Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Decker #18

Degren took the first turn piloting the boat. The river was different than he remembered it; the water was higher and flowed more swiftly, and the occasional, eerie glow that he remembered was now a throbbing luminescence most of the time. There was more traffic, too. The riverboat they'd seen near the 3rd tributary passed them on its way downriver, as well as a variety of craft ranging in appearance from canoes to luxury yachts to barge tugs. Sometimes a passing craft would trigger a vague bit of his last dream, and he'd shake his head in confusion; flashes of Decker when they'd met in the old desert shack would invariably ensue, giving Degren the sense that there was something of his own past that felt fragile and superficial.
He caught Decker staring at him and they each spent an eternal second in the others eyes. It was too much right now; too much for both of them, this sharing of minds. He knew Decker felt the same way. He wondered what was going on. He vaguely remembered some moments of deep communication he'd had with Furge, but those only came in soft flashes, and only once in a while. Strange, too, how less and less of Furge remained in his mind, and more and more of Decker seemed to crowd in, as though they were sharing one head.
His reverie was interrupted as he was forced to swerve around a small punt with a dead outboard motor. The occupant was waving his arms and calling for help.
"Just keep the nose upriver and mind your own business, that's what I say," Coxli urged. "You never know when one of these guys will turn out to be a pirate or a crazy, or worse!"
Decker was unconvinced. "Degren, let's toss a line over and see if we can get that motor going. I used to play around with stuff like that as a kid, and I've got a few little tricks we could try."
Degren slowed the boat and turned it downstream toward the distressed craft, while Decker pulled out a line and looped it for throwing. Coxli skittered fore and aft along the edge of the deck furthest from the little punt, muttering alliterations and thrusting his tongue in and out nervously.
The stranger caught the rope and began hauling as soon as Decker secured his end to a deck cleat. When the punt heaved up alongside and the two hulls met, they saw that they'd come to the assistance of a young woman dressed in what looked like the sky blue coverall of a fiber optic cable company; in fact, the logo on her back appeared to be in English, though for some reason Decker couldn't seem to make sense of the letters. She had mirrored wraparound shades and a yellow plastic hard hat, and her long red hair nearly glowed in rippling torrents to the small of her back. Even through the coverall Decker could tell that she had the sort of look that was plastered on calendars distributed by high-end tool manufacturers back in the good ol' USA. A small part of his mind assessed her appreciatively, but it was quickly censured by the personality he had become.
"Oh, thank god!" She waxed effusive as she expertly tied her little boat to theirs and her gaze swept their deck. "I've been drifting back downriver for, oh, it seems like hours! You guys are so sweet to stop and help me."
"So what did the motor do before it quit?" Decker was all business, as memories of his last encounter with a flirtatious, attractive female dropped like lead from his throat into his belly. "D'you think you might be out of gas?"
"I thought I had plenty of gas, but we could take a look if you think that might help. Ooh, you two are so big and strong, and I looove your fur!" She reached out to touch Decker's arm, but he drew back. A look of minor frustration chased the languorous invitation from her eyes, replaced decisively by a more frank, comradely gaze. "Do you know anything about boat motors? I'm ashamed to say I'm completely ignorant on the topic."
Decker slipped past her and stepped down into the little punt. "I've puttered around with them a bit. Do you carry any kind of tool kit?"
"Um, yeah, here's my cable kit." She pulled a small canvas tool bag from the bow of her boat and handed it to him. He opened it and glanced through it; a variety of pliers, cutters, and screwdrivers lay neatly arrayed in loops and pockets, all seeming to be brand new.
He checked the flat-bottomed red oval gas can first; the sight glass read well over half full. The shape of the motor was just like many he'd seen on the Rum River, and the logo was maddeningly familiar. His hands reached almost instinctively for the latches that held the hood on; it popped free easily. He unclipped the fuel line from the carburetor, saw an instant trickle from both, smelled the fuel, and clipped it back in.
He popped a spark plug wire off the plug and rolled back the rubber hood, revealing the metal sleeve that clipped to the plug. He lodged the wire so the sleeve lay near the engine block, then pulled the starter rope; a bright, blue flash arced from the sleeve to the block, "Got spark," he said as he reconnected the plug wire. He checked to make sure gas was getting to the carb, then put the cover back on the motor, set the throttle to "start", and gave eight smooth, rapid pulls on the starter rope.
"Hmm. Got spark and fuel, still won't pop. Not even a little cough. You sure it was running before?"
She gave him a quick glare, quickly replaced by a comradely, self-effacing grin. "Well, it took me up the river a ways, so...."
"We're heading up the river for about a half day. We can tow you that far-" He looked to Degren for agreement, not bothering to include the still-nattering lizard man. "-then you'll have to work out the rest of your trip another way. I don't know what's wrong with your motor. It should run."
"That's fantastic of you. I don't have any money, but-"
Decker interrupted, "Never mind that. Happy to help."
"-But," she insisted, "I do have some really excellent wine that I was going to drink alone a little further upriver. I insist on sharing it with you." She dug around in the pile of oddments she had stowed in the bow of her punt, producing two elegant bottles that appeared to be hand-blown and a Swiss army knife. She proffered them for Decker's inspection as they stepped back up on the larger boat. "You're not going to refuse me this, are you?"
Degren spoke for them. "We'll bank the boats and then we'll share your wine, um..." He steered for the near shore, only a few yards to port, and looped the loose end of their rope over some crags in the rock while introductions continued.
"Lizzy. And you are...?"
Decker laughed. "Lizzy, huh? That's what I wanted to call Coxli here." He pointed to the lizard man, who still paced, now precariously close to the edge of the boat. "This is Degren, and I'm Decker."
"Coxli. Decker. Degren." She lingered over Degren's name, giving him an assessing eye and a coquettish wriggle. Seeing that he seemed as uninterested in her feminine attributes as Decker, she grumbled, "I see. Well, maybe you'll like the wine, at least." Setting one bottle down, she unfolded the corkscrew from her pocketknife and drew out the cork. She offered the bottle to Decker first; he took a sip. It was quite delicious.
"My god, at least drink like a man," she scoffed.
"You first."
She accepted the bottle and tipped it back, eliciting a long, burbling stream from its mouth, letting the last few drops drip down her chin, then threw him a challenging leer before she passed the bottle to Degren. "You're not going to let a little girlie outdo you, are you, boys?"
Degren took the bottle. "Where I come from, the 'little girlies' could crack your skull like an egg in one hand." He tipped the bottle back and duplicated her performance, then handed it to Decker.
"Fine." He finished the bottle. "Now whaddaya say we slow down and enjoy the other bottle? That's tasty stuff, meant to be savored." He could already feel the first whiffs of steam warming his brain, oozing sweetly into all his anxieties and doubts, suffusing him with a sense of good humor that felt necessary and divine. "Coxli, you have to try a little of this. Good for what ails you."
"Lascivious Lothario lady loves loosening losers like you!" Coxli continued his circuits of the starboard deck.
"Take it easy, Coxli!" Decker grabbed a scaly ankle and pulled Coxli over. "Lizzy, get Lizzy a little bit dizzy!" He put the lizard man in a half Nelson and pointed to the now-open second bottle, then to Coxli's mouth. Degren caught his meaning and took the bottle from the woman and dripped wine over Coxli's lipless mouth. His tongue reflexively forked out and caught a drop or two, and his mouth gaped thirstily. Within a few seconds, Decker felt Coxli's muscles un-tense, and he let him go.
"Setan Blith wine, third dynasty," Coxli breathed softly. "Nectar of the gods!" He turned to Lizzy. "How in the cosmos did you get your hands on it?"
She accepted the bottle from Degren, taking a small swig and then fiddling around with the mouth of it while she replied. "That's a lady's private business." The suggestion smoldered in her eyes. She handed the bottle back to Decker, who couldn't help pulling a significant draught into his mouth. Degren did the same, then Coxli duplicated their earlier feat of killing a third of the bottle in one long pull. He passed it back to Lizzy, who raised it to her lips and dropped it quickly, passing it again to Decker.
Half an hour later, Decker was comfortably high. The second bottle was empty. Lizzy watched the three of them as she leaned on the port rail.
"Bezooooooo..... bladdle boop boo ba doo...." Coxli let loose with a little scat tune. "Wow. Nice. Pretty flying fish, glowing and twirling...."
Decker was starting to see things with a little extra glow of color, too. He turned to Degren, who seemed equally enthralled. Lizzy, on the other hand, was looking a little anxious as she turned into a lasciviously swaying, curvaceous rainbow eel. She pulled out a silver watch on a long gold fob and let it dangle in front of her, coaxing a pendulum motion out of it.
"The pretty colors are pillows for your brains," she said soothingly. ""Opalescent fish are swimming in your eyes, rocking you gently, gently, making you feel luxuriously tired, and your eyes are starting to close, the lids are very heavy...."
Degren was slowly submerging in a pool of color. It felt absolutely wonderful, but something was wrong. As he sunk, another consciousness rose; it was the mind of Decker, taking the fore!
Decker was a little confused, but only slightly affected by the drugs Lizzy had obviously slipped into the second bottle. He grabbed for the glittering watch, yanking it out of her hand as she reached into the back of her coverall, drawing out a wicked-looking diver's knife."You tried to drug us. Why?"
"Give me the case you got from the shipwreck and I won't have to hurt anybody."
"Wha-how did you-huh?"
"The case, dip-shit! Give it to me and I won't have to show you your guts!" She brandished the knife at him and he stepped back. A quick glance showed him that Decker (Decker?) was laying on the deck with his arm draped around Coxli. Both seemed quite inert. He slid between Lizzy and them, trying to put his brain back in gear.
"I-I can't do that. I-"
"Then DIE!" She lunged at him, bringing the knife across in a wicked arc intended to disembowel him. He danced to the side, narrowly avoiding Coxli's head, and the knife barely grazed his elbow. He saw her look down at the two unconscious forms; saw her instantly changing her plans. She thrust the knife straight toward his eyes, then attempted a leg sweep on him. Somehow, he anticipated her intent and slipped a straight right under her guard, landing a fairly solid punch in the center of her chest. A scream of frustration tore at his ears as she nearly fell backward, barely recovering as her butt hit the rail.
He had the initiative, but there were two minds trying to motivate his body now. He lurched toward her, the Decker personality going for her knife wrist, the Degren mind intent on crushing her face with a fist. The result was a blow that struck her forearm feebly, almost causing her to drop the knife.
She saw his distress, and a victorious grin lit her face. "You should have just gone to sleep, fur-boy. Now I'm going to make you hurt." As he backed up, confused, twitching with conflicting impulses, she raised the knife for him to see. "Pretty knife. Shiny knife. My little razor sharp tooth is going to tear you in a hundred places, Fido." Lightning-quick, she lashed out and gashed his brow, and the blood trickled immediately into his eye, painting his vision red. The two minds struggled against each other for dominance, and she edged in closer, triumph plain in her eyes. She feinted at his face again, then slashed his bicep, opening up a long slice that felt like it grazed muscle.
The Decker-mind fought to take control, but their wills were too evenly matched. Realizing this, he sought the drug-laden part of their mind and tried to dive into the narcosis. At first, the immediacy of that bright blade wouldn't let him stop struggling; she got three more nasty gashes in before he was able to close his mind's eye and submit.
Degren, in full command, leaped out of the path of a blow that was intended for his heart. Catlike, he brought down an overhand chop to her wrist, dislodging the knife and bringing out another frustrated scream. She dove for and grabbed the knife; he kicked her in the ribs, sending her flying into the starboard rail. Realizing she was defeated, she sliced the line holding the two boats, flipped a switch on the side of the motor, and gave one tug on the starter rope. It roared to life and she sped down the river as Degren stood gasping.
He found fabric to bind his wounds, stopping the bleeding just as the pretty colored fish swam up and over his head, taking him into a world of technicolor fantasia that he just could not ignore.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Decker #17

"Coxli," Degren asked, "we were wondering if you would see fit to let us have some water and food rations from, er, your boat. We would be happy to offer some of the treasure." He pointed to the small pile of coins and gems they'd gotten from the larger chest.
"Oh, we'll certainly need a bit of water and food on our journey," Coxli replied, "won't we?"
The two men looked at each other, then shrugged simultaneously. "You want to come with us?" Degren's tone reflected Decker's incredulity. "Traveling with us is probably not your safest course."
"Yeah, and what will you do with your boat?"
"Easy come, easy go," the lizard-man said. "I've been 'flying solo' for longer than I care to remember. If you fine gentlemen will have me, I'd be delighted to share your adventure. Haven't been spelunking since I was a child. Ah, the old cave, where my Glag-tui egg-mates and I all tore free and entered this harsh world! Only a few of us survived that adventure, that's how it is for we reptiles, you know! I was one of the quick and anxious ones, always looking for a nice tight crack to slip into, or a handy rock to crawl under. You two can be my 'rock', if you know what I mean; big, strong fellows! And to have someone to talk to again, well-"
"You'll have to pull your weight," Decker cut him off. "We won't expect you to be the 'pack mule', but a third of our cargo can be strapped to your back. And don't expect us to 'have your back' if you don't have ours, lizard-lips!"
With the small chest (re-locked, and the key safely back around Decker's neck), water, food, Cletus' side iron, and a knife for each, they headed for the cave. Each member of the party had taken a couple handfuls of gold and gems in case a situation that called for barter arose.
They entered the cave and went down; down past the cement sidewalk, down into the darkness where the bare light bulbs were dead or nonexistent, down into the low-ceilinged, slippery-shale darkness. Coxli kept up a running banter most of the way, grating on Decker's nerves. The lizard-man had far better night vision than they did, though, so Decker was hesitant to ask him to be quiet; among Coxli's reminiscences were a smattering of observations regarding the twists of the stream, warnings about stalactites and low-hanging outcroppings, and other bits of information that occasionally saved the two men from painful missteps.
They made it to where the lights returned occasionally, where Decker remembered a stiff climb up the slippery rocks as the stream took a precipitous dive into the depths. Coxli, with his clawed feet and quadruped dexterity, was completely in his element here.
"Oh, the joyous memories of youth!" Coxli waxed rhapsodical. "Hide and seek on mossy cliff faces, frolicking along waterfalls in the warm Cradsellan sun! Snuggling at steam vents in the comforting dark closeness of Tith Cave, where I hatched....I wish you could see it, gentlemen!" He skittered in circles around them, occasionally extending a hand to brace them as they slipped and slid down the treacherous stone.
"Coxli, I hate to cast a pall over your narration," Decker shot through clenched teeth as he navigated an especially difficult descent, "but I kind of need my whole brain right now. Plus, we may not be the only ones in this cave, and not everything we encounter is likely to be friendly. Could you please, um, save the life story for a better time?"
"Oh dear; you're quite right, Decker!" Coxli's voice was contrite."I'll try to hold my tongue, it's difficult you know, being that it's forked and all, and there's been no one to talk to for so long-" He caught the glare both men were giving him. "-um, right."
They reached the signpost and decided to continue to the stairs before they took a break. Decker's legs, accustomed now to long stretches of exertion, were still on the verge of cramping, but the stairs seemed attainable. A bit of walking on a less treacherous path might ease the tension in his calves, anyway.
At the signpost, fatigue and memories of Cletus caught up with him; he was deeply grateful for a few minutes of quiet contemplation. He closed his eyes and leaned back against stone, noting the slow pulse of yellow-orange on his eyelids mixing with a soft, aching blue; images of the lanky miner in comic scenes, in difficult times, overlaid the dull flash of stress. He concentrated on just breathing, letting the slow pull of his diaphragm and the rise of his chest dominate his consciousness, pressing the painful glow into the darkness of his subconscious. Every now and again, he'd let his eyelids crack open. Degren was doing the same thing he was. Coxli was staring; first at one, then the other, mouth opening and closing as though he wanted to say something but was restraining himself. All in all, Decker thought as his eyelids got heavier, it seemed like a good time for a little nap.
Degren was dreaming; vignettes of life scenes that were familiar, snatches of scenes that seemed strange and distant, vague remembrances that didn't seem to fit at all. The dreams started with scenes of he and Furge, then recessed into the past, to times before he'd met his mate.
Most strange were some of the dreams of childhood, in which he seemed to be a completely different person. He saw himself playing on the lush, green banks of a river, diving and splashing, riding a long rope swing in a great arc, letting go and being flung far out into the current, paddling hard back to shore and running up the bank to do it again. In this scene, and in some others, he wore blue shorts, tattered and frayed at the lower edges. He had no fur; his lightly freckled skin was tan on his face, arms and back, but pale and pink on his legs and belly.
Now his dreams began following his life forward, in sporadic flashes between himself with fur and then more without, between the desert lands of Degren and the now-green, now-icy white scenes of another homeland. More and more, he saw himself as this new person, this bald pink denizen of temperate climes, riding around inside rumbling metal monsters in huge villages where the paths were replaced by hard, smooth roads of gray and black, where impossibly tall towers rose in the middle of brown-skied cities that sprawled across miles of land like brittle scabs on the wounded earth. The stranger he dreamed himself as was somehow familiar, and the further up his lifeline the dreams ranged, the more familiar the person became, until, in a kaleidoscopic whirl of color, he met himself; the bald, alien self met Degren in an old, dilapidated shack tucked into mirror-image foothills of their two worlds.

The two men awakened almost simultaneously, each wanting to tell the other about the dreams they'd had, both deciding to mull over the dreams for a while first. As is the way with dreams, they faded quickly because they were not spoken. They had barely reached the bottom of the stairs before neither man could pick a solid recollection from their minds regarding the strange scenes from their recent slumbers.
Coxli was quick to remark that they were both noisy sleepers. "The two of you almost seemed to be having a conversation as you slept," he said. "It's a good thing we Glag-tui only require meditation to refresh ourselves!"
Degren and Coxli took up stations to watch for other beings while Decker fumbled around for the pressure plate that opened the door to the concealed "boat house". They got inside without spotting anyone, immediately loading their gear onto the boat. Coxli was quite impressed with the high-tech little launch, nattering on about the seemingly magical properties of it. They showed him what they knew about its operation, then took their chances on opening the door and motoring out into the inlet. Moments later, they were thrumming along up the river; with any luck, they'd be back at Tut's place in half a day or less.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Decker #16

The little boat was still moored to the quay wall. Decker and Degren, bleary and stiff after a wine-dulled morning's rest in the over-warm carriage, stretched their legs on the marble flagstones. The satyrs had left them with several jugs of water and a few spare meals of bread, cheese, and citrus fruits.
"Damn, we should've stopped after the 3rd bottle," Decker rasped. "I feel like shit!"
"Maybe the water will feel good," Degren replied, rubbing the base of his skull with both thumbs.
"S'pose it's worth a shot. Rest didn't seem to help much." Decker eyed the heavens, remembering the circling silhouettes and the carnage of three weeks ago. He noted, thankfully, that the broad blue sky was empty of everything but a few slender ripples of cirrus clouds.
Degren was already untying the painter from the stone cleat on the quay. Decker grabbed the boat gunwale at center and nodded for Degren to embark, then carefully stepped in himself. Degren manned the oars while Decker looked over the charts.
"The rest of the wrecks are all further apart than the ones we dived last time," he observed. "There's a grouping of three within swimming distance just south and a little further out. Wanna start there?"
Degren grunted his affirmative, obviously struggling with a bit of a headache. Decker felt his pain, literally; he'd drunk just as much as the slightly bigger man. But not much bigger, Decker noticed; in fact, there were striking and disconcerting similarities between the two men now. Maybe the genetics of Degren's race were such that everyone's physical characteristics were more alike, he thought.
A sudden curiosity struck him. "Degren, are there females of your, uh, species?" Strange he'd never thought of it before.
"Of course," his friend replied, "though they are larger and stronger than the men, and hardly ever, um, 'pair bond', with other females. In fact, they rarely have any sort of long-term relationships. When their, um, 'natural urges' find them, they seek out a male and spend a few weeks breeding, then generally go off on their own and raise their cluster of children."
"Cluster? How many do you-er, they- have?"
"Three to seven is the general rule. If they have more, they'll find another woman to adopt all but six. If only two are born, it is common for the woman to seek out another woman who has had four or less and create a larger cluster. Six is deemed the ideal cluster. If only one is born, a man is selected to raise the child as a shaman or a musician. That child is not allowed to breed."
Decker had many other questions, but they had come to the area where the three wrecks were charted to lay. He dropped the anchor, counting out the depth by twists in the rope. The water was about thirty feet deep here. He tied it off to the gunwale with a few feet of slack to account for tide, then donned his gear and slipped over the side.
The water did feel good; slightly cool, softly massaging, and buoying him up, it was a nice relief from the somewhat steamy air. The pressure was a bit uncomfortable as they neared the first wreck, but overall it was an improvement.
It had the feel of a Chinese junk, with its barge-like hull and broad prow. Its main mast stood slightly fore of center, and it had a smaller fore- and mizzen-mast; all remained proudly perpendicular to its broad wooden deck. It was less decayed than most of the wrecks they'd already investigated, and sat almost perfectly upright on the rocky bottom.
Decker pointed to the fore, indicating Degren should start there, and then swam aft. The cargo doors yawned open, and he dove into the hold.
There was little of interest. The cargo must have been something quite perishable, or there had been none. A few bits of pottery, a handful of odd, verdigris-ed metal objects, and the tattered remnants of a few bolts of cloth were all he found. His chest was starting to burn, so he swam out and made for the surface.
Degren wasn't far behind. When both their heads breached, Decker saw the look of excitement on his friend's face. He'd found something!
"A chest within a chest!" Degren's voice shook; he made to dive again.
Decker grabbed his arm. "There's enough anchor rope to drop to the chest. No way we'd be able to swim to the surface carrying the chest. Is it in a spot where we can pull it up without hanging up on things?"
"Um, no. It's inside what appears to be an officer's cabin. We'll have to haul it out on deck first."
"Okay, you take the end of the rope and swim to the best spot to haul it from. I'll bring the boat directly over you and lower the anchor, then we'll dive together and get the chest on deck. Once it's tied off, we'll both get in the boat and haul it in by the rope. Sound good?"
Decker's heart thudded heavily in his chest. Excitement mixed with apprehension sent rolls of tingling heat down his spine; his head felt light and foggy. This was it! Why was he as frightened as he was happy? Well, nothing to do but do it.
They decided to bring the whole thing up, not just the small chest; there were other items of interest and value there, too; coins, gems, nautical devices, and other more inscrutable objects. Just getting the big chest onto the deck required three dives. Hauling it up was a precarious affair; they learned that they'd have to counterbalance the boat by wrapping heavy objects in the anchor rope and suspending them from one side while they reefed away at the chest rope on the other. It was nearly sundown by the time they had the chest in the boat.
Rowing back to the quay, in short shifts, took the last of their energy. They tied the boat off and collapsed to the boat bottom, too tired even to seek a more comfortable resting place. Tangled in each others arms, they fell asleep.
a slight rocking of the boat awakened them. Decker's eyes were slow to open and he was afraid to move; the evening's exertions and the skewed position he lay in made for dire assumptions as to the comfort of motion.
A shadow crossed his face. He squinted up into the sun and was startled to stare up at a lime-green, iguana-like breast, from which jutted two skinny arms that spanned the boat and clutched the gunwales. He couldn't see above its shoulders without bending his neck, so he tightened his muscles tentatively.
The head was generally saurian, but the face was disquietingly human. It was nosing at the chest, trying to shove the lid open. Shit and mega-shit! What to do? He tried to assess his situation with peripheral vision, hoping some handy weapon would present itself. Where had they stashed Cletus' knives? Shit again; the dry storage locker in the bow. No way to get to that without alerting the lizard to his wakeful presence.
The creature was muttering under its breath. He could make out the occasional bit of monologue.
"Flippus fornicatus, my foggy phrenological philosophy!" It was trying to get one arm, or front leg, in action to aid in lifting the lid. "It's a suspicious scatology that skates such slipshod schemes...wait, I think we've got it...." Then in a deeper, more theatric tone, ..."By Jove, I think he's got it! No...."
Decker's back itched, and the morning sun was cooking fat beads of sweat from his brow. His heart beat arrythmically, and his knees were starting to twitch. The creature's odd garble of conversation was grating on his throbbing skull. He had to do something. With as much force as he could muster, he drove a fist into the yellow-green belly above him, painfully banging his other elbow against the hull. "Get the hell off our boat, you freaked-out fucker!"
It flopped over the side with a wheezy tenor, "Ooof!"
Decker scrambled to his feet, cursing at the popping in his joints and the twanging of his calcified muscles. The lizard-man was back-floating, clutching its gut, trying to take a breath. Degren leaped up, groaning as he straightened, grabbed an oar; and brandished it at the intruder.
It had its eyes clenched tightly. One popped open a bit, then both went wide as it saw both men holding oars over their heads. "Unh, nuh-nooo...," it gasped, still in the throes of diaphragmic paralysis, juddering out the words as it could, "This....is....my....boat....."
Decker stood, frozen. What if it was? They were the thieves, the interlopers then. "Um, how do we know you're telling the truth?"
"Look....in the...dry locker...at the front....of the boat," It was slowly gaining its wind. "You will perceive a pair of piscatory procurement apparati. Notice the notation on their nether nubs; Nimus Novulo, my name."
"Watch him," Decker said, and made his way to the little door. Pulling the fishing rods out, he did not that name engraved at the base of the two poles. "He...he seems to be telling the truth."
"Obviously my observations occlude obfuscation, oaf!" the lizard man's gill area turned from pale green to bright orangey-red. "I swiped this simple skiff some seasons hence, cementing its presence in my possessions thence!" It made to approach, puffing out its throat sacs menacingly.
Decker sprang to his oar. "Back off, Jack! You might have stolen it fair and square, but so did we! We saved it from your gross neglect after that horrible storm swept it into these waters!"
"Negate your nagging of neglect, nattering ninny!" The lizard man shouted threateningly, but dog-paddled backward out of striking distance. "Salubrious self sailed skiff since storm struck!"
Decker glanced at Degren, whose face bore the same slightly confused but incipiently mirthful expression Decker had. He glared at the lizard-man. "Do you always speak in alliterations?"
"Consonant conjugation occurs with confrontation."
"Well calm your scaly ass down, lizard-boy! We're not gonna hurt you. We might even give you back this boat. We've got a much better one waiting for us elsewhere. Just lizard-stroke over to the pier there, and wait for us to get our stuff landed."
Its cheeks fading from crimson back to yellow-green, the creature did as Decker asked. "Please don't take my fishing gear," it pleaded, "I-I'm not as good a diver as the other Glag-tuis, I'd starve if I couldn't use them!"
"Don't worry about that, er, can I call you Lizzy? Don't worry about that, Lizzy, you can definitely keep the fishing rods. Degren, help me get the chest out of here."
"My correct cognomen is Coxli, confounded cad!"
"The two men burst out laughing. "Okay, okay Coxli," Decker replied,. "Don't get your, er, scales in a twist!"
Heaving and sweating, they finally got the heavy chest onto the stone flags of the quay, then the rest of their items. Coxli watched from the water until they were safely ashore, then scrabbled up onto the quay wall and watched the two men going through the contents of the chest.
"You found that out among the wrecks?"
Decker glanced over at the lizard-man, who appeared to be basking on the rail. "Yup."
"It was my understanding that most of those wrecks had been thoroughly scavenged."
"Lucky us." Decker's attention was mostly drawn by the minor hoard that surrounded the deep, briefcase-sized, plastic-bound matte-aluminum-looking case that was their main objective. There were a few hundred bright gold coins of various sizes and shapes, and dozens of red, green, and blue gemstones. There was an ancient-looking sextant and seven or eight other navigation devices, some looking nearly as old and some Decker thought might rival American technology of his time. There were a dozen or so opaque globes in shades of polished gray, ranging in size from a thumbnail up to a cereal bowl.
"So what should we do with all this stuff?" Decker scratched his head.
Coxli piped up hopefully, "You could give the excess to me as boat rental."
Decker ignored Coxli. Okay, time to see if the key fits." He reached down for one of the knives they'd salvaged from the remains of Cletus and cut the key free of the fishing line thong around his neck. He tipped the small case this way and that, looking for a keyhole; none presented themselves. He fumbled at the bindings, frustrated. He couldn't even tell where the damned box was supposed to open. Where were the hinges? "Fuck me green!"
"What was that?" Degren asked.
"I can't find the goddamned keyhole!"
"Maybe you should look on the bottom," Coxli observed.
Decker cast an angry glance at Coxli, but tipped the box completely over. "Well I'll be fucked!" Dead center in what they had assumed was the bottom of the case was a keyhole. Decker slid the key into the hole and turned.
The case hummed slightly, then split just left of the key and the top levered open in two halves. There were slots in either lid that held what appeared to be instruction manuals. In the case itself rested an object that looked like a crystal ball on eight stainless steel spider legs, and a rectangular remote with a smaller crystal ball embedded in its center. There was a keyboard of indecipherable characters on one side of the small crystal ball, and a group of variously colored rectangular buttons arranged in a circle around a larger, circular red button on the other side.
"Better glance at the manuals," Decker said. He pulled one out and leafed through it. The language was entirely foreign to him. He handed it to Degren, who just shook his head. "C'mere and take a look at this," he asked Coxli, whose curiosity was obviously getting the best of him.
"Er, not a script I am familiar with, I'm afraid," he said.
They all glanced at the other pamphlet, with the same results. Decker was disheartened, though some part of him reveled in the idea that their quest was hopeless. "What the quadruple-shit do we do now?"
"Go see Tut," the two men uttered simultaneously.
Coxli asked, "Are you gentlemen twins?"

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Decker #15

It was night when Decker awakened. His mouth was a pot of metal-flavored library paste. He was face-down on the stone sea-walk. When he moved his head, his entire body cried out in agony. He let his head roll back to its resting place and attempted to gather the strength and fortitude necessary to roll onto his side.
It seemed an eternity before he was on his feet, leaning against the the stone rail of the quay. In the light of a half moon, he saw Degren staggering toward him with one of the water jugs from the boat. Ah, good Degren, wise Degren, he thought! Water....
They shared the jug, back and forth, until Decker felt it sloshing nauseously inside him. He could see the aching, searing, stabbing pains he felt mirrored on Degren's face. Cautiously, tenderly, he reached out to hold his friend. "Damn, man," he crackled, "I've gotten you in a shitload of trouble, haven't I?"
Degren carefully put his arms around Decker. Wrapped in this comforting embrace, they stood silently for long moments.
Degren finally broke the silence. "You mustn't blame yourself, Decker."
"I have to blame myself for what I'm feeling now," Decker nearly sobbed, ""Your friend, your, er, mate, is off who knows where, probably lonely and confused, and missing you, Degren! And here I am, starting to think it wouldn't be so bad to just stay here, it would be so much easier to just give up and accept...who I am now. It's not right!"
Degren sighed. "I must tell you, Decker, that I have had similar thoughts. It is not easy to seek to strive after something that seems to be right next to you. Often of late I have wondered what would be wrong with...why we just can't....but you are not Furge."
Decker stiffened, slowly released his hold. "Yeah, you're right. So we have to keep trying. But we can't go diving while we have these goddam bleeding wounds. Who knows what might come swimming up? And I'm nowhere near strong enough right now, anyway. What the hell are we going to do, Degren?"
They stood side by side, looking down at Cletus, until the sun rose. Their exhausted, despondent reverie was broken by the sound of hooves on stone. The satyrs had obviously gone to acquire tools to repair their carriage, and now they had it in working order. They pulled up alongside the two men, and a look of concern crossed their faces. The lead satyr on their side, who Decker somehow recognized as Tharlo, seemed to commune silently with the group, then said, "We will take you to a safe place where you can heal."
"Um, what about our friend?" Decker pointed to the tattered, bloody remains. "We need to bury him."
"You are in no condition to do that. We will take care of him. You will be consulted on the means of his disposal." Three of the centaurs dropped their traces and retrieved a large sheet of canvas from the cargo area of the carriage, and set to wrapping the body.
"B-but how will we pay you?" Decker asked. "What money we had was scattered to the winds during the storm!"
One of the satyrs picked up a pouch that lay next to where Cletus had fallen, shaking it; it was his pouch of coins that Lady Gudren had given him. Tharlo angled his head to point a horn at the pouch. "By the sound of it, you have plenty of money. However, due to the circumstances of your present condition, and the responsibility we must take for failing to bring you safely to your destination, our code requires us to assist you until you are able to continue as though our failure never happened. Your wounds from the Kazenrey," he pointed to the fallen carrion birds, "you will have to compensate the doctors to dress."
"What will we do about the boat?" Decker pointed to the vessel they'd been using.
"Does it belong to you?" The satyr raised an eyebrow.
"Um, no...."
"We will secure it at the quay. Perhaps its owner will find it there."
Decker nodded reluctantly, then followed Degren into the carriage. Decker was handed Cletus' money pouch. They were secured inside, given extra pillows and blankets to cushion them against the rough roads, and left to rest. Decker felt the carriage begin moving, wondered at the good fortune of the satyrs' return, and slowly lapsed into an aching, troubled sleep.
The sun was almost directly overhead when they pulled up to a store front on the lone, narrow cobbled street of a town at the foot of a single, large mountain. There was a white mortar and pestle painted on the door; the universal symbol of the apothecary trade, it seemed. They were led inside, where two middle-aged women in knee-length white togas sat behind a dark wood counter. All around the little shop, in every narrow aisle, in baskets hanging from ceiling hooks and neatly arrayed on shelves, were paper packets, ceramic and glass jars, books, scrolls, artifacts of bone, glass, and many other materials, carved images, and assorted other oddments
Upon seeing them, the two women sprang immediately and silently into action, one gathering medicaments while the other led Decker and Degren to a back room that held four neatly made single beds. Once both men were properly arranged on the beds, the two women looked them over, removing the makeshift bandages, eliciting grunts and groans by their prodding, nodding to each other and sending hand signals back and forth. Decker cast a questioning eye at Tharlo, who had accompanied them into the little clinic.
"Falgra and Fiona are deaf and mute," he answered the implicit question. "They have been so since birth. In dedicating their lives to finding a cure for their condition, they learned a great deal of the physician's and the apothecary's arts. Sadly for them and fortunately for you, they have as yet not discovered that which they most fervently seek."
"Oh." Decker wondered how they could know their patients' complaints. "Um, what will you do now?"
"We will go back to our duties. Our commitment to you is nearly complete. I will return each week until you have recovered sufficiently to travel, and then we will take you to whatever destination you ask, within reason. Then you will most likely see us no more."
He bid the satyr goodbye and thanks.
The ministrations of the women were painful but soothing. When they saw the pain in each man's eyes, their hands went into a flurry of symbols, then they each nodded. Fiona ducked out of the room, returning swiftly with a small vial and two glasses of water. Into each glass she dripped seven drops from the vial, then handed one glass to each man. Both drank thirstily, noting a pleasant herbal savor. When the water was gone, Decker found the herbal taste growing in hos mouth, becoming aromatic, wafting into his sinuses and his brain. The pain was receding from his body and a warm sense of peace and well-being flooded through him. He felt no need to maintain watchfulness, no sense of threat seemed present. He lay back on the bed and let the soft, pastel-color drift of an herb garden flow across all his senses, let it paint muted rainbows and beautiful blurry birds on the insides of his eyelids. Dreamy, content, he laid back and settled in to watch the show.
He awakened to the dull ache and itching of his wounds. One of the women sat in a chair at the center of the room, glancing back and forth at Degren and himself. When she saw his eyes open, she was quick to offer another glass of water, which Decker eyed suspiciously. Her face lit up in a mirthful grin, and a sound somewhat resembling laughter fell from her lips. She shook her head, showing him the vial that contained the pleasant medicine he'd taken before, then setting it aside. She offered him the glass again.
"It's just water this time," Degren's voice issued from behind her. He was propped against a pile of pillows. "It might have a little lemon in it, but that's all. I had a glass not long ago."
"Well, I am parched," Decker said, taking the glass and draining it. He handed it back to the woman and asked, "So now how do we tell which one of them is Fiona and which is Falgra?"
She studied his lips as he spoke, then pointed to her chest and uttered, "Thee-orh-nhah." She seemed embarrasses by the clumsiness of her speech, almost immediately rising and backing toward the door. Unsure why he did so, Decker said, "I'm sorry."
The next few weeks went by like a soft May breeze, punctuated only by Cletus' passing ceremony, a simple rite offering his body to the sky and setting it ablaze on a wooden bier. As the days passed, they spent less time in the clinic and more wandering the gentle foothills around the town, which greatly resembled the terrain he'd seen in travel brochures for Italy, but without the artifacts of man. Falgra and Fiona spent most of their time now attending other patients and minding the store, though they seemed to have grown attached to the two gray-furred men. After the second week they offered them their homemade wine each evening, sharing it with them and trying to show them some of the elementary aspects of their sign language. Degren picked it up fairly rapidly, but Decker could only grasp the simplest of action words.
At the end of three weeks, Tharlo returned for the third time. "I see that you have recovered greatly. Are you ready to go?"
In fact, the two men had begun planning for their departure almost a week before. Afternoons together, out on the pastel hillsides amongst clusters of olive trees, they had hesitantly found some solace in each others arms. They both realized that the time to decide was upon them; continue their quest for Furge or make their lives anew. Decker knew he had fallen for Degren; knew he could spend the rest of his life with him. Degren accepted this as well, though there was a deep sadness in his eyes when he spoke of it.
Decker had made the final decision. "I think we should take this out to its bitter end," he said one evening as they lay together watching the sun set. "It wouldn't be fair to Furge if we stopped before all possibilities had been explored."
Degren's face vacillated between reluctance and relief at Decker's statement. "I agree."
So they told Tharlo they'd be ready to go back to the deserted hotel the following morning. Falgra and Fiona seemed disappointed that they would leave so soon, but accepted half the contents of Cletus' money pouch in payment for their services. They brought out several bottles of their wine that evening; much dustier than the ones they'd previously shared. Fiona held the bottles to her chest as though they were babies, but poured generously and jovially once they were opened. There was much laughter and hand signing that evening, in fact, when the sun peeked up over the mountains and the carriage stood awaiting them, the four were just finishing another bottle of Fiona's and Falgra's excellent wine.


He dreamed he was falling slowly through prism-cracked swirls of clouds; swirls, tails, clots of iridescent vapor danced around him in soft, chaotic beauty. His own axis seemed as random as his surroundings; it was impossible to tell if he was turning, spinning, looping, or if it was all happening around him and he remained static. There was no self, no memory, only this moment of serene whimsy. Here and there he'd see little vignettes of activity, of discrete forms in pantomime; walruses at tea in noble 18th century finery, a space-suited figure with its arms around a half-moon, goat-headed faeries circle-dancing on daisy petals, a ball of rose-tinged blue worms with angel wings turning barrel rolls and trailing a corkscrew of lavender smoke behind, and other such whimsical oddities.
His panchromatic visions slowly congealed into a smoky mirror. His image lay before him, bloody and bandaged with shreds of odd fabric. In his dream, his heartbeat became heavy and reverberant; a swooshing rush, a thunderous climax, then Doppler-ed echoes fading into the next rush. He reached out to touch himself, to caress his own bloodied, matted fur, but the arm he extended was covered in bare, pinkish-tan skin. As he raised the hand, a stranger's hand, to examine it, the mirror image changed and he was gazing on the form of the stranger; naked, repulsive, weak-looking. As he moved the ugly hand, he saw his motion duplicated in the smoky surface. He was the stranger!
His eyes hazed yellowy-orange; his breath came in gasps. The dream went dark and he found himself laying on a strangely soft surface, tangled in thin fabric. On either side of him lay a female of the same repulsive type he now seemed to be. There were strange lights flashing through the glass window of the small room they occupied; an oddly-shaped outline of a glass with glowing words scrolled underneath; words which were in a language that he shouldn't have been able to decipher, but he could; "Food and drink".
He pulled back the sheet and looked down at himself, noting that there was a trickle of seminal fluid leaking out. Memories of the previous evening came rushing back. He'd gotten quite used to inhabiting this body, it seemed; the three of them had stayed for last call, then come back to his companions' motel room and romped gleefully until they'd passed out. Disgusted, despondent, but resigned, Furge let his thoughts again swirl down into unconsciousness.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Decker #14

Decker was still rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he wandered toward where he guessed the carriage would be. He'd awakened to the bright glare of morning, stiff and sore from sleeping on the hard foyer tiles, and felt he needed to move Degren and Cletus were still asleep. The eight satyrs were nowhere to be seen. Maybe he'd be able to retrieve the diving gear.
He wandered through storm-tossed debris; there was seaweed, dead fish, torn vegetation and splintered wood, occasional human artifacts such as clothing, boards, soggy paper, and, finally, the wreckage of the carriage. The cabin was largely in splinters, but the cargo area underneath was pretty much intact, held together by the sturdy undercarriage. Their parcels were barely damp. He tucked them under his arms and headed back to the hotel.
Degren was awake, but Cletus hadn't stirred. Decker plopped the luggage down on the foyer bench and knelt over the pale, shallowly breathing miner. "Cletus," he said softly, squeezing the man's skinny bicep, then louder, "Cletus, wake up."
His eyes fluttered open, foggy and unfocused. "Wher'm'I," he croaked, "Owwww...muh head..." The eyelids dropped like loose feathers.
"Cletus, you've got to wake up now. You took a mean spill out there, and we don't want you slipping into a coma."
Cletus' brow knit in a petulant frown. "Tired....don't 'member nuthin....jest dang tired and hung over, must be...."
"Degren, help me get him up," Decker said. "He can't go back to sleep now. I think he's hurt pretty bad. We've got to keep him awake. Shit and shit! Skinny bastard can be heavy when he wants to...here, take him under the left arm, I've got the right..."
"Whut the blue Jesus're ya doin', yuh shrimp boat dung beetle peckerwoods?" Cletus made a weak attempt to pull himself free, but they got him to his feet. He tried to lift his feet so they'd have to carry him or drop him, but the best he could do was to drag the metal-trimmed heels of his boots on the tile. He switched to a nasal, wheedling tone."Aww, c'mon, fellers, let a hombre catch a few winks, huh?"
"Cletus," Decker said, "We've got to take you for a little walk, help you clear your head. Degren, once we get him out into the sun and moving around, we'll need some fresh water. We'll have to get it from the pool, I guess, unless you can find a place where the rain collected. I saw some cups behind the counter in the reception area."
"Now ya ain't gonna try tuh make me drink some ding-dang water, are yuh? I'c'n tell yuh where tuh find some more of thet fine rotgut...."
"You'll be drinking water."
"Hunh. Whut's thet you like to say....um, 'shit and shit'?"
Decker steered them down the stone sea-walk to a set of stairs that met the beach. "I'll hang on to him here, Degren. Could you get some water, and then bring the diving gear? Cletus, we don't expect you to swim, but you have to take beach watch, make sure nothing comes for us while we're in the water, okay? Can you do that?"
"Ayup, okay. Where's muh rotgut? Gotta get fortified fer this here duty. Muh head's 'bout ready to blow up like a powder keg."
"Degren will be back with a beverage for you in a minute. Can you stand by yourself?"
"Unh...ayup. But ah want muh rotgut."
"After we get out of the water."
"We ain't in the water."
Degren had found a large carafe and two cups, and had managed to carry those and the three parcels down. They made Cletus drink two whole glasses of water, then they donned the swim fins, masks, and snorkels. They both eschewed the trunks. "Guess we'll start right here," Decker said. "I can see where the coral starts, not much more than a couple stone's throws out. Keep an eye on us, Cletus. We'll keep checking from time to time, so if something happens, keep waving until we see you."
The beach was a tangle of driftwood, seaweed, flotsam, and carcasses of sea life, some familiar and some downright bizarre, some hideous and frightening. The first thirty or forty feet of water was a slowly undulating olio of stuff similar to what lay on the beach. There were small eel-like fish; there were creatures that resembled jellyfish but with a leathery golden shell; there were dozens of what looked like bright yellow pickles with a flower-like cluster of red antennae at each end. Decker noted one species dominating; a blue, Frisbee-sized fish with rusty orange fins and tail; there were hundreds, maybe thousands of these floating milky-eyed or dredged in sand on the shore. There was one very scary carcass of another species, vaguely resembling a giant octopus some forty feet long, which had instead of a bulbous head a mirroring set of tentacles that terminated in vicious-looking mouths arrayed with rows of small, shark-like teeth. Decker strongly hoped they wouldn't meet anything like that in the water!
As he was showing Degren how to put on the swim fins, mask, and snorkel, Decker noticed Cletus gazing fixedly down the beach. He turned his eyes to follow the bleary miner's gaze. About a hundred yards down the shore, listing slightly as it rocked in the gentle waves, was a boat! He pointed it out to Degren. "Look! Holy shit, man, wouldn't that make things easier! Let's go check it out!"
They picked their way along the beach, then waded through the flotsam to inspect it. It was probably 16 feet long and 4 feet wide, high-prow-ed with about 4 feet of deck at the front and a narrow, shallow transom at the back. The deck was flared to spill waves over the gunwales. There was almost a foot of water sloshing around inside; they used the carafe to bail it. There was a bulkhead with an inset door under the deck; most likely dry storage, Decker surmised. There was a painter, or leader rope attached to the bow, dangling in the water. Its oars were lashed in under the gunwales. Decker worked the lashings loose and set the oars in their locks. "Let's get this beauty out past the garbage and row down to the low end of the quay so we can get Cletus on board," Decker urged. "Oh man, this is kinda like the boat at my Grandpa's lake place. Memories!"
They tugged it out until the water was too deep, then fought their way into it and basically poled through the detritus until they were clear enough to row. From there it was an easy trip back to the quay; the little craft was sound and sleek, and handled like a dream. They guided the dizzy Cletus into the boat and he promptly retched over the side
"'M not much of a seafarer," he choked out between nausea spasms. ""Ah, erk, dunno if'n, erk, ah kin do this. Mebbe yuh better leave me on shore."
Seeing Cletus' distress, Decker and Degren were inclined to agree. Decker worried about Cletus' condition; he was paler and weaker, and his eyes looked strange. "We'll leave him here on the pier," he said to Degren, "but let's make him comfortable. I saw some chaise lounges folded up in the storage room behind the hotel counter. I'll run back and grab one."
With Cletus situated comfortably, they got back in the boat and made for the first bank of coral. Decker showed Degren how to maneuver the boat, then he indulged his curiosity regarding the dry storage at the bow. The door opened easily, revealing neatly stowed flotation devices, fishing gear, a rope and anchor, containers of fresh water, rubberized canvas bags of dried food, the odd navigation devices, and a sealed cylinder containing nautical charts that were easily recognizable as depicting the shoreline they were on. He couldn't believe their good fortune; there were even some wrecks charted!
Noting that there was a concentration of wrecks just down the coast and about a quarter mile from shore, they took turns rowing toward that area. When he felt like they were close, Decker dropped anchor and got into his gear. As he was helping Degren get his mask on and showing him how to use the snorkel, he heard odd noises overhead. They both looked up; far above, wheeling and calling, were a dozen or so huge birds. They reminded Decker of the buzzards that he'd occasionally see circling over dead animals in the dry Arizona waste. He was surprised that there weren't any such birds on the shore; it would be a veritable smorgasbord for them there!
The water was between ten and fifty feet deep where they were. Initially, Decker stayed in twenty feet of water or less, but as he got used to the depth he found that his new body did remarkably well there. He reveled in a new-found ability to hold his breath for four or five minutes, and how his dense pelt seemed almost waterproof, leaving the skin underneath comfortable and warm even in the cooler water of the depths.
They searched seven or eight of the more accessible wrecks, finding nothing of real interest. Decker wondered why there would be so many ships clustered in this one area. It didn't seem as though a sea battle had taken place; though there were a few ships that carried armaments, most appeared to be merchant or pleasure craft. Most of the vessels here were decayed enough so that it was difficult to guess what had sunk them.
He was no expert on maritime vessels, but one thing struck him as odd; very few of the ships seemed to be constructed in similar styles. It was a real hodgepodge of shapes, and if his guess was correct, it spanned a broader range of eras than could be accounted for within the time that tide and natural decay would allow.
Another thing that surprised him was the complete lack of any marine fauna. There was a lot of fractured and fragmented coral. a lot of shreds of vegetation, and copious evidence that all sorts of sea plants flourished here, though the storm had wreaked havoc on it, but there was not a single fish to be seen swimming among the wrecks. The storm couldn't have killed everything, could it?
By the time they'd combed a dozen broken hulls, they were both ready for a break. They made their way back to the boat and climbed in. Decker glanced toward the quay where Cletus had been resting. "Strange," he said. "Looks like Cletus has company. Maybe the satyrs came back." He squinted at the scene, trying to make out detail in the distance, but there was a haze in the air; the figures surrounding Cletus appeared to be cloaked, but it was hard to tell.
"Perhaps we'd better go check up on him," Degren offered.
Decker tried to remember if he'd seen a spyglass in the fore of the little boat; he pulled open the door and rummaged around. "Yes!" He raised it triumphantly, then put it to his eye.
He was shocked by a scene of horrible carnage. It was definitely not the satyrs that surrounded their rustic companion; even through the haze, he could make out the great, bloody beaks and the dark, cloak-like, partly-folded wings of half a dozen huge birds. They were tearing, rending, fighting over Cletus' remains; he was definitely dead; Decker could see white ribs amid the blur of gore that had been his chest.
Heart thudding heavily in his own chest, Decker handed the glass to Degren and began hauling furiously on the anchor rope. "Shit shit SHIT!", he grated between his teeth, nearly dropping the anchor on his foot in his haste to get it on board. He leaped to the oars as Degren gaped, and started rowing with all his might.
It seemed like forever before the bow bumped the quay wall. Decker's breath came in ragged gasps; his upper body was fiery with fatigue. Still, he yanked an oar from its lock and leaped to the quay wall, racing at the cluster of carrion birds that surrounded his friend. Degren grabbed the other oar and followed.
"Get the fuck off him, you rotten bastards!" Decker's voice was a cracking screech/roar; the birds all turned to face him as he brandished the oar. Their faces looked oddly human, aside from the ugly, curved beaks. They stood at least as tall as he did, and seemed less than frightened by his threatening approach. The six of them looked at each other for a split second, as though communing on how to handle the situation, then each turned malevolent, intelligent eyes on one of the two approaching adversaries. Four remained on the ground, holding their huge wings half-open, ready to pump themselves into the air but just as ready to thrust a wide-open, razor-sharp beak at them. The other two lumbered upward with slow, clumsy flapping until they had gotten aloft, then rose more gracefully as the two men closed with the rest of their group.
Decker swung his oar in a sweeping, overhand arc at the first bird he encountered. It turned and flapped a wing at him, the feathers grazing his face and the bony elbow of the wing deflecting his hasty blow. He nearly lost the oar as the great bird screeched in pain and thrust its beak at his thigh. The oar was clumsy and heavy; he barely got it into the path of the bird's strike.
The four birds had split into two groups, each duo attacking one of the men. Decker's second bird waddled around to accost him from behind. He couldn't afford to take the time to see what the two airborne birds were up to. The one whose strike he'd blocked was shaking off the effects of blundering into the blade of his oar. As quickly as he could, he wheeled the oar in a short arc and struck at the menacing head.
His blow struck home with a satisfying crunch; the bird wobbled stunned, but didn't go down. He spun just in time to catch a glancing snap at his calf by the other bird; a split-second later, and he was sure there would have been little meat left on his lower leg. As it was, there was a nasty gash in his calf, oozing blood faster than he was comfortable with.
He ignored the pain and stabbed at the bird's chest with the blade of the oar, causing it to flap its wings or overbalance. He drew back the oar for a strike at the neck, but the bird was wary; it hopped backward in time to elude the blow. The bird's retreat served another purpose as well; he felt talons grip his shoulders and a disorienting roil of turbulence as one of the airborne creatures swooped on him.
He lifted his oar and jabbed at the bird's crotch, trying to keep one eye forward for any lunges by the grounded bird. He managed to wedge the blade of the oar between the bird's thigh and body, and decided to wrench at the oar while trying to drop and roll. He felt the claws release from his shoulders and he pulled the oar up in front of himself just in time to deflect a flapping wing bone from his temple. The other bird on him made an ill-advised thrust of its beak, catching in the feathers at the base of its partner's neck. Decker seized his opportunity; he rolled to his feet and caught the diving bird with a roundhouse in the side of the neck. It squawked and fell, wobbling its head from side to side. Decker hoped its neck was broken.
He had time to glance over at Degren. He, too, had done in one of his attackers, but he was still struggling with the two that remained; one on the ground and one wheeling overhead. He was bleeding from a deep gash in his bicep and another across his chest.
The one undamaged bird on Decker got a slashing beak inside his defenses, ripping a great gab of flesh off his ribcage. The pain was blinding; for a second he saw nothing but a red-yellow haze. He nearly doubled over, but managed to wrench his oar up and deliver a glancing, ineffective blow tot the bird's chest.
Now the vulture creatures became more wary. The one he'd struck in the neck was injured, but not out of it; it circled around to Decker's rear while the other feinted and retreated before his oar. Decker was getting tired, and the birds could sense it. His arms felt like two tubes of sand. His ravaged calf was threatening to stop supporting him. He knew he would have to end this quickly, or he would soon look like Cletus.
The thought of Cletus stabbed him, bringing a last rush of adrenaline to his veins. The haze in his eyes was starkly red now, and he clenched his jaw spasmodically. Uttering a great bellow, he brought the oar down in a mighty stroke on the bird that faced him just as the other one dug its beak into his shoulder. As the one crumpled, he switched his grip on the oar to center and jabbed the handle end into the breast of the one behind him. So violent was the thrust that it slid in at the base of the bird's throat, crushing its windpipe; it released its grip on his shoulder and fell, gasping ineffectually.
He had the energy for one last charge. The bird that harried Degren's backside didn't notice his presence; he was able to drop it in its tracks with a swing that might have split an elm log. Degren, bloodied as badly as Decker was, also found just enough reserve to bring a blow around that, though it was partially blocked by an upraised wing, struck home at the last bird's temple. Exhausted, the men administered killing blows to the surviving creatures and sunk to the ground.
As soon as he could see through the red haze, Decker gathered shreds of Cletus' clothing and started wrapping his wounds. Degren followed his lead. They were both weak from blood loss, but it seemed they would survive.
Bandaged, reeling, they stood over the remains of Cletus. "Guess we should bury him," Decker said.
"Normally I'd disagree," Degren replied, "but I don't want his remains to be eaten by such filth as these."
"Can't do it now, anyway," Decker said as his knees gave way, "Gotta rest." He fell to the flotsam-strewn stone and watched the pretty stars and nebulae swirl into darkness.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Decker #13

Decker awoke in a mist of sweat. The carriage had become suffocatingly hot in the mid-afternoon sun. He mopped at his forehead with the back of a furred hand, suddenly realizing what a ridiculous gesture that was. He laughed, causing his two companions to stir. Cletus mumbled a string of rustic curses; Degren merely frowned and looked out the window.
They were rumbling along a seaside bluff in rutted tracks. The satyrs' hooves made a dull, thudding rhythm in the dusty sand. They, too, were sweating profusely, and they sang a sort of deep-throated dirge as they trotted. The air was dense, oppressive; to Decker it felt like the still before a southern Minnesota thunderstorm.
The sea was an unsettling blue-green hue, flat and still. The sky was pasty blue webbed with stringy gray clouds. At the horizon, across the water, was a leaden mass of darkness; one could almost mistake those clouds for looming mountains. Decker put his head to the window to better see ahead; the hotel was a small silhouette wavering in down a long slope the distance, barely visible through heat ripples and a soft brown haze.
"We're almost back to the hotel, boys," Decker said, "but it sure feels like we're in for some weather!"
Degren scratched his neck, still staring out the window. "If that cloud bank is anything like the ones that come across the Wolf Head Mountains at home, we're in for a real drenching."
"Ayuh, and me in muh bran' new duds, too," Cletus complained. "Hope those hairy-butt cayuses kin git us tuh th' hotel right pronto, or we'll git a'blowed right across this here country!"
The first distant peals of thunder vibrated in their guts. The satyrs' gait nearly doubled almost immediately; they felt the massive, malevolent energy of the oncoming front, too.
"It's a'movin' in fast, boys!" Cletus seemed as exhilarated as he was terrified, like a child on his first roller-coaster ride. "Oh, she's a big'un, sure as blazes!" He yanked open the carriage door just as a great gust of wind smacked into the carriage, lifting the seaside wheels a few inches off the ground and rending the door from its hinges, sending it flopping and bounding across the sparse grass. He stuck his head out and shouted, "Hey you horse-assed galoots! Better git us tuh th' hotel lickety split!" His words were barely audible to his companions in the carriage; the satyrs would not even know he'd called.
The cloud front seemed so close now, Decker thought he might be able to reach out the door-less gap and touch it. The entire front was a bright bramble of electricity; the cracks and rumbles of thunder were deafening. The carriage pitched and yawed in the hurricane gusts; the darkness descended over the bluff and the rain and hail crashed down with slashing fury. A fist-hard gust crashed in through the open carriage. blowing the other door out and lifting all four wheels out of their now-submerged tracks. For a moment, Decker thought the eight lightning-illuminated satyrs would be able to hold on as the great kite of the carriage body yanked at their traces; a still greater gust pulled them from their feet and tumbled the whole assembly inland across the flooded grass.
Decker took his opportunity to leap from the door just before the carriage crashed down. He added the thrust of his legs to the drag of the wind, then crabbed and tumbled off at an angle toward what he hoped was the hotel, hoping to avoid being struck by the careening vehicle. He was thankful for the strong, agile body he now occupied; if he had been in his old body, he had no doubt that he would have been crushed. As he saw the carriage tumble away, he grabbed at tufts of grass, dragged his feet, his knees, did his best to slow his battered body's wind-thrust progress. Disoriented, bruised, he finally managed to find purchase in a tangle of dense, thorny shrubs.
Visibility was nil until the lightning flashed; he'd lift his head and stare in a direction until a strobe of blue-white gave him a picture. He caught glimpses of satyrs, some still tied together by traces, moving generally toward him. Once he thought he saw Degren crawling across the ground; he kept his eyes locked in that direction until another flash lit his field of view, but the image was gone.
One flash showed him a low stone wall just a few feet from where he was; he was almost to the hotel! Hand over had through the tearing brambles, he fought to the wall and climbed over it. Here the wind curled around the stone, but in the lee of the wall, its force was lessened considerably. Half-drowned, pelted by grape-sized hailstones, he peered into the darkness, awaiting the next flash.
Like a great, ghostly beacon, the marble dome of the hotel flashed directly in front of him! A surge of adrenaline flooded him, as though he'd been struck by a bolt of that wild lightning. It seemed like it was now or never; he could hear a sound like a thousand train whistles coming from the landing storm. He struggled to all fours and then to a crouch, then sprinted for the hotel.
The lightning was flashing constantly; it was as though a full moon strobed insanely, lighting the deluge into a scene of silver pearl hail and rain, revealing the steps to the great double doors. The steps were slick as ice; he stumbled once, banging his forehead on the steps, rising quickly and forging ahead. A door blew open just as he approached, and he fell into the darkness.
The small windows of the hotel foyer allowed barely enough light for Decker to make out its interior. He could hear those larger windows of the broad reception area that hadn't been broken before the storm explode inward occasionally as a particularly severe gust struck; the storm offered no signs that it would lessen soon.
He wondered about his friends; he wondered about the satyrs. He reached for the handle of one of the large double doors. Dare he open it? His concern, especially for Degren, got the better of him. He pulled it open and faced the toothy, howling maw of the storm.
It was a fear-inspiring scene. Great cataracts of lightning spilled from the sky, splintering trees and sending stones flying from walls and structures. The hailstones were even larger now, perhaps the size of small eggs, irregularly formed as though several smaller stones adhered together. The rain seemed to spill in flapping sheets from the sky; the flagstones of the courtyard were rivers of ice and water, the steps a coursing rapids. Beyond that he could see little but vague shapes drowning in an atmosphere that was half-sea.
One of the satyrs staggered toward the doors, carrying Cletus in his burly arms. He staggered up the steps, wild-eyed. Decker pulled the door further open and the satyr came inside. Decker glanced around the courtyard once more, then pushed the door shut and shouted over the storm, "Did you see the other passenger?"
The satyr laid Cletus down on the tile, seeming to ignore Decker's query. Decker grabbed his muscular shoulder, attempting to spin him around; even with his new-found strength, he couldn't budge the huge man-creature. He shrugged Decker's hand free, turning slowly, and flashes of lightning revealed frenzied emotion in his eyes; fear, rage, and excitement commingled to shape a writhing mask of unpredictability on the satyr's face. Fists clenching and unclenching, hooves ringing a slow, jittery dance on the tiles, he gazed into Decker's eyes.
"I-I'm sorry, I...I shouldn't have, um, but my friend...." Decker backed away one step from the agitated satyr. "I'm um, really sorry, but did you see, ah, another one like me?"
The satyr stared at Decker's lips. He seemed confused, unable to decipher the words Decker was saying. Anger gave way to anxiety; the satyr moaned, then roared, pulling at his ears. He slurred the words, "I can't hear! I am deafened!" He banged his fists against the sides of his head, backed up until he bumped a wall, and slid down into a sitting position. He must have been too near one of those great lightning bolts, Decker thought. The thunderclap must have struck him deaf.
Decker knelt over the Cletus' inert form. The miner had tied his new hat strings tightly; it still clung to his head, though it was a limp, bedraggled shade of its original shape. He fumbled with the knots, finally loosening them and removing the hat.
He was breathing, though his skin glowed an ashy white in the flickering lightning. The light wasn't sufficient to do an adequate inspection. Decker glanced around, hoping to find a torch or a lantern, then realizing he'd have no way to light it. He had two choices now: Either sit tight and wait out the seemingly endless storm or go looking for a way to make light.
He glanced over at the satyr. The great, hulking brute had his face in his hands; he was shuddering and sobbing violently. Decker decided to leave him to it; there seemed no point in disturbing him, and every possibility of personal injury should he do so. Cletus was out cold, possibly injured badly. His decision was made; he'd scour the hotel for anything that could help them.
His drenched clothing clung to him, constricting his movements, pulling at his fur. He stripped off everything but his briefs, paused, then stripped those off too. A delicious sense of freedom washed over him, along with the urge to shake like a wet dog. In the midst of all the terror and anxiety, Decker imagined laying on the tile and licking himself clean, bringing a bubble of hysterical laughter to the back of his throat; he fought it back and strode to the reception counter.
He leaped over the long, pillared counter and rifled the cubbyholes and drawers underneath. There were ink bottles, quills, and a lot of odd paper there, some dampened by blowing rain but some crisp and dry. He tucked a large bundle of dry paper into a dry cubby and continued his search. There were lamp sconces on the walls, but no lamps. Most likely they'd all been taken by thrill seekers. At the back of the reception office there were more cabinets, most of them hanging open and already looking well-rifled. He dug around in the drawers and chanced to find a couple candle stubs and one nearly whole candle. He reflexively thrust them toward a shirt pocket, then laughed.
Now Decker had to figure out a way to get the candles lit. He wondered if Cletus might have anything. Cletus was a miner; he probably would have a way to make fire. Clutching the candles in one hand, he leaped back over the reception counter and raced to the foyer.
The satyr seemed to have regained his equilibrium; he was at the door, peering out through the narrow gap he maintained by firm pressure on the handle. Cletus had curled himself into a ball, making an investigation of his pockets difficult. Decker pried at the wet miner's knees in an attempt to straighten him out, but he kept jerking them back up with shivering convulsions.
Decker looked up at the satyr. Did he dare disturb him? He took a deep breath; he had to. "Um, excuse me. Hello?" He got up and took a couple steps toward the large fellow. "Mister, ah, Satyr? I need your help." There was still no response, so he took one more step and reached to touch a broad, sinewy shoulder. "Excuse me," he repeated, more forcefully this time.
The satyr glanced back at him, then returned his gaze to the storm. His hearing was obviously starting to come back. "My brethren," he asserted, "I must watch for my brethren."
"Um, could you take just a moment to help me search my, er, brother's pockets for a way to make light?"
The satyr seemed torn, but finally turned from the door. "What do you want me to do?"
"Help me straighten him out, then hold him while I go through his pockets."
"My name's Decker, and this is Cletus," Decker said as he searched Cletus' pockets.
"You can call me Tharlo," the satyr replied.
"Did you see anyone out there?"
"Only shadows of shadows. Perhaps tricks of a hopeful eye."
Cletus had a wide assortment of odd junk on his person. The pile Decker made of his findings grew until it hardly seemed possible that the skinny miner would be able to haul such a collection, much less fit it all into his pockets. Satisfied that he'd extricated everything, Decker shuffled around in the pile, finding nothing that might help.
Tharlo pointed out a nondescript chunk of stone, roughly the size of a large man's thumb, and what Decker could only surmise might be a simplified iron version of brass knuckles, a sort of oblong metal hoop that would fit around four clenched fingers. "There are your fire-making tools." He gave Decker a quizzical look, as though he wondered why they'd gone unnoticed.
The light bulb went off in Decker's brain; flint and steel! "Okay, good. Thanks, Tharlo. I'm going to go get some paper. You can go back to your watch, but yell for me if you see someone that looks like me out there."
He brought back some paper and a couple of wooden drawers, one of which he flung to the floor with enough force to splinter. He used a couple sheets of the paper to rub the flint and steel dry, then made a few clumsy attempts to produce sparks before he hit on an effective method. Before long he had a cheerful little blaze going on the foyer tile, and one of the candle stubs stood on the end of a drawer to offer light as he made an inspection of Cletus' injuries.
The worst of it seemed to be a half-baseball-sized knot on the back of Cletus' head. He dragged Cletus' now-limp form over to a built-in stone bench, propping his shoulders against it, holding him in a sitting position as he tried to wake him up. "Cletus! CLETUS!" He didn't think he dared to shake him, so he chafed at his hands and prodded his chest as he shouted. Finally, the ashy miner's eyes fluttered open with a look of foggy confusion. "Cletus, you have to stay awake. You took a nasty fall, and you might be concussed."
"Con-cuss it all anyway," Cletus mumbled, giving an owly glare to a spot some eight inches left of Decker's face, "Lemme sleep, wudja? s'dreamin' 'bout Fiela..."
"Cletus, you're gonna DIE if you don't stay awake! Don't make me slap you!"
"Awright, awright, whut's yer pants all bundled fer? Oh, ya got no pants. Izzat yer problem? Yeah, yeah, I'm awake. Now gimme some of thet good hotel likker tuh mellow this con-cuss-ed hangover!"
"Here's the deal, buddy: you're going to tell us a story. A long story. I don't care what it's about, you just don't get to stop talking until I say, no matter if we seem to be listening or not. Degren's still out there, and so are the other seven satyrs." He pointed to the hulking fellow in the doorway. "That's Tharlo, by the way. I'm going to go find out if he's seen anyone."
Tharlo grunted a negative, but then Decker saw his shoulders tighten. "Wait....there! Someone's out there!" He yanked the door inward, extinguishing the candle and nearly spraying the little fire out in his haste to get out. Decker pushed the door shut behind him, nursed the fire back to life with some paper and a few more drawer splinters, then took up the satyr's post. "Keep talking!" he shouted to Cletus as he watched Tharlo's big back disappear into the pounding rain.
His hopes rose momentarily as he saw Tharlo struggling up the steps, an inert form over his shoulder. When he opened the door for the them, he saw it was another satyr he carried. He felt the Furge personality surge up, all desperation and grief; threatening to take over, threatening to do something crazy like race out into the storm in search of his lost mate. Decker nearly succumbed. It was then that he realized how near the time was when he'd no longer be able to maintain his own persona at the fore. There was a sense of desperation in his own heart at this revelation, but something of relief as well; one way or the other, this struggle would soon be over. He had, after all, come to enjoy being in this new, stronger, more agile form.
The new satyr had obviously been knocked unconscious somehow; in the light of the fire, Decker noted that there were abrasions on the still chin, and when his eyes drifted to Tharlo's hand, he could see blood welling from the knuckles.
Tharlo's eyes met his, and Decker could see the agony there. "He was...I had to...the storm, we-"
"You did what you had to to get him to safety. I saw your distress when you first came in. You, um.." He couldn't find words with the right delicacy. "It's a wicked, scary storm."
The guilt-stricken satyr's shoulders slumped in relief. "We..our kind...don't do well with storms."
"You got him back safe."
They gathered more wooden doors and drawers, and they moved the fire far enough into the reception area so it wouldn't be effected by more comings and goings. Decker checked Cletus over more thoroughly, to the groggy miner's protests. Tharlo let his "brother" sleep, declaring his fervent hope that he'd awaken in less of a panic. They kept a small fire going, taking turns watching through the door, for what seemed an eternity. Finally, as their wood ran out, the storm broke as though cracked open by a knife of sunlight. spreading a blue sky that chased half a double rainbow to either side.
They got Cletus to his feet, supporting him on either side, so he could witness the end of the storm. He was too weak to stand for long, and they brought him back to the bench. Decker worried that the miner had been grievously injured. He hoped he'd be alright, but it didn't look good.
The other satyr awakened, not much the worse for his evening's panic and the blow to the chin that had ended it. Tharlo introduced him as Kugh.
Though he dreaded leaving Cletus alone, he felt he must go in search of Degren. Both the satyrs were already on their way out to seek their brethren. "Cletus, I have to go try to find Degren. You stay awake in here, okay? I'll be back soon."
"Yup, um, kettle bark cave noodle," Cletus mumbled, worrying Decker further. Still, he had to go.
"I'll be back soon."
"Turtle snort."
He found Degren in the cabana by the pool, huddled under the bar, clinging to the foot rail, exhausted but unharmed. The satyrs returned with all six of their brethren; as much as the storm had disconcerted them, it seemed insufficient to actually harm such hardy stock. They all returned to the hotel, where they found that Cletus had nodded off. Decker decided not to wake him until Degren had gotten some sleep; Decker, as well, was feeling the end of his adrenaline. Perhaps everyone could do with a little rest before the next decision had to be made.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Decker #12

Decker awakened as the first light of dawn made his window glow a soft purple-blue. There was a fresh suit of clothes laid out for him, and his own road-worn attire was bundled neatly along with a swim suit and skin-diving gear. There was a note on top suggesting he test each of the items for proper fit, and offering suitable replacements should anything be unsatisfactory. He was pleased to note that everything seemed perfectly tailored.
Slipping quietly out his door, he scanned the spiderweb of halls and stairs that jutted and angled up, down, and out from where he stood. He remembered the controlled chaos of the house's exterior and applied that to where he was; there was no sense to be made of it. All he could do was pick a direction. He thought he'd come up to bed, so....down it was.
He met Rolfu at the first intersection. "Sir, please let me take your things. Is everything quite satisfactory?" He waited for Decker's assent, then continued, "If you'll follow me, I'll show you to where you may break your fast. The others are not yet awake, though I thought I heard Degren stirring as I passed his room."
It was a simple affair of bread, cheese, fruit and fruit spreads laid out as a small buffet on a sideboard. There was an oval table some eight feet long and four feet wide at the center of the room. One wall of the room was mostly windows, the upper glass of which was partially shaded by an exuberant growth of some ivy-like vine.
"This is the servants' breakfast, but please take no umbrage, sir," Rolfu requested, "The Lady dines here with us regularly. The rest of us will be down shortly, though the Lady will remain with the Young Miss, as the young miss seems to have had a rather, er, difficult night."
Decker took a cup of an interesting hot beverage; a sort of tea with an aroma of cranberries and ginger, slightly sweet and having just enough bite to wake up his mouth. By the time he'd loaded a plate, the rest of the staff had joined him. Degren followed a few minutes later. There was small talk and curiosity about their journey. The servants shared information about the area, along with nervous legends surrounding the sea life they might face while they dove.
"Some say that's why the hotel is deserted," Shand said. "People were disappearing off that beach, which is strange because there are no treacherous currents, and no one has ever seen any creatures capable of taking a person in those waters."
""Some say they've seen 'em," Pueri said. "My grandmother's best friend's uncle met a surfer who said he'd been thrown off his board and knocked around pretty good by a giant eel with the head of a woman and the arms of seven blacksmiths."
Decker wondered if the surfer had been drinking river water. the stories went on, describing various phantasmagoria or speculating on moving dimension doors, until Cletus stomped in in a tizzy.
"Dad-gum ding-dang weasel breedin' pecker pirates has swiped my duds!" He was dressed similarly to Degren and Decker now, in clothes provided by the house. "Muh hat, muh deerskins, muh ding-dang shit-kickers!"
Rolfu rushed to ameliorate the situation. "Sir, we're terribly sorry, but your, er, 'duds' were infected with a type of vermin for which we have no method of removal. I took it upon myself to, um, incinerate them immediately, so as to prevent the infestation from spreading to the good Lady's abode.' He shuddered slightly. " I do hope I was in time. And, er, I apologize most humbly. We have no garb of similar, er.. quality.. to replace them with. However, I trust you have inspected the garb we did replace your...duds...with."
"Ah ain't wearin' no ding-dang duck fins, yuh cotton-pickin' white-collared coolie! and y'll never catch me in short pants, nuther! Ah.m a growed man, y'see?"
"Er, no, not the diving gear, sir," Rolfu said, "the bundle beneath that one. Once again I apologize for my actions. I had only the interest of the Lady's house at heart, and I was neglectful of your situation. However, if it pleases you, I shall adjourn henceforth to your room and retrieve the replacement clothing so that you might examine it."
"Nuthin's gonna replace my duds! They was sewed fer me by hand by an injun woman thet stayed with me fer a time. Shallow Water, she was called. Good woman. Now I got nuthin' to 'member her by!" He seemed close to tears.
Rolfu strode out of the room as quickly as decorum permitted, and had soon returned with a bundle significantly larger than either Decker or Degren had been given. "Good sir, please do us the service of scrutinizing this humble offering, our small attempt to redress the wrong that has been done you." He began to unwrap the bundle, but Cletus grabbed it from him.
"Ah'll open the ding-dang package!" He started tearing at it like a kid at Christmas. Inside, he found a mid-length coat that reminded Decker of a medium brown Australian drover's coat, a hat of similar style, heavy blue denim pants with leather at the knees and rump, a soft denim shirt with leather elbow pads, a silk union suit, and a pair of Wellington-style boots made from some sort of reptile skin.
"Well, ah'll be...." Cletus was dumbfounded. "You, ah, how...ding-dilly, how'd you know...." his speech tailed off as he held the various garments up to himself. Finally, he added,"Where kin I try 'em on?"
Rolfu showed him to the nearest empty room. The rest of the party laughed and finished breakfast while they awaited his return. After what seemed a pretty long time, he paraded in in his new "duds".
"Fix yer eyes on this, Decker!" He opened the coat to reveal several flaps, loops, and pockets that held his various weaponry as though they were designed for the purpose. "This here's jest like whut ah see'd in the Grover Cliff gen'l store one time! Ah awluz wanted me some get-up like this. An' it fits like it'uz made fer me, right down tuh the shit kickers!" He turned to Rolfu, beaming. "Ah guess ah fergive yuh, Rolfie."
He did cut quite a different figure in his new clothes. Fiela looked at him almost wistfully, which he missed entirely as he displayed for his friends. Finally, he set to his breakfast.
The rest of the staff went about their daily affairs, but Rolfu attended the three men. "Whatever Aida's plans may have been before," he told them, "she will be remaining here for a time. Her return home has unearthed some rather painful memories, it seems, and she is quite unable to travel, perhaps for some time."
"I'm terribly sorry to hear that," Decker said, to which Degren and Cletus nodded in agreement. "Shes...well, she's been an interesting traveling companion. I wish her the best. Please tell her we said goodbye, and that we'll, um, miss her."
The lady Gudren met them in the front foyer. "Gentlemen, it has been our pleasure to accommodate you, and we offer our gratitude for your services in accompanying Aida on her trek home. We wish to extend you some small payment in this regard." She proffered three pouches, each the size of a medium-sized apple.
"Lady, I don't think..." Decker began to protest.
"I insist you accept."
Each man took one of the hefty little sacks. Cletus dangled his in two fingers, blatantly assessing the weight. Degren elbowed him and gave him a harsh glare to which he shrugged and slipped the pouch into one of the many pockets on his new coat.
They thanked her profusely over the clopping of sixteen hooves; the carriage had arrived, and it was drawn by eight burly satyrs. They grumbled and groaned, rolled their eyes and shrugged as they pulled. They complained back and forth to each other about the work hours, the miserable conditions, the health benefits, and the retirement plan as the three men stowed their gear and boarded. Each had a belt with many pouches, some of which were obviously loaded with snacks; they were constantly reaching in to one pouch or another and drawing out raisins, nuts, chocolate, and other delicacies and popping them into their broad, sensuous mouths as they conversed. Some of their other pouches clinked and jingled quite blatantly.
They were waved off enthusiastically by the Lady and most of her staff. Passing the broad arch of the estate's boulevard, they turned onto the main road and the satyrs broke into a full run. They were surprisingly fleet; the grass and rocks, roots and leaves that lined the road almost became a blur through the carriage window. Decker thought to ask the carriage driver how long the ride would be, but it occurred to him that there hadn't been a driver. Of course, he thought. the satyrs wouldn't need direction; they were sentient beings!
Cletus had opened his pouch and was playing with the contents; it was a selection of gold and silver coins of various sizes and shapes. He'd bitten each one, nodding in a satisfied way at each bite. Now he was practically mesmerized by the little pile that lay in a fold of his coat. He stirred at it with his finger, watching the little glints as the morning sun streamed through the carriage window onto his hoard.
Decker was feeling comfortable. He was on his way to get the next piece of his life's puzzle, and he was pretty sure he was going in the right direction. The Furge personality had been leaving him alone for the most part, though he could tell it was an uneasy truce at best. The occasional surges of feeling he had for Degren were becoming less discomfiting. And they were in a luxury carriage, being drawn by eight satyr bodybuilders! How dreamlike, and in a good way. The warmth of the morning sun, good friends, and the rumbling, rocking motion of the carriage soon lulled him off into a pleasant sleep.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Decker #11

The avenue of trees opened onto a broad plantation in a shallow valley, centered in which stood what could have been an old Italian villa. The two-track dirt road was replaced by a double row of rectangular granite slabs, each about one foot by four, laid crosswise and separated by two or three inches of turf.
The villa itself was a calculated disarray of stone and garden, fern recesses and fanning trees. It was set on a small hill that someone had had too much fun terraforming. There was a narrow stream that wound its way all around the hill, sometimes confined in masonry channels, sometimes tumbling over mossy rocks between banks of grass. There were several arched stone bridges crossing it, connecting the cluster of age-encrusted stone buildings that sat at odd angles to each other around the crest of the hill. Stone paths wended their serpentine way through the myriad gardens and sitting areas, low-walled courtyards and pools that filled every nook and cranny of the randomly stepped levels that made up the hill.
One pool, larger than the rest and surrounded by a variety of different-colored willow-like trees, seemed to be Aida's immediate destination. Waddling up the steps onto the stone surround, she flapped her wings, let out a joyous screech, and flopped into the water.
There was a bustle of activity from the largest building, a Dali-esque agglomeration of turrets, eaves, angles and stairs, stained glass and mullions. Several people in servant's garb rushed out of various doors, followed by an almost comically heavy-set older woman in fashion stretch jeans and a frilly purple blouse with ice-green trim. She waddled to the edge of the stone landing outside what may have been the front door of the house and clutched the iron railing, waving while the servants raced toward the pool, hailing Aida joyously.
At first she ignored them, rapt in diving and dabbling in the pool bottom, snacking on snails and duckweed with the relish of reliving old memories. Finally her head popped out of the water and she glanced up at a middle-aged fellow in butler's tails that stood expectantly at the edge of the pool. She quacked with exhilaration and paddled over to him, splashing mischievously with her wings. "Rolfu! Oh, you haven't changed a bit!"
He stepped back from the edge and let Aida flap her way out of the water. "Miss Aida, it is such a pleasure to see you after all these years. I feared you'd-" he was cut off as Aida practically tackled him, wrapping her neck around his and nuzzling his cheek. He allowed her a moment, then gently lifted her head away from his face with both hands. "Miss Aida, I'm certain the Lady would very much like to greet you as well. Feila, Shand, Pueri, Gling and Steve deserve your acknowledgment too! And we must tend to your companions. Go, go to your mother; do not torture her further, Young Miss!"
Aida shared brief adorations with the rest of the servants, then raced up the stairs and engulfed her mother in a fever of greeting. Decker, Degren, and Cletus stood halfway up the stairs to the big pool, wondering what they should do. Their dilemma was solved when Rolfu strolled sedately up to them and offered a slight bow. "Rolfu, at your service. Gentlemen, is there anything we can offer you while the Lady and the Young Miss, er catch up? I'm certain the Lady will wish to entertain you and thank you for accompanying her daughter on her journey home, but in the meantime...?"
Cletus stepped forward, sticking out his hand, eliciting a raised eyebrow from the steadfast butler. "Ah'm Cletus. Mighty tickled t'meet'cha. Ya got whiskey?"
"We'll see what we can do," Rolfu replied, both hands notably tight against his legs. "And you, good sirs?"
Decker wondered if beer was an option, but was afraid to appear as crass as their rustic companion. "Do you have iced tea?"
Degren wanted only water. Rolfu led them to a side door and into a sitting room that echoed the structured chaos of the grounds and bade them wait. "We'll have your refreshments forthwith, and some comestibles to tide you over until dinner. We assume you'll be staying for dinner...?"
Left to their own devices with a tray of various fruits, breads, and cheeses, along with decanters of the requested beverages, the three men discussed their situation.
"It'll be too late to start back for the old hotel tonight," Decker said. "We wouldn't even make it back to the roadhouse before dark."
"I don't mind walking in the dark," Degren offered.
"Out under the sky, ah don't feel comfortable moseyin' anywhere the sun ain't," Cletus said. Decker wondered whether Cletus now intended to make them his permanent traveling companions. Well, he'd been helpful once or twice, if a little coarse and annoying. Nothing he hadn't dealt with back in Arizona. Man, that seemed a long way away now.
Rolfu returned. "Gentlemen, the Lady asks if seven is a convenient time for you to dine."
"That'll be fine," Decker agreed. "What time is it now?"
Rolfu plucked a pocket watch by its fob, flicking it open. "It's a quarter of six. Would you care to er, freshen up in the meantime?" He seemed to be strongly suggesting this, and Decker and Degren were quick to assent, though Cletus was dubious.
"Ain't even been a week since my last ah-bloo-shuns, so I figger I'm plenty fresh."
"Decker looked askance at the dusty miner. "We're dining with a lady this evening, not a bunch of flatulent cowpokes. You're going to have another bath if you know what's good for you."
"If'n ah know whut's good fer me? You threatening me, fuzzy?"
"I'm certain," Rolfu interjected, "the Lady would tolerate you in your, er, unwashed condition, sir, but in the interest of decency and decorum, I'd highly advise at least some perfunctory attention to hygiene. Fiela would be pleased to assist you in your, er, ablutions, and our facilities are quite refined and comfortable..."
"Fiela?" Cletus' ears perked up. "Is Fiela a 'she'?"
"She is, sir."
"Well why din'cha say so? Where's the vacilities?" He gave Decker and Degren a waggle of eyebrows as they were led to private bathrooms.
Dinner was formal, and each man was provided with suitable attire. Aida and her mother entered the dining area after the three were seated. Decker and Degren made to rise as they came in, but the Lady waved them down. "Good sirs, let us share mutual respect by eating together. I need no further honor than that from my daughter's companions and protectors. I am Gudren, now of the House Thure. I am sad to tell you that the man of the House will not be present; he is deceased. No, it's all right. It's been a few years. Aida has told me her impressions of your journey. Perhaps you could fill me in on your own perspectives while we dine?"
Fiela was one of the attendants for dinner. Cletus kept trying to catch her eye, but she devoted all her attention to proper service, much to the amorous miner's dismay.
They told her of their trip, and how they had come to be there in the first place. They learned from her (to Aida's distress) how Aida's sister had lost her life in the sea by the deserted hotel. While Aida was off to the bathroom, she told them how her husband had carried the guilt from that day, until it overcame him and he took his own life. "Please don't mention it to Aida, though. I'm not sure she even accepts that her father is deceased."
She offered them a carriage ride back to the deserted hotel, as soon as they wished to leave. Later, they accepted her hospitality for the night and were shown to separate rooms.