The Nymph of the Shrine (part five)

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The Great Stone Face of Melkhaios sketch by Andrew M. Reichart
The Great Stone Face of Melkhaios sketch by Andrew M. Reichart

(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

 

…They walked hurriedly down the dark cobblestone road, under a black sky cluttered with stars enough to light their way. The Cook crossed back and forth above them on his wide black wings. Their path curved endlessly to the right, between ridges of stone and soil too high to see over, overgrown with trees, past occasional cairns of stacked boulders. Sometimes they saw shrines of salvaged rubble, housing broken statues. Offerings of flowers, food, and small trinkets adorned these structures, but Akaz never let Aleck inspect them beyond grabbing a piece of fruit now and then as they passed.

“Are these the Shrines of the Nubiles?” asked Aleck.

“No,” laughed Akaz. “Those are all underwater. I told you they’re at the far end of the road. Come on.”

“If we’re in a hurry, why don’t we just go straight there?” asked Aleck. “This is taking us like fifty times as long.”

“We can’t cut across, even though the goddamn road’s magic is goddamn broken,” snapped Akaz pointedly, “because I can’t attack Apraxos directly without being cursed with bad luck. I can’t even approach him in a straight line.”

“Why?” asked Aleck, incredulous.

“It’s goddamn weird magic, that’s why!” barked Akaz. “Stop whining and walk!”

Mount Kaios, looming on the horizon, circled around as they progressed: behind them, then in front, then passing for a long time on their left with the thousand-foot-high face of Kaios staring down. The evening air grew cooler.

“He’s kind of menacing,” said Aleck.

Akaz glanced up at the great stone face. “He was pissed off,” he muttered. “Some of the Wilders want to destroy that face,” said Akaz. He gestured with his snout toward the sky. “Cook sure does.”

“Really?” said Aleck. “I thought they liked Kaios.”

“Of course,” said Akaz. “Exactly. They think it’s depressing. They think it was created in a moment of weakness.”

“So why don’t they destroy it?” asked Aleck.

“The Herax protect it,” said Akaz. “Apraxos claims it’s a ‘cultural treasure.’ In reality, though, it’s just big-watcher-is-watching-you psych terror shit.”

They walked on.

From around the bend in the road appeared a weathered wooden structure. It looked to Aleck like a large boat, prow upward, half-buried in the side of the mound. “What’s that?” he asked.

“A Wilder shrine to keep Herax away,” said Akaz.

“How do you mean?” asked Aleck.

“You’ll see,” said Akaz.

Soon Aleck could tell that the structure was, indeed, a weather-beaten old ship, not unlike a Viking longboat, prow pointing upward at the sky, stern buried in the side of the mound. Its mast loomed halfway across the road. Spears jutted from the hull like the spines of a hedgehog, pinning dozens of skeletons in place. Pelts were tacked up all over the deck. The Cook landed on the end of the mast and faced the deck, bobbing, eyes shut. Aleck watched the crow pray.

“Those are Herax skeletons,” said Akaz.

“And all the furs?” asked Aleck, indicating the pelts.

“Hides of Wilder warriors who died fighting the Herax,” said Akaz.

“Wilders? Like the Cook?” Aleck looked at Akaz.

Akaz nodded. “Wilders made the Spiral Mounds.”

“But Cook’s got feathers, not fur,” said Aleck.

“In wolf form he has fur,” said Akaz.

Aleck looked over the wrecked boat. The pelts and skeletons adorned it like the garlands on the other shrines they’d passed.

“So how does this keep Herax away?” asked Aleck.

“It’s a reminder of the truce, and the cost of breaking it,” said Akaz. “And a reminder of the magic of the Ride. The Spiral Ride was built as a sacred path to the Shrine; you’re supposed to walk it from one end to the other without stopping. Crossing the mounds is taboo. Taboo and bad luck. Even if you’re flying.”

Aleck looked up at the Cook flying back and forth across the road, pointed: “What the hell are you talking about?”

Akaz laughed. “I don’t mean birds. Birds are free. I mean a flying Herax ship.”

“This?” asked Aleck, indicating the longboat skeleton-shrine. “This flies?”

“Not anymore,” said Akaz. “Anyway, you can only cross the spiral under special circumstances.”

“Like what?” asked Aleck.

“Like if it’s your goddamn destiny to do so, I guess,” grumbled Akaz.

Whatever that means, thought Aleck. “Aren’t we in a hurry to warn the Nymph? I thought you said the spiral was already broken. Why don’t we just cut across?”

“What, and break it even worse?” snapped Akaz. “I’m trying to salvage it here!”

“Okay, okay!” said Aleck. “Okay, so what if you don’t break the taboo? What if they just follow the road here?” He gestured down the curve of cobblestones.

“Herax can’t do that either,” said Akaz. “Not in a ship. ‘Cause the Nymph decreed that any being could freely travel the length of the Ride… that’s integral to the nature of the Shrine. So, that includes the spirits trapped in the sails of the Herax ships, who make the ships fly. Spirits go free, ships fall. It happened a bunch of times, actually, back in the day. Apraxos kept trying different enchantments, but none of them were strong enough.” Akaz stared at the wrecked boat, lost in thought. He put his snout to the cobblestones and sniffed, looked down the Ride, sniffed again. He shook his head. “Fucking damaged, all right,” he muttered.

“What happened when the ships fell?” asked Aleck, eager to change the subject. It was his destiny to break the Ride, the Cook had said. What the hell did that mean?

Akaz sighed. Little licks of flame darted out of his nostrils. “Any Herax who survived the fall would have been free to walk the length of the Spiral,” he said. “Though none ever would; they have no desire for the Nymph. So, anyone who survived the wreck, but didn’t act like a good pilgrim, would be seen as legitimate prey by the Wilders. If they didn’t attack the boat outright.”

“How do Wilders attack a flying boat?”

Akaz cocked his head at the shrine covered with skeletons. “Herax are organized, but Wilders are unpredictable. And fast.”

“There’s a lot of Wilder pelts up there, though,” said Aleck. He glanced at the Cook, still praying.

“Those are pelts from all the Wilders who have died fighting Herax. Ever. Whereas those bones are just a handful of token Herax dead. All that’s left of the hundreds they killed before Goromath gave them sovereignty of Bitchwood.”

“So where are the rest of the Herax skeletons?” asked Aleck.

“Ever give a dog a bone?” laughed Akaz.

“Huh?” asked Aleck.

“They don’t just gnaw on them,” said Akaz. “They chew them up till there’s nothing left.”

Aleck’s gaze darted from the wreck to the Cook to Akaz. “They — they ate their bones?”

Akaz laughed.

Aleck shuddered, looking at the Herax skeletons. He looked again at Akaz, and at the Cook.

“Why do you think he’s called the Cannibal-King?” asked Akaz, laughing again.

Aleck felt queasy, as though he’d just passed through another teleportation doorway.

“You gotta understand the difference between the cannibal tribes. The Wilders of the woods, the Givers of the desert, the Deepest of the water, they only eat unwelcome visitors to their lands. The Herax of the air, though, they eat for sport. They breed people for food.” He paused. “Well, Givers breed people too, but the Cannibal-King will cure them of that.”

“I don’t get why I’d want to help you summon any Cannibal-King,” said Aleck, scowling. “He sounds like the last sorta guy I’d want to help conquer a country.”

“‘Cause he’s the sorta guy who’ll stop the Givers from breeding bipedal livestock!” snapped Akaz. “And he’ll unite the good cannibal tribes against the Herax, and free the Isle of Kaios. The wild folk are the only ones strong enough to defeat them. You think the Diggers and Deep Ones are going to do it?”

Aleck scowled and shrugged. “Dunno.” He didn’t like the implication that certain ethnic groups didn’t have the will to seek their own liberation.

“Okay, picture the folks from Corpsewater fighting a flying boat,” scoffed Akaz. “It flies over the palisade. Two dozen villagers shake their sticks in the air. A hundred javelins rain down on them. Then… another hundred.”

Aleck frowned. “Don’t they have, like, bow-and-arrows?”

Akaz shook his head. “Slings,” he said. “They have slings, for hunting birds and squirrels.” He nodded towards the Cook, who still stood on the tip of the mast, bobbing. “Wilders have bows. They can put an arrow in your eye. They can fight the Herax. Especially in coordination with the Givers.” He cocked his head. “What’s that…?”

 

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comic book preview: “Coked Out Demon Worshipers”

The forthcoming comic book Weird Luck #0 will include adaptations by Mike Bennewitz of two Andrew M. Reichart short stories: “Water Damage,” previewed here in June, and “Coked Out Demon Worshipers.” Here are a couple of glimpses…:

CODW pg 1 - Mike's desk

CODW 3 pages

 

The original story was first published in the Sto*Nerd Press anthology Respect the Daysleeper. Here’s the full text.

 

 

Coked Out Demon Worshipers

by Andrew M. Reichart

I am awakened from my slumber in darkness and flame by the sound of her whisper. O Great Akaz, or something like that, I beseech thee: travel here to me, to me, and prove to those who scoff at me the extent of my power!

Dammit.

Phrasing sounds familiar; she’s probably reading it straight out of a book. Amateur. Whatever, it still works, which is annoying. I was sleeping for a goddamn reason, don’t remember what but I can sure feel it now. Last thing I wanna do is get traipsed off to the ass-end of nowhere by some black magic wannabe. In case it’s not obvious, summoning someone is a goddamn arrogant coercive dick-move, dragging you hither and wherever to their stupid worlds to address their petty little agendas. But whatever. Here I go.

As her voice drones on in my head, I see glimpses of her through the veil between the worlds. A flash of her bleached-blonde feathered hair… the image of her sitting in a circle of candles on the hardwood floor… reading aloud from the page, as predicted. At least she splurged for a hardcover. Next to her – inside the circle, no less – a little coke mirror. Classy. Then I recognize that buzzing from the portable eight-track as the Bee Gees. “Love You Inside Out.”

The mighty sorceress.

At least she’s not summoning me into a damn pentacle or whatever (not that it’d hold). Just made a magic circle around herself to keep me out.

These glimpses flicker and fade as the material fact of her world begins to manifest around me. Not inside the bedroom, but somewhere nearby. Shadowy trees. Dim light somewhere ahead. My body coalesces into the familiar form of an immense, otherworldly wolf-beast. I find myself awash in the smell of soil and plants, the scent-tracks of squirrels and housecats crisscrossing the ivy all around me. The dim light in the distance is her circle of candles, seen through the french doors to her bedroom. She ducks her head to sniff up another bump.

The scene around me resolves into final coherence: I’m crouched on a tree-lined, ivied bank, overlooking the back patio of her semi-fancy middle-class-lookin’ Earthling house. Sure hope I’m not stuck in this shithole world for long. Sometimes Earth sucks me of my powers. I stifle a pang of nervousness, forcing my mind not to dwell on the recollection of the time – all too recently, given my long memory – that I spent a decade or two stuck on some Earth or other… as a mute, ordinary dog, without so much as the ability to spit fire. Blanking my thoughts of this bullshit, I creep slowly down through the ivy, keeping my attention in my snout, focusing on the trails of tiny nocturnal beasts.

A little splashing sound, and a thought not my own: a simple, startled, “What’s that?!”

I freeze.

Ha, I truly have landed here in a disoriented state. I’m not alone, and I didn’t even realize it. There’s a dude, in a hot tub, at the tree-shadowed end of the deck. Short sideburns and fat mustache. Craning to try and see me. He can’t. “There’s nothing there,” he’s thinking to himself. “You’re just being paranoid, you stupid idiot.” Then an illuminating thought crosses his mind – illuminating to me, that is: “That coked-out ditz couldn’t summon a dead cat out of a wet paper bag.”

Interesting image. I wonder if that’s technically a mixed metaphor. He wipes his hands on a towel and does a bump of coke off of a mirror perched on the edge of the hot tub – ooh, livin’ dangerously, bro. And yeah, that’s not mixed metaphor, just cokehead gibberish. Piece of work, these two.

Dude reclines, peeking from the shadows in through the french doors, sipping a gin and tonic or whatever. He stares at his wife as she reads aloud. His cokehead heart ratatats. His thoughts jangle around on the theme of his wife’s shortcomings, all of which seem plausible enough, though his snippy tone and petty complaints imply shortcomings of his own in at least equal measure. He starts with an inventory of what he perceives as the “flaws” in her appearance, ho hum. Then he ruminates over the spat they had only minutes ago, debating whether or not she should “try to summon Great Akaz,” and whether to do it with or without him. He (of course) asserting she both couldn’t, and shouldn’t, alone; and (b) he had no such intention to help her do that right now and wanted to soak in the goddamn hot tub. Blah blah motherfuckin’ blah.

Then, in his ruminations, he dwells a bit longer on the topic of her ineptitude as a sorceress; and various images flicker through his mind: books, candlelit rituals, group sex with fellow dilettantes preceded by mental foreplay in the form of cokehead debates about esoteric lore, bantering loudly at one another like college students arguing about the themes of a novel they haven’t read.

His train of thought screeches to a halt on the image of a white guy with a permed afro and an even fatter mustache than our hero in the hot tub himself. A self-styled Adeptus, reeking of charlatanry, fucking all the housewife-cultists, including Mrs.

All of which reinforces my impression that neither Mr. nor Mrs. California here have a clue what they’re doing, sorcery-wise. And it’s gonna take a miracle for them to pull off banishing me the hell back home.

Dammit.

Maybe if I can get one of them to run through the ritual more or less properly, I can siphon some of my own energy into the spell to fuel it. Wish I’d gotten a goddamn full night’s sleep; gonna have to muster whatever juice I can.

Oh, but.

For starters, I tune into the jackass in the hot tub voyeuring his wife. Sipping his G&T, heart rattling, thinking his miscellaneous bullcrap. I still my body and mind, matching my energetic resonance to his (ignoring the actual content of his thoughts). Tapping into the intricate web in the fabric of reality stretching between us. Such that any trembling in him will carry through the web and into me.

And then I rustle the ivy.

I hear the last jingle of an ice cube in his glass as his body stiffens. I hear his breath stop (voluntary) and his heart race even faster (not). I wonder if there’s any chance he’s coked out enough for a heart attack? If I ingest it right, scaring him to death could give me even more juice than killing him directly. Better stay hid for now, to maximize the shock of the big reveal when he finally sees me.

Hmm. And let’s hope that her loathing of him masks a long-starved, disappointed, yet profound love for him. Her grief at his death could be just the final bit of oomph to get me out of here.

I stay hid in the darkness as he, in his shadows, turns his head ever so slowly towards me in my shadows. Trying to see something which he is now all too sure is, actually, something. His mind races with fears of dreadful beasts brought forth from some nether world. And races with the sudden (and rather long overdue in my opinion) realization that the only protective spell in her ritual was a circle around herself, leaving him totally exposed to demonic attack (not to mention buck naked).

And, embarrassingly enough, his mind is also occupied by a large helping of envy and inferiority that this “ditz” had managed a feat he himself never had: the physical manifestation of an otherworldly entity. Embarrassing yet not surprising.

I rustle and pause, rustle and pause, allowing him to glimpse only the vaguest shadowy presence moving slowly past him through the trees… towards the bedroom. Could that be just a housecat? Or a big fat East Bay raccoon? Or maybe a massive hellhound stalking his wife.

Deliciously, his thoughts are all aclamor with the feud in his mind over what to do to save her. He must warn her, the woman he once loved, and (poignantly) the woman he could learn to love again… if only they could get another chance, instead of being eaten by a demon right about now….

Versus his certainty that exiting the hot tub and racing naked and dripping across the deck would be his final act as a living man. As would a shouted warning.

So, the winner is: a self-deceptive hope that maybe, just maybe, her protective circle would keep the beast at bay (a little bit amnesiac about the fact that he was just harping on what a shitty sorceress she is)… keep it at bay just long enough for him to run for help….

Also in the mix are a scattering of visions of being eaten alive, either or both of them; and him bargaining with me to spare her and eat him, or to spare him and eat her; and images of other women he wished he’d married instead, those he slept with, those he hadn’t slept with and wished he had, blah blah motherfuckin’ blah. His heart is racing pretty fast, but he’s such a predictable, insincere, self-important, self-absorbed prick it’s hard to resist just killing him right the fuck now.

Might as well give the heart attack a shot, though. Could be comical. As well as practical; gotta get outta here.

I leap out of the dark at him. He shrieks, flings his gin and tonic at me. I land looming over him, forepaws on the edge of the tub, snout near his face. And he doesn’t fight or flee. He doesn’t start gasping and grab his arm or chest. Actually, actually, he splashes me with water. Yes, he really does that. It’s touching, in a way; the little ways you humans get programmed to reflexively act like ineffectual ninnies. So fragile; so endearingly flawed. So human.

His terror flows orgasmically through me.

But not a heart attack. Oh well.

I grab his head in my jaws, haul him out of the tub, and slam his body against the deck. His ultimate feelings of horror come over me in a wave. I shake him, vertebrae grinding seductively against one another between my teeth, skull flexing in my jaws but not cracking. His fear and pain provide a dizzying rush. In the background, as if far in the distance – or behind a protective circle, perhaps – I can feel the faint shriek of woe and surprise coming from the Mrs., a tasty hint of courterpoint to the heady sensation from devouring Mr.

I step on his torso with a huge paw and pull his head off. Crush it in my jaws like a walnut. His life-force howls, gusting into the vortex of my heart. Where it burns brightly. Entranced, I savor the exquisite aromas of his soul.

It’s tempting to just suck on it till it’s gone, but “how many licks” is not the name of the game here, it’s “get the fuck off this stupid planet.” Especially this decade, ugh; nothing to look forward to but the “Reagan Era.” No thanks, man, been there done that, and the hardcore punk scene isn’t enough to make up for the rest of it. I snap out of my soul-sucking high and proceed through the french doors.

She crouches there amid her candles, screaming and clutching her book, mind a torrent of everything you’d expect. But I can’t focus on any particular details; the euphoria from her husband’s soul is almost more than I can handle. Maintain, dude, maintain. I look at her. Hard not to feel a little sad, seeing a bug squirming so, whilst its wings are torn off.

Then again, hard to resist pressing such a big button. So I spit out her husband’s slightly-smooshed head onto the floor just outside her ring of candles. She freaks on a whole new level; it’s pretty amazing.

I sit and watch her as she shrieks. “Dude,” I say, glancing pointedly at the book. Yes, she fucking clutches the book and shrieks.

I roll my eyes. Knock over a candle with my paw, breaking her protective circle. I look pointedly back and forth between her face and the book. She clutches it and shrieks.

I take a deep breath. Snatch the book away, fling it open on the floor, nose through it to the goddamn chapter of banishing spells.

But when I get to the page she is gasping, too much for the poor critter, the aforementioned cokehead heart attack has made an appearance after all. God fuckin’ dammit. “Amateurs!” I roar in her face. “Dilettantes!” She makes croaking noises and I suck out her soul.

Staring at the book with my mind roiling, I start trying to settle myself into the banishing spell, but it isn’t easy. Riding the disorientation of the double whip-it soul hit. Trying to parse this stupid rendition of a banishing spell into actual usable magic. Trying to mentally transcribe an on-the-fly inversion, so it works on the caster as the subject of his own spell…. But I can barely focus, barely wrap my head around the intricate geometries. And the two souls are so delicious, I can barely resist just devouring them both outright. But no. The banishing spell, save them for the spell….

Then there are shouts and gunshots and I barely know what’s going on. It’s the last straw. I simply go berserk. Both souls burn up inside me and burst forth as gouts of flame. Men in uniform burning and screaming. Curtains afire, trees catching, copmeat sizzling and popping. More souls sucked into my gullet but I’m maxed out, wasted upon wasted, and the souls of dead pigs just get puked back up as fire that engulfs the house, the neighbors’ houses, the hillside.

And the goddamn book.

I find myself staggering off into the neighborhood, drunk as fuck on soulstuff, trying in vain to stick to the shadows. Now and then I puke a bush on fire.

Goddamn it, earth, why you?

The Nymph of the Shrine (part four)

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The Bowl of Akaz by Andrew M. Reichart
The Bowl of Akaz by Andrew M. Reichart

(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

 

…Outside the windows, the land and sky grew dark. Lamplight flickered inside. Akaz perched on a stool while Aleck puttered around behind the ancient wooden bar. “My bowl’s back there somewhere,” he said absently. “Hurry it up.”

Among the mismatched jugs, mugs, and bottles, Aleck found a large ceramic bowl. Glazed black, it bore the name “AKAZ” on the side in red.

“Whiskey,” said Akaz.

“What’s it look like?” asked Aleck.

“You don’t know what whiskey looks like?”

Aleck shrugged. “My dad probably let me taste it, but I forget. I don’t like alcohol. Makes you stupid.”

“Brown,” sneered Akaz.

“Brown jug?” asked Aleck.

“Brown liquid. Maple syrup color.”

Aleck scowled, grabbed a bottle of maple-colored liquid, uncorked it and sniffed. It smelled like gasoline. “I don’t know about this stuff,” he said, dumping a large swig into the bowl and placing it in front of Akaz. Akaz put his paws on the bar, put his nose in the bowl, and sniffed.

“Nope,” he said. He slurped a mouthful. “Blech,” he said, tongue lolling out. “Cheap Normal scotch. Dump that.”

“Where?” asked Aleck, looking around for a sink. He spotted a likely bucket, but hesitated.

“I don’t know,” snapped Akaz. “On the floor, who cares?”

Aleck shrugged and did so. The thin liquid spread out across the warped floorboards and sank into the cracks between them. “Doesn’t ‘scotch’ mean it’s from Scotland?” he asked.

“They don’t call it ‘scotch,’ I call it ‘scotch’,” snapped Akaz.

“Yeah but why’d you call it that?” asked Aleck.

“Stop asking dumb questions and find me something worth drinking,” said Akaz.

Annoyed, Aleck tried a second bottle, shaped differently, its contents slightly darker. Smelled like gasoline. He replaced the bowl in front of Akaz and tipped some liquor into it.

Akaz took a whiff of it. “Ah,” he said, quickly lapping it up. “More.”

Aleck poured out another swig.

“More, more,” snapped Akaz. “Come on.”

Scowling, Aleck upended the bottle to splash into the bowl and waited for Akaz to tell him to stop, which he did not. “What do I do with this?” he asked, holding the empty bottle.

“Why not throw it over there,” said Akaz, pointing his nose at the front door before burying it in the bowl of whiskey and slurping it splashily up. Yellow-blue flames licked up the edges of the bowl.

Jackass, thought Aleck. The voices of evening-birds came in through the open doorframe of smoke-darkened woodcarvings. Aleck considered. At worst he would have to sweep up the glass. He flung the bottle over the bar.

As it arced through the air, a tough-looking boy stepped into the doorway. Glass shattered across his boots.

“Hoy!” he shouted at Aleck. “What!”

“Sorry,” said Aleck.

Two more boys appeared. Taller and thicker than the people of Corpsewater, these three wore plain gray outfits; glass crunched under their heavy black shoes as they entered. Aleck noticed they carried rucksacks and held unadorned walking sticks.

The first boy spoke. “If that’s your idea of hospitality, scar-face, then let’s match it.” He held up his walking stick in both hands.

Aleck froze, glad to be behind a barricade.

“No fighting in the bar,” growled Akaz.

“A talking dog!” said another of the boys.

“He’s a Wilder, you fool,” said the third.

“Out,” said Akaz.

“We want drinks!” said the first boy, lowering his stick. “We’re going to the Shrine!”

“Go on, then,” said Akaz. “Get out of here.”

“We want a drink!” repeated the leader. “The tradition of Kaios Spirit-Tamer says we can have a drink at the God-Dog!”

“Kaios the Summoner!” snarled Akaz. “He never tamed anything or anyone!”

“The tradition holds!” shouted the leader.

“Wrong,” said Akaz. “These days you get advice, that’s it. First, don’t shortcut across the Mounds. Second, watch out for the False Shrines.”

“That’s only a story,” said one of the boys. “There aren’t any False Shrines.”

“We don’t want your Wilder advice,” sneered the leader. “We aren’t scared of you dog-apes.”

Akaz slurped up a mouthful of whiskey and spat a huge gout of flame into the middle of the room. Aleck felt its heat on his face. The boys ran.

“Damn Normals,” said Akaz.

“There are False Shrines?” asked Aleck. He came out from behind the bar and closed the door. He took a stool beside Akaz.

“Plenty,” said Akaz. “That’s where the Nubiles are. Sorting through them to the real one was the Nymph’s whole idea when she set it up. Teaching men the truth of love and sex or some shit.”

“Sex?” asked Aleck, intrigued and nervous.

“But the Normals like the False Shrines so much, they never get to the Nymph.”

“Oh,” said Aleck. “But what makes them False Shrines?”

“Ask her,” snarled Akaz. “It’s her thing. I can’t explain it.”

“Why don’t you set the Normals straight?” asked Aleck.

“I just did, numbskull,” said Akaz. “You saw what happened.”

“I don’t think they really got your point,” said Aleck.

“Shut up,” said Akaz, returning to his whiskey….

 

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The Nymph of the Shrine (part three)

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soul portrait
traditional Deep One “soul portrait” tattoo design depicting the Great Nymph – illustration by Andrew M. Reichart

(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

 

“…I had no idea Apraxos was such a bigwig,” said Aleck. “I thought he was just some creep.”

“He’s the biggest creep we’ve got,” said Akaz. “He feeds on the suffering he inflicts.”

“What do you mean, feeds on it?” asked Aleck.

“I mean literally,” said Akaz. “With the Rites of Augermath. That’s like vampiric magic. Other people’s suffering, physical or emotional, keeps him immortal, fuels his magic.”

“But Goromath is the one in charge?” asked Aleck.

“In name only,” said Akaz. “Goromath is ‘Supreme Ruler of All Remaining Lands’ — which, since the Great Breach, means just the Isle of Kaios, as far as anyone knows. Everything else sank. Anyway, Goromath is smart, sure, but not like Apraxos. He’s a good figurehead, but he’s a puppet for the most part.” Akaz chuckled. “I’d love to spy on their private meetings.”

“Wait,” said Aleck. “You said the Normals were even worse. How could they be, with the Circus and the vampire-magic all that?”

Akaz scoffed. “At least Goromath is honest. He says, ‘I dominate you: do as I say or my Herax will kill you.’“

“And the Normals?” asked Aleck.

Akaz gestured with his snout towards a huge, many-spired building straddling the river. “That’s the Senate of the Normals. The Senators run things day-to-day: municipal law, commerce, their twisted Kaios Spirit-Tamer cult. As long as Goromath keeps getting slaves and iron for his war, and Apraxos gets blood sacrifices for his Circus, the Senators do as they please. They’re the ones who really maintain the status quo. They make it easy for the Herax; otherwise it’d be nonstop civil war.”

“Easy how?” asked Aleck.

“They make people happy to serve the Herax, bribing them with trinkets and false hopes,” said Akaz. “But if you call them on it, they say, ‘Hey, we don’t kill anyone, we’re just maintaining order and keeping us all safe. The Herax dominate us, same as you.’“

Aleck looked over the city’s near-empty evening streets, trying to make out the lone figures staggering through the shadows. He wondered what it must be like to live in this bleak and beautiful place. The setting sun played its light over the landscape. In the forest, Aleck thought he saw a pattern of parallel ridges. He looked around and saw concentric circles surrounding the God-Dog.

“Hey Akaz,” he said, “I think I’m hallucinating.”

“Oh?” said Akaz.

“I see circles in the trees,” said Aleck.

“Yeah, that’s the Spiral Mounds,” growled Akaz.

“What?” asked Aleck. “It’s real?”

“The road runs around us a few times on its way down to the Bay,” said Akaz. “The Mounds run alongside the road. Or vice-versa, rather; the Mounds were there first.”

Aleck looked out towards the water, across the series of curved, wooded ridges. Through occasional clearings in the trees he glimpsed an ancient cobblestone road running between the parallel curving ridges. Turning in a slow circle, he traced the road with his gaze. It spiraled outward three times, then reversed direction to curve in towards something under the bay. The shoreline cut that second spiral in half, the Mounds swept away by the tide. Aleck thought he could see faint tracings of the road, intact, in the shallows.

“The road is called the Spiral Ride,” said Akaz. Aleck realized Akaz was staring angrily at him, and had been for some time.

“What?” asked Aleck, gesturing apologetically. “What did I do?”

“It was his destiny to break the Ride,” the Cook croaked quietly to Akaz.

“What?” exclaimed Aleck. “I didn’t break shit!”

Akaz stared at Aleck with burning eyes.

“We must let it go, Great Akaz,” said the Cook softly. “All things are sooner or later destroyed. Surely you understand this better than anyone!”

“Okay!” Akaz roared at the Cook, flames bursting from his mouth. The Cook jumped into the air and flapped away over the treetops.

“Don’t lecture me on my own shit, it’s embarrassing,” muttered Akaz to the departed Cook, or himself. He looked back out over the Spiral Ride. “So. Those ridges are the Spiral Mounds,” he said to Aleck. “And at the far end of the road is the Shrine of the Nubiles.”

“Why would anyone make a road like that?” asked Aleck.

“It’s magic,” snapped Akaz. “It leads to the Shrine of the Nubiles.”

“Oh,” said Aleck, puzzled. “What’s the Shrine of the Nubiles?”

“Home of—” began Akaz, then stopped, staring at the bay, apparently lost in thought.

“Home of…” said Aleck.

“Shh,” said Akaz.

“What?” asked Aleck.

“Shh!” hissed Akaz. “I’m thinking!”

Aleck stared at Akaz for a while, then looked out over the water.

“Dammit!” growled Akaz. “Apraxos is going to the Shrine. Obvious! It’s not protected with the Ride broken!”

“What?” asked Aleck.

“I’m an idiot,” snarled Akaz. “Going there to get healed.”

“What?” Aleck repeated. “You mean Corpsewater?”

“Not Corpsewater,” said Akaz. “The Corpsewater Nymph still has the strength to resist him. No, he’s going to go to the Shrine of the Nubiles. The Nymph of the Shrine has healing magic too, even stronger than the Corpsewater Nymph. And if he can make her use it…. Her suffering is sweet to him.”

“Wait,” said Aleck, “what does he need to get healed for?”

“The Cook stabbed him.”

“What? When?”

“Right before you arrived,” said Akaz. “That’s why we had to dump the Cook into the Corpsewater pool: Apraxos tagged him back.”

“What? What happened?” asked Aleck. “Is Apraxos dead?”

“No, not even close, sad to say,” grumbled Akaz. “Just wounded.” He stared out at the bay. “We need to get down there and warn her,” he muttered.

“Okeydokey,” scoffed Aleck. “So where’s my scuba suit?”

“I need a fucking drink,” grumbled Akaz. “No scuba suit. You get the Drownder’s Prayer to the Nymph of the Shrine.”

“What’s that?” asked Aleck.

“A magic spell that lets you breathe water.”

“What’s a Drownder?”

“That’s what the Deep Ones call air-breathers.”

“‘Deep Ones’,” said Aleck.

“Yeah,” said Akaz. “The folks that live in the sunken half of the city. They’re amphibious.”

“Oh,” said Aleck, numb now and beyond surprise at hearing such a thing.

“The Prayer to the Nymph only works for a while,” said Akaz, “so don’t get lost. Stay with me.”

“How can I get lost?” asked Aleck, making a circular gesture at the landscape around them. “It’s just one curving line. I can follow it by sight.”

“There’s distractions along the way,” growled Akaz. “Come on, I need a damn drink. We can’t approach this directly, or we’re fucked. So let’s hurry up and get a digression over with a.s.a.p.”

“That makes absolutely zero sense,” said Aleck.

“Hurry it up,” said Akaz, heading inside….

 

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The Nymph of the Shrine (part two)

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(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

Melkhaios map …The Cook stood naked, inhumanly tall and thin, one foot on the low parapet. Late sunlight glowed upon his gray skin, the spirally black tattoos, his leaf-green braids. He turned into a crow. The black bird hopped along the edge of the roof.

Aleck and Akaz stood on the stone tower’s flat roof, looking out upon the hilly city. The sky grew slowly darker behind a wooded mountain that towered over the city. A river threaded down from the mountain, passing between old, ornate buildings and under bridges of pale stone. Long shadows stretched across streets and plazas. The river emptied into a bay ringed by distant black hills; across the bay, a red sun leaned towards the horizon among purple clouds shaped like chaos. The water glittered with golden light.

Though most buildings stood intact, much of the sprawling city looked ruined. Empty lots lay strewn with stones of buildings fallen long ago. Many buildings seemed to have been rebuilt out of rubble, some crudely, some craftily. Outside the city, a forest blanketed the hills to the horizon. The woods cast a spur into the neighborhood of the God-Dog, surrounding it with tall trees.

“Corpsewater is back on the other side of that mountain,” said Akaz. “I’m sure you saw the mountain from the other direction. From this side you can see the Great Stone Face, though. See?”

Aleck squinted, trying to make out details. “What face? — Oh my god.

On the side of the mountain, half the height of the mountain, loomed a titanic, brooding face of carved stone overgrown with trees.

“That’s Kaios the Summoner,” said Akaz, “founder of the city of Melkhaios.”

“Is he the ‘Master Summoner’?” asked Aleck. “The one I’m supposedly helping to summon the Cannibal-King?”

“It’s complex,” said Akaz. “I mean, no. Kaios died long ago.”

“He doesn’t look happy,” said Aleck.

“He left that face behind when he died,” said Akaz. “He and his mountain-spirit allies carved it the night before.”

“It looks grim.”

“Well, you could say they didn’t care for the way the city turned out.”

“How do you mean?” asked Aleck.

“Melkhaios started out as an artist’s colony,” said Akaz. “But it was overrun by Normals.”

“Oh,” said Aleck, wondering what it meant to be overrun by Normals.

“The Normals are worse than the Herax, if you ask me,” said Akaz.

“What’s the Herax?” asked Aleck, feeling saturated with weird names.

“General Goromath’s army,” said Akaz. “See that big wall to the east?”

“Which way’s east?” asked Aleck.

“Away from the sunset, stupid,” said Akaz. “At the foot of the mountain.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Aleck. “Well, you know, I thought it might be different on this planet or something,” he added, sounding unconvincing even to himself. He looked, and saw a gigantic wall of stacked rubble dominating the eastern end of the city.

“That’s the Zone of the Herax,” said Akaz. “They conquered Melkhaios after the Normals did, after Kaios died.”

“General Who?” asked Aleck.

“General Goromath,” said Akaz.

“So who is he?”

“The False Cannibal-King. Mass-murdering dictator. That guy you met in the astral plane, Apraxos, ‘the Watcher, ‘ is officially just Goromath’s court sorceror. But in reality, the Watcher is the one pulling the strings. Co-opting the old prophecies of Kaios, that’s his scheme. He also twisted the old Circus—”

“‘Circus’?” asked Aleck.

“See that stadium, left of the Zone of the Herax?” Akaz pointed with his snout. Aleck could make out what looked like a stone arena. “That’s the Circus of Burnt Skulls. They hold executions there every week. Keeps the public entertained. And keeps them in line.”

“Executing who?” asked Aleck.

“Criminals, political prisoners, cannibal tribespeople, or just slaves if no one else is handy.”

Aleck shuddered. “How?” he asked, realizing as the words left his mouth how ghoulish the question was.

Akaz seemed unfazed. “Burning,” he said, casually, “impalement, trolls, deck-reavers, you name it.”

Aleck felt sick. “So there’s no clown car?” he asked, hollowly.

Ignoring him, Akaz stared into the distance. “Goromath lays claim to the whole island,” said Akaz, “but he’ll never tame it all.”

“What island?” asked Aleck.

“This island,” said Akaz.

“We’re on an island?” asked Aleck.

“We’re on an island,” said Akaz.

“Oh,” said Aleck….

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The Nymph of the Shrine (part one)

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(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

When you witness the way that she dances
You’ll remember forevermore
That a man’s true idea of romance is
An obedient whore

— pub song of the Normals

The Cook, in raven form, illustrated by Andrew M. Reichart
The Cook, in raven form, illustrated by Andrew M. Reichart

Aleck stood in the kitchen, looking out at the steaming pool. Akaz, beside him, had shrunk to the size of a great dane. “Shut the door,” he said.

Aleck did so. He noticed the kitchen door had no hinges….

“When you’re outside,” said Akaz, “in either location, the door opens into the respective local kitchen. But from inside the kitchen—”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Aleck.

“Shut up and listen,” said Akaz. “Push on the left side,” said Akaz, “and it opens back out to the pool in Corpsewater. Push on the right side and it opens onto the yard behind the God-Dog.”

“The what?” asked Aleck.

The Sign of the God-Dog,” said Akaz. “My bar back in the city.”

“Your bar,” said Aleck, bewildered.

“Technically it’s an inn, I reckon,” said Akaz. “There’s rooms for rent. That makes it an inn. It’ll be the safest place for you to stay in Melkhaios, assuming we get any nap time at all in the next few days.”

“I don’t get why the door doesn’t just fall out of the doorway,” muttered Aleck. “There’s no hinges.”

“Aleck,” said Akaz.

“Yeah?”

“It’s a magic door.”

“Oh.”

“Let’s go.”

“Where do I push to get back to New Jersey?” asked Aleck.

“Nowhere,” said Akaz.

“How did I get here through this door, then?” asked Aleck.

“That was a fluke,” said Akaz. “Momentary link from my bar to New Jersey. Then you stumbled from my bar to here. Happens. Link’s gone now, but suffice it to say that we can find you a different way back. I’ll explain later.”

“How the hell are we gonna do that?”

“Later, dammit,” said Akaz.

Aleck sighed and looked at the door. Centuries of daily use had worn their way into the surface of the left side. Aleck pushed tentatively on the unmarred right side, and the door opened outward. Beyond lay dirt for a few yards, then grass, then trees. He walked through.

Dizziness and nausea abruptly overwhelmed him, and he stumbled headlong down a short flight of steps to sprawl face-down on dusty ground. He lay there a moment, head spinning. A large crow flew out through the door.

Akaz sniffed at Aleck. “You okay?”

“I think so,” muttered Aleck, not moving.

The crow wheeled around and landed beside Aleck. “Feel dizzy?” it asked, in the Cook’s voice.

Aleck lifted his head to look at them. “Uh-huh.”

“Gonna puke?” asked Akaz.

The thought hadn’t occurred to him, but Aleck’s stomach lurched at the suggestion. Clenching his eyes and mouth shut, he swallowed spit and took a deep breath. “No.”

“Some folks don’t take well to teleportation,” said Akaz.

Aleck couldn’t recall feeling nauseated when he arrived in Corpsewater. Then again, he’d had more significant discomforts at the time. “I guess I’m one of those people,” he said.

“Good to know,” said Akaz. “We’ll try to avoid it. Come on, let’s go up on the roof so I can show you some landmarks.”

Aleck got to his feet and took several deep breaths, taking in his first sight of the God-Dog. It was the most eccentric building he had ever set eyes on. An old, gangling stone tower loomed over a three-story assemblage of mismatched gables, balconies, and protruding dormer windows. Lawns and dusty paths surrounded it; beyond them, nothing but trees.

“We’re in the city?” asked Aleck.

“Come up to the roof,” said Akaz. “You’ll see….”

 

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The Fiends of Zan-Zerkin’s Ridge

a Horrific Fable by Andrew M. Reichart

Zebdod, the Fiend of Zan-Zerkin's Ridge illustration by Andrew M. Reichart
Zebdod, the Fiend of Zan-Zerkin’s Ridge illustration by Andrew M. Reichart

Four days after taking office as Mayor of Corpsewater I tell the Ostler I’m headed up the ridge to fight monsters.

He exclaims three different counterarguments without a gap: “You’ll surely be slain! Alone? The prophecies that foretold your arrival said nothing of you departing so soon!”

Yeah but,” I rebut, “your Oracle said I’d go after Zebdod after he took the third consecutive kid. He’s taken three of your kids.”

“Yes,” he tries again, deflated, “but why go so soon? The children are eaten, there is nothing we can do for them, and he will not take another for another year. Stay. At least a while.”

I take the pschent off of my head (finally). The mayoral symbol of office is a two-tiered cloth and leather conical hat sprouting gaudy feathers at the peak. Old jeans and t-shirts are more the mode for me, and this thing has been a bit much. “Here.” I hand it to him.

He puts his hands up as if to ward it off. “I cannot be Mayor.”

“How about you can be my, like, regent,” I tell him. “’Acting Mayor.’ Just till I get back.” I put the thing on his head, despite his halfhearted attempt to fend me away or dodge out from under it. As soon as I cap his shaggy black mop with it, he stands still.

“If you insist,” he says, clearly of two minds on the matter. “No Ostler has ever worn the pschent, despite generations without a Mayor.”

“Exactly,” I tell him. “Might as well burn that thing.”

He looks at me aghast.

“You’ve proven the village of Corpsewater doesn’t need a Mayor,” I persist, “Right? So you don’t need a pschent. Probably not even an Ostler, truth be told.”

At this he laughs, incredulous. “Of course our Inn needs an Ostler,” he scoffs. “It weighs on my brow to mind the contents of our storereoom, so no one ever goes hungry.” He points proudly to his own chest with both thumbs in a gesture that’d be cartoonish back on earth.

“Sure sure,” I reply, starting to break away. “My point is just, do whatever you want with the hat, I don’t care, I just don’t think you need it. I’ll burn it for you if you want.” He looks aghast again. I back up a step, wave, turn, and walk off a little awkwardly between the huts towards the palisade gate, leaving the tall wooden inn behind.

“Do not let Zebdod slay you, O Mayor!” the Ostler calls after me.

“Sure sure,” I say over my shoulder.

•   •   •

I mosey along the dirt path past occasional villagers tending and lounging in their acres of half-wild gardens. Some casually hail me, some stare, a few ask, “Back before dinner, Mayor?”

To which I lie, “Oh yes, of course,” since only after dark can I reasonably expect to run into Zebdod. Fortunately these folk don’t pry much, so I’m not required to prevaricate further. More than one person holds up a handful of the beautiful vegetables they’re gathering, though, destined for tonight’s table, and sings some tantalizing praises of the exquisite dishes planned for it. Too bad. I’ll be back for morning meal, though. The food here is outstanding; it’ll be a shame to leave. I amble on towards the woods and the lowering sun, admiring the vibrant greenery, flowers, and fruits.

As soon as I’m past the gardens I call Beth via my telepaphone implant, catching her by surprise. “You ok?” she exclaims. “Need me to pull you out?”

“No no,” I say, “it’s all good, why?”

“You’ve only been gone an hour,” she says, “not even. I was worried they’re stringing you up already.”

“Naw,” I reply. “It’s been three days on this end. Everything’s smooth so far.”

“Phew,” she says. “So the prophecy took?”

“Yeah, we planted it just fine,” I tell her. “And we timed this trip right, it’s thirteen generations later. They made me Mayor right away, fed me for three days, asked me to weigh in on a couple of interpersonal disputes, and now I’m on my way to find Zebdod now. So, heads up, now’s when things’ll get hinky if they’re gonna get hinky. Please be ready to bop me outta here.”

“Ok whew,” she repeats. “Sorry, baby, I was just in the middle of an 80s Twilight Zone. Spooked, hah.”

“Haha, which one?” I ask.

“That Ellison story ‘Shatterday,’ starring Bruce frickin’ Willis?”

“Oh, creepy as fuck, right?” I remark.

“Right?” she concurs.

“Did Ellison adapt the teleplay?” I ask.

“Didn’t see,” she says, “but the director? Wes Craven, no joke.”

“Oh, ha, that’s perfect.”

“I’ll check the writer credit when I rewind it,” she says.

“Cool,” I say, “anyway, keep your ears on, darlin’. At this rate I’ll prolly be facing down that skullhead cave crawler in just a couple minutes your time.”

“Ugh,” she says. “Be fucking careful, baby.”

“Couple minutes if the relative timestream ratio holds, that is,” I continue, dodging the implicit topic of my relative combat-unworthiness compared to her or, say, Jack Waghalter, the can-do-no-wrong action-hero macho asshole cognate version of me from a parallel earth.

“I hope so,” she says, unintentionally rubbing it in: “I hate when you do solo shit.”

“Sorry, baby,” I tell her, hoping to avoid the topic of why she’s not here. Normally Beth’s got the thickest skin of anyone, but she doesn’t need to risk seeing any dead kids right now. Not now. I’m sad about the miscarriage, but she’s devastated. “I’ll get this over as quick as I can. You know I’ve got more than enough gizmos to stay safe.”

“I hope so,” she repeats, softer.

“I wanna stick around for at least one meal if I can, though,” I continue. “These people can fucking cook.”

“You gotta bring me back something, then,” she says.

“Of course,” I scoff playfully. “How am I not gonna bring home leftovers for m’love?”

“Just checking,” she says. “You be fucking careful,” unwittingly reminding me one last time of my unmanliness relative to Jack Waghalter. Great. I try not to dwell on it.

“I promise,” I manage.

“Love you,” she says.

“Love you,” I tell her, “across the multiverse and back, literally,” and hang up.

The overgrown scrub meadows roll ahead to the dark, wild edge of the woods. The sun looms low over the tangled trees. Lurking somewhere within, some kind of serial kid-killing supernatural beast.

•   •   •

Unlike most runs Beth and I have undertaken over the years, this one doesn’t call for stealth. I want Zebdod to find me; tracking him down in this forest would be an impossible chore. I’ve got a mid-range motion sensor pilfered from the Reality Patrol which’ll pick up anything bigger than a bug within a mile or so, but that won’t do me any good if Zebdod simply stands still. I also can’t count on it to pick him up if he’s lurking in a cave, which seems not unlikely according to the few folk tales they have about him back at the village – though no one has a clue where his lair might specifically be, if he does have one. “In a pit in the darkest woodlands” is all they have for me, as it’s phrased, more or less, in the various rhymes about him. Which does nothing to narrow it down given the way the thick old trees cut out all the last remaining daylight as soon as I step within. I rummage in my d-pockets for my dark-vision goggles and the sensor. Struggling to get the goggles over my head, I drop the sensor. “Fucking fuck.” With both hands free I get the elastic band around my skull, pulling my hair, poking myself in the eye with the edge of one eyepiece. “Ow.” I seat both eyepieces over my eyesockets, adjust the headband so it’s not covering either of my ears (yanking my hair some more in the process), fidget with the eyepieces. Not comfortable. Adjust the elastic. Too tight. Too loose. Fidget with the eyepieces some more, get them tolerably situated, take a deep breath. Turn on the goggles. Gray blur. Turn them up.

Even with the dark-vision goggles at maximum intensification, the gnarled trees are terrifying. Boles and limbs and spindly twigs tangle in all directions, cross-hatching the sky and my surroundings into black invisibility. A chill runs through me. Any hope of calm is definitively gone. Only now do I notice the eerie silence. I momentarily wish for some comforting sounds, but the thought of multiple mysterious skitterings around me in the dark only serves to deepen my scare. I kneel and retrieve the fallen sensor from the bare, narrow path. It seems fine, though it shows not a hint of movement within range. Which means either that the woods are as impossibly still as they seem, windless, deathly, or the gizmo is just busted inside someway or other. Fuck.

I flick on my belt buckle deflector shield, hoping it’ll hold against Zebdod’s claws long enough for Beth to bop me out of here if it comes to that. Resigned, I start along the path into the forest, towards Zan-Zerkin’s Ridge.

The goggles provide a continuous distracting discomfort, and despite my best efforts to hold the scanner still I keep finding one hand or another drifting up to fidget. My eyes keep squinting and scrunching which also doesn’t really help. I partly lift an eyepiece to double-check if maybe there’s enough moonlight or starlight to do without the goggles, but it’s fucking black so that’s that. It crosses my mind that I’m awfully dependent upon these technologies of goggles and scanner and if either fails I’m effectively blinded. For example if I were attacked by a four-clawed skull-beast and his initial pounce smashed the scanner and dislodged the goggles. Then again the telepaphone is implanted deep enough in my head that any harm to it could only occur beyond the point where I’d care about escaping, ‘vegetative’ as they call it if not outright beheaded. So Beth will be able to get me out of here if there’s still a me here to get out. Worst case scenario we scrub, she gets me home before Zebdod gets through the ablative deflector shield, and we try this mission again in another timeline.

I ponder whether there’s anything I could do to medicate away any of this anxiety. Maybe in very small doses, but it seems anything that might cut the fear would likely also dull my wits and my reaction time when the emergency happens. So I’ll tough it out without booze or drugs. Drag, though.

Something flickers onto the scanner, running onscreen and vanishing a centimeter in. I stop in my tracks and stare at the seamless black mirror face. I force my eyes not to wander from the spot where the speck of light stopped, fighting also to keep my hands, arms, and stance still enough to not lose their relative position. Can’t miss that if it moves again, even for an instant, and that spot is where it’ll be moving from. Assuming he can’t just teleport. Fuck I hope he doesn’t teleport. Nothing happens. I hear nothing. Trying to stay still helps contain my anxiety, drawing it in from my limbs, but the basic fear still flutters insistently in my belly. Times like these are not inconvenient for digestive troubles. Surely I have something to quell my guts in a d-pocket, once I can move. Which is not yet. Though I’m trying to be found, I would very much like to know, at least a little bit in advance, when it is frickin’ happening. So I stare at the blank screen, goggles unfortunately enabling me to see the reflected outlines of the spooky branches interlacing overhead, like the cover photo on an experimental black metal album. Not helping my calm.

Then a circle of light expands across the screen, radiating out from a point pretty close to where I’m staring, a wide concentric band of intricate lace spreading to the edges of the screen. For a second I don’t know what I’m seeing. Then I hear it. A wall of wind blows through the trees, rushing over me and beyond: a distant rustling at first, fast approaching, then shoving past with a gentle roar that diminishes swiftly to a distant whisper, perfectly matching the depiction in light on the scanner screen. Then absolute silence once more, and darkness to match the silence. This precise correlation between sight and sound – the visual corroboration of auditory detail – gives me a moment of clarity of hearing I’ve never experienced before. Not unlike the depth of soundscape of, say, a quadrophonic prog rock album; but infinitely more intricate. Psychedelic. It’s moments like this that really fuel my love for this life I’ve chosen. Sure, I love experiencing the landscapes, cultures, and cuisines of the multiverse; I love tampering with timestreams, trying to mitigate some of the wrongdoings of the Reality Patrol (or at least fuck with them); and I love love love that almost all the time I get to do it with Beth. But these moments, truly unearthly, that could not happen without the strangest conflation of parameters – in this case the simultaneous presence of a spooky forest, a wind-control spell, a high-tech motion scanner, and a subject experiencing them all with highly focused attention – these are jewels in the life of an interdimensional scofflaw.

Neurotic and anxious as I may often be, I’m able to relax into this digressive train of thought because I know exactly what this is. Zebdod’s creator specialized in air magic (among other things, such as making monsters like Zebdod), and imbued many of his creations and apprentices with such powers. Makes sense he’d give Zebdod at least the ability to make creepy breezes in the woods. (Of course, Zebdod might also be able to fly – his master, as I’d observed in a parallel timestream when I was much younger, could fly fast, might as well be dealing with a damn teleporter, almost.) But even though this wind is admittedly scary as fuck, giving me genuine gooseflesh plus a cascade of chill down my back, his ploy serves to locate him definitely, if only momentarily, in time and space. I’m ready. Ready as I’ll be, anyways.

I mentioned that stealth is not my aim here. I bust a megaphone out of a d-pocket – I think it was Beth’s back in her Ohlone City rebellion days – and hit its siren for a few short deafening blurps. Bloop. Blup. Blurp. Blup. Bloooop. Loud as they are, the forest’s silence rushes back in quick. Nothing on the scanner. I start walking. The faint path through the woods starts angling upwards, heading somewhat in the direction the wind came from. Another fat lacey dot appears, rapidly spreading out into an open circle of light washing across the shadowy, glassy screen. When the wind hits me this time it’s far less creepy; kind of hokey and sad, to be honest. I start singing through the megaphone, a snotty grade school playground tune:

Zebdod Zebdod Zebdod
C’mon come on and get me
Get a life you asshole
Don’t eat kids you asshole
Gonna trap you
With some magic
Fuck you blah-blah la-la pthhhht
La-la blah-blah pthhhht

And so on, continuing with blah-blahs and raspberry fart noises for a little while and then pausing to assess. Silence. I put away the megaphone. Fumble in other d-pockets for a stungun. The scanner in my left hand still shows no sign of movement, oh no wait, here’s another radiating circle of wind, followed by a dot sprinting away from the epicenter. Gotcha! I start to run, ignoring the oncoming wall of wind, keeping one eye glued to the departing dot, the other on the increasingly steep dirt trail underfoot. I can almost perceive four little scampering limbs deforming the circumference of the hi-res scanner dot that is Zebdod. I guess I don’t blame him for running. He’s prolly trying to lead me into an ambush, not knowing about the scanner. Wait, that doesn’t make sense, I couldn’t see him without the scanner. But this train of thought is interrupted.

As the wind hits, so do two creatures leaping onto me out of the shadows, one man-sized and spidery, the other half that big and also spidery. Of course: concealed from both my scanner and my ears by sprinting along within the wall of wind. I guess that confirms these guys are Zebdod’s, if they can exactly match the timing of his wind. They slam me onto my back. The scanner and stunner go flying from my grip. The deflector shield defends me from any harm from the fall or from these creatures’ claws, at least for now, but deflector shields aren’t great against continuous sustained pressure. Such as all these claws. Wish I’d thought to turn down the scanner’s sensitivity so it hadn’t blinded me with every shivering twig. I try to wrestle my way out from these things, but it seems like they have at least a dozen limbs between them, all clawing at me. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. I’m about to call Beth but I realize wait, pause, no need to bop out of here just yet, actually think for a sec about all other options. What else have I got on me? I manage to get one hand into a weapons d-pocket, pull out a grenade and promptly detonate it in my hand. A stun grenade will knock these things for a loop and barely scratch the deflector shield. Oh, but this isn’t a stun grenade, it’s a frag grenade that knocks me sideways out from under these two fiends, deafens me despite the shield and dazes me completely, meanwhile blasting them off of me and away. Burnt blood splatters my shield and hovers two inches from my face. The big one lands next to me with a thump, the small one flies against a gnarled tree trunk and drops motionless onto its roots. The creature beside me resembles a spider constructed of melted human parts. Two small mouths of peg teeth snap at the air a few times and then fall still. My deflector shield flickers and dies, dropping lukewarm burnt-smelling blood onto my face and hands. The thing beside me begins to transmute, quickly metamorphosing back into the twisted but recognizable corpses of two children tangled together, their flesh freshly mangled by my shrapnel. Across some nearby roots lies another child, its body ruined half by Zebdod’s transmogrification of it, half by my exploding razor bomb, breathing out its last in a short series of feeble, wet sucking sounds.

So I can’t help but wonder whether these kids could have been restored, with a spell or something, without being killed. Seems pretty likely.

Really glad Beth isn’t here. Wish I wasn’t here. This isn’t happening. Somewhere in another timestream, this actually factually isn’t happening, this never happened, I was never here. I want to be there in that somewhere else. But no, my presence is the cause of this and there is no escape, there is no safe space.

I do my best to table this line of thought till a later date, lest it impede, say, my will to live at some crucial instant in the near future, allowing Zebdod to finish me off whether or not that’s actually what I deserve for this. I’d rather such a decision be made in cold blood after careful consideration. I also do my best not to get into a philosophical/political debate with myself about how often we actually change things for the better in the world rather than for the worse. Numb and a bit manic, I find myself running overland, scanner and stunner back in my hands, screen cracked but legible. I can tell from the deadened sensation of my feet against the ground, of foliage whipping across me with only the faintest whisper of a touch, that I must have activated my backup deflector shield, though I do not remember doing so. I’m racing straight for Zebdod, as shown by the scanner. The ridge crests in a line of large boulders. Clambering over one and leaping to another, my foot lands on a patch of a moss or a rotted log and slips out from under me like a classic banana peel gag. I take a spill that would have been truly awful without the deflector shield, struggle to get my limbs organized for a second, and race down the slope on the other side of Zan-Zerkin’s ridge. It crosses my mind that I never did find out who or what Zan-Zerkin is or was. I see Zebdod himself, then, standing in the shadows, crouching low on his spindly talons, his entire body a huge, golden humanoid skull. It snaps its clacking jaws at me and dives into a small cave mouth.

All the better; I thought I was going to have to bind him to the side of a hill and then cover him with boulders or something. Filing away the scanner and stunner in their respective d-pockets, I retrieve the scroll I brought with me from the Archive, read aloud the binding spell, and trap Zebdod forever in that cave. Then I ask Beth to bring me home.

“How’d it go?” she asks.

I fall into her arms and sob.

The First Herald (part five)

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Akaz sketch by Mike Bennewitz
Akaz sketch by Mike Bennewitz

(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

 

…Aleck looked. The fire-eyed wolf. It looked much bigger, now, bigger than any dog: nearly the size of a moose, unless he was seeing things, which might very well be the case. “About the magic of Oggo and Hoggo, anyways. Paradoxes like that are typical.” The wolf’s deep voice sounded like a mound of hot coals stirred with a shovel; his breath smelled like hot ashes and burned meat. His accent sounded like Aleck’s. Earth. New Jersey, even. “But this is the real First Herald, no doubt about it. Aleck, right?”

“What the fuck,” said Aleck.

“He has the sunburst scars, as foretold by Kaios,” said the old woman.

The Cook stood, grinning at the wolf. “Greetings, Great Akaz,” he said. He bowed deeply.

“What the fuck are you?” Aleck asked the wolf.

Akaz shrugged, the human gesture eerie in an animal body. “Giant talking fire-breathing wolf,” he replied.

“You speak English,” said Aleck.

“Yeah, lived on Earth awhile,” said Akaz.

“But,” said Aleck, “everyone else here speaks English, too.”

“Yeah,” said Akaz, “uh, that’s a little more complex.”

“What brings you to our fair village today, O Akaz?” asked the Ostler nervously.

“Aside from dumping your wounded Cook into the pool, you mean?” asked Akaz. “I smelled food,” he said.

“You haven’t come to eat the Herald?” spluttered the Ostler, jumping to his feet.

Akaz’s laugh sounded like a giant prodding a pile of burning trees. “Not today,” he said. “So what brings you to this fair village, kid?”

“I have no clue,” said Aleck. “One minute I was in New Jersey with Billy and Mikey—”

“You mean Doomer and Cripple?” interrupted Akaz.

“What?” asked Aleck.

“Never mind,” said Akaz. “Your friends are fine.”

“How the fuck do you know?” asked Aleck.

“Don’t ask. Trust me,” said Akaz.

Aleck glowered at him.

“Look, just trust me for now,” said Akaz. “They survived the car crash, I can’t say more and it’s for a very goddamn good reason. Just roll with it. You were saying: one minute you’re in Jersey.”

Aleck frowned at him. “We’re coming back to this.”

“Sure, sure,” said Akaz, “later. You’re in Jersey.”

Aleck took a deep breath. “Then I was floating in space and couldn’t move, then there was a kaboom and I fell out through the kitchen door.” Aleck gestured at the Inn.

“A ‘kaboom’,” growled Akaz.

“Yeah,” shrugged Aleck. “At first it sounded like a truck, then there was thunder and lightning.”

“A truck,” said Akaz.

“Not like an eighteen-wheeler or anything,” said Aleck. “Like a delivery van.”

“The Cannibal-King’s van!” exclaimed Akaz. “Did you hear his wife’s motorcycle?”

“What?” said Aleck. This was not the response he expected to the tale of a van driving through outer space.

“Was there a motorcycle with the van, “ Akaz asked impatiently.

“No, uh, I didn’t see any motorcycle,” said Aleck.

“Hmm,” growled Akaz.

“Gosh, maybe it was on the far side of the van,” joked Aleck, “when they passed me.”

Akaz nodded. “Could be.”

“This is crazy,” blurted Aleck. “What the hell is going on here?” He looked from wolf to Cook to Ostler to Diggers.

“The Cannibal-King is coming to take down Apraxos the Watcher and his General Goromath,” said the Cook. “You are one of the Cannibal-King’s Heralds. Your appearance here marks his immanent arrival.”

“What?” said Aleck. “Why me?”

“Look, kid,” said Akaz, “you’re destined to help save a little corner of this world from an oppressive dictatorship. Kaios foretold it a few hundred years ago. Whether or not it’s fact, the people believe it. I’m tellin’ ya, just roll with it.”

“Uh,” said Aleck. “Okay. That’s crazy.”

“C’mon,” said Akaz. “It’ll be fun.” He started up the inn’s front steps.

The Cook transformed into a huge, black crow and flapped away loudly into the building.

Aleck didn’t budge. “No fuckin’ way, man,” he said, “till you answer a few questions.”

Akaz looked at Aleck over his shoulder. “You mean like how a giant talking fire breathing wolf on another world speaks English with a twentieth century American accent,” he rumbled.

“No,” said Aleck, “I don’t give a fuck about that. I mean like what are your fucking politics, man.”

The flames in Akaz’s mouth roared in the wind of his laugh. “Seriously?”

“Dead serious, before I call you comrade,” said Aleck.

Akaz laughed again. “Does ‘anti-fascist’ work for you?”

Aleck squinted at him. “So your ‘Cannibal-King’ isn’t really a king?”

“Think of him as a superstar,” said Akaz. “Warrior-prophet of the Givers and Wilders. Like a cross between Che Guevara and Jesus.”

“Well then hell yes,” said Aleck, getting up….

 

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The First Herald (part four)

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the Shinbone of Kaios and a Digger dinner knife by Andrew M. Reichart

(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

…Aleck and the Ostler sat and ate with the villagers at long, tree-shaded tables on the Inn’s front lawn. A skull carved in bas-relief on the main lintel represented the Inn’s name, The Sign of Death’s Door. The village of Corpsewater lay strewn about them on the small hill: huts and cabins surrounded by a palisade of sharpened logs. Outside the palisade lay a few fields and groves. Past the cultivated land, hilly forest rolled away and up. A mountain dominated the horizon, crowned askew by the setting sun. Wild magenta sunset arced beyond.

The people from the pool sat around them, dressed in browns and greens with red and yellow accents. Their old, patched clothing looked sturdy and comfortable. As Aleck and the Ostler ate, more Corpsewater folk joined them — old folks, scampering children, men and women of all ages and sizes — until it seemed the whole clan must have arrived. Aleck noticed that many of the villagers carried beautifully carved walking sticks, decorated with bands of copper and large inset stones.

“Look,” said Aleck, “this is kind of freaking me out. I’m on another world, okay. There’s magic, okay. But the Cook has some freaking prophecy about me?”

“Ah,” said the Ostler. “I was just getting to that. Now, our clans, Corpsewater and elsewhere, are called Diggers, because we till the earth. The Cook is of another sort: his folk are forest people. We call them the Wilders; you can guess why.” He handed Aleck an ornate earthenware platter with several small, roasted fowl on it. Aleck did his best to resign himself to the Ostler’s mode of exegesis. “A lot of Wilders just go for raw meat, but the Cook is a staunch advocate of the art of cuisine. Here, try this on it,” handing Aleck a glass cup of thin brown sauce with herbs floating on top. “Cooked or raw, the Wilders know some powerful magics. They are close friends with Akaz the God-Dog, and some of them are hundreds, maybe thousands of years old.”

“How old is the Cook?” asked Aleck.

The Ostler shrugged. “How old is a tree? How old is a rock?” he snapped. “Who knows. Here, try this.” He offered Aleck something that looked like squash and onions, marinated and baked. “The Cook has magic ways, that’s what I’m trying to tell you, not how tall he is or how many fingers he has. He with his ancient mind can see things, and he has a divination-bone, one of the Shinbones of Kaios in fact, threaded with beads carved from the fangs of dead Wilders. It makes a fine rattle, and with it he talks to spirits and sees the future. He told us the First Herald was coming, just like in the prophecies of Kaios.” He smiled and shrugged. “We like strangers, so we were waiting for you. Here:” He handed Aleck a ceramic plate of steamed greens.

The Cook sat down beside Aleck, eating a small roast bird, bones and all. “Fresh volunteers in the kitchen,” he said, his mouth full. “I eat now.”

“Thanks as always, Cook,” said the Ostler. “I was just telling young Aleck here about your Sacred Bone.”

“Cook,” asked Aleck, “how old are you?”

The Cook crunched and crunched and swallowed, looking up as if counting in his head, and said, “Thirty-seven.”

Aleck frowned at the Ostler. The Ostler shrugged: “How old is a thirty-seven year old tree?”

Aleck stared into space for a second, then turned back to the Cook. “So how did you predict I was coming here?”

“I simply saw it in a rattle trance,” he said. He looked intently at his roast bird and took another bite. Something about his manner made Aleck wonder if he were telling the whole truth.

“What did you see?” asked Aleck, warily. “What’s this ‘First Herald’ business?”

The Cook looked skyward. “In my vision I saw you wandering, bloody, in the woods.” He glanced at Aleck. “I saw you stumble out through our kitchen door, just as you must have not long before we met. I sensed you were from another world. I know of such visitors — though I’ve never before met any. Minister Apraxos catches most of them.”

That rang a bell. “Minister who?” asked Aleck.

“Minister Apraxos,” said the Cook. “Also called the Watcher.”

“Shh,” whispered the Ostler. “He is Listener as well as Watcher! He hears when his name is spoken!”

“That’s a myth,” said the Cook.

“I daresay not!” countered the Ostler.

“That’s the guy I talked to,” said Aleck.

“What?” exclaimed the Cook and Ostler, in unison.

“On my way here,” Aleck explained, “I was in this place that was all stars, and that guy spoke to me, Minister Whatshisname. Minister Ass-Prick-Ass.”

“He trapped you in his Web, in the astral plane,” nodded the Cook.

“He did say something about a plane,” nodded Aleck. “Though I still don’t get what that had to do with it. I didn’t see any plane. Just a big white van. That showed up just before I got away.”

“You escaped from the Weird Minister?” exclaimed the Ostler, louder than he intended. Conversations stopped and faces turned towards Aleck.

“What did he say to you?” asked the Cook, tensely, making no effort to keep their conversation secret.

“He said he was my friend,” Aleck said. The crowd stirred, and Aleck noticed for the first time that their ornamented walking sticks somewhat resembled clubs and axes. And some of the Diggers ate with long copper knives. They regarded Aleck with grave faces.

Aleck braced himself to bolt. “Uh,” he said, “I’m not his friend. I thought he was an idiot.”

The Cook spoke to the crowd. “Be still. He is no friend to Apraxos. He has come to help the Master Summoner bring us the Cannibal-King.”

“How do we know?” asked one of the biggest Diggers, gruffly. “The Watcher already has a false Cannibal-King. Why not a False Herald to go with it? Sent here to trick us.”

“You’re making no sense,” said the Ostler. “The Herald come after the King? If he comes after, he’s not heralding anything.” Some of the Diggers laughed. Others frowned.

“Wrong, Ostler,” said the gruff Digger. “The Watcher was apprentice of Oggo and Hoggo, whose magic twists everything. His False Herald would surely come after his False King.”

“Preposterous,” said the Ostler.

A rumbling, gravelly voice cut through the evening air. “He’s right, Ostler….”

 

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The First Herald (part three)

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The Ostler by Andrew M. Reichart
The Ostler by Andrew M. Reichart

(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)

 

“Here’s the Ostler,” said the Cook.

Out from the kitchen came a man with a big pot-belly, wearing tall, polished boots of brown leather and a conical hat with gaudy feathers. Over his plain shirt and breeches he wore a long, embroidered vest. The conversation about food continued without interruption around them.

“Oho,” said the Ostler. “Here he is! First Herald of the Cannibal-King, is it? Is he as you predicted, Cook?”

“Aye,” said the Cook.

“What?” asked Aleck.

“Welcome to Corpsewater,” said the Ostler, sitting down beside them and shaking his hand. “I’m the Ostler of our Inn,” he said, gesturing to the building. “Which makes me more or less Mayor of our fine village, what with our real Mayor lost up on Zan-Zerkin’s Ridge.”

“So you aren’t some nudist colony,” asked Aleck.

“Now, I’m not sure I could say for sure one way or the other,” replied the Ostler. “Have you had anything to eat?”

“Not just yet,” said Aleck.

“I see you’ve been in the pool,” he said, tugging at Aleck’s wet sleeve between thumb and forefinger. He furrowed his shaggy brows. “Customarily, we disrobe first. Are you shy?”

Aleck decided he couldn’t possibly be asleep. Way too much going on for this to be some stoner kid’s dream. He felt too awake. Which meant only one thing.

“We’re not on Earth, are we,” said Aleck.

“I’m on earth,” said the Ostler sincerely, patting the patch of dirt he sat upon. “You and Cook are on a rock.”

The Cook laughed. “‘Earth’ is what he calls his home world, Ostler.”

“Oh,” said the Ostler. He took off his feathered hat and ran his fingers across his thinly-haired pate. “You know I don’t have much of a knack for those metaphysics, Cook. I’m a practical man.”

“Get the boy some dry clothes,” called the old woman.

The Cook stood up and pulled on a pair of tattered rawhide pants. “I’ll heat up some of that stew,” he said, ambling into the kitchen.

“Well,” said the Ostler, “welcome to Corpsewater, young Herald of Earth. I daresay you’ll like it in our village. We all do.”

“Why the hell do you guys speak English?” asked Aleck.

“What is glish,” asked the Ostler.

“What?”

“You said we speak in glish.”

“Uh, never mind,” said Aleck.

Aleck did his best to resign himself that, for now at least, Billy and Mikey were nowhere to be found and there looked to be nothing he could do about it. Hopefully they were safe back on Earth. And not hurt like he himself had been. But their absence gnawed at him….

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