Aphelion Issue 231, Volume 22
August 2018
 
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Star Thief

by Susan Anwin




So there I was chillin' in my favorite hammock, fiddling with this pretty crystal gadget when all these high-priests came barging into the library. Now, one agitated high-priest is bad news, but a score of them... I hid the trinket in my pocket and hoped it was not something I've done and tried to remember whether I did something lately that might upset a flock of high-priests. Nothing came to mind, but that meant nothing. Me and people of this plane of existence have different ideas of what might constitute 'upsetting' is one of the things I learned.

They settled around the black glass table, a motley assortment of vohieks, whispering excitedly and all of a sudden one of them turns to me. Uh-oh, here we go. It's Tim, the Saqueroy prince. He owns this place. Up until now I neglected to ask his permission to abide in his villa; perhaps the time has come for him to address this little problem.

"Jack, I hate to say this, but we'll need your help."

I sit up, dignified as much as possible in the wobbling hammock. "I'm here to help, bruh."

They look doubtful. I find their mistrust rather offensive, if not entirely misplaced.

Tim shrugs and decides to cut to the chase. "So, here's the thing; the North Star has gone missing. Now I don't know if you realize the gravity of the situation; it is crucial in navigation and the fact that it can just go missing like that is somewhat concerning. As you can guess the Dark Lady, whose most prized possession it is is rather distraught; hence our gathering here today."

Hence, gravity, concerning, the way this priest talks! From all the finicky words I can tell he's real 'distraught' himself. I nod and hum gravely. "She is?"

He huffs impatiently. "Why are you asking me? She's your mother, for crying out loud!"

"Uh, we haven't talked in a while..."

"Yeah, no surprise there. Anyway, all the worlds need the North Star; us for navigation and the order of the seasonal feasts, she for the Loom of the Dead. She weaves the shroud of the world on it from the souls of the dead. Without it all those souls are trapped here."

I did notice the unusual density of dead people around lately. "Always wondered why she needed the Star for that."

He pinched the bridge of his nose as was his wont when he was pissed off. "Mydzi Mjz, Jack, that's not our main concern right now. We have to find it and get it back to her as soon as possible. The very fabric of reality might unravel if we fail to do so."

"So what do you suggest we do?"

"We'll have to go look for it, obviously."

I stuffed my pipe, thinking. "Where do you look for a star?"

"Exactly. And that's where you come into the picture. Hoped you could help out in that regard."

The pipe pulled a trail of smoke as I spread my hands. "Derr, sorry guys, to be honest I'm not too private to mom's job; there weren't many 'bring your kids to work' days where I come from."

They looked at me with a mixture of astonishment and irritation. "Maybe we should try Hamed...?" one of them, a fella with a head that kinda looks like a jellyfish (he got two yellow spots for eyes and an approximate of a face but the rest is kinda wibbly-wobbly) suggests.

"You can always try, but he has even less of a clue. He only stayed alive as none of my parents took notice of him, not really. And because he posed no threat to me, I don't add. There's this one thing you can try; invoke her with ghost-candles and ask her what she knows about the matter."

They look at me as if I completely lost my mind. "Invoke an enraged goddess; you seriously think that's a good idea?"

"You got a better one?"

They look at each other. "We can try," Jellyhead suggests, "with extreme precaution."

"We need you to be there as well," Tim turns to me, his three pupils narrowed to pinpoints. "For safekeeping."

"What? Me? I don't see why that's necessary." I suddenly regret giving them the idea.

"Jack, we can't do this without you."


*****



So there we stand, all twelve of the high-priests, plus me and Hamed, my twin. We are in the observatory of their chief temple, with the movable roof open to the night sky poignantly void of the North Star. The altar is ornate with elaborate drawings, with four ghost-candles set up in its four corners, transparent like icicles, their flames invisible apart from the rippling air. They make all those dead people visible to them as well. Quite a crowd of them here today.

The priests are standing in a circle around the table. Hamed is watching intently, looking for the opportunity to be of use, eager, a bit like a puppy if I want to be honest. He embarrasses me sometimes. Me, I'm just sort of dicking around in the background.

They've been chanting for quite a while, but nothing happens. A sudden gush of air and all the candles go out, regular and ghost. I guess she doesn't want to talk to us.

There's silence in the suddenly dark room. "Doesn't want to talk to us, apparently," I remark needlessly.

"Well, what if you asked her?" Tim snaps.

"Uh, not a good idea."

"Why? You're her son, after all."

"Yeah, but... she's not the cuddly type of mom, nomsayin'? Me being her son and all wouldn't stop her from snuffing me out like one of them candles in a heartbeat."

"Just why would she do that?" Jellyhead asks.

I don't like being talked to in that tone of voice, especially not by a jellyfish. I accidentally set fire to a stack of documents nearby. Always this shit, when I feel uncomfortable. At least now we had light. "Uh, she is capricious like that and stuff. You never know, she might or might not do it."

Tim moves to douse the flames with a weary sigh. "Well, we'll have to go look for that star then, I guess."


*****



"Where do you suggest we start?"

We were back in the Debil-klub, them seated around the table long faced and sober like they just came from a funeral, me sprawled in the hammock. "Where do you look for a star? Up in the sky, methinks."

Again that nose pinching. "Mydzi Mjz, Jack... sometimes I get the feeling you deliberately want to piss us off further. It's not there. That's what causes all our problems in the first place."

"Maybe you didn't look in the right place."

"Please enlighten us then, oh wise firelord."

I stuff my pipe and inhale the fragrant smoke. "Uh, haven't gotten much farther than that. We still got Ru’Haini to navigate by, so what if we try and see what we find thataways?" It was nearing midsummer which was lucky as Ru’Haini is visible only then, and then only for a couple of weeks, looming big and red above the horizon in 45 degrees.

The priests look at each other. "Do you have a better idea?" Tim turns to Hamed. I can tell it pains my bro to admit he doesn't. "He might have pulled the idea out of his ass, nonetheless it's the only one we have," he says, his face pinched as if he bit into a lemon.


*****



So that's how me, Hamed, Tim, Martin, Peter, Mike, the usual crew plus 2 extra priests (one of them my pal Jellyhead) set out following Ru’Haini.

We been traveling for fuck knows how long, but we haven't gotten closer to finding the rogue star or finding out what's happened in the first place. We were pretty much off the map, wandering on unchartered lands. We were in low spirits as we fought our way through a swamp, them swatting at mosquitoes, covered in mud from head to toe, me trying to avoid all that goddamn water.

I don't know when exactly we wandered from the real (albeit dead-people-riddled) world to Nightmareland, but all kind of crazy shit started to go down. We lost Ru’Haini ages ago and it seemed we lost ourselves in the process as well. The stars and constellations just seemed to move about randomly, not staying in one place from one night to the next and sometimes from one hour to the next. Reality was slipping a bit, things seemed to wobble somehow as if we were tripping on acid or something.

We were sitting around a fire one night (they'd be screwed trying to build a fire from all those wet logs without my help. Ha!).

I sat thinking, munching on a rabbit. "If you can't find it on the macro level, look for it on the micro."

Tim stuffed a log among the embers, sending a shower of sparks toward the starless sky in constellations you don't want to contemplate too long. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Finishing the bunnyrabbit I took out my favorite shiny globe to play with. It was real pretty the way it caught and distorted the firelight as I turned it between my claws, with all these inclusions in its depth, a zillion glitters, like a starburst in its heart. I danced flames at the tip of my fingers, all of them a different hue to paint our camp all the colors of the rainbow. "Like, quantum level?"

"Look for a star? In the quantum level? Jack, this is not the time to be a jackass."

"What, I'm just trying to be useful."

"It's not working." He looked up at the leap of a purple flash. "What's that?"

I ignored his question. "Or we can build a starship and go look for it in the actual Space."

It seemed I just managed to piss them off even more, as per usual. Martin tried to say something, but Tim cut him off. "Jack, I feel like you don't grasp the severity of the situation, or worse, you make light of it on purpose. Quantum level? Starships? Seriously?"

Uh-oh, gotta watch it, here comes Timbo with the fancy-talk.

"Well, I'm awaiting eagerly for yalls' ideas, but I don't see none forthcomin'."

They were sitting there in silence for a while, all grumpy and grumbly, me only having fun, sending colorful darts of light in my bro's eyes.

"Jack, what is that?" he squinted miffed.

I hid the ball in one of my numerous pockets. "Nothin'. Founds it." Am instantly on the defensive; it's a force of habit.

"Found it? Where?" I don't like the accusatory tone in his voice, but can't say I'm surprised. See, I was right to get all defensive. These people always assuming the worst. Outraging.

"At the finding place."


*****



"Guys, I think someone is following us." Martin used the ensuing silence to speak. The light danced on his glasses as he turned to glance nervously into the darkness outside the ring of fire. Someone did for real for the past couple days, but as it was mostly harmless I found it unnecessary to mention it to the others.

"Oh, it's just Yuriy." Yuriy was a 4 meter tall statue of Augustus, but he preferred to be called Yuriy for whatever reason. The fact that he managed to track us so inconspicuously despite his size I found noteworthy, if somewhat unnerving. "Don't mind him, he's just an innocent goof." I hope, I didn't add.

We left Yuriy some time later, I guess he found some other distraction. A couple nights later this chick wandered into our camp. Except it was no chick.

"Oh hello there," the others greeted her, enlivened by the pretty female company. Obviously they weren't seeing what I saw.

"Do you need help?" Martin offered.

"Martin, don't!" Tim warned. Him with his Talent at least heard something was off with her.

"What? It's just a damsel perhaps looking for the warmth of the fire." He moved to make space for her. "Are you lost?"

She'd almost reached the fireside by then, black smoke covering her from head to toe, billowing from her mouth, her eyes glistening like oil filled holes. If but a wisp of that smoke touched any of the guys, it'd cause all sorts of nasty maladies in a short while. Might be it was radioactive or something.

"You don't want to make a move on that one." Tongues of flame condensed, hosts of sparks swirled around my hands, around my weaving fingers as I spoke. "It's a Főrbargi Bőrfeller."

They laughed in disbelief. "What? The Főrbargi is a myth, a bedtime story... "

There was no way to convince them. I sent a beam of fire her way and she dissolved without a sound. The beam passed between Martin and Peter, inches away from them. They sat in stunned silence, discreetly smoking.

"I just saved your asses from all manners of horrible death. You're welcome."


*****



We were climbing up this godforsaken Mountain of Madness, steep as anything, with just the narrowest little path leading up, and even that was constantly narrowing, widening, sort of pulsating so we had to be super careful to watch our step. Halfway up the hill we came across this opening, more a tunnel so huge no man could have built it. It was the only constant thing in this surreal place; it didn't change size or shape. That's how I knew something was off with it. That, and the Dark Lady siguls all over it told me to get the fuck out asap. Except I couldn't. Her presence was all over; it had me trapped. Now I'm not the panicky type, but this gave me all sorts of bad feels. Soon things were bound to randomly catch fire. "I'm not sure this is a good idea."

On the other side of the path there was just the bottomless abyss, with a scattering of clouds a couple hundred meters below us. Just then the path narrowed to practically nothing so we had to jump into the opening. Inside was a veritable maze of wide and tall corridors and we got duly lost in short order.

We didn't see anyone, but I could feel we were being watched. The corridors weren't perfectly abandoned either; at one point we came across these things, amorphous blobs stuck on the walls and the ceiling.

"Are those alive?" Peter breathed.

I contemplated the vague shapes of the creatures stuck in the flesh colored goo, their faces distorted into an eternal scream under layers of slime. "Think so, yeah. Told yalls not to come in here."

"Not like we had a choice. Can you burn them?" Tim asked.

I tried, but for the first time in my life, I couldn't use my skills. Can't say as I liked the experience, not one bit. "Nope. Ma'am is dampening my Fire somehow."

"We can always go back?" Martin suggested. But when we looked back, there were three of them sticking to the walls like huge spits, two pouring down the walls and one puddling on the floor. They weren’t exactly moving, but they weren’t there a minute before.

"Apparently not."

"Is it your mother setting up this whole place, putting these things here, forcing us into this trap?" Mike asked, his dark face pale with outrage. "You are one fucked up family."

I said nothing. Couldn't really argue.

There was just the tiniest gap left near the wall where we could pass, crouching low under the things, hoping they stay as sluggish as they first seemed.

"Hope these were the only such things we’ll meet in here," Martin said once we were at a safe distance from them.

"Wouldn't bet on that."

"Oh, shut up, Jack!"

I was right though. A couple corridors later there it was, a living, gurgling fence blocking the path altogether. There was a section where we might be able to jump over it, if we gained enough momentum. Well, might as well get over it. I began with a trot, speeding up gradually, barely missing the thing as I hurled over it, arriving in a tangle of limbs on the other side. "Ow! Damit!" I'm way too bony for this shit. I watched as the others arrived one after the other. They are shorter than me, so they needed a little extra magical help from the priests to make it. I guessed the stifling of skills was reserved for me only. Outstanding.

We went on, hoping to leave all these cave boogers behind. Turned out we didn't.

“Jack!” Hamed snapped.

I nearly walked into the fucker. It was hanging down off the ceiling, stretching down like a slug. The thing occupied the corridor in a way that we had to pass under it.

“Stick to the wall,” Tim ordered, never taking his eyes off it.

We were almost through when it attacked, darted downwards with a surprising speed. We bolted and ran, turning randomly left and right, stopping only when the guys couldn't run anymore for lack of air. They leaned against the wall panting.

"Jack!" Tim pointed.

Some of the stuff was stuck in my hair, quickly advancing towards my head.

"Fuck off!" I used my claws to cut off that part of my hair and hurled it away. It glowed at the base of the wall like a handful of embers.

"Might want to tie up your hair next time," my smartass of a brother suggested.

*****



Looking around we saw that we ended up at a wider opening, crowded with people. Their faces were veiled in black light. There was a lady standing on top of a stone altar. I knew she was bad news from the way the black light of my maw condensed around her. I tried to turn invisible as much as possible, which was no easy feat with my features and height. Thought of blazing a way back through all these people, then remembered that my fire was momentarily snuffed out. Damn!

The priestess turned towards us, towards me to be precise, and spoke with a surprisingly thundering voice, considering her slight built and tender age.

"There is the thief," she boomed. She was pointing straight at me, I'm afraid.

"Jack? What is she talking about?" Tim asked, suspicion obvious in his voice.

"Yeah, that's what I'm wondering about, too." I got all fidgety from all the attention, but for once nothing burst into flames much to my pity, as the faceless crowd of devotees was closing in on us.

The faceless people close in on around us.

"Jaxi, what have you done again?" Hamed hissed through clenched teeth.

"Again? Y'all are accusing me without basis... "

The Lady's presence filled the cave, engulfing us in her black smoke, wrapping us in her veils of darkness and her wrath was terrible.

Ok I might have gone a lil too far this time. But I liked that lil shiny sparkly trinket so much, I just couldn't help myself, OK? I just can't say no to swag, so bite me.

You have something of mine. Her voice is the voice of black holes, of the void between the stars, filled with Madness.

"Now now, Mother. No need to work yourself up." I take the crystal ball from my pocket. "See? It's fine, no need to get all upset..."

Too late, she is already upset. Her darkness engulfs and blots out the stars. I throw the North Star up in the sky where it takes it's rightful place. I make my hasty exit while the others are distracted.



THE END


2018 Susan Anwin

Bio: Susan was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary, Her flash-fiction Talk of Armadale trees was featured in the anthology My Favourite Place, published by the Scottish Book Trust in 2012, and her short stories Fog-People, Eddie's lousy Saturday, You'll die as fish, People of the Green Cloud, Dragonfly-man, Daddy is Driving the Car, Soul for Sale, Dark Sister and The Man Who Broke Time were published by Aphelion in 2016 and 2017. She's been featured on the cover of Aphelion in March and July 2017.

Website: Susan Anwin

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