A Mat of Ashes
Albey burst from the surface of the splash pool in a rage of choked coughing. Water flew all around him, the crashing torrents, the mist and spray it conjured, the flailing of his arms, splashing, fighting the embrace of the cold. The Mad Poet kicked wildly at the murky depths, propelling himself towards the shore of his island. Fingers bent like claws and strong like keratin dug into the moistened land as Albey pulled himself onto the dry. He heaved twice, expelling water both frigid and scalding, then collapsed, his feet still kicking until they could kick no more.
Albey woke later on – later by a moment or later by many, ‘twas not possible to be sure – to noises of jovial merriment dampened by the raging cascade they rode down from above. Hollers and laughter, bodies splashing in water… or mayhap that was just his mind playing tricks on him. During the meditation Albey had a vision, there were two… well, whatever they were, they spoke to him, or at least tried to convey a message, but…
Gah. It was too jumbled with the snowy interference, he could not discern what they had said. The Lodge, he picked out, and Gobon was mentioned by name… something about keeping the lab safe, and an herb he musn’t… he musn’t what? Consume? Perhaps… but two words did fight their way through that strange miasma which stole over the sanctity of the Mad Poet’s mind.
“Unfallen… and Mage…” Albey said aloud, just to grace his ears with the familiar vibrations. “My friends… could they have–”
No, that’s ridiculous… but was it really? At one time in Albey’s Life he had no use for silly concepts such as reincarnation and Life after Death, he believed Life was a miracle totally unexplainable by those who experience it, that we simply wake one day, toil for many strates, and then eventually go back to sleep – unless we are sent there by a force more powerful than we, like the lunar wolves, those uncollared hounds reared by the divine ones themselves. But then he met Iuqon, master of magicks inconceivable by mortal ‘mans, a walker of Planes unknown… ever since then Albey simply did not know what to think. Or rather, the Mad Poet knew not to think too deeply into the subject, for no matter how much he wondered, he knew he would never come to the correct answer, if there even was a correct answer. He would often jest with his comrades that those who thought about and spoke of metaphysics were looking for an excuse to flaunt their madness, but Albey himself was Mad now…
So was it ridiculous?
“There’s no way to know,” Albey said, bringing himself to his feet. His clothing was filthy, gritty with silt, and all the ashes had washed off after his last fall, if not during the many prior ones. He could hear the tiny bloodsuckers buzzing around him like he reeked of shit and carrion. It was dark – not full dark, but getting there with haste – and the walk back was not long, nor was it short. The forest would be a challenge, a dark tunnel easy to get lost in, but there would be a light at the end. The light of the m–
“The moon,” Albey gasped, bringing the sheet of runes out of his pocket and unfolding it quickly.
The sheet did not rip, miraculously enough, and the fact that the ink had not smeared nor ran nearly knocked the Mad Poet off his feet, but the papyrus itself was frail. Liable to tear if it was not handled carefully. He decided to carry it in his hands on the way back through the wood, and when he returned to the clearing he would light a fire and evaporate the moisture. It had to be done, there were only… Albey counted… there were only four days left until the Calla then, and he could not afford to lose track of time and be exposed when the blind wolves howled forth.
An arduous trek spent swatting flies and cursing when they bit his flesh finally concluded at the twilit clearing. The moon’s waning glow was dimmer than it was the previous night, and it would only dim further as time went on. If he did not find a way into that cabin… well, he would make something work. Maybe the cabin itself was an illusion, one of Gobon’s dastardly tricks. A sealed hut of wood without a window to peer through? The interior would be black, pitch black, no matter the time of day. Nobody could live there… unless they had a lantern, of course, but then where would they get fuel? The lanterns at The Lodge were powered by the bottomless black ink which once spilled from Albey’s quill, but that all burned up in the blaze. Gobon… why did Albey trust that horrible bastard? Why did he follow him down that game trail to the hollow space between the trees, why did he… why did…
“What did he do to me…?” Albey wondered beneath his breath as he knelt down beside the firepit. The black ashes of the welcome mat – a mat of ashes, one could say – sat atop the desert of gray left behind from the burnwood. Albey chuffed a puff of hot air from his nose, the humble laughter of accepted defeat, and with the hand not grasping the note (which he had folded during the walk, as the thought of an unseen branch catching hold and tearing it drove a nail of rage into his heart) he grabbed a sturdy branch, one which he would use as the base of his next tower. Placing one end of the branch on the far side of the mat, Albey swiped the burnt straw through its center, splitting it clear in hal–
Something connected with the stick, something solid. Something metal. Albey dropped the branch and began to dig gingerly through the ashes.
“I thought I got all the metal flanks out,” Albey said, knowing very well that he did. There were seven flanks total from the blast which ignited the quill; he took one to the river and dredged six from the pit and they were all resting beneath the dirt behind the cabin, so what could this be? “What could this be?”
Finally he found it, whatever it was, locked his fingers around the length of its form, and pulled it free of the ashes. Slowly Albey opened his hand, palm facing the starry night sky, and when the Mad Poet saw what the divine ones had bestowed upon him, fresh tears welled up and spilled over his tired eyelids.
“The key…” Albey warbled, trying not to sob loudly. “The key to the cabin… it was woven into the mat, I was always meant to find it.”
He looked up to the heavens then, as if asking the divine ones for permission to feel the overwhelming gratitude which flowed through his spirit like blood in his veins, hot and passionate, always present but rarely felt. The divine ones said nothing, merely smiled down at their Mad Poet, and watched him leap to his feet and run – not walk, not jog, not drag his feet but run like the white wolves of the Halla were after him and he was foolish enough to think he could escape – to the cabin’s door. Though his hand shook and the tip of the key, an old thing of brass with three steampunk teeth, bounced against the metal plate through which the keyhole was carved, he eventually got it in. Turned it. Relished in the clicks and clacks of the mechanism at work. Took the key back.
“Everything is as it should be,” Albey reminded himself, mayhap for the final time, as he slid the key into the pocket which once held his damp note. “Just as it always is.”
Albey turned the doorknob. It did not creak, but merely worked silently as though it had anticipated this moment from the day it was crafted. He was right, it was black inside the cabin – pitch black – but that did not dissuade the Mad Poet. He did not need light nor a bedroll nor any creature comforts; Albey now had his shelter, a place to stay when the night came prowling, and so he closed the door, locked it behind him, and laid flat upon on the hardwood floor. His feet did not kick any furniture, his hands felt the rough texture of the floorboards, and the note of runes – unfolded now, so it may dry during the night – rested upon his chest where a magick quill was once sheathed.
Albey the Mad Poet, locked safely inside at long last, closed his tired eyes and fell immediately, deeply, and soundly into dreamless slumber.
This has been the last subchapter of the second chapter of The Face of Fear, a novel about bigfoot written by the writer in Untitled Bigfoot Project. Here is everything you need to know about it:
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