|The note was the first significant thing Daxton had written in the two years since his wife’s murder. Before that, he celebrated the publication of his first novel. It had been generally well received but wasn’t considered a defining piece of American literature, not that he cared anymore.
Gone were more jovial collections of words that told exciting tales of adventurous heroes thwarting evil schemes. They all faded away the day his muse was silenced. There was no hero to save them from the villain that day. That was when he realized the true value of fiction. Beautiful lies applied to thin sheets of martyred trees, he had given it all more significance than it was worth. Like all propaganda, it succeeded in only blinding him from the truth. There is nothing more fictional than the happy ending.
Carefully, he laid the note on the dining room table. There it would be untarnished for those who would find it. It was carefully and succinctly written, merely a page in length, but it truthfully told the story of his intolerable sorrow. That single sheet of paper bore more weight in its brief text than the whole catalog of the national library. A vase with a single yellow tulip was put over the header to keep the letter in place. Yellow was always her favorite color.
Daxton surveyed the silent confines of his dimly lit apartment. Very little furniture remained after the creditors had their way with him. A writer who doesn’t write is of no use to his publishers. What had been left behind was now thoughtfully packed into boxes resting in precarious towers in the bedroom. He didn’t care. Soon, he would have no use for any of it.
The revolver rested on the hardwood floor where the coffee table had once been. The discoloration where the table legs had worn away the varnish was still faintly visible. The gun glimmered in the moonlight shining through the windows beyond. A cool breeze tickled his hot skin and the hair on his limbs stood at attention. He couldn’t have imagined a more perfect night.
He sat on his knees with his bare back to the windows. The weapon was heavier than expected. As he watched the light play off the cold, polished steel, the fingers of his other hand gently traced the circumference of the perfectly round scar at the center of his chest. A few centimeters to the left and he would have shared his wife’s fate that night. The two bullets that followed the first had not been guided by better aim. The second left its mark just below his ribcage. The third went through his left shoulder, as if he weren’t even there, and met his wife.
The echoes of gunfire and her horrified screams still rang in his ears. He pressed the icy barrel under his chin. Tonight, he would put an end to the nightmares that had tormented him every night since she was taken. He closed his eyes in an attempt to conjure a more pleasant memory of her for his final thought. His finger tightened around the trigger.
A distinct rustling noise, like sheets of paper dragged over carpet, drew his attention to the bedroom. His grip loosened on the gun while he searched for the source of the mysterious sound. There was a heavy thump after one of the cardboard towers toppled over. The contents of the boxes spilled across the carpet. A tingle crept up his spine. Though he’d been home by himself for hours, it suddenly felt as if he were no longer alone.
Silently, he rose to his feet with the gun in hand. Without a breath for fear of making noise, he crept toward the bedroom. The door was open. Clearly, there was no one else in the apartment; yet he couldn’t shake the weight of hidden eyes upon him. He began to wonder if his mind was playing tricks on him in light of this evening’s dreadful goal. To put it at ease, he stepped closer to the room.
Surveying it from the doorway, he could see the unkempt bed, the dozen staggered piles of carefully labeled boxes, and the new mess spread across the floor. A journal with his wife’s handwriting scrawled on the cover caught his eye. He recalled packing it away, but hadn’t the courage at the time to open it. When he kneeled to retrieve it, a new sound, like a lizard’s hiss, pulled his attention to the ceiling. Wide eyed, he nearly dropped his weapon.
Spread out above him was a creature that, by all reason and logic, shouldn’t have existed. She had the form of a skeletally thin woman with bleach-white skin dressed in tattered, soiled hospital scrubs. Sprouting from her arms and two of the five fingers on each hand were a myriad of white and grey feathers tarnished by black ink. It was as if the quills had been used as pens before they were forcibly stabbed into her arms to form makeshift wings.
Her double-jointed legs ended in scaly, claw tipped feet resembling the talons of some extinct reptile. Protruding from the base of her spine was a long tail with a fan of dingy feathers at the end. The monster’s face was the most disturbing combination of human and animal features. She didn’t have a beak but her sharp teeth were so numerous, they barely fit in her mouth. Black drool, like Indian ink, oozed out from between each jagged tooth. Her nose was thin and pointed. Her deep-set eyes were like liquid coal as she glared back at him with hungered malice.
“What the hell...?” Daxton gasped in petrified awe.
With a mighty screech, the demon released the ceiling. Daxton raised the gun and fired while she twisted to right herself midair. Three times the hammer fell. Three bullets found their target. The evil thing crashed onto the mattress below in a flurry of stained feathers.
Daxton tried to slow his racing heart. He had never fired a gun before, nor did he ever expect to use one defending himself from some unholy beast. It didn’t seem to be breathing anymore. With his weapon trained on the creature, he inched closer to investigate.
He barely reached the foot of the bed when, in a blur of motion, he was kicked in the chest with great force. He flew back though the bedroom door and into the opposing wall in the living room. The impact placed a crater in the cheap plaster. The gun slipped from his grasp when he slumped to the floor.
The winged monstrosity descended upon him in a flash. He was barely able to clutch her by the shoulders before her shark’s teeth could tear into his throat. She roared in frustration. He glared back in defiance.
“Get off of me!” Daxton shouted, forcing her away. The razor-like claws on her feathered arms raked across his naked chest, leaving behind three bloody cuts. He was quickly to his feet before she tried again.
“As stubborn as always,” the mutant spoke with a voice that sounded, for lack of a better word, broken. It was as if her voice box was caught between woman and demon.
“What?” he gasped, moving toward the dining room table. “What are you?”
She shrieked, lunging forward. Daxton hit her across the torso with one of the chairs. It exploded into splinters and knocked her to the floor.
While she was down, he made an attempt to escape the apartment. Before he could wrap his fingers around the doorknob, black symbols in Arabic text formed upon the entryway as if ink were seeping in through the wood grains. With a tremendous shudder, the door was deconstructed before his very eyes. In its place was a painted wall as if the entryway had never existed.
“No!” he cried, running his hands across the surface in disbelief. Surly, he had gone mad or, worse, succeeded in his grim task and was experiencing his first glimpse of his eternity in Hell.
The creature chuckled spitefully, “There is no escape for you this time!”
“This time?” Daxton turned to face her. “I don’t know what the hell you are, but if you’re going to kill me, hurry up and do it! I planned to die tonight anyway.”
She didn’t answer, but shook the splinters from her wings. Circling him like a raptor preparing for a killing stroke, her gaze did not stray from his. Caught against the wall, Daxton had few defensive options. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the moon, full and bright, through the window. If he could make it there, perhaps he could disappear into the night before this thing finished him.
Daxton sprang forward to attack her. Momentarily stunned by his brazenness, she was hit several times across the face before she could deliver strike of her own. With more bloody wounds cut across his skin, Daxton ran for the windows. Her long feathers swept across the floor, tripping him up. He stumbled to the carpet mere inches from escape. He rolled over as she descended upon him. An evil grin spread across her grotesque face. She pinned him to the floor when she landed, preventing any further attempts to flee.
“Now, you die!” she hissed.
Daxton managed to land one final blow. “Shut up and do it!”
“As you wish,” she replied, restraining his free arm. Blood streamed from the puncture wounds made by her claws. She leaned in close. Her foul breath filled his lungs. Her eyes were like black holes. “But it will not be swift.”
“Who are you?” he demanded.
A dreadful suspicion crept into his mind. It was almost too horrible to bear the thought. Her features were so malformed, he couldn’t see any resemblance of the human being she had once been but the possibility still existed. He could think of no other creature that must hate him more.
“Melanie?” he breathed his wife’s name for fear of the response.
The monster cackled, digging a single sharp fingernail across his chest. “I’m going to enjoy cutting into you.”
“Damn,” someone boldly announced. “You’re one ugly harpy!”
Both Daxton and the creature looked to see a white-haired man standing in the dining room. His cheeks and chin were covered in short whiskers from a beard that appeared to be in defiance of any attempt to trim it. His dark eyes were kind, yet fierce as they stared back into the shocked, inky globes of the winged monstrosity.
He wore a seemingly average collection of similarly colored garments. Navy blue, almost black, was the color of choice for his slacks, shoes, shirt, vest, and tie. Over all of this, he wore a knee length leather jacket of similar hue. On the upper sleeve of each arm was a circular logo with a simple uppercase letter ‘A’ at the center. The horizontal bar across the modern descendant of the aleph was separated into three separate lines, giving the whole ensemble an oddly militaristic appearance.
“Author!” the creature gasped before swiftly returning her attention to Daxton.
As Daxton held back the vile jaws darting toward his jugular, the sound of firecrackers met his ears. There was an almost angelic hum before a duel-bladed sword pierced the demon from behind. The two sharpened edges faced away from each other with a nearly half inch space between them. The mysterious man held a second sword like the first that, from this angle, resembled a long, sharpened tuning fork.
The harpy screamed in agony and unleashed one final attack, rendering Daxton unconscious.
“That’s Author Hemingway to you, demon!” The man removed her head in one clean stroke of his singing sword. Her body fell limp upon her intended victim.
Miniature portals flashed open at Hemingway’s wrists like a pair of sparklers. He released the hilts of his twin swords and they were consumed within the tiny singularities in moments. The blood staining the blades was burned away when it made contact with the event horizons. Once the weapons were fully withdrawn, the portals vanished from sight.
He pulled the murderous creature off of Daxton. Black blood spurted across the floor when he dropped the body off to the side. Her severed head was not far away, watching him with frozen, hollow eyes.
“Where the hell did you come from?” Hemingway wondered aloud.
A figure cloaked in red travelled through a dark subterranean hall to a small, round chamber. At the center was an altar formed from charred, inhuman bones adorned with strange hieroglyphs. The man lowered his hood before reaching out his hand over the collection of coals atop the macabre shrine. A dim portal flashed open at his wrist, igniting the pyre.
The flame took quickly. Soon, the tiny room was cast in a flickering orange glow. The sound of giddy insects followed. The man kneeled before the altar while they erupted in swarming masses from every crack and crevice around him to circle the fire in dense arcs.
“We have recovered another page,” said the man with pride. “The Author is nearly ready to proceed.”
“The first assault must be delayed.” The words formed from the buzzing, hissing, creaking creatures surrounding him. It was a booming inhuman voice. Each harsh syllable cut through him like a blade.
“Delayed? But why?”
“Our intrusions into the Fictional Realms have altered the plot. There has been an anomaly. Victory is no longer certain.”
“Certainly one incongruity is no match for your—”
“Silence! I have followed the plotline as it is now written to its inevitable conclusion. Success is only possible if he is taken into account.”
“If it is just a man, you need only point me to his Realm. We will strike it from creation.”
“A futile effort. A new anomaly would generate.”
“Then, what would you have me do?”
“You will do nothing. I will study the narrative more deeply. When I have mapped the surest path to success, we will strike.”
“As you wish. But, please tell me, my lord, who is this man that worries you so?”
“His name is Daxton Wreaths,” Hemingway read from a small digital reader.
His superior, Editor Herbert Wells, stood next to him while they observed the doctors tending to the rescued man’s wounds. The Editor’s uniform was similar to Hemingway’s but differed in one obvious way. Wells’ garments and jacket were white. The logo on his shoulder bore four stripes within the encircled letter A.
“Thirty-one years old,” Hemingway continued. “A widower. No children.”
“A widower?” Wells said. “How tragic.”
“Yes. It looks like a mugging gone awry.”
“Sadly, it could have gone exactly as the villain intended.”
“Perhaps.” Hemingway scrolled through the information on his screen. “He only suffered minor cuts and a concussion this time around. It’s hard to be certain what that harpy was after. His home Realm is quite average. No special details to speak of. Mr. Wreaths is separated by at least five degrees from anyone playing even a minor role in his Realm’s plot.”
“It could have been a random occurrence, a natural anomaly. What have we learned of the creature?”
“The Masters of Continuity collected the remains for the Archivists to study. Jules reviewed the data but he can’t determine her origin.”
“Could it be an unmapped Realm?”
“No. The creature was in a state of dimensional flux at the atomic level.”
“Most likely the result of an unstable Gate depositing her in his apartment.”
“Jules checked on that, too. There’s no evidence of a portal. We didn’t receive an alert of her presence in that Realm until she altered the plot by removing the door. It’s as if she simply manifested.”
Wells shook his head. “I know what you’re thinking, but it simply isn’t possible.”
“She has to be a Scribe, Herb.”
“She doesn’t have to be anything, my friend. She simply is what she is. Currently, she is an enigma.”
“There’s no other way she could have found her way into that Realm without using a Gate.”
“The Scribes are a myth, nothing more.”
Hemingway grinned, “Whatever happened to ‘anything is possible in fiction’?”
“Some things are better left to the imagination. You think he was targeted by this harpy, don’t you?”
“It’s possible, though I’m stumped for a motive.”
“Run it by Edgar Poe. He does love his mysteries.”
“Sure. If you’ll allow it, I’d like to keep Daxton here for a while, just to be safe.”
“No one who is not an Author of the Guild is allowed to remain in the Foundation for longer than their medical needs require. You know that.”
“Yes. He is a writer of science fiction, you know. He even published a novel.”
“I bet it was quite the page turner.”
Hemingway shrugged. “A bit dystopian for my taste. Then again, it was never my genre.”
“Not every writer is suited for this life, Ernest. Don’t think I haven’t reviewed the details of this case. I know what he was up to before that demon arrived.”
“He has the right stuff, believe me. Most men would have frozen in their tracks when she appeared.”
Wells sighed. “I know I’m going to regret this. You have my permission to extend the invitation when he wakes.” He looked to the doctors attempting to restrain Daxton, who was writhing on the bed. “Are his injuries more severe than we thought?”
“No,” Hemingway replied. “It looks like he’s having one hell of a nightmare.”
Daxton jerked awake with gunshots and screams echoing from his torturous dreams. His eyes were immediately assaulted by the brightness of the medical quarters. He sat up in the bed and looked about the room.
It appeared fairly normal, but everything was unnaturally clean. The very walls emitted subtle light as if they weren’t formed of brick and steel. In the silence between the beeps of his heart monitor, he could almost hear the electric buzz of whatever mysterious energy comprised them.
When he reached to remove the sensors on his chest, he made another surprising discovery. The gashes made by the creature’s claws were healed. No sign of them remained, not even a scar. A tingle of worry sprouted in his gut. Either he was dead or he had finally gone mad.
“Ah, Mr. Wreaths,” the doctor smiled as he entered. He was a thin and slightly older than Daxton with glasses. His uniform was much the same as the Editor’s with blue trim. The three-bar insignia on his upper arm was also medical blue. “I’m pleased to see you’re awake.”
“Where am I?” Daxton demanded.
“You’re in the Foundation. Trust me, you’re safe here.”
“The Foundation? What is that, some sort of mental institution?”
The doctor laughed warmly and pushed his glasses back to the bridge of his nose. “No.”
“What is it then?”
“Don’t worry. Someone will be along shortly to answer all your questions. I’m just here to make sure you’re feeling better.” He lifted a digital tablet from the end of Daxton’s bed to review the data. “It looks like the epidermal regenerators have healed your cuts nicely. I don’t see any residual scar tissue. There is some slight cranial swelling due to the concussion, though. I suggest you take it easy the next few days.”
“Who are you?”
“Oh, forgive me. I’m Dr. Michael Crichton.”
A knock came from the door. Hemingway peeked in and said, “Is this a bad time?”
“No, Ernest, it’s fine,” Dr. Crichton replied. “I was just reviewing Mr. Wreaths’ treatment. I’ll let you two talk.” With that, the doctor slipped out, leaving Daxton with his rescuer.
“Hello, Daxton,” Hemingway greeted, placing a duffel bag on the bed.
“Hello,” Daxton responded with suspicion.
“I brought you a change of clothes. Medical gowns are damned emasculating if you ask me.”
“Thank you. Do I know you?”
“I was with you in your apartment a few hours ago after that creature attacked.”
“So, that wasn’t a nightmare?”
“I’m afraid not.”
Hemingway watched Daxton barely react to the news. Most would argue the creature was real. Daxton went directly and comfortably to acceptance. It was then he knew Daxton belonged here.
“That’s not where I know you from.” Daxton stood and poured the contents of the bag onto the bed. “I’ve seen you somewhere else before.”
“We’ve never met. I am Author of the Guild First Class Ernest Hemingway. I wanted to speak to you about what happened.”
“Hold up.” Daxton turned to face him once his pants were fastened. “Ernest Hemingway?”
“The other guy was named Michael Crichton. What is this, some sort of dead writers society?”
Hemingway barked a laugh. “No. From your perspective, our counterparts on your home Realm may be long dead, but that is not the case here.”
“Here in the Foundation, was it?”
“Yes. From my point of view, death is still a long way off if my luck holds.”
“You know, when I woke up, I was really concerned that I was insane,” Daxton commented with a sarcastic tone. He reached for the shirt amid the tossed sheets on the bed.
“I know this is a lot to process, Daxton. I promise it will make sense in time.”
“You better start making sense now,” he snapped back. “What the hell is going on?”
“Most have a happier existence not knowing the truth of things,” Hemingway answered, remaining calm. “The human mind can accept only so much. It’s often best to forget. I can do that, if you’d like. In a few minutes, you can be returned to your life as it was before this creature arrived. However long that lasts.”
Daxton didn’t seem to appreciate the answer.
“There is another option,” Hemingway continued, stepping closer. “I think you are one of the rare few who would benefit from a whole new perspective on things. This life isn’t easy, but you may just find what it is you’re searching for more easily than you would staring down the barrel of a gun.”
“Now, Ernest Hemingway is talking me out of suicide. Beautiful.”
“I’m not talking you out of anything. I’m making you an offer.”
“It is more than a job, Daxton. We are stewards of the Fictional Realms. There is so much more to the universe than you can fathom. I’m only offering you the opportunity to see it with your own eyes.”
“Why should I believe you?”
Hemingway smiled. “I asked the same thing when I first heard about all this. If you’re anything like me—and I’d bet my finest bottle of rum you are—you already believe me. The dreamer in you always knew there was more to the world than what these frail human eyes can see. You didn’t ask your question because you doubt me. You asked because, deep down, you believe me and the thought scares you. I understand. The truth is often terrifying.”
Daxton didn’t answer. He resigned to the chair next to the bed, deep in thought.
Hemingway wasn’t certain if he was still listening, but continued anyway, “My original offer still stands, by the way. If you want, when we’re finished here, you’ll go back home as you were. You won’t remember a thing and can die a lonely, miserable man like you planned. Or you can remain here and find a more honorable existence. What do you say?”
To Be Continued in Fiction, Volume 1: The Horror Conspiracy