The Quester

A Fantasy Short Story Written By Andrew Majors

The Quester

by Andrew Majors

 

Andrew Majors is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, horror and the weird. His work has been published previously with tdotSpec, 34Orchard, and The NoSleep Podcast. His nonfiction essays and other writings can be found online at andrewmajors.wordpress.com. He lives near Boise.

If thought is life and strength and breath,
And the want of thought is death…

The hard winds had ceased as the sun began to bow toward the horizon, but already Aamblay knew in his heart that his precipitous journey southward was nearly over. He had given everything, almost torn himself in two through his exertions, and it had not been enough, yet his spirit still reared large in his breast as the edge of the world drew nearer with each beat of his gossamer wings. His self-inflicted trial was not yet complete. If he was to perish, then at the very least he could choose where to do it, and the nearest part of Paradise would be very the best place to expire. He had traveled many leagues, but certainly not enough to reach even the farthest edges of the Great Green Place told of in the burring songs of his people, so he would continue.

He flew onward, unsure whether he could sustain his wingbeats for longer than a few more jaunts. He had never been the strongest flier; at any moment there was a danger that his body would simply give out and plummet through an infinity of air to wreck on the strange grim ground of Greyband, that eternal wasteland splayed over the earth like solid ice. The Nest was long behind him. He did not look back, but if he did perhaps the refracted kaleidoscopes of his vision could still make out the lovely cylindrical shape of that eyrie on the far horizon, nestled between the Great Caves. It had been his birthplace and birthright, and he had left it to undertake this futile task, so he dared not look. Doing so would taint his few remaining notions of its splendor.

How long had it been since he left? His mind was falling to pieces, and time could no longer be calculated with precision. Jewel-wings knew time intimately, for it passed slow enough to be a part of their essence, but his faded strength meant he could no longer comprehend all its inward curves and subtleties. The last few eras of consciousness had been the same endless blur of motion across the featureless Greyband with little sustenance or rest. Fatigue was working through him and burning all lesser memories away. He still recalled his birth and idle youth: precious moments spent gorging on the fruits of the Nest, preparing his wings for flight, and tribulations of courtship, none of which had been successful.

Then had come the moment of separation. His first mention of a desire to fly the farthest air, across Greyband and beyond the Black Reach to the lush meadows of the Great Green Place, had been meet with dour skepticism. His progenitors had raised no objections, for they had already left him, but plenty remained in the Nest to scoff at his pretentions, the Elders most of all. No matter how well-laid, his plans were belittled and dashed. Harsh, stinging words came to him in greater and greater clarity as he flew on:

It’s hopeless, you fool. No jewel-wing has ever made it a wisp-league or more to the Black Reach.”

The definition of futility—why can’t you find something useful to do here?”

I tire of hearing your fancies, pupil. Don’t speak of them to the young anymore.”

The Big Ones would snap you in two!”

There’s two Great Caves next to us. If you’re that bored go explore them.”

You think your piddling body could carry you all the way to the Black Reach? Ha!”

It’s bad for a jewel-wing to be a dreamer, Aamb. The wider world isn’t for little things like us. Have some pulp.”

These recollections worsened Aamblay’s fatigue, and as the air grew ever colder his wings slowed, then ceased to beat altogether. He lowered his body to Greyband. He felt sore from the tips of his legs to the ends of his forelimbs, and huddled close to the ground, which was warm and soothing. The wind whirled around him like the stream around a rock. He was tired, alone, and far from home. The foolhardiness of his desires was never more palpable than in that cruel moment, as if the world itself had taken the side of his Elders and hatch-mates to spite him.

He could no longer remember when the journey had started—perhaps on a day trip to the Flatwoods, long and sleek, where jewel-wings since the Beginning had sunned and looked for fresh morsels dropped from the heavens. It was unguarded and flat. The flight would have been easy, low over the dry grasslands but still beneath the heads of many Big Ones, out past the Slender Trees with their sentinel’s postures and glinting wires strung between them like unbreakable venom-jaw threads to the very edge of Greyband. He imagined the trepidatious buzzing of his wings, the cautious rubbing together of his forelimbs as he first lifted off the ground. It was conjecture or wishful thinking which made Bzzrick speak to him in that fantasy, telling him to hurry back when he was done with his excursion; the next courtship cycle was set to begin soon, perhaps tomorrow. He wondered where Bzzrick was now, and could only hope his friend was warm, safe, happy and with as many offspring as he desired.

Aamblay turned around, and in a single instant of heartbreak realized all the sights familiar to him were no longer there. Everything that had been was gone—the Nest, the Great Caves, the Flatwoods, the grasslands and Slender Trees—passed behind a narrow, flat mesa which rose to block the horizon. He had traveled so far from the old world that he was now trapped in this new one, this infinite loneliness of Greyband, the prize of his quest.

He was so enthralled by his losses, and so very tired, that he failed to notice the Big One swooping down to catch him until it was almost too late.

It was a dark cloud sweeping into half the corners of his vision: big, striped, with razor talons and mottled hide. Black eyes, soulless and calculating, fixed him with an icy stare, as if the beast considered him less than a true meal even in the fullness of maturity. The cry it made before diving in for a killing stroke almost split his head. Its unhinged maw was enormous, as if it would soon rip itself from its master and begin feasting of its own accord. In that creature Aamblay saw a quick, painless demise, to be consummated in a single snap of its golden lips. He defied it.

Jewel-wings had few natural defenses against the Big Ones. They were small, easily hurt, easily eaten, easily conquered by hunger and sickness and injury. Even the air was their enemy on the advent of winter. But among all their weaknesses they had one vital quality: speed.

With the last of his strength, Aamblay kicked his body to the left and rolled over onto one side, tucking his wings to dodge the creature’s killing stroke by the hairs on his legs. The Big One’s maw impacted the ground, kicking up dust and a few chunks of rock. Aamblay crawled off as fast as he could, scrabbled along the last margins of Greyband and took flight again. The Big One gave chase, galumphing along on spindly limbs, dark eyes still focused on its prey. They sometimes bored of their sport and flew off to find easier morsels. Aamblay had never been so lucky. With blurred eyes he searched for shelter: a crevasse, a moraine, some kind of structure. The stories of the Black Reach told of many that resembled those of the Nest with weird skins that echoed or turned the sunlight to prismatic color. He searched for one to save him now, but the land was empty, with no places to hide.

Aamblay heard the monster shriek again. The flap of enormous wings told him it was now in full pursuit. If he did not act soon he would see the shadow close all round him, perhaps feel the maw’s hard plates as it enveloped his world before crushing him into nothing. Yet with a quick glance to his side he felt his vigor renewed: on his left there now stretched the endless causeway of the Black Reach. He had passed far beyond where any jewel-wing of his tribe had traveled, or even dreamed of traveling, to achieve the impossible. And he was about to go farther.

Banking on a gust, Aamblay made onto the Black Reach itself. At once the minute hairs of his body registered a change in the wind’s patterns that told of enormous gales almost beyond comprehension. The Black Reach was a great canyon through which passed zephyrs of tremendous size and fury. Gusts buffeted his tired body from left to right as he flew toward the far side, a few strong enough almost to throw him off course and into the waiting grasp of the Big One. He steadied himself and tried his best not to look down; the great floor of the Reach was as dark as the night sky. He could get away. Had to get away. All he needed to do was—

At a stroke, it was over. The Big One was catching up, then at his side, then nearly atop him. Aamblay felt its maw slice through the delicate flesh of his rear limbs, severing two and almost relieving him of a third. His right wing crumpled, then sheared away against the hard surface. Pain tore through him as his vision blurred further and his surviving wing slowed, then stopped. But in the instant before he began his arc of descent to the ground, the Big One already swooping after him to finish its job, his hairs told him that in death he would have revenge.

Through fading sight, he saw it coming: a sickly, green-tinged Behemoth that lumbered with great power and noise down the exact center of their tangle. It had no arms or legs, only form, large and misshapen. The gale screamed into a hurricane as he and the Big One tumbled over the enormous snout. Two hideous compound eyes writhed in its middle, unaware of their quarry. Aamblay heard the Big One’s final shout of surprise and rage cut off as it collapsed into a pile of feathers against an invisible wall.

Aamblay went next. The clear boundary was stone hard, and crushed his wounded body like any other enemy. He had no regrets; his vision dissolved, his torso ruptured in a shower of slime, and a single burst of blinding agony brought his world to an end.

#

Goddamn critters are too fast for their own good,” Ray muttered, turning off the emergency lights. “Lucky he didn’t crack it or we’d be stuck overnight. You okay, kid?”

Brad couldn’t reply. His seatbelt had cinched his stomach and knocked the wind from him the moment Ray slammed on the brakes. “F-fine,” he choked at last. “Warn me next time.”

The Chevy idled on the shoulder. A thin smear of blood across the upper right hand windshield showed where the sparrow had struck and bounded off to flop around on the roadway and die not long after. Still catching his breath, something on the glass caught Brad’s eye. He pointed to a little smudge. “Look. That’s what it was chasing.”

Ray squinted. Beneath the smear was the shattered but still discernable corpse of an insect. He shook his head. “All that for a meal.”

Should we get a wash?”

Ray looked at Brad like he’d grown a fifth limb. “It’s a road trip, kid. Grime’s part of the package. We’ll get it cleaned later.”

As Ray took a few more moments to shake the tension from his nerves, Brad looked across the lanes at the only interesting sight available. Behind concrete barriers sat a small rest stop with two bathrooms sharing an overflowing trash can, some plastic tables, a strip of dried-out grass bounded by a thin wire fence, and a parking lot. All told, the whole thing couldn’t have been more than a hundred yards away.

Alright, detour’s over,” Ray said. “One week off and we’re due down in NOLA in three days. Let’s get a move-on.”

Ray was a lead-foot. The Chevy was doing forty in less than five seconds. Traffic was light, and soon the two were rolling again down I-55, past the outskirts of Chicagoland into central Illinois and the Great Green Wilderness of America beyond.

Then am I a happy fly,
If I live, or if I die

William Blake

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*


3 × four =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.