Breath

I take a deep breath and fight back my inner ass. It was my father who taught me to hate a man in uniform. I can do better. No, I must do better. Swallow the two fisted adventurer, Mark. It’s time to talk.

“Was that yours?” I say. “Sorry, I ate it. The disappearing ladies have more. I’ll help you get it if you’ll help me kill their boss and save a friend of mine.”

“Drug?” asks Nai.

“Yeah,” I tell him, “a drug that healed my wounds and gave me that vision, among other things. I’m guessing these guys work for whoever made it.”

“Ahh,” Nai’s smile would be another man’s frown of confusion.

The officer stands on his one good foot and offers his hand across the table. “Down to business. I can respect that. We call it heros. I’m Captain Brass Worther. We seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot.”

“Well you did, anyway.” I shake his hand. “Next time knock.”

“I will.”

He shakes Nai’s hand, but the Thai fighter doesn’t introduce himself and the officer doesn’t push it.

“Would you gentlemen care for anything? I have scotch?”

“Knowledge,” I tell him. “There’s every chance you’re about to be attacked and I’d like to not be here when that happens. Before then we can and we should help each other.”

Brass pauses at a whiskey decanter on its own stand behind his desk.

“About to be attacked by Agafya?” he asks.

“Yes.”

He opens the decanter and pours three tumblers.

“I have a hundred commandos and thirty Gurkhas, Mr. Simmons. Troops selected from the colonies. Men already well proven in contest with Mr. Agafya’s irregulars, in the policing actions in Burma. Unlike Agafya, we’re here with official sanction. I’m confident in our chances against any force he could smuggle so far into Siam. What worries me, Mr. Simmons, is the vanishing ladies.”

He turns around and thrusts the glasses into my hand and Nai’s.

“Thailand,” Nai corrects him, “not Siam. New name.”

“Same country,” the officer raises his glass. “Cheers.”

He takes a sip and Nai obliges him by following suit. I go to do the same but the smell hits my face like a blast of sewer stink and I recoil, almost dropping the glass.

Brass watches me, swirling his tumbler.

“Your apartment was full of empty whisky bottles,” he says. “How long has it been since you had a drink?”

The only one since I crawled out of the grave was a pint of weak beer I could barely choke back at Nai’s club. I set the whiskey glass down and hold my spinning stomach.

“How did you know?” I ask him.

“Heros,” he says. “That’s the drug you stole. We call it Heros. All of the volunteers who’ve taken it have lost any taste for alcohol or tobacco. I wasn’t sure I believed you’d had a dose. One of the thieves must like you.”

“No I didn’t- I didn’t steal your drug. I don’t even really know what you’re talking about.” I blink my eyes to clear them of the smell. “I guess I knew it was stolen… Nash mentioned they’d stolen it, but I’d forgotten. They called it leụ̄xd, means blood. Heros is what, Latin for hero? Same as heroine, but heroine makes you feel like a hero and leụ̄xd not so much.”

He shrugs. “Doesn’t it?”

I think about that. The drug healed my wounds, gave me powers others don’t have, and opened the door to a whole world I’d never seen, but I’m still just a bag of meat with daddy issues and an infatuation with the devil. “So what else happened to those volunteers?”

He tilts his head. Nai watches me.

“I mean, what happened to the rest of the guys you gave Heros to?”

The answer comes from someone behind me, proving that even with my seer sight, I don’t have eyes in the back of my head:

“Nothing good.”

Around my elbow slides a short, slender man with deep smile-lines in his face, a hay-stack of wispy brown hair and glasses as thick as my pinky. His shirt is a button-down and he has a bow-tie, but there are dirt stains on his knees and hands. His aura is a brilliant gold, a cigarette hangs from his lips, and the ghostly memory of a tiny diamond floats off his right ear, shining an intangible light.

“Hellooo,” he sings, elongating the ‘o’ with an accent that’s so outrageous it’s almost a caricature of itself. I smother a laugh. “Sorry I’m late! What’s on then? Wandered into camp have you?” He stops cold, staring at my face. “You’re Mark Simmons! Why, yes you are. I can see the family resemblance. Doctor Earnest Tellerhorn, my what a pleasure to see you again!”

He offers his hand and a flicker of a smile.

“I remember you.” His grip is strong and his hand calloused. “You were with the survey expedition here. You knew my parents.”

“Yes. Imagine that. I’m impressed you remembered, given what happened. That’s why I’m here now, incidentally, the survey anyway, not the other business, sorry about that by the way, should have done something, didn’t, regretted it ever since, so… sorry.”

His arms fall to his sides and hang like the cigarette from the corner of his mouth, limply. A wind of ancient desolation blows his features into such a barren ruin I feel a surge of compassion.

The Captain watches, sipping his drink. In response to my look, he says: “Dr. Tellerhorn is our resident mumbo jumbo hocus pocus man. He’s also a steady hand with a brush and an old rock or a broken pot.”

“You’re an antiquarian,” I say, studying the smaller man, “not a medical doctor.”

His takes a drag from his cigarette, and his lack of expression proves me right.

The Captain leans against his desk, watching Nai and I with an even gaze.

Nai sets his whisky glass down untouched.

“Don’t tell me you’re on an archeology trip,” I say. “Archology trips don’t start at my apartment in Chicago.”

“They could if you were the one going, but you’re right. We’re here chasing legends, and also because of a man named Daniel Themes,” Tellerhorn shrugs. “Your father told me the legend, actually, that we’re chasing, when we were here back in 27.”

“You’ll have to refresh my memory.”

He nods and his eyes hold that same pity I first learned to hate, and then to ignore. Fortunately he has enough tact to focus on the present.

“I suppose I don’t mind telling you.” He leans back as he says it, watching me down his nose. “You’re not just some interloper are you, you’re Semira’s boy, and you’ve had the heros. Now that, that is a coincidence! Destiny, I might be inclined to say if I believed in such things.”

The Captain raises an eyebrow at me: “You asked for our help just now. Did you mean it?”

“To a point.”

“The point our interests diverge?”

I nod. “Just so.”

Tellerhorn wrinkles his nose. “I suppose that might be further along than you think. I’ll tell you some of what our interests are, and you decide.” He walks over to the whisky decanter and pours himself a half a finger. “In the era of Ayutthaya it was whispered that south of the city lay a temple to the goddess Mahamaya, kept by oracle witches. They were masters of the arts of tantra and magic, and served as assassins, doctors, seers, and concubines to kings and queens all over Asia, that sort of thing. They were paid handsomely for their services and accrued a lot of treasure, but their greatest prize was the dreaming diamond, a huge gem from which came their power. Your father was very excited about the diamond, I recall. I dismissed this as a fairly typical legend, of the kind common to folk lore the world over. Who doesn’t like to imagine treasure and beautiful warrior women? Hmm? More recent events suggest, somewhat fantastically, that my dismissal may have been in error.”

“Yes,” Nai says. “Big diamond important. They have.”

“You’ve seen it?” Tellerhorn’s eyes light up like lanterns.

“No,” Nai admits with a shrug. Then he holds up his bandaged hand as if pointing to something on the ground, “On alter, picture.” He points above that, “on wall picture.” He points around him. “Picture picture. Big Diamond. Maya all round it.”

“I don’t understand,” I say, “are you telling me the heros is made from a diamond you took from this temple?”

“Half right but half backwards.” Tellerhorn winks. “Our heros was made from something that looked an awful lot like a diamond which we found elsewhere. Then our not-diamond was stolen and we’ve tracked the thieves here. Here, where legends say resides a second diamond with remarkably similar properties. Upon consideration, it should not be a coincidence that the thieves who penetrated our top secret program developing ESP were themselves psychic. But, they’ve taken our heros, and we want it back. That they may have their own source is incidental, though very interesting.”

“Aright,” I say. “You’ve got my attention. You mentioned someone named Daniel Themes?”

The Captain offers the antiquarian an ashtray and he taps his cigarette out.

“I’ll show you,” he says.

 

The canvas roof of another officer’s tent has kept the day’s heat and holds the dim room in a smoldering yellow gloom, smelling of sick and hot as hades.

Nai stops outside and we all look at him while the heat wafts out past us. He’s looking at the river with worried eyes. After a beat, he turns to me.

“Summanus,” he says. “Papkao says I go.”

“Papkao?” I ask him, but he shakes his head.

“Bangles,” he says. “She say, storm coming. Time to go.”

I shake my head. “I’m not leaving just yet, but do me this service: go tell Papkao I’m not the enemy.”

Nai grins, then turns worried eyes to the sky. “Heat turn to storm. You should come.”

“Nai,” I tell him, “I never properly thanked you. Risking your life to save mine…”

He looks confused. “Risk my life?”

“You had to fight a dog-”

He laughs and waves a hand. “Just angry dog. Only had to calm her down. Needed to bite a little, then we friends. It nothing! See you later!” Though he sounds sincere, his aura ripples with the shadow of a tall man made of flashing teeth and fear.

Garland nods to the two Englishmen but doesn’t wait for their reply before loping away toward the camp’s edge.

Brass says: “If there are more of Agafya’s men out there, will your friend be alright?”

“I don’t know,” I answer. “Ever hear of somebody named Drydus?”

They exchange glances and shake their heads.

“Then I couldn’t tell you who he’s working for, or what particularly he wants. If I see him again later, it’ll be half of a surprise.”

Brass frowns: “Is he spying for someone? Do I need to have my men stop him?”

I shake my head no. “Let’s not make trouble. He’s been a huge help so far.”

The bagpiper walks by and pauses in the courtyard to waggle his eyebrows at us. A monkey follows in his footsteps, watching him curiously.

“A small precaution,” Tellerhorn remarks, noticing my interest. “The music seems to sooth Daniel, and the noise will make listening in to our conversations a little more difficult to any non-fluent speakers who may be listening in come along.”

Tellerhorn, still holding the tent’s flap, waves it like a cape to usher me inside.

The square tent is about four meters to a side. A cot with a metal frame sits in the center, an IV pole attached to one of its legs like a mast. Little paper ribbons hang from the ceiling on all sides, hundreds of them, each with a short phrase in a script that looks vaguely like the Indian and Nepalese alphabet. They remind me of Tibetan prayer flags or the charms you might find decorating a tree at festival time.

The doctor notices my examination of the charms and explains in a whisper as if we were at a library:

“We tried about everything before we found anything that could help. Not sure if it’s psychosomatic, serving it’s intended function, or if there’s any difference between those two options. They’re a bit of Chinese medicine I picked up in Shang Hai, to keep away bad spirits. They seem to help him stay calm.”

He points to the bed at the tent’s center.

There’s a man in the bed, supine, staring at the canvas roof as though it were the most profound work of art. He wears a brown coverall, unzipped to the waist, and stained with sweat in the armpits and navel. His hair and stubble both look about a week long.

“Hello, Daniel,” says Tellerhorn.

The man doesn’t move.

“Daniel, are you here right now?” asks Tellerhorn.

Daniel blinks and moans. His hands twitch and he paws at the buttons of his jumpsuit as though he’s too weak to hold them, but his eyes don’t move.

“What’s in the IV?” I ask.

“A nutrient solution,” says Brass, from behind me. “He refuses to eat or drink. Feeding him is a bit of a bother.”

The Captain’s face rests neutral as he leans on his cane. His right hand hangs on his belt where a browning automatic waits in a protective military holster. He’s pulled the cover back through his belt so the gun may be easily drawn.

Tellerhorn’s attention points to the guy in the cot as he leans to me and says: “This is Lieutenant Daniel Themes. He was a poet, a gifted cartographer, a sensitive soul, and of all our Heros volunteers, he is the last to retain any semblance of consciousness.”

“He looks like I feel,” I reply.

Tellerhorn raises his voice: “Daniel, I’d like you to meet Mr. Simmons.”

“Hi,” I say, futilely, as I step toward him. The Doctor’s hand on my arm stops me.

He points down. A line of chalk makes a circle around the cot. I was about to cross it. Tellerhorn puts one finger aside his nose, then uses his foot to scrub out a section of the circle. The charms on the ceiling rustle in a little wind, and the tent flap sways. The Doctor wears a whimsical smile as he watches the papers settle, and when he looks back at me he wiggles his eyebrows.

Daniel Themes turns eyes on me like pools of pale wine.

“She’s not dead, you know. Not yet,” he gurgles. “You thought you’d save her but she’s not dead. Didn’t die her, didn’t lie. Don’t believe a liar.”

“Hello Daniel,” says Tellerhorn. “How are you feeling today?”

“The black stick isn’t broken. You’ll find it in the dell. The wind comes over the ocean. The wind brings nothing well.” Daniel rubs his eyes and sighs, then pushes himself into his pillow. “Hot.”

He begins taking off his jumpsuit.

“Daniel you have to wear clothing,” says Tellerhorn, preventing the disrobing with gentle hands, “You have a guest. Sorry, he’s a bit difficult. The heros pulled him apart slowly. He spends most of his time deep in other places, or so he says. Still, he’s the lucky one. There were twelve volunteers, the other eleven were much worse off. Daniel, where were you just now?”

“Do the black stick and dell mean anything to you?” asks Brass from the tent flap.

“Yep.” I force the word through a blockage in my throat.

“Hm,” he says, then leans out the tent flap and speaks at someone outside: “Fetch Doctor Manley would you? We’re going to need a sedative in a moment.”

Daniel’s agitation grows, struggling against Tellerhorn’s hands and muttering angry curse words.

To me Brass says: “We’re still confirming the effectiveness of Daniel’s remote viewing abilities. We were making good progress before we lost the rest of the drug doses.”

“Remote viewing?” I ask.

The Captain shrugs: “What started with intuitive flashes eventually escalated to out of body experiences. He claims to be making rapid tours of the far reaches of the globe, but it’s hard to get much sense out of him now. The circle and charms seem to keep him calm.”

Tellerhorn chimes in: “Not just out of body.”

“I remain skeptical,” says Brass.

“Two hundred miles in an afternoon? In his state? Possible I admit, for you or I, but we’ve had this conversation before,” says the Doctor.

“And will again,” says Brass, apparently resigned.

Seeing my look, Tellerhorn tells me: “Daniel disappeared from his bed one day. One of our nurses had told him to spend some time remembering his childhood home. We’d found that helped them focus. Then he was gone. We found him outside his home, the next day, all the way down in Darlington.”

“He could easily have driven,” says Brass.

We all turn our attention to the man in the bed. He’s got his shirt off and sweat glistens on his bald chest. His hands shake like the print head on a telegraph, but for a moment, he sits still.

“You’re here.” The staring eyes pivot to me. “Something I, I meant to, to say… yes. I’m never born and never die I’m the only thing that never lies. The only flames that always burn, the only world that doesn’t turn. What am I? Fire. Yes, a fire. Why here? Why camp here? I told you there was and will be fire.”

“Yes Daniel,” says the doctor. “You told us to come here. Where should we go next?”

“Fire and water,” the raving man says, pressing his face to his chest as best he can, “to the calm breaking and the night lightning.”

“That’s all he’s been saying since we got here,” Tellerhorn mutters to me, then to Danial: “What about Agafya? Have you learned anything new?”

The pale eyes turn on me like doors to a cold wind. “Dead but not laying down. One of us. You are one of us. Do you see as I do?” Hungry hands reach for me, but the leather constraints snap tight: “Agafya! Do you see him? The blood bear? The bold one? Is he there? The last guard of the coldest place who cast his heart at the diamond’s grace? He’s here! Here he’s come and here he squats! Blood poison and bone he rots. Sick and sickness. Treachery and lies.” His eyes unfocus and he looks away.

“We’ll he’s got me sorted out,” I jest to Tellerhorn, but the doctor just quirks a brow. “Last guard of the coldest place… any idea what that might mean?”

Danial jerks back to us: “Agafya thinks he’ll bind the unseen eye but what he wants wills killed will wear him tear him till he hunts not but haunts its breath purpose puppet life broken bone sack servant to the consumer.” He shrugs. “Not to worry. His flame will flame out, and consume all things.”

“I reserve the right to worry,” says Tellerhorn. “Flame out as in die out? But then what-”

“Do not let him chain the old ghost! He’ll take it! Break it! The long laugh keeps the well where the waters turn, waters to keep the fires still and cities from burning but he would dark the waters, slay the smile, blind the eye and black the sky – no, no that’s not it. Dark the waters, sly the smile, wide the eye and white the sky. Yes, yes that is better. White. The sky will be… bitter. First the hands. Laughing dancing hands not to be tied, they bound us, bind us!”

He tugs at the leather straps from his wrist to the cot’s frame. A buckle clinks.

“Too many hands are tied!” he cries. “Don’t tie them! Too many tied hands! No more!”

“The long laugh…” I muse aloud. “Could you mean Maya?”

The bound man turns this pained eyes into me again, but this time it the weight of his regard stabs like a thrusting knife, and the penetration violates me. In my peripheral vision I catch glimpses of my own aura boiling like steam, agitated and wild as he peers deep into me. My hands shake. I cannot move. My breath shallows.

“Go back,” he whispers, his voice like the croaking of a raven, “The black. You’ll go in, again. The glass will break, the blood tide rise and the age of iron end. You don’t see do you? You don’t know. The black rod will become you. You will be the knife that cuts the poison pill to feed the feathered beast who eats the world! Nightmare they name you. You’re the nightmare! Night-lightning bone breaker blood drinker! You must die!”

His back straightens. With steady eye and in a voice calm and deadly clear, he addresses Tellerhorn and Brass: “Listen to me. Kill him. Kill him quickly. Kill him now.”

He keeps repeating that, at steadily increasing volume and desperation: “Kill him. Kill him! Kill him quickly!”

4 Replies to “Breath”

  1. Cullen says:

    I rue the day I gave Brass a Yorkshire brogue. I can’t seem to get my tongue around it let alone keep it going, and alternating between Brass and Tellerhorn definitely stretched me. Incidentally, if you’re a lover of LARPs and community theater like me and don’t know about the speech accent archive http://accent.gmu.edu/ and the International Dialects of English archive https://www.dialectsarchive.com/ then you’re welcome. Now you do!

  2. Laura Moos says:

    Well.
    I can see why Brass ordered the sedative.
    Ominous foreboding indeed from our man Daniel.

    I’m sure Marcus is just thrilled at not only Daniels’s predictions of this “nightmare” Marcus might become, but also at the living embodiment of another possible outcome for him, gibbering and strapped to a bed. Nightmarish indeed.

    • Laura Moos says:

      You know what? I’m not done here. I really appreciate how you retained Daniel’s poetry and incorporated it into his madness. The way he says things, repeats things, and sometimes looks for a word and then finds better, more poetic way to say it. Still thinking about that a week later. It’s good stuff.

      • Cullen says:

        I’m sort of a sucker for mysto-babble. Some of what he’s said is relevant to this situation, some not until book four at the earliest, but it’s all meaningful.

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