Written by Lucas Pralle
Narrated by Larry Anderson
A miserable darkness pushed down on the Blades. Luland frantically shook his extinguished sphere and began whispering something into it. It was dark. Real dark. Pendleton watched tensely for an incoming attack. The impish collection of voices continued to sing.
When the Giver
Calls your name
Turn to flame
Pulleys creaked and ropes slipped. Something, troubling and immense, was shifting overhead. Pendleton looked to Luland in exasperation as the alchemist hysterically bashed the sphere he was holding against the wooden floor. Still nothing. No light. Just the unnerving song.
From the stars
Wears a crown
Something was overturned in the darkness. The sound of glass shattering rang out. A sickening murmur of voices, seething wounds, and flesh pulsated. Luland gave up on the sphere that he was holding and began digging through his satchel. The voices continued. They were growing in volume.
Down the river
Through the sea
Waits for me
The murmur was now a collective wail. Pendleton heard a scream. It was Warhammer. He could feel the wooden planks trembling under his knees. Vials vibrated out of their racks.
Luland pulled out two spheres from his satchel and yelled to Pendleton, “Cover your ears!” A huge shelf overturned near their position, nearly smashing them. “Pass the word! Cover your Ears!” yelled Luland.
Pendleton covered his own ears and began yelling the command out into the darkness.
“Cover your ears!” Miko yelled out somewhere nearby. So did Gwen. Hopefully the others had heard. It was too late. It was time to make a move. Regardless of the consequences.
Luland brought the silver spheres together in a thunderous clash. There was a bright flash, and the table that Pendleton and Luland were taking shelter under disintegrated, sending chaff flying. Light swept away from the point of impact, out across the wooden floor, tables, vials, and fabric walls of the tent, coating it with a shimmering white glow. The Blades all looked up. Above, a terrible black mass came into view.
An immense star was suspended from the ceiling. All five of its appendages were stretched out in their hideousness by a network of pulleys and ropes, like a spider awaiting its prey in a murderous web. Hanging down and swinging rabidly from the heart of it was Romoa; his hellish face, scarred torso, and rangy arms. A long mess of dark hair, caked with blood and bile, clung to the quivering flesh around him.
Each of his five appendages were constructed from grafted bodies of the dead, much like the appalling creatures the Blades had encountered in the moor. The mismatched flesh quivered and fought against itself. Faces screamed out. Fists punched. The severed head of a pig squealed as fingers dug into its nose and ears.
Romoa smiled meanly and shook himself free from the ropes holding him aloft. He crashed down onto the tables below, crushing them flat under the enormous collective weight of his decomposing mass. The Blades watched in horror as Romoa pounced upon nearby defenseless Warhammer like a giant spider. The colossal Warhammer, a man who could fit three full-sized eggs in his mouth without cracking a shell and uproot a good-sized tree if he cared, was dwarfed by the beast as it set upon him.
Warhammer’s screams could barely be heard over the homicidal baying emanating from the faces jutting out of Romoa’s back. They knew that their host was getting his tongue wet with blood and pined foolishly for their share. Gwen and Finey released several arrows into the mass as it stabbed into its prey with the cracked, jagged, and deadly bones of three of its massive appendages. Key launched herself onto the demon and stabbed her dagger deep into him, repeatedly. Black blood spurt from where she had pierced his writhing hide. Romoa rocked back onto his hind legs and bucked her off into the nearby debris. He wiped the gore hanging from his mouth and tossed the shredded body of Warhammer over the heads of Pendleton and Luland into the library stacks behind them, knocking over a shelf filled with books. The Seven Blades were now six.
“I bet they didn’t teach you anything like this in your precious School of Alchemy,” said Romoa, with Warhammer’s blood running down his chest. “I hope you packed more than an illumination sphere.”
Pendleton, still looking back at his fallen comrade, turned around and pointed at Romoa, furiously. “You just made a big fuckin’ mistake.” Pendleton pushed past Luland and kept walk ing toward Romoa. “Motherfucker!” yelled Pendleton furiously as he flipped a nearby table.
“Oh really? The help speaks.” Romoa waved and stretched his ghastly arms in the air. A hundred human, horse, and pig mouths all laughed in unison. It was obvious that Pendleton’s rage didn’t concern Romoa in the least.
Luland grabbed Pendleton by the shoulder. The Blade didn’t take his eyes off Romoa.
“Kid, get your fuckin’ hands off me. We’re going to give you all the time that we can…don’t let us down. Castle Jade needs you, and this motherfucker needs to pay. Do whatever it takes.” Pendleton shrugged Luland’s hand off and continued to approach Romoa undaunted. His form was miniscule in contrast to the towering Romoa, a size difference of twenty to one.
Luland began searching through his spheres. He would have to think of something fast. Otherwise, they were surely all dead.
Pendleton stopped short of the grim monster and strained to look up at Romoa’s wicked face. “Before we kick your ass, I’ve got a quick question…why’d you do it? I know all those people in the castle are dead. The queen is probably dead. And for what?” asked Pendleton.
Romoa crossed his arms and smiled in amusement. Luland paused. Pendleton had just said something that resonated…that was it. The dead. Luland retreated through the shadows into the stacks behind him.
“You’re stalling for time…peon,” said Romoa. “Nevertheless, I will tell you why. It will pleasure me greatly to tell you, before I smash you and your kin, and grind the bones of your empire.”
Luland stumbled through the overturned shelves of the library until he came upon the twisted body of Warhammer. Large chunks had been taken out of him by Romoa’s needlelike thrusts and savage bites. He pushed past quietly and his illumination sphere started up again. He was out of Romoa’s range. Luland began searching through the massive volumes.
“The Queen, that bitch, was a fool to think that I gave a damn about her castle. She thought I was some miserable pet, a tool for her corporeal conquests. Castles throughout the Kingdom made pledges to help bring your king and his pathetic alchemist here, to take them down. And where are they? They sent a few pathetic volumes, some spheres, and their insincere best wishes. If I hadn’t taken care to utilize the resources of this castle, one of those dogs would have swept in and squandered everything. I couldn’t let that happen. Look at what I have achieved.”
Romoa stood on his hind legs and stretched out for Pendleton to see him in all his horrific glory. The patchwork of corpses snapped and sniggered at the miniscule man in front of them. Pendleton sheathed his sword and crossed his arms, unimpressed. He didn’t betray the fact that he was watching Miko and Frite approaching Romoa from behind. The Blades would not let the loss of one of their own go that easily.
Miko’s pike pierced straight through Romoa’s left leg, out the bare chest of an old man. He screamed as Miko plunged and twisted on the shaft, trying to reclaim his weapon. Frite chopped into the other leg of the beast, extracting huge chunks of meat with every blow. Romoa let out a scream and toppled onto his back. His torso was now exposed and flailing on the top of the thing. Gwen and Finey were waiting in nearby perches. They unleashed several arrows straight into his chest. The arrowheads punched through his back.
Romoa looked down at the shafts and fletching sticking out of his body and the black blood seeping from the wounds. He let out a final cry, betrayed, and slumped to the side atop the squirming mass beneath him. Pendleton unsheathed his sword and began climbing up the behemoth toward Romoa’s torso. It was time to take the head of this snake.
Pendleton made it half way before Romoa barred his teeth and flung his huge body onto him. Romoa had Pendleton pinned to the ground just as Warhammer had been restrained before he was murdered. The sound of arrows whizzing and the remaining Blades fighting was dulled as Romoa brought his disgusting face down to Pendleton.
“To live means nothing. All of these arrows, you, all of this energy means nothing. You can’t kill me. I’ve transcended life itself.” Romoa smiled. The creatures covering his body began to cry out in their bloodlust.
A tone rang out from the library.
Luland had found his spell. It was from the ancient times. From when alchemists were priests, and it was their job to honor the dead and ensure their passage into the afterlife. To make offerings of flesh and blood. Something that Romoa had forgotten about a long time ago.
In the olden days, the priests would carry the dead out to what was called the Drift, a sacred place of transition. There, they would hold vigil over the bodies, meditate, and wait for the flesh of the newly fallen to be taken back by the messengers of the gods. The tones were for the ravens. The Drift, and the sacred ritual was known by few outside the School of Alchemy. As time went on, it had been deemed backwards, taboo, even obscene.
And so did the ravens.
A different song descended upon the great tent. It was comprised of the beating of a million wings and cries from a million black beaks. All hungry. Romoa paused his attack and Pendleton could see a biting realization rise in his black eyes. It was time for the dead to be carried off to heaven.
Romoa flipped back off Pendleton and looked up at the fluttering ceiling. A tear began to form as beaks ripped at the fabric, desperately trying to get through so they could carry out their sacred mission. Pendleton rolled away and took cover behind an overturned table with the rest of the Blades. Luland, the alchemist, struck another tone. The fury of the ravens intensified as they breached the tent and the first few streamed down.
Romoa looked away from the incoming ravens at Luland. The first birds to land were crushed and stuffed into greedy mouths. Then more birds came, many more birds, all tearing at the dead flesh with black beaks.
“This is only the beginning, Luland. It’s only a matter of time before your precious castle gets swallowed up. Your enemies are lined up at the gates. They’ve been at the gates, many have already made it inside.”
Luland struck another tone. The form of Romoa was no longer discernable. A seething mass of wings, talons, and beaks tore at dead flesh, snipped grey stitches, filled their bellies to the point of almost bursting, and flew heavily up and out into the moonlit sky above.
Romoa was no more.
The ravens were thorough with their work. Warhammer, and the rest of the dead of the Battle of the Seven Blades were carried off, bones and all, as if they had never existed.
King Jade arrived with his forces and they made haste to breach the castle. Not a single soul was found inside. No sign of Queen Alleb. Upon her throne, in her stead, a mysterious sapphire ring. Luland collected the artifact on their way out, and King Jade offered asylum to any surviving Marytians. Only a few accepted his offer.
Ten years. The delegation from Ker. Luland. Sol. Lily. It had all been set in motion.
Lily was seething as she drove across Madison to her and Diane’s apartment. A few awkward college freshman boys made the mistake of trying to dodge traffic and sprint across Regent 6Street in front of Lily’s white Corolla. They made it about a step from the sidewalk before realizing that if they wanted to see graduation, or anything other than the grill of Lily’s car, they had better turn back. Lily mashed the gas and the horn simultaneously, making her piece of shit car seem more like a battering ram than a rusted out pile.
“Not today, shitheads!” yelled Lilly. The boys promptly repositioned themselves on the safe sidewalk and started heading for the nearest crosswalk.
Lily thought about all the bullshit catalogues that her mother had wasted so much time and money on over the years. And for what? To let a coward, Lily’s father Gary, pat himself on the back, and tell himself how much of a compassionate soul he was? And Sergei. Sergei was another story entirely. His involvement was some kind of weird voyeurism. Did he get off when Diane bought her amazing multi-choppers and non-slip high heels?
Lily figured that good ole Sergei had a grand ole time when she had finally broken down and bought her pants from one of his catalogues. He was probably cramming so many universal remotes up his ass and cutting his dick with scissors or whatever he liked to do, he forgot to send the pants in the first place. And who the fuck was the customer service rep that she was talking to on the phone earlier? It certainly couldn’t have been Sergei, or could it? Lily had no idea how deep this thing went, but it was going to come to a very abrupt end once she told Diane what had been going on. Lily pulled over and parked in front of her apartment.
She grabbed the box containing her pants and Sergei’s note. Lily would need that as evidence. Diane might take a bit of convincing. She stormed up the wooden porch steps and opened the door to the apartment.
It was dark inside. Lily was surprised. Today was Diane’s day off, but the blinds were drawn, and there wasn’t a sound.
“Hello? Diane, are you home,” asked Lily. There wasn’t an answer. Lily hit the lights.
There was a cyborg from the set of some terrible 1960’s sci-fi flick sitting at the kitchen table.
“Holy shit! I’m sorry,” said Lily as she spun around to leave the apartment. She wasn’t entirely sure why she had apologized. Fuck it. They could have it.
“Wait, wait, honey, it’s me. I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you come in. It’s all part of my new treatment,” said Diane. “Can you please turn the lights back off? I have five minutes left.”
Lily did a double-take. The figure sitting at the kitchen table was absolutely inhuman.
Diane had what appeared to be fifty diodes and wires coming from the top of her head, her face, and her body. The wires ran to a large black box on the table, which looked like a VCR from the 80’s. Her eyes were covered with some sort of ocular attachment like night vision goggles or something. Lily watched Diane put what looked to be ear buds in before she turned the lights off again. A slight humming was emanating from the VCR.
Lily collected herself in the dark for about ten seconds—trying to find words.
“What? What? Can you just give me a few more minutes? I told you that I needed a few more minutes. Otherwise, this is all going to be a waste,” said Diane.
“No. We need to talk now,” said Lily.
“Lily, do you have any idea how much I have been waiting for this, how much I paid for it, and how important it is for my transcendence into a higher plane of existence?”
“Fine. You never care about things that matter to me. But that’s fine though. It’s the burden I must carry as a single mother. Can we keep the lights off? The brochure said that immediate exposure to light of any sort might result in ocular hemorrhaging, or worse, my neuralmagnesis might be thrown entirely out of whack. So please, keep the lights off if you care about the woman that spent nine hours in a hospital giving birth to you. It’s the least you can do, and there’s a lot at stake here.”
Lily hated it when Diane played that card. The silhouette of her mother looked monstrous in the dark apartment. After a few seconds of silence passed between the two, Lily’s eyes adjusted to the dark, and she noticed a faint green glow emanating from the things on Diane’s eyes and the box on the table.
“Well?” asked Diane. “What’s so damn important?”
“You realize I’ve never heard, or seen, anything so ridiculous before in my life?”
“That’s because the technology is new. Well, sort of, it’s based on research conducted by Russian scientists in a secret underground facility. You know how these things happen. It took the scientists years to sneak it out, piece by piece. I’m not sure, but I think someone went to prison for a really long time, or died. Maybe they died in prison. But anyway, what do you think people thought when they first saw a television or heard a radio recording?”
“I don’t know, maybe wow, look at the cool moving pictures, or this music is amazing, it’s like we’re really there.”
“What? What is this stupid thing supposed to do anyway?”
“It maximizes my neuralmagnesis, or my neuralmagnetic pathways.”
“I’m going to pretend like those things actually exist for the duration of your explanation. What does that mean, besides being some new-age bullshit terminology?” Lily was fixated on her mother’s glowing green eyes. She felt like she was having a conversation with the boogeyman she imagined was lurking in her closet as a kid.
“Well, the technology has a lot to do with mathematics and physics, I guess, but from what I read in the manual, our neuralmagnetic pathways are like our antennas to the rest of the world, the universe, times…even dimensions. We’re all connected, Lily. Some have stronger pathways than others, but communications are being sent every moment of every day, even when we’re sleeping. There could be somebody in China that is trying to talk to you right now, but your neuralmagnetic pathways aren’t open, so you don’t have the ears to hear it. You could even be a princess or some kind of goddess somewhere.
“Did you know that one of the Russian scientists involved in the research played a game of cribbage with the ancient Greek horse trader by the name of Xenophonix, by using neuralmagnesis? The guy’s name was something like that, Xeno something.”
Lily wondered if Sergei had written this “manual” or even built the machine that her mother was plugged into. “And?”
“And Xenophonix won the cribbage match! One twenty-three to fifty-eight—a double skunk. The Russian scientist demanded a rematch…which Xenophonix obliged.”
“Did the ancient Greeks even have the game cribbage?”
“Of course they did, Lily. Don’t be silly. Xenophonix beat the scientist even worse the second time. I thought your grandmother used to be bad. Anyway, I guess the Russian scientist wasn’t a very good loser, because it said in the manual that he never spoke to Xenophonix again. Shame really.”
“Right. What about you? Now that your pathways are open, have you received any communications?” Lily wasn’t expecting much. She just wanted to see how deep the delusion went.
“First of all, my pathways haven’t been maximized. Somebody is interrupting my current session, and it will take twenty sessions a day for several weeks, before I can expect to see any real results. I actually quit my job today so I can take this on full-time. You’re going to have to get used to it being dark in here. Consider it payback for guitar lessons that never went anywhere.”
“I’m going on a road trip.”
“Oh that’s nice, where to?” The green orbs tilted slightly.
“I think the west coast. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. I’m going with a man that I just met, who is most definitely completely insane. After I leave here, I’m going to call Staples and tell them to shove it and find someone else to fill pens.”
The green ocular glow that was Diane’s eyes looked down at the table. Lily continued.
“I’m going to go find Gary…dad Gary. He’s been sending you all those catalogues where you buy your stuff, including this thing, and this guy that has been helping him, the guy that I’m going with, says that he thinks Gary’s in trouble.”
Still no response from Diane.
“Everything that you know, that we know, or thought we knew, is complete bullshit. I feel like everything is crazy right now, and I need to find some answers for us. And I can’t do that here.”
There was a rustling of what sounded like pages, and it looked like the ocular apparatuses were scanning something on the table. “It says here, in the manual, that if you put a bunch of steel wool in a dryer with some metal washers, you can generate enough neuralmagnesis to initiate a pathway. It won’t be as good as this NMN machine, but that’s how they made the initial discovery. The scientist, Sergei Ovanoptop, had left some steel wool and washers in his pants; his wife did his laundry, and blammo, one of the most important scientific discoveries ever was made. It’s funny how those little accidents happen, isn’t it?” The green eyes shot back up from the table. “Lily, you could go to a laundry mat when you’re on your trip.”
It was time for Lily to leave.
“Goodbye, Diane. Stay out of the light. And don’t forget to eat.” Lily opened the apartment door behind her and quickly closed it, trying not to expose Diane. She squinted in the sunlight as she walked to her car. This was the first time Lily had actually been concerned for Diane. Her neurotic mother had just gone from annoying to troubling.
A taxi pulled up behind Lily’s Corolla, and after a moment, let its passenger loose. It was Sergei. He reached in, paid the driver, and the car drove off, leaving Lily and Sergei standing awkwardly on the curbside. Lily watched as a mammoth-sized squirrel twisted its way up a nearby tree.