Chapter Two – The Island of Clouds
"How does an isolated tribesman tell the difference between an alien, an angel, and a ghost? … He doesn't, he tells a story." ~ Benson and Moorhead, Resolution
It was hot and humid. Something course ran across my face, almost like sandpaper. Then it rubbed again. I blinked as the sun blazed into my eyes, unfocused floaters, and mercurial murmurings of suggestive shadows. Something drizzled on the nape of my neck. That unspecific foreign odor but with an innocent quality to it. Hsssssshhhhh. Then the brushing once more.
I blinked and my vision slowly came into perception of a fabulous filly. The horse looked down at me with brushy eyelashes and continued to lick me to health. I lay sprawled on the cold clay, the sun in my eyes, the horse restoring me. My senses restored to me and I enjoyed the quite ecstasy of the moment with the horse-
It was not a horse.
That mouth did not belong to any horse I had knowledge of, for it was anchored in the beak of a turtle. The beak leading into a face that was nearly triangular aside from a sunset along the back. And the horrid horns! Longer than my armspan, one above each eye, and a third atop that turtle-nose!
Crabwalking into the underbrush, I could now see my friend in full. Covered in brown and grey scales, a barrel-shaped belly, columellar feet, and a tail as long as the body. Animals usually do not fear something they do not know, people on the other hand do. Unfortunately for my part, I was people. I knew fear bred fear and rather than let my curiosity get the better of me, I did not want my friend to get upset.
I kept my distance and bit my tongue.
In the early days, the Lord Dau'lush brought me down into his garden. He taught me the names of all his creations, Aut'strii, myself and first, and Zebra, last. Each of us being the first in our line, the sharedness of soul from ancestor fractured into descendent. That to know the first, was to know all.
My friend here was something wholly new to me. Something that I knew not the beginning of, much less the ending of. An alien anatomy and chronology, devoid of my Lord's artful stroke. I must say, I did not know what to feel.
I examined my hands and my feet, that perhaps something about my own anatomy might be different. To my relief, I suppose, I was still in human form. Although I was covered in the now dry clay. I bid farewell to my friend who grunted a "hsssshhhh," and left.
Following my nose, I came across a creek and cleaned myself. In retrospect, I should have made better care to mark my trail so that I could return. I produced for myself a simple off-gold tunic with a dim blue sash around my waist. At least my powers seemed to still be present.
Araucaria and monkey puzzle trees and flowers dotted the forest. I could hear the sounds of birds chirping but I could never seem to find them. I knew that following water would sooner or later lead me to civilization. Why had that stranger simply left me? I could have easily flown my way to wherever I needed yet, this was not my home and I did not want to draw attention.
As the sun began to set, I climbed to the top of a tree to see what might be seen. On the one side was the forest I was familiar with, but a mile or two, following the creek, there was a massive brackish wall higher than any tree. I would make it to this wall by night fall.
I was tired by that point and began to climb, but succumbing to my own laziness, I simply jumped to the top. The moonlight, a single moon, just as the stranger had told me. Honestly, the one moon was not as weird as I thought it would be as it felt just as natural as the beast which woke me.
What did strike me as peculiar was the rift the wall formed. Behind me, was the tropical forest that I had spent my day in while before me was a concrete cesspool of smog, brimstone, and industry. The lights of a thousand campfires lending light to the shadowy landscape. I could not, in full, make out, what manner of entities were there. Sardonic feral festivals of semi-erect creatures vaguely crocodilian whose coloration matched the landscape. I did not know what they were. But I did know that this was not of the same sort the stranger belonged.
There it was again, that fear which came with being conscious: the fear of the unknown. Already my mind had formulated: this was bad. These things were bad. I longed for the familiarity of that stranger found by my phylactery.
I walked a section of the wall before a spotlight focused on me, "There it is!" A voice boomed.
Two of the crocodilian creatures came up and I could see them strain to keep their hands off the ground. Their booming boxed heads of a crude iron and their backplates of the same gleaning in the torchlights of the towns beneath. "A therapsid? Here?" One inquired.
"No matter," the other instructed, "Send the hounds on them."
A grinding gate atop the wall pulled itself open the iron mechanication more whining than whirring. Three beasts emerged with ferrous collars on their wrists, ankles, and neck. Again, this was of a different sort than I have known. Their scales seemed to suggest reptile, but their mannerisms felt avian. Three-clawed hands and a small flat pair of horns above the eyes. Their glassy mail was as the colors of an oryx but light sprinklings of tiger-stripes, with blue caps on the horns.
My awe gave way to fear as the creatures gave chase. For as large as the wall was, it was wonderous to see creatures as large as elephants atop it. Their speed too was wonderous and they were upon me in an instant. Fortunately, my speed was better. I ducked back into the canopy and into the forest below.
"Where did it go?" One of the masked creatures said.
"It doesn't matter," The other responded, "Nothing could survive that fall, let alone that forest at night."
The forest was black and no matter where I stepped, something was always in my way. Not so much animals but plants, those omnipresent bird calls, and with what I had encountered so far, caution outweighed any curiosity. "I need to find my way home, I did not belong here," I acknowledged to myself, "And this world knows it."
I could only be sure that the wall was behind me, what lay ahead of me, I was less sure of. The moon could not be seen, and the branches were cold and slippery. I happened upon a herd of marvelous creatures whose wide-eyes could be seen in the foggy dark, their beaks producing cat-like chitters in the dark, and their peculiar avian habits of bobbing their heads. They did not appear especially dangerous but as I approached the pond they were grazing in, they all darted in their own direction.
I decided rest would probably be the healthiest thing for me. As Aut'strii, I did not need to eat, but I did need rest. Crickets and birdcalls lulled me to sleep, that maybe in the morning I might get my bearings.
Thump. It was enough to shake me from my sleep, but I did not think much of it. Thump. My heart? Thump. Not so much loud as it was noticeably quiet, but I could feel it. Thump. A drum? Thump. No crickets, no birds. Thump. It was an impact tremor. Thump. Cause for alarm, something was coming.
I sat calm and could barely make it out by the moonlight. An enormous animal. Easily twice the size of the "hounds" from earlier today. Its mouth bigger than my person lined with steak-knife teeth glistening juxtaposed in the small two-clawed futile hands. I dare not move. His title glared and inscribed itself into my thoughts, "Rex", for he was king.
The quaint lapping of the pond, like a kitten with a saucer of milk. I could not tell if he was breathing heavily or this was the result of his enormous build. The sublime perfection of his majesty alone in the pale moonlight with nothing separating us but a few of his mighty footsteps. If only that I might be able to discern some of his features further, a simple peak…
A twig. That was all it took. The drinking abruptly ceased. The massive snout now turned in my direction. As the body turned to match the head, I realized there was no place for me to duck into this time nor was there a place I might hide. That voice will never leave me. Like primordial thunder or the yowls of an ancient tiger.
I extended an arm to the branch above me in a loose tentacle and I attempted to extract myself. I am fast. I am Lushaka, the Aut'strii. I am to be first amongst all things built by Dau'lush. My arm, my tendril, being nipped and cleanly in a matter of seconds. Oh, the pain was extraordinary. But realizations set themselves into me: to be a mortal god amidst alien aboriginals. Gazing at my red trickles from my flesh, the rules, and laws, I had been raised into and had enforced in adulthood, did not apply here.
I suspect the most impressive piece of the sequence was that the Rex was able to lift me from the ground. Nothing had ever been able to lift me before. Retracting my tentacle as quickly as I could, extracting itself from the Rex's mouth. As tentacle knitted itself back into bicep, a single tooth remained embedded in flesh. I did not have time to process this at the time as the Rex prepared to charge again.
This time I was prepared as I was swallowed in whole, but transforming into piscine form, I slipped between the teeth and into the water. Confusion seemed to conquer the beast as the Rex looked from side to side then leaving the pond.
Hiding beneath some lilies, I bid my time to think and process. The distinctive thumps receding, and I knew it was safe to emerge. I shot up as a mangrove tree, my branches and trunk clearing the canopy. The single moon being my only ally in this world. The pain, that tooth, blood dripped from the wound. But I was too tired to act and fell asleep.
Morning came and the sun rose. An easterly sunrise and I knew then the wonders of this world would never cease. The birds had come to roost upon my branches. But these birds ever so different being toothed and having small fingers along their wings. Pecking at the dried blood along my trunk, to no avail.
The skyline was brilliant. Along the eastern board, behind the wall, clouds of red and black while to the west, the clouds of blue and white. Each one of them as unique as a fingerprint and just as intangible. Those clouds of Dau'lush's design being fluffy yet monotonous in their form.
The reptiles with nodes feeding along the pond's bank and bathing themselves amidst my roots. Quaint but their indifference restored my reason: I needed to return home. Retracting roots and branches, I took to my gannet-form and flew above the forests and along the clouds.
There was an answer to my questions in this forest, I had to know where to look. If only I had known that the resolution was far more challenging and confusing than my journey thus far had led me to believe…