by Emerys Grey
Jace is taken hostage by an Ayakashi Warlord and plunged into an unbelievable adventure.
The Burning Man
Dedicated to Jeffery, a bright spot in all of our days.
Jace thrashed in his bed, a cold sweat breaking out on his skin. He pulled the threadbare sheets half off the bed, clutching them to him with fisted hands. His head tossed and one fist slammed into the peeling wall above as if fighting off an invisible enemy.
Smoldering red and orange lights swirled in the darkness surrounding his mind. It dragged him down like an inescapable riptide. Jace’s breathing grew ragged.
He was asleep. He knew it. But he couldn’t wake up.
He’d always had horrific nightmares as long as he could remember. While most children dreamed of being lost or chased by bad guys from cartoons, Jace dreamed of bloodshed, ghoulish monsters, and nightmares that left him screaming himself awake.
He fought the dream as hard as he could but it pulled him in as if he had no will at all. As usual, he had the feeling of knowing what was going to happen even as the thought slipped out of his mind, just out of reach.
His stomach clenched sickeningly as his body and mind felt ripped between consciousness and unconsciousness. His vision went dark and the world spun.
Then everything just stopped.
Jace opened his eyes hesitantly then straightened from a crouched position. He was… hovering ghost-like off the ground in an underground tunnel. He lowered his hands from over his ears and grimaced. This was new.
He looked around with narrowed eyes.
The tunnel was roughly cut and dimly lit by millions of tiny colored glowing crystals embedded in the walls, stalactites, and giant boulders littering the floor. Jace looked down at himself and saw that he glowed too. Though he cast no light.
He looked like a figure from an old black and white movie: a little fuzzy, colored in black and white tones, and dressed dramatically in all white.
Not my usual fashion.
Jace guessed this was his subconscious’ image of himself, feeling a little like he’d stepped into the Matrix. I would have bet I’d wear all black and be ripped, not look all angelic in white. He thought.
Dark shadowy figures walked past him. A few walked through him before Jace could figure out how to move out of the way. His body bobbed and swayed, seeming impossible to control.
Maybe more balloon than ghost-like.
He gasped at the sensation of being walked through and rubbed at his chest. It hurt… and felt wrong wherever they touched.
The figures didn’t seem to see him. Jace had to squint and really focus to see them clearly too. Clearly, they were not what the dream wanted to show him.
Jace managed to turn slightly to study them. They were huge and broad, over seven feet high, and dressed like Barbarian Warriors from some RPG. They were humanoid, some with pig-like features, and bloated, lumpy or bumpy skin. Their eyes were completely black, with tiny starbursts of burning red. Malice and bloodlust rolled off of them in waves even off the battlefield.
The swirling red and orange lights he’d seen before came from the end of the tunnel about twenty feet away. It opened up into a giant cavern. Jace was reminded of a description he’d once heard: “cathedral”. The space looked like a giant natural cathedral.
It was easily twice as long as a football field and just as wide, made of grey-brown rock, glittering with crystals, with a soaring ceiling of jagged stone several stories high. Dozens of fire pits, bonfires, and torches dotted the floor and walls of flame lined several walls.
Hundreds, if not over a thousand, of the pig-like warriors gathered in groups and throngs around the fires. They were eating, drinking, brawling, and … dancing. Jace watched their sharp almost battle-like movements. Yes, they were dancing.
There was a sharp frisson in the air. Watching the horde of warriors, the phrase, “Tonight we live, for tomorrow we die.”, came to mind. That was what it looked like.
This was an army. They were preparing to go to war.
A scream ripped through the air, high pitched and hoarse, coming from somewhere in the cavern. Jace’s head whipped around at the agonized sound. But he couldn’t see who had made it.
His ghost-like figure bobbed and swayed towards the left wall of the tunnel as the pig-like warriors passed in and out. He tried to twist and turn but only managed to pitch forwards or backwards nearly upside down.
Unable to direct himself, he floated into a corner made by a squat boulder and the wall. Great. Just great. I can dream about watching solid rock.
Jace tried to turn but it did nothing. Finally, with a grunt of effort he spun — and ended up whipping around upside down. “W—whoa!”, he chocked out, his arms windmilling wildly.
His body adjusted for the movement, as if he could brain his non-corporeal head on a rock, rising a few more inches off the ground and slowly righting itself. Perfect.
He lifted his head and stared straight into a pair of inhuman green eyes.
Jace jolted and would’ve jumped back if he could.
The boulder he’d been cornered behind wasn’t a boulder at all.
A wide, goblin-esque face with high cheekbones and a cold, cunning intelligence studied him silently. Jace’s skin crawled at the look in those narrow, slitted pupil eyes.
A slow, sharklike smile curved the man’s too wide mouth as if happy to see him and Jace suppressed a shiver. He had the feeling this was not a man anyone wanted interested in them.
The goblin-man stood, turning to face Jace fully. He was maybe four-foot-ten and wore a deep scarlet top coat over his wide torso, and black fitted pants over his contrasting birdlike thin legs. His black hair was pulled back into tail.
Jace blinked. What the hell was a guy like this doing in a cavern full of pig warriors? And why was he the only one who could see Jace?
The goblin man tipped his head slightly as if in an old fashioned greeting. When Jace stared narrow-eyed and unmoving back at him he smiled as if amused then turned to walk towards the cavern.
Jace grunted in surprise as he bobbed and floated along behind him like a balloon on a string.
More screams suddenly rang out, agonized and gut wrenching. Jace jumped.
Could the goblin-man and the horde not hear them?
The feeling of knowing what was going to happen grew, even as it evaded his grasp like trying to catch a fish barehanded.The closer they moved to the cavern the more the feeling grew, accompanied by a sickening feeling of dread. Whatever it was he was going to see, Jace knew he was heartily going to regret it.
As they moved into the crowd the warriors parted for the goblin man. Many turned and bowed. Others tapped their fellows on the shoulder — or punched them — whatever it took to gain their attention. More than a few brawls broke out. By the time they’d made it to the center of the cavern the whole horde had turned and was silently watching.
Jace’s shoulders tensed and he felt the urge of flight or fight at the feeling of so many blood thirsty eyes turned towards him. There was nothing human about them.
The goblin-man stopped at the edge of a wide rectangular fire pit in the middle of the cavern. A wide flat topped railing encircled it and ran down the center the cavern back towards the tunnel’s mouth. It looked to be being used as a table of sorts. A large metal box stood on four short legs in the opposite end of the fire pit and a wall of fire as tall as Jace shot up behind them where the goblin-man stood.
Four pig-warriors in special looking armor with giant swords, maces, or shields stepped up, followed by six shorter birdlike looking pig-people in long robes. They flanked the goblin-man. Two of the warriors leaned down and began speaking with him immediately.
The crowd looked on, eagerly tense and waiting.
The two warriors straightened and the goblin-man raised his hands and addressed the crowd.
It was just as well Jace had no interest in hearing the goblin man’s speech. His body began to turn towards the wide fire pit behind them. The goblin man’s voice faded into the background as Jace’s eyes focused on the large metal box sitting in the back of it.
It looked like three large kennel sized squares welded together, with grates and doors here and there on each. There was something horribly disturbing and familiar about it. It niggled at Jace’s brain.
He blinked and suddenly was so close his nose was almost passing through it. Jace jerked his head back but, of course, his body stayed right there. “What the fuck!”
Screams, those horrible, nightmarish screams started up again, punctuated by heavy thuds of a body hitting the metal. From inside the box.
Horror flooded him as the realization hit him. This wasn’t a box. It was a barbecue!
His ghost-like body began sinking inside.
Oh, hell no.
Jace squeezed his eyes shut and grimaced as he fought — fought to stop moving, fought to wake up, anything — to keep from seeing the nightmare he knew had to be inside.
The goblin man appeared in the corner of his eye. Jace cracked his eyes open and stared at him as his nose then his front disappeared inside the box. The goblin man was leaning negligently on the railing across from Jace. He was talking to one of the pig-warriors as more gathered and caroused behind them. His eyes caught Jace’s and he smiled a pointy cheshire cat smile.
Jace suddenly knew that the other man was responsible for whatever nightmare Jace was about to see. And that he wasn’t sorry for it. But looking forward to it.
Jace squeezed his eyes shut at the last second and held his breath, doing everything he could to put off the inevitable.
For a couple moments everything was black. Jace began to hope that he’d beaten it. Maybe he’d ended the dream or was waking up.
Then his eyelids shot open to stare into empty, hollow, insane eyes.
Blood wept from open wounds all over the man’s face and naked body. He was tall and muscular with short hair trimmed nearly bald. His skin was pearlescent white, his ears and facial features long and pointed like an elf’s. He was bound wrists to ankles, jerking and writhing with insanity as flames licked through the open grate below to singe his skin
The man screamed. And screamed. And screamed.
Jace screamed and jerked back but there was no getting away. The box was barely big enough to contain the man let alone Jace with him.
The man screamed and thrashed weakly on the floor. His blood dripped through the grate making the flames hiss and crackle. His flesh sizzled and the edges of the open wounds blackened.
Jace put his hands over his ears and squeezed his eyes shut as he fought to drown the sounds out.
No. No, no, no. No!
Finally, after more time than he cared to track, he fell into blissful blackness. Or maybe he passed out. Jace didn’t care.
He faded in and out of the dream.
The last thing he saw was the goblin man watching him silently. His sharklike pointed teeth were ripping chunks off a piece of meat still on the bone. The horde partied wildly around him. He chewed slowly, with obvious relish. His eyes caught and held Jace’s.
At the end of that bone, was a hand.