I met the bearded man three days from death, half-buried down the esophagus of a monster.
We called the prison The Carcass because it was – the entire compound had been built inside the fossilized corpse of a gargantuan beast, prison bars planted messily in bone and flesh. Chained to a dozen other women, our captors forced us to walk through the desert for days until at last the silhouette of the massive corpse slowly became visible, and we were led unceremoniously to our final home. Burnt, starved and depleted, each of us was deposited in our dark cell and praised the petrified floor as we collapsed into deep sleep. The next morning we learned what it was to live inside death.
But this was not my death. I began with the patterns, as I was taught: our captors’ schedules, the noise each made winding their way down the halls, the length of day and night in the desert, the character of their sleep. On top of this I layered my gradual sense of the maze of floors that spread from my cell, the map of organs and the rooms built out of them. This was mostly pieced together from snippets of conversation, or the echo of footfalls. Finally, I explored the softness of each captor, their empathy and torpidity. Nights I let all of my growing knowledge collect inside me, become reflex and intuition.
The real threat was the forgetting. Something noxious in the beast’s corpse wore away at the memory, indiscriminately erased prisoners’ pasts, reduced them to trembling bodies. The women in the cells beside me forgot their names, their history, cried out at night to no one at all. I recited my biography to the walls nightly, though it felt shorter and less my own each time. Most important was my plan of escape, which I repeated constantly, scratching it into the floor in my own language. This stayed intact but it cost me great tracts of my past.
Seventy two nights into my tenure I took my leave of the place. It was a simple plan but I knew it wouldn’t fail. Slinking through intestines I wound my way towards the mouth of the beast, ignoring the desperate whispers of my imprisoned sisters, knowing they would haunt me in the days to come. Food was hard to come by, but I found a pantry tucked away between cells. The skeletons we’d passed in the desert were reminder enough that I could not leave unencumbered. I resisted the urge to stop and eat right there, stuffing all that I could into a small pack on the floor and slinging it over my shoulder as I continued on.
The starlight at the end of the tunnel told me I had reached the esophagus, the beast’s fangs framing the opening, glowing against the night sky. I tempered my impulse to run and instead scuttled forward carefully, resisting my urge to scream in delight at the sight of the outside world. Halfway to the throat I could no longer wait, and broke into a mad canter. It was then that I tripped violently against a dark mass, scattering the contents of my pack across the floor. A curse, a scramble to gather the food and a look back at the cause of it. A man.
Unearthing him was more difficult than expected, but immediately I could tell that it was no corpse. Scraggly-bearded and nearly expired, I propped him up against the esophageal wall and fed him water from my pack. After a few moments he surfaced, coughing weakly, hands shaking, testing the reality around him. Soft-eyed, bearded and gaunt, he looked out at me blankly for a few minutes. Do eyes closed and close to death have to adjust to the dark? Or perhaps he was blind. Or resurfacing from the afterlife.
Finally they focused, and slowly his face assembled a look of deep recognition which seemed to breathe life into him. Speech was clearly days away, but the look he gave me was at once somehow comforting and deeply unsettling. It had been some time since he had seen a woman. A smile tugged weakly at his lips and he tried unsuccessfully to lift a hand and reach for my hair. And then the look passed and he gave into sleep again.
A short pause. A nod to myself. An unconscious decision to dash my own chances of escape by dragging this body with me. I pulled a blanket out of his pack, rolled him onto it, and dragged his near-corpse until the two of us were experiencing the starry night together.
It seemed an inevitable suicide the first night – encumbered as I was, we made almost no progress and I hovered on the edge of despair. By morning the beast still loomed far too closely, and I was sure my captors would find me. The man could sit up by himself at this point, and after our meager breakfast, he found the energy to trudge alongside me, mute with eyes still unfocused. We walked in silence through a world in two hues, at once hypnotic and hopeless. Given his clumsy shamble I knew we wouldn’t pass through the desert in less than a week, and even with my stingy rationing of our sustenance, I knew it wouldn’t last us.
The first words he spoke were the product of some minor somnambulism. Crawling in a circle around our camp late one night, he coughed some, recited others, as if he were reading a text in another language, or piecing together a demonic incantation. He was learning to speak in his sleep, teaching one side of his brain what the other side already knew. He was hard to decipher that night. But he began sleep talking every night. And soon the words were complete thoughts. On the fifth night they began forming stories.
We watched the caravan approach for hours before it reached us. Eight days in and down to our final bit of rations, I knew the next sunset would have been our last. That the caravan was made up of our captors hardly mattered at that point: they were traveling in our direction. When they finally passed us, we followed from a distance, catching up with them late into the night. My companion’s stuttered limp was hardly silent, but I have ways of not being seen, and we managed to bury ourselves in a supply wagon without incident. Muffling his unconscious storytelling kept me up until daybreak.
“You still cannot speak?” The captors were walking far enough ahead that we were out of earshot, and I tired of his daytime silence. “You are lucid asleep.” At this he turned to look at me. “Do you know that you tell me stories at night?” He answered with furrowed eyebrows. “You have been repeating them nightly. There are five.” At this he began forcing air out through his mouth and coughing quietly. “Who are you? And what brought you to the prison?” As I suspected, my questions coaxed out a labored whisper.
He began with too many consonants, but soon the word he repeated was intelligible. “Chronicler.” A few more coughs and he was onto sentences. “I am a chronicler. A cartographer of kin.” He motioned for the water, and I angled a few drops into his mouth. His throat ragged, he shook his head and instead reached into his small pack and produced a tattered book. He tapped it and, still coughing, handed it to me. I leafed through page after page of splotched ink and scratched-out text, shaking my head.
“This is entirely illegible. Do you always carry useless books with you?” At this he reached over and opened to the first page of the book. The first few pages were unsullied text – surprisingly delicate handwriting, small and thoughtful and precise. Tracing the first few lines, I nodded to him. “These are the stories you expectorate at night. Come closer and I will whisper them back to you.”
There was desert and then there was darkness. There was no in-between. The sands reached abruptly to the edge of the giant wall encircling the city, cradling it in a black metal cocoon that seemed to pierce the clouds. We were up against it, watching it dissolve into the night above, more lost than we had been in the desert. The city seemed silent inside. That it was indeed a city and not an enormous obsidian conch I knew only because my captors had taken us through it before proceeding to our prison months ago. It was filthy and shifty and reeked of something adjacent to death, but there was food and water and maps on the other side of the wall, and so we had to find our way in. Five days since splitting ways with the caravan and our canteens were desiccated. So we began our slow trek around the perimeter.
After an hour of the unbroken dark, the old man muttered to himself. He had fully conquered his muteness by the time we parted ways with the caravan, though we seldom spoke, our parched throats brittle. His voice I found surprisingly airy when he forced out words, and there seemed a potential for mirth. Perhaps when he healed from whatever had nearly destroyed him. He leaned a hand against the wall as he emptied the sand from his sandals, watching it disappear into the ground. There was a tiny click. All at once he perked his head, eyes locked into focus on the infinite horizon, seeing beyond it and whispering something. He was speaking to the wall. Bargaining with it, it seemed. After a few flustered moments and a clear plea, he motioned for me to touch the wall beside him. I heard or felt nothing. But we found ourselves on the other side of the wall, inside the grimy city at last. And my companion was smiling to himself.
“I remember little of this city except that it is dangerous. Sustenance and a path, then we continue on,” I whispered. He nodded once without looking at me, studying the grey ahead. The dismal city snaked ahead of us, swapping sand for stone, perpetually in the shadow of the edifice surrounding it. We made our way out of the narrow alley we’d been deposited into only to find that all the roads were narrow, the houses and stores more like lean-tos, giving the whole place the feeling of a bazaar. There was no rhyme or reason to our path, we simply ducked down whatever street had the fewest people, looking for the right one to bother. As the night wore on our eyes kept adjusting to the gathering darkness, until we were walking in pitch, feeling around with our hands, each of us unsure where or how we’d sleep when we gave in to exhaustion.
Then the old man tripped and his splash was an exultant noise. How vast or small, clean or filthy the fountain was we could not tell, made no difference. We spent seeming eternity not just slaking our thirst but practically drowning ourselves in what felt alien after leagues of dunes. I could hear the old man laughing quietly to himself the entire time, his grin audible. After we were both hydrated and at peace we propped ourselves up against the fountain to let the world settle around us, speaking after days of silence – of the desert, our path, the caravan.
“So you are a storyteller. And yet I found you at the mouth of the great prison.”
I trailed off, but was met only with a light chuckle, head shake and silence again. I gathered myself a bit and spoke again.
“I saved you, old man, at great risk for my life and freedom. I ask only that you tell me who I rescued, so I may judge whether I made the right decision. A small price for resurrection.”
At this he became a bit more gruff. “I am no storyteller.” Tapping the book hanging vulgarly out of his pack he grumbled, “These are not stories. They are history. Biography. I have memories of each encounter. I am not weaving some fiction. The women I describe exist.”
My reaction was too baldly disparaging. “How are you to know which is an actual memory and which a memory of a dream? Especially in your state. Anything that happened before I woke you from death could as easily be a fever dream. There is no way of knowing.”
“It is one of the very few things I know for certain. It is how I spent much of my life up to this point. Finding them. Cataloguing them. To what end, I cannot remember.”
He studied me for a long time before proceeding. What dissolved his hesitation was unclear.
“A lifetime ago I met a being. She was unlike anyone on the planet. And she had a profound effect on my perspective. Since that day I have searched for others like her, documenting each. I have buried myself in books and maps, conducted interviews with men long believed dead or fictional, ventured into dangerous places and made pacts with the unholy.”
He deflated slowly without breaking eye contact.
“There is a principle. There are boundaries to this sisterhood. There is some ancient law binding their family together, or else some purpose. Even after a mere lifetime of research, I can already sense it. There is a finite number of them. Of that I am sure. A number which never changes, I suspect. A number I have tried to ascertain in places like the prison, and in places even older and deeper.”
“And this illegible tome is the fruit of your lifetime of research.”
At this he shifted his body and even in the darkness I could sense that our conversation was over. I changed the subject.
“Do you have some sense of where you’re headed? Or perhaps the better question is, do you know where I’m going and are you going to follow me the entire way?”
He looked at me a long time in silence. “You and I share the same path for now, it seems, and it is unknown to both of us. You are still blindly pushing forward, hoping simply to escape. From what, I know not. It seems I am unknowingly tracing my footsteps. How long that will be the case I am unsure, but for now the familiarity is a welcome crutch.”
“I am being pushed and you pulled, somehow in the same direction. Very well. That suits me for now.”
I waited for him to ask for my story, name, but instead he muttered half to himself, “There is something familiar about your silver hair.” He trailed off into a silence that eventually became snoring.
Sleep lasted a blink, the morning’s dimness giving definition to our surroundings. Despite the beauty of the town square with its ornate fountain and statues, my eyes became glued to a restless parchment scuttled by the breeze in front of us. Though the sketch artist clearly exaggerated his nose and narrowed his eyes to make him look more threatening, there was no doubt that this was a crude representation of my companion. There was a single word on the poster, and I didn't need to understand the language it was written in to ascertain it. I jabbed him awake and nodded towards the paper. He seemed as confused as me.
“This doesn’t spark a memory? This city? The fact that it appears you’re being hunted?” He answered as he often had over the past few days.
“I remember nothing of the recent past.”
I choked on his reply and shook my head. “Well, judging by the boundary, it appears we’re closer to the far end of the city than where we arrived. You’ll have to stand behind me, avoid eye contact, hope for the best. It seems we woke up earlier than most. Let’s find an escape before the rest of the city awakens.” Scanning the plaza I cursed. “Already someone has identified you.” A merchant setting up his shop on the far side was pointing us out to his neighbor. “Come.”
We scuttled out of the square moving as fast as we could without arousing more suspicion. I kept our path erratic, but always moving towards the far wall of the city. The streets became more populated as we moved towards the obsidian, until finally we were dodging packs of men in our measured haste. It was clear to me we were being followed still, I sensed someone’s furtive movement at the far end of my awareness – the merchant or someone he had bidden follow. Something was keeping him from bridging the gap between us and I wondered what. Three abrupt turns later he was joined by a few other figures and my question was answered. Our quiet chase was beginning to arouse the suspicion of those we passed street after street, and being that the wall seemed no closer than when we set out, my desperation for a new plan was surging.
She registered only as a shadow before she swept the two of us from the road and into a dark tent, bidding us to follow behind her. Nothing about her tripped my intuition, so given the circumstances we crawled behind her, tent to tent, dashing whenever we had to cross a road. After we were thoroughly dizzy from the flashes of light and patches of darkness, we three finally sat down at the edge of an enormous tent that seemed to function as a church, parishioners kneeling and praying to an idol I didn’t recognize. At last I was able to look at the stranger’s face. It was so dark that it almost melted into the tent’s darkness, save for her bright green eyes, a color that didn’t end at the iris but bled into her sclera.
They bored straight into my companion, a steely look that he met with confusion. I waited for her to express her apparent exasperation, and then hopefully follow that with some kind of explanation. Instead, silence. I was not patient for long. “Thank you for your help. We are lost and confused and have many questions. Why did you –” She interrupted my by opening her hollow mouth. Tongueless. I faltered, realizing somehow at that moment that everyone in the silent city was tongueless.
The old man stepped in, speaking slowly. “It is apparent you know me. And I knew you. But my memory is as empty as your mouth.” She studied him warily, lifting her hand to his chin after a few moments and cocking his head as she took him in. “We need to escape this city without being seen. Is there an exit that doesn’t spit us out onto the sand?” She nodded once. We were off again.
Countless streets later she deposited us inside the first floor of an abandoned building with wooden planks for a floor. She looked at us both again, this time with a look of concern. Taking my companion’s head in her hands, she kissed him soundly on the forehead. Then she walked to the center of the room, lifting a tattered rug from the floor and revealing darkness. Stepping closer I realized what I was looking at – a sheet of the same metal that cocooned the city. Miming the motion, she bade him place his hand on it. Again, after a click his eyes focused on eternity, he muttered a few unintelligible words, placed my hand next to his and we were on the other side of the metal.
We were still for a time, as our eyes adjusted to the darkness. It was cold here, musty, with a rich, ancient smell that was somehow comforting. There were faint sounds in the far distance, and I imagined that if I screamed, the echo would travel for days. Already I could tell that this was man-made, not simply a network of caves. When our sight finally came, we realized we were in some vast library. There were identical wooden shelves of books as far as we could see in every direction. My companion’s eyes grew wide and he ran his hand along a shelf of books, looking at each one carefully, then taking in our surroundings more generally.
He then placed himself directly under the metal sheet, walked down a specific number of shelf rows, and then across a specific number, counting silently the whole way. I watched him tally the books on the middle shelf, hesitate a moment, and then pluck a slim red volume, looking triumphant. He exhaled, opened the book, and soured slowly as he flipped through it. The pages were empty. Either it had never been written in or somehow the writing had completely faded over time. I took it and gave it a more careful perusal as he shook his head.
“You know this place. You have been here before.”
“There are a few pages – here, here – that were torn out,” he muttered, ignoring my statement. He perked up, studied the tear carefully, running his finger across it, and started rifling through the shelves closest to the book.
Soon he was tossing books off the shelf in a mad hunt. In his haste he failed to notice a few sheets scattered atop one of the shelves, which I gathered quickly, laughing to myself as I sat against another shelf and began to read his words.
Sand. Stone. The burnt end of torches. A coarse smell that assaults the senses. A wispy voice that invites them. The remains of starved carrion. Featureless faces attempting to laugh. A dry tension mounting in the gut, forcing octopi out of the mouth.
The stuff of my dreams carried dully into each day and collected within me until we slept again. Then a new slew of visions cropped up and lingered. If we were to judge by our cycle of sleep, we entered the library three weeks ago, though without sun or stars who knows how long we slept or how many hours we dragged on awake before giving in each day.
Calling it a library was calling a lake a puddle. It was an underground continent populated mainly by books. We spent the first few days walking down drab stone corridors with low ceilings, punctuated by expansive rooms with even less room to stand. One particular passage required us to crawl on all fours past bookcases two shelves high. Eventually the architecture changed dramatically, and we were walking down ivory staircases into grand ballrooms with crystal chandeliers, and under towering glass domes through indoor gardens more lush than their natural counterparts. One vast, cavernous room required us to step into a rowboat and traverse a seemingly bottomless lagoon, docking finally at a wooden pier that somehow smelled like the sea.
And we were not completely alone. In some corners of the darker chambers we heard movement that first week, past the scuttling rats that we ate nightly. When we began making our way through the larger rooms we caught sight of revenants ambling mindlessly. We took no chances, giving them wide berth, surrendering nothing of our existence. What caused their state we couldn’t be sure, but it was clear their minds were warped, that they were subhuman. A near-endless garden of books and not a soul to read them.
But the books were also warped. For days they were completely empty. Not one had so much as a scribble in it. Eventually we found some filled with words, but these were catalogs of specific moments – a shelf of tomes dedicated entirely to a single wasp’s flight during a period of three minutes, chapter after chapter describing the creature and his environment as they shifted from moment to moment. Another set of shelves were dedicated to describing a feather’s path as it was shed from an albatross and landed in the sea. Once we’d passed from that tiresome city of encyclopedias, we came to a long swath of unsettling ledgers that merely listed out seemingly unrelated nouns. Harmless though they seemed, somehow the words would infect our dreams, or else describe them from the night before, so that we were caught in a loop of tedious familiarity, unsure what was informing what, and hesitant to speculate. For a few days we lost the ability to string a sentence together, and found ourselves constantly touching objects to ensure our waking reality.
Eventually we used the books for navigational purposes only, picking one up to get a bearing of our surroundings, trying to piece together a path forward having little sense of direction. Each day we became more hesitant to open the books, scared to discover their next evolution. Each night we slept less and dreamed more and awoke in the middle of the night hesitant to share our dreams.
It was in the midst of an especially vivid series of nightmares that I awoke to find him gone one night. Unflustered by his absence and certain he was in no danger, I coaxed myself back to sleep. When I awoke again in the morning he was sleeping soundly across from me. From then on I slept lightly and sure enough, he spent most of his nights scuttling around the shelves, pulling specific books and rifling through them. Did he expect to discover his lost grain of sand in this endless desert? I felt some blend of anger and pity for the old man. This was not a good realm to misplace a book.
“I have been dreaming of the sisters.”
It was late into an especially frustrating day where we appeared to be walking in circles. He had spoken almost nothing of his research up to this point and was wonderfully dextrous at avoiding my questions about it. I almost gasped that he chose to break the hour-long silence with that thought.
“I would imagine you are constantly dreaming of your life’s work.”
“It has been ages since I have dreamt of them.” He glanced at me and added, “Some of them don’t take kindly to it.”
Dreams were the last topic I hoped to explore, but I wanted to keep him talking. “Which ones find their way into your dreams?”
“A few from long ago. One that I hunted for six years who then found me. We spent a long time together afterwards. ‘The Lepidopterist’ she used to call me.” A chuckle. “I found it fitting.”
“You are hardly collecting butterflies.” My tone might have come off too severe. “Tell me, are you hunting one now? Were you hunting one in the prison?”
He grew flustered that I repeated his verb. “Am I researching one now? Seeking one that I am studying? Perhaps I was before you found me. Perhaps the footsteps I am retracing will remind me if that was the case. Perhaps that’s what the dreams are for.”
“Perhaps they are all just dreams, old man. Tell me, does your memory of this place serve you well enough to know if we’re nearing an exit?” He shook his head. “Wonderful. The lack of sunlight was welcome at first, but now I crave the sky.”
That night I slept soundly. He must have drifted farther than usual in his midnight investigations – I awoke to distant grunts and a muffled scream. Approaching carefully but still half asleep, the scene in front of me jolted me awake. Three revenants hovered over my partner, one holding down each arm, another bolting his legs to the floor. A large book lay open atop his face, a sight that was almost comical, until I detected an almost imperceptible movement, the book undulating slightly as if it were feeding.
Still assuming me asleep, I had the upper hand and made short work of the trio. Despite an inhuman strength, they were slow and moved more like marionettes than living creatures. I took my time choking the last one, interrogating him to no avail, haunted by his lifeless, lidless eyes. Then I pried the book from my companion’s face, peeling it back slowly, a giant leech that didn’t want to wrest control of his victim. The scream that met me when I finally peeled it from his mouth could have shattered the ceiling above us. Wrested free, I threw the book forcefully against a wall. My companion convulsed for a few moments and then went limp. I checked his vitals and gently tried to awaken him. After a seeming eternity he came to, turned to look at the now-normal book and smiled broadly, exhaling deeply. He then nodded towards it. “Open it. Carefully. It should no longer be a threat. Tell me what’s written inside.”
Wary of the creature that nearly took his life, I flipped it open with my foot, then stepped on both sides as I bent over and cautiously flipped through the pages. Symbols in a language I could not fathom filled the tome. I told him so. “Page through it more carefully. I am certain there are a few pages that –“
“Yes.” Towards the back of the book there were a few pages written in his handwriting. He motioned and I brought the book over, propping him up against a bookcase and handing him the book, monitoring it carefully lest it come to life again.
“It is as I thought.” He gave me a mischievous grin. “It appears the book found me.” He cleared his throat. “Permit me to read it to you.”
As he found his place I noticed that the book was not his only pillage. Jutting out from his pack was a large sheet of ripped paper folded hastily and jammed inside.
We had been hanging from bell-shaped cages for two days in silence before our pale, green-eyed captors spoke. The tallest one seemed to lead the company of twelve, and it was he who stopped the horses and approached our swinging cages, taking a long look at us before asking politely if we were comfortable, if our appetites were sated. Staring for the first time into his eyes I realized that his irises might be planets of their own, densely populated, with a violent history that culminated in a lasting peace. After a long look I replied dully that I was thirsty and my companion echoed the sentiment. One of his men came by with the canteen, let us drink long and lustily from it. The tall one let us know that we would only be traveling for a few more hours before we made camp for the night. I nodded, surprised at my politeness.
They ambushed us our first night out of the library. We’d emerged from the darkness into a tiny shack half sunk into the marshes that surrounded it in every direction, mad for the sun and air that wasn’t caked with decay. It had been more than a month since we’d experienced either. We made little progress that first day, knee deep in mud, following the morning sun and retreating from it in the afternoon. We set up camp on slightly more solid ground and I took the first watch. The insect hum was deafening, but it was otherwise quiet and still. Past midnight I awoke him and fell into a primal sleep, the mud trembling tenderly, rocking me gently, or so I imagined. They overtook us without struggle. I practically awoke inside the cage, my companion already resigned to his. Suspended from a steel pole balanced between two stout horses, they swayed in complementary arcs. Seeing that they were heading in the same direction, I put up no fight. I had escaped prison once already. I would find a way.
The bonfire was a mountain of flames, casting strange shadows onto our captors faces as they sat around it quietly. Once they’d all taken their places, the tall one walked over to us and calmly opened our cages, motioning for us to join them. None of his companions batted an eye when we joined the circle, and their confidence terrified me. A few muttered to each other in an incomprehensible language, and the youngest one began scampering about the camp preparing food and drink. One of the stockier men, whose gaze always seemed to find its way back to my companion, addressed us first. “We are honored that you have joined us.” I watched his eyes in the flame’s light, alternate Earths, all flora no fauna, each continent a silent savannah. “To have coincided with you in time and space was no easy feat, you who have conquered both.” I looked to my companion, his expression inscrutable, not the plain confusion I wore. “We will be spending some time together, it seems. Be generous with your stories. Tell us of your subjects.”
His expression remained unchanged and he seemed to look through our captors into the distance. Finally, I answered for him. “What do you want with us? With him?”
The tall one answered with a patient smile. “He is not ignorant to our intentions and if you wander with him, likely you are not either. Forgive us of our poor manners – come, we will feed you and talk of more mundane matters until the night is darker and our hearts lighter. Perhaps there shall be song as well.” The youngest came by with bread, wine and some unrecognizable legumes, pausing in front of each of us, meeting our gaze as he lay it in our hands. The planets of his irises were more unsettling than the others– there had been a cataclysmic event that destroyed almost all life, and the few species that survived were nightmares. The wild energy in his movements made all the more sense, and I found myself avoiding his eyes throughout the night.
There was something in the food. It made us talkative. Our captors revealed more than I expected. They had been hunting my companion for some time – whether it was months or decades I wasn’t certain but either was equally plausible. It was clear that there was some substantial reason or reward, though nothing about them made them seem bounty hunters. As the night drew on they began telling more meaningful stories. Sad ones. Great losses they suffered in a war of some kind. A mass migration. A scattering of tribes and people. A separation of families. But the sadness passed and the stories began to grow more recent and lighthearted again. I started the evening analyzing our surroundings, our captors and potential escapes, but soon I was drawn into the conversation. I manufactured my past, but was surprised at the level of detail I went into. My companion commented on the stories he heard, his tone familiar and friendly, but said there was little he could remember, and wasn’t challenged by any of them.
The oldest of the bunch, a wizened, pale thing, crossed through the fire and sat cross-legged in front of us. The green in his eyes wasn’t planet, but vacuum, a void with nothing more than floating detritus and the ghost of a galaxy at its edges. Something more primal than gravity drew me to them, had me reach out towards them until my companion gently guided my hand back down to my lap. Their desolation made us both very cold, brought down the temperature of the night, was a knife to my throat. “Tell us a story, old man,” he said with a wicked grin. “Tell me a story. I have worked long and waited longer. Tell me about one of them.”
And with that my companion told them two stories, both those that he’d already read to me. Immediately their attention grew rapt, and they all drew a bit closer to better hear every word. The story seemed to feed them, it was more than mere listening. They grew fat off every word until finally, after the second, they were full to bursting and exhausted. The youngest put out the fire, brought out their mats and gave us each one as well. We slept in a circle around the fire. Escape seemed so easy I knew not to attempt it. My companion made no move to leave either. And so we slept a full night at last.
For days it was the same ritual. We walked towards the morning sun, stopping only for a light meal when the sun was highest. At dusk the youngest would set up camp and a roaring fire. We exchanged stories every night. My companion recycled those he knew, and they spoke more of a past too ancient and alien to exist. By the third day we were walking beside them and the cages swung empty. I continued studying them, the environment, trying to fathom why I was certain escape was impossible. My companion spoke little, and only with a volume that was audible to the entire party – he shrugged off any of my whispering.
He would awaken most nights hours before dawn and write furiously in his book. Translating, I imagined. His focus was formidable. He also studied the paper in his pack before the sun rose, unfolding it hastily and tracing patterns on it with his fingers, scanning the area as he did so. A few more nights into our journey I stole a look while he slept and confirmed my notion. It was some sort of map. The language matched that of the book. Apparently we were traveling in the right direction. Perhaps that explained his submissiveness.
A week later our captors gathered around the fire and eagerly awaiting my companion's next story, we realized at the same moment that he was out. He told them as much and their reaction was identical smiles, both patient and pitying. The tall one rose from across the fire and strode over to us. “I see you have chosen to continue this charade. Very well then, perhaps you need a reminder.” He drew a long, black blade from his back. I tensed, gathered my plan of attack, and watched his tranquil eyes which betrayed no cruelty. Before I could react, he sliced the blade upward in an impossibly quick motion. I gasped, fearing an especially grotesque disemboweling. Instead, my companion’s shirt was halved, and slid from his body. The scars I noticed first – old lacerations across his back and shoulders at all angles and depths. The tattoos followed, covering most of his arms and torso. At first it seemed gibberish, a messy scrawl of ink, but studying it for a few more moments I realized that it was the same language from his book.
“That should remind you of quite a few more tales,” the tall one said kindly. “Hopefully you can still read that language, as it won’t exist for a long time.” He took his place around the fire and waited patiently as my companion took in the text from his arms in amazement. The company’s eyes grew wider and more expectant as he continued reading the ink, tracing it, mouthing words silently to himself and nodding from time to time. Finally he looked up. “It appears I have a few more stories for you, yes.” And with that he began. His tales were hypnotic this evening, and as the night grew deeper it grew more and more still. By the time he told his fifth tale the entire planet seemed silent, the listeners and landscape the story and the storyteller creating reality around them. When the stories ended I was not sure, and I had no memory of falling asleep.
In my mind I was watching my companion’s face in the fire’s glow one moment, and waking up to his screams the next. The daylight was blinding, and before my eyes got accustomed to the scene in front of me, I knew his screams were of anguish, not danger. His kneeling body came into focus amongst the corpses of our captors. Surprised as I was at his sorrow, it confused me more that he continued stealing glances at the sky, trying to locate something in it, as he crept from corpse to corpse looking carefully into their eyes.
Callous as my first words might have been, they were all I needed to express. “We are free, it seems.”
He shook his head, anger gathering and then spent. “This is genocide. She must have known how many millions were destroyed. How many civilizations were extinguished in an instant.”
Knowing he would not elaborate, I asked a more mundane question. “How were they killed?”
He looked back at me for a moment, noting my existence for the first time this morning. “There is only one way to do it,” he muttered. I waited for him to continue, but he merely went back to exploring the sky.
“You’ve certainly woken up cryptic today.”
“We are being hunted.” He stood up, his face assuming a harshness I hadn’t yet seen. “They hid us well, sacrificed themselves to offer us a bit more time. But this is her oldest, greatest hunter. It is only a matter of time now. Days. Weeks if we are lucky.”
He answered below a whisper. “The one I have been running from since the beginning.”
He ignored my next question so I spent a few minutes exploring the camp, checking its perimeter, looking out into every direction. “He has covered his tracks well.”
Again he met my eyes. “She. She has covered her tracks well. Yes. She has had much practice. Come now, we have horses and supplies to last us a bit. We continue on our path and stay vigilant. I am not sure what else we can do yet.”
As he gathered their bodies atop the pyre I found myself suffering from vertigo. I sat and watched him drag the corpses one by one, their eyes open, black voids that seemed endless, his stories from last night echoing inside them, playing themselves out again in my mind.
The silence had calcified. What had been an easy quiet before the death of our captors was now a growing weight, a dull ache that spread daily and intensified, infecting most of my limbs. His amnesia was a farce – he knew our path, the identity of our hunter, could guess at our ultimate fate. But the questions might as well have fallen on deaf ears, he deflected them easily enough. Insisting that he was only beginning to remember a few sparse events, he maintained ignorance about all things, all people, our hunter and her employer. Our path, he insisted, was simply his retraced steps as well as he could remember them, with some minor detours to cover our tracks. I threatened to part ways with him, a half-empty threat I faked convincingly. The tiniest mote of fear in his feigned indifference was all the proof I needed. I was accompanying him on some mission and he expected me to follow in ignorance until it was complete.
Through sleepless nights and mostly-sealed eyelids I gathered much. He slept a few hours most nights, but woke just past midnight, unfolded his map and studied it intensely. He would then leave the camp and wander a bit, map still in hand, ensuring he was on the right path. He rarely wandered more than a few hundred yards, marking a tree or leaving a few stones to act as way markers on our journey the next morning. After he had ascertained our route, he returned to our camp and spent the rest of the night translating his book, writing furiously, making shorter work of it than I would have anticipated.
Studying the map one night while he slept, I noticed that there was a very specific artery we were tracing, towards two points, one en route to the other. Both were labeled with symbols from the language scrawled in his book and all over his skin. One symbol was drawn over an existing point, but the one closer to us he must have divined using some calculations I could not put together. There were arcs drawn around it, equations jotted on the side, and it lay at the intersection of the two widest arcs he had made. It took me a bit to understand where we were on the map presently, but once I had, it seemed we were only a few days journey from the first point. It sated my patience – I would soon have answers.
Three nights later, the moon a sliver, we camped out on a small plateau nestled inside the fossilized rib cage of some vast beast, close enough to a tree-sized bone that our existence was almost impossible to note without climbing to our elevation. There was nothing alive as far as I could see in every direction, and yet I knew we’d arrived. The behemoth’s fossil was marked on the map adjacent to the old man’s symbol.
He never slept that night. Instead, the very moment he was certain I was asleep he gathered his map and book and made his way down the plateau and through the field of tall grasses. I followed from a distance as there was little cover. He walked quickly, with purpose, puffing out his chest a bit and taking in generous draughts of air, attempting to grow in size, bracing himself for whatever he was walking into.
The thick copse of tall, dark trees grew larger and more dense the closer he approached it. By the time he reached the edge it seemed a full forest, sinister, completely devoid of light under the canopy. Before he crossed the threshold the old man opened his book and traced his finger time and again over a few lines somewhere near the end, reciting them to himself until he knew them by heart. Then he took one last careful look around to make sure he was alone, my body pressed firmly against the ground until I was sure I heard his footfall crack a twig underneath. When I arose he had disappeared into the swell of greens. And I followed.
Or so I intended. Lingering at the threshold myself, something arose in me that I hadn’t felt in a very long time. A manic suffocation, my body seemed to collapse inward on itself, some new, sharp pain radiating out of my pores as I fell to my knees. Fear. It had been so long. And this was a new strain, feral and threatening. Before I recovered my consciousness I had scampered halfway to our camp, imagining the forest’s tendrils biting at my feet, chasing me up the plateau until I was safe in the beast’s rib cage once more.
I lay there in a trampled, leaky state until he returned near sunrise. He was at once limping slightly and completely reinvigorated, the energy emanating from his nourished frame palpable. The smile he wore was a lion’s. Was there blood at the edge of his lips? Was it running from his fingernails? The darkness might have created the inky blots, or the embellishing moon. Yet it stayed with me as I fell into a cramped sleep, the dull taste of iron the last thing I remembered.
I slept extinguished but awoke as fire, white-hot, watching him putter around the camp for only a moment before I attacked him, bringing him to the floor, my dagger to his throat. He struggled, spoke nonsense, feigned innocence. I waited patiently for him to speak truth, reading his jaw for specks of blood. The fear in his eyes was real enough.
“There is one left now.” His resignation deflated him, but anger moved erratically under his skin. “I need to find the last one before I am no more. I don’t know how much time I have remaining, and there is still a long way to go. I know not who she is or exactly where, only when. And that when is quickly expiring.I travel faster with you, am safer with a companion, but neither matters any more because now we are both being hunted by an old evil and separating is death.”
His body tensed and then finally released as he surrendered the last bit.
“I am the Ark.” He pointed to the symbols on his body. “I am to summon them all to a safe pocket of time and space. But it must be all of them. And there are few safe pockets left.”
The sounds of locusts rose and fell.
“That is all I can speak of this until I myself know more.”
Stunned by his surrender of words I dropped my dagger, rolled off him and gently helped him sit up, taking in what he said. After some time he spoke quietly. “I have almost finished translating my book. Come, I will read you of some of them. I will tell you of a few more of the sisters.”
The city had always been his destination. It was apparent in the shift his breathing took the moment that he set eyes on it, the complete relaxation of all the muscles in his face. He would admit to none of it, said he had merely dreamed this city, which seemed like a good sign to him. I decided against protesting his lie this time. The last leg of the trip had seen him soften, sometimes he even let slip some sliver of information he would have guarded before. It was clear that our path was not entirely random – though he no longer used the map, he was set on arriving somewhere, only vaguely aware of its location. And now, here we were.
The entire city was built in a language I could not translate. It was nothing I had seen before. “Likely because it won’t exist for another four or five centuries,” the old man muttered low enough that he was sure I hadn’t heard. Our road to arrive was linear. There was never a gate or bridge we had to cross, nothing that would have complicated our path and explained this anachronistic settlement we walked through now. Whether this was his doing or otherwise was unclear, but walking through the cobblestone streets he stopped frequently to explain what I was seeing, how the people of this city lived, why their dress and manners were so complicated.
We took a room at a small inn near the center of town. He had me wait outside while he spoke to the innkeeper. Whatever deal they struck I could not imagine, as we were carrying nothing worth trading. She led us up to a small room on the third floor with a single window and I perched there, looking out into the drizzly lane lined on both sides with stone-walled shops, each with a finely carved sign announcing their business, as my companion busied himself with a crudely drawn map the innkeeper had let him borrow.
“We will be staying here for some time while I procure information that we will need for the journey ahead. Take this time to rest.” With that he began his routine of sharing breakfast with me and then departing until past nightfall. I was to stay in the room. I of course did no such thing, following him on whatever quest he was on that day from some distance, mad for my questions to be answered at last.
He knew a number of people in the town and they all greeted him exactly the same way when he visited – profound shock followed by an outpouring of warmth, followed by a deep, dawning fear. Each of them bade him quickly enter, checking both ways before they shut their door behind him. In most cases, he stayed for some time, talking either animatedly or in hushed tones, depending on the tenor of the conversation and the apprehension of his host. These conversations were difficult to overhear, though I caught pieces of a few of them. Some involved multiple maps laid out all over the host’s library, my companion comparing each map, noting any changes from year to year, asking his host specific questions about landmarks and the founding of cities. In others he seemed obsessed about the location of a specific whaling ship and a harpoon thrower who knew something of our hunter. A few of these meetings were spent mostly with him recounting stories of the sisters to his host while they scribbled them down, often for hours at a time.
Days that he wasn't visiting old acquaintances were spent in the catacombs, in an underground library that I shuddered to think was connected to the one we spent time in. Poring over books so ancient they seemed ready to dissolve in his hands, he entered the dungeons early in the morning and stayed until his torch was extinguished. He wouldn’t read the books so much as ravage them – he opened each one furiously, tore through it, scanning for something specific, and then jammed it back on the shelf, doing the same to the next one. He would return home most frustrated on those nights, his voice donning the edge it gets when you’re in a hurry but have wasted a lot of time.
Perhaps the strangest visit he made, this one weekly, was with a decrepit, serpentine man who drew on his skin. The location alone was off-putting. He knocked on the door to a nondescript row house, a dull bovine woman allowed him in, he walked directly into her basement, uncovered a floor entrance and took a ladder down into a dark pit where the man awaited. They spoke to each other in a guttural language that barely seemed human, my companion dictating as this snake man wove a symbol into his skin in that inexistent language. The tone they took was more incantational than conversational, and the entire process bred sleepless nights, so unsettling was the man and their ritual.
I made a habit of arriving at our apartment an hour before he returned, assuming my position at the window. At first I was so occupied with questions that I paid little attention to the scene in front of me, but after we had continued our routine week-in and week-out, I began to notice the birds. They were gray and fat and weather-beaten and there was little to justify their existence or draw the eye towards them, but their numbers gradually began to rise. One or two made their home on our window ledge, but soon it was crowded by a half dozen, and a week later a full dozen. Across the way they dotted the rooftops, then lined the perimeter of the roofs, then eventually crowded them. Following my companion one morning I noticed that we were both unconsciously winding our way through throngs of birds carpeting the road, every tree I passed sagging under their weight as they crowded each branch.
He was so focused on his meetings and research that he made the discovery a few days later. Halfway to the library, as if awakening from a long dream, he stopped suddenly in an alley choked with birds and took in the scene. There was a moment of calm, and then, to my shock, he began screaming at the birds, kicking them violently and grabbing a few mid-flight, snapping their necks. The entire flock then rose at once as a cloud, but he managed to snap one up and held it close to his murderous eyes, pushing words haltingly out of his mouth. “Leave and do not return. I will kill all of your brothers. Leave tonight or you will all be dead by morning.” The cloud of wings ascended and took what space they could on the adjacent rooftops. My companion flew into a rage, punching the wall until he bloodied his fists and cursing at the top of his lungs, a seeming madman. Unnerved by his radical break in character, I returned home and studied the birds outside of my window.
He returned that evening still tense, but more focused. He spoke not a word to me before going to bed, and immediately I noticed that he wasn’t planning on sleeping, so I faked it for a few hours as well until I heard him rise and leave quietly and trailed him from the rooftops. The birds were thicker than ever, making it almost impossible for him to move through the streets at a quick pace, but he didn’t have far to go. Once he was a few blocks from our room, he reached into his satchel and began sprinkling the ground with what looked like seeds. Immediately the birds began swarming, but he continued calmly walking down through the town sprinkling seeds as he walked. For hours he traced the streets and alleys, feeding the birds, who must have been famished judging from their frenzy. Finally his seemingly infinite supply of seeds ran out, and he journeyed back to the inn. It was then I noticed that he was now walking through a carpet of bird corpses, whistling happily and chuckling to himself as he kicked a few aside to clear his path. It was the happiest I had seen him.
But it was short-lived. Walking through a plaza framed by trees, he paused to listen to a deep sound that rose and fell like the planet breathing. It was a few moments until he registered the author of the sound, and by then it was too late – a thousand birds dove at him from every direction. It was no attack though, it was as if they were magnetized to him, and could do nothing but go limp as they flew toward his body. There was a mass of birds, and then a scattering, and my companion was gone. There was no blood, no sign of a struggle and not a single feather on the ground. I heard no flapping of wings or screams either. All that was left, looking smaller and more insignificant than ever, was the book.
A deep rage took seed in me as I circled the plaza, swelling and swelling until I had to unleash it, wresting trees from the ground and ripping them in half. I then sat in the center of the plaza and took the book gingerly in my hands. I knew what I had to do. Come morning, I had to find the serpentine man and hope he knew more than I.
The moon was phosphorescent. It lit the book well enough. I turned to the last chapters he had translated and read as I waited impatiently for the dawn.
(To be continued in Chapter Seven, coming in September.)
Illustrations by Chris Baily