Sacred Engines – Chapter One

Sacred Engines - Front Cover

 

The Central Valley Sentinel

One sleepy valley town can rest more soundly with its citizens finally able to return home after the tragic military testing blunder that reduced much of it to rubble.
No new comments were made or explanations given, but the base’s commanding officer did reiterate their regret, concern, and sympathies for the town devastated by a rogue missile launch. No new answers have been given about what exactly caused the glitch that saw the Central Valley town blanketed in fire after four ballistic missiles were launched on it from the base, but we have been told an investigation is ongoing.

For the residents finally able to return there are mixed feelings. Happiness at going home, coupled with a profound loss at the wasted landscape many of them have returned to. Yet due to the valiant, some would say miraculous, efforts of first responders and other people on the ground, zero lives were lost in what would have otherwise been a national tragedy.

In a move that surprised many, federal disaster relief was on site almost immediately. One official source says rebuilding efforts are already underway. And word from higher up the food chain says federal coffers will be open to aid in ongoing projects, as well as to provide financial assistance to those who lost nearly everything.

It seems, for one town at least, maybe miracles do happen.

— Nadia Patel, Staff Reporter

ONE

“Hey Thomas come check out this article,” Swift hollered from across the donut shop, waving a newspaper in the air.

Grizzled old timers, farmers, and truckers who frequented the quaint establishment. A few heads raised at the commotion. A bit of grumbling into steaming cups of thick black coffee.

I cringed and offered a hurried apology to the young lady behind the counter. I turned out my pockets and dumped all my change in front of the register. It was too much for the donuts and coffee, but it never hurt to appease the townsfolk and keep them from hauling out the pitch forks and torches.

I feared, after only a few days, we’d outlived our welcome. One day while picking up aspirin at the drug store I’d caught whispers. Locals were used to folks from down in the valley coming up to the mountains for camping and vacation. Didn’t mean they had to like it, though. Especially when those same folks from the valley kept stomping through the woods all hours of the night, going on about mystic portals and beings from other worlds. The inhabitants of High Pass, the town we’d been lodging in, were a simple people. They didn’t have time for our nonsense.

I’m pretty sure they thought we were on drugs and worshipping the devil out in the woods. I grabbed the coffees and box of donuts and hurried over to Swift.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said in a rush and then turned to look at the old timers and mummified matriarch doling out coffee and donuts behind the counter. “You all have a fabulous day.”

The morning that greeted us outside carried an undercurrent of threat. It promised heat and scathing winds. Summer had come and it was a bad one. Fire warning signs littered the nearby woods. Rangers roamed the trails and roads looking for any sign of smoke. There hadn’t been rain in months. Not since winter and that felt like it had been a lifetime ago. It left the locals in a bad way. Unrelenting heat did things to the human mind. Warped it, made it unkind.

It also drove away the tourism that little towns like High Pass survived on. Other than a handful of rock climbers, some hippies on walkabout, and a survey team from some college, we were the only visitors to the town. Summer was supposed to be camping and vacation season. High Pass should have been crawling with out-of-towners, but the temperatures soared and kept everyone away.

No one wanted to hike a mountain trail when it was 110 outside, except maybe a half-mad wizard and his friends.

“Hey, man.” I nudged Swift and tossed him a glare as we marched down the sidewalk back to our hotel. “Maybe don’t rile the locals when they already think we’re sacrificing cats out in the woods at night, yeah?”

Swift smiled and grabbed one of the coffees and the box of donuts from me. He pounded half the steaming beverage in one go and shrugged. I juggled the other two cups for a second.

“Imagine how boring their lives were before we got here, Thomas.” The sun shined off his sunglasses. “Besides, we won’t be here much longer, right? You said you were close.”

“Sure. Maybe? We told the manager at the hotel we’d only be staying for a week, and that was two months ago.”

“Time flies when you’re having fun, right?”

“Maybe for you,” I grated and took a sip of my coffee. I swore the donut shop made it with used motor oil. Every day I put more sugar in it. It never helped. “You’re the one giving the locals nightmares, up all hours of the night wrestling ghosts.”

“Says the guy communing with the native Others out in the woods. You know the rangers had to test the town water supply after you pissed off that Gloom Wight last week, right? Half the town thought the mountain was covered in green fire.”

I mumbled something unintelligible into my cup and cut across the street, toward the hotel we’d turned into our base of operations for the last couple months.

We’d been trying to stay out of trouble, but it didn’t always work out well for us to say the least. High Pass was the third mountain town we’d been to since embarking on my ridiculous, so-called quest. The first town was still, without a doubt, the absolute worst. Toad demons were just no fun at all, but there were some things we’d had to take care of.

The second town was one dead end after the other.

At last, finally, the path had led us to High Pass where I was certain I was close. Deep in the heart of Yosemite, it was a lot like every other little town we’d been in. A couple greasy spoons, a couple dive bars, a pawn shop and liquor store. The local grocery doubled as the post office. Our hotel was a strip of rooms anchored to a larger house, all of which had been built probably two hundred years ago if the rough wood paneling was any indicator. It gave it all a wild, frontier feel. The third and final member of my party complained regularly about the derelict heating and plumbing.

“Brujo!” Rosa shouted from across the parking lot. “Missus Bradshaw says if you don’t pay up next week’s rent in full we’re out on our asses.”

I stopped dead in my tracks on the gravel and stared.

Rosa stood outside her room, casting an evil eye at me. Her hair was up, but rather than its usual severe bun was in a high ponytail with errant sable strands framing her hawkish face. She wore jeans and hiking boots, and a red flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She’d offered her services as a cleaning lady to the owner of the hotel after I may, or may not, have blown one of the toilets through the roof trying to summon a spirit out of the pipes. Between her extra work, and Swift coughing up more cash—that he kept getting from some mysterious source, we hadn’t been kicked out.

Yet.

We walked up and I set one of the coffee cups I’d been carrying on the cleaning cart Rosa pushed along the wooden planks that skirted the rooms of the hotel. She had started her day hours before the sun rose, and was wrapping up. She popped the lid off the coffee and drained it in one go.

“Seriously, Thomas,” she said more softly, tossing the cup into a trash bag hanging from the cart, “we’ve just about wore out our welcome here. Are you close or not?”

“I am.” I nodded. “ I think.”

“Check this out.” Swift handed Rosa the newspaper he’d taken from the donut shop.

Rosa skimmed the front page, her eyes growing wider as she did. Then the sharp lines of her eyebrows skewed down and she looked up at me.

“Missiles?” she asked.

“I’d been wondering how the Conglomerate was going to spin that whole thing.” I shrugged. “Kind of convenient having an airbase down in the valley to blame, I guess.”

“You haven’t heard from them still?” Rosa cast a wary glance over her shoulder.

Over the winter gotten into some trouble.

Kind of a lot of it, actually.

The world nearly ended.

Again.

I somehow managed to attract the attention of an absolutely insane fallen angel who wanted to sacrifice me in a plot to send reality spiraling into chaos. It didn’t work out too well. Not for him, not really for me, and definitely not for my home town. One horrific catastrophe led to another and the place ended up in ruins.

I did some things I’m not super proud of. Including summoning the avatar of an ancient cosmic god of annihilation to fight the fallen angel.

Comments had been made about fighting fire with gasoline.

And then I had to call upon the services of a council of mages from the north to clean up my mess. It wasn’t a good day for anyone. The northern mages, part of a group they called the Conglomerate, warned me there would be a reckoning.

They would be coming for me.

Ever since then we’d been on the move.

It wasn’t all bad, though. My mother was alive. Which was remarkable because for over twenty years I thought she was dead. But when I found myself stranded on the far shores of the Other Side, she rescued me. She helped me get home. I couldn’t take her then, but I made a promise that I’d be back. That I’d save her.

That I’d bring her home.

And I was pretty sure I knew how to do it. Maybe.

Which had led us to High Pass.

Unfortunately, it was probably also one of the worst ideas I’d ever had. And I’d pretty much made a career out of having spectacularly bad ideas.

I had reason to believe that much of my life was being manipulated from the shadows, pulled upon by hidden strings. Also it was starting to seem like I was inexplicably linked to that previously mentioned cosmic god of annihilation. It had been a recurring theme in my life for way longer than I was comfortable thinking about.

Which sounded crazy if you thought about it.

So I tried not to think about it.

Or talk about it.

Lately I’d been dreaming of endless black vistas. Silent, starless voids cold as tombs.

When I looked up at the sky at night I imagined devouring the stars.

“Thomas?”

I blinked.

Swift shook my shoulder. He was frowning. Behind him, Rosa had a similar look.

Concern, and something else.

“What?” I blinked again. My throat felt tight, dry.

I took a drink of coffee. It had gone cold. I drained it.

“You checked out, man,” Swift said in a half-whisper. “What was that?”

“You keep doing that, brujo.” Rosa shook her head and went to her cleaning cart. When she was upset she cleaned. She started pushing the cart down the lot, its wheels protesting in the gravel. “It ain’t right.”

Something overhead caught my eye. A bird, wheeling in a sky so pale it was almost white. Its wings were huge and black, like an emptiness upon the sky. It disappeared in front of the sun and I winced, my eyes burning.

“You need to get more sleep,” Swift spoke up again.

I rubbed at my eyes and turned toward our room.

“No, I think sleep is exactly what I don’t need.” I shoved thoughts of voids, dreams of dead stars, and everything else to the back of my mind. “I need to get to work and settle this nonsense once and for all.”

Swift’s boots crunched through the gravel lot behind me.

“And you think hunting down the Sleeper is going to settle it?” He reached out and put a hand on my arm, turning me around to face him. “You barely survived your last brush with that thing.”

“Yeah, Swift. It’ll settle it. One way or another. You know what’s at stake here, what would you have me do? Quit? Run away? Go back home? There’s nothing to go to there anymore. You and Rosa don’t have to follow me.”

“You’re right, we don’t. But we’re here. With you. We’re just worried about you, Thomas. This quest of yours is eating you alive.”

“I’m going to put an end to the Sleeper, once and for all. And I’m going to save my mom.”
I pulled away from his grasp and headed to my room. I was burning day light. I’d wasted too much time already.

There was work to be done.

###

I’d learned to be more aware of my strange, unfathomable connection to the Sleeper. It was like tuning my mind to a certain station. A station filled with soft, hollow static. I knew when its monstrous awareness grazed against mine. I felt it like rotten silk brushing against the back of my neck.

Sometimes I could still smell its breath. The charnel reek of a thousand dying planets. I am a desperate man. I’ve done desperate acts. Like jumping headfirst into the mouth of a dead but dreaming horror. But because of that I knew things I didn’t have any right knowing.

Part of the Sleeper’s essence existed on the Other Side, but its body was here in the world. I knew that once upon a time in the primordial dawn of our planet’s existence it came screaming down to Earth. That part of it, the Sleeper’s material self, had been slumbering, somewhere below the surface ever since. Its dreams, horrible and alien, went out into and infected the world All the while, while it slept its fitful sleep, it hungered. Its hunger was a thing unto itself, an unimaginable force.

Because the Sleeper was entropy itself, the promise of the end. Somehow, it embodied the thing that awaited us all, that awaited everything. It was, if anything, patient. It had waited and dreamed for countless eons already, and it would continue to wait.
And because I knew all of that, I knew that my frantic searching through the mountains, my quest as Swift called it, wasn’t for nothing.

I was close. I could feel it in my bones. I could feel the awful gravity of the Sleeper, calling to me, pulling me to it. Ground zero, as it were. The epicenter of it all, the place where the Sleeper came to Earth and where it had lain in wait ever since. I had to find it. In my bones, in my guts, I knew I had to find it in order to do what must be done.
Which, admittedly, sometimes meant going to some extreme lengths, lately. Swift hadn’t been exaggerating about the Gloom Wight. I’d misjudged the creature and almost gotten the entire town of High Pass and the surrounding forest burned to glowing embers in the process. Not one of my proudest moments. Thankfully, it hadn’t all been for nothing. I’d gotten a small, hopefully helpful, piece of information out of the thing. Before everything went sideways, it spoke of a cave. Deep in the woods was a cave, the Wight had said, eternally shrouded in darkness. The creatures of the woods avoided it at all costs, and it exuded a palpable menace that even humans instinctively avoided. According to the Wight, the cave went far into the earth and had once been the home of a mad shaman to the native peoples that lived in the mountains and forests long ago.

The shaman, the Wight said, worshiped a great spirit with a terrible hunger who lived down in the earth.

Which to me sounded a lot like the Sleeper. Or at least close enough to give me hope that I hadn’t been wasting my time all these months. I’d been all over the mountains, and I was confident I knew where the cave of the shaman was.

When night fell, I would find the final resting place of the Sleeper.

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