulled free from the Verge by the living bones of the great serpent, sent tumbling into the eternal night.
It was a noxious heat that shook Jaltha awake. For a long moment, her venom-slowed mind forgot where she was. She looked around in confusion and tried to move. Then, she remembered.
The sunlight fell down through the world in gray, muddied torrents of light. All around her, the bloodsponge-lined ribs of the great prehistoric monster rippled and swayed as the skeleton swam forth. The light was stronger, here, not far from the worldbreak. She looked down. Malune had stopped moving, stopped screaming, as had most of them. Her eyes were closed. It was likely, Jaltha knew, that she was dead. The thought couldn’t penetrate her slow, clogged thoughts deeply enough to elicit pain. For that, she felt a small amount of gratitude.
Below Malune, a league or more below them all, there lay the wide, burning landscape of the volcanic wastes. The heat of it, even at this distance, had been strong enough to tear Jaltha from the grip of the bloodsponge toxin.
She is taking the beast over the volcanoes, the voice said, She hopes to reach Olm-Daki by nightfall.
She hissed as she felt another wave of nausea roar through her.
You must focus, Jaltha.
She vomited again, though there was little left in her but bile. She surveyed her body. Almost a translucent white against the bloodsponge, she swore she could see her very soul as it left her, fled into the bones of the reborn titan.
She closed her eyes. The venom swirled beneath her membranes, a visible thing, a swarm of gray tendrils. She forced herself beyond that, deeper into the darkness, toward the core of it, where the voice lived…
She heard the humming song, the high-pitched trill that rang outward from the aether…
Bring me forth!
…and she saw before her the visions of Olak-Koth, a world of a million corpses, though even this moved her only slightly. Pain was the wide world’s blind author, and it mattered little to Jaltha who it selected as its scribe, be it Olak-Koth or some other fiend. But, there, in that vision of a million bloodless corpses, she saw only one.
The rage built, and the high, humming song burst into the world around her, outside her mind, and she felt the burning in her arms and chest, the painful toll the summoning took from her now a small, insignificant thing.
Her mind bellowed, full and deep into the aether, I call thee forth, Nakaroth, Blade of the Void!
Her eyes shot open to see the air in front of her left hand shiver and fracture into alien geometries. In the midst of this, a widening point of darkness appeared, the high shrill screech of reality suddenly deafening. Then, the point erupted into a thick, black triangle of serrated steel, the blade of Nakaroth. The hilt sprung from the blade into Jaltha’s webbed claws, which she closed around it. The song became silence.
Instantly, she felt the sword’s power course through her, replacing in moments what the bloodsponge had taken hours to steal. She roared, and in one mighty forward motion, tore herself from the bloodsponge’s thousand hooked mouths. Her blood trailed from the wounds, but she felt no pain, only rage and a ferocious swell of might borrowed from the timeless aether. She spun in the water and slashed at the bloodsponge. The thick black sword passed through it easily, lodging itself in the thick, stone-like rib beneath it. The wounded sponge and the enchanted bone released great scarlet clouds of her own blood, and the wounded resurrection quivered in pain and surprise from the attack.
She knows, the sword said. Hurry!
Jaltha darted down to Malune’s sponge, burying her claws into it to stay with the monstrous skeleton as it moved. Jaltha pressed the flat edge of the blade against Malune’s chest, and a dozen yellow runes glowed upon it. Malune’s eyes shot open and her gills flared. She looked about her, struggled against the bloodsponge’s grip.
“Be still,” Jaltha said, drawing back the sword.
Malune watched in horror as Jaltha brought the sword down. The blade bit deep into the bloodsponge, missing Malune’s tail by a fangwidth. The vampiric thing shuddered in panic, and Jaltha relished in knowing that, had the creature a mouth, it would have screamed. It released Malune in a thick cloud of her own blood.
Jaltha took Malune in her arms and swam away from the skeleton, struggling against the pull of it as it passed them. They looked at one another. Malune was still weak though even with the tiny amount of power granted her by Nakaroth she found herself able to swim on her own. She pushed away from Jaltha, suddenly terrified of the salathe in front of her, wielding a great black blade, surrounded by an aura the color of a dying sun.
“J…Jaltha? What…what’s happened?”
“Can you swim?”
“Then swim south. There is an abandoned kryndyr outpost near the Verge, according to Rilask’s maps, at the southern tip of the wastes. There should be supplies there which will permit you to return to Chorgaan.”
“What…what’s happening? What was that creature…?”
Jaltha’s gillspines flared in anger. “Go!” She screamed. Malune backed away.
“What…what about the others?”
Jaltha’s gaze remained fixed on the living fossil as she said, “I will do what I can. For many of them, I fear it is too late.” Jaltha swam forward, past Malune.
“Why did…you save me, then?” Malune asked.
In reply, Jaltha barked, “To the outpost!” She stopped for only a moment, turned, and said, “If I live, I will meet you there.” Then, she was gone. Malune was behind her. Olak-Koth and her beast lay ahead.
The power that surged outward from the sword propelled her through the water at an incredible speed. She caught up with the fossilized tail of the undead titan within moments. The pull of the beast’s mass through the water caught her, further accelerating her progress. She darted beneath its tremendous vertebrae, each one as wide as a grogglin and twice as long. The creature’s size dwarfed even the largest of the white cheruons, who themselves could reach a size of over two hundred tail-lengths. If Olak-Koth succeeded in raising an army of such things, Jaltha found it hard to believe that anything would be able to stop her from claiming all of Dheregu as her own.
She entered the cavernous ribcage by darting between two mammoth ribs. All around her, the dead and the dying…the reek of excrement and fearspores and blood. The serpent’s bones, she thought, carried the scent of war within its belly.
She swam over to the nearest of the tortured captives, a young caravan guard named Taati. She could smell the death rising off of her, could see it in the empty, open eyes. She took a long breath in through her gills, then drove Nakaroth through the corpse, into the sponge. Blood gushed forth. The monster shuddered. The thick blade severed the corpse in two, and the top half fell away to the hissing wastes.
Something is coming, Nakaroth said.
Jaltha ignored the sword and swam the seven or so tail-lengths to the next rib, to the hapless creature bound upon it. This one, too, was dead. She did not know her name. Without ceremony, she plunged the sword in. Blood rushed out.
Biting, slashing pain lanced into her side. Jaltha roared and spun. Buried in her tail up to its dead, empty eye sockets…a razorfish. She tore it out and crushed its bones in her fist, its bladed nose biting blood from her palm. She discarded the broken thing and looked up. Pouring out from the porous skull three hundred tail-length’s ahead was a swarm of razorfish as thick and full as the gouts of blood pouring from the ruptured sponges. The swarm moved as a solid entity, rushing across the skeleton toward her, an angry, bladed cloud.
Jaltha darted upwards following the wall of curved black bone until she came to the next bloodsponge. This one held Gaka, Rilask’s second in command. She was alive. Her eyes flickered open as Jaltha dug her claws into the sponge behind her head.
“You…one of…the guards…” Gaka rasped.
“Be still,” Jaltha commanded, and lifted the sword—
A razorfish tore a hole through the webbing below her right arm. She hissed as another slammed into the blade of Nakaroth, shattering itself upon impact with the magical steel. The swarm was upon her.
The living daggers encircled her in a cyclone. She lashed out with Nakaroth, swinging the blade in wide, mighty arcs, crushing dozens of them at a time. Still, they were able to attack, stabbing at her from all directions. They were too many.
The aura! Nakaroth cried, Use the aura!
Jaltha bellowed in protest, “No! I am too weak already!” A wound opened below her jaw. She swung her sword wildly, tearing holes in the wall of the cyclone that immediately healed itself as more and more of the necromancer’s minions poured forth from the titan’s skull.
Jaltha, you must—
“It will drain too much of us both!” Jaltha screamed over the roaring swarm, “It was you that said it’s meant only to be used as a last resort!”
Another dagger in her tail fin, then another near her spine, and another in her elbow…
Precisely! The sword countered.
Wounds opened like polyps across her back and shoulders…
She closed her eyes and hissed at the sword, “Very well! Do what you must!”
The sword’s mind bored into her own, pulled a portion of her soul into itself…
A great jagged sphere of yellow light burned the world around her body into a bubbling roar. She felt it tear at her soul, feeding off of it. Her arms threw out to their sides of their own accord. The destroying aura expanded outward from her, swallowing the razorfish, dissolving the swarm in a matter of seconds. When it was over, Jaltha hung in the water in a cloud of dust that was all that remained of the razorfish, pulled forward only by the mass of the great skeleton-beast as it glided forth.
She turned her head slowly as her strength returned. There was Gaka, still bound upon the bloodsponge. The aura had burnt Gaka’s chest and arms, and singed the bloodsponge itself. Gaka, however, still lived. Her eyes were fixed upon the great triangle of steel in Jaltha’s left hand.
“What…what are you…?” She whimpered.
Jaltha felt the sword’s diminished healing power slough through her, slowly sealing the wounds inflicted by the swarm. She stabbed the bloodsponge, releasing Gaka.
Gaka listened numbly to Jaltha’s commands, to the directions to the abandoned kryndyr outpost. Without a word, stricken dumb by pain and terror, she swam away.
“Wretched thing! Infidel!” The great, trembling voice of Olak-Koth filled the world, echoing out from the titan’s very bones.
Jaltha turned, then, and saw the corpse of Rilask leap out of the titan’s skull and turn, wielding a spear of fossilized bone, rushing down the winding length of ribcage through the scarlet fog of blood Jaltha had loosed from the vampiric sponges. Jaltha thrashed her tail and rushed forth, toward her enemy…
Their weapons collided like a clap of thunder, sending each of their wielders tumbling through the water. They each gathered their bearings, and struck again. Jaltha ducked beneath a supernaturally powerful thrust of the thick spear. The weapon passed over her gillmound and Jaltha swept upward with Nakaroth, slashing her enemy open from its abdomen to its throat. White milky tendrils of intestine burst forth from the wound.
The revenant lunged, dragging its bloodless entrails behind it. Jaltha, still slowed from the use of the aura, moaned in despair as she labored to lift Nakaroth to block the attack. She was too slow. The spear punched into her left side, slipped between her ribs. She screamed and grasped the bone spear’s wide shaft, brought the sword down upon it, slicing it in half. The revenant’s lonely eye flickered in anger as it looked down at its broken weapon. With the spearpoint still inside her, grinding against her ribs, Jaltha roared, flashing Nakaroth outward, severing the corpse’s head from its eviscerated body. The head fell away beneath and behind Jaltha, drifting down to the burning wastes a league below.
Jaltha looked down at the wound. If she pulled the spear out, she would only bleed out faster. Nakaroth would clot the bleeding for now, but could do little to save her from the death the wound would bring. The blade would have to return to the aether to replenish the power spent on the aura, and in that time, she would die.
She looked around at the hundred or so more bloodsponges left to be severed, at the corspes of the salathes that she could not save, and felt her grip on life loosen further. There was no way to stop the serpent. Even crossing the distance to the skull, to kill Olak-Koth and break the spell, would take more of her lifeforce than likely remained. She looked down, where Rilask’s headless corpse had fallen. She blinked, realizing something. She looked up, at the spine…
Yes, Nakaroth said. Do it.
Jaltha swam for the vertebrae.
Before you die, the sword said, send me back into the aether. I would rather wait there for another to summon me someday than perish utterly in the fires below.
Jaltha silently agreed. She was nearly there…nearly there…if she could sever the spine, interrupt the flow of blood through the bones, perhaps it would slay the beast just as it had slain Rilask.
She lifted the sword, thrashed her tail…almost…almost…
A screech behind her. She turned.
Olak-Koth, wreathed in a black aura that boiled the world around her, tore through the water, her claws bared and full of gnashing magic…
“Infidel!” She howled.
Jaltha tried to raise Nakaroth, but the sword was too heavy, emptied of power. She tightened her grip and prepared to send it back to the aether, fulfilling her promise.
The necromancer threw her claws outward, casting black, moaning beams through the water. Jaltha darted to her right, following the length of the spine. The black beams slammed into the vertebrae, scarring the fossilized bone. The great length of the titan shuddered. Olak-Koth screamed again, spun as she reached the spine only a tail-length away from Jaltha.
Nakaroth, she began the spell to send the blade back to the aether…
The necromancer’s hands pulled darkness into them from nowhere, her eyes wild, her tail flashing. Jaltha remained where she was, prepared to die.
Blade born of the starwinds…
The necromancer grasped Jaltha’s throat with a burning black hand.
…to the starwinds I command thee go…
Jaltha felt her flesh bubble and char beneath Olak-Koth’s grip. She met the necromancer’s eyes, saw the red and raging void, a future of corpses and blood scratched into sand-scoured stone…
Something lurched. The necromancer screeched in pain. Her black hand was torn away violently from Jaltha’s throat. Jaltha backed away, dizzy, dying, blinking blood out of her eyes.
Olak-Koth’s body was impaled against the titan’s spine by a length of broken bone. It was the half of the spear that Rilask had fallen with. Now, it was pushed upward through Olak-Koth’s abdomen, out through the back of her neck and into a fissure in the serpent’s vertebrae. At the other end of the shaft, Malune glared up at the necromancer, thrashed her tail, forced the weapon deeper into the necromancer.
“Now!” Malune turned and screamed at Jaltha. Jaltha did not hesitate. She swam forth, lifting Nakaroth with both hands and all her strength, though her dying muscles cried for relief. Olak-Koth opened her beak to scream, but no sound came before the sword had passed through her, the weeping cloak of souls suddenly silenced. The necromancer’s body separated below the arms, the bottom portion trailing black blood, like a dark comet on its way to the wastes a league below.
Jaltha and Malune’s eyes met for a moment before Malune’s gaze fell to the spear in Jaltha’s side. They grasped each other as Nakaroth vanished from Jaltha’s hand, flickering back into the aether. Malune took Jaltha and swam out of the serpent’s ribcage as the bones fell apart from one another. No longer held together by the necromancer’s will, they collapsed and crumbled, following their master and dragging the dead after them into the fire.
Somewhere in the deep darkness of a wounded sleep, Nakaroth spoke.
You have done almighty work, Jaltha of Dheregu.
She opened her eyes, suddenly fully awake. Over her head, there was pure black stone, baroquely carved. She lifted her body from a slab of the same obsidian. There was a pain in her ribs, and deeper, and she remembered…
“Jaltha!” She turned. There, in a finely decorated threshold, was Malune. She swam into the small chamber. Behind her followed a regal-looking salathe Eldress, wearing the headdress and shoulder shells of a chieftain.
Malune took a place beside the wide berth of volcanic glass upon which Jaltha lay. They looked into each other’s eyes for a long while, perfectly silent. The chieftain waited, patiently. Words formed behind Jaltha’s beak, but she kept it shut. The silence was far more appropriate.
At last, Jaltha turned from Malune to face the chieftain.
“Where are we?” Jaltha asked.
It was the chieftain who answered.
“You are within the Mooring of Olm-Daki,” she said.
“A hunting party had spotted us,” said Malune, “They saw the bones of the serpent fall, and they found us among the debris. You’ve been asleep for many days.”
The chieftain lowered her heavily ornamented head. “It is likely that all of Olm-Daki owes you our lives.” She straightened, crossed her strong arms. She stared hard at Jaltha. “The kryndyr surgeons here have repaired your wounds, and assure me you will live. I wanted to personally extend my invitation that you remain here. All will be taken care of, of course. You would want for nothing. It is the least we can do.”
Malune and Jaltha both looked at the chieftain, then at each other. Malune nodded. Jaltha said, “For now, at least, we will remain.”
The chieftain chittered in excitement. “I will have a more permanent living arrangement prepared near the top of the mountain, close to the worldbreak. The sunlight there is legendary! Why, I myself retain a home there…” She was still speaking excitedly to herself as she turned and left the chamber.
Malune knelt and clacked her beak, just once, against Jaltha’s before turning and following the chieftain. “I will return,” she said. The sensation lingered, mingling with the sound of Malune’s voice as she absently ran her hands over her arms, her tail and felt the scars there. She stared up at the obsidian ceiling, at the myriad carvings, vines and tentacles entwined and knotted like the ways of the Fates that had led her here. It was useless to try and find a pattern, she knew. But she would have time.
Even as she followed them, the carvings seemed to blur, and she looked away, out the narrow window of the chamber toward the bright orange horizon, where the volcanoes breathed, and thought of Malune, and how they two alone had lived, how very many had died and for no good reason, and how old the world was, and how many more would live, and how many more would die, and how truly surreal it was to be anything, anything at all. On its own, her beak opened and she chittered. She thought she felt the world stumble then, as though she had joined Malune in learning its secret.
Outside, the fires burned forever, and the currents roared, and the souls of ancient monsters rode planes of sunlight to the sky.
Inside, Jaltha laughed.