Postby Rance » Sat Dec 22, 2018 2:14 pm

In summer. In Razasan. In the sweltering gods-damned heat of the Seventhmonth, when a damp collar was a blessing in the brisk wind and a noose of sweat at any other moment of the day.

"It's not some clever name I pulled out of my ass," he said, his thumb cramming the brown crumble of a smokeleaf into the bowl of his clay pipe — the one borrowed from Gloria Wynsee. "Twice-Marked means something to those who know it. You're mostly human, I wager, so to you, it's nothing more than a bunch of words before my name. But to me, to my kind, it is a legacy to be worn, to be feared by others, and for me to fear in turn. This mark? Came from sand-shade. Bet you don't even know what that is."

She furrowed her brow and examined the reddish starburst on his temple. "I've never heard of a sand-shade."

"Typical Wynsee," he said. "Full of shit and stupidity."

"I prefer ignorance."

"Because you don't know a lick of anything," Kualdin said, one of his elfish ears twitching with displeasure. Smoke coiled out of his left nostril — the right had been battered into a bloody smear — and his voice took on a campfire majesty. "When you Walk the other planes, when you dig your toes into the sands of your destiny and think you can see the trajectory of your future, they come like vapors from the darkness of your thoughts. Their whole purpose is to hunt daring young elves who think they have the balls to discover their jyh'aalwy'lafh before its time."

"Their what?"

"Jyh'aalw—" The word ended on a half-breath. He shook his head. "Their death-fate."

"Your final moments?"

"As fate has written them to be," Kualdin said. "Myths tell of warriors who discovered them early, altered them, and lived until the sun molted and the world knew new ages. So I Walked, against the wishes of everyone I knew, and dared it. Nobody — nobody — ever going to tell me I don't get a shot at seeing the path of my destiny. I had to know. Was it going to be some fat fuckin' dwarf-boot in an alley in some shit-stinking backwater pressing down on my skull, or was it going to be something greater?"

"Did you find out?"

"You think I'm special?" he snorted. "Lots of faith, Wynsee. But what I'm not is a warrior, and what I'm not is anything more than a wastrel. Sand-shades tore me down before I even knew what was coming. They pinned me into that sand, pressed one of their smoky fingers into my brow, right here, and spoke their words. Worst agony I've ever experienced. Like an egg full of fire cracking open inside your brain."

"They left you with that Mark?"

"Branded it into my skin. Fixed it with thumbscrews into my fate. Locked me away from Walking. Blocked me," he said, "from my Second Self."

"Did your people disown you?"

"Damned straight they did. They saw the Mark, beat me within an inch of my life, and cast me to the forests to die alone. Lucky guess, Wynsee," he said, and drank to her.

"One cruel culture is no different than the next."

He knew Marks. She knew marks, too.

So they had more ale and compared their night's bruises. And with more wine, and more still, Gloria wondered if Twice-Marked Kualdin wasn't wholly misleading her. She stared with ferocity at the red starburst scar. She wanted to touch it, to wipe it away, scrub it off him, and swipe her thumb off on the seat of her skirt. These were lies, surely, these tall tales about Second Selves and Marks and sand-shades and jee-hoale-vy-leth (wasn't that what he'd called it in that breathy, hissing elvish of his?). At some point in the night they began arguing like drunken vagabonds in the Piggsowen, her thick Jernoan finger pressing nearer to his face, the spittle leaping off her lips and off his and he rammed his fists out against her shoulders, knocked her into spinning, spinning, spinning, until Raf grabbed her collar and she was out in the mud...

...and Twice-Marked Kualdin, in the dim candlelight of his flat, with all its brown bottles scattered on the floor, drew up his shirt (or had he taken it off, pulled it away like so much damp linen, she could not remember) and showed her the second Mark, its breadth a glowing axe-slice across his ribs, they were both entirely naked, his waxy hair loose and hers awry, a wild, unruly scatter, black and tangled like spongy anemone, Twice-Marked Kualdin with his radiant scar, both of them breathing hard and in unison, forgetting where one ended and the other began—

"Is that your other Mark, Kualdin?"

"Brilliant powers of deduction, Wynsee, as usual."

"Do you have a story for it?"

"Every mark has a story," he said, stroking a thumb along the pinkish mound of her right arm's truncated stump.

"They're not all meant to be told," she countered.

"What makes you think I'm willing to part with the truth of this one?"

"Because otherwise," the Jerno said, "I will call you a liar from the rooftops. Twice-Marked Kualdin, a living sham, hardly even a fraction of the legend he wants to be."

"Can't a man possess secrets?"

"Can a woman—" I am a woman; I am not a girl, I am a woman! "—grind them right out of him if she tries hard enough?"

Her lips tasted like salt. Brine. And sweat. And tarsweat.

So Twice-Marked Kualdin told her. The story did not move her. Like stone, she listened, body perched upon an upright elbow, knuckles against her cheek, giving him the lies of her Sun-bleached eyes. If asked, she'd never remember the long-winded tale of how he'd come to possess his second Mark. All she'd ever know, concretely, was that he was Twice-Marked, and there was truth to it, even if it was a truth lost to the aimless tangles of a memory faded by wine and concussion.

But he Walked. That mattered.

"I want to Walk," she told him. "Only once."

"You will fail."

"I intend to. I need you to show me how."

"Human girls do not Walk. I will not break the rules."

"Rules? Of what," Gloria said, her tongue a sharpened spade. "Some society that cast you out? Some careless collection of old men and women in robes, following old words and older books, who told you that you cannot, that you should not?"

"Because it's the way it's supposed to fucking be, Wynsee. There is shit you don't do, and teaching some human, that's...that's not how it's meant to be used. It's a gift, and not one I'm meant to give to you."

His mouth was bitter hops and old onions. She transported herself, with wild abandon, to the safest places she knew:

a shallow-dug firepit
brewing old tea
talking over the day with Cherny.
A midnight meal upon a stump
across from Tennant Tolleson
him and me and him and me
dreaming of what would never be...

He breathed very quickly when he said, "You have to promise me you will not abuse it. I have to know it's for the right reason. I have to know."

"It's for the right reason."

"For what fucking reason?"

"For a friend," she said.

For Catch.

"Only once?" Twice-Marked Kualdin asked, his body a sleek slash of pale flesh in the candlelight.

"Only once," Gloria said.
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Re: jee-hoale-vy-leth

Postby Rance » Sat Dec 29, 2018 8:05 am

In autumn. In Razasan. In the shifting polarities of the Tenthmonth, its sometimes-cruel days, its sometimes-cool nights, lingering on the precipice between a fading harvest and the oncoming whisper of winter.

"The usual?" he asked her.

"My two shillings' worth," she said.

He nodded. Then, with courteous ease, he came forward, balled his fist, and proceeded to pound it viciously into the barrel of her stomach, right underneath her ribs. He did not watch her as she doubled over; instead, he gazed at the street with disconnected amusement, as if this was all perfectly normal. Gloria started to stand, wiping saliva from her lip before he cocked his elbow and hammered her again. She coughed into the hay. He dragged her up by the collar, and one of her sharp, Sun-bleached eyes rolled up to meet him. "Not the face," she whispered to him.

"What do you take me for," Kualdin said. "Some kind of fucking savage?"

That was the same day she'd spoken Catch's name. The same day Follox had died. The day of the Other Woman.

* * * *

To convince Kualdin to show her how to Walk — once, and only once — had required but three sacrifices: her coin (Razasani greed poisoned even the most wholesome elf), her blood (the pain, she invited; it calmed her ever-rushing mind, silenced the demons of terror and dread whipping through her brain), and her dignity (Kualdin found greater pleasure in the acts than she ever would).

"Have you been to other planes before, Wynsee?"

"I've walked in dreams," she told him. "And I've brought things out of them."

"It's not the same," he said.

"It's close enough."

"There are thousands of other planes. Multitudes of them. Some where the rules change. Where nature itself is transmuted. Do you know why humans only live on this one, and rarely put their toes into the others? I'll give you a hint: it's not because they don't want to."

"Because they can't?"

"Because the Great Ones refused to allow them, except in rare circumstances. Humans are notoriously dangerous beings: they damage, they alter, and they stick their grimy fingers into any otherworldly business they can. And you know why? Because someone fucked right off on the day humans were created and decided that fifty to sixty years of life was just a short-enough span of time to keep them occupied. Grand idea, that. It's proved to be just enough time to make them hungry to explore what they shouldn't, in case they happen to miss out. Humans are poisonous. You're poisonous. Problem is," Kualdin said, "so am I."

To Walk was a ritual: the grain, the ground, the gruel; the blood, the brain, the brawn; the twilight, the trial, the truth. Nine offerings. Each of these she learned from Twice-Marked Kualdin, committed them to her mind's steel cage, and found herself nursing wounds and repeating them into the woodgrain as night fell upon Razasan.

Nine offerings. And if the Walk demanded it, a Tenth.

* * * *

"Couldn't you just dive into the dreams for this, Wynsee?"

"Too unreliable. If I fright, the world frights; if he frights, it falls to pieces. Elliot and Genny showed me as much."

"Who the fuck are Elliot and Genny?"

"My friends," she said to him. "My friends, even if I tire them to the limits of their wits. The one I seek out now, though, requires precision. If I'm to speak to him with a true tongue, it must be a neutral ground. A place where I've just enough control to — to surrender it to him, if the circumstance necessitates it. He'd tear me to ribbons in a dream. He would end me. I would not blame him. I've never realized it until now, but I have made myself a life of lifting my chin to that which threatens me. For Catch, I need to lower it. Just not too far."

That was the day he gave her the rheumfruit, with its yellow, wart-ridden skin, its puckered navel, its endless ripeness.

That was the night she'd gone to Glenn.

* * * *

"I want one promise: that if you survive your Walk, you'll never try again."

"Why do you care?"

"Children want for mothers, Gloria. Yours will be no different."

She stared hard at him. Then, looking down at the lumpy, alien fruit, she nodded.

"If Catch cannot cripple me of the desire to abuse this avenue, then I shall ask Genny. And I shall owe her greatly for it."
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