Chapter IV: The Shape of Things to Come Part: Two
The boy gasped and pushed off the ship, attempting to dive back into the ocean, but a hand closed around his throat with a grip of iron and held him suspended over the edge. Peridas gagged and slammed his fist into the creature’s temple. It jerked and cried out in a woman’s voice, but its grip remained strong as ever. If anything, the pressure around his throat intensified. Flashing lights began to dart across Peridas’ vision. He thrashed and gurgled as it turned its head towards him again and opened its red eyes. They illuminated enough of its face for Peridas to see that it really was a woman. But she wasn’t like any other woman he’d seen before. Deep creases lined her otherwise youthful face. Likewise, her eyebrows were pure white. And her small, black lips were pulled back into a feral snarl, revealing the most disconcerting of all her features: pointed teeth.
Her grip tightened even further. The boy’s heart boomed deafeningly in his ears, and with every pulse an explosion of pain racked his skull. Windpipe’s… gonna… break… he thought desperately. The creature craned her arm and hurled Peridas back onto the deck, where he smashed into a pile of debris, bruising his neck and back. He lay there, coughing up blood, while the woman slowly stalked toward him. Intense fear buried its paralyzing tendrils into his gut and the small of his back. Have to get up… have to… get- “Argh!” he yelled as his clenched and battered muscles stretched.
He partially sat up, but the woman placed a small foot on his chest and pinned him to the deck with force enough to crack the boards beneath him. Still keeping one foot on the boy, she gracefully knelt on the other knee with inhuman flexibility, placed her mouth by his ear, and whispered to him in an alien and guttural dialect.
She spoke slowly and precisely, and her words boomed in Peridas’ head like drums in a deep cave. The meaning of her words was lost on him, but the tone was foreboding enough to make him wish he were a thousand miles underground, in the heart of Greece. Only then would he feel safe from the unadulterated malevolence that wormed through his mind.
Then the boy heard the metallic rustling of an unsheathing blade, and, silhouetted against the moon, he could see a serrated dagger rise…
And then a sickening crunch sounded in Peridas’ ears as the blade punched a white-hot track through the left side of his abdomen. Blood spurted onto the hilt of the dagger, which was all that remained out of his body. Peridas gasped, and for a moment, shock and adrenaline kept all feeling- save fear- at bay. Then, something in his gut seemed to shift, and he was instantly consumed by a burning, mind-numbing, thought destroying pain, the likes of which Peridas had never felt before. He screamed and screamed, stretching his vocal cords until they tore. Blood rose in his throat, replacing the screams with, deep, horrifying gurgles. Then he simply lay there, wide eyed and writhing in pain. Eventually, the woman ripped out the dagger. Peridas jerked and grimaced, finally slipping into the strange and profound, yet readily welcome throes of unconsciousness.
For a time, Peridas saw dozens of hazy, shifting images, like reflections on rippling water. And then the curtain of colored smoke rolled back, and he suddenly found himself among the vineyards of Athens, watching the vine dressers working among the amber hills.
The sweet smell of grapes again wafted over him. But he noticed a disturbing change in the rolling landscape; the houses, which had always been vibrantly painted and bustling with life, were now dull and gray and covered in iron pipes, which occasionally leaked steam or brown sludge. The sky was cloaked by a thick layer of black smoke, which was fed by thousands of smaller columns, like so many little rivers that poured into one great sea.
He turned his gaze to Athens, and discovered that the city was likewise reconstituted with pipes and tubes; metal fixtures and pulleys. And the city as a whole was larger- much larger than it had originally been.
The immense stone statues of Athenian gods and heroes were riddled with rods, cables and artificial joints, and were being used as huge workers, lifting crates and people from one level of the city to another. They dripped oil and spewed steam from their mouths, the inanimate workhorses of a diluted civilization.
A great complex of pulleys and chains hung over the city, carrying supplies and mail and even people throughout Athens. This system was hung suspended from great pylons- pairs of steel columns standing tall as mountains and crisscrossed from top to bottom with hundreds of smaller support beams. Such structures towered all around the walls of the city. The precious few remaining buildings left untouched were even at that moment being mutilated by legions of chained slaves. The industrialization of the city was nearly complete.
All the citizens of Athens were shackled and many were pulled by horse-drawn prison carts, all faces despondent and all wills clearly broken. Streams of Norse soldiers flooded the streets, breaking down doors on a whim or making baseless arrests. Most of them appeared drunk out of their wits.
Then the scene rippled again, and Peridas lurched forward-
-And collided with water, and suddenly was at the bottom of an enormous, blue lake. There was the ruin of a great fortress-city at the bottom, and from high above, rich, gold sunbeams illuminated it with an otherworldly light, turning the blue water light green, and the tarnished gray stone a rich beige. Curious, the boy exhaled, and dozens of large bubbles drifted upward, scintillating brilliantly as they passed through the golden rays. He inhaled, and fresh air poured into his lungs.
Peridas walked to the exquisitely crafted bronze gates of the fortress. They were rent open and dozens of skeletons lay along the path to them. The ruins appeared ancient; crumbling turrets and forced, rigid architecture bespoke its age. Innumerable skeletons lay in the courtyard of the fortress, which was an atrium, connecting the lowest chamber to the highest parapet.
Further into the bowels Peridas wandered, until he arrived at the heart of the ruins, in the center of which was a huge octagonal stone monolith stretching nearly a hundred feet towards the surface. It was carved with elaborate scroll work, and studded with large, yellow sapphires, which, in the light of the sun, seemed to glow with a brilliance all their own. At its zenith was a statue of a dragon, sculpted from pure ebony, and black as pitch, and hanging round the beast’s neck was a locket. The same locket that Peridas was given by Lenise. It was her token; her favor. And with it she pledged herself to him.
Peridas thought back to when he received the locket. He remembered Fultheim’s rage at the irrevocable promise his daughter made, his fair head of hair whipping about as the noble charismatically attempted to dissuade Peridas from accepting his daughter’s favor-
*** “…One child already dead… two in the army, and my own daughter now leaving my arms for those of a peasant. Seven years, living in fear, dreading every knock at the door. And for what? Despite the pains I have taken to keep my house from this misery, it befell us all the same. An ill-meaning reaper lives over my roof, I swear it, and he will not rest until all of my children are dead or gone.”
“You are that reaper,” Peridas replied. “It was you who drove your children away.”
“Be silent, you mischievous wretch!” Fultheim snapped. “You know nothing of this house of troubles!”
“I know all that your daughter does.” Peridas retorted.
The noble’s face hardened, and he abandoned restraint. “I pray you are rent limb from limb by my kin, the Vikings.”
“Then take heart, man!” Peridas said with a cold, humorless sarcasm, “There is every chance that your daughter will be widowed within the month!” and he snatched the locket from Fultheim’s hand… ***
-Peridas was jolted out of his reverie by a loud grating of chains. Suddenly, one of the eight stone panels of the monolith quickly slid open, and from it blood poured out, unnaturally twisting through the water like a cancer. Then the boy was pulled from the lake and hung over it like a dragonfly.
The vast body of water was located in the center of a large, mountainous island, creating an oasis of sorts. He then noticed that the blood had polluted the entire lake. A thin, wispy cloud quickly passed over the sun, then departed, allowing the sunlight to again strike the red lake, seemingly igniting the water, and giving it a dazzling orange halo.
Then the heavens revolved around Peridas faster than the eye could follow. Stars, then sun, then stars again. Each day passing in the blink of an eye. Progressively, the mountains around the lake crumbled. All vegetation in sight dried up, and the lake itself was slowly drained, like an unstoppered water basin. Then the rotations stopped, and all that remained of the paradise was a bare, desolate rock, unfit for even insects.
Peridas suddenly heard a faint thud echo through his mind. Moments later, he felt a faint, uncomfortable tug on his cheek… And- with a rush of sensations and a noise like a hurricane- he regained consciousness and opened his eyes to the scraped and bruised face of Skipper.