by Azrael Tseng
An odd couple's relationship is tested. Paranormal Romance & Quill winner.
The window was open just enough to let in the cool night air. Any wider a crack and their sweaty stench would escape the cabin into the Wastes outside. Goroesis could pick up a warm-blooded scent from miles away, and this far down south, any area near water swarmed with them. In Zel’s current condition, they could not expect to fend off even one of those monstrous creatures, much less the packs they always roamed in.
Dee stayed near the opening, feeling some small relief from the wind wicking away the stickiness from her skin. The ugly gash along her forearm had completely closed and the scar almost faded. It had itched so badly earlier that evening she had been glad for the distracting bites of flailing sand the winds hurled against her. In another hour or so, there would be no sign she had ever suffered the injury.
Such was the power of the body-bind spell. Every wound ever inflicted, all the cellular deterioration accumulated over almost five hundred years, had simply slipped off this perpetually youthful body like water on a waxy leaf. She still looked much like her eighteen-year-old self with her auburn tresses thick and springy, her baby-smooth skin fair and unblemished, although her odd-matched eyes — one hazel and the other azure-grey, gleamed with wisdom and pain. In contrast, Zel resembled a centenarian.
She had removed his clothes and body wrappings so he lay naked on the only piece of furniture — the remains of a two seater sofa. The leather upholstery had been eaten away almost completely, except on the bottom. From the scratch marks by the lower edges, it had been done by either animals or even humans crazed with hunger. The truly ravenous did not care how many years and treatment processes went into what they put in their mouths since it died, as long as it was once part of a plant or animal. Sometimes, even that was a moot concern. All that remained was about half of the original stuffing, but it made a comfortable bed for one.
Zel’s dry and shrivelled skin stretched like rice parchment over his curled up body. Despite his naturally dark skin, a smattering of sun spots freckled his shoulders and arms exactly where they had first appeared on her. Even though he still had all his hair, long and over his shoulders just like when they first met, they now hung white and wispy. Dee touched his neck and immediately withdrew it. Zel burned hot — far hotter than a normal human could endure, but his nephilim essence healed him faster and staved off most debilitative effects that afflict mortal creatures. This fever would pass just like the ones before. He simply needed rest.
Dee could not sleep. She had laid out all their linen wrappings and heavy woollen robes out to dry and air. With few other belongings, she had nothing else to take care of and no distractions to while away the time. Scavengers had stripped the cabin bare of everything not nailed down, and would probably have torn down the structure for wood and metal scrap if not for its remote location. They would never have found the place if Zel had not scouted ahead through various creatures’ senses. Often when they found themselves divest of all clothing and away from prying eyes, they would make love for hours. Not tonight, however. She did not mind the room’s heat and humidity, but Zel could not be touched in his condition. So tonight she would meditate instead.
“Zel, wake up.” Dee bent as close as she could bear and called into his ear. “It’s almost midday.”
Heat poured in from the window that had offered such cool comfort the night before, even though she had draped a robe over it. It rolled off Zel’s comatose body in waves of almost matching intensity, trapping Dee in a tiny confined space that felt more and more like a nuclear furnace. She had doused him with the last of their water but his fever only worsened, and he remained unresponsive. This had never happened before.
Zel had always been the one who looked after her and took charge when things went wrong. He had never given her any cause for concern but she worried now. She needed more water, and knew of only one place to get it.
“I’ll be back soon, my love.” Her hand hovered over his cheek as if to caress it, but stayed in hover before she withdrew it. The spring lay only an hour’s walk away. She would be back before the sun even started to droop. The goroesis had never emerged from their burrows and caves during the day before, so she expected to encounter little, if any, trouble. Snapping on her goggled mask, she took another lingering look at the love of her life, whispered a prayer, and stepped outside.
The Wastes showcased spectacularly distinctive seasons, even though it straddled the equatorial belt. Fall storms made the ground rumble so hard rocks spent half the time in the air, while lightning trees arced and shattered perpetually cloud-shrouded skies. Winters spewed hail from the heavens and razor rain so lethal even the hardiest goroesis hibernated on empty stomachs rather than risked a gruesome death by mutilation and impalement. Spring welcomed sky melt that slowly leached meat from bone, leaving marks of mad artistry on the disfigured hides and faces of the creatures that prowled below.
Now during the bone-dry summer, ravenous sand swarms raged. Ceaseless winds intensified to a frightening frenzy gave teeth to seething, airborne sand. Without adequate protection, a swarm could strip a body of all its flesh and soft parts in minutes leaving behind only the skeleton. Even bones did not survive long before becoming part of a future swarm. The Wastes was essentially one gigantic graveyard, haunted by hundreds of mutated ghouls and gaunts — the goroesis, subsisting on the scraps the desert left behind.
Dee made her way past the jagged stumps of what used to be trees. Here on the fringe, the wind spat in gusts instead of being a constant torment. The fossilised remains of what had been a forest belt between the desert and the mountains lay buried beneath her feet, swallowed by ever-stretching tongues of sand. Far to the southeast beyond the deadly reach of the Wastes, living trees still towered tall and green but Zel had insisted on hugging the southern perimeter.
“They will come by this way. We must be here when they arrive.”
Who ‘they’ were or what they would be doing in such an inhospitable place, only Zel knew. He had followed signs only he could see and voices only he could hear, and she had simply followed him as she had done for centuries. Now, however, she had her own trail to follow. She had marked the way back to the spring by scratching the symbol for water into the calcified crusts of stumps along the way. In the past, she had been completely reliant on Zel. If not for him, she would not be alive. But as his powers began to wane, struggling to keep up with the increasing toll of bearing everything that should be hers to suffer, she started to pick up skills in preparation for the day when he could no longer protect her, or might even need her to care for him instead.
The sniffs and growls came in snatches on the staccato wind, alarming her with their unexpected proximity. She could neither see nor smell them yet, but guessed they were closing in from the north. How they had caught her scent with such haphazard wind and why they ventured outside during the day now when they had not done so before briefly flashed across her mind, but she could not waste any time on such deliberations. Goroesis could not be reasoned with or intimidated. She could only hope to either outrun them or get to someplace they would not go.
I can’t go back or they might come across the cabin. Zel can’t fend them off in his condition.
Eastward towards the desert she fled, not daring to look behind. When blurred, blackened shapes stopped rushing past and a swirling brown blanket of bristling sand swallowed her, she did not panic. If she could not make sense of where she was, the goroesis would have a harder time finding her as well. Hopefully. She counted to herself the number of steps she took, more as a reassuring mantra than as a method she expected to help her retrace her route.
Seventy-eight, seventy-nine… Not too far or I might not find the perimeter again during a pocket of calm.
Deafened by the hissing wind and sand, she no longer heard the goroesis. However, they might still be tracking her with their superior senses, waiting for a chance to pounce.
One hundred fifty-one, one hundred fifty-two…
She stopped at two hundred. The landscape shifted constantly out here and even at this distance, she worried about not being able to find the tree-line again. Was it far out enough for the goroesis to give up the chase though? Should she keep going at the risk of getting hopelessly lost? What if they were right behind her?
She fell on her knees and began to pray.
“Why do you call him Father?”
Zel traced a finger from her belly button to her left breast, as if trying to dry her sweat-glistened skin one finger trail at a time. Like her, he lay on his side naked as on the day she first met him. She was beginning to acquire a preference for skin over clothing as well, having spent more time out of her dress than in it since they started making love.
“That’s what we were taught to call Him. What do you call Him?”
“By His name — El, in one of your oldest human tongues. But among the divine creations, we sing rather than speak it — the entire musical sound, complete, complex, each magnificent note, every soul-rending silence…”
The sudden absence of sand smattering against her visor alerted her to the lull. She opened her eyes to a strange sight. A little boy, completely bald with eerily pale skin all over his mostly-naked body, squatted not ten paces away staring at her. So still he stayed Dee almost thought him a statue, until he blinked. She blinked back, and then noticed they were not alone.
The calm extended in a fifty-pace radius around them. From behind the boy, Dee saw a disturbance in the veil of swirling sand, which parted to reveal a figure dressed all in black approaching — another young boy, she realized, this one about fifteen or so. He wore no mask but some kind of invisible shield clinging to him like a second skin kept the sand off. Neither of them carried a bag or anything resembling supplies or weapons.
There must be a settlement somewhere nearby. They can’t have travelled far in this get-up. She especially wondered how the naked boy had managed to get through the sandstorms unharmed.
“Danny find.” The pale boy’s voice came out whispery and strange, as if unsure of the language.
The other boy smiled kindly as if in recognition of the accomplishment, but kept his brown eyes fixed firmly on Dee. “Well done, Danny.” He helped her to her feet, offering a hand which she took hesitantly. It tingled with warmth, although a noticeable space separated his seemingly bare skin from her gloves. Whether sorcery or technology enabled this protection, she could not yet decipher but it impressed her greatly.
“Thank you.” She wondered if she said that for the assistance to stand she had not required, or if part of her believed he had somehow brought on the pocket of calm and rescued her from the goroesis. “Please call me Dee. And you are?”
He paused for too long, as if choosing from a multitude of options or suffering temporary amnesia, before answering, “Orfi—”
“Rin,” Danny piped up.
Dee knitted her eyebrows. “Offering? A most interesting and unique name.”
“Offering,” he mused, as if unfamiliar with the sound of it. “I like this name.” Offering put his hand up to her forehead but did not touch it, as if extracting her thoughts into his palm. “You are unique too, Dee. It is not safe here. We must find shelter. The tree-line lies that way.”
Dee could not see beyond the wall of sand obscuring everything from view, and wondered how anyone’s vision could pierce through that opaque barrier. However Danny had already scrambled off on all fours, moving swiftly like a tailless ape, seemingly unperturbed by sand that must be blistering hot upon his bare skin. Offering waited patiently with an outstretched arm indicating the direction she should follow, obviously intending to take up the rear.
“What about the goroesis?” she asked, although judging by the blank look on Offering’s face she doubted he knew of them. “They’re mutated monsters that scavenge the Wastes…”
“They will not come between us and what we seek. I have seen the path,” Offering murmured absently as if to himself.
He’s somehow managed to get here unscathed. Perhaps he has some way to defend himself.
Getting back to the tree-line would bring her closer to Zel, a position infinitely better than being stranded out here waiting for either a sand swarm or goroesis pack to claim her. She turned and started walking after Danny, pulling her robes closer in anticipation of braving the sand again. Something about the older boy unsettled her, but paradoxically calmed her at the same time. It brought back memories of her early days with Zel…
“How do you know where to go?” Dee struggled to keep up with the athletic strides of a young, muscular Zel. The snaking vines and hunched roots on the ground did not snag or trip him, saving their efforts for her instead. Briars and branches had made a raggedy mess of her only dress, and her feet bled from trudging barefoot over scrubland and jungle.
Zel stopped by a large tree with roots hanging off its branches like scraggly beards and turned to look back. Dee immediately averted her eyes. Even after weeks of staring at Zel’s naked butt more often than she would care to admit, his nudity still flustered her. She had rebuked herself inwardly and forced her gaze upwards, only to find her thoughts drifting in the same direction at the sight of his well-defined shoulder blades and broad back. God would be ashamed of her.
“And how would you know what He thinks?”
Zel’s ability to read her mind as if she articulated every single whim and thought in his ear mollified her. She blushed when she recalled what had been in her mind, but Zel appeared completely unaffected. Nonetheless she resolved to stop straying into, ahem, carnal territory.
“Why is it that you wish to explore such places, but do not wish to be seen doing so?”
Oh, how it annoyed her that he commented on her thoughts as if she wished to express and converse about them.
“But why would you hide what cannot be hidden?”
She retorted irritably, “So you can hear everything going on in my head?”
“Sometimes I see images and scenes instead of hearing words. I see myself in your thoughts quite often of late, but that is only to be expected. We have not met anyone else on this journey.”
Dee flushed a violent shade of purpled beetroot. “So you know everything about me.”
“No, not everything. I am not El, the Creator. But every word and thought you offer up forms the sound of your soul more clearly to me.”
“Is everyone’s soul a sound?” She remembered the first time they met weeks ago, and the glimpse she had into his darkness, his music — his sound.
“The soul is of the spirit, and thus is perceived differently by those in this plane of existence. It is like asking a blind man to describe a colour or a scene: some can’t do it at all; those who can only give an incomplete, even distorted, account of it since they have to rely on senses not tuned to the task or medium.”
His explanation fascinated her. Her Protestant upbringing had instilled in her a religious and doctrinal leaning, but nothing she had read from the Bible or heard from preacher lips appealed to her curiosity as deeply as this.
She took a deep breath and boldly asked, “Tell me how you fell from grace.”
He gazed at her with his intense eyes sparkling with contradiction — a warrior’s blood-chilling fire, a lover’s gentle hardness, a philosopher’s depth of clarity. “I find it amusing how you mortals think of the planes of existence as a stack of pancakes with the burnt ones at the bottom and the cream on top. Did you ever think that Babel was struck down not as a punishment for pride but as a mercy to prevent further effort wasted going in the wrong direction?”
She waited for him to continue.
“Just like how you yearn to experience for yourself, to know our realm not through the stories of those who heard them from yet others before them in a long game of pass the prevarication, some among us desired to be a part of your realm. No filter, no distortion; just pure immersion. We took on fleshly bodies, walked among you, lived, loved…”
Her pulse quickened as she found herself not just glancing, but staring mesmerised at a part of him below that had grown and pointed at her, demanding her attention.
“You dare not speak of it but you want it all the same, as did we. Now tell me what will you choose? The path of the pure, or a life of love, endless pleasure and unspeakable delight?”
But she did not have to tell, for he already knew before the words passed her lips.
She wondered how they knew about the spring for they headed directly for it once they left the desert behind. Oddly enough, they encountered no goroesis even though she noticed some burrows along the way. She suspected Offering had something to do with it, although she did not understand how. What were two such young boys doing out in the Wastes all by themselves? Where had they come from, and how had they survived without protection or supplies?
Several times she looked back at Offering, who trailed about five paces behind. He always stared at her with intense and unabashed interest one could easily mistake it for ardent admiration. Once, too long ago for her to even dredge up the memory, she might have been flattered and coy about such attention but only Zel stirred up those kinds of feelings within her now. She had the looks of a youthful teen but her heavy heart carried centuries of pain and loss, a natural consequence of the lifetimes she had lived. Only Zel understood, having been by her side through it all.
“Has there really been no one else?”
Dee stopped in her tracks, whirling around with eyes wide with disbelief and shock. It was impossible. He had read her mind, just as Zel always did. But she had never come across anyone else with that ability before.
“How did you do that?” she demanded, suspicion pushing her a step back.
“The same way Zel, as you call him, does it. Has he never explained it to you?”
He had. Thoughts exist on a different plane with intersects across a myriad of different realities. How else would El hear the prayers of the mute?
“Precisely. His flesh removes him from the Eternal Song, but his heart still sings and sways to the memory of its sound.”
“You know him — how?” None of her apprehension had been mollified, but she was intrigued.
“I knew him as he was, not as he is. That knowledge belongs to you only.”
The image of Zel looking decrepit and helpless surfaced in her mind. Suddenly Offering looked concerned.
“How did he get like this?”
Dee emptied her mind as she had trained herself to do through meditation, not trusting Offering’s intentions. Even though she had never before encountered another being of Zel’s kind, he had always told her to be wary of them. It would not do for anyone to know about their secret bond.
“The spell of Micha. He took on all your sins and sufferings just as Christ did, but without El’s grace he cannot bear it all. One must have and sustain the deepest, truest love for the spell to even have a chance of working.”
Dee stiffened with shock and forced her mind to remain clear of thought and emotion, even though anxiety and fear crashed in tumultuous waves upon the flimsy walls she had hastily erected. Was Zel’s dire condition her fault? Had her love for him diminished and thus caused Zel’s deterioration? Did she keep escaping into the past in hopes of recapturing what they had once shared but that was now worn and wrinkled like his fragile skin? He had given her everything he had to offer — knowledge, love, immortality, but what had she offered in return?
“Love is not always proven through a singular dramatic act of sacrifice, but reaffirmed gently over time through the tiniest, most seemingly insignificant of actions that may simply slip by unnoticed, or unappreciated. Drying the sweat off one’s brow, watching through the night while the other rests, fetching water to cool feverish skin or soothe a parched throat — actions that come so automatically, so easily to us we barely give them a thought, but that too is the nature of love.”
Why then does Zel not wake, but burn hot from fever?
“I do not know, but I fear for his safety. The beasts you spoke of will catch his scent eventually, and he cannot keep them away in his condition. We must hurry to him.”
Dee hesitated, still wary. She knew nothing about Offering beyond a strong suspicion of his otherworldly nature, and that he knew more about Zel and her than she cared to let on. This might simply be a ploy to lead him to Zel. Besides she still had not acquired what she had set out for, although if Offering was right, the goroesis threat needed dealing with more urgently. She gritted her teeth, conflicted.
“I bear my brethren no ill, but simply a message of hope and reconciliation. As for the water, Danny can fetch it for you. He’s an excellent tracker, and will have no problems following our trail.”
Still she hesitated until from far off, they heard the goroesis howl.
They hurtled past dead stumps flowered with fungi and older, stronger trees still crowned with leaves, impossibly fast for a human but she rode on Offering’s back. The spring lay just ahead beyond a lip of willows that almost completely shielded the bright emerald waters from view. She had scratched and struggled when Offering snatched her up and sped away, not towards the cabin, but he had explained it was the best way.
“Can’t you fight them off, or keep them away like you’re doing now?” she had screamed at him.
“Not with a pack that size. We need to restore Zel to an ancient form he took long ago before this one. It’s his best chance.”
He tore off her mask before diving with her right into the clear, cool water. Dee had not taken a breath and her lungs started squeezing painfully before long. She tried to kick her way up to surface, but Offering held her down shaking his head and mouthing ‘No’. A stream of panicked bubbles burst forth from her mouth as the last of her air escaped, and her body spasmed violently, desperate for oxygen.
Heavenly El, please take me but spare my beloved Zel. I have naught to give but this borrowed life, which he shared with me. Restore him, please!
The green water stinging her eyes turned black, and she saw no more.
“Dee,” Zel’s voice, but with a deeper rumble spoke in her ear.
She opened her eyes to stare into a pair of reptilian eyes, each the size of a child’s head. A gigantic serpent coiled on the moss-covered bank of stone beside the spring, so close she could reach out and touch it. Its scales appeared black but glinted with metallic chromatic tints, perhaps reflecting the magnificent colours of the prismatic furled wings upon its back.
The winged serpent nodded, a forked tongue flicking out briefly. Beside him Offering sat cross-legged as she often did while meditating. Soft splashing sounds alerted her to Danny’s small, pale body paddling contentedly in the pool of spring water she thought had drowned her.
“What happened? How did you get here? The goroesis?”
For his answer, Zel extended one large, feathered wing and ruffled up a breeze with it, fanning her face. “I heard you scream and felt your lungs fill with water. You know everything you go through, I do too, right? What you did killed the other body, and I was forced to take on this one.”
Reading her mind before she voiced the question, he continued, “The goroesis got inside the cabin. I didn’t want to waste any time dealing with them. They can eat their fill for the day; I have you. Nothing else matters.”
She threw herself forward in an embrace, unperturbed by the hard, cold scales against her warm skin, or that her arms barely wrapped around his thick, sinewy neck. Neither disparity nor difference had stood between them getting together before, and this change would not stop them staying together for as long as their love breathed. It would simply take some getting used to, and they had all the time in the world.
Please check out the truly touching winners from "Paranormal Romance Short Story Contest" :
Also check out the winning entry from "A Romance Contest ~~ CLOSED" :
Featured in "Drama Newsletter (October 3, 2018)"