Saturday, February 16, 2019

Pierwalker Log: February 16, 2019

Writing start: 10:53 A.M.
Finish: 3:05 P.M.
Total new words (est.): 1200
Edited (est.): 2600
Tasks

1. Failure: 600 new words
Notes: An emotional chapter.

2. Book Three Melody: 300 new words
Notes: I needed the two-week break. I have a much better idea of where this new chapter needs to go.

3. Ant Story: 300 new words
Notes: I think this is going to be another great chapter. Just slow-going is all.

4. Fractalverse V5: Off till next Wednesday

5Rapscallion: Read-through of chapter four

6. LOTR: Read-through of chapter six

7. Angel: Book Three: off till 2/27

8. T-Bag: Off

Special Projects:  None

Extra notes: The past ten days or so here in southwestern Oregon it has been wet, wet, wet. Endless sheets of driving rain. Lots of hail. Some snow. Sleet at least twice every hour. Lightning. Thunder. Yesterday in the early P.M. we got hit with a downpour that lasted an entire hour. It was as impressive a weather event as I have seen since moving to the Pacific Northwest.

Apparently it's going to clear up a little early next week.

We'll see.

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My thanks to all of you visiting this blog. In the last thirty days, it nearly eclipsed ten thousand pageviews. That's ... insane.

Please be aware that anyone with a Google account may now comment, and that I've added a subscription option to those of you interested in my published works. You'll save all sorts of money going that route.

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I'll be publishing a brand new poetry title in the coming months: Conversations With God. These are poems I've written extemporaneously right here on the blog. You've probably seen a few of them.

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Ham and bean soup for dinner tonight. Tasty, warm, and filling. Perfect comfort food for these cold, wet days.

Have a great Sunday, folks.




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Enjoy Chapter Two of The Cheapery St. Heroes: Book Two!

Download it here!


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De-LOO-zhens
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SOMETHING WAS different.

   It wasn’t new, exactly.

   It was the absence of an invader, one which long ago had welded itself to the very cells of his body. 

   Torturing the thinning neurons of his age-addled brain, it had grinded his soul down, replacing the discarded fragments—until at last it seemed something inborn, innate to his being, indivisible, inescapable. But now …

   He breathed.

   It came without effort, almost without thought. With each intake, oxygen flooded every cell—bright, vital, virile. 

   His joints … he flexed his fingers and gasped. The way they moved! Where was that frozen, stiff ache? Where was the perpetual dull agony?

   The pain ...

   The pain ... was gone.    

   He flinched.    

   He remembered thinking of climbing into bed as he walked towards the door that opened to the short trek that would take him to the rectory and his warm, firelit room. He remembered thinking about that idiot Danin. And then ...

   Something had crackled through his chest like a lightning bolt. There had been no words, no thought, no time. Nothing but the sharp retort of the hard floor as his cheek slammed onto it, and Mrs. Naling crying out ...

   ... Now this. 

   Am I dead…? 

   Was it a heart attack? Is this Heaven?

   Praise the saints and the gods! It’s about bloody time!

   He groaned and opened his eyes.

   It sounded funny.

   He was flat on his back on the floor, staring up past rows of books at a textured ceiling. Some kind of steady white light buzzed softly down from above.

   It didn’t look heavenly. And it wasn’t the soup kitchen.

   Great. How long have I been away from the desk?  Madge is going to *ing kill me—

   He froze halfway to sitting up. Huh?

   “That wasn’t my thought,” he muttered.

   He clamped his hands over his mouth.

   That wasn’t my voice either!

   It sounded more like Miss Goodsoul than him!

   He pushed his glasses up his nose, smoothing his hair, pulling it back. 

   —Wait, what?

   He patted his hands over his face. Smooth skin, small bones—soft lips. 

   This didn’t feel like his body at all!

   He glanced down. 

   He’d certainly never been buxom before. 

   “—Huh?” 

   The “huh” was alien—expressed in the same voice that had spoken aloud—the same that had commented privately on “the desk,” whatever that was. 

   Of COURSE it’s my body, it went on, fighting to stay just ahead of an avalanche of concern.  What a terrifying dream! I was old … so old.  So much pain—bleeping miserable.

   No, no!  he exclaimed. That was me! That did happen! That wasn’t a dream; that was my life!

   Breathless, he actually felt it—the gears inside his mind—her mind?—spooling up, her—their?—muscles tensing. The avalanche was bearing down.

   The heart thumping beneath his ribs!—so youthful, so vigorous, fluttering like a bird’s—

   His exhilaration was a jarring counterpoint to her mounting panic. 

   Her. Who was “her”? Was there someone else here with him, inside his head? Or was he in hers? Was this her body?

   He examined his hands, his eyes widening. They were so soft! Not a single wrinkle or mole or liver spot besmirched their flawless beauty. The nails were immaculately lacquered (pink with blue tips and little stars). His hair—he ran his fingers through it again, luxuriating in its softness, moaning with sensuous thunderstruck relief.

   Young! Young again! 

   He—she?—squeaked. It was involuntary—at least for him.

   She opened her mouth—their mouth!—and startled him again.

   “Father Dumb?” she asked incredulously.

   He groaned internally—quite literally. Don’t tell me I actually think of myself that way now.

   It’s pronounced ‘DOOM,’ he corrected her with an angered sigh. What in the nine hells is this? Am I dead? Is this a dream?

   The gears spinning in his (her?) mind abruptly locked. The tension didn’t dissipate. It shifted, focusing.

   Ears ringing, he climbed stiffly to his feet—only he didn’t will it. He felt energetic blood enlivened with adrenaline surging powerfully through his body. His dainty feet began a purposeful quick march that matched the cadence of her (their!) heart.

   He’d never been to this place before. (Obviously.) Those steady glowing-buzzing white tubes overhead were utterly bizarre. It was clearly a library of some sort, albeit a painfully unimaginative one, rather shabby and depressing. It was fantastically alien, but it felt almost mind-numbingly known. He had no doubt that he could find any volume in the collection with his eyes shut.    

   Have I reincarnated or something? 

   He’d once heard a theory that there was only one person inhabiting the entire universe. That eternal soul supposedly transmigrated from body to body, from life to life, until it had been every man, woman, and child in existence. 
                                                         
   Had someone forgotten to kick the previous occupant—or the previous version of himself (herself?)—out of this body? Had they started him in the middle? Was this some kind of divine mix-up?

   123.9 Loc.

   Melissa—Melissa?—tipped a fat volume off the shelf. 

   Now how did he know her name?

   We’re in each others’ minds somehow! Or I’m in her mind, or—

   She slapped the heavy tome down on a table. Deliberately unhurriedly, she pulled out a chair, then seated herself with absurdly measured poise, as though the avalanche hadn’t utterly buried her. Her pulse galloped like a runaway stallion.

   “It’s not a ‘tome,’ ” she disparaged quietly in a holier-than-thou tone. “It’s called a book.”

   He read the title. Psychology: Plumbing the Depths of the Mind. 4th Edition.

   Young lady, that is most definitely a tome 

   “Delusion.” 

   This disjointed word was accompanied by a quick snobbish sniff. Was she talking to herself—?

   Flipping open the cover, she turned each page patiently, methodically, breezing past the title, author, and dedication.

   You are kidding me. You can’t actually believe your own fake calm act—

   She brushed her finger over the table of contents. 

   Chapter 39: Schizophrenia … p. 308.

   This was an extraordinary situation, one of earthshaking, groundbreaking metaphysical significance! Of all the possible reactions … 

   How can you pretend I’m not here? he demanded, and dropped his jaw in indignation, or rather tried to. His—her—facial muscles didn’t even twitch. You know damn well that I am!  

   Silence. 

   His mind was empty, but he could feel something ticking away inside. At long last:

   You can’t swear; you’re a priest.

   “HA!” he blurted aloud—in her voice.

   She jumped in her seat. Patrons across the way regarded her with annoyance before going back to their books.

   You know I’m a priest! Therefore you admit I exist!

   She jammed her fingers in her ears. 

   He laughed. She refused to let it out, merely coughing as though from a head cold, a near-manic hold on her larynx.

   “De-LOO-zhen,” she murmured aloud with supreme concentration when she felt confident he wouldn’t try to appropriate her mouth, and then very quickly:  “Noun. A psychotic false belief about the self or reality maintained in spite of incontrovertible evidence demonstrating that said belief is not true.”

   He tried to speak. It was intensely difficult. His—her—tongue jammed, her vocal cords unresponsive. It was like trying to free himself from the sticky, suffocating web of sleep paralysis. Finally—

   “INCONTROVERTIBLE EVIDENCE!” he erupted. “I AM incontrovertible evidence.  Maintaining that I do not exist is a psychotic false belief! You’re the one with the DE-LOO-ZHEN.”

   “Shhhh!” she hissed at herself. The patrons across the way were holding up fingers to their mouths and doing the same too. She forced her voice low: “Madge is going to find us and she’s going to be so angry—”

   “Madge is a—” he started. Her throat went tight again, cutting him off.

   “A what?” she grunted through her teeth. “Keep it down!”

   You know what.

   “How do you know?” she whisper-hissed-growled. The patrons were now looking at her as though at a lunatic.

   Because I’m inside your head! Why won’t you just say it?

   Melissa assumed a jaw-clamped silence.

   He sighed. Madge is a …

   Tug-of-war. When the word finally came out, he wasn’t sure whether he’d wrenched it out or she’d caved in and said it.

   “… bitch!”

   He (she) smacked the table with satisfaction. The patrons jumped. One, clearly irritated, stood and began making her way to the front desk. Probably to complain. To Madge.

   His muscles tensed involuntarily. She was getting up.

   Where are you going?

   “I am going to the front desk,” she replied, straightening her glasses smartly. “I am going to go do my job—or at least try to keep it! You are going to fade into oblivion. You don’t exist.”

   Just what do you think I am?

   “Some kind of stress reaction,” she rationalized, stomping down the aisle. “My mother would say I’m having an ‘episode.’ ”

   You are an unimaginative solipsist, he shot back, not bothering to fight for control of her voice. I am most definitely real. I’m a librarian actually. Just like you. I used to run the reference section of our church collection. At least they found me a job I know how to do.

   “MY job,” she growled.

   No, MY job. My job, Missy, because you are stuck with me. 

   MISSY? She cringed. TELL me I don’t think of myself that way!

   Aren’t we a pair? Now, whether I’m stuck with you … that remains to be seen.

   What’s that supposed to mean?

   Over here—

   Huh—? She halted curiously.

   Bathroom, he said, jerking their shared head at an open door with a stylized female pictogram. I can see in your mind that that’s what that symbol means. Let’s go.

   But I don’t have to go.

   Good thing too. Well … His chuckle had a nasty tinge to it. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it

   But I need to explain to—!

   She didn’t finish, instead devoting herself entirely to maintaining control of her person. It was the closest she’d come to acknowledging that he was a separate person since they sat up off the floor.

   Wait a second—why were we on the floor?

   She stopped struggling. What do you mean? She must have looked ridiculous.

   Why were you on the floor? When I woke up—when we woke up—we were on the floor.  Did you fall?

   This stopped her cold. She clutched a hand over her heart. A new panic-avalanche bore down on her.

   “The pain—!” she whispered in horror.

   You remember! How is that possible?  

   What are you talking about? Of course I remember! It happened to me! You don’t exist

   But this proves something happened! he reasoned. Don’t you see—?

   All it proves is that something is medically wrong with me!

   Her heart drummed wildly with the memory of the heart-attack-that-wasn’t. 

   Your heart, he started in fascination, it’s so ...

   … strong, came her quiet voice, suddenly clouded over. The twinge in her tone was something he recognized, something so intimately familiar he could never mistake it.

   Oh yes. His pain. Not the lighting bolt in the chest, but the ceaseless oppressor that had sapped the life out of him for over a decade.

   You remember that too. You know what it was like being me. How can this be? Are you me in another life or something?

   Shut UP. I know what it’s like being you because you’re my de-LOO-zhen! 

   She resumed her forward march.

   Damnit—

   Again that oppressive feeling like he was clawing his way through the crushing weight of sleep paralysis, clambering for physicality.

   He reached out and grabbed the nearest shelf, upsetting three haphazardly propped books.

   Bathroom, young lady. Now.

   Somehow he managed a psychological kick in her rear. Reacting as if it’d been physical, she exhaled “Oof!” and tripped through the open door to the ladies’ room.

   Don’t like that much, do you?

   What a hideous space. The tiled floor was white, the tiled walls were white, the sink was white, even the cold, baleful light issuing from the strange glow-buzz tubes was white. So alien ... yet so mundane. 
                       
   “No shadows,” he grumbled aloud in her voice, which echoed in here. She must have shared his opinion, because she made no attempt to shut him up.

   Bending over, she checked carefully under the stalls.

   Satisfied we’re alone, Missy?

   “You can’t be alone with someone who isn’t here!” she hissed. “Even if you were real—which you’re not—you have no physical presence!”

   He chuckled. She fought it. The result sounded as though she was choking on week-old turkey.

   I’m all physical presence, young lady. Thanks to you. Speaking of which

   He tried to make a turn toward the mirror. She resisted—hard.

   What? he demanded. 

   Her feet were rooted to the floor. She’d locked her torso and neck.

   “What is your problem?” he barked aloud. It sounded silly, like she was scolding herself.

   “YOU,” she returned.

   It was a lie. He could feel the seed of it rooted deep. Whatever it was, it had germinated a long time ago.

   “Uh-uh, young lady. This is something else. This has nothing to do with me. What is it?”

   She whined. She was losing ground. He could feel her slipping. Grabbing the reins, he wrenched her full towards the mirror.

   Her eyes were limpid blue, almost gray, narrowing catlike and piqued under thin, creased eyebrows. Thick-framed glasses perched imperiously on a dainty, feminine nose over soft lips. Her brunette hair fell just past her shoulders, dark and smooth and almost ludicrously perfect. He couldn’t spot a single tangle despite the fact she’d just been lying on the floor.

   Her body—well, he couldn’t see much of that through her dark green turtleneck and heavy olive sweater.

   She was still trying to jerk her eyes away.

   “You can’t look at yourself in the mirror? Why? You look fine to me.”

   (And feel fine.)

   He smiled, but Melissa’s mouth wouldn’t budge. 

   Now he thought of it, he didn’t have to see her body in the mirror—his body now!—to know what it looked like, or what it felt like being inside it: graceful, ample—

   —Unwanted

   That had come from her.

   Are women always this conscious of their breasts?
           
   Gross. What are you, like eighty-five? 

   Eighty-six, he answered sulkily.

   I know what you’re thinking. Eww. Seriously, no.

   He chuckled without any effort to use her vocal cords. But what you’re thinking about … I can see that too—

   He could. Eyes that had the sea in them, that squinted and sparkled when their owner smirked—but beneath that twinkle was a ready and lurksome underscore of darkness. This guy’s features were so perfectly chiseled that they looked like they’d been carved by a master artisan. The gods must have sculpted that jaw. And that accent!

   “Who’s the guy with the unshaven countenance?”

   She hadn’t tried to stop him from using her mouth. He could feel her frustrated fatigue.

   “Some guy,” she responded unhelpfully.

   “Came in the other day,” he mentioned after more rummaging through her memories, somewhat astounded at how easy they were to spot. “Asked you out for a beverage called ‘coffee.’ You turned him down.” 

   Her gut brewed with a mixture of contempt, anxiety, and bitterness.

   He had never been attracted to a single man in his life. Yet with this guy, he got it. Which must mean …

   “Ah. You like him,” he accused with a laugh that sounded much like his own. “You do! Very much, in fact!”

   She snorted. “I liked the way he made me feel,” she amended. “Or could—if he were somebody else. I mean, he didn’t seem like a nice guy. It doesn’t matter that his cute accent made me all weak in the knees, does it? I’m not that shallow. He probably is. Just some bleeping loser.”

   “You never like anyone though, do you?”

   She shrugged.

   “Because you don’t like to see yourself through other people’s eyes.”

   She gazed at her shoes.

   “No—” That wasn’t quite it. Dig deeper … Ahhh. Found it. 

   “You don’t like to see yourself at all. You hate your body. Being with somebody—well, that’d require being with yourself too.”

   “SHUT UP, THEODOSIUS!” she blurted, and for the first time, he felt a real flare in her temper.

   A chink in her armor! He could work with that ...

   “My name sounds good coming from your mouth, even when spoken in anger,” he offered. “But back to you. You hate your own body. Why? Are you crazy?”

   “Shut UP. Shut UP! I am NOT CRAZY.” She gripped the counter, her head spinning. Unshed tears pressed up on her cheeks like pressure building behind a dam. “I’m not, I’m not. I am not having some kind of identity crisis. I’m going to the hospital!”

   “Just what do you think is going on here? A concussion? A brain tumor? Sudden onset psychosis?”

   She crushed her eyes shut.

   “I’ll tell you what I think. You have something you don’t deserve. Which is why you’re not going to have it much longer.”

   “—What?”

   He laughed, prying the flaming chink open. “You’re so disconnected from your flesh I can feel you shrinking into the distance. Soon you’ll be nothing more than a dark little memory in the cellars of my mind. You’ll cry out now and again, just a plaintive little whimper—but the rest of the time, you’ll be silent. Oh, Missy, Missy, Missy. Out of sight, out of mind, like a good little girl.” 

   His chest seized up. Melissa slammed her fists on the counter. He could almost see her mental armor clanking useless to the bathroom floor. His appropriation of her vocal cords was over.

   “W-What kind of priest are you?” she bawled. 

   The kind who spent a lifetime in groveling devotion and mindless self-sacrifice to the pitiable downtrodden—which is finally, thank the gods, being rewarded. Sacrifice, he spat through her tears, sacrifice. Slaving away for the needs of others.

   “B-But doesn’t it feel good to h-help others?” 

   Of course it does—in the beginning. But you give … and you give … and you give—until there’s nothing left. Because there’s always someone pulling at you, always some needy soul clambering at your vestments, tugging you down into the pit of their misery, demanding you exchange your place for theirs. It’s a bottomless drain. Don’t for a moment believe that a lifetime spent in service to others is anything less than a total emptying out of everything you are. You drain your soul in the coin of charity until you are a wasted, desiccated shell of a human being. This isn’t cynicism, Melissa. Just the unyielding price of good works.

   But you, he went on, you, young lady, are a wasted, desiccated shell already, and you’re still young. Ha-ha! No wonder the gods have rewarded me by offering me your body. It’s not like you’re using it.

   “I’m going to the hospital! Right now!

   He could tell she wanted to shriek it, but she kept her voice down to a strangled squeak. Madge could bust through that door right now ...

   He grinned malevolently. Inexplicably, her muscles chose to respond. Her lips pulled back, her eyes darkening with bile. The person grinning back in the mirror she almost didn’t recognize.

   “You’re a monster,” she whimpered.

   “I? You’ve relegated me to nonexistence. From where I’m standing that’s pretty damn monstrous. You’re not crazy, but they’ll tell you that you are. Doesn’t matter though, does it? You already believe you’re nuts. You just don’t want anyone else to see.”

   Bloodshot eyes blinked in the mirror under a nest of now-frazzled hair. “You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong!” she cried, pounding the countertop.

   “Oh yeah? And what about that guy?”

   “What about him?”

   “What about any guy?”

   As before, information flooded into his brain—much more this time. 

   “Clothes in the mall … nope, skirt’s too short, must keep it no more than two inches above the knee.  That swooping neckline? No way. Hmm—but how would I look in that?” He waggled his mental eyebrows when his rampage through her memories landed him in the middle of skimpy lingerie.

   “But ... I’m a good girl,” she interrupted weakly.

   “—Let’s get another turtleneck,” he went on. “Sex toys in the catalogue—definitely not! Let’s keep those sheets tidy and white. Don’t dance in the club; don’t go to the club. Don’t dance, full stop. Carrots. You organize your carrots? You’re Little Miss Neat. Can’t be neat and vulnerable.” He sneered, twisting her face and bloodshot eyes into something she’d never seen before, and felt genuine horror seeing it. “Too bad you’re vulnerable now. O-ho!—you do like being inside this body sometimes—but it hurts that nobody else wants to get inside it too. Now there’s a dirty little secret.” He snickered. “But I got inside. Sex is bad, but this is worse—far worse. You couldn’t be more vulnerable than you are now. This certainly gives a new meaning to taking a confession.”

 “SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP!” she exploded. “I’ll do it! I’ll motherbleeping do it!”

   “WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE, YOUNG LADY.”

   “I’ll do it! I’ll ask him out. The next time I see him. When he brings back his DVDs.” 

   “I don’t believe you,” he sang.

   “Try me,” she snarled. She swept her wild hair back, stuck her nose in the air, and once again wrested control of her vocal cords from him.

   Great! he said brightly. A date sounds much more fun than the hospital. Comb your hair and fix your makeup. And—mind your manners, Missy.

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Enjoy the Second Chapter of "The Rebel" from Melody and the Pier to Forever: Book Two!

Download Melody and the Pier to Forever: Book Two here!



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Prologue
The Constable
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2
Awful Things
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HE STOOD with Orion at the top of the lighthouse at sunset.
"Look, Uncle. A break in the fog."
Orion wasn't looking out over the ocean, like he was, but back towards the village.
Anurag looked.
The fog had indeed broken. There was the village and Eliannah two misons distant, and the rocky hills behind them, and ...
Orion pointed up.
Anthtrees.
In other parts of Aquanus they were known as Sky Fir. They were tremendous floating trees with great twisting limbs covered in emerald-green needles. Anthtree bark was (at least from down here) purplish-brown and streaked with frost and snow. Most Anthtrees looked like huge, curved commas with limbs growing out of them or hanging off them, or were S-shaped, but some grew into more intricate shapes. Adult Anthtrees could grow to three misons in height or higher. Through the break in the fog Anurag could see two of them floating well inland over the distant Poetry Mountains. The light of the setting sun painted them a sleepy spectrum of mountainy colors. A thin ice-white cloud laced through the middle of the nearest, curled around and up its mammoth trunk.
"Legend has it that the day Eliannah died one of those Anthtrees died too,” said Anurag. “It's said the sound of it crashing down could be heard in Neptonius fifteen hundred misons away, and shook the entire Wolfsnake."
"Whoa ..." gaped Orion. "That must've been amazing. Has anybody ever gone up into the mountains to see what happened to the dead tree?"
"I went there once," said Anurag. "Years ago. I was younger than you. It broke apart in four or five pieces. It flattened a few hills and damned up a river. It also wiped out most of the earth-bound forest beneath it, which has since grown back, a lot of it on the Anthtree itself. It's beautiful but very dangerous territory. Even on its side, the trunk and branches are taller than a lot of mountain cliffs. It's rotting, and can give when you walk on it. People have disappeared when a big chunk of rotting Anthtree bark collapses under their feet. The dam it formed will break one day, too. And then all that water in the big lake behind it will flood the valley. We're lucky the village isn't in its path."
He thought then of the missing Mephastophians. Was that what happened to them? Were they wandering around up there and fell through rotting Anthtree? If so, what were they doing? There were people scattered all along the Wolfsnake, unknown and unconquered by the Imperium, organized in loose tribes that lived straight off the land. He'd met them. Had the Mephastophians discovered them? Had the Poets, as they were called, somehow found a way to kill demons?
"What are you thinking of, Uncle? You look troubled."
He gazed at Orion. His nephew was almost as tall as he was, but those bright, youthful eyes still shone with childlike innocence and purity. They clashed violently with the Constable's hungry, dead gaze from earlier, and with the world as it existed today.
He made up his mind.
"I'm thinking of how much I'm going to miss you," he answered, only partially lying.
Orion nodded sadly. "How long will you be away this time?"
"No idea."
"Where are you going? Can you tell me? Will the Imperium know? When will you write? Will you send an Arrowsparrow?"
Yes. He was going to do this. So it did not matter if he told him. He'd be safe.
"I'm sailing for the Eastern Tangent. I can probably get there in forty days if I sleep only a couple hours each night. The Imperium ... Don't worry about the Imperium, all right? I'm not going to. You’ll hear from me after I get there. Don’t ask me how. I’ll think of something. It won’t be an Arrowsparrow, no. Neither you nor Mom has any idea what to do with one if it showed up—for your protection, remember?"
"Are you going to meet the Apprentice, you think?"
"That's up to the king. I'll get new orders at the Tangent, if not sooner."
"I wonder what she's like," said Orion with the same gaze he had looking at the skying Anthtrees.
Anurag shook his head.
"Do you think she's like Eliannah?"
"What, dead and buried?"
Orion laughed and punched him in the arm. "No, you know what I mean. Is she as powerful as Eliannah was, do you think?"
"At least. She'd have to be to be able to destroy the emperor."
"It must be weird to be that powerful. I mean, how do you make friends? How do you live any kind of normal life? Think of it, Uncle. If she got a boyfriend and got mad at him, he'd be smoke!"
Anurag laughed at that, though, in truth, it wasn't all that funny. How could the Apprentice, who was prophesied to be a young girl, lead any kind of a normal life given her abilities? What kind of fits did she give her mother? How could her mother possibly handle her? He thought of his own mother, and chuckled anew.
Then again, if she had my mother for her mother ...
He came back to the present. "All right," he said, "let's give the light one more test. And then I've got to get going."
Orion nodded, pulled a silver watch out of his pocket. "Ready."
They both watched the beam as it circled beneath them.
"Go," said Anurag when the beam swept due west. Orion watched the light as it swung south, then east, then north, and, finally, west again.
"Stop."
Orion checked his watch. Smiled.
"Twenty-four seconds on the nose."
"You and Brinkley and Tal make quite the team," said Anurag. "I'm sorry I couldn't be there to help later."
"Are you in trouble with the Constable, Uncle?"
"You asking me a hundred times isn't going to change my answer," replied Anurag with an exasperated grin. He grabbed his nephew's shoulder, gave it a hard squeeze. "And so my answer will be just like the other ninety-nine: don't worry about it. I'll be okay."
The sun had set. The fog, seeing its chance, closed the gap that revealed the floating Anthtrees as it billowed back in from the ocean. The day’s steady breeze settled and cooled. A cold mist began falling. The sounds of the surf crashing into the cliffs next to the house and the last call of unseen seagulls was all that could be heard.
"C'mon," he said. "Let's get down. You can help me pack."
Orion followed him down the ladder leading back into the light room, where they chatted with Tal for a few moments, then down the winding staircase that would take them out of the tower proper.
It was done. The tower lighthouse was rotating once every twenty-four seconds, precisely. The news was going out to all who had been taught to look for it.
The Apprentice has come.
~~*~~
Orion convinced him to stay for dinner. Gran was peaceable, if not on-edge. She said very little, only cracking the occasional smile at his and Orion’s back-and-forth banter. Anurag helped clean up after, then went upstairs and packed his clothes and belongings with Orion’s help. He pulled him into a hug at the door while Gran looked on.
"I'll be back as soon as I can."
"I know," said Orion. “Write as soon as you get there.”
“I will.”
Anurag released him, looked at her. "I need to talk to you outside."
She nodded and stepped out on the porch, closing the door behind her.
He turned back to Orion. "Take care of her.”
"I will.”
"A new day's coming, Orion. A day without the Imperium and Conscription and Mephastophians and dreadnoughts and Lotteries. She's not ready for it, so you're going to have to deal with her when she gets moody. You can handle it, right?"
Orion nodded.
"Things are gonna get pretty scary. Get yourself right up here—" Anurag ruffled his hair one last time—"and you'll be all right."
Another nod, though this one was much less confident than the others.
"Good," said Anurag. "Good." He opened the door and stepped out on the porch with his mother. He gave Orion one last look before closing it.
His mother was staring at him in that way that told him without doubt that she had uncovered his mischief and was about to hold him accountable for it. It was a look he had grown up with. She waited for him to speak.
"Tracluse will come calling tomorrow," he said, quietly. He didn't want Orion to be able to hear the conversation.
"Why?" she demanded, also with a lowered voice.
He didn't answer. He wasn't going to allow her to badger him. "Tell them I got a late message from the Dreamcatcher, along with orders to sail immediately. Tell them you don't know where to, that I told you the orders were confidential, and that I just received them and left in a hurry. Got it?"
"Answer my question. And why the Dreamcatcher?" she pressed. Motherly concern and dread colored her eyes. Anurag could feel the anger in him swell.
"You just don't get it," he murmured. "You never have."
"Get what?" she said. He could see blue fire cross her eyes, and knew from long experience that they were headed for a fight.
"Get this," he hissed, motioning angrily around him. "This."
"And what exactly is 'this'?" she demanded.
"You think we're at peace. We've never been at peace! We're slaves. Does it not concern you that your grandson will probably be snatched up by the dreadnought once it returns?”
"Stop," she commanded. "I'm not going to listen to this."
He grabbed her shoulders and gave her a strong shake. He had never done that before. She stared up at him, half in horror and half in defiant motherly anger.
"Then you had better start, Mom!" He could no longer keep the volume down on his voice. "Everything I've ever done has been for you ... for you and for Orion and for Brinkley and Tal and that lighthouse! Everything!"
"Let me go," she ordered.
He released her. She went to open her mouth, but he cut her off.
"Na├»ve,” he growled, shaking his head. “That's what you are, Mom. Naive. You of all people ... so goddamn naive ..." He had never cursed at her before, either.
"I of all people ..."
"That's right."
"How exactly am I naive?"
He pulled in close to her, nose to nose. She glared crossly into his eyes, waiting.
“This—is—not—peace!” he bellowed. “Wake up! This is war! It always has been! Just because the fighting stopped doesn't mean the war has!”
"So I suppose you're off now to play good little soldier for your king—?"
"For your king too!"
"And precisely what awful things will you be doing in his service that I must deceive the Tracluse?"
"They are 'awful things' that will save your and Orion's life! Is that okay by you?"
They stared at each other for a long, silent moment.
She turned on her heel and walked inside without looking back, slamming the door behind her.
Anurag stared at it, his eyes black with the urge to violence.
He snatched up his duffel bag and once more left his family behind.
~~*~~
He stood at the foot of the Constable's bed, staring down. The Constable lay on his back and was snoring loudly, his mouth open, his fleshy jowls trembling.
Awful things ...
The fat man gave a sudden gasp, then a snort, then opened his eyes. The northwest rampart tower's yellow flame, and the regular, sweeping beam of the lighthouse cast the only light in the room. It was by both, muted by the curtains over the windows, that he caught the silhouette of Anurag's form and the top half of his head and the bottomless gleam in his eyes.
He pushed himself up to a sitting position, no particular hurry, as though intruders were a regular part of his day.
"I must say, this is a fantasy come true, Bouchard. Please: unclothe yourself and join me. I promise to be gentle." He patted the pillow and smiled.
Anurag lifted his arm, revealing the broadsword in his grip. The Gyssian symbol near the hilt caught the flash of the lighthouse’s muted light.
"Not tonight, then, I gather," said the Constable, still smiling. "A disappointment. As will be your mother and nephew's execution in the morning."
"Nothing will happen to them," said Anurag in a flat, dead voice.
"You've got it all planned out, do you? Well," the Constable chuckled lightly, "I daresay you making it all the way into my bedroom past a fortified rampart is worthy of high praise. You're the only one who's ever managed it, so I suppose congratulations are in order. Congratulations, Bouchard, congratulations!”
Anurag stood still and silent, his lightless gaze unblinking.
“I assume the news of the missing Mephastophian was what emboldened you to move on your well-laid plans—?"
Anurag shook his head. The sword gleamed in the lighthouse-punctuated half-light.
"May I ask what it was, then, that brought you here to your death?"
"News,” said Anurag.
"What news would that be?"
"The news that the emperor's destroyer has come."
The Constable laughed. It was a full-throated guffaw, from the belly. It burst from his mouth in bubbles of rich sound.
"I never took you for one of those deluded zealots, Bouchard, that we routinely dispatch. You don't seem the type."
Anurag didn't answer. Silence enveloped the night.
"Okay, zealot," said the Constable as the lighthouse beam swung past again. "I'll give you a little heads-up. If I yell now, the guards will be in here before you get that blade anywhere near me. You killed at least one to be holding it, so you're probably feeling quite confident standing there. But even you aren't so foolish to assume you'll be able to kill them all, are you? Are you that foolish, Bouchard?"
"The guards won't hear you.”
"Shall we test that theory? GUARDS! GUARDS!"
Anurag waited patiently at the foot of the bed.
"GUARDS! GUARDS!" roared the Constable.
Silence.
The lighthouse beam caught the fear that flickered in the Constable's eyes.
"How?" he asked in the refreshed darkness.
Anurag still hadn't blinked. He answered lifelessly, "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Tell me.”
"Get out of bed.”
The Constable climbed out of his enormous bed, stood staring at Anurag in his underwear.
"Go to your desk and sit."
The fat man did as told, lumbering into his spacious office. Anurag followed, sword at his back. The Constable sat at his desk.
The drapes overlooking the Lottery pen and back courtyard had been drawn. Save for the here-and-gone beam of the lighthouse, it was virtually lightless in here.
"You won't get far, Bouchard. It won't matter what orders you have me write for you. The Dreamcatcher ..."
"Him too.”
"Ah. Jen as well, I suppose?"
"Yes."
The Constable nodded without looking back. "You've done this sort of thing before.”
"When I've had to."
"I see."
"New parchment," ordered Anurag.
"And what am I to write on it?"
"That I'm excused from the expedition tomorrow morning, the one to locate your missing demon. Write it. Now."
"And if I refuse? I'm a dead man anyway. I refuse."
Anurag lowered the sword until the sharp edge rested on the Constable's shoulder. The beam caught the motion. He leaned over, got in close to his meaty ear. "Raretail Holm."
The fat man held up.
"I need light.”
Anurag grabbed a candle on the desk and thrust it at him. "Get to work."
The Constable lit the candle, then reached for new parchment. He scribbled quietly. The regular beam illuminated the room like a slow procession of ghosts passing through. He applied the Imperial Seal, but before he could hand the parchment to him, Anurag ordered: "Set that one aside. Get another roll."
"You're confusing me, Bouchard."
"That's too bad."
The Constable fumbled around the top of his desk, produced a new roll.
"Where to?" he asked, guessing.
"Hieron-Tamus," said Anurag. "Manifest and orders, which are to include variable leave. Date the departure from Anthtree twenty days from now."
The fat man glanced over his shoulder. He still hadn't seen Anurag blink. Too, Anurag seemed to be struggling with simply standing there, with his self-control. He had begun pacing back and forth, his breathing labored.
"And what shall I say is your message and cargo?"
Anurag stopped long enough to growl in his ear: "The message and the cargo are one and the same. Your head."
The Constable held up, but only for a moment. He began writing on the parchment, his hand steady. If he felt fear, he did not show it.
"Have you ever heard of the Children, Bouchard?"
Anurag stopped pacing. "No."
"Not quite Mephastophian, nor are they completely human. They are the product of the lust of Prince Trajan and the Mephas Lord Pios. They impregnate slaves—women. Pios' progeny eat their way out of the womb, from what I've heard, killing the mother, of course, and looking for all the world like a miniature Mephastophian. It's only later that they assume human features. Trajan's progeny are born in the normal way—again, from what I've heard. They take on demonic features later. Oddly," the Constable continued conversationally, "the women impregnated by the Prince always die in childbirth." He chuckled lightly as the beam passed again. "I guess it's a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't, wouldn’t you say, Bouchard?"
Anurag didn't respond. Sweat glistened on his forehead. His breathing was deep and raspy.
"Apparently the Lord Emperor has a small army of them. They're said to be twice as ruthless as ordinary demons, and twice as hard to kill. I've put in a request for two. Imagine how many of those mountain savages they'd eradicate, Bouchard!"
"Finish—the—manifest," growled Anurag.
"Almost done," said the Constable lightly, steadily working his way down the parchment. Anurag stopped his increasingly manic pacing to look over the fat man’s hairy, sloping shoulders to read what he had written.
"You know, Bouchard, people have no appreciation of how peaceful the Imperium is. Think of it! There are no more wars, are there? No more bickering between nations, no silly posturing, no futile slaughters between piddling navies over a spit of land in the middle of nowhere ... And all the Lord Emperor asks for in exchange for this peace is the people's obedience! He isn't even a greedy Lord; he cares nothing for money; the taxes are quite minimal; all he imposes is Conscription to keep his armed forces refreshed, and the Lottery, of course ..."
The point of Anurag's broadsword dug into his neck.
"Finish the goddamn manifest!"
"It's finished," said the Constable, applying the Imperial Seal to it. He rolled up both parchments and handed them over his shoulder without turning around. "Take them. Then get on with whatever you're going to do."
Anurag snatched them out of his grip. He tossed one into a lightless corner and dropped the other back on the desk. "Open this one. Then blow out the candle and get back into bed."
The Constable obediently flattened the parchment on the desk before him. He blew out the candle.
"I think I will stay here, if you don't mind, Bouchard," he said in the dark.
The lighthouse beam flashed by and was gone.
But there was no response. The silence of the night was absolute.
"Bouchard?"
The Constable’s last living act was to turn in his seat to look behind him. Flying towards him out of a blinding flash of light was a tremendous shark, mouth wide open, rows of huge triangular teeth, dead, black eyes staring.

>>3<<


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Quarternia


Quarternia

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