Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Worlds within Worlds #5.2

The avenues are deceptions, like the tracks of sugar that tempt an unsuspecting fly into the burning waters pooled in the base of the pitcher plant's leaf.
'But you must have been born somewhere!'
Brother Sam talks too much.
I wave him to silence before carefully parting the curtain of dangling traps and slowly pushing my head into the space beyond.
This avenue is much rougher than the first, almost like the bed of a dried out stream. It runs in a shallow gully below us. It looks deserted, but something about the place – maybe the lack of noise or a whiff of not-quite-right – makes me mistrust my eyes.
The new-grown hairs on my arm pucker: something is down there, waiting.
'Everyone is born, and everyone has to ...'
I turn and slap my hand across the man's mouth before my heart has a chance to complete its beat. I push him backwards, force him to take unseen steps away from the gully. As soon as we are clear I turn him – my palm still clamped tight to his face – and propel him to the safety of the trees that make this rocky hillside their home.
For once, he doesn't struggle.
I head for a tree a little way uphill. It is larger than the others, with buttress roots flaring from its wide trunk; at some point, not too long ago, men had marked it for felling, chipping a set of steps into one of the sloping roots.
It will serve in a crisis.
'Climb!' I whisper into his ear. 'No words, no protests. Be silent, yes? Climb high!'
I don't wait to see if he does as he's told.
I crouch low as I turn back to the avenue, angling my route seawards towards a spot where, I hope, the gully walls will be at their highest. The ground is more level in this direction, allowing me to use my hands to clamber over and between rocky outcrops. I approach the lip of the gully almost on my belly.
I was right to mistrust my eyes.
It stands absolutely still, its back tight against the avenue's opposite wall. Its face is directed away from my vantage, with all its senses seemingly focussed on the curtain of pitcher vines a little distance landwards.
A flayman! Part of me wonders why it has wandered so far from its normal hunting grounds.
Its camouflage is near perfect – it was perfect, I realise, for anyone broaching the avenue from where we had just been. Its fur-less body has taken on the hues of the rocks and soils of the bank behind it, and it has flattened and flared its skin to muffle its outline and minimise any tell-tale shadows. But from this angle the colours don't quite match their background, and darkness behind the legs and arms help define its man-like shape.
There's rain in the air, and the breeze is becoming fickle. At the moment it probably can't smell me, but one misguided gust from the coming storm will be enough to ruin my emerging plan.
Flaymen. What do I know about them?
They are not real men, though they may take a man's shape. Their limbs are thinner and their chests are barely wide enough to accommodate a narrow neck and slim, sloping shoulders. I think of them as stick men – things that creep through the woods looking for people – no, men – to feast on. When travelling landwards, a wise man does not sleep unless one of his brothers watches over him, or he has a woman's protections about him.
Achoa once told me that they feed on a man's terror, tracking their prey by the droplets of fear that spring from the pits and crotches of men caught alone in the woods. I'm counting on Sam to flood the woods with a torrent of such sweat. I cannot hope to get behind the beast on the avenue, where only two approaches are possible. I need to tackle it on more level ground.
'What's going on, savage?'
Without thought, I pivot on one heel and smash my fist into Sam's face. As he staggers I sweep my leg behind him, tripping him backwards. He reaches out to grab at me as he falls – and I oblige him, grasping his arm as he grasps mine. I use my weight to swing him and lever him onto his side, bringing him close to the gully's lip.
I push him over the ledge.
He screams out as he falls. The sound is enough to give me a few moments to dash landwards, to a place where the slope down onto the avenue is less steep. As I reach my new vantage and crouch down, I pull the glass knife from its loop in my belt and place it – carefully – between my teeth.
The flayman has its full attention on Sam, who has come to a halt at the avenue's verge and now sits and rocks, holding his arm. I doubt that he can see the creature.
It moves.
I have met flaymen before. This one lacks the fluid motion of those other beasts; its limbs jerk as it pushes each one forward – quietly, slowly, taking its time to keep its camouflage intact, both by colour and by shape. Away from the gully wall it flattens itself to the horizontal, making its body no more than a couple of hands higher than the surrounding surface.
'Scream some more, brother,' I let my voice whisper. 'Let the clouds of your rage enchant it.'
I watch the edges of its skin flare and flutter, their silent buzz a blur to hide its methodical advance. It is barely two man-lengths away from its victim when it jerks its arm forward too quickly, disrupting its disguise.
Sam spots the movement; he has a puzzled look on his face. When his eyes resolve on the threat of the stickman his mouth forms a perfect O. He doesn't bother to scream, instead scrabbling hands and feet into the dirt and stones around him as he attempts to climb back up the bank, his chest to the sky in a comic pastiche of the creature's own gait. It takes a moment to snuffle at the air, gauge distances and trajectories.
And then it leaps.
Now I move, levering my way down onto the avenue track as quietly as possible. A drop of rain falls on my shoulder and a small gust kisses my face – the breeze has chosen to change direction, trailing my scent landwards.
I know the breeze could reverse itself at any moment; storms have that habit.
The flayman has judged its leap well: Sam smothers beneath its cloak of loose skin. Now it works at enfolding its victim into its own shape, but the man struggles against the attack with enough strength to lever them both away from the ground.
I take my chance and charge, two dozen long strides bringing me to the fight. I don't hesitate, and I don't think. Copying the flayman's manoeuvre, I launch myself onto the struggling bodies and crush them both back to the ground. With the man-beast pinioned by my weight, I scrabble through its fleshy sheets, seeking the creature's head.
It reacts by spiking its skin against me, the needles sharp with the threat of poisons at each tip. I already have a leg beneath me, ready to hurl myself away, when my hand makes contact with its hidden head. I reach down further into the stench drenched mass and clench my fingers around its neck. Already I have my knife in my other hand and bring it down on the monster's throat.
It shrieks! The noise is shrill in my ears, and loud to the point of pain. My arm jerks in tempo to the judders of the flayman's limbs as I saw and hack through gristle and cartilage. The beast beneath me cascades harsh colours across its pelt, their flashes an attempt to set my eyes to a fit. I carve harder, pushing my full weight into the action.
When the head rolls free of its neck, I bowl it away.
The creature’s flesh is like elastic bark: I cannot cut through it. Standing, I grasp at the body and overturn it.
Sam still struggles against his new suit. I follow a free leg into the folds and pull the skin-flaps away from their wrap. Hips are exposed, then a back, a shoulder, an arm.
The final part of Sam to emerge is his face, raw already from the flayman's bile. He whoops air into his lungs as I pull the monster free and fling it to one side – where it disappears in a heartbeat, merging its shapes and colours with the stones and earths beneath it. 

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