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Bridge Burner Hyperion

 

BRIDGE BURNER HYPERION

 

A novel

 

 

Jared Rinaldi

 

~~~

Smashwords Edition

 

 

Copyright © 2015 by Jared Rinaldi. All rights reserved.

 

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Table of Contents

 

 

Chapter I: The Wasteland

Chapter II: The Digger

Chapter III: Dinner Party

Chapter IV: The Fade

Chapter V: Barkskin

Chapter VI: Yama Dempuur

Chapter VII: Where the Stories Sleep

Chapter VIII: The Gaping Maw

Chapter IX: Lady Magdala

Chapter X: Crack and Brack

Chapter XI: Beyond the Cusp of Nowhere

Chapter XII: Down the Foxhole

Chapter XIII: Pilot

Chapter XIV: The Descendants

Chapter XV: Sounds from Space

Chapter XVI: Hands of the Father

 

[] Chapter I: “The Wasteland”

 

 

A man in an open shirt waves to me through the heat. It’s just the two of us, me on a cracked two-lane, he and his white stomach shimmering like a fish belly away in the grass. “Nice bike,” He shouts when he’s closer. The rocks slide from under his steel-toes as he ascends out of the gully, up towards the road. “Where you headed with that thing, anyway?”

I size him up for a moment, watching how he sucks on his teeth and fidgets with the buttons on his open flannel shirt. Dad had a shirt like that, so worn you could see the green ink in his skin. “California, eventually, but right now I’m just trying to make it to Vagner.”

“California, huh? Goddamn, that’s far.” The man’s voice is sandpaper, but its cadence a swinging jive. He squints at the orange orb descending from the sky, his crow’s feet running deep. “A’int never been myself, though I always wanted to taste the ocean, maybe catch me some salty fish. Vagner’s a nice little place. You should be heading that way, though.”

“Really?” I look behind me, into the dust swirling about the road. “My map says its on this road.”

“Let me see that,” He says. I pull the travel-worn road atlas, ol’ Rand McNally, from the bungees strapping it to my pack, and open it to the page entitled ‘New Mexico.’ The man looks over it, scratching his chin through his big red beard. “Well, look here. You missed this here turnoff. Right here, look.” He points with a finger as fat as a cigar to a faint gray line that meanders from Route 60, which I had been following, to a dot that is sure enough labelled ‘Vagner.’ It’s maybe fifteen miles back the way I came.

I had never seen that swirly gray line on the map before, had never seen another road besides 60 all day. In the rare shade I would find, I’d stop and consult the atlas, making sure I was going the right way. I’d always be right on the same thin black line, straight save for two weak bends. Grady was at one end, Vagner, the other. It was thirty one miles between the two towns, which was around three to four hours of straight biking, five, if my legs weren’t having it. I’d never even a sign, save for that one for route 60. It had shook in the wind like an old man, the dozen or so bullet holes in its white face closed off by rusted scabs. That had been early in the day, an hour or so after the sun came up. Once the sun started its descent, I knew something was terribly wrong, that I had somehow messed something up. I double, then triple checked my map, but each time the same set of information revealed itself: thirty one miles, thirty one miles, thirty one miles. The road had grown, I thought. Somehow, the earth had stretched that one part of Route 60 out to be two times its original size.

A hurt click had showed up in one of my crankarms around lunchtime, a remnant of the mean ol’ Ozarks, mountains just west of the Mississippi. I decided to focus my attention on the click while I waited on Vagner to materialize. I fashioned a variety of breathing patterns around it. Two breaths a click, then triplets, dotted eighths. I figured in a low bass line. Each revolution of the bike sprocket was a tick in time, like that of an invisible metronome. Now instead of thinking the road had stretched, I was trying to prove to myself that I was instead moving, that time hadn’t let me slip. But what if it had? What if there was just endless yellow grass, barbed wire and burned out adobe farmhouses for the rest of my days? As evening descended, I started to look underneath the map, thinking that maybe, instead of west, I was heading somewhere under and down, maybe even between the pages. Somewhere beneath, deeper. Each click of the crankarm became another league descended, another layer peeled back.

“There’s no way I missed that road.” I say to Crick. “And Vagner was on Route 60, not on some side road. I wouldn’t miss something so obvious.”

“It’s an easy road to miss.”

“I guess it must be.” In Maryland, I had biked up the side of a mountain for over an hour, to get down the other side in just five minutes. Problem was, it turned out to be the same road I originally climbed. I had to bike up the entire hill again, cursing myself for the time I lost in making such a stupid mistake. At least then, there were people all around me, civilization.It’s got to be at least five already. You have the time?”

“I don’t got a watch.”

“Well, whatever the time, I got to get a move on. It’s supposed to storm tonight, and I should’ve been somewhere with a roof hours ago. I’ll be needing to stay indoors tonight. It was real nice meeting you… um…”

“Crick,” He says, in a way that makes it seem he’s never said the word aloud before.

“Real nice meeting you. I’m Will, Will Koster. Maybe I’ll see you if you ever make it to California. Take care.” He waves to me as I begin to bike back in the direction I came, headed for the road I somehow missed.There’s no way I could’ve missed it. Just no way. I barely have time to scold myself with this train of thought when I hear a familiar hiss, and feel my weight sinking into the road. Crick comes up, his freckled hands on his hips and his head nodding.

“Looks like you got a flat,” He says, pointing at the deflated tire.

“Yes, it would look that way, wouldn’t it. How perfect. Why wouldn’t I get a flat just now?” I throw my helmet to the ground, the plastic clacking off the hard-packed earth. I start ruffling through my pack, looking for my patch kit.

“You never know what’s going to come your way out here,” Crick drops to his haunches next to my bike, which I’ve flipped upside down and balanced on its seat and handlebars. “This is God’s country, and sometimes the big guy upstair’s got a sick sense of humor.”

I laugh. “All you people out here really think this is some sacred place, huh? Or is that just a local saying? I heard some other guy call this ‘God’s country’ just this morning. Last guy I saw before I met you, actually, back in Grady.” Crick looks at me expectantly, wanting me to continue. While I’m jimmying my tire wrench into the rim, I begin to tell him about the man I met back in Grady earlier in the day.

I had camped the night before behind some overgrown shrubbery behind an abandoned office building adjacent to a quarry. I knew Grady was ten or so miles still ahead, and I would need to stop there to get water, maybe some grub. I made it through the few buildings that made up the town, and then spotted the gas station, hanging aloof from the rest. I had been filling my water bottle up from a dusty hose when he had stepped in front of the sun: “You best fill plenty up with water before headin’ out there. That’s longest road I been on, that 60,” Bartholomew was the name sewed on his breast pocket in a funny little cursive, but his ruddy face looked worth about one syllable, two, if he had an even shave. Which he didn’t. What he did have was hair on his knuckles and wisdom to share.

“That piece of shit won’t make it to Roswell, let alone California. You crazy or something, boy?” He eyed the ancient, twenty-six incher I had rode in on, which was now propped up against his shop. The tires were worn to the threads, and the frame’s paint was covered in so heavy a dust it faded into the shop’s siding. “I’ve heard of people who want to go die out in the desert, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Sometimes, it gets so hot, that a man’s organs can burst, right in his gut, like a mouse in a microwave. No sir, better ways to take a man’s own life than that,” He had smiled then, and his teeth were like old sponges. “Ah, I’m just horsin’ around. I hope I didn’t offend none,” I capped my water bottle and told him there was no offense taken, that his was just one more disbelieving voice in a series I’d been hearing since I left upstate New York.

“New York?” His eyes were about to burst from his head.

“Yup. And this is the home stretch,” I told him. “California, here I come.”

“Home stretch?” His face grew serious. “Hmph. Well, let me tell you something, boy, this here a’int no New York. This is God’s country,” Bart wiped the back of a fat, greased hand across his lips before pinching up a fresh piece of snuff. “And you best mind.”

Grady was a hiccup of a town just over the border from Texas. It had a deserted motel, a greasy spoon with hemorrhaging leather booths, Bart’s dusty diesel pumps, and not much else. The gas station attendant with the spongy teeth stood guard at the end of it all, his face beat to pudding as he looked out west, waiting for the sands to take him.

“Biking all goddam day without a goddam soul in sight, that’s what you’ll be doing,” Bart called after me as I restarted my way on Route 60, his voice crackling over the air like an old-timey AM radio. “You’ll tire, boy! I’ll be seeing you back with me soon enough.” He was the last person I saw, until Crick had popped up in the yellow grass.

“Interesting story,” Crick says. “Sounds like he knew what he was talking about.”

“I think the sun cooked his brains a bit, that’s all. And hey, I ran into you, didn’t I? That’s one soul I’ve happened upon, at least.”

“Yeah, but I’m lost, too. Two lost souls don’t account for much.”

“Hey man, so tell me something. What are you doing out here? I mean, you don’t have a car, right? And Vagner’s fifteen miles that way,” I hold his gaze for a moment, hoping he’ll jump in and answer. I don’t know how to continue my line of questioning without it being kind of rude. “Do you live out here?”

“I don’t know,” His face darkens, and he licks his lips. His gums are huge, it’s why he always sucks on his teeth. They cover an extra large portion of his front teeth. “I heard my boy was locked up somewhere around here. I’ve been looking for him for a long time, and that just led to me kind of wandering. Sorry, mister… Will, you said? Right, well, you’ll excuse me, but I was never very good with remembering things, and as I get older, my brain can’t seem to hold onto anything no more. I remember this morning, there was a ring of flowers I walked up on out there in the field. It was hot already, and there was a nice shady spot under a pile of rocks. I thought it looked like as good as any a place to take a nap, so I said, oh what the hell. Then I woke up, and saw I was next to a road. I saw you.”

I begin to wonder at the red in his cheeks, if its really from the sun or from a bender the night before. His body is sinewy tough, his beard the type that has collected innumerable particles of sawdust and fiberglass from working odd jobs through his manhood. His life shows itself to me in one simple, tragic flash. I knew men like that, friends of my Dad, the types of men my friends grew up to be. I feel all these memories flooding back, just by looking at this man. “Do you have water?” I ask, hoping to change the subject. He shakes his head. That means the two of us are running on empty. I can smell the salt on my skin, sliming my body in a lukewarm sweat. This tire is being tricky, won’t come off very easily. Then I feel a cool drop of water on my hand, followed by another and another.

“Oh no, would you look at that?” Crick says, his eyes to the north. While the sun still beats strongly on us as it descends through the afternoon haze, there’s a front of black clouds moving south towards us.

“At least we won’t be thirsty,” I say, letting the water fall on my lips and tongue. Crick moves to the center of the road and spreads his arms wide. The pavement drinks up the rain greedily as it falls in heavier quantities, darkening it in slow spreading patches.

“My, that’s nice,” He says. In response, there’s a low grumble.

“Great. Thunder,” I say. “And I’m pretty sure I feel hail, too.”

As the rain falls, so does the dust in the air, settling upon the ground. I can see far into the scrubland. Walls of rain traipse across the horizon, like a cloud of locusts weaving its way south. Between us and the encroaching storm clouds is a butte as brown as pond water. It seems to have just popped up from the ground, like a mushroom. The entire landscape seems to point to it, as if its an axis for the world. At its peak, under an eave of overhanging rock, is a faint light.

“You see that?” I say.

It could be a fire, the way it licks around the dark.

“That the sun peeking through?” Crick asks.

No, because the sun has gone away, the thunderheads having swallowed it whole. The gloom of early twilight watches from the east as the clouds come to take it too. What we’re seeing, this light up on the butte, is more like the moon. It’s a part of the evening, as incongruous in the day as a bat or raccoon. It flickers as low as the surrounding shadows, drawing them all inwards like the vortex at the center of a dark galaxy.

“That’s a fire. Somebody’s up there,” I say, flinching under the hail. I’m stuffing all my bike tools into my backpack. “Come on, this storm is going to be bad. We’ve got to get to that hill, find some shelter.”

“Fine by me,” Crick says, shouldering my pack. We both shuffle down the embankment and start jogging towards the light, my bike bouncing on its flat tire beside me, the jangling of its parts muffled under a loud clap of thunder. The storm is rolling in quickly, and with it comes a darkness, in mood as well as in the dimming of the day. Something is amiss, as if I’m drifting away from safety. What are we running towards? What’s waiting for us on the top of that butte, keeping it’s hands warm by the fire?

“Hey, watch for them holes,” Crick says, pointing to a deep one he just about clopped in. The rain smacks our cheeks as we rush forwards, chain-mail curtains of it. “They’re all over the damn place! Why are there so many goddamn holes?”

I only wanted to see what they tasted like,” says a voice in a low, reedy monotone. It comes quickly to my ear and then fades just as fast, a Doppler whisper.

“What’d you say?”

“What?” Crick says. “I didn’t say nothing,” His beard is nearly brown from all the water it has sopped up, like a bristly sea sponge.

Leave me the crispy little bones with all the juicy meats inside.”

There’s a hole which we’re coming up on, bigger than any we’ve seen thus far. The voice creeps up from it, and I can almost see it, embodied in a thick black shadow with long, velvet fingers. Crick’s and my legs keep moving, but my eyes are stuck on the shadow. I’m so distracted that I miss seeing the cusp of the other trench right in my path. Crick hollers in time for me to skid to a stop, but my tired legs get caught up in my old bike, and I tumble over and down, down and down…

…into the hole.

Sweet little baby bones,” The voice says, as if its lips were a hair’s breath from my ear.

The sand and gravel catch my fall, scraping my knees and forearms for their trouble. The wet sand is cold on my palms and knees. The whispers reverberate off the walls of the hole, fiendish voices clawing for their way in between my ears.

“You alright?” Crick hollers down from the cusp. I can’t catch my breath to answer him. The black shapes run their inky tendrils along the hole’s muddy rim, moving like shadow puppets with ataxic, disjointed limbs. No matter the angle, the faint light never catches any other feature. They remain a set of dark aberrations throbbing against the sky, as if trying to break free of their two dimensions. They’re down here with me, too. As my eyes adjust, I see them, swirling about me like a whirlpool.

I make a dash for the sloping edge of the hole, and leap up, clawing at the sand as I try to climb my way out. With each handhold, the rim seems to grow further away, the upper world becoming more and more out of reach. I see Crick, whose white stomach seems to glow. He’s so distant now, might as well be hanging in the sky, the lone star which the storm clouds have allowed to shine through. The dark shadows flit about him, never quite touching his body, a swarm of gnats billowing around a white flame.

Such a sweet little body,”

A shallow feast of pauper meat,”

Lightning cracks, like a camera bulb set on automatic, the trigger held tight by the sky’s trembling finger. The light bounces around the hole, a flickering strobe, and I can see the shadows clearly now, as they stop their spinning around me and creep closer. They look human enough, and I see that yes, that shape is a waif-like body, and that those are legs, good god, spindly legs, like a those of an insect. But still, they keep only two dimensions, with no color, no discernible features.

“Crick! Help me! Please!” The muddy walls crumble in my hands, and I fall back into the hole, landing in a heap on top of my bike. My ankle gets caught in the chain, and still, the shadows creep closer.

Tear it up, tear it up, tear it up,”

There’s a suction from underneath the ground, a cold inhalation of stale breath, as if the earth has opened its jaws, wider and wider, until the flesh around its mouth has started to split, letting out what has been buried deep underneath for time immemorial, something older than the daylight, older than the earth. The rain falls in vertiginous sheets until the hole fills with reddish brown mud, the earth choking on its own ruptured body.

Delicious fresh wounds,”

Lightning flashes, and the hole lights up again, detritus shaking down from its walls. The shadows have gathered around me. There are dozens upon dozens of them, their bodies flickering like the flames of a campfire. They’re reaching for me, and as their hands come closer, I feel the warmth of my body start to leave. A coldness seizes my body, and the faces I’m staring into are so devoid of reason or of sense that I feel my mind starting to slip. The mud is sinking and I’m going with it. Yet, even under such a heavy cover of darkness, there’s still a light which shines through it all, a pinprick of a star which becomes the sole thing to focus on outside of the madness.

No, No, you stay away,”

He belongs to us now, he was promised,”

The more I focus on the star, the more aware I am of just what I was giving up to the hole and the shadows. I see in the star a beauty beyond words, become aware of its nature, of its existence. It shakes me awake.

No, your bones are ours,”

Sweet, delicious meat,”

The shadows begin to slide off me, and the earth stops sinking.

“Come on, Will, help me lift you,” It’s Crick. His hands are under my arms, and he’s dragging me out. I start moving my legs, first using Crick as leverage to gain my balance, and then shuffling with him, until we’re both up and out of the hole. Crick’s lays down, hands on his temples and eyes closed, breathing heavily.

“What… the hell… was that…” I get up, and my body moves with a lightness that I hadn’t expected. I almost trip forwards and back over the edge when I go to look for my bike. What I had thought to be a hole no larger than a children’s pool and just as deep has become a gaping maw, an abyss of unknowable depth, and my bike is nowhere to be seen.

“Get away from there, Will!” Crick grabs my wrist. His shirt is a testament to his struggle out of the hole: clods of sandy mud and silt still hang from the flannel.

“But, my bike, my backpack…”

“Come on, we’ll have to come back for ‘em,” Still breathing hard, he starts to pull me away. We’re running. The butte looms ahead, a giant’s silhouette on a gun-metal gray screen. The ground is throbbing, ebbing as our manic steps trounce it, surging back when they leave again. Though I make sure to stay on solid ground, each footfall ends up being precariously close to the edge of another hole that has just happened to have opened up. The periphery world around the butte swirls like a kaleidoscope, small holes blossoming into nebulous voids, flat shadows swelling and consuming. Whatever is happening at the outer limits of my vision, at the fringes of my irises, is reshaping the fuller world. As I look back to old Route 60 and the way we came, I see a moth eaten lattice work of black holes and sand. The low lying storm clouds weave in and around it, turning the once solid form of the world into a memory, a broken promise. And the shadows march after us, in shadows of their own.

“What’s happening?” I say.

“Will, look! Stairs!”

Turning around is almost a headlong tumble. “Stairs?” And then I see them, straight ahead, their crumbling plank steps as brown as the butte they’re clinging to. Crick almost slips into a hole, which had dilated as he stepped, but I grab him by his thick elbow.

“You okay?” I ask. He nods.

“Just run for the stairs, man,” He says. We both jump over what I assume is another trench, but is merely a wet line in the sand, glistening brown and red and encircling the butte. I step right through it, smudging the unbroken line.

“I think things are moving around when I’m not looking,” Crick says. “Holes keep opening up in the ground and the hill gets further away, but only when I’m not looking. It all stays put if I keep my gaze on it.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” I say.

“Nope, sure don’t. But it’s happening, sure as sugar. Just look at the hill. See, it wants to go. It’s trying to get away from us, but as long as we look at it, it stays.” The giant mound of earth before us does seem to shake, as if stuck in place by tectonic magnets beneath the surface. The fog that had come in with the storm and encircled the butte has blown apart and retreated. The hill with the stairs in its side is trembling like linen on a clothesline, but our gaze is keeping it rooted. “We’re almost there.” Crick says.

It’s as if we entered a bubble, though there are no light-bending arches overhead or around us, no tangible separation from the outside world save for the line in the sand we crossed. The holes have stopped sneaking up under our steps, and the dark shapes have stopped their pursuit. My breathing is labored, as if cotton has been stuffed down my throat, and my eyes are about to pop, but the stairs are so close. Our pace only quickens. The rain has stopped, settled, leaving a trace drone in the air, a vacuum, suffocating our sprinting steps like a wool blanket.

“Go first,” Crick says, nodding to the stairs, his face within kissing distance of the butte’s base. I move to the first step, a splintered board on the verge of crumbling to dust. “Come on, Will, let’s go!” The strain in Crick’s voice is tighter than when we were running. Everything seems on the verge of slipping, of escaping through the blurry cracks at the edge of my vision. Crick seems to be the only thing grounding it all, his body glowing like a pale sun.

“Go!” I turn and start up, taking the softest steps my worn sneakers will allow. There’s no railing to hold on to, only the rock face which I follow with my left hand. I can hear the dust and what I’m hoping are vestigial pieces of wood falling from the beams under the stairs. The whole structure creaks of neglect, each step emitting a more pained groan than the last. Still, I climb, higher and higher. The clouds have parted directly above the butte, revealing a sky the color of a jaundiced bruise, which the dark clouds roil around, as if we’re at the core of a dying star, about to collapse in on itself.

The next step I take cracks under my feet. I move quick enough to make it to the next before it completely crumbles. I watch it fall, my breath catching in my throat when I see how high we’ve come. The ground is spinning, a slow whirlpool of yellow grass and dirt. I hug the side of the cliff, the blood rushing from my head, vertiginous flowers blooming under my closed eyelids.

A hand touches my ankle. “You mind helping me up?” He’s reaching to me across the chasm where the stair had been, where there is now only a few spears of broken wood pointing accusatory fingers at the storm. “Snap out of it, man. We’re almost to the top.”

“I… I can’t see straight, Crick.”

“Yes, you can,” His arm is stretched as far as it will go. I can see muddy tiger stripes on his forearm, the marks where I had grabbed hold when he pulled me up and out of the trench. I reach down, and Crick takes my hand. He leaps across the empty space above the broken, pointed wood. Just then, the dark cloud, which had been hanging back, going no further than that line we crossed in the sand, swells. Thunder booms, right before the cloud comes violently crashing in. I feel like I’m a small child on a lonely stretch of beach, watching as the shoreline totally recedes and feeds a wave whose snowcapped, frothy peak brushes heaven as it rushes in towards me.

Crick pushes past, yelling to me as he darts up the remaining stairs. I snap out of my daze, and start after him. We’re taking the steps as fast as we can, two at a time when possible. The whispering shadows are back, having ridden in on the oncoming storm cloud, flitting about like licks of slow lightning. Their voices have become incomprehensible save for an obviously violent intent, moth teeth gnawing on static.

“I see the top. Come on,” And Crick and I make it over the last stair and the cusp of the butte, diving onto the ground as the shadows crash into the side and explode like an angry wave into a jetty. We watch as the darkness vault straight up above us, the shadows and storm consuming the only clear patch of sky in the mesa.

“Is that it? Are we safe?” I ask.

“Dunno, Will. But what I do know, is that I can’t run no more,” At first I think that Crick is merely talking about his endurance, and how he has used it all up running across the plains and up the stairs. But then he moves a shaky hand away from his right shin, revealing a dark patch on his jeans.

“Is that… blood?”

“There’s broken glass all over the ground,” He says, nodding towards the final stair we dove over. I see what he means. There are large pieces of broken glass bottles laid out on the ground, jagged pieces of blue, red and green. “Someone set a trap,” He says, wadding up his filthy shirt and pressing it to his shin.

“I… I think it looks worse than it really is.” I say, really having no idea. “You’ll be alright.”

He grimaces, like he’s not so sure. “It stings like hell,” He says. “Where’s that fire at? Maybe they got something to drink to help with the pain.”

The butte top has settled into a purplish dusk; there’s no fire to be seen. Several large rocks dot the area, which can be no larger than half a football field. The landing we’re on slopes up to a ridge, the top of which completely conceals the other side of the butte.

“It looks like there’s a path up through those boulders, if you look close enough.” Then I see it: an orange light which peeks out from the lip of the path and flickers on the backs of the boulders.

“Come on,” Crick says, trying to get up.

“Wait, are you sure about this? Whoever’s tending that fire, probably also put the glass there. He might not like visitors.”

“You got another plan?” Crick asks. His question is genuine, without a trace of sarcasm. He’s also strangely calm, considering the roiling mass of black chaos which spins around us and how much blood there is coming from his wounds. I feel sick for him.

“No. Not really.”

“Well, alright.” Crick gets up and dusts himself off. He’s wrapped his flannel shirt around his shin, revealing a set of tightly corded muscles beneath his pale skin. “We’ll be as careful as we can.”

[] Chapter II: “The Digger”

 

 

The Digger keeps jars of meat preserves stacked in his shallow cellar, and a lock on its tin door as a necessary precaution.

“Crafdy unz, dem whispers…” He says, shuffling in from the day’s work. He travelled far to the edges of the map today, (to the edge of the world, it felt!) but the walk had been worth it. He had put a long, bothersome story down, one that had been sleeping for a very long time. It’s dreams had been crossing with the Digger’s dreams, and that had been making all sorts of trouble, oh yes. He dug all day, a stubborn hole that never seemed to get bigger. But then he saw it, saw the juicy, pulsing muscles, (a neck, perhaps?). It was a big one. Its body rose up and down, breathing, though it lay under several feet of dirt and sand.

He plunged the cracked tip of his shovel into it, once, twice. The skin was thick, and his shovel blunt. He grunted, hocked, spit. Finally, the skin ruptured and gushed. Whatever black strands came out, the Digger made sure to sever them. The hole filled up quickly, until the Digger couldn’t see his feet. A quick succession of bubbles popped at the surface before all fell still. The air buzzed like rapacious flies with drooling mouths as the Digger cut out chunks of the buried body and put them in his sack.

He’d made it back to the his home atop the butte as the sky began to darken. He could see the dark clouds coming in from the north, riding the cold wind. He’d made sure to put the necessary offerings at the four points of the compass, and freshened the ring with some fresh juice from one of his many jars. This way no hungry shadows would find their way in. As extra assurance, he’d laid a carpet of broken glass at the top of the stairs. You could never be too careful.

“Da Fade is very hungry tonight,” The Digger says, after popping a finger into his mouth and putting it in the air. He watches as the clouds tumble southwards overhead, leaving a space of open sky directly above the ring of blood and whispering to him as they pass.

“Oh, beez quiet, now,” He says, waving them away and chuckling. It certainly looks like it will be a splendid storm tonight. But his stomach growls. He’s hungry, so storm watching will have to wait.

There are no windows in the Digger’s home. There is only a large mirror, which hangs on the wall furthest away from the door. Sconces hang from the bottom of the mirror’s frame, wax drippings like thin, frail bones all the way to the dirt floor. The Digger walks to the table, finds matches, and goes to the mirror, never taking his eyes off the tarnished glass, of his figure walking around the room. His face is pointed and washed out like a turnip. Though he’s thin, his flesh sags, as do his overalls. The nails on his squarish fingers are pointed and sharp, and he uses them to rake his balding head, where several long green stalks grow, some with tips capped by small, white flowers.

With the candles lit, the Digger steps back, admiring how the gold frame glints in the darkening room. Soon, night will consume the plains, and there will only be the fire to see by. Still looking at himself in the mirror, he goes to the corner of the room, where there is a pit made of cinderblocks bordering an ankle deep pile of ashes. The Digger grabs several large twigs from a pile, and proceeds to start a fire.

“Wod’s for dinner, you handsome devil, you,” The Digger says to his reflection, once the fire is going. There’s a blackened hole in the roof through which the fire escapes, but a layer of smoke still hangs from the hovel’s rafters.

“Hows aboud pickled wilderbeast? Dat’s your favorite dish.” He goes to his sack, weighs it in his hands.

“Should probably ask da missus, do you dink?” His reflection nods. “Okay, I’ll be but a minute.” The Digger goes back outside, and around to the cellar door. He carries a lit candle. The lock is old and rusted, but a well oiled key does the trick. He’s quickly down the dusty stairs and past the preserves, on to another set of stairs which go even lower into the earth.

“Oh, dahling, I wos wonderding…” His voice echoes. The air is cold, expansive, dark. His candle flame is swallowed up in it. He walks up to plastic table sticky with coagulated juices, and several chairs which run round its perimeter in askance stances. A still figure sits at the head of the table.

“…dahling? Oh, well, still hod under da collar, I dakes it.” The circle of the Digger’s candlelight touches on the tips of the figure’s fingers, which rest neatly on the table’s surface. The nails are brittle, the fingers brown and gnarled like tree roots. Nothing moves except the dust motes in the air, as if caught in an icy stream.

The Digger turns quickly and goes out of the room, back up the stairs, past the preserves, out the tin door and back into his windowless room. He looks in the mirror, at a panting, pointed face surrounded by a burning, golden halo. The room is hot. The salivary glands in his mouth loosen, making the hunger in his stomach into a biting pain. It’s been a long day. No matter if his darling is angry with him or not; he’s hungry, and he’s going to eat. Now.

“Tasdy, tasdy, tasdy,” He says. A pulpy piece of the day’s bounty, (of a story that is no more!) blackens on the end of a long two pronged fork the Digger has over the fire. He sits on the cinder blocks. Black smoke creeps through the air, while tears trickle in muddy little streams down the Digger’s dirty face. He blows the smoke from the meat until he can wait no longer. The bites burns the roof of his mouth, but the juices, oh, the juices, they’re savory and buttery and delicious. He imagines in his mind that the beast is still squirming in his mouth before taking another bite.

But then: oh, no.

“Oh, no.” The Digger starts up. His eyes are wide and red. A rivulet of drool and meat juice drivels down his cheek. He looks to the screen door. He can hear the shadows and the storm tearing through the desert. They sound like they’ve discovered something.

“Oh no, oh no, oh no,” The Digger says, and runs outside, his shovel in hand. He has forgotten to lock the tin door to the basement. Stupid, stupid. He trips in the dark, almost steps in broken glass. He feels the first of the rain. Then he sees it. Though the door is shut, he can see the oiled lock glistening in the star light. The clouds are revolving around the butte, angry and closer than they should be (The offering should have kept them further back.) He’s about to lock the door, but a pestering doubt rakes at his brain.

“Wod if dey god in?” He wonders. “Wod if dey hungry mouds god in?” His gaze goes from the door, to the shadows raging outside the butte top in jagged gyres, and back again. That’s when he hears a shout. He turns towards it, perplexed. The shadows, even when they scream, only do so in the raspy, hushed tone of a whisper. That scream he had just heard sounded like something else.

“Sounds like a man.” The Digger says. He’s anxious. It’s been a very long time since he’s had any company. His darling had not been much for socializing as of late, preferring quiet dinners at home in the cold and dark of the cellar. He hadn’t realized just how much he missed other people until he heard the man’s voice. What an unexpected treat.

He locks the tin door quietly, then tiptoes up the path towards the other side of the butte. When he nears the rise in the path, he hides himself behind a boulder, then peeks out. He sees them, two men, by the stairs to the plain. One is on his back and hugging his knee, while the other tends to it.

“God the glass, dey did,” The Digger whispers. At least he’d remembered that; it made forgetting to lock the cellar door a little more forgivable. He lightly taps the head of the shovel on the tip of his boot. The storm writhes around the top of the butte in such a seething froth that most other sounds are drowned out. He would have to shout to the men to be heard, but what sort of welcome would that be?

The Digger’s brow is lined with dirty furrows. He is wondering how he will greet the two men, when they both start up the path, towards him and his home.

“Oh, no, no, no,” the Digger shrinks behind the boulder. He bites a nubby nail. They’re heading towards his house, towards his sweet darling love. They’re apt to wander about, make themselves at home, as if they have run of the place. He has to think, and fast, how to intercept them.

He runs his eyes up the path, to where it narrowly passes between a large rock and the dried out husk of a fallen tree. The tree is really no more than a sheath of bark as thick as a turtle shell, the insides eaten away by wind and sand. He could hide behind it and be completely invisible. The men would be so close in passing him that he could lick their fingers, if that was his fancy. The Digger muffles a giggle, a sound not unlike a pillow suffocating a jackhammer. He likes his plan very much, but he has no time to relish in it: the two men are walking fast, despite the rain (or perhaps because of it!) and the one fellow’s stiff limp.

To get to the narrow pass and the tree husk, the Digger has to first go in the open and cross the path. Being seen would entirely ruin his big, fun plan, so he has to make sure he’s not. The center of the butte top is divided by a tight row of jagged tent rocks, a saggital crest obscuring each side of the area from the other. If he slinks low enough below the eye line of the ridge, he can avoid being seen. He rushes back in the direction of his house, slipping in some mud as he rounds a turn. There’s a bleached white bone in the sand by his feet, shiny in the rain. A clavicle, by its curve, but sharp, like a broken wishbone, perhaps from the winged story he dug up long ago, the one which screamed when the sunlight hit it.

The Digger takes the bone and puts it in the back pocket of his overalls. He crosses the path and then rushes up the other side of the hill. He crests the ridge, peeks over the rocks. The men are still hobbling along, slower now.

“Leg musd be sdiff.” The Digger bites his thin lower lip, holding in a guffaw. The hollowed out tree is only a quick shuffle away. Crouching low and moving like a fiddler crab, the Digger scampers, hidden by the small hoodoos and boulders, his baggy bottom brushing the earth and his shovel a big claw raised to the sky. He nestles in behind the bark perfectly. Why, there’s even a little space to peek through! Oh, what luck.

“Whad gread luck, by Jove,” The Digger brings his eye right to the peephole. The men are almost on top of him. Despite the rain and the storm, the Digger feels a warmness bubbling in his chest and steadily moving up to his cheeks. It’s making everything before him as clear as high noon in the highland.

“Do you see the fire, Will?” The hurt man says.

The Digger licks his lips. The cloth around the man’s leg looks like a shirt. It’s soaked all the way through, shining red in the rain. He could lift it over his head and wring out every last drop. Then he’d smack his lips before cutting open the dirty denim, so he could dig into all the fleshy pulp beneath. He and the thirsty earth would drink and drink, until they bled the big buffoon dry.

“No. I smell it though. Smoke.” The other man, Will, is thinner and younger, with all his juices on the inside. His shorts are black and skin tight, his thighs encased in them like sausage links. The Digger decides he’ll be the first he welcomes. They’re almost to the cusp of the ridge, walking fast despite the bearded one’s hurt leg, and the Digger is about to jump out of his skin, he’s so gal-dern excited.

But then, Will stops. He wrinkles his nose and begins to look anxiously around, as if he’s smelled the Digger’s particular eau de garbage, sweat and smoke embedded in clothes. He tenses, about ready to run. There is someone watching them, someone very close.

“Crick,” but before Will can get all the words out, his eyes stop on the hollowed out tree. The Digger tenses, knowing that the man senses him, knows he’s watching. But it’s too late. The man with the delicious pulpy leg is crossing right in front of him, a shovel’s swing away.

“Stop!” Will says.

Crick half turns. “What is it?”

“Get back here! There’s someone behind the tree!” The words are more in-the-moment narrative than warning: as Will says it, the Digger lunges out from behind the tree, swinging the shovel like a polo mallet. He cracks Crick on the chin. Will hears something give in Crick’s chin, a loud pop. Crick is knocked backwards, the gravel and mud catching his fall.

The Digger pants over Crick’s body. The bright blooms of color in the the fallen man’s cheeks, the blood so fresh on his teeth and cracked lips, looks so lovely in the soft twilight. What beautiful mess of tissue and brain matter lies underneath, the Digger wonders. He lifts the shovel above his head, his two hands wrapped around the handle.

“Hellos, and welcome…” The Digger is about to plunge the shovel down, but a small stone buzzes by his cheek. He looks up in time for another, larger stone to hit him in the middle of the forehead. He staggers back a few steps, his shovel up in front of his face. Oh, yes, he thinks: the man with the worried face and sausage thighs.

“I wanded to welcome him firsd, besides.” The Digger thinks. He affords himself a quick peek at ol’ Cricky, who moans and twitches a foot, but otherwise remains stone still.

“You! Stay!” The Digger commands, kicking Crick in the leg. Fresh blood seeps into the shirt around the man’s leg. The Digger then looks up at Will, who stands with another stone in his hand.

“Don’t touch him, you fuck.” Will says. He lets the stone fly, which the Digger bats out of the air. He can already feel the skin rising on his forehead, feels his veins pulsing beneath the swollen bump. He’d rather not have another.

“No danks!” The Digger says, rushing down the path towards Will. The shovel slashes quickly through the air. Will tries to get away from it, jumping to the side, but the blunted metal edge still finds his cheek bone, cutting it as it arches up and away. Will stumbles, trips. His forearm catches the dirt as he falls. His cheek is cold and numb, but he can feel a warmness trickling down. It touches the side of his mouth, and the taste is metallic but unmistakably familiar. His own, that of his home, from a place completely alien to the highlands, where the summer is light and sweet, and he lived in a house on the south face of a mountain that was never quite finished, never quite done.

The water was so sweet, from a well deep underground. There was a pond on the other side of the road with caterpillars, mosquitos and fat trout to eat them. Will thinks of this as the Digger pounces on him, the shovel barred across the nape of Will’s neck. His lower lip scrapes the ground as the Digger pushes down, gravel mixing with the blood in his mouth. The man has flowers sprouting from his head on thin, green stalks, which dangle in front of Will’s nose, and they smell like garbage.

“No,” Will says. He wants to hold on to the home he left behind, with the sky so soft in winter, with short gray days which twisted around the smoke from the black chimney, the snow eddying up to the door of the Koster home, beckoning him in to the warm room where his father lay. He’s trying not to lose it. He’s trying, but the acrid taste of the dirt overpowers that of the blood, and it’s fading fast.

“Yes, we musd have our dinners. Yes.” The Digger puts all of his weight on the handle, bouncing like a piston so that the young man’s face sinks into the dirt. The shadows are hungry too, whispering for a taste of the Digger’s catch. He pays them no heed, just pushes down harder, not caring if he breaks the young man’s neck or not, just that he wants him to be quiet, to sleep like the stories under the ground do and stop causing a ruckus.

Thunder starts to swell from deep in the plain, a slow crescendo. It booms, and all at once, everything grows quiet. The Digger realizes that the young man isn’t struggling anymore, has indeed gone to sleepy sleep. He looks about him, jaw slack, eyes wide. The clouds encircling the butte in a roiling gyre have receded; they billow away to the south, like a tarpaulin being rolled in off of a pool, lightning flashing from their translucent insides.

“Ah, peace and quied, my friends,” the Digger says, looking at the two prostrate men on the ground around him. “But when da shadows leave, dat can only mean da Fadesy is oud and abouds,” The Digger lifts Will, whose head flops on a neck that is already the color of a plum, and lays him on top of Crick.

“We musd ged underground, my friends.” The Digger says. He’s done well in welcoming his new friends, and his darling will surely welcome some company at the dinner table. But first he must get them up over the crest and back to the house. He puts the handle of the shovel under Crick’s armpits, a frame which makes it easier to pull the two men over the loose earth.

“We musds ged underground, before da Fadesy comes.” He’s breathing hard as he comes to the crest in the hill. The little four walled shack comes into view, with orange light blossoming on the ground in front of the screen door. Behind, in the distance to the north, is a huge expanse of gray, at odds with the heavy twilight that eats up the rest of the landscape. The Digger’s eyes pop.

“Okay, friends, we musds hurry.” He’s panting hard as he pulls the men down the incline. The Fade is coming.

[] Chapter III: “Dinner Party”

 

 

My feet are bare and the floor is cold, the darkness just shy of absolute. There’s a door ahead, a soft light seeping under and around its frame. Opening it, I step into a long hallway, almost as dark as the room before. There’s a wood stove at the far end, its flames caressing a square glass door. The fire barely casts any light. In fact, it seems to be swallowing the little of it that’s around, burping up shadow with each pop of its cindery logs.

My teeth begin to click together. It must be winter, though there are no calendars on the wall or frost-kissed windows through which to see snow. How can a house be this cold? I guess this is where Dad would say I was lucky to have hairy legs. “Keeps you warm on cold winter nights,” he would say. “Why do you think you think I loved your mother so much?” He got happy talking about her. He had to love her for more than her hairy legs, or he would not have missed her so much. Here I am, missing him missing her, in nothing but a torn Joy Division tee-shirt and a pair of bike shorts. Funny how things work out.

This cold bites deep. It feels like the lack of something, that there is a desperate want in the air. The room is growing with it, reaching for that which is just beyond its grasp. The wood stove and its light recede, though I’m walking towards them. I’m like a planet that has fallen out of orbit, drifting further and further away from its sun.

“Boy, you’re all doom and gloom. Why the long face?” A familiar voice says. It’s raspy and deep, as if seasoned over long years in a steaming cave. “What took you so long?”

My mind must have wandered one way, and my feet the other: the fire now crackles within the wrought iron stove several feet before me, my nose hairs crinkling in the dry heat. The wood that burns smells of oak, maple and meat. Turning around, I see there’s a chair in the corner, its foot rest propped up, the back reclined at forty-five degrees. A man sits in it, skeletally thin, a baseball cap over thin wisps of hair and a cigarette burning in his hand. A blanket covers his legs with two feet stuck out, as swollen as inflated latex gloves.

“What’s wrong, Will? You don’t recognize your old man?”

“Dad?”

He takes a long drag. “Surprise.”

A log pops in the stove, an air pocket found out by the fire and quickly consumed. “What’s wrong?” He asks.

“I… don’t know. You’re…”

“Dead? Gee, thanks for the reminder.”

“If you’re dead but I’m speaking to you, then I must be dreaming.”

“Very logical, buddy boy, but not quite the whole truth. It may have started as a dream, but it’s grown into so much more.” He laughs on the last few words, his cheeks tightening back. His mouth is like a hole which his teeth have cut through. He’s so thin, barely one hundred pounds, and his arms move about in his baggy sweatshirt like insect legs.

“What do you mean?” It’s then that I remember where I was before this cold place, of the man who attacked me with the shovel. New Mexico, Grady, the basement under the hill. The storm and Crick. The man with the flowers on his head and the shovel. “I have to wake up. Dad, if this is a dream, then I have to wake up. There’s a man who is going to kill me. I think_ oh no. I’m already dead, aren’t I?”

“Relax, bud. You haven’t been home in how long now?”

“Dad, answer me. Am I already dead?!”

Dad chuckles, and it’s like an old rooster bocking. “You’re not dead, Will. You’re built of stronger stuff than that.” The light from the fire grows stronger, bringing certain pieces of furniture out of the shadows, old familiar friends. Next to my father’s easy chair is a side table in the shape of an inverted ‘H.’ A stucco-style lamp is atop it, with faded magazines strewn about its base. Over the black leather couch is a photograph of Dad on a roof beam, his frame carrying his former 200 pounds, his hair full, a drill in his hands. Several men stand under and above him, but their faces are hard to make out, as if they were smudged out with chalk.

“You finally recognize it?”

“I’m home. When I left, it was the beginning of summer. How is it that it’s this cold, and the house is so… different? Where are the windows, and why is hallway so long? What is this place really, Dad?”

“Things tend to change a great deal when you’re away from them a while. Sometimes they fall apart, bud. A house is what you put into it, don’t you remember me telling you that. It’s also what you take out of it. I was taken out of it when I died, Will. You took yourself out when you decided to go on this bike trip to California. That’s why you see it like this, a real fixer-upper. Quite the grand trip you’ve undertaken, though, I must say.”

“You don’t even know the half of it,”

“But I do. Truly. I was with you the whole way.”

“Now you’re the one who is dreaming.”

He laughs, and it’s that same rooster bock. “When you were climbing those coal-country roads in West Virginia for days on hand, who were you crying over, wishing you could have done more for in his last months of life? I heard you, bud. I was right here.” He pokes a bony finger at my chest.

“When the sky turned green and the rain tore through, I saw that old man stop and help you with your bike. I saw him drive you to town, buy you a cup of coffee and share a few words. He was a good man, a father.” He pauses, seems unsure of the words he is going to use. “I’d like to think he felt my pain at seeing you be in such a state. He helped you because I wanted it so bad. And despite this place, this very sad place, I was able to make it happen.” He takes another drag on the cigarette, then ashes it in a coffee mug. He sits back, thinking over all that was just said.

“Your bike may be at the bottom of a hole, this trip is just beginning.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“California was never your real destination. We both know you were hoping you’d get lost somewhere in between. That you’d find something you didn’t even know you were looking for in the first place.” My fingers alight on a heavy curtain, on what feels like velvet.

“Well?” My father asks.

“What?”

“Did you find anything?”

I grab the fabric between my fingers, and give it a pull. “I think I found myself.” I say, as the floor to ceiling window comes into view. The entire sky is a pale green or faded blue, cloudless above a snowy ground far below. Snow crystals scratch at the glass, and all around us are sharp metal structures, like burnt out buildings, their metal frames twisted, interiors dark. They reach just as high as we do, some to even greater heights.

“What is this? Where are we?”

“Far from New York, bud. Far from New Mexico, too. Far from everything,” In the crisp light he looks even more skeletal, the shadows in the nooks and crevices of his face even sharper. His feet, on the other hand, look ready to burst, they’re so swollen.

“I guess I’ll come clean, Will. This isn’t home. Sure, it may look a little like our house back in New York, but it’s just a facade, a fake Hollywood set. The rules and laws of the universe don’t really work here as they do where we’re from. Kinda contradictory, like in a bad dream. Whatever you want, the opposite happens. The more you want it, the more likely you’ll be frustrated. Take my swollen feet for example. Oh boy, there’s nothing I wouldn’t like more than a foot rub, cool those puppies down. But as long as I want it, and focus on it, and desire it, well… it just a’int happening.”

“I could massage them for you,”

“As much as I’d like that, bud, I don’t have any moisturizer.” I go down onto my haunches, about to massage his feet anyways, but feel something bulky in my back pocket. In the faint, orange light, I can still make out the label on the bottle as I pull it out: hydrating moisturizer. I look to my father and show him the bottle.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” He says.

I lean down again, and squirt a generous amount of the liquid into my hands. I start out slowly, working it in to all the cracked, red crevices, before starting a stronger massage of the swollen feet. The skin drinks it up deeply. “That’s real nice, bud.” He says, lifting up his blue U.S. Coast Guard hat up and scratching his patchy head.

“Do you realize what you’re capable of, Will? By dreaming, you’ve opened up a limitless world of potential. Sweet little cocktails of everything you’ve ever known: the smell of summer rain on fresh mown grass, rock candy popping on your tongue, the way your mother ate her pizza with a fork and knife,” His mouth arches up as he smiles, touching his pointed cheek bones. “All your memories, ideas, and experiences are seeds, and your mind the loose, rich soil they’re planted in. When you dream, you allow them to grow. You dreaming made it easier for me to guide you along that bridge you took to get here.”

There’s a noise from down the long hallway, beyond the door I came through. It’s a sound like chains being pulled across broken glass, low at first, then right outside the door. A pattering of soft feet flutter into the room, with no person visible who could have made the noise.

“There is something in the room with us,” I say. The curtain over the window closes suddenly. Again, there is no person around who could have done it.

“Look, don’t worry about all that. I got something to show you.”

“Something’s not right about this place,” I start towards him, but now there’s a different look to my father’s face. What I see is desperation, some sort of insatiable want.

“I think there’s some one else in the room with us,”

“Could be. But don’t worry. They won’t come near us. Not yet. Now shut that curtain, and look up there.” He nods towards a television mounted in the corner of the room which I had not seen before. The screen is layered in brown dust, but the image is clear enough in the darkened room. It shows a long plastic table, of the kind used at office picnics, in a dark room with an earthen floor. There are three people seated at the table, Crick, myself and a figure robed in shadow. The image zooms in on Crick, who is tied to a chair, his eyes closed and blood dried on his chin. Then it pans to me.

“What is this?” On screen, I’m also tied to a chair with rough hemp ropes. There’s a gash on my cheek and mud around my mouth.

Dad coughs. “This is what’s going on in that world you just left. That guy with the shovel has got you under his house. You’re in quite a pickle.”

A faded gray line fizzles up the screen. The image sputters, then angles back on Crick again. I watch as a squat figure with sandy skin and a head of white flowers saunters up to Crick and pinches his cheek between thumb and forefinger. Satisfied, he walks off, back to the other end of the table.

“That’s the man I met today when I was biking. His name is Crick. He said he was looking for his son, but was wandering around in the grass when I found him. No car, no anything, just the shirt on his back. And then that other guy, the man with the shovel_”

“Narcissus,” Dad says.

“Narcissus? That’s his name? Like, in Greek mythology?”

“As far as I can tell, yes, the very one.” Dad shifts around, tries to lift himself up in his chair. “Can you help me over here, Will?” I help prop him up. The cigarette’s long ash flops off and falls in between his blanket and the armrest of the chair. “No matter. The space under this cushion must be full of ash by now. I don’t smoke ‘em much anyways. Holding ‘em is just a habit, really. Let ‘em burn right down to the filter. Scratch my back, will you?”

My fingers run over each rib like they’re folds in a carpet. “Dad, I have to wake up before my face winds up on a milk carton.”

“Relax, relax. No use getting worked up, bud. If he’s gonna kill you, he’s gonna kill you. Just enjoy being back home for a little while.”

“Dad…”

“Kidding, kidding. Geez, still can’t take a joke, I see. Alright, bud, look. This is what you’re going to do. And you better listen, because you don’t have much time. This Narcissus guy, he wants to eat you. That’s what he does. He eat stories. Maybe you noticed the jars of meats lining the walls of his basement. He likes to pickle things and save them for later.”

“I was knocked out. I didn’t see a thing.”

The image on the screen begins to crackle with static, then suddenly goes black.

“Damn thing,” My dad says. “You mind hitting it?”

I go up to the screen, give it a whack on its side. There’s a flicker, and then the image comes back to life. We’re on a wide shot of the table, with me and Crick in the middle, our faces towards the screen. The Digger is to our left, carving a hunk of meat with a sharp, triangular knife. Across from him, on the other side of the table and bathed in shadows, is a withered corpse. The hands sit neatly on the table, like delicate ashen filigrees.

“He didn’t eat her,”

“No. That’s his wife, or so he likes to think. Make no mistake, though, he will kill you, Will. That’s what happens to every person, every story, that wanders into Narcissus’s world. They don’t leave. He kills ‘em and eats ‘em. He’s so self-absorbed that he doesn’t want anything else to compete for his attention. Talk about being narcissistic. Did you see that mirror he’s got?”

“No, Dad. Again, I almost got choked to death by a shovel. I missed the grand tour.”

“Watch it, smart ass. I may look like Pappy Grim Sheets over here, but I can still kick your ass.” Dad flashes me a mercurial smile. Reflections from the wood stove dance up the wall, billowing on the white paint like a brahmin’s long robe over snow. My old man has been gone for half a year already. I buried him in a hole with a pile of frozen dirt next to it, covered with a blue tarpaulin. It was the start of a winter much like this one, and there were only a handful of people to watch his casket go into the ground. It was a polished wood, as brown and tight as his skin in his final months of life. “Listen, and listen good: you’re going to wake up on the other side of that screen. And when you do, don’t lose your cool.”

“Don’t lose my cool? That guy is going to eat my skin!”

“He prefers the meat underneath, actually.”

“Very funny. I’m about to be cannibalized, and you’re cracking jokes. I have to get out of here.” I start pacing. “How the fuck am I going to get out of here?”

“First, do as I say and keep your cool. Second, that man you met today, ol’ glass jaw red beard, Mr. Crick, there’s a lot more to him than you think. He’s the key to getting you out of this mess. He just needs a little coaxing. You might even call it ‘reminding.’ His memory is a little raw.” Dad puts the cigarette out in the clay ashtray I made for him when I was in middle school. He pulls another Parliament from the pack and sticks it between his thin lips. “You have to tell him a story.”

“What?”

A match flares on the strike strip. He puffs, the cigarette smoke forming question marks around his head. “You heard me. You have to tell him a story. A pretty important one, at that. Biblical proportions. Bigger even. So big, it’s only just begun. Oh, that’s good, make sure you start with that. Once you say these few words, just sit back, and watch the show. What’s wrong? You look boondoggled.”

“Telling Crick a story is going to keep me from getting killed?”

“That’s about the gist of it.”

“Okay,” I look back up at the TV, and see a drop of drool loose from Narcissus’s lip onto the hunk of meat. “What’s the story?”

“Tell him that the story is about Helios and Hyperion. Can you remember those names? It may seem easy to remember here, but things don’t translate well between worlds. You might forget once you wake up. But hey, you’re a smart kid, and you can do it. So, tell this Crick guy, tell him that Helios and Hyperion…”

The static from the television is increasing in volume, and Dad’s voice is swallowed up by it. The television screen has grown to the size of the entire wall in a matter of seconds. Black roots have emerged from the glass, cementing themselves in the sheetrock behind. Beneath the static, I can make out a close-up shot of my face at the plastic table. Narcissus stands behind my dreaming self, his hand poised above his head. The slap sends an arc of spit careening from my mouth through the air. My cheek burns as I watch.

“Wake ups!” Narcissus says from the television, his voice riding the static.

“Dad!”

“That’s your bridge out of here. Quicker than the way you came in, and you won’t have any of those whispers you’ve drawn here to bother you. Might make for a rougher trip though…” His words reverberate above the static before being totally washed up in it. I reach out to him, but the floor slips out, as if it’s been pulled out from under me. I go head over heels, through a floor which has completely dissipated. Below me is a sea of static, stretching from horizon to horizon.

“Dad!” I scream, but he’s gone, the entire room is gone. There’s just the sea of static below, and all else is dark. I cover my face, and realize just before hitting it that it’s one huge television screen, the same as had been on the wall in my father’s room. Surprisingly, there’s no pain as I break through, only the sound of the static rising to an unbearable crescendo. I’m floating in a sea of it, settling to a soft sizzle as I float upwards, into a pink world that slowly takes the form of my body.

“Death has a way of smoothing out life’s wrinkles,” my father’s voice echoes around my head, as I struggle to open my eyes. “Wakes you up to a few things too.” His voice flutters away. Then, a white flash, a dull thwack on my temple. I see a plastic table with a coarse surface as my head recoils from the blow.

“Wake ups! Id is rude sleeping ad da dinner pardy,” The Digger’s voice echoes through the entire dark space. The table blurs, then steadies. I can’t focus. Each moment crumbles away, sifting through my fingers. There’s a dried lake of coagulated yellow liquid on the table, with pink and red islands of flesh and meat cresting its surface. I bring my head up, but my neck’s not having it. It feels as if it’s been clamped in a bear trap. I go to massage it, but my hands won’t move from behind my back. They’re bound, knotted together in thick, coarse rope behind a flimsy fold-up chair.

“This… this can’t be happening,” Translucent purple blots float across my vision, then burst. There’s a tarnished candelabra aways to the left, close to the empty chair which Narcissus plops himself in. The fierce orange light reaches into every pockmark on his face and gives his washed out skin the hue of a pumpkin.

“Oh, yes, my friends. Dis is cerdainly happenings. Da best dinner in down, dat’s for sure!” He starts laughing. The knife in his hand looks like a trowel with a serrated edge. The chunk of pink meat jiggles as he cuts into it.

Liddle Derra, Liddle Derra, clicky clacky sad, Liddle Derra, Liddle Derra, everybudy mad… Dad’s your favorid song, yes, dahling? The Digger looks up from his carving, straight across the table. “Dahling, yous are awfully quied dis evenings. Did you say hello do our friends?” I turn my head slowly in the direction Narcissus’s knife points. Crick sits next to me, his chin still tucked into his chest, blood dried in his beard. Past him, at the other end of the table, sits a dusty corpse, draped in heavy shadow. It’s a woman, I can tell by the delicate features, even though she’s as shriveled as a raisin and just as dead.

“Dahling?” Narcissus watches the unmoving dead woman at the other end of the table. A soft breeze streams in from behind her, the white hairs on her head waving at the deranged man like albino spider legs.

Narcissus slams the table and rises to his feet. “I will nod have you beings so rude do our friends!” He throws his plate at her. The steaming hunk of flesh unplops itself midway through the air, sailing to one side of the mummified woman, the plate to the other. It lands without a sound in the darkness beyond.

The Digger is seething. He brings his fists to his temples and stamps his feet. The flowers on his head pop open, the air immediately awash with the smell of a crusted dumpster. He picks up the carving knife from the table, and starts slowly for the other side of the table.

“Oh, you makes me so mad somedimes, dahling.” The breeze blows from behind the woman, displacing more white hair, ruffling her blouse. The Digger stops. He’s staring into the blackness past the woman. There’s a yawn, far-off, but deep. The Digger leans his ear towards it. The yawn is speaking, though it sounds like it is being transmitted via an antiquated phone from the bottom of a fish tank. I can’t make out what it’s saying, but it has a tone of hesitance, of timidity.

Something goes off in the Digger, some sort of angry latch is unhinged. He starts to slice at the air around his head, outlining nonsensical letters and shapes. He punctuates it all with a throat tearing scream.

“Beez quied, you! I love her, nods you!” He shuffles over to the woman, drops to his knees at her side. He plunges his face into her dusty blouse, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Oh, dahling, do nod lisden to da likes of her. You came from me, my love. You came to me in da mirror. I know, I pud you dere. And den I durned around, and dere you weres, in my home. Oh, dahling, please do nod lisden.”

The breeze catapults in, with a final, forceful push. There’s a deep sobbing from deep in the darkness that is quickly choked off. Then all is quiet.

“You knows, when fadder buried me, he says, ‘Boy, I ams going to pland you, dis way you can look ad yours reflection all days and never worries aboud drinkings or eatings.’” The Digger says. He has wrapped his arms around the dried out woman, who looks ready to crumble under all the pressure. There’s a sheen on his loose skin, despite the cold. It contrasts with the muddy denim of his overalls, though in the back pocket, something catches the candle light, and gleams with the same muted orange as the Digger’s skin. It’s pointed, and looks sharp.

“But I says, ‘Fadder, I likes my reflection above da ground, in da wader.’ Bud, dat bad, bad man, he never listens to me. No, dahling, nod never. He says, “Boy, you musd kills all da sdories, cud dare droats and keep them sleepsy, sleepsy,’ and I say, ‘No, fadder,’ and he say, ‘yes, boy,’ and den drew me from da highest of towers, and when I fell I wend deep indo da ground, and came up a flower dat nobody likes,” He wipes his eyes on his forearm. When he looks up again, he has a line of dirt across his small eyes.

“He says dis jobs is da mosd impordand of all, keeping da sdories sleepsy. He never thoughd aboud a whole nudder world buried benead da ground. He never thoughd my true love would find me.” The Digger walks proudly away from the dead woman and stands behind Crick, proselytizing to the darkness with the gusto of a televangelist. “And now I am kings. Everyding in dis world is me, me, me.”

His brings his voice down to a whisper. “Bud somedimes, da stories, dey wakes up. Dey come to me in dreamzy time. I says, ‘No, dis is my world, yous sday sleepsy,’ bud dey never listen. So, whad do I do? Whad musd I do?! I go oud in da desserts, and I finds dem, and I kills dem. Jusd as fadder asked me. In dere sleeps.”

The Digger stands just behind me, speaking to the darkness. The pointed stick in his back pocket catches the candle light. It’s sharp, and not all that far. It could cut through the ropes. If my hands weren’t bound, I could reach it without even bending my arm. I could reach it with my teeth, but my neck is so stiff, I don’t think I could do it without Narcissus realizing. The Digger, he’s tense, fingers curling madly at the air. Despite his state of mind, he’ll see me lunge for it, without a doubt. I have to get out of here, though. I have to take the chance.

And then, like a tape recorder, a voice clicks on in my head.

“That Narcissus fellow, well, he’s going to kill you and your friend.” It’s my father’s voice, resounding in my head in a tone as clear as the New Mexican summer azure. “Probably eat you, too.”

I leave all the second-guessing at the door, and reach my head back. My neck burns as I turn it, feels too swollen in my neck to move any more, but the bone is so close. I’m right underneath him, no doubt coloring the fringes of his vision. He should see me. Or if he does, he doesn’t show it, not moving a muscle save for his small fingers typing at the empty air. I close my teeth on the bone and draw it out of his pocket, slowly, carefully, not so much as disrupting a crusted wrinkle on the pale man’s overalls.

“And when dere’s juicy juices splosh out on my toeses, I geds so happy. Because dey are bad old stories, from da beginning, and… hello? Friend, just what do you dink you are doing?” He turns, just as I am about to drop the bone behind my back and and into my upturned hands. His small black eyes pop open, the sclera as jagged as Mars lightning. The bone is barely out of my mouth before he’s on top of me, his claws around my neck. the chair toppling over, my shoulder taking the brunt of the impact.

“What do you dink you are doing?” I stare up into his ruddy face. His hands are around my throat. “I said, what do you dink…”

“I heard what you said, you inbred son of_” The chair slides a few inches from the force of the punch, the fresh scab on my face leaking open. Purple blots explode around my vision again. I’m pulling hard at the rope, hoping to find a loose knot in the dozen or so loops around my body as he pummels my face with his cold knuckles. My fingers alight on a pointed object with a sandy finish.

“Dis is my world. My fadder pud me here, under da ground.” He’s swaying over me, a topsy turvy turnip man, with clenched fists and a cantaloupe head, thin green stalks springing from it and standing at attention. “My fadder pud me here, he told me dad dis would be bedder for me, dad he would nod see his sweed liddle boy wasde away by da wader.”

“My father told me… my father…” I can’t quite get the words out. They seem to be drowning in my throat, unsure of which way is up. With each of the Digger’s hits, a new image flashes before me. I see my father in his easy chair, a cigarette between index and middle fingers. There’s a television mounted in the corner, caked in dust, static roaring on it’s glass screen. I see his reflection in the screen, and my father’s lips, they’re moving, they’re mouthing something…

“…Helios…” His voice echoes off the television’s glass screen.

“Helios… this is his story…” The Digger stops his assault, and takes a few steps back from me. My face is already beginning to swell, and the room is spinning. The bone is still in my hand. I can feel its serrated edge, and start to cut through the ropes.

“Whad did yous say?”

“I said… that this is a story about Helios and…” I literally spit the words out. I look over at Crick to see if any of this is registering, but his chin stays tucked in his chest, a strand of saliva hanging from his lips. His body softly glows in the dark.

“Shud up, you dummy man! Do nods ever say dad sdory here!” The Digger screams, stomping the ground. He picks up his shovel from the side of the table and starts back towards me. “I am da only story!”

“Crick! Crick, wake up! Helios, it’s the story of Helios…” The Digger stumbles a bit, and grasps on the back of one of the plastic chairs. His lower lip begins to tremble, a bulbous thing, a grub worm.

“Shud up! Dey wills hear you!”

“This is the story of Helios, and…” There’s something I’m not remembering, words just waiting to be exhumed. There is a brightness that is welling up within me, green and gold fireworks, whirligigs in forest-filtered sunshine. The light is a turbine, a spinning gyre, helping to plumb the depths of my memory and clearing the haze from my mind. I remember the dream, my father, sitting in his blue easy chair, cigarette holes burnt into the fabric, his eyes black and mercurial, the fire licking the glass door of the wood stove with a snaking orange tongue.

“That guy, Crick, he’s the key to getting you out of this mess.” My dad had said. “He just needs a little reminding.”

The green and gold spinning intensifies, trying to find that last bit of the story. “Crick! Wake up already! Come on, this story is for you!” Crick shakes, as if in the throes of a bad dream. His eyes snap open. When he snaps his head around towards me, his gaze is resoundingly clear.

“Crick, I’m telling you a story, a big story, of biblical proportions.” That’s part of it, I can tell by my father’s big smile flashing in my head. Crick, though tightly tied to the chair, appears to be on the edge of his seat.

“This is the story of Helios…” The ground shakes, and the Digger trips forwards onto his knees. He scans the dark eaves above, his eyes moving like a pair of hummingbirds, a perplexed groan rising from his throat. A soft drizzle of dirt and small pebbles rains down upon us. Crick screams, with a force that’s throat-tearing, and his skin begins to glow like a fluorescent light.

“It’s the story of…” The shaking earth jostles the images of my father and the spinning lights around so that they slip, become hard to concentrate on. My father grips the sides of his chair, pushes himself as forward as he can. His voice is drowned out by my throbbing temples, his face washed out by Crick’s luminescent body. He reaches out a bony hand. He blows the smoke of a Parliament upon his fingers, and as it clears, I see a spinning light, two glowing balls, one green, one gold. He smiles, and mouths the word, four syllables long.

“It’s the story of… Helios, and… Hyperion,” I repeat after him. Crick explodes in luminescence. The Digger’s darling, her dried up body, becomes awash in light, sloughing off the wrinkles and growing smoother, as if life were reentering her. Crick’s skin bulges against the ropes lashed around him, all muscle and straining veins.

“Whad is dis? Whad is goings on?”

The Digger is tired, confused. He’s searching the whitening expanses of the cave, questioning the light that pushes back the dark. It’s dawn in the underground dining room, Crick the rising sun. High up, the eaves begin to take form as the light touches them, revealing series of delicate carvings and design. The basement is not infinite after all, but a long-neglected dining hall, medieval and expansive, but with definite dimension. At one end is a narrow hallway, whose walls curve away like the bowels of some giant beast.

“Whadever yous are, whadever sdory, yous will cerdainly be delicious for my belly.” Then he turns to me. “And yous, dighty-pands, you will beez a wonderful appedizers.”

My wrists strain at the hemp, frayed to it’s final strands by the bone, which stubbornly hold despite my struggle. “I cerdainly does enjoys da screaming.” His nervous look betrays his words. He stops when he’s standing above me, his fingers kneading the shovel handle. “Nod very ofdens dad da sdories comes awake, you knows,” I fumble with the knife, try and get the sharp edge under the remaining strands of the rope. My hands are numb, clammy. The sharpened edge of the bone keeps slipping, too dull to go through the last bit of twine.

“Always scares me do dink dey will wakes up.” I can smell his boots, the earth from the highlands, the rot and decay baked into his soles. He lifts the shovel. It eclipses Crick, casts a shadow over my face. With the light gone, so is any hope I had left. I close my eyes. And here, I had thought we’d get out of here alive. A dark outline of my father is sketched on the back of my eyelids, and I feel ashamed at giving up, at dying like this. I start to slip away, to let the darkness take me to a soft place.

“Will!” It’s my father. He’s straining from his chair, screaming, struggling to be heard above the madness of the dark world.

“…Hyperion…” I hear him scream it, but it’s far off, like an echo bouncing off the walls of a subterranean cave. “Say it again, goddam it!”

“Hyperion.” I whisper.

I open my eyes when the Digger’s blow doesn’t come. He has retreated, shielding his eyes from Crick, who glows brighter than ever.

“Whad sdory are yous?” The Digger asks. His voice is barely a whisper, but it can still be heard, perhaps because it asks a similar question to the one I’m asking myself. These quickly dissipate, pushed out by the power of Crick’s roar. It has layered itself in echo upon echo, bouncing back with a multitude of intonations and pitches, until it sings like a cathedral choir. It’s a sound that seems to come from beyond him, from the place where that green and gold spiral call home. The light quickly intensifies, until the entire cavern is whited out. The table, the meats, the Digger, all are enveloped by it. It sinks in through my eyelids, washes away the panic that had been seizing my mind. My senses melt into the white. The final thing I hear is my father’s voice, floating through the void like a piece of driftwood.

“You kept your cool, kid. I’m proud of you,” He smiles, then goes on his way. I go mine, off into the white.

[] Chapter IV: “The Fade”

 

 

The lungs feel it first, a hit to my chest. Self-awareness is the paint inside a balloon, my first breath the knife loosed by a master thrower’s hand. The thrower is light, sun light, which my skin eats up with a hungry mouth. Photosynthetic epithelial cells: words passed down through the long line of scholars, and the wisest of the Great Mums know it too. These cells have been sleeping between the something and the nothing. They now begin to sneak awake, to whisper like we did as small children beneath old quilts before dawn. The light is returning, and with it, the awe of life.

Food, water, air, all are secondary to light. As long as there is enough of the light to go around, my body doesn’t need anything else. But it is dark beneath the earth. My being brought here began the slow attrition. I witnessed what all the Ma’atha mums used to scare us about as little ones, the slow shrivel, becoming like a wrinkled husk. Without the sun, your forever stream becomes a dry riverbed. My mum’s words, and they became prophesy for me. “Amara, your pleistocene is showing!” Dal would shout, if I had been studying with the scholar in his dark house for too long. He was named after the great trickster lord, the man who had made the story which an entire people could not lift their heads from for thousands of years. He was so young when they took him, not even a man. Years later, the yama man would take me too.

The light is coming. Oh, Dal, if you were here. See how it is so bright, see how it brings the memories. One specific one: how to breathe. Amara, child, you should be breathing. It’s the voice of the scholar, and Mum and Da. Fill your lungs with air, child. “They’re such crinkled things, scholar. They can only take in so much.” I say.

“So you take your time, child.” The scholar says.

Now you realize you weren’t dead at all, silly girl. You and your brown skin were just hibernating, biding the time, dreaming already forgotten dreams. Of what and where? The Coral Islands, of course, of Da and Mum and the gray mist away from the shore that wrapped its arms around everything and nothing passed through, except the ink ships that would take your friends away, one by one. Barud, and Dal. Friends since leaving the teat for the sun, from before the scholar’s first lesson, taken one after the other into the Fade. I never heard Barud’s sweet voice again, or Dal’s boisterous laugh. The kidnappers, however, the yama man, with their gray skin, would always return. They drove their ships through the gray mist to land at port and take one of us, then another and another. I knew what they did. They’d strap us into a machine at the center of the ink ships, and drain us as if we were nothing more than the juice of a janjan fruit.

When you’re full of the blood, the lymph and the water, you never feel it. It fills you, a silent spring. But when you’re dry and empty, the beginning of any sort of trickle in the body juices feels as if a feather is slipping up the inside of your skin. Things atrophied now inflate. They take shape. A coating of tissue covers your bones, a layer of muscle grows around the ribs. There is a beating in your chest, but it is arrhythmic. It makes your breath catch, because there is still so much empty space for it to ring around. But then it becomes steady, and the feathers dancing up and down your arms and legs go to the very tips. What is brittle becomes strong. What is dust, becomes hard, becomes bone.

“You’re alive?” I can barely look at him, the man shines so brightly. Behind the dirt and the red beard is a gentle face with lines from a hard life cut deep into it. His entire body is white light. In his hands are the charred remains of a rope, a weak flame still burning at the frayed tips. “Can you speak?” He asks. He is crouched low to me, his face level with mine. He looks incredulous at all this, like he can not believe it is really happening. His blue eyes bounce up and down, following my nodding head. Yes, I’m alive, good sir, so please, help me. Let me get back to living.

With so much effort comes the faintest whisper. “Yes…”

“My god,” The man runs a hand through his hair.

“Where did he go? Where is he, Crick? Hey, man, come get me out! I’m still tied up here, and I don’t know where that guy crawled off to.” The other voice is calling out from the other side of the table. The shining man called ‘Crick’ helps me up. My legs are so heavy, so tired. “Crick!”

“Hold on, Will, I’m coming,” His body glows, filling the entire room with its soft white light. We start walking, and I realize Crick is hurt, his one leg moving stiffly. We round the head of the table, where the Digger had his place, and below us is the other man, Will, lying on his back. He is younger than Crick, but maybe just a few years older than myself. His body is thin and well muscled, beneath a loose shirt that looks tea-stained. His legs and body are tied to a chair, his hands secured behind his back. “Holy shit. She’s alive?” He says.

“Yes, I’m alive.” He looks from me to Crick and back to me again.

“And you did that? What are you?” He speaks quickly, afraid. “How the hell did you light up like that?”

“I dunno, Will.” Crick says.

“What do you mean, you don’t know? People just don’t do that by accident, and they surely don’t bring corpses back to life.”

“Not a… corpse… Very deep sleep…”

Will looks at me, and in his face, I see Dal with his proud eyes set deep in his face. He then looks to Crick, sighing in acceptance. “Just untie me. Please.” Crick gets on his knees, starts to work on Will’s knots. “There’s a sharp bone,” Will says, blowing loose strands of sweaty hair away from his mouth. “It’s around here somewhere.”

Crick lifts up a thin, curved bone, the edge sharp. With one swift movement, the rope falls away. “Thanks,” Will says, getting up from the floor. He pushes on the lower part of his back until it cracks. “Where’d that freak go?”

“Dunno,” Crick says, studying his big hands. He sways a bit on his feet, before collapsing in the folding chair Narcissus had him strapped to. He is bleeding through his pants.

“What’s wrong? You don’t like lighting up like a Christmas miracle?”

“That’s never happened before. It took a lot out of me.”

“Your leg…” I say. I have never met a god before, but never were they hurt in any of the Great Mum stories. “You need medicine.”

“Geez, you’re right. What is your name?”

“Amara Mona,” I say. “You are hurt too.” My hand is shaking as I point to Will’s face. He runs a finger over his right cheek, rust red with a fresh scab, and winces. His eyes are algae blooms atop water softly rippling, and they do not seem to know what they are taking in.

“He hit me with a shovel. God, it must be awful to look at. Crick, we have to get you to a doctor. They got to have one in Vagner or Santa Fe, that can’t be too far away.”

“Santa… Fe?”

“You’ve never heard of Santa Fe? New Mexico?” I shake my head. “Where are you from?”

“The Coral Islands.”

“The Coral Islands? Where is that? Micronesia?”

The strength to speak is returning. “They are in the gray dream world. The yama man say it is at the edge of the Grid. The scholar say it is along the rim of the spiral.”

“You know, this is all just really weird. I don’t understand any of it,” Will says. “I wouldn’t mind so much if I didn’t feel like my life was in constant danger. So you’re from the Coral Islands, on the edge of a spiral?” I nod. “Well, alright. That explains everything.” Will runs his hand through his long hair, pushing it back behind an ear. I can tell he is frustrated.

“I am a conduit, chosen by yama man to power his ink ship. Yama man is bad man, does not care if I live or die. I leave him, and come here, to this strange place. I hoped the man who live here would help me, but no, he worse than yama man.”

There is a rustle under the table, and Narcissus comes out, jumping to his feet.

“No, dahling!” The Digger says, looking wasted and pathetic in Crick’s soft white light. “You do nods speaks da trude do dese invaders! Dell dem dad I only loved you, my dahling, my love, dad I made you my queensie!”

Will grabs the sharpened bone out of Crick’s hand, then bounds forward, at the Digger. It happens so fast. The two men tumble over, rolling under the table, their hands grabbing at each other. A dish clatters to the floor. A soft thunk is followed by a low moan, belonging to the man who had me call him husband when he buried me beneath the earth. I was hurt when I found my way to him. Even with the sun as strong as it was in this strange new world, the Oisin’s engine had found its way into my lap after crashing, and had cut deep into my thighs and chest. I was bleeding out, my body too shocked to heal itself. Narcissus had looked at me through the reflection in his mirror, my guts in my hand, his eyes wide in surprise.

“Please sir, my lifeboat crashed, you have to_”

“Shh, beez quied nows, my dears.” The Digger had said, not turning from the mirror. His lips were thin, teeth small and square. Green stalks grew from his fat head, the crowns of which had unfurled their white flowers.

“But the Fade! It is_”

“Da Fadesey does nod come to my liddle homesey, so beez calm. Oh my, yous are hurd,” The mirror’s surface had looked like it was melting in the heat of the room. My snow white hair was knotted with grease and blood, and it looked like dirty candle wax in the reflection. “Come here. I wand do dake good care of you.”

He turned from the mirror and drew me to him. His hips touched mine, while his tongue found my neck. I tried to pull away, by the Fox, I did; but my time as a conduit, years of having my life drained out of me on that ship, had made me weak. His calloused hands found their way around my throat. He choked me to the ground, all the while whispering how he would love me forever, and make me his queen. He dragged me into his basement, my feet knocking on each step, past jars and dusty cans, until we were deeper than the earth’s heartbeat.

“My dahling. I love yous so,” It was like a song he would sing, over and over, as I struggled against the bindings on the chair. My stomach turned on itself. The light was gone, save for what came from the small candle he kept lit at dinner, whose warmth would never come to my face.

“Do yous love husband?” He kept asking me. I stopped yelling at him when I became too weak to move my lips. He did not mind, but he got less excited the less I struggled. He came less and less. It did not take long for my skin, once as dark as mud, to shrivel and ashen, cells gasping for light until they gave up and drowned in darkness. Water and light, all I need to live, never found me beneath the earth. Soon, there was nothing but sleep. I dreamed of the Coral Islands, of the baby sister I would never know, of driftwood fires and janjan fruit. I also dreamed of Pacheco, the yama man who had taken me from my home. Soon dreams even faded, and it was pitch all around. That was all until the god-man named Crick came and shone like the sun.

Will crawls out from the table, breathing hard. Narcissus follows after him, begging for mercy. “Pleases, my friends, pleases. Yous cans leave, if yous so desires id. Bud do nods hurd me anymores. Dis bones hurds me so,” The Digger is pleading on the ground, his one hand to his shoulder, the long bone poking out.

“Stay there. Don’t come any closer to me,” Will turns from the Digger and whispers to Crick. “What am I going to do with him? I’m can’t kill him. I can’t even believe I stabbed him like that. Maybe we should just get out of here, call the police or something.”

“Yes, yes, my friends, jusd led me go. Yes, yes,” He slides himself back like a grub, until his back meets the table. “Yous cans leave, and I sday and do my digger dudy. Dere be myths froms da beggining of time buried oud dere in da ground, and my fadder says id cans only beez me who digs up da old old sdories… Pleases…Dey musd nod wakes up.”

Crick and Will share a look. “Are these stories you’re talking about what we saw out there? Those shadows?”

“No, sirs, dose shadows are pesky troubles. Dey do nod have sdories of dere own, bud dey wand dem, oh yes, oh yes,”

“What’s he going on about, Amara?” Crick asks me. “What are these stories he’s talking about?”

“He told me much while I was here, while I could still hear. The Gods of Chaos sleep in the ground. They live in holes that are like roads to other worlds. He kills them before they can wake and pass into this world. He says they would destroy everything,” Narcissus ate many meals before me, always pink flesh on tarnished plates. He said it was god flesh and made him big and strong.

“Yes, yes, id is all droo, dahling! Dese sdories, dey be froms before all of dimes and spaces, from before Helios and Hyp…” The Digger covers his mouth with both hands. His eyes grow wide at Crick, whose body has burst alight again.

“That is far out,” Will says, eying Crick before turning back to the Digger. “And you’re scared of him, huh? You don’t like the light?”

“Id’s nod da lighds, sirs,” The Digger says. “Id’s wad da lights brings. Bad, bad sdories, dad do nod like da lighd, no, no. And da Fadesy doo, id is drawns do dad sdory,” Then, as if there are ears all around us, Narcissus whispers, “Id is da oldest sdory ever dold on all da worlds on da spiral.”

“Okay, that’s great. Can you get us past the shadows and gods and other assorted bad things that are waiting out there?”

“I do nod undersdand, sirs_”

“Can you get us back to the road? We just want to be on our way. I have to get to Vagner, she’s got to get to her island place, and Crick needs a hospital because of all the stupid glass you put out as a welcoming mat for us. Do you need me to spell it out any clearer? We want out of this crazy place.”

The Digger nods his head, so hard you can hear his teeth clacking together in his head. “Yes, yes, tanks yous, tanks yous. I wills takes you. Righd dis ways, sirs and dahling,”

“And stop it with this ‘darling’ business,” Will says. “It’s really creepy, and she’s not your darling.” I look at Will, but can not think how to thank a higher being. Are they gods that Narcissus somehow could not kill? What godly place are they from?

“Will…” I begin, but then the room begins to shake. The floor feels like it is lurching to the side, before all goes silent.

“Da Fadesy,” The Digger whispers. He jumps up like a rabbit loosed before a hunting party, a shuffling pile of gray blue overalls running away as fast as he can towards the hallway at the end of the room. Crick has dimmed to such a low light that the Digger is able to escape into the shadows.

“He’s getting away!” Will says.

“It is the Fade,” I say.

“What? What’s happening?” Will loses his footing and falls into the table as the ground shakes again, more violently than the last quake. A crack appears in the air, a sharp line that cuts across the entire space. It slices through walls, air and light, like a line of paint through one of Old Cappy’s paintings.

“Do not touch that!” Will stops, stares at me, his hand in mid-air. “You will come apart if you do.”

“What is it?” He mutters.

“It is a stress fracture. It comes before the Fade. We have to leave this place before the gray water washes us away,” Will steps back from the crack. It goes through the table, through one of the plates. He picks up the one half, a clean cut right down the porcelain, before it slips through his fingers and shatters on the floor.

“I don’t feel so well,” Crick moans. The quake has put him on the floor. His head is in his hand, the other on his leg. The color in his skin is fading, turning to ash. “I can’t move it all.”

Will runs to the table, and grabs the knife the Digger had been carving his meat with. Crick jumps. “What the hell are you gonna do with that?”

“I have to cut the bottom of your pants leg off. We have to get some of this glass out and stop the bleeding.”

“There is not much time_” I say, but Will stops me.

“We’re not going anywhere if he bleeds to death. Come on, I’ll work quick.” Will cuts into the tough cloth around Crick’s leg, who hisses through his teeth. Once the glowing flesh is exposed, you can see how torn it is. Crick glows still more softer with each passing moment. Fortunately, he is bright enough that we can see the pieces of glass sticking out of his skin.

“This is going to hurt,” Will says, before removing the first shard. The scholar always used medicines, the nectar of bark and vine. Crick groans, his voice echoing around the rafters. Will continues, his mouth a set line. Crick is trying to stifle his pain, I can see it in how he grits his teeth. Another piece of glass falls to the floor, then another. With the task done, Will takes his shirt off and knots it around Crick’s leg. “I wish I had something to clean it with,” He says, before standing up. “Can you walk?”

“I’ll manage. Thanks.” The ground has begun to shake steadily now, with no pause in between the tremors. Another stress fracture, smaller than the first, cracks through the air above our head. We will need all the grace of the Fox to get out of this alive.

“That Narcissus guy dragged us all down here, huh?” Will says. “We can’t possibly be that far from the surface.”

I think back to when the Digger first brought me down from the outside world. There was a set of stairs that we descended, beneath a thin metal door. Then a room with jars stacked high, which seemed to extend forever, before another staircase, this one warped and descending deep into the earth. Once these stairs ended, there was a curving hallway, before we reached the large dining room. “I remember now. There are two sets of stairs, the last leading to the surface.”

“Then let’s go,” Will says. He is no stronger than the yama man, and struggles to help us both along. The shadows reach in closer to us as Crick’s body dims to a whisper away from absolute darkness. Will tries to tell him the story again, but for whatever reason, it’s not working like it did before.

“Why isn’t it working anymore?” He mutters as we make our way through the curving hallway. “It’s supposed to work. My dead father said it would, in a dream. He was pretty spot on, too. Said the Digger’s name was Narcissus, and that I had to tell you the beginning of the story of Helios and Hyperion. He said it was our key to getting out of here.” Will pauses at the foot of the staircase. “My father said he has a big mirror upstairs that he looks into, obsessed with his reflection.”

“It is true,” I say. “He saw me in it. Perhaps he believed that I came to him in it, a making of his mind,” The ground shaking becomes so violent that several bricks above our head come loose, sending a rain of dust down and almost smashing Crick’s head in.

“You all alright?” Will asks, visibly shaken.

“Yeah, I’ll get by.”

“So why won’t you light up anymore?” Will says, helping me and Crick over the stones, and keeping us as far away from the stress fractures as possible. “Why won’t you do what you did when I told you the story the first time?”

“Maybe the novelty’s worn off,” Crick says. “We’ve moved past that part of the story, and are moving further along. The beginning doesn’t have any more power anymore. And besides, I’m tired. I don’t think I have it in me to light up like that no more.”

“Damn. We need light,” Anything can be waiting around the curve in the wall. “As long as we can see Narcissus coming, we’ve got the edge on him. But if he can sneak up on us…” Will does not need to finish his thought. We all remember the shovel.

“I just wish I knew what was going on. It’s just frustration piling upon frustration. I was lost in the desert just a few hours ago, and now I’m trying to escape from some inbred’s underground dining room. And let’s not forget the Fade, whatever that is, and the air literally cracking in front of me. Oh, and did I mention that this guy I met on the road is glowing when I tell him a story I only know the first five lines of?” He laughs to himself. “No one back home is going to believe any of this.”

We walk in silence for a bit, the stairs unevenly climbing, snaking around as they worm their way up to the surface. “You drink up the light, huh?” Crick whispers, his bloodshot eyes staring at me. “That’s how you came back to life? That sure is something. I wish I could give you some more light, I do…” He trips up the stair he is on.

“Crick! Will, help, please, he_” There’s a thud, followed by the smashing of glass and a torrent of curses flowing from Will’s mouth. He is a few steps ahead, so I can not see him around the bend in the wall. “He hit me with a jar! It broke all over me!” A putrid stench floats down to us, Narcissus’s voice coming with it.

“Sdays aways from me, you bads, bads men! Dake my dear, sweed dahling aways from my poor liddle soul!”

“Are you alright?” I yell to Will, but he has already begun to descend the stairwell back to where we are.

“Besides being covered in crap, yeah. How is he?” Crick moans, but is able to raise himself up.

“Sorry, just got a little tired there,” He says.

“We’re almost out of here. You’re going to make it,” Will says. He has no cuts on him, thank the Fox for that, but chunks of pink goop are stuck in his hair, some sliming their way down his skin. He looks at me, a small smile on his face despite it all. “Let’s get this guy,” He says.

I nod. “With pleasure.” Will leads the way, as we go up the final few stone stairs. We are in the jar room now, their contents glowing with a sickly light coming from somewhere up ahead. Another jar sails by, missing Crick’s head by inches. He knocks into the shelves as he moves to avoid being hit, sending several jars to the ground, where they break into jagged pieces. The smell is even worse than the last. Crick’s breathing is shallow and hard-won.

“Come on,” Will plows ahead. We round another row of jars. There is wisp of pants legs, the sound of boots on termite-eated wood. We can hear the man who had me call him husband and the whine in his breath, until the tin door creaks open, inviting in the night. There is a wind running scared out there, before the gray wave. A breeze sneaks like cat down the stairs, into the basement, pushing past my cheeks. The smell is burnt, electric.

“The Fade is here,” I say. “They say that if you smell the burnt fur, it is too late for you. There is no more time. We are to be wiped away.” Will still runs. He does not seem to hear me.

“Forgive me, sir, but I_”

“Yes, I heard you,” He says. We round another row of jars, and there is the door, wide open, with the stairs leading to it. Will runs faster than anyone I ever seen, even more fast than Lim Danaa, who the scholar calls “Angel Feet,” like the story. He goes up the wooden plank stairs two at a time, reaching the top just as the door comes down. He struggles with it, his shoulder fighting for that one bit of air.

“Help me Amara!” He cries. I run from Crick, rubber-legs girl, each step a hammer pounding on my calves, knees. Will has one foot on the steps, one on the flat dirt wall. “C’mon, lift!” I know it is useless, but I do as he commands. We can feel the heavy boots dancing on the door, it bending as the Digger jumps up and down. Will’s lower teeth stick out, his cheeks puff. “God, I don’t think I can hold him much longer.” He says.

“No… I will not stop this time…” A yama man once tell us that to die while fighting is the best way of all. Even when the Fade come, I be fighting, it is how I will go. The space between my shoulders grows hot as I push up, the door slowly rising.

“Ged backs down in da urd! Bad, bad sdories!” The Digger shouts from above. Will pushes harder at the wall, and I push up with as much strength as I have in me. Then I feel it kick on, the battery. The small machine the scholar put in me while I sleep, before yama man take me, before I crash here. It stores energy, he told me, for when you need it most. It comes from a faraway place from long ago. It kicks on, and I feel a new strength take hold. Still, the door only opens little, little.

I feel a touch on my foot, and out the corner of my eye, see Crick. His body is as dark as death, save for his hand, which has a sphere of big, big light cast around it. The light goes from fingers to my body, making me strong like old Amara. It is the last bit of strength I need. I push open the door, the weight on the other side falling away.

“Narcissus!” Will screams when we come through. We both see him, running away from us, up the path. He keeps looking back, over our heads. I turn and see what has the Digger so afraid.

“By the Fox…” The Gray Wave has taken over the sky, stretching from horizon to horizon. The nothing, the Fade, drawn here by the telling of a great story. It wants to wipe it out once and for all. It is greater than everything in this world as it is in all others, with the power to be like it had never been.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” Will whispers.

“Yes,” I say. It comes quick, but is still a way off. Maybe, just maybe… “Come on, we must get Crick. We might make it to the Oisin.”

“Oisin?”

“The escape ship. It is how I got here.” Will helps Crick up through the door, his skin as white as lily petals.

He grabs the wall of the shack, looks up at the Fade, says, “The Fade, huh?”

“Yeah. Come on, Amara is going to take us to her ship.”

“We must get to the other side, down the stairs.” I say. “Quick now.”

The sight of the Fade and the outside air has given Crick new life, though he is still slow moving. We top the ridge, keeping eyes sharp for Narcissus. He must have hidden, though there is no hiding from the Fade. If yama man and his great big, big city Vega Marduur was wiped all away, then little Narcissus man have no chance. The Scholar say yama man now live in a city that walks, It can run from the Fade, but not hide.

We top the ridge and head down the other side. There is a crack running straight through the air, splitting a rock in two, the top half slowly slipping along the cut. It makes me see funny, the stress fractures. I think of the nothing underneath everything, how it is all fading, dying, life’s vibrations thrown off ever since yama man try to harness the forever dance of the gods for themselves.

We stop at the stairs. Will points to the glass that Crick fell into, but I look beyond. I can see it, even from so far away. It looks like just another rounded boulder, half consumed by sand. But there’s a long trough which it lies at the end of. The point of impact, the makeshift landing strip.

“It is there! Do you see!” I look at Will, his hand over his brow, the wind whipping an orange cloud around us. Crick staggers down the loose rubble. Behind him, a row of white flowers on green stalks peek out over a rock. Narcissus lifts his head. From a distance, the black spaces in his teeth become his most discernible feature, twisted into a broken zippered smile.

“Watch! He’s behind you!” I say. Crick does not stop, just slowly looks over his shoulder, but it’s too late. The Digger is on top of him, the loose overalls like a net over Crick, entangling the limbs of its prey. In his hand is a glass jar. He brings it down on Crick’s shoulder with surprising force for a man so small. The jar breaks. Crick flops around underneath the legs straddled over his white belly, but the Digger brings his hand down again, an arc of blood spouting up from Crick’s body.

“Yous, Misder Sunny Man, will dies!”

Will runs towards them, but has to stop with the bang of light. A white sphere blooms out from Crick. It swells then quickly goes back into Crick’s chest, before blasting back out as a beam of light. His back arches up like a bridge, the light launching Narcissus high up into the sky. The overalls can be seen sailing through the air before landing with a crack behind a hill of dirt.

Will is laughing as he runs up to Crick. “You did it again! Nice… oh no, Crick, are you alright?” Will kneels next to Crick’s smoldering body. He tries taking the wounded man’s hand, but it is too hot to the touch. The light is gone, just as fast as it came. He is the color of a corpse.

“He’s bleeding.” Will pulls a hand away, shows me a palm painted red. Crick’s shoulder is more torn than his leg was. “I think he’s in shock,” He lightly slaps Crick’s cheek, tries yelling his name. The pale man’s eyes are rolled up and back into his head.

Crick mumbles something. “Will? Where are we?” He says. The Fade is rolling in quicker. The burst of light from Crick’s chest seems to have worked like a beacon. Now I can see the trees and scrub being sucked up into it. It can not be more than a mile away. “Will…”

“I know.” Will turns back to Crick. “Can you help me get you up? You have to use everything you got left in you, Crick.”

Crick snaps a little bit more awake. “I think so,” He says, as Will helps him to his feet. Now that he’s standing, his wound becomes more visible. The broken jar came down right on the bone. Though the wounds look painful, it could have been much worse, gone much deeper. I rip the lower part of my sleeve off, and hand it to Crick. “Come on then.” I say. “And try not to fall through the stairs.”

The stairs look even worse than I remember, as worn as bone in the desert sand. They continue to hold, though, as we descend them one at a time, around the cliff down to the desert floor. The wind slices past us, keeping us tight against the cliff face. On it, I hear a high pitched whine.

“Do you hear that?” Will says. The sound cuts into my thoughts, growing so loud that my knees grow weak. I look up as the black shape descends. Its body is oblong, like an insect’s, with strands of black ink snapping around it, like small arms trying to tread water for a huge body. It descends from the dust cloud as if being birthed by it, slowly revealing itself as it touches down to the ground.

“What is that?” Will’s voice is drowned out by the engines of the landing ink ship, Phyrxian. He has found me, the bad yama man, Doctor Pacheco. Scholar says he come from the walking city, Yama Dempuur. He picked me, of all other Ma’atha, to be his conduit. Old Cappy no like this yama man, so says Great Mum.

The ship comes close to the ground but never touches. A ramp opens, and Pacheco steps out. Phyrxian’s tentacles whip at the air. They suck in the sunlight like Ma’atha, making the ship strong. He made it through the Fade with no me to power it, though I do not know how. Pacheco is crafty, most ruthless yama man I think ever been. A scarred man, with one mad eye. They say he sacrificed the other a long time ago, dark magic, so he could get deeper in the spiral. Phyrxian has burned through more barkskins than are in Yama Dempuur, so they say. He wants to find Helios and put him in the big machine, like his son.

I watch as Pacheco runs off the ramp and into the desert. He has seen the Oisin. This changes everything, him leaving Phyrxian. I know what we have to do. If only there were more time. “Run for the ink ship.”

“That big black thing?” The wind ricochets off the cliff, comes up from below. I feel weightless, that each step is a light feather on the dust. From the far side comes a crumbling, the sound of the earth being swallowed by the Fade. The hairs on my neck and arms are standing up. As we touch down on the ground, a sound like a punctured balloon layers itself over the crumbling. I turn, knowing I will not like what I see.

“By the Fox…” The butte looks like an anthill next to the Fade, which looms over it. The grayness extends high into space, from one edge of the world to the other. Orange dust billows at its base. There is a loud snap, and a crack appears in the air between our heads like jagged lightening, running from the Fade in a zig zag line that extends forever.

I stay back with Crick as we run for the ink ship, watching Pacheco, making sure he does not see us. He hopes he will find me alive, hopes to pull me from Oisin’s wreckage and make me conduit again. He would drive me so hard, he would kill me, then go to Yama Dempuur for another Ma’atha. He thinks he finally understands the Grid, and maybe that is so. I know he wants to bring the light to Yama Dempuur, fix the mistakes of the ancestors. Silly girl, is that not a cause worth dying for? Are you so selfish?

I know that the other yama man call him the mad doctor, or so Great Mum says, and Old Cappy says he dabbles in dark magic. He will do anything, even if he is wrong. He moves with such purpose, and fast for a man his age. He is already at the impact trough, and will see the broken escape door any moment.

We are within a stone’s throw of the ship, Will waiting for us in Phyrxian’s shadow. “Follow me up the ramp,” I say, “but stay low.”

“Stay low?”

“Do you see that man over there?” I point to Pacheco, who has surmounted the Oisin’s hull, his cloak blowing behind him in the dust storm. He is looking inside for me. “If that man sees us stealing his ship, we will be worse off than if we got sucked up by the Fade.”

“We’re stealing this thing? Whoa, now hold on a minute…”

“Will…” I say, grabbing his hand. His eyes stay starry for a moment before settling into acceptance. He nods, then turns to help guide Crick. We all run up the ramp, into the bowels of the sentient ship.

[] Chapter V: “Barkskin”

 

 

The ramp touches the ground, the dust riding up to meet Doctor Pacheco on the back of a hot, dry wind. It coats the visor of his helmet with an orange static. In one direction, his one good eye sees a storm cloud, running scared from what is coming quick the other way: the Fade. It’s especially ravenous here, rushing fast over the earth, as if this world is long overdue for being erased. Something has drawn it here, he knows. He sips from the helmet’s water tube, considers how much time he has. The escape vessel the barkskin hijacked lays in a trench not too far off. He can reach it, but he has to be fast. She could be clinging to life inside; perhaps a few bones broken, some pan-seared abrasions and bloody bruises, but still salvageable. She could also be torn to shreds, as useless to him as a pile of rancid meat, but that was a risk he had to take. He couldn’t navigate the Fade without her, not for long anyway. He could stay in Phyrxian and be protected from the Fade by its shields, but then the Oisin and its precious cargo would be washed away.

“There’s no alternative,” He says, catapulting himself down the ramp. He looks to his right, noting the conspicuous little hill with the flat top. The Fade has wrapped itself around it somehow, yet not consumed it. Curious. What sort of shield had that hilltop around it? What manner of being lived atop its sordid peak, with a force of will strong enough to keep the Fade at bay? These were questions he’d have to ask himself once he was done with the task at hand. Still, if the barkskin had survived the crash, she could have made her way up to the hilltop, to take shelter from the harshness of the sand storms and highland tempests. He curses under his breath, knowing how likely this could be, how the escape vessels were designed to withstand high-impact landings, how she could be in perfectly good health, her skin unblemished by bruise or hurt, drinking up sunlight. All that energy, untapped, while he was here, an old man, running through some god-forsaken wasteland with nothing but stale bread in his gut. He’d find the barkskin. He wasn’t about to die here. His life’s work would not be in vain.

The ground rushed beneath his feet, his cloak billowing behind him, molded into a razor sharp tail fin. The wind moving beneath the rigid cloak fabric, shaped that way by Pacheco’s mind, propelled him forward over the sand at a speed faster than his old limbs could typically carry him. The Fade crackled; he could see the stress fractures stemming from the oncoming gray wall, the lines spearing the air and earth around him. His cloak tugged at him if he strayed too close to one. Just as he could move it and shape it around with his mind, as if it were another appendage, it could warn him when he was in danger, or protect him were he not to react fast enough. A quick jerk at his neck told him he was being too lax in regards to the world around him, and that he had to stay focused on much more than just the barkskin.

“I’m too tired. I need food. Or blood.”

Pacheco’s rations were just about used up. He had been stuck in the Fade for over a year now, crawling along on reserve energy, taxing Phyrxian for all the ship was worth. He couldn’t believe his luck when he discovered the barkskin’s trail, thanks in no small part to the Oisin’s tracking beacon. Time did not exist in the Fade, though it did aboard a Helios-Hunter’s ship, such as Phyrxian. It required a delicate hand, but Pacheco was confident he could maneuver Phyrxian so that it would slip in through the membrane between the world and the Fade at just the right time that the barkskin had escaped. Time was a sticky thing, though, and it looked as if he had miscalculated. How off was he? A week? A month? He’d have to get closer to the Oisin to see.

Damn, he was hungry. He’d reduced his daily allotment of food to a hunk of bread and steamed lentils. It was nothing near the amount of energy he had been drawing from the young barkskin girl. Spoiled for three years, Phyrxian too. She was seventeen, or so Oblong had told him when she was conscripted, in the peak of health. Cherished among her people, and Pacheco could see why: the large needles in each of her cephalic veins had never run dry. Without the blood of a barkskin, without the power she drew from the sun, there was no going through the Fade without risk of total annihilation. It required an exceptional amount of energy to make the ship a self-contained world, an entity with enough substance that the nothingness of the Fade would slip off it like oil on water.

Phyrxian’s skin was capable of a some photosynthesis, a less advanced feat of bioengineering that was similar to the science that let the Ma’atha drink from the sun. The ships snapping tendrils also drew water vapor from the air, which all went to keeping the magnetic dynamo at the core of the ship in perpetual motion. Phyrxian could fly within worlds on its own power, but it wasn’t enough to traverse the Fade with. The Ma’atha were perfect batteries, made in a time when yama science had been at its peak. Pacheco needed his back. He had used the last of Phyrxian’s reserve energy to get to this god-forsaken world, and recover the barkskin girl. He was utterly stuck unless he could salvage her.

It seemed like she would never give out. He certainly didn’t think she’d have the temerity to escape. Barkskins were reared in the Coral Islands to aspire to being conduits, and not much else. Oblong and those who maintained order upon the Coral Islands saw to it that a barkskin education fostered nothing but obedient subjects and aspiring conduits. That wasn’t so much the case in Yama Dempuur. If he had conscripted one of her ilk back in the domed city, he was more apt to be stuck with a barkskin with an opinion. They ran too much amuck in that small city, given too much freedom. His last had been from Yama Dempuur, an ox of a man, but with a heart made weak from too much time spent in the ale house. Pacheco didn’t find that out until the barkskin had suddenly slumped over in his chair and died, the needles still deep in his arms. He had to escape from the gray nothingness and into the Coral Islands on nothing but reserve fuel. Pacheco still remembered the immense fanfare that greeted him when he arrived there.

“Pacheco, you’ve done it again!” Lieutenant General Oblong had said. Oblong was the man in charge of operations on the islands, but he and Pacheco went back quite a ways, all the way to the military academy. After landing, Oblong had invited Pacheco to his governor’s quarters, a large, spartan room on the top floor of a wide manse. “Not only do you ride the Fade on fumes with a dead barky strapped in to the engine, but you still manage to bring me my favorite candies from Yama Dempuur. Oh, you are a sport, you are!” Oblong popped a chalky purple cube into his mouth, and smiled a fat smile. He was an extremely short and stout man, especially when standing next to Pacheco, who was tall and twig-like. His stiff collar swallowed most of his neck, and he was constantly sweating. “What a ghastly sight that dead barky must have been to look at. I shiver at just the thought. You’re as brave as I remember, doctor. Bravo.”

Pacheco wasn’t one to waste time on celebratory pomp and idle talk. “Barkskins come and go, as do men. It’s the purpose which our lives revolve around which is of most importance. I’ve made great strides in mapping out the Fade, lieutenant general. I believe that I’ve found a path that will bring me closer to the center of the spiral.” The spiral was the framework of all reality. At its center was the spinning father and son, Helios and Hyperion, or at least it was until those from Ameshka Vega sought to harness the power of the gods for themselves. They failed, and unleashed the Fade, which had consumed most of the spiral and the once clear pathways between worlds.

“Oh, doctor, come now. You’re getting on in years. Haven’t you enough of this fruitless quest? Of this finding the way to the center?” Oblong and Pacheco were never friends, but they had risen in rank together, Pacheco through diligence, Oblong through well-timed handshakes. “Leave the probing of the Fade’s depths to the young one’s, Rolando.” Oblong had smirked then, before mopping his rhinoceros brow with a handkerchief.

“This is not about age at all, Oblong. There are bigger things at stake here than that. Island life has made you forgetful.”

“On the contrary, doctor. I’m not like Lacko. He spends his days elbow-deep in paint in his bungalow on the other side of the island, while I rule. Running the island has made me see the bigger picture. Do you know what it’s like to be stationed at an outer territory, isolated from the rest of your comrades and kin, save for bottom-feeding soldiers and a has-been captain? It’s quite lonely, doctor, I assure you. By the way, have you seen Lacko yet? I’m sure he’d love to catch up.”

“I have not seen him, nor do I plan to.” Pacheco still seethed over his falling out with Captain Lacko. He called me a heretic, tried to have me discharged by the Parliament. Damn him, he should have been shipped off to the Coral Islands long ago. “The fog has advanced on the islands since the last I was here. It now spreads out in all direction, I see. I’d be worried the Fade would creep up on me by surprise. It’s already taken the rest of this world. Why we wasted as many men and resources as we did to save this patch of worthless rock and air is beyond me.”

“The Ma’atha say that this place is Hyperion’s favorite dream, and that he doesn’t want to forget it.” Oblong calling the photosynthesizing people with cocoa skin and white hair called what they called themselves did not escape Pacheco, who pursed his lips. Oblong went on. “I deal with fear of the Fade every day.” The Lieutenant General sniffed at the air, his lip twitching. “But it makes you wonder, that fear. Makes you analyze your mission, your convictions. Surely, after having been in the Fade for so long, you’ve wondered about these things too, doctor?” Pacheco had nothing but cold taciturnity for the Lieutenant General, who nevertheless continued.

“It’s quite alright, doctor, nothing wrong with admitting to a little fear in the face of uncertainty. You don’t have to admit anything to me, of course. But I know what it’s like to look into the face of nothing, to try and fathom something which is beyond comprehension. Nothing. Void. No man can think about such things after having seen them, and carry on as though all is chipper cheen.”

“If you say so, sir.”

“I do say so, doctor”

“You can refer to me as Colonel, Lieutenant General. Our affiliation is through the military, and therefore I’d prefer you avoid using my civilian title.”

“Of course, Colonel. Forgive me and my ignorant sleight of tongue. It is only that first impressions are so very strong, and I still remember when you made a name for yourself as the flight surgeon for Captain Lacko’s expedition to the Atomic worlds.”

“That was decades ago, sir.”

“Your expertise on that expedition… you enabled our yama brethren to be able to travel the Fade for longer periods of time than ever before. Your expertise on hematology, the many ideas you advanced concerning accelerated plasma transmission, well… yama even today are still in awe of the magic you work with that brain of yours.”

“Or terrified by it. They still refer to my work as black magic, as barbaric.” He said I should be discharged, that I was practicing some form of barbaric sorcery.

“Yes, well. Civilized society doesn’t quite know what to make of blood masks and blood bindings. But trust me, Colonel, you’re still a revered leader and yama, a man without equal.”

Pacheco had nodded in thanks, but accolades were wasted on him, doomed to fall on a pair of indifferent ears. Even as a young man, he only wanted one thing: to push further than any other yama before him. He wanted to find Helios, and then Hyperion in his mecha.The only way to do that would be to push himself harder than anyone else ever had. Pacheco never took pains to hide his ambition, or even his frustration at what he perceived as apathy and listlessness from his peers. He wore his megalomania like a full-on pachyderm pelt, beneath which his humanity had atrophied. Some even whispered that he never had any degree of humanity to begin with.

“We’re all committed to our mission, Colonel. But in times when you’re left staring at nothing but the very absence of reality, when the Fade has consumed your life without having actually consumed you, your mind wanders. I find myself thinking over the old stories, all those silly old myths our grannies used to tell us as children. And no matter what story it is, it all revolves around the Helios-Hyperion tale, doesn’t it? Everything. Two balls of perpetual energy, Father and Son, each in constant pursuit of the other, engaged in this sort of cosmic spin. It’s an incredible thing when a child can wrap its little head around the implications behind such a story, that two binary opposites can be in such a complete balance that one can never overtake the other, that their acknowledgment of the other is all it takes to affirm physical and temporal space. It’s how we understand who we are. Of course, we all reach that precocious little age where that story becomes nothing more than that, a silly myth. How can these two men, spinning around each other, possibly be at the center of everything, from the largest black hole to the smallest atom? ‘What a stupid story, mummy,’ the little rapscallions say. But then we say, ‘Here, child, read this,’ and we hand them a book of science, Sclaler’s Logic and Reductionism or Amesh’s Infinite Duality, and all those other scholarly, hot-air filled books. And then, lo and behold, we have a whole new generation of aspiring Helios-hunters excited to leave the walking city and traverse the Fade.

“But that youthful idealism and excitement has left me, Colonel. I’ve reached a stationary, reflective age. They’ve marooned me out here, don’t think I’m naive. This is where they send their tired old models, like me and Lacko. When you move through the ranks like I did, Colonel, the bastards can grow tired of you. Especially the young ones. It’s alright out here on the fringe, though I’m the farthest I’ve ever been from Yama Dempuur, forgotten by my compatriots. One day I’ll be washed away by the Fade and that’s it, there’ll be an unmarked stone under a janjan tree which will be the only thing to mark the life I lived. What’s an old military man to do with his time while I wait for the inevitable, you ask? Well, I find myself revisiting old friends, the dreams I had as a boy. But it’s not that I have issue with how our science answers these questions. Helios and Hyperion, the nature of existence, all of existence reduced down to the same elementary, dualistic dance: I’d be a fool to have issue with that. That’s all proven, dust under the rug. What I do have an issue with, however, is that we yama, the inheritors of some supposed great dynasty, some great empire from the distant past”

“Ameshka Vega,” Pacheco had said. “A name one should never forget.”

Oblong, who had wandered over to the eight-paned window looking over the bay, jiggled in his waistcoat, as if startled by Pacheco’s raspy voice. “Of course, er, yes. Ameshka Vega, quite right. Well, what I’m trying to say is that we accept all of Ameshka Vegan doctrine as absolute. All of it. We’re taught to believe that the Ameshka Vegan attempt to isolate and harness the powers of Helios and Hyperion, that their failure at doing so, resulted in the Fade being unleashed on all of reality and the end of time. It marked the beginning of the end of whole worlds, when the bridges our people had built to Helios and Hyperion were lost, consumed by the Fade.” Oblong’s watery eyes looked ready to pop out of his pear shaped head.

“Don’t you see? How we’ve come to aggrandize one botched event! How it has managed to pervade our cultural consciousness in every single way. We think we’re trying to salvage the past, but we’ve forgotten about the future. Time still exists!”

“In all due respect, Lieutenant General, it isn’t in dispute that time still exists. Of course it does. It’s only its growth which has been compromised.”

“No, no, no, Pacheco, that’s where you’re wrong.”

“Sir, don’t question me in matters of science.” Pacheco had scoffed, before realizing that he had even done so. In Oblong’s book shelf, there were works by fringe thinkers, literature that would raise any yama’s eye brows.

“Don’t forget your place, Colonel. You may disdain me, and fail to respect my standing, but keep in mind that I am still of a higher rank than you. Doctor.”

“With all due respect sir,” Pacheco did forget himself for a moment. He was so used to his anonymity that military doctrine sometimes eluded him. “I apologize for speaking out of turn. However, you speak of science, and I feel I am more qualified than most to address certain discrepancies you may have in your reasoning. Our civilization and what we’ve accomplished was hard won by many generations before us. Implying that my perception of time is wrong, when it is grounded in an elaborate and logical framework of knowledge and empirical evidence, is misguided. The Fade, for a particularly relevant example, is the complete antithesis of time and space. It’s existence, and the fact that everything consumed by it is lost, is proof enough that”

“No, Pacheco. Listen! Worlds are still being created!” Oblong had grabbed Pacheco’s cloak clasp at that point, a moment in time that the doctor had remembered well. The cape instinctively tensed, ready to go razor sharp, but slacked after a moment, noting Oblong’s puddy grasp.

“What do you mean, worlds are being created?”

“The Coral Islands; they’re an insubstantial place, a barely realized world. The calculations done about its age and mapping in the spiral have been shoddy and speculative, at best. Still, I know that this world was made after the Great Schism. It came into being after Yama Dempuur rose up from the ruins of Vega Mardur.”

Pacheco had scoffed at that. “Regardless, sir, even if this world is younger than Yama Dempuur, it exists on the outside of the spiral. Time moves at a much different pace this far out than it does back home. It could be that the Great Schism wasn’t actually felt this far out until long after the domed city had raised itself from the ruins of Vega Mardur. In fact, that would explain why it’s only half realized, with three paltry little islands and a fog that brings you right back to where you started once you sail through it.”

“But I’ve seen things in the fog, Colonel, things that make me believe otherwise. I’ve seen huge figures, giants or gods, running through the night sky. They’re beautiful and… terrifying… they look like the figures from those very stories, older even than the Ameshka Vegan myths. Do you remember?”

“I seem to vaguely remember the fairy tales my grandmother used to tell me. Of foxes and sleeping giants. Sir, you’re telling me that your, and you’ll pardon me for not having the capacity to find a better word, but your hallucinations, are the proof you have for the creation of new worlds?”

“But they’re not hallucinations, Colonel. The barkskins see them, too. They think that the giant figures are warring against one another, and trying to build new worlds of their own…” Oblong shuffled his feet. His knee high white socks were dingy, his governmental attire threadbare. “Well. Perhaps you’re right, and I’m being a silly old man. But still, Colonel, I can’t help but think there’s still something beneath all of this, some force still willing existence to…well, exist. It is still moving us along. If there weren’t, how could we even go on? How could we even exist without some force at the base of it all? How would we not just poof away, along with everything else? Nothing would change, everything would stagnate. Life would be like being buried alive, that last shovelful of dirt you choke on the moment when the Fade comes and wipes the slate completely clean.”

“Perhaps we’ve all turned into worms and learned to breathe the dirt,” Pacheco had said. Oblong took him in, seriously at first. Then a grin cracked across his jelly face.

“Did you just make a joke, Colonel? Wonders beyond wonders, I thought I’d never see the day.”

Pacheco had had enough. “Lieutenant General, I need a barkskin. I request that you confer upon me a barkskin of my choosing from the colony you have here on the Coral Islands. Sir.” Oblong had looked at him questioningly, sure that Pacheco understood what he had been saying but didn’t want to consider it as truth. When Pacheco didn’t offer anything else in the way of a comment, Oblong nodded, before taking him to the largest of the three Coral Islands, known as the crown of the atoll.

“Drenched in sun practically all day. You’ve never seen barkys as full of energy as these, I assure you.” Oblong had said on the ferry over. The boat was primitive, and Pacheco hadn’t seen anything like it in all his years. The roads of exchange were faltering between the worlds, and you could see first hand in the Coral Islands how the outposts were making due. Pacheco hadn’t ruminated on the boat for long, though, as the yama ferryman brought them up to the crown’s shore and he saw that Oblong’s assessment of the island’s Barkskin’s was true. They were certainly a robust lot, and gave no grief to the yama handlers who herded them down the dirt path to the sand. The sun was strong here, much more so than the dying star fading over the savaged middling worlds Yama Dempuur wandered about in its shaky orbit. The barkskin’s were as dark as clay buried beneath the loam, their hair a shining winter white. They saluted as Pacheco and Oblong walked by them, from the oldest nan to the youngest child.

“What did I tell you?” Oblong was very proud.

“It’s impressive. You’re certainly making due with limited resources. However, do you not feel it is indecent that they are all barely clothed?”

“Indecent, yes. Barbaric, certainly. But the more sun their skin gets directly, the better. So we make do.”

Pacheco walked up and down the row of barkskins, squeezing the occasional stomach, inspecting every third or fourth ear. “I need one that won’t give out on me.”

“Well, how about this one?”

“Too stocky. Phyrxian’s engine is a tight fit, and I don’t want to have to keep greasing him up,” Pacheco moved on down the row. He saw her standing behind two taller barkskins, and reached past their arms to take hers. He pulled her forward.

“Oh yes, she’s in great shape, that one. Good choice, good choice,” Pacheco noted the pronounced muscles in her stomach, the corrugation of her ribs as she breathed in, good, strong breaths. Her breasts were as curved as two waning moons, but Pacheco could still see her striated pectoral muscles, like a taut rope between her cleavage. She was thin, yet sinewy, like a loaded trap. Her hair was white and in thick dreadlocks, with pieces of purple and orange fabric woven in. Her eyes were steel gray. They moved between his one good eye and the patch, then looked away altogether.

“I’ll take her.”

“Very good, Colonel. Very good, indeed. And how shall you be paying?”

“Credit, of course. How long until a provisional ship comes out here?

“I’m not sure, Colonel. It’s been three months, I believe, since the last. The bridges aren’t as well traversed as they once were, I’m afraid.”

“Well, I’ll pay you generously.” He looked at the barkskin girl. Her hair covered most of her face, and hung down over both her breasts, covering the areoles. He noticed that her entire body was smooth, and her lips full. She was shaking under his gaze, unable to meet it with her own. The row of naked barkskin’s continued to stand at attention, but all their eyes were on her. Their placid looks had given way to concern and anger. Some of them had begun to hum, and rock back and forth on their feet.

“What are they doing?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“Well stop them, damn it.” Oblong had motioned to the five yama handlers, soldiers who had herded the Ma’atha down to the shoreline. They had quickly stepped forward, brandishing long steel poles with electric tips. Even with the threat of force, most of the Ma’atha would not move. They had continued to hum, those who weren’t before joining in, and stared at the barkskin girl whom Pacheco had chosen. One of the handlers brought his pole down on an older man’s back, who instantly crumbled under the blow. A Ma’atha woman had screamed, but the others seemed unfazed.

“Don’t hurt them, damn you!” Oblong had yelled, but the handlers were green, inept or a combination of the two, and didn’t seem to comprehend how to deal with insubordination without using brute force. All five handlers began swinging their rods. A woman got cracked in the face, a spray of blood and teeth arcing through the air. One of the Ma’atha men, young with a chest like a tree trunk, grabbed one of the handlers by the collar and started punching him in the face. Other Ma’atha joined in, and within a few seconds a full-on melee had erupted.

“Stop! Stop!” Oblong was shouting to little effect. Pacheco decided to act instead. His cape shot out in four different directions, the fabric wrapping around the necks of two Ma’atha and two handlers. It lifted them up from the ground, all their feet kicking in the empty air. The fighting began to let up once everyone saw what Pacheco had done.

“Put them down!” A man’s voice had shouted, from up at the top of the hill. Pacheco remembered looking up, and seeing the Scholar for the first time. He made an impressive sight, a barkskin in formal yama attire. He had a cravat at his throat and wore a double breasted linen coat, the fringe coming down to the tops of his knees. He came down from the precipice he had been standing on over the beach, and walked straight up to Pacheco, who had by then had put the men back on the ground. His face was as brown as his brethren, and handsome, but his white hair was only an inch or two long, made wavy by wax. He had looked right past the colonel, without so much as a salute or how-do-you-do, and nodded at the barkskin girl.

“It’s done,” He had said. He put a hand on Pacheco’s shoulder then, and looked into the man’s eyes with a gentle sadness at complete odds with the stern power he had commanded atop the hill. “Be strong, sir.” He had turned, his coat tails streaming behind him as he went back up the hill path. Without a word or a second glance, the Ma’atha followed after him, leaving Pacheco and Oblong alone with the handlers and the one barkskin girl.

“What was that all about?”

“That was the Scholar, Pacheco. The barkskins revere him. He’s their unofficial leader, with access to hidden knowledge. Or so they say.”

“So they say,” Pacheco had repeated, wondering at it all. He had turned to the girl whom they had left behind. “Come. You’ve been chosen for a great honor.” He waved his hand to her, but she didn’t follow, not immediately. These barkskins are not how I left them. He had thought then. They are more willful, more aware. If only he had knew how this insubordination would only be the beginning of his series of misfortunes. With her lower lip under her teeth, the girl finally followed. He thought maybe she was merely stunned at having been chosen. How wrong he was, how frustratingly wrong.

Not long after the transaction was completed, Oblong’s face contorting into a slathering grin upon acceptance of the doctor’s very generous payment, Pacheco took leave of the Lieutenant General and made his way back to his ship, his new barkskin in tow. He was done with the Coral Islands, hopefully for a very long time. Oblong had ordered his men to clean Phyrxian’s engine bay while he and Pacheco were at his quarters. The two yama cleaners saluted him as he walked along the dock back to Phyrxian, which was floating in the water, its tendrils whipping about the sky. One was so young his face was still pocked with acne, while the other was ancient, with a vacant face and liverspotted hands. The best and brightest that the yama people had to offer, Pacheco had thought. Yet, they had cleaned the mess from the prior engine conduit exceptionally well. All the crusted body waste and puss from the deceased barkskin’s seating sores had been scrubbed away, leaving a sparkling conduit’s seat under the dock’s bright lights.

He had wasted too much time listening to Oblong’s pedantics. The man’s laziness and insistence on finding reasons not to do things were the very reasons he had been assigned to such a barren outpost as the Coral Islands in the first place. That, and his crazy ideas. Of course time had stagnated. Was that not the very problem he had dedicated his life to solving? The Ameshka Vegan ancestors had disrupted the spiral just over four hundred years ago, in an attempt to harness its power for themselves, and shape reality to their whims. A bold plan, to be sure, but there was not much Ameshka Vega couldn’t do at their height. To harness the spiral, however, they had to capture it, which meant discontinuing the spin and separating Father and Son. How to separate them without grave consequences, without disrupting the delicate dance upon which time and space depended? The great mechas were made to do just that, two giant suits of armor which could contain Helios and Hyperion but still obey a yama’s hand.

Something went awry, though history forgets just what that was. The most widely held belief was that the timing was off in the capture, for Helios and Hyperion had to enter into their mechas at just the exact moment. The capture of Hyperion went without a hitch, but Helios was botched altogether. The spiral was broken but only the Son had been confined to his mecha. The balance of all reality tilted. The forces of the spiral actualized the other, all the science and stories said so. With Helios and Hyperion violently ripped apart, they went blind and senseless with nothing to reinforce the framework of worlds they had built together since the spin began. Time came to a halt and things began to fall apart. From the stagnation that came about, the Fade was hatched, and started to consume entire worlds. Ameshka Vega was one of the first to go and succumb to the Fade, becoming nothing but a glorious memory. The yama became wanderers of the fragmented world they’d been able to salvage, setting their city beneath a dome and crafting a set of legs which could always stay a step or two ahead of the Fade. Thus was birthed Yama Dempuur, one of the last vestiges of Ameshka Vega.

He runs across the orange sand, trying against all hope to make it to Oisin before the Fade. He had been good to her, and for what? He’d dressed her in a loose fitting dress, before strapping her into the engine. He had even laid a towel beneath her, a cushion against the hardness of the seat. He’d been warned in the past of ever softening on a conduit, called soft. They were supposed to know their place, to look to it as a duty, which both they and the yama had to do. If they saw a yama show emotion, the illusion would fade. A barkskin might become unruly. He never cared about all that, thought it was stupid, based in speculation instead of experience.

He remembers how she started to shake when he tightened the second set of straps around her shins, a moan welling up behind her pursed lips. The knuckles on her hands were as white as her hair as she gripped hard to the arms of the chair. Kneeling, he looked up, into a face barely discernible through the layers of hair.

“I want to go home.” She whispered. He stood up over her, the binding finished. Three straps per limb, plus the three around her torso.

“We are going home,” He said, grabbing a pair of gloves from a table behind him. “And you’re going to take us there.”

The gloves were made special for a conduit’s hands: the middle and ring digit each had nylon straps stretching from their tips to a chain link in the floor. This kept her from flexing her wrist, from potentially shifting her arm enough so that the needle would miss her cephalic vein entirely. Despite their conditioning, the size of the needles was enough to make any barkskin reconsider everything they’d learned.

The needles had whirred as they got into position. They were like skeletal arms attached to a motor that hung from the ceiling, the metal coated with a chipping, beige paint. Pacheco adjusted the angle of injection, made sure it was level with a laser balance, and then sat back and watched as the needles made their way through the air, slowly moving for the arms of the girl. The sound of the hydraulic engine which powered the needles’s arms was deep, and vibrated like a thousand hummingbird wings. Surely there were quieter ways of constructing such a simple machine, but he didn’t mind. He had never once seen a barkskin who hadn’t screamed the first time the needles were inserted, and this particular one wasn’t one to change that. At least the machine would drone it out some.

Phyrxian had taken off quickly into the Fade, and Pacheco was once again off, in search of the center of Grid, the loose map the yama explorers had made in the days following the Great Schism. The Coral Islands were an unfortunate detour, as their proximity to the edge of the Grid had skewed his initial trajectory. It took him some weeks to get the calculations back to where they needed to be. Yet, even in that time, the barkskin remained as vital as ever. He had been impressed: almost all of her brethren had noticeably weakened after the first week or so of having their plasma drawn out of them. The only change he had noticed was that her initial timidity had given way to a quiet indignation. She brooded and stared at him, occasionally spitting at the chain links which held her hands firmly in place. He didn’t pay her any mind though. He was close, he could feel it.

He had been in the Pyronic Room when she had escaped. Even through his cloak, which had been wrapped around his naked body like a cocoon at the time, he could hear the ship’s alarm. There was a problem with the engine, that much was clear. He snapped awake quickly, the cloak billowing out and settling on his shoulders as he dressed himself in his heavy black armor. He marched quickly down to the engine room from the meditation chamber, and at first couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

The towel on the bench was crusted over with blood and excrement, but it was the seat which commanded his attention: it was empty. The cephalic needles were askew at awkward angles, the tips broken off, the metal singed. A trail of blood spatters snaked away down the corridor to the cargo bay. He had not even been in a transient state for an hour, by a look at the clock; a few more minutes, and his daily meditation would have been over, and he’d be back in the engine room with her. She had been planning her escape the entire time. But how?

Pacheco’s cloak straightened out behind him. Like a hawk, he glided down the hall, the drops of the girl’s blood passing like a bread-crumb trail under his hooked, gray nose. The barkskin must have been reserving energy, but how was that even possible? The engine was designed to draw out as much energy as possible without killing the conduit. It was an efficient design that carefully calibrated how much power the barkskin was capable of, and how quickly she could regenerate. She had to be kept weak enough that she couldn’t overpower the system, which she had somehow done. Perhaps she had recovered quicker than the engine had anticipated?

“Escape Vessel 4, Oisin, loaded and initiated.” Phyrxian had said over the ship’s loud speakers. He had glided faster. The blood droplets had no more use as a trail. He knew where she was. She had entered one of the escape ships, about to launch herself out into the Fade.

“Phyrxian, cancel Oisin launch sequence,” Pacheco said. He passed the glass wall with the echeverias and desert trees growing behind it. She had come far and fast for having lost so much blood, though he did note that the trail did seem to taper off, the droplets becoming fewer and farther between.

The ship had not answered. “Phyrxian, stop the Oisin!”

“I am sorry, Colonel, but the Oisin has left the docking bay.”

Pacheco felt the blood rush to his head. The docking bay and the escape hatches were right before him at the end of the corridor. He stopped in front of hatch number four, behind which he could hear the Oisin disengaging from Phyxian’s locks.

“Phyrxian, re-lock the Oisin!”

“I am sorry, Colonel, but there would be extensive damage to both the Oisin and to my docking port. The life form in the Oisin would also”

“Manual system override, voice code ‘H255LK Violet.’ Close the god damn escape hatch!”

“Voice code invalid,” Phyxian said.

Pacheco stared up at the ceiling, at the bodiless voice that floated around him, denying him. “Phyrxian, manual system override, voice code ‘H255LK Violet.’”

He could hear the Oisin’s boosters engage from the other side of the door.

“Voice code invalid,”

Pacheco’s fist pummeled the door. He knew the Oisin was pulling away, it’s boosters blooming to life. Fiery flowers propelling a steely, egg shaped bulb into the vast infinitude of the Fade. Once free of Phyrxian and its gravity, the Oisin’s boosters would shut off, its magnetic engine sustaining its momentum through the Fade. The barkskin would no doubt be able to guide the ship to wherever she meant to go, maybe to the center of it all, if she so desired. She was, after all, quite capable: she’d built up a store of energy, withholding it from the engine and essentially fooling a foolproof system; she’d broken free of the needles and harnesses, reset Phyrxian’s computers, hijacked a ship, all in less than an hour. He punched the door again, his armor taking the brunt of the impact, but his bony knuckles still reeling from the force.

“Damn you!” He had screamed. He punched the wall again and again, leaving a dent as wide and deep as his head. “I’ll find you! I’ll get you back! You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”

It did not turn out to be an easy task. It was long, tedious work to redo what had been undone in so short a time, but he was tireless. The road to Hyperion was a long one, never straight and always curving. Most of the time, the way forward required a repeated retracing of one’s steps, a constant peeling back of familiar old layers, of finding another world, another path that hadn’t been possible before. Navigating the Grid was precarious and confusing, particularly when there was literally a great, gray nothing that was gradually eating it all away. The only way to keep things in perspective was to keep to the maxim that ‘all was one, all the same.’ At the core of everything was the spiraling Father and Son, Helios and Hyperion, their never-ending chase, where each affirmed the existence of the other, what gave time and space their reality. What fools like Oblong didn’t understand, was that without that spiral, there was no forward momentum, no chance for change. How could there be, when the one force couldn’t know itself without the other? Thus the worlds had faded, the unimportant fringe elements first, like a puddle of gasoline, evaporating into a gray memory. Then that memory, too, would go.

The barkskin had failed to destroy the tracking device on the Oisin. All the escape vessels had them, like Phyrxian’s own umbilical cords. As he emerged from the Fade, one entire year in his time, he saw the Oisin, right where Phyrxian said she’d be. And so he landed, exhausted from using his own blood to propel Phyrxian through the last bit of the Fade, but knowing that there wasn’t much time before the Fade swept through this wasteland and wiped it clean.

He was watching the Fade come as he ran. It’s passed the butte, wrapping around rather than engulfing it. It’s a most curious thing. He’s seen the Fade act erratically before, though it was rare. It could very well crash in from all sides and consume the hill. Time would tell, and soon.

He knows she won’t survive this if he can’t get her out. So he runs even faster, flies, his cloak pushing him forward, like a fin on a plane. He caps the edge of the crash furrow, and descends on the Oisin like a bird of prey. He feels his heart speed up as his eye alights on the cracked escape hatch door on the ground. He feels sick, and has to stop, lean over, and spit. The phlegm is black and clotted. His depressurized body, engineered to be so because of the harshness of the Fade, was grossly unsuited for the cephalic needles. Yet, what other choice had he had? This barkskin was making his life one of desperate measures.

The escape hatch is coated with a heavy film of dust, its concave shape making it look like a bowl of orange clay. Above, like the black hole beneath his eye patch, is the open space where the hatch had once been. His cloak snakes up to it, grasps the inner frame, and pulls his armor encased scarecrow of a body up and in to the Oisin.

He scans the small enclosure of the ship: plastic bottles, medical supplies and life vests are all scattered about, a loosely weaved quilt of survival supplies. The pilot’s bay window is coated in dust. This ship must have been here a few months, at least. Pacheco makes his way up to the pilot’s seat, its back to him, his fingers skimming the cold metal wall, his bowels like a snake being pulled into an ever tightening knot, some little child’s slippery, chocolate hands peeling off scales with curious enthusiasm.

“Hello?” He says. He has no time for this, yet he cannot make himself turn the chair right around. He takes a breath. The air tastes like frayed wool on his tongue. The Fade is closing in.

“Barkskin, you’re coming back with me…” Pacheco says, turning the chair around on its pivot. Empty. Not even a tear takes up residence in the its fabric. He turns, sensing her, feeling he will see her behind him, ready with a shovel to bludgeon him with. But no, nothing, only the black, creaking space of the Oisin. He wants to curse, punch the wall, but knows he hasn’t the time: the Fade is close, and if he doesn’t make it back to Phyrxian, well…

Then he hears it. Phyrxian’s engines.

“Is the Fade so close that Phyrxian is initiating it’s emergency escape boosters?” Pacheco asks himself. Yet, such a thing was impossible without him onboard. The ship still had enough juice to throw up it’s shields, stand it’s ground while the Fade passed through the area, wait until he came back and issued the command to leave. Pacheco leaps out of the open hatch, his cloak mushrooming with the air as he parachutes to the ground.

“Good god, no…” Pacheco says. The boosters are sending chunks of incinerated earth up into the sky. Orange and brown, a cloud of bilious sienna, a fiery tree trunk with Phyrxian its fat, black fruit. He winces at the hot wind, then realizes that he should not just be watching Phyrxian take off, but running to catch it.

Each of the old doctor’s footfalls are like a hand clapping on a paper sheet, and the space in his ears is pushing out, trying to depressurize. The world is about to completely come apart. He feels something pop in his nose, the fast trickle of blood on his upper lip. The great gray wall is so close, he can see blades of grass as they disappear into it. It’s nearer than Phyrxian, which is still a few hundred yards away, and airborne. He stops running. The air is hot from the rockets, but he wants to watch the great black ship, see it from this angle, perhaps for the last time. He whispers a goodbye to his ship, then turns and runs the other way, back to the Oisin. He hasn’t any more time. The escape vessel is his only chance, the only refuge from the Fade. Phyrxian’s boosters go quiet, but it hovers in the air, trembling within its invisible electromagnetic force field. One of Phyrxian’s tendrils disappear into the gray, then another, then another. The inky strands act as a lubricant for the ship, easing the transition from world to the nothingness. Then Phyrxian will glide through the Fade, effortlessly, as it was made to do. It will escape, leaving its pilot behind, in a world about to fade away, as if it had never been.

Pacheco jumps through the hatch door, just as a crack splits across the ground, where he had just been standing. His cloak becomes as thin as the needle arms aboard Phyrxian, and bolts down to where the hatch door lies in the sand. It brings it up, and attaches it back to the frame. Pacheco rushes up to the console and starts the engine up. It takes a moment, during which Pacheco’s heart sinks. But soon the controls light up, violet and red beneath a layer of dirt. He brushes it off with his gloved hand, finds the switch for the Oisin’s electromagnetic field.

His body suddenly feels light, with the familiar insubstantiality that comes from being in the Fade. His timing had been off, and his old body had almost fallen apart out there. Perhaps Oblong was right, that the wandering of the Fade should be left to the younger, sharper cadets and Helios-Hunters. The outside world slowly retreats from the pilot’s window, gradually replaced by gray geometric shapes, which, in short order, melt together, until the highlands have disappeared entirely.

This wasn’t over. Not in the least. He’d get the Oisin airborne and out of the Fade. He’d hunt down the barkskin, strap her back into the engine, bleed her dry. He’d get to Helios and Hyperion yet.

[] Chapter VI: “Yama Dempuur”

 

 

The streets before the Palace of Parliament are empty, the only sound being the echo of our footfalls off the abandoned buildings. That, and Yuvamai’s anxious breathing. He stands next to me, so close I can smell his sweat, laced with sweet wine from the evening prior. Oh, soft memory, but would you not give way to hard truth. Knowing that today would be our march on the parliament, we had imbibed the night before. We had taken the entirety of Chapel neighborhood. It had been ours for the past week, and it became our playground as we cemented the plans for our coup. Thurmond provided the music with his bass-saber and floating screen symphony, while Nazbeth had scoured the greenhouses and labs for the herbs and pills we’d require. Yavamai had stayed close to me throughout it all, trying to articulate the doubts and fears he had on his young mind.

“Whatever happens tomorrow, Drinkwater, I trust in you,” He told me, his pupils dilated, his words freely flowing. “I trust you, that all this is right. That what we’re about to do is right. My father believes in you, as do your men. I’m just… I’m just glad to have met you.” And I was glad to have met him, truly. He was beautiful and not jaded, despite being born outside the dome of Yama Dempuur, feeding off its scraps all his life. I hoped there was a place in the future for him. But now, with the building of parliament looming above us, with nothing but our gauntlets and wits to keep us safe, there was only war and duty. My time spent in the warm crook of Yavamai’s arm was in the past. There would be death today, though hopefully not among my ranks.

I’d made it known for some time that I was coming. After Chapel had been taken and secured, and our base set up in the Temple of the Spider Sisters, I had sent envoys to the parliament to give them an ultimatum: renounce power, or die. We knew what their answer would be, and had therefore expected a gun and steel retaliation, however futile it might be. Instead, parliament’s huge bronze doors stand unguarded before us, behind which were the rusted cogs of Yama Dempuur’s government.

“Where is everybody?” Mai’il says. No one amongst us is as tall as he, though Inchbald comes closest, just about as tall but doubly wide, with strong, corded muscle. A mechanical engineer before taking up the cause, Inchbald’s work has made him as as strong as five men. “I expected the palace guards to be out in full force, or to at least see some of those damn empresses.”

“Disappointed, Mai’il?” Nazbeth says. There’s not much that the rotund little man says which isn’t tinged with an acerbic wit. “I can go back to one of the engine rooms and find an empress, if you’d like. Surely they’d love the chance to come and play with you.”

“Shut up, both of you.” I say. There’s a whining in the air, barely audible. “Do you hear that?”

“What is it, Drinkwater?” Yuvamai’s voice breaks on my name. He doesn’t have the gauntlets that my men and I have, instead wielding a lightning staff that he clings to tightly.

“Above us!” Thurmond shouts. Here’s a man who’d rather pluck a string than speak, but he has the keenest sense for danger amongst us. It’s saved us quite a few times, especially when our first attempt at a coup was in danger of getting found out. That had been two years ago, and since then he had become quite the effective enforcer, quickly taking care of any threats to our safety.

“Gauntlets!” I yell, pounding my fist to the ground. My men follow suit quickly, our granite and amethyst gauntlets creating an electromagnetic force-field that goes up around us. The field forms just as a ray of concentrated lightning is let loose from the top of the palace, meeting our force-field dead on.

“Sneaky little weevils, eh?!” Mai’il shouts, thoroughly amused. The thunder that rumbles through the streets is deafening, and a sonic boom radiates out from where we’re all standing. I look up, and see the parliament’s stooges standing around a cannon on one of the higher towers of the palace. I can smell their fear from here. It won’t take much for me to turn the lightning back around on them. With a deft flick of my wrist, the lightning we had been absorbing in our forcefield re-fires, and makes its way back towards them. The top of the tower explodes, and the men who had aimed the cannon at us, with the intent to kill, fall through the air, their bodies aflame.

We drop the shield around us. Palios pushes a stray wisp of white back behind his pointed ear. Other than his one stray hair, we are completely unfazed. “There’s your welcoming party,” Nazbeth says to Mai’il, as smug as a fat kid who beat all the others to the janjan cake. Mai’il chuckles, before softly hitting Nazbeth in the arm, knocking him back. Nazbeth’s fish-eyes wince in pain, but he makes an effort of not showing it. I wave my hand forward, as the flaming bodies hit the pavement with a dull crash. There’s not much time to lose.

We’re marching into the palace, the seat of government on Yama Dempuur for time immemorial. The history books said that Yama Dempuur was constructed immediately following the Great Schism. With a name that literally means “dandelion puff of the Yama people,” the center of one of the oldest cities of the Yama, Vega Mardur, was placed on a platform with a dome above and six great legs beneath. The city could keep ahead of the Fade, or traverse it, if the need ever arose. Which it did, more and more often as the Fade swallowed all of Ameshka Vega. If not for the ingenuity and quick-thinking of our forebears in a time of such grave crisis, our entire heritage would have been lost.

Still, all things in this life eventually fester and die, and the parliament has long been the gangrenous limb of the city in need of an amputation. Nothing but a gaggle of inbred thieves and idiots, the parliament had led Yama Dempuur and the legacy of our people to ruin. The city had once been packed to capacity, the dome teeming with life. Now, half the city’s buildings stood empty and fallen to ruin.

On our march to the parliament, we had passed by our fellow yama. They’d watched us with vacant eyes, ignorant of everything we were fighting for, too stupid to understand the nature of their oppression. To them, we were usurpers and rebels, disrupters of the natural order of things. They were right, but what we sought to end was their slavery and the aristocracy which was kept fat and fed while the lights of the city slowly flickered to black. We were fighting for our history. My men and I were going to seize power and make for the center of all time and space. We were going to finish what the ancients had started. Helios would be bound to his mecha, Hyperion awoken from his slumber, and both bound to our will once and for all.

 

I was born in the blood of the sun, in the mud of the earth and the sands of time. I am Ma’atha and Yama in equal measure, drinking from the light as I learn from the book. I am beholden to no man, my bloodline descended from a long line of emperors and empresses, though my right to rule was taken away from me. My grandmother, a self-indulgent and ineffectual ruler, was deposed of in a bloodless coup. Her only priority during her twenty or so years as empress was to build monuments to herself all throughout the city. The walls crumbled and the legs the city walked on became slower and more clumsy, yet she ordered more and more statues built in her image, more and more regal courts erected. After her ousting, all the statues that she had made in her likeness were transformed into sentinels of the city, automatons which obeyed every order of the parliament. I was born with a royal name but no sort of inheritance. The parliament and the aristocratic sycophants all eloquently referred to me as Emperor Rag. It was this same Emperor Rag who had assembled the best the standing army had to offer, and had rallied them to his cause. It was Emperor Rag who was now on his way to the palace, to dole out a justice long overdue.

The bronze doors swing open, a slight creak to their hinges. The room beyond is crowded with dusty relics from the days before the Great Schism. Mannequins who have long since rusted and lost their ability to move stand in the vestments of the our ancestors: loose, metallic shirts that hang down to the knees of the wearer, small, squarish hats and pants that fit tightly around the ankle. There are stuffed beasts whose names have been forgotten to time, books in shelves from floor to ceiling, and tapestries of elaborate scenes from stories that all yama grow up hearing over and over again. The relics line the hallway, which extends as far as the eye can see.

“Hey, look, it’s Pacheco,” Nazbeth says, eyeing one of the tapestries. It’s the famous story told in a twelve part scene, where the young doctor for Captain Lacko’s ship discovered the techniques required for extending one’s time in the Fade. Barbaric techniques to be sure, but desperate times called for desperate measures. That was over a millennium ago, before even the Ma’atha and Yama interbred. To think, there was a time when it was seen as taboo, when Yama prided themselves on their pure bloodlines, just like the members of parliament still do. Scenes from the age of heroes, long over and done. The day when our people produced those like Pacheco are long gone. No one is willing to search for Helios or Hyperion like our forebears did over a thousand years ago. No one is willing to make the sacrifice.

“Hey, fish-eyes, come on,” Palios says to Nazbeth, who has hung back to gawk at all the artifacts lining the walls, unseen by any eyes that did not reside in the head of an aristocrat. “We have to get moving. I’ve been waiting my entire life for this.”

“And I, this. You could stand to wait another few minutes, you bloated bag of oats.” Nazbeth mutters the insult under his breath as he reluctantly leaves the relics behind and trots after us. He and the others tip-toe around Palios, and for good reason. The man is as self-righteous as he is big, as wide of shoulder as Inchbald, but of a leaner build, a viper to a gorilla. Thankfully, his convictions match up with mine well enough that he’s been nothing but a fierce ally. Still, I’m well aware that he operates on his own agenda, and thus I couldn’t say I trust him. Not that I trust anybody.

As we pass down the corridor, the servants come out of the shadows to watch us. They’re stunted and terribly thin, their clothes old and threadbare. One man is shirtless, and so pale his skin appears to be transparent to where you can see the purplish veins underneath. “We’re here to liberate you, friend,” Mai’il says. The man starts to click his tongue against his teeth, and makes signs through the air with his hand. “Do you speak Yamas?” More clicks of the tongue, and the other servants start swaying on their ankles, their frowning faces locked on us. “Not the friendliest lot, are they?”

“No, Mai’il.” Nazbeth says. “They serve the parliament, and only the parliament. They’re pure yama too, by the looks of it.”

“And starved.”

“Disgusting,” I say. There was probably a time when I would have stopped to talk, to help. My view of the world and the problems that afflict it have grown as I’ve aged, and I see that in the time it takes to help one man, I could help all his children never suffer the same fate. I must think of the future, and not the here and now, which has been compromised and lost long before I was even born. The emaciated servants watch us with ill-intending eyes, but they do nothing to hinder us from delving further into the palace.

The floor begins to slope downwards, gradually at first, so that we don’t notice it. Then we see the doors appear, the sphincter at the base of a long gullet. One red, one blue. Legend states that Amesh’s first followers built the original academy following his death. These very doors and the large antechamber within were once all that consisted of the academy; it was around this place of learning that the parliament was built. The doors were painted by Amesh himself. The blue was to represent order, the red chaos, and he wanted all who entered to contemplate the one in relation to the other. The walls were conceived to shelter the brightest of ideas, to further the analysis of Infinite Duality and the nature of chaos. Now, all they housed was abject decay and ineptitude.

I knock on the door. A warbling voice answers from within, “Enter, Emperor Rag.” My stomach tightens up. The door creaks open, revealing a rounded antechamber. Eight men sit at a long wooden table, all of them of varying degrees of corpulence. Indeed, the fattest are so large they must be incapable of any movement beyond waddling their arms around in useless circles, waving for their servants to bring them more roast mutton or brandy. The chairs they sit in, which have small magnets on their bottoms, use the electromagnetic field of surfaces to move their fat frames around effortlessly. A waste of human intelligence, the invention of these baskets for the fat and lazy.

“You’ve finally decided to grace us with your presence, Emperor Rag,” The man in the middle of the table says to me. His name is Doog Valbair. One side of his face seems to melt into his neck, the result of a stroke or a birth defect. His hands are folded over top of his huge girth, his fingers as swollen as slug worms.

“You’ll do best to stop calling him that, fat man,” Palios says, stepping forward. Blue lightning crackles from his gauntlets. “We may yet have some degree of mercy on you and your cronies, were you to respect your new masters and abdicate peaceably.”

A man two to the right from Doog laughs. He sounds like he’s drowning on his own blubber. “Mercy? Oh, that is rich.” The man’s name is Oliver Tai’chik, and he’s descended from a long line of bankers and money-minded leeches. “Tell us how you will have mercy on us, half-breed.”

“Palios is too generous,” I say, laying a hand on my comrade’s shoulder. “There will not be any mercy. For any of you. You are the last of your lines. You’ve brought this once proud and thriving city to its knees, and have not even the decency to accept responsibility. The people of Yama Dempuur are stupid, ignorant and starving, and it is all because of your ineptitude. Still, you hide away in your palace, behind your relics and laws and traditions. Your days as rulers of Yama Dempuur are over, do you understand me? Now, do you have anything to say for yourselves?”

“Yes, yes, I do,” It’s one of the younger, and least fat of the eight men at the table. Even so, he’s still about five of me rolled into one. “Could you have one of the boys outside bring in another bottle of port? All this talk of relics and laws has gotten me quite thirsty.”

Palios shakes my hand off his shoulder, and aims his gauntlet at the man before I can stop him. The blue lightning crackles and fires, and the fat man is consumed. Or so it seems. There’s some sort of counteractive force, an electromagnetic shield which propels Palios’s lightning away.

“What the…?” Nazbeth says.

Doog begins to chuckle. “Can never be too careful. These are dangerous times we live in. Always have the forcefield up. Don’t want any of the help stabbing us in the neck with a dinner fork, now do we? Erm… empresses? Would you all be so kind as to escort our guests to their deaths?”

The chamber echoes with stampeding feet, and before any of us are ready for it, the empress statues encircle us. They’re fast, well-oiled machines, the smallest just shy of ten feet tall. They patrol the city streets, breaking up the occasional disturbance or skull, keeping the people trembling and afraid. On orders from the parliament, Inchbald’s father, also an engineer, transformed the empress statues from motionless monuments into a legion of mechanical soldiers. Perhaps most perfect for the parliament was that they barely had to lift a finger for the automatons to do their bidding. They were controlled, as was almost all of the ancient city, by the thousand year old man that had been bioengineered to be the master computer of Yama Dempuur. He was the very first yama who copulated with a ma’atha, and as a twisted punishment for tarnishing the bloodline, he was locked into the city’s mainframe. As his body decayed, his limbs were replaced with tubes and circuitry, until he was inseparable from the city. His name has been lost to history, and if anyone knew what it was, they dared not say it. He controls the empresses from somewhere deep within one of the engine rooms. Few men had ever seen him, save the head engineers who heeded his commands.

“He’s one ugly sight, and that’s an understatement,” Inchbald told us, one evening not so long ago. We were all sitting around a brushwood fire, the walking city glimmering in the distance. “They say it’s not the machines which keep him alive, but some darkness he’s come to know. My paw said he saw a group of shadows once deep in one of the engine rooms, moving about on their own, with heads like horses or birds.” We had been chilled to the bone by Inchbald’s story, because at the end time, there wasn’t much that could not be true. We all knew there wasn’t much time left for the worlds of the spiral. We also knew that there was a darkness lurking in the walking city, that the parliament was just the edge of the cancer.

Yuvamai En’chik had spit into the fire at that. “I never set foot in that damned place,” He had said. He was a second generation wanderer, his father and mother having been exiled from the city for some forgotten transgression long ago. He had been born in the wasteland, alternately following the city and fleeing the Fade. “But I heard talk of that half-man-machine, and those kings that keep him alive. It’s a dark business, all of it.” It had been good to find the wanderers of a like mind to us. Yuvamai En’chik was their unofficial leader, a skeletal man with wide eyes and but three teeth in his head. There was nothing that he or his small band of scavengers liked about Yama Dempuur, but they still carried the torch for what Ameshka Vega had been. En’chik even carried a worn copy of “Infinite Duality” with him, though he could barely read a word. They were a hardy lot, living off the refuse of the walking city and the sparse vegetation that grew in the slowly fading world. If we had not proved ourselves capable, they would have slit our throats in the night and left us to the dire cats that wandered the wastes. They couldn’t take in stragglers. Instead, we more than proved ourselves. Two of them even volunteered to join our cause. En’chik’s youngest son, Yuvamai Orrn’chik, was one.

His hair was close cropped, the same length as his beard, as was the wanderer way. He had an easy smile, and a fluid grace to him that suggested he had spent a lifetime standing in canoes as opposed to wandering the dark desert. I loved him from the first I laid eyes on him. There was also Danda Ros. Danda was a scarred rare-metal miner and ex-weapons dealer who had a score to settle with the parliament. They had exiled him after replacing the entire military with the empresses, so as not to risk a military coup in the tumultuous political upheaval. “They should have killed me when they had the chance,” He would say, in between tokes of the chap weed he always had packed tight into his cob pipe. “I’m as close a thing to a royalist that a’int breathing dirt and worms. Your majesty.” He was a bitter man, but he seemed capable enough, despite his years. Still, as we climbed the grappling hooks we had attached to the walking city, Danda had fallen. The tractors, glass sentries which circled the city and guarded it against intruders, had knocked him off. We destroyed the rest of them easily enough. Danda became a necessary sacrifice, as we would have never made our way in if he had not died.

The Empress statues are solid granite, like our gauntlets. Their eyes glow a fierce orange, and their faces are all curled up into sinister smiles. It’s a face I’ve grown to hate, though it resembles my own more so than not. The face of my grandmother, the face which set in motion my awakening. “Forward!” I yell, and my men and I run into the fray, the blue lightning from our gauntlets crackling around the room, reflecting off the force field of the Parliament, and tearing pieces of granite off of the bodies of the empress statues. The fat men watch through lugubrious eyes, some of them sucking on the bones of their latest feast. I keep my gaze pasted on Doog, even as I deflect a skull-crushing windmill punch from one of the empresses with my gauntlet.

“This is for the ancestors!” I yell, winding up my fist and pummeling it through one of the empresses’ chest. The statue’s torso explodes in a splash of stone and blue lightning, and it even makes a gargled death sound as it falls to its knees. It’s eyes grow dim, and it doesn’t move again. All around me, my men are shouting their allegiances to the old ways:

“For Helios and Hyperion!” Thurmond rumbles, slicing an empress’s arm off with his bass-saber.

“For Amesh!” Nazbeth croons, his eyes flashing white blue with the lightning around his body. “For Vega Mardur!”

“For the yama!” Yuvamai Ornnchik, son of En’chik, shouts. He comes up behind the empress which has knocked Palios down, and cracks it over the head with his staff. The statue’s head falls to pieces, and Yuvamai’s beautifully bearded face shifts into a look of triumph. We share a look. For a moment, I see a future together, where we’ve succeeded in all we’ve set out to do and we can settle into our old age together. I don’t see the other statue coming up behind him. Before I can even scream a warning, the empress statue rears up, it’s heavy stone fists clenched, and drops it down on Yuvamai’s skull. There’s a crunch, and the young man goes down, his eyes rolled to the back of his head, the blood already pouring out through his nose and ears.

“No!” I yell, rushing to him. I know it’s already too late, that Yuvamai is gone. I dissociate from my body, escaping into a calmness that can only watch as my emotions take over, my body running, all on autopilot. I watch as I shoot a ray of lightning from my gauntlet, a ray as thick as a tree trunk, and disintegrate the empress who killed Yuvamai into a powder of fine black soot. I drop down to my knees next to the young wanderer, who the night before had told me how he had believed in me and our cause, who I had taken from his simple life in the wasteland to his death in the domed city. I cry, taking his broken head in my hands. Blood and gray brain pieces slip through my fingers. Palios watches, his brow furrowed. The calmness inside me can’t read his thoughts, but the sobbing creature who is cradling the dead boy, he doesn’t care. That semblance of Drinkwater is only concerned with delivering death, and has the parliament in his sights.

Of the dozen or so empresses that had swarmed out from the wings, there are only three or four which continue to fight. The rest are broken to pieces, short work for our lightning gauntlets. Palios looks more shaken than hurt, but Mai’il has a serious gash down his arm. Nazbeth, Thurmond and Inchbald are taking care of the rest of the empresses, more toying with them than engaging in heavy combat. I’ve only eyes for the men at the table of parliament. They all watch me silently, the unmistakable look of fear in their bloated faces.

“You killed him,” I say. I can feel the lightning from my gauntlets coursing through my body, building in intensity. It feeds me, gives me energy, as my blood feeds the amethyst orb in the center of the gauntlet. It’s all building. The anger feeds the gauntlets, the gauntlets feed the anger. It’s as close a thing to a closed, perpetual source of energy as ever there could be.

“You’re the treasonous one here, Drinkwater,” Doog says, his voice now deathly serious. “You march in here, attempting a coup. Well, it’s no surprise that the boy is dead! Playing at war with the lives of innocents. You’re no better than the supposed villains you fight against.”

By the table is a discarded fork. I pick it up, and make to climb the table. The force field comes up and blocks my way. I start hammering at it with my fists, as several of the fat men begin to laugh.

“Look at this fool,” the young one who had asked for the bottle of port before says. “All brute force and no brains. What a waste of technology, those gauntlets were for the likes of them.” But his smile falters as the force field begins to crackle, and shrink in on itself.

“I… will… kill you…” I say, the forcefield falling back enough that I can climb up on the table. I punch the forcefield again, and it gives under my knuckles, enough that my fingers can get a handhold between the crack that has formed. All is silent around me. My men must be watching me, as the parliament does. No one moves to help or stop me. What I’m doing is beyond the laws of science, beyond what should be humanly possible. Still, the forcefield yields, and comes apart, and soon I’m staring down at Doog, who sits motionless at the table. The sagging side of his face is mottled with sores and skin tags, but the other side is drawn up in surprise. I take the fork in my hand and jam it down, into Doog’s forehead, over and over, small ribbons of blood streaming out into the air and down his face.

“Oh god! Oh god, no!” He screams. I slap him in the face, then punch him so hard he falls back out of his chair. I’m on top of him, my lungs heaving. I jab the fork back down again and again, stabbing him in the neck, in the cheek. He’s coughing and sputtering up blood. There’s a pink froth on his wet lips. The rest of the parliament try to leave, their chairs floating away from the massacre of Doog. The forcefield goes down so they can try and escape, but my men are waiting for them on the other side.

“Help us! Oh god, please, no!” Oliver Tai’chik and the rest of parliament scream, but Palios and the rest are past the point of listening to amnesty. I look into Doog’s face, and he must give in to the fact that his time is up, his rule over. He cracks a smile, his worn down teeth covered in a bright red sheen. “You think you know how this all works, don’t you, Emperor Rag? Do you know what really runs the walking city?” I hit him again, so that a tooth flies out of his mouth in a pink froth, but he just laughs. “Do you know the darkness?”

“Where’s the book, fat man?” He slowly turns his head, and looks me dead in the eyes. The one half of his face is already corpse-like, swollen and purple, but his good side is more alive than I’ve ever seen it. Doog was never stupid, far from it. He knew the game, knew he had it rigged in his favor. His smile widens, the wounds in his face leaking fresh blood.

“I have it packed up and ready for you, your majesty. In the shelf behind the dining table. But do tell, which way did it go, Drinkwater? Did he put it in you, or was it the other way around? Did you fuck him the same way you’re fucking all your men, hm? Pulling the wool over their eyes, dragging them along to pump up your ego, to give you a sense of self-worth. You’re worse than any of us, Emperor Rag. You’re worse because you hide your ambition behind self-righteousness.” The rage overtakes me, and I hit him, until his eyes roll up in his head, much like Yuvamai’s did when the empress cracked him over the head. I hit Doog again and again, wanting to make his head break open.

When the fatigue in my arms finally becomes too much to bear, I roll off Doog’s fatness and make my way back over the table to my men. They all watch me with pursed lips and sad eyes. All around them are the corpses of the parliament, rounded like burial mounds. Their deaths seem like they were quicker than Doog’s was, a quick slit across the throat or a head shot from the gauntlet. The stunted, pale bodies of other yama also dot the room, their servants. “They came in to help their masters, loyal to the final moment,” Nazbeth says, coming up to me. He tries to place a hand on my arm, but I quickly shake it away. “Don’t touch me, damn it,” I say, making my way to where Yuvamai lies. Someone has draped a cloth over his entire upper body, so that only his thin legs and worn boots stick out.

“He’s gone, Drinkwater,” Inchbald says. The others are silent, as I drop down next to Yuvamai’s body. The sheet stays over his face, the fabric dark and heavy with blood. I don’t lift it, nor do I want to. I’d rather remember him as he was, the effortless smile, the naive glimmer in his eyes…

“Let’s go,” I say. “We shouldn’t waste any more time here. Palios, read the parliament’s crimes. Quickly now.”

“But… they’re all dead.” Nazbeth stammers.

“I know that. But we’ve standards to maintain. We didn’t just come here to overthrow their government. We came because we had to, because of the ruin the city has fallen into, because of the destiny we must reclaim. Now, please. Read their crimes.” Palios pulls a sheaf of parchment out of the satchel he keeps attached to his belt, and reads the crimes that the parliament had committed. There are a total of thirty-six, and it takes around ten minutes to read them all. He rolls the parchment back up, and looks at me with a firm mouth. The calmer Drinkwater who had been a spectator to the events following Yuvamai’s death has resurfaced and regained control of his emotions. I nod to my men. It is indeed time to go. Ousting the parliament was only the first part of our mission. The second part will be even more trying, as it involves a technology which no one in Yama Dempuur had used in several hundred years. At the center of the city lies the bridge, across which lies the other worlds. Qani Dariel. It’s buried under the tarmac, beneath the eight engine rooms, truly the heart of Yama Dempuur.

“Thurmond, go to that shelf over there. Yes, that one. Open it. There should be a satchel, with a book inside.” Thurmond does as he is told, the bass guitar with the diamond sharp axe blade along its body strapped to his back. He pulls the bag out, a plain potato sack that one of the servants probably brought over from the greenhouses over in the barkskin ghetto. “Bring it to me. Ah, yes, this is it. The Atlas. The Grid should be mapped out within, all the known bridges stemming from Yama Dempuur.” I pull the book out from the bag. It’s ancient, the leather on the binding crumbling at my touch. I place it on the floor, and open its crisp pages. In a delicate hand are drawn images of the bridges and the worlds they connect to. Equations run around the edges of the pages, spiraling in towards the center, symbols indicating how the spaces between worlds were found, the energy required to maintain the bridges, the nature of higher beings and gods.

“I’ve dreamed of this book,” I say. One of the bodies jolts up as rigor mortis sets in. A sigh escapes from the bloated corpses throat, and its like a haunted wind. This truly is a dead city, with only ghosts to inhabit its walls now. Yama Dempuur is dead and gone. There is only the way forward.

The tomb of Doog and his men fades away to memory behind us, as we make our way to Valence Aeterna, the square at the center of the city. Beneath the statue of the great spiral, built several hundred years ago by Umber Valbair, an ancestor that Doog always boasted his descent from, lies the entrance to the heart of the city. We easily break open the rusted locks and descend into the claustrophobic tunnel. The bioluminescent lights hum softly, and there’s a pounding on the walls, the hidden pipes tirelessly pumping the enzyme enriched water and luciferase. It’s the heartbeat of Yama Dempuur, keeping alive a body whose spirit has fled.

“What does the map say?” I say to Nazbeth, as we reach a crossroads in the narrow tunnels. His gauntlet glows softly over the ancient book, giving the aged pages a greenish hue.

“Left,” He says.

“Are you sure?”

“Erm… yes. I’m sure.” We cut left, and start heading down deeper into the city. The warmth is ebbing, and a musty odor starts to settle over us. The walls, which had been smooth throughout our descent, start showing signs of carving and design. “There are carvings down here. But why? What is this place?”

It’s the taciturn Thurmond who responds. “This is a burial chamber. Emperors, rulers, kings.” Sure enough, each block carving is of a central figure, usually a man with a flowing cape and a suit of armor. Even further along, as the mustiness becomes almost too much to bear, the vestments of the rulers engraved in the walls goes from that of armor to three-piece suits, with cravats and canes instead of gauntlets and capes. Statesmen, before Ameshka Vega’s military took control of worldly affairs and brought it to the center of all time and space.

“Who knew that this was down here,” Nazbeth says.

“The parliament knew. Of that, I’m sure.” Palios says. Even with the entire source of his malice dead and rotting, he still feels he has a grudge to settle with them. “They kept it hidden from us, from all the yama. Sheep in some stupid game…”

“Relax, Palios,” I say. “What’s dead is no threat to anyone anymore.” He makes to answer, but his attention is snapped away when there’s a clanging from further down the tunnel. It’s dark ahead, the lamps lining the hallway glowing no more. At the edge of the blue light flowing out from our hands, we can see a jagged piece of rusted metal. A pipe, or a blade. Whatever it is, it was thrown our way, by something hidden in the darkness. “Gauntlets at the ready,” I whisper. Lightning sparks from each man’s amethyst orbs. I wave them forward, to whatever awaits us, but I quickly see why the space ahead of us has grown so dark. In just a few steps, the tunnel meets a huge room, so large we cannot make out the room’s dimensions. What we do see, is the man towards the middle of the floor.

“Wait!” I yell, before Palios and Inchbald incinerate him into dust. They bring their gauntlets down, so I can see more clearly the man who kneels in front of us. He’s as gaunt as the servants that the Parliament kept, and his skin as translucent as wax paper. He glows in an unsettling way, as if he’s drunk off luciferase. His eyes are black and big, and he stares at us unblinkingly. His mouth is firmly shut, stitches running from one corner to the other.

“What the hell is this?” Palios says. The kneeling man gets up, and starts making his way towards us. “Not any farther!” Palios screams, bringing his gauntlet back up. The man stops, and puts his hands into the air. He smiles, the stitches making his facial muscles bulge grotesquely.

“Drinkwater, do you recognize him?”

“No, who…” But then I see. The grizzled chin, the missing two fingers on his right hand. He’s lost so much weight since we last saw him on the dome, but then again, he was wearing layers upon layers of armor and cloak. He had fallen. I saw the obtuse glass automaton cut his forearm clean away, saw him slip away in shock. His body soundlessly broke on the ground, and his mouth lay open, as if he drowned in the sand gasping for air. “Danda Ros. But how…” Danda starts twitching his head to the side, mimicking its movement with his long, bony index fingers.

“I don’t believe it… It’s… the White Bridge.” I say. In the darkness, hard to make out, is the bridge we had been searching for. It’s exactly as the stories told it would be: wide enough so we can all comfortably cross shoulder to shoulder, and arching up softly, so that we can not see the other side where it comes down. The white bannisters lining its edges are elaborately carved into spirals and points, tangled vines of alabaster. Danda starts to wave his hands at us, ushering us to go forward, to go across the bridge.

“Danda… but this doesn’t make sense. How are you here? I saw you fall…” He keeps waving his hands, moving us towards the bridge. From over his shoulder, I can see things moving in the darkness, humanoid shadows. He starts shaking his head. I can see fear in his immense, dark eyes.

“What is it?” Palios murmurs. There’s a trepidation in his voice like I’ve never heard before.

“It’s the vulture…” Inchbald says, breaking from our group and making for the bridge. The vulture, from the stories he’d told us of his working on the ship’s engines, deep in the city. The thing that had kept the ancient yama alive, or so the engineers said. “There is no machinery that is capable of keeping a yama alive for that long. He’s made a pact with darkness, traded his sanity for immortality.” Inchbald’s words from around the brushfire ring around in my head, as the dark figures dance closer. There are so many of them.

“Go! Men, over the bridge!” It’s the way between worlds, what we had been searching for. I had never thought to encounter anything below the city, had thought to only find a neglected relic from ages past. Instead, I had found the true plague of the walking city. The parliament was merely a symptom of a far greater disease that had undermined Yama Dempuur since who even knew when. A dark chaos, that slowly found it’s way into every pore and orifice the domed city had to offer, the people becoming incorrigible, their works stunted and failing. I see that now, as we escape over the bridge, a soft green light and an array of stars ahead of us, away from the darkness. The shadows behind me continue to dance, having made it up to the foot of the bridge. Danda watches us with those big black eyes, and there’s a smirk on his lips that had not been there before. Wisps of shadow lash around his body, taking pieces of flesh with them. Still, that smile. Under his skin, reptilian scales begin to appear, then feathers. The stitching rips apart, revealing a beak attached to a small, scaly head. The thing that does not change is his eyes, and they watch us with a malignant intent as we run further and further down the bridge.

[] Chapter VII: “Where the Stories Sleep”

 

 

The door creeps open and the Digger peeks out, lips pursed and jaw tight. The night has passed, taking its loud, unruly guests with it. “Oh, dahling, why did yous leave me, so?” He says, walking out, shovel on his shoulder, jar of preserves in his pocket. His bony shoulder is tightly bandaged with a mildewed cloth. The sky is a smudged gray blue, a curtain which touches down upon the ground in all directions. His perch atop the butte doesn’t afford him the same telescopic view of the surrounding area as the day before. In fact, something is very, very different.

He makes his way down to the stairs, past the scabby mud and jagged glass, serrations tipped with ocher. The two dinner guests, as well as his darling, had bolted across and down the hill the night before. They were undoubtably reckless on the stairs, which were delicate, and required gentle steps. He tests the first plank, only moving to the next when he’s satisfied it will hold his weight. He does this the entire way down the steep edges of the butte, slowly descending, his feet on autopilot, his mind stuck on the night before.

He was afraid of the shining one, the one with the name like an insect. Beetle Bob? Cricket? Roachy? He wasn’t sure, but he got so shiny it hurt, all because the younger man had told him a story, what he had said was the greatest story of all. But he had never really told him a story at all, had he? The young man with the long hair had just said a few words, the beginning, maybe, which made the Digger think that it was a tale more dangerous than anything he’d ever dug up before. After the man with the name like an insect had thrown him through the air and hurt his poor little back, he didn’t want to get too close to him again. So he had peeked from the top of the stairs, watching as they descended the butte to the plains below. But what was that he had seen, emerging from the Fade? It looked like a ball of shadows, the size of a pond, its surface rippling in the wind. It floated over the highland, ahead of the Fade, plopping down on the ground a ten minute walk from the foot of the staircase. Was it a story, a monster he had failed to dig up? No, no, no. Stories were in the ground. They didn’t come out of the Fade. Right?

A tall figure in a billowing cape had descended from the black mass on a ramp. He ran in one direction, towards the egg-shaped metal contraption that had appeared past the ring of blood on the same day his darling had come to him. The three escaping dinner guests had run in the other direction, towards the shadowy ball with the gnashing tendrils on its skin. The Digger watched as the ramp closed behind them, as the figure with the long cape had climbed into the metal egg, how he’d try to run after the great black lake as it took off, into the sky, fire roaring from its bottom, sending a cloud of black and brown smoke into the desert around it and burning the ground. He couldn’t watch any more: the Fade was almost upon the ring, and it would shake his world to pieces as it tried to break through it. It had never come so close. The nothingness was attracted to Long-Hair’s story and Beetle Bob’s brightness, Narcissus knew. It always wanted what it couldn’t have, which was anything of substance, of purpose, of distinctive identity. Its appetite for the marrow of reality was insatiable. Therefore, the Digger had to go back underground. Let those terrible dinner guests get washed away by the Fade, what did he care. He’d be safe and sound in his little Digger basement, with jars of meats to last years and years and years.

From the tippy top of the stairs, the Digger sees the exact circle that he had made with prime story blood. All that pink tissue under the sandy crust, with blue veins like tree roots, cherished secret treasures. They spurted when he hit them right. The black veins black, blue veins red. The latter spurted the highest, sweat treats for the tongue. In an empty tin he’d collected as much he could, and made the circle in the sand, just like his father had told him to do.

“Fadder said do me, said, keep da shadows oudda your backyard by spilling dreamsy blood. Is dat what he said?” The Digger spins the handle of his shovel around in his calloused palms, looks out into the mist, an opaque veil starting at the exact mark where he’d drizzled the red and black blood, a spiraling harlequin helix, hissing as it touched the earth.

“So, da Fadesy do nod cross da dreamsy blood, bud comes so very close dis dime. Dis is very inderesding,” The shadows liked to keep their threats fresh and full of violent intention; he never knew when they’d come for him, so he kept the circle of blood as fresh as he could, as often as he could. Still, while the shadows liked to slink around the highlands, as close to the Digger’s butte as they could, the Fade had never come so close. He’d only spied it in the distance, ripping across the land, the shadows billowing about and whispering to him that his end was near, that the Fade would erase everything, including his little Digger shack at the top of the hill.

“Bud id never came close to my home. Dose derrible dinner guesds come, and dey bring da Fadesy wid dem. Dose terrible, bumblering fools! Nidwids!” His steps are slow, tired: he was awake all night, waiting for the worst to happen. It made for a restless night. “And now, dey are gone, dose fools are gone, and dey left such derrible wedder!”

Narcissus walks into the mist. It completely envelops his head, his body. The white flowers clinch shut, the air like that of an ice box, saturated with a damp coldness. He keeps on, the ground disappearing in heavier and heavier tendrils. Soon, the sound of his footsteps disappears, and all he can see is his shuffling legs, his pale arms.

“Is dis da Fadesy?” The whispered words seem to get caught in the mist, and drift lazily up to his ears. “Well, dis is nod so bad, afder all. I like da Fadesy. Id is quide cool on my skins.” His breath sounds like a far off waterfall, of snow slipping off a metal roof. It’s the only sound he can hear. But even that slips away, swallowed up, finding its way to the middle of Winter’s cold, still heart. He gasps, the air so thin and cold. He clasps his throat, looks desperately around, eyes wide as potatoes. Then there’s the sound of crunching sand and gravel beneath his feet, and then the sight of the yellow ground. The mist begins to clear, and then he’s clean out of it, back over the ring he had made on the ground.

He stops, looks down, back, down again.

“How dids I ged from one side of da ring do da udder?” The backside of the butte stands before him, the stairs hidden from view. He went in through the mist, and in a few dozen steps, he had been brought to the complete other side of the circle.

“Bud… where ams I do dig? How do I go finds da stories…oh my good god…” The Digger’s heart slips from his chest. A tall shape in black metal stands in the shadow of the butte, a black cloak arched over a hunchback. It shuffles around stiffly, but then stops. The head pivots around, autumn glass eyes catching the soft light. Its wings open. Moth wings. It starts gliding towards the Digger.

“You!” The figure’s voice is harsh, monotone, a raven clearing its caw. “Are you from this world?” Pacheco has by now come near enough that the Digger can make out the purple ruts in his gray face, the felt eye patch, the boxy helmet with the visor nestled on his forehead. He sees the heavy black armor, which seems to be shaped by an inner frame rather than the definition of a human body. The moth wings are actually a rigid cloak, which whips back into place as the only other person in this world comes within a stone’s throw of the Digger. It hangs from Pacheco’s shoulders like a snake from a vine, poised to strike.

“Do you speak? Do you understand me?”

“Yes, mosd kind sirs, I do undersdand yous,” The Digger twists the shovel handle around in his hands.

“Then tell me where I can find something to eat. Sustenance.”

The Digger sways. “Susdenance, sirs?”

“Yes, sustenance. Food. Water.”

“Oh, yes, bud of course.” The Digger thinks a moment, testing the tips of his finger nails against each other. “You can follow me, sirs. I have foodsies at my home.”

Pacheco follows the Digger’s outstretched shovel with his eyes. “You live atop the hill?”

“Yes, sirs, my dahling and I…” The Digger covers his open mouth with his grubby hands, nostrils as wide as owl eyes. He remembers that the tall man in the armor and cape was either looking to catch his darling girl or the two unwanted dinner guests. Pacheco takes size of the squat man, of the wasted looking skeleton in the denim rags. “You’re what kept the Fade away from that hill?”

“Me?” The Digger breathes a sigh of relief. “Oh nos, sirs. Da circle of blood is wad did da drick. I only puds da circle dere and keeps id freshy fresh.”

“Blood?” Pacheco says, his tone circumspect. “What do you know of blood science?”

“I know nuddings, sir, of sciences. I am bud a simples romandic, who loves his dahling so…” The Digger covers his mouth again, afraid he’ll say too much again.

“Who is this darling you speak of…” Pacheco says, but then his eyes widen too. His hand shoots out, the small chains in his armor sounding with a crack, a silenced pistol, and grabs the Digger’s white narcissus stalks. The Digger goes to stab his attacker with his shovel, disembowel him. He wants to blow small bubbles in a pail of his black (red? purple?) blood, maybe with his darling by his side, but Pacheco’s cape catches the metal tip before the turnip faced man can even cock his arm back.

“And just what do you think you’re doing?” Pacheco says, tightening his grip on the stalks in his hand.

“Oh my goodness god… Please…” The Digger falls to his knees, loses his grip on the shovel. His hands tremble around his head, hesitant crab claws. “Dad hurds my head so, sirs.”

Pacheco can feel the stems going to pulp in his hand. “What did you do with the barkskin?”

Tears stream down the Digger’s cheeks. “Please, sirs…”

“Answer me!”

“I knows nudding of any bar kins, oh, pleases sir, please…”

“This ‘darling’ you speak of, did she have dark brown skin and white hair?”

“Yes, yes, shes hads browny, browny skins. And hair so preddy, so whide. Bud den she geds older, wrinkles like old mead in da hod, hod sun. She sdops dalking, and den I am da only one who speaks, undil dese wicked dinner guesds come, and she runs off wid dem. Oh, goodness god, please, it hurds…”

Pacheco takes in the Digger’s story for a moment. The facts seem to check out, considering what he himself had experienced the evening before. So it was the girl who stole his ship, it was without question, but she had joined up with two others, who may or may not have been dangerous. They apparently overcame the man with the flowers on his head, which did not seem to be an altogether difficult task. Without much resistance, Pacheco takes the shovel and throws it, before letting go of the stems. They flop over, the stems crushed to mush, a copious amount of chlorophyl leaking out of their broken skins and onto the Digger’s head. “Where were they headed?” Pacheco asks. The Digger sobs, prostrate, head tucked between his forearms, his hands gently fingering the damaged plants.

“Oh, sirs, please, I am jusd a humble old digger. I only makes holes here all by my lonesomes. Somedimes I find da monsders under the ground. Dey sleep, bud I hear dere dreams in my dreams. Dey wand do wakes up, you see. Dere dreams are like big waves dat are only gedding bigger and bigger, aboud do crash on da shore…Oh!”

The Digger’s fingers crunch under Pacheco’s boot. “Stop with this nonsense. Where was the barkskin headed?”

“Oh sirs, I do nod knows whad you are asking, oh, please, stop…”

“The girl! Your darling!”

“Oh, sirs, my dahling, I did nod ever tries to kills her. I loved her so, sirs, so, so much. She widdered away. She durned do a mummy, sirs.”

“Because you starved her of sunlight, you idiot.”

The Digger’s back shakes. He tries to move his head around to look up at Pacheco, but Pacheco’s foot keeps the Digger’s body from turning. His eyes are wide, turned so far to the right of their sockets that the blood vessels swell, looking ready to burst. “Bud she came backs, sir, even afder I dought she was dead. She came back to da waking life. Once dat man wid da red beard and da glowing skin shined so brighd, so brighd dat all da empdy basemend lid up, she came backs!”

“Is this the other man you spoke of, who she escaped with?”

“Yes, sirs, him and anudder man, an eensy beensy liddle man with tighd shord pands and sweady, longy hair, dey dook her away. Dey dook her to da big monsder you came here in, and flew aways!”

“So it was her! That crafty little wench,” Pacheco feels a series of neglected muscles tug at the corner of his mouth: he almost smiles. He hadn’t played a game of wits like this since his younger days at the academy, and he was, to his mutual disbelief and pleasure, that he was enjoying it. That barkskin was craftier than most Yamass he’d met. It was making things interesting.

“Yes sirs, id was my dahling. She was da one. Oh, sirs, please, my fingers hurd so much now, pleases, sirs, please…”

Pacheco takes his boot from the Digger’s hand, steps away. His brain whirs like a just-oiled sprocket in a dusty machine. He looks at the Oisin, which he managed to pilot through the Fade and back to this nearly wasted world. How did this simpleton know to lay blood on the ground like that to keep the Fade at bay?

“There’s something I’m missing here, something important,” Pacheco whispers to himself. He sips at the water tube in his helmet, and scrutinizes the curvature of the close horizon, the fog that wraps around the scrubland much like back at the Coral Islands.

The Digger hears him, and answers. “Da Fadesy is like da shadows. Id does nod like da blood of da sdories. My fadder told me so,”

“Who was your father? How did he know this?”

“My fadder is da big boss man. He runs da show. He said do me, said ‘You keep refreshin’ this here ring of blood, alright? Only thing keepin’ things as they ought to be.’” The Digger imitates a southern drawl perfectly, causing Pacheco’s one eyebrow to rise.

The sunken eye throbs, as it closely analyzes the ground directly beneath the wall of mist, the brown line in the sand. Pacheco walks up to it, crouches down to his haunches, picks at the sand. Again, Pacheco almost smiles. “Amazing, isn’t it? Done right, you can stop the antithesis of reality with a little hemoglobin and plasma.”

“Sirs, I know noddings of hemer goblins or spasms. Bud dis blood, id is da blood of old, old sdories, older dan da Fadesy, older dan all da worlds. Older dan Helios and Hyperion, even.”

“Older than Helios and Hyperion, you say?” Pacheco lets the sand run from between his fingers, back to the earth. He dismisses much of what the Digger says as the garbled nonsense of a recluse, but occasionally, there’s a specimen that sticks out, shines above the rest.

“What is your name?” Pacheco says.

“Oh, my poor, poor liddle name. Id is long forgodden, buried wid me when my fadder drew me oudda his kingdom.”

“You don’t remember your name?”

“No, sirs, bud da mens, dey called me da Digger, jusd likes you do, jusd likes I do. Dad is whad I does, afder all. Dig, and dig, and dig,” On and on he repeats the words. It’s a mantra that seems to take him somewhere, to far off holes that he once dug, to past treasures and future bounties.

“Da men, dey also calls me Narcissus. And it seems like it may be mys names.”

“Narcissus? Well, then, you’re an old one, aren’t you? I remember you from my childhood. I’d almost forgotten all about you.”

“Mosd peoples have forgodden, sirs. Dad is why I am here, you see. Dad is why I am lefd do dis. Nobodies remembers dis poor liddle Digger, cerdainly nod as I once was.” As worlds changed and empires rose and fell, the story of Narcissus evolved, or devolved, if your opinion was like Pacheco’s at that very moment. A story where obsession, death and tragedy were the underlying tenets had led to this, to a man who had loved himself into such a twisted, lowly being as the Digger.

“The men… tell me about the men she escaped with.”

“Well, da one, sirs, he has dighd liddle pands, and strong legs, bud is skinny, wid wild eyes. He was loud and sdarded all da troubles. Oh, sirs, dey was such bad troubles. And den da udder one, he fell asleep quicky quick, jusd one hid do da chin, and he fell on his rump. Bud afder da firsd man tells him da beginning of a sdory, an old sdory dat I dare nod say again, da second man goes boom! so brighd, likes I dold you, and da whole basement is lit up like da biggest fire I ever seen!”

“And what of the barkskin? The girl?”

“When da brighdly shining man shines even more brighdly, my dahling wakes up, quicky, and den dey all run off, leaving me all alones again.”

Pacheco’s cape snaps awake, wraps around the Digger’s throat, lifts him into the air. He shakes in the air like a wet napkin, kicks his feet. “Sirs, please!” The Digger coughs some wormy phlegm onto Pacheco’s torn cloak.

“You do realize you just aided and abetted to a serious crime against the nation of Yama Dempuur, do you not?! Do you not?!” Pacheco throws the Digger to the ground, loosening the cape’s hold on the man’s neck, but keeping him locked down to the earth. He has lost his temper, and doesn’t feel the Digger is worth him trying to keep it under control.

“I am so very sorry, sirs, bud I knows nod whad I did. Da men god free, den I ran fasd away afder dat. I dried do keep dems in da basement, bud dey were doo sdrong for me. I evens dried do sdop dem adop da hill, bud da shiney man, he send me flying drew da air, and I hurd my liddle heads. Wid da Fadesy coming, I wend and hid behind da rocks. I am so sorry, sirs. I wish I had sdopped dem!”

The Digger’s already white knuckles are like a set of bleached pearls, his fingers clawing at the rough fabric of the cloak. His face is a sunset reflected in a mud puddle, his mouth a row of desperate zipper teeth. Pacheco steps back, and his cape slinks back to its resting place on his back. Placidity washes over him.

“A sulphur skin. I thought the last of them had been seen when the mines of Icharia were lost to the Fade. Funny that one shows up here. And funny that Phyrxian was hijacked by not just a barkskin, but a sulphur skin as well. Next, you’ll tell me that the third man was an arm eater.” Pacheco thinks a moment, the tension returning to his face. “He wasn’t an arm eater, was he? Answer me man?”

“I… I do nod knows, sir…”

Pacheco hears the weakness in the man’s voice, and realizes that he’s had enough. He still has use of him, and doesn’t want to bruise him up too bad. “Do you believe in luck, Narcissus?”

His crushed stalks resemble a failed combover, drowned with pomade. The petals fall from the limp flowers, which frame the sides of his face. Narcissus, the Digger, caresses his throat, and croaks, “Yes, sirs.” Then, when he doesn’t get an immediate answer, asks, “Was dad da righd answer sirs?”

“Gather yourself up, and follow me. We have a lot of work to do.” The expeditionary leader turns, his cloak cracking in the quiet of the air as he does so. Rather than glide, Pacheco walks, so that Narcissus can stumble after him like a roach with a snapped leg. They both stop in front of the Oisin, which has been landed with hardly a grain of sandy soil or the leaf of a shrub disrupted. All that alludes to the barkskin’s prior crash is the coat of dirt on its nose. Otherwise, it is a bleached smooth ostrich’s egg, the windows and windshield engineered to be hidden from an outside observer’s view. Pacheco’s cloak pulls him back up to the hatch, and he goes inside, Narcissus watching anxiously from below him. Seconds pass, then Pacheco thrusts his head back out the open door, the thread-thin eyebrow above his good eye arched.

“I felt it.” Pacheco says.

“You feld whad, sirs?”

“The stories, or monsters, or whatever you call them. Buried around here. I thought you were crazy, but they’re really buried out there, aren’t they? And they’re hungry, aren’t they?”

“Yes, sirs, dey are very hungry, all of dem. Dey want to eats all of dis, jusd like da Fadesy.” The Digger starts to fidget in his oversized overalls. “Pleases, sir, led me go dig da holes. I have to keeps dem asleep, or else dey will wakes up, and dad will nod be good, no, nod ad all,”

Pacheco looks out into the scrubland, and hrumphs. “Be patient. There will be plenty of time for that.” Then he goes back in through the hatch. “Catch!” He yells from inside. A burlap sack gets tossed out, its revolutions placid, its arch, parabolic. Narcissus catches it, followed by the two heavy metal pipes which Pacheco throws after it. Pacheco leaps down from the hatch, and beckons the Digger to follow him. “You wanted to dig a hole? Then let’s go.”

“Oh boys, oh boys!” The Digger would clap his hands together if there weren’t things piled up to his nose. “We ged do pud da sdories do sleepsies again. Oh boy, oh boy,” Pacheco lets the Digger palaver on and on while he shuffles after him, balancing the poles, his shovel and the heavy bag in his arms. Pacheco looks into each hole as he passes, occasionally flipping up his eye patch and scanning the deepest recesses with an eye and an empty socket.

“Where are the stories, Narcissus?”

“I am nod sures, sirs. Dey haves to…” the Digger trips over his two feet, and comes down on his bony shoulder. The bag never leaves his arms, and stays hugged to his hollow chest despite the fall.

“Careful, you fool! There are…” Pacheco notices Narcissus’s aversion to a particular hole, its edges yellowed and decayed, an old wound on the earth. “What are you carrying on about? What’s the matter with that hole?”

“Id’s… Id’s nudding, sirs. Absoludely nudding ad all. Dis is jusd a hole, dat is all, jusd a hole dat I dug a long time ago. Nudding to sees here.”

“Liar,” Pacheco makes his way to the edge, gazes into the darkened recesses of the pit. “I can feel it too. Come, bring me the bag.”

Pacheco carefully, almost reverently, pulls a small machine from the contents of the sack. It’s no bigger than a human skull, a gun-metal cube. Two of its surfaces are grilled, and the corners extend out into extreme points. Pistons protrude like mechanistic quills from two of the other surfaces. It resembles a small engine, and that’s more or less exactly what it is. Following its removal from the bag is a series of tubing, which Pacheco puts on the ground, next to the lip of the pit.

“Get in.” Pacheco says.

“In da hole?” Narcissus asks.

“Yes. You have to dig for me.”

“Bud dere is already a deep hole heres, sirs.”

“We have to go deeper.”

The Digger swallows. “Deeper?”

“Yes, deeper, until you see it. And when you do, you will not kill it, no. You will insert this needle,” Pacheco lifts up one of the long pipes, twists it. A thin metal needle snaps out. “and then I will do the rest.”

Narcissus rubs his eyes with the back of his free hand, and sniffles. “Sirs, am I able to ead anyding now? I am so hungry.”

“You will eat after you dig up the story. The sooner you do that, the sooner you can eat.”

The Digger moans, and takes hesitant steps towards the hole. A draft comes up, and envelops the little man’s pudding face, cools the chlorophyl pussing from the cracked flower stalks. He hears a whisper, its timbre as deep and dark as the hole. Its like the voices of the shadows who slink around the night drenched highlands, their words sneaking in through a pair of unsuspecting ears and reverberating around the cranial cavity, overlapping echoes of varying delays, never able to be pinned down, reduced to their pernicious source. They want to drive you mad, and have yet to fail in their task. But the Digger can not understand what this particular whisper is saying. If they’re words, he doesn’t understand them. It’s an ancient story, he knows that, one of the oldest and most terrible.

Narcissus lifts himself down into the hole, afraid because he can not see the bottom. How deep could he have possibly dug? Not this far down, that’s for sure. His lower body is gone, consumed by shadow. He squints up, the silhouette of Pacheco walking about the edge, taking the poles apart, plunging the unpointed halves of them into the earth at opposite sides of the pit. Narcissus’s throat is dry, and he thinks of the stores of goods he has beneath his house, of the mirror with the tarnished gold frame, of the smokey crackle of the fire, meat juice trickling over his lips. He wishes he never left home this morning.

As if in reaction to Narcissus’s feet touching down on it, the ground hums. The drone throws the Digger up against the wall. “Sirs!” He screams. Pacheco rushes to the edge, sees nothing more than a little white onion in an oily puddle, the Digger’s scalp, sun-caked.

“What’s wrong?”

“Da ground, id’s shaking, id’s shaking!”

“Oh it is, is it?” Pacheco says. “That’s very interesting. Start digging.” The cloak, his wings, crack open as he turns around, and goes back to arranging the tools around the hole. Narcissus moves with trembly legs towards the center of the pit. The drone sends shockwaves through his legs, his hamstrings vibrating like tautly strung strings. He lifts the shovel above his head, and Pacheco sees it, like the cusp of a coral crown peering out of waves with long, seemingly still, troughs. The doctor hears the sound of the shovel tearing into the earth, and it’s like air escaping out of a punctured space vessel and into space. Narcissus tosses the dirt up and out of the hole, and proceeds to dig.

Pacheco finalizes his set up. The small machine has two wrapped copper wires running from it to the two poles, which Pacheco has planted straight up in the ground on opposite sides of the hole. Both poles have a tube that snakes from their tops into their second, disjointed halves, which have the long points of the needles retracted within them. Pacheco holds them in his hands, as he stands over the little machine, looking out into the small circle of desert, trying to reach out to any of the other stories which might be buried. Without his book, he’s doing this all by rote, but the pages are clear in his head, and it’s all second nature.

“Sirs! Sirs, I dinks I founds id! “ There is a layer of purple underneath the Digger’s feet, with clods of dirt dotting its surface. He can smell the old blood coursing underneath the purple skin, can already taste its sweetness on his tongue. The droning and the shaking are forgotten by the Digger, even if only for a few seconds, until they grow to such terrible heights that they consume his feeling of accomplishment and make him scramble to get out of the hole.

“Sirs, quick, I musd kill it now,” Narcissus says, clawing at the sides of the pit to grab Pacheco’s attention. But the scarred man only watches, jaw agape.

“No, Narcissus, we’re not killing it. Not at all. We’re letting it live. We’re letting it free.”

Narcissus throws down his shovel, and tries with both hands to get out of the pit. It’s deeper than he is tall, an extra half of him, and his chicken bone arms don’t have enough piston power to lift him.

“No, sirs, no, you do nod knows whad you ares doing! Id will come oud and kills us! Oh, I should have never lefd home today. Oh, woe is me, a poor, unfordunade Digger.”

Pacheco picks up one of the needles, weighs it in his hand. The purple skin that had been buried beneath the scrubland throbs, grows like a blister on a sandpapery tongue. The dirt from the hole sticks to it, the ground breaking as it grows. Pacheco raises the pipe to his good eye, aims it at the bubble. Blood vessels line its surface, a blood network, like an inverted globe with schizoid lines of latitude and longitude.

“Oh, goodness God,”

There’s a small latch on the side of the pole. Pacheco clicks it, and it fires.

The needle thunks into the swelling flesh. There’s a sound like a balloon deflating, then, beneath them, a basso profundo belching, that seems to stretch from one end of the highland all the way to the other. The belch subsides; the hole takes on the quietude of an empty church, and the Digger can hear his eye lashes brushing on each other as he blinks. The bubble of purple flesh is leaking, a thick crimson bordering on the gelatinous. The Digger seizes up the shovel as quickly as he can, bars his chest with the wooden handle, guarding himself. Eyes wide, he looks skyward. Pacheco gazes down at him, a length of tubing running through his hands, attaching itself to the needle.

“Don’t you even think about it.” Pacheco hisses.

“Bud sirs, sirs, I musd kill id. You do nod know whad will happen, if, if…”

Pacheco’s cloak wraps around the Digger’s neck, and pulls him up in one fluid arch. He sails through the air soundlessly, crumbling in a pile after bouncing on the ground once, twice. The good doctor turns back to the pit, to the tubing in his hand, now coursing with the blood from the monster’s flesh. It pumps in his padded gloves, past them and to the machine, which whirs with life, the photovoltaic cells on the back of it glowing with a ghostly light. Part of Pacheco’s findings in the Oisin were the packets of freeze dried algae, bioengineered to come to life once bathed with sunlight. Their cells were similar to that which lined a barkskin’s top two dermal layers. It enabled them to transform sunlight into a bottomless well of kinetic energy. They were a sort of battery that even a simple machine could utilize. Even the Fade.

There are a row of glass tubes within the machine. The colonel watches as they fill with a thick red liquid. Two full, then three. He sees dark, almost solid shapes swimming up the tube through the blood: clots. The wound is already healing itself, even with the needle embedded a foot beneath the skin. The machine begins to struggle and sputter; the clots must be suffocating the filters. The circumference of the hole puckers up, the sudden movement jostling Pacheco off his feet. The colonel looks down, sees the body of the beast buried beneath the earth, or at least a substantial part of it, all throbbing muscle and surface veins.

Pacheco scrambles for the machine, which has tilted on its side and has begun to make a gurgling sound. It’s drowning on the tubes of blood, which are spilling out onto the parched ground, drinking it up greedily. He lifts the machine back up to its right side, then cups his hand under the blood, letting it become a deep pool in his palm. Over his shoulder, the beast’s flesh is ballooning out of the pit, the earth cracking around it, lifting like the tongue of a shoe or a carpet being rolled up. Pacheco grits the teeth in his tiny mouth. He takes the blood in his palms and splashes it in his face. He then traces the symbol, the father and son spiraling around each other, Helios and Hyperion, on his high forehead. The blood has solidified quickly, become a black mask. A massive arm emerges from the hole, sinewy and hairless, covered in placental goo. It grasps at seemingly nothing in the sky, and then slams down to the ground, digging its fingers in, working to pull its body up and out. The beast’s hand is alone bigger than the colonel. Pacheco throws the empty tube away, grabs the next one, and quickly pours it on the ground, enclosing himself within a small circle. Pacheco steals a look at the Digger, who resembles the burlap sack he had brought the tubes and machine in, and lies in a lifeless heap a ways away. He watches as a stocky back breaks free of the earth, sending a hail of rocks through the sky and on his helmet. The back is wide, the purple skin stretched so tight it has the luster of rubber. A ridged vertebrae erupts out of the ground, a serrated hill between a set of massive shoulders.

Then the head emerges. Pacheco almost screams.

It is small, the eyes vacant, white and staring, the nose nothing more than a horizontal slit, the mouth a set of lipless, rectangular teeth, clenched tight. It is breathing hard through its nose slit as it continues to hoist itself up and out of the ground. Pacheco struggles the temptation to wipe the blood from his eyes; he doesn’t want to risk ruining the blood mask.

“Aak Aalok,” the beast says. Its voice sounds like its being transmitted through a wet scab, a wafting wet breath that cools the warm blood on Pacheco’s face, sulfurous, moribund.

“Aak Aalok, Hhak moltep.”

“I do not speak your language, demon,” Pacheco says, “But come! We have much to discuss. Or can you not writhe your grotesque self out of that measly little hole?”

The beast struggles with its submerged arm, finally tearing through the ground like wet cardboard, lifting it to the sky. While the first arm is packed with tight fitting muscles, the second is atrophied and malformed. Still, each seems as strong as the other, and the beast uses both to lift itself out from the ground.

“Moltep, moltep,” The beast says, it’s bloated stomach emerging from the ground. All around him, the earth falls to pieces, and float away, into the gray mist. It’s as if they’re at the center of a formative star, dust and gas swirling about their heads. The plot of earth that Pacheco stands on, within the circle of blood, remains in place. All around Moltep, the rocks and mist drift apart, revealing empty space, save for the oldest stars which the beast remembers and puts into the sky in all the right places. The earth falls away from the beast’s legs, short compared to the rest of its body, three times the size of Pacheco. Cirrus star dust twists around the beast’s head, it’s eyes glowing through, faint beams of light, barely realized, young and weak and smothered by darkness, coming forward, withered black hand reaching towards the man who released it. “Moltep,” It is not so much a spoken word as a sound that emanates from the world of the beast’s creation. Pacheco realizes that he’s slipped, that he’s somehow been hypnotized, that he’s dreaming.

“My mask is… the…” His mouth feels like flypaper, the words the carcasses of insects caught in the film. The beast, Moltep, takes a step towards him. The distance between them seems vast, but the beast all consuming, with the girth of a galaxy, that he’s already almost on top of Pacheco, ready to consume him.

“My mask is the… mirror… through which you see yourself.” Moltep’s hand, which swings through the air, stops in mid-air at the Colonel’s words. “It is made from the same blood which courses through your veins. I am the world you see, the world you create. I am the beginning for you, and the end. I am all, because I am you.”

The beast hesitates, seems to shrink. The earth around Pacheco’s circle in the ground returns. The sky, however, still remains populated with the sparse coat of ancient stars. “I bind you to me, Doctor Colonel Rolando Pacheco, Expeditionary Leader of the Phyrxian.” Pacheco practically rips his vocal cords out by shouting his title at the beast. He still has a tube in his hand, a quarter full of the black blood he drew from the needle. His arm cocks back, and then he launches the tube at the great beast.

“I bind you to me!” Pacheco repeats, as he throws the contents of the tube forward. Moltep reels at the impact, the blood smoking upon contact with the air, then catching fire after only a few moments. Moltep recoils as the blood splashing on its forehead is really a hammer, and falls to its knees quickly, squealing like a castrated pig. It tries to wipe the blood away, but it quickly pulls each of its hands away, as if the point of impact burns at the touch. Smoke rises, a purplish gray smoke, not unlike the hue of Pacheco’s skin. The release of the beast has affected the scrubland quite a bit. Much of the ground around the quaint little circle in the sand has broken off and now floats freely. The butte remains, as does most of the ground around it. I’ll have to fly towards this Moltep creature, Pacheco thinks. He goes to rush towards the beast, but his leg seems to be caught on something. He looks down. Wrapped around his ankle is the Digger, his grip a bear trap.

“What are you doing? Get off of me.” Pacheco says. His cloak becomes rigid at the frayed tip, and angles in between Narcissus’s arms and the colonel’s leg.

“Oh, no, sirs, please, please.” Narcissus sounds weak, hurt. He’s curled up like the fetus of a newborn bird, his eyes fleshy slits over swollen eye bulbs. Pacheco feels a twang of pity hit him in the temple, but quickly squashes it. He must get to the beast. He must finish binding it to him.

“If you don’t get off of me by your own accord, I will forcibly remove you.”

Narcissus feebly takes his hands off of Pacheco’s leg, but stays in the tall man’s shadow. He won’t retreat from the circle. Pacheco cracks his cloak, the loose fabric becoming stiff and straight, and he glides forward, Narcissus following his descent with a crescendoing moan. Pacheco nears the beast, notes how it’s hunkered down the same way the Digger is, although its withered arm does a poor job of hiding its smallish face. The blood on the beast’s head still smolders, the charcoal fuchsia now an acrid, sallow smoke. He looks in the creature’s eyes, the blank corneas tinged with a faint amarillo. He nods, and reaches his hand out to it. He wants Moltep to come to him, to trust him. The beast lifts its huge girth up off the ground, the definition of its dark, slimy skin getting lost in the blackness of the sky. Its eyes shine down like two small moons.

The Digger looks up, then quickly puts his clasped hands back over his eyes. He can’t believe what he sees. The beast, the sleeping story now awakened and walking the world, (his world!) has scraped the precious blue from the sky. It is now stars, dotty old stars, like a spider’s prey, made fat and tied up in an invisible web.

“Do you see, Narcissus? Do you see what has been sleeping beneath your feet? Don’t hide your face, you coward, there is nothing to be afraid of. The creature does exactly what I want it to. If I wanted it to tear you apart, all I’d have to do is think it. But we’re psychically connected. So my will, is its will.”

Pacheco walks back into the circle where the Digger cowers. He lifts the pallid man’s chin up with the hem of his cloak, to where their eyes meet. The colonel’s face cracks into a smirk. “As long as you do what I say, Narcissus, then we’ll have no problems. Yes?”

The Digger nods.

“Good. Now, let’s find us some more stories.”

“More sdories?! Bud, sirs…” Narcissus throws a hand up to his mouth, eyes the beast standing behind Pacheco. “Sirs, dese sdories, dey needs to eads someding. Dey will ead us evendually, no madder whad you dell dem.” He whispers.

“Fortunately, my friend, I’ve learned a few things in my travels, things which will help me in just such a situation as this. This blood mask, for instance. It acts almost as a mirror does for a young child, Narcissus. When it looks at me, all it sees is itself. Surely that’s an analogy you can relate to, yes? Blood: so bloated with symbolism, yes?Even at a primordial level, blood is a life force. The creature’s blood, as my mask, becomes a part of me, and I, a part of it. It grants me mastery over it.”

“You are da masder?”

“Yes, I am the master. It’s all in a book, you see, that I found once, long ago, when I was a young man. It was one of the first expeditionary voyages I had ever made, led by one of the greater explorers my people had ever known, Captain Lacko. We’d journeyed far through the Fade, farther than anyone had before, yet there had been heavy losses of men. I was the ship’s flight surgeon, and I quickly experienced how frail a yama’s body was. We couldn’t stay in the Fade for very long, but being so deep, so far away from any worlds that we knew, we didn’t have a choice. Many of my fellow soldiers succumbed to slow, painful deaths, and there was nothing I could do. It was only when we came out in a cold, forgotten ruin of a world, which had almost entirely been reclaimed by a thick, primeval jungle, did I find a solution, in the depths of what was once either a hospital or temple. It was a book, the title of which was ‘The Vulture and the Throne,’ or something to that effect. The book’s language was faintly familiar to Yamas, enough that I could decipher the meanings of its contents. A book of ritualistic science. Primitive alchemy, actually, but highly effective. Knowledge of the sort that Ameshka Vega had forgot generations ago.

“Through my background in science and medicine, I was able to glean a more profound understanding from many of the rituals depicted. The peoples who had once inhabited the ruins, depicted on the walls in stone carvings as bird-humanoids, had come by a powerful sort of knowledge. They had figured out, through bodily manipulation, how to traverse time and space. They didn’t need vast Earthly resources, and neither did they propose procedures which had negative energy returns. Whatever their input, they received an equal output. They used their vital life forces, such as blood and air, to reshape reality, and fix it to their own needs.

“As I read further, I saw just how I could save the rest of my ailing crew, how I could help them survive and delve even deeper into the Fade. My task was immense: I had to replace a portion of their blood with chaos, exchange the liquid of life for that of madness. It was quite something to try and wrap my head around, to make tangible a concept such as chaos. But the book laid out the procedure for me to follow, and there wasn’t much time for me to grasp it all. In my hastiness, I only saw one way to perform the procedure, and couldn’t think of any alternatives or delve further into the book. It’s why I am missing an eye, Narcissus. It’s why I have to wear this unsightly patch. I made the sacrifice, you see, one measly eye for the power of extra-dimensional sight. It’s what we needed to go further into the Fade, you see, to find the paths that had been right under our noses, but hidden to our plebeian senses. This empty eye socket is much like the holes you carve into the earth’s flesh, only this one has a rim of withered skin, tightly bound to an empty socket, and cannot look away when terror rears its awful head. For the way deeper into the Fade, the paths that our new sight would see, were those of madness.

“I had to cut my eye up after removing it from my head, as the three dimensions it had been privy to were being exchanged for tens of dozens more. It made sense, in a twisted sort of way. I then placed the pieces at all the points of a drawing I had made in the sand, my body numb with anesthesia. The drawing was of a series of overlapping triangles, and at the center, I placed my surgeon’s table. From this perspective, I could reframe each of my patient’s understanding of reality, one by one. First, I suppressed each man’s hematological regenerative capabilities, to make room for the darkness that would inhabit them. As I read aloud from the book, and got the levels of their blood to the proper levels, the triangles in the sand floated up, changing the world around us. Everything became sharper, more angular. Suddenly, reality was all straight lines and doorways.

“I returned to Yama Dempuur a hero for having found a way to surpass our Yamas limitations, but no one was savvy to the truth. For, you see, I never told anyone of the book that I found, that its drawings and diagrams were what granted me my insight. It was an externality that I kept secret all this time, my eye the only thing which has scanned its pages. Of course they saw how grotesque we had all become, how all of our bodies developed a purplish hue and had grown gaunt, but they were too wrapped up in what we had accomplished. They wouldn’t even listen to Lacko’s diatribes, at how I had unlocked some dark force and had compromised the ethics of Ameshka Vega. He faded away into drink and ignominy, and only stories of his younger days survive.”

“Bud sirs, den why do you dells me, a poor, unfordunade Digger?”

“Because I no longer have the book, damn you. It’s in the ship! Phyrxian! The barkskin has it now.” Narcissus cowers under Pacheco’s glowering voice. Moltep the beast rears up, its shadow blanketing the butte in a heavy veil of darkness.

“Fortunately, I know many of its pages, down to every line and diagram. One in particular begs me to perform it, right here, now. It will bring that damned barkskin back to us, no matter how far in the Fade she has escaped. It’s a bridge building ritual, you see. It’s primitive, and I’ll have to do it from memory, but they’re in the Fade now, where nothing at all exists. Their senses of reality will already be taxed, and it shouldn’t be too hard to draw her back to me. Those two men she’s with, they almost undoubtably have no idea how to cope with the Fade, and will most likely make their attachment to reality loose as it is.”

The beast reaches its great arm up into the obsidian sky, its stars like great holes made by raspy moth teeth. The muscles rush down, stop atop the Digger’s discarded shovel. As if it’s picking a flea off its skin, it lifts the shovel off the ground, and drops it on Narcissus’s lap. The Digger looks up, starts shaking his head as Pacheco smiles.

“No, no, no, please, sirs, oh no, no…”

“Yes, Narcissus. Dig me another hole.”

[] Chapter VIII: “The Gaping Maw”

 

 

Clack goes the door, and then with a wolfish intake of breath, the ship sucks us up. The lights around us spark, melon-sized comets, dying quick but succeeded by brighter and brighter flashes until the lines of our faces are blurred pasty white, as if we’re all shining like Crick was, startlingly blinding. Amara’s hair whips around her face, and I see her smile for the first time since Crick revived her. Maybe it’s the lightness in my stomach as we fly upwards, higher and higher into the ship, but I can’t looking at her. Her eyes are unlike any I’ve seen before, a neon blue, and her dreaded hair has bright fabric weaved into it. She’s beautiful, like a dream you don’t want to end, where your heart is already aching because it must and you know it.

Suddenly, we’re still, at the center of a breath, floating in a soundless white expanse, three dirty, tired souls suspended in a soft luminescence. Gravity wraps its gentle fingers around my ankles, slowly begins to pull me down. My feet touch down, then Crick’s, then Amara’s, her bare feet landing without a sound. There is no sign of the passageway we flew up. The room we are in is dome-like, with a smooth white wall. There are no doors or windows, or even sconces for the lights.

“Phyrxian!” Amara’s voice echoes back as if on the tips of a boomerang. The echo keeps building on itself, until it’s so loud that Crick covers his ears and I’m scrunching my head into my shoulders. Then it’s gone, passing into the other direction. The white light in the room dims, becomes gray, then dark blue. The smoothness of the wall has faded with the light, and now looks like a squirming carpet of veinous worms, all trying to burrow deeper into a soft, fertile loam.

“What is this place?” I say.

“This is Phyrxian. It is yama man ink ship.” Amara says. “Phyrxian, this is Amara Mona, voice code H3449 Violet.” The floor we’re on has gone from white to a hard, dark gray, like pencil lead. “Yama man doctor must have changed the voice code.”

“What? What’s wrong?” Crick sits down on the ground. He doesn’t look like he can take much more.

“Nothing. There is another way to the control room. Come on, we have to move quick. Yama man will notice I am not in the Oisin and will come back for us.”

She runs towards the wall, beckoning for us to follow her. Crick waves me ahead, but I can’t leave him behind. His breathing is short as I get him to his feet. “So this yama guy is bad news, I get that. But who is he?” I ask Amara. “You’re all from other worlds? Like, aliens, or something? I’ve never seen anything like this ship, or you, for that matter.”

Amara is at the wall, feeling around her pocket, deep in thought. “His name is Rolando Pacheco. He is from the walking city, Yama Dempuur,” I get to the wall just as Amara pulls a slender hand from a hidden pocket in her dress, revealing a small turquoise rock in her palm. “We are all from other worlds, Will, from different parts of teh spiral.” She closes that hand into a sun-baked fist, and lays the knuckles on the squirming wall’s surface. Almost immediately, the wall creates a whirlpool of thin, black worms around her wrist, then consumes it.

It’s when she begins to moan and squirm that I realize something is wrong. “Amara?” I say, looking from her to the wall to her again. Her moans are growing louder and louder, bordering on the verge of screams. “Amara!” I yell, finally realizing that this wasn’t part of her plan. I grab her submerged arm around the elbow and pull. Crick crackles back to life, his boatyard muscles tightening like tank pistons beneath snow. Without hesitation, and with a newfound strength, he grabs her around the waist and begins to pull as well. The wall finally releases her, and we all fall back in a pile of limbs. The wind gets knocked out of me as I crash to the floor, but I still feel Amara as she lands atop of me. I can feel the hardness of her hip bones through the spandex of my bike shorts, as they dig into my thighs. “Are you alright?” I ask.

“Yes,” She’s straddling my stomach, her hair a curtain of weeping willow branches, shining silver in the low light. “Are you?” She asks. The wall she placed the stone within clicks in tandem with my nodding head. We hold each other’s gaze, her body nestled on mine like water along the curvature of a balloon.

“There’s a door.” Crick says, snapping me back to reality. He combs through the crust in his beard with one hand, and points with the other at the large set of stone doors that have appeared in the wall. Amara smiles at me shyly, then gets up and moves towards them. “That small stone… it was a key?” Crick says, his brow hanging heavy over his watchful eyes.

“It was an empathy stone,” She says. “One of the few things I have left from home, from the Coral Islands. Ma’atha use them for much. In marriage, these stones cement the love between two people. In disputes, the stones make just agreements possible. They bond minds together.”

“So that stone bonded our mind to this ship’s?” I ask, coming up to the doors with Crick. “This ship, Phyrxian, is a… person?”

“A person? No, but it is alive. It is capable of feeling and perception. It sees and knows, and acts like a world too. That is how it moves through the Fade. Yama man make these ships with magic they knew long ago,” The blue walls glow softly, as if agreeing with what the girl is saying, from dark blue to a deep, leafy green. Amara puts her right hand on the softly squirming wall, and nods to us to do the same. My spread fingers sink slightly into the warm, squirming wall.

“It needs to make sure you do not mean it harm,” Amara says.

“We have a pond back home, and every summer, there’s this carpet of algae that runs along the shoreline. As I kid, I used to pick it up and run it between my fingers. It feels like that,” There are eight scenes carved into the door, reliefs of some sort of ceremony. The central figure in the carvings is a tall, stern man with a long cape. He performs operations on other, smaller men while reading from a book. In one scene, he is tearing the heart out of one of the smaller men. In another, he is drinking the blood that pours from an eviscerated man’s gut. Though they’re only carvings, they send the hairs on my neck to standing up. But then, the doors open, as fast as a magician pulling off a tablecloth. We follow Amara as she runs inside, though I can only go as fast as Crick, his arm being draped over my shoulder.

“Algae?” She sounds amused, calling back to me, as we enter into a long tube, flickering with a slow phosphorescence. “The scholar say that the ink ships have skin like algae. Cyanophythic skin, he say. It stores much energy, each of its cells like a bottomless well. With this energy, it can make an electromagnetic field, which keeps the gray wave from swallowing it up. The scholar taught me all this. He say we would be a happier people if yama man forgot the ink ship magic like he did many things after the Great Schism. Many Ma’atha, my family and friends, would still be alive if they did not become conduits.”

The walls of the tube are clear, an aquatic world of bubbles and ferns swimming on the other side of them. A long black shape flutters by, its movement like an eel’s, its nose pointed and long.

“What is that?” I say.

“I saw it, too.” Crick says. “Some creature_”

“Look, I’ll say this as nicely as I can, but we’re trying to outrace two really bad things right now: the Fade and Dr. Pacheco. And if we don’t get this ship off the ground soon, and I mean now, one of them will catch up with us. It doesn’t even matter which, because either way, we’re dead.”

“That man outside. That’s…”

“That’s Pacheco. Doctor and Hyperion hunter. Decorated lieutenant with all the bells and whistles, but he operates on his own agenda. He’s a megalomaniacal madman, and is not going to be happy that I hi-jacked his ship again.”

“You already stole this before?”

“No, not this ship. The Oisin, the little lifeboat I escaped from Phyrxian with.” The tube runs perpendicular into another; at the far right end of the new tube I can see light, and hear the humming and grinding of machines. “You probably saw the Oisin. It was what Pacheco was running to, when we were running towards Phyrxian. He wanted to find me in there, drag me out and put me back into the engine of this ship. You see, without me, he can’t travel the Fade. Not for long, anyways. Here, hurry!” Amara pulls ahead, sprinting for the lighted room at the end of the tube.

Crick’s face is washed-out tired; I can tell he doesn’t have much left to give. He’s struggling to move forward, but his steps are dragging. He’s been keeping his left forearm on the glass of the tube to steady himself, fresh blood a long brush stroke on the glass, his collarbone wounds oozing open from exertion. His pallid skin shines like rice wine on a porcelain plate.

“Crick, are you…”

“Go ahead, Will. Just, go. You got to… save yourself…”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not leaving you. Come on, we’re almost there.”

Amara turns in the doorway of the lit up room. She’s a silhouette, light streaming around her limbs. “Hurry!” She screams.

“He’s hurt,”

“I know, but there’s not time. Pick him up and bring him in here. We have to take off, and now!”

Crick’s arm is all stocky muscle, hangs like a limp seal over my shoulders.

“I got you, big guy.” He shuffles along until we make it through the doorway at the end of the tube. There are two columns of blinking lights at opposing corners of the room, square stacks of metal boxes. The room is the shape and color of a bleached egg, with a visual of the Digger’s wasteland stretched along one of the oblong walls. In the middle of it all, is a leather chair, which Amara has seated herself in. Two skeletal robot arms, with piston elbows and loose hosing for ligaments, hang from the ceiling, each hand spiked with a long needle.

“Get in here.” Amara says. The door slides shut behind me as I shuffle in with Crick around my neck.

“Ever wonder how a piece of lettuce feels as it’s passed through your bowels?”

I shake my head.

“Well, you’re about to find out.” She says. As if on cue, the two machines whir around, their needles poised over Amara’s outstretched arms. Then they plunge down, the needles with audible thunks as they go into her veins.

Amara screams. Crick slumps to the floor, his legs folded over one another like a teddy bear, my legs growing weak as I see the blood rushing up the lengths of the needle, through the hosing and into Phyrxian’s far off belly.

“Oh my god…”

“I’m okay, Will. Phyrxian needs the energy I get from sunlight in order to fly through the Fade. It’s a sick little ingenious invention of Yama Dempuur. Now listen, go by the screen. Okay, okay, now pinch your thumb and forefinger together, and then slowly pull them apart. Slowly. That’s it, that’s it. Okay, now that screen that appeared, pull it apart with your hands, make it bigger. See the green light? Slide it over to the yellow, er, no, the red. Okay, okay, good. God damn, I forgot how much this hurts.”

The ship lurches, and as it does, my ears ring with a sound of breaking glass from all around me.

“The Fade… it’s on us. This world is… done for…” Phyrxian violently shakes. The lights on the two columns burn brightly, moon rings of color dilating as the ship rises into the air, as the Fade eats up the wasteland outside, and washes over us. The visual of the wasteland cracks like a ceramic saucer dropped to the floor. One by one, the broken pieces are eaten up by the red lightning that crackles atop the Fade’s gray surface.

In the midst of the neon red lightning, Phyrxian’s black tendrils reach, grasping for a jagged piece of time and space before it is consumed by the Fade. The tendril is the only thing that has real dimension; the gray is simply nothingness, infinitely vast but depthless. The red lightning crackles with a half-realized quality to it, like aged 35mm film, but as the first of Phyrxian’s tendrils wraps its inkiness around a piece of cracked reality, the piece grows more real, like a sharpened piece of flint, an arrowhead. The other pieces slip under the surface of the gray, as does the red lightning, until it’s only the Fade on the screen’s surface, with Phyrxian’s tendril holding the piece of the wasteland in the bottom left corner.

“That was close,” Amara says.

“No kidding, that was close. But now what? Where are we going?”

“We go deep into the Fade, until we come out on somewhere else.”

“Well, that’s just great. Vague, as usual, and I don’t understand a thing… oh god, Crick!” The jostling of the ship must have thrown Crick about, because he lies in a tangled heap in a sullied corner of the white room. There’s blood on the walls and dirt from his boots, as if to say, ‘this spot is reserved for a man whose had a really tough time out there.’ Even the comatose man’s beard has faded, from a merry orange to an otter’s slick winter coat. I hold his head in my hands, unsure of what to do.

“I’m just a bike mechanic, goddamn it,” But my excuses aren’t going to help matters. His cheeks are drawn, the skin weather beaten with the tightness of polished wood, a coffin lid. It’s a face I’ve seen before, a mask that all men must wear in the throes of death and dying. He looks like my dad.

“I can’t imagine him dying from his wounds. He couldn’t have lost that much blood.” Amara says. The whirring of the needles sound like buzz saws on fresh cedar.

“It might not even be the blood. It might be all that… stuff he did. All that light.”

Amara is quiet for a moment. She makes a pained swallowing sound, then, “So many different beings and worlds. One can never know the different shapes life will take on, what different abilities and powers.”

“I thought I kind of got it. I mean, before all this. I thought I had a good handle on how life worked.” Hyper awareness crowds at the corners of my eye, and I’m washed over with a helpless sort of prescience, akin to that which occasionally meets you at the border of sleep and wakefulness. Suddenly, there’s the winter, the big hole yawning, the blue tarpaulin flapping in the wind. I see the fireplace, the orange reflecting on the creamy white paint, the wall billowing like a brahmin’s robe.

I find it hard to shake awake.

“Hey!” Amara’s voice brings me back to the ship, to the needles suckling on her veins, to Crick’s head in my lap. “Don’t lose it. You’re in the Fade now. You have to be extra vigilant. You let your concentration slip, and you’ll lose yourself. There’s all this detritus floating around us, grasping on to the ship, the last remnants of destroyed worlds. Even Phyrxian has to hold on to something. It has the piece of earth from the wasteland in one of it’s tendrils. See? It keeps Phyrxian grounded, keeps it from being consumed by the nothingness all around us.”

“How do I ground myself?” I sound like I’m sleep talking.

“Just stay focused on the here and now. Stay focused on my voice, on the ship.”

“What about Crick?”

“You have to wake him up. Dreaming in the Fade is dangerous business.”

I pat Crick’s cheek a few times, with nothing but nothing happens but his head rocking back and forth. I look to Amara, who watches with a consternated bend in her brow. “Hit him harder,” She says, so I do. It takes two hard slaps, but a moan trickles from Crick’s lips, and his eyes crack open. His teeth are lacquered black with dried blood.

“William?” His eyes tear up. “Who am I?”

“Crick! You’re Crick!” Amara yells. “Don’t doubt it, don’t lose it! Hold on to what you said, whatever you do. Doubt’s a bad road to go down in the Fade. Please, trust me.”

“Doubt…” Crick mumbles, saliva leaking from the sides of his mouth. It trickles out in an unbroken line, just like the blood in the scene on the door, which had been carved as a mere line pouring from a small man’s open stomach into the caped man’s waiting cup. As I think on the door, and what the sequence of carvings could have meant, I also notice that there is an additional presence in the room other than Amara, myself and Crick. It seems to creep in like a cold fog, but it’s invisible, and almost imperceptible. Actually, I feel like I have to be slipping a bit in my concentration to even realize it’s there.

“What is Yama Dempuur?” I ask, though I’m not sure why. Something moves me to pose the question.

“What? Not now, Will. Stay with it.”

“But you’ve mentioned it before.” My voice doesn’t even sound like my own. “I’d really like to know more about it.”

“Fine. It was the walking city. The last vestige of a once great empire, made up of the descendants of the people who tried, and failed, to imprison Hyperion for their own purposes. They figured out the way to the center of it all, to where father and son, Helios and Hyperion, spun around each other perpetually and forever, in a perfect balance. The force at the center of all existence, from the smallest atom to the most enlightened mind, Helios and Hyperion were the foundations of all space and time, knowledge and ideas.

“The Yamass thought if they harnessed Helios and Hyperion, that they’d have control over reality and creation. They could manipulate the very framework of existence as they saw fit. Unfortunately, once they removed Hyperion from the orbit and imprisoned him in a mechanical suit the size of the Coral Islands, the spin was disrupted, Helios crashed and faded, and reality cracked,”

“The Fade…” Crick whispers. “Helios… Hyperion…”

“The Fade,” Amara continues. “Nothingness, the absence of the dynamism that propels life and existence forward, came into being.” She’s talking fast, manic, the story like a chant. “A paradox of sorts, but so are the times we live in. The end of days, the end of worlds. The Yamass, the great explorers of time and space that they were, relied on hubris instead of foresight and good judgement when they split Helios and Hyperion apart. Most of the worlds that they had mapped out in the great framework of reality and the bridges that connected them are washed away now, consumed by the Fade. Only barely realized vestiges of worlds remain, like the Digger’s wasteland, or the Coral Islands, my home.

“Yama Dempuur roams around the burnt out remains of its world, a walking city, constantly on the watch for the Fade, always ready to outrun it. It isn’t quite alive, like Phyrxian, but it has some biological properties, or so I am told. When it is airborne and not touching the ground, it can traverse the Fade unscathed. It has six great legs, and looks like a beetle. Under its dome lies the city. It is where many of my people, the Ma’atha, or who the Yamass call ‘barkskins,’ spend their lives, subjected to life in ghettoes and indentured servitude.

“It’s pounded into each barkskin’s head that becoming a conduit in a Hyperion hunter’s ship is the most noble of callings. But there are a few of us who see beyond this brainwashing. The scholar showed me the truth. What else are we Ma’atha doing but giving ourselves up these missions meant to find Hyperion in his mecha so that they can then find Helios, and bind them both, and reclaim some unrealized past glory… God it’s all so crazy. All of them, every last one of them, from the majority who live these lavish lifestyles as kept aristocrats of unblemished bloodlines, to the few who answer the calling of the military, who traverse the Fade in ships like Phyrxian, searching for the lost route to the center of it all, for the lost Helios and Hyperion, in his giant armor…”

“What you gonna do with me?” Crick yells, his words slurring. But he snaps me back from sleep, where Amara’s story had almost sent me, and from which I may not have returned.

“He’s… he’s delirious. He needs water.”

“Hopefully, wherever we’re going, there’ll be some. Phyrxian’s coordinates seem to be for a world deep, deep in the Fade. Pacheco must have made a breakthrough in his navigating, but he sure as hell couldn’t go anywhere without a barkskin to power his ship.”

She lies…” A voice says from somewhere deep in the ship.

“What was that?” I say.

“What was what?”

She’s full of lies…” The same voice says, but closer, now in the room, floating around my head, whispering into my ear. It has a hypnotizing effect.

“You lie,” I say.

“What?” Her lips make the shape, but there’s only silence, except that same raspy voice, now firmly implanted in my mind.

Come to me...” it says. I look at Crick, who has crawled out from my cradling hands. I haven’t even noticed him moving away from me. He’s taken refuge against one of the walls, his head between his legs. He’s muttering to himself, and oddly enough, I can hear him. His and the beckoning voice melt together, making the otherwise silent air tremble around them.

“No, no, no… I am, I am, I am…” His voice brings light to the cabin, like a streetlight coming on as dusk slowly settles. I hadn’t even realized it was growing darker. Amara looks at me, her eyes wide and panicked.

“What’s happening?” I can hear her again. It’s like I’m coming out of a drunken stupor but still don’t have any control over my legs. “Will! Don’t go too far with your thoughts. Look, you still have to find substance in Phyrxian, in me. Don’t lose it.”

Come to me…” The voice sounds like thunder over an orange plain, a scrubland of plump echeveria and tumbleweeds. I close my eyes, try to shake it from my head. Amara yells out my name, but she’s only shimmering wind chimes beneath the roar of a hurricane. And I see it, the Digger’s wasteland, only it’s like I’m looking at the sand through a fishbowl, and the sky is all stars and bright blackness, with streaks of azure run through it. Clouds, like torn cotton, wisp across the sky, like they’re being pulled down a drain.

I shake my head, and the scene flashes, cracks appearing. I’m trying to get away from here, to get back to the ship, but something won’t let me go. The wasteland becomes a broken funhouse mirror. In one of the pieces of glass, I see him, a tall man, with ruddy purple skin, an eye patch and no lips. His clothes are heavy and defined, a black suit of armor. But it’s his cape that is most striking. As the figure moves from one piece of glass to the next, the cape contorts into shapes on his back, first a set of bat wings, then a spiked ridgeback. He’s the man from the carvings in the door, the man who ate the hearts of the smaller men and drank their blood.

Come to me…” Pacheco says again, his vocal cords caked in mausoleum dust. “Come to me…” The cracks in the mirror fall away like pieces of thread, and the man is standing before me, his boots chalked with orange, the cloak loosely draped over his chest and hanging from his back, the tattered ends tapping their frayed tips on the wind.

Amara is screaming, but I can’t see her. Her voice is quickly eaten up by the wind, which is rising in intensity. I’m reminded of the time I was in the flats of Missouri, two weeks before New Mexico, when the sky turned green. I was by a town called Poplar Bluff and I thought a twister was going to touch down. Wipe me and my bike clear out of the midwest. The wind kept rising, and keeps rising now, ripping at the man’s cloak, clouds torn asunder, flayed cirrus.

Pacheco. It’s him, Hyperion hunter, Yama Dempuurn expeditionary leader, with all the bells and whistles Amara was talking about. Pacheco, with his terrible, withered face. He looks at me as if he hates me more than anything, before putting his thumbs under his jaw and unhinging it. His mouth stretches open, a snake’s, a gaping maw. His eye gets buried under folds of flesh, while the skin around his lips cracks as it stretches wider and wider. There’s an echo from deep within his mouth, like a furnace breathing to life in the bowels of a basement. The wind changes, starts pulling me towards the mouth, the lower jaw hanging down by his navel.

“You really just going to go with him, kid?”

Straining, I turn my head around. “Dad?”

“The one and only.” He takes the cigarette from his mouth, crushes it beneath his Carhart boots. He’s shirtless, his ribs like xylophone bars. The U.S. Coast Guard hat is still on his head, and his jeans are faded somewhere between a whale’s skin and the bones underneath.

“Dad, you have to help me…”

“Don’t worry. Just stay focused on me, and you’ll be…”

COME…” My Dad fades out, replaced by Pacheco’s mouth. It takes up the entirety of the sky, gray gums leading to a bottomless well of darkness.

“Whoa, Will, hey! Turn around, kid!” My neck muscles react like a lawn sprinkler to my Dad’s voice, as if at odds with itself. “Hey, that was a close call. That guy, that Pacheco, he’s a conniving one. Won’t eat your skin like that last guy, but will probably kill you pretty quick, just the same. He wants that girl you’re with. What’s her name?”

“Amara Mona.”

“Beautiful. Now listen. This, all this, is real. You can’t doubt it anymore. That guy you’re traveling with, be careful around him, alright? He may have got you out of that pickle you were in, but I don’t think you can trust him as far as you can throw him.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that before?”

“Well, I was in a land of dying, Will. I wasn’t at my best. The only thing I can really do there is whisper the truth, anyways. Haven’t you noticed I look a lot better?”

“Yeah, well, you’re still really skinny.”

“Look who’s talking. You eat anything at all on this bike trip?”

“Anything I want, actually. I had Fig Newtons, milk and a box of Cheerios for dinner last night. And this morning I had the best, most greasy omelette I think I’ve ever had.”

“Doused it with ketchup, I bet, like you did with most things. Fries, hamburgers, eggs. Your mom used to say, ‘you want some eggs with your ketchup?’ You might not remember this, but, okay, when you were a kid, we used to go out to the henhouse, and you used to have to pick all the eggs up in a particular order. You couldn’t just put ‘em in a basket. No, it was important which one came first, second, third. And you’d be humming this tune to yourself, and I asked you once, I said, ‘Will, what are you singing there under your breath,’ and you just look up at me, with those big eyes you had as a kid, and you just start speaking nonsense. All nonsense. So what do I do? Well, I start speaking nonsense back…”

After collecting all the eggs, my dad would close the door on the dusty coop and then we’d walk back down the gravel to the house. My Dad held my hand in his, the roughness of his hand like warm wool on my skin. Our nonsense talk made sense to me. I felt the words came from somewhere far off, and had meaning. They connected everything together, and made it all fit. They clicked together in perfect harmony, the perfect language between me and my Dad and the world we lived in.

I’m back in front of the house, having just collected the eggs. The memory is so vivid, I can see the brown lines between my father’s teeth as he smiles and laughs. He lifts me up in his arms, my hands wrapped around the handle of the basket full of eggs. The sun licks up from behind the house and catches me in the eyes. I squint, and my grip slackens. I can feel an egg come loose, and fall to the driveway below.

Two loose chickens run over, and immediately start to peck at the yolk. I look at my father, concerned. “Da Nava Da Nava Di?” I say.

“Dibayanda Do.” He says.

This is all real.

I look back at the broken egg, and the yolk isn’t yellow anymore, but black. The membrane has broken, and it’s spreading on the ground, like a stream of cooling lava. The gravel has turned orange and sandy, and the chickens are dead. Their lifeless beaks are hooked to the oozing black yolk, which proceeds over their faces and necks and bodies. Soon, their bodies are completely lost, as the yolk grows so large it is now a gaping hole with rows of blunted molars and incisors appearing at its edges.

“Dad…” But he’s no longer there. It’s only me, as a child, crying as the mouth rises up from the sand, unhinging itself further and further, until there’s nothing but blackness and a putrid wind pulling me in towards it. I lose my footing on the ground and I’m falling, falling…

“Dibayanda Do,” I say, and am consumed.

[] Chapter IX: “Lady Magdala”

 

 

“Lady Magdala,” Hiro’s doublet is scorched, with several small tears running through the green spider sigil in its middle. “The enemy is ascending through Denala’s Pass. They’ve taken Mossbrook township, and will have made it to the Frost Bridge by evening, at the rate they are moving. Their leader_” A horn sounds from the other end of the long chamber, interrupting Hiro’s report. The note it holds out is sleepy and sensuous, quite unlike the war trumpets that have been sounding for the past two days. When it stops, the man removes the saxophone’s mouthpiece from his lips, and nudges his derby hat up from his hairline. Between the long waxed hairs of his red beard are a set of crooked teeth bent up in a smile.

“Thank you, Hiro. That will be all.” I raise my fist to the steward who has ridden with such haste all the way from Denala’s Pass, knuckles facing forward. It’s the sign of the spider, and dismisses the steward from the chamber. “Vindler, approach.” Vindler nods at Hiro as he saunters up to the throne, swishing the wooden reed from one side of his mouth to the other. His eyes are deep set and a brilliant hue of violet, his skin fair and freckled. He’s come seeking an audience, and since he is the watcher of the bridge which the enemy forces are moving towards, he’ll get it. “What news do you have from the bridge?”

“Frosty is just fine, my lady. The fighting has yet to reach it,” Vindler drops to one knee when he’s at the steps to the throne, revealing a pair of brightly striped socks that contrast sharply with his more subdued attire. His shirt is starched and ironed, hanging from his thin body with a modicum of breathing room and strapped with a pair of snug suspenders. While the rest of the kingdom wears hemp and chain-mail, Vindler is a jazzman, and dresses as such. “I think your steward had it right, though. These men will make it to the bridge by evening. They’re moving fast, with these bracelets on their wrists which project electricity. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even with their being just a handful of them, they’ll make it to the stronghold, of that I’ve no doubt. These men are brutal, and they’ve come here to destroy Qani Dariel.”

“I don’t think so, Vindler. They’ve come here for more than that.” I rise up off the wooden throne, fashioned out of the trunk of the first redwood felled in the Qani Dariel when I settled it many moons ago. The jazzman’s eyes widen as I stand, and his eyebrows, as thick and bushy as wooly bears, raise. It’s a reaction I’ve grown accustomed to. No one else in the Qani Dariel has six arms, or stands as tall as I do. My platinum armor draws awe as well, especially in the audience chamber, where the sunlight streams through a dozen stained glass windows and reflects off of it in brilliant colors.

“Forgive me, my lady. I don’t mean to stare.” He fidgets with his saxophone nervously. “Do you believe that this is part of what your brother prophesied?”

“It was not prophesy, Vindler. Time to my brother does not exist as it does to other beings. The past and the future exist in the present for him. He knows all as if it has already happened, the beginning, middle and end of all things.”

“Of course, Lady Magdala. He’s told me all about what he can do. Whenever I can get over to Arcadia with some of my brew, he likes to sit me down and tell me all manner of interesting tales.”

“Then you might know that he has a great plan. I believe this is part of it. He knew this moment would come, and that I had to be ready for it. Come, walk with me, and I’ll explain more.” Vindler follows as I make my way for the door he came through, trading the chamber’s dimness for the brightness of the day. The view from the battlements is expansive. With the stronghold being built at the top of a steep hill, the tops of the trees can be seen stretching for several leagues in every direction. To the south is a plume of black smoke. It’s a little farther off than the Frost Bridge and Vindler’s Mad Brigadier, the only ale house in the Qani Dariel. It’s the men who’ve come from the walking city at the end of time, destroying the forest with their gloves of blue lightning. Pilot told me they would come.

My brother, Pilot, sees things. All things. For this particular affliction, wine is his palliative of choice, though he also enjoys Vindler’s home-brewed mead. Pilot’s power of omniscience is one he wishes he did not have, one he is constantly trying to escape from. He’s lived at the bottom of a bottle since we parted ways long ago, he settling in Arcadia, and I in Qani Dariel. I don’t imbibe. I’d rather settle my problems in the open where they’re more manageable, and not sweep them under the rug where they could fester and grow. This plume of smoke to the south must not grow. We must stop them.

“There are five or six of them, we think,” Vindler tells me, his fingers absentmindedly tapping on the knobs of his saxophone. He came to the Qani Dariel before my stronghold’s foundation had even been laid. I was young then, and intrigued by this mustachioed man in his suit and polished tappers. He had been part of a forgotten song, he told me, and had ridden its melody all the way to Qani Dariel from somewhere far away. I’d heard talk of his battle prowess, and that he was capable of performing amazing feats with his instrument. In all the years I’d known him, I’d never seen him do anything with his saxophone save for move crowds, which was no small feat in this world. “We have the numbers, but they move fast as hummingbirds. And those things they got on their hands, man, those are hot. They come out the woods, blaze us with that lightning, and then disappear as quick as they came out. It’s almost impossible to fight against these guys.”

“How is that? The forest should be working with us, not hiding them.”

“The trees are doing their best, but these men have electric bubbles around them. Anything that touches them goes up in smoke. They’re destroying the entire forest, my lady.”

I grind my teeth. “Who are these men?”

“The leader’s name is Drinkwater.” I know that name, but from where? Just then, there is a large explosion from down by the bridge. Even from this distance, I can see the detritus riding the fresh black plume into the sky.

“Aw, man, my pub!” Vindler knows, as do I, that the Mad Brigadier has just gone up in flames. “I’m going to kill these yaks with my bare hands.”

“No, you’re not, Vindler,” I say. “I’m coming with you.”

“That’s like music to my ears, my lady.” He climbs atop the battlement and begins to play his sax, the song a powerful dirge for the destruction which has already come to the forest. When he’s done, we hold each others gaze for a moment. I slink away, back into the stronghold to get my sword.

The sword of light stands erect next to my throne, its blade about three inches deep into a large igneous rock, which I personally mined from the depths of Old Veera, the mother volcano of the Qani Dariel. It had been a smoldering pile of molten stone when I retrieved it, but that was thousands upon thousands of years ago. Now it is cold and hard, riddled with small air pockets. It reminds me that this world was born from flames, and it will return to flames as well. Pilot has said as much, a rare insight into his omniscience which he shared with me. I pull the blade from the stone, and the room immediately fills with an eye-squinting white light. I hope it is enough.

Vindler is still staring southward when I return to him. His voice is quiet and thoughtful. “They’re razing everything as they go.”

“Then we must move quickly.” I say. “How many have we left in the stronghold?”

“A hundred, maybe.”

“We’ll take twenty with us. A guard of eighty will be enough to man the cannon and catapults while we’re away.”

We take the winding stone steps down to the training yard, where young and old, men and women, are being handed weapons from the backs of carts. Swords, maces, scythes, the odd rifle or crossbow. Lorenzo DeGuille stands at the center of it all, issuing orders and urging his men to quickness, his furry forehead furrowed in consternation. He stands almost as tall as I do, his huge girth bulging against his plate-mail, his black and white fur sticking out in tufts from the exposed joints. When he sees me, he drops to one knee. “Lady Magdala,” He says, in a thick brogue. His voice is steady, but I can see from his face as well as those around us that the general sentiment is this battle is already lost. From a quick glance at my reflection in Lorenzo’s armor, I can see that my old face seems even more lined, my long hair even grayer.

“Save the formalities for later, Lorenzo, and get these men and women armed. You will hold the stronghold should the force of these six men get past us. I’m meeting them head on, to save as much of the forest as possible. Should I fail, you are not to venture out, no matter how much is destroyed beyond these castle walls. Do I make myself clear?”

“Crystal, my lady.”

“Good,” I say, whirling around. “I need twenty of your best men. We’re marching within the half-hour. We’ll need mounts. Have them gather at the west gate. We’ll march the dirt road.”

Lorenzo nods. “As you command, Lady Magdala.” Vindler has climbed atop one of the wagons, and has started playing his saxophone, the beginning of a frantic melody. He stops it on a dime, his eyes wide and clear.

“They burned the Brigadier!” He yells to the people around the training yard. The crowd starts murmuring, then starts to cry out to the wiry man. They’re demanding justice. “Do you want revenge on these murderers and marauders! Then fight! Fight them for everything you’re worth! Fight for that which you hold sacred! Should they win, the entire forest will be burned to the ground. There will be nothing left of this world but a smoking ruin. I won’t sit back and let that happen! I’m going to stop them!” The crowd cheers, and Vindler has another go at his instrument, another frantic run, before jumping off the cart and following after me.

“You ever turn that off?” I say to him, as we pass under a low archway, making our way deeper into the stronghold.

“What?”

“The performance.”

“It’s in my blood, my lady. That would be like asking the sun not to rise. And the people need as much encouragement as they can get. We might not live past today.”

“You’re right.” Though Pilot said otherwise. He said I could not die, as long as the sword of light stayed with me.

“If I may be so bold, my lady, where are we headed?”

“The Nucleus. We must see the weavers.” The weavers reside in the heart of the stronghold, which many refer to as the Nucleus. It is protected on all sides by four layers of stone wall. The weavers resided in a large chamber at the center of it, filled with tropical trees and shrubs. Once, when I was but a girl, my sister and I had threaded long tapestries of fabric from their hair, which we had used to shape the worlds. That was long ago. I traded the needle for a sword the day the spiral broke apart.

The guards to the Nucleus raise their fists to us as we pass through the archway, the plates of their armor alternating between a light brown and a soft green. “I’ve never seen the weavers before,” Vindler says, as we come to a set of large ivory doors, a tangle of thick tree roots growing through them. Without even a knock, the doors start to slowly swing inwards, smoothly on their hinges. A fresh gust of soft loam and wet leaves wafts out from within, beckoning Vindler and me forward. It takes a moment to adjust to the low light within the room, but the Aeons flitting about are easy to make out, as they shine with a soft blue light. I take it all in. This may be the last time I see them, that I see the Nucleus at the center of the Qani Dariel.

In the center of the room is a large tree, whose trunk resembles two figures intertwined in a loving embrace. One of the figures is a smooth dark brown, the other is white like birch but rough. It looks like two trees which have grown together to make one. There are only whispers of legend about the tree, and why it grew at the center of the stronghold like it did. The weavers revere it, though they never let on to why. It’s alternately referred to as the Lover’s Tree, or the World Tree. Some even just call it the Tree, and leave it at that. If you were to climb its boughs, you’d find the mecha of Helios, never used as it was intended, but guarded here. Even higher, you’d find yourself in Arcadia, my brother’s home. For the Lover’s Tree is the only bridge to the worlds deeper in the spiral, and I am its protector.

Lady Magdala, it is so good to see you. It’s the voice of the weavers, whispering through the rustling leaves of the Tree, barely perceivable. All their voices speak as one, a melodious harmony, like all the strings on a harp. Most can’t hear them. I can only hear them from time to time, and they sound so distant when I do. Kokole and Pilot, as far as I know, cannot hear them at all.

“It is good to see you too, my friends.” I say, as the weavers come out from behind the Tree and the smaller baobobs and ferns which surround it. They are ancient looking creatures, but with the small bodies of children. Their skin is wrinkled, and their deep-set eyes are as black as coal. The warm chamber they reside in is large and cavernous; you wouldn’t even know it had four walls and a ceiling were there not a door which you had to pass through to get in. So many weavers reside here, all coming out from the brush to meet us.

You brought the music man, They say to me. I nod to Vindler, whose mouth is agape. We welcome him Oh how we would love to hear his music.

“They say hello, Vindler. They want to hear you play something.”

“Oh.” Vindler hesitates. “Anything?”

Oh yes Oh yes

“Yes, anything,” I say. Vindler does as he always does, and flips the brim of his derby hat right down to his brow line. He squints his eyes real tight as he puts his lips to the mouthpiece. He shrugs up his shoulders, takes in a breath through his nose, and then he’s into it, just jazzing up the entire Nucleus with what he calls his Sally Sue. When he’s gone on for a minute, he brings his song to a close. The Aeons are cheering, I can hear them.

“They loved it,” I tell him. He smiles, and mops his brow with his handkerchief. The applause fades away, and all the little ones seem to grow disinterested with us. They’re looking up into the eaves of the Tree. A wind blows through the room, rustling all the leaves of the trees save for the one at the center, the Lover’s Tree, their bodies wrapped around each other in a sinuous embrace. The shaking leaves stop, and then only the bigger tree’s begin to flutter. They have a metallic sheen to them, but as high up as they are, they are draped in shadow. Their dark undersides look like a clear night sky, complete with twinkling stars and galaxies spread out like blankets.

“They’re pointing up at the mecha, my lady.”

“No, Vindler. I believe they are pointing past it, towards the stars. They’re pointing at that one in particular. Do you see it? The one that shines like polished bone?”

“I do, my lady.”

“They’re giving us a glimpse of what is to come. Those are other worlds up there, Vindler. Your forgotten song hails from one. See how they blink out, one by one? The Fade is consuming them all. Perhaps I must go to one after this. Perhaps your song is the bridge I will follow, from here to there, once this world is dead and gone.”

“My lady?”

“You’re confused. I understand. No one in the Qani Dariel really understands just what these men want, save for myself and the weavers.” I pet the head of one of the little ones who wraps his arms around my leg. “They are looking for a way to the center of reality, and they want the mecha. They want to find and imprison the lost god Helios, and wake the dozing Hyperion. There are innumerable worlds, all connected by my sister’s invisible thread. Some of these threads can be seen and travelled freely, like_”

“The Frost Bridge?”

“Yes, the Frost Bridge. Exactly.” I hold my sword above my head, its light illuminating the invisible threads between all the stars. “Do you see now? But what you don’t see is how all these threads are connected to Qani Dariel. To get to the worlds where Helios and Hyperion are, you must pass through here. It’s how my sister threaded the worlds, part of my brother’s great plan. There are some things, my friend, which were set in motion at the beginning of time. I will never see the Nucleus again, or the Stronghold, or even Qani Dariel for that matter. As my brother has seen, so it must be. These men are either taking me somewhere, or I’m taking a different bridge somewhere else. Pilot says that there are things we must do, or else all will be lost. And I believe him.”

“Why are you telling me this now, my lady?”

“I want you to tell them, Vindler. Tell them this story, and that it must be so, that we are part of something greater. That we may have lost the battle for Qani Dariel, but because of our stand today, the war will be won. Come. We must go to the west gate. Weavers, you all must be vigilant. Dangerous men are outside the castle walls, and they may mean to harm you.” The small folk all turn their attention from the stars above, and study me with their black eyes. If they are communicating, I can not hear them. But I see extra lines of worry in their faces, see that their mouths are pursed tight. We’ll see you again, I barely hear them say. I nod, then turn with Vindler and leave the Nucleus and the Tree, heading back towards the gate.

Lorenzo DeGuille has the leashes of two grub mounts in his paws, which he hands to Vindler and me once we’re near. The grub I climb is long and neon green, with a circle for a mouth in which are several rows of razor sharp teeth. Vindler’s mount is smaller and covered in a purplish fur. His has four sets of yellow eyes on the sides of its head, smallish orange dots freckled inside.

“Be careful, my lady,” Lorenzo says. “Scouts have brought word that the men are within two leagues of the stronghold walls. Our defenses must be failing.” He is tired and old, but duty is more important to him than water. He won’t let the stronghold fall, not before yielding his last breath. I push my heels into the grub, and lead Vindler and the twenty foot soldiers through the portcullis of the west gate. The mud road sharply bends and runs south in another hundred paces, but already I can smell smoke and burnt flesh. I unsheathe my sword from its scabbard on my back; who knows where Drinkwater and his men are hiding, or how close they’ve come since the last scout’s report.

“Be vigilant,” I tell Vindler and the men. The foot soldiers are armored lightly and can move at a swift jog. The trees are quickly edging in closer as the farm fields decrease in size, allies in our fight against these intruders. The trees can at most confuse our attackers by moving about and affecting the topography with their roots. They move too slow to be effective in combat. At the very least they’ll warn us when the men are coming.

“There! Look!” One of the soldiers drops down to the ground, his crossbow at the ready. I don’t immediately see what he does, until the foliage ahead glows with a blue light. It’s lightning, writhing around the trees like a gang of angry snakes. One tree suddenly bursts into flames. The other trees react, moving their slow limbs around to try and bat out the fire. The burning tree explodes, sending jagged pieces of wood through the air and setting the rest of the growth in the immediate area to flame.

“Get down!” I yell, too late to heed my own advice. A bolt of blue lightning sears through the underside of my grub mount, coming out right behind me. I’m awash with heat and green viscera before I lose my seating, tumbling through the air. I bring my arms up to soften my fall, but my face cracks into my armor upon impact. There’s a metallic taste in my mouth, but all feeling has been numbed. The world is gyring around.

“Magdala!” Vindler rears his purple grub mount up and around to face the attacker. The man who walks out of the foliage is stern of face, with skin as brown as cocoa. His hair is white pearl, and his eyes crackle with the blue lightning that emanates from his wrists, the same that killed my grub mount. He wears a cape, and on the back of it is strapped an axe in the shape of a guitar.

“A bass-saber…” I hear Vindler whisper.

The tall man calls out to us. “Are you the Lady Magdala, spider sister of legend?” I hold my fist up to my men, halting their charge. I tighten the grip on my sword and spit out some blood before responding.

“I am.”

The man smiles. “Good.” He fires a bolt of lightning into the sky, the clouds above blinking with blue light. He has set off a signal. “Drinkwater wants to meet you. He has some questions to ask you.”

Vindler steps forward, his golden saxophone in his hands. “Sir, I believe you owe me a pub.” The lightning around the man in the white cape intensifies, bouncing off the ground and through his body. My score of soldiers shuffle their feet, nervously.

“Oh? Do I now?”

“Yes, you do.” He drops his derby down to his brow, then brings his lips to the saxophone’s mouthpiece. I’m taken aback by Vindler wanting to play music at a time like this, and I can see the men of the Qani Dariel equally dumbfounded. Then I hear the music. It’s a powerful warrior’s song, boastful and loud. After just the first few notes, the sky darkens and the earth begins to tremble.

“What are you_” Before the man with the cape can finish what he’s saying, he catches some movement out of the corner of his eye. With a speed belying his size, he grabs the guitar off his back, plucks a string as he swings it around, and cuts the flaming boulder that had been falling through the sky clean in half. The cleft stone goes to either side of the man, smashing into the ground. Once the dust clears, there’s an extremely low bass note ringing through the air, underscoring Vindler’s music with a foundation of dissonance.

“Vindler, did you do that?” I say, looking back and forth from him to the two pieces of smoldering rock. They fell from the air. Vindler, the smooth jazz-man in the crisp three-piece suit, who traveled in to the Qani Dariel on the wisp of a forgotten song, he did this. The man whom the stones almost pummeled stares at Vindler wide-eyed, looking just as incredulous as I probably do. The note from his bass-saber fades to silence, as the top-most of the four strings slows its vibrations. Vindler still plays on. So he can call rocks from space. Who knew? Another comes hurtling through the sky, followed by another and another. The man is each rock’s target, and though he’s able to deflect the first one easy enough with his bass-saber and blue lightning, the others prove more challenging. Each of the rocks crashes atop the one which came before, creating a pillar of smoldering stone. As the man dodges them, he climbs higher upon the pile. Vindler goes after him, his pace as casual as if he were performing on a slow night down at the Brigadier. His eyes are squinted shut and his tone never wavering. I’m so transfixed on them that I fail to see the short man in the white cape step out of the bushes and aim his arm at me. A pain seizes my body like I’ve never felt before. My field of vision is awash in blue light.

“Thurmond!” The squat man calls to his partner, who is by now high above the trees. He has the same hair as the other men the scouts reported seeing, only the white locks are wrapped into two long braids and tied together back behind his head. His eyes, already wide, look ready to burst from his skull when he fully takes me in. “Oh my god. Are you…? are you…?”

My men had been following Vindler up the stones, but most can’t climb the rocks as fast or effortlessly as the jazzman. Once they see me stunned on the ground, they all run back to try and help. Several drop to their knees, and let loose a volley from their crossbows. The pudgy man swats the arrows out of the air with quick wisps of blue lightning, and grins. “Such primitive weapons,” He says. “It’s like we’re gods, showing you apes fire.”

“For Qani Dariel!” I say, and cut up at him with my sword. The metal stops just short of meeting his fleshy neck, a blue aura suddenly appearing around the blade. I feel like I’m pushing against the resistive force of a magnet, which is somehow wrapping itself around my arm like an invisible blanket. It yanks on the sword, which flings from my hand and sails through the air, before landing tip first into the ground an inch or two from where another man stands, watching us. The man plucks the sword from the ground, and weighs it in his hand before smiling to himself.

“Now, now. We’ll have none of that.” He says. He waves his hand, and a wave of blue lightning rises up in front of each of my soldiers. They’re all violently thrown back, sickening crunches heard from the forest once they’re lost amongst the trees.

“Drinkwater, I_”

“Save it, Nazbeth. And just what is Thurmond doing?” From high atop the pile of stones, now at least ten times as high as the trees, the man they call Thurmond slaps at his bass-saber, sending waves of deep noise at his assailant. Vindler, hopping from stone to stone in pursuit, counters with slicing high notes and more stones from space.

“He’s going after that man with the horn.”

“I see that. Leave him. We’ve got to get to the World Tree. That’s where the bridge to Arcadia is, isn’t it? Helios’s mecha is there as well. She’s to show us the way.” The man whom they call Drinkwater would be handsome were it not for his especially wide mouth. When he opens it to speak, he has a mouth like one of the biter fish from deep in the black lake to the north of Denala’s Pass, the anglers. He marches up to me and lifts me up by the hair, his strength uncanny.

“But sir, we can’t just leave him here. He’s_”

“Shut it, Nazbeth. We march now. Palios and the others are already waiting for us by the fortress walls.” Nazbeth doesn’t say anything more. He is very obviously scared by this other man, this Drinkwater. My brother said to fear an emperor of rags, who would come with an army of storms to burn the forest. This must be the emperor he spoke of, the blue lightning he wields his army of storms. And now he has your sword, you damn fool.

Drinkwater pushes me up the mud road, and I have no choice but to go before him. If I try to escape, he’ll kill me, without any doubt. And if he is to try to kill me, I need to have the sword in my possession. Only then will I not die. Only then will Pilot’s plan work. The only chance I have is the stronghold itself, Lorenzo DeGuille and the rest who I’ve left to defend it against attack should I fail to stop Drinkwater and his men. And fail I have. We meet with three other men along the road, within an arrows volley of the closed bridge to the south gate. Drinkwater hails them as Palios, Inchbald and Mai’il. Nazbeth tells them about what happened to Thurmond, to which they shake their head.

“We should go after him. Flay the bastard who is chasing him,” Mai’il says.

“No,” Drinkwater says. “He’s on his own. We don’t have the time.”

“Now that you see the stronghold, I suggest letting me go and leaving this world at once. My men will have no mercy on you should you choose to march, or harm me in any way.”

“I suggest you shut up,” Drinkwater says, backhanding me across the lip. That familiar metallic taste returns, but it’s a sensation that is quickly eclipsed by the burning in my cheeks. His men shuffle around nervously.

“Drinkwater, that’s a god,” Nazbeth says. “You shouldn’t be slapping gods.”

“There are no gods, you fools! They’re all like this, mere creatures. Do you not now see the folly of the universe, of what we’ve been brought up to believe? This is what the new ways would have us worship. To this we are to feel inferior, and shamed in our ambition. We are greater! We are stronger!” Half the men nod in ascent, but Nazbeth still looks nervous, and the lean, muscled one they call Palios seems angry.

“We didn’t come to harm anyone, you damn fool.” Palios says. “We came to put things to right.”

“Shut up, damn you!” Drinkwater raises his gauntlet up above his head, blue lightning sparkling madly from the orb at its center. All the others step in front of Palios, Nazbeth the front-most of the group.

“What has become of you?” Nazbeth says to his leader, shaking his head slowly. The others study Drinkwater with the same sort of disquiet in their eyes. Drinkwater can’t meet their gaze for long. He mutters a weak apology before stalking off to make water in the brush.

“Let me go,” I say to the men.

“I’m sorry, Lady Magdala.” The man they call Inchbald says. “Truly, I am.”

“As am I,” Palios says.

“But we have to put things to right again,” Nazbeth says. “We need the mecha of Helios which you have in the World Tree. We need to go Arcadia, and your world has the only bridge to get there. Do you know of Arcadia? It is supposed to be a world of fecundity, where death does not exist. Or where the bridge is to get there? Drinkwater is convinced you do. He_”

“That’s enough, Nazbeth.” Drinkwater says, a newfound calm in his voice. “Put the chains on her. We’re going to the castle walls. Watch for arrows. You have guns here, don’t you, my lady?” Using such a formal title seems to relax his men a bit, restores their faith. I can still see right through him though, can see the angler’s smile and the deceit that is measured in those teeth.

“Yes. We have guns.”

“Then watch for bullets, too. Let’s go.” We make our way through the well-spaced fruit trees surrounding the stronghold. Drinkwater has me hail to Lorenzo once we’re within ear shot.

“Are you alright, my lady?” Lorenzo shouts from behind the wall.

“Yes, but the magpie has flown.” The phrase is used between a small group of closely trusted allies, meant to communicate that something is not right, that there is treachery afoot. Lorenzo doesn’t respond, so I’m not sure if he has heard. We all wait a few moments, but there is no response. Then there’s a click.

“What was that?” Mai’il whispers. To answer him, two ancient rail guns spring up from the ground. They instantly spring into action, sending a relentless round of fiery bullets our way. I duck down, shrugging my head into my shoulders as best I can. I can feel the bullets ricocheting off of my armor, but then there’s a blue bubble that goes up around us. It stops the rain of bullets, freezing them in the air as they hit. The guns eventually cease their firing, wisps of ghostly smoke rising from their barrels.

“So, that’s how you’re going to play, hm? Flying magpies, hm?” Drinkwater spits the words out, a near froth on the sides of his mouth. He grabs me by the hair again, and marches us forward, the electric bubble moving with us. The men within the castle have all come to the battlements, to see what carnage the guns have wrought. I can feel the weight of their stomachs sink as they see a host unscathed by their best defense. We come to a blacksmith’s anvil in a row of clapboard shops by the edge of the wall. Drinkwater orders his men to bend me down and lay my head upon it. They do as they are told.

“My lady!” Lorenzo shouts from the wall. “Don’t hurt her! We’ll give you the stronghold! We yield to you, sirs!”

“It is too late for that!” Drinkwater shouts. “There will be no yielding. All in the castle will perish for defying us.”

“Drinkwater, no,” Palios says.

You can hear the tears in Lorenzo’s voice. “Don’t, sir. Please. Don’t harm her.”

“Hold her,” Drinkwater says, lifting the sword of light up above his head.

“I said no, Drinkwater!” Palios says, running forward. Inchbald, the biggest of the lot, holds him back. Before the blade comes down, all I can think of is how Pilot’s plan, delicately laid out at the beginning of time, will falter because of my failure. The stronghold will fall, and Drinkwater will make it to the Lover’s Tree, to the bridge at the top of its boughs. They’ll take the mecha, raze Arcadia and everything else that stands between them and the center of the spiral.

Drinkwater has a rabid, mad look in his eyes. I understand why Pilot does not want these men to ever come close to harnessing the power of Helios and Hyperion. Drinkwater is sick with power. It would be better for the whole of existence to be swallowed up by the Fade than to be controlled by someone so twisted. I hope Pilot will be alright, and my sister, too. The sword swings through the air, and the last thing I hear is Lorenzo saying the first bit of my name. There’s a thunk, and a shock that slows time to a snail’s crawl. The world then sizzles away, passing before me like a quick summer rain.

[] Chapter X: “Crack and Brack”

 

 

In the place of Will is a shimmer, a faint mirage of the man who was once there. Then that goes too. “By the Fox,” The needles have me stuck to the seat, have the skin around the puncture holes shriveled like sun-dried janjan fruit. Phyrxian needs to drink to get through the Fade. He needs my blood. Now Will is gone, disappeared, and I can not do a thing stuck in the seat, feeding Phyrxian’s appetite. We go deeper and deeper into the gray wave.

“I am, I am…” Crick’s voice is faint. He sounds like he is about to fall into the dream world, the slightest jolt likely to push him over.

“Crick!” I try to wake him. His head does not move from between his knees. “Wake up! Do not slip like Will.”

He moves a trembling arm, his hand limp on the wrist, but then drops it to his side. His voice peters out, until there is only Phyrxian’s steady hum. My arms are already numb, the ache back in my shoulders. I need to go to Crick, but I can not remove the needles myself. Not without a big, big mess. I almost killed myself the last time, when I escaped.

There are over a dozen straps on the chair. Pacheco used every one. In doing that, my body did not pump blood like always. My legs were always tingly. To make me more comfortable, I found I could keep energy in my feet. It was this I released the day yama man go to his room and drink pyronic. It was this release, after months of waiting, that made the battery the scholar put in me go boom, too. The needles completely exploded, with my arms. My body was still strong enough that it could heal, but I became so weak. I almost fainted in the corridor to the Oisin. I would rather not have to go through that again. Even though I am stronger than old Amara, it would take many moons to get the power for that big a boom. If Crick could just wake up and help me out of the machine, then I would be fine. But it looks like he is the one who needs help, much more so than I.

Will was helping Crick past the holes and into the ship. He helped me push up the door on Narcissus. He was strong. How did he let himself get swallowed up by the gray wave like that? When Da’s brother was very young, something took him too, and they found him drowned in the sea days later. Great Mum said it was dark magic then. Is that what took Will? The scholar said there was dark magic that brought you whatever you desired. Who else knew dark magic and would want the ship? But why did he take Will, and not me? Something does not seem right.

Phyrxian bounces, as if it has hit something. Snap awake, silly girl, and look at the screen. The gray wave is being split by black lightning. That only appears when there is something, a world we might be entering. We must be coming out of the Fade. The lights dim as Phyrxian is knocked about. The frame of the ship creaks and moans. With Pacheco at the controls, coming out of the Fade would be smooth. He had spent so much of his life traversing the gray wave that landing Phyrxian was instinctive, as natural as blinking his one eye. He could smoothly land the ship on any world. I did not think this through. How am I to land Phyrxian?

Lightning cracks across the screen, and the ship flips ninety degrees. I scream, there is so much pressure on my arms from the needles. I can not breathe. Crick slides from the wall to the middle of the floor. There is a roar from the depths of the ship. Something has torn loose. The piping all around us clatters, and the lights on the columns blink furious and fast.

“Gods,” I can feel the needles pulling harder from my veins, Phyrxian needing more blood to get through the Fade’s outer edge. “By the Fox, Crick, please wake up! Please!” Small patches of green appear on the screen. They look like the suns Old Cappy paints, with beams spreading from their centers. Spreading and growing, swallowing the Fade. Phyrxian bounces uncontrollably. I think I am numb to the pain, but one hard jostle sends waves of nausea through my body. Vomit spews in a steaming pile on my lap.

“Emergency landing initiated,” Phyrxian’s voice is calm. Black shapes like the ship’s tentacles hit the screen as we fully come out of the Fade. The greenery is everywhere now. Phyrxian is going so fast into it, what we are crashing through doing little to slow us.

“Trees…” I can see the boughs now, taking turns cracking into the screen. We are crashing into a forest. Phyrxian’s pipes let out a high pitched scream. The ship seems ready to tear apart. Bright sunlight spills through the leaves as we rush through them, lessening as we fall further into the forest. The trees clear suddenly, and we are floating through empty space. Ahead of us looms the biggest tree I have ever seen, and we are headed right for it. So this is how I will go, the needles in my arms, I barely have time to think. Phyrxian hits the tree at such speed that I propel through the air, the needles ripping from my arms. I meet the wall, and blackness blooms.

 

In the darkness, an egg cracks open, slow hands breaking the shell into the goo. It is just a sound, but my mind sees it so clearly. Then I feel soft fingers on my face. It is a breeze, bringing cool, open air from beyond the cabin. I open my eyes. The entire room is bent. One of the columns has fallen over, purple water leaking from its surface. The ship is dark, quiet.

“Phyrxian…” I say, but I know that the ship is dead. Now I remember. We crashed. The impact killed the ship. The hum of the engines, Phyrxian’s heart, has hushed. Light streams in from above. The hull has been torn open, gaping up at the sky. Dust motes and pollen dance about so thick that I want to catch the light. I toss off the debris I am covered in, move over to the beams, and pull up my sleeves to let my skin drink. My hand comes back from the fabric wet and sticky, white lines like spider webs in my red palms. My shirt, my pants, are soaked. Blood. The needles were ripped from your arm, silly girl. I brush my sleeves up further, expecting terrible wounds where the needles were ripped from my skin. But, by the Fox, there is nothing but smoothness, not so much as a scrape. How could I have healed so quickly? Not even on the Coral Islands could my body treat its wounds like this.

I run my fingers over my body. No wounds on my stomach, my legs, my chest. I take my dress off so the light touches all my skin, and the feeling is the warmth and smell of spring after long winter. I feel I never knew true warmth. I smile and tear at ever having felt something so beautiful. I will never forget it, not ever. I raise my chest up, arc my arms back. Tears course down my cheeks, the thin streams warmed by the heat of the sun.

“Oh, light,” I say, “thank you for being so generous, so giving.”

“It is certainly is something. I a’int never seen anything quite so bright before in all my days.” I turn and see Crick curled up on the floor in a sunbeam of his own. His skin is nearly translucent.

“Your leg!” I say, rushing to him. It’s bent in a way it should not be, pointing up towards the sky.

“Same one that got cut by the glass. Don’t look too good,” I kneel next to him, see the bone peeking through the skin and torn cloth. “I know it’s broken. You a’int gonna break any news to me on that one. It don’t hurt none, Amara. Or, if it does, the sunshine makes it better somehow. I feel pretty good, actually.”

But he does not look very good, not at all. His eyes are puffy and purple, and the scabs on his shoulder hanging loosely from his wounds, fresh blood leaking out and slick. “You are going to be okay. Wherever we are, I will find some one to help us.” I need a knife, something sharp to cut his pants leg with. He yells, pushing my hand away. “You said it did not hurt.”

“Well, when you touch it, of course it does!” He says. He gets up on his elbows, then quickly slumps back down. “I don’t think I can walk, Amara.”

“Of course not. Your leg is broken.”

“Right.” He sighs, and it seems as if the life passes right out of him. “But I have to get out of this ship. I have to get out into the light. I can’t die here, you understand? Don’t let me die here.” I nod, squint up into the sun. Tree branches reach, thin arms and wrists grasping for the sun.

“Amara, listen to me, dammit all. I can’t die here. Get me out into the light.”

“I do not know what is out there, Crick. We could be much safer in here. I don’t even know where we are. The navigational system is down. Phyrxian is dead.”

He chokes on a coughing fit, then lays back against the wall.

“The sunlight really did wonders for you, hm? You look so much… brighter than before. Not a mark on you. But all this blood…?”

I realize my nakedness, and pull my filthy shirt back on. It is cold and heavy.

“I am Ma’atha. We drink the sun, and it heals our bodies. This sunlight is especially strong. For the amount of blood, I should have some degree of bruising or scar. Look, wait here. I need to inspect the damage. Will you be alright?”

“I a’int going anywhere,” He says. I turn and go towards the other side of the cabin. The floor slopes up, then down. There’s an open door where the cabin meets the tube we took to get here. Now, there is only empty black space beyond. I yell into it, the reverberations of my voice sounding wet and watery. There’s a loud splash from deep within. But the ship itself does not answer, without even so much as a faint light in reply. The ship is certainly dead.

I pace back across the slanted ground, metal bits crunching under my shoes. I have no idea where we’ve crashed. Yet, there are trees beyond Phyrxian’s serrated fissure, and the air tastes of sweet earth. It seems a much more hospitable place than the wasteland we just escaped from. Crick is right: he will not die aboard this dead ship. I will not allow it. We must escape this carcass, and make our way for the sun.

“Come on,” I say, reaching down and under his shoulder blades. He groans when I lift.

“Are we… are we leaving?” He says.

“Yes.” But I do not know how.

“Why not the same way we came in? Through the tubes?”

“There aren’t any tubes left. They broke when we crashed.”

“How about through that big hole in the ship up there?”

“Not that I know of. Unless… wait,” One of the needles lies in a twisted heap at my feet, the tip of which is bent in several places. Strips of brown flesh are stuck to it: barkskin on a skewer. Skin that had once been a part of me, now replaced by a virgin layer, perfectly smooth. While my torn body bled out in Phyrxian’s crushed hull, it nevertheless drank deeply of the sun’s strong rays. It healed itself while I dreamed forgotten dreams. But, the needle: attached to it is a long tube, that has been severed from the machinery it used to feed. I prop Crick up against the console and pick it up. I pull it between my arms, testing its strength.

“This will do.” I lift the needle up, heavy enough that there’s a degree of strain in my voice, and toss it up and over the crack in the hull. It catches in the narrow cut. “Hold on to me.”

“Alright,” He wraps his arms around my neck. Gods, he’s a big man. His beard is sandpaper on my breasts, his arms thick ropes around my neck. Deep breath in, and I reach up and take hold of the tube. The sun envelops my hand, ushering me up. Hand over hand, into the sunbeams. My back starts to quake. We’re barely off the ground, and my muscles are already trembling from disuse. My hands make a desperate grasp for higher up on the cord; the sun delicately finds its way down my straining forearms. A renewed strength, like electricity, runs through me.

“You can do it.” Crick whispers.

I reach above my head again and again, each new length of the cord gained giving the sun greater access to my body. The shaking of my muscles subsides into a humming, like a turbine, a purring machine. Brilliant white beams rise up above the cracked hull, sunbeam roots. Another handhold, another hoist up the cord, and I can’t help but close my eyes, it’s so bright. I reach up, and wrap my fingers around the serrated fissure in Phyrxian’s skin. I tell Crick to hold himself as much as he can so that I can crawl up and out, and then pull him to safety.

He lies on his back, his forearm over his eyes, breathing harder than I am. The tops of great trees surround us, the ground hidden by green shadows and the hugeness of the trunks. We’re caught in the web criss cross of several boughs, each as wide as a street. “The sun,” he says, in between breaths. “It’s so… beautiful.”

It’s like a white hot torch burning a hole in the sky. “Yes, it is. If it were not for how strong it is here, I would not have been able to pull you out.”

“I think you could have, even if we were back in that basement again. You don’t strike me as a lady who gives up once she sets out to do something.”

“And what would that something be? Saving your life?” He moves his arm away, and looks at me with a blank expression.

“Thank you.” He says. I get up off my knees, and pace around the curved metal shell of the ship. The black skin is gone.

“Don’t mention it.”

“What happened to the ship?”

“We crashed. And when we did, Phyrxian died. Do you remember me telling you that the ship was alive? Well, the cyanophythic skin, the black ink on the outside, died too. Phyrxian was the only thing keeping it all together. Once its sentience passed, the cyanophythic skin fell away. It’s nothing more than a skeleton.”

“I guess I should be thankful for being alive, then. But still, I’m a breath away from kissing Death full on the lips. How do you do it?”

“Heal? We Ma’atha are a feat of ancient engineering. To harness the power of Helios and Hyperion, to get to the center of existence, the yamas people needed a near infinite source of energy. They were able to bioengineer the bodies of my people into photosynthetic machines, a closed cycle of perpetual energy. We drink up the sun with our skin, they draw the energy out, infinitely, for as long as our bodies hold up.”

He crumbles apart into a fit of coughing, his eyes wide. “I just realized… William! What happened to him?” He props himself up, and looks back to the hole in Phyrxian’s skull. “Oh no, don’t tell me…”

“No, Crick. He disappeared before we came out into this world, wherever we are.”

“He what? What do you mean, he disappeared?”

“I don’t know. The spatial fabric is thin in the Fade. It is not a world like you and I know. It’s nothing, and it is very easy to slip. But the way he went, it’s as if someone was pulling him away.”

“Someone pulled him away? What does that mean? How could someone just grab someone away like that?”

“Ancient science. Pacheco…”

“Pacheco? That man with the cape? Who we stole the ship from?”

“Yes, but also the kidnapper, the maniac whose people call him “the good doctor” on account of his barbarism and, and… brutality. That man has access to a wealth of knowledge not of this world, Crick. He has travelled to worlds long thought lost, rediscovered knowledge that allows him to manipulate time, space and everything in between.”

I think of the good doctor pacing around the deck of the ship, his thin neck barely peeking above his heavy scarf, his wasted body enclosed in heavy armor. Sometimes he would sit in his chair, finger and thumb angling his face, eyeing me silently. The needles so deep in my arms, viscous spit around my lips: I learned how to shut the pain off, and watch him with rapt attention. Because even the good doctor was capable of making a mistake. By failing to regularly monitor the ship’s main potentiometer, by being ignorant of the fact that Phyrxian’s source of energy, my body, was changing, actually expanding, he set in motion his own downfall. Because he failed to recalibrate it, I was able to keep that small well of energy a secret, and slowly keep building upon it.

The good doctor went about the ship with a machine-like regularity, but aloof, as if his mind was always wrapped around a problem in a dozen different ways. When Phyrxian was just cruising through the Fade, Pacheco would hunch over the pages of some ancient looking book, it’s yellowed cover delicately balanced between his hands. He mouthed silent mildewy words to himself, until something like a newly lit torch would gleam in his eyes. His fingers would then alight over the controls before he’d retreat deep into the ship somewhere, emerging hours later, his shoulders heaving with his breath, his eyes sunken deeper in his face. He’d hold himself up with a hand to the wall, until he made it to his captain’s chair. Crumbling into his seat, he’d look at me without a word, his eyes like that of a man who had seen too much.

He spoke to me, once, after having just returned from deep within the ship.

“I know you’re in great pain, barkskin. But think of the future. Your people. They’ll know a tomorrow. They’ll know a life without want, a life where anything is possible.”

“They already do. We are not like you. We are not afraid of dying.”

“Oh? Well. You should be.” And when he closed his eyes, the lids crinkling tightly, all the wrinkles on his face became like clay, so unnatural that there appeared to be a youthful visage underneath, one on the verge of tears.

“Amara?”

He only ever called me barkskin.

“Amara?” Crick coughs. “We have to find William.”

“I know. But I do not know where he could be.” I say.

The leaves begin to chatter together. Their shaking increases, grows louder; yet, there is no wind. “What’s going…” Crick can not finish. His breath slips out of him like air from a punctured balloon. The ship shakes in the branches, falls deeper into the trees. Phyrxian re-angles herself, the flat roof deck we are standing upon suddenly sloping downwards. Crick’s body slides towards the edge, his hands scrambling at Phyrxian’s surface for a handhold, anything that will stop him from vaulting over, but almost everything is just smooth bone. He makes one more pained yelp before completely going over. I rush to the edge as quickly as I can, and without so much as a glance, launch myself after him. I am just in time to grab Crick’s wrist, before losing him completely to the veil of foliage beneath us. I manage to grab on to a thin enough tree limb, and almost pull my arm out of my socket by stopping our fall.

“Gods! Grab on to a branch! We have to climb down.” There is an avalanche from above our head. I do not need to look above to know what is crashing down towards us. “The ship, it is falling!”

He tries to grab a branch, but cries out when he extends his arm. “Goddammit, my leg!” How are we going to get him down when his leg is completely shattered? I think to myself.

“We just… we have to get out of the way of the ship.” I say. We both look up, expecting Phyrxian to lurch over again, to continue its plummet through the trees, all the way to the forest floor. The branches seem to have caught it again. Its bowels shake, the leaves rustling around it. There’s a skittering noise from within the ship, like dozens of metal feet on the hull.

“What is that?” Crick asks, as I place him down onto a broad branch, a few arm spans beneath us.

“Something terrible.” There’s no time to explain. If one Phyrxian’s parasitoid creatures survived, the taste and smell of my blood, which has sustained them all this time, must be fresh in its mind. “We have to get out of here…” No sooner do I say this than a hooked talon breaks through Phyrxian’s hull, the tip pointed directly at us. Like a thread splaying, the talon comes apart, six smaller claws, peeling back, opening like a flower. The six claws open, Phyrxian’s metal body cutting easily apart like a ripe fruit.

“If the creature comes through, we are finished.”

“What is it?”

“Give me your hand,” I pull Crick up and onto my back, just as the creature from within the ship pushes its head through the hole it has torn open with its claws. It is flat like a coin, with a maw of craggy teeth, popping open with intermittent jerks, as if a hydraulic pump is priming it. Its eyes are at the far side of its head, small, oblong and black. “It smells us. Gods, hold on,” I say to Crick. I feel the bristle of his beard on my back as he nods. I jump from the flat branch we were standing on, and let myself free fall through the net of leaves, deeper into the forest. We narrowly miss an enormous tree limb as we come out of the deep leaf canopy, and into a cathedral like enclosure of mountainous tree limbs and golden sunlight.

There’s a crashing above us, wood splitting apart. I can see the beast out of the corner of my eye, its snaking lizard body tearing at the air with its sharp teeth, hungry and insane from Phyrxian’s crash. A series of vines hang in our way, and I try to grab at them, hoping they will at least slow our fall. Each only breaks off in our hands, not slowing our descent in the slightest. I can hear the beast’s teeth clacking against themselves, its spidery limbs waving through the air as it falls after us. Finding any sort of handhold now will not save us, would only serve us up to it. It is all hopeless.

The feeling of falling, of my stomach suspended up around my chest, has not left me since I jumped after Crick. And now I see that it does not come from the fall at all, but from the fatal certainty of my situation. Another canopy of leaves and branches is coming up quickly, where Crick and I will likely be broken to pieces.

There is a flash, lightning, like Crick when he lit up the space below the Digger’s hovel. We must have been smashed or consumed by the beast. Death has come, and it was quick, and without too much in the way of pain. I should be thankful for that, but instead, I can not help but wonder why I am still so aware of my body, of the forest still around me. The brightness from the flash gives way to a dull, throbbing black; it takes a moment for me to realize that what I am seeing is in my head, and the flash came from being hit. Actually, no, not hit. We were grabbed, pulled out of the air by two great arms, as firm as packed earth. I can not clearly make out up or down, until there is a firmness under me. It is then that I feel my heart pounding, the hotness of my skin. My vision comes into focus with each stabbing beat in my chest. I see that I am on another rough branch, wide and flat save for the knobby growths that my fingers squeeze like woody pustules.

“Amara?”

Gods, he sounds even worse than before, barely alive. “Yes… Crick… Are you alright? Who was that? We have to get… to safety…”

“Look, Amara. I can’t even believe it.”

There are waves crashing and tumbling around my head when I turn, following the direction of Crick’s voice. He sits propped up on his hip, his broken leg bloody and aslant underneath him. His great nose and strong brow point up and away into the empty space we just fell through, into the great cathedral space with the fairy tale dust motes sparkling in the golden glowing sunbeams.

“What is it?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

It’s like a green blur, hanging in the air. It moves like a microscopic fleck of dust on the back on an eyelid: slowly, subtly, without any discernible movement of the body for propulsion. I strain to bring it all into focus. When it is still for a moment or two, the green blur coalesces into a green robe, entirely covering a body of brown, autumnal fur, glowing gold in the spots where the sun beams touch. On the being’s head are a set of antlers, as long as his upper body is tall, with six points on each. And in his hand is a sword, it’s sharp edge slathered with a black blood.

“Look, Amara, that thing from Phyrxian,” Crick doesn’t need to point it out. It has fallen far below us, but the path of its descent, through leaves now torn and boughs broken, is evident enough. It lies panting on a mesh of cracked tree limbs, its black eyes wide and fearful, its mouth hinging open and closed like a trap door in a thunderstorm. The stench of fetid blood drifts up to us through its freshly sliced skin.

The Phyrxian Bowel Monster struggles up to its feet, one of its spindly hands draped over a dark chest wound. It shakes its flat head back and forth, a high pitched whine burbling from its throat. It snaps its head up at the antlered being, who floats with hardly a hair moving on his body. It turns quickly, then skitters its way up the tree behind it, making its way back towards us. The antlered man sighs, and it sounds like several voices all huffing out a breath concurrently. The Bowel Monster has disappeared in the eaves of the treetops, so silently that there’s only the occasional chatter of leaves to draw our attention. The quietness is heavy. The sword shifts in the the antlered man’s hand, his padded hands and long fur squeaking on the leather hilt.

And then I see how and why I had been knocked out so hard. Flat Top leaps from the leaves with such stealth that I can not believe Antlers could possibly be aware of him. I make to shout, but Flat Top is fast, and on top of him before my vocal cords can even tighten up around the air from my gut.

Flat Top keeps coming, though, through Antlers. The deer man softly shimmers away, like a cloud blowing apart. Flat Top descends towards us, its wide eyes even wider in surprise, while Antlers appears above it, its body tranquilly following in the direction of the sword. It looks as if he just cut through something. That something proves to be the beast from Phyrxian’s bowels. It delicately comes apart, a clean cut from shoulder to thigh, barely a few threads of black blood escaping from within. The two halves come apart, and pass to the sides of the branch Crick and I are on. We can hear the crack and brack as it crashes through the foliage, on its way to the forest floor.

“Crick!” I crawl to him, his pale skin mottled with purple and watery green marks. His eyes have closed, his dry lips are rolled back above his gums; no breath seems to pass through his stony teeth.

“He’ll be fine, Amara.”

The bottom of the antlered one’s green robe flutters in an unfelt wind; it has a smell emanating from it which is deep and full, like moss sustained by waterfall mist. I look up into his eyes, which are opaque, blind, buried under a furry brow.

“What? You… how do you know my name?”

“We met, long ago, in stories you knew as a child.” His mouth barely moves, but it fills the air, like several people singing softly, of various ages spanning a lifetime.

“I… I don’t understand. This man… he needs…”

“Help? Trust in me, Amara. He’ll be fine. Better than fine, in fact. Here,” He reaches his hand down to me, lifting me up from the bough. The fur is soft, the leathery pads on the inside of his hands as cool as old forest leaves. Touching them, there is a calming light which passes through my body. It makes my stomach rise up to meet my heart, so the two are beating, like a butterflies wings at morning’s first light.

“My name is Jack Karnos,” He reaches down and gently lifts Crick up in his arms. His broken body, even with its rope tight muscles and great big beard, suddenly looks small in Jack’s arms.

“The Pilot is very much looking forward to meeting the both of you,” He says.

“The Pilot?”

“Yes. Come.” He nods towards the open space ahead of us, and a tangle of vines come together at our feet, forming a bridge that leads deeper into the forest. Jack Karnos walks forward, stopping a few steps in when I do not immediately follow.

“Come, Amara. There’s not much time. For us. For Will. For all the worlds and every being which lives in them. Your part in this story is very important, as is Crick’s. We must hurry. We must meet the Pilot.”

[] Chapter XI: “Beyond the Cusp of Nowhere”

 

 

Pacheco’s skin is taut, a semi-scorched raisin; he’s in the middle of a circle drawn in the sand, its edges smoking as if under a magnifying glass. The ritual has him spent. He’s prostrate and gasping for breath, as if he’s in a pool and caught under a tarpaulin, in an airless vacuum. The whites around his pupils bulge, swell, glazed with a vacant film. A thin froth cakes his cracked lips. His arms shake, pillars in the sand, holding aloft his old man’s body and the heavy armor encasing it.

“Sirs,” The Digger whispers, shuffling forward, his steps tired, his hands caked with dirt. “Are you alright, sirs?”

Pacheco throws his head back and screams to the smeared black heavens. As if a reflection in a funhouse mirror, the great beast, Moltep, does the same. Their screams ripple through the newly dug-up throng of other beasts like a sonic boom. Eleven other misshapen aberrations have come to join their associate, Moltep. The Digger has dug them up, exhumed them from their sleeping hovels beneath the wastes. They’re an amalgam of forms and shapes: faces twisted into bent grimaces, viscera exposed through missing flesh. The wind tears through the air of the wasteland, but the groaning of all the ancient sinew and keratin shaking awake rises above it in an ugly, terrible cacophony. The land is completely dug up, the Digger’s hands reduced to callouses and pulp. He hides beneath them, deathly afraid at what he has done. His father is going to be awfully displeased with him, to say the least.

The screams of the beasts are like sharpened fingers digging into the Digger’s skull, poking and and prying the gray matter so that some parts turn mushy. He feels himself slipping, slipping into the cold mush of unknowingness. Panic sets in. He wants to run, to escape what he has just done. Oh, god, once his father finds out. He takes a quick step, instantly tripping over his shovel and falling to the ground. The exhausted man can’t be sure, but he thinks that the creatures are laughing at him, as he lay helpless at their feet and other assorted appendages.

“And where do you think you’re going, Narcissus?” Pacheco’s cape picks the Digger up by the throat, then pummels him into the ground. Narcissus looks up, into eyes that burn with a newfound madness and evil intent. The beasts crowd around Pacheco, so a sea of faces swim above the Digger’s field of vision, faces with missing chins and lower gums like rocky crags, faces without faces, eyes like hair follicles, incongruous and ubiquitous, growing from sinewy shoulders and hamhock hands.

“What’s with the look, good friend Narcissus?” Pacheco smiles, a humorless grin. “You look like you’ve seen a monster.”

“Sirs, pleases…” The pale man with the turnip face says, his voice barely a whisper. “Jusd led me goes. I promises, sirs, dad I will jusd go my liddle Diggerly way. I will nod barely makes a peep…”

“Shut your mouth, fool. I’m frustrated, Narcissus. Extremely frustrated. And do you know why?” The Digger looks up into all the melting faces of the beasts standing above him, a mob of fluid shapes, melting into one another, seemingly one. And Moltep, the first, the beginning of it all, says,

“Aak, aalok. Moltep.”

“There, there, Moltep. That’s enough. No, Narcissus, I’ll tell you why I’m frustrated. It’s called fruitless labor. It’s called wasted effort. It’s called, I put my life on the line to get that damned barkskin back here and can barely pull her idiot friend through the Fade. That ritual should not have failed, my flower headed friend. The pages from that book are burned into my memory, Digger. Word for damned word.”

“Sirs, I knows nodding of whad you speaks. I nows nodding of no booksy, pleases, sirs, pleases…” Pacheco lifts Narcissus by his overall straps, and the loose flesh sinks into the denim, like sand in a burlap sack.

“Yet, you think, you actually think, that I did it wrong. But how about you answer this: If I didn’t know what I was doing, then how was I able to get all my friends up and out of the ground, hm? How did I do it so seamlessly, without them eating so much as a flower petal off your lumpy little head? Because I’m not a fool, damn you! I know what I’m doing!” Pacheco arches an eyebrow, and nods as he searches the Digger’s face, as if he’s seeing something for the first time. “But still, still… something went wrong. Something. The procedure, it was a ritual of desire. The peoples who authored that book called it so. It’s purpose is to bring your deepest desire directly to you, whether it be riches, knowledge, water, or a barkskin too clever for her own good.

“My intentions were clear. What else could I want more than that damned barkskin, hm? So why is it that that man, the thin one with the long hair and sharp face, why is it that he got pulled from Phyrxian, and not the girl? Something is not right. There’s some strong science afoot, or old magic like I’ve never seen. I made it all the way to the pilot’s bay. I could smell her, I could taste her! But why was he all I could drag out? Tell me!”

“Sirs, are you sures you are compledely wells?”

Pacheco drops the Digger to the ground, paces back into the sea of asymmetrical limbs. “This is unbelievable. How is it that every possible thing can go wrong for me, but right for that mutant? For that science experiment? Hm? How is it that I’m jilted at every god damn possible turn!”

Narcissus watches as Pacheco mindlessly walks up a beast’s long, flat tendril, the black cloak trailing and making the occasional odd, half-realized shape. The doctor seems completely at ease around the beasts, unaware even that he is amongst them. The barkskin vexing him has his full attention. He keeps muttering to himself, occasionally punching his hand, all while the tendril lifts him up into the sky. All of the beasts watch the doctor, their heads and bodies slowly moving, floating with his motion.

“Bud sirs, if you gods da man, den where is he? Did you kills him, bury him in da Fadesy? I cerdainly do nod sees him…eck!” Moltep swoops his giant arm down, grabbing Narcissus’s head between thumb and forefinger. The beast plucks him up, like a tick from its backside, and brings him up to eye level with Pacheco, who stands like a gargoyle on the corrugated skull of one of the beasts.

“Someone took him.” The words seethe through the doctor’s teeth.

“Oh sirs, please, led’s me down… my neck is on fires…”

“I would have killed him. I would have slowly cut him up, and stuffed all his little pieces down his throat, until his stomach burst from being so full of himself. But I was robbed of that little luxury, Narcissus, all because someone, or something, took him, swooped in, and grabbed him from between my jaws.

“You see, when one builds a bridge between worlds, such as I did between here and Phyrxian’s barely sustained one in the Fade, you run the risk of allowing others to scale on from other, often undesirable, places. And I felt it, a pull from somewhere along the bridge, like a magnet, trying to get the man back to Phyrxian, pulling him away from me. Do you follow?”

There are flashes around the Digger’s vision, like firework plumes in negative exposure, silently blooming bruises. His neck burns, as if the knotted muscles were soaked in gasoline and set alight. He can feel things tearing beneath the skin, things coming apart.

“Well, Phyrxian has no doubt made it to the coordinates that I had set. The center of everything. The spoke of all existence, the world at the center of all worlds. I found it, Narcissus. I found it, was so close, but the barkskin rebelled against her one true purpose, and ruined everything. She’s young, and selfish. She thinks her well being is of more importance than that of reality, than that of Yama Dempuur, than of restoring past glories to what they once were. A barkskin actually believes this, isn’t that something? Can you believe the selfishness and self-absorption of one person, Narcissus? Hm?”

The Digger’s eyelids are well below half-mast, his hands grasping at the pockmarked surface of Moltep’s thumb. His breathing is shallow and fast.

“What is wrong, Narcissus? No ‘sirs’ or ‘pleases’ for you? Have you finally reached the limits of your endurance? Have I finally pushed your frail little body too far? Well, just in time then. I have no more use for you. There is no more ground to be dug up, no more of the old legends to be brought back to the surface. I fear, then, that this is where I bid you farewell. Moltep, if you’ll be so kind.”

Moltep starts to squeeze. The Digger’s drooped face contorts into an inkblot, a plum in a vice grip, juices running like fast moving rivers beneath its thin, plasticky skin. His eyes roll back, and his tongue lolls out. A sound like a cough being torn apart by sharp teeth escapes from Narcissus’s throat before Moltep’s index finger and thumb touch together. Wormy strands of red and gray catapult through the air, falling like kamikaze gnats on Pacheco’s cloak and face. The Digger’s body dangles like a deflated latex glove from the beast’s huge hand, slips a bit, then falls, a thin stream of blood trailing from the crushed, headless neck as it makes for the ground. Pacheco wipes the dark murk from his face with the back of his hand, a ghost of a grin stirring in the corpuscular muscles around his mouth. Digging up the beasts seems to have bestowed upon the good doctor a sick sense of humor.

“Back to the ground from which you came, Digger.” And the beasts around Pacheco roar, the air trembling around their heads. Cutting through their din, like the chink in a bike chain worsening with each revolution, is Pacheco’s laughter. It asserts itself in a terrible way, a cluck-clucking from deep in his throat. The beasts grow quiet and timid at it, until it is the only sound. The holes the beasts have come from have grown even more huge, and there’s a heaviness to how vast and deep they are. Pacheco abruptly stops laughing, as if he too becomes aware at how eerie his laughter sounds in the silence of the wasteland.

“This world is dead,” He says to Moltep, who stares at him with a pair of gibbous eyes hanging above a jutting underbite. “Yet you know the way out of here, don’t you? You know how to get to the center of the spiral?” Moltep nods, the muscles in the side of his neck bulging out with each dip of his chin. Pacheco laughs again, satisfied. “I knew you would. It’s why I dug you up. Amesh spoke of the power of chaos in his Infinite Duality. He spoke of how chaos is attracted to power, that the very nature of being is defined by this magnetism. You primordial beasts consume power, and are drawn to it. You can therefore feel Helios and Hyperion, can’t you? You know the way to the center of it all?”

Something dawns on Pacheco as he speaks to Moltep. “Is that why this pathetic little man killed your brethren before you could wake? Was he protecting Helios and Hyperion? Or was someone else protecting them, and just using the Digger as his lackey?” Pacheco asks the questions out loud, but he knows Moltep will not speak to him, at least not in a language he understands.

“Aak aalook,” Moltep says, the same phrase, the same mysterious intonation. Pacheco cocks his head to the side, for he thinks he hears something in Moltep’s words, an underlying sound. It sounds like a cacophony of voices screaming from a chamber buried underground. They are in terrible pain. Pacheco feels himself being drawn into it, the screams growing louder. Moltep stares at the man, the eyes unblinking. It’s Pacheco’s cape which snaps him out of his reverie, the ragged tip coming up and tickling the space under his nose until the old man sneezes. Pacheco looks around himself, a wave of panic suddenly washing over him. What have I done? I killed a man who never wronged me. I have dug up creatures from the abyss, creatures who I have no right to control. Damn it all, he thinks, until his calmer self prevails.

I must get to the center of the spiral. At any cost. Pacheco bends down and croaks to the beast upon whose head he stands in a tiny whisper: “Charge forth, Nameless One, god from the Primordial, from far beyond the tender theorizings of man and his concepts of reality. Go!” Nameless One rears up, its head resembling the body of a black squid, the body a seahorse’s with millipede legs, tightly compacted appendages on a gargantuan body. For a moment, Pacheco feels he is falling, that all is slipping out from him, that the wasteland is beginning to dissipate, gasoline in a hot pan. Then Nameless One grabs hold of Pacheco, keeping him from falling, and rushes forward. There is a static crackling in the crispness of the air, the tattered fringes of Pacheco’s cape licking at the cornices of the ravaged world. Where they are running towards, Pacheco is not sure, except that it will be closer to the source and the beasts know what lies beyond the mist. Surely such powerful beings can do things he can’t even begin to wrap his mind around. He hopes, for his own sake, that he is right. If not, he’ll be joining the Digger in whatever hell the man has found himself in.

Moltep and the eleven other beasts spiral in around Pacheco and Nameless One as they rush for the Gray. The beasts, chaos made manifest, the antithesis of life and order, coalesce in one huge throng of roiling limbs and asymmetrical bodies. The crackling comes from every direction now, the ground upon which they run as translucent and fragile as cellophane. Parts of this world are indeed falling apart, without the Digger to keep them together. It seems that only the butte at the center of the landscape and a circle of land around it are remaining intact. All else is just about ready to come down.

“Damn, we are not going to make it to the fog,” Pacheco curses. As sudden as a crack of lightning, Moltep launches himself into the air, arcing ahead of Nameless and the other beasts, a purple cannonball sailing through the sky. Moltep climbs higher and higher into the aether, his body growing larger the further away he gets from the ground. The muscles in his back and shoulder bulge as he lifts his giant arm over his head, until he snaps it like a mousetrap, down at the mist Pacheco and the beasts are heading towards. The mist ahead cuts to sinuous pieces, revealing a pathway of rubble and reddish stone beyond it.

Moltep hangs in the air a moment, spinning like an asteroid in cold space. The beasts stop their charge towards the edge of the wasteland, staring silently at the path which has appeared before them. It hangs in black space, made of a dusty red stone and extending as far as Pacheco’s one eye can see. Driftwood of various sizes make up the railings, all connected by a series of thick hemp ropes. “Good, Moltep. You found the bridge away from here. Now, come.” Pacheco whispers the words to the beast levitating above, his words not so much a command as an incantation. Moltep slowly falls back to earth, his huge body shrinking as he comes closer and closer to the throng of primordial beasts he leaped from.

“You become bigger as you escape this hell-hole, eh, Moltep?” Pacheco says, as the great beast with the one misshapen arm softly lands on the translucent earth. “This world makes you small, makes you adjust to its limits. Your true form becomes apparent in the infinite, in the limitless chaos from which you were born. And where you would have died, had I not dug you up. How many of you old stories there must have been in the ground, whom the Digger killed. An infinite number, perhaps. And you lot are what’s left.” A fire burns in Pacheco’s eyes. Riding atop one of Nameless’s tentacles, he rises above all twelve of the beasts. His cloak snaps open as a wind screams from out from the newly revealed bridge. The beasts all bow before him.

“Beasts of chaos, of a time before order existed, I’ve bound you to my cause because I need your strength. To you, there is only pain and destruction. You cannot begin to comprehend structure, hierarchy, or balance, concepts which the worlds of Helios and Hyperion have been built around. But chaos is the fulcrum on which all the worlds are now teetering on, and threatening to fall into. As creatures of this chaos, you must help me tame it. Let us venture forth, along this forgotten bridge between the worlds. We’ll tread where few have dared go before us, to the center of time and space. If you can lead me to the center of the spiral, I promise you, you will have your freedom from the rational worlds. You will be great creatures of chaos again, free to consume and roam space as you will. Come! We go to find the two gods of order, the father and son, Helios and Hyperion. We will find them and bind them!” The wind screams as they slowly march forward, over the bridge. Shapes swirl about them, echoes of the chaos that hangs just over the edge of the pathway, a madness that, unbeknownst to Pacheco, is beckoning him further and further away from the light.

[] Chapter XII: “Down the Foxhole”

 

 

The air clings to his arms as he falls, vapor trailing from his fingers. Will is tumbling through an endless series of clouds, falling as if he’s in the last moments of a dream. Yet, unlike a dream, he’s completely aware. Terribly so, in fact. Still, he keeps falling, with no end in sight. He wonders why he can’t wake up. How close must he come with death before he does?

Head over heels, hands flailing about, his body spirals around for what feels like the hundredth time when he eyes a swath of orange fur sitting above him, suspended in the air, as if on an hidden ledge. Either it’s on an invisible cloud which is descending at the same rate as Will, or it is somehow outside of Will’s falling zone, a passive observer. Its several tails wave to and fro behind it.

“Hello, Will.”

“Hello. Did you just speak to me?”

“Do you see anybody else?”

“No. But foxes don’t talk. You are a fox, right?”

The fox jumps down from its invisible ledge, and saunters up to Will’s face. In a continuous, fluid sequence, the fox slinks into the shape of a silverback gorilla, then a microphone with a long trailing cord. It finally settles on the shape of a porcelain garden gnome. “Sometimes I’m a fox, sometimes a gnome. I like to ride the wave of potential, and see where it takes me. You see, the first rule of this place, Will, is that nothing is what you think it is. And just when you think you’ve figured it out, that’s when it will change into something else. This is the land of contradiction, Will. Welcome.”

“So you’re not a fox? Then you’re also not a gnome either, I take it?”

“No, certainly not.” The flecked paint starts to crack. Like a hatchling emerging from its egg, the fox emerges from out of the gnomes rigid body, bounding back up to the invisible ledge or cloud it had originally leaped from. “Not many here have names. It would just confuse things, to be perfectly honest. But you can call me Fox. Yes, I think that’ll do just fine.”

“Okay, Fox. So, why exactly am I falling? Or, better question: why aren’t you?”

“Oh, that’s what you’re doing? Well, I’m not quite sure why you’re falling. That thing all you humans have, that force of reason, is fairly weak here. It doesn’t exist in as great an abundance as the world’s you’re used to. In fact, tell anyone around here you believe in reason, and they’ll look at you as if you just said you believe in the Easter Bunny.” Fox quickly shifts into the form of a giant rabbit, complete with a gray tuxedo vest and whicker basket, and then back to his fox shape again.

“Okay, so I’m falling. How do I stop?”

“You want to stop?”

“Of course I do.”

“Well, see, that’s your problem right there. In order to stop, you can’t wish to stop. You can’t desire it. You have to either accept it, or wish for the complete opposite to happen. This is the land of contradiction, after all.”

“What? That makes no sense.”

“Sense? What is all this ‘sense’ business about, hm? Is it not the same thing as reason?”

“Well, I suppose so.”

“And I’m fairly certain that I just said that…”

“Yes, I know, that reason doesn’t hold water here, that it’s like the Easter Bunny. Okay, I get it.”

“But do you really get it, Will? Really?”

“I don’t know, I guess so.”

“You guess? What is reason, then?”

“What’s reason? Well, it’s how the world works, right? You know, common sense?”

“Reason is a system of truths, but truths based on what? It’s a framework of knowledge, but what is it built upon? The answer to both of these questions is, itself. Reason is self-referential, a cancer growing unchecked, only serving its own purposes.”

“Never really looked at it that way.”

“Well, here, in the land of contradiction, you have no choice but to do so. For reason is an abstraction here, never allowed to plant its seed.”

“So, this is all well and good, but what does this have to do with me falling? Or am I not really falling? What if I just try and right myself up and…” Will kicks out at the air, the mist trailing around his bare legs and blowing up his baggy shirt.

“You won’t be able to stand up until you either accept you’re falling, or wish for it.”

“Okay, fine. I accept I’m falling.”

“If that were the case, you’d have stopped by now. Accept that this is forever, that this isn’t merely a moment that will change, that there’s any alternative to this. Don’t accept by reacting to it, by relying on that rational framework you’ve built up inside you your entire life.”

“I… I can’t accept that this is forever. I don’t want to fall forever.”

“And therein lies the great cosmic joke, Will. You are falling forever, just as you are standing around forever, talking forever, waiting forever. Each moment stretches out into eternity, because eternity, reduced down, is made of the same binary force as a moment is: it all reduces down to the great spiraling dance of Helios and Hyperion. Time is an illusion, merely the interlacing of moments. And now, you must understand this: that want, and desire, all stem from an inability to accept the infinite nature of every single moment.”

“Okay, Buddha, I get it. There’s no past, no future…”

“Exactly. Their existence only comes from their relation to the present moment.”

“Right. And so, there’s just… this. There’s just me falling. But not even me, it just is to fall… falling….” Will closes his eyes, squinting hard, trying to push his thoughts away.

“Don’t fight it. Accept it.” Will stops trying to force the thoughts, and rather focuses on the blood pumping in temples, the heat in his face. He focuses on the sensation, so intently that all the thoughts just dissipate from inside of him. When they try to resurface, as a nagging whine or a capricious doubting voice, the sensation quiets them, buries them in the nature of falling, falling. It just is, until…

Will falls in a heap on the ground. The mist has given way to an icy ground, packed firm and smooth. Old snow, a finely ground crystalline dust, blows through the air. Will and Fox are on a thin strip of ice, a road which undulates its way over softly rolling hills until it cannot be seen any longer. “That hurt,” Will says, softly writhing on the ground. He looks up at the fox, who sits by the side of his head, watching wordlessly, his tails swishing through the air.

“Don’t even say it. That the pain is all in my head. I think I’ve had enough talk about enlightenment for one day.” Will stands up, shaking out the snow from inside his baggy shirt, then shaking his mop of hair back and forth so the powder flutters out. “Where are we?”

“Again, better we didn’t say where we are. It would just complicate things. Just know that this is a land of contradiction. You’re on a journey, are you not?”

“Well, I was. I was on a bike trip.”

“All by yourself?”

“Yeah. I know, everyone said I was crazy. But it’s not like I didn’t try asking a bunch of people to come with. They all just said no, so. Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, like you’re studying me, or are going to eat me. You’re not going to try and eat me, are you?” Fox laughs, but it’s a long one, with emphasis on each exhale of breath, and long spaces of air between. It’s unnatural. “Why would I try and eat you? What do you take me for, hm? No, no, young William. I want to help you. You’re on a journey, and I want you to get to its end. Isn’t that what you want? To get to the end?”

“Well, yes…”

“Then let’s go. We have to get out of this frozen tundra before we can get back to that road to California you were so happily on. How long have you been away from your trip?”

“How long? I don’t know… since yesterday?”

“Yesterday, hm? Today, tomorrow, and especially yesterday have no meanings, not here, and certainly not in the Fade,” Fox starts trotting along the ice path, keeping low to the ground all the way to the summit of the hilltop. He peeks his little fox head up over the ridge, carefully, until he’s certain of something. Then, with a flourish, he turns around, a wind rising up from behind him, tearing through the landscape with a pained howl. “Come, young William, purveyor of yesterdays and intrepid bicycle rider. To get back to where you came from, we must wander away from this cold, cold place.”

“Wait, wait,” Will scrambles up the ice, trying to catch up with Fox. “But where are we going? There’s got to be a way that you can explain all this to me within the stupid rules of this place…. oh my god…” Will stops as he surmounts the top of the hill, his train of thought gone, his stubbly jaw slack and hanging.

Snow patters across the icy path like little feet, the narrow, mirror-like ribbon of the road leading to a series of five tall buildings. They road cuts through them like a schism in the earth; in fact, two buildings stand at the bottom of a sharply inclined ridge, which falls from the edge of the road, as if the earth just dropped away from the weight.

It’s the buildings themselves which has caused Will’s breath to give way. Their interiors are burnt out, each floor a cavernous and charred skeleton. Even from this distance, the shadows within each room seem to promulgate a pulsing darkness, evil black beacons. Will can feel eyes on him from those towers, though he can’t see them. And then there are the edges of the buildings, sharp, protruding blades, like broken teeth, or lances spearing towards the sky.

“There’s something in those buildings,” Will says.

Fox appears from behind him, coolly nodding his head. “We shouldn’t draw any unwanted attention to ourselves. Just follow me, okay? There’s going to be plenty of chances for your eye to wander, but you mustn’t be distracted. Just keep your focus on me, or else you’ll be pulled into the world of contradiction, and you don’t really want that.”

The wind creeps up the path and up to Will’s ear. He hears something in it, something which makes him flinch. “Did you hear that?” He says.

“Hear what, pray tell?”

“It was, it was an old woman. And she was screaming, it was like she was screaming through a pillow, but I heard her. She wanted her… her cigarettes, and her house, and her…”

“You want to know what’s out there, Will? What’s watching us from those buildings out there? They’re forces of desire, William. Insatiable forces of want, lost souls who suffer because of want. Whispers. Their worlds are dead, their concepts and stories never having been fulfilled. Their wanting makes them suffer, as the one truth of this place is that desire will always be jilted.”

“God, she was so angry, and so sad. Fox, I don’t think I want to go through that place.”

“It’s the only way we can get you back on your journey, Will. Just stay focused on me. They’re merely voices, after all. They can’t hurt you.”

“Just voices, right.” Will says, following Fox’s paw prints in the snow. “They were just voices in the desert too, until the shadows came out.”

“Trust, Will. I got you out of that fall, didn’t I? I’ll get you through this.” The wind sets Will’s arm hairs on end, pointed up towards the dying blue sky from the summits of goose pimples. His knees and elbows are scraped from the fall, but the blood only forms in little pinpricks, it being so cold. Though the chill is biting, Will is practically oblivious to it. His attention is entirely on the voices he hears drifting up from the ruins below.

Why did he ever leave me? I just wanted to be loved. That’s all I wanted. That’s all I ever asked.”

I just sit, all god damn day. Why’d they have to take ‘em, huh? What good did it do to take my legs? Hell, I’d rather em rot out from under me than them cuttin’ em off.” The voices come from all directions, some from high up in the towers, some from the lower floors of the buildings sunken below the road, their rooms crushed little caves from all the weight they’re supporting. Will’s head darts back and forth. He’s gulping the cold air, his cheeks hot despite the wind, his body feeling buoyant and weightless.

“Don’t look, Will. Just keep your head facing forward. Eyes on me.” Fox’s tail swishes back and forth behind him, the carrot before a horse. Darkness is starting to set in, especially as they get closer to the five buildings. The towers block out most of the sky, killing the light before it even hits the ground. There’s a sound like ruffling feathers from the nearest tower, high up in one of the burnt out rooms.

“What was that?”

“Don’t worry, just keep focused on me.”

I wanted to be great, the greatest. I wanted my name to be like honey on the lips of those who said it.”

I wanted to rule them, don’t you see? I’d rise up, they’d give me what belonged to me, and then I’d rule them.”

Out of the corner of his eye, from one of the lower rooms, Will sees a mess of torn fabric and rope dash quickly out of the shadows, then back in, like a tentacled sea beast briefly emerging from the depths of dark water. Will finds himself whispering things, assurances, the kind that he used to tell himself as a kid when he’d have to go out to the chicken coop all by himself under cover of pitch.

But there was always a light on behind, a light in the window, my father watching me from over the sink, Will thinks to himself. The cigarette smoke would snake around his head, collecting on the ceiling, and Will, just a child, barely old enough to reach the rusted chain hanging from the only lightbulb in the coop, would feel okay. He’d feel secure, that nothing could hurt him, not with his father watching…

“Whoa, whoa, whoa there. Watch what you’re doing!” The voice is greasy and, oddly enough, sounds familiar to Will. “You see what he’s doin’ back there? You best mind, Fox. He almost drifted off again.”

Will snaps his head up, finding himself on his knees, his elbows clutched tightly in his mitts, his teeth chattering. He doesn’t remember falling, and can’t see Fox anywhere around him. His mind got lost in memory, of being a child and looking up at the light in the window and feeling safe. But the memory is gone. He can no longer conjure up the image of the window, of the crooked houseplants and cigarette smoke framing his father’s face. He can’t even remember what his old man looked like. All his thoughts go black, until there’s only what he sees, which is that he’s fallen in a circle at the center of all the towers, their sharp edges barely discernible in the dark. Around him snaps the tatters of capes and cloaks, ropes billowing with the fabric, the bodies they belong to indiscernible.

I want power,”

I want fame, riches,”

I want blood,”

I want war, famine, death. I want them all to hurt so bad.”

“Enough, you bunch of buffoons!” The familiar voice says. The various capes and cloaks and ropes all retreat, away from Will and back into the dark. For a moment, Will can only hear himself breath, his throat like sandpaper, as if he had been screaming for the past few hours. There’s a murderous thump from deep within the dark, like a baseball bat thwacking against a pound of hamburger meat, and then Fox flies through the air, landing just behind Will in a pile of bloodied fur.

“Fox!” Will screams, but before he can go to him, he sees a large shape making its way towards him from out of the dark. The shadows melt away as the figure steps forward, revealing a large man, rotund of gut and completely naked from head to toe. He’s like a walrus with arms and legs, the top of his head a polished dome. Covering the man’s body are symbols, carved deeply into the flesh, varying colors of red, pink and purple. Some are as familiar as car emblems, others as esoteric as the whispers shared between star dust. Branded on the upper left corner of the man’s chest, in thin cursive writing and surrounded by a squarish border, is a name, three syllables long, though the man’s face seems barely capable of holding one, two, on a good day.

“Don’t you worry ‘bout Fox none. Just had to set him straight, ya see. Put him in his place. Didn’t I tell ya I’d be seeing ya back with me sooner than later?”

“Bart?” Will says.

“Yep, it’s ol’ Bartholomew, alright. In the flesh, as they say. Don’t get up, please.” Bart grins, gesturing at Will’s struggle to stand. The cold, exacerbated by the deep shadows from the broken buildings, has worked its way into Will’s bones, the bike shorts and thin cotton shirt doing very little to keep him warm.

“He’s not… yours, Bart…” Fox is nearly hocking the words out. He joins Will in the struggle to get their feet underneath them. “…stay away from him.”

“Oh no, he’s mine alright. He’s been mine since the beginning. Just ask him,” Bart bends over. Though he’s still a good three meters away from Will, leaning down as he does brings him about nose to nose with the shivering young man in the bicycle shorts. “This is what you say, Fox.” Bart continues. His breath smells like gasoline and caramelized chemicals. “You payin’ attention? Hey, all you whispers, you hold this Fox up so that he can look at me when I’m talkin’ to him.”

From the darkness, which encircles Fox, Will and Bart like the edge of a spotlight, springs a wave of tattered cloth, ropes and chains. They wrap around Fox’s limbs, and lift him up in the air, pulling tautly.

“So Fox, this is what you can ask this here fella. Ask him, say, ‘Hey, William. Whose you’s belonged to since the beginnin’?’ You catch my drift? And then Willy, then you say… C’mon Will, you say…”

“What the hell are you talking about? I don’t belong to you, I don’t belong to anyone.” He looks to Fox, then back at Bart. “Let him go.”

“Let him go? Who? Him?! That there fella a’int your friend, if that’s what you think. What line of BS did he use on you, Willy? He was going to get you back on your way? He wanted you for himself, he did. You really thought he was your friend, huh? Can you get a load of this, guys? Will thought that the ol’ fox was his friend.”

A roar of laughter erupts from the shadows, the kind found echoing about the hallways of mental asylums. It swirls around through the darkness like a whirpool, escalating in power. Only when Bart smirks, his bloodshot eyes scanning all around the periphery of his head, does it stop, just as quickly as it began.

“Don’t tell me you let yourself get outfoxed by a fox, William? Oh William, dear, sweet little William. When you asked me for direction, for water, for company, did I not provide, all the way out there in the middle of God’s country? This Fox is a thief and a liar. He wanted to use ya to get out of here, ya see? He’s a lost soul, same as all of the others. Wants something that he just can’t have, so he’s stuck here. But you, you’re special. You can shape worlds, William, did you know that? Wow, learn somethin’ new everyday, don’t we? Even in a place where days don’t have much meanin’, accountin’ there ain’t no such thing as time. Oh hey, there you go. Still got a little wobble in your step, but you’re standin’ pretty tall now.”

Will staggers on his feet, looking about him, trying to figure out a way to escape. “What do you mean I can shape worlds?”

“Power of perception, understand? It’s all relative, as some German once said.”

“Subjectivity?”

“That’s right. And relativity. All that gobbledegook. ”

“That’s what you mean by the power to shape worlds? That I have an opinion? What’s so special about that?”

“Sh, William!” Bart puts a grubby finger the size of a muskrat up to his lips, shushing William with spittle specked with chew and tar. “Not so loud! They hear you, they’ll get awfully resentful. You must’ve take what you’ve got for granted. These whispers, they’d kill for the chance to shape worlds accordin’ to their whims and fancies. They can’t do that, Will.”

Will realizes that there’s no way out, not without having to run through the creatures in the capes that hang around the circle. He turns and looks at Bart. “I think this is all just one big misunderstanding. Fox probably didn’t have the noblest of intentions, but there’s no need to hurt anyone, right? Even if the guy is a complete liar,” Will nods back at Fox, “let him just live with it. I’m alright, you’re alright, no harm done. I can just be on my way, and things will go back to as they were.”

Bart stands straight back up, lets a big breath pass through his naked body. Some of the symbols seem to glow, while others grow darker, and colder in hue.

“There’s no goin’ or comin’, Will. Route 60 is the longest road you’ll go down because it’s just an infinite loop, don’t actually lead nowheres. It just goes round back in on itself. See you, you’s like a world spinning out somewheres in space, where the ebb and flow of the tides makes no difference on the universe none whatsoever,” Bart smiles, and in the spongey, yellow teeth, Will sees the last throes of a dying sun, cirrus star dust swirling like gyres around the compressed orange sphere, flying off into the quiet of space.

“You see it, don’t ya? You see the beginnin’, the end. You see life just existin’ to see itself, to be awed for a moment, just an eensy beensy moment, before it poofs out. In that moment, and the moments in that moment, it just keeps shinin’, ya see. But then it dies, right quick. Forgotten forever, consumed by the dark.”

“Please,” Will says, covering his eyes with the crook of his arm, slinking back towards Fox, the small creature’s fur like morning clouds hanging over the shore. “Please, don’t show me anymore.”

“It’s awfully beautiful, ain’t it? But once you see it like this, well, it kinda spoils the rest, don’t it?”

“What are you? How can you show me these things?”

“I’m the keeper of dreams, William. I can show you whatever I’d like. I’m the master, the main man. This is the Land of Nod, and I’m it’s keeper.”

“Will… don’t listen to him…he lies…” Fox spits the words out before screaming, the frayed edges of the capes pulling harder on his limbs.

“Can you quiet that sonabitch already?” Bart says. “Christ, I got to do everythin’ myself around here?”

More capes spring from the darkness, which wrap themselves around Fox’s body entirely. The pieces of tattered cloth which had his limbs stretched out slacken, and let the newly mummified body fall back to the earth.

“And now, Willy boy. You’s next.”

Will rushes forward, his fist drawn back. He punches Bart as hard as he can, square in the stomach. But his hand only meets a modicum of resistence, and slides right in through the skin, as if its made of butter. The hole in Bart’s stomach quickly closes around Will’s hand with a sickening suction, holding him there. Will’s eyes are wild and wide as they look up into Bart’s grinning, gibbous face, the tippy top concealed by blackness.

“Jesus…” Will says, Bart’s mildewy teeth a marquee above him, stretched from one pockmarked cheek to the other. In them he sees the image of a man, naked, looking much like himself, only completely shorn of all his hair. He lays naked at the center of a circle, with various lines and symbols drawn on the floorboards. The man takes a huge intake of breath, and Will knows that the man is waking for the first time, becoming alive; but as the man exhales, he sees panic and terror enter into his eyes, before escaping, along with any indication of life at all. In one breath, the man has lived and died. In one moment…

“And now, William, you’ll kindly follow me.” Bart’s head revolves around on his neck, until it is completely turned around. Will struggles to free his hand as Bart starts walking backwards, but a shooting pain tears up his arm with each effort. He can feel Bart’s viscera churning and tightening around his fist, contracting like snake muscles around his fingers. Will knows that the vision he saw in Bart’s teeth, of the man on the floor, was his future.

“I can’t. Please, don’t make me see that. Don’t, please,” Will is pleading with Bart, but it might as well be falling on deaf ears. It’s like a lid has been closed over the earth, the snowy ground refracting nothing more than a dull blue sheen. Nevertheless, Will sees the figures shuffling a ways away, orbiting them like comets with tattered capes for tails. They whisper and whish, rustle and swish, their low voices all gobbled up in one another. They’re like a room full of cockroaches all trying to speak through the same rotary phone, calling across the galaxy to their deadbeat landlord about no pressure in the pipes and a drafty bedroom skylight. They want to be heard, want to get out of this place; Will understands it all and is terrified at how desperate their desire is. They will do anything to get what they want, bike trips be damned.

They come up on one of the towers. It’s the tallest, the most bent and twisted. In the crook between Bart’s shoulder blades, a mouth of razor sharp teeth appears. “Welcome home, William.” The mouth says.

“Let me the fuck go! I’m not going in!” Will kicks at the body, again trying to desperately pull his arm free. He fails to notice Bart’s deli meat arm cock back, fails to appreciate the effortlessness at which it careens through the air. After the fist connects with his jaw, Will stops struggling, suddenly struck with the thought of how numb and heavy his face has suddenly become. Then, he tilts, consciousness floating up and away.

“Well, guess we’ll have to do this the old fashioned way,” Bart says, lifting Will in his arms, walking backwards into the tower. The tower’s lobby is like a cavern dug deep in the earth, hallowed out by time and dripping water. The surfaces glimmer in the dark, as if a moon so full and ripe has burst its thin white skin, the released liquid having long ago frozen on the ground. Bart makes his way for the staircase, a large ballroom type deal, with divergent stairways breaking off from the middle and climbing in opposite directions. He takes the left staircase, his steps slow, steady.

There are picture frames on the walls, of deciduous trees finely inked on tea stained parchment. The branches seem innumerable. The names in the boxes beside each branch are even more so. Tree after tree after tree, the frames climbing high into the dark eaves, so many they could account for all of life, for everything that was and is and will be. And they do. And then the walls give way, cracked wood and steel greeting the night sky with charred teeth. There are stars. They watch, solar breaths fluttering in the cold stratosphere, cloud blankets like thinly threaded whispers. The steps whine under Bart’s weight.

Bart reaches the summit. There is only a flat floor, worn with big caterpillar spaces between each board. The stars shine coldly. The naked man with the carved runes in his body lays the boy down, in the middle of the floor. He shuffles around, finds a sharp stick, and retraces the symbols already etched in the wood.

“And here we are, little William…” Bart says, in his dripping, slow country cadence, “Here we are, right back to where it all began.”

Invisible tendrils of cape fabric snap around the edges of the floorboards.

“Just cool your jets, alright? We’re just about there. Just a few more things to do,” Bart keeps retracing the symbols, making his way around the circle. He cuts his palm on the sharp stick, smearing the blood all over his body. The runes carved in his skin blink to life, shining pink and purple beneath flabby folds and a red viscous film. He slathers his entire body until he resembles a pig who just rolled in mud. Will doesn’t wake when Bart rearranges his limbs to look like Vitruvian Man, or when his face is roughly smeared with blood. He doesn’t wake when the giant man throws his head back and howls at the stars, which tremble in their places, nor when the shadows from around the top of the burnt out tower rush forward, their torn capes and clothes snapping in the cold air. Will doesn’t wake. Instead, he sleeps, and in his sleep are dreams.

[] Chapter XIII: “Pilot”

 

 

The aeons float out Crick’s body like loosed dandelion puffs, on up to my ear.

They whisper: dost thou know who the man is? Dost thou know the girl?

I don’t know them, I say to the Aeons. They’ve come here from far away. The Pilot wants to meet them, so he sent me to retrieve them. And that’s all I know.

The aeons gather on the bottoms of the leaves, soft balls of light, like foam at the edge of a stream. We’re riding the leaves of the oldest trees down to the earth. That ship they took, it crashed through so many of my old friends, hurt them. But they’ll heal back. All heals here, in the land of fecundity.

“Are we… falling?” Amara asks.

“This tree we are walking on, it is dying.” I say. “It is going back to the earth.” The bark is going from brown to gray, shriveling into itself. The aeons move about her head and mine, whisking about my antlers like dust in a breeze.

Dost they see us, Jack Karnos?

No, I tell them. I don’t believe so. The man is wounded and sleeps, and the girl has yet to wake.

Yet she walks and talks. How strange.

The outer worlds are strange places, I tell them.

Dost they hear us, Jack Karnos?

No. Maybe the man, while he dreams.

“Jack! The tree! It is breaking!” Amara screams, as the tree cracks and begins to lean. She thinks we’re falling and starts to panic. But the aeons know, and move quickly.

“Do not worry,” I say, taking her hand in mine. We hang in the air, the aeons flitting and giggling beneath us, already prepared with branches and vines to replace the dying tree and cushion our descent.

Why dost she worry so much?

She doesn’t know any better. Be kind, I tell them. “This is some deep science you use. Tell me this is just some sort of clever trick.” She looks to me, her mouth firm as if she expects me to affirm her suspicions.

“This is Arcadia, my friend, not the Land of Nod. There is no deception here. What you see is life unto death, and death unto life, two sides of the same face. And the knowledge that it is so.” The dying tree crumbles and curls as we descend, like beech bark in a fire. A cloud of insects charge in from all angles, red and black, and begin to churn over the withered trunk. They leave behind a soft hill of moss, from which saplings have already sprung, their fresh grasping hands reaching towards the sky.

“Death becomes life,” She says. “The scholar spoke of such life science. It worked in a faraway place, where gods lived. Have we died? Have we crossed over into the place of gods?”

“You are in the place of gods, but you have not died. This is Arcadia. You are close to Helios and Hyperion, the nearer you get to the center of the spiral, the more everything exists in its whole state.”

“Existence is strong here,” she says. “Like a strong island sun on a tidal fog.”

She is from the Coral Islands?

“You’re from the Coral Islands?”

“Yes, how did you know?”

“I beg pardon, but I’ve never heard of them. It’s the Aeons who tell me these things.”

“The Aeons?” She follows my sword as I point out the puffs of light floating around our heads. “These things? They are like the lightning bugs of home. Only they do not turn off. And you speak to them? You are a special man, Jack. You would like the islands, I think. Very green and wet, like this forest. I have been in the Fade for a long time. The islands were almost all washed away by the Fade many ages ago. It sits at the edge of all the worlds. We have a saying back home, that the Coral Islands arose from a smile that crossed Hyperion’s face as he slipped from one good dream to the next. The Fade liked the smile so much, it could not find the will to wash it away. That is why we are still there. At least, that is what the scholar says. I left a long time ago.

“We Ma’atha celebrate life, you see. When not being forced into working the soil for the yama, or building roads, or powering their ships, we dance and sing, wishing for Hyperion and Helios to have good dreams, so that when they wake, they’ll be contented, and not anxious or confused. The scholar says we must do this.”

That’s beautiful. Tell her, Jack Karnos.

“That’s a very beautiful way to live,” I say. The aeons hang around the trunks of the saplings, which have already grown to the size of young trees, in a carpet as thick as the moss on the ground.

But does she know?

No. And she can’t. Not yet.

Can we tell her when it’s time?

Pilot will tell her, I say.

“Are the Aeons saying something?” Amara says.

Ah, she dost hear!

“They did. Can you hear them?” I say.

“It is like a mosquito is whispering,” Amara says.

She feels us.

Wait for Pilot to wake her

We are so excited to meet

Just wait, Aeons, just…

“By the Fox, look!” Amara falls backward on the giant leaf we are descending. Rising up towards us, a mere stone’s throw away, is the creature from the ship, the confused and hungry and abused being whose life I had to cut short high above us in the trees. The leaf stops just in front of the beast’s jaws. I run my fingers over the once sharp teeth, now eroded, the edges soft. The skin has grown leathery and dry, the eye sockets empty.

“It’s okay, Amara.” I say. “She’s very dead.”

Amara pokes her head up. Aeons flit about her head, their collective giggles like trickling water on smooth stones. “Oh, yes. I see.” She says. There’s a rustling sound from within the beast’s mouth. With my one free hand, I move the flap of the creature’s mouth to the side, to take a look inside. From death comes life, and this particular instance is no exception. At several arm lengths within the carcass, draped in shadow and aeon light, is a small creature, a lizard. Its body is thin, coiled around itself, like baby tree roots grown round an ant hill. Its flat head and closed eyes rest atop its small arms, the shoulders softly rising and falling with its breathing.

“Amara, come look.” She walks to the front of the leaf, and carefully looks into the hollowed out mouth of the once great beast from the ship they crashed here in.

“Gods, it is a hatchling. So this creature was a mother? It was pregnant?”

“No, I don’t believe so. But it was a carrier of a life force, which it gave back to the land once it died. This is the new life that sprang from it. Arcadia is a world of constant rejuvenation, of abundance and fertility.”

“And death begets life, as life begets death. It is a saying amongst my people.”

“The Ma’atha are a wise folk, it is said. Pilot speaks well of them.”

The Aeons whisper Pilot’s name, flitting about us in excited arcs. We’re getting very close, and they feel it. Before the leaf can descend any further, Amara beckons to the small creature, waving it towards her with her hand. It watches her curiously with eyes that have just sleepily clacked open. The head bobbles back and forth, as if the neck is too young and weak to capably support it.

“Come, Amara. We must meet the Pilot. Your friend, he needs help, and there are things which must be done very soon.”

“Okay,” She says, giving up on the creature ever coming towards her. “Okay, let us go.” The leaf starts to move towards the ground again, until we see the forest floor below us. There’s a carpet of moss, atop which are dead leaves, ferns and broken tree limbs. We jump down, the moss coming up to cushion our landing. The brush ahead parts to offer us a clear path towards a rocky hill in the near distance, atop which I see the red scarf snapping in the wind.

The Pilot watches as thou dost approach, the Aeons say.

“Quick now, Amara.” I pick up Crick, and start running towards the hill. The forest suddenly clears, giving way to the rocky expanse that leads up to Pilot’s hill.

O! but look Jack, the babe dost follow you,

The young lizard from the insides of the dead creature watches us from the edge of the trees. It takes hesitant steps after us, whimpering, not wanting to be left behind. “Wait, Jack. We can not just leave the little one there by himself.”

I want to tell her that in no time, the little guy will be a much bigger guy, and he’ll be much more at ease on his own than with us. I want to tell her that here, in Arcadia, there is no want, no reason to be afraid, that the space between birth and death is so small, that there is no place for fear to plant itself. I want to tell her that Pilot told me to hurry, to retrieve them as fast as possible. Yet, I also know that Amara is not one to take no for an answer. “Hurry, then. Get the young one.” She rushes back to the young lizard, who looks at her with searching eyes.

The Aeons sigh. The girl dost have a propensity for compassion, they say.

“Yes, she does.” Amara reaches down to the lizard, and carefully picks it up.

“It is okay, little one.” She says. “You have nothing to be afraid of. You are nothing like your mother was, right?” The lizard nestles itself into Amara’s arms, but then nips at the hair hanging over her chest. “Hey! No biting, okay?” Her dark eyes are stern, and the lizard lets go of the white hair from between its jaws. She smiles, but then becomes serious as she sees me waiting for her, with the pale form of Crick draped over my forearms. She runs towards me, the two of our arms full, hers with birth, mine, death.

The hill before us is rocky and sparsely covered with scrub and scraggly trees. There are broken pieces of glass everywhere, reds and blues and greens. As we come nearer, the Aeons all start humming, in flowing harmony. At the top of the hill is the Pilot, resplendent in his simplicity, the beige wool of his fatigues collecting the sunlight in all its coarse seams and glowing like a medallion. He wears the bomber cap he always does, with wisps of gray hair peeking out. His nose is swollen and pockmarked, his cheeks red. He wears a scarf around his neck which gracefully whips about in the unfelt wind. It is long, and would mostly rest on the ground if not for the invisible current of air caressing the hillside.

The Pilot hiccups. “You’ve made it. Oh, goody.” His voice is even raspier than usual, his words hanging off the shoulders of one another. He walks a few feet forward, taking exaggerated steps over the empty bottles by his feet. “You must be Amara. And oh, look, you’ve come by a little dervish. How... *hiccup*... how lovely.”

“I am.” She says. She looks down at the little creature in her arms, the dervish, and then at Crick’s lifeless body in my arms.

“Ah, yes, Crick. My, my. That’s... *hiccup*... That’s what he’s been calling himself, right? Crick? So, the story goes that he, he, he saw a grasshopper in the grass, back when he met William, and that’s where he got his name,” Pilot hits himself in the temple with the palm of his hand, a dull thwack on the leather bomber’s helmet. “But what he saw wasn’t even a cricket. How... *hiccup*...ironic.”

I lay Crick down at Pilot’s feet.

“How do you know that? Who are you?” Amara asks him. Her voice is tense.

“How do I know? Well, that’s a good question. One for which I don’t think there’s a really good answer. I just do. My name is Pilot, and I know everything.” I can’t bring myself to look Amara in the eye. I find an angular little pebble on the ground to focus on.

“You say you know everything, but you smell of a yama who drinks the fermented janjan, and speak like one, too.”

“Oh ho! She’s just as saucy as I’d come to expect, Jack Karnos. A real firecracker, as they’d say in William’s world. Or at least his grandparents would... *hiccup*... damn, these hiccups. Some fermented janjan juice would be just the ticket.”

“This is the man who would help Crick, Jack? Who would help us?”

“I said the Pilot wanted to…”

“To see us. yes, I know. Well, here we are, and this man is dying. Now, please,” She places the dervish on the ground and approaches the Pilot. “Can you help him or not?” The Pilot flashes a purple smile, and starts chuckling to himself. I can’t imagine what could possibly be funny in a moment like this, with this man so near death. This behavior is so unlike Pilot, drunk or not. To think he had me make haste to meet Amara and Crick, to bring them back as fast as I could.

“How long have you known me, Jack Karnos?” Pilot says, not taking his gaze from Amara. His voice has sobered. “In any of that time, have I not known what I was doing?” It takes me a moment to realize that he never actually spoke, his wine-stained lips never shifting from their drunken grin. It was a thought. It came up like a seed that had been planted in my mind from the beginning, and had finally taken sprout. It rose in my mind naturally, in reaction to the particular sequence of events he knew would happen, had seen happen. The thought was a culmination to the clever puzzle he had been assembling since I had met him.

The Aeons hum increases in volume, and I feel like something is about to happen. “Oh, it is. It is indeed.” Pilot says to me. In knowing everything, he hears everything, too. He hears my thoughts, the conversation that the Aeons and I have, floating back and forth like loose dandelion puffs.

“Amara, my dear, of course I can help your friend Crick. Look, already he is in much finer shape. Look,” Crick moans, as if on cue. His eyes are still shut, but his breathing has stabilized and some color has returned to his cheeks. “Such a form to take,” Pilot says, leaning over Crick’s broken body. “A real blue-collar man, with hard callouses on his hands and a weather beaten face. He’d have to be tough, to come this far, eh? Come, Crick,” He reaches behind him, and grabs a half-filled wine bottle from the ground. He tears the cork out with his teeth. “Come drink the nectar of the gods.”

Pilot takes a pull from the bottle. He wipes his lips with the back of his sleeve, then gently pours the wine into Crick’s open mouth. It seems to fill without stopping, until a red tendril leaks from out the side of Crick’s mouth and mingles with the whiskers.

“What is this…?” Amara doesn’t understand, but her face quickly softens once she sees the Pilot fall to his knees and start crying, his face in his palms.

“Master…” I say.

“No, Jack, please. I am sorry. It’s just…” He takes another draught from the bottle. “I’ve been the judge of many a man, many a world. But how am I to be the judge of the being at the center of everything? The being responsible for everything? You, me, Arcadia,”

“Master Pilot, what do you mean?”

My question goes unanswered, as Crick begins to cough, the wine sputtering like an oily spray from his mouth. “Where in the hell am I?” He says, darting up.

“Crick!” Amara rushes toward him.

“Amara. Jesus, how long I been out?”

“You became unconscious after we fell from the tree, and landed on the bough… by the Fox God, Crick. Your leg, it is… it is…”

Crick stretches his legs out, his arms too. “Well, it sure as hell a’int broke no more, but it’s sure stiff as a mother,” He smacks his lips together, tasting the wine. “Mm, that’s good.” He says, then looks up into Pilot’s face, which is suspended above him. “More of that wine where it came from?”

Pilot blinks a few times.

“Can I help you, buddy?” Crick says.

“Yes, you can. I think you can help us all. Helios.”

The sword nearly drops from my hand.

Did he just say

Yes, Aeons, he said

But how how how how

“There’s very little time for explanation, Aeons.” Pilot says, wiping the last of the tears from his eyes. He stays on his knees, and takes off his leather bomber cap, revealing greasy gray hair pasted to his scalp. “Even less for questions. Lord Helios has found his way to Arcadia. We bow to him, ever royal subjects in his court.”

I bend to my knee and bow my head. The Aeons stop their flitting, and bow as low as they can on their various planes of existence, as does all of Arcadia, the wells of the most primal and ancient life energy rising to the surface to bow before the great Father, the Left-Handed King, who has apparently come back to us in the form of an unkempt vagabond from the outer worlds.

“Hold on, now.” The man says, dusting the bottom of his denim jeans off and looking about him. His eyes move about, staring at each facet and manifestation of life that bends low for him. There’s uncertainty in the air, a big question looming over our heads: Is this really it? Is Pilot right, and this is what we’ve been waiting for?

Crick, or Helios, sniffs and jiggles his jaw. “Now, look, I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”

“No, Helios. There is no misunderstanding. There are many things which I must tell you, many things which you must know. Firstly, you and I have met before, though I’m sure you’ve no recollection. It was back when you and your son first encountered one another, you see, in the soup of chaos that exists outside of the spiral.”

“What you talking about soup for? You know where my son is, don’t you?”

“Of that, I cannot tell you. Not yet, for he will wake if you know. And if he wakes, all is lost.”

“God damn it, stop with the rambling bullshit. I don’t care what you did for my leg, or how you did it. I’ve come out here looking for my boy. Now, you’ll tell me where he is.” Crick huffs. The Aeons shrink back, as do the trees, their spindly roots inching back in the dirt from where he flexes his fists. Pilot shrinks back, lifts his hand to his red face. “With all due respect, master Helios_”

“That ain’t my name, damn it!”

“But it is. With all due respect, the person you think you’re looking for, he doesn’t exist.”

“What?”

“Your son. The man that you’re supposedly looking for, who you were looking for all the way out there in New Mexico.” Pilot’s swallows, seemingly unsure if he can go on. He spits the rest of his thoughts out. “Can you even tell me what he looks like? What color his eyes are? Can you even tell me his name? While you’re at it, tell me that your name is actually Crick, and it didn’t just come from seeing a grasshopper in the scrubland, and thinking it was an adequate title for yourself? Please, sir, I only ask these questions to make you see_”

“God damn you, I a’int got to see nothing.”

Tears reform at the edges of Pilot’s eyes. “You don’t, you’re right. I know. But please, for the sake of all the worlds, for this being that is your son but isn’t son, please; try.” He looks to Amara, to me, then back to Crick. “I’m sorry for coming across, like… this. But you must understand, that this is a day I’ve been dreading since the day I was born. Even knowing how I was going to react to all this… it’s humiliating. I’m sorry…”

“Master, let me take you to rest.”

“No, Jack. It is okay. I have to see this through. I’m a slave to the movement of time, even though I’ve known in advance how these days would play out.

“How about, if you know anything about my son, you tell me. For your sake,” Crick rushes forward, towards Pilot.

“Crick, no!” Amara yells. I rush forward, all of us in a race to get to Pilot before the other. Sometimes, when I run very fast, time slows down. I can move through each moment like I’m trapezing between empty picture frames. I see Crick lifting his fist in a series of second-long frames. My sword is at his throat before he can even swing his arm down, enough pressure behind the blade to just about break his skin.

“I’ll end you where you stand.” I say, but then the air floods with light, all coming from Crick. It’s like Crick has exploded and let loose a lifetime’s worth of starlight. It knocks me back into the air, and gives me this dazed feeling. It makes me think of…

Being born, the Aeons say.

Being born? What do you all mean? I ask them. Instinctively, my mind wanders back to my birth, where my first memory was waking atop a tree branch. There was fear, I remember, my breath catching in my throat like a hummingbird in a mosquito net. Then I let a sigh pass through my lips, and the thought struck me that this was all knew, that I had never breathed before opening my eyes. The huge gasp which roused me awake was actually my first. The leaves shook above me, as if nodding in affirmation.

“You are awake, brother.” It is so good that you are.” My brother had said from beside me. His fur was like fire, while mine was as brown as the earth. He was smaller than me, but so smarter. It was his cleverness which was his undoing. He was the fox and I was the deer, until Pilot gave us our names, our identities. “Oh, to finally be born into this place, this Arcadia,” Fox went on marveling at our surroundings, at the dying trees and the mushrooms which blossomed from them all in the span of a minute, at the strength of the light, at the rich smell of the mycelium beneath the dirt. While wondering these new thoughts, there was a loud crash from deep in the forest.

“What was that?” I had said to Fox, running as fast as I could towards the sound before he could even answer me. As I moved from the frames of each moment, I heard the voice of the Aeons for the first time, astonished by how fast I could run. As I got closer to the crash, their voices faded under a loud whine, as if passing from betwixt the lips of a hurt jungle cat. There was a voice, desperately reaching out. “Help,” it had said. I moved the leaves apart, and about five or so hand-widths below me, was the wreckage of a great machine, its metal body with the rusted holes and spinning blades so alien to the rest of the forest around it. Smoke and sparks bellowed out of its front end, as if it were a giant fire-breathing dragonfly with stiffened wings. I’d find out later that it was a biplane, a flying machine made during a great war on another world. I learned from the man who was caught inside of it, the man who had me call him Pilot.

Why do you want me to see this now, Aeons? I ask, but they don’t answer, at least not before I crash into a pile of stones and dead wood. The brightness has faded quite considerably by the time I can see straight, and though there are purple and green spots dotting my vision, I see Crick floating above the ground. His arms are spread, and by some miracle, all of his wounds have healed. Though his pants are ragged and his chest crusted with dirt and dry blood, he is as glorious as a newly forged star. He softly falls to the ground, his skin still giving off a faint light, where he crumbles, becoming prostrate before Pilot. His back heaves softly.

“What am I?” He sobs. He sounds different, like something in his facade has cracked, revealing a stronger stone beneath. “What is this that you have shown me?”

Pilot puts his hand on the glowing man’s shoulder. “I have done nothing but remind you how it was, Helios. Allow me to show you more,” Pilot says. There’s a tinkling like bells, and the rocky hill around us begins to shake and shimmer. It’s like I’m seeing the hill at the bottom of a tub and the water level is rising, subsuming the hill’s slope one grain of dust at a time. First the ground shimmers, then the grass, the treetops, the sky. The light begins to grow, only this time the nexus point has shifted from Crick’s entire body to Pilot’s hand on the strong man’s shoulder. “Allow me to show all of you,” He says, his voice amplified many times, and layered, as if a million Pilot’s were speaking. It seems to come from the light, and echos from everywhere. I imagine it’s what the Aeons tell me my voice is like, though I’ve never known my words to come from anywhere but my throat. They say it vibrates in a funny way around the light they float in, which is one of the reasons why they love to speak to me.

What is he to show us? Oh, tell us, Jack, the Aeons say. But their light is quickly consumed by the bright swelling sea, and their voices fade with it. Unlike when Crick exploded in anger, the light that comes from Pilot’s hand is not one that hurts the eyes. It’s more like my eyes are clearing up, like they’re adjusting to a bright morning light. Then just like that, the white light clicks off, and all is black. The ground is gone, along with the trees and the sky. It’s black space, and we’re floating in it. Pilot is by me, as is Crick and Amara, with the little dervish in her arms. They seem so close that, if I were to take a few steps, I could touch them. But then I really look at the space between us, at the great empty divide, and it seems infinitely vast. Does that make us infinitely large, like the planets Pilot speaks of, great earthen gods? Even the little dervish must be the size of a large moon.

“Welcome to the beginning,” Pilot says. He waves his arm above his head, a stream of purple stardust trailing from it. The stardust coalesces into an eddy, spiraling around itself until it breaks apart and disperses to nothing. “As you see, it was quite dark. But it was out of this nothing, that everything sprung. You and your so-called son crossed paths here. To do that, you had to make it past all manner of chaos churning about and lurking in the dark.” The man Pilot would call Helios looks about him, his face contorted and pained.

“I… I think I remember…”

“It would be hard not to, sir. It may not look like it, but here, in this primordial soup, violence and chaos reign as king and queen. Strong beings thrive here, forces of chaos which know no bounds. The primordial beasts, as that man Pacheco refers to them as.” Pilot nods at Amara, whose white dread-locked hair floats like giant snakes about her face. “Pacheco dug them up, and they are marching as we speak to find you, Helios, and Hyperion as well. These are fearsome creatures, beyond anything in terms of power besides the spiral itself. If they ever took form in the worlds that we know, they’d all been buried, forgotten to time. These are the oldest of stories, after all, so old that nary a soul remembers them. The few that do are mad, besides. For the true nature of the beasts is underlined by the absence of reason. And that is from which these primordial beasts are made, and what they embody in any shape they take. Whenever anything arose in the great chaotic soup, there would quickly come along one of the primordial beasts to consume it or be consumed.”

“The scholar told us of a myth like this. In it, the Fox finds one of the gods of chaos sleeping, and leads his people to him. They cut into his chest, and build their worlds within him. The Coral Islands is one of these worlds.” Amara says. The Fox? Is the Ma’atha girl speaking of my brother? Pilot’s brow goes up when he sees the reaction on my face. Quiet, he seems to say. The dervish yawns in her Amara’s arms, a sound that echoes through space.

“It is an interesting myth, Amara, and one not completely without grounding. Yet, it is only a part of the greater story, and a small one at that. You speak of a god of chaos. That god was Hyperion. Before he was sleeping, he was part of the great spiral, and before that, he was drifting through the void of space, another being of unbridled power, cut from the self-same chaos that constituted the other primordial beasts. Reason, contrary to chaos, is deliberate systemization. It confines what would otherwise be chaos to a strict set of categories and values. Imagine an attempt at containing the forces of an ocean within a balsa wood box. The wild nature of the ocean will not tolerate being contained, and therefore break open the box as if it were nothing.”

“But Pilot, the Yama Dempuurns, who made their home on the Coral Islands, and made my people work for them, they’ve harnessed the power of the seas, and the rivers. They’ve built dams which funnel the water through turbines which bring light to our houses. They’ve built underground pipes and irrigation systems. They’ve managed to control their world.”

“Ah, the Yama Dempuurns. The descendants of the once great Ameshka Vega. Yes, you’re certainly right. But just as they came to control their world, so have countless other beings from all across the patchwork quilt which stems from the great gyre of Helios and Hyperion. It is the curse of reason, one might say, like a cancer growing unchecked. Categorizing and ordering the universe without end is what has brought about their disruption, and, perhaps, destruction. Look,” A shadow passes over all of our faces. “One of the primordial beasts.” My eyes follow his, but I can’t seem to bring them to focus. The blur I see above has no symmetry, seems to be beyond form. It is one great body, with smaller, independent parts composing it.

“By the Fox…” Amara says.

“Will it see us?” I ask. The outer membrane is a dull pink, like skin, but is cut up like a leaf ridden with caterpillar bites. Underneath the skin are spherical orbs bundled closely together, in varying colors, some with great black centers. My sight focuses until I realize that the orbs are in fact eyeballs, beyond number, extending like a great carpet into the bowels of the beast. I feel my stomach clench, and then a burning in my throat. I retch, the vomit floating off into space.

“No, it will not see us. It is bound for somewhere else.” Pilot says, a slight edge to his voice. “And don’t worry about feeling ill, Jackie-Boy. Seeing this creature would make any reasonable person sick. It defies the laws of the cosmos, of order and balance. And focusing on it with any great effort will just drive you further away from reason, into madness, should you go too far. Look beyond, instead. Look to where it’s heading.”

Beyond the great pink beast, far larger than the four of us or the space we take up, is a soft dot of light. It is pale and so small, but the sight of it causes my stomach to rise. The beast casting the shadow suddenly becomes far less important, becomes an afterthought, in fact. That quiet yellow light becomes the center of my mind, revealing itself like the answer to some question I didn’t know I had, the comforting voice assuring me that all will be fine, all will be taken care of. It is like looking into the eyes of God. The dervish makes a noise, looking from the bright pinprick of light to Amara and back again.

“That looks so familiar,” She says. “Like I have seen it in a dream.” Pilot wears a sad smile, as if he doesn’t anticipate ever seeing this sight again.

“Look past the star. Do you see the other light coming towards it? Do you recognize it, Helios?” Pilot asks, his voice soft and knowing, as if this is the moment he has been waiting for all those drunken nights spent on the rocky hill in the middle of Arcadia.

“Do I…recognize…?”

“Yes. Do you recognize your son?” The leather-skinned man with the thick red beard catches his breath. His eyes swell, and a tear slips down his cheek.

“My… son. Hyperion,” He says. He gazes with a longing, sorrowed face towards the soft light. He seems lost, hypnotized. That is until, above us, there’s a sound like an entire tree being sucked up into a tornado and torn to splinters, but it’s deafening, digging deep into my ears. Helios snaps out of his reverie. “That thing… it’s going for my son. We have to stop it.”

I bow down to the two men, one with his mouth cracked open in consternation, the other scratching his lower back through his pilot’s suit. “Master, Lord Helios,” I say, calling the shining man by the title Pilot has given him, and who Pilot has taken great pains in bringing all of us to the beginning of time to make believe in. I draw my katana out of its sheath. “Allow me to go. Allow me to fight it, until one or the other is dead and gone.”

Pilot’s look of concern shifts to mild amusement. “Oh, were it that easy, my dear Jack Karnos. But this has already happened. What you’re seeing, is merely a projection from deep within my mind. I’m only showing you. Were we really in the center of chaos, and this close to a primordial beast of chaos, then we’d be long gone. We would have been consumed, torn asunder before we could have even taken our first breath.”

“And that is what it shall do to Hyperion,” Helios says, but then his eyes change. They soften, and the longing, sorrowful face returns. His eyes well up again, until he cries out. His face wet, it shines, and I realize the white light has returned to him, his skin phosphorescent and otherworldly once again.

“Ah, you see, then.”

“Yes, Pilot. I see,”

I squint towards where they are looking, my sword clutched tightly in my hands. And then I see it too. Another pale light, only this one speeding along, at a rate so fast it appears to be just a thin line on the horizon, rather than a singular object. It is as if dawn has come to a world that has only ever known deep twilight and cold winter, peeking up under the heavy curtain of night as if it were made of black velvet.

I can’t help but cry out too. Tears wet my lips before I even realize I’m crying too.

“What… is it?”

But before Pilot or anyone can answer me, there is another shrill, tortured sound from the primordial beast. With so many eyes, how could it not have seen the bright light, too? And then, the two rushing comets of light meet each other head on. There is an explosion of light, and a great whoosh of heat and energy washes over us.

“And so, the dance begins.”

“The dance of the spiral.” Amara asks. “I can not believe my eyes are seeing this.”

“It’s… me.” Helios says. His voice is weak, but the words reverberate around us, the sound of wind chimes. The light that had sped forward at such a great speed has now started to spin around the light of Hyperion, which does the same to Helios. The two spiral around each other, their speeds perfectly matched, in perfect balance.

“From the first moment that you two met, you were equals.” Pilot says. “You began that great cyclic dance, one around the other, and you learned how to see. You saw in him what you weren’t, and in that way you were able to understand what you were. From that knowledge, Lord Helios, I sprang. I came like Athena hatching out of Zeus’s head,” Pilot knocks on his leather helmet with his knobby knuckles. “By acknowledging the distinction between yourself and Hyperion, you created a framework, a system of compartmentalizing. In the spiral, one was able to distinguish the self from the other. And that, Lord Helios, is how all the worlds were born, with all their multifaceted wonders. It was how I was born. I’m the singular concept of omniscience made manifest. I’m everything in yours and Hyperion’s head, so to speak, given an ugly mug and an English accent.” He pops up the small collar on his one-piece outfit, and gives us a mock curtsy. The dervish burps.

“So if you know all, Pilot, then where am I from?” Helios asks, his eyes never leaving the spiral. “Where was I born. Why was I made?”

“Lord Helios, forgive me, but if you’re asking me that, then you’re missing so much of the whole point I’m trying to make. You and Hyperion, you finding each other, was the birth of reason! And I am birthed from that birth. As a rational creature, I can only speculate as to where you came from. Teleology, I’m afraid, does not serve well when considering something like chaos.”

The spinning of the two lights has grown so fast that they’ve lost their shapes. It has become the double-armed spiral that everyone describes it as, with trailing arms of light. Smallish specks come off the tips of the arms, as fine as dust from the distance we’re viewing it at. The spiral and the brightness it gives off grows as it spins. The primordial beast stops its forward progression. It gives off a great cry, then grows silent, as if it is listening for something. That’s when I hear a series of familiar voices.

What wonder, what greatness

Such a world as this is

“Master Pilot, do you hear! Those are Aeons!”

“Oh yes, Jackie, your head could be buried in an ant hill and you’d know if an Aeon was close by. They were born quickly after Helios and Hyperion became one, the oldest form of conscious life in all of the existence that came from Helios and Hyperion. They’re like the breath of the gods, of Helios and Hyperion, which have permeated all of reality over and over. They occupy multiple levels of existence, simultaneously, time and dimensionality having little to no meaning for them. They make up everything, the glue which gives the world forms.”

“The glue…” Helios says, and his voice echoes through the space again, matching in timbre to the sound of the Aeons, who are harmonizing like a chorus, their volume growing as the light from the spiral also grows. Suddenly, a part of the primordial beast’s body breaks off. The broken piece of the beast’s body is like a large, pink jellyfish, with thin, gelatinous tendrils streaming behind it.

“What’s happening?” I ask, my hand still on my sword. I can’t seem to accept that we are merely just observers in the events surrounding us.

“Chaos is falling apart. It has come upon a force unlike any other in the cosmos, something stronger than itself but which doesn’t need to consume or destroy. The reign of chaos and violence is over, Jack, and it more or less happened by chance. The father and son were drawn together by that speck of light, each racing the other to consume it. By being equals, the spin began, the force of law and order was introduced. This beast or any other could not stand up to that.”

Another piece of the beast’s large body comes off, then another, then another. Each of the pieces floats away on on their own course through space, but as more and more light from the great spiral touches them, they seemingly shrink in on themselves, until there is nothing left. The chorus of the Aeon’s seems to swell with victory as each successive piece of the beast is swallowed up, until there is nothing left, just two spinning arms around a core of white light and the dust flecks that leave their loose embrace. Everyone’s faces are tear-strewn, save for mine. Amara’s face shines, as beams of light refract of her wet, dark skin like polished wood. “It’s so beautiful,” She says. “I feel I have seen this all before. Perhaps in dreams.”

“Perhaps,” Pilot says. I recognize the way he says the words. He sounds like he is hiding something, that he has more to tell which he is not letting on. “Come, let us go closer to the spiral.” In an instant, we are at the center of the spinning cone of light, awash in the collection of Aeon dust motes and light rays. Three silhouetted figures appear, floating in space, all looking to a certain degree humanoid. But only one of the figures has four limbs. The other two, under manes of delicate hair hanging in space like oil on water, have eight.

“What in the…” Helios says.

“Oh! Would you look at that! If it isn’t little old me.” The figures come closer, and as they do, I can make out the shape of the four limbed one. It is just a little human boy, with curly brown hair and fat arms and legs. Around his naked limbs swirl the Aeons, their voices excitedly whispering things to him in a multitude of tongues. He came into this world knowing the beginning, middle and end of all things, and that is evident by the look on his face: bent in consternation and on the verge of tears. The other two appear as women, their stomachs slender, with finely imprinted indentations running along their ribs. The only oddity is each of their six arms, atop a pair of two long legs.

“That little boy is you?” Amara asks.

“Ah, yes. A babe, with succulent little cheeks and a precocious set of eyes, to boot_”

“But who are the other two?”

“The bravest women I’ve ever known. My sisters.” Pilot snaps his fingers, and as if our surroundings were just a backdrop on an exceptionally large diorama, the spiral, the Aeons and all of the black space disappears, and we’re back at the base of the rocky hill in the middle of Arcadia. Amara sets the dervish down on the ground, before laying herself down.

“By the Fox,” She says, her eyes closed.

Pilot ignores her. “Now do you see, Lord Helios? Do you see who you are?”

Helios opens his mouth to speak, then seems to reconsider. He picks up an angular stone in his hand, observing its many sides, before speaking. “Of course I see. I saw everything you showed me. But that’s just it, you showed me. Sure, it seemed real damn familiar, but how do I really know that’s all real and not just some fancy magic trick? I think all you’ve managed to do is show me that I don’t know a whole lot. Maybe I’m just more open to your story because I don’t have a story of my own. Who knows?”

The sky turns dark, the once deep blue sky consumed by fuchsia clouds. Pilot’s face has grown long and skeletal, his eyes dark, the pupils at their center a fiery red. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. We don’t have any more time for this going back and forth. Those women in the memory I showed you, my sisters, are in grave trouble. I’ve done everything in my power to show you the truth. Either you believe me, or_”

“Oh, come off it, Pilot.” The voice comes from above us, high up on the hill. It’s calm, buttery smooth. “Is that really any way to talk to a god?”

Pilot’s face reverts back to normal, as he turns to look up the rock-strewn hill. The clouds above us remain, however. It seems that there’s a storm about to tear open the dark nimbuses above us, whatever way we want to look at it. At the top of the hill, atop Pilot’s large, plush chair, is a slender man with dark brown skin and long white hair. His appearance, in fact, is much like Amara’s, except that his hair is straight, and his eyes bright like those of a wolf. The shirt he wears is black, and fits tightly to his chest. The pants, also black, fit looser around the legs but grasp the ankle tightly. His shoes are brown and pointed, and grooved like a caterpillar’s body. His arms are tightly muscled, and around his wrists are two huge stoney gauntlets.

“Drinkwater,” Pilot says. He makes a feeble attempt at a smile, but his sardonic wit is smothered by his apprehension, even fear. “Well, you’re a smidge early, aren’t you?” The man named Drinkwater grins, his teeth sharp, his smooth, handsome face suddenly turned beastly.

“Pilot, Pilot, Pilot,” He moves one of his hands up to push a stray strand of white hair behind his ear. Small strands of lightning sprout from the gauntlet, which is bigger than his head, and into his amber eyes. The irises shine green once the blue lightning touches them. “You of all people should know, that I’m always early.”

“Master Pilot, shall I dispatch of this man?” I say, my hand on my sword hilt. I’m ready to rush through time again, to end this man who has trespassed into Arcadia, and mocks Pilot by sitting atop his throne.

“Hold, Jack,” Pilot says. “He’s not alone.” As if a cue for their entrance, four other men in black clothes comes over the rise in the hill. Most are large, except for one small, fat one who looks like a bloated fish. Some have white cloaks over their bodies, and some have their long hair tied back behind their heads or in some style of braiding. But they all have the same set of earth-hued stone gauntlets around their wrists. Silver strands, thin and shiny like spider webbing wrapped with dew, extend from their hands. At the end of the leashes, bound in heavy collars, are small, wrinkled creatures. The Aeons gasp.

Jack Karnos, those are

“Yes, I know. Weavers.”

“I’ll be taking what’s mine, if you don’t mind, Pilot.” Drinkwater says. The lightning flashes from his eyes again. The weavers start to cry out, but the men yank on the leashes and quickly silence them.

“You cretin,” Pilot says. “Let those weavers go.”

“Then give me what I want. I’ve come here for Helios.”

Helios and Amara both have confused looks on their face, unsure of what to make of these men. “He doesn’t belong to you, Drinkwater. You’re but a man, albeit one with quite the overactive imagination if you think for one second you’re in a place to control a god.”

“Is that all you can do now, is lie? You gods are nothing but glorified relics. Want to see what I do to glorified relics? Inchbald, please.” He motions with his hand to one of the men standing behind him. The man quickly steps forward, and tosses out from beneath his white cloak a round object, with coarse, stringy hair spreading from its surface. It bounces on the ground a few times before rolling to a stop at Amara’s feet. The dervish skitters to it, sniffs, then growls up at the men on the hill. Amara jumps back.

“By the Fox, it is a head!” She screams. Pilot makes his way towards Amara and takes the head up in his hands. Whether it is the warrior-queen Magdala or his other sister, the nurturer Kokole, I cannot be certain. It is one of them, though. The face is much more lined and the hair grayer, but I still recognize the black eyes and sharp shape of the face from the memory Pilot shared with us.

“You killed my sister, did you?” Pilot says, his tone betraying nothing. “There really is no hope for you, is there?”

“You don’t sound too surprised, Pilot. Of course, you saw all this already, you knew it was coming. Then you must also know that I’ve also seized the mecha from the World Tree. It’s lying in wait for Helios just a few leagues from this hilltop. We followed the old maps, the Grid that all the Helios-Hunters of old used to follow. Why try and stop me? You know I succeed today. Why not just let me have what the future deems to be rightfully mine?”

“You have the mind of a child,” Pilot says. “You cannot begin to fathom what awaits you should you continue down the path you are headed.”

“That’s very foreboding and all, Pilot, but while you may know every corner of time and space, do you know any other versions of reality. What of the time that comes after the spiral? What happens when you no longer exist, when you are not even significant enough to be a memory? Do you know who Helios will belong to then?” Pilot just looks at Drinkwater, then at the weavers at the end of the silver ropes. His lip quivers.

With a flourish, Drinkwater leaps up, so that he’s standing on the throne. With one foot on the arm rest, the other still on the seat, he spreads his arms wide, as if addressing all of the world around him. “Do you see?” He says, his voice mocking. “Even the big know-it-all doesn’t really know everything. He cannot see past the beginning, middle and end of his life, of his frame of reference. What do you see after I kill you? Is it blackness?” Drinkwater laughs. “The age of gods is over. This is now the age of yama.”

Pilot holds Magdala’s head in his hands, his bulbous red nose all I can see from his bowed head, other than the leather helmet. “The cogs are set,” He whispers to Magdala’s head. He slowly peers up, until he’s looking Drinkwater dead in the eye.

“I know everything that was, is, and ever shall be. Now Helios, these men here, they seek to imprison you, like they did your son. I’m sure you recognize them, Amara. The men you see before you are from after your time. They are the descendants of Ameshka Vega and Vega Mardur, after ma’atha and yama interbred.”

“That is impossible,” Amara says.

“It is not only possible, it is what happened. They want to finish what their forebears started, to harness the power of you and Hyperion for themselves. It is folly, just as much now as it was then.”

“You’re just scared of losing your place in the pantheon, old man.” Drinkwater says. He steps down from the chair, and takes a few steps down the hill. Lightning stretches from his gauntlets up to the storm clouds. A violent wind suddenly tears across the hill, sending dust and dirt up into the air.

“This man is a drunk and a buffoon, Helios, and terribly old-fashioned. I mean, just look at those clothes. What are those, army fatigues?” Drinkwater shares a laugh with his men as he continues stepping forward. “Come with us, Helios. We have a suit of armor waiting for you over the hill, which will make you stronger than you’ve ever known. You’ll be able to shed that frail human body that’s been giving you so much trouble and slip into something a little more… comfortable.”

“Don’t take another step, if you know what’s good for you.” Helios says. His body’s effulgence intensifies. His muscles seem to swell out of his body, and he begins to levitate.

“Oh, really? Do you really think that standing up to me is such a wise idea, Helios? Come on, Pilot, tell him. Tell him!” With the last words, he snaps his arm forward, as if he’s throwing a ball our way. Lightning cracks from the cloudless sky, and hits the ground between Drinkwater and Helios. It rips through the earth like a wave, rushing towards us as fast as if it were flashing in the sky. My katana is out of its sheath and in my hand before the lightning can make its way down the hill. I rush forward, time slowing enough that I can observe each individual moment like a picture in a gallery. I move between each of them, time inching forward ever so slightly as the frames progress. But the lightning is fast, faster than anything I’ve ever gone up against. I realize I’m not quick enough for it. It meets the edge of my sword, but my balance is off. I can only deflect it just over our heads, not back at Drinkwater like I had planned. It singes through the leaves behind us, leaving a flaming hole in its wake. The force of the lightning knocks me off my feet, sends me flying back. I’ve been knocked off my feet so many times today that it is beginning to be old hat. I skid to a stop on the gravel by the base of the hill, my blade in the defensive before me.

“My, my, you’re a fast one, aren’t you?” Drinkwater says. I stand as quickly as I can, the sword pointed forward in chumae-gamae stance.

Aeons, I say, I’m going to need your help

Oh, Jack, oh! Would you look at the Pilot! At the head of his sister he holds. Just look!

I hold my stance, and keep my gaze locked on the man on the hill, his gauntlet smoking with a sulfurous haze. Out of my periphery, I see the head in Pilot’s hands squirming around, its mouth moving. “Take your hands off of William, Bart, you coward!” Magdala’s head screams from between Pilot’s hands.

“Bart. Damn him. Magdala, my sister, you don’t have to say anymore, it’s_” The head is bouncing around in his palms, the hair matted with dried blood from the severed neck. “You’re only heralding your death that much sooner, Bartholomew. Be warned.”

She speaks as if Bart stands before her.

Is she in hell, with the lord of nightmares? the Aeons say

“Pilot! The Aeons, they think…”

“Yes, Jack. I know.” Tears are streaming down his red face in well-trodden rivulets. He looks all of a sudden very old and tired. “She speaks as if she is still attached to her body. And her body must be in so much pain, that it is consumed by desire for wholeness, for…” He pets his sister’s head, which has quieted again.

“She… she said William. Does she mean William Koster?” Amara says, holding the dervish tightly in her arms, watching the men at the top of the hill nervously.

“She does. He is as important to this story as all of you are. Even more so, in fact. They are in Golgotha, you see, the land of skulls. Arcadia, a world of perpetual rejuvenation, of love and compassion, cannot exist independently. At the other extreme is Golgotha, a place of insatiable desire, of hate and destruction. The two worlds must exist to affirm the other. It’s the dual nature of Helios and Hyperion. Creation can only exist in the presence of destruction.”

“Eros and Thanatos,” Drinkwater says, his face contorted with a ferocious smile. “Brahma and Shiva. All different names, all the same. Right here, even, we have the archetypes made manifest, in the form of Pilot and Drinkwater. Only you, Pilot, are the languisher, the one who stagnates, while I am the one who creates,” Drinkwater motions to his followers. “And destroys.”

Lightning cracks in the sky above our heads, and the five men charge down at us from atop the hill. I’m still shaken by the first blast of lightning from Drinkwater’s gauntlet, but the immediacy of the situation gives me strength. Helios floats near my right, his fists clenched. I can feel the Aeons charging through the trees and life all around us, drawing it into the battle. I won’t be alone. The men crash down the hill, a stampede of thunder preempting the lightning which is percolating in the clouds above our head. I ready my blade, steadying it before rushing forward, trapezing through the frames of time in the battle for Helios and Arcadia.

[] Chapter XIV: “The Descendants”

 

 

He stands atop Pallatnik Ch’nik, the tallest of the twelve primordial beasts. Its neck is like a rope loosely braided, three separate tubes looping in and out of each other on up to the head. Its body looks like five or six bodies mashed together, and quadruple as many limbs supporting it. Only a few of the legs are remotely functional. The remaining limbs are either crushed by the weight of the beast or drag behind it in broken and bloody piles, useless and half-formed. Pallatnik Ch’nik heads the army of misshapen beasts as they march across the bridge of red stones, for a destination known, but incomprehensible. The darkness surrounding the bridge is absolute, the only light coming from Moltep’s yellow eyes.

“Perhaps we are surrounded by true nothingness?” Pacheco says, scanning the pitch black expanse that surrounds the dusty red stones they walk upon. He feels he is just as much speaking to himself as to the beasts, that their thinking is coming together in some twisted way. “Then what is the Fade? It has form, momentum, energy. Why does it bring nothing? It is a concept made manifest, nothingness in action. The Fade reacts to reality by consuming it, much as the primordial beasts do. Perhaps it is just another form of chaos, destroying the orderliness of reality so that chaos can reign supreme once again?” He hocks up some phlegm, and spits into the air. “Damn it all, these are just speculations. I’ll never know until I find my way to the center of reality. But is this really the way?”

One of the beasts, a creature whose body is a combination of skin and gelatin and glows pink in the refracted light from Moltep’s eyes, emits a high pitched whine, stopping all the other beasts cold. “What? What is it?” Pacheco says. He peers into the low light ahead of him, but sees nothing.

“Why did we stop? Pallatnik Ch’nik, forward. Now!” The creature beneath him, the top of its head like a thick mat of moss, lets loose a small growl, but doesn’t move.

“Damn it all,” Pacheco says, but then he sees why the beasts have stopped. There’s a soft flash of light in the distance, like a mirror reflecting the face of moonlight. Something is moving in the darkness ahead of them on the bridge.The beast beneath him lets loose another growl, as do the other beasts, those whom are capable of manipulating air through any respiring orifice to make sound, that is. They are all tense, and Pacheco feels it too. It comes from a fear of the unknown, an emotion he didn’t know the beasts to even be capable of. Am I affecting how the beasts see the world? He wonders. And if I am affecting them in such a way, how are they affecting me?

The thought quickly evaporates when the shape’s structure ahead becomes more discernible. “It can not be. No, how could it possibly…” The structure is huge, meant to resemble the ancient world turtle of old yama mythology, with a cracked dome shell, a city-sized fish bowl through which a building-sized bullet has passed. The interior of the dome is dark and lifeless. Surrounding the base of the dome is a ring of dark metal, as black as smokestack spume. And while it had appeared to be on the stone bridge, it is in fact off to the side, too large by far to fit. The entire structure trembles as would a hummingbird stuck in sap, its synapses burst from beating its head against the tree.

“Yama Dempuur,” Pacheco whispers. It’s the great domed city, the last remnant of those who imprisoned Hyperion for their own purposes. He hasn’t seen it in what feels like a lifetime. The barkskin he had before the girl from the Coral Islands had been conscripted in Yama Dempuur, and that was long ago. The city had aged and decayed to the point that it stood as a parody to what it once was, a nightmare version of the seat of Yama civilization.

The beasts will not go any closer to the city, Pacheco realizes. There is something about it which they are truly afraid of. He feels something like a shadow’s cold finger run down his spine, eyes from the city, or maybe the city itself, watching, waiting. “Come off it, Pacheco.” He says to himself. “I must be losing it. On the bridge for so long, with no one to talk to but the beasts of chaos, it would be enough to drive anyone else mad.” A smile cracks across his face, as if a stitch stretched between his ears has burst apart, releasing a musty old laugh that has been dying to get out. “I must be losing it,” He says again, unable to stop laughing. He feels something slipping in his head. He’s beginning to accept wonderment on its own terms, to acquiesce to it. He wonders at everything now, all the ties of his rational world slipping away and becoming as weird and demented as the beasts who march below him.

Where had this bridge taken them, how much deeper into the spiral? The beasts wanted freedom, and the only way to get it was to go closer and closer to the center of it all, where the mecha of Hyperion presumably lied. The question most wracking his brain, however, was why the city was here, in the middle of a forgotten bridge to god-knew-where. Yama Dempuur had always held a tight orbit through the middling worlds, always staying a few paces ahead of the Fade. Perhaps it had strayed. The Fade could have affected it in some way, knocking it off course. It had happened before, where the great nothing had consumed the world of San’kaa Lo just as Yama Dempuur was about to cross through its border of perception. The city went through a turbulent patch, the wreckage of San’kaa Lo beating against its dome and hull, threatening to destroy it. It made it through, winding up far off course in a world at some faraway place along the spiral.

There were all sorts of safeguards around the walking city to prevent it from slipping into the nothingness that it had helped create all those years ago. One of those safeguards was a ring of automatons that hovered around the perimeter of the city, all their polygonal sides covered in mirrors that were capable of storing energy and refracting it in times of great entropic want. The colloquial name given them, tractors, possibly arose out of their function, which was to pull Yama Dempuur through large spaces of nothingness or negative space by releasing stored energy in the form of mirrored reality. Each mirrored side had in it the reflection of a bountiful land, presumably how many of the worlds had been when the spiral was still intact. That was how Pacheco remembered the walking city, the place he used to call home, where he had attended the Royal Academy as a young man, and found his calling to greatness. Now it seemed there were nothing but ghosts left. How long had it been here? How many years had he been traversing the bridge with the primordial beasts?

There is nothing about its approach that suggests movement, save for the soft dust cloud which billows around its pointed base. All is dark, thereby negating any point of reference to judge its speed by. Still, though the darkness has fat, sticky fingers, the tractor’s surface shines with the intensity of a small star, a brightness that seemed to be growing in intensity. Armand Von Leechpin, the beast whose body is like a frame of serrated, dusty bones in a blob of coagulated gelatin, belches a roar at the tractor as it nears. The other beasts follow Von Leechpin’s lead, each with their own unique grumble or shout. Nameless One erects its chitin body into a perfectly vertical line, its millipede legs waving madly around like windmill wings. Then the tractor stops, and the roaring settles to a pervasive growl. It’s at a distance close enough that Pacheco can see it is roughly his height. He must scrunch his face up into a squinty, shriveled prune, but his one black eye can discern a brilliant azure reflected in the tractor’s forward-most surface. It’s a blue like the sky above a verdant land from long ago, when no one thought that something like the Fade could exist, and nothingness was merely man’s attempt at conceptualizing the empty space between meanings. Beneath the blue in the tractor’s mirror is a gold light, like a sunbeam, which blinks as if caught in a lens. The whole reflection is like a summer field billowing in a toasted wind, when viewed through the eyes of a sleepy child.

“Colonel Pacheco,” The tractor says. It’s voice is a woman’s, warm and sultry, as if it laid out on a duvet of luxurious, plush velvet. Pacheco clears his throat, and the beasts grow completely silent.

“To whom am I speaking?” He asks.

“I am but a messenger, so my name is of little import. There is someone who would like to speak with you, good doctor.” The gold light on the tractor’s surface flashes softly.

“Someone? There are people still living in Yama Dempuur?”

“Yes, Colonel Pacheco. There are many beings still in the city, myself included.” The tractor seems to speak as if a laugh is stuck behind its teeth. And while the tractor doesn’t have anything even closely resembling teeth, let alone a mouth from which to speak, if it did, its collected assortment of molars, canines and incisors would surely be razor sharp and extremely dangerous.

Beings, hm? Well, pray tell, who is this being who’d like to meet me?”

“I am not at leave to say. You’ll just have to come and meet him.”

Pachecho scoffs. “Him?”

“Already I’ve said too much.” The tractor floats completely in place, only barely perceivable wisps of cloud moving across the blue sky in its refracted image. “Now, come. And only you, if you please, good doctor. Leave the rabble behind you.” Though the words are delivered in the same sultriness as before, there’s a cutting edge behind them. Pacheco bristles at it, as do the beasts. They sense Pacheco’s want, and willingness to follow the tractor to whomever is waiting for him in the dead place ahead, and they are afraid for him. Such a strange, intimate connection, Pacheco thinks. But what is it they are afraid of? What is keeping these powerful beings from going any closer to the city? The voice projecting itself through the tractor seems to be aware of all this. It’s as if the reflection in the tractor’s surface is just a cruel joke, and beneath it is harboring a chaos that is just about to bubble over and consume them all. It’s saying, do you really want to see this, Pacheco? Do you? Are you that curious?

“This ‘rabble’ won’t go any further as it is, so you have nothing to worry about.” Pacheco says. He finds that his confidence is wavering, and there’s a doubt lurking where there had only been assurance before. “And as you have yet to identify yourself, I would offer you the advice of speaking with respect to a man of my ranking.”

At that, the tractor laughs, a mechanical, unnatural laugh. “Ranking? I apologize for ever calling you ‘colonel,’ colonel. It’s merely a function of habit. Rankings and any sort of distinction are long gone. The past is the past, as is the future and the present. There is only the end of times, the event horizon where the last semblance of rationality is about to melt into chaos.” The tractor moves slightly, and in its reflective surface, the blue sky briefly disappears. Pacheco’s senses are swallowed up by what the tractor’s new image, of unattached body parts and viscera, of color and pressure and overwhelming odors. It completely envelops him, but then, just as quick, it reverts back to the bucolic paradise. Pacheco can feel a cold sweat forming like a murderer’s hand between his shoulder blades.

“What’s wrong, old man? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” The tractor continues. Pacheco clenches his fists, and snaps his cloak back, punching his chest out. The beasts grow terrible and restless once again, waiting for the orders of their commander.

“I will not tolerate this impudence.” Pacheco seethes, and already the beasts are trampling forward. The tractor laughs, even as the beasts crush it beneath their great weights, the many mirrors shattering, breaking into tiny shards, cutting into the tough flesh of the beasts, viscous black blood spilling onto the ground, the blue and gold in the broken mirror fading until it matches the gray of the sand. Pacheco pants atop Nameless One, his muscles tight, as if he’s the one who has broken the tractor to pieces. Moltep looks at him, and in his yellow eyes, there’s a question, as if the beast birthed from the chaos wonders at what they’ve just done, at what secrets the tractor harbored which have now been lost forever.

“God damn it, the thing was a machine! Don’t you see? They’re toying with us. They send a tractor out to do a man’s job, and we showed them. It was nothing more than a machine, a simple machine. But now it’s just a bunch of broken pieces, just pieces…” Pacheco looks down from high atop Nameless One’s head, at the shards of glass covered in sand and blood. Most have gone completely gray, though there are several, the largest, which still have some of the blue and gold shining in their broken surfaces. Pacheco’s eyes widen, and he swallows dry air down an even drier throat. He scrambles down the Nameless One’s back, his cloak automatically opening up to correct any missteps he takes down, until he completely slips and it has to glide him down to the ground. Once on the ground, he falls to his knees by one of the larger shards of glass, its color almost entirely gone.

He takes off his gloves, then picks the shard up off the cold ground. He can faintly make out his reflection in its surface, his wrinkled dermis with deep crevasses and purplish ridges. His face is akin to an eternal twilight, the shard a dying day. He holds the shard so tightly in his hands that it cuts into his palms. The blood is thin and a light red, almost pink. He feels a wave of tiredness pass over him, from the crown of his head down into his chest, where it sits as heavy as a box of springs.

“I’m cursed,” He says, dropping the shard to the dead ground. He searches the bleach white skin cut open on his tattered palms, feels the sting of the blood meeting the air. “The worlds in the mirrors are gone forever, part of the past. It is now my lot to wander this purgatory for the rest of my days. Never again will I feel the light of the sun on my cheek, or breathe air freshly come in off the sea,” He’s surprised at what he says, because the words creep out of him as if they were part of some automated message, one that had been planted in him eons ago. They carry with them a certain nostalgia that had never been there before, gushing out as if from a severed artery. It’s a longing for a life that had never been lived, for the life he had sacrificed in order that others could live it. It sticks like phlegm in his throat, one that no amount of hacking will clear. “What is happening to me?” He laments. “I can’t lose it. Not now. Not when I’m so close.”

He looks around him, at the darkness that surrounds the stone bridge, and he understands what it is. It’s the bowels of chaos, and he’s going ever deeper into it. All his time traversing the Fade, all the time he spent aboard Phyrxian, it had all led to this. Now he was being digested, the chaos that wrapped around the bridge moving him along like a contracting intestine. In the process, it was squeezing out everything that made him who he was, all that constituted the framework of Pacheco. He had been so desperately and fragilely held together, he realized. The slightest provocation from the chaos on the outside of the bridge would cause the system of concepts, values and traits that he was made of to collapse in on itself. There would not be a trace of anything left. The city marked where he would finally be taken apart, his many pieces drifting away. And the beasts brought him here, they showed him the way. They knew what was waiting along the bridge, and what wrapped itself around it. Had they brought him here to destroy him? Was this all part of an elaborate, twisted ruse?

Yet they won’t go any further. Pacheco adjusts the shard in his hand, so that he can see his face reflecting back at him again. He can’t help but laugh at the anguish he sees. If the beasts wanted me done with, they would have killed me long ago. They want me to free them. He looks to Moltep, who stands above him.

“What waits for me in that city, Moltep?” He asks. “You know, don’t you? You all do. Tell me, please.” Moltep doesn’t speak, only looks at the much smaller man by his clawed nubs. All the beasts stare down at him, having gathered in a circle around the good doctor. Armand Von Leechpin, Cutlery Set, Warka, Pringo, Moltep, they gaze at him with knowing eyes. As he looks up into their faces and other formless features, he sees other beings past them, reflected in the aether above, in the darkness that bends around the bridge. They are other beasts of chaos, he sees, but from the chaos beyond the spiral, unformed and maddening for any normal man to lay his eyes upon. To Pacheco, however, they are a comforting presence, all of them his newfound allies. They’re watching him, waiting for him to do what he has to do.

“I must find out what’s in the city myself, is that it? This is part of this journey I must make alone.” Moltep nods his head, which is all the affirmation Pacheco needs. “Then I will see you on the other side, my friends.” Pacheco pulls a roll of gauze from a small pouch at his waist, and wraps his palm in it. The blood seeps right through, but he puts his gloves back over it regardless. He turns, and begins to walk towards the city, leaving the beasts behind him.

For all their advancements in science and technology, the yama had never been able to concretely define the chaos that existed apart from the framework of Helios and Hyperion. It was there, that much was true, but it was incomprehensible. The yama saw their world through a reductionist lens, cutting any and all problems into smaller and smaller pieces. Theories proven true time and time again became a set of universal laws which underscored their science. Yet, the same was not true for chaos, which by its very nature could not be reduced down to a set of base theories. It was a something, just as the Fade was a something, which affected the rational world but could not itself be known. It was an insurmountable problem, or so it seemed, until “Infinite Duality.”

All history books told of the time when a young carpenter named Amesh had the audacity to put chaos up on equal grounds with the rest of the rational framework the yama adhered to, in a treatise his followers published entitled “Infinite Duality.” Amesh called for chaos to be a force that should be recognized and measured against. His thoughts were viewed as heresy, and Amesh was ostracized, dying a pauper’s death. But his thoughts, particularly “Infinite Duality,” lived on, until it was ultimately integrated into mainstream yama thought. The center of government, the parliamentary building, even rose up around the academy of learning which Amesh’s first followers built following his death. The new worldview provided a new framework from which to approach science, which then opened up new pathways towards greater accomplishments.

Helios and Hyperion could never have been reached had it not been for Amesh’s seminal work. The yama of old had built bridges between worlds, pathways that spanned what were technically endless spans of chaotic flotsam and jetsam. Or so they had believed. The bridges were actually an ancient latticework, almost as old as time itself, which existed long before the first yama even drew breath. Still, once the concept of measuring rationality against chaos was integrated into their thinking, once they were able to build a rational framework in conjunction with chaos and use it as a reference point against which they’d react, finding and traversing the bridges became feasible. Travel through the nigh infinite worlds made from the great dance of Helios and Hyperion was suddenly possible. That is, until they had attempted to harness the powers of the universe, of all of reality, for themselves, and it all fell to pieces.

Pacheco couldn’t help but think of all this while he walked towards the city. Though the city was truly an engineering marvel, he couldn’t help but view it as a pathetic reduction of what a great people the yama had once been. “And now it doesn’t even move. It’s a beached whale gasping for air, an ancient relic that vainly clings to life, whose creator won’t mercifully bring its boot down upon it for fear it might tarnish his soles.” Yama Dempuur, black as a line of charcoal on gray parchment, rises up on several crab-like legs over the dark horizon. Pacheco can still feel it watching him, can still feel eyes from somewhere inside. The tractor had said there was someone who wanted to meet him, a man, and that there were others inside. But who could possibly be living here, on a fading bridge stretched taut in a sea of chaos, like a lifeline between worlds that had probably already been consumed by the Fade. Where was he even going? Perhaps the tractor was just a play on his senses, some sort of sick joke from deep within his subconscious.

He snaps his head up at the noise, a reverberating boom coming from high atop the domed city. Pacheco instantly sees the source of the sound, though he cannot as quickly believe it. There’s a figure standing on a platform that juts out from the base of the dome. Its clothes are all white, and cover its ample girth from head to foot.

“Hello, what are you?” Pacheco mutters to himself. He lifts his hands to his mouth and calls to the white figure standing on the platform. “Colonel Rolando Pacheco, commander of the living ship Phyrxian and resident of Yama Dempuur, requesting permission to board.” Pacheco projects the words as strongly as he can. The white figure stays stock still. The only response Pacheco gets from his address is the quiet hum of the bridge. In times long past, one would approach the walking city and the tractors that circled its perimeter would come together to create a ramp from refracted rainbow light, which a person seeking entrance to Yama Dempuur could climb. But it seemed that all the tractors were gone. The only one Pacheco had seen had been the one with the sadistic grin hidden beneath its mirror facade, which Pacheco and the primordial beasts had broken to pieces in the cold gray sand.

“I guess I’ll have to do things the old fashioned way,” He says to no one in particular. He begins to run forward, his armor taking the brunt of the impact away from his joints. As he does, his cape opens up, and forms into the shape of two great raven’s wings. They flap hard once, twice, until Pacheco is airborne, ascending quickly for the platform above. The air quickly grows cold and thin once he’s several flaps above the bridge. Within a few minutes, Pacheco is above the platform. The wings snap into the form of a parachute, and he softly glides down to the figure below. As he comes nearer and nearer to it, the features become clearer, even for his one old eye to make out.

The figure is indeed a person, large and stout of frame. White cloth is wrapped around the entirety of its body, around each limb, even its head. It resembles the way in which the barkskins would prepare their dead, wrapping long strips of thin cloth around the entirety of the deceased’s body and then applying a viscous glue with horsehair brushes, sealing it forever. It moves its arm up in greeting, but rigidly, slowly. There’s a slit where two cavernous eye sockets lay beneath a strongly sculpted brow. Orange pinpricks, lights like torches twinkle in the dark holes.

“Colonel Pacheco,” It’s the same sultry voice that the tractor had spoken with. Pacheco’s cape cracks open, and he spears downward towards the platform. His mouth is open, his tongue heavy on his lower lip. “You were the voice I heard through the tractor, from out along the bridge. What is the meaning of this?” The tips of his cape have shifted into spear tips, pointed purposely at the tall woman standing before him. She stares back with a mercurial gleam in her orange eyes. “Yes, yes, that was I. I sent that octagonal hunk of junk out to meet you, though I didn’t think you’d smash it to bits like that. You’re not much one to appreciate relics, hm, Colonel?”

“Relics? The tractor? The last I left Yama Dempuur, tractors were a fairly new technology, several decades old, at the most. How far in the future are we?”

“You certainly don’t listen very well, Pacheco. Is that the secret to your success?” The shrouded woman walks forward a few steps, the platform rumbling beneath each. The platforms were sized to fit an entire regiment shoulder to shoulder, but the hulking woman makes the area seem too small for the two of them. “I told you, speaking through the tractor, of course, that the past is the past. It’s gone, buried. So is the future and the present. We’re at the end of progress, Colonel, the end of civilization. We’re on a bridge, suspended between the end of all worlds. Isn’t the view grand?”

“Grand? Just looks dark to me. Though there are beings lurking in the darkness who know full well I am here. So should you try to cause me any harm, you or the other beings you hint live now within Yama Dempuur, then there will be quick retribution from my comrades. I think I’ve made myself understood.”

“You have, colonel.”

“Tell me, if this is the end of worlds, then where are Helios and Hyperion? They should be here, or at least Hyperion, lying dormant like some great sleeping statue in his giant suit of armor.”

“The answers you seek are inside the city.” Pacheco looks past the large figure with the sultry voice, into a cavernous door with weathered edges, and darkness down its gullet. “That’s all very cryptic. Who, or what, awaits me beyond that door?”

“I’d rather not spoil the surprise,” It’s the same sort of sadistic sotto voce the tractor had earlier, the predatory hunger that was just barely concealed by her velvety tone. It’s like the white fabric around her mouth conceals a dozen rows of gnashing teeth.

“Damn it all, I don’t have time for these games. By the authority of Colonel Rolando Pacheco of the_”

“I’ve heard all that nonsense already, Pacheco. Remember? The tractor?”

“Yes, and that didn’t end very well, did it?” Pacheco’s cloak billows open again, like a bat stretching open its wings. From far behind him, the primordial beasts can be heard, their growls the sound of a blast furnace out of a black earthen hole.

“That’s very impressive, colonel. Taming the primordial beasts to your will. I’m sure it was no easy task.” There’s a modicum of awe in the figure’s pinprick orange eyes. “However, I’m aware that they will not come any closer to the city. They fear what’s inside. And as far as issuing orders, this is not your ship. In this place, I am the authority. And you will listen to what I say.”

“Oh? And just who are you?”

The large figure reaches up to her face, her hands stopping atop the shawl over the lower portion of her face. She seems to hesitate with it, as if uncertain on whether to remove it or leave it in place. Her hands drop again to her sides, as if she’s decided on the latter. “I am Empress Drinkwater.” She says.

Pacheco notices his heart beat has quickened, though he’s not sure why. His shoulders rise and fall like rolling river waves, when a boat has passed through and churned up the waters. He can feel the beasts subtly growing and shrinking in unison with his breath. “Empress?”

“Yes, colonel. The last of Yama Dempuur. The last remnant of Ameshka Vega.” She turns her back to Pacheco, and looks up towards the dome, its surface smooth, dark and dusty. “Look upon my works, good sir, and tremble. Tremble at the thought that this was once the center of a great people, the cradle from which we arose and built an empire from one edge of the spiral to the other. You were born within these walls, were you not?” Pacheco nods. “As was I, my children and theirs. This is still home. Though we’ve generations between us, that much, at least, has stayed the same.”

“This is not my home,” Pacheco says. “This is a ghost.”

“A ghost is still connected to what it once was, for is that not what makes it a ghost in the first place? It’s inability to shake off what it was in life? This is Yama Dempuur,” Empress Drinkwater says. “As it will be after we are both long gone. It is beyond us.” Pacheco nods, not disputing the fact. Hers is a philosophy perfectly keeping with his own, that of being a piece of a greater whole. It was just such a concept which kept him going, which kept his doubts in check. For if he was just a man, then what claim did he have to live a selfish, indulgent life? If purpose was indeed an arbitrary concept, as Amesh had proposed all those years ago, and science had grown to accept since, then why not utilize it as a tool to serve a power greater than himself?

These were the thoughts that had propelled him through decades of service to Yama Dempuur and the Ameshka Vega legacy. But now, beyond even the end of all worlds, on a bridge suspended between the infinite roiling forces of chaos, Pacheco couldn’t help but wonder what good holding on to an imagined concept like purpose was. For if chaos was from which all came, then was it not natural for to all eventually revert back to it?

Whether such was the case or not, it ultimately didn’t matter. There had been a drive in him which had clouded all other pursuits, and had brought him to where he was. It had been a long and odd journey, but he was so close. He would find Helios and Hyperion, he knew it. He had focused on it like a painting, behind whose frame chaos swirled like a pockmarked wall of hungry termites, hidden from view by just a thin piece of canvas. He had focused on the picture like his life had depended on it, for it had. It was his life’s work to unify all of the painting’s disparate entities, and it had brought him all this way. Had he gone too far, though? Was there a limit to what one man should do?

“Come, colonel,” the Empress says. “Someone would like to meet you.” She turns, her great bulky shape disappearing in the cavernous door at the back of the platform, its worn edges leading into the domed city. Pacheco takes one last look at the primordial beasts, who stand in the distance, silent sentinels, their enlarged forms illuminated by Moltep’s glowing eyes. He wonders whether he’s making a mistake by going in alone. Something certainly doesn’t feel right.

“There are some things which I need to do alone,” Pacheco whispers to himself. “This Empress knows something. She must.” He turns and runs through the doorway and into the domed city.

There is no sign of the Empress in the corridor. All is dark; there is only the sound of his footsteps reverberating around his head, wet splish-splashes barreling down the hall ahead of him. The air smells of mildew and old machinery. Pacheco instinctively reaches into one of the pouches at his belt, and sparks a flare to life. “Fool! Put that out!” The Empress seems to come out of nowhere, and knocks the flare out of the colonel’s hand. It lands in a blanket of shadows, behind a tall, looming machine, like a box or cabinet which rises to the ceiling. The glow of the flare sputters until it is quieted, as if the weight of the shadows had suffocated it. “There are certain things here that should not be alerted to our presence.”

“Certain… things?” Pacheco says.

“Yes, dark things. Light brings them out. So be wary,” It takes a moment for Pacheco’s eyes to wholly adjust to the darkness, for it’s like a swollen body taking up the entire space, not merely light absconded. But when his old, tired eyes do finally adjust, he finds the Empress staring at him with her tiny, glowing pinpricks of orange light. She begins to move down the corridor once again, and Pacheco follows.

“Why is it so dark? There should have been enough luciferase in the bioluminescent lights to keep the entire city lit for centuries, without any need for concern.”

“The lights you speak of faded to dim filaments long ago. The city is dead, colonel.” With the Empress brusquely rushing ahead of him, Pacheco relies on the swish of her wrappings and the heavy pounding of her feet to know where she is moving torward. The world has been reduced to percussive sounds and the pervasive odor of disuse and decay. He feels the Empress round a corner, and suddenly the wet ground starts to shine with a faint gray light. The ground is littered with inky puddles, gathered like storm clouds on the opposing side of a dawning day. Last bastions of night, harbingers of the morning, they lead towards an angled arch, through which the darkness ends, and dim light begins. The Empress slows her pace as the shadows cut out, and her white strips of fabric catch more and more of the light to reflect.

The two pass under the arch, and come into a large room. It’s a geodesic dome, with semi-transparent hexagons in the metal framework, through which one can see the great cracked hole in Yama Dempuur’s obsidian shell. Arranged around the rounded edge of the room are a series of steel stairways, lifting up towards the top of the inner dome like tree limbs bent over by a winter wind. Rust flakes from the stairs and machines crackle under their feet. Pacheco throws his head back, his eyes wide in vertiginous wonder. “This is… one of the engine rooms.” He says. “This is one of the great turbines. Yes, I’d know it anywhere.”

“Oh, but it’s been quite a long time since these lot have worked, old friend.” The voice comes from the furthest side of the geodesic dome, past a towering turbine. The good doctor recognizes the nasally intonation immediately, the mocking tone, although it now sounds as if it’s wrapped in a thin layer of static, as if it’s being broadcast from a radio transmitter a solar system away. It’s the voice of a man who he’d seen not too long ago, their last meeting arguably the seed from which his series of misfortunes had sprung in quick succession. He had been stationed in the Coral Islands, a colony near the edge of the spiral, and had bestowed upon Pacheco a young barkskin girl with dreaded white hair and steely black eyes, who’d somehow escaped from Phyrxian’s dermic needles and then, later, hi-jacked the very same ship.

“Oblong,” Pacheco says, up to the shadowy eaves.

“Yes, Rolando. Yes, yes, it is I, in the flesh. Er, to some degree, at least.” From out of the twisted steel stairways floats something like a half-finished zeppelin caught in electrical lines. It moves toward Pacheco and the Empress from out of the gloom. Its girth is riddled with a system of pistons and pumps that expand and contract like organs thumping with life. The color washes out of Pacheco’s face. He chokes a bit, as the machine fully comes into view. He sees the shape of the man strapped into the middle of the machine. Oblong. Only his upper torso is visible, the rest subsumed by the great machine. His hair is greasy and lank, his skin a jaundiced yellow.

“Good god, Oblong. What is this? What has happened to you?”

“Well, it would seem they’ve attached me to some sort of machine, now doesn’t it? Yes, and quite a big one at that.”

“They?” Pacheco’s eyes shift over to the Empress, who stands like a statue, her small orange eyes locked on the small figure of Oblong in the great machine. “What have you done to him?”

“Relax, Rolando. She’s not the one who did this. I’ve been like this for some time, you know. Centuries upon centuries. The ‘they’ that I speak of would be our descendants, as it were. Though, to be fair, I am given an awful lot of the credit for getting the whole thing started.” Pacheco clenches his fists, so tight that the armor clacks and clinks.

“Damn it man, what are you saying?”

“Ho oh, no need to get hostile. We are on the same team, are we not?”

“According to this woman here, as well as what I’ve seen of Yama Dempuur, there isn’t anything left of our once proud city at all. All that’s left is an ancient ruin that is barely running on fumes, and a half-wit soldier who could barely keep his pants up the last I saw him, now strapped into some infernal machine. So whatever team you speak of, I think has long since crumbled to dust.” The Empress shifts her feet, and there’s a banging from the edge of the inner dome.

“Now, now, now, Pacheco. Let’s not say things we’ll end up regretting.” Oblong says.

“Master, should I dispose of him?” Pacheco turns to look at the Empress, his cape stiffening. The loose cloth has hardened into eight sharp points, like stabbing spider legs. The points turn towards the Empress.

“Dispose of me? You insolent wench, you have no idea who you are speaking to!” Pacheco leaps forward, his cape slicing at the Empress’s face. The sharpened point tears away the white bandages that cover the Empress’s mouth, and then the other spider legs quickly stab at her body. Pieces of white fabric flutter through the air and through the rust cloud Pacheco kicks up upon landing. Pacheco expects to hear screams of pain and anguish. His one eye widens in confusion when he hears laughter instead.

“What…what are you?” He says, looking up into the towering figures face. The Empress pulls the remainder of the torn bandages away, revealing a body made of a vermillion-hued stone. There are scratches where the cape sliced and stabbed, under which are huge pockmarks, like the craters of explosives. There’s a faint echo of a face, but its grace and tender lines are cut up like a field for ploughing.

“Behold, Pacheco. The Empress Drinkwater.” There seems to be a tinge of sardonic humor in Oblong’s voice, which Pacheco can’t help but find similar to that of the Empress’s.

“She’s… a statue.”

“Yes. A relic. An idol. Tell me, have you ever heard the story of Ozymandias?”

“Ozymandy… no, I cannot say I have.”

“No matter. It’s a story from a faraway world, where it was, perhaps ironically, nearly forgotten about. Ironic, because the story has proven to be rather prescient. A traveller comes upon a statue in the middle of the desert, of a forgotten king. At its base is an inscription which reads… erm, Empress, would you mind?”

“It says, ‘look upon my works and tremble.’” The Empress says, her voice sounding more robotic than when she was wrapped up.

“Quite right. Now, this idol you see before you, she was built by Lyra Drinkwater, the Empress of Yama Dempuur, in homage to herself. Between you and me, Pacheco, she was a rather ineffectual ruler, obsessed with establishing her legacy with statues and academies and the like, while the people were hungry. She failed to notice the rebellion tip toeing around under her nose. The ruling parliament at the time seized on the unrest of the people, and deposed her. Riots broke out, and the people sacked their own city, but mostly what the Empress had built. Many of her statues were utterly destroyed, but some were redesigned by the parliament to be law-keepers of the city. They got rid of the military and took complete control of the city. Things began to fall apart quickly, people died. Eventually, I was all alone, just me and a few of these statues. She’s the only one who still works, Pacheco.”

“She is a machine, then,” Pacheco says.

“Perhaps that is what she has been reduced to, yes. A machine. But she was once so much more: a symbol, if you will, for a higher power. For our way of being. For the past we were trying to reclaim, and bring into the future.”

Pacheco chuckles to himself, his armor rattling like old bones on a copper wire. “And you keep her around because you have no one left to talk to, hm? Because you’re all alone?”

“Alone? Not quite.” Oblong feebly wipes the hair from his face, revealing laugh lines around his red-crusted eyes. “I’m aware you dug up some creatures of chaos. Well, even so, there are beings that now live within the domed city which you couldn’t even begin to wrap your head around. And were you to even try, you’d more than likely go mad. They’ve been here for a long time, since perhaps we were both young men.”

Pacheco scoffs. “Please, Oblong. I’ve been searching for Hyperion for a long, long time. I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe the spiral had wasted its time in spitting out. Twisted things..”

“I know what you’ve seen, Rolando. The creatures which live in the shadows of Yama Dempuur, beneath the cracked dome and forever dark sky, are something entirely different. Tell me, Pacheco, in your travels, have you ever seen evil personified?”

Pacheco eyes the man in the machine skeptically. “Evil isn’t something you can tangibly define, Lieutenant General. It’s a completely arbitrary concept, just as good is.”

“Ah, of course, but when it takes such a firm hold in the collective mind, in all the people of Yama Dempuur, then it does take form, Rolando. Creatures of such irrational want and pain. They’re like black suns, who will burn up anything that comes close enough to their darkness. Shadows, Pacheco.”

“Hostile environments breed hostile creatures,” Pacheco says, his one eye scanning the dark edges of the geodesic engine room he stands in. The dark spaces seem to shimmer and oscillate, like purple light splotches on the back of an eyelid. “But don’t bore me with this talk of good and evil. We’re not children.”

“We’re not,” Oblong says, his body spazzing in the machine. The pistons sputter, and his head jerks to the side. “No, we’re certainly not.” There’s a rattling from somewhere in the shadows, metal scraping on stone.

“What is that?” Pacheco asks.

“It’s them. The shadows. They know you’re here,”

“Oh?” Pacheco clenches his jaw and looks about the dark room. He won’t let fear consume his thoughts. His mind is transported to the Pyronic Room aboard Phyrxian, and he is instantly calmed. “Have they been expecting me?”

“You’ve really developed a biting wit since the last I’ve seen you, Rolando. But to answer your question, yes. Yes, they have been expecting you.” The tubes in Oblong’s head make suctioning noises, and his body starts to shake again, as frail and weightless as a poppet. Then the weary eyes, rimmed with red, gaze up through the long hair that covers most of his face, and straight at Pacheco.

“Damn it man, what happened to you?” Pacheco says.

“I’ll tell you all about it. Don’t you worry now. Let us walk together a ways. I have to show you the way forward. You are more close to the center of reality than you would ever think. But you must listen to me, for I know the rest of the way there.”

“Then tell me, Lieutenant General. Please,” Pacheco opens his arms entreatingly. “I must put things back to order.”

“Tall order for one man, even for one such as you, Pacheco.”

“Well, I count on the beasts to help me.”

“Ironic, don’t you think, that you’re utilizing the forces of chaos to help realize your dreams of restoring order?”

“Not in the slightest. The fact that I have dominated the forces of chaos, and have conscripted them to my cause, is evidence that the force of reason is greater than its antithesis.”

“Ah, but Colonel, nothing is greater than it’s antithesis. All is equal, as our esteemed Amesh said in his famous treatise, ‘Infinite Duality.’”

“Amesh and his book are just part of some children’s tale. He never harnassed the power of the primordial beasts, now did he?” Pacheco’s statement is capped off with a rumble from beneath the domed city, a tearing roar of twelve cacophonous voices. “Did he, Oblong?! Now, tell me: how do I find Hyperion!”

Oblong’s body spasms again, the tubes jerking sharply in conjunction with the pistons and pumps of the larger machine.

“Oh, I’ll tell you, old friend,” Oblong says, his voice as light as swamp vapor. Oblong beckons to Pacheco with a gnarled old hand as the zeppelin-like structure begins to rotate around.

“It’s been so long since I’ve spoke to someone other than that statue back there,” Oblong says, as the two make their way towards the other side of the dome, leaving the Empress behind. “And hearing your voice, I’m reminded of the man responsible for the uprising, his name also Drinkwater. He was the descendent of the Empress, and responsible for the downfall of Yama Dempuur. A precocious zealot, just like you, Rolando. Compulsive and driven, yet with something just a little off about him. Some sort of sadistic twinkle in his eye,”

Oblong’s floating machine stops at the edge of the geodesic dome. One of the hexagonal panels is a door, which slowly opens up before Pacheco, creaking like a fugue of rusty springs. The sound masks the pounding of steps coming behind him. Pacheco turns around just in time to get a stone fist to the jaw. He feels it come unhinged, then all goes dark.

The machine hovers silently above the fallen Helios-Hunter, save for the occasional sputter from the air pumps. “That was quite a hit, Empress. I do hope he is not dead.”

“He is not, sir. He still breathes,”

“For your sake, you had better hope so. He would not be pleased. He’s been waiting a long time for Rolando to visit. Come, pick him up. We must get things ready.” The Empress picks Pacheco up in her massive arms, and follows Oblong as he passes through the dome of the engine room and out into the city.

“You’ve come a long way, friend,” Oblong says to the comatose man behind him. “I knew I’d see you again. He told me,” Oblong goes into a fit of seizures, as if the man is fighting against the machine he is imprisoned within. The Empress walks behind him silently, her orange eyes illuminating the path ahead into Yama Dempuur, the city of dark and shadows.”

[] Chapter XV: “Sounds from Space”

 

 

This guy has got to be tired. Damn, we been doing this for the past few hours now. I can’t even see the trees no more, and my lips are getting sore. Blowing on Sally Sue all this time, at this altitude, and I’m surprised my nose hasn’t sprung a leak. I used to get nose bleeds from just being up on the stage at the Brigadier. Now I must be a mile or two above the Forest, the stones from space stacking up one on top of the other.

He’s out of breath, this Thurmond guy, slapping and popping on his bass-saber. These low notes are deep, man. Can cut right through anything. He’s a pretty stellar player though, I have to hand it to him. Guy has a good sense of groove, which most bassists abandon once they start getting flashy. You always need a groove, man. These space rocks, man, they love a good groove. They come all the way from way up in the black, just to fly through the air and crash on the two and the four, like snare hits, and I really dig it. This Thurmond guy, I think he’s even started to dig it. He knows when the rocks are going to hit. We even got into this jam, bobbing our heads to it, the smashing rocks that in-the-pocket drummer you always need. Thurmond just steps aside on the ‘and’ of the one and the three.

“Hey man, let’s take a breather,” I say. He’s about to slap his bass, but then stops, when he sees I mean it. He lets out a sigh and starts nodding his head.

“That was a nice one, old man.”

“Old? I haven’t even three millennia under my belt. Or is that four? No matter, I’m still young enough to keep up with the likes of you.”

“Yes, you’re right.” He looks off, into the sky hanging around us. The pile of stones disappears below us in a cloud which goes from one side of the world to the other. Above, the blue of the sky meets the black of space, filled with more stars than I’d ever seen from down below. “Looks like we’ve climbed pretty high.”

“I’m for going back down if you are,” I say. He takes his bass-saber and straps it back behind him. He nods in ascension, and we start back to the ground.

“You know I’m going to have to take you prisoner once we get down to the ground again, Vindler. If you go along quietly, I’ll make sure you’re treated fairly.”

“Man, the only one who’s going to be taking any prisoners is me.” I hear him chuckle. A voice in my head, maybe Sally Sue, says, turn around, old man. I look up from the rock I just jumped to, and Thurmond has his bass-saber arching down towards me, the neck in his hands and the blade on the side of its body aimed for my head. I move just in time, the blade dinging off the boulder-sized space rock behind me.

“Hey, I thought we were done with this,” I say. I feel the wisp of clouds on my feet. I’ve got to try and hide from this guy. Just another rock or two to descend, and Thurmond’s gonna lose me in the mist.

“I have my orders. You’re to be taken alive if possible, but killed if need be.” I can’t see an inch in front of me, the cloud cover is so thick. I inch back behind the rock I’m on, the footing extremely narrow. I can hear Thurmond coming down, can see the blue lightning from his gauntlets reflecting off the clouds. He passes by me without pause, thinking I’m still below him.

“Just surrender, old man. You don’t have to die like this.” I pull my knife from its sheath on my back and slink down the stones as silent as a tom-cat. I’m descending down the one side of the pillar and he the other. His steel-tipped boots clatter with each of his steps, so that I know when we’re on the same rock. “Where’d you go?” He says, maybe catching a whiff of me.

“Right here.” The blade goes up and under his rib. I jump back quick, just as his fist crashes into the stone where my head used to be. That blue lightning crackles, rubble and dust raining down upon my derby brim. He’s at an awkward angle, and most likely in shock at having been stabbed. One kick, and his knee crumbles under my heel. All that armor, and for what? You leave your ribs exposed like that, you in for a hard lesson, boy. The clouds part for him as he falls, and I can see how wide his eyes are, the gold caps on his teeth. His wrist cracks on the stone pillar, the gauntlet coming off in broken pieces which fall through the clouds like blue comets before disappearing completely. Too bad, because the guy was starting to grow on me. Dummy had to start talking business. Isn’t that what always does the band in?

Nothing I hate more than killing, maybe except one of them guitarists with all the effects pedals and no chops. Those guys need to spend a month out in the wilderness with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and just jam, man, none of this kid stuff. Makes me happy I got to blowing Sally Sue and never had an affinity for strings. This is what I’m thinking as I’m climbing down when I swear I hear a splash. Strange, the Snakewater, that old angry river in Qani Dariel, must be a mile below. I don’t care how big Thurmond was, how’s it possible I’m hearing his body splash into the river this high up?

The clouds are starting to clear, and the air is sticky and warm. Qani Dariel isn’t even like this in high summer. No, something is off. The sound of splashing has become persistent, and with it comes the unmistakable smell of the briny sea. Another rock down, and I see waves lapping against the pillar of rocks I called from space with Sally Sue. It’s a wide open expanse of ocean where there should still be sky.

Thurmond is nowhere to be seen. He and his bass-saber have been guzzled up by the waves. The sun is setting, its red noggin peeking just over the horizon. The sky is a light pink where it isn’t covered in cloud. To the northwest is an island, an indistinct silhouette in the twilight of the day.

I must have crossed a bridge. How I did that, though, I’ll never know. I’d only ever been over the bridge to Arcadia, and that was only because Magdala showed me the way. Up the Lover’s Tree, through the valley pass, and then boom, Arcadia. Of course ,there was the time I wandered into Qani Dariel on the back of a forgotten melody, but I didn’t even remember that.

Since there’s nothing much else to do but sit here, I bring Sally Sue up to my lips, and start in on a quiet little number I penned, appropriately called Wishing on a Sunset. “Now that’s a nice little tune.” It’s a woman’s voice, calling to me over the waves. A boat slinks up from around the back of the pillar, a small job, with just two oars and a lantern hanging from its prow. The woman manning the tiller is thin and tan of skin, with loose slacks and a vest of rough-spun wool. A heavy leather belt is strapped loosely across her waist, with pouches attached to it all the way around. On her left hip is a pistol, its grip studded with rubies. Intricate designs cover her entire body, tattoos of brown ink, from her hair line to the tips of her fingers.

“Hello there,” I say. “Do you know what world this is?”

“What world?” The woman sounds incredulous, and begins to laugh. “You’ve come quite a long ways to not know where you are. These are the Coral Islands. My name is Kenan, of the Pyronic Guild. I was sent to meet you.” She drags one of the oars behind her in the water, making the boat slow and turn so that the starboard side turns to face me.

“You were sent to meet me? By whom?”

“Captain Lacko,” Kenan says. “He would have come himself, but he’s getting on in years, and can’t do much walking as it is. Besides, he pays well for small errands such as this,” She smiles, her canines especially large. She waves to the boat. “He wants you to come to his home on the main island.”

“I don’t know a Captain Lacko,” I say, “but as I don’t rightly know what else I’ll do stranded all the way out here, I think I’ll take you up on your offer.” I step aboard the modest row boat, keeping my eyes on Kenan all the while. “My name is Vindler.”

“You don’t have to worry about anything, Vindler. I won’t hurt you.”

“Oh, I know that well enough. I’d just rather have you not even try. My knife is hilt deep in some unlucky bass-player at the bottom of the ocean, and I wouldn’t want to have to dent Sally Sue here by smashing your brains in.”

She smiles her wolfish smile again. “Fair enough,” She says, and turns us towards the Coral Islands.

It’s full dark by the time the boat runs up on sand. The light from Kenan’s torch touches upon a rocky shore, gnarled trees growing from the steep hillside beyond the beach. There are lights that peer down at us from high atop the hill, and it is towards these that Kenan starts our march. “Come,” She says, donning a hooded shirt with long sleeves, the hem only coming down to her highest rib. “There is no time to dally. The next ink ship leaves when the moon is at its apex, and I mean to be on it. It’s to be a full moon tonight, which will put the barkskins in a fever.”

Brambles and branches snap at me as we go up the hillside. I can feel the rough terrain scuffing up the polish on my shoes, know the sap from the trees is ruining my shirt. There’s a fire down below us, with a circle of people around it. “What is that?” I whisper to Kenan.

“It’s a fire. What does it look like?”

“Very funny. But what are they doing?”

“They’re barkskins. They drink pyronic so they can see their sleeping god. They don’t want him to wake, or he’ll stop dreaming of the Islands and they’ll disappear. Come, we’re almost there,” She goes ahead while I hang back, letting the shadows consume me. The people around the fire all have white hair, and watch as a man in a set of dapper threads marches about. Yet, it’s not so much the man as what he is waving to above that has me buzzing. The stars in the sky, they’re changing. New constellations are forming from the older. I see what looks to be the shape of a sleeping giant, bigger than all the rest. As Dapper Threads gestures to the sky, smaller constellations move towards the giant’s chest. They’re going to burrow right inside of him, by the looks of it. “Are you coming or what?” Kenan hisses from the dark.

When I catch up to her, we’ve waded out of the thick brush and come upon a flattened clearing, the grass green and knee high.

“You saw what the scholar was doing with the stars, hm?” She asks.

“Yeah, I saw it. What sort of magic is that?”

“Old,” She says. A squat house is ahead of us, the source of the lights from before, a golden sunshine emanating from its windows. It’s only one story tall except for the cylindrical tower that rises from its center, which is double the height of the first floor. “This where we going, Kenan?” She doesn’t answer or even look back, though I know she hears. There’s not any sound except the waves crashing down below and the sound of our pants swishing through the grass.

The house is made of the same gnarled wood that grew by the beach, the boards well measured and tightly fitted together. It looks much like the Mad Brigadier, though my old alehouse was built of knotted pine and drunken hands. Flowers with trumpet tops and furry paws line the walls, around which lazily flitter some lantern bugs. Kenan raps on the rounded green door with her knuckles three times. We hear a muffled voice, old and creaky by the sound of it, and steps coming towards the door. When it opens, I can’t believe my eyes.

“Thurmond?”

“Vindler, Kenan. Welcome.” He has traded in his armor for a long sleeved cotton shirt open at the collar and a set of tight slacks. His feet are bare, and his long white hair loose. “Captain Lacko is expecting you.”

He motions us in to the house, but I’m not ready to fall into some trap. “What’s going on here?” I say, swinging Sally Sue around so that she’s in my hands, ready to blow if need be. “I didn’t come here so you could get your revenge on me, bass man.” Thurmond’s mouth is set in a line, but he doesn’t make a move. He keeps his back to the door, while Kenan only looks at me with her deep set purple eyes. I’m about ready to turn around and run back towards the beach when that old creaky voice I heard through the door calls out to me from within the house.

“Now, now, Vindler. I know you and Thurmond had your little disagreement, but we’re all friends here. Please, come in. We mean you no harm.” Kenan smirks at my trepidation, while Thurmond keeps his eyes on the floor. An old man shuffles into view from behind a floor to ceiling bookcase. He uses two canes to move, and has on an outfit very similar to Thurmond’s, only with a heavy burgundy coat over it, despite the heat. Every stitch he wears is covered in paint. His skin is pale, and his scalp completely bald. Thin tufts of hair hang from the side of his head, which is long like a horse’s and fat in the cheeks.

“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Captain Theodore Lacko. You may call me Theo if you’d like, or Lacko. The Ma’atha call me Old Cappy, which you may call me too, if it suits you. I’ve been stationed here on the Coral Islands for many years now. Some would say I’m retired, but I feel as if my real life’s work has just begun. Come,” He gestures with his head, “We should discuss this in the safety of the house. You never know who is listening out here. Especially with the full moon.” I keep my eyes on Thurmond as I pass through the doorway, but he only gives me a small smile.

“I saw you fall,” I say, walking after Kenan and Lacko as they make their way further into the house.

“Yeah, you got me good.” He lifts up his vest and shows me the bandages wrapped around his ribs. “The ma’atha found me on the beach, barely alive. They took me here, and Lacko helped patch me up.”

“That all happened in the past hour?”

“Past hour? I’ve been here for weeks now, almost two months.”

“Two months?! How is that possible? I came down the stone right after you. It couldn’t have been ten minutes from when you fell to when I got into Kenan’s boat.” The house is all stained wood and plush cushions. Book cases line the wall of the room we’re passing through, leading to an open arched doorway.

“Time has an interesting way of flowing under the bridges that connect the worlds together,” Lacko says. “Sometimes it flows fast, sometimes slow. For you, it would seem that time was moving much faster here than it was on your bridge.” We pass under the arch, into a cluttered room with canvasses and easels scattered about. There are wide windows lining the walls, through which a man could get a vast amount of sunlight to paint by. Lacko stops at a canvas in the center of the room. It shows a man in a waistcoat and slacks, his sleeves rolled up to the elbows and his shoes polished to a moonbeam shine. A saxophone is at his lips, his derby hat pulled down to his eyebrows. He stands on the edge of a large boulder, which has more huge rocks stacked above it. Green and gold lights swirl about him.

“That’s me,” I say. “Now wait a minute. How did you paint a picture of me like that? You told him, didn’t you, bass man? You told him what I looked like.”

“He told me about you, Vindler, but that’s not how I painted this picture. I made this long ago, when I was still a young man. It was one of my first works, actually. One of my first experiences with the pyronic of the guild.” Lacko moves to another painting he has hanging on the wall. It’s the Lady Magdala, her suit of armor lying on the ground and covered in blood. A man who looks much like Thurmond stands over her body with the sword of Magdala in one hand, her head in the other.

“You recognize this one too, eh?”

“I recognize the Lady Magdala in it, if that’s what you mean. But that never happened. Nice technique, though. Abstract enough, but still familiar. Thurmond could have told you about her too. If you’re trying to tell me that you see things and are then able to paint them, well, sorry mister. I’ve been around for a long time, seen a lot of things, and I don’t buy it.”

“I didn’t either,” Thurmond says. “But then he showed me the painting of Yama Dempuur, of the members of the parliament I killed with my bare hands. He knew the details of their faces down to the last freckle. How could he have known that, Vindler?”

“Pyronic visions,” Kenan says. “They happen in most who drink the elixir. Most are nothing more than hallucinations. Then there are those who drink and actually see, who actually know.”

Lacko’s head and hands tremble, but he doesn’t say anything. He just smiles sadly at me, then turns his head towards the spiral staircase at the back of the room. “Do you want to see the painting that will prove my visions are real to you?”

“By all means, Cappy. Lead the way.” Lacko props one of his canes up against his body, then lifts a shaking hand up by his face. He draws a square in the air, and a screen thinner than paper appears. He types a few things on it with his fingers, after which there is a ding. The canes he was using contort to new shapes, floating down to his legs and wrapping around them. In a matter of seconds, they’ve transformed into leg armor, similar to the Lady Magdala’s.

“They help me get up the stairs,” Lacko says, noticing my look. He turns and starts up the spiral staircase, moving more lithely than any of the rest of us. The room at the top of the stairs is rounded, the ceiling a dome. In the middle of the room is a platform, atop which is a large telescope and a chair by its eyepiece.

“That’s some piece of hardware you got there, Cappy.”

“Yes, yes. Quite expensive to get here all the way from Yama Dempuur, and even more expensive to have it set up, if you can believe it. Not many people know how a telescope should work. Those who do can run up the price on their knowledge. Supply and demand, don’t you know. That’ll do for now, canes.” He opens the screen back up, types a code, and then the leg armor transforms back into the canes he was using.

“Never seen magic like that, Cappy.”

“It’s not magic,” Thurmond scoffs. “It’s science. Technology.”

“What’s the difference, Thurmond?” Lacko asks, shuffling towards the back of the room, away from the staircase. “Both magic and science rely on faith, do they not?”

“Yes, but science you can prove.”

“Ah, and therein lies the quandary. For proof requires perception, and perception is a fickle thing. Have you not learned anything since being here, friend?” Thurmond blushes at Lacko’s scolding, and I can see Kenan grin despite herself. “Here, Vindler. This is one of my most prized paintings. I don’t just show it to anyone. Look.”

There’s but one painting on the entire wall, and one light above it, which shines a soft orange upon the canvas. The painting is a departure from Lacko’s other vibrant works. Ink and watercolor. The colors are more pastel, and the characters he depicts seem to melt into the soft gray background. They are a man and a boy, a father and son. The older man has the younger in his arms. They both are smiling. The boy holds a basket full of eggs, held at a precarious angle. In fact, one egg has already slipped out, but has faded to nothing more than a faint curve of the pen at the edge of the painting. I look closer at the faces of the man and the child, see the faint brushes of color emanating from their mouths. It’s green and gold. My stomach goes up into my stomach when I finally recognize what I’m seeing.

“It’s…”

“It’s us,” Thurmond says. “You, me, and Kenan.” It’s the song I rode into Qani Dariel on, the music I forgot.

“This is the song of the father,” I say, moving old Sally Sue to my mouth, and giving the reed a lick. I can see the notes in the swirls of color, can see Kenan, Thurmond and myself grooving in that delicate watercolor. As I start in on the song, that which I had forgotten for so long, Kenan begins to sing. Her voice is high and raspy, but as beautiful as anything I’ve ever heard at the Brigadier. It melts into Sally Sue’s melody like butter on sweet corn.

“Thurmond, please, get your bass-saber,” Lacko whispers. Thurmond hurries down and up the stairs, immediately getting into the song with a walking bass line once he’s back by the painting. “Oh, that is splendid. Splendid,” Lacko says. The tears are hot as they drip down my face. The song is beautiful. Man, I couldn’t even tell you the last time I cried. Then again, my memory isn’t my strong suit, as I’ve proved through forgetting the song I came in on, the song I was made from.

By the time we’ve stopped, the room is alight with the pink of dawn. We’ve been playing all night. “Do you see now, Vindler?” Lacko asks me.

“I see it alright, Cappy. But more importantly, I hear.” I look to Thurmond, his fretting hand resting casually on the neck of his bass, and grin. “No wonder you’re chiller than an icebox, bass man. You hear it too. And baby, damn, I never knew you could sing like that.”

“Thank you,” Kenan says. “You were alright yourself.”

“This song, Cappy. It’s the Song of the Father. It’s the key that moves the groove along, that makes the bridges appear. We’re moving the gods along, aren’t we? I can’t believe I ever forgot.”

“They all forgot it, Vindler.” Lacko says, his voice tired. “Kenan and Thurmond here, they are nowhere near as long lived as you. They’ve lived in this world in different forms, as far as I can surmise. It was only through my painting that I was able to find you all, though it was only by luck that you all were brought together.”

“It wasn’t luck,” Kenan says. “Things have been set in motion by a greater power. We were brought together for a reason. You’ve told me as much before, from those books you have.”

“True, true, Kenan. Come, Vindler. I must show you one final thing. Then we all shall get some rest. Come.” The canes transform into the leg armor again, and Lacko leads us back down the stairway, to a study deeper in the house. The shelves are dusty, and there is only one window in the entire room. “These are old books,” Lacko says. “Some as old as the Great Schism, I believe. They must be handled with care.”

He takes an old volume down from the shelf, and with as delicate a touch as his liverspotted hands will allow, he begins to turn the pages. Once satisfied, he gingerly places the book on the cluttered desk by the wall, and begins to read. “This is from the journals of Baranda Ur, a royal in Vega Marduur, before the city was consumed by the Fade. Ahem.

“‘Following the Great Schism, the Fade was released on the spiral, and all was feared lost. It was only the music that lulled the great god Hyperion to sleep which kept the Fade from consuming all, as it allowed him to dream.’ Cryptic, yes, but I believe that Baranda is writing about your song. It was what put Hyperion to sleep and gave him the power to dream.”

“Put him to sleep?” I say. “Never in all my days have I ever put someone to sleep with my playing. I think you got me and Sally Sue here confused with someone else, Cappy.”

Lacko smiles. “I believe Baranda Ur uses the word ‘sleep’ for lack of a better term. I suspect that your music drew Hyperion’s attention into himself, made him astounded at his inner life. If that were not done, then all would have been lost long ago, right when the powers of the spiral split. Hyperion would never have held on to any memories of what had been.”

“Interesting theory. Problem is, I don’t remember ever playing that song, or any other that made a bridge pop up for that matter, except for the scene in that painting of yours. There was some words from another language_”

“Nonsense words,” Kenan says. “In the pyronic fugues, many hear the gods speak a series of nonsense words.”

“What’s this pyronic you’re all going on about?”

“We’ll talk more about that later,” Lacko says, stifling a yawn. “Now, I think we all need to get some sleep. Thurmond will show you to your room. You will be staying with us for as long as you’d like, Vindler. We have much to discuss, much to learn from each other.” He reaches his hand out, and we shake. His grip is surprisingly strong for a man so old, perhaps from his days in the military. He heads off with Kenan to one side of the house, and I follow Thurmond out the front door. We’re walking over to a smaller house several stone’s throws away.

“A lot has changed, hasn’t it, old man?”

“Sure has, except that I’m still not that old, bass man.”

“Four millennia, you said?” He chuckles. “That was some great playing up there.”

“It was. She’s got a set of pipes on her, hasn’t she?”

“She does. She’s beautiful too, in a wild way.” Funny thing, Thurmond saying this. I only really noticed how gorgeous Kenan was when she began to sing. Then, oh boy, I was falling head over heels for her. We get to the small house’s door, and Thurmond opens one of those paper-thin screens in the air again. A few flicks of his fingers, and the door opens, without even so much as a push.

“What is that thing, anyway?”

“It’s a floating screen. You don’t have them in Qani Dariel?”

“We barely have electricity, my man. I think the Lady Magdala finds a certain romance in keeping things as simple as possible.” Saying her name brings to mind Lacko’s painting of Drinkwater standing over the Magdala, of the forest being burned to the ground. I suddenly don’t feel like having any more company. Thurmond must sense the change in my mood, as he softly grasps my shoulder.

“Look, Vindler, what happened back in the forest… I’m sorry about all of it. I should have never got so caught up with Drinkwater and the others. I’m sorry for having destroyed so much of Qani Dariel, and for what Drinkwater did to the Lady Magdala. Truly.” He walks over to the dresser by the window and mindlessly starts to fiddle with one of its knobs. “I’ve spoken at great lengths about all of this with Captain Lacko since coming here, have told him how guilty I feel. What has allowed me to sleep at night is the fact that all of this has been set in motion by some higher power. Some hand is guiding our actions. Lacko has confirmed this through the visions he paints. He sees how everything is being put into place, given purpose. I know that none of that makes what I did any more excusable. I don’t expect you to forgive me, nor do I think you should. All I ask is that you understand that I did what I did because I thought it was right.”

“It’s alright, Thurmond. I understand.” It’s hard for me to look the man in the eyes. I want to stab him like I did when we were high up in the sky, over and over again, a jab for each tree he felled in Magdala’s kingdom. In my heart of hearts, though, I know he’s sincere in what he’s saying. “If you don’t mind, I really need to get some sleep. It’s been a long day.”

“Of course.” He trades the knob on the dresser for the neck of his bass, keeping it low to his leg so he doesn’t hit it on the door on his way out. He’s just about outside, when he turns back to me. He lifts his waistcoat, showing me the dressing over his ribs again. “I thank you for this, Vindler. Truly. It is a reminder of who I was and the wrongs I have done. I deserve far worse. Good night.” He turns and walks back to the house, leaving me in the one room house all by myself. Is he to be trusted, I wonder. For that matter, are any of them? An old expat, a mercenary, and a violent revolutionary, all talking of gods and music and the fabric of the cosmos. It’s enough to make a jazzman’s head spin.

I hang Sally Sue and my hat up on the hooks by the door and kick my shoes under the bed. My head touches down on the feather pillow and I’m drifting off to dreamland faster than a hiccup. The song keeps playing over and over in my head. Lord, that voice. She kept her eyes closed as she sang, her face as smooth as silk as she climbed up and down her scales. Thurmond held down the groove, an embellishment here and there with a slap from his thumb, but it was solid all the way through. Man, I could just take off with this lot, let Sally Sue go wherever she wanted. The painting of the father and son brought me back to that place, the gravel drive connecting the chicken coop to the crooked house with the stovepipe chimney. The father hugged his boy so close. The child laughed at how the beard stubble tickled.

“Da Nava Da Nava Di?”

“Dibayanda Do.” I’m in that fuzzy place just north of sleep, with the words still rolling off my tongue. A noise is bringing me out of it, a commotion. I fully come to, and stumble to the window to see what is going on. A handful of men stand around Lacko’s house, all shirtless, all armed with spears. A man in full dress is knocking at the door. It takes my sleepy brain a moment to remember, but then I recognize him. He’s Dapper Threads, the man I saw at the fire earlier in the evening, the man who had sent the smaller constellations into the larger.

“What are they doing?” I whisper to myself. Lacko and the others could be in trouble. I slide my shoes on, and grab Sally Sue from the hook she’s sleeping on. I’ll have to take myself a little peek.

I’m like a slinking cat when need be. Though there is only grass between my little house and Lacko’s, it’s high enough that I can get so that no one sees me. I get close enough to the men that I could let loose a stone and knock one of them out. Which is good, because that’s exactly what I intend to do.

The man falls in a heap, quietly enough that none of the other sentries on guard hear a thing. I tiptoe right over the man’s body, his hair like silver dew under the proud moon, and gaze into the window, expecting the worst. There’s old Lacko, wobbling around just like I left him. He seems no worse for wear, though the pajamas he’s wearing don’t compliment the shape of his oddly proportioned body any. Dapper Threads, in a tailored blue doublet and linen jacket, sits in a plush chair. He blows at a steaming tea cup, while Lacko speaks to him.

“Did she suffer much, Jonthen?”

“Not any more than she did throughout the pregnancy, Cappy. The Great Mums kept her asleep.”

“And the babe is well?”

Jonthen sighs. “As well as can be. The Ma’atha do not know what to make of him. Some see the child as a curse, some as a blessing. Kaiah was Amara’s sister, and her death has made our brothers and sisters sick with grief. The moon fever has afflicted them greatly tonight. They all run wild through the forest.”

“You’re their scholar. You must keep them calm. Make them see the child as the blessing he is, as the bridge between two peoples.”

“I will do my best, Cappy, but the moon fever is beyond me. You must keep inside tonight. I can not promise you safety beyond these walls. The guards will keep watch.” Jonthen finishes his tea in one gulp, then pushes up from his chair. He nods twice, the last slower than the first, then starts for the door.

“Wait, Jonthen.” Lacko’s face goes dark. “What of Oblong?”

“What of him?”

“You must not do anything rash. The Parliament of Yama Dempuur will hold a trial, will want_”

“There will be no trial, Lacko.” There is an anger in Jonthen that was not there before. Lacko chews on his lips, unsure of what to say. “Ma’atha will decide what to do with the raper yama.” Jonthen has the last word, and with one more nod, he turns and leaves through the front door.

“Who are you?” The man comes up from behind me. I barely have time to get Sally Sue in front of me to block his spear. “What you do to Sam?” He speaks in a clipped dialect. He’s as big an oaf as Thurmond, and could very well be the bass man’s brother. He is quick with the spear, putting all the power in his upper body behind his thrusts. It won’t be long now before the other guards hear the commotion, and rush over to help their comrade. Then his eyes go glassy, and he falls in a heap atop his buddy Sam. Standing a dozen or so yards behind him, her pistol still aimed in front of her, is Kenan.

“Well, aren’t you a welcome sight for old eyes.”

“Come on, let’s go.” She turns and starts to run back towards my house. She keeps the pistol in her hand, and I can see its tipped with a silencer. No wonder I didn’t hear a gunshot.

We bound into the trees. Her footfalls are as silent as a doe’s. “Thanks for helping out back there,” I whisper to her. “Though you didn’t have to kill the guy.”

“I didn’t kill him. The pistol is loaded with bullet-sized darts. They’re poisonous, but non-lethal.” There’s not much of a path, just exposed tree roots where the mud has slid away. They act as ladder rungs for our upward climb. Just when I think I’ve no more breath left in me, Kenan pulls herself up between two ledges, which wedge together to make a sort of cave.

“We’ll be safe here. By morning, the moon fever should have worn off, and we’ll be able to make sense out of all this.”

“I overheard them talking,” I say, not sure if I should be telling her this or not. “What happened? A girl died?”

“A very special ma’atha girl, yes. She was pregnant, and it was suspected that it was by one of the highest ranking yama leaders on the island. He raped her, or so they say. They didn’t have any proof until tonight. The girl delivered the baby, and the child’s skin was far too light to be ma’atha. They finally had their proof, but at a cost. The ma’atha girl died giving birth. Now they hold the yama as prisoner, until they decide what to do with him. I was supposed to be on an ink ship out of here tonight, but it left without me. The pilot was afraid for his life and left early.”

“Island politics, huh?” My trying to make light of the situation does not do much to lighten her mood. “So we’re going to be sleeping here tonight?”

“No sleeping,” She says, pulling a small flask out of one of the pockets she has on her belt. “We have to figure out where we’ve been in the song, as well as where we are going.”

“What is that? Booze?”

“It’s pyronic. It will help us remember. Come, help me make a fire.” She takes off her black cloak and hangs it between the two ledges, so we are concealed from view.

“Now, now, girlie. I’m not about to take some drugs with you, especially when the woods are crawling with some angry tribes people who’d love to rip me to pieces.”

She spits into the thin crack between the ledges, and starts cracking a large, dried-out branch over her knee. “Are you so content with drifting through life not knowing your purpose? With letting those whom you love die in vain?”

I look at this girl, who speaks so boldly, so bluntly, and have nothing else to say than, “You don’t understand anything, girlie.”

“Oh no? We have a saying in the Pyronic Guild: ‘The only true wisdom is that which proves all else wrong.’ There is no more time left to be afraid, Vindler.”

“Alright, girlie. Just because you saved my life down there.” The dried wood formed into a large enough pile, Kenan reaches into another pouch and produces a vial. She sprinkles a yellow dust from the vial onto the wood, and in seconds, there grows a mighty fire.

“Thanks for the help,” She says sarcastically, handing me the flask of pyronic. “Now drink. Every last drop.”

“Am I going on this trip alone?”

“Relax. I got mine right here,” She says, producing another flask from a pouch at her back. “To the music.”

“To the music.” We clink flasks, and then back goes the pyronic. Good god, it tastes like fire, no wonder the name. The moon watches from on up high, and the embers from the fire crickle crackle into the cool night air.

“Do you hear that?”

“Howling.”

“It’s the ma’atha,” She says. “Moon fever.” I wonder if Thurmond is howling at the moon too, from the safety of Lacko’s home. Suddenly, it’s getting a little too hard to breathe.

“I think I need a little air. The smoke is choking me. I… I can’t breathe.” I’m choking, gods help me. I try to make it through Amara’s cloak, into the night air, but my legs have turned to jelly, and I fall face first into the stone ledge. I can hear Kenan yelling, telling me to relax, to go with it, but I can’t. I’m panicking, gods, I can’t breathe, I can’t_

She socks me in the jaw, hard. I can feel the panic leave like a bad dream. “This stuff hits fast,” I mutter, getting back up to my feet. The words fall funny from my lips. She nods, and I can see each muscle in her neck, working in tandem. Teeth like a wolf’s, through a face of intricate patterns. She’s beautiful in a wild way. The line of brown ink is connected, forms a path around from her face to her body that changes shape depending on the angle. She sees my eyes, and begins to remove her shirt so my eyes can keep following the line. She’s a map of the worlds, the Grid, as the yama call it. How do I know this? Arcadia, Golgotha, Qani Dariel, Yama Dempuur, the Coral Islands, they are all different points on the map, but they’re all connected, all one. The bridges aren’t bridges at all, just the way my eyes see things. The bridges are an illusion.

“I can see it now,” I say. “The path changes, but is the same.”

“Yes, Vindler.” Her smile grows larger. “Music is the key to the changes. Follow it to where you need to go.” She starts to hum, the flames from the fire crackling with red, green, gold. She takes my hand, leads it over her body. Her heart beats in time with her voice. Our breathing quickens and grows as one.

He was lost in a land of endless parched earth and crisp blue sky. The wasteland. He had crossed a bridge by following the music, the click in his bicycle chain. He had gone with it, had let it take him where it wanted to. He went deeper into the spiral, saw things more clearly.

“We were there, in the wasteland.”

“Yes.” Her lips brush mine, and her breath tastes of cinnamon and smoke. Her humming has my skin buzzing like those old stage lights in the Brigadier, or those that line the courtyard where the lost man is met by the stranger.

“I’m so confused,” I say, but she kisses my perplexities away. The ledge is cool under our naked bodies, the fire and smoke and pyronic making us as hot as Old Veera’s core. I see the courtyard, see where we have to go from here. The lost man must see the bridge, must hear the music, or he will be lost in the nightmare world forever. I tell her this, and she screams in rapture. In the forest around us, the ma’atha howl with moon fever, their voices echoing through the mountains. We both howl back, drunk on love and pyronic and the music of revelation.

[] Chapter XVI: “Hands of the Father”

 

 

The wheel is in perfect shape, although several of the spokes are bent. Two are completely broken, sticking out like the legs of a dead fly. No two bikes will be doored the same way, each wreck as unique as a snowflake. This particular bike frame is an old twenty-two inch black Nishiki, medium weight steel. A couple of paint blemishes here and there, but the frame is in otherwise perfect shape. Road worn, which is how a bike should look. Aesthetics aside, you want the bike to move as effortlessly as possible. Friction is a fickle mistress, and weight distribution on the wheels and frame will either appease or disgust her. A set of broken or loose spokes tends to provoke the latter response.

Pulling one of the broken spokes out of the hub flange, I wonder how long the guy whose Nishiki this is rode it like this. He’d been doored, and had proudly told us how it had happened. An embassy car, he said. Flying down east 68th street, and then wham, the guy throws open his door without even looking. Some road burn on his arms, but otherwise he was just shaken up. He got the plate number and the driver’s information, but his complaint got lost in New York’s infamous sea of bureaucratic red tape.

We all heard him out, and humored him with varying degrees of feigned interest. As mechanics, we wear all the chain grease and scraped elbows with a sort of silent pride. Fresh bandages or bruised knuckles are met with faint nods of approval, with no minute details needed.

The toilet flushes from the room behind me. A voice from through the doorway says, “Oof, don’t go in there. You can grab lunch, if you want.” I finish threading the new spoke, and then reach for the rag in my back pocket.

“Sounds good. Want me to grab you a coffee?” I turn, but there’s no person coming out of the bathroom, no other mechanics in the shop. The front part of the store is a similar story, nothing but an empty cash register and cold sunlight blasting in through the front window. The water in the toilet isn’t even running. It’s completely silent.

“Hello?” There is a rustling of fabric from behind me, softly echoing around the store. I turn quickly, expecting to see my boss, messing with my head. Still no one. The door to the office at the back of the shop lightly flutters in an unfelt wind. Could he be in there, hiding in the darkness?

“Hey man, where are you?” I try to come up with my boss’s name. It’s on the tip of my tongue. I try to think of his face, but can’t. “Wait… what is this place?” It’s the bike shop I work at, up on 72nd and Amsterdam. Isn’t it? The familiarity has gone, shifted into something… off. The light from the front window, just a short while ago bright with daylight, is fading, the angular frames of all the bikes becoming more knife-like in the gloom.

The dark doorway at the back of the shop opens wider, creaking on its hinges. There’s a moan from within, a dissonant sound that digs right into my chest. It makes my heart sink, with a power greater than the dying light. It’s been drawing me towards it this whole time, I just didn’t realize it. The tools and bikes around me shrink back into their surroundings. This entire shop is an illusion, a cooing camouflage for that which is in the darkness. What is lurking in that doorway, beckoning me towards it? Why is it taking such pains to keep itself hidden?

“Will…” It’s a different voice, faint, calling from the front of the shop, by the window with the fading light. “Will… go towards the music…”

“Who’s there? Hello? I… I can’t move.” My legs are heavy and cold, the darkness from the door having reached around me with icy fingers. It’s not going to let me go.

“Yes you can, Will,” The voice says. “Just take the first step.” I hear ropes being tightened in the darkness, the subtle twanging of hemp cords.

I’m finally able to get my foot in the air, and turn around, away from the door. Strength begins to return to my body. It’s as if a weight is lifted or a tether undone. One step after another, I’m able to make my way away from the door and towards the window.

As I pass the bikes in their racks, my eyes are drawn to the empty spaces within their frames. There are things watching me through those empty spaces, millions and millions of eyes. Billions. I feel entire worlds are staring at me, every being, great and small.

The pull of the darkness makes it hard to speak. “What are you all… looking at?” The spaces within the frames are glazed over with semi-translucent film, like soap bubbles. Underneath are faces, rows upon rows of faces in all different shapes, sizes and colors. They watch me silently, unmoving save for the flaring of their nostrils. It’s the same no matter which bicycle I look at.

“Will…” It’s the man’s voice again. “Will, don’t look. Just make your way to the window.” I clench my eyes shut, and do as I am told. There’s a pain in my stomach that wasn’t there before, like a knife in my gut. Each step is another twist of the blade. I’m within six easy feet of the window at the front of the store, when I can’t help but fall to my knees and vomit.

“Oh god… it hurts…” Phlegm hangs from my nose to the puke on the floor, viscous and pink. The water separates from the chunkier stuff, and I can see reflected in it even more eyes, even more faces. These writhe and contort into ugly shapes, opening their mouths wide as if to scream.

I have to get away from these bikes. I struggle up to my feet, and stumble forward, until the cold glass of the front window is beneath my sweaty palms. The light trickling through the glass has faded to a bruised purple. There’s another rustling behind me, so close its like a whisper in my ear.

“Who’s there?” Nothing answers. All is silent. The shop looks ordinary, all the bikes neatly in their racks, the tools on their tables. The taste of vomit is still fresh in the back of my throat, my stomach churning in pain. The questions just keep piling up, like puzzle pieces from completely different pictures and no rhyme or reason to how they fit together. Did I drink too much coffee? Maybe it was something I ate. I can’t piece anything together. The pain is becoming everything.

Then I see it, a red door which wasn’t there a moment ago. The knob shines like the day’s first sunlight. It turns on its own, the door swinging into the shop, crisp outside air diffusing the stuffiness of the shop. It’s beckoning to me with a gentle timbre, the same voice that had urged me away from the dark doorway. I have to walk hunched out of the doorway. Ancient cobblestones run up and down a narrow city street. Stone buildings stand shoulder to shoulder, two to three stories tall, all of varying faded pastel colors. Gas torches sputter and spit in their black iron cages, two to each building, darkening the pastels with soot and dancing shadow.

The street is curved much like my back, the windows like dark eyes looking out onto the cobbled streets. There is a gold light down by a bend in the street, casting a warm and welcome glow on the buildings around it. I start towards it.

The street is mostly silent, save for my labored breathing and the soft pat of my feet on the stone. But whether from the pain in my stomach or something else entirely, there’s a soft humming in the back of my head, like a mantra being repeated over and over by a vast conglomeration of voices. The sound is soft and calm, but the longer it goes on, the tighter the vice around my stomach becomes. I have to prop myself up against one of the buildings, the stone a faded rose. I hold my stomach, trying to will the pain away. That’s when I feel something move beneath my hand, under the skin. The sweat on my brow turns cold, my hands tremble. Like the fin of a shark cresting ocean froth, a bump rises up from under my skin, and runs a diagonal path up my abdomen before disappearing back beneath without a trace.

“Oh my god…” Tears gather at the corners of my eyes, quickly escaping and trickling down my cheeks. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god…” I’m starting to lose it.

“Will…” The voice. It’s coming from the gold light from around the bend.

“Please,” I shout. “You have to help me.” But no one comes. Whoever is basking in that light is not coming to me, perhaps cannot come. It’s I who has to go towards it. I know there’s no other choice, for whatever is writhing around in my gut is going to tear me apart if I don’t get help.

There are other voices when I get close, the murmur of a restaurant or festival. I round the bend in the road, and find that that’s exactly what it is. Assorted men and women sit around at small cafe tables, half-full porcelain mugs and glassware dotting their surfaces. From what I can gather, the clothing of all the patrons seems somewhat antiquated, like out of a Sherlock Holmes novel, with broaches and petticoats aplenty. The faces are impossible to make out. Every time I try to look into a person’s eyes, or take in the shapes of their face, it blurs and my vision is repelled away, as if meeting a magnet with the same charge.

“Ah, Will. Looks like you’ve finally made it.” It’s the voice from before, as warm and smokey as a fireplace. He sits at a table all by himself. His tone is as familiar as a sunrise, but I still can’t place where I know it from, just as I can’t place the face, which blurs in and out of focus. He has an extraordinarily large ashtray in front of him, a pile of cigarette stubs rising up within it like a whitewashed Pyramid of Giza. I can’t make out his eyes or hair; even the skin hue oscillates between a dark ocher and that of pristine snow.

“Who are you?” I say.

“It really doesn’t matter all that much, buddy boy. I’m a whole lot of things, plus a whole lot of nothing. It all depends on how you look, I guess. Now come over here, and sit across from me. I got some things that might help you, especially with that little pain in your stomach there.”

I start towards the chair, but then a pain so severe rips into my stomach like a surgeon clumsily wielding a blunted knife. I fall to my knees, spittle hanging from one of my front teeth, swinging above the cobbles like a pendulum. “Stand up, William,” The blurry man says, his voice stern.

It’s hard to focus. I see flashes of faces, rows and rows of people like in the empty spaces of the bike frames. Their faces have devolved into feral caricatures, with snarling, gnashing teeth and froth on their lips. Orange lightning flashes above images of long bridges, extending from a nexus like spokes on a wheel. My teeth start to chatter, and my muscles throughout my entire body begin to swell with ache.

The pressure that builds in my head is like a million little hands pushing out on my skull. My mouth unhinges, and the hot froth pours out from my throat. Hot tears stream down my even hotter face. I puke once, twice. As the pain subsides a bit and I can brush the tears away, I see writhing shapes in the chunkier stuff, so small as to be almost unseen. Worms, I tell myself, parasites. Yet the figures have the requisite four limbs, hanging longly from their tiny bodies. They’re humanoid.

“Oh god, oh god, oh god…” I say. The shock has me so firmly in its grasp, that I barely notice the hands that take me up, and drag me over to the table. They sit me down in a chair made up of metal filigrees, around which the world spins, in time with the calliope music from the cafe.

“You’re okay, Will. Look at me. Come on, kid, get it together.”

“But I… I can’t see you…”

“You got to focus on the music, okay? Not that carnival music, though. The sound underneath.”

“The… music… I can’t hear it right… I can’t see you…”

“Look, there are certain disguises a guy has to take on in a place like this. ‘Cause we’re deep, Will. We’re real deep.”

“What? I don’t know what you’re… talking about. Please, you have to help me with this. There are things in me. They’re making me really sick. Please.”

“There’s nothing I can do for you, William. It’s out of my power to stop it.” The people in their petticoats and vests spin and dance around us, their faces as blurry as ever.

“To stop what?” I say.

“To stop the forces of desire, William. They’re all taking the bridges that were just built to get to you. All the whispers.” The blurred man leans closer, the color in his face staying fairly dark and immutable. “They’re building worlds inside of you.”

“Building worlds… inside of me?”

“That’s what I said, buddy boy. But they’re worlds built around a hunger of the worst kind. Insatiable desire. They’ll all consume themselves, you see. Because desire is never fully satisfied, William. No, never, never, never.”

He picks a pack up from off the table, from next to the ashtray. He shakes a cigarette from it and places it between his lips, before striking a match on his boot heel and lighting it. He takes a long drag. The exhaled smoke hangs above his head like skinny skeleton arms swimming through the air.

“I know you…” I say.

“I would hope so.” I can tell he’s smiling, can see his extra large teeth in the shifting face. A pair of sharp cheekbones seem to alternate time with frizzy muttonchops.

“Dad?” I say.

“Sh! Not so loud, Will.” He looks around at the figures dancing around us. “You’ll blow my cover. Though I think all these whispers are so desperate to get inside you, they wouldn’t notice me if I farted in their Cheerios.” He chuckles, and takes another drag on the cigarette. Typical humor for the old man, my memory tells me. It eases the pain in my gut a bit, but then I remember something.

“Dad, you’re dead,” I say.

“Well, of course I am, Will. Haven’t we been over this before, back when you were stuck in that basement, about to get eaten by that pudding-brained inbred with the overalls?”

“Pudding brain… overalls…” Flashes of scenes appear in my head, but they’re like clammy hands desperately waving above the roiling waves before being wholly consumed.

“Damn it, kid, these worlds they’re building must be knockin’ your brain around like nothing else. Come on.” He gets up, and for a moment it appears his lower face is consumed by flame. Just as quickly, the vision is gone, and he is motioning for me to follow him, his skinny arm knocking around in his baggy sweatshirt.

I get up, knocking the metal chair to the cobbles. The clang echoes in and out of the calliope tune, distorting the music into something fiendish and fake, like a music box being melted by a hair dryer. The dancing figures stop their graceful steps around the edges of my periphery, and dart away, the swish and crack of fabric like angry whispers.

“Come on, Will, we have to be quick,” Dad says, moving through the maze of tables, their shapes growing sharper and angular as I get up to move past them.

“Just stay focused on me, okay?” He says, making his way for the gold light emanating from a small hut, past all the tables. It’s a light that flickers and pulses in time with a music I hadn’t heard before. Or had I, long ago?

“It’s a beacon fire, to draw you here. If I hadn’t set it for you, you would have languished away in that bike shop, writhing on the floor in absolute misery until the hungry little whispers finally ate you from the inside out. Would have been an awful way to go, bud.”

“Sounds that way,” I say, crying out as one of the table edges catches on my leg.

“Watch, they’re wise to us now, sharpening up. The illusion is slipping, the veil is coming off. But it’s alright. It’s all going to be burned up anyway.”

“Burned up?” We enter into the small hut, and are greeted with the gold light. An extremely large effigy sits at the otherwise empty room’s center. It’s a yellow gold fire, touching every inch of space with pure light.

“It’s… beautiful,” I say. I feel better just looking at it. “There’s music in it, too.”

“Yep. They call it the Song of the Father.” He stalls, his gaze transfixed on the large flame. “A little bit of me, right there.”

“The fire?”

“Yep. ‘And the father and son spun in a great circle of green and gold.’ Do you remember ever hearing that?”

“Can’t say I have. But a lot of things are sort of cloudy right now,”

“That’s alright. You’ll remember when it’s time. But look, we’re going to set this flame loose, alright? We’re going to destroy this bridge which we’re standing on. We’re going to stop these whispers in their tracks, so no more can get inside you and build their all-consuming worlds.

“But, and look here, Will. Look at me, dammit, I know it hurts something awful, but you’ve got to stay with me, kid. Once this bridge burns, and this fake little town shows itself as the illusion it is, you and me are going to be back in someplace really, truly bad. If you think being with that Digger character was tough, that was nothing, compared to this. Hell exists, Will, and when you wake up, you’ll be smack dab in the middle of it. We’ve got to go there though. It’s the way the music is guiding us. It’s the way deeper into the spiral.”

There’s the feeling of a tree snapping in half in the lowest part of my abdomen, causing the ground to fall out from under me. “Oh god, the pain is starting again. I can’t take it anymore.”

“You’ve got to, Will. Or else that’s it. All will be lost.”

There’s a Charybdis of angry voices gyring around each other, tearing at the lining of my intestines, at the essence of my very being. They want everything, and they’ll destroy all of me to get it. I can hear these whispers, billions and billions of them, building monuments to their gods of want and insignificance. They’re all clamoring for something I can’t provide them, for superlatives without bounds. I’m being torn apart, and there’s nothing I can do.

“But there is, Will,” My father says, as if reading my mind. “You can set this bridge alight. Burn this illusion down.” There’s a hurried swish from just outside the door of the hut, as of fabric rustling about. Dad’s face is grim, the furrowed brow saying that we’re just about out of time. “The light won’t keep them out much longer, I’m afraid.”

“Show me what I have to do,” I say. He quickly grabs my hand, and pulls it towards the fire.

“No, Dad, no!” I try to pull my hand out of his grasp, but it’s surprisingly strong, an intractable vice grip. He plunges my hand into the gold flame, just as tattered clothes and long ropes start billowing around my peripheral vision, reaching for us. The flames are hot, but I can tell that my flesh is not burned in any way. In fact, there’s no pain at all, but rather a feeling of cleanliness and purity, like sand smoothed by a series of softly lapping waves. There’s something growing in my palm.

“You feel it, don’t you? Now bring your hand out, Will. But hold what you got there tight. That’s it, kid. There you go. Look what you got there. As bright as the sun it was birthed from.”

I pull my hand free from the gold light, and extending from my balled fist like a sword is a beam of hot light. The pain in my stomach retreats a bit as I wave the beam of light above and around my head, as do the rustling pieces of fabric and rope that had been crowding in behind me.

“They’re scared of it? The whispers?”

“Yes, very much so, William. That’s truth right there, the power of understanding. Illusion is no match for it.” Dad’s hard face glistens in the light from the gold flame and the beam of light in my hand. He’s crying.

“They can’t stand the purity of it, Will. The unadulterated quality of it. The light is part of a balance that doesn’t exist in this world or any other. It’s a symbol of order that negates everything these whispers are striving for. And they can’t bastardize it, no matter how hard they try. Wielding it, Will, you can turn this world to ash. You better do it soon, too.”

There’s a rumble in my stomach, as if the whispers that have infested my insides are aware of what I’m about to do. I tighten my grip on the beam of light in my hand, on the sword that my father says is made of everything, that is a weapon of balance and order. The rumble quiets. It is afraid. The world around me is bathed in music, the Song of the Father. I can feel the tables outside and their sharp, pointed edges brace for what they believe will be their ultimate demise. And they’re right.

I run forward, my hands trailing the beam of light behind me. It arcs over my head like a comet ripping across the firmament, on towards one of the metal tables in front of me. The light touches upon the filigreed metalwork, and it goes up, an eruption of gold flame that spreads like a brushfire to the adjacent tables. The buildings, even the cobblestones all go up in flames.

Cobblestones, I think. What an odd thing to catch fire. My surprise makes me hesitate a moment, and before I can react, a long, tattered piece of fabric comes over my head, and is pulled tight, like a hood. The air is musty and old beneath the fabric, and it muffles all the sound from the outside. I can hear my father yelling, but what he’s saying is lost.

“I want to rule… I want to crush them beneath my toes…” A raspy voice whispers. It sounds like the voices from the desert, from the holes that grew in the sand. I can feel ropes or cords wrapping around my entire body, tightening the fabric in place. The glow from the light beam in my hand is fading, and the pain that had overwhelmed me from before returns, tearing into my stomach with a newfound enthusiasm.

Then I hear my father. “Dibayanda Do,” He says. The words resonate within my ears like a steeple bell.

“Dibayanda Do,” I repeat, and it’s like digging up a forgotten treasure from under brown silt and sand. They’re words that connect everything, the refrain in the music. I can feel a surge in my hand, a strengthening of the light beam.

“Dibayanda Do,” I say again, and the musty cape blows to tatters, as the light from the sword explodes outward. The pain has gone. Everything around me is covered in gold fire. By my feet lies a frail creature, its face like a mule’s. The teeth are razor sharp, its off-centered eyes opaque. Its breaths are shallow, and its skin charred black.

“I… I…” It says, pink froth on its cracked lips. Then it sighs, a last breath, before the fire consumes it.

“Will, you’re almost done here,” My father says, coming up behind me and placing a hand on my shoulder. “Take care of the rest of the buildings. Then this place will be done with, and the illusion will slip away. But what comes next, huh, well,” He coughs and shakes his head. “It’ll be hell, that’s for sure.”

I nod, before rushing forward, towards the pastel colored buildings, their soft angles having shifted into sharper shapes. The torches on their walls are belching shadow, angry at the sword of light lifted high above my head. Once I cut through them, they quickly burn to nothing, revealing empty black space beyond, as if they were nothing more than a Potemkin village. All that is left are the cobbles I stand upon, themselves almost nothing more than black ash, the warm flame tongues licking around my legs. From the darkness comes a wind, not so much cold as empty, plumbing goosebumps up from the depths of my skin with a beckoning sigh.

“Be strong, Will,” Dad says, but he’s gone. There’s only me and the light in my hand. The gold flame has died down to the height of freshly cut grass, then dies, with nothing more for it to consume. There’s only black space around me, and the empty wind. It carries with it threats and curses from whispers with nowhere else to go.

“Dad,” I say, but he’s gone. There is only waiting for something to shift, for something to change…

 

“Enough!” Bart shouts, startling me awake. The void I was standing in was nothing more than the black behind my eyelids. My breath expires in wispy little clouds, quickly becoming hexagonal crystals in the cold air. The room is as cavernous as a cathedral. Dusty snow motes flurry through dull blue light beams, which cut through the dark space from unknown windows high up in the eaves.

“So, you’re awake.” Bart says from somewhere unseen. I can’t see him, it’s too dark. My head is bound down by leather straps pulled tightly across my chin and forehead. I can’t move my arms or legs either. They’re pulled tight, my wrists and ankles lashed to the floor by chafing ropes. My face feels hot, especially the gash on my cheek from where the Digger hit me with his shovel. A draft comes up through the loosely joined floor boards.

“Nah, please, don’t get up.” Bart has a deep, syrupy drawl. He’s taunting me. “Now why’d you have to go and burn it all down like that? What, you didn’t like the little ol’ bike shop I made for you? I tried to get the details just right. Just like back in ol’ New York City. If you wanted customers, all you had to do was ask. Still, you’d never have noticed if your old man hadn’t come along, I can tell you that.”

I hear a rattling of chains, followed by the dull thwack of meat on meat. “That’s for me being reminded of how sneaky you are, Daddio!” Bart’s cursing under his labored breath.

“Please, no…” Dad grunts under each blow he’s given.

“Dad!”

“Will, it’s alright. I’m_” The words are punched back into his mouth, the room echoing with the dull sound of knuckles on teeth.

“Shut your stink hole, old man! You already caused enough of a ruckus as it is. Jesus H. Christmas. Look, I’m the new head honcho in Golgotha, you hear me? You can’t be just sneaking over bridges like that. Now stay quiet in your cage, and we won’t have any more problems. Alright, Daddio?”

There’s a sound to the opposite side of Bart and my father. I can’t see, but it sounds like several people shaking the bars on another cage. “And you, goddammit all, you have way too much hutzpah for a lady without a head!” There’s another series of dull whacks until the shaking cage goes quiet.

“There we go.” Bart steps into the low blue light, his fat face covered in glowing symbols, all of them carved deep into his skin. He’s double the size he was before, if not triple. His teeth shine like yellow sponge at the bottom of a phosphorescent ocean bed. “How you feeling?”

“I… it hurts… please let me go…” There’s a pain in my stomach like before, when I was with my father in the courtyard. It’s a dream that I can barely remember.

“You have to hold on to the dreams, Will_”

“Shut up, old man!” Bart’s eyes bulge out of his head, and his face takes on a terrible grimace. “Don’t make me smack you around again.” He turns back to me, smiling again. “It hurts, does it? Well, a’int no surprise there. Right, daddio? You told ‘em everything that’s been goin’ on in his gut. He knows what’s tearin’ all his insides to tater tots.” He leans in close to me, so close I can feel his greasy stubble, can taste the ancient nicotine and rot on his breath.

“He told you all about them whispers, did he? You gotta understand, now, Willy. They be a mighty hungry bunch, and you, yes, you, you got a whole lotta stuff for them to eat up. So much so, their hunger might be satisfied for a time.”

“But… why? Why me?”

“Why? Well, a’int that the magic little question. You want to know what keeps all these whispers stuck here? They can’t perceive. You understand, Willy? They don’t got no powers of perception. Without that, they can’t make any worlds of their own. They go through their miserable existences just wanting, and desiring. That’s what this place is all about. Un-quench-en-ab-le desire.”

“I don’t… I don’t understand…”

“I know you don’t. And quite frankly, I want to keep it that way. I want you to sleep, and let me do what I got to do up here. See, I might be able to take some of that pain away. And then it won’t be so bad, will it? I’ll keep you alive as long I can. Dark arts, from the chaos outside the spiral. And you just dream. Come on now, that won’t be so bad. Go on, sleep Willy.”

The tears begin to well in my eyes. I just want to see my father one last time. I want to say goodbye.

“It’s not goodbye, Will_”

“I said shut up!” Bart darts back into the darkness. My father’s metal cage shrieks as its ripped down and tossed away. I hear it bounce and roll far away. Bart steps back into the blue light.

“Now where was I.”

“Dibayanda Do.”

Bart starts breathing hard. The veins on his neck look ready to burst. “What the hell did I_” The room is suddenly awash with an explosive bloom of white gold light. There’s the smack of flesh, then Bart is screaming, “What have you done?!”

I struggle at the leashes around my head, trying to see. The light has dimmed, reduced to a point in the room. I can just barely make it out: it’s the sword of light that I pulled from the gold fire. My father is holding it. The blue light gives his shirtless torso a vermillion hue, the freckles on his shoulders like sunspots on a dying sun. He was swimming in his sweatshirt when last I saw him in the courtyard, though it was hard to tell with how blurry his whole person was. His muscles have returned, the sinewy knots tightly wrapped around his bones. It’s how I remember him before he was sick. Whenever I’d fall as a child, he’d pick me up with his calloused hands and carry me.

He comes over and starts to cut my ties away. “It’s okay, Will. I’m here.” It’s the voice of a man who has smoked cigarettes since he was thirteen years old.

Bart’s down on his knees, shrunk to the size he was when he was a mere gas station attendant in Grady. He holds the stump of his right arm, black blood pouring out and through the slats in the floorboards. “What have you done…”

“Come on, we’re almost out of this. You’ve just got to stay strong for me, alright?”

“Now, now, a’int that a touchin‘ sight.” Bart’s voice has no trace of pain in it, only smugness. He stands, and from where my father cut off his forearm, a new one has grown, as white as a dishpan hand. “A real tearjerker, that is, boys. Now look, here’s what I’m going to do. First, I’m going to kill you Daddio. Then, I’m tying you, Willy, back to the floor, and you’re going to sleep. What do you think about them apples?” Bart runs towards us. His ham-hock hand is thrown back, in a balled fist.

Dad’s quick. He parries Bart’s fist with one motion, grabbing the fat man’s wrist with one hand and launching him over his shoulder. He tries to bring the sword up and through Bart’s chest, but the naked man dodges it. Bart rolls when he hits the floor, into darkness. His laughter echoes around the huge room. “You’re in deep shit now, boys.” His oily drawl comes at us from all directions.

“Where’d he go?” Dad waves the sword around so that it shines like a spotlight around the cavernous room. We don’t see any sign of Bart. Above us, the headless suit of armor rattle the bars on its cage with its six arms. As if in answer, shapes start rustling around in the blackness, the familiar sound of fabric snapping in the air. “Whispers,” Dad says. He jumps up and quickly cuts at the bars of the other cage. The armor comes tumbling down, crashing atop the runes I had been laying in the middle of just a moment before.

“We’re leaving this place, fat man,” Dad says.

“Oh?” Dust falls as Bart’s laughter echoes through the room. “I don’t think that’s going to happen, Daddio. You gotta understand, now, it’s not me. It’s them. They don’t want Willy to leave just yet. They really like him.” The shapes in the dark shuffle closer, their fluttering capes like huffy giggles. All at once, the pain returns, so hard I fall to the ground.

“Will, you have to follow Mag_ Ack!” Dad is cut short as a brood of caped beings fly from the shadows and wrestle him to the ground. The sword flies out of his hand, it’s shining blade sliding across the slatted floorboards towards my feet. There are so many of them, piling on top of each other like flies on a carcass. Their faces are all asymmetrical and beastly, with hot, cutting teeth and white eyes.

“Magdala… Will…help…” I stagger towards him, but I can’t move far because of the pain. It’s Magdala, the headless suit of armor, who rushes forward. She barrels into the throng of whispers, pulling as many of them off of my father as she can. Her presence acts as a catalyst for violence, agitating the throbbing mass of capes into a total frenzy. The sword is so close. I reach out a trembling hand, and grasp its hilt.

“Aw, no,” I hear Bart whisper. A blanket of silence settles over the room. The whispers turn their hunched bodies towards me, confusion and uncertainty plastered on their mule faces. I can see my father’s face from underneath their capes, blood and bruises in the gristle on his chin. He’s smiling. I look at the sword, which is softly vibrating in my hand. The light emanating from the blade is humming at me, singing in a harmony that seems to span an infinite range of octaves. It’s singing to me, for me. I know this song, have known it for a long, long time.

“Will!” Dad’s shout carries above the song. I feel a coldness on my back, like a sigh from the mouth of sadness and despair. I arch the sword through the air, at Bart, who is descending upon me from the eaves above. Even before the blade touches him, his body is repelled by the light, twisting it into a misshapen assortment of limbs and body parts. Once the sword cuts through his flesh, the room lights up with a blinding flash. When it settles, there’s Bart, struck down on the ground, his chest cut open, his eyes winced shut in pain.

“Damn you…” He moans. His body dissipates with a bang. It’s the signal for the whispers, the pistol shot, the dropped hat. They all scramble off my father and run towards me. The sword moves quickly in my hand, gracefully. Each beastly faced apparition gets a taste of the blade, falling with black blood gurgling from their wounds. I pull the sword from the last of the whispers, its body slumping to the floorboards. Magdala is helping my father up, but her body is tense, and she is trying to move quickly.

“Will, you have to get out of here,” He says. “You have to go with Magdala. She’ll take you where you need to go. Hopefully you can find a bridge out of here quick enough.” His body is bruised and hurt. He looks like a warrior whose sun has finally set, a man whose path through life has been violently carved out of stone.

“What do you mean? You’re not coming?”

Dad laughs, his gums so prominent and pink. “I can’t, Will.”

There’s a rumble from below us, and the building starts to shake. “What do you mean you can’t?”

“What I mean, is that I can’t leave here. This is my world, Will, the reality I inhabit. My own personal hell. I’m the keeper of this twisted place.”

“You? How? We were both trapped here.”

“Look, Bart just took advantage of a situation. He’s a manifestation of will, bud. The desire that all these beings possess, the desire that I have, too. All I wanted was my son, buddy boy. I wanted you. But with things as they are, it’s simply impossible to have my wishes fulfilled. Bart is the redeemer for all these whispers, Will. He was called here from the chaos by their insatiable hunger. He dragged me out of the dark room that you visited me in before. Remember?” I think back to the long hallway, the wood-stove burning like a far off sun in the cold depths of space.

“My own personal hell. He dragged me from it, put me in that cage. But those words you muttered when that giant mouth dragged you away from Phyrxian, what you also said when we were surrounded by the whispers in that creepy little courtyard…”

“Dibayanda Do,” I say, and he smiles, bright pinpricks of light coming to life in the depths of his eyes.

“Yes, yes, you remember. It’s how it all begins. It’s how it all ends. It’s the key that will help you unlock the next door you’ll find, the way out of this place. You got to go, because Bart’s getting a second wind. He’ll be up here with more whispers soon enough.”

“Dad,” I say, going to him. He hugs me close, the floorboards groaning beneath us, the entire room shaking. Dust rains on our heads, mixing with the hot tears on my cheek.

He runs his rough hands through my hair, and whispers, “Go, Will. You’ve still a long way ahead of you.” He kisses my head, and then pushes me into Magdala’s waiting arms. She grasps me tightly, holding me to her as she runs for the far wall. She holds out one of her hands, signaling for the sword. I give it to her without even thinking. There’s a stampede of footsteps coming up from below. My eyes are plastered to the shape of my father, who crouches low with his muscles taut, awaiting what’s about to burst into the room. The sound of serrated voices echo off the chambered hall, angry, desperate voices.

“Dad, please, you don’t have to do this! Please, Dad, come with us! Dad!” I start fighting against Magdala’s grip, but she’s too strong. The wall of stone, plywood and sheetrock is coming close, and through its cracks, I can see a silvery light, like moonlight on a spider’s web. That same song I heard while holding the sword can be heard through the wall, faintly.

“Get going down the bridge, Magdala,” Dad shouts. “Find Kokole. Once you’re well on your way, I’ll burn it. I’ll burn this whole place down.” The darkness above the stairwell begins to glow with a dark red, pulsing like red lightning in a thunderhead. A shape starts to coalesce, black clouds on a desert plain. Within the billowing shape is the crude shape of an anguished face.

“The boy is mine,” The cloud says. It’s Bart.

The whispers burst onto the scene all at once, like a throng of starved cockroaches bound for fresh excrement. Their mouths are gnashing, their capes lashing.

“I want to eat him,” They say.

“I want to tear him up.”

“I want his sweet little pauper bones.”

The wall looms up, and Magdala throws all her weight into it. She’s meaning to crash through it. She tucks me in close to her chest, as the plaster gives way underneath her armor. The breath is sucked out of me as the ground leaves us, and we’re falling through the air. We’re scraping the cold clouds we’re so high up. I look back, and the last sight of my father is him charging into the throng of tattered capes and cords, his body glowing in the silvery light, Bart’s dark cloud descending on top of him.

But I quickly lose sight of them, as we continue to fall. The ground is rushing up to meet us so quickly that I have no time to think about loss, about my father and my sadness at having it all come to this. There is only the packed snow below, and the cold air whipping past my ears.

Magdala points her sword towards the ground, out of which streams a beam of light. She squeezes me hard, as if urging me on to do something. My mind is one big panorama of snow and bent metal buildings, a mach speed kaleidoscope.

“I’ll see you again, Will,” Dad says, his voice so low that only I can hear it, like a drip of water at the base of my skull. It’s like there’s an underground cavern in my head, dark, with a deep pool of water. There’s an island in the middle, on which my father sits, a cigarette softly glowing between his fingers. He smiles, knowing I see him. His lips move, without a sound. But the shapes they make, the intake of breath, the way his chapped lips form around his teeth, I know what he’s saying. The beginning, and the end.

“Dibayanda Do,” I say, and the music takes me.

 

 

The adventure continues in part two: Pyronic Technique.


Bridge Burner Hyperion

At the center of time and space, there is a spiral. Two diametrically opposed gods, Helios and Hyperion, in a perpetual chase with each other, their spin the power that makes possible the existence of all the worlds in the Framework. But what happens when the spiral is torn asunder? At the edge of the framework, a young bike mechanic is lost in the desert. It will fall on him to put the spiral back together again, to journey to the center of all things and figure out how to reunite Helios and Hyperion. But how is one man going to be able to stand against the forces of chaos and darkness, particularly when said forces want nothing more than to keep the spiral broken apart?

  • Author: Jared Rinaldi
  • Published: 2015-09-14 18:40:16
  • Words: 101622
Bridge Burner Hyperion Bridge Burner Hyperion