Coal – pt. 3

coal

Previously: Chapter 1, Chapter 2


Chapter 3: Two Stones With One Bird


He remembered when the chaos first began. He didn’t understand why it had mattered at the time though. To know that violence had erupted in another place that he’d never heard of, let alone seen, was to worry over the weather from nine days ago.

He didn’t understand the domino effect.

Though life had been harsh, it seemed functional. They’d had little and less. His parents had not been well off, his days were less academic and more ardor as he worked to maintain their house where his parents were often absent in their pursuit of necessities.

So when he’d heard that a city had fallen, that a great lord had been killed, that the city had plunged itself into chaos…he didn’t understand.

He didn’t understand that, below the skin of existence, an infection had been boiling. That ire and anger were grouping like little pinpricks – piercing over and over again. He didn’t understand that a million little sores can become something serious. That eventually the limb begins to fester and rot. That sometimes, to save the patient, you have to cut off the arm or the leg.

Sometimes, to save the patient, you have to kill it.

Where turmoil grew, people had lamented the carnage. So many had wondered how it had all happened. What had the lords done to finally bring about their own destruction? What sins were they being punished for? What tarnish lurked beneath their crowns of gold and silver?

He remembered being marched away from a burning city that choked his lungs with the acrid smell of burning flesh and garbage. Figures cloaked and veiled on strange creatures that both galloped and slithered, and yet did neither one completely. The sound of whips pushing them forward mingled with the sounds of crying – some from lamentation of a city lost, some from the pain of the lash. The strange, guttural sound from the creatures that sounded like a wet, crackling inhale had been merged with a low-tuned whistle and several dozen rocks tumbling together in an oblong cylinder of nails and wooden blocks.

It was a moment that haunted his dreams even now.

Rus paced at the front of the room that housed those in Gy’s cete while they sat cross-legged on the floor, parchment before them, quills and inkwells set at the top right of the paper.

A sharp scream broke the metronomic rhythm of Rus’s feet. Gy looked up to see that Rus stood before a young girl, his foot upon her hand.

“What is right?” Rus said calmly.

Gy could hear the sound of her tears tapping on the floor like a soft rain.

“What is left…” the girl said in labored breaths.

Gy craned his neck to try to see, fearful of moving too much…too far. He could barely make out the girl pulling her hand close to her when Rus finally stepped away.

She’d been writing with her right hand.

“We are…” Rus said.

“Clay!” the room said as one.

“Clay is…”

“Weak!”

“Clay will…”

“Fail!”

“We must be…”

“Stone!”

“Stand,” Rus said to the girl who did as commanded, her sore hand hanging at her side in a proper stance.

Rus walked away toward a small, wooden desk at the far wall and plucked a single feather from a jar that held many. He offered it to the girl and bid her toss it up and behind her.

Gy watched the feather rise slightly before it shifted and turned sideways. It floated and spiraled. Everyone watched. Gy felt certain that no one was breathing. When it landed before his parchment, he began to shake.

“Stand,” Rus said.

Gy placed his quill to the side and stood, straining hard to make his eyes meet Rus’s.

“When we fail ourselves…”

“We fail each other,” Gy said.

“When we fail each other…”

“We fail ourselves.”

Rus pulled his knife free of its little leather sheath as he beckoned Gy to approach.

In his small bed that was little more than a single, thin blanket set upon the stone floor, Gy tried to sleep that night. The sound of breathing and snoring from the others played like a sad symphony.

He closed his eyes and tried to sleep. He tried not to think about it, not to worry about it.

He rolled over and felt the weight shift and touch his arm. The cold dead flesh of Rioh’s finger tied to a string.

A punishment for one. A warning for all.

Coal – pt. 2

coal

Previously: Chapter 1


Chapter 2: The Innocence of Loss


It wasn’t fair.

Gy had thought the words and said them plenty; same as any person living. Same as every person did at some point in their life before they died.

It was a sentiment rewarded with the commonplace response of, “Life isn’t fair.”

But there were levels to the concept, and most people didn’t understand the depth of the statement, nor the reply. In truth, the reply is not always the same. Strong words and a harsh glare were a luxury.

For most, that educational statement and the ensuing list of actions was on par with a shaking head of disapproval and being sent to bed without dinner. Most wouldn’t have found themselves set to working the sand pits at the age of nine for decrying the loss of family and the cold embrace of the citadel walls.

Hard labor where sunlight was some brief respite as it peaked over the small crags and fissures like veins of sunlight showing through the dark skin of some beast of oblivion. A vast expanse of harsh land that grabbed your ever step and pulled you down in your labors. Where exhaustion was met with punishment. Where crying was met with worse.

When the steel maw of entry craned open, hinges screaming like harpies in the night, it looked like some portal into emptiness. A black box so dark that it actually contrasted the already dim interior where worn and weary bodies lie with calloused hands, sore backs, and layers of dust clinging to their sweat-soaked skin.

Only Gale entered the room, white wrapped feet moving in the sand like a phantom dancer; gliding over it as smoothly as water slips down ice. With slashes of sunlight marking her like tiger stripes, she ended in up in a stance where a single blade of gold slanted down her face, highlighting her soft azure eyes.

“What is?” she said, with her hands held behind her back.

“Nothing,” the huddled masses intoned; a sad symphony of discordant voices – staggered in their utterance, disparate in the volume granted.

Gy had spoken little more than a whisper into the earth, his body on its side, curled in on itself, knees to his chest.

Gale approached, stepping over bodies and limbs, until she stood before him and raised his head with the tip of her bare foot.

“Stand up,” she said.

A lump formed in Gy’s throat, teeth clenched. Fear of staying clashed with the fear of leaving. Fear of the devil he knew in battle with the one he did not. But he knew she wouldn’t say it again.

With straining arms, he shoved himself from the ground, a cascade of loose sand fell from his body like harsh rain. Whatever resolve he held was thinner than he’d grown since his arrival; paroxysms shot through his hunched stance.

Gale said nothing else, only turned to leave.

Gy hurried as best he could, following slightly to the side and behind – feeling much like a beaten dog, likely looking much the same.

“You want to know why I don’t take others,” Gale said. It was not a question. She stopped, turned, dropped to one knee. Gy flinched at her very presence; he could feel her eyes hard upon his own even as the darkness kept them veiled.

She grabbed him hard by the chin, fingers on one cheek, thumb on the other, squeezing so hard that he could feel her fingertips on the edge where his teeth met his jaw.

“Questions are not sins. Weakness is.” She moved his head with her hand, turning his gaze back to the scattering of bodies in the shadowy distance where ribbons of sunlight highlighted only a fraction of those who remained.

“The punishments fit the crime,” Gale said. “And everyone should be made to pay their dues.”

Gy had a hard time accepting what she said. What of Olin? Alissa? Carlin? Those who’d helped him endure his time in this prison. Those who saw that he ate and drank. Told him that resignation was it’s own worst punishment. What of the others that had helped to do his work when he’d fallen, exhausted and drained?

In a moment, her hand was on the back of his head, fingers in his unkempt, dirty hair. She grabbed hard and the pain made him let out the smallest whimper. “Say it,” she said flatly, her face so close to his that he could feel the moist heat of her words brush against his skin.

“Wh…wh…” he began with a stutter, “what about…” he bit his lip, holding back tears.

“Whatever kindness they’ve paid you,” Gale said, “whatever generosity, was little more than a diamond chip on an alligator’s tongue.”

“I don’t…” Gy stammered.

“Would you like to stay?” she asked without a hint of emotion in her voice.

Gy could tell she didn’t care what his answer was. At that moment, he was a coin within the air. He was neither heads nor tails, and, as such, he didn’t matter.

“No,” Gy said as he shifted his eyes away even as his face was held firm in Grace’s hand.

“Good,” she said, releasing her hold and standing in one fluid motion. “Remember this moment. Remember it when you find yourself marching to this door with some derelict little shit who whines about how life isn’t fair and you toss him in like an insect to antlion’s pit. Remember it when that same child stifles his tears and tries to ask you ‘why me? why me and not them?’. When that day comes, you’re going to know the answer. You will think back to this moment, and you will cry harder than you ever have before.”

Coal – pt. 1

coal

Chapter 1 : The Storm Before the Calm


He could hear the roar without. That sound of a world tearing at itself to get within. The sound of a world within trembling under the strain of that intent. And yet, even with the din that sang in the world beyond like a choir of chaos upon a violas of violence, he could hear the sound of his slippered feet as they padded across the cold stone beneath his feet.

On nights such as these, he paced. Not on the long span of crimson that rolled through his private chamber like a dragon’s tongue set out as a trail of blood to lead the unwise to their doom. Not upon dais that normally separated him from those beneath. He paced on the fringe areas where peasant feet once assembled to voice their concerns.

He could hear the heavy breathing before he saw the face emerge. A strange tinge of fear set within his stomach like a poisoned meal. He knew it was just a messenger. Messengers ran. Messengers made their money by being swift.

Assassins made their money by being silent.

The figure burst into the room and knelt quickly, his breath coming in great heaves even as he offered one hand forward with a piece of paper rolled up, wrapped in a silver ribbon, pressed with the insignia of a dove, wings spread wide, beak forward as if in flight.

He knew it held ominous tidings.

He walked to the messenger and took the parchment without a word. The messenger departed in kind.

As if the weather beyond was watching, it rang out with a clap of thunder as though the gods above were working their forge with hammers made of long dead planets. Hidden in the miasma were the layers of howls and hungry screeches.

He unrolled the letter, hands shaking. Eyes scanning the words. Then again. Then again.

Ryman has fallen.

There were no other words needed. What else need be said?

He moved to his chamber entrance like a man be marched to the gallows. At the door, his personal guard stood, still as stone. A dozen men, six to each side. The only entrance in ever since he’d barricaded the smaller doorway to the south. It made access to the kitchens a chore, but what good was food if a man wasn’t alive to eat?

He turned for a moment, and then stepped back to where his guards were posted. “You,” he said to the man nearest to his left, “go bring another dozen. If a fly so much as buzzes through this hallway, I want it turned into mist before it even reaches this door.”

“Sir!” the man replied, his head down, clenched fists pressed together like the world’s most aggressive prayer was about to be spoken.

He moved back to his dais. Every step filled with fear. The world outside sang the song of his ending times. Some terrible echo of the storm that he had let brew within his own heart.

“Maybe we deserve this,” he whispered to himself. “After everything…”

He couldn’t tell if he was crying for himself or for all that he’d done. Perhaps it was for all the things he’d never done. All the things he’d done wrong, or just hadn’t done quite right.

He slipped away into the world of dreams as tears fell from his face down to fine fabrics and ringed fingers.

He couldn’t have been asleep long, jolted awake by…something.

The world was silent. Not the silence of before. A new type of silence. That type that’s so dense and so still it feel heavy. It presses and wraps and saturates. The kind of silence like a thick, wet blanket has been wrapped around the world so that even the sharp sounds feel soft around the edges.

“…h….” he began to say. Fear snaked in and around his mind so strongly that it wrapped his very throat. Immobilized his words like a child trespassing into his parent’s bed chamber, fearful that sound would be left as evidence.

“Yes…” a whisper came.

Startled, he moved so swiftly he twisted and fell from where he’d only recently been sleeping. Elbow striking the stone and sending waves of pain through his arm.

“Gua…” he began, but the words fell short. They came out as quietly as liquid spilling from the wound in his chest. With all the fury of blood slowly pooling into his punctured lung.

In the dancing candlelight, a face moved into focus even as his own vision began to blur. One black eye and one blue – both warped by the darkness and flickering light, yet just bold enough to be unmistakable.

“Yes,” the voice said again. “You do…”

Lens

James sat in the road, necktie fluttering in the wind.

All around were the passersby and random drivers.

A massive bustling city. That’s what everyone said it’d been. Had been, but was no longer.

Great skyscrapers stretched into the sky in various states of function and failure. Roads were everything between trafficked and abandoned, clean and strewn with litter.

Those who walked by him stared, though he mostly knew it because he couldĀ feelĀ it more so than he really saw it.

All he saw was the lens.

That’s what they’d called them.

Large elliptical shapes that stood as tall as a two-story home, and nearly as wide. They rested a few inches off the ground as though hovering on some small pillow of air.

Looking at it was like looking at highly polished glass – the way it reflected, but still let you see through. The way it allowed you to see the world, but saw the warp and bend of light that gave certain objects at the edge a weird bend in how they looked.

James took a deep breath and gave a wince as he did. He didn’t want to think about it too much.

So many had left already.

Science and politics had tried to sway the deeds of man, but there was too little to be done, too many locations to deal with. No one even knew what they were.

They only knew that you could walk into them, and you were just…gone…

But to where?

Heaven? Hell? The past? The future?

James always wondered if maybe it just threw people into the bottom of the ocean, some deep watery grave where nothing ever floated out. Or maybe they were launched into space, a small army of bodies that had voluntarily ejected themselves from living so that they could float off like frozen debris in the void of stars and asteroids.

Picket lines had formed. People decried it as the work of the devil.

Crowds formed. People screamed that it was a test of God – a literal leap of faith. It was the rapture.

In time, those who didn’t walk through them simply walked around them.

Were they the brave ones? Were they the cowards? The smart ones? The foolish?

James could hear his song playing now. Sharp and shrill and rhythmic.

He remembered when she’d left him. He remembered when she’d gone through. He remembered his father doing the same. He remembered the wreckage left behind as his mother fell to pieces in her twilight years after that departure.

He remembered businesses failing. Businesses starting to try to capitalize on them. He remembered…too damn much.

He’d lost friends. Enemies. Lovers. Family.

Tires screeched and passersby became idle onlookers. Doors flew open and James could hear the feet shuffling over the ground.

He stood, arm clutching his stomach where blood was already leaving him too fast for him to hold onto fantasies of a full recovery.

“Put your hands up over your head and turn around!” the voice came out loud and harsh through the bullhorn.

“I always wanted to see the ocean,” James said as he stumbled toward the lens.

Part of him hoped they’d shoot. Part of him hoped they wouldn’t.

His hand touched the glossy surface, somehow the blood didn’t even seem to touch it, as though it existed here – but not entirely. It was cool to the touch, smooth.

“Last warning!” the voice came again, “Put your hands up above your head and turn around!”

Maybe they took people to the past.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Maybe he could find himself. Maybe he could tell himself to be…

…different…

Protector

He was not a man disposed to feeling greatly with great frequency.

People had come and gone with all the intensity of dust in the breeze. Enough impact to garner a sneeze or minor itch. Relegated to the past as quickly. Forgotten even faster.

Much and more in life was like that. Little more than sand in the hourglass. The passage fleeting. The passage pointless. Sand of little value but to measure minutes and hours and days. Whatever qualities that one could call upon to posit that, like a snowflake, they were all unique and beautiful things – they were more identical than they were dissimilar.

But her…

She was not such a thing.

Not some grain of sand.

Not some tiny, insignificant element shifting with such little meaning each time the hourglass turned and ran anew.

She was…

For all that others moved before him when we walked, swaying swift as blades of grass before the storm fall of his presence – she terrified him. Foolish though he felt, he’d barely had the nerve to be near her, let alone speak. When he had, it had been clumsy, like the words of a man with half a tongue, a hand with only thumbs trying desperately to juggle.

He blinked hard and tried to shake that moment from his mind.

He saw the man emerge from the doorway; the steps of a clumsy man. It was easy to see why the way that those nearby mirrored his gait of intoxication.

Oh, he’d seen him before. The way he pawed at her. The looks he’d given. He knew this man’s type. And now, he was here.

To what end?

To lurk and find new quarry?

While laughter erupted like thunder from the sky’s ugliest cloud, the man shifted away and walked. Walked toward the darkness of streets where light was little. The walk of a man who thought himself too important for ill and ire.

He hadn’t half expected it. The sudden rush of air when he was pulled hard and set firm against the wall. His head had made that sound like when fruit is dropped on a stone walkway.

The man gave denials, gave his professions.

Perhaps he thought he were speaking to a priest.

He didn’t care what the man said. He knew truth. He knew what he’d seen. The way she’d cried before. The way she’d hidden her eyes and drew her curtains. The way she wore darkness about her as a cloud.

He was that cloud now, and this man before him would be the rainfall of restitution.

He washed blood from his hands that evening. He’d washed blood from her world as well.

He didn’t understand how it could happen. He felt confused. There behind the massive oak where he watched her now. Her head bowed in sorrow, those around her hugging her and holding her close.

Some monster had hurt her. Some fiend had caused her woe. Someone had taken from her someone she loved. Left a wound upon her heart that bled with midnight.

He would find this demon.

He would end him as he had those who had wounded her before.

He would be her shield and blade. He would slay those who would see her harmed and cause her suffering.

He would find a way to ensure she was never sad again.