Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
none by 21 - synthside
The wind whistled and moaned as it crept past the abandoned waystation. It sounded tortured, like a dying animal taking its last fitful breaths. Solomon and Helena heard it and were thankful to finally have a barrier between it and themselves - be it a crumbling wall on the brink of collapse or no.
For days they had been trudging headfirst into the gale, and it had begun to take its toll. Where the wind intruded, making its way through headscarf and rebreather facemask, it had brought an acidic tang and the bitter scent of alkali. The taste made one’s mouth unnaturally dry and the force of the gale sapped strength as it passed. This was no ordinary spring gust, this was Reaver; the wind of the change, herald of decay, shepherd of death’s advance.
Solomon’s people were fond of storytelling, and Reaver was a favorite topic. Especially on dark nights when kith and kin huddled near, around hearth and fire, swaddled in warm blankets, listening to the twin crack of embers and the chilling whistle of the wind just beyond.
Solomon remembered many such evenings gazing into the licking flames and the comforting warmth he had felt then. The feeling grew inside him, and before he knew it, he was home again with his people.
His entire family sat on rugs drawn around the central cook fire, little Isiah squirming in his lap and two-year old Tabby prim-and-proper in his wife’s, as she rocked slowly back and forth in their ancient two-legged todder. His ma and pa were there as well, the latter in his usual place of prominence at the fire, busy telling a time-worn story. On this night it was the one about Jeddah and the Lion, a favorite of his ever since childhood.
Jeddah was the gifted son of a mason, able to sculpt brick or clay, wood or stone into a likeness as convincing as only the gods could create. With each new creation his reputation grew, and before long there were mumblings that he was possessed by the gods themselves. For it was widely whispered that his creations were no mere works of clay or stone, but would come to life in the dead of night, given the right moon shone upon them.
His creations were wonders prized in his village and coveted all about the land. Hardly was there a household that didn’t know the name of Jeddah the Sculptor and soon his name became known to even the lord of all gods, Haddon. Haddon heard the rumors and took to them with interest. When he witnessed the skill of Jeddah he was furious that a mortal could create such work that could rival his own and so conspired to torment the young man.
Through guile Haddon convinced to his cousin Reaver to rouse himself from his summer slumber and blow early across the land. Jeddah was caught unaware by the gust one morning, on a chore to fetch water from his family’s well. But Reaver saw that he had been tricked by his vain cousin and instead of flaying the boy, he carried him away to a distant land down of his own.
That land was a foreign one of fantastic beasts. Lost, Jeddah wandered in a stupor of disbelief before eventually stumbling into a lion’s den. The den was home to a lion of enormous size and great age named Seezil, and self-proclaimed king of the land. Jeddah mistook the great beast for a large rock and sat on it to rest. Seezil woke, furious at being disturbed and more so to be sat on by such a pathetic creature. Jeddah pleaded with the great lion to spare his life, and promised to make the king of beasts a mighty crown. Seezil agreed, and after three days and three nights, Jeddah’s masterwork was done – a coronet befit for royalty, resplendent with sigil, crest, and triumphant angel wings. So impressed was Seezil that he grew greedy and decided to keep Jeddah prisoner for all time, a slave to create him even more wonders.
To keep the boy, Seezil locked him within a cage of brambles with nothing but a whittle and a cord of wood, commanding him to create another bauble before he woke and then returning to his slumber.
Jeddah immediately set about carving the wood into the shape of rat, and that night, when the moon was right, pleaded with it to free him. The wooden rat twitched and jumped from his hand and Jeddah feared that it might run away. But the rat stayed and began chewing at the brambles, eventually cutting a path through the cage for Jeddah to escape.
He was free, but Jeddah knew that a predator as mighty as Seezil would be able to find him in the morning. Dismayed he wracked his brain, and then a jolt of inspiration hit him. As stealthily as he could, he crept over to the sleeping lion and whispered the words, ‘cover his eyes so he shall not see.’
The moonlight glistered on the coronet and it’s angel wings flexed high and proud before bending themselves to cover the mighty beast’s eyes. When Seezil woke in the morning he found that he was blind, and though he raged and threatened and finally pleaded, he could not and never would find the boy who had made him the least of all the beasts.
The warm glow of the memory dulled in shades of gray until it matched the dank surroundings of the crumbling waystation. Solomon was once again with Helena, hunched over his haunches, picking idly at his nails as he was wont to do. He looked to where she sat slumped against the wall, and she too seemed lost in thought.
“We can’t keep takin’ this headwind,” she said coming to, her eyes clearing.
Solomon nodded thoughtfully.
“Yar, we can’t. But…”
“But there is a way.”
He raised an eyebrow in surprise. He tilted his head in expectation and she continued.
“An unnerground network a’ tunnels not far from ‘ere.”
Solomon was surprised, but knew he shouldn’t be; her knowledge of the machine lands never failed to impress.
“Who’s tunnels?” He asked.
She simply smiled in return.
“Ah, gods and devils,” he swore.
Her grin widened.
“I s’pose ther’s nuttin t’be done ‘bout it then,” he sighed.
“’Sides, we’ve got th’ famed Solomon Fayd, renowned for his a-mazing ability as a’ tracker an’ feats o’ stealth.”
She was making sport of him, but it still felt good to hear the praise, honest or no.
“Yar, yar. My cheeks are red as blood-berries, I thankya.”
Her smile widened farther than he thought possible. The sight of all those pristine white teeth were a sight that stirred his wonder if not his heart. No one had teeth like that, except Jotside, and that was under the domes.
“Tell me ‘bout these tunnels,” he said.
“We passed an entrance not one klick back,” she said.
A wave of relief washed over him – they wouldn’t have to trudge headfirst into Reaver then. The wind was still on the grow, but it would be much more manageable at their backs.
“Aye, good. These tunnels, what’s their purpose?”
She shrugged, and he gave it some thought.
“Prob’ly our only shot now tha’ th’ wind is fit to blow a full Reaver. If we start now, we can make it b’fore it turns a true flayer.”
She nodded and pushed herself to her feet as he took to his. They both dusted themselves off and picked up their kit. With headwraps, facemasks, and bandanas in place they put their heels to the waystation and headed back the way they had come. At the outset the gust at their backs pushed them along with more than a gentle nudge, but soon they were staggering to keep its punch from knocking them from their feet.
Solomon knew they wouldn’t be able to take it for much longer, and as soon as he began to fear they wouldn’t make it out of the squall with the skin on their backs, Helena made a motion dead-ahead. They had made it, or nearly.
Both of them put their heads down and fought to keep the wind from them carrying away and focused on taking each step one in-front of the other.
Solomon wasn’t sure what he expected, but it wasn’t what they found. The access was little more than a gaping hole in the side of a shallow ravine, and when they approached it, they came in on the high side, three meters above the ground below.
Helena dropped to a knee and Solomon took that as his cue. He moved to use his body to block as much of the shrieking wind as he could. Without hesitation she unslung her pack and deftly maneuvered her fingers to a pocket, pulling out a piece of lambskin. With a tug on a drawstring the skin came apart and revealed a round gleaming plate of silver. As she turned it, its color changed and Solomon realized that it was a reflecting glass. He didn’t know what she planned to do with it, but when she leaned over the lip of the edge and reached down with the mirror in hand, realization dawned. Without waiting another moment he hurried down to the entrance and reached up to take the mirror from her hand. He held it where she had and waited for her to join him at the entrance.
Once she had reached him, she resumed possession of the reflecting glass and Solomon turned his attention to the portal before him.
It looked like the entrance to the lion’s den, and the thought of Jeddah and Seezil came to mind. Solomon shuddered. He looked at Helena and held a finger to his lips, she nodded and tilted her head impatiently. The message was clear: get us the hel in there already.
Solomon returned his attention to the round metal portal and began inspecting its surface. The whole thing was featureless except for one round soft pad about the size of a thumb on the left side of the entry about waist-high from the ground. He bent to get a better look and reached out to touch it when he felt a bony prodding in his side. He reared up and spun to see Helena, still holding the mirror in place above her head, but now with her pack slung loosely over one shoulder. The top draw was open, and what she held in her last free hand must have been what shook took from the.
It was a severed metal arm, complete from the elbow down, its form reminiscent of a human’s. The similarity was chilling. What was unmistakably its index finger pointed eerily towards him; almost accusingly.
That must be what poked him in the ribs. She thrust it at him and nodded at the outstretched finger.
What in the gods’ names did she want him to do with it? And for that matter, where did she get it? Obviously from a Synthien, but how had she managed that?
Solomon realized there was much more to his companion that he didn’t know.
He took the metal arm at its wrist with a mixed look of disgust and wonder, turning it over before his face. It was as stiff as a dead man riddled with rigor mortis and cold to the touch. The thing gave him the creeps, but there was something about it that Helena must have thought would help them gain entry.
He looked back at her and she held up her index finger and turned it towards him. What the-
Of course! The finger!
He turned back towards the door with the metal arm in his left hand like a grotesque prosthetic, and aimed its outstretched finger for the round pad.
It touched and – nothing.
Solomon had to work to stifle a curse. Why hadn’t it worked?
He pressed the finger against the pad harder. Nothing. He leaned against the arm with all his weight, practically attempting to drive the finger though the hole. Still nothing.
The finger had something to do with the door, but…
It was part of a machine and now it was dead. That was the problem.
Solomon unslung his pack and rummaged about for what he felt would help. Finally his fingers found it and he pulled out a box with two metal prongs jutting from one end. If this didn’t do the trick, he was fresh out of ideas. He prayed that whatever was left of the thing inside the arm was enough to open the door. Once again he held the finger to the pad and this time touched the box’s prongs to the exposed cabling inside the arm. With a push of a button on the box, electricity surged through it and into the severed metal appendage. Light came from inside almost immediately and it jerked to life, its fingers spasming like a lizard skewered on a stick. He wrestled with the thing, trying to get the finger – any finger by gods - to make uninterrupted contact with the pad.
The damn thing danced around its destination, brushing it, glancing it, but not making firm contact. Solomon gritted his teeth, clamped the arm against his waist, and grabbed hold of the index finger with his entire hand. He jammed it against the pad with all his force and for a wonder it finally made full contact. A series of clicks, clacks, and clanks came from inside the door and it began to rotate inward slowly.
Solomon pulled the prongs away from the arm and it once again stiffened into lifelessness, and for that he was thankful. He glanced at Helena, a genuine look of relief blanketed her face, and then back into the darkness ahead. He took a step over the threshold and thought about another portal he had entered weeks ago, one that lead to a dingy low-lit tavern. He moved quickly and didn’t look back.