(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
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.
“It’s a magic door.”
“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.
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.
(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.”
(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….”
(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.
“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….
(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)
A man — the man the wolf spat out — loomed over Aleck, at least seven feet tall. A trick of the tree-shade mottled his skin in gray and turned his hair greenish. He worked his shoulder in a circle as though loosening a sore muscle. “Greetings, O First Herald,” he said to Aleck in a deep, resonant voice. He bowed reverently. “We honor your arrival.” He crouched, and full sunlight fell upon him through a break in the trees: he had, in fact, gray skin covered in black spiral tattoos — no trick of the light at all — and matted green braids dangled across his shoulders. “Welcome to Corpsewater, Young Aleck. It is a great honor that your arrival should occur in our village.” He smiled, baring wolflike fangs. “Hungry?”
Aleck looked around. “Where are my friends?” he asked.
“We’re your friends,” replied the tall man.
“You too, huh?” asked Aleck.
The small people smiled at him, and several of them waved in greeting. “Eat something, boy,” said an old woman. Someone laughed.
“I mean, where are Billy and Mikey?”
“Maybe he wants a smoke first,” said a man with a scraggly black beard. More laughter.
The fanged, green-haired man-creature cocked his head. “Smoke?”
“I don’t smoke,” said Aleck.
The fanged man sniffed the front of his shirt and cocked his head. Everyone laughed at that.
“Well I mean I was just smoking a little with my friends,” said Aleck, “but not cigarettes. I mean, just cigarettes. You haven’t seen Billy and Mikey?”
“No one came through the door but you.”
Aleck stared into space. Is this real?
The fanged man offered Aleck his hand. “I’m the Cook,” he said. Then he pulled his hand back slightly. “Do you do the Clasp where you come from?”
“Uh, yeah,” said Aleck, reaching forth. The Cook’s grip was solid as a tree-bole yet surprisingly gentle. “How in heck do you know my name?”
“Cook has visions,” said the old woman.
“Hungry?” repeated the Cook.
Aleck put a hand to his face. Deep grooves crossed the left half, from jaw to hairline, nose to ear. He could feel the gap in his eyebrow, and the tiny cleft in each lip. Nothing hurt. He felt great — healthy, awake, and clear-headed. Yet a minute ago, simply moving his mouth to speak had hurt enough to make him faint. He glanced down at the pool, his freshly-scarred reflection wavering on the rippled surface. He no longer felt euphoric from smoking weed with his friends; his mind, despite the impossible stimuli surrounding him, felt calm and clear. Crystal-clear sober through and through.
“This is real?” he asked, looking up. Everyone laughed heartily at that.
“This is the village of Corpsewater,” said the Cook, “on the Isle of Kaios; both very real. Your face has just been healed by the Corpsewater Nymph. She has magic powers.” He cocked his head and asked, in a humorous tone, “Aren’t there magic powers where you come from?” More laughter.
Aleck considered this, distracted by the thought that this question perhaps proved he was dreaming. “No,” he said. “No magic.”
The assembly fell quiet.
The Cook lunged his face near Aleck’s and sniffed. “Nonsense,” he laughed, settling back down on his haunches. “You are the First Herald. I can smell it. Magic lays thick upon you.”
Aleck felt the surface of the boulder he sat on. Its smooth, hard surface couldn’t feel more real. If this was a dream, it was unlike any dream he’d had yet. He looked around at the smiling faces of the people lounging around the pool. They looked human, but he couldn’t place them from any folk he’d ever seen — not in New Jersey, nor on television, nor in National Geographic.
“Make him some porridge, Cook,” said someone.
“No, give him the stew.”
“What about some of them birds you shot?”
The stillness broke as everyone offered their suggestions for Aleck’s meal. They spoke English. Their accent didn’t sound like any he’d ever heard….
Just got word that we were approved for the 2015 San Francisco Zine Fest. It’s a curated event this year, and we’re pretty psyched they accepted us.
We’ll be tabling together with our friends from Wonderella Printed,The Blunt Letters, and Sto*Nerd Press, so it’ll be a blast. Their tables will be loaded with cool stuff (way more than our three novels and miscellaneous pamphlets, to be honest), so be sure to come check them out too.
(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)
WEIRD LUCK (slang): see CHRONIC SYNCHRONICITY SYNDROME, EXTREME (or ECSS)
see also CHRONIC SYNCHRONICITY SYNDROME, COMMON (or CCSS)
see also CIRCLES; DESTINY; FATE; KENOSHA; LATTICE OF COINCIDENCE; LUCK PLANE; PERFECT SYNCHRO; SIMULTANEITY; SPIN; SPIRAL ARRAY; SYNCHRONICITY; WHEELS
–from A Layman’s Interdimensional Encyclopedia, by Prof. Xenion D. Clark, O.8.D.
A distant rumble grabbed Aleck’s attention. He spotted a dark shape moving behind the stars. “Something’s coming, man!” he shouted to the pair of dipshit angels. A roar and a rattling accompanied the approaching shadow, like the sound of a big, old truck. The shadow grew suddenly huge. Lightning flashed from star to star—
Aleck fell, very slowly, through darkness. He could see no more stars, only a pale gray light coruscating through rippling shadows of smoky black. Silence.
A white Ford cargo van floated noisily past. Aleck’s eyes met with the driver’s for a flash — a red-haired woman — and the van disappeared.
What the — ? thought Aleck.
He stumbled out into daylight.
Standing on unsteady legs, he dazedly looked over his surroundings. People, naked, unlike any he’d seen before, sat on boulders around a steaming pool. Gnarled trees and shaggy hedges screened the pool from whatever lay beyond.
“I’m alive!” he tried to say; but the words came out more like ai walai. Moving his mouth sent a wave of agony across his face. He staggered from the pain, tripped, and sprawled headlong into the pool.
Hands dragged him down into the hot water. Opening his eyes, he found himself face to face with a grinning skull: a bone-faced mermaid held him by the shirt. He struggled to free himself from the mermaid’s grip. His blood-soaked t-shirt released a pale red cloud into the water.
“Calm yourself,” said the mermaid, lashing her eel-like tail around Aleck’s thighs.
A wave of euphoria passed up his spine, and Aleck felt calm despite himself. Staring into the black spheres spinning in the mermaid’s bony eye sockets, he serenely breathed the hot water of the pool, in and out, in and out. This is one of those deadly hallucinations they talk about in anti-drug lectures at school, he thought; yet he felt calm nonetheless. Well, he thought, if this is drowning, it’s not so bad.
“Poor boy,” said the mermaid, running her fingers across his face. Aleck felt her pressing his lower lip back together, massaging the deep gashes across his brow and jaw. He felt no pain at her touch.
“There,” she said, “all better.” How can I hear her speaking underwater? he thought. “Up you go,” she said.
“No, wait — who are you?” said Aleck, his voice traveling through water as though it were air. She shoved him up to the surface without replying. Hands grabbed him from above and hauled him up onto a shady rock.
Aleck found himself face to face with an enormous black wolf. The huge beast stared at him with flaming embers for eyes. Aleck froze. Despite everything, he still felt calm from the mermaid’s spell. “What the—” he whispered.
The wolf turned and leaned over the pool. Opening its jaws, it coughed, coughed again, and retched. Suddenly it vomited out a limp, man-shaped figure, long-limbed and indeed fully (impossibly) the size of the wolf itself, into the pool. The body sank. The wolf looked at Aleck with flickering eyes, cocked its head, and strolled away.
Aleck looked around. The short, wiry-limbed, pot-bellied people around the pool smiled at him. He pointed after the wolf. Some smiled; some shrugged. Some ignored him. Someone made a funny snarling sound; someone laughed — and was shushed.
Beside the pool stood a large, wooden building. A door — the door he came through, Aleck realized — hung open, revealing what looked like an old-fashioned kitchen. Shoes and clothes lay neatly piled nearby.
Someone burst up from the water and leapt to his feet beside Aleck. “What the—!” he repeated….
From the forthcoming comic book Weird Luck #0, a four-page adaptation of Andrew M. Reichart’s short story “Water Damage” by Mike Bennewitz.
The original story was first published in The Blunt Letters #4; full text of the story is below the comic.
by Andrew M. Reichart
When I say a motherfucker’s fish-faced I’m not saying protuberant eyes like Shelly Duvall, I’m talking like oblong head, and piranha teeth, and gills. Amphibious though. Says he doesn’t mind the pollution in the Bay, but what would he know, he’s never set a webbed foot in clean water. And he did want that salmon from up north. He didn’t look entirely healthy to me to be honest. Though what would I know, not like I’ve ever known a healthy Deep One for comparison. I’m at the End of the World, beside the water, amid the debris, setting a fire in the fire pit for later, when he shows up. Sneaks up. Motherfucker has a beer can full of Bay water which he upends over my tinder and kindling.
“Dude,” I tell him.
“No goddamn fire, thanks,” he snaps.
“That was for later.” I sit on an old milk crate, defeated.
“This is the fuckin’ Estuary,” he says, testily. “Idunno where you think you are, but I’m not fuckin’ around.”
“Look, chill, man,” I say.
“You got the salmon?” he hisses.
“You. Got. The. Salmon.”
“In my car,” I tell him.
“And what the hell good that does me?” He points to the nearest car, thirty yards away, up on cinderblocks beside a shanty.
“That your car?”
“No,” I scoff. “Duh.”
“So where the fuck’s my salmon?”
“Well come get it with me!” I tell him. “It’s heavy!”‘
“Are you fuckin’ shitting me?” he asks.
“Are you fuckin’ shitting me?”
“You expect me to walk inland with you,” he says, “in broad daylight, down that alley, past those shacks, and into the street?”
“Yeah, and I expect you to carry a goddamn crate of salmon, too, man, c’mon, those are like forty pounds each!”
He stares at me with one bulbous eye. Scornfully, I’m pretty sure. Then turns his head and stares at me scornfully with his other bulbous eye.
I hike back through the rushes, past the car on blocks, between the shacks, over to the street. Stagger back under a crate of fish. I pause to give the Deep One a dirty look, but he just waves me away. I stagger back under another crate.
“Books?” I ask.
He reaches behind the weatherbeaten standup piano, under the pallet lean-to, and pulls out a cardboard crate. Drops it at my feet. It’s full of skinny old paperback books. I grab one – Roger Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness. Far out! I never see this around anymore. Dunno how long it’s been out of print. While I’m paging through it, the Deep One hurls the contents of one crate, then the other, out into the water. I’m vaguely conscious of a disturbance in the shallows as his fellows grab the salmon. I look up to see the book-merchant dive in and vanish.
I check the rest of the books in the crate. Out of print titles from the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Water damaged, most of them. Hella water damaged. Pages wrinkled like they’d been crimped. Covers of adjacent books stuck together. Legible, at least, for the most part, I guess. But mildewy.
I shake my fist at the Bay and trudge back to my car with my fucked-up books.
(excerpted from Weird Luck, book one in the City of the Watcher trilogy)
…Apraxos scowled. “Please, explain.”
The young man sang in an exaggerated twang: “‘Casting his shadow, weaving his spell, funny clothes, tinkling bell….’ You know? That goosestepper Damon wouldn’t let us hang with them in the basement. So we listened to it in his Camaro instead. You gotta hear that record, man, holy shit.”
“I do not understand,” said Apraxos.
“We just kinda decided to go for a ride, man, I don’t know. I guess it was a stupid idea. Christ, I may as well be dead. I think we probably totaled Damon’s car.”
Apraxos looked at Thresner. “What did he say?”
Thresner shrugged with a sound of metal grating upon metal. “I believe he mentioned wanting to see someone hanged in a basement.”
“Send the spirit-eaters,” spat Apraxos.
“A bit longer, my lord,” said Thresner. “We may learn something interesting yet.”
“He speaks complete gibberish,” snarled Apraxos, but turned back to the Skull. “Tell me what happened next,” he asked, resignation in his voice.
“I don’t know, man. I can’t feel anything. It’s freaking me out. I think I went through the windshield…. I must be dead, or in a coma. I remember walking through Bitchwood, trying to find my way back to the car….”
“Bitchwood?” asked Apraxos, startled.
“Birch Wood,” said the young man’s voice. “But we call it Bitch Wood. I changed the sign to say Bitch Wood a couple years ago — I mean, somebody changed the sign to say Bitch Wood. I don’t know who did it.”
“He has a Bitchwood in his world!” whispered Thresner.
“Yes,” replied Apraxos. “Such parallels are to be expected, in the vicinity of a gate between two worlds.” He turned again to the Skull. “My friend, you are simply in the astral plane. I do not understand why you repeatedly speculate that you have died.”
“Dude, are you tripping on acid? Billy drove Damon’s car into a ditch at seventy frickin’ million miles an hour, I went face-first through the windshield, last I remember I was covered in blood, now I can’t feel my body and all I see is stars floating around me!” Then to himself, he continued, “At least you’re too dumb to be Saint frickin’ Peter, I don’t have to worry I’m going to Hell for stealing the car.”
“I believe he was injured somehow,” said Thresner.
“Yes,” said Apraxos. “It must be an instance of ‘weird luck’; consider: accidentally passing through a gate to Corpsewater, immediately after becoming seriously injured? Rather improbable.”
“Hey,” came the small voice from inside the golden Skull. “Dude?”
Thresner laughed hollowly. “Unfortunately for him, your Astral Web has interrupted his extraordinary luck.”
“‘Weird’ does not mean ‘good,’ Thresner,” chuckled Apraxos.
The voice in the Skull spoke again. “Look, I’m sorry I called you an acidhead.”
“Well, this has been entertaining, but my curiosity is satisfied,” Apraxos said to Thresner. “Fetch the spirit-eaters.”
“Very well, my lord,” said Thresner. He opened a compartment in the pedestal and brought out a small, ornately carved wooden box.
“Hey, man, are you there?” came the voice from within the Skull.
“Yes, my friend,” said Apraxos. “Don’t go anywhere,” he laughed.
“Something’s coming, man,” said the voice in the Skull.
“I beg your pardon?” asked Apraxos, looking into the Skull’s eye sockets.
“It sounds like a frickin’ truck or something. Holy shit!”
Blinding light flashed out from the Skull, and an explosion knocked Apraxos and Thresner sprawling.
Apraxos lay on his back. His ears rang. Aching, he struggled to his feet. Thresner lay in a puddle on the far side of the pedestal, his glass helm smashed, his withered head trailing braided cords into the neck-hole. “Master, help,” croaked the speaker-hole in his chest. The spirit-eater box lay broken and empty beside him.
Half of the Skull of Kaios, the face, lay beside the pedestal, looking up at Apraxos. He saw the other half, the cranium, glittering on the far side of the tower roof.
Apraxos stooped and picked up the front half of the Skull, and could sense at a touch that his Astral Web had been destroyed.
He recalled a stanza from the Book of the Cannibal-King, one of the prophecies Kaios carved onto his stone pillars; a passage that Apraxos himself, centuries ago, had chiseled away into stone chips and dust:
Nor at first will the Herald be known by his face,
Though his face bear the scars of strange fortune;
And Akaz preserves the Herald’s portion
Of luck till the end of the chase.
The Herald speaks now of unknowable things,
To mark the arrival of Cannibal-King.
Apraxos stood for a long while, not moving.
“Master….” groaned Thresner from the hole in his chest.
Apraxos let the piece of Skull drop from his hand. “I will send someone to aid you,” he muttered. “I must go to Corpsewater.”