(EDITOR’S NOTE: First of all, sorry for being away for so long. I have a ton of stuff I want to share with/discuss/foist upon you guys, but the schedule’s been crazy lately. Back to normal soon, I hope. Now, onto the real business at hand:
I’ve been threatening to do this for a while, and here it is – a serialized tale that’s been bouncing around my head for quite some time. I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen within its narrative walls or how long it will be or when it will be finished, but as pieces of it fall into place, I’ll post them here. Hope you dig it. All contents herein copyright Geoff LaTulippe and all that other legal crap.)
RABBIT HOLE JUNCTION
A cactus, lit by an oddly effervescent moonlight. It seems to glow – thorny, abstract pottery worked up from the desert floor. For a moment, the cactus is all there is – stoic, lonesome. Patient.
Then, footsteps. Or what at first SOUND like footsteps, but with much more purpose; in reality, these are the desperate pedal beats of a man running for his life. He breathes heavily, heaving pure desperation.
Then, abruptly, a pronounced metallic SHHHHHHHHINK, a crack in the air as loud as a gunshot, and the immediate cessation of running. And any heavy breathing.
Not a moment later, a haggard man’s body is impaled – belly-down, chest to pelvis – on the cactus as the metallic reaction rescinds, instantly disappearing into the night. As blood, viscera and pieces of bone slide down the cactus, they track shiny, runny streaks. This object is no longer a plant – it’s petrified. Glassy. Unnatural.
At first comically perched on one arm of the cactus, the (now) dead man’s left limb falls, dropping a satchel on the ground.
More footsteps, and soon another man appears, kneels, takes out a grimy, rusted hunting knife; on its handle is an intricately-carved winged creature, all eyes and scales and claws. The man wears pants and a shirt fashioned out of animal skins; they’re dusty and unkempt, several holes littering their landscape. He uses the knife to open the flap on the satchel and roots around inside for something. He finds an item, extracts it. Looks it over. Puts it in his own satchel.
He stands, staring at the body. He moves towards the head and slowly, deliberately, saws at flesh and bone, taking his time in defacing (the hilarity of that word not lost on him in the moment) the newly-minted corpse. The sawing eventually subsides, and then two wet cracking sounds burst forth. Finished, he takes another long look, then spits on the remains. Walks away.
The dead man is now less one jawbone, his face shredded below the ears. Not that he could scream if he still wanted to, and not that anyone would ever hear it if he did.
Moving on, the Butchering Man walks past an old, weather-beaten wooden sign forced into the ground lo these many years ago. It reads:
RABBIT HOLE JUNCTION
The Butchering Man pays it no mind, continuing past it with several bags slung over his shoulders, a utility belt around his waist carrying items of as-yet – and perhaps permanently – unknown make and purpose.
Well ahead of him rests the never-bustling metropolis of Rabbit Hole Junction, a collection of debris and shanties that might have once been charitably referred to as a place where people live. Well beyond that – days, which might as well be centuries – lurks the specter of what once had been a great city. Somber flashes of light from within, however, reveal any greatness long since decayed and vanished.
Below The Butchering Man’s feet, the sand is expressly NOT sand; it is, much like the cactus and all else in the vicinity, coated in a layer of pockmarked acrylic. In it walks the Butchering Man’s shimmering facsimile, his parasitic companion on this journey. Otherwise, the desert’s surface reflects only the moonlight from above, its source looming in the infinite inkwell of night sky. Gargantuan and imposing, the orb is encircled by a ring of dust.
One must assume this dust ring self-created, a byproduct of the massive crack that splits the orb, from pole to pole, in a jagged meridian.
The cobwebbed ceiling beams of a tired old saloon. Dust and grime coat all in sight. The walls are tattered and molded, the floor a hard-packed, glossy desert ground.
“The only reasonable punishment IS the most severe,” rasps an older woman. “For her crimes, the miscreant must pay with her life.”
The entirety of Rabbit Hole Junction – all 53 of them (52 if you were to count Blythe Carmody, who’s been well over 90 years old for seemingly decades and is perpetually hanging on via her last dozen brain cells) – makes the immediate choice to either shout or gasp. They murmur amongst themselves in shock and bewilderment, rustling their dusty, cobbled-together vests, suitcoats and dresses, until a whistle from Chairman Barkley silences them from his head table.
“That’ll be enough,” Barkley admonishes the peanut gallery. He then turns his attention, burning with hatred and spite, to Elder Shrike. The 70 year-old sneers back at him, a severe splinter of a woman who betrays no traces of typical humanity. Her long hair – parted in the middle and tortured into a tight bun – is pitch black on the right side, ghost white on the left. A maw full of craggy wrinkles does nothing to abate her terrifying visage.
“Elder Shrike, I do beg you to act with reason. No one disputes that Annie took your horse. But by definition, it was not stolen; the horse was returned. And one would hope that a Founder, as worldly and wise as yourself, could forgive the action if for no other reason than it being borne of emergency.”
Shrike leers at Annie, a girl of no more than 15, who sits, immobile. Almost vegetative.
“That woman’s life was worth less than the paper her mirrorland’s deed is printed on. I forgive NAUGHT.”
More murmuring. Annie begins to cry softly.
“That woman was Annie’s mother, Elder. And she’s dead now.”
“So is my horse, Chariman.”
“A month later! Hardly a fair equation.”
“Tell it to the Gods.”
“Oh, you and your superstitions, Shrike. I’ll not put the girl to death. Not this day, not any day. Go home and learn to appreciate the fact that you own a dozen more horses than any mankind within a hundred mile radius.”
Shrike shoots from her seat unnaturally fast for a woman of her age.
“Chairman Barkley, you call yourself a man of justice. And yet you sit here today and deny me the very judgment that I’m owed. This shall not stand.”
Barkley waves her off dismissively, gathers his belongings and heads for the rickety double doors to exit. But before he can shove them open, Shrike’s voice booms from behind.
“I shall invoke my right to Reconciliation!”
At this, Barkley stops in his tracks. Turns to face her. The crowd is both horrified and enthralled.
“Truly, you’ve lost your mind, Shrike,” he says with a pained knowing in his voice.
“Neither I, nor any of my Brethren, have invoked Reconciliation as yet this revolution. The law decrees our entitlement to one Reconciliation in each revollic period. This is subject to your opinion. ‘Tis written, ’tis guaranteed.”
From the shadows of the room appear a dozen Brethren, faces painted ivory white and clad in ceremonial black robes. They form in a perfect four-by-three alignment behind Shrike.
Sensing any further argument useless, Barkley gulps, rolls his shoulders, and traipses back to the head table. Reluctantly he sits. Even more reluctantly, he speaks.
“So it is written. Prepare the girl for Reconcilation.” Barkley walks solemnly behind the bar, pushes an unseen button. Creaky, ancient gears whirr to life on the ceiling, opening up a large section of the roof that quickly turns the saloon into a moonlit arena. At the same time, another button is pushed, and the section of the far wall that used to house liquor opens and spins on its axis, revealing a wall full of primitive – but exceptionally well cared for – weapons.
Annie weeps silently as she’s dragged by two Elder men into the light-fueled battleground, which measures a full 20ft x 20ft once the roof has fully dilated. With apologies that come in the from of their silent prayers for her transition to the afterlife, the men leave Annie, quaking at the knees, in the center of the ring.
A disgusting smile scrawled on her face, Shrike approaches the wall of weapons, immediately selecting a long, steel-tipped spear. She then glides to an opposite corner of the ring, where she stands, silently, the spear tip-down on the floor by her side.
Barkley walks up to Annie, produces a pristine hunting knife, a multi-eyed, winged, clawed creature’s form carved in a slither around the handle. He hands it to the quivering adolescent.
“Many a righteous and brave mankind has held this knife at one time or another, young lady. And your courage outweighs theirs by a boulder’s heft.”
He offers a weak wink of the eye to the girl as her shaking threatens to evolve into a spasm.
Barkley gets no more than three steps away before there’s a flapping WHOOSH of air behind him, and no more than four steps before the tip of the spear has entered Annie through the front of her throat and exited through the back.
Some in the crowd scream. Some can’t make a noise at all. One vomits (that damn Blythe Carmody, who apparently hadn’t seen EVERYTHING quite yet). Barkley can’t even bring himself to be surprised, barely halting his walk. Anyone observing him might notice his heroic success at holding back a wave of years. But no one does.
Annie’s body stands upright – propped by nothing more than shock and a lack of synaptic response – for a full three seconds before it crumples to the ground. But Annie feels nothing – she’s already gone. She was gone before she walked into the saloon that evening. Gone before she woke up that morning.
No one has the stomach to go to her as Shrike calmly approaches Annie and rips her shoes off, inspecting them against her own feet. Satisfied, she wordlessly heads for the exit, her minions falling in step behind her.
And that’s when she walks past a strange man sitting alone at the end of the bar.
“That was a mighty blessed toss, crone. You’ve been trained. Not expertly, mind you, but by someone who knew what they were doing,” he says without looking up.
Shrike whips on a heel to her left to find the Butchering Man, filthy and bedraggled, using a rusty old knife to carve what looks to be a bladed boomerang out of what is most definitely a human jawbone.
“Who–” she protests before being quietly – but most authoritatively – cut off.
“Spear should have entered horizontally, not vertically, to ensure a complete separation of the spine. And if you’d come overhand instead of side-armed, you’d have added another ten or eleven clicks to your velocity. And without the noise.”
Now the Butchering Man stands, facing her directly. Puts his thumbs in his pockets.
“I suspect you won’t be so pleased with yourself when you’re tested by someone who’s not a broken, pants-pissing young collie. Then again, I suspect you won’t be much of anything. Other than dead.”