Heedful Hospitality

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“Elven…?” Robert repeated groggily.  His memory was still fuzzy, and his head burned as if it had been set out to bake in the sun.  Despite the pain in his body he pushed himself into a sitting position and let his eyes adjust to his surroundings.  It was a modest hut.  A once colorful rug covered the dirt floor with intricate patterns, the walls were the dark color of a local wood.  A small fireplace was across the room, with a black kettle bubbling over the flames.  It smelled pretty good, and his stomach rumbled into the quietness.

“Let me get you some food.  This was my Grandmother’s recipe.  So you can guess that it’s an old one.”  She cackled cheerfully like the elderly tend to do.  She turned and hobbled away, a gnarled wooden cane steadying her gait.  Her silver hair was pulled into a bun and Robert could see that her ears were longer and drawn into a pointed tip.  All at once completely alien and somehow familiar.  Robert rubbed his temples, taking the edge off of his throbbing skull.

Robert James Lowman.  My name.  But who… am I? 

“Here you are.” The old woman smiled and handed him the bowl.  Her hands shook way too much, yet only a small bit spilled out.  A thick brown stew steamed before him, carrots and potatoes and beef urged him to feast.  Raising the first spoonful, he smiled as his mouth filled with saliva.  Closing his eyes as he chewed, he gave a small moan as he turned the only-slightly tough meat between his teeth.  The smell filled the air around him, and suddenly he felt emotional.  He was missing someone.  Someone who used to cook like this.

“Linda!” He burst out with a full mouth.  He gulped down the bite and stared ahead, eyes pulled wide.  He knew he was married to a beautiful woman, one he was blessed to even know at all.  Robert remembered some of who he was.  They lived in a manor house far from here.

Nearly the other side of the world.

His heart beat faster in his chest, and he fought to keep the blood from his face.  Robert was lucky these Elves didn’t recognize him, but that’s about as far as his luck stretched.  His legs felt as if millions of needles were slowly prodding into them.  He must have been thrown from his horse.

Why am I so far from the border?  Why did the Crown send me here?

“Linda?  Who is she?  A lucky woman to have such a handsome man worry for her.”  The woman grinned at him with twinkling eyes, thinking of past times when Elves were forever young.  When she still had her husband there to keep her warm during the long winters.

“I am the lucky one, truly.” Robert replied.

I can’t let her know I am from the Capital.

New memories were swirling into existence on the canvas of his mind, painted with an eldritch brush held by the skilled, long-fingered hands of ancient shadows.  They enjoyed using this world.  It was more diverse than the traditional universes they sculpted to lure their captives into false memories.  So many opportunities for chaos, so many shadows that could grow and tangle and twist the minds of corporeal beings to their hateful desires.

So many variables.

 “You’re a sweet man for saying that” The woman continuing to smile. “So I know your wife’s name.  Who are you?”

“My name is R…Roger…” He trailed off and stuffed his face quickly with a heaping spoonful of the delicious stew to buy him time to think.  His name was infamous enough that he knew to hide it from even this frail woman.  And she was so pleasant!  The only Elves he had ever met were on the battlefield as a younger man or in the secret laboratories under the Citadel, unknown to even the nobility of the Imperium.

“Roger Theregin.” He said after swallowing his bite.  He could feel it travelling all the way down into his gut.  As if the potato was wrapped in guilt.  Rubbing his head with one hand, he used the other to place the bowl on the table next to him.  He knew he had to get back to safety.  His mission was a failure, but he gleaned some important facts that he had to get back to the Council.

“Ohhh, a name from your East!  You must be a farmer?”

“…Yes.  My wife and I have a small farm right on the border of the Imperium.”

“We both know the Imperiums’ borders reach much farther than the lines on the map.”  She laughed softly and shook her head.  “Ever since that one day all those years ago, we Elves have always lived in fear.  Mortality such as humans know it truly is a burden to us like we have never borne before.” Robert nodded silently, as he slowly began to swing his pained legs over the side of the bed.  He winced as the woman put her hand softly on his shoulder.

“You should rest.  Forgive the ramblings of an old woman.” Robert rubbed his thighs, urging the stinging away as best as he could.  He must have been here for days.  Feeling weak, he pushed himself up to stand.  He placed his hands on his lower back and stretched.

“I am strong enough to relieve myself from your care.  I wish I had some way to pay your hospitality, you were far too gracious to a stranger you scarcely know.”

“Nonsense” She waved her hand and shook her head with a solemn smile. “You are in an Elven home.  We may be poorer than we were before, but these traditions of hospitality will never die.  Even if we do.”  He nodded with silent respect, and stretched his hand out to take hers, she smiled and gave it freely — almost blushing as he kissed it.

“Truly, thank you” He said with real respect. “I will come back one day to thank you for this kindness.  For now I must leave.”  She grabbed his hand with surprising strength as he tried to release hers.  He was startled, and looked into her eyes.  Hazel, but darker.  He felt a small fear grow within him before she smiled and spoke, reminding him of his own grandmother.

“Not before I pack you a bag of bread to keep you going!”

He laughed as he walked to the door, opening  it.  Looking outside as she prepared his bag.  The land was lush, clouds flew along on the breaths of cool wind.  People – Elves – went about their day, some carrying water to their homes.  Some tending their modest shops.  Mountains watched in the distance.  He listened to the far Eastern birds sing their foreign songs.  Unheard to him, the old woman muttered to herself inside.

“Never before have I felt such smooth hands on a farmer.” She scoffed.  “Roger Theregin?  More like Lord something-or-other.”  Placing the last bit of bread into the bag, she tied it shut with a bit of twine.  She flicked her eyes over to Robert, and seeing his back still turned she began to hold a hand over the bag.  The smallest glow emanated from the tips of her fingers as she whispered words that twisted her tongue around in her mouth, and made the space within the hut darker.  Even a skilled mage like her could not sense the devious pleasure of the shadows.  The fire shrank and sputtered, almost going out as she resolved her incantation.

“Foolish human.  To think that I would believe such a poor lie.  And for him to believe my own!” Her lips pulled back in a toothy smile as she unconsciously ground her teeth.  Even if this spell took time from her own life, it was worth it to help her son’s cause.  The last hundred years left Elves mistrustful of humans.  This ‘Roger’ was certainly an Imperial spy, sent to gather information on her family.  The old woman began to shuffle toward Robert’s turned back, the smile transforming from the conniving grin to a pleasant beaming.  Resisting the urge to take the large knife from her left and cleave it into his spine, she reassured herself with thoughts of her talented son.  So gifted with the arts, and with many friends he had spirited away into different parts of the world.  Even the Capital of the Imperium itself.  Reaching to tap Robert on the shoulder, she thought to herself:

“We are everywhere.”

tales of a travelling salesman final

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Sand

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Alone and writhing in the obsidian emptiness of space, Robert James strained to breathe. The vacuum of darkness pulled at his lungs with furious persistence. His lungs burned for oxygen and his mind screamed:

PLEASE GOD LET ME WAKE U–

night sky hanging with a moon bro

Eyes opened to what looked like some dark corridor with holes dotting the walls and ceiling, light poking through them all into the dusty gallery. Robert could hear whispers echoing from every direction, the languages twisting between each other like tangles of smoke. Forgotten tongues blended with the arcane, and they all reached into his mind with each opaque syllable. Inhuman laughter let loose, laughing at him. His hands clutched at his ears to stifle the sounds, but they crept from within his skull. Heart heavily thumping a primal rhythm to accompany the intoxicating multitude of forbidden sounds driving him unceasingly to madness and he felt a scream begin to erupt from his mouth –

 

He was staring at an old ceiling, a brown-green-black blotched work of shitty abstract art. Heat filled the dry air as an ancient ceiling fan lazily rotated above him with infuriating slowness, creaking.

This is not my house… This isn’t even the place where I fell asleep…

He sat up to look at an obviously abandoned and ancient hotel room, completely dilapidated and… plain nasty. There were some big black bugs on the rotting dresser, and a dirty grey rat sitting propped up in the corner… Relaxing?

Oh… The dream. Right. Time to wake up.

Robert pinched himself as hard as he could and twisted a large fold of flesh on his forearm with all of his might, digging his nails in with extra force he summoned with desperation.

A desperation that comes from fighting a descent into psychosis.

Well…

Blood spotted on his arm. It continued to ache as he waited to wake, and he noticed the amount of dust and sand covering the floor. The mattress he was on, more a pile of springs and cloth, creaked with his standing up. The corner-rat scampered off into some hole, leaving Robert alone with his confusion. Shoes gritting the sand he walked to the window, covered by blinds that seemed dozens of years his elder.

“Might as well see where I am…” R.J. whispered into the musty air. Droves of dust flecks that were dancing slowly in the strips of light became erratic with this sudden gust. The pane of the window was covered in grime and he wiped it away with the sleeve of his suit, a dry cough escaping his mouth.

Robert James looked out upon a desert scene, sand dunes reaching to the horizon, the area near the old hotel could only be recognized as a former parking lot by the tops of cars peeking out of the drifts. The place was apparently named “Hotel Kansas”, as the sign sticking out of a golden heap read.

Looks more like the Sahara than Kansas. What happened here?

Robert ripped the hotel room door open after it stuck for a moment and it flew open abruptly. Sand spilled into his shoes from the mound that had blown up against the remnants of the building.

“Great.” He stepped outside, crunched up a hill, and looked around with eyes reaching for the blurred horizon: there were no other ruins in sight. He strained his eyes to the distance where motion glimmered through waves of heat rising off of the sand. The sun was beating down on a mass exodus of people.

Where are these people going? Why are they here?

Robert’s curiosity suspended his disbelief, and questions flooded his mind. He slid-walked down the dune he was on, and hiked carefully up the next one. His feet slipping down with each step, laboring to climb what seemed to be a disintegrating hill. Reaching the top, he crouched to hide his profile from the crowd and looked on. Hundreds of dusty people with down-turned faces slunk in huddled masses, all lurching toward some unknown refuge off to the empty horizon to his right.

As R.J. looked closer, he could see that there were military personnel urging the people forward, his ears catching the echos of men speaking to the crowd in a mix of English, Spanish… Chinese? Further ahead of the crowd, Robert saw a small detachment of desert fatigues talking together on a crest of a dune, pointing farther to R.J.’s right. He followed their gaze, and saw a massive wall of sand hanging on the horizon. It was so colossal it seemed to be still, but they all knew it was moving. Quickly too.

The men slid back toward the main group in a tumbling rush, and met with the other soldiers. They all seemed skittish, pitching glances around. One pointed in Roberts direction, and he felt the icy hand of a chill brush down his back. They dispersed and herded the crowd slowly toward where R.J. was. The sandstorm was closer now, the people were moving along faster with the soldiers trotting beside them. A baby’s cry carried over the sand and through the shimmering heat, wailing forcefully.

Robert stood and looked up again to see the storm, now noticing flashes of lightning within, and in the blink of an eye it seemed to change the direction it was heading, turning now toward him. The icy hand cemented its grip around R.J.’s heart.

Why can’t I wake up Jesus God please let me wake up I want to go home to my wife an–

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

 

A hollow, mechanical drone violently filled the air, echoing into the expanse like a foghorn. It was distinctly artificial, and loud enough so that R.J. was forced to cover his ears, but the vibration was so low and loud that he could still hear it no matter how hard he pushed his hands against his head. Sand slipped in tiny avalanches on the dunes all around him. The bones in his body shook, and he couldn’t tell if it was from the sound or the fear. The horrible tone lasted for a full minute.

The people all stopped silently in a valley between dunes, for just a moment, and looked around. The soldiers frantically urged them to continue, each holding a gun in one hand while windmilling their other arm fervently. As they saw the sand storm crash over the hills around them, spilling over them, they broke into a frightened sprint.

Like… roaches…

The baby continued to cry, but was cut off by another drone. Robert felt that the sound sounded ancient, somehow. Primeval. The sandstorm ceased along with the hellish tone, and there was a second of false silence as his ears rang. The chilling screams of the forsaken filled the air, drowning out the cries of the child. Robert beheld something which defied logic, and his eyes locked with horror on something that should never be able to exist.

A silver serpentine behemoth looked down at the crowd, and towered above the landscape. Sand fell from it as the harsh sun reflected off of chrome and it made a series of sounds: Horrifying whirrs from unseen gears, disgusting clicks from a gaping maw where dozens of cold steel mandibles slammed together in hungry anticipation. Hundreds of bright red eyes covered what could only be its head, flashing and darting in all directions. Robert fell to his knees in terror, as he watched the extermination of his species.

We are… vermin…

The mechanical colossus curled, lowering itself to the sea of humans trying to escape. Arms appeared, like titanic scythes, and began to slice into the crowd with the quick, efficient strokes of a skilled surgeon. The dunes surrounding were painted with splatters of red, turning the sand dark like mud. Sparks erupted all over the monster’s body as the soldiers began to fight back in vain. Robert cowered as bodies were tossed like insects into the air, the air whooshing around him with each methodical pass. Blood flecked across his face as a lone officer shouldered a rocket launcher and looked up to fire, hands shaking. The fear forced his aim to land only a glancing blow off what must be the being’s torso. It turned to focus its ancient gaze on the mortal, and another drone echoed out, freezing the rest of the humans where they stood.

An all-too-brief moment passed, and with strange intelligence, the thing leaned down further. The baby had survived somehow and was crying again into the macabre silence. A tumultuous sound creaked from the silver horror and its body opened to allow mechanical tendrils to spread from within. They reached, spreading around the baby to cradle it carefully and bring it back inside. Its desperate mothers’ arms were outstretched instinctively as the steel mountain confirmed the child was tucked safely within the darkness of its frame. With stoic professionalism, the carnage began with a new sincerity. Robert turned down the dune he was on to run somewhere, anywhere but here.

Silence. A gunshot, a loud thump of a muffled blow against the sand which peppered the back of Robert’s neck. Overwhelming silence. His feet scrunched the ground. There was nowhere to escape, nowhere to go. He was not sure if he could die anymore, but if he could he did not want to go like this.

My wife has no idea what is happening to me. How long have I been out? Am I even alive anymore? I want to go home…

The ground rumbled and he looked back, against his better judgement. Through tears of fear he caught a glimpse of shining silver as it slithered back into the dunes, whispers of sand moving and becoming louder, taunting him. It was coming for him now. It knew.

He looked down at the roofs of cars just under the sand in this desert of a parking lot. Roberts mind sparked with some understanding now, he had to go to sleep, and fast. He had to get back home, back to his wife and his life – however bleak he thought his existence to be, it was worlds better than where he was now. Worlds. His mind filled with thoughts, images, feelings of his wife. Her long, black hair. Those big, dark eyes. The beach at night when he proposed. He forced his mind to fill with only thoughts of her.

Her.

Dream to escape. Escape to dream.

Robert James jumped as high as he could for the first time in over ten years. As he guided his body, a fraction of a second he wondered if he had died and this was his hell. His hands clasped behind him as he flew head first toward the roof of a rusted car. His wife’s face filled his mind’s eye.

To die, to sleep.

To sleep…

Sleep.

Perchance to dream.

wispy sand gif

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