20 April 2011

Border War (a Dez Marlowe story)

Dez's heart was in his throat. Again. If he wasn't too terrified to think, he'd be tired of being terrified. The dragonfly girl was clutching him with one arm and both legs, soaring thousands of feet in the air. She'd marched him through the flower forest, which turned out to be a few hundred acres of the giant flowers planted in orderly rows on a mountain-top. Firayla, the girl-creature, had call it “the Harvest.” At the edge of the forest the ground dropped away precipitously. Dez glanced over the edge and saw, hundreds of feet down, splotches of gray cloud. Without a word of warning, Firayla had wrapped her arms around him from behind and leaped into the air, springing a dozen feet aloft with Dez in her grip as if he were weightless. Her wings buzzed above him, loud even over the rushing wind in his ears, pushing them away from the rock face. Once clear, her wings went still and they fell downwards, plummeting straight down, parallel to the sheer cliff wall, a scream caught in his throat. Once through the cloud bank Dez saw the world spread out like a map. They were above a mountain chain, knife-sharp spikes of rock with an ocean to one side, an endless expanse of blue, diamond-studded in the sun, to other fields and forests, rivers and lakes, and in the distance, what might have been a city.

Dez heard a piercing screech, like an eagle's cry, from off to the left. Firayla uttered a word that Dez couldn't make out, but that sounded much like a curse. She twisted in the air and Dez saw a flying beast that looked like a cross between a baboon and a vulture, quadrupedal and furry, with a long, hairless pink neck topped by a dog-muzzled face and wide, feathered wings. The thing was rocketing towards them, clawed legs and arms outstretched, teeth gnashing. Firayla put her mouth to Dez's ear and said “I cannot fight off this demon-thing as well as hold you. Do not panic, I will catch you.” Catch him? She let him go, put her feet to his midsection and pushed off of him, soaring away. Falling downwards on his back, Dez watched as Firayla and the baboon-vulture fought an aerial battle unlike anything he'd ever seen before. Firayla reached behind her between her wings and drew a short spear with a wide, leaf-shaped blade, at the same time firing gouts of purplish flame from her pistol-like weapon. The balls of fire hit the creature, knocked it spinning, but it righted itself almost immediately, lashing out at Firayla and catching her across the torso with a claw, loosing a ribbon of blood. Firayla spun away, slicing at it with her spear. The thing set its wings, abruptly stopping its flight, bellowing at Firayla, who fired twice more at it. Her accuracy, considering she was in flight and bleeding, was impeccable. One bolt of purple flame hit it in the chest, the other in the head. It cawed weakly, fluttered its wings and plummeted to the ground. Firayla wasn't satisfied apparently, for she curled in the air like a swimmer reversing directions and flew after it, decapitated it with her spear. She righted herself and hovered in place, watching it fall for a moment. The entire melee had taken less than a minute, and there was still several thousand feet between Dez and the ground, but it was hard not to panic as he free-fell helplessly. Firayla returned her spear to its place between her wings and flew down after Dez, matched his speed and caught him easily in her arms.

She flew them swiftly across the landscape, passing over forests of trees whose foliage was blue rather than green, furrowed fields, terraced hillsides, small villages of low round huts streaming smoke. They approached a high stone wall stretched across the landscape, broken by crenelated guard-towers every mile or so, and it was towards one of these that Firayla was aimed. She stopped a foot above the wall, hovering in place, dropped Dez and alighted next to him. From the guard-tower several soldiers emerged, each of them easily seven feet tall, heavily muscled, their skin green like Firayla's but of varied shades. They too had two pairs of dragonfly wings, iridescent, translucent, tapered, held perpendicular to their bodies. They each held spears in their hands, ten-foot long versions of the leaf-bladed short-spear that Firayla used on the flying beast, and the same pistol-like weapon.

“What do you have there, Firayla?” One of them asked. Dez pegged him for the ranking soldier, as he wore intricate, brightly-painted armor, standing out conspicuously from the drab, unadorned armor of the other soldiers.

“His name is Dez. He calls himself a 'human'. I found him while patrolling the north Harvest.”

“What was he doing there? And how did he get there? He cannot fly, I assume, since you bore him here?”

“Correct sir. He was just there, walking, looking lost.”

The guard-captain approached him, circled him as Firayla had done, examining him carefully. “What should we do with him, do you think?”

“I don't know, sir. That's why I brought him here. I couldn't very well leave him there, but he wasn't doing anything harmful to the harvest, so I couldn't just kill him.”

“No, I suppose you did well enough.”

“How did you get here, human?”

“I...” Dez realized he had no idea how to explain what had happened to him. Lie? Screw it. Might as well tell the truth. “I don't know. I was on my world, or home plane, or...I don't know what to call it. I don't even know what this place is, or where, or when. What happened was, I had a scroll that made time go backwards, and then a giant snake appeared and took me outside of time, to a place between the stars, and then we were here, in a forest of giant flowers and the snake jumped into the air and turned into this giant manta ray thing...” That sounded nuts, said out loud.

The guard stared at him. “You are deranged.”

“No! I know it sounds crazy, and I don't get it either, but here I am. Wherever here is.”

“You are on the border between the Kingdom of Coriolis and the Wilds of Arnam. You have appeared at a bad time, I fear. There is about to be a war at this wall, and you will be part of it, it seems.” He pointed with his spear at a long dark moving line spreading from one end of the horizon to the other. “That is the horde of the Barren Queen, Empress of Arnam.”

18 April 2011

The Serpent (a Dez Marlowe story)

It had all started with Orson, the homeless veteran that had turned out to be a Djinn. Dez had drunk from the bottle of ambrosia, tilted the bottle to his lips and drank deeply. The liquor had tasted of honey and sunlight, it had tasted of ancient power and impossible dreams. Dez had taken the bottle home with him, gulping it greedily, hearing Orson's voice in his head: Not so fast, boy. Powerful, ancient stuff that is, the drink of the gods. It'll do strange things to you.

Dez didn't listen, drank the whole bottle. He'd woken up months later in Cairo, Egypt, wearing a keffiyeh and the robes of a Bedouin, speaking fluent Arabic. He bore scars on his body, knife-wounds, teeth- and claw-marks. The last time Dez had felt an overwhelming desire to do something he couldn’t explain had been in a rare bookstore in London. He had come across an ancient volume and felt these same sensations. Dez had opened it and the words written on the first page had seemed to wriggle, to twist slightly. He stared at them and found himself unable to look away, found himself falling forward, pulled into the lines and curves of the runes, heard a hum in his ear that weakened him, a low haunting melody that entranced me hypnotized him, caught him like a fish on a hook. Dez had tried to pull away, in vain. The harder he struggled to close the book, the deeper he fell into the runes, the more entrancing became the melody in his ear. He was at right turns to reality, his name, his identity was sliding away, his present was draining into the book and he could do nothing to stop it. He had been saved my a hand gently but firmly snatching the book away.

“That’s a right dangerous tome, that is. Best put it up, I should.” The man had looked into Dez's eyes with a penetrating gray stare. “You’ll be fine, I expect, but I’d not go poking into strange books like this no more, if I were you. There’s things out there hidden away in books, things you may not like, things old and powerful, things dangerous and real, whether you believe in ’em or not.” He tapped my shoulder. “This here isn’t all there is to the world, this flesh and blood and bone.”

There had been other books after that, other cities and other warnings. He met strange people, a woman with a voice that sang songs in a voice echoing back on itself in bizarre harmonics, a girl-child that traced the lines on his palm like a fortune-teller and where her fingertip touched him the creases ignited into painless flame, and she spoke to Dez strange and unbelievable prophesies. He ignored the warnings, hunted the books that spoke to him in whispers and songs, found them in the oddest and most obscure places on the map, traveling all over the globe on his savings and trust fund and inheritance, when that ran out working odd jobs that left him stranded in strange cities for months until he could afford to move on. He never sent post cards, never wrote or called, for he had no one to write, no one to call. Each book led another, following clues from the text like a detective. The books and scrolls and codices were always in the same script that seemed at the first and second glance to be utterly alien and bizarre, then after a few minutes of study, seemed to inexplicably shift and writhe, to rearrange into words he could read.

Then came the Scroll of Hours, as he began calling it. He used it to win the lottery, in a small Midwest American town off of I-80; he used it for a myriad of purposes, some innocent, some more nefarious. He never rolled back any more than a few hours at a time. Some silent voice in his gut told him to peel back Time too far would be dangerous. He tried convincing himself that he had watched Back to the Future too many times, but he couldn't shake the feeling.

He hadn't banked on the intervention of Fate, however. Or whatever it was that happened. An accident maybe. He was hitchhiking on a two-lane highway in Missouri, he had sat down a few dozen feet away from the road under the shade of a massive, spreading oak tree. The scroll, even after months had passed, still pulled at him, still called to him from the case in his bag where he kept it. He found himself, there under the oak tree, pulling it out and looking at it. He hadn't planned on opening it, really. He had no agenda, nothing to do with its weird power. He was just holding it in his hands, staring at it, letting it's subtle call wash over him. It was the snake that had caused the whole mess, a giant python or something, an anaconda, a huge constrictor of some sort. At first he thought maybe he had fallen asleep, or was having a flashback...but it slithered up to him to him from out of nowhere, just suddenly lifted its head from the grass and stared at him with slitted eyes. He was frozen for a moment, transfixed to the spot by the piercing yellow alien gaze. He felt strange, inhuman thoughts, like Orson's voice in his head when he drank the ambrosia, but the voice was scaly and cold and and slow, its thoughts ancient and incomprehensible. The snake moved closer to him, flickering its tongue out, so close it brushed his boot. Dez leaped to his feet and pressed his back against the wall, the scroll held in one hand...

One end of the scroll left his grip and fell to the ground. Dez watched it happen in slow motion, swearing under his breath even as it hit the ground, and rolled away from him. The scroll was open several feet now, and the snake was wrapping itself around him, coiling him in inescapable bands of steel. It didn't constrict, totally, just held him immobile with its head inches from his own.

Stupid human, he heard it say, silently. Stupid, foolish, blind human. You meddle with matters far beyond your comprehension. It falls to me, of course, to rescue you from your own idiocy. You are truly like a lamb wandering amongst a pride of sleeping lions, blithely unaware of your own folly. Close your eyes, human. When Dez failed to obey, the rings of iron around his body tightened in warning. Close your eyes! To watch a few meager hours roll away is well and good and harmless. If you were to watch as hundreds of years flow in reverse you would rip away layers of your psyche. You have already done irreparable damage yourself.

Of course, Dez looked around him. The constellations whirled and span and jumped and gyrated, the sun and moon circled, day and night alternated in pulsing strobe-light flashes. Trees shrank and storms raged for violent microseconds. Dez felt something in his head warp slightly, and he squeezed his eyes shut. What is done is done, and cannot be take back. The Scroll of Hours only functions in one direction, but you wouldn't have thought of that. Dez had, actually, considered that, and that was one reason he'd never experimented with longer periods of time.

Then things got truly strange. Dez felt the coils of the serpent that wound around him heat and melt, fuse with him at an atomic level, felt the ground tremble and heard the heavens roar like a rushing wind, heard the stars sing in angel voices, heard the thoughts of millions of people crashing in his skull in a telepathic deluge. Panic hacked at his soul, confusion and disorientation and fear distilled in his gut in a harsh burning concoction and all Dez could do was keep his eyes shut tight and hold to the fragmented train of his own thoughts that were drowning in the welter of sensation amid and within him.

The serpent's voice returned, and now instead of seeming alien and frightening its voice like scales on rock comforted him. Keep calm, now. As you have wrought this, so you must bear it.

What's happening? He asked​​ it.

It is not explainable in human language. I have brought you outside of time, into a place that it...between.

Between what? Dez had an image of being plucked out a rushing river and suspended above it.

Your mental image is not far off. To think of it thus will not lead you astray.

Who are you? He asked the serpent. What are you?

Nothing you would understand. As a child cannot grasp the complexities of the adult world with its abstract concepts and tangled issues, so you cannot grasp what beings exist beyond your ken. Leviathans writhe in the spaces outside the streaming of time, monsters lurk in the dimensions beneath your reality. And you, in your hubris, have plunged headfirst to swim amongst those creatures. I am one of them, but unlike many others you will encounter, I will not devour you.

Why are you helping me? The fear of the unknown that had Dez in its grip escalated with the serpent's talk of leviathans and monsters. He had always thought himself a rational, un-superstitious man who refused to believe in what he couldn't see or touch. The last months, however, had cured him of that. And now here he was, outside of Time itself clenched in the coils of a serpent that Dez suspected was far more than a simple snake.

If you were driving down a highway and saw a little child tottering on unsteady legs between the rushing cars, would you not stop and help it? The voice faded then, leaving Dez alone in his mind and full of questions.

He opened his eyes, slowly, and what he saw sent his brain reeling dizzily. All around was darkness, black and void, pierced by points of lurid light, bright and blinding pinpricks in the darkness, as if the stars up close were not balls of burning chemicals but holes in a curtain across the brilliance of eternity. The light emitted cast shadows across the universe, monstrous shapes that lumbered and scuttled and slithered, shades that may have evil and darkness given substance, or may have been the true shadows of creatures beyond imagination, horror and nightmare made real. There was no orientation of up and down or left and right, no surface at all, only beings, things carving through the darkness like eels in the deepest corners of the ocean. Dez moaned, shut his eyes, but it was too late, he had seen what lay beyond, and it had seen him, the darkness itself seemed to possess a will and a hunger and now it had his scent in its nostrils, it had the tang of his blood on its tongue and the shapes were the darkness, the creatures were the talons stretched out by the slavering dark all around him, the blackness that licked his skin, lapped at the pools of his soul. He shivered in the grip of the serpent's coils that were suddenly separate from him, untangled from the essence of him and were again silken steel cables imprisoning him. He was grateful for the serpent now. It tightened around him relentlessly implacably until he passed out of consciousness.

When he awoke again he was lying down. He drifted slowly upwards from slumber out of the tangled shreds of nightmare that clung to him like cobwebs. A dream, it was all a dream, he thought. You would be so lucky, came the serpent's voice. He lay still, taking stock. Everything seemed to work, but he was stiff and sore, like he'd been in a fight. The serpent was stretched out next to him, easily thirty feet long and almost a foot in diameter. I could not return you to your native time and place. At least here you have the possibility of survival in some semblance of normality.

Dez sat up and looked around. It seemed a normal enough place, could've been an old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon or somewhere like that. But as he looked around more carefully, he noticed several significant details that told him this assuredly was not Oregon. There were trees, or things like trees, towering around him. They weren't trees though, they were like like god-sized flowers, green smooth cylindrical trunks hundreds of feet high topped by bursts of colorful spreading foliage, massive petals of vivid blue and purple and green and yellow and orange and colors Dez didn't have names for. The flower-trees were odd in another respect: they weren't rooted in the ground, but instead were anchored to earth by a few wisps of white thread-like substance, so that the whole plant drifted loosely, like a boat tethered to a dock. The whole forest moved in syncopated swaying harmony, a hypnotic world of color and motion.

Where are we?” He asked out loud.

We are...I do not know if I can explain it. Another dimension, another time and place.” The snake was speaking out loud, and its voice sounded precisely the same as it did in Dez's head. “It is like the fantasy stories you read as a child. We in a place that is a long time ago and far, far away from anything you have ever known. It is the only place I could find that bears any resemblance to your home. It is vastly different, however, and it will tax you sorely to adjust. I cannot stay here any longer. Good luck, Dez Marlowe, and goodbye.” The serpent writhed itself into a knot and burst into the air, transforming as it rose, turning into something like a manta ray but translucent and the size of a passenger jet. It pulsed itself once, refracted the sunlight that passed through it into a rainbow that bathed the world in color, then vanished.

Dez sat stunned and staring at the strange new world around him as a welter of emotions rioted within him. Eventually he stood up and started walking, picking a direction at random. He'd been walking for what felt like half an hour when he felt the curious sensation of being watched. He stopped, suddenly sure that someone, or something, was nearby and watching him.

What are you?” A voice came from high above him, lilting, musical, high and feminine. Dez looked up. The creature above him was definitely a female. She clung to the stalk of the flower-tree about twenty feet up from the ground, one lithe arm wrapped around the trunk, the other pointing some sort of weapon at him. She was bipedal, appeared to be about six feet tall, with green skin a few shades darker than the stalk of the tree. Her hair was pure white, long and and fine and flowing in the ever-blowing wind. She also had long wings appended to her back, two sets, thin and pointed like a dragonfly. She leaped to the ground, flitting her wings lightly to slow her fall; she landed on her toes and circled Dez warily, her weapon, a short, thin, straight length of tubular metal, looking for all the world like a pistol. Whatever it was, whatever it did, the way she kept it pointed at him made Dez positive it was a weapon of some kind.

My name is Dez,” he said.

What is a...dez?” She asked. Despite the fact that he understood what she was saying, Dez had the distinct feeling that they were not speaking the same language, but he couldn't explain to himself any better than that.

Dez is my name, it's...how you call me. I am a person...a human.”

Ah,” she said. She lowered the gun, or what Dez now thought of as a gun. “Well, human named Dez, you should not be here. This is not a good place. You must come with me.”

I must?”

Yes. You are my prisoner. Unless you wish to be no longer living?” Well. In trouble already. Wonderful.

A Fragment of Youth

Local bar low-ceilinged and loud
Kitsch and Christmas lights in April
Drunks laughing and dancing to the deafening band
God this song brings me back 15 years
To when love wasn't really love at all
Just tingling fingers and long glances
Mush and nonsense from innocent kids
New and strange and exciting
When responsibility was a four-letter word
And all we knew was
Long car rides and your dad's jazz stations
Playing just loud enough to cover our conversation
Then he changes the station and this song plays
And we sing along in low voices
Just whispers in the summer wind
And I hear this song now
So many many years later
And I swear for a split second
I'm that kid again
It's a strange feeling
A fragment of youth and innocence
Briefly superimposed over maturity and age
Like a lightbulb suddenly burned out
Leaving an after-image of the room as it was
Then the song ends and the moment is banished
I shake my head and drink my beer
Let the moment the image
Float back down the swift torrent of memory