|The circle had been drawn and all the players in this dark melodrama where on their marks. The rituals were remembered and acted out in every intimate detail. The talismans and offerings had been discovered and laid out around them. There was not one player among them who didn’t stand there with complete confidence that they had done their individual part. Dark glory was at hand.
The final task to complete this puzzle had been solved and its solution was to find the leviathan that led them to this place. And now heads and hands were forced to be steady despite the terror the unseen creature put into their hearts with every agonizing and unearthly noise it made from beyond the veil.
The doorway was in motion and every pair of eyes was locked on to this singular vision, this one moment in time. No one dared speak or be heard breathing; though the booming of one unified heartbeat could faintly be heard in the background. It was like a steady drumbeat that vibrated the air around them.
So focused on the unfolding moment was this gathering of eclectic souls that not one of them took note of the brilliant gleam of light coming from behind the rock monoliths that served as the gate between their reality and the veil they wished to draw aside. Nor did they hear the buzzing sound of a massive electrical charge that seemed to be embedded in that brilliance. The moment and that light would come together with the destructive power of a volcano’s eruption. This coaxed an earthquake to follow. It was a soundless explosion that touched the ground and caused it to violently shake. The brilliance of the exploding light blinded those not thoughtful enough to shield their eyes the moment they realized it was coming.
What came next was a moment of pure chaos stretched out so far that everything moved in slow motion. It was impossible to decipher that strange event because there were no markers of reality to hold on to within it. The rational human mind could not comprehend what it was seeing or experiencing. The overwhelming nature of the rush of chaotic sensations was crippling for the strongest minds and destructive to the weaker ones. The creature roared as men cried out and when it was over the very nature of life, death, reality, and unreality was forever changed for those who acted as player and witness.
Time corrected itself. As soon as it began the moment was over.
The ground stood charred from the event, with strange plumes of angry crimson smoke rising from it. The symbols that had once been carved by unknown hands into the sides of the rock monoliths had been all but erased by the blast of light. The players, once so special and specifically picked for their needed talents and knowledge, were reduced to simple men either crawling among the aftermath, bewildered and forever touched by a thing they could not unsee; or lay dying unable to live with that vision. The latter were the lucky ones.
Here and there a player was caught in a loop of the events. The moments of chaos repeated themselves over and over across the landscape of a mind that couldn’t push the visions out. One player mentally fell to madness as he physically fell to his knees and began crawling backwards. As he spoke his words were in reverse as well. He did this until exhaustion and fright were too much for his heart and it decided it was easier to simply stop beating. There were many different variations on this type of strange behavior, but each ended in the death of a player. The crowd of many was becoming the few.
At the edges of this scene an old man was trying to see through the red smoke and make sense of what had just happened. For as long as he could remember he had prepared for the task of observing what was to take place on this day, but the need to offer such observations was now the farthest thing from his thoughts. There were only two things on his mind in those moments.
Silently he kept the first thing to himself: It had been going so well. What had happened? The other thing he cried out to anyone who might be listening.
“Where is my son?”
There was no one left standing to answer the father by this point. Those nearest to him were either dead or lay stunned on the ground playing out their last moments of madness and misery. He was for the moment alone.
“Please…” the old man whimpered. “Please, somebody, anybody… tell me where my son is…”
“Dead or trapped old man. I can tell you from experience it is better he be dead than trapped.”
The old man turned towards the unfamiliar voice speaking to him. It was more than unfamiliar, it was unnatural. The creature it belonged to was indeed most unnatural.
Standing naked before him was what he presumed to be a woman. Her frame was stronger than what he was used to seeing in the average woman and more masculine. Her face, though stern, was quite feminine, even beautiful. Coupled with her modest breasts and the hairless v where her thighs came together he had to assume this was a female; otherwise he might think this a short, slight of build man. Regardless, she was not a human female.
The woman’s skin was glossy and the color of cooled ash. Her eyes were the color of silver as were her long nails. Her very coarse looking hair was a dark bluish gray that had been put into double braids that snaked around her head and neck. The father might have found the creature quite exotic, even alluring if he wasn’t still in the grips of the horror he’d just experienced. The only thing keeping him from fully giving into that horror was his need to find his son.
“Did you come from the doorway?” he asked.
The woman looked over her shoulder where not long ago a tall wall of fluid had served as a type of water mirror. It had been the physics defying gateway between the two rock monoliths. It was the veil the players had hoped to draw aside. It was now gone and the woman couldn’t help feeling a sense of relief that was tempered with loss. She looked back at the old man.
He nodded, trying to decipher some positive meaning from this admission. “If my son fell behind the veil and could not get back before it closed, would he still be alive?”
The woman didn’t immediately speak. Though she had a face harder to read for its differences to what he was familiar, he still saw the shadow that passed over her features. Her eyes became sad and he knew she did not want to be completely honest with him.
“Please.” he implored her. “I need to know one way or the other.”
“He…” she began, finding the right words hard. Her tribe were never ones to show empathy when dealing with others of any tribe or breed. Time and circumstance had changed her greatly in that respect. She felt his pain and wanted to ease it as best she could. “If he crossed over before the light touched him, he will be alive.”
The old man’s face showed hope. “Yes? Yes?! For how long? How long do I have to save him?!”
Again the woman looked troubled, but it was not a sadness she felt. The son might very well be beginning the experience she was coming to the end of. It was unlikely their fates or experiences would be similar though.
“There is no how long there. There is no true sense of time in that place trapped behind the water mirror. It can’t kill your son…” she quickly held up her hand as the old man began to speak. “No, wait. Listen carefully to me. It can’t stop his heart or take his breath, but the mind is a very different thing. There is no telling what your son would be upon returning. There is no way of knowing how he is perceiving the passage of time there. It could be mere moments or he could have watched a star born and die by the time you reach him. If you seek to return him, consider it as a kindness to free him from his pain. Wish for death though. Sometimes death is better.”
There was a silence between the old man and the ash colored woman. The father understood. His wounded heart was quickly tucked away and his intellectual brain took its place.
“So be it.” he said, accepting all the possible outcomes.
There was a soft murmur of voices starting to rise up around them. The noise was not coming from the mad and dying on the ground. These voices were from those who had been at a safe distance when the horrible event had occurred.
The woman looked around nervously. She was realizing she would be very alien to those that came upon her and she felt her nakedness. The old man realized this too. He set down a heavy bag almost forgotten on his shoulder and took off his long coat and offered it to the woman.
“Quick, tell me your name. Your first name. I’ll keep you protected from the men that are coming and you will help me find my son. Yes?”
The woman nodded in acceptance as she gratefully took the coat and studied it a moment to see how to properly put it on. The clothing of her tribe was not meant as a thing of modesty, but as a utility. Braided ropes holding tools and herb carriers were all her form used to know.
“Talha.” she whispered as she adjusted to the strange sensation of the material against her skin. It was heavy and itchy, but warm and protecting. “My mother Ilt named me Talha.”
“I am Juniper, Talha. Juniper Driad. Come stand behind me. Er, try and make yourself small if you get my meaning.”
Talha did as she was told. She did her best to let the old man’s body obscure her as a group of men started to amass in front of them.
Juniper Driad put an arm out and a little behind him to offer some protection for the female behind him. He tried to make his heavy bag more pronounced at his side for an added measure of concealment.
“Juniper! My god man! What happened here?!”
A very tall man pushed through the small crowd of men. His face was intense as he surveyed the scene. He was addressing the old man.
Juniper started to shake his head slowly. “I don’t know Edward. Everything was going fine, all the signs where there. My Mayworm was closest to the front of the event. He showed signs of…” his voice fell off there. He realized he didn’t want to share with this tall man what he’d seen happening to his son. It felt like a reward for a man who had, in the end, been too much of a coward to be at the front of the very ritual he’d set in motion.
Juniper sighed wearily. “He showed signs that things were starting to go wrong the more solid the doorway became. It is hard for me to describe. There was a very strange and off-putting feeling to the air here before the event. And a strange glow from behind the doorway. I’m not sure the men standing directly before the doorway could see it.”
Edward’s face had looked excited for a moment, then it was gone. His one hope had been with the old man’s son and if that had failed to work than the heart of the ritual was a failure. Despite all that he’d told his men (that he hadn’t shared with the players) he had only one thing he’d wanted to achieve on that day.
All eyes moved from the two men talking to a young man kneeling over several dead men. He was inspecting their faces and clothing.
“What is it Olwen?” Edward asked.
The young man pointed to the dead men. “These aren’t our men nor are they from any of the players’ crews. I don’t know who they are. They appear to have our men’s credentials though. They have racer plaques.”
Edward turned away from the old man and roughly pushed through his group of men. He moved next to Olwen and stared at the three dead men. On first glance they looked much like anyone else in the group. After giving them a bit of a better look though, some of their rough edges started to present themselves.
“Open one of their shirts.” he commanded the youth.
“Beg your pardon sir?”
“Tear open one of their shirts!” Edward roared.
The young man, startled, quickly turned to the dead man nearest to him and took hold of his shirt and tore it open. Beneath the fine white linen was a broad chest covered in strange symbols and crudely rendered creatures. Olwen looked up, bewildered.
Edward made a hissing noise and slammed his fist into his hand.
He knelt down and violently ripped open the shirts of the other two men. Each presented a similar scene: A chest full of simple tattoos offering a language of symbols that was alien to most men there. What was worse were the indescribable creatures that moved among those symbols.
Slowly the men in the surrounding group began to realize what they were looking at and what this meant. Outside forces had moved unseen in their mist. What they had or hadn’t done to bring upon these events was the question. A general noise of mumbling voices ran through the group.
Edward turned towards his men and began barking orders.
“Every man down on the ground must be checked. Shirts off all of them! Dead ones can be piled over there. Keep our men away from this filth so we can tend to them properly, respectfully. Anyone of these tattooed miscreants that are still alive need to be tied up and put in one place. Be wary of all chest markings. Not all of them will be of the black water tribe. Some will simply be marked with talisman or protections. We can’t take chances though. Anyone with marked skin, inked, branded, scarred, or otherwise put in bindings and sat together. We must act quickly before all is lost.” He paused a moment to look at those players who still thrashed or wailed from the ground. “Give care to anyone who is still alive but do not hope that they will continue to breath long. Calm them. Make their passing gentle.”
The men went into action, falling into small groups and dedicating those groups to different areas.
Edward turned away from the scene and moved as close as he was willing to get to the open spot between the two massive boulders. He held his hand up as if to feel the air coming from the monoliths and quickly snatched it back. There was still a hum coming from the area.
Through all of the renewed movement in the area, Juniper stood steady and unmoved. He kept the woman mostly obscured behind him, though he was sure she’d been noticed. There was simply too much else going on at the moment to address her. He wasn’t sure how he would explain her presence or her strange appearance. The only thing he knew for certain was that the leader of this expedition, this great race, would not harm her. The great Edward Longview still needed some type of trophy to bring home to compensate for all the madness stricken minds and dead bodies he now had to atone for.
As though called to by the old man’s thoughts, Edward turned away from the boulders and moved back to Juniper. Very little escaped his attention.
“Who’s the woman behind you Juniper?”
The old man could feel the woman’s body start to tremble a little against him. How frightening this had to be for her. He could only presume where she had come from and what that might mean she’d already gone through. That idea gave him hope. She was like a living, breathing ash colored key that would help him unlock the whereabouts of his son. There was no man there, not even the thunderous and dictator-like personality that was Edward their leader, that would wrench this woman from his hands until his Mayworm’s fate was known.
“The woman behind me is Talha.” he replied but did not move to reveal her.
“Instruct her to come out where she can be seen.”
Talha, in a very strong, inhuman voice, answered for herself. “I can be talked to directly. No man here instructs me to do anything.”
Edward scoffed at this, but took immediate notice of the strange nature of her voice and inflection. “Very well. Come out from behind my man so I can get a look at you.”
Talha was hesitant for a moment. She took a deep breath and let the fear drain away from her like the last of a good hard rain washing the skin. It had been quite a long time since she felt fear. These pale skinned men with their scratchy clothes and watery pale eyes were not going to remind her of that feeling.
The woman stepped out from behind the old man. She held her head up high and unblinkingly stared down the tall man across from her.
Edward looked the creature over. His expression was blank.
“Are you from the dusk-lands? The secret places?” he asked as he studied her face. “I’ve seen none like you among the sky people.”
Talha motioned to the area around them. “I come from here. At least I did a very long time ago. The time of my tribe has come and gone.”
This peaked Edward’s attention. He moved towards the woman as though he meant to lay his hands on her. She took a defensive posture that caused him to stop. He held his hands up to show he was no threat to her.
“I’m sorry. That was rude of me. I’m a little excitable at the moment and I am one to put hands on things to get a sense of them. You are, of course, not a thing. I beg of you to please explain. I’ve read no histories with people like you described in them.”
Talha stayed on guard as she answered his questions.
“We are tribes of the moon and we were here long before your people. We had no written language. There is nothing of my people still in this world except for this body of mine and in my memories.”
Juniper recognized the look coming over Edward’s face. It was a mixture of understanding and excitement. He looked from the woman back towards the two boulders.
“Your English is impeccable except for a few slightly strange inflections…” he murmured, sounding distracted. He looked back at the woman. “You speak our language with an easy tongue. I’m curious how you come to know it. Might I inquire where you’ve been hiding all of these years?” he asked.
“From the underneath.” she said simply. She offered nothing more than that.
The questioning was interrupted when one of the men called to their leader. Edward and Juniper turned towards the scene they’d mostly been ignoring.
The dead greatly outnumbered the living and some of the living could only be described as the mad living dead. Having all the deceased players and their crews cleaned off and neatly laid out in rows showed just how horrific the scene truly was. All manner of ills had fallen upon these men when the doorway had turned foul.
Juniper had been close to the doorway, just off to the side of the left boulder. He had wanted to keep his son within his view. His eyes had been so focused on him he hadn’t seen what happened to the others. His mind couldn’t wrap itself around what he was now seeing.
“Dear god.” he whispered.
The man calling to them was Olwen and he was waving Edward over to him. Of all the many men who had been directly before the doorway, only six of them sat grouped among the living. Two unfamiliar men sat tied together a short distance away from them.
“Sir! These two men have the same markings as the dead men.”
Edward quickly left his questioning and moved towards the bound men, leaving Juniper with his strange woman. The old man took that opportunity to gingerly guide her away from the others. The men who’d come to the area with Edward were starting to notice her. Thankfully they had the sense to give her a wide birth. At least until Edward told them differently.
“Come Talha. I think it would be best to get away from these men while they sort out the chaos.” he said nervously as he picked up his pace. “A lot has happened and I think the horrible outcome of those happenings is going to become more apparent the longer they deal with the living and the dead.”
As they moved away there came shouting from the leader. Juniper chanced a look back and saw the large man roughly pulling one of the bound men to his feet and yelling into his face. He hit him several times before throwing the bleeding man into the hands of his men. The tattooed man appeared to say nothing. There was probably no secret truths to get from him now no matter how the tall man beat him.
“Talha? You said you came from the underneath?”
“The underneath is the place through what you called the water mirror? Is it unseen beyond the two boulders even now?”
Talha looked conflicted. “Yes and no. It is not a simple thing. The underneath is as close as your breath and as far away as the end of time always, no matter where you are. Most often connecting to it is as random as the weather. There are rituals to force a connection though. This place is marked by too many of those rituals. It has created a link from this reality to that unreality. The old things in that unreality are drawn here and ever lurking. This is a damned place.”
Juniper stopped walking and turned to face the woman.
“Did your people do your rituals here?”
Talha was quiet but her face was quite thoughtful. Nearly a life time was passing by her mind’s eye and for a moment she was somewhere very long ago.
She saw the ghostly apparitions of children running about burning fires. Tents made of dried animal hides and tree parts were scattered about. They lived near the two boulders, but not right next to them so that conjuring could be done away from their camp. They had been nomadic people who called to the aether for help when needed. They had not known this place was already tainted. They didn’t know they were not reaching out to the aether there. When they performed their ritual at the boulders they were fearful of the old ones that came to them. So old… so dark. Old ones who would not let them leave. They became bound to that place with no choice but to serve.
“Talha?” Juniper nudged her. “What happened to you and your people?”
The woman’s head nodded slowly. “The land is stained and when we conjured here we helped make that stain darker. We were reaching out to something different, more benign, and made a mistake. We gave those who had been trapped a place to find and touch this world. They were imprisoned in the underneath beyond the water mirror, like being on the other side of the glass. I’ve been there with them for a very long time. I have seen so many tribes come and go… lured here because they could feel the old things beckoning them.”
She looked back at the group of men taking turns trying to forcefully make the tattooed man talk. She then looked to the ground disgusted by what she was seeing.
“The old ones only inspire wickedness.” she whispered. “The painted man will never talk. The men who witnessed this event will never recover from their madness. It will leave its mark on all of you. Whatever it is your tall man back there was looking for he would not have liked it if he found it.”
The old man shrugged as he frowned. “He just wanted to know… to understand.” Juniper said weakly in the other man’s defense. He was defending them all honestly. They were all men of scholarly pursuits that went well beyond the average man’s needs. Perhaps they had been fooled by these old ones like so many others.
“Sometimes it’s better not to know.” Talha offered. “Sometimes there is nothing to understand. Evil doesn’t have to define itself or its reasons for being. It only needs to be evil. Look at what just a moment of it did to your friends.”
There was a moment of silence between them.
For Talha there was too much knowledge and understanding and her mind just wanted to be still. She wanted to get away from these men so she could lay down and sleep her last sleep. She wanted to chase her people across the stars and find their after-world. She had played guardian of the water mirror for long enough. It was time for someone else to worry about this world.
For Juniper there was precious little knowledge and only a small bit of understanding and it wasn’t enough. He no longer cared about anything his people, the Vitandi, desired. He cursed his foolishness for being so taken in by the Magnus Certatio or letting Edward convince him that allowing his son to be apart of the most dangerous aspect of the great race would be something of greatness. All he wanted was to know what happened to his son. This creature made him fear for what that might be.
The old man’s thoughts became more focused on what he needed to do for himself. He tried to tuck away the guilt that was already starting to sting his conscious.
“I have one last question for you Talha.”
The woman looked up, curious. “Yes?”
“There was a man of about thirty years old standing in front of what you call the water mirror. He had an olive complexion, dark hair, and a plain but handsome enough face. Something was starting to happen to him before the doorway began to glow. Did you see this man?”
Talha nodded her head but said nothing.
Juniper made an awkward smile. He took the heavy canvas bag from his shoulder and set it down. He reached into it and rummaged around until he found the enchanted item created for him in case things went very wrong for his son. Mayworm had special traits that had made him stand out to Edward and because of this father and son had done as much research as they could to find an extra level of protection for him. A protection that might create a pause long enough for the father to find a way to heal his son. It was dusk-land magic.
The old man withdrew from his bag a long, curvy ornate metal urn. Edward nor none of his men knew he had the object. Such items were not allowed per race rules.
The woman looked over the item but did not recognize the symbols inscribed on it. It looked like something to hold water. She thought perhaps he meant to offer her something to drink and did not feel a need to put her guard up. For her the old man was someone to pity, not be afraid of.
“Please tell me what happened to him.” Juniper asked as he ran his fingers over the sides of the urn.
“He was becoming the true doorway. Another man from the group saw this and took hold of him and pushed him through the water mirror. A third man went in after them with a knife in hand. They all fell through together.” Talha replied. Her words felt heavy and harming. She would not lie to the old man, but she had decided from the start she would only tell him those things he directly asked about.
The old man’s eyes closed as tears threatened. His breathing became heavy as he started to accept what had happened, piecing it together moment to moment from where the doorway had grown so bright that he couldn’t see anything taking place in front of it.
“Did any man come back through the water mirror before it became unstable?”
Again she nodded. “The man with the knife came back through.”
“And the man I described?”
“He had to stay in the underneath.”
The tears started to stream down the old man’s face. His voice got choked up and he had to take a moment to catch his breath before he could go on.
“Why?! Why did he have to stay?!”
Talha’s face grew very sad. “It is hard for me to explain. The water mirror is not the only doorway. We are the true doorways. We must act in unison and only certain people have that ability. This man by the door? The darkness was coming into him, through him into this world. The man that pushed him? He was one of the painted men. They’re a different tribe who worship these old ones and this place. To them it would be a sacrilege for anyone but one of their own to bring the darkness through.” Her face grew even darker. “The first man? He was like me so long ago. The true nature of what was happening was very real for him and he chose to stay behind the water mirror to protect this world. He was very brave.” Talha reached forward and gently touched the old man’s cheek. “This was your son?”
Juniper’s head bobbed up and down frantically as he clutched the metal urn to his chest. “Yes. My Mayworm. But you said he can still be saved?”
“Saved from that fate, yes. To live again as you knew him… as I said, most likely not.”
The old man accepted this and regained his composure. He knew what needed to be done. When the idea of it started to pain him, he simply turned his thoughts to his only son who was trapped in some place his mind could not begin to comprehend. He would not leave him to that fate there alone. Especially if what this creature said was true… that he had sacrificed himself for the safety of everyone else.
“So you should know how I can reach him and release him then?” he asked in almost a whisper.
Talha shook her head slowly. “It is not so simple. This doorway has become feral and many have attempted to calm it over the many centuries. The old rituals have become more complex and it’s a matter of timing and where it is in relation to the stars above. Your people must have had some knowledge of this to know when to be here. I cannot begin to tell you when the next moment of opportunity would come to pass. You…” her voice grew very quiet. “You may not live to see that time Juniper Driad.”
Juniper nodded his head slowly as a small, sad smile spread across his face. He was screwing the lid off of the metal urn.
“This is true. However, I belong to a silent society within this greater society you met here and we are loyal to one another. We’ll find a way. We look after our blood, our people. No matter how long it takes. And well… I have you.”
Talha shook her head sadly. “No, I can help you no further. My time has passed. I am very tired and I wish to be with my people again.”
“I understand Talha. Please forgive me.”
Before the woman knew what was about to happen the old man pulled the lid off the metal urn and threw the contents of it over her.
Talha immediately stumbled backwards and swatted at the strange vapor that was moving over her skin. It didn’t move in a natural way. It passed over her skin and came to cling to it like it had thought and purpose.
“You have lived long and you shall rest while I have you. I cannot chance losing your knowledge though. You will pass into a thoughtful smoke and be safe within this vessel until we wake you again. This is what I had planned for my son if something went wrong. I would never harm a hair on my son’s head, so please know you will experience no harm either. You will be my secret.”
The ash colored woman looked on in fear and panic. She understood what was being said and there was more sense of horror over that fate than what she had experienced for so many millennia. She tried to speak but her form was no longer solid. Her words were vapor.
The old man chanted over the urn before moving it out to catch the vaporous form of the woman. She was but a series of swirling colors as they settled into the urn. When all that had been the strange woman was within the metal container, Juniper replaced the top and hidden it away in his bag. All that was left was his long coat that he picked up from the ground where it lay.
His body was shaking. Despite the cut throat nature of the Vitandi and their aggressive means to discover, learn, and know all that was arcane, Juniper Driad was of a much softer heart. It had been soft much of his life and then grew softer upon the birth of his son and the loss of his wife within the same hour. He would do anything for his only child, though it did not make him feel good to do it.
After he gained control of himself he moved back to the scene he’d left. The tall man Edward was standing among his men barking orders. Funeral pyres were being built for the men who were dead. Men were scrambling everywhere. It looked as though final decisions had been made in his absence.
Edward turned and saw the old man coming towards him. His eyes darted all over the scene behind Juniper. There was no strange woman with him.
“Where is the woman?!” he cried.
“When she heard the shouting she fled.” Juniper called back.
The two men finally came to stand together. The scene around them was a flurry as fires began to be lit. There was a near manic sense of urgency to everything going on. Not far off the sun was starting to set.
“We must find her.” Edward panted.
Juniper tried to look sympathetic. “She isn’t long for this world Edward. She’s in shock. She was born to this area so long ago, she’ll seek to stay here. We will find her”
Edward shook his head frantically. There was something very wrong with him. There was a drastic change to his eyes as he looked at all that was going on around them. He hadn’t even taken the time to wipe the blood from his hands.
“You will find her Juniper. Find her and put her down!”
The old man looked concerned. He’d never seen the other man looking quite so crazed. He was dangerous. To prove this suspicion Juniper took note that there were no longer any players on the ground moving and some of the recently wounded, but living, were now still with cords around their throats. Juniper tread carefully.
“Sir? I will find her, yes, but? Is everything alright?”
Again the tall man’s head shook violently. “No! This must all go! Every trace that we were here must be gone. All things that lead to this place must be gone!” He lunged forward and gripped the older man by the face. “I had no idea the evil… the darkness…” his voice became deep and soft. “I was so foolish… so obsessed. So many have died for something that should not move among us in the light. No one can follow in the wake of my foolishness.”
Edward pushed the old man away and stumbled off mumbling to himself. He remained in that stunted state for awhile. The reality of what had taken place fast overwhelming him.
Juniper moved among the scene looking at the faces of the dead. He both feared and hoped to see his son among the bodies, but his Mayworm was not there. He had to look away from them. Each was being given whatever last rights was written down and on their person. The bodies wouldn’t be taken home to rest with their families. They would be burned here and what remained would be scattered or buried as if they never existed. These were the leader’s orders.
There was a strange feeling to the place as it came closer to sundown. Everyone there felt the same sensation of unease. There was the smell of ozone in the air like there had been a great lightning storm. The air was heavy and felt hard on the lungs. The silence was the worst of it though. There were no nature sounds. Not one chirping cricket or bird singing. The only thing that offered some type of noise was the occasional gust of wind that blew around the massive boulders offering an eerie rasp.
As the daylight started to take on a more waning orangish gold light, the men moved faster. It was a ten minute walk to get back to the horses and no one wanted to make that hike in the dark.
Juniper looked towards the open space between the two boulders. His mind was already trying to soften the details of what that watery doorway had looked like. He hadn’t gotten a good look into it himself, but he’d seen the look of horror on the men’s faces who were closest to it. He saw his son’s face; watched as the shadow of that entity began to come into him.
A sharp spasm ran through the old man’s chest and down his arm. It was a wonder his heart was still beating at this point. It was also growing cold and he was loath to put on the jacket that had been on the ash colored creature. He rooted around in one of its pockets till he found a small tin of salve. He took a finger full and rubbed it over the front of his teeth. His heart settled down.
His niece was always very good with roots and remedies. She made the salve and said it would keep his heart strong. Juniper was fairly sure his calm after digesting the slightly minty tasting mixture had more to do with the juice of the poppy. Whatever her secret herbs, he was calmed.
“Olwen.” Juniper called out to the young man as he was rushing by. The youth stopped. He was looking at the old man but not seeing the old man. His face was blank.
“Tell Edward old man Juniper went to take care of his run away. I’ve seen her just down the hill. I’ll meet you all at the horses.”
The youth nodded his head, almost looking grateful he had a task that didn’t involve overseeing the cremation of his friends and colleagues. He quickly moved away to find their leader.
Juniper moved to the edges of the scene, letting his feet take him by where the bound men were. The first interrogated tattooed man lay unconscious on the ground. Given the severity of the beating he had taken he was probably sleeping his way into death. A second tattooed man was awake and looking like a devil in a human suit. His face had seen the same abuse as his companion. The old man stopped next to him.
“You know what lies beyond that doorway don’t you?” he asked. He wasn’t expecting any answers from the bleeding man, but he still felt a need to ask. He was surprised when the man replied.
“Why would you worship such things then? Why would you want to knowingly bring them into the world?”
The bleeding man smirked. “We weren’t the ones attempting to bring something through the doorway, you were.”
The reality of that fact was jarring. Juniper nodded his head slowly.
“Aye, we’re guilty of that. We didn’t understand… we… we wanted to know. Knowing and understanding the forbidden is everything to us. We didn’t understand what the true nature of the doorway was or how we could be used by it.”
The bleeding man scoffed at this. “Did it ever occur to you there were things you weren’t meant to know or understand? Isn’t that the very nature of the forbidden?”
This caused the old man a small laugh. It was an excellent statement of fact while at the same time explaining why he and all the other men of his ilk were there: They felt themselves deserving of understanding the forbidden and not drawing the same consequences others would. The bleeding man was an even better example of this idea. Why did they deserve to understand more about this thing than the scholars who devoted their lives to it?
“The forbidden doesn’t seem to scare you either.” he countered.
The bleeding man shrugged in his bindings. The act caused him to wince in pain and Juniper realized this man was probably not long for this world either. Much of his exposed body was turning very ugly shades of blue and purple. If internal injury wasn’t causing him to count his last breaths, most likely Edward would ask one of his men to finish him.
“Nothing scares us.” he said once the pain settled down. “We worship those things that can never die. We pray to the creeping blackness that lies behind the wall of sleep. A thing that is an eternity away while at the same time just beyond your reflection in a mirror. Our payment is pain and madness and we’re glad for it.”
The horror of what this man was saying struck Juniper profoundly. How awful it all sounded and yet look at the very lengths he and his fellow players had gone to look upon the very same thing.
“Why?” he asked mostly to himself.
“Because the world in the light is a boring lie. Look into the light long enough and you’ll simply go blind and see nothing. Look into the darkness long enough and you’ll feel the thrill and the terror of it looking back at you. Then you’ll start to see things. Horrible and beautiful things. I’ll take the thrill and the terror over the nothing.” he stopped a moment to spit blood that was pooling in his mouth. “I’ll take the brutal beauty of it. This world and the lives we live in it are just an attempt to starve off death and spend as little time in pain as possible, because the truth is all this world wants to do it hurt and kill you. It feels good to accept that. You should try it old man. You’ll find yourself laughing as you stare down death instead of cowering and pissing yourself.”
“And are you laughing?” he asked the bleeding man.
The man’s response was to offer the old man a big grin with a mouth full of blood and broken teeth. He said nothing more.
Juniper turned away from the bleeding man and his dying companion. He started to walk towards the horses. He moved much slower than the other men, so it would take him longer and he was happy to go at a slow pace.
The land in front of him was mostly sparse. There was tall grass and the occasional thin and nearly naked tree. Every now and then he moved past a tumbleweed of sorts that was dried grass tangled up in branches and leaves. An idea came to him as he happened upon a rather large one.
Light was starting to grow dimmer so Juniper felt a sense of urgency. When he could see the horses off in the distance, he looked for a clearing to place the large tumbleweed he dragged behind him. He took a digging tools from his bag and did his best to carve out a circle that separated the grass within from the grass outside. He didn’t want his fire to spread, he just wanted it to be big enough to be seen.
The tumbleweed went into the middle of the clearing. He stomped it down a little to make it more compact. From his lantern he spread a small amount of its whale oil to help the tumbleweed burn quicker. He took a tinderbox from his bag and waited.
Everything around him was fast becoming a deepening shade of dusk blue. He heard the distant sounds of men moving in his direction. He quickly set the tumbleweed on fire and waited for it to take hold. He dumped his coat along side of it. By the time he was walking away from it there was a healthy blaze burning. It was large enough to catch the attention of the men in the distance. Juniper left the fire and started for the horses.
Olwen and one of the other young men from the group caught up to him and questioned him about the fire. He settled them down and convinced them everything was alright and they should get back to the horses. They were running out of light.
Edward pushed through his men as the three caught up to them. He roughly grabbed the old man by the shoulder and leaned in close so only Juniper could hear him.
“Is it done?”
Juniper gave him a tired and slightly disgusted look. “It is done.” he replied. “It looks like she was trying to reach the horses and gave out. I burned the body. Her bones were much more soft and brittle than our own. There will be nothing but scorched earth where she lay.”
The leader did not question any of this. His mind was not thinking right. It was easier to simply believe the old man and leave it there.
Edward turned to his men. “Let it be heard loud and clear: There will never again be a great race. We shall treat the Magnus Certatio as a thing that only existed in our past. No Vitandi will ever again seek such things out. We speak of what happened here to no one. No one! We will compensate the families of those who have died. We will honor them in our archives as heroes. If one man speaks of what they saw here today exile from the Vitandi will not be his biggest punishment! I mean to bury this moment in time. In our thoughts, in our feelings, in all that we researched and created to make this event. I will not let a soul keep breath in their lungs if they don’t do as I say. I vow this.”
Juniper looked on with a stony expression. The great Edward Longview, the man who said he would see the Vitandi to the greatest race of them all, reduced to threatening his men with murder should they share what they saw. How pathetic he was.
It was just as well. Most of these men would not want to remember what had happened. Many of them would not want to admit that they followed the orders of a mad man to end the lives of their colleagues. Perhaps they would tell themselves it was to ease them from their madness. It was a kindness. The truth was it was to ensure their silence. Juniper certainly didn’t want to add any truth to the legacy of what happened there. He had only one mission now. He had to be thoughtful. He was the only man left who had seen what had happened. He could only hope Edward would think him too old to worry about.
The two youths helped the old man onto his horse. There was a slight twinkle of pain in his chest as he looked at his son’s white horse whose saddle sat empty of its rider.
“Will one of you lads lead Maple here back. I don’t think I have quite the strength to do it.”
Olwen started to say something about Mayworm tending to his own horse but quickly caught himself. In all the commotion he had failed to notice the old man’s son was not among them.
“Of course Juniper. I’ll see to Maple myself.” the young man replied as he untied the horse’s reigns and moved him over to his own horse. There were going to be many riderless horses making the return journey back. And it had been going so well, Olwen mused to himself.