another year in stories: eight

Another week, another story. This one about foxes and watching gods behave as gods do.

A Fox Wedding

A tambourine and a handdrum in the distance danced between the trees.

Guo stopped and the children stopped beside her. The dense canopy turned the forest into a halflit tapestry of greens and yellows and blues. Fecund and fragrant, the air thickens as the tambourine and drumming come nearer.

It came slowly paced. The hand drummed slow with time dragging in between each strike and the tambourine chimes every third drumbeat.

What is it, Granny? Franny whispered and grabbed Guo’s hand.

Guo smiled at the children and spoke Sprache with a thick accent, We’re going to see something few humans ever get to see. How does that sound?

Heinrich fought his smile but Franny’s burst over her face.

We need to be still and we need to be quiet. Can you do that for me?

Franny clamped both hands over her mouth and nodded. Heinrich nodded too.

Follow me, Guo said as she moved slowly toward the drumbeat. Creeping between trees and over underbrush, she turned to the children and pointed to her feet. They watched as she took a step, landing on the ball of her foot and then rolled the rest of her foot to the ground from the outside in. She did this twice more and then carried on forward.

Heinrich and Franny imitated the step with Heinrich proving successful and Franny struggling to get her feet to behave.

She whispered loudly after them, I can’t do it. Heinrich! Granny!

Heinrich turned to her, his face flushed, and made a loud shooshing noise.

Guo put her hand on his shoulder and his bowels dropped as the tambourine struck. Guo moved quickly and silently past him to Franny. She came to Franny who had tears in her eyes, turned around, and squatted. Looking back, she tapped her shoulders and motioned forward. Franny smiled and threw her arms round Guo’s neck and Guo carried her towards the drumbeat, the tambourine. She kept pace with Heinrich who crept slowly, his heartbeat racing as he held his breath.

The drumming sounded closer and the tambourine chimed in their chests and eyes. The air thickened and vibrated. Guo put her hand to the viscous texture of the air and then pushed through. Heinrich saw nothing but Franny leaned away from the barrier as she moved through it, holding her breath as if submerging. The forest grew dim and then dark, as if night fell and they stopped perpendicular to a narrow pathway leading east through the forest.

Franny released her breath and when she inhaled again it came as a fire that did not burn but rushed through her lungs and veins to every corner of her body. The tacky air clung to her skin and danced over it. Every breath made by Guo and Heinrich rippled through the air and the tug and push of the disturbance touched her skin. She watched her own breathing disturb the air, distorting her view of the forest. She waved her hand and saw the trailing wake it made.

Guo gently grabbed her wrist, her eyes pointed westward.

Blood rushed to Franny’s head and her heart skipped a beat when Guo stopped her playing in the air, but it evaporated when she turned to where Guo and Heinrich stared.

Balls of light came through the darkness. They came slow, keeping tempo with the drumming. They bounced twice and then moved slightly forward. The darkness held off their vision but the balls of light shined like far off stars or the moons at their faintest. The light gradually grew and the drumming and tambourine came louder. With it came a thick fecund mist. One beat with each bounce of the lights. On the third beat the lights moved forward and the tambourine clanged.

The darkness receded as they came closer. Two figures in kimonos appeared from the mist as if from nowhere. Each held a small drum in one hand and a drumstick in the other. Their steps were a dance, their movements measured and deliberate but fluid. They moved like water through mountains. Behind them came two more holding poles with lanterns attached to the top. Rows and rows of lantern carriers took shape in the mist.

The drummers were woman with long reddish hair and skin pale as the moons, their smiles too large for their heads. They passed the three watchers without turning. Franny and Heinrich held their breath as they passed and Guo held onto Franny’s balled fist, releasing waves of comfort and warmth through her. Franny studied the dancing women and their drumming. Her heart beat with the drum and the very air moved with their dance. She noticed their tails. Each had seven bushy tails that were red as their hair with a white tip.

The lantern carriers were men who danced to the beat as well, but their dance was up and down with no movement side to side. All smiled with mouthfuls of sharp teeth. They all had tails but their tails varied in number. Some with two and others with three or four or five.

Then came the tambourine and another duo of drummers. The tambourine was carried by the most beautiful woman Heinrich had ever seen. Her skin glowed like the fragmented moon at midnight. It pulsed in his eyes and chest. Her hair and eyes were silver. Her smile ran through him, reaching deep between his legs, changing his biology prematurely, filling him with newly discovered sensations.

Guo saw the change in the air, the heat rising from him, and she reached her handless arm towards him, gripping his neck with what did not exist. This cooled him and he wiped the sweat from his brow as she passed, her nine tails weaving through the air, making trails of motion.

All at once, he saw the air as a liquid rippling with their movements and because of them. His skin flooded with sensations and heat. His chest and stomach tightened but the cool touch of Guo kept him stable, kept his body focused, kept him from spilling in all directions, chasing every new sensation.

The lights grew and spread with the mist and the air bubbled around the group that followed. Foxes came dancing and prancing through the clearing, creating a circle around two foxes. The foxes were taller than Heinrich and when they pranced the air screamed, bursting in light. Their tails varied in number and their fur came in different colors but the force and power surging through the clearing was like a riptide.

Guo held the children close to her. Her smile so large tears streamed down her face. The children’s hearts beat so hard and so fast that she held them tighter, closer, pushing her own life into them, teaching them how to hold themselves together. Their heads against her chest, the beat of Guo’s heart wrote itself into theirs and taught their hearts how to dance.

The two foxes at the center did not dance but walked slowly within the writhing circle of dancing foxes as they made their way eastward. Both foxes had three tails.

The mist receded and the light fell as a final tambourine carrier came into view. He stood tall with the same coloring as the female tambourine player. He did not dance or smile but followed with eyes closed. His ears were those of a fox and his nine tails swayed back and forth. He stopped before the three watchers and opened his eyes. He glanced to Guo who stopped smiling. A wave of cold struck the three of them, vibrating through their bodies, filling them with a shaming heat, their mouths and lungs full of bitterness. Sweat covered the three of them and Guo stood. The children quaked, huddled beside her legs.

She stood and faced the man who did not turn to her but only looked from the side of his eye. Guo raised her right arm and with it the hand that was not there.

Franny and Heinrich watched the waves of disgust seethe round the man. The mist thickened round him. They saw Guo’s own waves of blue and mountain flowers and the shining nothing glimmering at the end of her raised arm.

The man snorted and closed his eyes. He walked after the rest of the procession and the mist rose behind him, covering his trails.

Guo stood there for a long time with the children on the ground. The mist disappeared with the lights and the darkness was absolute. The air fissured and then released and Heinrich and Franny inhaled as if seeking reprieve from drowning. Gasping and sputtering, their limbs light and full of air. The halflight of the forest returned along with the many smells and sounds that came with it, all the living creatures once again singing and screaming.

After hours of walking in silence, they made camp without a fire.

Franny cleared her throat but her words came whispered, What did we see?

Guo smiled and rubbed her nose, A fox wedding. I doubt you’ll ever see another one, even if you live twice as long as me.

Heinrich wiped tears that sprouted on his cheeks, What happened?

Guo looked down then fumbled in her cloak for the boneflute. Pulling it out she said, I saw that man’s wedding long ago. That man was a fox. They were all foxes. Not your average fox wandering the forest eating mice and rabbits. Those were gods. Many gods couldn’t care less about humans and so most of them didn’t realise we were there. Other gods don’t appreciate being spied upon.

Franny frowned and rubbed her eyes and yawned, I’m sleepy, Granny.

Guo smiled and played the boneflute.

The song wrapped round Franny and she drifted quickly to sleep.

Heinrich lay awake even after Guo stopped playing and her breath slowed and evened. He stared into the darkness of the forest, visions of the women dancing across his night.

another year in stories: seven

Back on track! Another story for this week, since I missed last weak due to the kidney stone, which happens to still be inside me, unfortunately.

Anyrate, this is about an earthquake and we meet some new characters, which will probably change the shape of the future narratives a great deal.

I find myself always writing about children and orphans.

The Land Will Swallow Me

There was a rumbling from the deep beneath our feet and the bones of our home. Mother grabbed us and pulled us beneath the table. She said the gods must be waking, that Dragons may be fighting.

She held us and though Franny shook like leaves in wind, we were still. Mother’s heart raced but her breath came like waves. Constant. Cool. Relaxing.

The ground kept shaking. The pots and pans rattled to the ground and screams ripped through the grinding of the world, Erde, the great Dragon whose scales made the land and wings made the air. She reminded us this as the land of our home split and ruptured. Our house collapsed in on us and we were buried.

Then there was only blackness and when I woke only blackness and wetness. The stench of urine and blood and dirt. The binding sensation, as if Erde herself held me in her endless womb.

For a long time there was silence and stillness. My arms still wrapped round my sister but I could not feel her and didn’t know if she lived. I felt nothing for a long time.

There was only the blackness. Time disappeared. Light became as a memory, faint and hollow and evaporating.

My body stretched beyond itself. Constricted and perhaps broken, but there was no pain, and in the long darkness I drifted away from the hole.

Singing. So close yet sounding so far away, as if from the belly of a mountain. A singing like I had never heard. Not in Sprache or any language I knew, but it reverberated inside me. Though my body wept, I was far away and could not hear it screaming. The Ocean breeze struck my face with the taste of salt and eternity.

I saw a child with hair so black it sucked in the night and past her a water that stretched forever. Sand between my toes and her face pulling me forward, towards the water. She sand without words and her eyes radiated a violet light, like the suns when embraced in the Twilight Days. Reaching her hand towards me, I walked towards her.

The closer I came, the louder the song grew, the stronger I became. Every bit of my body filled by this child’s music.

And then there was a new sound.

Screaming and flesh battered. My body retreated back to itself. The utter blackness of my captivity and the shore with the girl battled one another and my eyes saw them doubled, intertwined. The ground moved around me and my body filled with sensation. Burning and brokenness and a heart beat, but not mine. I wrapped my arms tighter around Franny and her fingers dug into my skin.

Words came from above and the song coming so clear was smashed away. Words in a language I didn’t know or recognise.

And then light and the pressure on my skull lessened. The light was small, only a point in the blackness but it grew as the ground fell away.

I opened my mouth to scream but coughs forced their way through and I vomited dirt and rocks.

My voice followed as if made of dust and the scream I wanted came like a whisper, My sister.

A face appeared above me. The face of a woman but her skin was pale like ours. She was not Drachen but she was here. An expression of surprise and her forehead knit and she spoke words I didn’t understand. The ground kept shifting and the blackness crowded the edges of my vision. I was slipping in and out but every time I returned to the woman’s face the pressure on my body was less.

She spoke Sprache with a heavy accent, You’re okay, child. You’re okay.

She reached with an arm to grab me but I said again, My sister.

She blinked and worked to clear more of the ground. I struggled with her, shifting my shoulders and hips as best I could to move the dirt and our collapsed home from us. As I moved I found the pain searing through me. The left side of my head burning where my ear once was. Together we wrestled the destruction and the woman pulled Franny and me out of the rubble.

Franny’s breathing was shallow and thin but her body was whole. The woman pulled out a jug and poured water onto a cloth. This she did with only one hand, using the crook of her right arm to manipulate the jug. I gaped at her lack of a hand wondering how she could be so adept. I looked at my own hands and imagined losing one. Then put a hand to my lost ear and prayed for the pain to stop. She put the cloth in Franny’s mouth and Franny sucked moisture from it. Then the woman handed me the jug. My arms, so heavy, could barely hold it but I drank desperately, not knowing my thirst. When I had my fill, I returned it to the woman and looked around.

Where once our village stood was a chaotic field of jutting spikes made from rock. The ground undulated as if it were the ocean and not the field I had been born to. The farms were gone. The land was unrecognisable. Shadows of men wandered the land, stopping here and there where they dragged the dead from the broken homes and village.

Deathwalkers, the woman said.

I nodded and then my heart screamed. I pulled at the rubble of our home screaming Mother mother mother.

I dug until I found her. The skirt she wore, now covered in mud and blood. I bit back the sobs while the tears fell and I pushed and pulled the rubble away until I found the black skin of her hand and then her head, for she did not have a face. Where it once smiled was only a cracked brick covered in the matter of her skull and brain and eyes and mouth. Her black curls like a halo round that brick. I held her lifeless hand.

And then there were hands on my shoulder. I turned, expecting to see Franny or the woman who saved us but there was only a shadow.

The Deathwalker moved me away from Mother but I held her hand as the singing came. The same song I heard while trapped beneath the wreckage. I stared at the Deathwalker and felt the Ocean waves and the violet light of the child. The Deathwalker revealed bony hands from its robe and held the ruined skull of my Mother. It lifted it from the ground and the brick fell away and I vomited at the sight of the inside of Mother’s skull. A pink viscous mess that leaked out.

I saw it for only a moment but the image lives in me still. It haunts me.

And then the Deathwalker held nothing and where my Mother’s body once lay was only dust and dirt and ash. The smell of cinders and smoke.

The Deathwalker turned to me and I stared into the vast empty blackness beneath its hood, and then it was gone.

I opened my eyes, having no recollection of closing them, and the woman who saved us sat beside a fire. In the fire was a black pot and the scent of food overwhelmed me.

I rolled over and cried into the dirt until it was mud. Until Franny’s tiny arms wrapped around my waist and pulled me closer to her. I pushed off her hand and rolled over.

Her lip quivered and her black eyes were full of tears.

She said my name and I pulled her close to me.

The night was cool and the fire warm. The woman brought us each a bowl of stew with a smile. She made it look easy though she balanced one of them on her arm until she handed it to me.

You are very brave, she said to us with her thick accent.

Franny’s voice was high and her consonants were rounded by youth, Auntie, why do you look like us?

She put her bowl down and studied the two of us, Did your mother and father look like us?

We shook our heads.

Her eyebrows lowered and she cleared her throat before picking her bowl up once again. She said, There are many in the world who look like us. Where I’m from, everyone looks this way.

Franny inhaled quickly, Auntie, where are you from?

She was only two years old then, and I was only five. For our whole lives, short as they were, we had never seen another face with our shape or color. Our parents were the dark shades of black all Drachen shared. Their hair grew in tight curls while Franny and mine fell straight. Our skin was pale but our eyes were just as black.

The woman turned to the moons and sighed, I come from far away. I was passing through when I heard the bones of Saol shift.

Saol?

Her gaze fell upon me, Saol is the word for the world in the language of the gods.

My face scrunched up and the woman smiled.

Eat up, she said.

What’s your name, Auntie?

The woman put down the bowl and reached her hand towards me, Guo.

I held her hand. Her skin was rough and thick. This is Franziska. I’m Heinrich.

She smiled, Those are very fine names.

So many questions bubbled inside me and the darkness weighed heavily. What would we do now? Where would we go? What are the Deathwalkers? Is everyone dead? My chest tight and my throat sore, I ate the stew.

Franny watched me with her big black eyes and did as I did.

After we ate, we thanked Guo.

My voice crept weak from my lips, Is everyone…

Guo lowered her head, Yes. Only you two survived.

My body became so tight as if the night constricted me. I heard the screams of everyone I had known and Mother’s ruined face rose and then washed over the landscape. The song from before returned and I sank into blackness. Franny’s voice came from so far away. Muffled and indistinct. The same word repeated again and again.

For a long time I drifted as if without a body. There was only blackness and blankness. And then a deep grey. A grey shimmering between shades of black. From the grey came figures of light and shade.

When I opened my eyes we were walking over a landscape I didn’t know. The suns were high in the sky and the air was thin.

Franny sat on the woman’s shoulders and the woman was singing in front of me as they walked. It was a strange song in a language I didn’t know. The words were like water—slippery and formless.

I followed her and in time I would understand the language she spoke and she would show me worlds beyond Drache. She would show us the place of our birth, the place of hers, and a thousand more.

another year in stories: six

A week late, but this is the next Guo story. I’ll be posting another one tomorrow so we’re all caught up.

This one is a bit morbid and gruesome, so be warned. It’s an important one, I think, in understanding certain things about the world.

And I suppose a lot of these stories is mostly just fleshing out the world I’ve created. They’re quiet and still stories, but that’s what I like. I think eventually I’ll rewrite many of these stories and stitch them together into a real narrative, but I like how different they are right now.

I hope you dig this one.

We Met at the Cherry Blossom Tree

Leaves crunch beneath her feet and the shadow swings back and forth over the dead grey grass. The suns rest high in the cloudless sky pouring purples, blues, and reds into the atmosphere. The wind came softly, plucking desperate leaves from where they hanged in the tree, past the feet of the man.

He hanged naked upside down and in the hanging he swayed back and forth as the wind gently pushed at his skeletal body. His shadow danced over the ground and in opposite directions as the suns cast in different directions.

She stopped for a moment and stared at his swaying body, the tree, the suns, the yawning sky purpling. His body was still and though he hanged from his left ankle, he kept both legs together as if he stood. His right arm crossed over his left and his left hand before his face, he bit into the flesh of his index finger and tore it away from the bone, then let it hang as blood streamed from it.

The blood fell, pushed carelessly by the wind.

She approached, the leaves that once fell from the tree crunched beneath her feet, and she crouched in front of him but he only stared at his skin hanging, the blood flowing. He unwrapped his arms and used his right hand to pull the skin away from the bones of the left. He pulled until the skin split and tore down to his elbow, then let it hang as the blood drained from him.

His skin paled and he swallowed, his eyes moving rapidly over the bones and muscle beneath the skin as he wriggled his fingers.

She said, They say you’ve been hanging for eight days.

His body stilled as he bit the skin hanging from his elbow and tore it away, then let it fall to the dead grass and leaves below like a bag swollen by tar.

She wiped her face and said, Your mother begged me to come see you. She even paid me. Few people know what I do and fewer are willing to pay for it.

He bit into another finger and began tearing the skin away.

She nodded and swallowed, They think you’re a monster. Your friends and family. They think some god has come and turned you inside out. It can take a lot of time for these kinds of stories to reach me. People in villages like yours blame everything on the gods so it can be hard to take them seriously.

Pulling at the flesh until his entire left hand was skinless, he stared at his body beneath his skin.

I must admit, this is unusual. It’s rare that a human just gain this kind of ability, but it’s not unheard of. Sometimes we mortals stumble into doorways and places we have no business being in. Rarer is that the Deathwalkers avoid you and this place. Their stench should be everywhere here.

She raised her handless arm between them and smiled and closed her eyes, then let it drop.

The gods rarely do more than take and when they give it’s rarely fortunate for those given these gifts. You’re lost though. I can see it and hear it in you. The echoes of gods and powers not meant for us. There’s no reason for you to be able to do this. Probably you got caught in some spillage of some godlike being.

She rolled back and sat as he tore the skin away more, releasing his arm from flesh.

You may not survive, she opened her eyes. Coming back may kill you. Even if I can call you back alive, your brain may be shattered or it may become untethered and drift endlessly beyond you and this reality. You’ll probably always see the world beyond humanity. It will shimmer and expand. It will run through your senses like wildfire. You’ll see blazing lights that no one else will ever see or understand. You’ll hear the echoes of all the many places gods have lived and died. You may even be tempted to find your ancestors or lost loves now dead and gone to the shore of eternity. If you find yourself in the glow of the child goddess, run the other way. She will call you and she will release you from this reality. A cloud of dust.

She watched for a long time. He tore his skin apart and pulled it from his sinew and bone. So much blood fell and pooled and congealed. The scent of ruin and copper. It was as if he climbed out of his own skin and when he was fleshless, she stared up at the darkening sky. The suns now nearing the horizons, clouds wisping over the yawning canopy, she closed her eyes for a moment and sighed.

Skinless, he hanged and blood rained from him. A loose bag of blackness on the grass stained redblack by his blood. His black eyes stared past her through the smearing of his own blood.

I hope you regenerate by morning, she said. If not, I may need to kill you before bringing you back to this side. Your mother said you’ve died many times. It’s a sickness and a common one to those touched by godstuff. Do you know of the Arcanes? Perhaps you’ve never seen one way out here at the edge of the continent. They’re a Soarean tradition that’s spread beyond those legendary borders. They’ve even crossed oceans. They’re the lovers of the gods we call Angels.

It changes them, she said. It makes them see more. It makes them hear and feel more. They see the threads that make up this plane of existence. They tug at those threads and manipulate the world around us. It’s godly work and few can do it. Fewer can do it well. I’m of the opinion that none should do it at all. But that’s their religion. Their belief.

She sighed and turned to where he stared. She stood, still staring into the air where he stared.

Turning back she shook her head, Don’t go to that light. It’s madness. Stay here until dawn. If your skin’s not back by then, I’ll kill you so you can be born again, whole.

He blinked as the wind came stronger. Rising and pushing at the two of them. The wind ripped the leaves from the tree until it stood naked and his body hovered above her head, pushed in the direction he stared. He reached a hand forward and Guo pulled out the boneflute.

She played a melody, low and slow, her fingers moving with precision, her eyes clenched tight. Her legs bent and her feet planted, she braced herself against the wind and the unseen light sucking at reality.

The notes plucked out of the air and thrown down before they reached him hanging, she blew harder. The notes reached for him but were sucked away, battered down, and she blew harder and harder, the ground beneath her feet giving way. The limbs of the tree creaked and cracked as she inhaled deep and blew into the boneflute as hard as she could.

A single piercing note rocketed through the hurricane and his body, causing it to spin. She kept playing, louder and faster, the notes launching through him, spinning him faster and faster. The blood from his body spraying in all directions but sucked up by the tear in reality where a new sun shown.

The limb snapped and she jumped up, grabbing the rope hanging from his ankle, dropping the boneflute now being played by the wind. They fell to the ground, still pulled toward the tear. Planting her feet and elbow, she shouted a single word into the air as loud as she could. It came as a lightning snap and the tear closed as if clamped shut.

Sweating, her breath ragged, and her limbs weak, she pushed herself to her feet and stared down at the skinless man.

Her eyebrows bent upward and her eyes filled with tears, You look like a child.

In one motion she pulled out a knife and stabbed him in the neck. Her blade cracked through his bones and tore through his muscle and tears fell from her face. One foot on his skull, she used the leverage to pull the blade back out of him and walked towards where the tear was and searched the ground.

After a time, she found the boneflute. The darkness of night wrapped round her as a sharp inhale came from the boy’s body followed by coughing and vomiting.

everything i had to say about love

Exists in Noir: A Love Story and Ash Cinema.

Or at least romantic love.

I wrote those a few months apart and they’re most obviously about love and Death, living and loving and dying.

So if you’re looking for a present this Valentine’s Day or just want to read something about love that I wrote, you can get them.

Buy Noir: A Love Story straight from the publisher.

noir cover

Buy Ash Cinema from Amazon or get it for free from Smashwords.

ash-cinema-final-1

File this under shameless self promotion, but these really are about love, and they’re for you.

But it’s interesting to me, these novels. I wrote them about love and out of love but I had never really had love. Or at least not how I feel it now. Back then I was looking desperately for it. I was wandering the globe hoping to stumble into it and slowly giving up on ever finding it.

Little did I know that I’d accidentally meet the person I’m about to marry about a year after I wrote these novels.

Here’s some music for you.

another year in stories: five

Almost didn’t make this in today, which would’ve set a bad habit. But the fifth story of the year is here! With about ten minutes to spare.

Drink till I Forget, till I won’t Regret

Guo entered and waved to Amiir behind the bar.

Amiir nodded in her direction and poured her ale, How’s the great white north?

She shrugged as she skipped across the bar to sit down, Not good. A dragon came and the Sami are running south and east.

A caustic laugh like a grunt came from the hairless man at the end of the bar, The Sami are all gone, ravaged by the Rocan who stole their names. I’ve seen their bones and held the faces of their broken lives in my own hands as I danced through shadows and time.

Guo sipped from her ale and stared at the man. Pale skin with sunken eyes, hairless and drowning in a greyblack robe fraying at every seam. His head hung low, bobbing over his fist clutching a shot glass of brown liquor.

Amiir said, Don’t mind him. He’s been hanging round for weeks. Only seems to drink.

The Sami still live and those who were once Rocan have bred into the Sami and taken the name upon themselves, she said. Being Sami is more about the land and the place than anything else.

Tell that to the dead and forsaken Sami, he said.

There are no one people who are Sami. The north is Sami and the Sami are the north. Those who choose to live there become Sami, whether they know it or not. Whether they want to or not.

The man downed his drink and slammed it on the bar, Another! He turned to Guo while squinting, Cenuries have wilted since the true Sami lived in the north. But I’ll take your point, he nodded. The true Sami have evolved and rolled along with spacetime. They take in all the strange humans that wander north and melt into the snow.

Guo drank more ale and Amiir leaned back, shrugging with his eyebrows. The man’s head hung limp over his new drink.

The suns came hesitantly through the windows smeared with dust and grime. The bar remained dim always, the blues and reds of daylight suffocating against the filth of the bar. Dust drifted as a haze through the bar, clinging to every surface, invading and colonizing every crack and seam.

You need to clean this place up, Amiir.

He laughed, It’s the real charm of this place. People don’t come for the food or the drink. It’s the dust they’re after.

The hairless man’s voice came as grinding glass, Don’t play jokes about the dust, aye?

Guo frowned, What do you know about dust?

Amiir’s hand came down hard on the bar causing Guo to flinch but the hairless man paid no attention. Amiir’s voice rose, If you’re going to talk crazy, head back to bed.

Guo put her hand on Amiir’s and repeated her question.

Dust dust dust, his voice sliced through the thick air, I have seen it all and wandered through its haloes. I still hear it and feel it in my rotting bones. Centuries of collecting only to finally escape. She was the ray of a golden sun. I was addicted to Her light. She is the Light. I fell without falling. This one—I—gave up on the Goddess.

You’re not the first drunk Deathwalker I’ve met.

Amiir’s eyes bulged in his skull and his jaw hung open as words refused to enter his mouth.

Guo leaned back and drank the rest of her ale. Got any wine?

Amiir gulped still eyeing the Deathwalker, What kind you want?

What you got?

His eyes dragged back to her reluctantly and he searched through his cupboards. As he named varieties Guo stared at the Deathwalker. His eyes barely open, his body weaving to a melody that did not reach past his own ears, his head still hanging drunk over an empty glass.

Plum sounds fine, Auntie.

Amiir hands opened the bottle and handed it to her. Taking it, she stood and approached the Deathwalker.

She put the bottle in front of him and placed a hand on his shoulder, which recoiled at her touch but she held on.

What’s your name? The one you’ve taken since leaving Mother.

A scowl contorted his face and he grabbed the bottle of wine with both hands and drank deep from it. Putting it back down he nodded at her as his voice slushed out of him in coarse rivers, I’ve taken no name. I’ve taken nothing. I want nothing. I want only to be free and to somehow be made whole.

She lifted the bottle to her lips and sipped. Sighing, she said, This is great stuff, Auntie. I’m sorry you’ll have to waste it on us.

Amiir exhaled loud, You got money?

Guo’s expression remained flat as she nodded, There is no wholeness for you. Even in Death you will find only nothingness. There will be no shore for you. There will be no song. For you there will only be the memory of the first time you died and the echoes of the Goddess forever rattling in your skull.

He spit, What would you know? Your kind don’t even hear her song. You don’t belong to Mother.

I’ve thought about that before. I think about it often. Why are my people the only ones not touched by the gods? Why do the Deathwalkers never approach our shores? They come to the places we’ve conquered and take the natives to Her shore. Why not us? What is it about us that She refuses?

He took the bottle from her and drank from it, then handed it back. His voice lost the harshness and came softly cruel, For centuries I’ve wondered why She took me and my manhood. Why she takes all of our manhoods. Why she exists at all and why she needs us. She who dreams all realities. She who opened the Grey and the Shade and the Light and the Dark. She who is all things and is in all things and all things spring from your womb, yet she demands everything from us, the unfortunate, the maimed. Your people are lucky to not have her or the Deathwalkers upon your shores.

They’re not in the north either, Guo sipped from the bottle. The Sami don’t know Her. When they die, they don’t turn to dust. Truthfully, I don’t know what happens to them when they die. They insist on burning the corpses. The old stories say that those unburnt rise again as demons. The Sami and their land are full of such echoes. But they have different gods. My people alone seem to be ignored and scorned by the gods. Even the Roca have their god. The north is crawling with gods so old they’ve forgotten themselves. No, it’s we alone who are deemed unfit for divinity. Even the Angels don’t touch our lands. There are no wolves howling there, no dragons spewing fire.

Let me tell you something, child of daylight. The man pointed at her with his slurring hand, You people are among the lucky. The gods are all cruel. I gave up on them long ago.

Tears poured down his face but his expression remained stoic.

Guo put her hand on his right shoulder and held it through the recoil. She pulled him in and embraced his skeletal frame as he broke down into sobs. His body collapsed in tears and she held him up, stroking his scalp.

Amiir watched as she held him. She whispered to the Deathwalker but Amiir heard only a low murmur.

Together they finished the bottle of wine and Guo carried the man upstairs, his body impossibly small, as if releasing the tears caused his body to empty of mass and energy.

Amiir cleaned the pint glass and the shot glass.

The sound of their footsteps creaked against every plank of wood. The creaking of footsteps stopped only to be replaced by the creaking of a door and then silence after the door closed.

Dust drifted lazily through the air and the suns fell past the horizons and the creaking began again. The light footsteps came down the stairs and Guo emerged from the shadows.

He’s asleep, she said as she plopped down on a stool and rested her elbows on the bar. Her chin in the palm of her hand, she watched Amiir count inventory.

How you going to pay for the wine and the night?

Guo tsked, You’re a heartless man, my dear friend.

He turned to see her smile, Does he really belong to the child goddess?

Once upon a time. It’s uncommon, but not as uncommon as you might think. Something changes in the few who leave. They give up the othersides of reality and choose to live on this side with the rest of us.

Is he human then?

Guo wiped at her eyes, His heart is still that of a man, though he will never be.

Amiir stuck out his lower lip, So there’s a dragon in the north?

Guo’s eyes widened, Things are becoming very interesting in the world, my friend.

Where will you go now that the north’s off limits?

Her smile spread wide and she waved her index finger, Didn’t you listen to what I told the Deathwalker? My people have no gods. We fear no gods. The Sami are the same. They alone will fight the gods and expect to win. We live in interesting time, sweet Amiir.

How will I get all the money you owe me if you get yourself eaten by a dragon?

They laughed together and Amiir poured two pints of mead.