by Pierce Nahigyan

If he had struggled up out of an algaed lagoon he would have been no wetter. The sweat was thick on his shoulders, as resilient as oil, and yet it sluiced down his body’s gullies, pooling in his clavicle and pouring through the split in his chest. He labored hard at the mass of pink stone and with the growing despair that he was losing himself. He was melting, shedding volumes of moisture that he could not replenish. If there was a river somewhere in the infernal world of the painting it would have boiled long ago.

He didn’t know how far the world extended but he could not risk foraging on the open plateau. He didn’t have the time, and his red and peeling skin did not have the fortitude. He dug now at the pink stone, chipping it away with the blunt edge of a piece of the pyramid, his fingernails already cracked from where he’d clawed. Charlie had gazed long and hard at the inside out dog, this monument to madness, before he realized there was something inside it, something that radiated a faint breath of relief. It was awful, that hint of chill, and he circled the stone in heat-crazed frenzy until his hand slid over a translucent quartz. It shocked him with its temperature. Anywhere else it would have been lukewarm but here, under the spiraling volcano, it was downright soothing. He began to scratch at the quartz. There was something inside, inside the crystal. But it was hard going, so he picked up a stone and began to dig, pouring sweat and cursing while the sun turned his brain into a pounding blancmange inside his skull.

He smashed at the rock. He did not know how long he dug but for every layer of silica he shaved away the chill intensified, so he kept smashing, casting aside broken rudiments of tools and fetching others until he’d tunneled partway into the quartz and loosened the fat pearl that glowed within.

Charlie reached into the gouge and grasped the pearl. He wrenched at it, groaning, the jagged edges tearing at his sweat slickened forearm, until he tore it free and fell backward onto the dirt.

He lay there, supine and catatonic for a moment, as the pearl, a milky adularia, rested on his stomach and pumped an arctic balm in time with the beating of his heart. He cupped the stone to his body and rubbed it up his neck, to his chin and cheeks, finally resting it on his forehead. He let out a long, low groan…that was answered by the boulder.

Charlie sat up and watched as the pink rock collapsed onto itself once more, softly lumping together as if caught within a magma flow. The veins glowed and sucked into the gouge he’d left in the rock, followed by the granular surface, the whole of the formation spinning into the center like heated gas circling a black hole. Charlie gripped the adularia tight and shielded his eyes as the boulder cracked like thunder and blazed as white as lightning.

When the shockwave had passed and the dust was settling down to the baked earth, Charlie opened his eyes. Squatting in the blasted circle where the pink boulder had come to rest was a bronze man painted in white and black, thick white spirals around his eyes. He rose to his feet and regarded Charlie with a look that bespoke many things, inconvenience, discomfort and embarrassment chief among them. His tattooed wrists were bound in Miss Thoomesto’s silver handcuffs.

“Charlie Ben Studdard,” said the man.

Charlie wiped the sweat off his forehead and looked over each shoulder. He was not confused as to whom the man spoke, but at this stage in the painting he thought it prudent to plot an exit route. “Hey,” he croaked. The heat had dried up all his saliva and speaking was not easy.

“You have dislodged the moonstone and thus taken my power.”

Charlie gazed down at the adularia in his hand and back to the man with frank relief. “That’s good,” he said.

“It is not good,” said the man. “I am the guardian of this realm. I am the dog that bites the sky, the tail of destruction.”

“This still sounds pretty good,” said Charlie. “For me.”

“Shall you take up the mantle of the dog that bites the sky?” said the man. “Shall you stride the hot graveyards of the fleshless and gnaw at their crawling bones?”

Charlie thought about that. “No,” he said. “I can’t really commit to that.”

“Then return the moonstone, Charlie Ben Studdard. Return it to me!” The man thrust out his manacled hands with hard, strong fingers.

“Tell you what,” said Charlie, “I’ll hand it over if you help me get out of here.”

“There is no way out,” said the man. “There is only the eternal sun and the dog who bites the sky. There is only the fleshless crawlers and the infinite plateau.”

“Someone put me in this painting,” said Charlie, “and someone’s gonna pull me out of it.” Charlie felt the moonstone pulse in his hand. Its chilliness traveled up his arm and swirled inside his body and he felt a sudden, wonderful escape from the blazing earth.

The man seemed to sense this and his painted eyes widened. “Do not trifle with the moonstone! It is mine!”

Charlie pulled himself to his feet. He felt his weariness fall from him like the husk of a soiled skin. Underneath he felt pure, able to breathe the cool air with ease. He held the stone aloft and the man cowered from it, howling.

“How do I get out?” Charlie barked at him.

“Follow the moonlight!” the man shrieked. “Follow the moonlight to the land of the flesh!”

Charlie frowned at the stone. It sparkled. As he gazed long and deep, he felt his hair slip past his ears, felt his ears fold past his nose. It wasn’t uncomfortable. He felt as thin as paper, as smooth as silk, and deep inside the moonstone he could see the field outside the Mexican-American Center for the Arts. It was dark, wreathed by halogen lampposts, the grass a shade of indigo in the moonlight. His moonlight. As he passed through the moonstone and showered the earth with his radiance he gazed up, and locked eyes with the man, and said, “I’ll be back for those handcuffs.” He nodded authoritatively, and then grunted as his chin caught on the rim of the moonstone and he had to fumble his moony body back through the portal. “So you just…sit tight.” Charlie grinned at the man as he eased his shoulder up against his neck to dislodge himself from the rim of the moonstone. The grin became a grimace as his nose caught on something ethereal and he was forced to wiggle his way down to the Center. With a pop and a slurry of wet moonlight Charlie was sitting once more under the birch tree, the inside out moonstone gingerly pulling his hand rightside in.

He snapped it off his fingers and shook them, blowing on his sunburnt extremities. He sat there steaming in the cold California air for some time. His fingernails were glowing. The sound of crickets was a welcome one, as was the faint hiss of the freeway somewhere in the urban sprawl. He sighed, picked up the moonstone, and crawled, aching, to his feet. “Magic,” he harrumphed.

For more Charlie Ben Studdard & the Amulet Caper:

Part 7Part 8Part 1