Thursday, January 10, 2013

Tooth and Claw: Whispers at the Window

Prologue, Showdown in the Desert

Thursday, June 21st, 2012
                Elias runs across the desert, taking care not to stare down the setting Sun as he settles into his runner’s trance.  He parked his truck at the rest stop on highway 40, just past the end of Red Gap Ranch Road.  He keeps the railroad tracks in sight to his right; it’s just over five miles to Canyon Diablo.  He can’t run all the way from Winslow yet, not at one go, but he’s able to run great distances (by his own standards) with sufficient breaks to rest.
                After his first mile, he takes a swig from his water bottle and splashes a little on his face.  His beard is definitely a beard, though a somewhat scraggly one.  He’s found that he can trim it without affecting his fur too much when he changes (which he does rarely).  He thinks of his pack.
                Carter and Willy, such opposites – but like two sides of the same coin.  They took such vastly different approaches, but always with the same goal in mind.  Uma, the shaman’s apprentice – tuned in, but off-key.  Maybe that, though, was due again to his standards.  She lived off the grid, like Tajo, like people would live if they had only themselves to rely on.  Of course, she still had to pass as a standard garden-variety civilian, which involved certain concessions to the surrounding culture.  No wonder she seemed ill at ease among what he thought of as the comforts of civilization.
                Then there was Tajo.  Even Carter deferred to Tajo’s judgment, whenever the shaman so much as voiced disagreement.  Carter was the alpha, unquestionably – but Tajo was the man behind the man.  He was aged, that was clear; but he moved with determination and vigor, and so did not seem old.
                And here Elias was among them, fresh young Midwest transplant from the trail business, don’t you know we take people on hikes in the desert?  Yeah.  He was gonna fit in just fine.
                Elias took no notice of his second mile, and ran on, slowing only to drink freely from his water bottle once he’d set foot on Hell Street.

                The Sun is fully down by the time Elias steps into the old saloon.  Tajo’s moon is a slim, bright crescent, and there are few clouds in the sky tonight.
                The others are waiting, but it is clear from Carter and Willy’s sweat that they have not been waiting long.  Elias nods to his pack as he sits down at the table with them.
                Once Elias is seated, Carter says, “Tajo’s seen something.  Now that we’re all here, let’s hear what it is.”
                Tajo nods at Carter, and speaks to Elias.  “We have told you how Rufio was stung, and of the fugue that was born that day.”  Elias nodded.  “It had fled into the desert, weak and frightened.  But now that it has rested, it is seeking vengeance upon us.  Tonight, it has attacked the people of Winslow.  It was at a home on the outskirts of town.”
                Carter considered for a moment before speaking.  “We’ll speak to Father Dragon about it.  Unless he tells us differently, I think we should also check the place out.  Then we’ll see where to go from there.”  Tajo, Uma, and Willy nod their agreement; Elias follows them shortly.
                Carter takes a deep breath and rolls his shoulders before saying, “Let’s be off, then.”
                The pack sets off into the night, picking up speed as they leave the end of Hell Street.  They cross under the highway in the dry wash, then rise to run over gentle slopes.  Elias had to work hard to keep up during the climb, but then lengthened his stride and deepened his breaths to recover on the easier terrain.
                They step into the Spirit Wild when they reach the fence outside the crater.  Now that Rufio is no longer with them, and Elias no longer needs to hold Uma’s guiding hand, they climb over the fence as normal rather than paying tribute to its spirit.  They descend into the crater’s bowl, Uma following Elias as he traces Tajo’s path behind Willy and Carter.
                Father Dragon speaks as the pack approaches him.  “Welcome, my children.  You have seen the work of the fugue.”
                “I have,” Tajo replies, leading the group in their salute:  two thumps over the heart, to signify that they beat both separately and as one.
                Carter says, “We will see where the fugue has struck, and hunt it down.”
                Father Dragon nods his great head in the sky, a ponderous gesture.  He says, “This is wise.  The fugue seeks to turn the flock against you.  But be wary – I have seen more than this.
                “Death is coming, from the West.  She will come here, to the crater, and you shall know her by her signs:  she smells of rose petals and citron, and she bears an hourglass.  She seeks to take something, I know not what, nor for what purpose.  Stop her, if you can – but do not waste your lives if you cannot.  We stand besieged, and can only act while we draw breath.”
                The five nod their heads.  Carter turns to them and says, “We’re in for a long haul, here.  But this is how wolves hunt.”  He nods slightly at Elias.  “We keep our prey in sight, but also keep our distance – when it’s time to strike, we strike together and bring our prey down.”
                Carter turns back to the dragon.  He nods his great head once more, and says, “Yes.  Now run, my children, while the trail is fresh.”
                They jog up the trail out of the crater, climb another fence, and head East into the desert, returning to the Outside after a few miles.  As the miles go by, Red Gulch spreads out below them.  They stop after a time – Carter sends Uma and Tajo to gather food, Willy and Elias to gather fuel for a fire.  In fifteen minutes, Willy has a fire going with a little spit over it, and the hunters return with a pair of rabbits each.  They skin the rabbits with flaked stone knives, and Willy cooks them over the fire.  One rabbit goes to Carter, and the rest of them eat the other three in pieces.
                While Willy cooks, Uma takes a smartphone out of her pocket and holds the power button for a second to turn it on.
                “I thought you were all about being off the grid,” Elias says with a puzzled look.  Uma looks back at him with equal puzzlement.  “A smartphone?”
                “I don’t use it as a phone,” Uma says.  “And the Moon wasn’t always my mother.  I grew up around computers.  I know how they’ve changed.  This is a handy tool, in the Information Age – it would be a shame to let it go to waste.”
                Elias thinks this over.  “So,” he says, “You’re off the grid, except when it’s handy?”
                “Hardly,” Uma says.  “Willy ‘lost’ this phone, and I’ve found it, and done all sorts of shady things to it.”  She smiles.  “Now it’s just an annoying little pest to the network.  And there are so many places to bite.”
                Elias leaves her to her tool and stretches his muscles.  They have a long way to run, yet.
                “It’s at a place along Well Field Road,” Uma says after some minutes.  “Just West of the airport.”  Carter nods, and Uma powers down the smartphone to put it back in her pocket.

                After their dinner, the pack sets off again.  They step into the Wild as they near the roads, and find the address that Uma indicated.  The front porch of the two story house is closed off by yellow tape, and the door is sealed with large stickers that detect, but do not prevent, intrusion.  Carter leads them around the house and they find a balcony over the back porch.  A large antenna runs up the side of the house, support struts zig-zagging up its triangular frame.  Carter climbs up the antenna and over the porch railing, and the others follow one by one.
                “Dammit,” Elias says, “They sealed this one, too.”
                “Of course they did,” Willy says.  “Doesn’t matter.”  He steps up to a window and places his hand on it.  Whispering to it near the latch, he gives a little bit of his own spirit and the latch opens.  Willy opens the window and steps through into a master bedroom.
                Spirits of sleep and love inhabit the room, but they are frightened, and they hide in the corners.  Carter leads the pack into the hallway through the open door, glancing into the empty master bathroom along the way.  In the hallway, they pause as a fledgling spirit of investigation dutifully approaches them, examining every inch of the ground before it as it walks.  It has not grown enough to speak, it only carries out the lingering purpose that created it, and it takes almost no notice of the pack as it passes them.
                Through the hallway and down the stairs, they find the living room:  an outline is marked upon the floor, and bloodstains are on the carpet and the couch and the walls.  Amid the labels and tags and other crime scene paraphernalia, a dozen tiny spectral scorpions crawl around the drying blood; at their size, they still feast on the fading life spirit glowing dimly where the blood was spilled.
                The apprentice asks her teacher, “Do we stamp them out?  Or leave them be?”
                Tajo considers the scorpions and replies, “Death is natural.  These are creatures of the fugue, yet fugues too are natural.  In their state, they pose no threat to us.”  He looks at Uma.  “What would you do?”
                Uma thinks carefully before answering.  “They won’t find much of anything smaller than them, and they will fade over time even if they are not devoured by greater spirits.  The fugue now seeks to upset the balance, yet it returns to the balance just the same as it sheds pieces of itself into the Wild.”
                Tajo nods.  Willy then says, “Well, I could use some replenishing of the old balance, myself,” and steps forward to catch one of the tiny arachnids.  He gets one worried about his left hand, moving it in and out of the spirit’s vision, staying out of striking distance.  The scorpion turns toward Willy’s hand, dances from side to side as if to size up its opponent, and rears back to charge – then quick as a snake, Willy snatches it up by the base of its tail with his right hand.  Pulling off the stinger, he raises the rest of the spectral arachnid to his face, and the gossamer thing seems to fade into Willy’s mouth, like smoke rings being blown in reverse.  “There we go,” he says, “More balanced already!”
                They walk into the kitchen and behold another horror:  three more outlines, but the size of children.  Much more blood, and many more scorpions.  Willy spots a knife block on the counter – the large chef’s knife is missing.

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