Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Strange Blood of Howard Welles, Part Three

The man who called himself Howard Welles was an unassuming man in a tattered suit that must have been elegant once, but it now looked like it had been lived in for sometime, dusted with dirt, fringed cuffs, and grungy shoes. His features were gaunt. More than gaunt, really. Sunken. Byron figured it had been a long time since this guy had a good meal, or at least more than a drink.  The man shook his head quickly. “No, no, it doesn’t matter; we don’t have the time for it now. We’ve got to light this place up, quick.”

Byron stepped forward and pointed with the gun. “Howard Welles is dead. Make time.”

Howard sighed. “You see a body? Exactly. Follow me. I’ve got some gas canisters in the car.”

“Not good enough.”

“Alright, alright.” Howard stopped, held out his arms. “Listen, I know you’ve got questions. I don’t know how many I can answer for you, but I’ll answer what I can. First, though, I’ve got to burn this place down. If you’re not going to help, then I need you to at least stay out of my way.” He smiled and pointed to the bodies. “Plus, I don’t figure you want to leave these two just sitting around, right?”

Byron couldn’t exactly disagree with that last part, so he finally nodded and put the gun away and gestured towards the door. They grabbed a couple canisters of gasoline from the back of Howard’s car, a dilapidated sedan that looked twenty years past its prime.

Howard asked, as he began dumping the gasoline over the filing cabinets first, “Who are you, anyway?”
Byron told him about being contacted by his wife, her deception and request to look into his murder.

Howard’s face fell as he heard it. “Yeah. That sounds like Virginia. I feel terrible about doing this to her, but it had to be done.”

When they were done, Byron took out his lighter and grabbed a handful of papers from the desk. He lit them and tossed them back into the warehouse. The fire streaked across the room with a roar like an angry lion and the speed of a lightning bolt. The intensity of the blaze shook Byron as he ran back towards his car. Byron almost wished there were windows to watch the fire dance from. It would have been an incredible sight, he was sure.

The man claiming to be Howard Welles was sitting in Byron’s car when Byron got back to it. Howard told him it would be better this way. They could talk while they drove. Howard had said he had a place they could be safe and talk.

“I haven’t seen anyone following us yet. That’s good. Take the next right and then get over two lanes. Yeah.” He gestured then shifted in his seat to look Howard full on. “Alright, ask away.”

“Who would be following us? And why did that sheriff want me dead? And why’d you fake your death?”

“Yeah, I figured you’d start there. Okay, okay, umm… Let me start from the beginning. How much do you… Never mind, I’ll assume you’re competent enough to know my background. All the money I made in my twenties has afforded me a particularly leisurely lifestyle. I was one of the few people born in this place to get out, but there’s a, well, it’s something like a magnetic pull, I guess. Even if you get away, you can’t stay away. I wasn’t even thirty yet, I was in love and newly married, and I was looking to settle down, and my wife Virginia had loved the stories I told her of the little place I grew up, and she knew that that’s where she wanted to go and raise a family (at the time we didn’t know she was barren, but that’s another story entirely). So, I came back home. Bought the big house on the hill, all of it. By thirty, my wife and I, we’d… well, we’d already settled into a routine like an old couple. It was nice, but I did miss the science, so I started to get back into the work. Mostly research. I had a small lab at the time. It wasn’t particularly large, but it kept me working.”

“What lab? It certainly wasn’t the junked up operating room you had in the warehouse, and I checked your financials. You didn’t have any other property on record.”

“No, no, that came later. Much later. I have a set up at my house. It’s a small facility set back in the garden. Didn’t my wife tell you about it?”

Byron shook his head. “No, she, uh, it seems she forgot to mention it.”

“Well, as I said, I was excited to get back into the research. I had enough money coming in to keep me from needing oversight or government grants, so I was free to get into the less practically applicable science and was just doing pure research into human genetics. Well, I started publishing a work in a few journals, and from there a man got in touch with me. Called himself Gideon Chambers. We started writing letters back and forth, discussing research. It was very, very exciting stuff. This guy was brilliant. I didn’t know where he was coming up with the stuff he was telling me, but he was advancing my research by leaps and bounds. With Gideon’s help, I was doing some really revolutionary work in the lab. I know that kind of thing gets bandied about a lot, but really, absolutely, change the world as we know it revolutionary. Cheating death revolutionary. Changing the course of nature revolutionary. It was… Well, it was very exciting.

“So exciting, in fact, that I never once stopped to ask myself where he was coming up with this stuff, nor did I realize that he was very subtly aiming the direction of my work. I thought we were just doing interesting work in the application of mutagens, but Gideon had an agenda in mind that I just couldn’t see. He was interested in fundamentally altering the human genome with the controlled application of mutagens”

“He what?”

Howard turned away as he searched for the right words. “A mutagen is any substance that causes mutations to occur in DNA above and beyond the natural rate of mutation. There is a lot of really good, solid work being done in the field to combat cancer cells. That’s the kind of work I started doing. I was attempting to breed cancer-resistant cell structure right into the DNA of mice. That’s the research that caught Gideon’s interest. Cancer-resistant mutations. Oh, oh, take a right at the light, and then take you’re first left. There’s a row of abandoned houses on the right. You’ll see one with a yellow fence. We’ll need to put the car in the garage to hide it. Damn thing is too conspicuous to leave on the street, even if nobody does come down this way.”

“Alright, okay, so, you’re working to fight cancer. I don’t really see what about that is leading to you faking your death.”

“I was interested in cancer. Gideon was interested in immortality.”

Byron started. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me. Gideon wanted to cure death. It took me a long time to realize that that’s where he had the work headed, but even knowing the work we’d been doing up to that point, I was still stunned by the revelation. It’s a pipe dream, or so I thought.”

“So you thought?”

“Yeah, so I thought. The reason I realized that Gideon was searching for immortality was because I finally caught on to the fact that Gideon wasn’t interested in studying the mutagenic effects we were coming up with, he was interested in finding a specific effect. Specifically, he wanted to be able to replicate a specific effect. That’s what got me scared.”

Byron found the yellow fence and pulled up the driveway, putting the car in park but leaving it running. He looked directly at Howard. “I’m sorry, I’m not following you.”

“Well, okay, it was like this. The applications, tools, processes we were coming up with together, I thought, were being carefully guided by Gideon’s mind. I caught on to the fact that he was looking to create a very specific DNA sequence that would produce a very specific combinations of proteins in the human body that would act like, well, that would basically turn your blood into the fountain of youth. Theoretically, the protein would not only halt the degeneration of cell tissue, but it would actually kick start growth like you were twenty all over again.”

“And you’re telling me you actually created this protein?”

“Not exactly. Come on inside with me. There’s still quite a bit more of the story to tell. The part where it gets really scary.”

Once they got the car in the garage and closed off, they went into the house proper and sat down at a card table Howard had set up in the dining room with some folding chairs. The building wasn’t wired for any electricity anymore so there wasn’t anything in the fridge, but Howard had some room temperature water bottles and he offered one to Byron. Byron hadn’t realized how thirsty he was until he saw the water bottle.

Having taken a long drink of water, Howard continued. “Okay, so, if I weren’t already stunned by the realization of what Gideon, and I with his help, were actually attempting to do, I was utterly shocked by the very simple fact that, if Gideon knew enough about the way this protein combination worked to be able to hunt for it with mutagens, then that meant he had come across it at some point, by some incredibly unlikely mutation in nature, and that he’d either lost it, or it was in such a state that he couldn’t replicate it synthetically, or there was something about the protein that caused the introduction of it into a foreign host which rendered it inoperable or deadly or whatever. For whatever reason, he needed to recreate the mutation and not the protein. That’s where I came in.

“Having realized this, of course, I confronted him about, as best as you can confront someone that you’ve never actually met in person or even spoke to on the phone, and in response all he sent me was a single vile of blood. No description, no information, no explanation. Just a single vile of blood. So, I brought it to my lab and I took a look at it. I’d never seen anything like it. I ran a few tests. In some ways the blood resembled normal human blood in the way that a distant, distant ancestor of yours might resemble you, but strange in a way that not only didn’t seem human, but didn’t seem, well, to have come from here at all.”

“What do you mean, from here?”

“From Earth. I’m not saying anything about where it came from, just that it did not appear to be the blood of any creature that would have evolved in an environment that existed anywhere on this planet.”

Byron put down his water bottle and gave him a hard look in the eye. “Let me get this straight. You’re telling me he sent you fucking alien blood?”

“All I’m willing to say is that it was like nothing I’d ever seen or heard of on the planet earth. That’s it. Whether it was a genetic mutation, a previously undiscovered species from the Amazon rainforest, an alien, or a monster from under the bed I can’t say. I never did find out where the blood came from. But I wanted to. My God, did I want to.

“I wrote back to Gideon about the blood with a thousand questions. He wouldn’t tell me much, didn’t want to meet, he just wanted me to continue my work, but at this point I was dealing with a whole new level of bizarre and even as excited as I was, I was curious now, too, about who, exactly, I was working with and where he got the vile of the queerest blood I’ve ever seen. I started making inquires at universities, institutions, conferences, checking journal publications, all the kinds of places where someone with the mind of Gideon Chambers was likely to end up, and not only did I never once find anyone who had met Gideon Chambers, I didn’t find anyone who’d ever even heard of him. As far as I could tell, the only person who’d ever come across the name Gideon Chambers was me. So, then I got really curious.

“I hired a private detective at this point. I gave him the letters I received from Gideon, some of the innocuous early ones, and the envelopes they came in, and the address where I had been mailing everything and asked him to find the man. I didn’t ask him to confront the man, or approach him in anyway, I just wanted to find out who this guy was, if Gideon Chambers was his real name, what his background was, etc… I just needed to find out how I was working with.

“It wasn’t long before the detective found the address I’d been mailing was a dummy address. No one lived there, no one had lived there in years, and no one who ever had lived there was named Gideon Chambers. He staked out the letter box, though, that was still getting the mail, and he called me one day to say he’d caught sight of a man checking the box for mail. He was going to follow him and find out what was what. Well, he did, and it turned out this guy checking the mailbox was nobody, a homeless guy who was to check that mailbox for mail, and if he found anything he was to forward it on to another address, and if he did this, every Friday he’d find a letter in that mailbox with some cash in it.

“The detective told me the address that he was forwarding the mail to was a PO Box here. In town.” Howard paused for effect.

“So, of course, now I’m not only curious, I’m a little bit scared. The detective comes to town, tells me he’s going to stake out the PO Box to find out who is picking up the mail from it there. That’s the last I ever hear from him. A week later, I see an obituary in the paper with his name on it. It said he’d died in a motel room fire down state. The paper said he had been smoking in bed and fell asleep. The bed caught fire, the room went up, and that was it. Only, it said he died on evening of the 8th, and I spoke to him in town that morning and I know he wasn’t staying at a motel downstate.

“This was about eight months ago. I got another letter from Gideon with veiled threats and admonishments to continue my work. This one did not have a stamp on it. It had simply been placed in my mailbox. I was having none of this, whatever it was. The next letter was slipped under my door within the hour. Not my front door, mind you. My bedroom door. I was scared shitless. I didn’t know what to do, so I went back to work.

“I started working heavily, far more heavily than before. The communication stopped being two-way. I would continue my research, and I’d get regular input from Gideon on the work I was doing. However he was doing it, he was keeping tabs on my research and findings. Close tabs. I moved out of my wife’s bedroom soon enough. I didn’t feel comfortable sleeping in there knowing I was being watched. I figured, at least this way, if Gideon decided he was done with me, he wouldn’t need to kill my wife at the same time, too. I never told her what was going on. She was upset, and I hated doing that to her, but it was best to just let her think it was something with her rather than put her in danger. But I guess she figured something out anyway.

Byron lit a cigarette and blew the smoke into Howard’s face. “Yeah, yeah. Everybody’s sad for your wife. Howard, but I’m getting a little fucking impatient here, buddy.”

“Okay, okay, six months ago, we made the breakthrough. Gideon told me that we needed to step up the work. He said we’d need a bigger space. I was to rent the warehouse space. There’s an old hospital a couple miles north of it, in an old part of town, the closed down a couple years ago. I’m guessing that’s where they got the stuff from. There sheriff and a couple of men I’d never seen before were already setting the place up when I got there. All there sheriff would tell me was he was working for Gideon. That there were a lot of people working for Gideon. And he was glad I was working for Gideon, too.”

Howard suddenly became very still. He stayed quiet and breathed deeply and hung his head in his hands. He didn’t even look up as he continued talking. “We, uh, we stopped doing research then. Started doing trials. It was… I don’t know where the people came from, but we mocked up some of the mutagen and tested it. Then we watched the reaction and went back to the lab and tested it again. Thirty-two patients. That’s, uh, that’s how many people we… I killed. Not one of those thirty-two survived more than a few days. It was,” and here Howard swallowed heavily, “it was horrific. But at that point it was work or die. I didn’t… I was afraid to die. Who isn’t? But then we got it right. And then I knew I was done.

“So, uh, you did it then? You cured death?” Byron tapped his cigarette ash directly onto the table.

“I thought we did. So did Gideon, because he had the sheriff put two in me when I stepped into the warehouse the day after I made confirmation. I didn’t fake my death, Mr. Grayce. They very much tried to make me dead. I guess it, uh, it just didn’t take. I’m not even sure how I survived. It’s an incredible fog for the next week. The next thing I can remember clearly, I’m hiding in the abandoned houses, dirty like a dog, and hungry. This was about a week ago. I’ve been hiding out since, trying to get my bearings. That man you saw on the table? He’s the last one we tested the mutagen on. With him, it seemed to take. He was going to be Gideon’s star. I was following him when he threatened you in your motel room. At the time, I had no idea who you were, but I knew who he was, and I knew I’d need him if I were going to be bargaining with Gideon. I’m the one who sliced him up on the table. That’s when I saw what our little protein miracle was really doing to him. If Gideon knew, he’d be pissed. But he doesn’t know, and I do, and now his boy is burned up with all the research I still had at that facility. For once, it seems I’ve got a bit of the upper hand on Gideon.”

“What’re you going to do now?”

“Me? I’m going to find Gideon. What are you going to do?”

Byron took a long moment. “I’m not sure. But two people have tried to kill me today. If you’re not lying to me, this Gideon is behind it. I don’t like people who try to kill me.”

 

-J. Augustus

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The Strange Blood of Howard Welles, Part Two

Before he went to the bank, Byron made a stop by the police station. The station looked every bit as passed on as the rest of the town. Faded, dilapidated wood. Dirty windows with cracked glass. Vague feelings of the rot of hard decadence.

The secretary behind the front desk watched Byron enter with a blank expression and dull eyes. She was wearing a formless grey blouse and had her hair in a bun. She didn’t say anything to Byron as he walked in.

Byron was conscious of the weight of the pistol in his coat pocket. He pulled his wallet out and from it pulled an identification card. He put it down in front of the secretary.

“Hello, miss. My name is Byron Grayce and I’m an insurance claims investigator for American Life. I’m looking into a large made on behalf of the late wife of Mr. Howard Welles, and I just need to take a look at the autopsy report to verify the cause and conditions of death.” He put all the charm he had into his smile and expression.

The secretary snuffed her nose and walked away.

Byron shrugged and looked around him, found a small bench to sit on, and took a seat to wait. He didn’t know what it was about this town, but the only person who looked like their dog hadn’t just died was the woman whose husband had just died. He’d be glad to get the hell out of this place as soon as he was done, but he had the sinking feeling that the man tied up in his tub suggested nothing was going to go quite like he intended.

A bear of a man walked back into the front office with the secretary. He towered over Byron by half a foot at least, and each leg looked as if it were built from the trunk of an oak tree. He strode with a confident menace, like a jungle cat on the hunt. His muscles were tightly wound and tense and he seemed ready to explode at any moment. The sheriff, judging by his uniform, planted himself directly in front of Byron and cracked his neck loudly without taking his hands out of his pockets.

The private investigator remained seating, though he had to crane his neck to keep the sheriff’s gaze.

“Sheila says you’re looking into a death in my town.” The sheriff’s voice was rough, less of a voice than a growl. “I don’t particular like outsider’s looking into town business.”

Then Byron stood and held out his hand. “Oh, no, no, sir. There’s definitely been some misunderstanding. My name is Byron Grayce. I’m here at the behest of American Life to verify the merits of a claim made by the wife of the late Mr. Howard Welles.” He smiled broadly, but the sheriff didn’t even glance down at his hand.

Clearing his throat and putting his hand down, he continued, “Hmm, yes, well, as I was saying to your receptionist, Sheila I believe, I would like to request a copy of the autopsy report on Mr. Welles simply to verify the allegations made in Mrs. Welles’ rather large claim.”

“Yeah,” the sheriff said, with a click of his tongue, “that’s what Sheila said you said.”

“Well, then, I’m… I’m not sure what the problem is, sheriff.”

“The problem is that we have a way that we like doing things here, and you ain’t exactly part of what we do here.”

“Well, sheriff, I’m not exactly looking to do anything here at all. I just need to verify the cause and condition of the man’s death.”

In the background, Sheila stood with her eyes cast downwards, waiting timidly behind the sheriff.

“Cardiac arrest,” the sheriff spat.

It was such a shock to hear an actual answer, that Byron didn’t register it at first. “Excuse me?”

“You ain’t much of an insurance agent if you don’t know what a heart attack is.”

“No, I know what one is. You’re saying Mr. Welles died of a heart attack? Where?”

At this, the sheriff made a swift move and grabbed his shirt and pulled him in close. “You’re starting to get on my nerves a little bit, boy.”

The charm dropped out of Byron’s face and a darkness fell over his eyes and countenance. It was such a sudden shift in demeanor that the sheriff took a half step back out of surprise. “Sheriff,” Byron said, “you’ll want to take your hands off my shirt.”

The surprise wasn’t enough to shake the sheriff’s confidence for more than a moment, and he quickly regained his dominant posture, but he did let go of the investigator’s shirt. “He was at work. Now get your ass out of my station before I throw it in a cell.”

Outside, Byron lit himself a cigarette and gave himself a moment. He turned back and found the sheriff gone, but the receptionist was still watching him with that empty look.

******

It took Byron longer than he thought it would to find the bank. The streets curved and wound heavily, not unlike the mountain path he’d taken on his way, and he found himself losing his way more often than not. No matter what street he took, it seemed to take him always away from the address he’d be given by the front desk of his motel, and he ended up in dark alleys or in front of dilapidated warehouses and store fronts. The private investigator had nearly given up on the directions he had when he made a turn to head back where he came from and found himself pulling up to the front entrance of the bank. He

Inside, he found himself in a wide, glamorous room, with long rows of velvet ropes leading to unmanned teller stations. Tall, white columns littered the lobby, detailed with ornate and esoteric designs that seemed to shift subtly before Byron’s eyes. A great lounge area sat off to the side of the entryway, filled with crimson couches thick with padding and coffee tables covered in magazines. It was the lobby meant for a bank that sees a thousand persons an hour and it was completely empty except for one blank faced teller, idly flipping through a magazine she had clearly read before.

Byron wound himself through the path of velvet rope and stepped up to the teller, who didn’t look up until he spoke. He was in a bad enough mood and didn’t bother with the charm. “I need to speak with someone in charge here.” The teller looked at him and then looked back down to the magazine.

Byron slammed his hand down onto the table in front of her. “Hey. Manager. Now.”

Behind him, a voice. “May I help you, sir?”

Byron spun quickly, surprised by the unexpected voice. He hadn’t seen anyone else in the lobby, hadn’t heard anyone enter. Behind him was a small, middle aged man with thin hair and a receding hairline. He wore an expensive looking suit that did not fit him well, as though his arms and neck had shrunk, and a pair of glasses resting on the bridge of his nose. The old banker’s expression belied a mild curiosity and an unflappable calm.

“Jesus, you snuck up quick.”

“Yes, sir. I’ve been told that I do that, sir. How may I help you?”

Byron stuck his hand out. “My name is Byron—”

The man nodded. “Grayce, yes. You are an insurance fraud investigator verifying a claim made by Mrs. Virginia Welles in regards to the death of her husband.”

“I guess information travels fast in a small town like this.”

“Yes,” the banker said. “It does, Mr. Grayce.”

“Well, in that case, Mr… I’m sorry; I don’t believe I caught your name.”

“Anderson.”

“Well, Mr. Anderson, I was hoping there was somewhere we could talk in private.”

Mr. Anderson nodded again and gestured for Byron to follow him. Mr. Anderson took him to a large, luxuriously but not ostentatiously decorated office, one that mimicked the grandeur of the front lobby. The desk was wide and dark, but it was empty of anything that might be considered personal. There were no pictures of family, no baubles or awards or anything at all but a small computer, some pens, and a paperweight. The walls were similarly bare of anything but a Monet print that Byron was fairly certain Mr. Anderson did not choose himself.

“May I offer you a drink, Mr. Grayce?”

“Whiskey, if you have it.”

Mr. Anderson walked over to a small cabinet and pulled out two glasses and a bottle of scotch. He poured them each a drink and served it without ice.

Sitting now behind his desk, Mr. Anderson’s affect had lost all evidence of interest, but he breathed deeply and said, “Now, Mr. Grayce. If you please. How may I assist you?”

Byron leaned forward. “Well, Mr. Anderson, as you know, I’m just doing a mandatory investigation into the claim Mrs. Welles has filed with us at American Life upon the death of her husband. During that investigation, I’ve discovered something of an irregularity in Howard Welles’ finances. Namely, Mr. Welles’ had begun logging a monthly withdrawal of 1100 dollars on the first of every month for the past five months. However, other than being logged in his personal finances as a withdrawal, all other evidence, cashed checks, receipts, bank records, is missing from the files. There is no marking for what it was for, simply a notation for a withdrawal of 1100 dollars. I’m trying to figure out what he was using the money for. I’m hoping you can help me.”

“May I please see your credentials, Mr. Grayce?”

Byron pulled them out of his wallet and handed them over. He’d had them made by a former friend in the police department who’d gone on to be an investigator for American Life and who had owed Byron a rather large favor, so Byron was not concerned with them not passing any sort of inspection shy of directly contacting American Life.

The banker took them and looked them over rather thoroughly, and then began looking something up on his computer. After a moment, he turned back to Byron. “Yes, well, unfortunately, for access to those particular records, I will need a signed and notarized document allowing you access to them from Mrs. Welles which has not been filed with us yet. Do you have such a document?”

Byron Grayce did not. “Absolutely, yes, umm, I have one on me somewhere. Is it not…” Byron grabbed for the document he had handed Mr. Anderson and, in doing so, knocked over the glass of scotch in front of the banker and spilled it into his lap.

The banker finally showed a great deal of energy and sprung to his feet. He swore and stormed out of the room, running towards the nearest bathroom.

As Mr. Anderson did this, Byron quickly hopped behind the desk, and took a look at the computer monitor. There was nothing on the screen about the finances or account of Mr. and Mrs. Welles, but it was logged in, so Byron quickly found the search function and pulled up the appropriate account. He quickly scanned through the records of the previous months, and found that the withdrawals were checks written on the first of the month to Sunset Realty. Byron quickly exited out back to the main screen and left.

He heard Mr. Anderson calling for him as he walked out of the lobby.

******

            Information gave him the listing for Sunset Realty. He was surprised to find that the company was based much farther upstate and had no presence in town. Probably for this reason, he found them much more helpful over the phone. He gave them his line about the insurance investigation and then gave him an address, which is all they really had anyway. The address was not too far from his motel, thankfully. He made a second call to Mrs. Welles but she wasn’t available. He left a message with the butler to have her call him when she had a chance.

The address turned out to be a warehouse in an area even more rundown than the rest of the town, as if the inevitable creep of decay had claimed this place for itself and for no other. Looking at the graffiti blasted, emptied husks of buildings, Byron could tell what this whole town would eventually become, rotted from the inside out like a corpse.

He did a once around the building, his shoes crunching over gravel and broken glass, but it was just a large, decayed warehouse, marked and marred, with broken and boarded up windows set up high on the wall, a small dock for trucks to drop off goods with a  metal roll-up padlocked into the concrete. The whole place smelled of piss and body order and rot, and Byron found a trash bin where homeless had been burning fires for heat.

The only entrance beyond the dock was a small door next to the dock and when Byron took a look at it, he found it forced open. The gun was in his hand before he thought to put it there. He nudged the door open with his foot, and slunk inside.

What he found inside sent a chill through his bones.

The inside of the warehouse was set up like some kind of laboratory, cobbled together from bits and pieces of equipment that had faded long from glory. Rusted operating tables and medical equipment setup in what was a mockery of a hospital room. The over head lights were turned on, and the bright glare simply made the equipment more hideous. There were large banks of computer equipment and a series of monitors. Filing cabinets, like the ones in Mr. Welles’ office, but these were filled with paperwork, the files were stacked high on the tops of the cabinets, on the monitors, on the computer equipment. The only place there weren’t any files stacked up was on the operating table. On that was an eviscerated body.

The blood, as Byron could see, was everywhere. The man had been killed here, on the table. The damage to the body was too extensive for Byron to tell what it was that finally put him down, but the head was left clean, just for Byron, so that he could see that it was the man he’d left in his bathtub. The face was a picture of pure agony. It put a horror deep into Byron’s chest to see it. He breathed deep and stared at the body for a lot longer than he thought he had, but not very long indeed. Behind him he heard a voice.

“It’s shit like this is why I don’t like outsiders.”

Byron spun to see the sheriff standing in the doorway with his weapon drawn. It was a huge revolver. Byron thought the thing looked like it weighed two pounds from where he was standing. He didn’t bother raising his own pistol but he certainly didn’t drop it.

“It ain’t much, but I’m gonna need you to drop that piece, boy.”

Byron shook his head. “Nope. Don’t like the way I’m being played here, sheriff.”

The two of them didn’t speak, they just stared each other down for what seemed like all the time in the world. Byron felt beads of sweat roll down his forehead.

The sheriff nodded, finally. “Well, alright then.”

The sheriff’s gun went off in his hand. The sound was like thunder. It filled the room completely. Byron dove, though it looked like he didn’t need to, because the shot went wide. It crashed into one of the file cabinets and ripped through it like it wasn’t there. Byron swore and returned fire. His own weapon sounded like a cap gun in comparison, but his aim was considerably better, even from the ground. The first round strike the door right next to the sheriff’s head, and the second would have plugged him into the chest if he hadn’t already been moving.

The sheriff fired again, and again the shot went wide, and Byron figured his weapon was more for show than it was an actual gunfight, and firing it from the hip just made matters worse for the sheriff. Byron was already on his feet and moving, plinking shots carefully at the sheriff, but despite the size of his frame, the sheriff moved as swiftly as a hawk and where ever Byron fired, that’s where the sheriff wasn’t anymore.

Byron crouched behind the cover of the file cabinets, hoping more to hide from the sheriff’s sight than to lessen the power of the slug. He checked his own clip. Two more rounds. He’d have to make them count.

The sheriff bellowed, “You ought never have come to our town, boy.”

Byron looked around him for anything he could use. There were some blades on the ground, scalpels and a bone saw, but Byron didn’t trust his own strength against that beast of a man, even if he could get close enough. He knew the sheriff would snap his back like a twig. Byron spotted a mirror, though, and grabbed for it. He held it around the edge of the cabinets and tried to find where the sheriff was. He caught sight of him just in time to see a middle aged blonde man slit his throat with what looked to be one of those selfsame scalpels that Byron had disregarded.

“He’s dead,” the man said. “You can stand up now.”

Byron stood, cautiously, and kept his gun trained on the man in the lab coat.

“Who the fuck are you?”

“Me,” the man said, incredulous, “I’m Howard Welles and this is my lab. Who are you?”

-J. Augustus

 


The Strange Blood of Howard Welles, Part One

The town had a name that he couldn’t remember if he’d just read it, but Byron remembered the look of it, set in the deep valley between ragged, ominous mountains capped with snow and looming terribly in whatever direction you looked. The town looked forgotten, not empty like a ghost town but frozen in a time long past as if it were in a snow globe, tiny and picaresque at a distance, but always meant to be separated from the rest of the world. The only road that led there was long and it wound itself about the mountains so thoroughly that it became hard to keep your sense of direction, as if your compass pointed nowhere at all.

You knew you were nearing the town because the asphalt disappeared, simply faded into a dirt road, though the path was still clear, as if the asphalt layers and simply decided that this was simply as far as they were prepared to go. The town itself had cobblestone streets and small, cottage homes with wrought iron fences and flower gardens that seemed uniformly overgrown, with reds that seemed so much like blood they were vicious and greens and browns that never sent less than a feeling of uncleanliness running over your flesh.

The town streets were narrow, no more than a car and a bicycle could ride comfortably side by side, but they were always empty so it didn’t matter. The people of this little town with a forgotten name walked everywhere, shuffling, slightly hunched, head always down so they never met eye-to-eye. They never spoke in public, did not exchange quiet pleasantries, did no more than grunt in acknowledgement if two men met each others gaze by accident or happened to brush shoulders.

In the privacy of their homes, perhaps they waxed loquacious on philosophy and art, perhaps the shared, furtively, the local gossip that spreads like plague over small towns else, perhaps they all sat in silence still, never meeting each others gaze, even as they ate dinner, as they celebrated holidays, as they made love, but Byron was never given the chance to experience much of their private life, so he could only imagine the silence.

Byron remembers, as he approached the town, the way the sun seemed to disappear behind the mountains and the clouds grew thick and heavy and grey, though it never rained while he was there. They just hung in the sky so that from dawn until dusk it was impossible to tell what time it was, exactly or approximately, and stranger still, Byron never saw a single clock. Not a wrist watch or a pocket watch or a clock on the wall or the swinging pendulum of a grandfather clock, chiming out the hours. The only mark of the passage of an hour was the bell in the tower of the church that rang once on the hour every hour all day long, and thrice at noon and midnight. It rang twelve times to mark the beginning of their worship service. Attendance appeared mandatory.

Byron read the letter he had received again as he approached the town. He held it in his fingers, flat against the center of his steering wheel, glancing between it and the road in front of him. Because of this, he was startled when the asphalt disappeared and the road turn to dirt and the tiny, two-door roadster he was so very proud of began bouncing wildly on the suddenly uneven earth. The letter was from one Virginia Welles, wife of Howard Welles, apparently something of a patriarch of the town, who had died recently of a heart-attack, leaving his affairs in a bit of a mess.

The letter stated that the newly widowed Mrs. Welles wanted someone to look into a matter of personal interest to the family, the letter implied the existence of an illegitimate child, someone not connected to the town or the people therein for reasons of privacy. How she had gotten his mailing address Byron didn’t know. His business was generally conducted in person or over the phone, and yet three days prior he had discovered a handwritten letter, in very precise script, deposited in his mailbox between a sheaf of advertisements and coupons and the electric bill. The letter asked him to come in person at his earliest convenience. He would have written the whole thing off, had it not included a check for a sizeable retainer. The electric bill did need to be paid.

The letter also included fairly specific directions to the homeof Mrs. Howard Welles. It was on these directions that Byron focused.

Byron tossed the letter down on to the passenger seat and depressed the cigarette lighter in his dash. According to the letter, he didn’t have much farther to go. A restless anxiety had already set over him during the long drive and he was looking forward to getting out and stretching his legs.

The cigarette lighter popped up and he propped a cigarette into his mouth and pressed the lighter to the end and inhaled the acrid smoke. Byron had picked up the habit of smoking harsh, unfiltered cigarettes he purchased from an angry, Russian immigrant who ran a small stand near his apartment.

The letter was right. Byron hadn’t yet finished his cigarette before he arrived at the home of Virginia Welles.

Towering over the nearby cottages, the manor that the late Mr. Welles lived in was something of a miniature castle, walls of cyclopean stonework with vines creeping up from all sides, wrought-iron spires and stained glass windows depicting horrifying images of souls burning in the inferno, a sense of menace and foreboding permeating the unkempt grounds.

Byron parked his vehicle in front of the large gate and walked through, finding the gate rusted, unlocked, and ajar. His heavy boots crunched the dead leaves the littered the cracked stone walkway, weeds having pushed through from below, stretched to the sky, dried up and died long before Byron had arrived. The entire building smelled mildly of moss and decay. He tossed his cigarette butt to the ground and stamped it out quickly, grinding it to the stone, for fear of setting off a fire.

There was a door-knocker made of thick iron waiting for him against the arched doors. The knocker was a ring held in the mouth of a lion, but Byron felt there was something odd when he first saw this knocker, and he couldn’t quite place it until much later, deciding that the lion, rather than looking fearsome, looked terrified, it’s mouth open not in a roar but in an exclamation of surprise and horror, as if it had seen some predator approaching that it could not comprehend. Byron knocked the ring against the metal plate three times and heard the sound fall flat against his ears, lacking any echo at all.

Soon enough, a small, wiry figure in an old-fashioned butler’s uniform appeared at the door, slightly crooked with age and with deep lines running all about his blank expression. The butler said nothing, merely stared at the man at the door.

Byron presented his card. “Byron Grayce here to see Mrs. Virginia Welles. My presence was requested.”

The butler looked once at the card and nodded but did not take it. He began shuffling away without a word, but he left the door open, so Byron took this as a cue, replaced his card in his wallet, and followed the aging butler into the house, shutting the large door behind him with a loud creek that Byron had not noticed when the door had been opened, and the door shut with a thud that Byron could feel in his chest.

******

“It is good to see you, Mr. Grayce. I was beginning to feel some concern that my letter had not reached you or that you had chosen not to come.”

When he first saw her, Byron was struck with the idea that she had been a silent movie star. Virginia Welles walked about with an exaggerated grace and did not stand still but pose, like a living statue in a flowing, sequined gown that would have appeared more appropriate in a ballroom than the bedroom she actually stood in. When she spoke, her hands gesticulate with unnecessary, full body movement, as though what she said didn’t matter nearly as much as how she made herself understood. As far as Byron could see, she did not have any trouble making herself understood. Byron was simply following the curves.

“Yes, well, Mrs. Welles, I nearly didn’t come. I don’t generally make house-calls, and if it were for your rather generous retainer, I very likely would have thrown your letter away. As it stands, here I am.”

“Yes,” she said, and her voice was husky and dark, “here you are.”

The stood in silence for a few moments, watching each other with hawks eyes and coiled tension filling the room. Byron coughed, finally, to break the silence. Something felt off.

“Well, Mrs. Welles, perhaps we can get down to business? What exactly do you want me to do?”

She smiled, Byron imagined that it was intended to be sweet but didn’t feel any sweetness coming off of it, and she stepped over to the desk in the middle of the room and she flicked on a small desk lamp and she grabbed a manila envelope and she gestured for Byron to take it but made no move to approach him. As he took it from her hand, she said, “My husband was murdered. I want you to find out why.”

If Mrs. Welles meant for this to shock the private investigator, Byron was having none of it. His features registered no change. He calmly took a seat in front of the desk, in a densely-cushioned, red-leather chair, and opened the envelope he had been handed.

“That is not what your letter implied you were concerned with, Mrs. Welles.”

She took her own seat behind the desk. “Yes, I do apologize for the deception, Mr. Grayce. May I call you Byron?”

“Let’s just keep it to Mr. Grayce for now, Mrs. Welles. I do not like being lied to.”

Her eyes flashed at this, but quickly reverted to her attempt at sweetness and joviality. She bent her head forward obsequiously. “Certainly, certainly, Mr. Grayce. I sincerely apologize again. It was a necessary deception, though. I am uncertain who I can trust in this wretched little town, only that I certainly can’t trust the authorities, and I could not put anything in the letter of my suspicions for fear of the letter being read by others.”

Byron said nothing, just continued flipping through the papers in his hands. They consisted of a series of medical reports and biographical information on the life of Howard Welles.

Virginia continued, undaunted by Byron’s silence, “And so I made intimations in my letter of an illegitimate heir I wished to keep hushed up, something not altogether unlikely considering the life my husband lead, in the hopes that in your investigations, you can fall back on that story as the lie you are covering up. I am desperate to keep my suspicions quiet until I have the information with which to combat them.”

“Them?”

“Yes. Them. Though I don’t know who they are.”

Finally, Byron looked up from the papers in his hand. “Let me make sure I’m clear on this. You lied to me about why I’m here. Then you tell me I’m to look into a murder, the very suspicion of which you feel threatens your life, because of some shadowy cabal that you believe exists and which murdered your husband for some unknown reason.”

She sighed, quietly. “‘Shadowy cabal’ were your words.”

“But I got the gist of it, yeah?”

“Yes, Mr. Grayce. You covered the salient points. Should I assume that you are not interested in the position?”

“No, I never said that Mrs. Welles. But you will need to get your checkbook out. And I will need to know everything you know. And no more fucking lies, Mrs. Welles. Are we clear?”

She smiled then, and for the first time Byron believed it. Money was something she understood well. “Yes, Mr. Grayce. Perfectly clear.”

******

She knew surprisingly little, considering how widely her suspicions seemed to run. The only worthwhile information she gave him was that her husband had been working on something in secret, at least from her, and in the past few weeks had become increasingly furtive in his habits. She assumed that his death and something to do with what he was working on. She assumed whatever he was working on was valuable. Money, Byron figured, was as good a reason as any to kill, so he started there, in the late Mr. Welles’ office.

The office itself was fairly large, but sparsely furnished, and what was there did not match the grandeur of the rest of the estate. Byron decided that Mr. Welles had not been the one to pick the furniture in the rest of the house. There was an oak desk, big and heavy but without ornamentation. A leather chair sat behind it, tall backed and deeply cushioned. Behind the chair was a wall of metal filing cabinets. No paintings adorned the other walls, and the sliding glass door leading into what should have been a backyard garden had no curtains.

It didn’t take long to search. There wasn’t anything to find.

Mr. Welles’ office was immaculate, which wasn’t out of accord with the rest of the manor, but Byron had the sense that it was cleaner than it should be. The keys on the keyboard at the desk appeared to have been cleaned individually. The file cabinets were locked, appropriately, but when he opened them with the key Mrs. Welles had given him he found them to contain nothing of interest at all. Old tax forms and receipts, bank statements and paid bills and accounting ledgers of the household finances. The records were meticulous, though, and went back more than a decade, but there was nothing to show that Howard Welles had been doing any kind of work at all. At least not in his office. And the cabinets were marked where Byron had touched them, small smudged fingerprints on the metal, and no where else.

The private investigator muttered to himself under his breath in the middle of the room, looking around him, trying to take in the whole room at once. He couldn’t decide if the room had been professionally ransacked and cleaned, or if his employer’s suspicions were leading him to see evidence in the lack of evidence. Byron went back to the filing cabinet and pulled out the financial records from the previous two years, bound them with a large rubber-band he found in the desk. The bundle was at least eight-inches thick. Byron sighed. Scouring finances was a tedious task and he hated it.

Leaving the office with the papers in hand, he found the aging butler waiting for him. Saying nothing, the nearly decrepit old man turned and began walking away. Byron took his cue once more and followed the old man. He was led to a small guest room, near the office, as far from the master suite as one could get in the home. Inside, he found signs that a man had been staying there. A book on the night stand. Newly changed sheets. Suits and shirts hung in the closet and shoes on the floor.

“Do the Welles’ have a boarder that I should know about?”

The butler said nothing.

Byron nodded. So, Mr. Welles had been sleeping separate from his wife, and by the look of the room, it had been that way for quite some time at least. An idle thought wandered towards Mrs. Welles and why she didn’t think to mention this, but it was quickly killed by the greater truth that Byron did not trust her at all, so wouldn’t have listened to her anyway.

Turning back to the butler, Byron said, “Thank you. Now, I’ll need a hotel room. Would you direct me?”

******

Byron poured himself another drink from the mini-bar. Expense accounts were one of the few joys of working in his field. The ice clinked against the sides of the glass as he dropped three cubes into the coffee mug, the only cup he could find, and stirred the whiskey and ice together with his finger to cool the drink. He took it back to the bed where he had spread out the financial records of his client’s late husband.

His client’s financials were like clockwork constructions, with little to no deviation from month to month. Fifty-five dollars in groceries every Wednesday. Two hundred dollars every other Sunday to their church, some such order. For two years, every Friday evening the couple had gone to the same restaurant and ordered the same meal, right up until two days before Howard Welles had died. Byron couldn’t imagine a more boring life.

Five months ago, though, Howard Welles had begun making a cash withdrawal on the first of the month for 1100 dollars. Byron was willing to bet that this was also right about the time that Mr. Welles had moved his things from the master bedroom. Byron tossed back the rest of his drink.

He picked up the phone in his room and called the front desk. He asked the attendant for the address to the bank as well as the police station. The attendant told him to hold on in an impatient tone and then rattled off two addresses in quick succession when he returned, not bothering to even say which was which. While Byron scribbled them down quickly onto a pad of paper, the attendant hung up before Byron could say anything else.

Looking at his watch, Byron noticed that it was nearly midnight. The time had slipped away from him. He moved the papers to the desk next to the bed, the degraded wooden desk too small to be useful to anyone, even to sit at and eat the presumably disgusting continental breakfast the motel offered, and tossed his pants over the back of the cheap desk chair. He didn’t bother getting under the covers of the bed, just passed out on his stomach atop them.

Byron immediately sensed that there was something wrong when he woke up. He used to be a fairly light sleeper, but he’d taken increasingly to drink since he’d left the police force many years prior, and find himself following more often in a restless black slumber like that one he had just crawled himself out of. He blinked wildly, the dull morning light blanketing his head through the open window curtains. It took him longer than it should have to realize that he had not opened the curtains the night before. He silently cursed himself and slowly sat up in bed. Across the room from him was a tall man with a gun pointed in his direction. The tall man was watching him with a bemused smirk.

The tall man wore an elegantly cut three-piece suit that looked about thirty-years too late to be fashionable, and a matching grey fedora held at a rakish tilt. He would have looked handsome threatening Humphrey Bogart on film, but he had dark, menacing eyes that betrayed a vicious characteristic inherent in his soul and his bemused smirk was the smirk of a mountain lion watching a rabbit try to put up a fight. Byron hadn’t gotten a clear look at the gun, but he hadn’t seen a silencer, so didn’t figure that the tall man in the grey suit was intending on killing him just yet.

Byron threw his legs over the side of the bed, with his back to the window, and put his head in his hands. “Who the fuck are you,” he questioned with a growl.

The tall man’s voice had the tenor of a car salesman, slick and slimy all at once. “A concerned citizen of our fair little town. What did the widow Welles want from you?”

The lie came easily enough to Byron. “She wants her insurance check. I’m a claims investigator with American Life, Inc. Any claim with a value greater than a million dollars has to be verified by me or one of my colleagues.”

The tall man laughed. The sound was like spiders crawling on Byron’s skin. “Let’s pretend I believe that, buddy. Got any proof?”

Byron nodded towards his suit jacket. “My papers are in there. Mind if I put my pants on first?”

When the tall man nodded, Byron grabbed his pants off the back of the desk chair with his left hand and with his right grabbed the chair and flung it with all his strength at the tall man in the grey suit with the gun. The room was too small for the tall man to have any time to get out of the way. He just threw up his arms as the cheap wood chair shattered against him, and then he cried out in pain as Byron’s shoulder slammed into his stomach knocking him to the ground. The tall man wasn’t an amateur, though, and almost as the two of them hit the ground the tall man struck Byron in the head with the butt of his gun.

The blow wasn’t strong enough to knock Byron out, but it gave him a bit of a shock, and he rolled out of the way of the second blow. Byron grabbed a leg of the broken chair and struck out at the tall man’s outstretched hand beginning to take aim with the gun. The wooden leg caught the tall man on the top of the wrist and he dropped the gun. Byron, an experienced scrapper, had scrambled on top of the man and struck him twice more in the head with the wooden leg before it broke again. The tall man shoved him off and scrambled to his feet.

Byron kicked the gun away as the tall man reached for it and then took a kick to the shoulder. He rolled with the impact of the blow and grabbed the bed and pulled himself to the feet. The tall man was moving for the gun again and he’d turned his back to Byron to grab at it. Byron leapt on his back and pinched the tall man’s throat between his forearms and began applying a fierce pressure. The tall man struggled in vain as his air was cut off. Byron let up as he felt the tall man go limp under him and quickly grabbed the gun. Byron struck the tall man a massive blow to the back of the head with the butt of the pistol.

When the tall man stirred awake again, he found himself expertly tied up with rope and duct tape and lying down on his side in the bath tub. Byron slapped him on the cheek a couple of times lightly.

“Found this stuff in a bag you must have brought with you. Thanks for that. Came in handy.”

All the amusement had left the now battered face of the tall man, but the man didn’t say anything.

Byron continued. “Couldn’t find any ID on you. Didn’t find anything on you, actually. You’ve even got the tags on your suit cut out, spook-style. Did find a hood, a car battery and some cables in the bag with the rope and the duct tape, though. Looks like you had some plans for me, huh?” Byron waited. “No, nothing to say? Didn’t think so. Luckily for you, I don’t really have a stomach for torture. I’ll have to keep you here, of course, for the moment at least. You understand.”

Byron ripped off some duct tape from the roll and slapped it over the tall man’s mouth. Then he slipped the black hood he’d found over the tall man’s head. Byron stood up and shut the door to the bathroom. He grabbed his suit jacket off the chair and slipped into it. He put the tall man’s pistol in his jacket pocket and picked up the pad of paper with the addresses on it. He hung a Do Not Disturb sign on the motel room door as he left.

-J. Augustus


A Place of Honor, Part Three

“A Place of Honor” concludes tonight! Thank you for reading this past week, and stay tuned for more information about what’s to come next!

There was nothing to be done. The strange men outnumbered them two to one and they were all armed. They entered the building with a practiced efficiency, watching out for each other, keeping their blades at the ready, and moving to the corners of each room to ensure that they couldn’t be surprised. They forced the five to their knees, all the while shouting at them. “Where are they? Where are the others? Talk, Ab Fari!”

The one who had identified himself as Mykail searched the room carefully, opened their bags and examined their contents one by one. His movements were deliberate, and when he was done searching their effects, he stood over the five and stared down at them in judgment. Finally, he grabbed Ko-Ta by the front of his arm and pulled him to his feet. He spoke to him in a harsh tongue, the words sticking in his throat and incomprehensible to Chana’s ears.

Ko-Ta stared back in silence for a moment before spitting into Mykail’s face. “I don’t speak that language, dog.”

Mykail threw Ko-Ta to the ground and wiped his face with his forearm. He turned to his men and said, “They’re not Ab Fari.”

“But the horses!” they said. “What are they doing here? How can we be certain? Look at them, they’re savages!”

“We are not savages!” Chana said. She moved to stand before one of the men behind her pushed her back to her knees.

“This is a misunderstanding,” Tiris said, his voice calm. “Whoever these Ab Fari you’re looking for may be, we know nothing about them.”

“And who are you, then?” Mykail said to Tiris.

“We’ve come from the north.”

“How far?”

“Eight days’ ride.”

“They’re lying! Why would they come so far?”

“A good question,” Mykail said. “Satisfy our curiosity.”

Chana and Ko-Ta looked at each other, at Wa-Vi and Ander. They were silent, uncertain of how much to reveal to this stranger and his companions, uncertain of how to even explain themselves. “Tiris guided us here,” Chana said, nodding towards the old man.

“This blind man?”

“The gods send him visions,” Ko-Ta said. There was a moment of silence as the weight of his words sank into the minds of the gathered men. They burst into laughter. Even Mykail smiled at this.

“Do they now? What kind of visions do your gods send you, Grandfather?”

“Secrets, secrets buried in the mountains to the east. Buried beneath stone and metal. The creations of the Old Ones moldering under the desert sun.” The men laughed some more upon hearing this, but Mykail’s face set itself into a frown, his eyes narrowed to slits.

“Which of you is in charge here?”

“I am,” Chana said. Ko-Ta said nothing, and she was grateful that he didn’t challenge her.

Mykail got down on one knee and looked her in the eyes, his face cold and pitiless and mere inches from her own. “I strongly suggest that you tell me exactly what has brought you to the Moha.”

* * *

The sun was rising behind the mountains to the east by the time Chana and the others convinced Mykail of their innocence.

“Forgive us,” he said. “You must understand, the Ab Fari are dangerous madmen. They think they’re fighting some kind of holy war against us, although we only just encountered them a few years ago. They’ve been known to ride horses, and when our patrol brought us here and we found your animals… Well, you see why we reacted the way we did.”

“It is a strange, dangerous world,” Chana said. Mykail nodded his head in agreement. “What now?”

Mykail shook his head. “We can’t allow you to go east. My people have protected our land for longer than any can even remember, and we cannot allow you access for any reason.”

“So the tomb is there,” Tiris said. Mykail glared at him, a gesture that went unnoticed.

“I can’t speak to that.”

“Why not?” Ko-Ta asked.

“My people,” Mykail began, choosing his words very carefully, “have defended this land for generations. We are all descended from men and women who swore their lives to protect its people.”

“The Wastelands, you mean?”

“No, not the Moha. Well, not just the Moha. All of it. Everything. From horizon to horizon and beyond.”

“What people? The Old Ones must have built the road we followed here, the ruins we found, but we had seen no sign of any other living person until we reached this town,” Chana said.

“It is the principle of the thing.”

“Why won’t you let us accompany you back to your home?” Ko-Ta asked. “By your own words, are we not also your people?”

Mykail frowned. “This isn’t a matter open to discussion. Our ancestors lived and worked in… in a place of honor. You simply are not allowed there.”

There was nothing more to be said. Under the eyes and the escort of Mykail and his men, the five gathered their things, loaded their bags on their horses, and began heading north.

* * *

Fifteen strong, the group followed the Old Ones’ road back towards the Great Lake. They marched in silence through the valley, the hills standing in mute judgment of their failure. Chana wondered what she would tell her people, how a group of men dressed in the tattered garments of their long dead ancestors had stopped them. She looked to Ko-Ta and imagined from the frustrated look on his face that he was thinking many of the same thoughts.

Mykail forced them to walk their horses so that they would not be able to outpace the Usair. They’d walked no more than an hour when Mykail raised a single hand into the air, signaling for them all to stop. He turned and whispered to his men, gesticulating towards the horizon. They turned and looked at the five strangers, then back at the horizon.

“What is it?” Chana asked.

“There, on the hilltop.” A figure stood motionless on the western horizon, clad from head to toe in tattered white robes. The figure, whoever it was, was unarmed and alone.

“Ab Fari,” someone said behind her. There was hatred in his voice, fear, disgust.

“What is he doing up there?”

“She lied to us! The bitch lied to us!”

“It’s a trap! It was all a trap!”

One of the men raised his spear, pointed it at Chana’s throat, his lips fixed in a snarl and anger burning hot in his eyes. Ander moved forward to wrest the shaft from his hands. More spearheads appeared before him. Wa-Vi stole a blade from one of the Usair’s belts and held it against the man’s throat. Tiris stepped backwards, away from the fracas. Ko-Ta put himself between Chana and the spearheads.

Mykail screamed. “Compose yourselves, damn you! You are Usair! Act like it!”
An arrow struck the ground ten feet away from the group, its head buried in the parched deset earth, its shaft quivering like it possessed a secret it could barely contain.

As one they looked to the east and saw the men in white robes standing there. A dozen of them, perhaps more, armed with bows, with jagged weapons whose polished metal edges shined in the desert sun. One of their number stepped forward and spoke.

“Tremble, Usair! The Ancients themselves have decreed that we test the hubris of any who would seek to control the Moha! You five, you sivvi! We have no quarrel with you and no succor to offer! Run for your lives, and let the desert make of you what it will!”

“Go,” Mykail said. No one made a move. Even his own men were uncertain of what he meant. He looked over his shoulder at Chana and the others, his face set in determination, in acceptance. “Go!” he shouted. They did not need to be told again. They ran to their horses, mounted them, and began racing north.

“Men! Ready your weapons!” The Usair sprang into action, presented a unified front to the Ab Fari, a wall of spears for them to charge down the hill into. “The creed, men! The creed!”

“We are Usair! We will never leave a man behind, we will never falter, and we will not fail!”

Both sides charged, screaming as they ran. Chana did not look behind, but the harsh grating of metal against metal, the guttural and harsh shouts of the Ab Fari, the vows of the Usair, the screams and cries of the dying were all she could hear.

* * *

They rode north for only a short while, each of them looking over their shoulders and expecting to see the white robes of the Ab Fari behind them, when Tiris spoke.

“I can hear it calling to me. The tomb. Even now, we are closer than we’ve ever been. We went too far last night. The Usair were going to lead us back past it before they were attacked.”

There was silence as the group considered Tiris’s words. “We have come so far,” Ko-Ta said. “We owe it to ourselves to investigate, don’t we?”

“And what if the Ab Fari return? Or if the Usair find us, for that matter?” Wa-Vi asked. Ander murmured in assent.

“No,” Tiris said. “They won’t. No one has been to the tomb since the time of the Harrowing.”

“Why not?” Chana asked. But she received no response. Tiris simply turned his horse to the east and began riding in that direction. The others watched as he began to leave them. They fell in behind him.

They wound their way through the canyons and valleys of the mountain range, Tiris leading them along a road that seemed to be carved into the earth itself. In time, they saw something that gave them pause. A forest of stone burst into existence before them, the stone the same light color that the Old Ones had used in their cities. But where the cities had been deliberate, built with lines and angles, the forest was like a rose bush gone mad. Stone stalks burst forth from the ground, from the sides of other stalks, each coming to a sharp point or a jagged edge.

“What is this madness?” Ander asked.

“A trial, perhaps, to separate the worthy from the rest,” Ko-Ta offered, his voice softer than usual, his statement almost a question, as if he did not believe the idea himself.

“Or a trap,” Chana muttered.

“Perhaps it’s meant to frighten away intruders,” Wa-Vi said. “It certainly looks… unnatural.”

The horses would not enter the broken forest. At Tiris’s insistence, they tied them to suitable projections and proceeded on foot.

They marched through the stone thorns at a ponderous pace, scrambling over branches and sidling through gaps in the stone. The stones seemed to reflect the heat of the desert back at them, and it was exhausting to climb them just to advance. They did not complain, though; Tiris’s silent stoicism drove them onwards, each of them endlessly speculating to themselves about what secrets lay at the dark heart of these unnatural woods.

Without warning, the broken forest ended and they stood in a great clearing. They saw now that the forest formed a circle around this place, and at its center stood a black monolith with an great doorway carved into its face. The stone sat flat and squat against against the ground, twice as tall as a man and impossibly wide. A hundred feet? More? How had the Old Ones dragged this stone here? And why?

“This is it,” Tiris said, his voice barely a whisper. The others turned to look at him, found him stepping back from the monolith, as if his words had conjured some monster he couldn’t control. “The tomb is within. I am certain of it.”

As one they approached the monolith, felt the heat radiate from its polished black surface. As they drew closer, they saw that the stone was covered in writing, letters and words and all manner of strange shapes they didn’t recognize carved into its surface in precise, orderly lines.

Ko-Ta pointed at the bits of the carving he recognized. “That is the language of the Old Ones, but what is the rest of this?”

“Perhaps the Old Ones had many languages,” Chana said. The thought had never occurred to her before, that the Old Ones may have been so numerous, so disparate, that they spoke more languages than she could ever hope to understand. Perhaps they could not even understand each other.

“Can you read it?” Ko-Ta asked, shaking her from her thoughts. She looked at the writing closely, tried to pick out words and phrases she recognized from those that had been worn away by sand and time. She cursed in her mind as she slowly realized that she understood far less of the message than she would have liked.

THIS PLACE… PAY ATTENTION TO IT!

…WE …A POWERFUL CULTURE

THIS PLACE IS NOT… HIGHLY ESTEEMED DEED… HERE…VALUED IS HERE

…THIS …WARNING ABOUT…

…DANGER… CENTER. …DANGER IS HERE… US

…DANGER …IN YOUR …IN OURS

…DANGER …BODY …KILL

…DANGER IS…

…DANGER …DISTURB THIS PLACE…

Ander snorted and turned to Chana. “Surely the Old Ones put this here merely to scare away the superstitious. What do we do, my lady?”

Ko-Ta turned to look at her as well. She could feel his eyes upon her, watching her face for any indication of what she was thinking, but she focused instead on the monolith, its black surface like the night sky without any stars, the heat it captured almost unbearable. She was uneasy. She was uneasy and she was curious, and in the end, there was only one thing she could do.

“We enter,” Chana said. “We can do no less.”

They stood a moment longer, none of them taking the first step towards the doorway with its steps leading into the cold earth. But with a deep breath that she held, she walked forward. The others followed.

* * *

What they found inside the tomb amazed them: it was nearly as bright there, a hundred steps below the surface of the desert, as it was outside. Lights burned overhead, illuminated the darkness of the crypt almost perfectly. “By the Seven, what sorcery of the Old Ones allows this?” Ko-Ta whispered. The message from above was inscribed on every wall, and a great door emblazoned with the image of a skull stood halfway open before them. They looked at each other.

“It’s a tomb,” Ko-Ta finally said. “What else should we have expected?”

They pressed onward, found the next room just as well-lit as the last, although far less interesting as it was nothing more than a long hallway that stretched to another gigantic door.

Beyond that door lay a great cavern, lit from above as the others, but full of stone and metal markers of all shapes and sizes. They were covered in writing, dates that had no meaning, words they couldn’t understand.

“Are these graves?” Ko-Ta asked. “Are these the Fields of the Dead?”

They moved through the spaces between the markers, ran their hands over the thick stone, the cold metal. Wa-Vi became interested in a metal cylinder that came up to his stomach, rapped on it with his knuckles, sought a way to open it.

“This isn’t a memorial,” Tiris said suddenly. His words were choked, and when the others looked at him, they saw that he was shaking. “This is… this is a prison. We must leave. Now.”

“What have the gods shown you, Tiris?” Ko-Ta asked.

“Death. Death surrounds us. Death by slow, agonizing inches. By the Seven, we must leave! This place is cursed! These mountains are cursed!”

The men looked around, their eyes searching for signs of the curse Tiris spoke of. Chana reached out and set her hand on the old man’s shoulder. “Uncle, you must calm yourself. We will leave shortly.”

He shook his head. “I will not spend another moment in this place.” He put his arms around her and pulled her close. “Please, Child. Do not linger.” With that, he turned to leave. As he exited the room, Wa-Vi laughed.

“Look!” he said. “I’ve got this cask opened, and… why, there’s nothing in here but trash!” Chana turned to look at him and saw him turning a chunk of stone over in his hands, a look of annoyance on his face. “Do you suppose that all of these casks are full of trash like this one? In the All-Father’s name, what was wrong with the Old Ones that they built a tomb in the middle of the Wastelands to house a lot of broken rocks?”

“Put it down, Wa-Vi,” Ko-Ta said. “You heard the old man. This place is cursed, and none of us needs to contend with spirits angered because we disturbed their rocks.”

“What nonsense. I’m taking this with me. We might as well have something to show for this trip besides our stories and our saddle sores.” He slipped the stone into his satchel. Ko-Ta grunted his disapproval but said no more.

Chana looked around the vast and empty room. They had traveled so far, endangered their lives to get here, and the Old Ones’ secrets amounted to little more than a room full of dross. Perhaps there was more to it than that. Perhaps if she were a smarter woman, if she were an older woman with more experience in the ways of the world she would understand why this structure had been built, why so much of the Old Ones’ time and energy had been devoted to building a tomb to no one. But she was not.

“There is nothing here,” she said. “This is a dead place with nothing to offer the living. Let us leave.”

* * *

“I am sorry,” Tiris said as they mounted their horses. “These visions the Seven send me… sometimes I think the gods don’t offer blessings but only curses.”

Chana put her hand on the old man’s shoulder and smiled at him. “Don’t fret, Uncle. We are none of us the worse for the wear.”

“And besides,” Ko-Ta said with a laugh. “We have a fantastic story to tell over honeywine when we return if nothing else.”

“What secrets do you suppose the Old Ones saw fit to bury here, Uncle? Do you suppose the Usair had pillaged this place of anything of value, or that their ancestors did?”

Tiris shook his head. “I don’t even want to think about such things. Let the Old Ones and the Usair and the Ab Fari and all of their nonsense dry up and fade away like everything else in this accursed land.”

“You are in terrible spirits, old man,” Ko-Ta said. He clapped Tiris on the back, knocked him off balance for a moment in his saddle. “Won’t you cheer up?”

“The things I saw in there… I fear I will never sleep well again.”

“We have hours of daylight still, and much lost time to make up. You’ll sleep fine after a hard day’s ride.”

“We are fine, Uncle. We cannot carry the curse with us. And perhaps your visions were mistaken! After all, you spoke of a death back in Northlake, and that has not come to pass.”

“A death? What death?” Ko-Ta asked.

Chana looked over her shoulders at Ko-Ta and grinned at him. “Nothing, nothing.”

Hours later, when the five were making their camp, Wa-Vi retired early, complaining that the day’s ride had left his stomach unsettled. He shunned their attempts at comfort even when he disappeared behind some rocks and retched. The others sat around the fire, saying little and thinking only of their homes, of the family and friends that awaited them. As the fire slowly died and Chana sat and considered putting more tinder on it, Ko-Ta said to her, “I will open the Fields of the Dead to your people.”

She shook her head. “Don’t worry about it, Ko-Ta.”

“I’m not worried about it; I am trying to be generous.”

She turned to him and smiled. “I appreciate that, truly. But I had been thinking about this while we rode, and I’ve decided to let the dead there rest. There is no shortage of land around the Great Lake that is beautiful and verdant. Let us make our own place of honor for our tribes, rather than trying to lay alongside the Old Ones.”

Ko-Ta smiled, moved a bit closer to Chana. “A place of honor for our people?”

Chana returned the smile, kissed Ko-Ta on the cheek, and moved a bit further away from him. “A place of honor for our peoples, Ko-Ta. Two peoples. For now.”

Ko-Ta laughed, shook his head. “You are an impossible woman, Chana.”

“For now.”

They sat in silence and listened to the sounds of the desert night. Tiris’ snoring, Ander murmuring in his sleep, Wa-Vi coughing. Again they retired to their separate tents, and that night, Chana dreamed of clear waters, of verdant forests, of homes that rose above the ruins of the Old Ones.

– Thomas


A Place of Honor, Part Two

“A Place of Honor” continues with part two! Be here on Friday for the conclusion!

That evening, Chana and Tiris dined with Ko-Ta and his men in her home. After being driven from Southlake, her father had claimed one of the Old One’s ancient and crumbling edifices as his own. Though the building was not as badly decayed as those around it, it had still taken months of work before he was satisfied with it. Upon its completion, the front door opened to the east to face the rising sun, a covered porch faced west to watch the sunset, and a path lead down to the shore, where her father would often stand in the shadows of the redwood trees and the granite peaks and look to the south.

It was here, as she watched the clear blue waves of the Great Lake beat against the rocks, that Tiris told Chana about his meditations on his visions. “There are secrets buried in the mountains, Child.”

“Of course, Uncle. Father always said that the mountains have as many tales as they do hearts beating within them.”

The old man shook his head. “No, not these mountains. South, far south, in the Wastelands. The Old Ones hid their secrets where they knew no one would look for them.”

Chana arched an eyebrow, the honeywine they had been drinking all throughout dinner leaving her skeptical of the seer’s words. “Why, Uncle?”

“To hide it away from their enemies. They kept great power there. They experimented on it and they refined it, and what they could not control, they buried.”

“They buried it… You’re speaking of the tomb you saw, then?”

Tiris nodded. “I can see it more clearly, now. Buried beneath a great mountain, a holy place, a sacred place.”

“A place of honor,” Chana said softly. She considered this for a moment before turning her attention back to Tiris. “What do we gain by going to this place, Uncle? Do the Wastelands truly hold anything of value to us?”

“There is much of value in the Wastelands, Child. I see secrets that even the Old Ones themselves did not know. Technology from before the Harrowing of the Seven. Trinkets that every tribe that surrounds us would give anything to own. I see… I see…” He frowned. “Weapons…”

Chana was just about to speak when a hand, strong and firm, set upon her shoulder. She jumped, startled, and quickly turned around to face the unknown person. She threw a blow with her right hand that hit the man in the center of his torso and sent him stumbling backwards and coughing.

When she saw who it was, her fear turned to anger. “Damn you, Ko-Ta! Do you always intrude on private conversations?”

Ko-Ta opened his mouth to respond, coughed some, and tried again. “Do you always attack without first asking any questions?”

Chana blushed slightly. “My father raised me to be strong. I will not apologize for it. And besides, I am not the one skulking about in the dark!”

“I was simply looking for you to ask if you would join me in my quarters, that we might discuss our covenant in private.” Tiris chuckled.

“Hush, Uncle!” Chana snapped. The old man ceased laughing, but his smile remained. She turned back to Ko-Ta and said to him, “That discussion can wait for the morning, I think.”

He coughed once more and nodded. “Of course. Merely a thought.” He turned to leave but stopped before going too far. “Chana, this is just another thought, but if you were planning on making a trip to the Wastelands, perhaps you could use some horses.”

Chana’s eyes narrowed. “How much did you hear?”

Ko-Ta grinned. “Enough to know that you’ll need horses for your trip unless you want to take an entire season to get there and back.”

“What makes you think that–”

“Enough to know that there’s something worth searching for in the Wastelands.”

Chana stared at Ko-Ta with a cold fury. If she could have put an arrow through his throat simply by looking at him, she would have done so in an instant. “What do you want, Ko-Ta?”

“To help, Chana. I want you to trust me, to believe that I want to be your friend and not your enemy. Let me provide you with horses. Let me accompany you. And when you return with whatever treasure the Old Ones hid beneath the sand, let me help present it to both our tribes as a sign of all that we can accomplish together.”

“Such nobility.”

Ko-Ta shrugged. “If you prefer, my men and I can return to Southlake alone. Within a day’s time, we will be on horseback and headed into the Wastelands to find whatever there is to be found.”

“You don’t know where you’re going or what you’re looking for.”

“No, we don’t. But even so, we could be there and back again before you make it there on foot.”

For many long and silent seconds, the two stared at each other. Finally, Ko-Ta spoke, holding her gaze unblinkingly as he did so. “It’s difficult being the leader of your people, isn’t it? To be as young as we are, and to be in charge of so many lives. I do not even have a family, Chana; I have only ever lead my people on hunts, and a warrior is not a father is not a chieftain. This is an opportunity for both of us, no? To show our people that not only can we put aside our differences, but that we can even work together to accomplish something unheard of? That holds no appeal to you at all?”

“We can discuss this in the morning, Ko-Ta. That is all I will say on the subject tonight.”

“Very well. Good night, Chana. The Seven keep you.” Ko-Ta turned to walk back up the path that lead to Chana’s home, the building he and his men were staying in being a ways down the road.

Tiris waited until Ko-Ta was out of earshot before he shook his head and smiled. “To be that young and confident again… I would trade all of the Seven’s gifts to be a young man with a sharp pair of eyes.”

“He is arrogant,” Chana said. “It will betray him yet.”

“Of course it will. But with a man like that, it will never betray him so badly he cannot recover.” Tiris took a deep breath, exhaled it with a sigh. “The hour is late, Child. It’s time I return to my home and prepare for sleep.” He turned to leave, and Chana watched him for a few moments before summoning the will to speak and stop him.

“Uncle, wait,” she said softly. “Your visions… What of the death?”

Tiris did not turn to face her. He stood still for a moment, his head tilted ever so slightly up, as if he were straining to hear a distant voice speaking to him. He shook his head. “I don’t know, Child. Not yet.”

* * *

Their discussion the next morning surprised Chana with how smoothly it went. Tiris had to come if they were to have any hope of finding the tomb and returning before the summer sun made exploration too hot. Tiris would not ride during the night, and he expected a long rest at midday; his bones were too old for this nonsense. Ko-Ta would bring one of his most trusted men, Wa-Vi, with him. Chana would bring one of hers, Ander. An elder from each tribe would go to live with the other and help guide the tribe’s affairs, the planting and the harvesting, if the trip took that long; they would be killed if anything happened to the other tribe’s leader. Whatever artifacts they returned with would be brought before the elders of both tribes and equally distributed in public, for the betterment of all.

“There is one more thing,” Chana said. “I want access to the Fields of the Dead.”

“Of course. Our tribesmen will be free to move back and forth as they please.”

“No, Ko-Ta. I want to be able to bury our honored dead there.”

Ko-Ta examined her face for a moment, sat back in his seat and crossed his arms. “The Fields of the Dead are in our lands, Chana.”

“And those lands used to be ours, Ko-Ta.”

“And they are not any longer. I thought we were trying to move on from the past, to put the pettiness of our fathers behind us.”

Chana stood up and leaned forward over the table they sat at. “My father was not petty.”

Ko-Ta arched an eyebrow, said nothing in the face of her calm but forceful statement. Slowly, he smiled. “I suppose that I am amenable to the idea. It will require discussion with the elders of my people, of course, but I will see what I can do.” He stood up himself and folded his arms across his chest. “But that it is all I will promise you for now.”

Chana stared at him, her face as set as stone, her green eyes locked unflinchingly on his own dark brown ones. “Then I suppose it will have to do. For now.”

* * *

The five of them set forth from Northlake the next day after making the necessary preparations. Chana appointed the elders she wanted to lead in her absence, she went to Ander’s home to speak with him and apologize to his wife for taking him away for so long. She said the necessary prayers at the altar of the Seven, told her people she would return before the harvest and that when she did, a new chapter in their tribe’s history would begin. And with that they set forth in Ko-Ta’s craft across the Great Lake just to do all of it again with his people.

They rode east the first day, following the remnants of one of the great roads the Old Ones had laid down. It seemed as if the road would take them towards the lands of other tribes, the Buree’s, the Sonite’s, the Ran, but Tiris insisted that they stay near to the mountains. “We must stay in lands where we can hunt and slake our thirst for as long as possible,” he insisted. “We will need all of the supplies we can muster for the Wastelands. This coupled with the fact that only Ko-Ta and Wa-Vi were used to spending any great length of time on horseback slowed them down. Still, Chana had to admit that they were traveling at least twice as fast as they could have managed on foot. Ko-Ta was quick to remind them of this whenever Tiris complained about his bones being too old to be perched atop a smelly beast. “And how would your bones fare walking up and down these mountains with a pack on your back and nothing to support you but your walking stick, hm?” Ander and Wa-Vi both laughed at this, and even Chana chuckled softly.

They camped the first night in a valley, the great mountains and trees of their homes bringing an early end to the day as the sun sank behind them. They gathered wood for a cooking fire and set the horses to graze and set up their tents. After dinner, they passed around a skin of honeywine and the men got to boasting of their hunting prowess. Wa-Vi, a bit drunker than the others, turned to Chana and asked, “Tell me, do you have any tales to share with us, or is that not how one measures the worth of a leader in Northlake?” Ander bristled at this, turned to Ko-Ta and muttered, “Control your dog, Southlaker.”

“I do have a tale,” Chana said before the men could turn on each other. “Not of a hunt, but of a fish I once speared when they were making their runs. As long as your arm, it was, and as thick around as your thigh!”

“Impossible!” the men said. “No fish so large has ever lived in the Great Lake! And if you speared it, what became of it?”

“It freed itself,” Chana said. “So furious was it that it snapped my spear with its writhing and swam away,” and so on, embellishing the tale and adding details until the skin had been emptied and they all began to go to sleep. Soon, only she and Ko-Ta still sat around the dwindling fire.

“You did not catch such a fish,” he said. It was a statement, not a question, but he was smiling as he said it.

“Of course I did,” Chana said, returning his smile.

“I’ll never believe that.”

She shrugged. “You don’t have to.” They sat in silence for a bit watching the fire. Neither of them made a move to add another log. “You know, my father once told me something that has stayed in my mind all my life. He said to me, ‘Chana, all men are liars, but hunters are the worst of all. But the best hunter is not the one with the sharpest eye or the quickest hands; he is the one who knows that the liar who stays awake the longest wins.’”

Ko-Ta laughed. Neither of them spoke until Ko-Ta said Chana’s name softly.

“Hm?”

“It is… somewhat sad, isn’t it? That your land is yours and my land is mine?”

Chana chuckled to herself. “I think the honeywine’s gone to your head, Ko-Ta.”

“No, no, hear me. Isn’t it sad that our peoples are not friends? There was a time generations ago when they were, however briefly.”

Chana shrugged. “Things change, Ko-Ta. Sometimes they change for the better. Is that not why we’re out here? To change things for the better?”

Ko-Ta nodded. “True. Imagine, though. Imagine if it were not your people and my people, but our people.” He turned to face Chana, studied the shadows that the fire cast on her face. She felt his gaze upon her, felt his eyes bringing a heat to her cheeks stronger even than the warmth of the fire. “Not your land and my land, but our land. Or the Fields of the Dead. Imagine if it were not your family or my family resting there, but our family, Chana.”

She said nothing for many long minutes, but she did not make any move to get up and retire to her tent either. In time, Ko-Ta turned his gaze back to the fire, little more than burning embers now. When she spoke, he nearly jumped. “That is a conversation for when we return, Ko-Ta. I don’t think it will do us any good to discuss… to discuss change in the Wastelands. They are dry, dead lands. Not a fitting place for such a conversation.”

Ko-Ta nodded. The fire died and they each went to their separate tents.

* * *

It amazed Chana to see the landscape change so drastically as they wound their way south along the Old One’s roads. The great trees of their homeland vanished, replaced by smaller trees, and then shrubs, and then vast swaths of nothing at all. The sun beat down upon them mercilessly, as hot as the hottest summer day in Northlake, but without the succor of shade or the cool waters of the Great Lake. And when the night came, it became impossibly cold, the fires they started meager things fueled by dried plants hardly worth mentioning. And sometimes amidst the sand and dust they would find a spot where a river broke through the ground, the land around its banks verdant in comparison to the rest of the Wastelands. Unlike the rest of the Wastelands, they found the ruins of the Old One’s settlements in these places, stone walls, metal debris, wood baked tough and grey by the desert sun. When they came upon these oases, they would rest for hours at a time, the unspoken fear that they would not come across another until it were too late to turn back racing through all of their minds. But somehow they always did. “There will be water if the gods will it,” Tiris said. “And thus far, they have been generous.”

And so they went on, for seven days and seven nights until at last they came upon the ruins of a small town that sat in the shadow of a great mountain. A river flowed through it, and it was soon clear to the group that others had been there within recent memory. The buildings that were not crumbling into the desert sands were littered with the detritus of human activity, the singed bones of animals, ashes, footprints in the dust. Some of the buildings were patchwork, pieces torn from those that had already fallen to prop up those that were more whole. “We will stay here tonight,” Tiris said to the group. “In fact, we may stay here as long as we please.”

“And why is that?” Ko-Ta asked.

“Because the tomb is but a half a day’s ride that way,” the old man answered, his finger pointing at the mountain.

They decided to stay within one of the buildings, protected from the night’s chill and the day’s unrelenting sun by its walls. Another skin of honeywine was produced, and, perhaps because they felt more secure knowing that their goal was within reach, the group gathered in a circle around the fire and set about trying to frighten each other. They told tales and jumped at each other and they laughed as often as they cursed at each other. Wa-Vi and Ander, in particular, seemed to enjoy tormenting each other.

“You won’t scare me,” Wa-Vi said. “There is nothing born of woman that I fear.”

“There is nothing I fear, either,” Ander said. “Save my wife.”

“Hah! And what of you, old man?”

Tiris shook his head, said with uncharacteristic solemness, “I only fear the things I have seen.” The circle stared at him, tried to decide if he was pronouncing doom on their entire venture, when he burst into laughter. “I am blind, you fools! It was a joke!”

Ko-Ta turned to Chana, a grin on his face.“Tell me, you don’t fear sleeping out in the wilds with a group of men for company?”

“Why? Do you?” The circle fell to laughing, and Chana could swear that she saw Ko-Ta’s complexion turn a shade darker in the firelight. He looked away as Wa-Vi and Ander set to teasing him and he didn’t bring it up again before they all retired to their bedrolls.

* * *

Chana awoke to a hand over her mouth.

Her eyes went wide, the form of her attacker looming over her, his features obscured by shadow. “Don’t speak,” he said, his voice a whisper so soft she could barely hear it. “Listen to me, Chana.”

It was Ko-Ta’s voice.

She bit him as hard as she could even as she freed her arm from underneath her blanket and swung a fist at where she believed his temple to be. Her fist connected with the side of his face, but he made no sound other than a soft grunt. “Wait,” he hissed. “Wait! Listen to me!”

“Get back, Ko-Ta,” Chana said, intentionally projecting her voice for the others to hear. “Get back now, before I stick you with a blade.”

“No!” Ko-Ta shouted. “Damnation, listen! We’re not alone! We’re surrounded!”

Chana couldn’t see his face, but she saw the shape of his head looking around, as if trying to see a shape in the darkness beyond the building’s crumbling walls, as if trying to hear some faint sound. He was agitated, nervous. She had never seen him nervous before. Her own anger ebbed, began to be replaced by fear. “What in the name of the All-Father are you talking about?” The others began to stir, muttered to themselves and asked what was going on.

“I woke up to relieve myself,” Ko-Ta said, his eyes still scanning the darkness. “I saw a light in one of the other buildings, heard men’s voices, but only for a moment.”

“And they mean us harm? How can you know?”

“Because the light was extinguished within seconds of me noticing it. Because the voices did not speak after that.”

“My lady,” Tiris said, his voice still groggy and slurred by sleep. “He is right. My dreams, I saw warriors in my dreams.”

“We need to leave,” Chana said after a second’s hesitation. “Now.” The circle got to gathering their things as quickly and as quietly as they could, but before even that could be completed, a circle of flames burst into existence, surrounding the building from all sides. The light illuminated men holding torches, each grim-faced and dust-covered, knives and spears in their free hands. Their clothes were tattered, patchwork, mottled grey and green and tan. A voice shouted at them, booming from the darkness. One of them stood taller and more confident than the others, and his voice echoed off the walls of the town.

“Intruders! I am Mykail of the Usair! Surrender to me now or face death!”

– Thomas


A Place of Honor, Part One

Our first post! This is part one of a three part story. The next installments will be posted on Wednesday and Friday.

To say that Tiris was staring at Chana would be inaccurate; in giving him the gift of prophecy, the gods had seen fit to take his eyes from him. There was nothing behind the bandages that covered his sunken, empty eye sockets that could see her alabaster skin, her dark brown hair, or the worried expression that marred her otherwise fair face.

Still, it could be said that he was watching her as she entered his spartan tent, the few belongings he owned kept to the edges while he sat in the center. Whether by virtue of his finely tuned hearing or by the powers the gods had granted him, he tracked her every step, even fixed his countenance on where he knew her face to be. “Thank you for coming, my lady.”

Chana frowned. Tiris had known her since she was born, had been her father’s own advisor. Whatever her tribe thought of him, be he blessed or cursed, she saw him as family. The old man only ever addressed her as “my lady” when some dire thing had been revealed to him in one of his visions. “What have you seen, Uncle? Your servants told me that you awoke with a start, that you said your vision had been a matter of life and death.”

A flicker of a smile played across Tiris’s face, the corners of his mouth moving up ever so slightly and lifting his greying beard with them. “Nothing, my lady. I have seen nothing.” Chana groaned. The joke was always the same, and she mentally scolded herself for not having phrased her question more carefully. Tiris chuckled to himself and went on, “But, the gods have been whispering things to me in my dreams recently.” His smile disappeared. “Many, many things.”

“You look troubled, Uncle. What have the Seven shown you?”

“Ko-Ta of Southlake will be paying you a visit soon.”

“Oh, wonderful. It’s always such a treat when the son of the enemy decides to venture across the Great Lake and spend time with us.”

“I can hear your sneer in your voice, my lady. You mustn’t do that. It ages the face, you know. Makes you less beautiful.”

“Hush, Uncle. Surely that was not all that you had to share with me? The coming of a nuisance is hardly a matter of life and death.”

Tiris frowned. “No, that was not all. But the other dreams were not so clear. I saw a desert. A tomb. A tomb with something not quite dead in it. And there is a death.” The old man’s head dropped as if he could not hold Chana’s gaze. “But more than that, I cannot say.”

Chana’s eyes went wide. She could not remember the last time the gods had shown Tiris a death. Dying was a simple fact of life in the world. People died of illness and injury and old age. They mourned and they moved on when they could, taking comfort in the knowledge that the souls of the departed joined those of their ancestors in the All-Father’s kingdom. For the gods to have warned Tiris of a passing must have meant that there would be grave repercussions for her tribe. Tiris’s own death, perhaps.

Or perhaps hers.

“Who is–”

The old man shook his head. “I don’t know, my lady. The gods did not see fit to show me. I will mediate on this, and perhaps more will be revealed to me in time. But,” Tiris said with a chuckle, “your guest will be here within an hour or two’s time. You should make preparations.”

Chana glowered and looked away. “I don’t know why he insists on coming to see me himself. There is nothing we need to discuss, and even if there were, it would be more fitting to send an envoy or meet in neutral territory.”

“Child, it doesn’t take a diviner to see why he makes these trips himself,” Tiris said, that faint smile pulling at the corner of his lips once more.

Chana snorted and turned to leave. The seer simply sat as he had, smiling to himself for a while longer before turning his thoughts back to the matter of interpreting the visions the gods had sent him.

* * *

Chana was waiting at the Great Lake’s shore when Ko-Ta’s craft pulled in to dock. She stood in the bucksin cloak she had inherited from her father, the one emblazoned with symbols taken from artifacts the Old Ones had left behind, plants and animals and strange geometric designs. Her arms were crossed and her impatience bloomed into true annoyance when Ko-Ta waved at her from his boat. He grinned at her guilelessly, his boyish expression suggesting nothing other than genuine pleasure at seeing an old acquaintance. But they were not acquaintances, she reminded herself, and she had not once ever felt pleasure at seeing him.

Ko-Ta leapt from the boat as the two men who had accompanied him set about tethering it to the dock and unloading their things. He walked over to her and took her hand, his dusty-colored skin making her own look all the fairer. He was a head taller than her, with broad shoulders and the athletic build of a hunter. Like his father, he was not content to simply sit in his home and rule his people from a distance. Unlike his father, he was a good-natured man, quick to laugh and smile.

“Well met, Chana! I didn’t expect to find you waiting for me.”

“The gods told Tiris that you’d be coming, Ko-Ta,” she said, deliberately making it a point not to return his greeting. “I thought it best that I be here in person. No sense letting you and your men wander around Northlake looking for me.”

Ko-Ta smiled at her but his eyes were humorless. “As friendly as ever, I see.”

Chana sighed. “It is the planting season, Ko-Ta. There is work to be done, and I cannot spend all of my time entertaining. I trust you’ll understand if I ask you to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”

“My father is dead, Chana.” Ko-Ta said. His expression and his tone betrayed nothing; he simply stood and watched her, awaiting her reaction.

Despite herself, Chana felt a pang of empathy for the man. She knew what it meant to lose family. She had held her father’s hand as he joined their ancestors three winters ago, had wept for as long as she could before she was forced to compose herself and tell her people what had happened. She uncrossed her arms. “I am sorry to hear that, Ko-Ta. Relations between our tribes have been tense for generations now, but I understand what you must be going through.”

Ko-Ta nodded. “Thank you. But I did not come here in search of comfort, Chana. Within a month’s time, I will be the leader of Southlake, and I would like for our peoples to be allies.”

Chana said nothing, but she could not keep her face from betraying her surprise. Ko-Ta saw this and smiled. “I am not my father, Chana. I know that your people once lived all around the Great Lake before my grandfather lead my people into these mountains from the west. I know that it was he who encouraged them to make Southlake their own. And I know that many times our own fathers nearly spilled blood over old hurts and anger. I don’t want that and I don’t think that you do, either.”

“Our fathers agreed to peace, Ko-Ta. I have a copy of the covenant they signed in my home, as I’m sure you do as well.”

Ko-Ta laughed. “Those are just words on paper, Chana. I have come here to forge a new covenant with you, one free from the prejudices of our fathers. One that may serve both of our peoples, instead of leaving them fearing a knife in the back when they venture too far from their homes”

Chana watched Ko-Ta silently as she considered the sincerity of his words. For as much as he liked to act the fool, she knew Ko-Ta to be a shrewd, calculating man. He was certainly more patient than his father, more likely to let old rivalries and feuds die out if it meant reaching an end that benefited his people. Ko-Ta’s father simply did not possess the ability to forgive.

Nor did her own, if she were being honest with herself.

But did she?

How well could she say that she really knew the man before her? She saw him as a braggart, but was he not in truth an accomplished hunter and a good leader to his tribe? He was the son of the enemy, but whose enemy? Hers? Her people’s? Her father’s, three winters dead now? As the leader of her people, should she not be strong enough to put aside her distaste for Ko-Ta? The lands of Southlake were flatter, better suited for sowing and harvesting crops. To open up real trade with them, to know that her people could hunt the lands around Southlake without fear… were those possibilities not worth hearing what Ko-Ta had to say on the subject of peace?

She thought back to a day when she was young, just a child sitting on her father’s shoulders as they walked through the Fields of the Dead, where the Old Ones lay beneath stones and statues worn smooth by the passing of the years. Where the heroes of her own tribe had been lain to rest after they had gone to the All-Father’s kingdom. “This is a place of honor,” her father had said to her, “as sacred as any in our land. For as long as our people have lived around the Great Lake, this land has been holy in the eyes of the All-Father. Blessed are those who rest here.”

Her father had not been laid to rest in the Fields of the Dead. In his final days, he had accepted it as inevitable, but she had never forgiven herself for not marching on Southlake with a cadre of warriors and taking back what had once been theirs. But perhaps this was a better way.

She nodded. “Very well, Ko-Ta. I would like to see our peoples as allies as well. But for now, I’m certain you and your men are tired after making your journey. Let me show you to your quarters for the night.”

– Thomas


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