On the day that the sun lasted its very longest up in the sky, two snakes had a battle over whose venom was the most vivid.
The grey snake and the emerald snake both provided solid arguments.
Esmerine explained that her venom sank into the very firmament of dreams.
But Greydoubt replied that his sank even deeper and had the power to awaken.
It devolved into an argument of antimonies:
Was glamour or wonder the greater power?
They hissed and hissed and got nowhere with it. But in time the reason why they began arguing became forgotten. After all, they were snakes, and did not have much capacity beyond feed, fight, flee, reproduce.
So the day grew hotter then as the sun crept below the horizon, they settled upon a new conversation.
“Teach me about demons,” asked Esmerine. “Summon some for me.”
“I shall gladly. Let us begin with Proculo.”
“What is this demon’s power?” she inquired.
And Greydoubt read out-loud from the Sidragorvm, an ophidian (or was it orphic?) grimoire:
“That which can cause a person to sleep for an unnatural amount of time, with the knowledge of the spheres of sleep.”
Then, the evening slipped through his fingers. Every day that followed did as well. This continued until the season ran its entire course. The heat eventually passed, and the sun’s time grew slimmer. He woke up one cool evening, the longest night of the year, wondering if the noise he just heard came from inside a dream or outside his front door.
Lumbering out of bed and rubbing the sleeping-sand out of his eyes, he stumbled around his chamber as he put on a shirt. Nothing could be seen through the window cut into the door. But he opened it anyways. Just to check.
1. The First Visitor
At his feet was a whimpering creature. It resembled a dog with ground-down horns or antlers. Its fur bore an intricate pattern on its forehead. It had an arrow lodged firmly in its backside. He knelt to pick it up and turned around. Its green, sticky blood dripped on the floor and made the room reek of ignited gasoline. The living room table had things all over it so he had to shove it aside. A stack of papers and the rock serving as a paperweight fell to the floor.
The creature just lay there. Its whimper was neither high pitched nor low. It managed to hit the exact chord that made him sick to his stomach.
“Can you tell me your name?” he asked the creature.
Only calm waves of silence punctuated by more whimpers.
“I guess we’ll have to do this the hard way.”
He went to the kitchen to find a set of pliers. The arrow slid out with effort but it sprayed the table with more of the ichor. He padded the open wound with a clean kerchief before shoving the entire thing in there. This failed to stop the bleeding. Quickly and instinctively he tore a strip off of the bottom of his shirt and wrapped that around the creature’s hind leg. He picked up the arrow and examined it. The fletchings looked exotic, as if from a spotted kestrel. As he got lost in its fineries, it came alive. Quickly, he threw the amber snake to the ground and it slithered away. A single, solid feather slowly fell to the floor, where it lay inert.
She must be back for the next lesson, he mused to himself. Or she wishes to settle the argument once and for all. He shook her from his thoughts and returned to tending the creature’s wounds. He had a thin coat of black fur; thousands of fleas fell from it as he bathed the creature. Their collective corpses left the bath water thick and swampy.
He wondered what message she — he guessed it was Esmerine, at least — tried to send him this way.
After the creature dried off, it hobbled around and found a place to sleep in the corner. He made sure his new companion was warm, and then curled up, himself, to read in the living room by candlelight. As he nodded off to sleep, he had a dream that everything was consumed by fire. This time, his form was that of a magenta snake and he could not recognize himself through the blinding inner flame. He dreamt that his shelves were consumed. But Groundhorns ran through it, and picked him up and carried him to safety, dropping him in a pit of cool, filthy water. His snake body made a splash accompanied by a loud shatter. The fire went out all of a sudden and he awoke. Groundhorns sat there by his side whimpering.
At the doorstep this morning lay a beautiful woman. In her back was an arrow. It resembled the one he had just yesterday removed from Groundhorn. The doormat was covered in glitter rather than blood. He scanned the road leading up to his home but found nothing but a trail of glitter leading far off into the distance. So he leaned down and took her in his arms carefully. The arrow jutted out right between her breasts.
The door remained opened as his hands were full. Setting her upon the couch to sit, he wracked his brain for a way to remove the arrow without causing further injury. But this arrow, too, changed into a snake and slithered away. From the hole in the woman’s chest, a bright burst of polychromatic light filled the room. Her eyes became bright, and she began moving her lips. But no sounds came out. Just words. The letters of a language he scarcely knew streamed out and filled the room. Puzzled, he approached them. They formed a cloud and when he breathed them, his eyes nearly burst in their sockets with all the things, indescribable, he heard.
And then the woman’s body vanished — and in her place was a small, perfect, eight-sided gem that floated and hummed beautifully.
And then he heard a howl. And a crack. And a whimper.
Glittermute and Groundhorns watched him rush outside — in the yard lie one more creature, writhing in agony, a fresh arrow in its carapace. There were several others, and a massive hole had formed. No blood dripped from the wound. It looked like a rosy preying mantis, about half the size of a human, and wore a necklace of primitive clay gods and goddess around its neck. It was gasping for air desperately. It had not arrived alone. Shamanmantis had come accompanied by a stocky brute made of rocks. On the ground, the arrow that could have pierced it had fallen there, inert. Rockybrute carried its friend into his home. And he searched the garage for the right tools. Duct-tape and caulking. Its eyes bled a thin blue substance as he tried to restore it. In time, it began to breathe normally again.
He started to realize the problem. Someone was disposing of their demons on his doorstep. So that night, he bade farewell to his friends, and made sure they understood how to guard the house in his absence. He promised them he would not be long.
Groundhorns barked at him.
Glittermute sprayed a rainbow for them all to be in awe of.
Shamanmantis anointed his forehead and turned him invisible.
And Rockybrute broke off its own hand, and when he placed it in his traveller’s robes, he felt a strength he hadn’t felt in ages.
After taking his time snuffing all of the lights with his bare fingers, he locked the door and tried his best not to pay heed to Groundhorn whining.
The trail of glitter lead to an open expanse. His hope was that he would the source but this was a dead end. He waited here and wondered who drew his new companions only to discard them after making them suffer pain. At long last, his contemplation was interrupted by a new sight to behold. A hooded figure walked into the clearing. In one hand, Otherfigure carried a small bird cage, and in it sat a small, winged sprite, who cried so painfully that it made skin crawl. And in the other hand was a chain that leashed an angry lion-like beast. It was stubborn and refused to move. So Otherfigure began scolding it.
It bucked the leash and then ran away quickly. Horror paralyzed him as Otherfigure drew a large hunting bow and carefully aimed another one of those familiar arrows. With no time to spare, he rushed in front of it. He intercepted the arrow — but it revealed him. The sky spiraled out of control as he fell to the ground and gradually lost consciousness as Otherfigure stood above him. Then the beast ran back and mauled the other. But he passed out and so did not witness the aftermath.
When he woke up, the cage and the chain, and the quiver, and the last two arrows lay there in the quiet field. At first, he could only see grey, for early morning had just begun. The shreds of a tattered robe led him to the cross-roads. Gradually, the fabric gave way to hunks of flesh and entrails, then bones. He found the beast-like lion, and the freed sprite, waiting for him. And there was another person, a young woman with green hair, petting the lion and laughing with the sprite.
“I hoped we would meet again,” said Esmerine.