Psychonaut I: Mercury
Copyright © 2011 Nabeel Afsar
All rights reserved.
The mountainous black cloud roared across the blood red horizon, as Aruk stood watching from the cliff's edge. When the dark smoke slipped over the hills and settled in the valley, he woke Anika.
She saw his silhouette against a sickly sky, brown and soiled, a sepia hue catching in her throat. Wordlessly, Aruk dragged her from the hole he'd dug for them, and she stumbled to her feet, staggering behind him lazily as he plowed ahead determined.
She tried adjusting her skins, but Aruk yanked too tight at her wrist. She cried out in pain, but he ignored her and pressed forward on bare feet, climbing the first slope of the mountain. Before she could raise her voice again, her breath leapt from her lungs when she saw the birds.
All around her, like a garden of motley flowers, ink black and treetrunk brown, lay a field of dead birds, wings akimbo, feathers still softly falling to the grass. And even then, more birds, freshly dying, pelted the valley floor like a trickle of hale, landing with wet thuds.
The darkness of these omens was not lost on the young girl. A great terror roiled in her belly as the afternoon sun shone pathetically behind the veil of poison cloud, too weak to burn through and brighten the land. That scant taste of diffused light would be her last before the night settled and the great winter arrived.
They reached the highest peak they could manage, and from there they watched as the smoke filled the sky like clotting blood. The blistering winds had started several suns ago, but each day they grew sharper and more furious. By the fourth day, when the atmosphere soured and the sunsets lit up with colors unfamiliar, the winds were now a chronic feature, whistling ominous warnings to whatever life still lingered.
Aruk and Anika watched for several days, going hungry with the meager supply of berries they managed to forage on the bare mountain's crown. They sucked on icicles and stayed close to share their body's heat. The merciless winds stamped out any attempts at building a fire and the hilltops were so barren there was scarcely enough bramble to catch let alone logs to burn.
Anika's body quivered, her teeth chattering uncontrollably. They had never known cold like this: a chill that hardened their animal hides and seeped into their bones, settling there and eating their warmth from within. Aruk pulled her in closer under his arm. She looked up at him, at the thickness of his scowling brow, blunt and rigid, the bronze of his skin, the width of his nose. To think, it had been just three moons ago that her first blood came and Aruk had taken her. He terrified her then; the brute had many more years on her, and his body was riddled with scars of violence and hardship. He was a beast, eager to hunt and satisfy his base desires, and she no more than a child.
And yet now, Anika was thankful to have him. She shook as much from confusion as from the cold: she could not understand what malevolence was swallowing the world, why the birdsong was silenced by a low rumble from the north, why the sun was turning away, ceding the sky to fire and smoke.
When the last touches of daylight were no more, a starless night settled and no man laid eyes upon the sun or stars or even the moon for generations to come. The cold soaked deep into the ground itself, freezing oceans and rivers into glacial tombstones to the life that once thrived. From atop the world, Aruk and Anika starved, observing with awe the death all around them. Desperately they chewed on the corpses of birds suffocated by the volcanic ash, and upon swallowing the meat they would retch painfully and sweat hot with fever.
The snowfall enamored them both, even Aruk who could not comprehend the gentle flakes dancing angelically slow as they fluttered to the ground and gathered there, much to his astonishment. At first, the light dusting was beautiful and calming after the thunderous roars of the volcanoes to the north. But as the flurries turned to squalls and the squalls grew to blizzards, Aruk knew this snow was a deadly beauty. A silent death, but hardly peaceful.
Within a matter of weeks, the verdant green land once brimming with life that pranced through its grasslands and loped up its hillsides was now a hushed white graveyard, bleak and quiet, a long silence to mourn the dead.
They descended the mountain when they had scavenged the last of its fruit, but their was no sight of the others. The blanket of snow disguised the terrain that Aruk had known all his life, so that they were lost and disoriented. And with the sky as egg-white as the snow-covered land, there was no sun to guide them, no stars to orient them.
But with the snow and ice all around, there was no shortage of water. That was almost the worst of it: to starve with a belly full of water, a clear mind forced to live only to face madness. They needed food, they needed fire and warmth. Berries offered little nourishment, and the others were gone, their tracks untraceable beneath the frost, and their food gone with them.
Their bodies shriveled. Their ribs shined through as they ate themselves from within. Aruk's arms were taut, his thighs, once heavy, were now lean and aching with cold. Anika managed to retain some of her weight and some warmth along with it, but still she couldn't stop shivering.
On the thirteenth day, Anika collapsed in dizziness, stammering nonsense and intermittently crying out for someone Aruk did not know. He rubbed her hand in his, blowing breath on them to warm her. But her lips were blue, the color drained from her cheeks. Even her eyes seemed pale, the brown in her pupils fading to a dim honeysuckle.
Aruk sobbed in desperation and begged the gods for mercy, cradling Anika in his arms. He shook her, but her eyes simply rolled back and her ramblings grew louder and more incoherent. The tears froze on his cheeks before they could drip while Aruk pleaded with the gods to spare her life, to spare him from having to carry on alone in a desolate wasteland awaiting a cold death.
But Anika's eyes eventually closed, her breath inevitably fading to a shallower and shallower hiss.
And then he saw it.
A light in the distance. A dim, golden glow, far across the valley.
The black night and the white snow played tricks on one's perspective, and Aruk knew that the light was further than it appeared. Nevertheless, he summoned what little strength he had left and hoisted Anika in his arms. It was a struggle to get to his feet
and when his thighs burned with their weight, he fell on his knees. Blood steamed and froze on his shins, but he was too numb to feel the pain. He tried again and this time, he managed to get on his feet with a stiff lurch. The hard part was over, he realized as he found himself surefooted and stable. He set out on the long march to the golden light.
Aruk trudged through the fatigue, no longer afraid of death. What little chance there was of survival lay with the golden light, Aruk knew that much. And if the exhaustion was enough to kill him, so be it. Then they would die together, and he wouldn't have to face this hell alone.
As Aruk drew closer to the orb of gold, he found it was higher up on the valley walls, overlooking the gorge below. Aruk knew attempting the climb at night would be perilous, but Anika would be dead by morning. With weariness building in his muscles, he had no choice but to try now while he was still able.
So Aruk, with his childbride Anika thrown over one shoulder, scaled the valley wall, his toes purpling with frostbite, his fingernails chipping from starvation and bleeding from each grab of jagged cliff. The terrain grew steeper as Aruk found himself just a few feet away from the light, but at the bottom of a near vertical crag of rock.
He'd come too far to die now. He summoned strength from the gods, chanting the prayersongs of his father's father before him. His hands bloody, his body bruised and worn, Aruk climbed the last strength of cliffside until he reached the ledge where the light shone.
There he reached for it but his fingers smashed into an invisible wall: a thick layer of ice as clear as glass. Golden light shined deliciously behind the sheet of ice.
Aruk grunted angrily and kicked at the wall. The ice chipped slightly, but Aruk's heel burst open, blood blossoming out like a blooming lotus.
Aruk did not care. He felt nothing now, just animal desperation, the will of instinct. He pummeled the sheet of ice with kicks, chipping away at both the wall and his legs. But finally, enough of the ice shattered off. He had created a crack big enough for a man where the scent of firewood slipped through.
Aruk's heart fluttered. He pulled Anika around to his front, cradling her like a baby. He looked at her face, blue as the pre-dawn sky.
He stepped into the cave and found a cavernous tomb. The cave had been carved out, a great domed ceiling arching overhead, and the ground leveled flat beneath the feet. The cave walls were adorned with great paintings the likes of which Aruk had never seen. The ghosts of great beasts - the snarl of long-toothed cats twice the size of a man, the regal flocks of antlered stags, the venomous stares of eagles - comprised a mural teeming with life and motion.
In the center of the circular cavern, a fire raged beautifully, dancing hot and cheerful while casting restless shadows on the wall, giving life to the paintings of the animal spirits.
And by the fire sat a beautiful young man in robes the color of ocher, the flames lighting his boyish face smiling at Aruk and Anika. The man did not share Aruk's strong brow or his permanent scowl. His features were delicate, his sandy skin was several shades lighter than Aruk and Anika's dark brown, and his almond eyes lit up playfully. He wore his hair long, tied back between his shoulder blades.
Dread boiled in Aruk's belly. There was something unnatural about this man; his face was alien, his demeanor too calm, too still. The womblike silence of the cavern rang like a bell in Aruk's ears.
Aruk set Anika down by the fire. He held her hands close to the flames, rubbed warmth into them. But Anika's hands were limp and lifeless. Aruk pressed his ear against her blue lips and found no breath there. She was part of the cold now.
Aruk cried, burying his head in Anika's bosom.
The man smiled at Aruk.
"Son. Do not weep."
Aruk heard the man's voice, but he did not see his mouth move. No, his lips still held that smile that radiated love. But nevertheless, Aruk had heard a voice in his head and while it spoke a tongue he did not know, he understood it regardless.
Dumbfounded, Aruk sat by the fire across from the young man in the sunset-colored robes. He'd never seen such fabric. Aruk
was used to tougher garments; rawhide leather, and animal skins and the furs of fallen beasts. But the man before him wore silky fabrics that curtained around him like flower petals.
"Many days have I waited here for you. It is good to see you."
Aruk heard the man speak, but also watched his frozen mouth smiling wordlessly, and so the paradox made his heart race.
The man stood and approached Anika's corpse. Aruk pulled her close protectively.
The man gestured with a nod of his head and a sweet smile. The simple nod was enough. Aruk let the man approach.
He held Anika's wrist, padded his index and middle fingers against the pulse there. There was no heartbeat, no blood pumping through her veins. The man held her wrist in one hand and pressed the other against Anika's closed eyes. While palming her face, the man whispered secret words in a low voice, his own eyes closed.
Aruk stared in fear and fascination.
When the man finished his prayersong and opened his eyes, he lifted his hand from Anika's face. She was the same - her cheeks pale as bone, her lips still grape purple. Aruk was still crying when she stirred, as if in a dream she couldn't wake from.
To his amazement, color flushed Anika's cheeks before Aruk's eyes. Her indigo complexion darkened and her lips reddened with warm, pumping blood. Finally, her eyes opened and the way she held Aruk's gaze, he knew her mind was restored fully.
"Aruk..?" she asked, confused, her vision a carousel of divine animals she'd never laid eyes upon.
"Anika--" Aruk choked, crying and hugging his childbride.
The man stood. He wore sandals made of leather and canvas straps. He picked up a log of wood from the pile in the corner and gently placed it in the fire. He resumed his seat across from Aruk, who glared at the man incredulously.
"How?" Aruk asked, his eyes still brimming with tears of euphoria, terror and transcendent awe.
The man in the ocher robes smiled sweetly and said,
"Everything is a dream. All dreams are real."