Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Eden's Womb, Chapter 7 - The Thrush


 
THE THRUSH

O rowan fair, upon your hair how white the blossom lay!
O rowan mine, I saw you shine upon a summer’s day.
 
Your rind so bright, your leaves so light, your voice so cool and soft:
Upon your head how golden-red the crown you bore aloft!
 
O rowan dead, upon your head your hair is dry and grey;
Your crown is spilled, your voice is stilled forever and a day.

—J.R.R. Tolkien, Bregalad’s Lament,
Lord of the Rings, Book III, Chapter 4


p, down, up, Adam slashed at the soft crease in the Ozyump’s wrist, his teeth gritting, his face grim.  The monster reacted before he could land the fourth stroke.  With a roar it threw Adam down onto a snowdrift and swung its right hand around to stanch the blood flow.

Adam was covered with the sticky, steaming fluid and breathless from the crushing of his lungs.  But he did not notice.  He leapt to his feet and flew back to the entrance of the airway where he fell into Sam’s arms.  Together they huddled in the safety of the hole and watched as the creature lifted its head skyward and trumpeted.  It was at once a wail of agony and a cry for help, and so severe was the noise that Adam had to cover his ears.

“There are more Ozyumps,” Adam guessed, shouting in Sam’s ear. “He’s calling them … oh-ow!”  He finally noticed the pain in his ribcage, and began gingerly testing his bones.

“Anything broken?”  Sam looked to his friend, those deep brown almond eyes reflecting the honest compassion that set him apart from all others in the Citadel.

“Plenty of bruises, for sure …” Adam reported, but his attention came back to the animal.

The Ozyump took several steps away from the hole as it emptied its lungs.  The ear-splitting cry now faded and passed away northward on the twilight wind.  Blood kept flowing despite the lock of right hand over left wrist; and now the being seemed to be swooning.  It staggered, turning again toward Adam with teeth bared, eyes raging with hatred, lost its balance and collapsed, wailing yet again.  The pressure of the right hand relented.  Blood flowed in spurts, but soon the fountains failed.  Spasms gripped the creature, and then it fell still.

“You killed it, Ads.  You killed an Ozyump.”

“No, no … I only followed your … Sam, how did you know …?”

“Well …” Sam looked confused, “… from the children’s tales … Bard the Bowman … the old thrush landing on his shoulder and telling him …”

“Sam, that is a tale about a dragon.  A fairy tale.  There are no dragons.”

“But … I heard the thrush say it …”

“Ahhh.  You’ve been with me too long, my friend.”  Despite the pain in his thorax, Adam found himself laughing.  “You’re hearing the damn Voices.  Soon you’ll be as looney as I am.  Come on.  Time to risk giving that thing a poke.”

Adam stood, now rather sure that no ribs were broken, and unfastened his harness.  He was still clutching Sam’s knife, and as he reached to return it a stunning realization struck him.

“Sam … Sam!  Here is enough meat to feed all of Saskatoone for an Ide.”

“… or enough to make your Grandma Alie the new Marchioness.”

“Oh ho.  You schemer.  You really are the Perfid one, Sam LordBishop.”

A few speculative prods with their three-clawed feet assured Adam and Sam that the thing was well and truly dead.  Adam dug out his own stone knife, and together they worked the hide of the abdomen until they had it splayed.  The liver was their objective—most prized of the organ meat, rich in vitamins and nutrients.  The belly was lined with soft blubber, and that, too, was a precious gift.  As they worked through the offal, careful not to spill spleen or bile, the young men filled their mouths with greasy tissue.  Its taste was strange but compelling.  Yet Adam had to stop after a few swallows—it was far too rich.

“More like three Ides,” he speculated as he stood up from the heavily steaming incision.  “Let’s take some of this fat down to Lissa, and get Pa and Abe up here to help with the butchering.”

* * *

They found Siephus and Uncle Abednigo in the gallery, seated side-by-side on a sled, recovering from a hard day’s work and chewing on grass canes and twigs, extracting the traces of sugar from the pith.  Lissa was sprawled on a mat on the ground, among her furs, humming to herself and rocking, lost in a game with her Matryoshka Dolls.  She was the first to react when Adam and Sam appeared.

“Thushhh!”  She cried, holding forth the opened top of one of the nesting dolls with her good arm.  The other was withered and twisted into a useless crook, and as spindly as her paralyzed legs.  Tucked behind her left ear, between a tangle of tawny hair and her frayed brown chullo, was a new green sprig of spruce, probably from the grove Uncle Abe was excavating.  Father had been scouring a pasture, uncovering cattle dung and hoping against hope to come upon a flash frozen bison or cow.  “Thushhh … Air-bella …”

“What is she saying, Adam?” Abe asked.  “She’s been muttering those gibberish words ever since I got in from my tunnel.” Adam’s uncle did not look up from his meager meal of sticks, continued gnawing and spitting out the rinds.  Adam and Sam’s return was expected, and the sterile blue ice tunnel that they had traveresed couldn’t produce any scavenging surprises.  Adam could see from the slim cache of new gleanings atop their haul sleds that the day had been unproductive, and they would eat nothing else this day.  Adam understood the bone-weariness that was on their faces.  The Returns were weighing on these two sons of Ostrodon.  Abe forever fought the paralysis that polio had given him as a child.  His left leg was as useless as Lissa’s.  His good leg was growing more arthritic with each long trek through the tunnels.  Father, sadly, was losing his sight, and he was still in denial, unwilling to come to grips with this change.  Both elders were longing for the coming holiday.  Just one more day of work and they would make the trek back to hearth and home.

Adam’s news would change their day, bring light and joy to their weary eyes.  Lissa knew something of the truth, and she had been trying, in her pitiful clumsy way, to tell them.

“Thrush.”  Adam said, moving directly to his twin sister, kneeling and surrounding her with a generous hug.  “Here, darling.  Taste.”  He held a piece of steaming blubber up to her mouth and she bit and began to chew, slobbering and drooling.  The gratefulness in her bright hazel eyes was all the thanks he needed.  Adam stood and turned to Abe and Father while Sam remained quiet near the entryway to the tunnel, allowing his friend all the pleasure of sharing their news.  “Meat, sires.  Have a taste.”  Abe reached for the offered morsel and Adam placed another in Siephus’s hand.

“Thrush?  This is no bird meat,” Abednigo declared.  “The sacred birds venture here only during the height of the Thaw.  What is this riddle, Adam?”

“He’s killed something, all right.” Siephus commented, biting.  “It’s still warm.  But it’s no bird—unless pigs fly.  This is lard.”  The look of incredulity on Siephus’s face was unforgetable.  He screwed his failing eyes into a tight squint and studied the thing in his hand like a trader suspicious of being duped.

“Lissa’s dolls have been talking to her,” Adam answered, savoring the suspense.  “The Gods showed her what we killed.  Now Sam and I need to show you, and if you will, we need your help with the butchering.  Here.”  He went to Father’s haul sled and tipped it, spilling his new harvest of frozen dung.  “We can use a third sled.  And all the sharpest knives.  There’s more meat up there than clan BrownEarth can eat in a lifetime.”



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Continue to the next Chapter

All content Copyright © 2015, P.J. Wetzel

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Eden's Womb, Chapter 6 - The Foreshadow


THE FORESHADOW
 
In cavern womb, ‘fore Tullia’s tombe, th’eternal lamp burnt cleare:
Love-lamp divine, unchang’d, enshrin’d o’er fifteen hundred yeare.

                                                                 —John Donne, the ‘Epithalamion’,
                                                                      Stanza eleven, The Good-Night
                                                                                            26 December, 1613


(HEAVENLY GATES, DUNCANON: 291 RETURNS-OF-GREEN AND 119 DAYS EARLIER)

he Sinners’ Guild rebuilt the Eight Fell Capitals to be visions of Heaven—mortal renderings of the Pantheon of the Gods.  Yet each of the Chartered Academies was different.  Of course Emissary Zelien-of-the-Orchard was partial to Chicxulub, his home.  On a clear day the Alabaster Stair dominated the landscape for a hundred miles—a glistening white-washed pyramid of such height that it touched the clouds.  Looking east from the five thrones at its summit, the ruling Primates and a few priviledged Jmens could trace the broad, arrow-straight boulevard called the Madero Promenade from the base of the Stair all the way to Tampico.  There lay the sacred Quay where Zelien and more than ten thousand Nuncios before him launched their missions to the other Capitals once each seventeen Returns at the time of the Cicada’s call.

The Day of the Cicada began when the sun’s limb first lifted above the margins of the sea and the sacred insects began their musical serenade from the trees.  Assembled at the Altar Gate before the Stair, the Nuncio and his entourage would stand poised until the orb’s red beam knifed up the Promenade and struck the high white Barbicans of the Altar Gate.  It was as if they were suddenly set ablaze with fire.  The horns would sound from the parapets, and into that glorious light the departing company strode, high banners flying, led by an honor guard from the Order of the During Gate in their feathered ceremonial battle-dress.

The Dawn March of the Nuncio was a sight no human should die without beholding.  The reverse procession—the wedding parade of Emissary and First Mother upon their triumphal return, too, was a spectacle beyond mortal reckoning.  Yet among all of the visions that the Eight Asylums offered mortal eyes, none took a pilgrim’s breath away more than that of DunCanon viewed from the sea on a clear night.

Zelien was the current pilgrim, the only human granted leave to indulge in that gravest of the craven sins—travel—and the Gods had granted him that sight in all its splendor.  They called it the ‘Beacon’s Reach’; and if Zelien had been smitten with blindness in the hour he saw it, he would have died rejoicing that living eyes could behold no greater thing.

True, Zelien had not seen all of the historic human centers of achievement because in these latter days five of them had been overrun and defiled by enemy species.  But he knew the descriptions, recorded by countless Cantors across six hundred millennia.  Those who had seen all eight confirmed it: The crowning glory of human attainment stood here at the City-Beneath-the-Star.

It had happened seventeen Returns ago, on his previous mission.  The tortured crossing of the Ocean Sea from Rome was entering its seventh Order and the wind carried the first rumors of winter.  His three little ships were cutting smartly, in full sail, reaching on a force-five squall off the Labrador Banks.  They were twenty leagues out when the ragged clouds suddenly parted and they spied it—the slanting rays of the Still-Star, swooping down out of the storm wrack like tidings from the Hosts themselves, transforming the city’s impossibly steep-sided white-washed central mountain pinnacle into a beacon.  Such radiance seemed heaven-sent indeed to the young Envoy as he stood at the helm of the Niña on the hard side of midnight, cold salt spray lashing his face and sculpting a rainbow-halo out of the miraculous glow.

It was said that in ancient times the light from the Still-Star shone so fiercely that night was like day in DunCanon’s inner halls.  In that age, legends told, the ancient trees of the city’s Forbidden Garden—said to be born of seed from the first garden—bore fruit of a sweetness that made men weep—the fruit of knowledge—a dangerous knowledge, a knowledge at once great and terrible, such that DunCanon’s scholars were both revered and feared among men of the world.

The city’s name literally meant ‘Fortress of the Holy Word.’  But in these latter days the light of the Star-That-Does-Not-Move had waned, and with it went the city’s influence.  Both Chicxulub and Rome considered DunCanon a lesser member of the Guild, and seldom paid heed to the epistles from its High Masters.

Zelien’s current mission had found the light of DunCanon’s special Star disturbingly faded.  It was the new Black Veil, which men were calling ‘Star-eater, grim reaper of the Ancestral Gods’.  This dark omen had cursed Zelien’s second adventure from the day he left Tampico Harbor.  Even as he was embarking, word had reached him that Jmen Zmactzil was found dead of a heart attack near the summit of the Red Temple with his sack of sacred Cicadas crushed beneath the weight of his body.  That night Zelien beheld the Black Veil for the first time as a dark blot over Tullia’s lamp.  There remained enough starlight to fix his latitude, but each following night there was less, and the Veil steadily grew, both in breadth and strength.  By the time he reached Rome, the full dome of the night sky was consumed by the inexplicable darkness.

He hurried through his formal duties at St. Peter’s Basilica and up to the Halls of Da Vinci, canting the news of the world, exchanging the formal written Epistles and Books of Annals and Omens from Chicxulub’s Primates and accepting those from the Pope.  He met with the College of Cardinals in emergency conclave to discuss the darkening, but no wit or scholarship seemed to point to an explanation, and so he set sail for the west with the tide on a forlorn mid-Gleam morning.

His crossing from Rome had been fraught with ill fortune, unfavorable winds, sudden storms and torn sails.  Worst of all he had had to sacrifice the Pinta, turning it into a death ship when an outbreak of the Dark Pestilence began spreading among his crew.  Those stricken were quarantined to the Pinta and none survived.  The ship was finally set adrift with its black and red banner of quarantine floating from the topgallant like a flower o’er a tomb.

By the time he reached DunCanon meteor showers were filling the night sky with a steady hail of fire, and Tullia’s Lamp had grown so dim that he could seldom attain an accurate fix.  It was with blessed relief that they finally spied the pinnacle one night.  Yet the glow of the Still-Star now seemed little brighter than the full moon.

Needless to say Zelien found DunCanon’s Masters beset with grave consternation.  They had hoped for words of enlightenment or remedy from the Envoy, but when Zelien came formally before the Masters in the Forbidden Halls to Cant his tales, he could offer them no comfort.  Nor did he reserve any for himself.  These were dark days indeed.  The noon sun shone reluctantly, seeming muted and sullen in an unhappy sky.

Zelien had completed his formal duties in DunCanon.  The gray sun was sinking behind bands of tired clouds on the Day of Fulfilled Lessons from the Downtrodden.  He had sent his boats home, and his remaining bondsmen were in their apartments packing and loading wains for the journey west by land when he received a summons from the High Master to meet him—alone, and not in the Forbidden Hall but within the Heavenly Gates at the Eyrie atop the pinnacle—a place to which few men, not even the anointed Nucios, were granted entry.

Zelien now stood waiting before the heavy wooden gate, which was set in a mortarless stone wall high on the pinnacle at the end of a steep road.  He was still gathering his breath after ascending the winding, spiraling route carved from the granite of the mountain.  Before him stood, motionless and silent, a rank of armored guards, spears crossed before their chests, preventing passage. He had announced his presence and seen someone on the watchtower leave her post.  What was the delay?  Why were they meeting at DunCanon’s most sacred site?

“Clear.” The guard who had left reappeared at a crenel, leaned forward as she shouted.  The guards before him straightened their lances and stepped aside even as the heavy wooden gate began to squeal and creak on its ancient wooden hinges.  One of the two doors swung open, just enough for a man to pass, and out came Goliger Din wearing a pleasant but obviously strained smile.  His long white beard was freshly combed, his bald head bare, his feet in simple sandals, and he wore a simple robe of the sort friars wore, except that it was white.  Zelien saw none of the regalia signifying his station.  Following him through the gate a young man appeared, similarly dressed, appearing timid and uneasy.  Zelien took him for a squire, perhaps an apprentice.

“Nuncio Zelien. What is your sin?”  The High Master extended his arms and the two embraced, as was DunCanon’s custom when one visited the household of another.

“I blaspheme daily.  Yours?”  He could glean no hint of the High Master’s purpose from his routine words of greeting, so he limited his own response to simple formality.

“Ahhh.  The Gods only know what Sûl couldn’t find. I see you’ve sent your Brigands home.  I have an excellent view of the Quay from my observatory.  Come, I’ll show you, before it gets utterly dark out on the reaches.”

He turned and passed through the gate.  The boy shadowed his master, and Zelien followed.  “The low tide came just before sunset, sir, and the wind favors them.  We might have waited for the next tide at dawn, but …”

“No … the wind will be turning to the south to oppose them.  You’re a wise mariner, Nuncio.  When do you plan your own departure?  Or will you winter-over with us like the Nuncios of old?”

They had turned left and were following a path that paralleled the outer wall.  This was a Concentric, much like the fortifications around the Alabaster Stair.  To his right was a dry mote—a deep trench planted with razor sharp obsidian spikes, black as Hades and sharper than light, and beyond it rose a higher inner wall.  “No, we hope to set off in two days, Master.  I know that is sooner than I announced when we last met.  But I think haste is prudent in this case.  We will take the southern route, via the Narrow Road to Three Crosses, then up the Braided Platte.  I shall forego the Forsaken Marches in order to reach Ercildoun directly and consult the Lady of the Mountain—the Oracle of Sinners’ Thew.  She seems our last best hope for understanding these signs in the sky.”

The High Master nodded.  “There are more meteors crossing the sky every night.  There have been earthquakes.”

“Oh?”

“Up here you can feel them.  They shake the mountain, make it sway.  Some of these rocks from the sky are crashing to ground.  We suspect that the Dark Veil is an invading horde of rocks.”

“Hmmmm.”

“On a hyperbolic trajectory.”  These were the first words spoken by the squire.

“I’m sorry, I’m not learned in maths, young man,” Zelien responded.  “What does that mean?”

“I do not know, sir …”

Goliger Din interrupted.  “Luke is no scholar, Nuncio.  He is my chamberlain.  Yet he suddenly seems to have become our own minor oracle.  As this nebula has approached he says he has been hearing spirit voices, having dreams.  He kept silent until this morning.”

“I … I thought I was possessed … or going insane.”  The young man cast his eyes to the ground.

“I see.  And what do the spirits say to you?”

“She wants me to be a prophet.”  Zelien saw that the young man was shaking, and there was fear and confusion in his eyes.  “She says look to the sky tonight from the high seat.  Look to the Star-That-Does-Not-Move.”

“She?”

Again the High Master provided the response.  “An unknown mother-spirit, Luke says.  There is to be a sign tonight.  If it proves true, Ambassador, and perhaps even if not, I want Luke to accompany you to see the Lady and then return directly to DunCanon with report.”

“This can be arranged,” Zelien nodded, studying the young man.  He seemed fit enough, and strong.  He would be no hindrance on the road … unless … “Not everyone is cut out for adventure, chamberlain.”

“I have dreamed of far places since I was born, sire Nuncio.  It is as though I have already traveled ... in another cycle, you might say.”

“What sort of far places?  Describe to me what you have seen in your dreams.”

The young man’s eyes grew distant, as veiled as the sky, yet not dark but cast in a deep green that seemed older than the ages.  Could the sky be green?  When he spoke his voice did not seem to be his own.  “I have reached Kilkinney … but the death-wind shrieks.”

He pointed heavenward, toward the Still-Star, and as he did there came a flash of light.  The star seemed set afire.  Streamers of white light spat like liquid out from it and spread, fading toward the south-western horizon.  And then an utter blackness settled around them.  The Star-That-Does-Not-Move shone no more.



* * *

All content Copyright © 2015, P.J. Wetzel

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Eden's Womb, Chapter 5 - Evvie


 
EVVIE

The face of all the world recalled is changed since then, I think:
Steps of thy soul, beside me stole ‘twixt me and dreadful brink.

—Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
Sonnets from the Portuguese 7


velyn struggled with the ropes.  It did no good.  The more she tried to work them loose, the more they chafed her wrists, ankles, and her waist.  The mysterious stranger had caught her by surprise, bound her to her own sled, still loaded with the snow she had cleared from in front of house TreatSoil and hauled up top.  The man demanded to know where Trilly Thaw lived, and when she told him, he stomped off down the haul ramp, leaving her helpless.

Who was this man? And how did he know Trilly’s name?  Saskatoone had not had a visitor in living memory as far as Evvie knew.  According to the travelling Nuncios who used to occasionally visit in ages past, the nearest surviving human settlement was Banf, four hundred miles west in a dry valley among foothills of the Bjalkr.  The endless snows that continued after the Cleansing Storm had driven everyone in the Prairies west to the dry valleys, south through the Slash of Elén, or east to make the torturous crossing of the Bog of Agassiz.  Only Saskatoone persisted, thanks to the Greenhouses that Luke taught them to build using fossil glass from the ancient bowlhead middens.  Every town had its sin.  Saskatoone’s had always been gardening—disturbing nature’s balance by placing seeds according to willful human design.  When the snows came they had added the far greater sin of working with the old taboo materials, the artificial conjurings of that most willful of species—the extinct Homo sapiens.

A snorting huff made Evvie start.  One of the six huge antlered beasts that towed the stranger’s sleds was bobbing its head and thumping at the snow with its large splayed front hooves.  It was the one the man had called Arabella.  Something was disturbing it.

The last of the bruised evening light had faded from the western horizon, and the screaming wind masked all but the loudest sounds.  But now Evvie saw what had excited the animal.  Its master appeared at the top of the haul ramp.  There were two headlamps.  He carried another person with him, writhing and struggling in his arms.  Soon Evvie could hear her cries, carrying toward her on the wind.  It was Ms. Trilly.

The man was large and muscular—much more well-fed than anyone in Saskatoone—so he had little trouble controlling his captive, just as he had had little trouble overpowering Evvie after feigning friendliness as he had first approached her.  What was he going to do with them?

Trilly was twisting and battering him, even trying to bite.  Soon they were close enough that Evvie could hear them.

Trilly was screaming something like “Let me go, you brute.”  And the stranger was responding with an air of bemused arrogance.

“Behold, your coach, my queen.  Let us make you a proper throne atop the softest of the moss, and I shall escort you to the Alabaster Stair astride my faithful Arabella.”

Most of the man’s five sleds were piled high with brown grass and gray lichen—apparently feed for the beasts that towed them.  A dead, partially butchered animal of the same kind was draped over one such pile, making it clear that these were not merely beasts of burden, but also the man’s food supply—enough for many Ides of travel.

“Who are you, stranger?” Evvie shouted, “What are you going to do with us?”

It was only then that Trilly noticed her, momentarily stopping her struggling even as the stranger reached for a coil of rope and began to lash her to the top of a sled.  Was he a Nomad capturing slave women—for a harem?  Or to eat?  Saskatoone’s hearthside tales told of starving Nomad tribes that pillaged the land in the Returns after the Cleansing Storm.  They ate their captives.

“With you,” the man nodded toward Evvie.  Beneath his heavy cowl, which appeared to be made of red-dyed wool, he had a long thin black beard of straight hair, ruddy wind-burned cheeks that weren’t at all hollow like everyone’s in Saskatoone, and an unusual slant to the dark eyes. “I’m going to set you free, child—a reward for directing me truly.  And as for who I am, ask the lady on the throne.”

Trilly was growling, and struggling again as the man secured her tightly in place.

“You know him, Ms. Trilly?”

“Did he rape you, Evelyn?”  Her words were bitter, more directed at the man than at Evvie.  “That is what he will do to me, the filthy bog-scum.”

“Not in the least, my dear.”  The man’s answer was haughty, dripping with testosterone and male indiscipline. “As I told you eighteen Returns ago, a First Mother must not be spoiled until she parades before the Alabaster Stair.  What I did then was harmless, and your reaction at the time was as excessive as your anger is now.  I am rescuing you.”

“I’m still unspoiled, Nuncio.  I’ve borne five children, but by a man of honor.  Your intentions are lewd and your eyes speak it now as they did then.  I refused you then.  Now you plan to take …”

“To take you to safety, Trilly Thaw.  This is your rescue.  The Ozyumps are …”

“You call kidnapping a rescue?  You are mad.”

They were paying no attention to Evvie.  Ms. Trilly’s reputation was spotless, and impossibly important to her.  Evvie never understood it.  Trilly loathed her prostitute mother, and all that she represented even though it kept her plague-stricken clan ClayThrow from starving.  But perhaps she had a more personal scar.

“A dark secret from your past, Ms. Trilly?” Evvie couldn’t help planting the dig.  This man was going to free her and take Trilly away.  The implications were dawning on her.  The long-standing battle for Adam’s virtue was over, and Evvie would win.  “If this man visited Saskatoone eighteen Returns ago, why have you never spoken of it? … He could be Adam’s father …”

Trilly’s seething anger instantly redoubled.  “You bitch.  You conspired with him, didn’t you?”

“What? He tied me up …”

“Enough of this. Who is Adam?”  The man had finished with Trilly.  He came to Evvie and, as promised, began to untie her.  Trilly was roaring something bitter and hostile, but Evvie was focused on the large, dark stranger working the ropes at her waist.

“Adam is her first-born son, sire,” she used her most sultry voice.  “His name is top on my troth-roll.  I come of age in just eight Ides.”

“And he came of age when?”  Evvie saw that his eyes were scheming.  There was something more important to him than his male weakness at this moment.  Trilly was bellowing some nonsense about peas in a pod.

“On the Day of Gifts, four Ides ago.”

“Indeed.  Indeed.  … You call yourself Evelyn?”

She nodded, sensing his triumph.  The man looked as though he was going to give her a reward.  Getting Trilly out of the way would be reward enough.

“Evelyn, I am Revelstoke, Chicxulub’s ordained Emissary to the wide world.  Go to this Adam of yours and tell him to follow my tracks and rescue his mother.  We head for the Slash of Elén and then on to my city.  Tell all of your people to follow me, if they can: The Ozyumps are on the march.  I spied a scout not twenty-five miles north of here.  They have caught Saskatoone’s scent on this south wind.  Your village is doomed.”



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All content Copyright © 2015, P.J. Wetzel

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Eden's Womb, Chapter 4 - The Apostate


THE APOSTATE

A blade of flint fresh-knapped by dint of ancient sacred skill,
With edge so keen, welt deft and clean, one slash is like to kill.


Yellow Ozyump.  It was lifting Adam to his doom, but even in the terror of that moment the memory of its name flashed across his mind from out of hearthside tales.  Savage beasts they were, descended from the bowlheads but now devoid of human wit—thirty to forty feet in height when standing upright on squat barrel legs, springy orange fur, bulging bellies, always hungry, driven wild by the smell of flesh, though they would graze on tundra grasses like cattle during the Thaw.  The most stunning sight was their mane of straight, streaming, straw-yellow hair that sprouted from the head and cascaded in broad thick waves all the way to the ground.  When they sat they draped the hair about them as their cloak.  When they slept it was their mattress and their blanket.

The tales told that Ozyumps had hide so thick that no spear or knife could harm them. With spring-loaded arms near as long as the animal was tall, they struck like slingshots.  No man could conquer them. The only safe recourse was to run, for these beasts were slow and lumbering afoot.

Well, it was too late to run.  And Adam certainly wasn’t going to pray for divine deliverance.  The Ancestor Spirits were gloating, their voices an uproar of hoots and howls and laughter, as if from a drunken orgy:

She has him.  Halooo!  Naja bends the mindless beast to her will …

Oh, does she?  Ten quid says the thing’ll eat him ‘fore she says ‘Jack’.

Ha!  I’ll take that action.  Who’s with me?  She’s a caution, this Naja.  Just you watch.

Normal folk who couldn’t hear the Ancestor voices believed they were Gods, worthy of unquestioned honor and devotion.  Adam knew better.  There were billions of Ancestor Spirits, with personalities every bit as diverse as their formerly living counterparts.  In times of urgency or desperation the most vocal among them tried to out-shout one another with their particular counsel or opinion—it was like an out-of-control political debate in a public square.  The wise and the subtle rarely prevailed.

She has it planned.  Three centuries in the making. Mark my words.

Three centuries planning a meal for an Ozyump.  Harrrr!  Look at it drool.  He’s a goner, that one, and I’ll have my ten, I thank ye.

He’s right.  It’s them Irula the StrongMother ought to be recruiting, not some apostate Scavenger.  Facetalkers are far sharper than humans.  The planet will be theirs before …

Apostate.  They were punishing him.  That was the truth of it.  Adam’s left arm was pinned by his side by the hairy orange fingers.  With his right arm he was fending off the Ozyump’s putrid drool.  But the motion toward its mouth had stalled.  The creature seemed confused by the tether dangling from Adam’s waist, stretching tight and still connecting him to the heavy sled at the entry to the tunnel.  And Sam still had his grip on the back of it.  All that weight was more than the creature could lift.

He may be well-and-truly doomed, but apostate Scavenger Adam BrownEarth would not give his taunting spectators satisfaction.

“Hold on, Sam.” he shouted, his voice strained and thin from the pressure on his lungs.  “Whatever you do don’t let go.  It can’t lift the weight.” Sam might not even know what’s happening.  He was barely visible, still hidden by the creature’s shadow in the darkness of the tunnel.

No, Sam knew.  The Ozyump squalled and tugged harder.   Adam’s sled began to topple.  Five hundred pounds of ice chips came spilling out, lightening the load and surely pummeling Sam with sharp-edged shrapnel.  With a jerk, he began rising toward the mouth again as a new round of howls and guffaws came from the watching Spirits.

Let go, Perfid Sam LordBishop, Keeper of the Faith.  Run and save yourself, say I.

Says ten quid, and harooo!  Well met, apostate, and farewell to thee.

Can you be an apostate if you’re right?  Adam had never openly revealed his feelings, having only recently earned a community voice when he came of age.  And even if he spoke his mind, his opinions would be dismissed.  Those with the most life-experience commanded the greatest respect: that was the core lesson of mankind’s Long Sojourn into Harmony and Balance.  In Adam’s species respect for one’s Elders extended seamlessly beyond mortality.  Now, it appeared, Adam’s unspoken, un-acted-upon heresies were being laid bare for judgment by the immortals.

“Sam, don’t listen to them.  Keep hold of my sled.  Don’t let your tailings spill.”

Must the wise child follow a foolish Elder to his doom?  Humans were rapidly going extinct on this planet, being displaced by the likes of Ozyumps and Irula.  Men blindly worshiped the Ancestor Spirits of their dying breed, held the most ancient of them to be the Creators.  But were the Creators infallible?

Apostate.  Even Adam’s sister believed in them.   Lissa seemed to know the Gods intimately.  She said he should trust the Spirits despite their contentiousness, their head-splitting harangue and babble.

Well, he could not bring himself to trust the ancient Voices, but he did trust Lissa, lowest of the low. Where he had no faith in the high and mighty, he had implicit faith in his palsied waif of a sister, paralyzed over her entire right side, unable to walk, barely able to speak.  Was he wrong?  Infused throughout scripture and religious practice was the oft-repeated phrase: The downtrodden shall be elevated above kings.  It was this verse that mandated Chicxulub’s Nuncio to seek his First Mother here in the Forsaken Marches where the most downtrodden of all humans had always dwelt.

The meek shall inherit the Earth.  Somehow, when Adam was near his sister, she was able to throttle the Gods themselves.  It was like magic.  She would lift one of her Matryoshka Dolls and a special ‘Spirit-look’ would come into her eyes.  Then, inevitably the voices stilled, and Adam had blessed relief.  Once in a while, from out of that calm a single voice would come forth, as if Lissa had selected it.  It was seldom the same Ancestor who spoke, and the messages were cryptic, but sometimes the Spirit spoke to a future event; or offered a remedy for a vexing problem.

Rejoice, O Ice-born—ye King of Armies.  This is no end for you; make it your shining hour.  Sam, throw him your knife.

These ‘readings’, as the Keeper called them, had earned Adam a reputation from a very early age.  Yet even that was a curse.  His Cronies’ incessant, often petit demands for readings were as much torture to Adam as the Spirit Voices.  Sometimes when he was very young the Marchioness would command Adam to the Citadel—to the sprawling greenhouse overlooking the river, built by Luke himself. The Bench of Mages sat scowling at him as the Lady commanded him to testify about petit crimes of the village.  It felt as if he was the one on trial.  They would keep him away from his family for as long as an Order, allowing only Lissa, trapped in a cage-like crib with her dolls, and Sam there with the best toys and trinkets in Saskatoone.  Sam LordBishop would be a future Keeper, but his own grandparents were exploiting him like a pawn in a power game.

The tactic turned sour for the ruling House of Saskatoone.  As Adam grew older he learned to feign ignorance or confusion, would only share readings that clearly helped the entire community and could not be exploited to strengthen the Marchioness’s power base or to line the Keeper’s purse.  When he and Sam were playing together unwatched, Adam would confide his devices, and Sam took his side—played along.  That’s when the Marchioness began to call him ‘Perfid Sam’.  Yet there was nothing they could do.  Adam held the knowledge.  And knowledge was power. Someday he and Sam would …

“Ads, catch.”  With his left hand still clinging to Adam’s sled, which was now hanging in the air, Sam tossed a glistening beige flint hand-knife toward Adam’s free hand.  Adam recognized it, freshly knapped last night by uncle Abe.  It was sharper than a razor.  “Cut the vessels on the inside of its wrist,” Sam cried.  “It’s like the dragon’s missing scale—the only vulnerable place.”

Adam caught it, adjusted his grip, and met the Ozyump’s wrist with all the force he could muster.  He hadn’t even noticed, but there were creases of pale skin there at the base of the enormous hairless palm, within easy reach.  And bulging through them he saw huge blue veins.  Sam was right.  But no human had ever killed an Ozyump.  How could he possibly know?


* * *



All content Copyright © 2015, P.J. Wetzel

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Eden's Womb, Chapter 3 - The Portent


THE PORTENT
 
Ere sun first greets the holy seat of Pol’s Unpunished Cult
A learned eye surveys the sky, disturbed by the result.

(TEMPLE OF THE RISING SUN, RED CAPE, PREFECTURE OF CHICXULUB: 291 RETURNS-OF-GREEN AND 279 DAYS EARLIER)

here is Tullia’s Lamp? Where are her stars?

Except for the arduous climb, Jmen Zemactzil’s pre-dawn duties on the threshold of the Day of the Cicada should have been routine—a quick prayer of supplication, just a few ritual actions, and an offering—release of a handful of the sacred insects.  He had paused halfway up, not intending to look yet, just to catch his breath.  His pounding heart reminded him: he was no squeaky-faced novitiate any more.   He slumped on an ancient red sandstone step, let his lungs draw in the chill air.  It carried a hint of the sea—a refreshing change from steaming earth and jungle, from the dung-speckled grazing lands and thirsty maize that scented the mist and fog on the coastal plain below.

It was the call of the sea that made him look.

Zemactzil’s eyes first retraced his steps, down the steep eastern face of the red Pyramid where half a million Returns ago Maya primitives shed blood to forgotten gods.  At its base his gaze met the strip of white-sand beach where ocean and land had danced their tireless figures, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, since before eyes or ears existed to acknowledge them.  Out across the face of the restless waters the Practitioner’s attention drifted, past the horizon that would swallow Nuncio Zelien’s ships this very day, and on—beyond the limits of mortal vision, where Creation might yet be shaping reality, then up toward the greatest of the wonders that this creation had ever wrought—the eyes of the Ancestors, the watching stars.  So few in number they were.  Much of the night sky still looked black.

Still black?  A queer notion.  Of course the night sky is black.

That’s when a shudder quaked through the Jmen’s bones and his blood froze.  Unbidden, the odd thought forced his eyes northward, and there he saw it—an unnatural darkness blotting out part of the traveler’s constellation, Tullia’s Lamp.  A voice materialized in his mind, like a hiss of breath under the wind:

Regard the sky.  It is you who chose its color.

It was not a cloud.  The black smudge did not move or change shape with the winds.  The stars under its influence were not covered up, but they shone veiled and muted.  Many of the dimmer wayposts that traced the figure of Tullia were gone altogether—a terribly ill omen on this day when Chicxulub must launch Zelien’s brash ordained adventure, the City’s collective sin.

Suddenly this was no routine ritual.

Zemactzil knew the stars.  He knew the moods of the sky as well as he knew his own.  His long Returns of ascetic practice had not been idly spent.  This was a nebula.  It had come from beyond the stars and was moving with uncanny speed.  He had seen no indication of it when he last consulted the stars on the Day of Gifts just eight days ago.  Bewildered and aghast, he now sensed two red eyes in the midst of the darkness, with black vertical slits for pupils.  And then the Voice spoke to him again, clear and rife with power.

‘Pray earnestly.  Populate the Heavens until they glow warm’.  These were your simple instructions, human.  Why have you failed me?

The Practitioner gasped, dropped to his knees, raised shaking arms in a desperate gesture of pleading.  His heart was pounding through his skull.

“Spirit of shadow, we do pray earnestly.”  His voice felt small to him, insincere before this unknown presence.  “O vast one, do you not see?  The Guild of the Unpunished observes all prayer cycles, from the Four Orders of Devotion of each Ide, the Holy Days of Gifts and of Kneeling, the Tally of the Forty-Three, the Ancestors’ Return, the Lost Day on the threshold of which we stand today, when the Spirits walk among the suspended souls of mortals harvesting the fruit of our noble deeds.  We honor them all.  Zelien’s Mission, which we launch this waking day, is testament—through our traveling Nuncio we strive to unite all humans in true devotion.  It is Chicxulub’s holiest obligation.  Do you not see?”

I repeat.  What is wrong with the sky?

The impatient voice bore into the Jmen’s soul, twining about his mind like an anaconda tightening its grip on a capybara.  Zemactzil felt utterly inadequate, humiliated.  He was half-way up the sacred pyramid, not yet worthy to offer his supplication.  Though every bone in his body quavered like jelly, he stood and resumed his climb even as he grasped for a response.

“The sky is … is …”

Cold.

The word became all.  He felt it, lived it.  His blood ran thick with cold, and he shivered like a leaf.

I do not enjoy repeating myself, human. Answer me.

“Please.  Grant me the strength to … I beg you, Spirit of the sky …”

His prayers were fading into wordless desperation.  He had not the strength to speak.  He felt that if he could just reach the top of the pyramid he could properly obiesce toward this mysterious Spirit who was sending such dire omens.  He pleaded for forgiveness for his order.  It was a poorly concealed secret that many past Jmens had taken this duty lightly, had climbed a few steps up the east face of the pyramid, knelt toward the Guiding Stars of the North, spoken the ritual words, released the Cicadas from a pouch, and called it done.  Now he was paying the price for their indolence.

The spirit was waiting, like a school master tapping his foot before the desk of a recalcitrant student.  That student was Zemactzil, and he had not completed his assignment.  Still a hundred steps to the summit.  His chest felt like it was collapsing inward.  Pain speared up and down his left arm and shoulder, his breath came in little gasps.

“No … Please …”

Useless creature.  Weakling.

He was.  Zemactzil collapsed in a heap, his eyes filled with tears, his chest wracked with tightness and unbearable pain.  Dizziness was consuming his consciousness.

“Who are you, dark spirit?  From whence have you come?”

I am infinite.  I am your StrongMother.  Can you humans be salvaged?  Should I bother?

“We can be salvaged, O infinite StrongMother.  Make me your prophet.  I shall come down from the mountain and preach the holy word of your return … Our Nuncio will depart for the wide world carrying your urgent call for renewed devotion.  I will …”

The last phrase lingered on blue lips twitching with involuntary spasm.  His eyes wide, frozen toward the black intruder consuming the northern constellation, Jmen Zemactzil spoke no more, and as he died the StrongMother’s presence utterly abandoned him.

Prophet …  Hmmmm …

It is the way, Naja.  A seed sown and nurtured.

You urge patience, Kilkinney?  When all around us the death-wind shrieks?  No.  I will not … ooooh!


* * *


All content Copyright © 2015, P.J. Wetzel

Friday, January 9, 2015

Eden's Womb, Chapter 2 - Twilight's Shade


TWILIGHT'S SHADE

 Beneath the ice like moles or mice the tunnel-makers toil
To probe, to chip from glacier’s grip the fruits of once warm soil.



wenty miles to the south the blood-sky had turned bruise-purple and then faded to a gray of hurrying ghosts.  A fierce gale ripped at the cowl of Trilly’s scavenged wool cloak as she wielded her favorite stone axe on the best of the cordwood.  She hated the wind.  Though she was nearly thirty-five it still brought out childish fears—menacing whispers, demons creeping out of dark holes. Tonight, more than most, the wind-roar seemed an omen.  She sensed something prowling in the shadows—eyes watching and moving unseen.  Just twenty feet away, inside the wattle-and-daub hut of clan BrownEarth, Grandma Alie would be spinning a tale or singing the little ones to sleep, but she couldn’t hear it.  She was sure that if she had need to shout for help, the wind would smother the call, and lift it away, unheard except by the passing ghosts.

No, Trilly did not wish to be out here splitting logs.  But the hearth was down to a few coals and their simple round thatch-roofed shelter was a drafty place when the wind blew.  The clan would need more fuel to last the night.  So here she was among the wood-drying racks with her axe and her granite wedges and her pine-knot maul, hard at work, alone with the watching wind.

The men of clan BrownEarth, Scavengers by trade, spent their days freeing trees from beneath the glacier.  The nearest unharvested stands were some forty thousand-pace away down a network ancestral tunnels.  There they would trim logs to sled-length, and once each fortnight they made the trek home with their sleds piled high with gleanings: sappy greenwood of every size from great logs to sticks and twigs still holding their summer leaves and needles.  Scavengers also shaved the grasses from grazing fields, sometimes found wheat or barley tilled by ancient sinners.  They brought back animal carcasses if they were lucky, their dung if otherwise.   And they gleaned medicinal herbs and roots as well as household tools and wares from settlements abandoned at the time of Cleansing Storm two hundred eighty-eight Returns ago.  But wood was the Scavenger’s staple, and the tedious tasks of turning greenwood rails into seasoned furnace wood for the Citadel, and into hearthwood for the rabble—the drying, cutting, and splitting—that was women’s work.

With a grunt, Trilly hefted her heavy polished-granite axe and plunged it into the butt of a log.  Splinters flew, and the thick object yielded into two halves.  She split each of these again and let them fall to the rock-hard ground.  Reaching for a new log half her weight, she strained to lift it into the cradle of the splitting block.  She was rail-thin herself, but what flesh the Hunger had left her was all muscle and sinew.  Strong she was not, but like everyone in Saskatoone, Trilly Thaw-BrownEarth was possessed of an indomitable will to persevere, born of nearly Three Hundred Returns of defying the endless snows as the glacier grew around them.

The ice wall now loomed over the clan’s hold like a living force—two hundred feet high—impassive yet ever watching, ever alert.  You could almost feel its presence.  Was there a noise echoing off its face?  Shuffling feet?  Trilly’s heart pounded.  She lifted her cowl and searched the darkness, saw nothing but the swirl of wind-blown snow.  The twilight must be playing tricks with her mind.  She felt a chill in her blood as she returned to her task.  Her habitual grunt dissipated before it reached her ears as the axe came crashing down on the heavy new log.  It did not yield.  She felt the wooden haft recoil and crack, sending a jolt through her mittened hands and up her right arm.

Curses.  Should have used the wedges.  This log was too big to split with a single axe-blow.  The wind was distracting her—she wasn’t thinking clearly.  Too late now.  She activated the bioluminescent patch of skin on her high forehead, studied the broken tool in its light, and scowled.  The neck and helve were split down the middle and the head had come loose.  Well, it needed sharpening anyhow.  Sharpen it first thing in the morning, then after breaking fast she and Jo would fit a new handle.  They’d make a lesson of it for the children.

Her headlamp faded and the fingers of the night closed around her again as she tossed the broken implement toward where the grinding wheel lay buried under a snow drift.  That reminded her: the unruly wind was making yet more work for tomorrow—the yard would need to be cleared of the new accumulation, drifted down from up top where the endless flat expanse of snow stretched to the horizon in every direction.  Not long ago, in the fading light, she had noted Evvie TreatSoil struggling up the haul ramp with a sled overloaded with snow from her yard.

Women’s work.  It did not end.  Trilly grumbled as she hurried to gather up the wood already split.  Thank the Spirits for the Day of Gifts—their one holy day in seventeen, just two days away.  The men would return.  How she missed the warm bear-arms of her man-choice Siephus; and the holiday would give her a chance to have a heart-to-heart talk with Adam about Evvie.

My dear Adam.  He’s a man now too, with a future that my dreams fear to fathom.  But men were prone to acts of weakness—it was one the core lessons of humanity’s Long Sojourn.  None of Adam’s potential would fulfill without foundation from a woman of worth.  While at home for the sacred rest day her son must not rest.  She would encourage him to attend the first duty of a man come of age—to solicit listing on troth-rolls of some strong women.

She began rehearsing what she must say—her words safely muffled by the raging wind:  “Adam, that Evvie is a temptress, and you’re wise enough to know it.  Think of clan BrownEarth, not merely of a young man’s urges.  Think of the future the Gods may hold for you if you … if you ever choose a spirit-guided path.  But even if you do not, dear Adam, you will not want to dishonor the family when … when … your father’s sight …”

She paused, suddenly near tears. Would she dare broach this in front of Siephus?  His blindness was coming on so quickly that they hadn’t yet found time to discuss the inevitable.  Poor Siephus—still such a robust and proud man.  But lately he was stumbling over things …

She drew a resolute breath.  Yes, duty to the clan.  “… when your father can no longer work the tunnels,” that’s how she would put it, “Grandma will ask you to step up.  Even if you seek no higher calling, our clan will need you on strong foundation, Adam.  Pray on my words.  Go out and get yourself on troth-rolls.  Seek out girls who will support you through all the trials that may lie ahead, not just under warm blankets in the flush of your youth.  Go to Jenna FieldHand for one—a wisp of a girl, I know, and as quiet as Evvie is brash.  But stable as a rock.  Her clan is known for their probity—one of the few untouched by my mother’s …”

That wanton woman.  Trilly shuddered, casting aside the unwanted thoughts.  Hers was a name no one in Saskatoone now spoke.  And Evelyn’s grandfather Acob had been among the first to … one of the worst.  No.  Evvie must be stopped.  Jenna comes of age an Ide sooner.  Convince her to choose Adam and all Trilly’s worries would end.  She could start anticipating … grandchildren.

Grandchildren.  Where has the time gone?  Adam and Lissa, her special little gifts from Heaven, her firstborn twins, already past their Resolution—seventeen Returns-of-Green.  Yet Heaven never gives without taking.  Lissa was born a hopeless palsied cripple and poor Adam was so often distracted by his gift-curse—the rampant Spirit-Voices in his head—that he failed to interpret even the simplest unspoken cues from ordinary folk—Evvie’s lurid scheming, Jenna’s secretive, longing glances …

Trilly’s thoughts swirled with the ceaseless wind.  She did not see the moving shadow until it hovered over her, did not sense the outstretched arm until it clamped around her waist.  A second arm brought a hand over her mouth.  She tried to twist free and uttered a muffled scream.  The wood in her arms clattered to the ground.  Both sounds flew skyward and dissipated in the angry gale.

A male voice from out of long-suppressed memories eighteen Returns old growled in her ear, “What is your sin, First Mother.  This time you will come.  This time you will not refuse me.”

Revelstoke.  No!

 
* * *


All content Copyright © 2015, P.J. Wetzel

Monday, January 5, 2015

Eden's Womb - the epic saga begins. Preview for free.

A Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Adventure tale for your enjoyment.  Read it for free with no ads on the page and no strings attached but one: Please respect the copyright and do not reproduce it in any form.  E-books and print books are, or will be available.


 
Let this be peace: When foes increase o’er Armageddon’s wolds,
When hostile hordes transgress our borders, threatening our holds—

Comes ‘End-of-Days’, and hence we raise Sev’n Shepherds to our aid,
And, too, we send Eight Princely Men to wield the swift-drawn blade.
 
                                                                            —Micah 5:5, the Nevi’im,
                            Codices of the Nine Foundation Faiths, First Canon



That final hour when Heaven flowers and Six have come to fold
A lowly child from ice-bound wild the Sev’nth in hand shall hold:
 
Daughter of greenth—O seventeenth firstborn sustained in line—
Pray name thy King, that we may bring his pow’r to bear in time.
 
                                                                    —Song of the Hallowed One,
                                                                                 Epistle of DunCanon


TABLE OF CONTENTS:
 
(these will become hot links as they come on line)
 
BOOK ONE:  Return of Naja (begins below)
BOOK TWO:  Lonely Lessons
BOOK THREE:  The Copper Curse
BOOK FOUR:  Three Crosses
BOOK FIVE:  The Preserve
BOOK SIX:  Through Heaven's Gate
BOOK SEVEN:  The Eighth Day of Creation
GLOSSARY
 
* * *
 

BOOK ONE:  RETURN OF NAJA

 
 

 
Men knew me not.  Those fools forgot the Eye that opened first—
The Voice that spoke when Time awoke and Heaven’s water burst.

‘Midst raging void, ere dark destroyed, ‘twas I who stooped to nod,
Gave form to place o’er waters’ face … and made their precious God.
 
When worlds were new my garden grew in perfect timeless bliss.
Its fruits of life wrought man and wife.  On
her I laid my kiss.
 
To praise the good of Motherhood I taught her of the fruit;
But Good revealed leaves Sin unsealed, hence jealous thoughts took root.
 
God loved the man.  He hatched a plan to seize my universe:
So males could claim the pow’r and fame, he smote me with a curse.
 
Thus in men’s eyes my mortal guise now takes a serpent’s form,
Which sets the stage, this final age, for one most righteous Storm.


                                                                        —StrongMother Naja, demiurge,
                                                                                      “The Flame of Creation”,
                                               ‘Essential Elements’ from the ‘Core Narrative’
 
 
 

TABLE OF CONTENTS, BOOK ONE:
 
(these will become hot links as they come on line)
 
CHAPTER 1  (begins below)
 
 
 

 
THE GOADING
 
“O Chosen One, ye callow son, awake!” the Sibyl cries,
“From ice-bound womb, ere crack of doom, our Savior-King must rise.”


he tunnel veered to the right, sloping up through blue ice.  Adam BrownEarth gulped the bitter air as his sledge scraped around the narrow bend.  Up, up he chugged, thighs burning, vision dimming from lack of oxygen.  The Ancestor Voices were hawking some Sibyl-song, doing their damnedest to distract him—voices nobody else could hear.  Awake?  Chosen One?  Prattle.  He had no time for it.  He had a race to win.

The sharpened points of his three brown toenails clawed the slick floor as he strained against the hip-harness linking him to five hundred pounds of ice chips.  He was nearing the top.  He could see the orange glow of sunset ahead—a snatch of open sky.  Good.  He could turn off his headlamp, save a little energy.

“I got you, Sam.” Adam turned to taunt at his lifelong friend.  “Fourth time in a row, you pathetic hothouse flower.”

Sam’s huffing and wheezing sounded too close.  He was rounding the curve already, hauling another sled, identically loaded with tailings from the day’s tunneling.

The weights of their two sleds were supposed to match, and with his longer legs and greater experience Adam could usually out-pace the erstwhile Citadel gardener, only lately enlisted by the Keeper into scavenging work.  But as he glanced behind, he saw that Sam was closing the gap.

 “Woot!  Flower, huh? Better watch out for the thorns,” Sam chimed, forcing a grin through his scraggly whiskers.  “You’re doomed, Ads.  This time you’re doomed.”

Lissa had started them three counts apart down in the gallery—the vaulted gathering place at soil level where several narrow Scavengers’ tunnels converged.  It was a game they played every time tailings needed hauling up top.  If Sam managed to close the gap and grab the back of Adam’s sled before they reached the open sky, he could claim victory.  Unthinkable. Adam dug deep.  He would erase the pain from his mind in the same way that he dismissed the damn Voices when Lissa wasn’t there to help.  Force of will.  His legs pounded up the slope.

Doomed?

Adam tried to think of a glib retort, but he felt spent, dizzy.  Why?  True, he hadn’t eaten since breakfast.  His tunneling had produced nothing all day—not an ice-entombed mouse, not a single head of the ancient wheat, not even a scrawny three-hundred-Return-old flash-frozen grasshopper.  But there was more to this moment of mental fog—the Spirit Voices would not quit clanging in his skull.  They were driving him crazy.

Awake, O Chosen One.

“Oh, please,” he mumbled under his breath. “If you haven’t noticed, I’m not sleeping.”

Arise, ye King of Armies.

“Stupid,” this time he shouted.  “Why don’t you just shut up?”

“Oh, real clever, Ads,” Sam puffed.  He was dangerously close.  “Is that the best comeback you got?”

Oops.  They really were driving him crazy.

“That and another win,” Adam hurried to repair the faux-pas “… that’s what counts, big talker.”  And he still thought he could win.  He was so close to the surface now that he felt the wind curling down, tugging at his beaded, shoulder-length hair.  He could see the scintillations of sunset-light in the stream of passing crystals.  In a moment he would emerge to witness the old red orb plunging into a sea of shifting ground-blizzards.  The sky was alight with blood-fire, roaring in the Arctic gale.  But louder in his ears was Sam’s sudden cry.

“Think so? Gotcha!”

He felt a yank on his harness as Sam snagged the sled.  The Greenhouseman had caught the back brace of a runner.  Defeat.

Doomed.

Adam had his head turned in that moment, leering back toward Sam, so he didn’t notice the massive form looming over the opening of the airway—not until its shadow drew across him. Then he wheeled around, instant fear prickling every nerve.

“What the … An Ozyump?”

A rush of air thick with animal scent filled the tunnel.  An enormous orange-haired hand seized Adam about the torso with speed that defied vision.  Spears of pain encircled his rib cage.  His cry of alarm merged with the huge hominid’s roar—a deep bellow that shook the foundations of the glacier.

There was a flash of light as the setting sun wheeled past Adam’s eyes.  And then he saw that mouth, wide open, big enough to disembowel him in a single bite—purple lips dripping rancid drool, canine teeth as sharp as spears.  He saw the dull brown saucer-eyes full of avarice and gluttony, deep set in a leather-skinned bulbous head.  And streaming from that head he saw its thirty-foot-long mane of straight, coarse, straw-yellow hair waving like a banner in the wind.

Doomed.

And then he heard choirs, an anthem in his mind, a herald of trumpets.

You bastards.  The reaction hit him involuntarily.

A billion goddam Ancestor Spirits were celebrating.

 
* * *
 
All content Copyright © 2015, P.J. Wetzel