Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Gothic by Michael Evans

Chapter One: The Grave of Dreams

It began with the ambassadorial feast. In truth, of course, it began many long years before that, but those ages are lost to antiquity and too little is known of them to tell their stories with any real veracity. Therefore, I start at this more recent commencement of events. Had I known then what I do now, my actions thereafter would have been very different indeed, and a great deal of what was to come could have been prevented. Alas, the actions of birdkind are eternally doomed to fall under the shadow of ignorance, and the culmination of our blind and furious behaviours is always going to be the triumph of chaos.

Perhaps it is truly better that way. Such is the stuff from which nightmares are wrought.

It was a dark and stormy night. It is ever such in the territories of the raptors. Three foreign parties had been extended, and had accepted, invitations to dine at the great hall at House Morr that evening. Nobody had any reservations about the attendance of the first party and, indeed, they were welcomed as the family that they were. I beg the reader's forgiveness for delving into genealogical detail, but the story requires a little of it at this point.

House Morr had two Kings. The senior, the pale eagle owl Entius Morr, had been the ruler of the house for thirty-seven years before this story began. He sat at the centre of the high table of ebony, all black feathers and dark brown hair draped across a dark, silver-buttoned tunic. At his left hand sat the eagle whom he had courted and recently married; formerly Prince Herod Furie, now King Herod Morr. Herod's sister Mary Furie, Queen of the visiting house, was sat at Entius' right hand, her delegation having arrived the previous night in advance of the other guests. The siblings had always looked remarkably alike, broad of shoulder, brown of skin and golden of plume, and radiant in their authority over those around them.

Given the high volume of expected dignitaries, I had been reduced to being seated on table two, with a number of other hawks and a, still-uniformed, buzzard officer. Minor matters of state were discussed; the updating of the genealogical paperwork in the wake of the Kings' wedding, the recent alterations to the guards' shift rotations, the state of readiness of the visitors' bedrooms. All of very immediate, yet not profound, importance. The buzzard stared at her brass goblet with conspicuous ennui. I imagined what thoughts might be dancing behind her eyes; thoughts of herself translated elsewhere, full of lust for blood, sweetly and swiftly decapitating a foe, and tearing his heart from him with her teeth and letting his blood mingle with that which stained her bottom lip. She was a predator, not a steward, and ought not to have been bothered by these domestic tattlings.

The first guests were announced after allowing a short time for this pre-dinner conversation, as was polite and traditional.

“From the banks of the River of Consciousness,” cried the dry tones of the elderly kestrel who stood between the two, vast main doors, silencing the chatter. “From the city of Aurum Spire, please welcome the delegation of the swan King Atrates the Nineteenth, Primarch of the Cygnaean Council.”

Dwarfed by the impossibly tall crane who fell into step at his side, Atrates swept forward the moment his name was called, forcing the announcing kestrel to dodge out of his way rather faster than his ageing wits would have liked. The swan, with hair of darkest black and feathers of whitest snow, was almost overladen with ostentatious jewellery. He wore a long white robe inlaid with intricate gold lace, with a thick, white fur coat above it that almost covered the two sword-hilts at his hips. Behind him came a trio of weak and officious-looking ducks, followed by two heavily armoured goose guards. Last came a male stork, or possibly a heron, dressed in a velvet dress of richest green with a many-layered skirt. Nimbly stepping to the front of the party, he let out the first deep, masculine note of his overture song.

“I fell in love with a swan,
my eyes were filled with feathers,
he filled me with song,
in the reedy river,
in the reedy river.

I in my boat long hours,
he in his royal plumage--
I threw him some flowers,
in the reedy river,
in the reedy river.

Black was the night and starry,
I loosened off my garments
and let forth my hair,
in the reedy river,
in the reedy river.

Sadly we mourned and sighed,
whilst in evening twilight
two Winged glide and fly
in the reedy river,
in the reedy river.

Two Winged glide and fly,
in the reedy river.

I fell in love with a swan...”

Not neglecting our manners, the assembled members of Houses Furie and Morr gave applause as the music ended. The stork sung well, but the tune lacked the power and majesty to which raptors' ears are used. The ducks, geese and stork were led to one of the vacant tables, whilst Atrates and his crane moved to sit on the high table in between Queen Mary and the armoured buzzard she had brought with her; Lucien Kane. He was her permanent bodyguard; tall, powerful, and terrifyingly handsome, his consortship with the Queen was that house's worst-kept secret.

“From the alien plane of the Colour,” came the droning voice of the kestrel again. “From the endless, icy expanse of the Cyan, please welcome the penguin Empress Coryza, ambassador for the Xenos tribes.”

Those conversations which had persisted over the announcement ceased all at once. I couldn't imagine that more than a handful of the Winged here had even seen a Xeno before, and I certainly didn't count myself amongst the number that had.

Swiftly, seven little penguins, none much taller than five feet, ran, tumbled and leapt over one another into the room. Youthful, male and bare-chested, each one had shocking, blue hair that had been made to stand up using copious quantities of grease and belief. Behind them, their Empress sauntered in. Her hair was coloured the same, and fell in long plaits down to her ankles. Her eyes did not have a normal structure, and instead were uncanny, uniform orbs of swirling cyan, and she was clad in thick frost that clung to her skin in the shape of a dress.

“I hope,” muttered the hawk on my right, who was House Morr's primary genealogist. “For her own modesty's sake that she isn't to be seated by the fireplace.” The buzzard snorted at the thought.

With her right hand, the Empress kept a tight grip upon a bizarre sceptre; a twisting mass of metal rods with a bright, pulsating sapphire caught in its cage-like clutches. With her left hand, she clicked her fingers once, and the song of the penguins began.

There were no words this time. At the first beat, signalled by the Empress' clicking fingers, the other penguins all slapped their thighs with both hands. They beat them again and again, tapping out a complex rhythm, syncopating with one another. Then they started to dance.

Their arms indisposed with making the music, they danced with their feet and shoulders. They moved as they did when they entered; tumbling and leaping off one another's backs, making a grand show of their athleticism. Wherever they moved, the always kept the group centred around the Empress who, after eight bars, held up her sceptre and brought it swiftly down to the floor, conjuring a vast, silver wind instrument that seemed to weave itself out of the air. Grasping it by its many slim pipes, placing her fingers over the two arrays of holes in the metal, she put her lips top of it and started to play, sending forth a confusing medley of every possible timbre of wind instrument. Whether or not it was by some kind of dream magic, there was a taste of subdued awe in the air amidst the auditors.

After a few minutes, the song came to an end, and the applause was much more earnest this time. The little penguins were led to another vacant table and the Empress was invited to the seat between King Herod and Idhya, the owl who served as chief librarian and primary advisor to Entius. Idhya, in turn, was sat beside Klatakea, the secretary bird who acted as her constant companion. Both of these Winged were wearing identical academic gowns, made from black feathers woven together with threads of despair. They were engaged in some fervent, whispered conversation, which they ceased instantly once the Empress was seated.

Entius stood. I nearly salivated like a mammal at the thought of the feast which I expected him to now announce.

“Welcome,” he began. The eagle owl's voice was soft and quiet, yet somehow filled the entire chamber with casual ease. “It is our great honour, Herod and I, to accept these noble guests into our House and, as I am sure you are all eagerly anticipating, to join us in feasting. Bring in the plates!”

A team of ospreys, urged on by the hawk who had been given the unfortunate duty of managing them, carried in the vast, silver plates that contained the feast oil. The substance, a particular invention of the owls of House Morr, was always prepared for months in advance of each feasting day. It was concocted from molten dreamstuff mixed with desire, and performed its function with remarkable effectiveness. Each osprey lit a taper on a stick of wrath and, in perfect unison, lowered their lights to the surface of the oil.

The plates burst with orange flame, exuding a sweet aroma through the hall; an aroma to which human dreamers were very sensitive, and inexorably drawn. The ospreys scampered swiftly out through the side doors, and we diners withdrew our cutlery; swords, daggers, spears, and mauls, and waited.

It was then that the dreamers erupted from the floor.

There were men and women, of all the paltry selection of colours and shapes humans come in, but many were children. The oil was most tempting to humanity's young, which was fortunate, because they were also the easiest to frighten.

Only semi-real in this palace of dream, they each took a moment to gaze about them, uncomprehending. Their sense, dulled by sleep and distorted by imagination, all perceived some different environment overlaid onto our hall. Their school, their home, a forest, a fort, in a mine, in the military, on a cliff, on the ocean. Wheresoever it was, conjured up for them by feverish recollections of their waking lives, it had suddenly been invaded by a horde of man-sized, beweaponed predators, who all took advantage of the dreamers' momentary hesitation to strike.

We didn't want them dead. That would have been so terribly wasteful. The souls of the deceased may be a feast in and of themselves, but the souls of the living are an endless fountain of emotion for those who know how to inspire them.

The eagles, Entius, Herod, and Mary, wordlessly clutched the underside of the high table, and threw it before them to land on its front with a deafening crash. The dreamers who would have been caught beneath it scattered and the raptors fell among them, like monstrous Cats chasing through a gaggle of working-class pigeons. The swan followed suit, to my surprise. Atrates drew his brace of weapons and circled a woman who had brought a sword to her dream, swiftly disarming her and tripping her to the floor in a barely perceptible motion. Knowing herself to have been bested by this strange enemy, her eyes began to fill with nervous trepidation. On the other side of the hall, Klatakea was crouched above a boy who was laying on his back, paralysed with terror, as she pushed his chin back with a single claw and brought her other wicked talon closer and closer to the skin on his neck.

I let out a shriek, the kind only a raptor knows how to utter, before raising my blade and leaping over the top of my chair above the nearest dreamer. He clutched his figmental dressing-gown about himself as his wrinkled face drained to a white pallor, tinged with... purple.


I fell upon him and he stumbled away, falling back onto his hands, crawling backwards as his terror made him sweat droplets of glowing violet, radiating sweet, nourishing power. Raw nightmare.

I lifted a clawed foot and clutched the neck of his gown. With a firm kick, I tossed him across the room and rounded on him where he fell. More sweat dripped from his neck; bright pearls of terror that shattered upon the cold surface against which they fell.

I was starting to feel it now, with more and more potency. My chest heaved with the pressure of the emotion as my body soaked it from all around, from the scent on the air and from the screams of dreamers, all believing that they were about to die.

About to die.

Just like me.

There was fear in my blood and hands at my neck. The room was too bright. I clawed at my throat to stop the strangling. Nothing there, no hands. A ghost?

My grip was loosening on my sword. Weakening... no. No.

I had to fight to survive.

I swung my sword right, then left, in a wide arc. Where were they? I clawed at my neck again.

Where were they?

“SHOW YOURSELF!” I cried. I span around, chopped down to the floor.

Blade met blade. I snapped my head upward and gaze met gaze. The buzzard, of course. All that bloodlust in her eyes.

I leapt forward and cut twice through the air, terror submerging strategy. One-step, a dodge. Two-step, another dodge. She was fast.

Blood still dripped down her chin. She struck.

I barely knocked aside her first blow; a lazy blow, not even trying. A predator toying with her prey. A second blow. A third one.

A fourth one.

She was fast, so fast, and she was going to kill me.

Fear bringing focus now. Not weakness any longer. I dived under the table, under the blood-red cloth. She was taller, about a head taller, so she was just ever so slightly slower to get down on her knees and...

Up and over. I pulled myself up the other end of the table onto its surface and dived at her. Sword cut shoulder, crimson fell upon crimson. Rage filled my ears and shook my bones. Up and around. She slammed her blade into mine. I heard it clatter into the corner of the room. Disarmed, helpless.

Helpless. I was going to die.

I curled my hand into a fist. It landed squarely between the buzzard's eyes. The bones in my fingers cracked and she laughed. Her blade slid back into its scabbard.

Not even trying.

She lashed out with a claw and held me tightly by the wrist. The other claw; the other wrist. Cackling as she held me up like a marionette, she slammed her skull into my face.

Shattering and gushing, I crumpled. Almost blacking out, I felt her foot on my exposed throat. My furious pulse thrummed against her claws. My own blood betraying me, yearning to be spilt.

She will kill me. That's what she wants. That's who she is. The constraints of law and nobility are meaningless against the urges of the hunter.

I should know.

I'm going to die.


I was shocked to feel myself waking up. I was propped against a dining chair, my psyche blurred and my body broken... but healing. The raw emotion I had consumed was no longer commanding my thoughts, but was instead pulling together the fractured pieces of my essence. My finest white shirt was irreparable though, I noticed as I looked down, stained all over as it was with my ichor.

I rolled my head around and saw the scene about me. The raptors of the two houses and their guests were attempting a swift reassembly of the great hall, after their depredations had ravaged the furnishings. The penguins remained around their immaculate table, with the laughing dreamers they had sat upon its surface, upon their laps, or on the floor at their feet. Their flightless Winged hosts were entertaining them with jokes, flirtation and, in the case of one blushing apparition, a heartfelt serenade. The Empress had expropriated one of the chairs and was presently surrounded by a retinue of human admirers.

What emotion are they consuming... desire, I suppose?

Blearily, I focused my eyes back towards my table, around which the other hawkish bureaucrats were busily tidying up their attire. I noticed I was far from the only Winged to have bloodied my clothes.

The buzzard returned to her chair, and the last motes of nightmare within me quailed to imagine what she had been doing to the last of the dreamers. She smiled at me, battered and blood-drenched as I was, and muttered, “Some day.”

“Some day what...?” I started to ask, before my words were cut short.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” came the calm, quietening tones of King Entius from the head of the hall. The penguins whispered farewells to their teary dreamer friends, who faded into nothingness as their worldly selves were rudely awoken from their pleasant dream. “I do trust that you enjoyed your meals.” A ripple of cruel, appreciative laughter felt its way amidst the diners. Entius took a pause to re-straighten his crown; a simple marble coronet, identical to his husband's, and a very unfussy badge of office compared to the tall, golden diadem atop Mary's brow. While the crowns of House Morr bore no symbol, Mary's was topped with an ancient likeness of Gryphon himself, wrought from dreamstuff, infused with some of the oldest nightmares man was known to have dreamt.

“It is a tremendous privilege for Herod and I to see such remarkable guests at our banquet these evening, particularly those who throw themselves so readily in our ways of doing things.” He glanced at King Atrates, who quickly ceased whispering something into Mary's ear in order to look up and smile at the complement being paid to him. “I do believe, also, that ours is the first noble house of raptors to play host to our new visitors from the Colour, and I hope that this event serves to herald a long and prosperous future of friendship and of allied power.”

The Empress penguin inclined her head and smiled, and one of her retinue cried, “Hear hear!”

“But now, I am informed, our third and even stranger-seeming guest is here, and is ready to join us for some... light, after-dinner conversation.” Entius' hands, that had been clasped behind his back for his speech, now extended forward towards the great doors. “Sir Cavell, if you would do the honours?” The elderly kestrel, who had returned to his position by the door, his musket still smoking slightly (it must have been fired when I was unconscious, I thought, because I did not recall hearing it go off), cleared his throat several times, before drawing breath.

“Even stranger-seeming”? Who could it be... a mammal? A fish? A real, waking human?

“From the hallowed depths of the Cage...”

In the corner of the room, the Empress stopped smiling.

“...Please welcome the ambassador from the Lost...”

One of the penguins stood up in shock, the banging of his discarded chair on the floor behind him echoing loudly around the chamber.

“...The dodo Theodora Solitus!”

The room was suddenly abuzz with whispers. “A dodo?”, “Aren't they extinct?”, “What does 'Lost' mean?”. Only the penguin table was silent; its members gazing in open-mouthed horror at the individual who was being let in through the doors.

The dodo was short, almost as short as the little penguins, and was stooping awkwardly. Her feathers, all grey, were lank and drooping. I had first thought that she was wearing dark spectacles, but had then realised that I had been fooled by the rings of fatigue around her eyes.

Frankly, she looked half-dead.

She held a small, brown, unassuming pouch in her right claw, which seemed to drag her arm down as though it were tremendously heavy. Her other claw was clenched closed very tightly, as was, I noticed, her beak. This tension was replicated too in her eyes, in which a spark of semi-concealed bitterness was being carefully restrained.

She's hiding it well, but she's just as angry as those penguins...

“Welcome, Ms. Solitus,” Entius spoke, cutting across the chatter. “Can we offer you any refreshment?” The dodo took a few moments, breathing deeply, possibly making a concerted effort to control her apparent temper, before responding.

“No, thank you, your highness.” Her voice sounded like some worn fabric held too taut over a rusted surface; strained and decayed. “I have already eaten. I believe, however, that it is considered customary for a guest, such as myself, to announce their presence with a performance of Birdsong?”

“But of course, we would be only too honoured.”

“Good,” she replied quietly, such that some of the less acute listeners must not have heard her. “It has been far, far too long...”

She paused again to breathe, and then opened her beak, and uttered a poem with her tortured voice.

“The free bird leaps on the back of the wind,
and floats downstream till the current ends,
and dips her wings in the orange sun rays,
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks down her narrow cage,
can seldom see through her bars of rage,
her wings are clipped and her feet are tied,
so she opens her throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with fearful trill,
of the things unknown but longed for still,
and her tune is heard on the distant hill,
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze,
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees,
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn,
and she names the sky her own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams,
her shadow shouts on a nightmare scream,
her wings are clipped and her feet are tied,
so she opens her throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill,
of things unknown but longed for still,
and her tune is heard on the distant hill,
for the caged bird sings of freedom.”

The applause was subdued, and slightly stunned, the audience's attention distracted by the direction of the poet's gaze. Theodora had, throughout her entire performance, fixed her eyes unerringly upon Empress Coryza, the malevolence within them intensifying with every stanza. Coryza stared back, her shapeless eyes impassive, and unblinking.

And that was when the feeling struck me. The urge, the incorrigible need to explore, to discover, to know, calling all the way down from deep within the remnants of the soul I had taken. I had to find out who this Dodo was, why she was here, what was in her pouch, why she hated these Xenos, and why they hated her. I tried to suppress it, recognising it as a desire that was not truly mine.

If only I had tried a little harder.

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