a pale skull shadowed in starlight

An excerpt from THE ELDER, the second book in The Martuk Series, Vol. 1, A Collection of Short Fiction (available June 20th; pre-order now):

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It sat behind tattered woolen.

The body bent and broken, silhouetted and silent, the orange and yellow and white of the small fire crackling and snapping at its feet.

Pulling the red and gold of my robes against the chill in the air, I paused.

It lifted its head, The Seer, listened, the unusually large skull turning on a neck too slender, too thin. The shoulders tilted as it sensed me near.

The Child waiting before me, her delicate limbs held to the ground of the cave with crude, braided rope, snapped her head up with a small cry.

The Seer’s mouth opened slowly, the silhouette of its large teeth pointed and sharp.

The Child’s mouth opened slowly, bloody gaps where tender teeth had once been.

The Seer lifted and straightened its back.

The Child lifted and straightened her back.

The Seer’s fingers flexed, stretching open like the branches of a great tree.

The bones popped and snapped as The Child’s fingers stretched wide.

She wept, the little girl, the sobs caught in her throat as tears stained her cheeks, the ground below her knees soaked in a rush of urine.

The Seer sighed.

The Child gasped.

I knelt.

The Seer craned its neck, the pointed chin lifting in the air.

It paused.

The Child spoke.

Her mouth opened wide. The jaw popped and cracked. The soft skin of her cheek stretched.

The word wouldn’t come, the sound lost in a strangled sob.

She fought, then, The Child. Pushed it away. Forced this power, this strength, out of her, the tiny fists clenched as her eyes squeezed shut.

And then they opened, these eyes, and found mine. Trapped, afraid, powerless, she silently implored me to help.

I waited, on my knees, my long legs tucked beneath me, eager for her to speak.

Her fists unclenched, her shoulders dropped, the tears came again.

The Seer arched its back. The thin legs stretched and then curled back, folding in on themselves. Like an insect this infamous Seer was, all limbs and head and neck.

Shoulder blades pointed like wings. Thin, matted hair which fell to the ground. The pale skin leathery and rough and stained with a thick film of rancid sweat.

I had walked for two moons, leaving Uruk and the Temple under the cover of night.

Traveled without guards, without my brethren, without the company of the Tall Priest. Left the security of power and the comfort of my position. Left behind the death of the King and the rise of his brother, the Wounded King.

And then the death of their Mother, the Queen, a woman who gave herself to the Darkness only to fall in the heat of flames called by the power of a silver-haired Ancient.

I traveled to escape, my mind unable to comprehend what I’d seen as the Gods ate our sun and the Wounded King ascended the throne and Dark Gods rose to smite powerful Queens. All of this led to questions. Many questions. Questions without answers. Questions only one could answer.

So I left everything to search for this cave unlike any other. The one rising higher than most. Round and smooth unlike its neighbors, the great stone a pale skull shadowed in starlight, its dark entrance guarded by thick trees with branches that bent low when strangers approached.

And up the winding trail I had climbed, into the night, into the cold air of the mountains, to find a creature so old it was now neither man nor woman.

“It is wise,” the Tall Priest had said days ago as the sun warmed our skin. “Able to see the truth in the lie.”

“It is more ancient than those Ancients who linger here among us,” insisted another Priest, this one short and fat, the bread all but falling from his slobbering lips.

“If you seek answers,” another Elder, a man older than I, whispered in the dark of a massive hall of polished stone, “then you must go.”

“You will have to give much to gain what you seek,” warned the Ancient, a man older still, as he nodded and closed his eyes, the turning of his back an end to our brief conversation.

Yes, there were many questions for this beast that lurked behind tattered woolen.

Would the Wounded King step Beyond the Veil? Would his death be the final gift for the Darkness? And with this, would I be given Life Everlasting? Would I rule for countless generations and be revered as a God?

I came to the cave, the entrance hidden behind a thicket of heavy branches.

The trail beneath my feet scarred red with symbols and signs and pleas from those who had come before, I paused and readied myself to open the way.

With my blood.

The blade sliced my wrist and I knelt, my finger dipped into the warm liquid.

And as I guided the crimson, the tip of my finger stained red, the dirt drawing deep as it drank the words from The Time Before the Moon, the trees shifted their roots and lifted their branches, the blanket of leaves rustled and snapped, and the vines slithered back into the earth, the path clear.

A gift had been given.

The way was opened.

They came, the Whispers. Restless ones who spoke and clawed and scratched from their prison Beyond the Veil.

Priest …

Elder …

King …

I ignored them as I navigated down the steep stairs which hugged the slippery stone of the damp wall. Useless, powerless, they could bring me no harm, even here in a black darker than the darkest night.

The stairs gave way to solid ground, a wide circular space opening before me.

Smooth rock on all sides, blackness above. The smell of a water that drip, drip, dripped mingled with the scent of earth and stone and age and death, the glow of the small fire as it flickered behind woolen to the side, away, out of reach.

The Seer hidden behind the crumbling fabric.

And The Child who sat before me. A girl having seen only six or seven summers, her head low, her hair the color of a bright sun. Everything about her so delicate. Her arms slight, her wrists thin, her slender legs and feet bare. The torn sheath of soiled linen which hung from her slender shoulders and fell to her scraped and dirty knees.

Sweet, innocent, powerless.

Trapped.

Surrounded by bones.

Small skulls. Slender ribs. Tiny fingers and toes and the short thickness of undersized thighs.

Children. All children.

Scattered, the skeletons leaned against the large rocks or lay nestled in the crevices between, the shadow near the walls littered with shards of white.

Yes, here I stood two moons from Uruk in the dark of a cave surrounded by skulls waiting for The Seer to speak.

It would not.

But The Child would.

The word came again, lost in the earth as she lay on the ground. Fistfuls of dirt clutched in her tiny fists, her neck rolled, tender bones popping while The Seer nodded its head and the mouth open and closed, open and closed.

The Child stopped and rose, crouched on hands and knees.

“Man … ” She fell to the ground. Her back arched, then released only to snap back into another arch, the head once again low.

“From the …” the words came, her face hidden behind her golden hair.

She collapsed.

The Seer ducked its chin to its flat chest, its large, long hands dropping to its side.

The tears came then as she wept, The Child. Her body convulsed with sobs, with hiccups. She tried to crawl away, slipped on the urine soaked ground, trapped by the rope around her wrists.

I leaned forward and reached my hand out. But not close enough to touch, to intrude.

“Man from the …?” I asked. “From the mountains?”

Whispers.

No …

Speak …

Silence …

The Seer raised its head, the long fingers splayed wide as they stretched and reached and grabbed the air, pushing away the Voices.

The tears stopped as The Child moaned and then grew quiet.

She abruptly rose to her knees, her back straight, arms to her side and her chin to her chest, the mouth now open as drool leaked from her lips.

“From the mountains?” I asked.

It gasped, The Seer, its head back, the fingers quiet and still, the ribs rising and falling as it fought for breath.

The Child lifted into the air.

Her knees left the ground, her shins dropping to hang as she rose. The tiny feet dangled as she lifted higher and higher, her chin in her chest, her face still buried under a sheath of shining hair.

She stopped, waiting, suspended.

I paused, waiting.

“Elder … Priest … King,” she said, the voice low as it echoed the Whispers.

“Yes.” My voice sounded weak. “Yes,” I said again, stronger.

The head rose and the hair fell away from the sweet face. Her mouth stretched wide as she tried to speak, the jaw again a series of pops and cracks as it opened and closed, opened and closed.

“Yes,” I repeated.

She stopped, trapped in midair, the jaw frozen in a silent scream as The Seer attempted to speak through her.

And then she began to bleed.

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Available June 20th

Martuk_Collection_ebook_Final

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