The Grand Alonzo
How long is this road to nowhere? Alonzo had been following the cobbled path for half a day, his scholarly mind frequently baffled at how this bizarre road came to be, and why it seemingly sprouted from nowhere in the middle of a vast and bewildering desert. Not that it mattered in the slightest. Roads mean trade, trade means civilization, and civilization means blessed wellsprings of delicious, cool, refreshing gulps of water…if it weren’t for those bastard thieves, he’d be halfway to the outpost by now! After stealing his camel, snatching his monocle and travel expenses, jeering at his silly name, and stripping him to his bare buns, they left Alonzo for dead—doomed to die an excruciating death beneath the desert sun!
He would’ve given up hope too, if not for this road. This magic road to nowhere...faint music carried on the wind, tickling the man’s perking ears. Squinting, hopeful, a strange cluster of manses appeared, revealed behind a sea of heat and illusion. Ornate archways, marble walls, with latticed windows, and blazing braziers of ethereal blue fire; the distinct aroma of incense tinged the dry air. Certain this was merely his shriveling brain playing tricks, Alonzo grimaced and cursed. However, as the gap closed, a pestering hope wiggled with joy. The sound of drums and horns wouldn’t abate, further thwarting his skepticism, as it only grew louder and increasingly playful on the breeze. Odd, this place converged at a fork in the road with a crooked signpost devoid of directions...both roads spanned to the horizon, stretching forever into the smoldering waste.
Best stay, at least for a while. Maybe the people here are generous, hospitable folk? Maybe they could explain the bloody signpost? Alonzo meandered inside the nearest edifice of the three, weakly calling as he vaguely remembered his manners. Mortified, the man stood stark naked in the doorway…thankfully, no one was here. Empty, the open chamber was adorned with colorful sashes that whimsically rustled and danced, swaying from the rafters. Fragrant, succulent, fruits and roasts teemed on luxuriant tables, teasing Alonzo’s schnozzle. A gust of moisture gamboled forth from a sumptuous well, a silver basin which sprang sweet, crisp, rejuvenating water. Rapt with relief, the scholar hastily guzzled and quenched his biting thirst, afterwards feasting on the host’s food and wine. Nagging thoughts chimed at how rude this was, but the fellow shrugged in reverie. Should the host come, of course they would understand. Who would begrudge one dying of hunger and thirst?
A waft of desert wind prickled his tender flesh, sweeping in through the doorway. Slaked, curiosity plucked a cord, grateful but equally bemused by this abode. Moving on, shielding himself with a plate, the conspicuous buffoon scurried for the adjacent chamber. Doors thick, embellished with gold, precious gems were embedded into the latticed windows and elaborate braziers. The building’s innards were no less extravagant, draped in shimmering tapestries and sheets of silk, beautiful carpets soft as cloud, tables strewn with gold-encrusted trinkets, chests bursting with gold and jewels, and all the fineries of life the mind could fathom.
Dumfounded, gripped by greed, Alonzo impulsively donned a garish ensemble of garb; a long black and gold tunic, matching leggings, with leather gloves and boots. Topped with a bejeweled turban, the man laughed and fancied his reflection in the mirror. Once again, the gnawing nip. Food is one thing, but this…how does one justify this flagrant disregard? The fellow shrugged, exhausted, curling up on the chamber’s welcoming bed. Should the host come, surely his story will rouse sympathy. Besides, what is more rude? Borrowing a few clothes, or shocking the host and kin half to death? It would be a vulgar thing to greet them without so much as a loincloth! Aye, and his pride is at stake here, which is far more important than mere propriety…
Soft music lulled Alonzo to sleep, dreaming of a lavish life surrounded by servants and concubines. Everyday felt the same, in a place where nothing, no one, could humiliate him. Who would dare? He was the grand Alonzo, prince of these crossroads, his every word and decree venerated by all!
There was never reason to leave this chamber, everything he could ever want or need was given gladly. Voluptuous women, hidden behind flirtatious shrouds, flocked in gaggles around the lofty fellow…eager to meet his every desire. Life was simple, blissful. The silver basin never went dry, delicious food replenished each and every day without fail, and time itself seemed captive as the days blurred together in a ceaseless stream.
Yet, something boggled the mind, something missing, that just didn't fit.
Why, it seemed too good to be true! That same pestering itch squirmed within, screaming as much, until his every doubt became a deafening roar…eventually, the music grew tiresome, the scrumptious food lost its flavor, and the water held a bitter savor. The lovely women that surrounded him seemed as vipers, smiling viciously behind guises of smoke. What is concealed there, hidden behind their laughing glares? Contempt? Hunger? Or, a hint of doom…
Before he could grasp their charade, the banshees quickly overpowered and pinned Alonzo down, cackling like crows whilst he struggled in vain. Something moved across the rafters, coiling around the wooden beams, veiled in shadow. Menacing eyes fixed on the scrawny prey, writhing there like a hapless worm. This is a dream! He could hear it constrict and slither above, as a burning glare of pure malice descending through the dim. A grisly tongue lashed a few inches from his face, slender and forked. Wake up, damn it! Every ounce of him quaked and screamed, paralyzed there in the depths of slumber…but it felt so vivid, how could it be a mere dream?
This fear is certainly real, terror festered and thrived, crashing again and again like a drumming hammer within a cage of ribs! A woman’s face crept into the moonlight, covered in a glistening sheen of pale scales. Yet, the neck was longer, narrower, melding into the winding torso of a she-monster—half snake, half woman, tail-tip rattling gleefully at his stunned reaction. Bright amber pierced through him, mildly amused by the odd fellow—a lethal curiosity that lasted all but two seconds—widening the slit of her mouth, ghastly and thin, it contorted into a gruesome sneer of razor teeth. The sight ripped a macabre scream from the man’s throat, puncturing through the twilight fog.
The fettering banshees vanished in a flash, having snapped back into the world of the living, but precious seconds were the only cushion between this life and the next; for, the horrifying creature loomed over, nightmare in the flesh! Meeting her gaze, the viper woman balked with a mix of surprise and fury. Pungent with the scent of incense, so strong it smothered, scaled lips curled back into a drooling snarl. He couldn’t move, stricken with terror as the snake then hissed a spiteful chuckle. Ksha-sha-sha. That heart juddering moment broke the spell, though Al couldn’t tear his eyes away from that terrible amber light. She plunged from the rafters in a flurry of talons and shards, monstrous coils having snapped the bulky beam in twain. Given over to anticipation, grim instinct, the frightful terror crashed over the bed’s flowing canopy.
Such ghastly resolve matched his own gut hunch, reflexes kicking hard. With a shrill cry the scholar rolled off just in time, smacking the ground with a painful thud. Splinters drizzled from the heights, stymied solid there like a petrified board, struggling to fathom the next move. Quivering, legs locked, this borders on the bizarre! It’s beyond reason, too fantastical, too crazy to be real! Monsters? Bah! His professors, colleagues, would simply laugh at the notion! Kshaaa!
Whatever it was, bloody phantasm or not, the she-viper writhed with rage in a tangle of sashes and drapes. Talons crueler than a vulture’s beak punched through the many layers of fine cloth, wildly flailing for the dumbfounded prey. Yeah, that about does it! Staggering along with shaky feet, running had never been so difficult before, or so agonizing! Bursting through the chamber doors, nearly falling over himself at the gust of smoke and wrathful shrieks chasing after, Alonzo mad-dashed for the third and final building.
It was rather modest, stark and lonesome as the cold night. Malodorous incense poured through the windows, ominous to say the least. No time for preferences, it’s that or die, hearing wretched slithering from behind! Gaining, even at his own desperate pace, a frenzied hiss lashed from beneath the desert moons. I’m dead, I’m dead! Shut up, man! Keep running! Without hesitation, Al dove for the rustic doors, flying through before swiveling around and slamming them shut. Sudden as that, the chamber doors nearly flung him backwards, cracking with terrible force!
Gripped with panic, he reached for something, anything, engulfed by total darkness. Fingers wrapped around a cylindrical object, dried and dusty. That’ll do! It’s rather thick, so it should hold! Jamming the blasted thing through the door handles, the beast was thwarted—at least, for now. A tirade of shrieks and strange curses besieged the walls, followed by faint and terrible laughter. Backing away, clumsy Al nearly fell over, stumbling over piles of rubbish underfoot. Baffled, the scholar blindly searched the barren walls, until his hands grazed a hanging torch swathed in blankets of webs.
Teeth grit, piqued with dread, there’s nothing he hated more than the dark…would it be alright? One really shouldn’t articulate without the proper tomes, but the brigands took everything! What can one do, faced with dire straits? Can’t be helped, rubrics be damned! Eerie and spine-tingling, a cool gust of air raced about the chamber like the icy breath of death. There isn’t much time.
“Hic Veni!” He bid, beckoning the fire from outside. Quick as that, a ghostly jet of blue heat splashed through the nearest window. “Luce facem!”
Tendrils of light wrapped around the musty torch, igniting what pitch remained. Relief rejoiced at the flickering flames, a small pinch of ease, fragile as newfound hope. Swallowed by warm luminescence, darkness still seemed to press from every direction.
Then…his eyes fell upon the barred doors. Is that a-a bone? Yes, a blasted femur, and not some chicken bone either! Alonzo’s eyes bulged at what waited below, harrowing glares, hollow stares of hundreds upon hundreds of skulls! Thousands of bone-dry skeletons covered the chamber floor, one couldn’t take a step without desecrating the dead! Maddened, the cleric within wished to scream, though he was just some nobody, not even that great of a scholar…should’ve seen this coming. Death lingers over this accursed road!
“Very few have made it this far.” Hushed and smooth, her voice flowed soft as a babbling brook. “Most prefer deluuusion over the cold, miserable truth…but not you?”
“No, afraid not.” Replied the scholar, on edge amidst the dark. “I never trust anything, you see. Good things rarely happen to me.” A spiteful snicker tittered from the depths, taunting the unfortunate fellow. “So eh, if you don’t mind, think I’ll be on my way now...”
“Oh? Life itself is an illusion, all is a fleeting dream…and your life was mine the moment you helped yourself to my hhhospitality!” Menacing hackles leapt to the heights, churning madly around him. So far, she kept to the shadows. “It was all a trap to ensnare you, traveler! Go? You can’t go. Look around, behold the fallen that sssurrounds you! None of them could resist my spell, and neither shall you!”
Something moved to the side, just out of view. Startled by the noise, a sudden and wretched gale blew from behind…snuffing the torchlight.
“Ignis erupit!” Shrills of agony hammered Al’s eardrums as he caught a glimpse of the decrepit walls. Looming over, mere arm’s-length away, the creature’s winding shadow recoiled amid a sea of bursting light. Like exploding stars, the dying embers on the breeze erupted into blinding flashes whilst Alonzo swiftly bolted for the gate of an inner sanctum.
Clambering over bones, falling through the gaping gap, her wrathful shrieks followed after. Thankfully, through the billowing fog of incense, moonlight cascaded from cracks in the ceiling. Yet, the chamber’s contents were no less grotesque. Fresher victims were left to rot in the far corner, withered and shriveled, leathery bags of bones. Snakeskins riddled this nest of death, shrouded in mystery and the overpowering stench of incense.
Clawing the throat, it burned to breath, and the chamber’s smoke tugged at the eyelids like a heavy sleeping draught. There’s no way out, far as he could gather, except for a wide chunk missing from the rafters. Desperation bounced frantically about, along with a frigid thought…this could be it.
Then, Alonzo’s eyes wandered over a strange pedestal, tall and triangular, jutting from a mountainous pile of discarded skels. Something small hovered and spun, spewing an endless smoke wheel—the very source of the harmonious music and smothering incense. Impossible to make out just what the curious thing be, this far away. There’s no mistake, though. It’s magical, this whole place reeks of foul corruption!
If memory serves, artifacts of yore could very well still be lost here in the arid bowels of Hysann; objects of mystical properties, best locked in vaults and forgotten for the world’s sake. Alonzo had read plenty of fables about magic, mayhem and the mad exploits of adventurers passed; but, it was supposed to be just that—silly fables. In reality, facing evil like this alone was far more terrifying than even the banshee queen at his back!
Mesmerized for a fraction too long, it didn’t matter what crazy ideas sprung to mind...quick as a blink, a powerful lash slammed across the back, knocking the wind from Alonzo’s lungs. Off flew the scholar’s tawdry turban as he was thrust forward off his feet. With a cry, scraping face-first across the jagged floor of shattered bones and gravel, the miserable hiss that rushed after didn’t bode well…not at all. His back spasmed, insides shaken like a tossed salad, trying to find breath enough to scream.
A talon-grip roughly took hold of his leg, dragging the dazed scholar a little ways beneath the moonlit rays. Clawing at the rugged floor, Alonzo struggled to gasp. All is useless without his voice, and even then direct articulation is rather weak; pathetic, mere child’s drivel, compared with the verses the old masters could weave. Seems the she-viper was no stranger to the maven-ways, spotting a few broken monocles cast off amidst the dead. Damn.
“There was never any doubt, ksha-ha.” Flipped over with a sharp thud, facing the brilliant cloud-lorn sky, the harsh knock finally triggered a gush of musty air. Heaving in the stinging smoke, writhing in pain, the scholar choked on a tide of coughs. All the while, he could sense powerful coils wrapping loosely about, tickled too by glossy black tendrils of hair. “You will spend forever with me, and I will feast on your dreams long after you’re dust.” Some might think her beautiful…if they’re partial to rapacious snake-women, that is. Smooth, flexible, cold to the touch, yet strong as tempered steel, each diamond scale seemed to shimmer like crystalline sheets of snow. Rather impressive, indeed, if not for the fact these marvelous cords were squeezing tighter and tighter...the thickest coil had the mousy fellow around the waist, cumbersomely embracing him to the floor, whilst a second wound across a shoulder, locking his right arm. “It would’ve been painless, even sssatisfying, had you remained asleep...” Highly doubtful, that. “It still can be, maven, if you let go of your caaares.”
So, she intends to try again? Mesmerize him into a sheepsy stupor just like before? For some reason, the thought of dying in her cloying world was akin to swallowing a vat of bile. Nothing but saccharine lies. Why not here, now, in this scrappy existence that at least made some semblance of sense? If just a little. Alonzo would’ve wise-cracked if not for the talons that swooped in, digging at his throat. Snake lips creased into a toothy grin. Abysmal eyes, nightmare-wide, peeked through a wispy shroud of dismal pitch.
“Look at me.” It bid, choking with a miserable squeeze. The world seemed to churn around those glowing orbs, bright and harrowing as dual suns in the void. Alonzo was immersed by their burning brilliance, swept along against his will. Never should’ve looked.
The stars, they were like glittering flitterbugs swarming the impenetrable black. Supine, Alonzo was surrounded by a sparkling scape of light and prisms. They were floating, it seemed, on the frigid surface of a colossal diamond. Wandering wherever, forever. Thousands tumbled through the dark expanse. A wall of sharp crystalline columns and shards hedged on all sides, incandescent with an indwelt light. It began to snow, tickling his numbed logic.
“This is a beautiful dream.”
As if awakened, he noticed her. A ghostly creature.
Odd, very odd, all so abstract and cold. The woman straddled him, leaning over amid the dainty frost-fall. Nothing odd about that. Striking with her own wintry glow, graced with a celestial beauty, she was clothed in nothing but a long curtain of raven-black hair. His frozen, uncurious brain didn’t know what to make of her, but those blazing amber devoured his qualms.
“Bare your soul, Alooonzo. Share eternity with me.”
Nauseating chills leapt through his body, feeling extremely heavy; weighted down, fading, drifting away like this blasted rock into the vast nothingness. Words eluded, trying to thumb this persistent itch. It was ever-faint, dwindling, the distant spark of a meandering thought. Alonzo numbly covered his eyes with an arm, waiting for the cogs of consciousness to freeze over. What is it? Can’t remember…a faint smile creased on the scholar’s face.
Turning, Alonzo looked to the fair beauty. Perfect serenity emanated from him, reaching to brush her cheek. Surprised, the lass took his hand. The veil had dropped, so to speak. He could see her, the real her…the creature of doom-tides. Her image flickered in his mind, disquieting, disturbing. That lovely mouth was frightfully agape, a deep chasm of whirling light. Those amber eyes were burning ravenous for another soul. Swamped in the dim, the woman—if you can call it that—was, in fact, a harrowing wraith.
Smiling cold as Death itself, scraping his hand along her frigid face, Alonzo stabbed his index into her cheek.
The dream burst, it died, melting before his eyes—snapping Al back into reality. Talons dragged in a sudden jolt, stunned amber blistering hot. Her face smashed to the side, kicked by the intense force of the maven’s push. The fiend’s gaping mouth contorted and twisted, jaw juddering, as her blight-light knocked into a billow of smoke. Alonzo screamed, clapping a hand over the gash at his neck, as the creature’s guised form swept into a wisp of black cloud.
Scrambling to his feet, the maven’s mind raced. Suddenly, things weren’t so cluttered, so blurry as they had been. The scales were falling, and with it the fog lifted from his boggled brain. Shapeshifter: Ordo Quattour…Class Four nether-fiend…seems to be of the dream-eater variety. Tricky! Alonzo furrowed his brow, daunted and hardly enthused. Can’t do much without a blasted monocle...would’ve seen through this chicanery on the spot! Damned thieves and rotten luck!
Even so, he knew what to do. True, he may be a shoddy scholar with shoddy luck and an even shoddier sense of clarity, but that didn’t mean things were completely hopeless! No, nether-fiends of this strength have to be summoned and require an anchor to this dimension! Some witless necromancer must’ve done it, lost control of the blasted she-viper, and here they are…the maven glanced at the pillar and the ominous artifact. Mhm.
Racing away, the blighted mist twisted around a pillar. Grisly talons leapt from the smoke and plunged into the walls, climbing high into the rafters. Furious amber peered through the wispy veils, her hair a frightful mess of writhing shadow-tentacles.
“Yooou…Hooow did you break my illusion?!”
“Easy, your lies just aren’t very convincing!” Alonzo winced at the blood seeping through his fingers.
“Impossible! I’ve killed dooozens of mavens! They were just as daaaft to my charms!” Backing away as the shadow slithered along the ceiling, there won’t be a next time should he slip up!
“Heh, you should really work on that speech impediment...” Alonzo dared not look away, not for a second. He traced the air with his finger, readying a ward. “Fact is, you’re just sloppy! Whitehaven finally noticed all the disappearances! So, they sent me to investigate! Granted, they thought it was slapdash paperwork…” The scholar grimaced. Any notion of his plan and she’ll pounce. “Too bad for you, I know flimflam when I see it! The grand Alonzo? HA!”
“Ksha-ha-ha! Regaaardless, I will have your dreams, even if I must rip you limb from limb!” Doesn’t seem like the bluffing type, tensing beneath that dreadful stare. Strings of luminous light followed his finger’s path, churning a relentless vortex.
The beastly shadow plummeted to the ground and swept for him, flying for the scholar at shocking speed, propelled forward by a feverish smoke-tail. The dream-eater’s black, harrowing visage was warped in delirium, anticipating his certain demise.
Alonzo ceased and released the vortex, clapping the wisp, mashing it between his hands in a flutter of lambent light. Ripping them back, a sheet of silvery strings stretched into a translucent cerulean wall of light. As the monster closed in, the maven fanned the ward and swept it in the fiend’s direction. With a hiss, she veered into the shadows, chased away by the whipping stream of light. He snapped the ward, flailing it every time that damned vix leapt from the dark—meanwhile, slowly backing towards the pillar.
Her rancorous howls seared the ears, contorting form writhing with rage; wildly, she tried to find a blind spot in the maven’s defense. Alonzo glanced back for a split second, eyeing the strange phylactery…wait, is that a-a bloody teapot? Who fixes a nether-fiend to a teapot?! Have teatime as well? Imagine that! Blasted sense of humor got the best of him, stricken with incredulity. When he turned back, the foe was close enough for a razor-sharp kiss!
The dream-eater had struck the ward-whip, dispersed, but shot her neck forward in a gruesome stretch. The fiend’s face soared straight at him, a disembodied head tethered only by a string-thin black lash. Alonzo almost dodged. Almost. Too slow! Her maw of fangs clamped onto his shoulder, shredding into flesh.
Al shrieked through his teeth, anticipating claws any moment, caressed by writhing tendrils and despicable snickers. Eager orbs burned fiercely at the man, trying to draw him back into her stupefying grasp. Bones painfully crunched, blood oozing from her grinning sneer.
Those wicked eyes bore into Alonzo, trying to fog his mind, and with that death wouldn’t be far behind.
Feeling himself go, with a raging cry of unbridling resolve, the maven tore away from the dream-eater’s ghastly stare. Ripping the ward from his remaining hand, the long sheets of raw energy had nothing left to draw from—growing dangerously unstable.
Tempestuous gales knocked him backwards, bracing his face against the tumultuous burst of wind and light. Skels went flying, darkness fled, the fiend blown to smoky smithereens. Ticks, that’s it.
Alonzo swerved, having played his last card. No time for a second ward. Without a tome, another go at articulation would likely set him on fire. This was it, fighting the scummy tides of Fate!