Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Chapter Thirty-Three

A dream, a phantom forest where his son cries in the dark and three little pigs flee, squealing, through a flurried storm of hay and hammers. The moon is a mask, a demon in a mirror, watching down on them all.

The Big Bad Wolf runs, howling, away from the clink-clank-clink of metallic footsteps. He cannot see who is coming for him, not here in the dark, but he knows that one is quite beautiful, the other quite plain, and they are coming to kill him.

A dream.

In his fevered, weakened state, atop a messy pile of furs and silks, sleeps the Wolf. His paws twitch feebly as he helplessly runs, runs, runs from his destiny, not knowing that it has already arrived.

And there is a knock at the door.

He ignores it, preferring the painlessness of sleep, and can barely muster the strength to open one bleary eye.

“Little wolf, little wolf, let me in,” comes a creaking, simpering voice.

Without thinking, the Wolf responds, “Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.” The door is locked, he tells himself. He is alone. The drawbridge was raised. He must still be asleep.

“Then I’ll huff,” sings the voice, “and I’ll puff, and I’ll...”

A clatter of broken wood, and the door crashes open, impaled on the horn of a large purple rhinoceros.

"Blow your house in!" the rhino finishes. It cackles wildly.

The Wolf jumps in shock at the sight of the giant laughing animal. His ribcage flares in pain at the sudden movement.

Another person glides into the room, undisturbed by the rhino’s presence. Her nose wrinkles in disgust at the smell of the dying Wolf, marring her otherwise beautiful features. She is clad in black traveling attire, the only decoration being the elegant crown upon her brow.

"The Queen..." gasps the Wolf, and she looks at him - through him, it seems - with heavily lidded eyes.

"Quiet," she says imperiously, and the rhinoceros stops laughing.

She gazes around the room at the many abandoned treasures. “Here it is,” she says shortly, and walks to the Magic Mirror.

There is a horrible burst of magic - for a moment, the Wolf cannot breathe - and the rhinoceros disappears. In its place is a squat, warty woman with an unhealthy pallor to her skin and hair faded to the color of thunderclouds at sunset.

“I’ll get it, your majesty,” she says in the same creaky voice as the rhinoceros. She jumbles forward to pick up the Mirror, which is nearly as big as her.

The Queen turns to the Wolf. "The man who brought this, what happened to him?"

The Wolf opens and closes his mouth several times before realizing he doesn't know. He answers as such.

"Ungrateful, lying swine," she mutters, though her anger is not directed at the Wolf, but at the one who stole from her. "Probably fled through the Door with the rest of them."

Without another word, the Queen turns to leave. The small crone grunts and hefts the Mirror.

"Wait..." says the Wolf with a ragged, labored breath. "What about me?"

The Queen looks back and raises a thin eyebrow.

"The Mirror,” he whines. “It said you would come. Both of you. It said you would ease my pain."

"Did it?" says the Queen, and she looks into the Mirror. Dark and wicked thoughts cloud her face.

"Yeah. So, so... please... do it. Please."

She looks to the Wolf, back to the Mirror again. And she strides away.

The crone asks, eagerly, "Shall I do it, dearie? Just a quick change to a snake, it'll only take a moment."

"No, Madame," says the Queen. "Come along. We have much to do."

The old woman sighs, looks hungrily at the Wolf, and then stumps along after her.

The Wolf listens weakly as their footsteps echo down the hallway. He doesn’t have the strength to hold up his head, and already he is fading into his dream forest.

Before long, he is asleep once more, a shattered door the only sign that he had ever received any visitors at all.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Chapter Thirty-Two

A child’s sobs echo through the empty streets.

He’s been following this intriguing sound for some time now, padding closer and closer.

His stomach screams at him to run and leap and kill and feast - it's been so long since he’s eaten - but this is an unfamiliar land, a dangerous land, and so he remains cautious.

Better to risk losing the meal, he decides, than to die with his hunger sated. After all, the dead cannot be far away, hunting in their own pathetic way.

Such a hateful land, the Lion thinks to himself, and his face darkens. The stone ground chafes his paws. There are no tall grasses to stalk through, invisible and unheard. And there are so few trees to offer shade and protection. Even worse, there is no river where his prey might gather to drink. Hateful.

But a child, a helpless child, still crying, still alive... The Lion’s pulse quickens as he turns a final corner, the first predator to reach the prize.

And he stops short at the sight of a small, wooden boy, flavorless as a tree, slumped against a Door.

The Lion’s disappointment is short-lived – he’d never seen such an oddity before and his interest is piqued.

After a moment’s observation, he asks, “Why are you crying?” in his deep, silky voice.

The boy looks up, and the Lion is amazed at how the painted eyes move toward his. Most interesting.

“I’m lost,” says the child.

“As are we all,” says the Lion. He steps closer and regards the boy with his yellow gaze.

“But you should keep quiet,” he continues in a voice warm with concern. “There are things in this land that might hurt you.”

“You mean the dead ones?” asks the boy.

“Yes. The dead ones.”

“They don’t bother me,” he says in a hopeless voice. “I’m made of wood. I’m not real.” More tears trickle down his varnished face.

Intrigued, the Lion steps closer. There’s something about the boy’s scent – one never encountered in the Wildlands, the tingling smell of magic – that revolts him, but curiosity compels him forward.

Unbidden, he licks at the child’s cheek. The boy’s chuckle goes unnoticed as the Lion marvels at the taste of salt.

“Oh, I’d say you’re real,” says the Lion. “Very real indeed.” He sits on his lean haunches and regards the boy carefully.

“Where are you from?” he asks, his voice hungrier than before.

The boy points a finger at the Door behind him. There are symbols carved into the wood, meaningless and illegible to the Lion.

“Only I can’t go back,” explains the child. “The Pig bricked it up from the inside.” His painted eyes fill with tears once more. “But he never followed me through. I don’t know why. And now I’m stuck here, alone.”

Though lost in thought, the Lion nods attentively at the boy’s story. How much more useful, he thinks, is this little wooden boy than an entire pack of hyenas. Than all the creatures in the Wildlands, perhaps.

“No,” purrs the Lion, and he gently places a paw on the boy’s shoulder. He smiles a scarred smile. “You’re not alone.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Chapter Thirty-One

A little town. A quiet village. Dawn rises.

A squat, wide-faced man peeks over the town wall. He is propped upon the bird-like shoulders of the candlestick maker, and the balance is precarious, at best.

At first, he grimaces and shuts his eyes tight, so certain is he that the beasts will attack, but nothing happens. Slowly, he opens his eyes, letting in the morning light.

There is nothing there.

He looks around, down the dusty path, across the misty meadows beyond, but other than the lazily drifting gunsmoke, there is no movement. The ground is littered with many of the beasts, to be sure, but they lie still and lifeless.

“All clear,” the squat man says softly. Then he remembers his duty, his important duty, and he repeats himself. “All clear! All clear!”

More of the townspeople lift themselves up over the wall to look about, and the words are confirmed. “All clear! All clear!”

Like a spring shower, a cheer bursts forth amongst the villagers behind the wall. The candlestick maker hollers and jumps, and the squat man quickly falls from his shoulders to the ground.

But all too quickly he is pulled to his feet as the men of the town slap each other on the back, embrace, and kiss each other on both cheeks.

“Good work,” says the leader of the men, a brawny fellow with flowing, dark hair and a chiseled chin. “Good work, all of you!”

There is another round of cheers, and the tavernkeeper’s baritone voice rings over them, “All thanks to you!”

More cheering, this the loudest of all, and the Town Champion basks warmly. “A careful aim and a steady hand, that’s all it takes to repel these beasts,” he announces, and mimes firing his blunderbuss. “Even dead, they’re no match for me.”

“By my count, there’s over a hundred of those creatures that won’t be killing our livestock or snatching our children. Not anymore!”

There is a murmur amongst them the villagers. A hundred kills? In a single night? Anyone would consider this to be exaggeration had it come from the mouth of anyone but the Town Champion.

And in truth, the town has much to thank him for. It had been an endless, horrifying night, but with the morning sun, all of the men stand alive with nary a scratch among them.

It had been the Town Champion who ordered the women and children into the center of town, barricaded safely in the cathedral, after all.

He had been the one to pass out his collection of firearms, enough to stock a small army. It was his idea to divide the able-bodied men and boys into those who would shoot, those who would reload, those who would shine their lanterns, and those who would wield the long poles to repel the beasts back over the town wall.

“And the poles,” says Old Jacques, so feeble he could only shine a lamp, “they were genius. Pure genius!”

“Now, now,” the Town Champion smiles with practiced modesty. “It was simple, really. So simple it was…”

“Genius!” finishes Old Jacques, and he cackles merrily.

The pole-bearers raise their weapons in triumph, and the rest roar another three cheers. Then the Town Champion motions with his hand, and the people fall silent.

“We must let the women know they’re safe. But I still want men at the ready, a dozen of them, watching the wall for when more of the beasts arrive.

“In the meantime,” he looks around quickly and finds the baker (who shined a lantern) and the butcher (who, with his strong forearms, had been assigned a pole).

“You two,” he points a broad finger in their direction, “we must eat. Start preparing food. Enough for the whole day! Enough for the whole town! Tonight, before sundown, we will feast!”

The two nod eagerly and rush down the familiar streets to their neighboring stores. The butcher still carries his pole. One day, perhaps, it will be considered a badge of honor.

The Town Champion smiles at his plan. There is only so much time before the meat spoils, he concludes. And an afternoon feast will help prepare everyone for another gunpowder-filled night. And it will certainly help with morale. Yes, he thinks, a most wisely thought-out plan.

Meanwhile, he’s given himself the honor of letting the womenfolk know the good news. After wetting down his hair, he proudly and decisively knocks on the cathedral door three times, the sign that all is well.

The cathedral doors open, and silhouetted against the sun is the brilliant figure of the Town Champion. If he’s spent a sleepless night, the women can’t tell.

And his henchman, the squat, wide-faced man, clambers up the church tower to ring the bell, to let everyone within earshot know that this little town, this quiet village, is still safe from the beasts.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Chapter Thirty

Nothingness and darkness, a window reflecting an empty world.

It senses someone’s approach – a weak, wounded heartbeat – but there is no need to prepare.

Let it come. Let it come.

Shuffling, dragging steps.

Ragged, wet breaths.

A long pause.

And finally, a tentative, fearful scratch at the window.

“Mirror, mirror,” comes a hesitant, muffled voice, “let me see.” It takes a moment to construct the proper finale to the summoning. “When will someone come help me?”

It’s a pitiful, clumsy rhyme, spoken without conviction. But the words were said, and the words are power, and the demon must answer the call.

A mask-like visage melts up from the emptiness of the mirror. With empty eyes, it takes in the unfamiliar surroundings. It matters little, all that is of consequence are the summoner and the question.

The demon in the mirror gazes upon its caller, and its black mouth curls into the smallest of smiles. An animal. How amusing. It must have taken great courage for the beast to even approach.

And a wounded wolf – no longer very big, no longer very bad - cowers before the Mirror. His blood-caked fur bristles at the powerful, terrible magic. Like all animals, he fears the unnatural power of the Mirror.

The demon looks down on the Wolf and considers the question to be one wisely posed. The creature is dying, slowly but surely, and will certainly perish unless it is helped.

Mildly curious, still amused, the demon looks backward to the days before. It sees a pig’s hammer fall, again and again, on the Wolf. A desperate strike against mouth and rib and paw. A meal hard-won. A life hard-lost. Revenge had its price.

Out of duty, out of slavery, it looks forward to the days beyond. And then, rewarding such a graceless question with a graceless answer, the demon murmurs its prophecy in a dark, hollow voice:

“Two will come ere the full moon fall. One stands short, one stands tall. One is a beauty, one is plain. They’ll be the ones to end your pain.”

It takes a moment to savor the dismay in the Wolf’s yellow eyes, and then fades away into the darkness.

The voice of the Wolf echoes after the demon, lost in the murk of eternity. “That’s not an answer!” he howls. “That sounds like they’re gonna kill me! They’re supposed to save me!”

But the spell has been satisfied, the question has been answered, and the Mirror only shows a desperate, broken Wolf, trapped in an empty world.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Part II

The little elephant tries not to cry.

Although he cannot understand what they’re saying, he knows that they’re arguing about him, over something he’s done.

One of the chipmunks, the taller one with the dark nose, chatters furiously. His squeaks and shrieks have attracted a small crowd to this particular oak tree. They stare up greedily with their vacant eyes, and their fingertips are broken and ripped from trying to climb the hard, ungiving bark.

Every now and then the angry chipmunk jumps up and down to relay a particular point, and occasionally he points toward the hole in the tree trunk, the hole that had contained all those delicious peanuts.

The smaller chipmunk, the one with the sleepy eyes, nods shamefully. He cannot bear to look at his companion. He isn’t saying much, either, though when he’d first crossed the elephant’s path, his voice was so soothing and silly that it was clear he was a friend.

But that had been before. Now that the elephant’s done Something Very Bad, they’re sure to turn him out, much like he’d been turned out, so long ago, by the other citizens of the circus.

“I’m sorry!” the elephant would say if he knew how to speak. He didn’t realize the peanuts were for all of them. He’d only known that he was hungry, hungry and lost, after finding himself in the midst of this unfamiliar park.

And surely he’d have perished if the friendly chipmunk hadn’t been come along and comforted him and led him to this sturdy, tall, isolated sanctuary.

And how had the little elephant repaid such a kindness? By eating all their food, that’s how. That’s what has angered the chief chipmunk so. Who knows how long those peanuts would’ve fed two chipmunks? Forever, perhaps. But with an elephant, even a tiny baby, eating from the trove, their treasure is almost depleted.

And now the taller chipmunk points its accusing paw down toward the dead ones. For now they’re just harmless people, but what will they do when a cat comes? Or a bird?

At least the two chipmunks have some camouflage amidst the leaves and in the knot of this oak, but an elephant sitting on a branch, especially one dressed absurdly as a clown, how long before the entire park of corpses is clustered around this tree? What then?

And still, the sleepy-eyed chipmunk has no answer. Feebly, he tries to explain, and brings his arms to his ears to demonstrate the elephant’s wondrous abilities, but his companion is unfazed and unbelieving. What use is such a curiosity in a harsh world like this?

And still, the little elephant tries not to cry.

Now the chipmunk waves an angry paw to the east, and the little elephant sees an overturned peanut cart, painted in the gay colors of red and white. Circus colors.

Far away, such a far and treacherous journey for a chipmunk in a hostile and threatening park. How many journeys had it taken, perhaps two or three peanuts at a time, to build up their supply. And how many are even left?

The chipmunk points once more at the ever-growing mob of people. How can they continue to scavenge with all those hungry eyes watching them? How will they survive now that the little elephant’s ruined everything?

And then the oak tree creaks heavily, as its most solid branch is relieved of such a ponderous weight. With his ears flapping slowly, solidly, the little elephant lifts himself into the air, and flies away to the east.

As one, the crowd turns their attention toward the fleeing prey. Arms and hands skyward, they stumble after the elephant.

But he’s already reached the peanut cart. It is heavy, perhaps as heavy as him, and though his trunk is strong and nimble, it isn’t used to carrying such a weight, let alone while flying.

He sinks to the ground, trunk entwined in the spokes of a wheel, and he flaps his ears, harder and harder, as the mob comes ever closer and closer.

The chipmunks stop in the midst of their argument and stare, dumbfounded, at the little elephant’s suicidal flight.

His billowing ears catch and push at the wind relentlessly. The people’s hands reach and grab and rip in anticipation, moments away from the gray living flesh. And then the elephant is in the air once more, the peanut cart pulling painfully at his trunk. The creatures reach helplessly, but their battered fingers cannot find a hold on the smooth cart.

There is a peculiar crash of metal on wood as the little elephant drops the peanut cart on the stout oak branch.

The chipmunks are still speechless. They hop toward him, but he does not land, he continues flying, flying away from the park, back over the dead ones so they will follow him, and only when he is out of sight of the chipmunks does he allow himself to cry, his tears falling, unseen and unheard, upon the uncaring dead.