Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tooth and Claw: Prologue

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law –
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed.
 - In Memoriam A.H.H., Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.
 - Budget of Paradoxes, Augustus De Morgan

That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die.
 - The Nameless City, H.P. Lovecraft

Prologue:
Beginnings from Endings
May 21, 2012

                Thomas Morgan slaps his own face, dragging down his hand with exaggerated care.  A hush falls over the crowd seated opposite him, as if he had struck a gavel and called for order.  Edward Cochran stands, alone, facing his judge; Edward, alone, remains deliberately standoffish.
                “You don’t get it, Edward,” Thomas says at last.  “We have these rules for reasons, reasons which are borne out not only in long-standing tradition, but also in our research literature.  Your callous disregard for our ways and your victim’s well-being has put them both into jeopardy:  now we must deal with the legal ramifications of your actions to protect our way of life, and we must figure out what to do with the young Miss Swain.”
                “I don’t see why she can’t join our society.”
                “That is not the issue, Edward.  Of course Miss Swain will be taken into our care – your foolhardiness has necessitated that already.  But she is in for a difficult life.”
                “Della knew the risks,” Edward replied.  “I explained everything to her.”
                “You told her what she wanted to hear,” Thomas says in a deliberate monotone.
                “Uh, yeah, because it appealed to her in the first place.”  Thomas folds his arms at Edward’s flippant delivery.  “She wanted it.  You can ask her, even now.”
               “This is not about her desires, or yours.  This is about our statutes, and you have committed a statutory crime.  You have even admitted your guilt before a –“
                “I did no such thing!”  A gasp rustles through the audience at Edward’s interruption.  He bows his head, raises his hands, and clarifies:  “I have admitted to taking certain actions, but I deny that what I did is criminal.”
                “She’s too young.  Miss Swain is simply not mature enough to handle the experiences coming her way – experiences which you have set into motion.”
                “Well, that’s precisely where I disagree with you.  Sir.”
                “Very well, then.  Present your case, Mister Cochran.  Why should I believe that Della Swain is in fact emotionally developed enough to handle the changes brought about by infection?”
                “Because I laid out the pros and cons for her, and she clearly and distinctly articulated her concerns about the complications, but decided that the advantages outweighed the costs.  She made an informed and rational choice.”
                “Informed, my left eye!”  Thomas’ voice echoes in the chamber, and he takes a moment to savor the wide-eyed fear that flashes across Edward’s face.  For once, it seemed that the whelp had some sense of the gravity of his situation.  “You told her that our infection works, and I’m quoting here, ‘Just like in the Dusky Heartthrobs stories,’ an obvious falsehood.”
                “No, she asked me if it was ‘Just like in the Dusky Heartthrobs stories,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, pretty much.’  There are differences, of course, but they are subtle and not of significant pragmatic consequence.”
                “What?”  Thomas made no effort to hide the incredulity on his face.  “First off, saying, ‘Yeah, pretty much,’ will send the message that the reality of our infection is in fact essentially similar to that Dusky Heartthrobs foolishness, which it most definitely is not.  Your semantic distinction absolutely fails to impress me.  Second, these differences are far from ‘subtle and not of significant pragmatic consequence.’  What on Earth could make you say such a thing?”
                “Look, Sir,” Edward began by opening his hands and stance to Thomas, but the Elder’s withering gaze put a stop to Edward’s showmanship.  He drops his hands back to his sides and continues plainly, “In Dusky Heartthrobs, vampires can’t go out in the daytime because it would out them to the normal humans.  In reality, we can’t go out in the daytime for prolonged periods because we are lethally sensitive to ultraviolet light.  Either way, you stay inside when the Sun’s up, right?”
                “You will have a hard time convincing me, or anyone else, that there is an equivalence between being too beauteous for mortal eyes and being unable to enjoy the Sun’s warmth ever again.”  Edward stammers for a moment before responding.
                “The rationale is different, but the behavior is the same.”
                “Nonsense!  One is a half-baked excuse for being Sun-shy; the other is a debilitating affliction, a veritable curse!  If this were Dusky Heartthrobs, I could enjoy a sunset on the beach so long as I was safely away from prying eyes.  But as it stands, I can only see a sunset in pictures and videos – for the rest of my life!  These are radically different behavioral prescriptions, Mister Cochran.  Your excuses are failing you.”
                “Well, ask Della how she feels about it.  I still don’t think I’ve done anything wrong, as long as she’s happy.”
                “Hmph.”  Thomas leans back in his chair.  Everyone, Edward included, knew that he was about to deliver his final verdict.  “Well, then our course is clear.  Her happiness, as you well know, shall diminish along with all her other sophisticated emotions as her infection progresses.  We cannot use her future testimony now, since we do not yet have it; you are legally entitled to a speedy trial, so we cannot wait for it; and you shall not be tried twice for the same offense, so we cannot re-open the case at that point.  Nevertheless, I do not need to convince you of your own guilt to deliver my verdict, and I am in fact explicitly empowered to rely on my experience in these situations.  In light of your recalcitrance during this trial, continuing to display the disrespect for law and custom which led to your initial transgression – laws and customs, I might add, which make your lifestyle possible in the first place – I hereby sentence you to death by exsanguination.  Do you have any final words, Edward Cochran?”
                Edward’s eyes flit back and forth.  He cannot meet his Elder’s gaze, cannot focus his mind.  Thoughts of his impending demise trigger his most basic fight-or-flight instincts, and it is all he can do to shut out the overpowering dread from his lizard brain and try to formulate a plan.  At last, he says, “I see this whole situation as an invented problem, internal to our society.  No mortal court in the land would convict me of a crime, so I don’t see why I should be punished when I’ve caused no problem in society at large.  Since that is what our own laws and customs are designed to prevent – problems in society at large – then I feel that I have obeyed the spirit of our law, even though I have violated the letter.”
                Thomas gave the condemned man due consideration.  “A deft rationalization,” he said with a sigh, “But sadly exemplary of the very reasons I cited for your sentence.  It is not enough that you could not be convicted, you must act so that our very existence is concealed from humanity at large.  The purpose of our laws is not to find balance, the purpose is to conceal ourselves from mortals and support whatever equilibrium emerges from that higher standard of behavior.  Your argumentative skills do not reflect the deeper understanding that I would expect of someone your age.  Instead, you abuse your rhetorical acumen to justify hanging around high school girls when you’ve got more than a full century of living behind you.  You’re a pedophile, Edward, and I believe our society is improved by ridding itself of you.”  Thomas interrupted his monologue to glance briefly in the direction of Della Swain.  “Unfortunately, your stain lives on in the young Miss Swain.  It remains to be seen if she shall recover from the grievous harm you have done to her.  Herman, please gather your men and carry out Mister Cochran’s sentence.”
                Herman nods and turns to leave the room.

                Tajo sits in the middle of the candlelit basement, a great stillness upon him.  It might be said that he was sitting still, but his companions could see the slow rhythm of his diaphragm, the flaring of his nostrils, the slight change in posture from deep and even breathing.  But though Tajo was in motion, a deep tranquility permeated every aspect of his being, and so it would be fairer to say that a great stillness was upon him than to say that he was merely sitting still.
                Carter, Uma, and Willy wait in silence as Tajo performs his ritual meditation, each according to his or her demeanor.  Carter’s attention is divided among the group, though his gaze lingers longer upon the shaman than the others; Uma, Tajo’s protégé, stares intently at Tajo and tries to divine his thoughts; Willy paces around the room, watchful and restless.
                The last of the incense burns out.  At last, Tajo opens his eyes.
                “I have returned,” the shaman says.  The others are silent as their spiritual leader collects his thoughts.  “Rufio is not long for this world.  His next moon shall be his last, barring some unforeseen intervention.  We must finalize our plans for his departure and replacement.”
                “All right,” Carter says.  “Since time’s short, I think Elias, the trail guide, is our best bet.  He sets his own schedule, his job makes for a good fit with our ways, and he already has a wealth of knowledge about the area.  I’m willing to entertain other ideas, but Elias is my favored choice.”
                “I still think that park ranger, Stephen, is a good candidate,” Willy says.  “He pulls down a good salary, lives well below his means, and his job gives him certain advantages that could be quite useful to us in a pinch.”
                “Pack life would be too much of a burden to his professional life,” Uma replies.  “He can’t control his schedule enough to truly immerse himself in our traditions, and taking enough time off won’t leave him the flexibility for real emergencies.”
                “Stephen is strong of spirit,” Tajo adds, “And his instincts are sharp.  But Elias has the marks of a good fit:  his sense of balance is more central to his being, and he has a heart for the natural law that is unclouded by obligation to mortal law.  Stephen is too much a man.  Elias has more of the Wild in him.”
                “That’s better than money and a government job,” Carter adds.  “Stephen’s assets are useful, no doubt, but Elias is a better fit for us, and that’s what counts.”
                “I defer to your judgment,” Willy says, biting back disagreement.  He drops his eyes, and scuffs his shoes on the dirt floor.
                “Then we’re agreed,” Carter says.  “Bring Elias by to meet Rufio.  We make plans for his initiation rite soon as we can pin down his schedule.  Willy, you need to cut ties with Stephen – I know you still think he’s an asset, but if he’s not one of us, then he’s a liability.”
                “How the Hell do I do that,” Willy asks.  “I’ve been friends with the guy for over a year, he’ll know something’s up if I just drop off the face of the Earth.”
                “Well, that makes you the expert on how to deal with him, not me.”  Carter smiles and claps his hand on Willy’s shoulder.  “So take charge, man.  I trust your judgment.”  Willy grumbles, but nods his assent.
                “Uma, you will perform Elias’ initiation,” Tajo says.  “It is a simple thing, but crucial, and I do not know that I shall have another chance to instruct you before my own time has come.”  Uma nods silently, contemplating the eventual passing of her teacher, and what it shall mean for her to be shaman.  “We should speak to the Dragon about our decision, and that will be enough for tonight.”
                After snuffing out the candles, the four of them walk wordlessly up the old steps and across the creaking wooden floor.  The dusty windows filter out all but the brightest moonlight, and as tonight is the new moon – Willy’s moon – the stars manage only to frost the panes with a dirty glow.
                They step out into the chill desert air.  The night is clear and still.  The four turn South and break into a jog, speaking not a word, footfalls sounding together as they pick up speed in unison.  They leave the ghost town behind them at a dead run, a train whistle sounding in the distance.
                Yesterday, there had been a solar eclipse.  Prominent celestial events, with the overflow of psychic energy they bring, almost always trigger some manner of mischief in the Spirit Wild – even your garden variety human will notice when it spills over into the Waking World.  The ancients knew this, giving us words like “lunacy,” “lunatic,” even “loony,” describing the insanity that the Moon can bring.  The revolution of a celestial body refers not only its revolving, but also its revolting, and so every interesting alignment in the sky above brings with it a time of upheaval below.
                It therefore came as no surprise when the desert spirits sought once again to drive out the intruder from the sky, the dragon spirit who descended from the heavens eons ago.  Carter and his pack gathered to defend their Father spirit from the aggressors (in the Wild, of course, since the eclipse occurred in broad daylight, as solar eclipses are wont to do).  The battle went decidedly in their favor, the desert denizens being a motley and undisciplined lot; but Rufio gave chase, over-eager to see their enemies destroyed outright.  In their desperation, the fleeing spirits shed their individual identities and joined together in a Fugue:  a raging abomination that lives only for chaos and destruction.  Rufio turned back, but too late – the Fugue was upon him, in the form of a great scorpion.  By the time the others caught up to him, the Fugue had skittered off into the Wild, leaving heart-stung Rufio writhing in agony.
                The venom was strong and it ran deep, filled with the fear and rage of the Fugue itself.  Tajo’s medicine could not cure it or draw it out; Father Dragon could burn it off, but in doing so he would doubtless burn Rufio away as well, leaving only the barest core of his being.  He would live, but in a comatose state, useless to the pack.  Better for him to die, an object lesson in the perils of carelessness, than to weaken the pack with a lame member – especially with a Fugue on the loose.
                It was with these thoughts that the pack came to the dry wash just west of the highway interchange.  Sliding down the rocky slope, they cleared their heads of yesterday’s events and focused on the run ahead.  Some two hundred yards further, they passed under the divided highway, then climbed back up to the high ground and skirted around the ruins of Two Guns, Arizona before resuming their reflections as they ran to the massive crater where their Father Dragon awaited them.

                Somewhere deep underground, Dennis snaps out of his reverie.  She is coming back.  If the whistling is any indication, then at least she’s in a good mood.  The tune is difficult to make out, the echoes play with it until it is distorted beyond recognition, but the lilting notes at least sound happy.  Closer now, some children’s song, it’s on the tip of his tongue – or it would be, if he weren’t gagged.
                The whistling stops as she enters the chamber.
                “Hello, Dennis.  How are you this evening?”  Is it evening?  He’s had no sense of time for the last… no telling.  He can’t even measure by meals, as she feeds him irregularly, if decently.
                “Fuh-fuh.”
                “Better than rotten, no?”  He can practically hear her head tilting in the perfect darkness.  Shuffling sounds, patting sounds, she’s fiddling with some gear in a bag.  A chuckle.  “You are in for a treat tonight, my friend.”
                “Um mot yuh fruhm.”
                “Come, now.  I found you passed out on the streets of Harrisonburg, homeless and starving.  I carried you through the night – I could have dragged you to this godsforsaken Hellhole by your heels, you know.  I have kept you fed, and watered, and cleaned.  I even kept you liquored up, to stop your incessant whining.”  Well, that was all true, but it was hardly the whole story.  She had also chained him hand and foot when he tried to escape, and then fastened his chains to the cave wall when he had tried to crawl out, and then gagged him with strips of his own dirty clothes when he wouldn’t stop screaming.
                Dennis sighs.  The hamster bottle feeding in through his gag bubbles up, forcing water down the tube as the air rushes in.  He coughs on it, bringing forth more droplets, more coughing.  He thrashes his head about, loosing the hamster bottle from its strap, allowing him to cough without choking on water spray again.
                “Done with your water, then.”  He hears plastic scrape stone briefly as she snatches it up – how can she see?  Whatever.  One of the many unanswerable questions he’s had about his captor.  Like how she convinced him to follow her once he’d woken up.  Perhaps “convinced” was too strong a word – he asked questions, she redirected them, and he no longer felt curious until something jarred him back into wondering why he was following some strange woman into the hills.  Then another question, another redirection, and he lost his train of thought again.
                Silence.
                Dennis hears himself breathing, feels his blood rushing through his veins, the resounding clink of chains as he shifts on the stone beneath him.  Did he fall asleep?  Had he dreamed her return?  He quiets himself, holds his breath – utter silence.
                “Ah yuh fih veh?”
                “Hush,” she says, “I must concentrate.”
                A few moments more, and a flame erupts upon a golden torch, her open hands on either side of it.  The torch is attached to some apparatus, he knows not what.  She smiles, kneeling before it, and opens her eyes.
                “There we are, Dennis.  Olympic fire, stolen straight from the torch-bearer.  Does it not captivate?”  He stares at it, blinking, eyes adjusting to the first light he has seen in days, if not weeks.  But it looks like any other fire to him.  “Ahh, if only you could see it with my eyes.  Perhaps you may, yet.  One never knows what the future holds, true?”  He shrugs, sighs through his nose.  He never thought he’d be here.  Hell, he never thought he’d be homeless.  He never thought he’d be an alcoholic.  He never thought he’d get fired.  True every way he can think of it.  She regards the flame for a moment more, then turns to him and says, “Smile, my friend.  We are on candid camera.”  Then adds, after a beat, “Why, of course I can!”  Talking to the flame, evidently.  Because why the Hell not?
                The woman then turns to the items she brought tonight:  laid out neatly in a row upon a folded burlap sack, there is a knife sheathed in ballistic cloth, a slightly battered rose, a fruit that looks like a pale and lumpy lime, some kind of stylus, and his discarded water bottle.  She sings lazily as she works, to the tune she was whistling before:
Alouette, gentille alouette
Alouette, je te plumerai
                She draws the knife and slices the fruit into quarters – it’s quite fragrant – then sings the refrain once more as she pulls the petals from the rose in bunches, jamming them into the fruit segments.
Alouette, gentille alouette
Alouette, je te plumerai
                She picks up the stylus and begins carving some symbols into the knife.  As she sings the next part of the song, Dennis remembers what it’s about.  He couldn’t remember before, because he hadn’t heard it in many years and was used to hearing it much faster.
Je te plumerai les ailes, je te plumerai les ailes
Et le dos, et le dos
Et le cou, et le cou
Et la tête, et la tête
Alouette, alouette
Aaahhh…
                She whistles the refrain again.  It’s a children’s song for teaching body parts in French, like Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.  Except it’s about a lark – a lark that you pluck, bit by bit – a lark that you are going to eat.
                A cold pit settles into Dennis’ stomach.  He swallows hard, and begins to sweat despite the damp chill of the cave.
                Her work done, the woman shuffles on her knees over to Dennis and raises the knife to his face.  He backs away, struggling in his bonds, shaking his head and trying to scream.
                “What?  Oh!”  She looks at the knife, suddenly self-conscious.  “No, no, relax – ça  ira, ça ira.”  She places a cool, dry hand on his cheek, and he can feel his heart slow within his chest.  The she pulls at the gag, and cuts it away with a flick of her wrist.  Easy-peasy.  What was he ever worried about?
                She turns back to the sectioned fruit, jammed full of rose petals, and brings a slice back in each hand.  “Here, eat,” she says, and lifts one to his mouth.  He bites into the dry pith, the moist petals – but it is bitter, and he spits it out.  “I was afraid of that.  Here, try again.  Try harder.”  She places her hand on his cheek once more, he jumps at a light spark of static, but when she puts the wedge in his mouth he manages to chew the tough pith and swallow both it and the petals.  “Very good.  And now,” she trails off as she turns away once more.  She returns with the knife, closes her eyes and breathes deeply inward.
                Can someone normally breathe in that much?
                But before Dennis can think too long about it, his captor opens her eyes and plunges the blade into his gut.  Shocked, he gasps – and she presses her mouth over his, not in the manner of a kiss, but that of administering CPR.  Her breath enters him –
                – and suddenly Dennis is no longer himself.  He looks around with eyes not his own, seeing as if from a far ways off.  The pain in his gut is intense, but distant, as though shrouded in sack-cloth.  Is that… what exactly is sack-cloth?
                “How good to see you, Ferraille,” he says in a voice too even for his predicament.  How do I know her name? he wonders.
                “Hush, we are being watched.”
                “Oh?”  The world shimmers before his eyes, the flame glows brighter, more lovely – That’s what she was talking about – and there, behind it, are two women and a man looking through what Dennis could only describe as a portal.  “I see,” he says.  With a twitch and a blink, the bluish oval snaps shut like an eye.  “There.  Now we have our privacy.  I shall teach you some wards to prevent such intrusions in the future.”
                “I train for you, I wander for you, I steal for you, I battle for you.”  Still upon her knees, she lowers her head briefly to the cave floor before him.
                “Indeed, my faithful servant.  The fire is lovely.  It will burn long enough?”
                “Long enough.  It is the simplest thing, and must be taken now or very soon.  The rest can wait.”
                “But not too long.”
                “No, not too long.  This is only the first.”
                “Good.  Things are in motion, and soon all shall be aligned.  Then, all balanced, we will only need a small push to tip them in our favor.”  Dennis feels his lungs breathe deep, the wound in his belly but a dull ache.  “So:  that is fire.  What of air, earth, water, life, and death?”
                “Earth, I know.  Water, I have a plan.  Air is tricky, I will need to draw it out from a counterbalance – but how else do we make seven from six?”  She shrugs.  “Life and death are easy enough.”
                “Very good, very good.  And no one has noticed you here?”
                “Not a one.  Almost, when your vessel tried to escape, but I was lucky and no one was near.”  Vessel?  I’m not a “vessel!”  I’m Dennis!  But it is a final flare, a dying gasp; he is fading.
                “Hmm.”  His brow furrows, he glances downward, then meets her eye again.  “Well, luck has a way with this sort of thing.  I doubt we can be stopped in any case.  Just the same, I’ll see if the twins have some advice.”
                “Good, good.  And those wards you promised?”
                “This vessel fades.  A veil, I think, you can handle on your own.  Make a few.  But I shall send ravens to teach you a proper ward, since I see you have set up camp here.  Until then, I shall use what precious power I have left to keep you safe from scrying eyes.”  He winks.
                “Very well.  Until next we meet.”
                “Yes.  Goodbye, Ferraille,” and Dennis slips away to the Void.  His last insipid thought is, Hey, that rhymes…


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