Walker Universe Novel 2: Working Title: Paradise
(c) Jodi Ralston
Key Plot Point Two: Edit One
Important Caveat: This novel is being written experimentally--that is, out of order. I will post the correct reading order as I go on the Works in Progress Page.
If you are interested in reading what came before this point, here are the links for Key Plot Point One's Parts.
Place Holder Summary. Thanks, and enjoy!
Sleep was a bygone luxury my nerves couldn't afford. The stones protected us, in theory, but deep down in my soul seeded doubt bloomed anew each time mist--and night--fell, and the eating began. Something I couldn't see and couldn't really feel kept the mist and the death at bay. How long could that last? Magic never lasted forever. Would I even know it when it fell? Would I be sitting here one night, and the predators swarm right in?
With thoughts like this huddling in my mind as I kept my solitary watch, I was lucky to snatch a few minutes here and there. Horse did better. He did not share in my uneasy vigils, instead sleeping for great spans of time, far more than any horse. Before, I would have taken courage by his seeming lack of concern. What was good for the horse was good for the man. Usually. Except that more than once, when the mist was weak at the beginning and end, he'd forayed amongst the monsters and carnage for dinner. In those brief moments, more one of them than one of us. Even so, he was still part horse, he never went far, would become skittish at sudden movement, and took great care to shake and rub of the ash-like mist once he sought sanctuary with me again. But in those moments, when his demon side would emerge and cavort with his kindred, I never felt more alone.
The night wore on the mind as much as the nerves unless you did something constructive. So, while the horse dozed behind me, belly full of things I could barely stomach watching, I was busy sharpening sticks. Not for the mist, but for the other myriad other nasty things out there. So far, only half-and-half creatures, the eggshellers and their shell-less cousins the crab-ticks, could invade the rings for forage. The things that crawled in the night preferred to crawl around inside you, in search of better, safer forage than the scraps the larger creatures left behind. In fact, they actually seemed to prefer it.
I held up my stick and blew off the sawdust. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the progress of one of the eggshellers. It was a safer one, having crawled forth from the belly of the earth instead of the still twitching creature in the murk. Its little feelers twitched, inspecting its two succulent choices. A rather large but voracious demon horse or a punier but less threatening human.
It chose human, and trekked my way, skittering quickly, hoping to burrow where I couldn't reach him.
I stabbed down once he got his head under my curled up leg. After ten nights practice, I didn't miss. I held the squirming thing up before my eye. Its undercarriage eyes and mouth snapped as it tried to chew its way off the wood. Maybe given an hour it would. I carefully pulled it off, keeping its dangerous parts away from my fingers. The crunchy sound, much like that upon stepping upon a roach, in this world a roachepede, had me grimacing and then looking away. Then, I forced myself to look back. Tonight, I was about to put to the test the axiom: Good for the horse, good for the human.
I drew the line at eating the eggshell-like parts. I used a smaller stick and stuck it under the shell. After some doing, it ripped off, not without a certain amount of blood loss. "Gods," I almost tossed it from me. Then the growl of my stomach and better sense had me picking up and straightening my hold before the pinchers I felt on my fingertips could draw more than a dab of blood. I drew the line at eating something that had just swallowed down a piece of me--or the horse. Carefully I pinned it down on the ground and using my smaller sticks, pried open its back to expose the meat.
"Just like eating seafood. Just seafood," I chanted, and then before I gave up, I tore that bit out, popped it in my mouth, and swallowed. After some gagging, it went down. Quite unlike seafood. But not bad tasting over all. Just chewy--and twitchy. Almost nutty in flavor, for some reason--its only saving grace. By the time, I was sure it was staying put, thanks to copious amounts of water, I had already decided on my next marks, busy trying burrow under my leg and from there into me.
I acted first.
I would be lying to say it went better after the first, but after a day-old empty belly and a journey of uncertain length ahead of me to the City, I couldn't afford to be choosy. Eat or be eaten. I chose to eat.
After a dozen, the creatures learned to put me in the same category as the horse. Tempting, but too well armed. Only the desperate made the attempt. The problem was, you had to eat so many of them and not all of them were deemed "clean". About one in three carried the most prevalent and successful creature of this planet--the blister babies. Even the thought of those mosquito-like larvae making a home inside me made me itch and twitch.
The other problem was that eggshellers were hard on the poking sticks. I was sharpening a new point when I heard I heard it. It startled me so that I struck off some skin instead of wood off my poking stick. That single word.
But it was so much more. There was so much more in those words.
I sucked my finger. Listened harder, perched on my knees. Did I really hear--
My gods, yes. I stood. Horse rolled until its head was actually up. He must have heard it too. My name, and it sounded like, yes, others walking. Coming closer. I peered into the mist. This was the time when the boa-nosed mammoth usually fled. But they were not about, multiple trunks popping creatures like blisters before slipping the stringy contents into their mouth--or for all I knew, mouths plural. When they were gone, they gave way to the mistmen. This was their time, but they had not come. For the first time in ten long nights, no humanoid presences leered from thick, churning white.
I waited again for my name. No one knew my name here. I doubted the horse even knew. "Come on," I whispered. "Where--"
"Walker, where are you?"
The horse stood. It tried its best to dissuade me, but ten days too close quarters had taught me how to tune him out. I waited by the edge, hand pressed against my side of the, the side free from the living carpet of sharp-jawed roachepedes.
"Walker, mate, where the schiz are you."
When I heard that familiar voice, I almost wept. That could only be one person. This could be only one thing. Rescue. I could almost see my former classmate's face. His smile. I could hear his farewell words spoken as if a decade ago. "Don't worry, mate." Him clapping me on the back. "Once they see this is the real deal, they won't be able to get you out fast enough. Think of it as a vacation." It made sense; he'd want to lead the way to get a nip of paradise. But this wasn't paradise. And I wasn't out there to warn him. They had to watch out. There were unaccountable wrongness in the dark, but by some twist of fate he had stumbled across the right path at the right time. But any second now, the mistmen could come. Any second he could walk take one step and miss me entirely. Either way, lost forever. And with him, with them, my chance to get out of here. I had to get him and his recovery party here, safely, and in the morning, we'd leave. I wiped my mouth clean, with a hand that gripped my pointed stick. No more eggshellers. No more predators in the mist and dark. No more lying land. No more Paradise. Just safety. Just home.
But only if I got to them first.
The horse had restrained me before with his teeth, gently. This time he was not. He didn't care if I bled. He wanted me back, away from the outer ring I was trying to pass through.
"I'm not insane. You have to understand. That's my home calling." I shoved him off. "You're already home. I won't miss my chance." I don't know where I got the strength; maybe it was more that sharp stick in close proximity to flaring nostrils. Maybe I struck him, hurt him, unwillingly. Either way, he let go just long enough for me to lunge free. I stumbled free of the circle of stones for the first time at night.
Things began to land on me. Bite me. Crawl under my clothes and hair.
I didn't care.
I entered the mist.
It was more of a pale grey powder that expanded on touch of living flesh. It didn't burn, but it didn't feel right. Didn't feel right going down my lungs, either. I coughed into my fist, speckling it with blood. The sight of that stopped me. My side began screaming, doubling me over, far louder than the horse, whom I heard pound back and forth, back and forth.
"Walker, is that you? Over here, mate. Here!"
Someone was ahead of me. Moving closer. Saying my name, "Walker, here."
Doubled over, I reached out and staggered. I made it two steps into the mist. One, two. I made it two steps toward my new savior and person to be saved. One, two. And then the form was before me. It caught me by the hand, straightened me up. It said my name again in the same voice. But I knew what it was not now. Though it had a broad smile, it was not my friend, Hepren. It never had been.
I should have listened to the horse.