First was the change in gravity. Almost immediately I felt as if I was pulling against some misaligned, weighty force. It pulled at me, as if to force me down, lower to the ground. It felt like wind blowing hard against my skin, and my lips burst open spilling dozens of ceramic tiles out that once had been my teeth. They came out bloodless, painless, as if they dropped out frequently. I held a few in my hand, but as more spilled out I lost grip on the sliding pile and the whole thing upset. My teeth scattered out in the gravity well of below.
“How?” I pondered, rendered a feeble simpleton by the sting. I grimaced drunkenly as I felt the drool streaming from my wide and distorted lips. My vision served little purpose in this dark space, so I closed my eyes to be spared any disorienting glimpse. When I did an explosion went off, thunder and sparkling fire come to life, crackling through my inner ears and shuddering in my gut.
Intricate flowers unfolded from protruding stems and thrust openly out at me, each one trilling an indescribable fluting tune. The fervor of their playing caused the nether-wind to blow back my hair, and as I watched they bloomed, bloomed, bloomed.
The field of flowers before me fell under dark blue shadows. As the false day ended, each petal luminesced, as if a string of tiny, multicolored bulbs was strung along its curvatures.
When the roaring madness of ever-entwining glow-strands stopped, and the cacophony of voices ceased whisper-shouting in my face, I was aware of the loud protest of a rumbling and empty stomach. I immediately felt sweetly sick, like a mouthful of honey after running a dash. After a moment of crawling in black sand I again felt the rush of my situation take me over, like a surf of frightening and careless strength. I ran and ran, into the dark that shot sparks and flares like snarling scares across the matrix that held up my courage. I had gone and gone, only twice striking my head on some jutting protrusion.
How long had I been here now? I had lost consciousness at least twice, so at most I might have lost a day to that weird exhausted sleep. But the stubble of my chin and the taste in my mouth bespoke evidence of greater time passing, perhaps two days, or even more.
I looked around, testing the effects of the venom in my systems. My surroundings struck me with no more strangeness than I had come to expect from this shadow realm beneath a labyrinth of redrock; they were eroded in that manner that gave them the structure of bones, and in some cases, whole chambers resembled an enormous cage of windblown ribs, with hollows like eye sockets where no eyes should ever be. I expected that the chill and at least half my fear was the nerves in my body still captive in the grip of hoodoo poison, shaking against frigid chains in a dying attempt to shrug off that inhuman, numbing oppressor.
How could it still be in my system after two days? How else am I seeing any of this down here in the dark? I heard a distant humming approach, that never seemed to arrive. Blue sparks danced into my vision from the stage wings of my periphery.
Consciousness became an object that I dropped, and I once more fell, not into slumber, but into an absolute mental dissolution.
In a black sea I floated with the buoyancy of a bottled message. Stars rippled out against that watery sky, nova raindrops striking the slick of paved night. Lightning flashed and crackled bright streaks around the profile of a distant peak.
Drums were rumbling murmurous intonations in the shadows of shallow caves, hammered by the callused fist pads of the last of a lost tribe. Somewhere the wise ones began to hum dim in their nearing slumber while spiced air and fruited waterfalls crashed from broad canyons.
It calmed and warmed briefly as on a hot summer day, and the sun pressed on me like the grip of a missed friend. Cool cloudshadows occasionally shrouded the noble glare of that giant star, and with the wind came the scent of split corn. Something distant burned, a thin column of smoke near the horizon weaving up until stranded.
A blast of black feathers struck me in the face. Flapping wings folded my sight into unread tomes, closed and dusty scrolls held still with unbroken seals.
Then the birds burst out from my eyes, omens of oncoming flux. They flew out and away, leaving in their wake only a single feather, which drifted to where I stood on a slight and peculiar breeze.
I was no longer near the cave, though I could not recall escaping that twisted dark. The feather at my feet was in fact the only source of black in my otherwise bright surroundings. I watched as it rotated slow in the blow of a gentle wind, like a compass needle seeking magnetic north. It finally came to rest, indicating a direction I could not guess but presumed was east. My eyes, tight in a squint to prevent injury from the occasional drifting sand, followed the finger of feather towards the far and faded horizon. As I focused my attention towards this distance, I caught the faint hammer of skin-drummers, drifting like memories on a sweet and shifting wind. Had I not heard that same rhythm before, in a time not so long ago? I wrestled with the door latch to this secret mental room, but found it shut against all prying. Still, that flattened cadence called, drawing in and out of the audible like the ocean casting sporadic surf to a sandless, rock-strewn beach.
Following both the feather and the sound of drums, I stepped to the invisible path and began the final leg of quest.
The sand was a sea of blood beneath the furnace-stare of the single star that served as a sun on this forgotten world. The star was too small and bright to be our familiar, terrestrial Sol, and I had no doubt as to the overpowering otherness of the place I found myself. The ground seemed composed of ordinary sand, but upon inspection revealed a startling oddity. Each grain, tiny as it was, had faceted sides and a notably regular shape. Not all grains were identical, but in families formed of perfect polyhedrons. The result of this geometry was a sand packed firm and smooth. Around my footprints, the pattern was broken only slightly, like a puzzle half together.
As I traveled that vast hardpack, I watched my shadow lengthen before me. It was a fellow traveler in this mystic footrace, growing taller and thinner as it slowly took the lead.
The air’s subtle cooling confirmed my shadow’s rumor; the star was setting behind us. It’s failing warmth drew weakly at my back while my face pressed on into the cooling night. The hues of dawn were streaked and smeared into the somber tones of dusk, and so glorious was the spectacle of the setting star’s sleepy death-throes that I hardly questioned the extreme brevity of day. Warmth faded with the retreating light, leaving skeletal fingers to play at my nape, where a feline mother might grasp her child to pull it from harm’s way.
While this unfathomed land resembled the early, luminous paintings of the unexplored American west, I felt in the rearmost of my mind that all was entirely amiss. Scarce memories of my journey to this netherworld were depicted in a broken image, as if a demon-wind had scattered a sand-painting. I fought the gale in an attempt to restore some formal order, but it resisted these attempts and scattered more of my memories away. Only hints of former details remained. The instincts which had survived the storm, however, were not so dulled as to ignore the alarm of my strange situation.
With the nagging ache of a dream being lost to the day, I moved on across the blood colored sand. I was unaware of the regular way it accepted each footfall, spilling equal particles from the craters of every step. Slowly a procession of these identical tracks spread out behind me, and in not looking back I left unread the message of my own passing.
The star deepened, and the blood-sand took on the septic hue of a scab. Bathing the desert in it’s dead glare, the scowling star inspected its loss. Dark shadows ran like oil from every protruding rock. Slim lines contoured the dunes they were drawn over, stretching into the darkness which lay ahead.
Ignorant of the throb of my peds, concerned only with reaching whatever conclusion this madness concealed, I followed my confused intuition onward for a time much greater than years.
The fathomless night spread her arms over me in the failing warmth of an August ember. Whatever world I had become lost upon, I was glad for the last fraction of fire. I feared that the night’s glacial extreme might well freeze.
Ahead, the sand seemed packed flat by flood and cracked by flaming days. Each fracture shone in the phase of it’s fractaling break, hairlines dividing the dark clay in a pattern that lead to a horizon thrust through with standing stones. These fingers of rock protruded through the crust seemingly miles distant, though the fading light could have depicted them at only a quarter of that away.
As I stumbled on towards the cluster, I noticed that the light provided by the setting star grew brighter at the rock-ring’s center. It was clearly mustered within that gathering, stone grasp. Whatever might stand amidst that focus could indeed besmirch a lurch onward. After a few yards of travel I concluded that whatever the cause of that luminous increase, I had but a short way to reach it. The contradiction of it’s distance only moments before went unnoticed as I broke into a lumbering run. There was a feeling of rising urgency stirring in the air, like a gate swinging shut on a dream.
One hundred yards from the monolithic cluster I became aware of a sound that had risen to replace the former drumming. While being somewhat percussive, it was not at all like drums. From summer daydreams came the image of drying sheets waving on a line, of galleon sails furling in a strong wind. It’s familiar, kite-flying rustle relaxed me, like a runner called to pause by the cheer of a long lost friend. I stopped hammering the sand with my swollen feet and stood in silence, listening.
I focused a tilted ear and distinguished that whatever was flagging the wind was approaching, so I brought my eyes to bear behind and skyward. Peering into the star-flecked void I saw a dark shape scrape the otherwise smooth marble of space. My mouth was immediately dry.
As the shadow neared, gliding on the ice of night, I could distinguish elements beneath its noise, and sought to discern their origin. The backbone of this cadence was the obvious beat of wings, not the buzz of insect flight nor the cushioned flap of raptors. This was greater, a wingspan of worlds, in sync with the splash of brass cymbals or steel scales sliding in rows.
In my mind’s eye I saw a burning bird, a phoenix in a mushroom cloud, a falling star called Wyrmwood. I saw the colors of lost dances, a wheel within wheels, the turning of cosmic clocks.
Most of all, as this giant thing sailed across the vast blackness towards the sparkle of standing stones, I held to the impression not of its arrival, but of it’s return. Inside my head a voice whispered names in guttural, forgotten tongues.
“Garuda,” the hoarseness pronounced. “Coatl,” it repeated, which a clap of thunder punctuated.
As the rolling roar echoed against the slickrock, I clamored up the slight rise of dunes which held the circle of stones away from the rest of the desert. As I reached the crest, my eyes adjusted to the dim and strange light.
Within the circle stood heavy shapes. Figures glinted from ancient, metallic masks as a dim fire of coals danced light into the ring.
Tune in TOMORROW, for the FRIDAY SHORT STORY,
The Time-Eater, by Adam Bolivar