vervaceous: (poison)
[personal profile] vervaceous
Title: Phoenix 11/?
Fandom: Harsh Realm
Rating: R for language, violence, and adult situations
Wordcount: 2,847
Summary: Mike, Florence, and Tom travel to Arizona in search of the Maintainers, godlike programs that hold ultimate power over the code of the Realm. But things go horribly wrong, and Tom finds himself making a desperate journey into a world far outside his experience--a world from which he may not be able to return.
Note: I owe a huge debt here to [livejournal.com profile] _shades_; the plot is hers. I merely flesh it out.


Caw. Caw. Low, raucous cries, very close. he hears them and the fact that he can hear anything is shocking, and he lies still, trying to process it before he gets as far as processing the sounds. So cold, he can sense that, but within the core of him he seems to have found a tiny pocket of heat and burrowed into it. He feels sluggish and warm, almost limp, though he knows full well that the ends of his body are freezing. Turning black, soon, and dropping off. Mike had rubbed him, his fingers and his toes, when the cold had started to set in. Rubbed him and muttered and Tom had known that the anger and the impatience was only to hide the fear.

He's not afraid. Not anymore. And Mike is silent, befitting the dead.

Caw. Again, closer. His eyelids flutter and he turns in the snow. He's half covered, but the wind has died down and in the brief glimpse of the world afforded him by the fluttering of his eyes, he can see that the clouds have blown back and the world is still and simply white again.

Except not. Something black jumps and quivers. Close. Barely feet away. His eyes focus long enough to give him a glimpse of a harsh, beady eye staring back at him and then it's nothing but a dark blur again.

When he licks his lips he tastes blood.

"You think he's dead?"

"Nah, he's moving." A strange, guttural chuckle. "Doesn't look like he has all that long to go, though."

"You wanna wait?"

"We should get him while he's still breathing. You know how it works. It won't be as nice after he's gone." Another low chuckle, rough like a man with chronic bronchitis. "Won't taste as sweet."

"Peck 'im. See if he twitches." There's more rustling, close, almost in his ear, and then a sharp pain in his cheek that makes his vision flash bright and pale. He yelps softly and cough into a low moan, blinking up at the white sky.

"Definitely alive. Least for now." Again he sees the beady eye and a long black beak like a spearhead, tipped with a bead of blood that seems to glow in the weird snowlight. "Hey, you. Can you talk?"

Tom works some spit into his mouth. It takes a minute, and in the meantime the pain is spreading down the side of his face like warm blood. He reaches up, touches his cheek, and his fingertips come away red. "I can talk," he croaks. "What... the fuck?"

"Nice language for a dying man." It becomes apparent to him that the thing--the bird--a crow, or maybe a raven--is speaking. It doesn't surprise him. He thinks that probably very little would at this point. "What in the name of all the gods are you doing out here, little human?"

"Storm," Tom whispers. He's talking to a bird. It's by no means the strangest thing that's happened to him. He might assume that he's hallucinating in his dying moments, but the line between real and unreal is already razor-thin. "Got lost... need to find... the path."

"Path?" The other bird hops and caws out harsh laughter. "There's no path around here, little human, and never has been. There are no paths through the wastes."

"No paths, no ends," agrees the other with a knowing blink of its eyes. "No ends, no beginnings. Just circles and circles until you go up or you go down."

Tom laughs. It's as harsh as the laughter of the birds, and there's something in the feeling of their ensuing silence that tells him that they're startled. So he goes on laughing for a minute or so, because he's tired of meeting people and animals and having them, at best case, speak in useless riddles, and at worst case, hurt him, try to kill him, and if he can make them take a step back by laughing at them, it's the control he'll take. Because he can.

"He's mad," mutters one of the birds.

"Of course he is," mutters the other. "You don't make it this far sane. You know that. Hey. You." There's a flutter of black at the corner of his eye and another stab of pain into his cheek, and he swipes at it with one hand. The bird squawks indignantly as his fingers connect with its body. So he can move his extremities after all.

"Bastard!"

"Don't do that," Tom grates. The laughter has faded and now he's merely weary and annoyed. "You got something to say to me, just fucking say it. Otherwise leave me alone." He pauses, then spits out, "Please." It doesn't feel like a courtesy so much as an act of defiance, though who he's defying is a mystery well beyond him.

There's silence, then, except for the soft hissing of the wind in the distance. Finally one of the birds asks, "Where were you headed? And don't hit at me, friend, or I'll have your eyes."

"The Maintainers," Tom breathes simply. It's becoming almost comical every time he says it. The Wizard of Oz. He tries to laugh again but this time he can't, and the sound that wrenches out of him is choked and pained. "I don't have any ruby slippers."

"Don't have any marbles, either, mate," one of the bird says with a low whistle. "The Maintainers, though... we've heard of 'em. Everyone has. Why in the seven hells would you want to find them?"

"Win the game." Tom looks up at the sky and though it's flat and white and featureless, he can feel it turning over him, spinning very gently, a wheel and he's the center spoke. Not because he's important. Just because he is.

"You want a favor." It's not a question, and the last word is fairly dripping with sarcasm. "Bad luck, friend. They don't do favors. They're not really into being nice."

Tom blinks slowly, following the turning sky with his gaze. "Doesn't matter anyway. Gonna die here. Probably not too much longer."

"You're sure of that, are you?"

"You seemed pretty damn sure just now." And Mike had said. Mike would probably know, if anyone would.

"Thing about circles, I find," one of the birds says meditatively, "is you follow 'em round and round and pretty soon you end up right back where you started. Nice thing about that is you always get another chance to do something different. If you're strong enough to break out of the loop, of course."

"You're close to dying here," says the other. "But it's all circles. You'll never quite get there, y'see?"

He doesn't see. He doesn't see at all. He guesses, by what he can see glistening in their cold black bird-eyes, that they know it, and that they're enjoying the joke. He's not even sure if he still has his gun or not. Had he thrown it away? Lost it? Traded it for something? He could shoot them now, two bullets and two little puffs of black feathers and spots of steaming blood on the snow. He could, if he could move his hands as much as he would need to, if he could remember if he has his damn gun.

"Leave me the fuck alone," he whispers, turning his head away. No more games. Dying is so simple, and right now simple seems so attractive.

"I like that." He hears another rustle and feels a sudden weight on his chest, claws piercing through his shirt. Looks up and there it is, staring back down at him, and he feels the brief, blinding under-fear that one feels deep in the reptile brain when confronting a predator. A flash of genetic memory from days of being small and furry and racing through leaf litter and undergrowth, snatching each second of life as it came and hoarding it away because the next one was far from certain.

The bird is only a little bigger than his head but for a split second he's genuinely afraid. The beak is long and wickedly sharp, and he sees no mercy at all in those black eyes.

"We could help you," says the bird, cocking its head to one side. "I mean, you're crazy for wanting to go on, don't get me wrong. But you've got a little puzzle to work out here. And us, we're good at puzzles."

Tom coughs quietly. "You can help me? I'm dying. Have you got a hospital under your wing or something?"

"Not quite." The other bird grumbles something Tom can't hear, but otherwise stays silent. It's simply man to bird, cloudy blue-green to black marble. "That body you got, it's just a placeholder for something else. It's only dying because you are." Tom must have looked bewildered at that, because the bird laughs roughly and cocks its head again, and this time Tom would swear to God that it actually grins.

He's never seen a bird grin before. There's a first time for everything.

"Don't tell me you actually got believin' that any of this is real."

"I--" Tom starts, and then he doesn't know where to take it. He's not sure what 'real' is. He hasn't been sure in long time, since long before he came here. The things he's seen, he's gotten to understand the weary look in Mike's eye. In the Realm, it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place.

"I don't understand," he mutters. Suddenly he thinks he might give anything he still has just to have Mike talk to him one more time. "Why don't you quit the goddamn riddle and tell me what you mean?"

"How else are we supposed to talk?" says the bird with an indignant snort. "This entire place is a riddle, mate. That's rather the point. When in fucking Rome, yeah?"

"I don't like riddles," Tom hisses, pushing himself up with a sudden rush of strength that might be frustration or desperation or plain simple anger. He swipes at the bird again and almost catches it around the neck before it flaps indignantly away, rasping at him. "And it's me you're talking to."

"Said I'd have your eyes, didn't I?" The bird is starting menacingly forward, surprisingly menacing for a relatively small bird, but the other one stops it with a gentle peck on the shoulder.

"No, wait. Look, there's a way. You know it. You each get what you want."

The first bird looks from its companion over to Tom, clearly thinking. There's something about the quality of that thoughtfulness that Tom doesn't even come close to liking. It's looking at him like he's a piece of meat, and he supposes, to it, that's pretty much exactly what he is.

He's not sure why he's even bothering with the idea of trying to fight them off.

"You wanna get to the Maintainers?" asks the second bird, hopping closer. "We can help you. Gods know you don't deserve it, but you're a poor bloke lost in the snow and I guess I'd be cranky too if I was you."

Tom narrows his eyes. Mike is still silent, but if he were talking, Tom feels fairly sure that he'd be muttering darkly about what comes of trusting talking birds. "How can you help me?"

"We know things," says the second bird, and the first nods emphatically. "Carrion kind keep their ears and eyes open. We have to. We're as old as death, mate, and since death started her walk around the world, we've learned a thing or two. We can share it with you, what we know." He hops closer still, the pale daylight turning the sheen of his black beak milky. "For a price."

Another price. Tom closes his eyes and turns his face away. How much is it worth, really, to see this game ended? Mike had thought it was worth his life, or so he presumes, since Mike Pinocchio was never one to step directly into the path of danger without an excellent reason.

But another price. He's so close to losing his life, does it even matter now what it is? Or he could die and this will all be over that much sooner.

But there's Sophie's face, not the spider creature or an illusion but the real Sophie, warm and soft and waiting for him, alone and waiting with their child growing heavy within her. Hurting. He might be able to bear a lot of things but he's never been able to bear her pain.

"What do you want?" he croaks wearily, looking back at the birds again, and again there's that eerie sense that they're grinning at him.

"Not much. There's things we quite like. Maybe you could spare one."

"One of what?" Tom asks warily, but his middle freezing and hardening and it doesn't have anything to do with the cold. He's getting a sense of where this is going. The old man in the boat had wanted his teeth. The dog had wanted his life. The spider had wanted his skin. Daena had wanted his fear and his faith, and the woman at the crossroads would have had his flesh on another night and in another form.

"Pretty shiners," whispers one of the birds. "Are they blue, or green? Or gray? They keep changing."

Tom closes his eyes and whimpers, soft and low. For a moment or two that's all there is, and he can feel the black birds watching him in silence with their beady little eyes.

"If I'm blind," he manages finally, "how am I supposed to go on? How will I find anything?"

"Didn't say we wanted both of 'em." The first bird lifts his wings in a shrug. "We're not unreasonable."

"One's enough," says the second. "We can share."

Just one. He's instantly infuriated by the relief he feels, as though this was never even his choice, as though it was going to be something done to him but now it at least won't be as terrible as he'd thought. But a second later he knows that's stupid, and it's fooling himself. There was never a choice. He isn't going to die here. He isn't going to because a way to keep going has been opened to him, and as long as that keeps happening, as long as the cost is something he can pay, he'll keep moving.

And it's the blood frozen into his shirt.

"All right," he moans. "All right, fine. Just... just do it fast." He swallows hard. "God."

"No God here," cackles the first bird, and with that the two of them are on him, hopping up onto his chest, fluttering black wings before his eyes, and beyond them he sees the sky expanding wide and white over him, and just above him, a slim crack is appearing in the clouds and through it, like a dream or a memory, he sees the thinnest sliver of blue.

And then the world is all harsh, cruel beaks stabbing into him, and he cries out as the world dissolves into a hell of darkness and pain.


* * *


"Florence!"

For a moment she doesn't know why Margie is crying her name. It's all happened so fast, too fast for her mind to process it, her nerves racing ahead of her and no time to catch up. A moment before, they had all been sitting in Margie and Abe's pleasantly cluttered living room, trying to decide what to do, whether or not to run, how to run if they did. Now, as the world starts to come back to her, Florence becomes aware of the fact that she's kneeling on the floor and doubled up on herself, her hands cupped protectively over her face.

Over her eyes.

Was there pain? What had she felt? What had she seen? It's all a gray nothingness in her mind. She drops her hands and looks around at them, her eyes wide, hating her own sudden helplessness.

"Florence," Ash says softly, dropping down in front of her and gently taking her wrists in his big hands. "Are you okay? Is there something wrong with your eyes?"

Slowly, she shakes her head. Because there isn't. There's no pain, not now, and she can see him, his face concerned and his eyes just as wide as hers feel. But his hold on her wrists feels awkward, almost irritating, and she gently twists free, trying to ignore the flicker of disappointment that she sees behind the concern. She shrugs broadly as she pushes herself up and back into her chair, making an I don't know motion with her hand.

"If you're sure you're okay..." Abe says doubtfully, but Florence nods. Firm. There's no time for whatever that had been. Not with Rusk bearing down on them. Not with an encampment of people not twenty miles away. Not when there's nothing she can do about it. Not if she can't even remember what it was.

Maybe it was nothing, anyway.

Date: 2009-10-19 02:51 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] forged-hero.livejournal.com
........

You're too fucking good at this. It's gorey and awful and impossible and sad and I NEVER EVER stop loving it, no matter how far apart the installments come. You're wonderful. DO MORE OF THIS.

Poor, poor broken Tom.

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