Sunday, November 20, 2005

Winds of Change-Quartet excerpt

I've already posted an excerpt from the novella, Winds of Change, which can be found below. I've also decided to post an excerpt from the second story in the book which is entitled Quartet.

Happy reading.


Quartet


The conservatory sat at the edge of a limestone cliff overlooking the Atlantic. The architects built it there with hopes that the serenity of the landscape would spurn creative genius and inventive melody. To the casual observer, watching the ocean smack against the limestone with wet angry fists was anything but soothing and inspirational. As sprays of mist shot skyward, it looked like the creatures of the deep were spitting at the conservatory to show their disgust.

Had they been capable of such a thing that is exactly what the creatures would have been doing.

The denizens that lived in the network of honeycombing caves beneath the conservatory were outraged by the classical strains that filtered from practice-room windows like lethal clouds of virus. Every dissonant piano chord was an open wound that burned. Each note coaxed from an unwilling violin was a dagger that could maim but never kill. Any dog who has howled at an ultrasonic whistle could certainly sympathize with their plight. The denizens lived in agony with every sonata. Yet the musicians were oblivious to the torture they inflicted.

The conservatory where they practiced was a shrine to the gods of music. Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky were worshiped with a fervor that any zealot could relate to. The creatures of the deep may as well have been atheists. Or agnostics. Ironically, it was an act of God-an earthquake-that finally offered them a chance at silence and peace.

One moment the conservatory was all beautiful melodies and lush, textured harmonies. The next, it was an opera of screaming and pain.

Many of the musicians died beneath the weight of fallen ceilings or were swallowed up by gaping chasms in the floor. They were the lucky ones. Others managed to escape the earth’s wrath entirely, dodging the debris that crashed down around them. Little did they know, the sea’s wrath was much, much worse.

Those who fled the conservatory fled straight into the waiting mouths of the denizens that had lived in the rocks for so long. The screaming was over in a matter of seconds, silenced as effectively as the strains those musicians had coaxed from their instruments.

The music was dead. Earth and sea had murdered it in cold blood. Unfortunately for the fish-like creatures that lumbered onto land in search of silence, music is one zombie that can be easily revived.

Once the earthquake was over, only a single string quartet remained, trapped in a practice hall at the northwest corner of the conservatory. All windows of the hall faced the sea, and that provided a more than adequate view of the damage and the bodies that littered the shore like sticks of driftwood. The raucous waves and violent winds that came from further out in the ocean were enough to prove that the waters were still unhappy. The conservatory was too well built and hadn’t crumbled yet, despite all the efforts of nature. The denizens, however, were determined to fix that and finish the job that the earth had begun.

The two violinists, the cellist, and the violist played their instruments as if their very lives depended on it. It did.

Freed from their underwater lairs by the tremors, the denizens had risen, evoking the legends of sirens, Kraken, and merfolk. The thing they wanted more than anything else is for the music to stop.

If the string quartet wanted to live, that is exactly what couldn’t happen.


******

The practice hall was in shambles. The walls leaned on each other like exhausted joggers too weak to stand. Pictures hung askew on the walls if they hung at all. Music stands, twisted and gnarled by the quake, were overturned. Sheet music littered the floor like dead brittle leaves on an autumn lawn. The windows were little more than jagged teeth of glass after flying debris had broken most of the panes. Yet all of that could have been overlooked if not for the spatters of blood that marred everything like abstract art.

A gaping black hole was all that remained of the spot where Professor Grady’s podium and the man himself had once stood. Some of the ocean had filtered in through that maw and what was left of the floor was covered with a thin slick of saltwater and wet pages of musical notation. Planks of hardwood flooring around the lip of the pit had splintered and cracked with the tremors. Those that hadn’t were already starting to warp and buckle as the water continued to seep in. A few droplets of blood rimmed the chasm like that of a sacrifice offered up to an elder god.

Professor Grady was the offertory lamb that had perished in the depths of that hole. It was there that the musicians kept their vigil. It was almost as if they expected him to crawl out of there at any minute, slick back his gray hair, and rap his baton impatiently to get their attention. Of course that was never going to happen ever again. There was no possible way Grady could still be alive. Not after the way he had been flung about like a child’s toy and then subsequently ripped apart by all of those tentacles.

Even now none of them were really sure what the thing had been that had killed him. All they knew is that it had emerged from that hole in the floor like some subterranean god with whiplike flagella and dozens of piranha-like mouths. Suffice to say, each mouth had gotten its fair share of flesh. What it hadn’t eaten of Professor Grady, it had taken below ground. None of the quartet liked to think about what parts of their mentor might actually be left down there, floating in muck and the digestive juice of the Kraken. None of them liked to think that they might soon join the professor either. But it was a very real possibility.

They all blamed themselves for what had happened even though there was nothing they could have done. Sadly, there had been no time to react, no time to rescue Grady from his fate. The building had been trembling around them, threatening to collapse and bury them beneath tons and tons of rubble. They had done as anyone would have under the circumstances and tried as best they could to shield themselves from harm. Meanwhile, the subterranean denizen took its meal with very little resistance. Only the earth itself put up a fight, shifting and groaning, threatening to drop the entire conservatory into that limestone cavern where so many gruesome testaments to devolution lived and writhed. In a way it was almost as if the elements themselves were at war-land versus sea, earth versus water. And yet the elements all seemed to have a common enemy of man.

The mass of whiplike flagella undulating beneath the floor would have probably sunk its barbs into each of them and dragged them all to a watery grave if Michelle hadn’t inadvertently drawn her bow across the strings of her violin. At the first sound of music, the monstrosity in the subfloor shrieked in pain and willfully retreated back to its home beneath the dark earth. Instinctively, seeing the effect that music had on the creature, the others picked up their instruments too and began playing whatever came to mind. They quickly realized that coaxing sounds from their instruments would be the very thing that would keep them alive. But for how long?

Gradually, with each new strain of Mozart or Beethoven, the beast could be heard slinking away, splashing through the wet tunnels in the limestone. Every now and then a bump could be heard through the din of stringed instruments. Although no one would say it aloud, everyone knew that it was the sound of Professor Grady’s body smacking against the damp rock as the beast pulled it along. Thankfully, that sound faded.

Each of the musicians held their breath and waited for the Kraken to return for round two. All of them played diligently in the hopes that their music would keep it at bay.

“It’s gone,” Charlie said with a sigh, putting his bow down for a moment. Hoping it was safe, the others followed suit. The second they stopped playing was the second they heard screaming. The screaming bore no resemblance to anything that might tear its way out of a human throat. They could hear the wet slither of something navigating the damp limestone tunnels. Nobody needed to see it in person again to know what was responsible for the noise.

“Everybody start playing again,” Charlie screamed. They were fast enough to keep the squid-like monstrosity beneath their feet from rising up through the floor again. But they were a fraction of a second too late where the other monsters were concerned. A phalanx of new deformities had gathered at the broken windows and were feverishly trying to wriggle their bulbous bodies in through openings that were much too small. The earthquake had knocked out most of the power, and shadows were more prevalent than light. But in the meager illumination that remained, the four musicians watched in horror as many of the grotesque amphibian horrors impaled themselves on sharp stakes of glass or spilled their innards while sliding across a nasty lingering bit of broken window. None of them actually got in alive, but a handful of the creatures did manage to push themselves all the way through before dying. They flopped on the wet floor like fish out of water before succumbing to their wounds. The others were smart enough not to follow in their dead compatriots’ footsteps. Besides, it was clear from their high-pitched squealing that they couldn’t stand the music that was emanating from violin, viola, and cello. They sounded like a throng of angry, drowning pigs-gurgling and screeching all at once. It was a chilling sound but also a sound of comfort. As long as they were screaming, it meant that the foursome was doing something right.

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