Fiction: Black Sand

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Fiction: Issue 7

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By Regina Glei

Despite his many layers of clothing, Orin almost froze to death and cursed the Elders who had sent him on the journey through the plain to the Cone Islands in the Lake of Stone.

It had taken three days to cross the plain and the first mountain range. The only living thing that he and Lyda had seen during their journey had been a nameless, thorny shrub that hid between rocks from the constant wind.

Orin stared at the Lake of Stone below him. In its very middle lay the two, almost-identical islands. Both were perfectly-shaped cones, with flattened tops like volcanoes, and utterly bare of vegetation. A single glance and Orin knew these islands had not formed naturally. One of them bore the ruins of the castle that loomed over the lake and the islands. Orin huddled deeper into his coat.

What if the beast rose? What if the stories were true that people went mad if they looked too long at the castle?

But how could Orin not look at it? How could anyone who saw it not stare and try to understand its sick angles, which were all wrong, confusing the human eye, making Orin dizzy. The castle was carved out of one monstrous piece of smooth, seamless black stone. It loomed high into the sky, its bizarre, crooked, needle-shaped turrets scratching at the clouds.

Orin had never set foot in the castle and yet, he saw its halls before his mind’s eye as he stared at the structure. The castle, which easily could have housed Orin’s entire village, was empty except for the sand. Fine black sand covered the glossy stone floor. The wind, allied with the sand, howled through the halls, but left the sand untouched. The unearthly sand, fine grains, completely black and immune to the wind, sickened Orin’s mind even more than did the unnatural angles of the castle.

Orin hardly took his eyes off the structure, while his shying horse descended the mountain path towards the lake, following Lyda’s.

The castle whispered to him. Its presence got stronger with every step towards it. A humming rose from it, as if the stars played music: utterly unearthly, beyond understanding, sending a chill into Orin’s bones that he knew would never leave him again.

The urge to turn and run was overwhelming, but they needed the essence. His village was blessed, the people further south said. Those people honoured and fed them and worshiped their Elders as holy men and women. Only the Elders of Orin’s village knew how to brew healing potion out of the essence of the Cone Islands. They anxiously protected their secret and with it, their power, passing their knowledge on from generation to generation. Nobody disobeyed the Elders, ever. Their potion healed every wound, cured every illness, let everyone who drank it live at least a hundred years.

The healing potion came at a price, though. After what had happened to Antar and Vern, the Elders would only send unmarried youngsters who wouldn’t leave mourning wives and children behind.

If Orin refused to cross the lake and set foot on the island that bore the puddle with essence, they’d banish him from his village, send him away, shunned and humiliated. But would anybody care in the lands south, far from home?

He looked at Lyda. Her eyes glowed in excitement and fascination. A hot stab of shame hit him. The girl was braver than he? Impossible.

***

Orin and Lyda secured their horses in front of the boat-cave and carried the small boat to the lake’s shore.

Icy cold bit through their clothes and yet, the lake never froze. Legend said it hadn’t frozen in thousands of years, no matter how cold the air.

They rowed towards the naked island, but stared at the castle on the sister island most of the time. The sky, a dark, leaden gray, reflected in the lake that was as gray as the clouds above it.

The fluid that Orin and Lyda parted with their paddles seemed like liquid stone. Their hands would freeze and crumble to dust if they touched it. It wasn’t water; nobody knew what it was. The slick, oily surface shimmered silvery, calling, pulling Orin in. He forced himself to look at Lyda’s back, and beyond it, at the island ahead.

Antar had survived his journey to the Lake of Stone, but he wasn’t well; his mind had never fully recovered. Vern had not returned. The beast had risen and taken him. It had snatched him out of the boat and carried him away. Antar had not been able to do anything but watch. The beast’s wings had whipped up a wave that had caught Antar and cost him an arm.

Orin tried not to remember Antar and Vern as he dipped his wooden oars into the liquid stone. He tried not to remember Antar’s sad and lonely face, or his desperate wife, who was now married to a broken man who mumbled nothing but nonsense.

***

The closer they came to the island’s shore, the fouler the smell. Something smelled rotten, impossible in this cold, and yet, the stench was unbearable, even through the mufflers covering their mouths and noses.

With numb fingers, they dragged their tiny boat ashore and turned towards the slope before them. The castle on the sister island loomed threateningly over them, watching them as if the very stone had eyes.

Large patches of black sand covered the steep slope to the top of the island and didn’t stir in the icy wind. Close to the top, the sand covered every patch of soil. Orin saw no route around it.

The unmoving black grains of sand crunched under his boots as he walked carefully. The merciless wind tore at his robes, howled in his ears. His straining breath froze almost immediately to ice in his scarf.

They finally reached the top. The tiny puddle in the very center of the cone was much smaller than Orin had expected. Not water, but an oily, sticky, slimy, black fluid filled the puddle – the black sand in liquid form. Around the puddle lay more sand, heaps of it that encircled the puddle, again as untouched by the whipping wind as the liquid inside. The puddle measured not even three arm-lengths in diameter and, judging from the flatness of the cone, could only be a few handspans deep. The villagers had diminished the amount of essence over the eons.

Orin fumbled in his clothes for a little flask, as he carefully stepped over a smaller heap of black sand at the puddle’s rim. Streaks of poisonous violet shimmered inside the black liquid. Orin bowed down to fill the flask with the liquid, careful not to touch it.

The Elders would use their magic to tame the essence and thin it down to gallons. In its raw form, the liquid was pure acid; it would etch the flesh of his fingers down to their bones if he touched it.

“We can’t stay here for long. We’ll freeze to death,” Lyda shouted over the wind.

“Yes, we have to go back immediately.”

Lyda gave him her flask to fill. “Shouldn’t we take more?” she asked.

“Two flasks, one for each of us, that’s the rule.”

“Come on; let’s take more. Why not take more?”

“No, we must do what the Elders said. No more than two flasks. Others have taken more before and that roused the beast. Come on; let’s go home.”

“The beast also rose when we took only two flasks. Antar and Vern didn’t take more and you know what happened to them.”

“No. I will not disobey the Elders.”

Lyda scoffed, fumbled in her robes, got out yet another flask that he hadn’t known anything about, stepped over a heap of black sand and bowed down to fill it.

“Lyda, damn it, no!”

“Shut up.”

He had never liked her. She disobeyed, failed to show respect, talked behind people’s backs. She dared what he didn’t.

The flask was filled and she closed it. He stowed away the two they were entitled to. Both rose, turned around and screamed.

The black sand had moved behind them, crawled together to form a wall. Lyda managed to stand still; Orin almost stumbled backwards into the puddle.

For a second, they stared in shock, then Orin went to the side where the sand was still inactive, but the wall moved with him.

“Oh, no,” Lyda said.

“Pour it back! Pour the contents of your flask back!”

“No, that has nothing to do with it.”

“Damn you!”

The wall of sand still rose and rose, even as they spoke.

“Jump through,” Orin shouted.

“No!”

The wall in front of them changed, it formed to a creature, a yet-shapeless flapping monstrosity that rose and rose. It would become the beast; it would grow and grow; it would get wings, be able to fly and it would kill them, like it had killed Vern. Fear, colder than the wind, grabbed Orin’s heart.

The villagers knew of no weapon and no defense against the monster – when it awoke, you ran.

Orin grabbed Lyda’s arm and jumped through the wall of sand. She screamed in protest.

The slope was steep and Orin and Lyda lost their balance. They stumbled and fell, rolled over and over down the hill through less and less black sand. The sand gathered to form the winged something. Beneath the sand was nothing but gray and poisonous dirt.

They stopped rolling just short of the lake, 50 arm-lengths from their boat.

Lyda scrambled to her feet and tore at Orin’s robes to make him get up. He screamed. His hood had flipped back and he wiped hysterically at his left ear.

He tore his gloves off, shook his head and ruffled his hair.

“What are you doing?!” Lyda’s voice screeched in his ears.

Black sand had entered his hair, stuck to his cheek, and some had trickled into his ear.

Orin screamed. He banged his ear, frantic. The sand had to get out! Out! Out! He felt it reaching out for his very soul; it raped him, gnawed at his sanity.

Without having to look, he felt the flapping monstrosity forming behind him. It had no shape yet, no face, but it was huge, getting bigger by the second. More and more sand rose into the air. Sand flew over from the castle to join the sand of their island.

“Get up! You have to get up!” Lyda shouted.

He didn’t see the monster. He felt it – in his ear.

A terrible roar shook his bones, so terrible that it lamed him. The sound of the universe echoed within him, reached him from whence the monster had come – the depths of space, beyond the stars. He felt it rising, shouting into his ear.

The only thing Orin could do was bang his head.

Lyda managed to get him to his feet and dragged him to their boat.

He screamed and screamed to silence the roar in his ears.

Lyda pushed him into the boat and the boat into the water, jumped in herself and grabbed her paddle. She rowed frantically. Orin didn’t see the lake or the monster. He felt it, he heard it and became one with it. He flew on its wings towards the castle.

He banged his ear. His voice was not his own, anymore. He screamed and the depths of the universe seemed to fill his lungs. No, no, no, he didn’t want to enter the castle, but he did. On the monster’s wings, he flew inside, through its torn angles with terrible speed. He swept through the castle and suddenly, he saw, understood, the angles made sense. He felt them, their sick beauty, their screeching dimensions.

He banged his ear and forced himself to look at Lyda.

Lyda kept on paddling, naked fear of death written on her face.

She screamed as she stared back at the flapping thing that grew bigger and uglier by the second. It was too dark, too alien, too big, and too unfathomable for the human mind. Lyda ploughed on with her paddle, and splashed lake water onto her clothes…he tried to care, to tell her, but his tongue wouldn’t move, only for screams.

They reached the shore. Lyda grounded the boat, jumped out and tore at Orin, who bled from the ear and nose. He beat the side of his head with all his might. He hurt himself and yet, he didn’t scream in pain but in naked terror. His screams came from beyond this world.

She made him stumble towards their horses. The animals neighed and reared up. They saw the beast and the whites of their eyes showed. Lyda pushed Orin onto his horse, released it and the animal galloped back the way it had come. Only one path led through the mountains and the horse took the way it knew by instinct. Under the roar in his head, he heard Lyda’s horse galloping behind his.

The horses didn’t have to be spurred. They only lowered their pace when mountains blocked the view of the lake and its two islands.

Orin didn’t see the monster rising and flying over the islands. He didn’t have to; he knew what the monster did, how it looked, how it felt. It was lonely, sad, it wanted to go home, but couldn’t. They had left it behind. The creature’s loneliness swept over him with such might that he drowned in despair. Banging his ear, he wept for the creature. So lonely. So alone on this strange world where everywhere was too warm, except for that much-too-small lake and where the angles were all wrong.

After they had put the entire mountain range between themselves and the lake, the roar in Orin’s ear eased a little. It let him breathe. He managed to stop beating himself. Exhausted, he lay on his horse, hugging the nervous animal’s neck. He felt the warm, living creature underneath him and gave himself up to its guidance. He still moaned and groaned and sobbed and knew, in a moment of intense clarity, that he would never fully recover from the terrible darkness he had seen and heard.

Night fell over the desolate mountains, hiding the darkness that had risen from the Cone Islands in the Lake of Stone.

***

In the first light of dawn, Orin regained consciousness. He found himself on his horse as it trod along, tired but still eager to get away from the terrible mountains.

He had the taste of blood in his mouth and was deaf in his left ear. His whole face burned and felt like an open wound. He still heard the roar inside his head, still felt the beast. It had flown around the islands for a while, had rested on top of the castle and howled its loneliness into the night. Now, it had settled back next to the pond with essence and wept.

Orin managed to look up and saw Lyda’s horse in front of him. She lay on it like he did. Her left arm dangled lifelessly back and forth in the rhythm of the horse’s movements. He caught a glimpse of her face: it was gray, her lips blue, her eyes wide open and staring into nowhere. The lake’s water had killed her. Death had blessed her.

***

Not knowing what else to do, the Elders fed Orin with healing potion. His face healed, but he remained deaf in his left ear. His only clear moments were when he drank from the beast. The roar in his ears eased when he did that. He pitied the beast. He wanted to speak to it, but didn’t know how.

He was convinced that the creature was unaware of the fact that humans were sentient beings like itself. He spoke to the Elders about this, but they only patted his arm condescendingly and gave him more potion. They didn’t understand. They couldn’t.

Orin gave up on the Elders. His pains would end one day, but the beast’s would not. The poor thing couldn’t die. He could and smiled.

The End

Bio: Regina Glei was born in Germany, but nourished a fascination for the Far East ever since she was a little girl. She graduated in Japanese Studies and has lived and worked in Japan for ten years. Her other fascination is with words and, although she does speak and read/write Japanese, she still prefers to write in English. Living far away from her home country for so long has surely influenced her writing, too; it’s speculative and sometimes weird….

You can find news about Regina and her publications on her website: http://www.juka-productions.com/.

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IFPFiction: Black Sand