0103

She’d given him a name. Perhaps it could be argued she’d also given him his freedom, but Aegis saw no use for the thing, so he didn’t consider it a boon of knowing her.

He didn’t know how to use the name, either. It carried a strange flavor in the back of his throat. So he just didn’t introduce himself. There was little enough need of names in Vegasia, so it’d been a simple thing to leave the city without anyone learning his. It felt as stuck to him as the red sand that stuck to the streaking sweat on his face.

Standing at the crest of a canyon, the wind pulling at his jacket, Aegis blinked dust from his eyes and considered.

“0103?”

The thin, young voice from behind him was the one his imagination had assigned his brother. He knew that if he turned he would see the apparition, real as if he could hurl a handful of dust and strike it.

“My name is Aegis now.”

“Why?”

“Because—“ He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Because that’s what she told me.”

“She doesn’t own you. She didn’t even tell you her name.”

Finally he turned, eyes tired from the constant sun falling on the boy. The back of his mind whispered that the boy had died. The reality before him contravened this. He lifted his shoulders in an abject shrug.

“Nobody does, now. Nobody owns either of us.”

“So where are you going?”

He wanted to shrug again. He didn’t want to make the decision. Didn’t want to speak it aloud.

For a long moment, he didn’t. They watched each other. He knew that if he wandered the desert much longer, his sanity would tilt forever. He’d never recover from the delusion of his brother, following him. Free.

He had to get out of the desert.

By the time he’d loosed the canteen from its belt and raised it to his lips, the apparition had disappeared.

Aegis wished he could claim to be traveling across the desert to avenge his brother’s death. But the truth wasn’t that simple.

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barren land

novel concept came about from this song

It felt wrong, touching the gilded throne. Asim draped his fingers over the delicate metalwork, narrowing his eyes at the glitter of halite studding the seat’s stone. Things so achingly familiar to behold, that fit so perfectly into the framework of his life, that it made his father’s absence more glaring by half again.

When the pharaoh’s absence had stretched from one week to two, the rumors had begun. The whispers delivered to him by spies secreted amongst the servants and laborers that the masses expected him to ascend to the throne. Fortunately, he thought, none of these whispers had suggested he had a hand in his father’s missing. They thought well of him. They thought him his father’s son—a guardian, a steadfast servant of righteousness.

They were right to think so. He’d had nothing to do with any of this.

It made everything almost worse. He struggled with the sense of helplessness. At least if it’d been some grand conspiracy, he’d feel more empowered. Perhaps he would feel less scandalized to even behold his father’s throne.

In the antechamber, a dog barked, its metallic voice hollow in its copper throat. Asim stiffened, drawing himself straight, trying to force his presence to be commanding and effortless in one moment. He felt that he had failed by the time the door opened, dumping his servant and two guards into the throne chamber.

“This is unheard of!” the servant sputtered, even now trying to push the guards back out the door. The three dogs that customarily traveled with each pair of guardsmen moved to separate servant from guards. They moved with such eerie silence, their eyes bright with alchemy, with whatever living force powered them.

“Pharaoh, it’s at the Jitaki border,” one of the guards said, disentangling himself from the confusion. “Two refugees made it through.”

Jitak, just to the north of Mait. Where his father had gone two weeks ago in pursuit of some information the scholars in Jitak’s capital had uncovered. The elder pharaoh’s unheard-of mission of cooperation had resulted in him now being lost in a country that did not exist.

“I don’t have to ask if my father was one of the refugees.” His voice felt hard as stone in his throat.

The guard’s mouth drew into a grimace. He bowed his head.

Asim’s gut clenched but he fought not to display a reaction.

“Is it visible?”

The guard looked up and nodded sharply.

“Barely. It’s not crossed the border yet. But it’s there.”

Asim’s fingers left his father’s throne. He moved through the guards and their dogs and the servant like a stone through clear water. They followed him as he went out through the antechamber and onto the balcony. He leaned over the edge and there, a cloud of sand against the darkling dusk of the horizon.

He couldn’t see it yet. Just the result of its inexorable march. Any other day the miles-high wall of dust may have been another sandstorm—an ordinary calamity. But this—the thing they called the cataclysm—had demolished every country north of Mait, including now Jitak. In his imagination, his eyes peeled back the billowing, still-distant sand and he saw the great black thing. He saw the great fangs it projected downward into the earth as it came on, as recounted in the reports pouring in from countries Mait hadn’t heard from in generations.

What a thing to unite them.

It occurred to him, belatedly, that the guard had called him pharaoh.

the river

more with Cam/Eden/this wip: camaraderieListen, my son

At the bank of the wide river, someone had tied a canoe. Cam hadn’t ever seen one before, but he’d heard the word, knew the concept. He hadn’t seen a canoe or a river, in fact—just the little fetid streams that trickled through what had once been natural areas, that fine sheen of oil and garbage resting on top. So the noise of the water startled him and he paused, allowing Eden to overtake him.

She passed him and then returned, stared at him for a second, snapped her fingers in front of his eyes.

“Hello? There’s no way I can row this thing on my own.”

Cam blinked and shook his head.

“I’m used to the freighters they ship supplies in on,” he said.

“Wait, the canoe is what you’re reacting to?”

“Well,” he said. “Never seen moving water this big, either.”

“There’s a world of things for you to see,” she said.

She grabbed his forearm and pulled and Cam went without protest, his eyes still fixed on the canoe, until the moment Eden pushed him down into it.

“Now, here’s my thought. If we both row, obviously you’re much stronger than me, so we’ll go in circles.”

She looked at him askance as she settled into the canoe facing him.

“I’ll row.”

He hefted the oar and touched it into the water. He didn’t have any idea how to operate the thing. Leaning onto the handle, he pushed and the canoe jolted forward, its prow kicking up a spray of river water that shimmered across Eden.

“What the hell?” she said. She sounded more incredulous than angry, which was becoming a pattern for her.

“Ain’t got many skills besides operatin’ a firearm,” he said.

“That’s becoming clear to me.”

He tested the oar again, holding back, pushing slower—the canoe jumped again, but less jarring this time, and the next time hardly at all. They moved out across the river, sending ripples out into their wake.

“At least you learn fast.”

“Yeah, I been told that.”

The river widened as they went and Cam idly watched the landscape—the woods on both sides, the frothing whiteness of the water as it spilled over rocks that jutted up from the river’s bottom. He was aware of Eden observing him but didn’t think much of it. Eden liked to observe things. With him, these periods of reflection usually ended with derision, but Cam also thought little of that.

Worse things had happened to him than some mild ribbing from the strange woman he’d been traveling with.

“You’re boring to travel with,” Eden said.

Cam looked up at her. “Oh yeah?”

“You don’t talk. You just follow me around like some big dog.”

“If I’d been talkin’ instead of followin’, you’d be dead.” Cam picked up the oar as the river’s current resigned itself to carrying them along. “So there’s that.”

The canoe abruptly careened sideways. With a catastrophic crunch, it ran aground, spilling Eden out onto the stony bank. Cam felt himself heaved forward as well, but kept his feet. Dumbfounded, he turned toward the canoe.

“Idiot,” Eden spat, staggering to her feet and brushing the sand from her clothes. “You have to steer, too!”

“I never been in a canoe,” Cam said. He shrugged. “I told you that.”

Fall

prompt: “Black Lake Nidstang” by Agalloch

My sense of magic faded and then collapsed altogether. I stopped in my tracks as the path melted beneath my feet. I found myself standing on an inch thick layer of detritus—grey leaves withered and curled, bones secreted away at the bases of the trees. A fox lay stretched across the ground a few feet in front of me, its body flung outward as though it’d been in the middle of fleeing when it died. I did not feel afraid. I felt the forest and its eyes upon me, eyes old as the ages opening and blinking and awakening and fixing upon me. I felt honored to have come into their presence.

I lifted my eyes from the fox and found All Names standing on the bank of a wide black lake. I do not mean black in that night had fallen across a primordial forest. The water projected black. The water did not glint or shimmer when it moved. The air hung limp and dead around us, and yet the water moved—it shifted with the gentle wet slap that water makes as it laps against rocks on the shore.

The stag stood across the lake from me and directed their blank gaze away from me and behind me, toward the Hall of the Gods. The first thing I noticed: Ragadar did not stand attendant at their leg. I blinked as though to clear my eyes, thinking for a wild moment that perhaps this were some peculiar dream. Seeing All Names without the child shook my vision of reality. I wanted to speak but no words seemed adequate. The unadulterated presence of the stag proved almost too much for me to handle—my vision blurred, telescoped around the edges. This couldn’t be real.

The stag’s wide red eyes closed and they breathed outward, a low, humid breath that I felt across the lake. And then they opened their eyes and fixed them upon me. Names spun into my mind, hectic and confused, a babbling, maddening, endless stream of names that filled me and sent me spinning to the brink of insanity.

Quiet.

And my brain fell silent. I felt the tangle of names at the back of my brain and knew that if I reached for them, they would return. I focused my attention on the stag. One name pulled loose from the rest and tumbled into my consciousness.

Jack.

It wasn’t enough. I wanted—

Santiago.

I met the stag’s eyes and I wept, then. Silent tears spilled down my cheeks. I stepped forward on legs that hardly seemed able or willing to support me. I walked to the edge of the lake and All Names’ reflection broke out across the black water, resplendent and white, dispelling the ancient curse I sensed lurking in the waters.

This is my curse, they said, each word striking like a gigantic bell inside my brain. This is where I sleep.

I blinked and across from me, instead of All Names, stood a massive bough staked through the bank of the lake. And atop it, the head of a giant stag had been pinned—its mouth hung slack, blood spilling from its severed head and trailing from its lips down its neck. The pink eyes stared toward the Hall of the Gods. I blinked again and All Names stood across from me. I shivered, the tremor shooting straight through me.

Nature is life, and I am the death of nature. Do you see? Even I must die.

Their great red eyes moved past me again.

Nature is sound and I am silence. And when I die, everything must die around me. When I cease to die, the world falls to chaos. Do you understand? You must be prepared.

I opened my mouth and then shut it. Repeated this a few more times. “No,” I said.

I unleash my curse upon you, the voice said, pouring into my brain with unprecedented force. I grunted and wanted to clap my hands over my ears. I am nature and I am the death of nature. I am sound and I am silence. And when I die, such a calamity I shall wreak across the heavens, that it shall unmake the world.

My breath came short in my chest. I clutched at my heart.

A curse upon you. A curse upon you who let me die. A curse upon you.

The voice came louder and louder until it roared through me. It threatened to pull me apart by the molecules. All Names stared at me and their stare was great and horrible. In their eyes all the mysteries of nature spun, and I felt myself spinning among them—

I broke. I fell to my knees and in the waters of the black lake I saw the reflection not of the brilliant stag, not of the pinpoint of white in the dark forest, but of the bough with the stag staked through. I saw the dead eyes staring, staring. The wood stained with blood and gristle. I saw the curse gathering in the waters. I felt it stretching fingers out toward me. I staggered backward and got myself turned away. Without making it fully back to my feet, I scrambled back through the woods in the direction I’d come.