Ash and Dust, Part 3
June 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
Oh my God new content!
What? No! I did not finish this ten minutes before posting. How could you say that?
Breaking my heart, you are. Breaking my heart.
Chapter Three: Crows and their Friends
I took two steps before I collapsed, vomiting gasoline in bright rainbow swirls. It looked like a child’s finger painting, all the colours swirling into one as it pooled around my knees. Fumes swirled up, burning my nose and throat, and only made me vomit more.
It reminded me of the paintings my toddler made, sloppily but with such happiness you couldn’t help by like them too. The red swirls even looked a little but like the house he used to colour. I was suddenly confused. What’s a toddler? I thought, as the gas swirled away.
I staggered to my feet, ignoring the sharp tang of gasoline. I needed to find a damn doctor and figure out what the hell was happening. Well, actually, I wanted to figure out what the hell had happened to that hospital and what those creatures were. And then I wanted to go home and sleep off whatever drugs they had me on.
Figuring I was strong enough to stand straight, I looked around.
The buildings surrounding the hospital were standing heaps of rubble. Torn holes where windows ought to be stood out like ruined eye sockets under cloudy skies, while piles of brick and overgrown grass filled empty halls like furniture. The streets were empty but for a few cars quietly rusting away to nothingness. Dead trees and brown grasses huddled up close to the husks of buildings, quietly mourning in the wind. This wasn’t Toronto. This was a war zone.
The door banged behind me and I involuntarily ran a step forward, swearing. It buckled from the blow and swirls of smoky darkness spilled out into the sunlight and sizzled as they disappeared. An angry hissing followed it and I moved down the steps until I was well away from the hospital. The door banged again, but the hissing was more disappointed this time.
I wanted to get as far as possible away from the hospital, but had nowhere to go. I didn’t recognize the streets or the buildings. Hell, I didn’t recognize the sky. It was a thick granite-grey that looked like it hung twenty feet above my head. Veins of blue tried to pierce the clouds but weakly, and they didn’t do much to make me feel any more welcome. I shivered in my jacket and walked down a random street. Lonely apartment buildings, torn open like a broken honeycombs, quietly shed steady streams of rust and brick dust. There was no sound but the rustling of my feet.
I called out,“Hello? Is anyone out there?”
A black bird burst from the highest level of the apartment, squawking in annoyance. A fender fell off a car in surprise and then there was silence again. The air around me seemed offended that I had disturbed it, as though it was angry for having to bear my passage. The quiet drew close like a hospital gown, the only thing between me and the devastation that surrounded me. I walked more carefully after that, loathe to make any more noise.
I wandered for a while in no particular direction because every direction was the same: endless streets of broken buildings and cracked asphalt that ran off to infinity. No landmarks, no people. Unless, I guess, you counted the birds who started to gather whenever I made a turn. At first there was only the one but more and more flocked together, perching on broken concrete and overturned cars. I ignored them as well as I could. There wasn’t much else I could do.
After a few minutes, or hours I guess because it’s hard to tell the time when you can’t feel anything but constant nausea, I heard a squeaking from around a corner. Excitement filled me and I nearly ran around the corner shouting out. I went to start running and sudden pain filled my head, arcing out like lightning from the plastic stub. It hurt so badly I saw stars. I tripped and collapsed against a wall that bellied dangerously from the weight. I wasn’t a big fellow, my wife (now what the hell is a wife?) said I only broke six feet on a good day, but the aged concrete was a hair away from transmutating into dust. The birds started cawing loudly and gathered around me, moving closer and closer. I hurt to much to care about either.
The squeaking, rhythmic and incessant, continued. The crows kept at it and my head felt like it was splitting in two around my wound. I collapsed, gasping and unable to hold myself up. I rolled in a puddle of something, but I couldn’t care. It hurt too much to do anything but whimper.
The squeaking got louder, and then stopped.
“Your head doesn’t really hurt, you know. You just think it does, because that’s what he wants. It doesn’t have to hurt you at all. Oh, and you can pull that out if you’d like.”
The pain broke in my head for a blessed second. I was stunned from the aftershocks that burned through my blood like fire, but the pain, the lightning bolt of anguish, disappeared. I staggered to my feet again. I was getting tired of being on my knees trying to figure out which way was up.
The crows were furious. One landed on my shoulder and pecked at my ear. The bird’s beak twisted it painfully, drawing blood. Others landed on me, grabbing onto knees, shoulders, anywhere there was space enough for them. Innumerable little claws dug into my skin, tearing and scraping in an effort to hold on.
I am a patient man. One cannot be a police officer (what?) and father two children (mine? What are they?) without being patient. But I was also in shock and pain, scared, confused, and still hopped up on adrenalin from the hospital. These goddamned crows weren’t necessarily to blame, but by the Holy and Living God they were going to pay.
I grabbed the one on my ear and squeezed until my knuckles cracked. It popped with a little squelch, feathers and black goo squirting over my jacket. Success flipped me into a frenzy and I bashed at the others like a mad man. Feathers and gasoline flew everywhere as birds died, flew away, and attacked me.
It didn’t occur to me to look at who had been speaking. It didn’t occur to me to wonder why I was bleeding gasoline. I also didn’t occur to me to think about why I was in a bombed out world being attacked by crows after escaping from monster doctors and nurses. What did occur to me was to keep smashing whatever I could.
After a few more seconds, seconds that felt like minutes, the birds left me. Puddles of goo and feathers sizzled in the dim light, the burning rubber smell of the dissolving nurse filling my nostrils again. I panted as adrenalin finished its mad course through my veins, taking away my anger and making my legs shake like young tree in a storm.
I started laughing, not exactly sure why. It hurt too much to do anything else, really, but I needed to get something out.
“I like laughter. It makes me happy.” The same voice that warned me about the pain spoke again.
Stopping, I looked around for the person who spoke. A few steps away from me stood a bearded man, tall and gaunt in a dirty brown suit, smiling back at me. He was dragging an empty cart behind him, rusted and worn, but the emptiness spoke of expectation, not longing. It was waiting to be filled again, not despairing at its emptiness. His face looked a little goofy, like he was a little too happy that I was laughing, but I didn’t care. I nearly started crying then and there now that there was someone to talk to.
“Hi, uh, thanks for helping me back there. I thought I was going to die, well, not really, but the pain…” I trailed off, suddenly wondering why he knew I was in pain. “I’m Ryan. What’s your name?”
The man shook his head, his goofy grin unchanged. “No, you won’t die. He can’t do it. Despair, that is. He just wants you to think that way. He doesn’t ever directly do anything to the ones he finds. It’s more fun for him when they do it to themselves.” He thought for a second. “Oh, call me Spes, I guess. It’s technically my sister’s, but it’s simple. Simple is good. And that’s good enough for now.” Angry caws sounded in the distance. “Come on,” he continued, “Despair does act directly when he needs to. You annoyed his spies, so he’ll have to go a step up. Come on, take that out of your head. We’ve got to get out of here.”
His eyes began moving back and forth across the streets. I touched my hand to the plug in my head. It burned my fingers, fever hot and painful. I drew my hand away and it receded a little, but small waves of pain still lapped at my mind.
I shook my head. “I can’t. What if it gets worse? Maybe it’s holding the blood in or something.”
The man shrugged and looked thoughtful. “Maybe it does a lot of things, but it definitely is telling Despair exactly where you are. I recognize his handiwork, and can assure you taking that out isn’t going to kill you. Well, likely not. Probably.”
“You don’t sound very convincing, friend.” I burped fumes.
He shrugged again, goofy smile returning. “I’m just trying to be optimistic. It’s what I do.”
I hemmed and hawwed for a minute. He was right in that I really, really wanted the damn thing out of my head, but when I thought of it or actually tried to do it, nameless fear drifted into my head. I wanted to, but I couldn’t force it out. I didn’t know what would happen, and a part of me didn’t want to know. The man looked more and more anxious the longer I thought.
“I can’t do it myself, man.” I said. “Shouldn’t a doctor do it?”
“Plenty of doctors back at the hospital.”
“Point”, I agreed, “but I might hurt myself.”
The man leaned a hand on my shoulder. His voice was steady, but he was casting looks around, anxiously looking for something. A rustling noise from behind me was getting louder and louder.
“Ryan, you’re already hurt. You’re hurting and there’s nothing you can do about that until you get that out of your head. You haven’t spoken with me in a long, long time, but trust me.” His fingers squeezed my torn shoulder and I was reassured just a little. “You need that out of there.”
His words, I don’t really know, calmed me down. I nodded, unsure of who he was, what was going on, or even if I wasn’t dreaming or dead, and put my hand on the nub. Ripples of pain broke from the touch, but they were less severe this time, and they only happened when I brushed my skull. I could manage this, I thought, I could do it.
It actually didn’t hurt coming out. Once I started pulling it just slid right out, gently, like taking a dipstick from the engine.
This time, though, I did piss myself after I pulled out a foot of melted plastic.
With a gentle shuk, it came loose and I started shaking. It was about a metre long and covered in backwards facing barbs. Each barb dripped blood and motor oil, and pieces of flesh hung on the spikes. I threw it as far away as I could, retching powdered rust into my mouth.
A huge roar ripped through the air, shaking out the last panes of glass. The wall I was leaning against blew apart and I hit the ground as something the size of a bull surged by. It sounded like a freight train and knocked the wind out of me just by passing.
Spes pulled me up and yelled, “On your feet, Ryan, we’ve got to run!”
I let myself be picked up. Looking over my shoulder, I yelped and ran after my friend as fast as my shaking legs would carry me. The thing was stomping around the…dipstick, and beating the ground with enormous paws. It wasn’t the size of a bull. It was bigger. It had three arms as thick as trees, two at the front and a shorter one like a tail at the back. It stood hunched over like an ape, but its shoulders were still easily a foot above my head. It rocked back and forth, using the front hands to bounce off the shorter arm while it roared and beat the ground. The thing must have been as big as two Volkswagen Beetles duct-taped together, and probably as heavy. The sunlight sizzled off the beast, raising a cloud of black mist that covered it head to toe. A gaping, neckless mouth sat where the neck should have been and I caught glimpses of teeth and a black tongue. White saliva dripped down and burned when it touched the concrete. It howled in fury and smashed huge gouges in the concrete, the fingers gripping and tearing it like wet paper.
Terrified, I ran away, expecting it to catch me and tear me apart. Spes hardly looked bothered but his cart trundled behind him, squeaking wildly. The creature was content to rage in the area where I threw the stick, so we huddled behind a rusted car.
“Jesus Christ,” I swore, “what the hell is that?”
Spes pulled out a pair of glasses from inside his jacket. “It’s a Hor-ghast . Things of blind hatred and anger. Oh, this is bad. That’s a lot of arms and teeth. They like to eat, too. I didn’t think Despair would send it after you. That’s bad.”
“You think that’s bad?” I whispered. “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know,” Spes said, “where were you going?”
“What the hell does that matter now? How are we going to get away from that thing?”
“I…don’t know! I’m just here to help you! I can’t tell you how unless I know where you’re going!”
The Hor-ghast found the stick. Fumbling with its enormous hands, it lifted the stick to it’s mouth and dropped it in. Chewing messily, a pleased rumble escaped from the Hor-ghast and it started rocking a little faster. Spes was looking at me, suddenly nervous and helpless. He was close to panic, and I didn’t want him doing anything rash.
Thinking hard, I tried to think of what I was doing, but nothing came. I didn’t have anywhere to go.
The Hor-ghast did a handstand in order to put it’s mouth right to the ground. It licked the ground and started gasping wetly with its mouth, trying to track a scent. Hesitantly, but increasingly, it stumbled towards us, the third arm hanging limply in the air and the black cloud drifting ominously toward us.
Spes was about the burst with fear, so I grabbed him by the shoulders. “Look,” I said, “I don’t know where I was going. I was just trying to get out of here so I can get back…” The word suddenly came to me. “Home. You said you’re here to help me, so will you help me get out of here so I can go there?”
Spes suddenly broke into a smile so warm it cheered me up, despite the 8-foot monster a few feet away. “Oh yes yes yes, I can help you do that. Come on, first we need to go see Memnos. They know what to do.”
I could have killed him. Yes, right then and there, I could have killed him. Why? Because right after saying that, he stood up and walked sedately off, the wheels on his cart merrily squeaking, with not a care in the world.
And the Hor-ghast dropped back down on it’s arm like a ton of brick. It howled, a bass howl so loud a building across the street started collapsing, and with a disgustingly powerful jump, practically flew at Spes.
Instinct again took over. I ran out and tackled Spes to the ground. We hit dirt hard but the Hor-ghast rustled my hair as it flew over us. I dropped and rolled, but Spes just lay there, unmoving.
The Hor-ghast landed, shaking the ground around us. I jumped up and tried to drag Spes into cover behind some rubble, but the thing moved faster. Surprisingly lithe, he leapt directly backwards on his short hand and came at me like a homing, stinky, sizzling Beetle.
I dropped again, but the Hor-ghast anticipated this. It grabbed me by the tie and yanked up. In retrospect, I am proud that I can tie a tie so well. At the time, I regretted it as I was hurled up, the knot snapping my mouth shut and left me to hang, choking, in the beast’s grip. It raised it’s head from another handstand and sniffed me, the tongue an inch from my face. Satisfied, it threw me to the ground.
Choking, unable to breathe, I rolled, futilely trying to get my tie undone. It stubbornly resisted me, the bright silk growing fuzzy in my sight. Oh crap, was the only thought that got through the air-deprived haze.
A rock bounced off the building above us, sending a little cloud of dust falling. It blanketed the Hor-ghast and me and the monster went insane. It bounded through the building, howling and sniffing wildly as it crashed through walls and concrete. I didn’t notice much beyond that because I was occupied with passing out.
Hands deftly grabbed me and undid my noose. I gasped heavily and my returning vision saw Spes leaning above me. He slipped something into my hand and hurriedly whispered to me, “Put it on!”
I rolled over, hacking, as the Hor-ghast returned. It dropped into a crouch a few feet away and roared in our faces. Ice-cold breath washed over us and stopped us in our tracks. Triumphantly, it smashed a hand down at Spes, who only survived because he tripped back just before the Hor-ghast liquefied the concrete. He started screaming at me and tried to get away from the Hor-ghast. It occupied itself with trying to turn Spes into paste.
I hurt. I was tired. I was still spaced out and almost dead. Spes shouted something at me, but I couldn’t hear him over the thumping in my ears. I felt something in my hand. Confused, I looked at the ring I had found in my pocket earlier and that Spes had shoved in my hand.
Beautiful, so beautiful. It’s her day. That’s what they say, her day. But Christ Almighty, seeing her in that dress…nearly puked my guts out couple of times that day…
A flood of memories came rushing in my head. They left just as quickly but one stayed long enough for me. I saw the image in my head, clear as day ought to be. This is my ring. I jammed the ring on my finger as hard as I could. It fit.
The Hor-ghast slapped at me with enough force to splatter me all over the road, but a force slammed into it an inch off my skin. It’s arm buckled, and the Hor-ghast roared and stumbled back, suddenly awkward and off-balance. Spes leapt over and grabbed me, putting me between him and the monster. It waved it’s arms in fury, screaming, but didn’t go any closer. Seeing as I was still half-unconscious, Spes lifted my ringed hand and put it in front of the Hor-ghast. It backed away, screaming piteously now and holding the injured arm close.
Spes lifted me to my feet. “Come on Ryan,” he whispered, “let’s go while the going’s good.”
‘What happened?” I mumbled, dazed. “Where’d she go?”
“Walk with me. That’s what we’re going to find out. Come on. It’s easy! Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot!” He sang as we walked off. The Hor-ghast howled again, but couldn’t come any closer. It hung around us, just a few feet behind, sniffing and howling and screaming.
The wheels squeaked happily as we walked off into the distance.