Monday, October 31, 2011

Prologues and Sequels

Novel update! Crystal Hearts (working title - we're still hashing out the official name for the book and the series) is about halfway through edits, and then it's on to all the gritty stuff like marketing, making a writer's website, whoring myself out to bookstores on the island, etc.

NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow. I've done this two years in a row (in January, when Vicious Writers was still around) and I'm not about to quit this year, so I've decided to begin the sequel to Hearts. Things might get a little quiet on the blog for the next month, but I promise you it means that I'm hard at work on big things! I might find the time to do a bit of 'other' writing, if I can manage the energy after 2000 words a day (no big deal, right?). What's that other writing? Well, this 'setting' I've been working on in the blog is going somewhere eventually. Allow me to explain...

A long time ago, me and my friend Dave of Gaslamp Games made plans to create a webcomic. Long story short, he got busy making awesome video games. Originally we were planning on doing a fantasy story called 'A Tale of Ten', which we might still do, but I'm trying to convince him to draw this newer story I've been cooking up using the setting I've been writing about in the blog. He told me to write him a prologue and he'll decide from let me know what you think of the setting and these prologues! Help me convince him that this story will be awesome. Working title is 'Unfinished'. It'll make sense eventually, trust me.

Here's the first prologue. I'm planning five of them, from different characters' points of view.


Prologue #1

Song: The Writing on the Wall

Artist: Long John Teev’Rah

Album: Cobblestone Crossroads, B.U. 6

Genre: Fae Protest

From the north to the south and from sea to sea

Come hearken your ears, children, listen to me

Take heed of the signs that are plain there to see

The dark days are coming, there’s been a decree

Posted on ev’ry door that you’re no longer free

And if you’ve got no home, that won’t change your fate

The writing’s there on the wall

A nation that’s forged in blood and in smoke

With fields once ploughed by good honest folk

Now enslaved and hated, burdened by the yoke

Of chains and bonds long ago invoked

Well don’t laugh too hard at that cruel joke

For war makes us all slaves, just ask Captain Dan

His name is there on the wall

Across that old ocean a horse gallops fast

Been running since days that have long since been past

Long is the shadow that big steed does cast

And he’s lookin’ to leap over waters so vast

To knock down our masters’ big white holdfast

If he tells you he’ll save you, well don’t you believe

Remember, remember the wall

Well, some bow to coppers, and some bow to cash

Some bow because they do not want to be rash

And some only bow when they’re under the lash

And those who will not bow get burned into ash

Or rise against their masters in a brutal clash

And take up the place of those they made fall

And quickly build a new wall

Well some say that freedom is having a say

And some say that freedom is getting your way

Some want to be safe at the end of the day

Some only find it when they kneel down and pray

But take it from one of the downtrodden Fae

No matter your master, you’ll always have one

Unless you tear down all the walls

Sometimes it is scrawled as a threat or a curse

Sometimes things are written that try and coerce

Sometimes it’s a portent that times will get worse

Or there to tell you to converse or disperse

But please pay attention to every verse

For no good can come from just watching your feet

The writing’s there on the wall

It’s written there on the wall

Yeah the writing’s there on the wall


She walks the same patrol every day.

Each morning begins just as the last one. Even on her days off, she gets up well before dawn. She doesn’t sleep naked, no decent woman sleeps naked. She gets up and throws on her sweats. Out the door she goes, not even locking it behind her. In The Empire, every home is safe.

She runs.

She runs down Shung-Lee Street, formerly called the Zenterstrassa, past rows of apartments and goods outlets. The oldest buildings are mortared stone, but few of those have survived the Second Great War of Titania. Many buildings are made of sturdy brown brick, but those were built before the Parsu expansion. The Empire builds with concrete. The slanted, overhanging tile roofs cast deeper shadows over the smaller buildings, reminding the dwellers that they have been taken under The Empire’s wing.

She runs through Mah Plaza, where the big marble fountain proudly boasts General Varu Yrah upon a horse, arms outstretched in a gesture of welcome as he liberates Beberg. She runs up the hill to the big estates where the rich used to live before The Empire came. She runs to the highway, and takes it all the way to the edge of the city. There at the four corners, where the mountains meet the valley and the city meets the open road, the rising sun glimmers as it climbs up over the Shu mountains. The millions of tiny eyes that watch over the earth at night give way to the great big life-giving sentinel of the world, the sun that rises at the beginning of The Empire’s borders and sets at its edge, there in Beberg.

Up on the hill, looking down upon the valley, she can see the wall.

It stretches to the north and south as far as the eye can see, like a long dragon of ash-grey, dividing The Empire from the decadent West. It is a barrier between true freedom and the world of those enslaved by money and made-up gods and cruel, corrupt robber-barons. It is there for the protection of The People, and she knows that it must be respected. Without it, greed and corruption could seep into The Empire.

The wall is never marred or tarnished; those who have no other task in Beberg are sent to wash it. It is a symbol of the endless diligence of The People, kept pure by their efforts alone. On the hill, she pictures the other side sometimes – a filthy, pitiful stretch of concrete, covered in soot, graffiti and hate.

She runs back to her one-room apartment, sweating and panting. Some of her comrades mock her for the time she spends running when she is on her feet walking the wall all day, but she in turn disdains their diffidence. A slovenly guard is not an effective guard, and every cog is a part of the machine.

When she was young, she wanted to be an Honour Guard to the High Council. Her parents tried to dissuade her, telling her she didn’t have the fortitude. She wouldn’t listen, and trained every day until her muscles were like jelly and she was dizzy from burning all her energy. She learned the Twelve Sacred Dances and memorized the Three Sacred Books. It made her strong and wise, but she failed the written portion of the entrance exam.

She never became an Honour Guard, but she remains determined to be the best Guardian of the Wall that The Empire has ever seen. Her Captain often berates her, telling her that she is not defending The Empire from Hama barbarians who can be bested in single combat. Their enemies are men with guns. She can’t dodge bullets, and the Hama long ago became a part of The Empire. However, she knows that he is merely testing her resolve, just as the other guards are when they tell her that she’d be better off serving The Empire by marrying and bearing children. She knows that it is her Captain’s secret given task to test her.

Every citizen is given secret tasks by The Empire. Hers is to practice her Twelve Sacred Dances. Worship and religion are forbidden within The Empire, but by performing the dances she honours her ancestors, and prepares for whatever task her superiors might have for her in the future.

She showers and changes into her uniform, which she had ironed the night before. It is red and brown, the colours of the dragon and the horse. They are the oldest and most revered symbols of The Empire. Donning her uniform always fills her with a sense of pride. Without it, she is just a citizen, a member of The People. Inside that brown and red canvas, under her flat-topped cap, she is a Guardian, a bastion of The Empire that raised her. She is a defender of The People.

The wall is not far from where she lives. She leaves her apartment and strolls briskly through the street, breathing deeply of the crisp spring air and nodding to passers-by. Citizens are always polite to a woman in uniform. One old man smiles with his gums and offers her a small green apple. She accepts it; her parents had always taught her that it was rude to refuse a gift. She breaks her fast on the tart, under-ripe fruit as she reaches her local barracks entrance. It is a long one-storey building built right into the wall itself.

Something out of the corner of her eye catches her attention. It is a gathering crowd. She thinks about ignoring it, but she is early for work, as always, and a guard takes care to protect The People, even when off-duty. She walks toward the crowd to see what the commotion is about.

The crowd is clustered around an alleyway. When the wall was built, not too many houses were disturbed, but in some areas a few had to be torn down, and others remain in the wall’s shadow, creating small alleyways. Some are only wide enough for a rat to fit through, but others make good hiding places for Westerners seeking to scale the wall. If any survive the Death Trench that lies between the Eastern and Western walls, they are unlikely to climb the wall and best the guards in time to leap onto a roof or down into an alley, but the narrow passageways are patrolled nevertheless. Diligence is one of the Five Sacred Virtues of The Empire.

City guards push members of the crowd out of the alley and order them to disperse, but curiosity persists. There are murmurs and whispers about graffiti and vandalism as she pushes her way to the throng. The gawkers part for her; nobody wants to get in the way of a uniform.

The alleyway is very narrow; she has to shuffle sideways to slip between the wall and the house. Within, three guards lean against the house. One is smoking, one is taking a photograph of the colourful mural, which is at least three squared in size and must have taken hours to paint. The third guard is her Captain. He leads her closer to the painting and gestures for her to have a good long look.

It is a painting of the wall itself, a caricature drawn by an amateur. In the middle, a large section of stone has crumbled away and people with all shades of skin and colourful clothing are holding hands across the gap. One of them is wearing an Imperial uniform. Another is wearing a t-shirt that looks like the flag of the United Provinces.

“Jun,” her Captain says. “Tell nobody about what you’ve seen here. Nobody. The Empire has a task for you.”

“My duty is my honour, Captain.”

“Find out who did this, and arrest them.”

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Jungle, Part Five

Thus the tale concludes! I'd really like to know what people think of the ending. Oh, and just to let you know, this part of the story is NSFW due to explicit content.

The Jungle, Part Five

As Mkab scowled, Priyat stepped back and stood beside the elder troll. The two of them spoke quickly in hushed voices, humming and gesturing. It wouldn’t have mattered if they’d been shouting; Mkab couldn’t understand a word of the bizarre sing-and-flail troll language.

“If you’re going to kill me, just do it,” Mkab spat. “It won’t matter. One day the army will come and kill all of you.”

Priyat folded his arms. “The army will never find us. We move every season.”

“We? You traitor.”

“I’m not the one who abandoned all sense of human decency, Mkab.”

“They are savage, and not human.” Mkab gave one last attempt at struggling out of his bonds. It was as futile as it had been the first time. One of the trolls around the bonfire laughed. Mkab felt his fury ebbing away. He’d stared death in the face too many times; fear and rage were for the young. Mkab felt only disgust for the trolls and Priyat. “I’m done talking to you. Kill me, unless you don’t have the balls.”

“You’re more like them than you think, chap,” Priyat said. That brought the blood back to Mkab’s face. “Despite your backwards way of thinking, the aaman greatly respect a fearless warrior such as yourself. As such, they aren’t done with you yet.”

The elder troll raised his arms with a sweeping gesture, and the rest of the tribe made a deafening cry in harmonized voices. Priyat receded into the shadows, his eyes gleaming. The elder sang in a tremulous voice as the painted silver symbols on his body gleamed and danced in the glow of the bonfire. Mkab saw a shower of sparks reach up to the stars; they were giving more logs to the flames. The men switched places with the women around the circle of the fire, and the female trolls began gathering up the spoils of the hunt. Mkab couldn’t turn his head to see what they were doing, but they took the bodies of the warriors he’d killed, as well.

A heavily muscled troll painted like a jaguar approached Mkab, brandishing an obsidian knife. It could have been the one that Mkab had taken from the dead warrior.

“Go on, cut my throat, coward.” The troll didn’t seem to understand him, and approached without a hint of fear or caution. Mkab gritted his teeth but kept his eyes wide open, refusing to face death with fear.

The blade dug into his chest and painted a bright red slash, almost from shoulder to shoulder. It was a skin-deep wound, but the blood still seeped out freely and trickled down his stomach and onto the ground. Then the troll hooked a hand into Mkab’s belt and slashed down, cutting Mkab swiftly and methodically out of the rest of his clothes.

A wizened old troll woman, more flesh and wrinkle than substance, appeared from the shadows to stand beside the elder troll. Like all the trolls, she was naked but for a breechcloth and her torso had been painted much like the elder’s. She had a necklace made of various skulls; the largest one looked like it had belonged to a cat. It hung between her breasts, staring at Mkab through empty sockets.

Her voice was leathery, but it was shrill enough to be heard over the din of the flames. The warriors began to dance around the fire again, and Priyat translated from his seclusion in the shadows as the old woman waved her arms and sang:

“You are naked in the sight of the elder gods, the great hunters of the jungle: jaguar, tooth-lizard, eagle, and snake. We speak through our loyal vessel, the shamaness Avoye. In our eyes you have been judged worthy, for though you are not of the aaman, you have bested their warriors and borne your wounds with courage. You are not of the aaman, but your spirit, your seed, is strong. Your warrior’s blood will join with the blood of the aaman, and make them stronger.”

Mkab rocked back and forth, hoping to loosen a stake or two. Shouting and cursing would only waste his breath; he had little time left before they slit his throat and fed his blood to their cannibalistic warriors.

The burly jaguar-warrior returned, brandishing the same knife. Mkab pulled at his ropes, but the pain in his ankle and ribs were throbbing heavily, and his chest and face wounds were bleeding the fight out of him. The troll stood over him and held the knife against his own palm. In the firelight, the blood looked black. It seeped down from the troll’s hand, invisibly along the obsidian blade of the knife, to dribble onto the gash across Mkab’s chest. The jaguar troll returned to the circle of dancing warriors, and another troll took his place above Mkab. The shamaness continued to sing as each warrior came and let out a few drops of blood onto Mkab’s wound.

Now what? Mkab wondered. I’ll never join them.

Priyat began to translate for the shamaness again:

“The blood of the aaman’s mighty warriors has been given to this strong outsider, that he may draw from their strength and add his ferocity to the tribe. By the elder gods of the jungle, the gods of water and sky, earth and spirit, let the joining commence!”

The red warriors returned to their drums. Doom, doom. The women had returned from the huts, their arms slick with blood. They carried the skins of the slain animals, stretched tight across wooden frames, and others hefted stone slabs between them, piled high with meat. The slabs were placed amongst the coals as the men resumed their dance around the bonfire.

A small figure emerged from the shadows, wearing nothing but bright paint, reminiscent of a tropical bird. Her hips and breasts were small, but her lips were full and sensual, her eyes big, round and dark. In her hands was a clay jug.

She was one of the savages all along, Mkab thought. You fool, she led you right to them. Mkab had no idea why a fairy would be consorting with trolls, but he knew that nobody would bother to answer his question.

The fairy turned to the shamaness, who produced a carved wooden bowl filled with a glowing cobalt liquid. The young woman set down her jug and drank deeply of the thick substance. As she handed the bowl back to the shamaness, her eyes had begun to gleam as they had when she’d consumed the mushrooms in the jungle. She lifted the jug and approached Mkab.

Mkab kept his lips firmly sealed. The fairy knelt down beside him and stroked the wounded side of his face, gently. He wanted to scream at her, but he knew that as soon as he opened his mouth, whatever was in the jug would get poured down his throat. As her earthy scent filled his nostrils, he reminded himself firmly that she was a fairy, and she’d betrayed him. His body responded of its own accord; even it was betraying him. Mkab had never felt so exposed.

“Pa’ish’te lach dee’ann,” she whispered into his ear. A chill ran down Mkab’s spine. The fairy brought the jug to his lips, but he refused to drink.

“Oh’eel,” she said in an urgent tone. “Toh’eel.”

Mkab said nothing. The fairy lifted the jug to her own mouth and drank, then leaned down to kiss Mkab.

No, Mkab thought. It worked with the mushrooms; it’s not going to work this time.

He wasn’t expecting something to jab him in the ribs. Mkab’s cry of pain gave the fairy time to spit the contents of her mouth into his. As Mkab gurgled and choked on a bitter liquid, she dumped the remainder of the jug into his mouth. He tried to spit out as much as he could, but between coughs he had to gasp for air, and it felt as though a fire was going down his throat.

“You crazy fairy bitch!” He screamed, his voice hoarse. He wondered what the concoction was supposed to do. If they’d wanted to kill him they wouldn’t have bothered with poison.

Doom, doom. Doom, da-da doom doom boom. More drums were joining in the rhythm, and the singing had resumed. Warriors were forming a new circle; instead of dancing around the fire, they were twisting and swaying around Mkab and the fairy.

Mkab could feel the heat from the potion spreading throughout his entire body, down to his toes and the tips of his fingers. The fairy was playing with the blood on his chest, drawing swirling symbols on his stomach and arms. She smiled at him, and began to draw more symbols lower down. He struggled, tried not to be aroused, tried to think of the burned bodies of children he’d seen in the war, his father’s funeral, the fear he was supposed to be feeling, anything, but her hands were on him, and then her mouth...

The rhythm of the drums became quicker, a fever beat. The singing was breathy and full of grunts and moans. The women had traded places with the men again, and they were dancing around him, painted and naked. His head swam. All he could see, all he could think of, were thrusts and moans, painted breasts and swaying hips.

The fairy was atop him suddenly, and with no resistance at all he was inside her. No, he told himself, I am not aroused. Yet somehow he was wishing that the ropes were gone so that he could grab her by the waist, or ball his fists in her hair. As she moved atop him, the swirling bodies and crackling flames faded away, until all he could see was her. She was like a dark goddess, wild and free and alive, tossing her hair about as she screamed with abandon. All Mkab could hear were the drums, the song, and her voice high above it all, moaning in her strange language.

The rhythm grew faster, then faster still. She moved atop him to the beat, and her eyes seemed to be glowing brighter. The look she gave Mkab was a hungry one. As the voices peaked in a thunderous crescendo and the drums throbbed as quickly as Mkab’s heartbeats, she dug her nails into his chest, threw her head back and screamed.

It was enough to bring Mkab over the edge. As his entire body tensed and he spent himself inside her, he added his scream to hers. He shut his eyes tight, and the afterimage of the fairy’s body, aglow from the firelight, danced behind his eyes.

She collapsed atop him as a collective sigh went up from the trolls. Blood and paint mingled between their bodies. Mkab opened his eyes and stared at the stars, feeling empty.

The drums had ceased, save for a rapid thrumming rhythm that seemed to be coming from far away. As Mkab listened, it grew louder, and seemed to be coming from above the trees. Wait...

The village was suddenly awash in light, brighter than any bonfire. The circle of trolls broke as they ran in all different directions. Many warriors took up bows and began firing arrows at the metal bird that was coming down from the sky. The fairy woman was desperately pulling at the stakes that held Mkab to the ground.

Mkab saw Priyat approaching him from the shadows. In his hands was an assault rifle. That’s mine, Mkab thought. It looked heavy in Priyat’s spindly arms. There was a blur of dark hair, and the fairy was standing in front of Mkab with her arms outstretched.

“Move.” Priyat said.


“I said move. He’s doomed us all.” He raised the rifle. The woman didn’t step away, but she was shaking violently. Mkab wondered if Priyat would shoot. He didn’t think so, but he hadn’t been expecting the girl to take a bullet for him, either.

Something small and metallic was sticking out of Priyat’s neck, suddenly. He had a confused look on his face before he fell forward into the dirt, landing on top of the gun. Trolls were running to and fro in panic, and one stepped right on Priyat.

As the helicopter descended into the village clearing, Mkab started to laugh. He promised himself that it was the last time he’d ever take on a job in the jungle.


“We can’t let him go,” Marko said. He pushed his small round glasses up his nose. “He’ll run to every free press with the story.”

Mkab nodded his agreement as he puffed on a cigar. Priyat had proven himself to be too dangerous.

“That’s the government’s problem,” Chula said as she put her feet up on the kitchen table. “Not ours.”

“The government will make it our problem,” Mbwann replied as he wiped his eyes.

“Honestly, it’s hard to take you seriously when you’re cutting onions.” Wu was writing up the report.

“Somebody has to feed you.” Mbwann dumped the onions in a wooden mixing bowl. “Nobody can stomach your cooking, Wu. Back to the point, if we let Priyat go, it’ll come down on our heads at some point. Maybe not right away, but the last thing we want is a stain on our reputation or the Minaxan army coming after us.”

“They won’t send the army, they’ll send assassins,” Chula snapped as she lit a cigarette. “Hurry up, will you? I’m starved.”

“Yeah, shooting defenceless trolls is hard work, eh, Chu?” Wu looked up from his papers.

“They’re not defenceless,” Mkab said.

“Is someone still sore?” Chula said with a mock pout.

Mkab pointed at his eye. “You try fighting a wildcat without a gun.”

“Quit bitching.” Mbwann turned on the tap to wash the lettuce. “Bigger risk, bigger cut, we all agreed. You didn’t lose anything vital.”

“Just his pride,” Wu chuckled.

“Leave off it,” Taz said as he stood up from the table. He opened the fridge and poked his head around, and returned to his seat with a beer in hand.

“Can we get back to the point?” Marko was drumming his fingers on the table. “What are we supposed to do with Professor Priyat?”

“Just sell him with the trolls,” Wu suggested.

“We can’t,” Marko said. “The agreement was for just trolls.”

“The empire doesn’t care what we send them,” Wu said as he went back to his papers. “They’ll pay more for trolls, but sending Priyat to them is the only way to silence him...other than putting a bullet in his head. The sooner we get rid of him, the less likely his disappearance will be traced to us.”

“What about the girl?” Marko asked.

Mkab and Taz shared a glance. Taz was the only person he’d told. Mkab’s official report had omitted a few details.

“What about her?” Wu asked. “They’ll take her, too.”

“Better check with the boss,” Mbwann said as he tore leaves off the head of lettuce. “Other buyers will pay more for a fairy.”

Chula stood up. “So we’re slavers, now?”

“You didn’t gripe when Minaxa asked us to remove the trolls from the jungle,” Wu said reproachfully.

Chula tossed her cigarette butt at him. “I did, you just have a selective memory. Remove them from the jungle, fine. Sell them to the Empire, that’s a different story.”

“You can leave anytime you want to, Chu,” Marko said in a low voice.

As she stormed out of the room, Mkab stood up.

“What, you have a problem with this too?” Marko asked him. “They almost killed you.”

Mkab shrugged. “Do what you want with the trolls. I’ll be right back; too much hot air in here.”

Mkab didn’t go outside. He took the hallway from the kitchen to the basement stairs and went down. Farak was standing sentry.

“Come to gloat over them?” He asked.

“No. I just want to spit in Priyat’s face one last time.”

“Be my guest. Maybe it’ll shut him up; he’s been trying to convince me to set him free for hours.”

Mkab chuckled and walked past Farak to the cells. Priyat was at the far end, in a cell by himself so he couldn’t conspire with the trolls. Mkab would visit him in time, but there was somebody else he wanted to see first.

They’d given her clothing, but her face and arms were still caked in old blood and paint. Her hair was a tangled mess. In the cell was a dirty mattress, a pail, and a plate of untouched vegetables. She looked up at Mkab with hurt eyes.

“Ey’ach,” she spat.

“They want to sell you,” he said to her. “The boss will sell you to the sex slavers because they pay the most. This job was big. You don’t understand how badly everybody wanted the trolls off that land. We got paid big money to do it with no questions asked, and even bigger money to sell the trolls instead of killing them. If we didn’t do it somebody else would have, and they’re just savages. So are you, but you don’t belong in an Imperial quarry pit.”

“Oo’sch ulk.” She picked up the plate and threw it at the bars. The plate shattered, and soggy vegetables went everywhere. A piece of broccoli landed on Mkab’s forehead. He flicked it away.

“You’re angry. I would be too. But you’ll forgive me. I got the biggest cut from this job, and I’m going to buy you.”

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Jungle, Part Four

Okay. One more after this and I should be done with this story. Enjoy!

The Jungle, Part Four

Mkab tried to stammer something as he pointed at the fairy’s face. “Your...your eyes. They’re glowing like the mushrooms.”

The woman tilted her head at him and smiled. “Luz’i’na kray’im tatu,” she said. The cobalt glow of her eyes was both chilling and compelling. She pointed at his face. Mkab stood back up. He forgot to favour his good leg, but his feet felt numb and light as cotton. There was no pain.

Mkab wanted to kiss her again. He’d forgotten all about the trolls, his injuries, the dangers of the Laxtica. He couldn’t even hear the drums. He leaned forward and tried to grab her, but she danced away, laughing.

Her laughter was like music, and her eyes were white-hot coals. Behind and around her, the jungle was coming to life. The grey leaves of the trees became a vivid green. The mushrooms glowed like tiny torches on the ground, swaying with the laughter of the fairy’s music. The roots of the trees writhed like snakes, and Mkab started to dance away from them to protect his feet.

“What was in that mushroom?” he asked. Mkab didn’t realize that something he ate could hit him so quickly. He wondered why she had fed it to him.

The jungle glowed and pulsed to the music of the crickets and frogs. Oh. I can see in the dark.

DOOM, DOOM. The drums were deafening, beating like the pulse of a giant black-blooded heart, somewhere beyond the lights and sensations of the fairy’s ring of mushrooms. The wailing of the trolls came back to Mkab then. It sounded like demons shrieking in the night.

The fairy ran up to him and put a hand on his chest. “All’atz yatu,” she whispered. Her scent filled Mkab’s nostrils again and he shivered. Before he could take her in his arms, she grabbed his wrist and started pulling him away. Away from the mushrooms and into the livid, pulsing jungle.

DOOM, DOOM. Drumbeats pulsed and throbbed around Mkab as the wailing of the trolls became shrieking laughter. Branches became hands that grabbed at him as the fairy led him swiftly through narrow pathways between the trees, her hair trailing between them like a river of liquid obsidian.

“Where are we going?” Mkab asked. With his free hand he carefully slid his dagger back into his belt.

“Hass,” she whispered urgently.

DOOM, DOOM. The smaller drums and the wails of the trolls were receding, but the big bass throbs were getting so close that Mkab could feel them in his chest. He and the fairy reached a wall of rock with jagged edges like teeth. She knelt down and slunk along the wall and Mkab mimicked her.

Their progress was slow. The leaves whispered words in a susurration of unknown languages as Mkab’s footfalls made the moss sigh. The ridge behind Mkab was getting lower and lower as the pounding of the bad drums grew louder and louder.

Mkab saw an incandescent glow ahead. Tall, writhing shadows danced across the trees in silhouettes of amber and orange. Shit, he thought, I’ve found the village. I wish I had my radio. He watched as the fairy sunk down to the ground on her stomach and began to crawl forward. Not knowing what else to do, he did the same, hoping that he didn’t crawl over a deathfrog. It’s too late now to go back. Wherever she’s taking me, we have to get past the trolls.

As they crawled, the ridge sloped until it was a knee-high ledge. Mkab dared to look up. There in front of him was the troll village.

Sure enough, the drums were there, bigger than Mkab had imagined, as tall as the trees of the jungle. Aaman painted in red were beating the skins with huge, gnarled clubs. The low wooden huts were bathed in the glow of a great bonfire, its tendrils reaching up to the stars like fingers. Around the fire, trolls with the snarling faces of demon animals danced and chanted, shrieking at each other across the flames.

It’s no wonder they sent us in, he thought. Priyat is a fool. These savages are brutal. They might say it’s about the land, but no good ever came from giving trolls their freedom.

“Ay’ret,” the fairy whispered as she forced Mkab’s head down. I’m not being cautious, he realized. Is it because of the mushroom?

He heard the trolls approach before he saw them. His companion shrieked and started to flee. Mkab got to his feet, cursing himself for losing his rifle. The trolls never would have stood a chance, but all he had left was the knife. The trolls crashing through the trees toward him had spears. Mkab drew the knife and prepared to die.

He wasn’t expecting a rock. It was the size of a fist. It sailed through the air, too quickly for him to dodge, and struck him in the temple. His vision swam and he lost his footing as the trolls came out of the shadows. Unbidden, his grip on the knife loosened and he watched it slide away from him on a bed of dark blue moss. He was watching his hand reach for it as his vision faded to darkness.

When Mkab awoke, his head was pounding. Or is it the drums? Am I dead? The pain in his ribs and ankle had returned, and his left eye wouldn’t open. As his vision returned, he could see the stars above him, and the full moon staring down like an accusing, baleful eye. He looked down to find that he was bound by his wrists and ankles with rough rope, tied to stakes. The heat of the bonfire was nearly cooking his body, and the painted trolls were dancing around the flames right in front of him.

“Well, chap, looks like we’ve bought it.” Mkab looked over to find that Priyat had been tied up next to him. The professor appeared uninjured, and calm considering their predicament.

Mkab struggled with his bonds, but they held tight. “Talk to them,” he said. “Tell them to let us go.”

Priyat shook his head. “They won’t. Only the elder speaks with outsiders.”

Mkab craned his head about, looking for a troll who seemed more important than the others. The dancers were still circling the fire; most of them looked like women. They were naked but for loincloths, and their bodies had been painted to look like the night sky, dotted with stars. Each left breast was a milky white, like the moon. On the other side of Priyat, the drummers in red continued to pound away, as warriors painted like the wild animals of the Laxtica brought back their trophies and arranged them in rows between the giant drums. Each warrior would stand behind his kill, and Mkab noticed that every troll’s body paint matched the animal that they had hunted.

However, there was no elder to be seen. The women continued to dance and wail, and the warriors stood patiently behind their animal carcasses as they watched the other trolls circle the fire. More warriors were arriving, and they added their kills to the rows.

As Mkab watched, four warriors painted like sleek midnight panthers entered the circle of firelight, carrying a pair of bodies between them. Troll bodies, Mkab noted. I shouldn’t be surprised that they even hunt their own kind. Wait...

A panther-warrior shot Mkab an intense glare as he passed. The body that he was holding by the ankles was riddled with holes, too small to be made by a spear. Those are the trolls I killed. They’ll sacrifice me to their troll gods for what I’ve done. Mkab struggled against his ropes again, but the bonds held tight and his ankle was throbbing so much that his vision spotted for a moment. Even if he were to escape the stakes, Mkab knew that he was surrounded, wounded and without a weapon. The battlefields of his youth had never seemed as hopeless as the troll village in the Laxtica.

“Ah, two brave warriors have fallen to their intended prey,” Priyat said.

“They tried to kill me,” Mkab muttered. Let the idiot see them for what they really are.

“And you prevailed, proving yourself the stronger warrior. They will respect you more now.”

“Then why am I tied up?” Wait a minute. “You said they didn’t attack humans.”

Priyat did not reply. The drumming had ceased. The trolls were silent. The women formed a ring around the fire, and the men were arranged behind their kills. The trolls that Mkab had slain were laid out at his feet.

“What’s happening?” Mkab asked.

“Quiet,” Priyat whispered.

“Suck a troll dick.” Mkab struggled again, uselessly. As he pulled at the ropes, a chorus of wails rose up from the collected trolls, splitting into a polyphony of voices. From a hut, a huge, grey-haired troll emerged.

He was painted like no animal Mkab had ever seen. His torso and bare legs were painted in strange silver glyphs, and large bones had been tied into the braids of his hair. They rattled as he walked. His skin was wrinkled and sagging, but his arms and legs were still powerfully muscled, and although his posture was stooped like all trolls, he towered over the others in the village clearing.

The large troll stopped in front of Mkab and Priyat and took a deep breath. He did not speak so much as sing:

“Ooyam varoyaye aamang uchhh.” His voice was a penetrating bass, and when he sang and moved his arms, his painted glyphs seemed to dance.

Professor Priyat began to reply in a nasal, tenor tone. His hands twitched; Mkab figured that Priyat was supposed to use the same gestures as the trolls when he spoke. The response Priyat gave was incomprehensible to Mkab, but it sounded a lot like begging.

“Oobom,” the silver troll said as he waved his hand. Suddenly four warriors stepped forward and pried Priyat’s stakes loose. Nobody moved forward to assist Mkab, and he watched in anguish as Priyat was released from his bondage. The professor rubbed his wrists and looked down at Mkab.

“They have released me so that I can speak with the elder properly,” he explained. “I am certain that he will have questions for you when he is done with me. I will translate for you, if they decide to let me live that long.”

Mkab held his tongue. He watched as the elder and Priyat moaned and grunted and wailed and hummed at each other, their arms flailing nonsensically. Occasionally, the elder would gesture at Mkab, or at the dead trolls. As the conversation went on, the elder’s voice grew louder, and Priyat’s became meeker. Finally, Priyat turned to Mkab.

“The elder wants to know if you killed those Aaman there, beneath your feet.”

“What should I tell him?”

“The truth. He already knows it was you; cats generally don’t shoot their victims, and they tend to eat what they kill.”

“It could have been you.”

Priyat shot Mkab a withering look. “Things will go better for you if you tell the truth. They respect physical prowess. The elder will never believe that I slew two of his finest warriors.”

“Fine, do it. What choice do I have? Make sure to mention that those fucking savages attacked me first.”

“I’ll be sure and leave out the ‘fucking savages’ part.”

“Tell him whatever you want. I can’t stop you, and I don’t think they have a feast planned for us since they already tried to kill us and tied us to fucking stakes beside their giant bonfire!” Mkab wasn’t the praying sort, but he was seriously considering petitioning any god that would listen for help. If only I hadn’t left that transponder at the camp, he thought, the crew would come and rescue me, and show these beasts what hunted really means.

The elder said something to Priyat, and another small dialogue ensued. All the while, the bonfire crackled and the trolls were all ears.

“The elder wishes to know why we are here,” Priyat said.

“That’s between you and him. I’m just your guide.”

Priyat and the elder sang and flailed again.

“He doesn’t believe me. I’ve told him that I’m just here to learn more about their culture, but he says that he found some...human magic at our campsite.”

“Human magic? Even an inbred troll idiot should know that magic doesn’t exist.”

Mkab had no idea how accurately his words were being translated, but as Priyat spoke to the elder, a group of unpainted troll children began bringing items out of the elder’s hut. As he watched them pile his equipment at the feet of the elder, Mkab began to laugh. He found that he could not stop.

“What’s so funny?” Priyat demanded. “Our lives are at stake here, Mkab.”

Mkab wiped the smile off his face. “Then why were you so calm before? If the elder wants to know, that’s a radio, and my survival gear, and a...” A transponder. A little electronic beacon so my crew can come and rescue me. “Well, he’ll never understand what those things are for.”

“Why do you have a radio?” Priyat demanded.

“In case we got lost.”

“The elder doesn’t believe you. And neither do I. You’re not a guide, are you?” Priyat gestured to the elder, and he nodded. One of the red warriors stepped forward and smashed the radio to bits with a single swing of his club. Mkab winced as the warrior did the same to the small plastic box that transmitted his location back to the crew.

“Do you think I’m an idiot?” Priyat asked. “You’re afraid of the jungle, and even more afraid of the aaman. A Laxtica guide would at least be local. I know the government has been paying people like you to try and oust these innocent people so that they can deforest and make more farmland.”

Mkab writhed against his restraints. He didn’t care if the trolls killed him; he just wanted to strangle Priyat first. “You’re a bigger fool than I am if you think these people are innocent.”

“And you’re a fool to think that I was ever deceived by you.”

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Jungle, Part Three

Mkab lay on the jungle floor, breathing shallowly to keep his broken rib from stabbing him too deeply. He could feel his ankle swelling up with blood from the sprain. If the trolls came after him, he would never be able to outrun them. It was dark, he was injured, and he was in their environment. Worst of all, he had no weapons and no radio.

Doom, doom. The drums were drawing closer, unmistakeably. Mkab could hear different sets of rhythms coming from separate parts of the jungle. They seemed to be calling out to one another as the big bass drums continued to command them to hunt. Above the crickets’ chirps and hunters’ drums, the wailing songs of the trolls lilted and fell in haunting waves.

Mkab sat up and looked at the corpse lying next to him. So ugly, he thought. He had to admit, though, that the body paint was intensely detailed. Even in the darkness, with only a sliver of moonlight slanting through the canopy, he could see the black-and-yellow jaguar spots covering the troll’s face, arms and naked, heavily muscled torso.

A gleam of reflected moonlight caught Mkab’s eye. Below the troll’s hip, a crude obsidian dagger was tied to its thigh by a leather thong. It was just a jagged piece of rock lashed to a wooden stick, but obsidian was supposed to be sharper than steel. Mkab silently praised his change in fortune and slid the dagger through his belt.

Doom, doom. The drums and wailing continued. Mkab decided that his first step was to get away from the dead body. He brought himself up so that he was standing on his uninjured foot. Slowly he put some of his weight on his right foot, grimacing as he felt the ache spread from his ankle up his whole leg. He didn’t dare check the swelling. If he took his boot off, he knew that it would never go back on. Mkab leaned on his right foot a little bit more and felt ill. It was going to hurt with every step, but he didn’t have a choice. He limped over to the nearest tree. He had to bite his lip until he drew blood to keep himself from screaming, but he reminded himself of the time he’d been shot through the abdomen and the pain abated slightly.

Mkab leaned against the trunk of the tree and checked his pockets with his free hand. Most of his important equipment was back on the ridge. He didn’t think he’d ever find his gun in the dark, but he could go back and get his itzla, his first aid kit, and his compass. He could radio for help, too. He didn’t care about the mission anymore; it was botched. It didn’t matter that Priyat could speak to the trolls. They’d attacked without provocation, just like Mkab had suspected they would. Priyat was probably dead, anyway. Where there were two trolls, there were likely to be more. The ones who’d climbed up the ridge hadn’t used drums. They hadn’t been singing. The thought made Mkab look over his shoulder.

Doom, doom. Every shape in the darkness seemed to be the shadow of a troll. Every tree branch looked like a snake about to drop down and strangle Mkab. He drew the obsidian dagger and waited, listening for a footstep or a breath. Time stretched and slowed between beats of the bass drums. Mkab’s whole world was a symphony in the dark – crickets chirped, drums pounded, trolls wailed, his breath hissed in and out of his teeth as he waited for a sound that did not belong.

Mkab looked over to where he assumed the ridge was. It was impossible to tell in the dark and without his compass, but as he thought about it he knew that he would never make it back up without proper light, especially given his twisted ankle. His only hope was to survive in the valley overnight. His wounds wouldn’t kill him that quickly, but he was likely to catch a fever or an infection. His more immediate concerns were the trolls and the wildcats. Either one of them could easily catch and kill him in his state. His only hope was to stay where he was and hope that no cats smelled his blood. The trolls would be easy to avoid; there was no way that they would hear him over their wild shrieking.

Mkab wanted to sit down, but he knew that it would make him too vulnerable. He listened to the hunters and tried to discern which groups were getting closer and which were moving further away.

Some leaves rustled nearby, but Mkab felt no wind. He turned toward the sound and crouched, dagger poised in front of him. There on a wide, low branch, a pair of reflective eyes were watching him. He waited.

It leapt at him. Mkab saw the sleek, black shape sail through the air and he raised the dagger. The paws landed on him first and he was knocked to the ground. He felt the dagger sink into the soft flesh above him as hot, rank breath filled his nostrils.

The panther yowled and raked Mkab’s face. Mkab cried out and withdrew the dagger. With his free arm he protected his throat. The cat bit down on the flesh of his forearm and he screamed again. Wildly, he stabbed at the beast’s face, hoping to pierce its eyes or skull. The panther shook his arm roughly. Mkab moaned and his vision swam. He slashed again, going for the throat. A stream of warm liquid poured over him, across his face and into his open mouth. He rolled over and retched.

Blood stung his left eye, but through his right he could see the body of the big cat. Its eyes were still open, staring at him as it lay on the roots of Mkab’s tree, soaking the soil with its blood. Mkab watched the life fade from those eyes as he panted, clutching his left arm. He couldn’t decide which injury hurt the most, but he needed to staunch the bleeding from his arm. He blinked and wiped the blood from his left eye, then squirmed out of his shirt and started cutting it into strips.

Doom, doom. Mkab had nearly forgotten about the drums. It took him some time to cut up his shirt in the dark, with a maimed arm. He wondered how long it would take the wound to fester. Cats did not have clean mouths.

As Mkab began to wind a length of canvas around the deep gouges in his arm, he heard soft footsteps padding toward him through the brush. What now? He wondered. The Laxtica seemed relentless in its attempts to kill him. He got to his feet as quietly as he could and clutched his dagger as though it was his last friend in the world.

A child stepped out of the trees, dressed in strips of jaguar pelt and carrying a tall spear. Mkab couldn’t believe his eyes. For a panicked moment, he wondered if he was hallucinating, or dead. The child looked like a girl, and she didn’t have the appearance of a troll at all. Her eyes were big and dark, her wild hair long and ebon. She had a high forehead and narrow chin. The girl tilted her heart-shaped face and looked at Mkab with an eyebrow raised.

“Ellay’atz tatu?” The child whispered. It sounded like a question. She took a hesitant step toward Mkab, her eyes flashing rapidly from his face to the dagger. Mkab wondered whether he was being lulled into a false sense of security. There was nothing to trust in the jungle, not even his eyes anymore, it seemed.

The girl stepped forward again, into a patch of moonlight. Mkab noticed her curves, and realized he was not looking at a child at all. Small, pale, lithe, big eyes, he thought. What the fuck is a fairy doing in the Laxtica, dressed like a savage? The trolls would never admit a fairy into their tribe, would they? Mkab suddenly wished Priyat was there. He would probably know how to speak the fairy language, whatever it was called. Is there a fairy tribe here, too?

“I don’t speak your tongue,” Mkab said in the Atz language. The fairy hadn’t taken another step and her spear wasn’t pointed at him, but Mkab didn’t dare lower his weapon. He tried phrases in all the smatterings of languages that he knew. To his surprise, she giggled.

When she pointed at the dead panther with her spear, Mkab flinched. “Merey’z pasz datu?”

“Yes, I killed it,” he said. “Are you going to try to kill me, too?”

The fairy pointed at Mkab’s wounded arm with her free hand. “Ghorz’tay tatu?” She seemed concerned, but Mkab reminded himself that fairies always had that innocent look on their faces. It was deceiving, he remembered. Mkab didn’t budge; he kept the blade pointed at the small woman. He didn’t find her too physically threatening, but he was already wounded and her spear had a long reach. Besides which, there were plenty of places to find poisons in the jungle. Even if he killed her, a wound from a poisoned spear would kill him in the end.

The fairy held a hand up in a passive gesture. “Aya pasz tu.” She slowly lowered her spear to the ground. “Aya pasz tu.” She pointed at Mkab’s arm. He still hadn’t wrapped the wound in cloth; the blood was leaking slowly out of the gouges that the panther’s fangs had left.

Doom, doom. The big bass drums sounded. The girl’s eyes widened to an impossible size and she cowered. ”Aaman pasz yatu,” she whispered. She looked around cautiously, and retrieved her spear from the ground. She ran over to Mkab and looked at him pleadingly. Her approach startled him, but the fear he could see in her eyes made him lower his guard. She wasn’t going to hurt him; she was shivering with fright.

Before Mkab could say or do anything, the fairy had grabbed his good arm and was dragging him through the trees. She seemed to know where she was going. Mkab decided that if she’d wanted to stab him, she would have done it already. He hoped that she was leading him to someplace safe where his wounds could be dressed.

Her touch was warm on his arm. As he followed her clumsily, the scent of her drifted back to him. It was a rich, earthy musk. Despite the fact that she was fae, Mkab could feel himself becoming aroused. Not now, he thought. There are too many dangers. There were wild fairy tales that spoke of fae women stealing men’s souls with a kiss, but Mkab was more concerned with trolls and the shooting pain coming from his ankle.

Mkab saw a glowing light up ahead. It seemed like artificial moonlight, a halogen glow. His tiny guide was drawing him toward the light. It slanted through the trees, paling his skin and making his blood look black. He shivered. Where the hell is that light coming from? He wondered.

As they approached, he discovered that it wasn’t a single source at all, but thousands of tiny glowing lights, dotting the jungle floor amongst a copse of twisted trees covered in vines. Moon mushrooms, of course. Mkab had never seen them at night before. They bathed him and the girl in a luminescent white glow.

Mkab could see the girl clearly thanks to the glowing mushrooms. She wasn’t all that physically attractive; her forehead was very high and too broad, her eyes were eerily large and she was thin and bony, but the slick sheen of sweat on the bare skin of her arms and stomach made Mkab think of sex. He was wondering what she looked like without the animal skins.

She knelt down. For a brief second, Mkab thought he was having a feverish wet dream, but the fairy was digging into the small leather satchel she carried at her waist. She brought out a small wooden bowl and a leather sack. Within the sack was a white powder; she tossed a pinch into the bowl and added her own spit. As she mixed it with her fingers, the powder turned into a paste.

The fairy woman stood up and smeared the paste onto mkab’s arm, rubbing it into the wounds almost sensuously. The white, frothy liquid burned for a brief moment before making his arm grow numb. His hand could barely move, but the pain had gone away. She prodded at his side, where an angry red splotch was growing underneath his earth-coloured skin, and applied more of the paste. Mkab could breathe easily again.

“What is that stuff?” Mkab asked. He’d never seen such a powerful surface analgesic. He wondered if it was similar to heroin. A part of him hoped not; it had taken him two years to fight off that addiction after his close brush with death.

In response, the fairy pointed to his feet. He wondered how she had known about that injury, but realized that he’d been limping.

“I can’t,” he said as he shook his head. “I’ll never get the boot back on.”

The woman gave him a reproachful look and knelt down. She hiked up his pant legs to find the swollen ankle, pulled down his woollen sock and smeared the last of the paste as far down the boot as her thin fingers would go. Mkab swallowed his pain, which was rapidly abating. To his astonishment, the swelling was going down as well.

Before she stood back up, the fairy picked a few small moon mushrooms. They continued to give off light even after being plucked from the ground. The fairy arched her back, leaned forward and looked up at Mkab with her big black eyes. She offered him a mushroom.

“I’m not eating that,” he said. He shook his head and waved his arms no to illustrate his point.

The fairy gave him a stubborn look and popped a mushroom into her own mouth. She chewed it slowly and swallowed, then began to eat another one. Her arm reached up and lightly touched the back of Mkab’s neck, and she pulled him in for a kiss.

He could have pushed her, or stabbed her, or run away. Instead Mkab let her part his lips with her tongue. She forced pieces of the half-chewed mushroom into his mouth. It was so bitter that it felt like it was burning, but the fairy continued to dart her tongue aggressively around Mkab’s mouth. He thought about fighting her, or spitting out the bitter fungus, but he was feeling soft from the strange painkiller, and drunk on her scent. His very arousal was making him dizzy. As the fairy’s lips parted from his, Mkab swallowed.

Mkab watched the strange woman lick her lips. His eyes travelled up to lock with hers, and he lost his footing in shock, squishing the soft moon mushrooms beneath him.

The fairy’s eyes were glowing.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Jungle, Part Two

This one is getting long. Looks like it'll be three or four parts when it's all said and done.

For further enjoyment, have a listen to Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' as you read this and the subsequent parts of the story.

The Jungle, Part Two

At first Mkab didn’t know what he was hearing. Doom, doom, came the sound from down in the valley. Despite the thick cover of trees, it thrummed and carried all the way up to Mkab’s ridge. For a panicked moment he wondered if it was an earthquake. A part of him was reminded of the sound of scatterguns. But the ground wasn’t shaking, and scatterguns were useless in the jungle.

The savages are beating their hunting drums, he told himself. He imagined the size of the things, great big sewn-together skins stretched over a wooden frame as big as a house. Priyat had told him earlier that day how the Aaman would beat the drums with great wooden clubs, driving out a pounding and complex rhythm on skins of all shapes and sizes, to whip the warriors into a hunting frenzy.

At the top of the ridge, though, Mkab could only hear the big bass ones. Theirs was a steady beat. Doom, doom.

Mkab heard Priyat stirring in his tent. He sighed and prepared for another lesson in barbarian culture from the young professor. “Is that the m’pai I hear?” Came a muffled voice from priyat’s tent.

“I don’t know what that means.”

“The drums.” There was the sound of a zipper between beats of the drums, and Priyat emerged into the firelight. “We could find them tonight if we follow that sound.”

“No. One of us will break a leg climbing down the ridge in darkness.”

“The Aaman won’t harm you, Mkab,” Priyat said. “They hunt for jaguar and panther.”

“I am not afraid of savages,” Mkab insisted. Doom, doom, the drums seemed to reply. Mkab wondered if they were getting closer, or if it was just his imagination. “The jungle is very dangerous, especially at night.”

Priyat sat by the fire and hugged his knees. Not for the first time, Mkab thought about how childlike the professor seemed. “Is that how you view them? As simple savages? They have a rich culture.”

Mkab grunted and threw his thin braids out of his eyes with a toss of his head. “They live in the jungle and use bows and arrows. What else would you call them?”


Mkab gave a throaty laugh. “On that we agree.”

Priyat said nothing. He poked at the fire with a branch as the drums sounded between each crackle of the flames. The faraway rhythm was beginning to lull Mkab. Doom, doom. Doom, doom.

He shook his head to stay alert. “You should sleep now so you don’t fall asleep on watch,” he told Priyat.

“Quite right,” he said sullenly. “I just...I wish I wasn’t missing this.” He retreated to his tent. Mkab wondered if Priyat’s view of the Aaman would change once he saw their savagery up close.

Doom, doom. Mkab could tell that Priyat wasn’t sleeping. His breath was shallow. It was so quiet between drum beats that Mkab could hear a snake slithering through a tree nearby. He held his rifle close and drew his itzla, laying it on the ground beside him in case he needed to cut himself free from the choking grasp of a soutal snake.

Doom, doom. As the fire mellowed, Mkab noticed his sight and hearing growing sharper. He could make out the spaces between the trees around them, and a gentle hum accompanied the drums, filling in the space between each beat. The frogs and crickets were singing along to the Aaman’s rhythm.

Mkab watched the snake slither by the campsite. It looked like a black, twisting log. The creature wouldn’t dare come too close to the fire – snakes sensed heat better than they could see, Mkab knew. He was more worried about a jungle cat, but even though they were stealthy predators, their reflective eyes could be a dead giveaway. Even so, Mkab kept a finger on the trigger of his rifle. It was designed for combat, not for hunting, but a single bullet would easily kill anything the Laxtica could throw at him.

Doom, doom. As Mkab watched the snake slink away, he could hear another sound underneath the hum of the crickets, between beats of the drums. It was another rhythm, more complex. Da-da doom da-da doo-da-doom, doom da-da doo-da-doom. Mkab’s pulse quickened. There were more drums, and they were getting closer.

“Professor,” he whispered. “There are more drums.”

“They are hunting,” Priyat said from his tent. Doom, doom. “They will roam in groups all around the valley, searching for their spirit animals. Tooth lizards, jaguars, panthers, soutal snakes, lightning snakes, even biterfish.”

“Won’t the drums scare their prey away?”

“Not if they are vigilant. Besides, you must remember that they are being hunted in return, especially by the cats. They will not face a group, but one or two noisy hunters can be caught unawares.”

“Why would they hunt at night?”

“It is the true test of a warrior’s skill.” Mkab heard Priyat sit up. “You were never interested in all of this earlier.”

“It could be important now. What if they come upon us?”

“They do not hunt humans.” Doom, doom.

“But will they fight me?”

Priyat yawned. “I speak their language. We will be fine. Shouldn’t I get some rest, if I am taking second watch?”


Mkab heard Priyat lie down on his sleeping bag. He added more wood to the fire and repositioned his rifle across his legs. The drums continued, but Mkab could no longer pick out a rhythm. They seemed to be coming from several places at once, though they were still being driven by the great big bass ones. Doom, doom.

Haunting ululations rose up from the jungle valley, and Mkab shivered. It was a cacophony of high-pitched wails and moans. Mkab was reminded of the hei’!a’na of his homeland, the laughing dogs. They really are savages, he thought.

A branch snapped behind Mkab and he stood up, wheeling around. His finger was on the trigger, but the barrel of his gun pointed at the twisted trunk of a tree. His eyes darted to and fro, but the spaces between the trees seemed empty. He stopped breathing and tried to listen for movements.

The blur of movement caught his eye just in time, and he threw himself against the trunk of the tree as a figure came out of the jungle, painted all in black. It cried a piercing, musical scream and threw a spear at Mkab. The shaft missed Mkab’s guts by mere inches and sailed past him into the gloom.

Mkab did not scream in reply, but his rifle did. Light and din ripped through the darkness, and Mkab saw the black figure tumble into the fire. Incredulous, he stared at the body.

The bullets had ripped through its back and its chest and face were quickly being consumed by the campfire, but it was unmistakeably troll-like in appearance. Hama, the professor calls them, Mkab thought as he tried to slow his breathing. Or Aaman, the local name for them. The body was bow-legged and squat, with wide shoulders and coarse body hair. Mkab couldn’t see the face, but he could imagine that ape-like, insipid look. And Priyat had me nearly convinced that the trolls were harmless. He threw a spear at me. Savage. It’s no wonder they used to be slaves. They’re not good for much else, other than fighting.

Doom, doom. Mkab looked at his rifle, the great equalizer. Without it, the troll could easily have bested him physically. He looked back at the body and wondered if it would be prudent to pull it out of the fire.

As he took a step forward, wondering why Priyat hadn’t said anything about the screaming or the gunshots, something slammed into him from the side.

He slid across the moss and roots of the jungle floor. His rifle flew from his hands and into the blackness. Something was on top of him, something big and hairy. A cat? He wondered. It was heavy. Mkab gripped his foe and continued to roll.

Doom, doom.

For a moment, Mkab felt weightless. He nearly screamed when he realized that he was falling off the ridge. He landed on soft, slippery soil and the wind was knocked from his lungs. The creature, whether beast or troll, rolled with him, across sharp rocks and thick shrubs as they gained momentum. Mkab couldn’t slow himself down, try as he might. His ribs struck something big and hard in the darkness, probably a tree, and he felt something break. Even that didn’t stop him.

Doom, doom. He tried to get to his feet but his ankle turned the wrong way and he fell again, eating dirt and chipping teeth. Finally he stopped fighting gravity and let the jagged descent carry him where it would.

He landed on something soft.

“Unghhh,” he managed.

A pair of eyes were staring at him. They were white and wide, the only things that Mkab could see in the gloom. The pupils didn’t move.

Doom, doom. He had landed on a troll. Mkab screamed and punched it in the face. He heard a wet snapping sound at the head lolled back and forth. As Mkab knelt on the savage’s chest, he realized that it had died in the fall.

Mkab’s training took over and he checked his wounds. He didn’t bother to count the bruises and scratches, which he couldn’t see in the darkness, but he could tell right away that his ankle was sprained and a rib had been cracked. Sitting up made him feel dizzy, so he added concussion to the mental list.

“Fuck,” Mkab said. It hurt to say anything. It hurt to breathe. He lay back and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. After waiting for several drum beats, it didn’t seem to be improving. Mkab wanted to scream obscenities until he was hoarse, but he knew it wouldn’t be good for the blood leaking inside his skin.

He tried to think of a time he’d been in a worse situation. War was less scary than this, he thought. At least then I could see my enemy.

Doom, doom. Mkab could hear more drums. They seemed to be surrounding him. The jungle was a murky thing that he could hear more than he could see – leaves rustled and crickets chirped between the frantic beats of the hunting drums.

Doom, doom. The drums sounded as though they were getting closer. With a sinking feeling, Mkab realized that he’d lost both of his weapons.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Jungle, Part One

Hello all! I've been a little quiet lately, for which I apologize. Most of that time was spent finishing the last editing touches on my novel, which I will talk about in an upcoming post very soon. For now, I've got some new fiction brewing. Again, it's a longer piece, so I've split it up as I write it.

Also, I changed the name of my blog. Good idea? Bad idea?

The Jungle, Part One

The jungle was fever-hot as Mkab plodded through the thick undergrowth, using his assault rifle to shove fronds aside. His braided hair was plastered to his face from sweat and his fatigues bunched in uncomfortable places. It had to be the worst job he’d ever taken on.

“How much further do you suppose it is, chap?” his patron asked.

Mkab rolled his eyes and thought about all the times he’d asked his father ‘are we there yet?’ back when he was a child. Professor Priyat was no kid, but he sure acted like one. Inane questions about the jungle came out of his mouth at a steady pace, followed by even more irritating ones about Mkab. Although he was no stranger to lying, Mkab wondered just how gullible the professor was.

“Not far now,” Mkab said. He pushed through a thick set of ferns to find a muddy brook. He cursed under his breath. Water was dangerous in the Laxtica. Biterfish and leeches lurked in the shallows, and the big snakes and cats liked to hide in the trees nearby. Mkab hated the jungle. He wondered, not for the first time, why he’d ever agreed to be Priyat’s guide for the job. He thought he’d promised himself last time not to take on any more jobs in the Laxtica.

Priyat seemed undaunted by the stream. He was wearing those big galoshes that came up past his knees.

“Well, chap, shall we cross?”

Mkab checked his compass, then his map. He swore again, loudly enough that the professor probably heard him.

“We have no choice.” In truth, Mkab was so hot that he had an urge to soak in the water, but he knew that it was a deathwish.

“This is so exciting,” Priyat exclaimed as he waded into the shallow water. Mkab followed, watching the trees for any sign of movement. He wasn’t worried about biterfish gnawing through thick canvas, but the big snakes were another problem. They could never eat a human whole, but that didn’t stop them from trying to suffocate you. He lifted his rifle above his head in case the professor splashed him.

They crossed the stream without any problems. Priyat took a swig from his canteen and Mkab checked for leeches on his pants. He found two, and burned them off with his lighter before he lit a cigarette.

“Care for a snack, friend?” Priyat waved half of a power bar in Mkab’s face. He accepted it with a grunt. Mkab chewed the dense, salty-sweet snack as he pondered their position on the map. The stream was small enough to go unmarked. He figured the tall ridge was ahead, but that put him far behind of schedule. It would be dark by the time he reached the target zone with Priyat. Mkab had no desire to spend a night in the jungle.

“So how much further, chap?” Priyat was reading the map over his shoulder. Mkab scowled.

“You know so much about them,” Mkab said. He spat out the last of the power bar; it was starting to taste funny. “Why don’t you tell me where they are?”

“I know exactly where they are,” Priyat replied. He sat down on a large stone and took off his galoshes, one by one. He began to massage his feet through thick, woollen socks. “Gets cramped wearing those rubber things all day. The Aaman make their home in this very jungle and stay in a small valley during the summer season. I’m assuming that’s this thing here on the map.” He pointed to a mountain. Mkab stifled his laughter. “However I can’t really read maps well and I’m not familiar with all of the dangers of the jungle. Hence why I hired you. If I could find the Aaman on my own, I would have done so.”

And we wouldn’t have a way in, to earn their trust, Mkab thought. It still annoyed him that he’d drawn the short straw for the job, but he couldn’t deny that the plan was solid. Mkab checked his watch. Sunset was approaching in another hour. It grew dark quickly in the jungle, and with the canopy so thick, it happened with little warning.

“We should be moving,” Mkab said. He watched as Priyat slowly put his boots back on. Mkab led the way through the broad, low-hanging leaves of the parapara trees that grew by the stream. Priyat followed him up the steep ridge.

“They truly are fascinating, the Aaman,” Priyat puffed as he took a short break by leaning on his walking stick. Mkab frowned. Too many small breaks were the reason why they hadn’t reached the target zone, along with the professor’s inane babble that cost him most of his breath. “I don’t know how you can contain your excitement, Mkab, because I can’t. Although I suppose that’s partly because I’ve been studying them my whole life...”

Mkab walked back down to Priyat and pointed to his watch. “Sunset comes. The jungle is not safe at night. We must find your tribe.”

Priyat nodded amiably. “Quite right, chap.” He clapped Mkab on the shoulder. “Lead on.”

Mkab led on. Up the ridge they continued, picking their way through dense fronds and bushes as the vibrant greens and reds and blues of the Laxtica deepened around them. Mkab made certain to avoid any brightly-coloured flowers, which often contained the deadly kata wasp that would paralyze its foe if disturbed, until its pheromones led the remainder of the nest to the victim for their feast. He also kept his eyes peeled and his ears sharp for any sign of larger jungle predators.

The vines grew dense near the top of the ridge, and Mkab had to take out his wide-bladed obsidian itzla to swath a path. The sweat was soaking through his khaki shirt and falling off his nose and chin in large beads. The only advantage to sundown was that the jungle would cool to a more tolerable temperature. Once the vines began to thin out, Mkab re-sheathed his itzla and allowed himself a generous helping from his water bottle.

“Thirsty work, eh, chap? I dunno what I’d do without you along.”

Mkab didn’t know either. Those spindly arms of the professor’s looked as though they’d barely be able to lift a blade.

At the top of the ridge, the trees had thinned out enough to provide a decent view of the jungle. The sun was halfway behind an impressive green hill to the west, and the sky was going from orange to blood-orange. Miles of valley stretched out to the north, below the ridge. Somewhere under that canopy of trees, the Aaman lived.

“Quite a view,” Priyat said.

“It would be better if we could see them from here.”

Priyat laughed. “That it would. But we’re close enough now, friend. We should be able to find some signs of them in the valley that will lead us right to their summer village.”

“Not tonight we won’t,” Mkab said. The north side of the ridge was practically a cliff; picking a way down in the dark was not a good idea, and finding a gentler slope would add hours of travel time, if Mkab was reading the map correctly. He was not about to brave the jungle at night, however.

Priyat shaded his eyes to watch the last sliver of sunlight plunge behind the hill. “Quite right.”

Mkab shrugged out of his backpack and began setting up his tent on the mossy ground. Priyat followed suit. As the light dwindled, the only sounds were the rustling of canvas and vinyl, and the twittering of the jungle birds. Mkab managed to set up mosquito netting and gather enough wood for a fire just as the rainforest grew dark.

A big, yellow full moon was rising up over the hills as Mkab heated up his can of beans over the fire. Priyat was dining on a mix of nuts and dried fruit. Mkab wished that he’d run into a big snake after all; they were supposed to taste similar to chicken. His mouth watered and he took a healthy swig from his canteen.

“It’s too bad we won’t find them tonight,” Priyat said. Mkab could see the moon reflected in the professor’s eyes. “It’s their midsummer hunt. My thesis advisor was privileged enough to see the event. The entire tribe participates, and boys who make their first kill become men. They light these great big effigies, and the songs they sing...”

“Sounds like it might not be a good night to find them,” Mkab said. He could only imagine what kind of blood frenzy would be upon the savages during their rituals. He wondered if the effigies would be visible from the ridge, but the jungle canopy below was as black as the blade at his belt.

“Nonsense, they hunt for jaguars. It would be thrilling to watch, even if we had to remain behind in the village.”

“It will be safer to meet them in the daylight.” Mkab pulled his beans out of the fire with a gloved hand and dug in with his spoon.

“Oh, they’re not so dangerous as all that,” Priyat insisted. “Not with me around to translate, anyhow.”

Mkab grunted and shoved in another mouthful of beans. He wasn’t so sure about the professor’s ability to communicate well with savages, regardless of how well the man knew their language. Mkab finished his beans and threw the can aside. Priyat scowled at him across the flames.

“You’re just going to throw that aside and leave it there?”

Mkab shrugged. “It’s metal. It comes out of the ground. The paper label comes from trees, and the ink comes from plants.”

“It’s not as simple as all that, chap.”

Mkab grimaced. If he calls me ‘chap’ one more time... “You can pick it up, then. I am going to my tent.”

Mkab entered his small tent and closed the zippered flap.

“Shouldn’t we keep a watch?”

Mkab clenched his fists and told himself that ripping his tent apart to choke Priyat would accomplish nothing. He needed the stupid professor. “I said I was going to my tent. I will take first watch in a few minutes.” He hoped Priyat would at least allow him a few minutes of privacy; most men understood what a few minutes before watch were good for.

“Oh, delightful, then. Wake me up when it’s my turn.” Mkab could hear Priyat pick up the tin can before he went to his own tent. A chuckle escaped his lips. He sat in the darkness of his tent, waiting. Once the tossing and turning sounds from Priyat’s sleeping bag ceased, he carefully dug into his pack and brought out his radio. It was still tuned to the right channel. He plugged in his headphones with the built-in microphone.

“Panther, come in,” he whispered. “This is Python.”

A voice crackled to life in his ears. “Who thought up these stupid codenames, anyway?”

Mkab couldn’t help but chuckle. He hoped it wouldn’t wake Priyat. “Wasn’t me.”

“So, are you in the target zone?”

“Not even close.” Mkab was careful to keep his voice as low as possible. He knew that Taz would have his volume knob cranked up at the other end, anyway. “Priyat dawdles. I’m by the valley, but it’s too dark to go down the ridge, and the tribe does a hunt tonight. Everyone will have to wait until tomorrow.”

“Alright, nothing to be done for it now, I guess. See you tomorrow. Oh, and don’t forget to activate the transponder as soon as you get there. It’ll take us a while to get there, so if they go psycho on you, you’re on your own for a while.”

Mkab chuckled. “It’s not savages that scare me.”

Taz was laughing. “Tough guy like you, I don’t get it. Your bigass gun’ll kill a panther, same as it’ll kill anything else.”

“I must go,” Mkab said. Talk of panthers reminded him that he needed to watch over the campsite. “Over and out, Panther.”

Mkab buried the radio at the bottom of his pack and grabbed his rifle as he exited the tent. He sat down beside the fire and stared out at the darkness beyond the light of the flames.

That was when he heard the drums.