A tribal warrior embarks on a dangerous quest to save his people from a plague
|Alkaquet, son of Alaquetzel, gathered his skins more tightly about his person. The frigid air of the desert night managed to seek-out and penetrate any gap or fold in his garment. He longed with every step to stop and build a fire, to spend a few precious moments in its warmth--but he dared not. This close to the Outlands, it was best not to draw attention to oneself.
A coyote howled in the night, close. The young warrior felt his grip tighten on the shaft of his spear. He paused a moment to listen, then continued on toward the distant woods, and the inky outline of the great mountains beyond.
It would be another two days at least, before the forests--visible now as little more than a hazy green band at the foot of the mountain-range--could be reached. Again, he longed to stop and rest, to warm himself by a fire. With a will, he pushed such thoughts from his mind. There were too many dangers this close to the Outlands. Along with the usual predators of the desert (the snakes, scorpions, and coyotes) it was said that werewolves were known to wander out of the Dark Woods to fall upon the unwary.
The young warrior’s free-hand went to the small pouch he’d fastened about his neck with a strip of leather thong. Inside, an amulet crafted by the tribe’s divine, a talisman meant to keep such otherworldly threats at bay. All things considered, Alkaquet would gladly have traded his amulet for another five able-bodied warriors...
Unfortunately, that was out of the question. According to the tribal elders, the Half-Man never revealed himself to more than one person at a time.
Alkaquet shuddered. He told himself it was the cold.
“The Half-Man is wyly. He will use his hidden side to your disadvantage…”
This was Dalaquetzel, tribal elder and brother of Alkaquet’s father. For all his talk of the Half-Man, Alkaquet suspected his uncle knew no more about the creature than he himself had learned through legend. Still, his father’s brother deserved respect, and so the young warrior had listened, and nodded in the right places. “Yes, uncle.”
The portly old man continued. “Fair omens have been reported, sacrifices made...you have the talisman?”
Alkaquet touched the pouch hanging from his neck. “I have it here, uncle.”
“Good...that’s good. That will protect you from…” The elder paused as two boys passed by. Between them, they carried a litter upon which two bodies had been piled, one atop the other.
“Yes, yes...from werewolves.” Dalaquetzel looked intently at his brother’s son.
“What is it, uncle?”
“I wish you didn’t have to do this. A fool’s errand, at worst...and at best it is a danger beyond our reckoning…” Dalaquetzel was shaking his head.
Alkaquet placed a hand on his uncle’s shoulder. “I won’t let you down, uncle. If there is a way, I will find it.”
Dalaquetzel offered his nephew a tight smile. “Your father would be proud of the warrior you have become. Go forth and conquer, son of Alaquetzel--and then return to vanquish the scourge that ravishes our tribe.”
The green bar obscuring the base of the mountains coalesced gradually, over the course of the next forty-hours, into the Dark Woods. By the time the sun had reached its apex in the sky, individual trees could be discerned from among the collective. They were gnarly, arthritic-looking things.
Now, Alkaquet could build his fire. It grated on the young warrior’s nerves, though, having to expose himself this close to the Dark Woods. Away from the protection of the tribe, out here at the very border of the Outlands, Alkaquet suspected it was his stealth and speed that had kept him alive thus far. To stop now and build a fire, it seemed madness--and yet the elders had insisted it need be done...
The Half-Man, according to the tribal shaman, could not be caught. This spirit, who legend said existed half in the world of the living and half in the realm of the dead, could only be seen from one side. It need only turn around, therefore, in order to confound its hunter. Consequently, anyone foolhardy enough to seek the Half-Man needed try and lure the roaming spirit to himself--a dangerous and frightening strategy, to say the least.
Alkaquet skirted the forest, gathered as much wood as he dared without actually entering the Dark Woods. When he succeeded, finally, in getting the strange timber to ignite, it burned with a muted, oily-yellow flame that reeked of decaying flesh.
Fingering the talisman hanging around his neck, the young warrior reached inside his skins with his free hand. He found the folded root-paper full of black powder he’d stitched therein. As he touched the package of hallucinogens, a coyote howled in the dawning night.
For a time Alkaquet sat. The young warrior watched as the sun slid behind the mountain-peaks; He marveled at how little heat the fire he’d built was producing. Finally, he opened the packet of black-powder. He looked to the sky, and took a deep, cleansing breath. He brought the paper to his nose and inhaled.
When Alkaquet awoke, it was no longer night...but it was not exactly day either. The entire sky had taken on the muted, oily quality of the previous night’s fire. He rose on unsteady legs, found his center-of-balance. A coyote howled and Alkaquet could swear the sound had originated from deep within his own consciousness. He turned three-hundred-sixty degrees, unable to locate the source of the noise.
“The Half-Man has turned his back on this world, but I can help you find him.”
Alkaquet spun to find a falcon perched beside the greasy remains of the fire. The animal cocked its head.
Having ingested the ghost-powder before, the warrior knew the sort of hallucinations one might expect to experience. Talking falcons were not among them.
“What are you?” Alkaquet took a cautious step toward the impressive-looking bird. “Are you some demon?”
The falcon continued to stare. It didn’t move its beak, and Alkaquet was relatively certain it didn’t make any actual noise either. From within his own mind, though, the warrior could hear the creature’s answer.
“Demon or no, I am your guide,” It said.
Alkaquet regarded the bird. “I will wait.”
“You will wait forever…,” The animal answered in his mind. “The Half-Man has turned his back on the world of men.”
The warrior considered this. “Why would you assist me? What would you want in return?
The falcon ruffled its mane, settled back into a relaxed position. “Only that I should be remembered for my part in this, and revered among your people.”
Somewhere in the distance, a coyote cried out in the half-night. It was joined, presently, by a chorus of three or four others. Alkaquet shuddered. “Assist me in my quest, and I will ensure that your name lives forever.”
“Very well,” the falcon said. “The Half-Man is not visible from the ground, but it is possible to see him from the sky. Come close, and I will whisper my plan to you, and tell you my name…”
“I have found you, Half-Man.”
With the falcon’s assistance, cornering and confronting the Half-Man had been a simple matter--too simple for Alkaquet’s liking. He wondered, and not for the first time, if the bird was actually in league with his supernatural prey.
“Someone found me…,” The Half-Man turned, looked to the sky. “Or something.”
Alkaquet was not to be turned around. “I have seen you! Now, if you are powerful, as the legends say, sit, and have some conference with me.”
“Ah, but that is not the reason you come, is it, Alkaquet, son of Alaquetzel?”
The warrior tried to remember if he’d told the falcon his name--he certainly hadn’t told the Half-Man. “Give me your tinctures and medicines peaceably, and I should then leave satisfied.”
It was hard to look at the Half-Man, who sneered a half-sneer. Alkaquet’s mind kept filling in the missing half as best it could. The result was a sort of Schroedinger's nightmare in which the missing half of the Half-Man was both there and not there at the same time. The effect was disorienting and nauseating.
“But then I should be left unsatisfied…” The Half-Man said.
Alkaquet threw his spear to the side. Combat with the Half-Man needed be hand-to-hand, as it had been throughout the ages. “Very well. I challenge you, Half-Man. Do you accept?”
The Half-Man smiled. The effect--both real, and partially imagined--was hideous. “I do. First, though, we will make sacrifice.”
Alkaquet nodded. “Agreed. Shall we set a snare, or share the hunt?”
“Call your falcon.”
A coyote shriek pierced the night. It surfed on the desert wind until it was the merest shadow of a ghost-howl. “I have no falcon.”
The Half-Man turned, so that he was invisible to the warrior. “Your guide...call it, or I go.”
The odor of burning plumage and roasting flesh permeated the air still, as Alkaquet bested the Half-Man. The warrior stood over his vanquished opponent. “You are beaten! Now, I will have your medicines, or your life.”
“Very well,” The defeated spirit sighed. “Very well...they are yours.”
The Half-Man reached up and touched Alkaquet’s calf. In that instant, the warrior’s knowledge of medicines and healing was enhanced exponentially. Suddenly Alkaquet understood not only the cause of the blight ravishing his people, but how it could be stopped.
Great Sky! I will be the most revered shaman the tribe has ever, or will ever know!
“Now leave me, Alkaquet, son of Alaquetzel. Go and heal your tribe.”
The warrior sprang forward, took hold of the Half-Man. “I will,” he said, and plunged his spear deep into the Half-Man’s eye.
Alkaquet stumbled across the desert hard-pan, dehydrated and disoriented. The ghost-powder had worn off, and his encounter with the talking falcon and the Half-Man seemed the stuff of drug-induced dreams…
The knowledge, though...the information he’d received from the Half-Man, that told him otherwise. It was still right there at his fingertips, medical knowledge to outstrip even the most revered of shaman and healers.
His thoughts turned, once again, to the falcon. What had his name been? For the life of him, Alkaquet couldn’t recall. How useful it would be, though, to have the falcon as a guide now…
For the third time in an hour, Alkaquet slowed to a stop. He turned three-hundred-sixty degrees, trying to determine his position in the desert. With nothing other than the receding mountains as a landmark, it was nearly impossible to tell.
He tricked me...the Half-Man vexed me…
Flush with victory, and with the hope of saving his tribe (or of being the best shaman the tribe had ever known...and isn’t that very nearly the same thing?) Alkaquet had fled the Dark-Woods by night. Though he’d been in a drug-induced haze at the time, he could remember quite clearly using the stars to fix his direction, due-south. His horror had been tangible as the drugs left him, as he realized he’d been traveling south-west.
Altering his course would have been a simple matter, had the warrior any idea how long he’d been walking due-southwest. Among the chief attributes of ghost-powder was its ability to stretch and contract time, until the very concept had little actual usefulness to the user.
And so, Alkaquet had altered his course using the distant mountain peaks to estimate the distance he'd traveled. Obviously, he had done so in error.
His hand went, of its own volition, to the water-sack at his side. It was empty, and had been for...what? Hours, now? Days?
The young warrior’s strength had left him. The effort of will required simply to lift one foot and put it down in front of the other was sobering. He wondered how many more steps he had in him. Fifty, he guessed? Perhaps sixty, if he really dug deep?
Alkaquet was at seventy-three steps when he fell to his knees. The desert air was a furnace; His skin baked and blistered in the mid-afternoon sun.
Just for a moment...He soothed himself, I’ll only rest for a moment…
He fell over onto his side. The sand burned his neck and the side of his face. Just a moment…
A noise brought Alkaquet back from the brink of unconsciousness. It was the cry of a bird.
With tremendous effort, the man with the power to save his entire tribe rolled over onto his back. Circling above, as he’d expected, were four carrion birds--vultures, it looked like.
What a meal you’re about to get. Do make sure and eat my memory...there’s a lot of good stuff in there now…
Alkaquet’s vision blurred and he slipped perilously close to unconsciousness. He’d been wrong, he realized as he died. There weren’t four vultures circling; there were three buzzards, and one falcon.
J Robert Kane
Oct 3 and 4 2017