REM World: Chapter One

Here is the first chapter of REM World, as it currently stands (10/1/2020). This novel is currently in revisions, but has an estimated final draft date of 01/23/2021. I hope for it to be traditionally published. Comments welcome and encouraged!

1 Hostage

Rylann’s Journal

Tisdale’s taking Jodi’s death really hard. I told her not to do it again. She’s already at her limit. But I don’t think she’ll listen, especially when she’s feeling like this. She’s blaming herself, because she took time. Maybe Jax can talk some sense into her…

Night One

Julian’s head pounds, a sure sign he overindulged in the pub last evening. He cracks his eyes open a sliver, but shields them again in an instant. Who lit so many blasted candles? The room is brighter than the sun!

He drags himself upright and presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. He wonders how he got home and squints at the room for clues.

Bookshelves line every wall. A thick, maroon rug with swirls of gold beneath him is as soft as a bed of feathers. Near a fireplace, a few items of furniture gather round a short table. A settee, armchair, and overstuffed rocking chair match the high-polished mahogany trimmings of the room.

None of this is familiar to him. Where the bloody hell is he? He must have drank quite a lot for a stranger to carry him into this home. He raises to his feet, head pounding, and throws open his waistcoat. Digging in his pockets, he finds a modest satchel of coins. Nobody thought to rob him, then.

Where is the door to leave this room? And where is the master of this house? Odd that the owner of this home would leave Julian laying on his parlor floor…

Julian freezes. A figure lurks beside the fireplace. Their skin shines like polished stone, striped brown and yellow. Light-green braids cascade from its head, tumbling past its shoulders. Beneath two green brows, eyes the color of dandelions stare out at him.

It is a statue, Julian realizes with relief. It’s a man hewn of stone, save for his oddly colored hair and disturbing eyes. If not for the coloring, Julian would call the man’s likeness attractive. The figure stands at six feet tall with a muscular, but compact, build. The sculptor slaved over the face, to be sure. The structure is distinct with sharp cheekbones, the space beneath them hollow and sunken. The long, slender nose could only exist in art, but those beige lips appear soft despite the chosen medium.

He is dressed in a pair of brown leather trousers and a maroon vest. The vest stands open, unbuttoned to reveal a chiseled stone torso. It would be better if the artist chose marble or porcelain. The beauty is lost in the dreadful yellow eyes and bizarre choice of rock. And that hair! No accomplished artisan would affix such a gaudy wig upon their creation! Why on Earth would someone commission such a thing?

It blinks.

Julian feels sick, flushed and chilled. A sensation of pins and needles races across his skin. No, he imagined it. He is certain he imagined –

There! It blinks again! Julian tenses, as still as the creature. His breath comes in rapid pants, so fast and shallow that he fears he may faint.

His body refuses to move. If he moves, the thing may take it as a threat. Did he not learn somewhere to never look a strange mutt in the eyes? Oh, but he dares not allow the creature out of his sight.

“What do you remember?” the thing asks, quiet. It can speak? Julian cannot process the question. The ringing in his ears is too loud, too overpowering.

The beast approaches half a step and Julian screams, stumbling back and falling to the floor. His eyes dart around the room. Bookshelves! Bookshelves everywhere! Where is the sodding door?

The creature takes another step toward him. Drawing another breath, he cries out again, regaining his footing and backing away.

His back presses against something. Another blasted bookcase! Using the shelves to steady himself, he climbs to his feet. Books thud to the floor all around him, but Julian does not take his eyes off the figure.

The creature does not move a muscle.

The ringing in his ears is gone, replaced with his pounding heartbeat. Sweat dribbles into his eyes, streaming down his neck. He can’t breathe. He can’t breathe!

The lime-green braids cascading from the abomination’s head glow to life.

Julian begins to shriek once more, but it dies away after the first note. A sense of calm settles over him. Remaining plastered against the bookshelf, he trains his eyes on the thing. When it moves, turning to the side, Julian tenses.

“I will not harm you,” it says, licking its beige lips. The tongue is pink, but the normalcy of it is somehow more grotesque. It would be better if the thing had a forked tongue, if it were orange or yellow. As it is, it looks as if the creature took a part of a human’s body and attached it to itself.

Abominable thought. He wishes he had not imagined it.

The rock monster speaks again. Its voice sounds deep, like a male. “My name is Jax. Please, sit and I’ll – “

Julian jumps, letting out another yell as a bookshelf swings out of the wall to his left. An old woman with multi-colored hair raises her sparse eyebrows when she sees Julian.

She’s half a head shorter than him, not more than five feet and five, and could not weigh much more than a sack of flour. Her lower lids pull away from her sharp hazel eyes, as if weighted down by the puffy bags beneath them. Her withered lips flatten into a regretful line.

“And who might you be?” she asks, her voice soft and full of understanding. The skin of her jowls wilt with a gentleness. It is as if her face were made of wax and sat out in too warm a room for a spell.

Julian does not respond to her question, too taken in by her appearance. Her hair is like a cotton ball painted in rainbow colors. It could not grow that way on its own, for her eyebrows are white. She wears trousers and a simple top with short sleeves. Not indecent, but certainly unusual for a woman. Into what part of the city could he have wandered to find such characters?

Movement draws Julian’s attention. Jax turns from them, moving to sit in an armchair. He does not wear shoes, revealing feet much like Julian’s aside from a horn growing from each heel.

Swallowing a lump in his throat, Julian takes the old woman’s wrist in his hand, whispering, “Ma’am, now is our opportunity. We must escape this creature.” The old woman watches him with vacant concern. A wildness overtakes him. “Do you understand me? We are in danger, Madame!” he hisses.

The lines around her mouth multiply under a light-gray grin. One of her incisors cross over her front tooth a little. “Jax is a clavo. He’s just not from Earth, sweetheart.”

Utter disbelief chases away all of Julian’s fear and urgency. She said Earth. Not from Earth! Is she completely off her trolley? “Of course he’s from Earth. Did he fall from the moon?” he says, covering his mouth to muffle the words from Jax.

“He was born here in REM. Oh, don’t look so worried. You’ll learn it all soon enough,” she assures, offering him a warm smile.

Oh! Her mind is gone! She truly does not recognize the threat standing feet from them! Julian’s heart thunders against his ribs. It is a violation of propriety, but he takes hold of her and tries to push her from the room.

She struggles against him, mounting protests, and Julian ceases his efforts. Jax does not so much as glance in their direction, despite the commotion.

The old woman levels a disapproving glare at Julian. “That’s enough of that now, don’t you think? Let’s just sit down and have a nice conversation.” She swings the bookshelf back in place. It must be on a hinge of some sort.

At the last moment, Julian stops it with his foot.

“Ma’am, please, it is not safe,” he tries once more, catching her by one bony arm as she tries to pass. She is trying to go and sit with the monstrous thing!

The woman gives a soft laugh. “Sweetie, I promise you are in no danger. Come on now – ”

She takes him by the arm, her grip gentle, but Julian resists. It will be difficult enough on his own. Who knows how quick Jax might be? To attempt this with a woman who will fight him all the way will mean certain failure.

With regret, Julian considers the old woman. “Godspeed,” he mutters, giving her arm a squeeze.

Prying his arm from her grip, he bolts out the open bookshelf. His heart hammers behind his ribs, his every nerve ablaze. At any second, he expects the creature to tackle him to the ground.

The corridor is dark, but Julian runs at full speed anyway. The dim light of the candle sconces provides some illumination, but more than once he clips his shoulder on a wall. The place is medieval, like a dungeon. The walls are crude blocks of limestone, weeping with moisture. The floor is hard-packed dirt. There are no windows, no clear exits to the outside world. It is too dark to see the ceiling.

The corridor forms a crossroad and Julian bears left without thought to where it might lead. He takes a right, then another left. After running for so long that he feels he may become sick, he collapses against a wall and fights for his breath. Sliding down to sit on the floor of filth, he tries to make sense of his morning. It is morning, is it not?

He will never drink again. He vows it!

“No, it’s definitely Geist,” a gruff voice says.

Julian launches to his feet. The owner of the voice is around the corner, out of sight. Hoofbeats ricochet off the dank walls, the man’s horse walking at a lazy pace. Julian can’t breathe, can’t think.

“We got eyes on him, but they’re waiting for backup.” Julian’s blood is hot and loud in his ears. “Send the catech to the fenral border and – STOP RIGHT THERE!”

Julian’s caught!

No! The man isn’t in sight yet! He has not yet spotted Julian.

Julian darts down the corridor, back the way he came. He runs straight ahead, putting as much distance between them as possible.

A dead end. Where there should be more hallway, there is only a stone wall. He runs back the other way, to find an adjoining passage he may have missed.

“I said to stop your arguing, Felix! This is Geist, goddammit!” The man is close. If he goes back that way, he’ll cross paths with him. Trapped, Julian begins to breathe much too fast, perspiration breaking out across his brow. “If you send your fucking bounty hunters in there, it’ll be nothing but sport to him!”

This is it. He’s caught. There is nowhere to – ! There! The door almost matches the wall, but a slim line of warm light glimmers at the threshold. Julian fumbles for the doorknob, praying it is not locked. Stifling a cry of victory when the knob turns, Julian slips into the room and closes the door without a sound.

The hoofbeats grow louder, slowing as they pass Julian’s sanctuary. A series of beeps filter through the door, followed by a loud rumbling noise. “It’s best if the catech doesn’t engage with Geist unless forced. Dismantle his battalion and bring in his illegal NTs. There’s no sense in…”

That grating sound drowns out the rest, but the man’s voice is fading away anyway. Julian cracks open the door, his curiosity besting him. The dead end is wide open, the stone wall lowering as if it is a vertical gate. More secret passageways! Good god, where the hell is he?

But he’s safe, for now. All that is left to do is find his way out of this dungeon. He presses his forehead against the door, exhausted in every way.

He spins at a loud scraping sound behind him. Someone is in the room and they’ve just stood from their chair behind a wooden desk. They wear a blue robe that covers them from head to toe. A hood comes up over their head and conceals their face. There are no eye holes from which they can see out of the covering, but it is solid. It is not a veil, as ladies sometimes wear. Honestly, the figure may as well be wearing a potato sack over their head!

Julian gropes behind him for the doorknob. “Are you human?” he demands, his voice shaking. They come around to the front of their desk and Julian grips the door handle. “I asked you a question!”

They reach out toward him, as if intending to seize him, and Julian throws open the door and races away yet again. After some time, he realizes the strange robed figure is not following him. Where on Earth is he? How did he get here? If he could remember, perhaps he could find his way home again.

Where is his home? He is so flummoxed, he cannot even remember his own address!

“Sir?” a woman says. Julian prepares to turn tail in the other direction, but then he recognizes her multi-colored hair.

“You escaped!” he rejoices, closing the distance between them with haste. They stand at the mouth of a hallway, but it is too dark beyond the opening to see past a few feet. A brief scan of her person reveals she suffered no apparent harm. “Ma’am, please, would you remember how you came into this place? How might we return to the outside world?”

“This way,” she says in a muted voice. She takes him by the arm and pulls him into the black passageway. It is another dead end, a small alcove without an exit. Before Julian can say a word, a large metal slab slams down and blocks them in.

“We are trapped!” shouts Julian, whirling on the older woman. She keeps her back turned to him, hunched over and fiddling with something. Julian cannot make out her expression in the dim lighting of the candle sconce. “Ma’am!”

Beeping sounds through the small place, not unlike what he heard at the other dead end. Ice slips into his gut, setting his hair on end. Foreboding settles upon him, twisting his insides until he feels ill. “Madame! What have you there? I demand – ” And then the wall before them swings open, revealing a familiar room.

“In,” orders the elderly lady, gesturing to Jax sitting on the settee.

“What is this? Why are you aiding this abomination?” Julian demands, pressing his back against the other wall.

At the slight lift in her brow, Julian glances to Jax. He stands now, glaring in their direction.

“Come in,” he says, folding his hands before himself. “I will forgive your rudeness, considering that you are new here.”

The woman all but drags him into the room, but he allows her. There is nowhere else to go. At least she is human. That is a comfort. Her hair is odd and she wears ankle-length trousers instead of a corseted dress, but she is human. Isn’t she?

Jax takes several steps toward them and Julian panics. He must escape this place! He will not be this creature’s hostage!

Hostage.

Without a second thought, Julian seizes the old woman. She gives out a little shout of surprise, but Julian is desperate. Too desperate to allow his guilt to stop him. Pinning her arms with one of his, he grasps her neck in one hand.

Jax freezes in place.

“You are working together to some end, are you not?” he demands, squeezing the woman’s neck for emphasis. It is like wrapping his hand around a pillow, it is so soft and delicate. Remorse and desperation war within him. His eyes never leave Jax’s. “Are you a monster, as well, old woman? Or merely serving one?”

“I’m from Earth!” she bites out, wriggling in his arms. “I’m human, like you!”

Julian shakes his head, glancing down at her face and then back to Jax. “You’re mental, you are! Off your sodding nut! You mean to say this thing standing here is from some other world?” Nausea takes root and his head swims. This cannot be reality. None of this can be truth! “It is a mere abomination of nature, nothing more! Has age so addled your mind you cannot see – ?”

“Lieutenant, your patience irritates me,” growls Jax. “Release yourself before I do so for you.”

“He’s new, Jax. Let him adjust!” she says, almost whining.

“Let him learn! There are consequences to his threats!” he thunders. A thrill of fear weakens Julian’s knees, but he pushes it away. Jax growls at Julian, a noise like gravel and scraping metal. “I will not abide by specist rhetoric.”

“Captain,” breathes Rylann, her brows turning up in the middle. At Jax’s stubborn glare, the woman squirms and touches her hand to Julian’s leg.

“Madame!” he gasps, quite shocked that she would take such liberties with his person. He reaffirms his grip on her neck, giving her a warning squeeze. “Please. I will back us into a bookcase and you will show me the way from this place. I do not wish to harm you.”

With a resigned sigh, she says, “I don’t want to hurt you, either.” Then a bright flash of violet light sends his legs buckling under him. He releases the woman with a cry of pain, pressing his hands to either side of the still sizzling wound. A jagged, charred hole in his trousers still smolders, the edges red with embers.

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