SVETLANA

Greetings!

Welcome to my brand-new novel, A FEW ODD SOULS. I’ve decided to release it on my website, one chapter per week for 22 weeks. Each chapter will be accompanied by an original illustration by Yours Truly.

Why am I doing this instead of publishing through “traditional” channels? A few reasons:

1) How many authors ever reward their fans with a free novel? A FEW ODD SOULS is for the fans of my Shaper and Tall Eagle books. (see sidebar for samples and ordering info) Thank you for reading my work, now here’s my latest and best — for you, for free.

2) I want to interact with the fans as they’re reading and consuming the story. So please drop me an e-mail after reading each chapter:
johnny-nine@comcast.net 

3) Releasing a complete novel for free subverts the entire publishing industry model. It cuts out all middle-men, gate-keepers, and bean-counters that stand between YOU and ME (Reader and Writer). I’m not in this for the money–I wrote for years before making any money from it. I’m in it to tell great stories, and to reach as many people as possible with them. 

4) It’s also a chance for me to re-ignite my dormant artistic skills. I used to dream about drawing comics for a living when I was a kid, and about twenty years ago I did draw a graphic novel (NECROMANCY: A DARK ROMANCE, later released digitally as SKULLS). However, that experience made me realize that I’m a much better writer than comic-book artist, so I haven’t drawn much in the past two decades. Now I’m going back to doing art that supports my story. Every chapter will have one relevant illustration that I’ve completed specifically for this purpose. Mostly I’ll be working with pen-and-ink.

A FEW ODD SOULS is my Weird Fantasy Epic. It combines several genres but remains weird all the way through. What does that mean? Well, you’ll just have to read it to find out.

Chapter 1 introduces SVETLANA, one of three main characters. In Chapter 2 you’ll meet INSPECTOR CRAG, while Chapter 3 introduces HARMONA. As chapters continue, the viewpoints of these three central characters will alternate from chapter to chapter, heading toward an inevitable collision that defies space and time itself. 

Cheers!

John R. Fultz
March 27, 2019
Fairfield, CA

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A FEW ODD SOULS

Chapter 1.
The Faceless Angel

 

The dead city was alive tonight.

The tops of its towers had crumbled. Most of its avenues were lost beneath a sea of rubble. A forest of weeds and creeping vines sprouted from the devastation every summer, only to die and rot in winter. A hundred years had passed since people had lived here. Most of their bones lay deep beneath the rot and ruin.

Omiska, they used to call it, those who had raised its towers and paved its roads. Those who were less than memories. Only the city’s name had survived, whispered by elders in campfire tales across the tundra. In time even that would be forgotten, as all things must be.

Yet tonight there were lights in the dead city.

The pale glow of those who had destroyed it.

Svetlana crouched behind a mossy boulder on the lower slope of the mountain. She watched the lights swim through the ruins like schools of phosphorescent fish in water. They glided toward the center of the wreckage. She could not see what was calling them together. She would have to get closer for that, explore the canyons of debris on foot.

The moon rose above the frosted peaks behind her. The gliding motes of radiance concentrated themselves at the heart of the dead city. A few stragglers drifted in to join the gathering. Eelheads. At least fifty of them, possibly more. She recognized them by the glow of their rubbery skins. Nothing else alive glowed like that. They were the ones who had conquered the city when her grandfather was young, as they had conquered every city across the world. They had built their own strange cities after wiping out most of the human population. She had no idea what drew them now to this forsaken place.

Svetlana had heard all the stories. She only half-believed that her kind once ruled this world, that millions upon millions of human beings had once existed. It seemed impossible that her people could breed in such great numbers, or that the eelheads could decimate so many of them. Yet the remains of great cities like Omiska — human cities — provided evidence that she couldn’t ignore.

In the books kept by the wise ones there were pictures of the human cities when they were alive with colorful multitudes. They had seemed to her younger self like visions from another world. Yet Svetlana’s father had taught her that the pictures were of true things, lingering visions of a lost glory. She had seen only one other dead city, a lesser version of Omiska whose name had been entirely lost. The eelheads had ignored that lesser ruin since destroying it during their great conquest.

She didn’t know what brought the eelheads swarming into Omiska tonight, but it must have something to do with the angel. The silver-winged angel without a face that had stolen her child. She moved down the slope, leaving tracks in the shallow snow. She didn’t dare to light a torch, but moved by the grey light of the moon. The wind whipped at her long braid, tearing loose strands of black hair that danced across her face. She stopped every few hundred meters to hide behind a rock or slip into a dry gully.

She avoided the yellow-barked trees heavy with bulbous veiny fruits. They were eelhead trees. They had spread across the world after the conquerors had claimed it. To eat their fruit brought madness, death, or worse. To walk within range of their stalks would attract their strangling vines. The trees fed on the blood of any living thing they could snare. Svetlana had seen too many men die in the grip of those thorny vines. The wise ones called them dyirevokrov, blood-trees. They drank lives in seconds, yet the eelheads could walk among them with impunity. Their poisonous fruits were a delicacy among the conquerors.

Svetlana climbed into a ravine and followed it toward the foot of the mountain. There might be sentinels at the rim of the ruins, but they couldn’t see her moving along the bottom of the crevasse. She moved across the uneven ground with caution. Her hands twitched, anxious to draw Takamoto’s blade from its sheathe across her back. She forced herself to wait. Even in the crevasse moonlight might glance from the blade and give away her approach.

She rested a hand on the grip of a pistol holstered at her thigh. It was a relic, an antique from the time before the eelheads came. Her father had kept it clean, oiled, and functional, passing the rituals of its maintenance on to her when her brother had died. A bandolier slung across her right shoulder held forty-six rounds. She had sold the last of her other keepsakes to buy the ammunition in Kirishni a week ago.

Tonight she could not use the gun at all. Its thunder would draw the eelheads in great numbers. If that happened, she wouldn’t stand a chance. She must be quiet and remain unseen. A mystery glowed at the center of dead Omiska. The key to that mystery would lead to her son wherever the angel had taken him. Not for the first time she wondered at connection between the eelheads and the angel. According to the oracle at Kirishni, she would find the answer here.

Svetlana had found the oracle sitting in a dim cave. The old woman sprinkled dust and bird-bones into a small fire. The oracle was old and toothless with skin like ancient leather. At some point the crone had eaten the fruit of the dyirevokrov and somehow survived it. A mass of fleshy tendrils grew curling from the side of her face. Her left arm had been deformed by the fruit as well. It writhed across her matted robe like a pale serpent, and a flower-like blossom sat where her hand used to be. She had gained magical sight by daring the madness and deformity of the blood-fruit. The oracle of Kirishni had paid a horrible price for wisdom.

“Your heart speaks truth,” the oracle said. “Your son lives, but he is far from you now.”

“Where?” Svetlana asked. She had crossed five hundred kilometers of wild tundra and snake-infested marshland, following the angel into the west. She had spoken with roaming hunters and blind elders in villages too remote to draw the attention of the eelhead armies. Now and then she found someone who had seen the angel flying westward like a golden eagle. Some even claimed to have lost their own children to the winged thief, just like Svetlana.

Yet none of them had ever been brave enough — or insane enough — to pursue it. Some told her the angel carried off babies for the eelheads to raise as slaves, or worse, for them to devour. But the eelheads did not eat human flesh, and they did not trust humans enough to enslave them. To the conquerors humans were no better than packs of wild dogs.

“Follow the mountains north to Omiska,” said the oracle. She sipped broth from a clay bowl. “There you will find the gateway of the angel. Cross it if you dare. Only by doing so will you discover a path to your lost son. You have a mother’s fierce heart. Let it guide you.”

Svetlana gave her the carcass of a pheasant she had snared to pay for the advice. She would have paid twenty such birds for the oracle’s wisdom. For the first time in six months of searching, someone had spoken hopeful words to her.

“Stay and eat with me,” said the oracle. The woman was hideously ugly but the cave was warm and dry. Svetlana agreed to sleep there until dawn. She helped to cook the bird. The oracle’s serpentine arm had a will of its own and could not be used for domestic chores. She wondered if the blossom at the end of its length would eventually sprout its own blood-fruit, pulsing with the lifeblood of the oracle. What might happen to one who ate the flesh of such a fruit? The thought made Svetlana lose all appetite, so she ate very little of the pheasant. The crone served her a bowl of goat’s milk instead.

In the morning, the oracle warned her not to go alone. “The eelheads are many where you are going,” she said, stirring the embers of last night’s fire. “Are there none who will accompany you?”

Svetlana shook her head. She didn’t want to talk about Takamoto.

“No,” she said. “Not anymore.”

The oracle understood and asked no more questions.

Eight days later Svetlana found the dead city, and after sunset the radiance of the eelheads began to concentrate at its center. Now she came to the bottom of the ravine, where it emptied into the flatland between two bald hills. She followed a frozen stream toward the outer ring of ruined structures. If there were sentinels posted there, they did not shed light. Of course, the eelheads could turn off their phosphorescence when they chose to do so. She wasn’t foolish enough to believe the absence of fleshlight meant the absence of guards.

She crept through the tall, frosted stalks of grass. The moon was high and brighter than she would have liked. She needed the shelter of the ruined buildings, where shadows would hide her advance. Until then she could not draw Takamoto’s blade, no matter how her muscles twitched and her fingers ached for it inside her gloves. She could have followed the overgrown road of shattered stones, but that would have exposed her immediately.

She kept low and half-crawled for about an hour. Finally she came to the low mounds of wreckage that stood like weedy hills about the ruins. She climbed atop one of these hills and lay there on her belly like a lizard. The sphere of light at the center of Omiska had grown even brighter. She crawled down into a crooked avenue and picked her way between the piles of rubble. Here she could stand erect, providing relief for the pain in the small of her back. She walked between the jagged columns of metal and the husks of collapsed lodges. Still she kept herself from drawing Takamoto’s blade.

She peeked around a corner and found a broad avenue leading directly toward the place where the eelheads gathered. She nagivated the detritus of a lost world, weaving between the shells of rusted carriages. A flock of bats burst from a ruined temple, disturbed by her passing. She lay still among the earthy rot until they spiraled away.

Following the central avenue, she came closer to the plaza where the great sphere of light seethed. Now she heard the moaning singsong of eelhead voices. No human could understand their speech, and the conquerors had never bothered to learn human languages. She had seen them marauding through villages or marching across the countryside, picking off stragglers with bolts of light from their crystalline weapons. She had recognized their garbled voices while hiding beside the open roads where they travelled in organized bands. But she had never heard anything like this, a cadence and rhythm that spoke of singing. Did these monsters sing? Perhaps she was only imagining the sounds as close to something human.

A sudden light along the avenue caught her by surprise. She dropped behind a mound of rubble as three eelheads emerged from an adjoining pathway. The light of their skins grew brighter as she crouched, a sure sign that they were coming her way. She slipped Takamoto’s sword from its scabbard, holding its grip in her white-knuckled fists. The weapon felt good in her hands, a reminder of better times. A bulwark against violence. The curved blade gleamed silver in the moonlight, but that did not matter now. The radiant eelheads came close enough to overpower the moon’s glow.

They did not go around the mound of rubble, but glided up the other side. She saw them clearly as they reached its summit, well before they noticed her. Their bodies were boneless, slithering things that stood upright by some unknown force of will. Spineless and hairless, their skin was a pale grey-green, their arms thicker versions of the oracle’s mutated limb. A row of fin-like protuberances grew along each of their limbs, and another ran up their backs to form a crest atop their oblong skulls. Their long-necked heads bobbed and weaved like aquatic snakes. Their eyes, like those of every eelhead, were tiny golden orbs above lipless mouths grown thick with uneven fangs.

One of them cooed a signal to the others as he spotted her crouching at the foot of the mound. They raised their deadly prisms to point at her, and she raced up to meet them. The sword flashed once, twice, but her third strike was hampered by the uneven footing. The blade tore through their soft bodies with ease, slicing two of them into four equal parts. The glowing of their skins faded as they flopped in pieces down the pile of rock and weeds. Their blood was translucent slime that smelled of unearthly things.

The third one croaked at Svetlana, displaying its fangs. A hot ray of light flashed from the crystal held in its psuedopod. Svetlana sidestepped the blast, ducking low and slicing at the eelhead’s legs. It fell without a moan or sigh, legless and spouting gore, lifting the prism toward her one last time. She swept the blade across the extended arm and the prism fell into the cracks between the broken stones. Her last strike took the creature’s head off. She wasn’t exactly clear where the neck ended and the head began, so she sliced clean through the point where a human’s jawline would have been.

She thanked her ancestors that these monsters died quietly, unlike the screaming men and wailing women they so casually murdered. She slid down the far side of the mound and crouched low. There were no other late-comers to the eelheads’ party. She wiped the slime from Takamoto’s blade with the hem of her cloak and did not re-sheathe it. She crept closer to the source of the radiance, knees bent, blade ready.

She had killed many men with Takamoto’s sword. Far more men than eelheads. Men always wanted something from her, whether she was willing to give it or not, and they always tried to take it. The eelheads would just as soon ignore a passing human as incinerate them. The conquerors were unpredictable, but as long as you kept hidden from them, you could usually avoid a confrontation. Yet human men had forced Svetlana to kill them time and time again.

“It is your beauty that draws them,” Takamoto had said. “There are too few beautiful things left in this world. You carry with you what every man wants. It will always be this way. That is why you must learn to kill.”

He had found her with a group of weeping refugees after marauders destroyed Komsk, the village where her father had raised a family. Such marauders were usually human, killing and burning everything in their path. Svetlana’s father had died in that raid, along with her mother and sister. The only thing left of her family was herself and her younger brother Mikhail, who was barely nine years old. The children huddled with the other survivors in the shade of a nearby forest and watched the village burn.

Takamoto was travelling with a group of swordsmen from an eastern village, searching for the bandits who had killed their own families. This was the way of humanity: Cycles of vengeance and violence that never ended. Takamoto and his cousins intercepted the marauders as they were enjoying the spoils of conquest. They built a pile of bandit heads in the center of the village when it was all over. It became a pile of blackened skulls when the fires had died away.

Looking for survivors, Takamoto’s band discovered the refugees and offered them food and water. Svetlana was sixteen at the time, and Takamoto was nearly twice her age. Yet she couldn’t know that when she saw his lean, handsome face. She helped bandage his wounds and this started a conversation that grew into a friendship. The surviors of Komsk followed Takamoto’s band north into the tundra, where they joined a nameless settlement that eventually became known as Borovichi. The bandits seldom came this far north, so a few years of peace passed while they learned to enjoy life on the cold plain.

When Mikhail died from the Green Plague, along with half the village, Takamoto and his cousins buried them with ancient ceremonies. Svetlana, at the age of twenty-one, had nothing left then. Nothing but Takamoto. She clung to him, a steady rock in the storm that was her existence. First they became lovers, and then she became his student. The blade he carried had been passed down to him from his venerable ancestors, as Svetlana’s pistol was passed down to her. She knew how to use it for hunting, but ammunition was hard to come by. If she’d had ammo during the razing of her village, she would have died defending it, instead of snatching the gun from her dead father’s hands and fleeing into the forest.

“This is not a weapon that you can depend on,” Takamoto said. He inspected the pistol as she was taking it apart, cleaning it with oil rendered from the fat of a roasted boar. “Without bullets it is no weapon at all.”

Svetlana had eyed him nervously, fiercely protective of the relic.

“It was my grandfather’s gun. And my father’s,” she said.

Takamoto raised a single eyebrow, the way he always did when he disagreed with her. “And yet it could not save his life,” Takamoto said. She raised an arm to slap him, but he caught her wrist in his fist.

“I mean no offense,” he said. “I do not say this is a worthless weapon. Only that it will betray you when you need it most. Unlike this…” He drew forth the slender length of steel with its rectangular black grip. The steel was clean and shimmering cold as death.

“A good sword will never betray its owner,” he said. “Only the owner may betray himself.”

Svetlana finished putting her pistol back together and slid it back into its holster. She placed it back in its hidden spot inside her lodge of painted hides. Unable to forget Takamoto’s words, she came back to him.

“Teach me,” she said.

At first he had refused. She tried to impress him with her mastery of the hunting bow and throwing knife. He ignored her for days, even when she refused to join him in the sleeping furs. He was implacable. He would not tell her why he refused, which only made her angry. A week later, she had almost forgotten asking him.

Then came the day when a new group of marauders found Borovichi. The village had grown large enough to attract raiders, and complacent enough to be caught unprepared. Takamoto and his cousins went out to face the bandits, who rode on the backs of horrid creatures that had once been horses. They had eaten the blood-fruit and they could no longer be recognized as four-legged beasts. How the bandits had tamed them she could not guess.

Svetlana and a dozen other villagers supported the swordsmen with well-aimed arrows, knocking the raiders from their beasts with a rain of flint-tipped shafts. But there were too many of them, and the supply of arrows was soon depleted. A few men with antique firearms ran out to join the fray, and many died before the last of the raiders fled. They had stolen several children but burned only a few lodges at the edge of the village.  Takamoto came to her after the slaughter, drenched in the blood of enemies. The rest of his cousins had perished in the defense of Borovichi, but he did not weep for them. Instead he brought her one of the fallen mens’ swords, placing it in her hands.

“Tomorrow,” he said, “I will teach you.” She washed the blood from his skin and sewed up his wounds. Her training began the next day at sunrise. Each of the dead mens’ weapons was given to a villager who trained alongside her. She was the only woman so gifted. She knew it was because of her relationship with Takamoto, and so she did not question it. He loved her as she loved him.

The following spring the southern raiders returned. This time none of them had escaped alive. The last of their horrid steeds was butchered and thrown into a common pyre.

When the winter winds began to blow and the tundra grasses turned from green to brown, Svetlana gave birth to Dima. She had never seen Takamoto’s face alight with so much joy. He was like a different man, reborn in the glow of fatherhood. He laughed now, and smiled often. He was fiercely proud of their son, and at night he spoke of the dreams he held for Dima. Svetlana had given the baby her father’s name.

Dima was only six months old when the angel came for him. It was an early summer on the tundra, and the sun was warm that day. The last of the ice had melted, so she had gone to the nearby stream to bathe. Takamoto was out hunting with the men of the village. Little Dima lay on a flat rock next to the stream, less than three meters from where Svetlana washed herself in the chill water. The mingled aromas of wildflowers and fresh grass floated in the air.

She might have heard the beating of its silver wings if she hadn’t dunked her head underwater for a few seconds. In that brief interval of time, the angel had descended from the sky. She lifted her face from the water to see it bending over Dima’s blanket, wings half folded on its broad back. It stood far taller than any man she’d ever seen, its skin gleaming with sunlight, its head a smooth ovoid without eyes, nose, or mouth. Its silver hands lifted the baby from its swaddling even as Svetlana splashed toward the shore.

The angel raised its featurless head toward her as she leaped from the water. Its wings spread to block out the sky, casting her into a glimmering shadow. She saw her own face staring back at her in the silvery flatness of its visage. It made no sound at all in that moment. Dima was a tiny thing in its hands. Its entire body shone brighter than Takamoto’s blade, as if it had been forged of that same ancient metal.

She leaped for Dima, ready to wrestle him from the angel’s grasp, ready to die for her son if necessary. The angel was inhumanly fast. A single beat of its wings carried it into the sky, along with its tiny passenger.

Svetlana’s screaming brought the villagers from their lodges as she ran after the angel. Naked and howling, she chased it across the tundra. Followed it westward as it rose higher and higher, until it was only a silver mote gleaming in the blue gulf of sky. She ran until she collapsed and lost sight of it entirely. She lay in the cold mud and wept, her stomach emptying its contents, her limbs twitching with uncontrollable spasms.

Takamoto found her like that some time later. He carried her back to the village, warmed her with the heat of his own body, made her sip hot broth. He wept with her, and together they made a vow.

At sunrise they set out to follow the child-stealing angel into the west. The villagers tried to convince them that the baby was lost forever, that there was no chance of finding it. They should have another child and forget about Dima. Takamoto nearly killed a man for saying that. Svetlana stopped him from delivering the killing blow.

“Every moment we spend arguing with these fools, our son moves farther away.”

Takamoto sheathed his blade and turned his back to the village. After that day he never looked back, and neither did Svetlana. That was seven months and five hundred kilometers ago.

Now here she was, walking among the bones of dead Omiska. Alone.

She didn’t want to remember what had happened to Takamoto.

Not now, when she was so close.

The light ahead was brilliant. The eelheads were joined together in their chanting song, or whatever it was. There was a definite rhythm to the sound, although it kept shifting and changing in unexpected ways, apparently at random. Svetlana found herself at the mouth of a long thoroughfare, one whose flat stones had been swept clean of debris and undergrowth. On either side of the way stood high walls of cracked and weathered stone. An open court or plaza at the far end was the source of the light — the gathering place of the eelheads.

She walked on the flat stones, knowing that she could be seen easily now if anyone was looking in her direction. She hoped the ceremony of the eelheads would hold their attention long enough for her to reach the far end unnoticed. They didn’t expect a human to be anywhere near this place. That was her advantage.

There you will find the gateway of the angel. The oracle’s words.

The walls on either side of her were built of vast, smooth blocks of stone, but gargantuan faces had been carved into them long ago. They were the pitted faces of men, tall as ancient trees, with broad foreheads and sharply sculpted cheekbones. Their eyes were hollow niches where great jewels had once served as pupils. The eelheads or human bandits had long ago removed such precious things. The great stone faces were blind now, as heedless to the torments of this world as the gods of old must have been when they allowed the eelheads to destroy it.

Svetlana moved closer to the bright plaza, passing between a dozen pairs of great dead faces. Despite their hollow sockets, she imagined them watching her, smiling at her bravery, or her foolishness, whichever this was. They were human faces, but there was something inhuman about them as well. They offered her no threat other than a vague unease creeping into her bones. Their cheeks were lined with spidery cracks and eroded to smoothness by ages of wind and rain. The stone faces watched her in perfect silence as she approached the end of the avenue.

The plaza spread wide beyond the mouth of the thoroughfare, and its floor was also clean and level, paved with gleaming white rock. The eelheads didn’t just congregate here, they maintained this place, a realm of immaculate order nestled in the heart of crumbled chaos. She saw them clearly now: a mass of luminous eelheads kneeling and singing, gathered into a wide semicircle facing twin obelisks of black stone.

The black pillars rose at least twenty meters from the ground, wider at their bases and narrowing at their summits. A space of at least six meters separated them, an empty plane that flickered with motes of dancing light. Svetlana imagined the surface of a rippling pond in starlight, yet standing impossibly vertical between the obelisks. Each of the tall stones was three-sided with flattened tops and the densely woven characters of some unknown language carved into their sides. The carvings were eroded by centuries of wind and rain, but still they were visible in the luminosity of the eelheads. She realized suddenly that this place and its stones were far older than the eelheads’ conquest. Perhaps older than Omiska itself.

She had never seen the eelheads bow down to anything, not even their own leaders. Yet they kneeled here as if something holy stood in their midst. Something they respected, or feared. Or both. None of them took any notice of her.

She slipped along the back wall of the plaza, finding the nearest mound of rubble at its edge and hiding herself behind it. She watched the alien ceremony proceed. The space between the obelisks grew brighter, rippling with nameless colors. The hairs along her arms and the back of her neck stood up as the tingle of something unidentifiable flowed across her skin.

The space between the two obelisks rippled now, and the eelheads brought their song to a new pitch. They trembled and writhed like serpents along the flat stones, spreading pools of slime across the floor of the plaza. Some of them appeared to be copulating in pairs or in feverish clusters, but she did not look too closely at such terrible sights. She stared at the rippling air between the obelisks.

Now the ripples broke apart and a something appeared between the twin pillars, a gleaming presence bright as the sun. It wore the shape of a tall man with silver skin and feathered wings of the same color. It walked through the space between the obelisks as a man might walk through a curtain of beads, or float upward from the depths of a lake to break its surface. The eelheads writhed and sang as the faceless angel stood before them, averting their golden eyes from its illumination.

It was the same one who had taken Dima. Or one exactly like it.

Svetlana watched from her hiding place, frozen by a moment of terror. She clutched Takamoto’s sword in her fists. The terror passed, but she could not move.

Be still. Be patient. Watch and learn.

You are too close now to lose everything in the name of vegeance.

The angel held nothing in its metallic hands. No Dima.

Be still. Her eyes watered, and her heart hammered inside her chest.

The angel turned its faceless head toward the sky, where the first rays of sunlight limned the horizon with pink and crimson. Spreading its wings, it launched into the air. Svetlana watched it rise. Once again it became a silver mote, and then it was lost.

The ceremony of the eelheads continued well into the morning. She kept herself hidden, waiting for them to disperse. There were more hideous copulations, more spilling of fluids and singing of alien songs, and the sun rose high above the dead city. Svetlana found a niche between the walls of two roofless structures. From here she could see the plaza and the obelisks, but the eelheads could not see her unless they were to seek her out. They had no idea she was here, so she cloaked herself in patience and avoided the spectacle of their fornications.

She grew used to the sound of their droning chants, and she fell asleep for a little while between the ruined walls. When she opened her eyes the ceremony was fading and the sun was nearly at its zenith. She gnawed on a piece of dried fruit from her satchel, drank cold water from her canteen, and prayed to her ancestors that the eelheads would soon leave this place. She could not stand their presence much longer.

Gradually the eelheads grew silent, lying spent and exhausted on the ground about the twin obelisks. In the midst of that silence, Svetlana heard the flapping of wings. She poked her head out of the niche and saw the silver angel returning. It soared down from the clouds, clutching a tiny thing it its flawless hands. Svetlana could tell, even from this distance, that it was another baby.

The thief had stole another child.

The angel landed amidst the scattered forms of the eelheads. Those who were still awake bowed low before it, touching the tips of their snouts to the ground. It walked among them and past them, barely noticing them at all. The air between the twin obelisks quavered again, glistening and rippling like water. The angel walked between them and disappeared. Svetlana saw the stones of the plaza on the other side of the obelisks, where the angel should be standing but was not.

The gateway of the angel.

That’s what this place was. A gateway. If she followed the angel through it, she might follow it to Dima. It was likely to be carrying this new babe to the same destination, wherever that might be. She didn’t understand how such a gateway could exist, or begin to guess where it might lead. But it was the only possible way open to her. The only path that might lead to Dima. The oracle had said as much. She gripped the sword tightly in her fists and ran across the plaza. The space between the obelisks glittered with fading ripples.

In her haste she stepped on the flesh of several eelheads, who rose up immediately barking cries of alarm. They sounded like wounded pigs squealing in terror. Yet there was more of rage in those squealing voices than fear.

She swiped left and right with Takamoto’s blade as she ran toward the gateway, slicing limbs and heads, opening pale flesh in gouts of lucid gore. A few sizzling bolts of light sped past her. She moved quickly, bringing pain and death to anything in her way. The eelheads hissed and howled and squealed, but they were too spent from their long ceremony to effectively stop her charge. Half of them were still sleeping off their ritual of debauchery.

The space between the obelisks rippled one last time as she leaped between them. A sudden silence filled her ears, a blinding light claimed her eyes. A moment of weightlessness, a sensation of falling that was over almost before it had begun. Then her feet found solid ground and her leap ended in a clumsy fall. She held the blade at arm’s length to avoid cutting herself and rolled across the hot, flat ground.

In another instant she was back on her feet, half-blind and senseless, but facing the gateway. The eelheads might follow her through, so she needed to be ready. She yanked the pistol from its holster. With sword and pistol she waited, blinking madly, trying to see beyond the flares of light swimming across her vision.

There was no sound but the moaning of wind. The chill of winter was gone, replaced by sweltering heat that bore down on her like a physical weight, forcing the sweat from her pores. She wanted to tear off her parka and cloak, to rid herself of the gloves that had kept her hands from freezing.

Instead, she waited, ready to face a band of charging eelheads. Yet not a one of the aliens followed her through the gate. They were capricious and unpredictable creatures, their actions determined by some alien logic that humans could never understand. Svetlana gasped for each breath of hot air. After awhile she lowered the blade and wiped at her eyes. She holstered the gun and stripped off her cloak and parka. Her eyes adjusted to the searing brightness.

Already her throat was dry and she ached for a drink from her canteen.

She no longer stood inside the dead city. A sea of golden sand spread outward in all directions. The torrid wind lifted curtains of it from the top of each dune, scattering it across the land like a stinging rain. The sky was red, but it was not the red of sunset. Two suns burned in the sky, one bloated and orange, the other small and white.

She turned back to examine the gateway. The twin obelisks rose from drifts of sand that obscured their broad bases. Looking between and beyond them she saw only more sand dunes. There was no sign of her world, the world of tundra and eelheads and dead cities. There was only this sea of golden dunes. She remembered seeing pictures of places like this in an ancient book. The wise ones called it desert. Yet those deserts had lain beneath a single sun and a healthy blue sky. The sky in this new place was sickly, the color of thickening blood.

Svetlana lowered her eyes. She stood in the center of a broad road made of pale and seamless stone. The pathway ran directly from the twin obelisks into the shimmering distance, winding between the dunes like a frozen river. Somehow the shifting sands avoided the road when they should have buried it completely in no time.

The road itself began — or ended — between the two obelisks. There were only two directions to go: back through the gate or into the desert. Leaving the road to brave the dunes would only see her swallowed by the sands. She searched the red sky for signs of the angel. Nothing but a trio of dim moons and the two cruel suns.

You have a mother’s fierce heart. Let it guide you.

She could not go back. Not without Dima.

And there was only one way to go forward.

She cleaned Takamoto’s blade, slid it back into its sheath, and followed the nameless road.

 

NEXT WEEK: “Blood in the Rust”

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—  A FEW ODD SOULS Copyright 2019 John R. Fultz —