give up to grace

POSTED: Sat Apr 14, 2018 6:02 pm

After what felt like an age, they saw the ship and its crew off and left Portland behind.

For Lotan this was a moment he had been both dreading and looking forward too. They would find Tiamat and the others soon enough, he reasoned, but then what? This whole expedition home had been his idea and all they had found was that they were too late, and that nothing remained to hold them here.

He had asked Pazuzu if they should visit Inferni, and the jackal told him no. The Clan had been a place he had once lived, but it was not his home – nor was the temple they had left behind in the old desert, or the places that had come after. In many ways the pair had become bound to this aimless and endless road they now faced again.

Well, pair was a misnomer – the macaque riding on Lotan's back was an intelligent thing even if he didn't speak like they did, and Artoo had proven his use many times over by now. People never seemed to know what to make of the flat-faced, tailless monkey, and Lotan was glad to be rid of them. Portland was a small city, but it was thriving. Anywhere that people gathered in such mass was certain to attract all sorts, good and bad.

They traveled as a unit, with Lotan in the lead and on four legs. His Secui form trampled through the mud and muck with more ease than the horse Pazuzu had acquired in Portland.

We're close to Freetown, he announced as familiar landmarks came into view.

Where do you think your sister is?

We'll find out. They're all up here, we probably won't have trouble... Lotan trailed off, stopping atop a small rise.

He could smell it then, and saw peculiar colors on the horizon. His fur prickled while Artoo crooned, feeling his distress.

What is that? Lotan asked aloud.

I can smell it too, Pazuzu told him, shifting his weight atop the little horse. It's not normal.

What do you mean it's not normal?

I've never smelt this before.

Well me neither, but—

You be careful, Lotan. There's more powerful things in the world than you or I.

It was superstitious nonsense, but Lotan heeded his mentor's words. He urged Artoo off his back and began to shift. By the time he was on two legs, the wind had turned – he could better determine where they needed to head. Cautious, he hoisted the hammer from the horse's packs and dressed to better hide his dark form in the dead-brown colors of not-quite-spring.

What do you think it is? He asked Pazuzu, adjusting his pants and giving the hammer an easy swing as he hoisted it to rest over his broad shoulders.

The words Pazuzu said, spat out in the endless desert's tongue, prickled Lotan's skin.

***

Three things happened when they found the flowers.

It was, at first, the strangest sight Lotan had ever seen. He could never imagine flowers as tall as trees, and from a distance it seemed very out of place. The smell was strangest of all – it was sickly sweet and almost maddening, like a bitch in heat. His body urged him to go towards it, even if his higher cognition warned against this long before things went to hell.

The horse, whose ill temperament had become more apparent in the past half-hour, did everything in its power to shake Pazuzu from its back. It succeeding, hurling him off and onto the hard ground. Artoo had leapt from Lotan's shoulders and raced towards the stalk of the nearest flower, launching himself towards it.

Luck – bad for the horse, good for Lotan – stopped him from getting too deep. Compelled by the scent of the alien plants, the horse rushed headlong towards where the scent was strongest. In doing so it nearly trampled Lotan, who dropped his hammer in the process and stumbled back, surprised by the sensation of pain and how clear it made his thoughts for that one brief moment.

He staggered away, relying on discipline, because that was what all his lessons circled around, and covered his face with his hands and sneezed and shook like the devil had touched him.

Stop! Pazuzu shouted from somewhere behind him, and Lotan looked up in time to see the horse, running like it had been spooked, step into empty sky and fall from their sight.

Lotan heard the jackal make a keen wailing sound, but it was soon a noise full of ancient curses and spells, words that were meant to carry power. It didn't bring back the horse. It didn't make the massive flowers wither, though they swayed in the breeze with mocking laughter Lotan could almost imagine.

Artoo! He barked, recalling the macaque with a fright. The monkey was still trying desperately to scale the stalk of the plant he was on, but now covered in a slimy goo that only made his further attempts more and more futile.

When Lotan made as if to go back, Pazuzu grabbed his arm.

Hold it, boy.

I have to get him!

The jackal looked as if he might argue this point, but seemed to think better of it when Lotan glared at him. Spitting, Pazuzu looked at the strange flowers with disgust.

Don't breathe it in. Cover your face, he warned.

It seemed sensible, and Lotan was a boy who had been raised to swim – holding his breath was a part of that. He, in fact, knew exactly how long he could do this.

With one hand he covered his nose, thinking it would be easy to remove Artoo from where he now clung. It might have been, had the monkey not begun to shriek the moment he was pulled from the plant, a noise so ear piercing Lotan pinned his own as flat as he could. It didn't help. It certainly didn't help when the macaque, in an explosive temper tantrum the likes of which Lotan had never seen, bit him.

Lotan had nearly dropped him and opened his mouth, but he forced himself to focus. This wasn't a test. This was life or death.

***

Later, when he and Artoo sat by a fire to dry their freshly-washed fur, he and Pazuzu talked about what they had seen. They both agreed that the flowers were dangerous. What had happened with the horse was most concerning (and costly, having taken most of their supplies to its death).

We need to tell Tiamat.

Where would she have gone?

I'm not sure.

This may not be all of them, Pazuzu said, repacking his bag. He had made an inventory of what they had left, and it was even less than when they had traveled to Egypt. This did not bother Lotan, who recalled these lands from his youth and believed them to be bountiful. Krokar was still around, even if his mother was not, and he would find his sister eventually. He always did.

Why do you say that?

There's more on the islands, the jackal reminded him. They had seen this retreating from the contaminated site. The water carries things.

Artoo, curled up in Lotan's lap, crooned. The wolfdog squeezed his hand. Ever since he had come to his senses the monkey seemed horribly upset. The place where he had bitten Lotan was no longer bleeding, but the skin beneath was deeply bruised and ached to the touch already.

So we'll look for both. Maybe someone knows something.

The way of knowledge is narrow, Pazuzu cited the ancient proverb as he peered off into the night.

It is the path that matters, Lotan returned. He saw the jackal smile, though there was exhaustion in his face. In the darkness the fire cast orange light over them. The smell of the smoke (and whatever Pazuzu had put in there) helped to clear the strange scent when it was carried over on the gentle southern breeze.


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