The Fallen Comet
by A. Emery Watkins
Jules assumed that the people of Bridge would want to know why the rocks were bleeding.
The Orb, who usually floated by his head, made a pass at the side of the road, its gray light shining in globs off of the congealing hemoglobin stuck to the stones at the mountain's base. Jules' enormous eyes followed the landslide's red trail up and up and up, trying to locate the source, but the angle was wrong. All he saw was a kind of cleft about two miles from where he stood. The cleft was whistling -- this he could hear, distant though it was -- but that really gave no indication about much of anything.
The Orb did a loop in the air around the stones and went through a subtle change of color. Jules stood up, fluffing out his near useless wings a bit. "I suppose," he murmured, "that I should simply follow the trail, yes?" The Orb seemed to agree, for it began to fly up the mountain's face. He hitched his pack farther onto his shoulders and followed along, turning his head every so often to keep the red track in his sight.
It wasn't a hard climb. It never was anymore. Ever since he'd chosen this form -- this part man, part horned-owl shape with the hollow bones -- getting around anywhere had ceased to be much of a problem. The mountain was called the Fallen Comet by the locals, probably because that's a bit what it looked like. A comet, fallen from the sky to land here with its tail sticking up from the ground. A quaint image, to be sure.
Jules chuckled. "Can you imagine such a thing? A comet, falling to the ground?"
Certainly not, The Orb seemed to tell him.
Even so, there was something rather strange about the place. It was the only mountain around, for one. The region was one of tall, fuzzy green hills, interspersed with lakes and rivers, very shortly giving way to plains off in the east. But in the middle of it, here by the railroad town of Bridge, there was this thing, this giant. Nothing grew on it. Nothing lived on it, so far as Jules could tell, for as he ascended he quickly became aware of an oppressive silence of a kind he hadn't heard since he'd been fully human. No rodents burrowing under the ground, no insects buzzing about on tiny wings, no birds flying overhead looking for a meal. Just the wind, blowing over the bare rocks.
"Makes my choosing this form almost seem worthless, doesn't it?" Jules asked his friend The Orb. "What good hearing like an owl if there's nothing to hear?" He chuckled. "Perhaps I should have gone with something flashier, like some of my more imaginative colleagues. A dragon, perhaps, or a gryphon."
The Orb seemed to have no opinion on this.
Jules continued on his way. After a while, the silence became a bit too much, so he broke it again. "Did the townspeople strike you as odd?" he asked his friend. "They almost seemed fearful of me. Of me, a wizard of the guild! As though they didn't want me there. But I suppose it wasn't they who came calling, was it?" He pivoted his head around backwards so his eyes could look toward the little town that was some number of miles away. From his high vantage point, now nearly a mile and a half up, he could just see the roofs of the wooden buildings poking up through the treetops. That tallest one there, with the sign propped on the flat top by two boards, must have been the saloon where he spent the previous night. And there, snaking its way through the hills, was the railroad. He could just make out the figures of two boys walking along it, swatting at weeds with sticks. By all appearances, a normal town, a normal setting.
It just had a mountain that bled.
Jules was only a short climb away from the cleft, now, so he decided to perch on a small outcropping and snack for a while. The whistling breeze here was much louder, no longer overshadowed by the wind. It was rhythmic, he heard now. A slow rhythm, for certain, measured perhaps in minutes, but still very regular. He brought out from his pack a small leather bag that opened at the top and reached in, pulling out two dried whole rats. He popped one in his beak and swallowed, then turned to his companion. "You know, this whole situation seems a bit familiar. Something I read about, perhaps. Do you recall?"
The Orb flashed a few different colors.
Jules ate the other rat now. "Oh, it's just an inkling I have. Perhaps I'll find something inside that will confirm it."
As he finished this sentence, the ground shook, knocking him from his perch and causing him to tumble a short way back from whence he'd come. When he found a firm grip, he turned his face toward the cleft, where he saw a new stream of rocks bouncing their way down to the road below, leaving wet red trails behind them. He watched them go until they landed in a ditch at the bottom as a bulbous and slimy mass, like a gob of bloody mucus shot into a folded tissue.
Jules picked himself up and smoothed out his feathers, of few of which he could see he had lost on the way down, then nodded to his friend to tell him he was okay. A short chuckle escaped his throat. "I do believe the mountain just coughed," he said. "We should move on before it happens again."
The two of them made the final ascent, where they came upon the cleft. But as he approached, the changing angle told Jules that it actually wasn't a cleft in the rocks, but a whole cave. He pointed a taloned finger inside and remarked, "I think my inkling might be correct, my friend. Shall we proceed inside? Or have you become nervous?"
The Orb let him know that the only one here who was nervous was Jules himself, for it simply flew on inside. Jules shrugged and followed.
The cave went straight on for about five-hundred yards, where it came to an abrupt stop. The floors were moist and a little spongy beneath his feet, and the breeze that had been whistling out so noisily seemed to be coming from the back, where Jules could see two branches in the system, one going up and the other going down. Small rocks pelted him softly where he stood, leaving tiny red stains on his feathers. The breeze, though warm, gave Jules a chill. He wasn't sure how badly he wanted to go down in there.
"Did I ever tell you the story of how the wizards' guild came into existence?" he asked The Orb. "It's an interesting one. It all started when man discovered the full potential of magic, and with it, its dangers. It was decided that those who chose to wield such powers needed to be removed from the everyday affairs of people -- to give them a more objective stance, you understand -- and so from that day forward, each wizard was asked to choose a new, non-human form, in the hopes that the change in perspective would...."
His voice trailed off. The Orb, he could see, was having none of this stalling, for it had already flown deeper into the cave, choosing the bottom path. Jules let out a wavering breath and shook his head, then took the leap himself.
Very briefly into the fall, he came to another branch. One path led straight down from the main tunnel, and the other was a short hole angling off to the west. He landed himself on the lip of this second branch and waited until he felt another breeze. When it came, it came from the angled branch, and so that was the branch he took.
He fell a long way this time, down a stony shaft, gliding as slowly as his flightless wings would allow. The path was closed in near the top, but opened up the farther he fell. His little Orb friend was always just ahead of him, lighting the way with its soft glow. Nearly a full minute later, he reached the bottom, and another branch. Two more paths, one angling north, the other south.
"Yes," he mumbled. "This pattern is uncomfortably familiar." He looked to his friend, but it was already moving down the north branch, which is where it felt like the majority of the small rocks were issuing from. Jules was becoming more and more hesitant of continuing this adventure, but he supposed if he'd gone in this farů.
He leapt down after The Orb.
A hot wind erupted, blowing him back.
When he landed on that perch the second time, his friend came back to him, concerned. Jules snatched The Orb out of the air and drew an invisible circle before him, then hunkered down behind it. The air flashed briefly as the shield came into place, just in time for the ground to shake violently once more and spray another glob of bloody rocks at breakneck speed up the tunnel. More flashes sparked as the rocks hit against Jules' shield, sending them tumbling on a new trajectory. The air arched over him on its way up, a hot, wet, chunky stream. Jules watched it all with wide eyes, the usual faux-angry-looking expression on his face replaced with clear surprise.
This went on for a few long seconds. When the tempest finally returned to its normal rhythm, Jules tried with shaky limbs to push himself upright once more. Once on his feet, he turned back to his friend. This time, though, he just couldn't find much to say.
It took him a minute to gather his courage again. Once he did, he took a deep breath and leapt once more down the north branch. His friend had lost its nerve and so now followed behind.
This one wasn't quite as long as the last, and had a much gentler slope. The walls were becoming slicker now, which he found out as he brushed up against one near the bottom. He lifted the part of his scaly arm that had touched it to see a dark smear in The Orb's small light. Looking down, he could see that his feathered feet were equally as soiled with the stuff. Clearly, this was near the source of the ejecta that had so recently threatened to kill him.
He raised his head to look farther down the path, but The Orb was clearly not willing anymore to go on ahead, away from its protector, so, in this great darkness, even he couldn't see much farther than his own outstretched arm. Jules removed the pack from his shoulders again and reached inside, this time for a little-used lantern. This he lit with a puff of magic and held aloft.
This was a shorter path now, horizontal for once. The end of it, though, was complex. Very. What must have been thousands of paths branched off of this one, some smaller than the circumference of his pinkie talon, others half his height in diameter. Some were oozing, some dry, some puffy and closed-looking, others appearing like they'd been gashed with an axe. The lantern light revealed patches of sickly color creatively splotched around. A bubble of something popped near one of the gashes, sending out a short spray of white liquid. Jules suddenly regretted downing those two rats.
Nonetheless, he pressed forward, toward one of the larger, more open holes. Just as he reached the lip, he turned again to his friend and asked, "Do you think, when we find what we're looking for, that we'll know how to fix it?" He ran a talon down through a mushy white area, squishing it flat for a second, only to see it spring back once he released his touch. "It looks very far gone."
The Orb stayed by his head, adding its soft light to the lantern's.
Jules looked ahead through the short tunnel. He'd be able to just barely crawl through on hands and knees, if he folded in his wings. "And if I can't fix it," he continued, "what do you suppose is the humanitarian thing to do?"
The Orb didn't have an answer for that. Jules hunkered down and went into the tunnel, pushing the lantern before him.
This was also a fairly short one, with more branches shooting off at all angles, these too small for him to fit through. When he reached the first such one, Jules held the lantern aloft and peered through into a queerly shaped room filled with translucent chambers, each about the size of a human head, many of them looking deflated. Every one of these paths led to the same thing, though some were also leaking thin streams of blood. Jules -- legs, knees, chest, face, and even the two feathery horns on his head all red and crusting now with the stuff -- made no effort to dodge these. He was headed for the end of the tunnel, which opened into a similar room that he could actually fit inside.
Just before he reached it, he turned around one more time. "Before I go inside, no matter what happens next, do I have your blessing?"
The Orb flashed a few colors, and did a little mid-air dance. For Jules, that was good enough.
He had to squeeze himself through a gap between translucent spheres, down to the messy bulbous floor below, where he hunched and crawled forward. Just as he began to wonder if it wasn't as bad as he thought, if he wouldn't, in fact, have to crawl all the way through, he came to an open area. Here, he stood, and surveyed, his heart falling with each new image unveiled.
The majority of the sacs were broken. Fleshy, dripping things now took their places, hanging like old coats in a closet. Growing on almost every one of these was a mass of bloody rocks just like those that had so frightened those passing traders who contacted the guild in the first place. They were on the floor, too, some large enough to be considered boulders. These ones pulsated, and Jules' keen eyes could see flowing motion just under their surfaces.
His friend, no longer so cautious now that they were out of the breeze, flew ahead of him and around these objects, examining each one in turn, all the time glowing a ruddy red color nearly the shade of the cavern walls. When it finished its rounds and returned to Jules' side, he took in and let out a deep breath, very conscious of the feel of the warm air in his throat. "So, what then?" he asked The Orb. "Is it time to try waking him?"
The Orb flashed brighter, just for a second.
Jules nodded, and reached out with his mind.
Just then, the whole mountain seemed to shake, and suddenly Jules found himself on the ground, letting out a piercing wail. His mind had exploded with thoughts, feelings, images, memories, none of them his own. He saw a town underneath a dark purple sky, fire sprouting from the ground in gigantic fountains and arcing up into the heavens. Then a sound like a siren, splitting his sensitive ears from the inside, and a still picture of a doll sitting atop a pile of corpses. The sky now, the clouds turning green and showering the world with a glowing yellow liquid that tore through the dirt. A huge hole formed, and inside it Jules saw a roiling mass of fanged earthworms that were eating each other alive. Then a waterfall of blood and human limbs, and a man standing before it, his eyes gouged out of his head, his scalp lying on the ground by his shoes, everything screaming and yelling and crying.
Jules struggled to find himself in this psychotic mess, struggled to keep himself from falling into it and disappearing forever. His basic animal brain took him over and forced his hand up, away from his head, which it had been trying to keep from exploding. His finger stretched forth. An energy built up inside of him. Amidst the torrent of horrific images, of the deafening cacophony, of the rape of his senses, he felt a warm light grow at the end of his claw. The light grew, and grew, and grew, until his body couldn't give it any more energy to grow.
And at that point, he let it go.
A hole appeared in the ceiling and began gushing blood. The assault on Jules' mind gave one last triumphant battle cry, then stopped entirely, giving him enough time to scoot out of the way of the gory waterfall. It pooled underneath him, soaking up into his feathers, wetting the bottom of his backpack.
When he tried to raise himself up, however, the ground began to shake more violently than ever. He hit the floor, then was thrown to the wall, where he heard a sickening crack and felt an intense pain blossom from his chest. Then he was thrown backward, where he cracked another rib on one of those fleshy sacs. The walls were heaving back and forth, up and down, knocking him around like a drop of water fallen into a hot kettle. His left wing broke. His right arm followed suit shortly after. Another rib. His feathers were completely drenched in blood, some of it now his own. At some point, the lantern had gone out, giving him no hints from where the next blow would fall. His body was being broken, his mind flooded with pain and fear, asking him over and over again the same two questions: "Was this the right thing to do? Was it?"
And then it stopped.
Jules lay on his back for a long time, his breathing ragged and harsh. Spots swam before his eyes that simply wouldn't go away no matter how often he blinked. As best he could, he ran a mental diagnostic on himself. All those bones, broken, some more fractured. But what about the most important thing? He ran a spell through his innards, feeling them, and was pleased. No fatal internal injuries. That was very good. When he got back out of this place, he would get a more thorough examination, but for now he knew he would at least live.
Jules lay his head back, not worrying about the ever growing pool of blood just for the moment, and closed his huge eyes. As gently as he could, he began to pass a spell through his body to mend his bones.
A blindingly white pain coursed through him until he could take no more. When the effect left him, he felt great relief. He tried standing. As usual after a healing, the impacted spots felt a little heavier than the rest, but he could stand, and he could walk. He groped for his lantern, found it, and lit it once more. Then he turned to his friend. "I hadn't thought it reached his brain," he said. He gazed up at the still gushing hole, and nodded. "In any case, we're finished here. We should go. I believe he's at peace now, and so will be the townspeople because of it."
The Orb agreed whole-heartedly, and the two of them made their way out of the mountain, The Orb flying its graceful way up, and Jules puffing himself through the tunnels with gusts of magic. When they emerged back into the daylight, Jules once more stored his lantern in his now blood-soaked pack and looked around. He was closer to the ground now, he could see. The mountain had fallen, sunk. Dead. Perhaps one day, it would allow life to grow upon its face, even.
Jules turned back to his friend. "Shall we go?"
The Orb seemed to say yes, and so they both made their way back down to the road below, where this all started. At the base, though, Jules stopped and looked over the pile of bloody rocks, already almost dry. "I think," he said to The Orb, "that we should include a recommendation in our report as well. It seems that the result of this experiment makes it clear, that no, not even mountains are immortal." He paused, then laughed. "So perhaps this calls for a limit to the shapes we can choose."
They headed back to the town to bring the good news, bloody though he looked. But it would be the last such blood the villagers would have to see.
© 2011 A. Emery Watkins
Bio: A. Emery Watkins is a recent graduate of the University of Nebraska, majored in physics and the French language. He is currently occupying his time writing and drawing and making music while he applies to graduate schools to pursue his PhD in astrophysics. Despite his relative youth, he has traveled extensively, having visited 12 European countries and one in Africa, and roughly 2/3 of the states in the Union, so his writing tends to reflect a somewhat eclectic background. His work has appeared (or so he was told) in U. Nebraska's undergraduate literary magazine, Laurus -- but he hasn't been able to verify that assertion. An appearance in Aphelion will at least show up in a Google search (sometimes)...
E-mail: A. Emery Watkins
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