The Memory of Bones

Death waited patiently, a stone at the bottom of the sea. The when did not matter to Os. Only the where. He stared out the window set above the kitchen basin, hands wrist-deep in water he’d drawn from the well and warmed in a kettle. The few dishes he owned soaked in the steaming water, forgotten for the moment. Beyond the window, a green field interweaved with white and yellow waved in a gentle breeze. Heads of baby’s breath and wildflower nodded as if in agreement to the whisper of the wind. Beyond that, rolling hills, the river running to the sea, and cities, cities of wood and stone and now, silence.

He looked down at the water, at his own reflection in broken circles rippling out with the movement of his hands. Craggy features, dark circles under the eyes, hair shorn close. He had never been a handsome man, not that it mattered. But he’d had a family, and that did. They were dead now, like everyone else. He looked down again, and pulled his hands from the water, shaking them off, then drying them on a nearby rag. He gave the plates beneath a scowl. He wasn’t sure why he still did this. No one would visit. No one would peek in through a window and remark to their neighbor on Os’ cleanliness.

Os stared through the open window for a minute more. He listened to his own breathing in the silence. Most days were like that now. A preternatural stillness that cloaked the world like a blanket. On good days, the wind stirred the leaves and the rushes and lent a lifelike ripple around him. On bad, it seemed the quiet crept inside Os, like a wedge in a stump, splitting his skull open from the inside. He’d tried to fill that absence, once. But he could only sing the same songs, talk to himself for so long before he felt it futile. Now, despite the silence, the idea of using his voice frightened him, as if the sound would do the inverse of his fear, and split the outside world.

He took one more deep breath, and with its exhale, made a decision. It was a thought that weighed on him daily, a question without an answer. Another voice in his head, a song he caught only when he turned this way or that. Music from another room. He turned from the open window and walked through the house, fingers lingering on objects as he passed. Luc’s pitcher of dried wildflowers, the petals withered and sere. He heard voices echo in the caverns of time. He smiled at the memory.

“Why?” he’d asked.

“The smells,” Luc had replied.

“What smells?”

Luc gestured in vague circles that took in their home. “The smells. The onion and the sausage and the-” he pointed at Os’ boots. “Those.”

Os held his hands up in a gesture of defeat. “Fine. Fine.”

The memory faded and Os looked down at the pitcher again. He remembered how they’d not kept the stink of rot from his doorstep, and shook his head. He walked past, into the front room. El’s toy, a carved lion, lay on its side on the floor. He knelt and picked it up. In his mind, the light shifted, bright through yellow curtains.

“She needs a toy,” Luc had said.

The child they’d taken in played on the floor, two rocks tied with bright string in her fists, making voices for each that approximated his and Luc’s. Os knelt beside her.

“El.”

She looked up, smiling, and reached for his cheeks. He chuckled and lifted her, cradling her and tickling her ribs. She burst out in laughter that hit the walls and came back to him like a wave of joy.

“Seems she has a toy already,” Os said.

Luc fixed him with his no-budge stare. “A toy, Os. Or I will find her a cat.”

“A cat?” Os made a face.

The sunlight faded, back to the hazy light he’d grown used to. He straightened, leaving the toy on its side. It only cost him a few pennies to commission, but El delighted in it. He stared around the room, at the overstuffed couch, the end tables, the books and the blankets. Os walked to an alcove beside the front door and rummaged around for a minute. His fingers closed on a scabbard, withdrawing the long knife. His chest tightened, and then he tied it to his belt. He knew he wouldn’t need it for but one purpose. He opened the door to the summer day and stepped out.

*

The wind was clean, a small miracle Os found himself grateful for. In the early days after the Chant, bodies rotted in the sun, in their homes, in the fields. The Chant. Os found himself cursing the magi who dreamed it up. An end to war. An end to strife. What they forgot in their working was that life needed to struggle, to fight against entropy, to survive. When they cast it, it broke that will. Men and women, bird and beast simply laid down, and stopped living.

Some, like Os, survived. Either their will overpowered the magic, or they were one of the rare immune. But inevitably, the loneliness caught up to them, and they went the way of friends and family. Blade or poison or rope or the opening of veins, the method mattered not, only the result. Some banded together, survivors clinging to survivors like clotted blood. In the end though, they all fell. Memory and emotion were powerful drugs, and under their influence, even the strongest could break into a shambles.

The path crunched beneath his boots, breaking the silence into mercifully small parcels. Glimpses of white flashed between the grasses, and Os turned his head, facing down the path. Had there still been birds, he imagined his passage would have disturbed their pickings. Instead, bone and cloth bundles lay undisturbed in the long grasses of the fields, tools rusting in fallow soil. The glint of sun on steel drew his gaze, and he flicked a glance over to an abandoned plow, harness and leads drooping. The sight drew out the memory of Onder’s pride in the tool.

“Twice as many acres in half the time,” Onder had said.

“Yeah?” Os replied. “Anneia will be happy to hear that, I expect.”

Onder bobbed his head. He wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead with a rag stained white at the edges with salt. “Aye, she’s been wanting more time.”

Os thought of Luc and El with a twinge of guilt. His pension was plenty for them live on. It kept them fed, kept the roof over their head. Time spent with family was valuable coin, coin he had to spare in those days. He thought it would last, like coffers spilling over with gold. He’d had all he needed. At least, he’d thought. The memory faded, and Os glanced behind him. The roof of his cottage peeked from behind the crest of a hill. Orange tiles reflected the sun like a knife meant for his heart but striking his eyes. He blinked away the glare and the moisture that threatened to spill the cup of his eyelids, then hitched his belt and moved on.

The cottage and the plow disappeared from view as Os made his way down the country road. The grasses grew taller, and by the time his path crossed that of the Imperium Way, they waved above his head like dying arms reaching for the memory of light. Summers past, they never would have been allowed to grow so unruly, the Imperium stoic in its pursuit of order, slow and implacable. The will of man over that of nature. Mow and tame. Mow and tame. He supposed in a way, the engineers would be pleased. Not even the buzz of gnat, cry of crow, or rustle of field mouse marred the summer day.

Os wove his way between carts and wagons littering the road. Great skeletons still wore their harnesses, feet folded neatly beneath them, heads in restful repose. Drivers laid in the grass nearby, whips and crops and reins forgotten on wooden benches. He didn’t stop to look inside, ignored the human tug of curiosity brought on by canvas covering and folded curtain. He knew he’d only see that which already haunted him across the years. The wreckage of stolen lives held as much interest for him as the taste of blood in his mouth. Coppery and slick, like a penny hidden under the tongue.

The frame of a schoolhouse rose to his right, and unbidden, the image of El, sweeping from its doors as the bell in the steeple rang. Luc snapping her up in his long slender arms, spinning, their laughter filling the air. Her smile, bright as a summer tulip, blazed in Os’ mind. His limbs trembled, his legs threatened to spill him to his knees. His vision doubled, and for a moment, he nearly let it happen. The thought of hard gravel digging into his skin, drawing blood, drawing perhaps shame or anger at his loss of control was welcome, if only briefly. He dashed the tears from his eyes with determined fingers, forced himself to move on. If he felt something other than the need to see an end to this, to meet his grief head on instead of at oblique angles, he might find himself in the grass and dirt instead.

Os made good time as he pushed his feelings down, parceling them up on a shelf in his mind. He would open them when ready, a gift he didn’t particularly want, but could not avoid. Ahead, the path diverged. Forward and down, the city in the valley. A necropolis now, but once it teemed with life. Great bazaars once flowed in the streets, living things of men and women, children shouting and running, streamers on sticks flying behind them as they wove between legs like foxes in a forest. Bright bunting and banners flew overhead, the stink of forge and tanner, smells of roast meat and vegetable and savory spice weaving between and infusing cloth like dye. Bread and sweetbreads baking, the aroma like the comfort of a warm blanket. Over it all, the press and swell and crush and scent of humanity, of bodies warm and joyous, sad and broken, bright flowers pushing their way between the cracked flagstones of the city.

It was where Os had taken his commission, to fight for the glory of the empire, though if he was truthful, it was to put food in his mouth and clothes on his back. A first step on a long road paved with blood and bone and sweat. He’d lived by the blade, but with all things, steel remained strong through the slow march of years while flesh faded. He hung up his blade, took his pension. For a while, he was content alone in that cottage in the hills. For a time, the call of cricket and sparrow and the song of wind through the wheat was enough to calm the ceaseless crash of body and metal in his head, to the slow the impetus of horror thrust into his youth like a knife in the ribs.

Then he’d heard Luc’s laughter in a tavern, bright and silver, brown eyes dancing with mirth. Not long after, he’d heard El’s, gold like her hair, heavy and rich, when Luc had coaxed her from an alley with a morsel of food and a coin danced across his knuckles. But even time tarnishes silver and gold, and only the memory of their bright shine remains.

Os found himself on the left-hand path. Already he had climbed halfway as memory played through his head. For a time, he listened to the wind brush against the slope of the rock like an insistent lover. He imagined he heard whispered promises in the susurrus, and shook his head to clear it. He’d heard the Chant described that way once, a whisper of a song, the tease of a memory of something better, brighter than this life of mud and misery. Briefly he wondered if he heard it now. Would he know? Did it matter?

He crested the rise and stepped to the edge of the promontory of rock. Below, a still world. A lover holding its breath. A wave poised at its crest. He saw to the reaches of the land. Tall grasses of the plains, a sparkling rill of silver cutting through green and gold like a steel ribbon. The skeletons of airships furrowed the grass like rocks thrown by a petulant child, their magics stilled, their crew silent. Beyond that, the forest, the wolves voiceless, and beyond the forest, something between both until the land ran to the sea, a sliver of blue that snapped at the horizon like a hungry dog.

Os used to bring them here, Luc standing fearlessly at the edge, El behind his legs, clutching at the fabric. The wind blew, tousling hair and clothing, and Os lifted El so she could spread her arms, pretend she was flying, eyes bright with fear and joy at the prospect of soaring into a great blue nothing like the ships that drifted above.

An illusion. In the end, no one had flown. The Chant had taken them some time ago, leaving only bones in their place. Bones that had forgotten the trick of speech, the sound of laughter, forgotten the spell of flesh and warmth. Bones hold memories, but only for the living, Os thought.

He unbuckled the knife, drew it from the scabbard. The steel shone in the afternoon light. He pressed the blade into a fissure in the rock, letting it stand upright like a standard. In the end, steel always outlived flesh. He stepped to the edge and stood on tiptoes, then spread his arms as El once had. With a sigh that spoke of an exhaustion borne of a burden he had been given but never bought, he closed his eyes. The wind sang to him, and for a moment, he heard the bright chime of silver and gold.

The Goblin King

Here’s a story I played with a bit, and sent on submission to feel out the waters. I did a couple of things I never do here, which was play with purple prose and perspective. It didn’t find a home, but I enjoyed writing it since I had Jareth in my head after just having watched Labyrinth.

 

The Goblin King

 

The goblin king sat atop an outcrop of stone perched on a hill, his narrow blade planted point-first in the earth between his booted feet, the edge dripping crimson. Carrion birds wheeled and called above him, a cacophony of misery echoing from ribbed throats, an eyeball pierced on the end of a gore-encrusted beak, its optic nerve fluttering in the breeze with the flap of ebon wings. Arrayed around him, the remains of a once-grand army as though a whirlwind had swept through their ranks, bodies broken, severed, exsanguinated.

He held his head as one who has suffered a loss, as one who has come to the end of a long road of exhaustion, and there, found only more road. He did not weep though the ground doubled and trebled before him and the carmine drops on his blade blurred to the point of blossoming into petals.

And yet, and yet, the sound of footfalls, of a light step avoiding rigid steel and limp flesh. Of breath held to keep out the scents of offal and shit and the coppery tang of blood spilled by the liter, by the gallon, by the barrel. The rasp of breath sucked in, the stifled cry as vision met the cloudy eyes of the dead and saw only the uncertainty of an eternity not promised. Then, the end of the approach. A stillness in the air, the screaming quiet of anticipation as the visitor screwed up his courage to speak.

“Speak,” the king commanded, for command was his province, the land he had always known.

The voice atop the blackened boots, boots that had seen summers and winters in the ash of many a hearth, perhaps with quill and parchment, perhaps while tending a pot, spoke, low and hesitant, a thing from the underbrush that fears the sun.

“H… How?”

The goblin king gestured to a stone similar to the one he sat on, and the stranger settled, not comfortably, but as comfortably as one can afford when perched on granite and faced with an embodied force of nature. When he had settled, the king looked up and regarded the man. Plain face, a dusting of whiskers across a straight jaw. Thick nose, bright eyes that shone with, if not intelligence, curiosity.

“I would ask you the same,” the king replied. “How is it you’ve survived…” he gestured to the surrounding carnage. An indication. An indictment.

The man shrugged. “I wasn’t here. I saw it though. The light. Heard it. The sound.”

The goblin king nodded and shifted on his stone. “Then, let me ask – are you mad?”

“How do you mean?”

“You saw what happened here and decided to investigate?”

“I’m a curious sort. Besides, it seemed to be over.” He looked around, though not at the dead. Instead his gaze sought the abstract. The silence in the aftermath. “Was I wrong?”

The king shook his head and looked up, past the avian storm that gathered. The sun still stood high, a vast unblinking eye. He addressed the man.

“I have time.”

“For?”

“Questions. You have curiosity, no? Let me sate it.”

“And then?”

The king shrugged. “We shall see.”

The man nodded and pulled a case from his side, unrolling a sheaf of parchment, tipping free an inkpot and a quill. He looked around, and with a demeanor that practically vibrated with unease, pulled a board shield from under a dead man, the body squelching with movement. He grimaced, and then moved quicker, needing to distance himself. He stretched the parchment out and laid it across the board, then dipped the quill and glanced up at the king.

“Tell me a story.”

“What kind of story?”

“Yours.”

“Why?”

“People will want to read it. To know you. To know this.”

The king sighed and tilted his head back, trying to remember. Memory floated at the edge, vagaries, a chiaroscuro of thought. He tilted his head back, gaze rolling down his nose at the scribe like water off a hill. Quizzical, concerned. The emotions roiled and mingled, dripping from his lips.

“Do you remember your mother?”

The scribe blinked, confusion writ on his face plain as the ink on his fingertips. “Yes, a stout woman. Severe at times. Then, who wouldn’t be, with muddy boots on rushes, six children, and a gruff husband. She was a wonderful cook. Sweetbreads, stew…” he trailed off.

“Interesting. I remember nothing. Well, not nothing. Perhaps… I don’t know that she was ever there in the traditional sense. Nor that she was stern. But I have mementos of her. The scent of bog peat in the summer. The whine of gnats in heat. The green throat of bull rushes pulling toward one another, reeds rubbing, chirping a symphony to the creak and croak of toad and frog.”

The scribe frowned even as his quill nib scratched against the parchment. Scritch scritch scritch. The utterance of print, the lexicon of language, each moment measured in quarts and distance. He thought about that thought, and decided if he had tried to write something worse, he couldn’t. This was it. Purple prose shitting itself against the wall, letting the words drip down like fly-ridden effluvia. He grunted once and scribbled, letting the ink blot out the words, obliterate the ephemeral bullshit. He could do better. He began again.

His mother was a swamp.

Fuck no. Another blot. This one nearly tearing the paper. He looked up apologetically, then motioned for the king to continue.

“My father? Very well. My father. Dry. Distant. Harsh. Hot. Rough. A hundred, a thousand adjectives, all too small or too large to fit him. Too wrong, and yet almost right.”

Better, the scribe thought. Filter out the frippery. He thought back to the beginning, thinking he would need to revise. He kept writing, the quill a small blur. He raised his free hand and spun his fingers, insisting the king go on, insisting on the continuance of story, the uninterrupted flow of idea.

“My childhood?” The king harrumphed, a sound of discontent. “What of yours?”

The scribe looked up, blinked. “I spent the majority of my early days weeding plots and cutting thatch. Sometimes, when the harvest finished, grain stacked and milled, and it was too soon to hang meat to dry, I played with the farm dogs, sometimes ran to the market and spent what few coins I had on paper and charcoal. My father nearly took my head off when he found them. He’d taught us letters, but not that they were much use beyond knowing how to read the proclamations and keep our heads down. He was determined to have more thatchers, more herds, more row workers. I was not.”

The king nodded, the great white mane of his hair bobbing. “I played. In caves and trees, in stone labyrinth and mossed battlefield. It wasn’t for lack of work, but lack of guidance. It was there I learned my first scraps of sorcery – how to bleed a man from his pores, how to twist his bones so he looked like a dog when viewed in the right light. How to chase the small dragonflies when they came near, and the way their thoraxes crunched under your molars.”

He leaned closer, the hilt of his blade tipping to one side, coming to rest against his thigh. “Do you wonder, dear man, how you and I diverged so?”

The scribe shrugged. “The fae are what they are.”

The king waved it away. “A useless tautology. I assumed a man of words would know better. We diverged because we wished it so. Would you have the strength to survive in my world? A wildling even among wild things? I would have withered in your world. Survived, yes, but never lived. You make your own reality, scribe.”

“You’re suggesting I wanted to be… normal?”

The king shrugged. “I’m suggesting you survived. Whether you lived or not is of your own mind to make up.”

“Interesting.” The scribe took a breath and frowned at the words he’d written. Clearer, cleaner. The king’s words stuck with him. Had he lived? Would he have touched magic and brought it into his breast in lieu of meat or love? He shrugged, muscle playing with its own landscape, and put quill to parchment.

“How did you become king?”

“How does anyone become king? Deceit, divine right, and inbreeding.”

The scribe raised an eyebrow, giving the king a look that said perhaps you’ve shared too much. For his part, he had moved on, head tilted toward the sun, perhaps gauging the time, perhaps trying to remember something once important, but now relegated to insignificance in the face of time.

“We have little time left. You may ask me one more,” he said.

The look in his eyes was predatory, the glint of light in the pupils like that of a hawk ready to strike, anticipation a hooked talon. The scribe screwed up his face, chewed on the tip of the quill. It had to be good. Lachlan’s press would pay by the word for the account of the stranger who had laid waste to Renfen’s entire army.

The scribe looked around, at the bodies that had begun to bloat in the sun, fat toadstools of flesh putrefying, ready to spill their red and glistening spoor. His gorge rose, a thick tide of boiled oats and greasy sausage, and he choked it back, looking away. How does someone do this? He glanced again, just from the corner of his eye, the look of a man who has seen a dangerous thought, and wonders if he looks at it full, would it cut his mind? Would it hollow his thoughts and lay him out in the sun with all these others, gibbering, until the grave-diggers came and found him playing with himself in the blood-dewed grass?

His eyes flicked back to the king, to the perfectly coiffed hair, the perfect vest and leggings, the codpiece that exaggerated more than just words. The king quirked a smile at the scribe as he caught him looking, and the scribe blushed. How?

No, the voice in his head answered, that part that when looking over the words later, corrected the incorrect, no. Why?

“Why?” The scribe echoed the word, letting it tumble from his lips in place of the vomit, and the king smiled this time.

“Finally, the heart of the matter. The marrow of the bone. Why.” He sat back, and the blade slipped to the ground, unnoticed. “Because. Because I can.”

“Surely there’s more?”

“Does there have to be?”

“For a sane man, for a man who wants to make sense of the words written here, of the world he describe, yes.”

“Then write this: there was a girl. Or maybe a boy. A promise. A lie. There was a death, and vengeance. There was a love unrequited. There was a dragon, and a sorcerer, and a crone. There was a fairy and a goblin, one pure, one corrupt. There was a labyrinth and a child. There was a battle. A kingdom lost, and an empire found. I was a king. I am a king. And I will do what I gods. Damn. Well. Please.”

While he spoke, dread wormed its way into the scribe’s heart, moving deeper and deeper until it sat entrenched like a barbed arrow. His eyes darted to the goblin king’s blade, and as every dismissal dripped from his lips, he forgot to write, forgot to put down the truth he saw. These were the words of a tyrant. He leaned forward, the king seemingly forgetting him in his rant. His fingers trembled, his arm ached, and then, the sword was in his hand, the grip both cool and gritty with dried blood and sand.

He raised the blade, intending to stab it into the king’s heart, to end the coming horror. Words tumbled from his lips, a short squall in the blazing heat of the king’s conviction.

“You’re mad. Madder than any who came before. A coming terror.”

And then the king stood above him, hand outstretched, and he saw the truth. Reality is what you make it, and the king had made his own. No simple warrior stood before the scribe, but a being that encompassed all things and rejected his. Neither and both. Terrible and frightening, powerful and irresistible. The scribe trembled, and the tip of the blade faltered, dipped, dipped… and ended in the dirt. The king took the blade from him, not ungently. He knelt next to the scribe, whose eyes had filled with tears. He spoke soft, his voice honeyed mead in the scribe’s ears.

“You can call me mad, a terror. I suppose those are true things in a way. Mercy for those who need it may seem like madness from the outside to those who do not desire succor. But I have sat to the side for so, so many years while men ground others to dirt, while they subjugated others at a whim, for money, for the color of their skin, for the way they speak, or the things they worship. You have letters and fine food and the strength of conviction. You have absolute conviction that what you do in the now is right, and yet cannot see past the horizon.

And yes, I provide mercy. I feel the question trembling on your lips. I relieve you of your burdens, of your convictions. I bring you the clarity of freedom.

You can write this, then, if it eases your heart: I do this for love. Love drives us all, and even love led these men to this field. Love led you here, did it not?”

The scribe, turning the words over in his head, nodded in agreement. He loved few things as he loved words. It had led him down paths both bright and dim, from under his family’s sheltering arms, from the beds of others who would have him as his own. He wandered still, searching for a specific love, and in wandering, found it – a country where rivers of ink flowed across a vellum landscape.

He picked up the scribe’s quill and pressed it into his hand. “Love will make or break a man. Love may shatter hearts and mend souls. Love can raise a people up or cast them into the gutter. Nothing worth doing is worth doing without it. I do this because I love.”

He leaned in and kissed the scribe just behind the ear, his lips soft and warm, and his breath smelling of clover. Then he straightened and sauntered away, leaving the scribe alone. He listened to the buzz of flies on the dead, a symphony of one-string violins, and then crumpled the paper, tossing it to the side, where it came to rest in a pool of clotting blood, the parchment pulling in the red until it blossomed like carnations across the rumpled surface. He watched it bloom, and then pulled a new sheet from his case, dipped his quill, and wrote:

The goblin king sat atop an outcrop of stone perched on a hill, his heart full of love.

Mercenary

This is the pilot for my Fiction Vortex series, Kharn. Thought I’d share it here, and get some eyes on it. We’re currently building a stable of authors, and a story bible is in the works. More to come.

Mercenary

“The gods are dead, Trapper.  Ain’t naught left but devils with the faces of men.”

Bharga stirred the embers of the fire with a long stick, the end charred and chipped to a point.  Sparks swirled up into the night, and Trapper followed their ascent, burning fireflies swirling in the dark.  He watched them mix with the stars, and wondered if it were true.  If the heavens were littered with the corpses of immortals.

Bharga poked him with the stick, the heat of the tip pulling Trapper from his thoughts.

“Check the wards.” Bharga said.

For the fourth or fifth time that night, he checked the wards around the fire.  The last thing they needed was imps in the campsite.  They looked intact.  He’d etched them on stone with the tip of his dagger.  It would take some time for them to erode.  The gods may have been dead, but the gods-damned devils weren’t.

Their mounts, great beasts with the bodies of wolves and bone-covered heads, snorted in the chill air.  Bharga tossed bones to them, pieces of the rabbits they’d snared earlier.  The beasts snatched them up, growling low in their chests while they snapped the bones, the blue fire in their eyes flashing.  Trapper listened to them eat and thought the cost of the barghests was well worth the protection they offered.

“Get some rest.”  Bharga said.

Trapper crawled into his bedroll and set his blade close to hand.  He listened for a moment while Bharga rolled into his own bedding and made himself comfortable.  After a few minutes, the big man was snoring.  Before long, the excited panting of the barghests quieted to a steady drone of breath, and Trapper knew he was the only one still aware in the dark.  He rolled onto his back and slipped his hands behind his head, staring up at the stars.  His gaze fell on the black tear in the sky, a void where no stars shone.  He wondered again about the gods.

***

The job had come to them through a friend of a friend.  Not that Trapper would call Kips a friend.  He was more like blood lichen – sure, he’d latch on to you and keep the annoyances away, but there were times when he couldn’t figure the difference between a bug and the hand that fed him.  Which explained the roadmap of scars on the man’s face.  Trapper knew from experience that Bharga had even put a couple of them there for him.  At the thought, his own itched, and he resisted the urge to scratch until the feeling had passed.

Kips had come to them with a letter, sealed in wax – that alone meant money – and a simpering expression.

“Hey, boys. Got a job.”

Bharga waved a hand.  “Bullshite. You’ve got naught but an itch to take more of my coin.”

“You’re not still sore over the Harenbull job, are you, Bharga?”  Kips wheedled.

Bharga just grunted.  Kips looked at him, then back to Trapper, and thrust the parchment into his hand.

“Big payday.” he said, a little lower.  “Plenty of coin to go around.”

Trapper cracked the seal and opened the letter.  Bits of wax fell to the floor like dead petals.  Trapper shook the remains off the paper and read.  After a moment, he walked it over to Bharga, and held it up.

“Good pay.” he said.

Bharga raised another hand, this time in a buzz off pest gesture.  Trapper knew he couldn’t read, but if the other man thought Trapper was treating him like he was stupid, he’d have bigger problems than just an annoyed Capo.  He took another tack.

“Someone wants us to get Greelo.”

Bharga slammed a hand down on the table.  “Fuck Greelo. Been looking for that little gobshite for months.  Do they know where he is?”

“In the wood.”

Bharga looked up, a suspicious expression on his face.  “Who knows this?  Who’s paying?”

Trapper looked at the letter.  “Viscount Grawl.”

Bharga appeared to chew the information over.  “How much?”

“40 crowns.”

Bharga snorted.  “I’d do it for 5.  We’ll leave tomorrow.”

“Finder’s fee?”  Kips asked in a small voice.

Trapper hushed him and ushered him over the threshold.  “I’ll see what I can do.  Just don’t push him any harder, or he’ll feed you to the hounds.”

Kips nodded and thanked Trapper, who shut the door in his face before it could get embarrassing.  He walked over to Bharga, the parchment still in his hands.  After a moment, he fed it into the hearth.  The paper crackled and blackened, the edges turning in.  Trapper could see the imps playing in the flames, and ran a hand over the stones of the fireplace.  He turned to Bharga.

“We’ll start tonight.”  The big man said.  “I don’t trust the little weasel to try to beat us to the punch.”

***

They found mounts just outside the city circle.  The merchant had set up shop just outside the walls, using an abandoned stables that had been left over from fair tournaments and better days.  Bharga haggled with the man over the cost of the barghests, but in the end had paid three-fourths of the price just to have something reliable to ride.  They would have preferred horses, but the last had been lost a generation ago.

They swept out of the inner walls and through the main causeway, past throngs of dirty refugees and what appeared to be a former cleric.  The cleric was holding a painted sign on a pole that read ALL ARE DEAD ALL IS LOST.  Trapper caught the man’s eyes as they passed, hollow and haunted, and then they were out of the gates and onto the plain.

The plain was sere and stony, the few crops the people had managed to plant into the inhospitable earth straggling up on brown stalks.  Fog gathered in hollows, and here and there a small creature scuttled by, its movements furtive.  To their left, what had once been a mighty river was little more than a muddy stream that fed into the sea.  Ahead, the plain opened up, and was bracketed by strands of woods.

They turned their mounts towards the woods, the barghests loping easily over the stony soil.  As the sun sank, they could hear the occasional howl of some hungry beast, but let it worry their minds little.  Barghests were swift, and fierce fighters when cornered.  The wind picked up, sweeping the howls away, and they hunkered down in their saddles and rode on.

***

They halted at the edge of the wood.  Trapper dismounted and ran a hand over the trunk of the nearest tree.  Overhead, the bare branches clattered together.  Someone had carved wards in the wood of the trunk.  He looked to the next tree, and the next.  It was the same on both sides of the path, deep into the wood.  There was something in the forest, and someone wanted to keep the road safe.

They remounted and entered, the path wide enough for them to ride side by side.  The barghests moved slower here, cautiously, as though they could smell whatever was waiting ahead.  They rode in silence for some time.

Bharga broke the silence.  “Should bring back an ear or somethin’.  The high and mighty aint gonna believe a couple of cutters if we just show and say we did it.”

Trapper just nodded.  Something was moving just at the edge of his sight, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to see it.  He made a motion at Bharga.

“You see that?”

Bharga swiveled his head to the side, just enough to see what Trapper thought he did.  His eyes widened a bit.

“Forest daemon.” he whispered.

Trapper turned his head as well.  He saw it then, something mossy and hulking, with glowing green eyes and great antlers on its head.  It shambled along beside them in complete silence, the smell of rotting vegetation following it.  Their mounts didn’t react at all, a fact that unnerved Trapper.  They either knew what it was, or hadn’t noticed it.  Worse, they knew it, and were related somehow.  Barghests were forest and plain natives, after all.

They halted in the middle of the trail for a moment.  Trapper turned to Bharga.  “Do we turn back?”

Bharga looked up the trail, then down.  Up ahead, they could see a sqaut building between the trees.  It was weathered and worn, with moss and lichen growing in patches on the roof, and crooked windows.  He glanced over at Trapper.

“You think Greelo’s got himself wards up there?”

“Aye, probably.”

“What if he didn’t?”

Trapper thought about that.  A gap in the wards would mean the shambler could get in.  It might just do the work for them, and when it was done and gone, they could clean up after.  He drew his dagger, the small blade reassuring in his hand.

“Let’s get to work.”

They rode to the cabin cautiously.  When no shout of warning came, and no arrow tried to decorate their chests, they dismounted as quietly as possible and set to work cutting the sections of tree out where the wards had been carved.  It was hard work, since the runes had been etched deep, and the whole time they hacked away at the wood, the shambler watched from the perimeter, lurking, its eyes glowing that baleful green.

After an hour, they had a swath of the wards cut out.  They moved back to the barghests and waited.  The shambler approached the trees slowly, as though unsure.  As it drew closer, it seemed to sense the magic protecting that place was diminished, and suddenly charged through the gap.

It slammed into the cabin, shaking the building on its foundation.  From inside came a frightened shriek.  It slammed again, and the cabin trembled again, like a scared child.  There was the sound of breaking glass, and an arrow sailed from one of the windows, lodging in the shambler’s shoulder.  It roared and reared back, then hit the cabin one more time.  The wall collapsed in a cloud of dust.

For a moment, there was silence, then the thin form of Greelo emerged, clutching a longbow.  He sighted the beast, and then Bharga and Trapper.  Fury contorted his features, and he charged at them.

“Shite.” Bharga muttered.  Then, “Mount up,” as he saw that the shambler had given chase to Greelo.

They mounted as fast as they could, and before long, were charging along the forest floor, yards ahead of Greelo and the monster.  They spurred the barghests, and heard Greelo scream curses that changed into an ungodly shriek.  Trapper risked a glance over his shoulder, and saw the shambler had caught up to Greelo.  The little man was now impaled and writhing on one antler, and still the beast came.

Ahead, the trail ended, widening out into the plain again, and they put on a final burst of speed to escape the trees.  Behind them, the shambler roared in frustration as it came to the end of its domain, the sound drowning out Greelo’s whimpers of agony.  They rode a few hundred meters past the entrance to be safe, then stopped and turned.  The shambler watched them for another minute with its balefire eyes, as though memorizing them.  Then it turned, and in a few seconds, had disappeared back into the forest.

“Shite!”  Bharga cursed.  “Fuckin’ Viscount aint gonna believe this.”

Trapper nodded.  He looked up at the sky, which was a deep purple.  Stars were starting to dot the firmament.

“C’mon.”  He said.  “Let’s camp here.  Maybe we can go back in the morning.”

“Fine.”

They made camp.

***

     Memory lifted from him, and Trapper looked over at the fire.  Bharga was still dead asleep, and the embers had burnt down to almost a flicker.  He took  a breath and carefully slipped from his bedroll, slipping his dagger from its sheath.  He inched to the fire, and with a good deal of care, pulled one of the wardstones from its edge.  The flames rekindled for a moment, as if acknowledging what he was doing.

He pricked his finger and let it drop into the fire, and there was another flare.  Bharga snorted and muttered in his sleep, then rolled over, his back to Trapper.  Trapper crept over, and thought of the words on the parchment Kips had handed him.  He acted quick, his blade slipping deep into Bharga’s back.  He wrenched on it and spun it in a circle, cutting a hole in the now dead man.  He reached inside and pulled out Bharga’s heart, holding it for a moment, still fresh.  He was surprised.  He thought it would be blacker.

He dropped the heart in the fire, and the barghests growled, the scent of cooking meat exciting their senses.  It did blacken, then, and when it was fully charred, Trapper pulled it from the fire, the hot flesh searing his hand.  He shoved it back into the hole he had made in Bharga’s back, then sat and waited.

After a time, the big man rolled over and sat up, his eyes blazing orange and red and yellow.  He smiled, and it was fiery.

“Yes.” he said.

Bharga was right.  The gods may have been dead, but there were sure as hell devils left, and they paid well.

Houses of the Holy

Kant sat on the steps of the House of the Faceless, the thing in his gut echoing his discomfort. He’d been waiting for three turns already, and the Kith was getting restless. He reminded it there wouldn’t be food unless he was paid, and he wasn’t getting paid until the shitting disciples finished their ritual. For what felt like the fortieth time that day, he shifted his weight and cursed his god, Salazine, and the disciples’ god as well. If he’d never trusted that death freak Damodred, he’s never have found himself in this position, and if he’d never trusted his god, he’d probably be a few scales poorer, but without the demon in his viscera and a constant deadline.

That was the problem with faith, he reckoned. Whole bunch of idiots running around for the sake of what – eternal life? Eternal reward? Power over their enemies? And the shitting deities couldn’t even be bothered to climb off their gilded thrones and throw their lackeys a bone. That was one advantage to Salazine. He helped those who helped themselves. Usually that help was in the form of a sturdy lockpick, or a sharp blade, but you took what you could, which was the first tenet and rule of the Golden Hand. What you couldn’t take probably wasn’t worth it anyway. Or too heavy to carry. There was little distinction between the two for Kant.

But these Deathless, the disciples of the Warden – Kant would rather lop off both pinkies and jam them up his own ass than work with them. Which is why he’d been royally pissed when Damodred had drugged his cup after a couple of rounds of ale, and Kant had woke with a blinding headache, six inches of Kith writhing in his intestines, and an urge to cut the face off the man who had put it there. Turns out they needed a favor. And rather than ask, like a normal and upstanding citizen, or better yet, pay good goddamn gold, they kidnapped the first cutter they saw and shit down his throat.

The Kith writhed again, and Kant cursed.

“For the love of fucking Lakrmos, I’d shit you if I could keep my insides inside.”

In response, the Kith tightened, and a sharp pain shot through Kant’s stomach. He groaned and spat a bloody clot onto the walkway. He hated the demon. It was a timebomb in his stomach, a way of keeping him in line. If Damodred said boo, the thing would rip its way out his body in any number of unpleasant and undoubtedly messy ways. There was an advantage though. The Kith bonded with a host’s system, and in return for nutrients (and it liked its nutrients – Kant ate twice as much as he’d used to now), it shat out compounds that increased reflexes and senses. That made it less than the horrid burden it could be, but you’d never catch Kant mentioning anything of the sort. As far as he was outwardly concerned, the sooner he could squat the thing into the nearest sewer, the better.

He turned his head and stared at the door to the House. It remained stubbornly closed, and he sighed, then checked the sun. Four turns now. He checked his memory, and tried to think of where they were in the ritual. He knew it by heart – he’d read the text Damodred had sent over before the last job.

On the fourth turn of midday, after the rituals of mortification and purity, a silver spike of not less than a handbreadth shall be passed through the heart. Then shall the Deathless carve the Sigils of Naming on the lips of the anointed, and the Sigils of Sight upon the eyes, and invoke the Name of the Warden, He Who is Everlasting. Should the anointed then rise as Avatar, the Deathless shall prostrate themselves and seek his blessing, which is life everlasting, and the death of death.

It sounded like horseshit to Kant, but no one had complained so far about the wasters he picked off the street, or the screams that came from the House this time of day. He suspected half of that was because the city at large was afraid of the Deathless, and the other half too involved in their own troubles to worry. Still, if he’d had his druthers, he wouldn’t have picked this for a job, money or no, demon or no. Something was wrong with these people.

As if on cue, the screaming began. High and sharp, it rippled through the air like a sail on the wind, and despite hearing it several times now, sent gooseflesh up Kant’s arms. It wavered as it peaked, like a diva in an aria, then curdled one more time before breaking off in sudden silence. Kant looked around to see if anyone had stopped to listen, but the truth was, very few trod the avenue the House of the Faceless stood on. Instead, the cherry trees and the chestnuts stood on their own against the blue of the sky, ignorant and mute to the sudden suffering. Somewhere deeper in the plaza, a bird called to its mate.

Kant blew out a breath he didn’t know he was holding, and leaned back against the steps. A moment later, the door to the House opened, and Damodred’s shadow fell over him. He dropped a pouch beside Kant that clinked as it hit the stone.

“Another. Midnight. Same day next week. Make it clean.”

Kant picked up the pouch. It jingled merrily.

“Yes, master.”

He stood and walked away, not bothering to look at Damodred. He knew the other man would be wearing a frown. Kant didn’t know all the gifts the Warden might bestow on His disciples, but he hoped to gods the other man could hear him think, kiss my puckered arsehole. For once, the Kith didn’t punish him at the insubordination. Maybe it liked him after all.

*

Kant shoveled in the fried potatoes and sausage – it wasn’t steak and eggs, but it was cheap, and you could get a lot of it – and felt the Kith hum in pleasure. He washed the gob of food down with a swig of watered ale – the shitholes he was used to eating in didn’t really believe in serving it any other way for less than a full silver, and he wasn’t about to give up that kind of money just yet. He was doing his best to keep thoughts of his next deadline out of his head, but they insisted on creeping back in.

He needed to figure out how to end this. Maybe he needed a higher class of victim, the wasters and cripples he pulled off the street obviously not making the cut. Maybe the god of death was picky, like a man who has a choice between sausage and potatoes and shit, he picks the shit because he doesn’t like potatoes. It seemed an odd choice for a deity, but no one could really say why they made the choices they did. Ineffable and unknowable and grand poobahs that they were.

The way Kant saw it, he had two choices: one, he could go for a normal citizen, and hope no one raised the watch before he got them back to the House, or he could go for someone even more fucked up, like a leper. He didn’t think anyone other than Gruch would miss them. His skin crawled at the idea of the leper path, and he wondered if even the Warden would take one. He decided to risk the second choice and hope he didn’t end up with an overzealous guard’s blade in his fucking neck.

He sopped up the last of the grease with a crust of bread and emptied the tankard, then pushed his plate back and belched. The Kith continued to send out contentment, and he sighed, agreeing with it for once. Kant spared a glance out the window, where the shadows were growing long and sensible men and women were starting to find doorways and inns to lodge in. He judged the last of the light to be a few turns off yet. He still had time to get to the nicer districts. Then, he would see what he could see, and maybe finally get Damodred off his fucking back. He stood and dropped a quarter scale on the table, then sauntered out.

*

Kant stood outside the buildings and clean streets of the White District, and frowned. He hated this place. Too clean, too well-lit, and too well-patrolled. The shits that lived here were high on their own farts, smug bastards who kept homes and wives and children like others kept dinnerware and paintings. They kept their buildings clean and their streets free of the things that reminded them the world wasn’t all dinner parties and shining silver. It made him wonder what things they hid in their closets and under their sheets when the dark came down.

Footsteps approached, and he sank into an alley, blending with the shadows like tears in rain. A figure passed, trim in leggings and a velvet coat, the feather in his hat bobbing. Kant swallowed his gorge and crept to the edge of the too-clean alley. He waited until the man passed, then slipped from the shadows, a short prayer to Salazine on his lips. The lamps hadn’t been lit yet, and light was fading from the day, so Kant went unseen in the man’s wake. He drew a  thin blade from its sheath. The edge glistened wetly in the dusk. The poison had cost him a pretty penny, but was guaranteed to paralyze its victim without rigor, a boon he desperately needed in these instances. It was better than delivering some feckless moron with his brains smashed out to the House. He didn’t think they’d pay well for that.

He sped his pace, creeping behind the dandy, the breeze carrying the man’s rosewater scent to him. Kant flicked a glance around, and seeing no one, reached out to nick his victim with the dagger. The blade caught the light, and something in the street – a missed piece of rubbish, or maybe an impossible crack in the impossibly perfect walk – tripped him. He pitched forward, clattering against the stones. His prey caught sight, and panicked, began to run, screaming for the guards at the top of his lungs.

Kant took a moment to curse Salazine, the Warden, and even the Kith before gatehring himself and pelting back toward the entrance to the district. Somewhere nearby, he heard the pounding of running feet added to the sound of his own, and cursed a fourth time the magistrate that funded the numerous guard stations in the district.

“For fuck’s sake,” he growled, “wake up and save my ass you useless worm.”

The Kith seemed to finally take notice, shaking off its food stupor. It shot a spiteful barb of pain up Kant’s guts to let him know it wasn’t impressed with the insubordination, but already it was fading as it released the compounds in its blood. Kant’s pace quickened and his breathing came easier. He sped along for a few seconds before the twang of a bowstring send him ducking to the side. Not fast enough, though. The bolt thudded into his shoulder, the only thing stopping it from ripping out the other side the thick leather of his jerkin. He reached back and yanked it free even as the Kith released painkillers into his blood. The screaming pain of the wound died to a dull ache, and Kant tossed the bolt to the side, still running.

The sound came again as he reached the tunnel out of the district, and he was slower this time, despite the chemicals in his blood. Blood loss and stiffening muscle conspired against him, and the bolt hit him hard, ripping into his ribs, striking something vital. The Kith let out a scream in his head, and Kant ran until he was out of the district, trailing blood the whole way. He ducked into the first warren of alleys he saw, zigging and zagging until he was deep in the maze. Panting, he leaned against a wall and ripped the bolt free. Part of him said it was stupid. Part of him said it was reckless. Part of him just wanted the damned thing out. Blood gouted, and he threw the bolt away, then listened.

No footsteps sounded between the buildings. No shouts and sounds of pursuit. It seemed justice only prevailed as long as purses were full. After a turn, Kant made his way from the alley, his hand pressed to the wound. Blood seeped free, and his step was staggered, but he managed to put one foot in front of the other, the cobbles passing under. He paused every now and then, pain and blood loss making him light-headed. He wondered if the Kith had been wounded as well. He didn’t know, and at this point, didn’t care. He needed help. He paused at a building, the brick deep brown in the dark, and pulled a dagger. The last thing he needed was for some opportunistic cutter to catch him out, wounded and alone. He gathered his strength and moved on.

Turns passed, though he wasn’t sure how many. He found himself thinking of the potatoes and sausage he’d had earlier, and wondered if they were leaking out. It would be a terrible thing, only renting food. He laughed, and tripped up a set of stairs. He looked up, and found himself at the foot of the House of the Faceless. Kant opened his mouth to call for help, but only a squeak issued from his lips. He took a breath, deeper, though it shot pain in his stomach, and his fucking head was starting to ache. Had they poisoned the bolts? He didn’t know. The door opened above him, warm light spilling out. A pair of strong hands lifted him, and he heard Damodred’s voice in his ear.

“Oh, Kant. Just in time.”

The Deathless pulled him into the House and shut the door. Through slit eyes, Kant could make out a wide room, open arches marking the cardinal points, and a vaulted ceiling. An altar, marked brown by dried blood, stood in the center of the room in a slight depression. Damodred carried him over and helped him lie down. The Deathless opened Kant’s jerkin and gestured to the wings of the room. Others appeared from the shadows, bearing bowls of water and clean cloths. Kant’s vision began to fade, Damodred’s  voice a susurration of sound. Then, he knew little else as the dark crowded in.

*

He woke, naked and cold on the slab. Damodred hovered over him, a small hammer in one hand and a silver spike in the other. It glittered cold and sharp in the light. Damodred smiled and placed the spike over Kant’s heart. From somewhere inside, the Kith hummed pleasantly.

The hammer came down.

Forgetting is so Long

It came down to two things, Lyssa thought. Forgetting or resurrection. She considered long and hard the dichotomy of ideas, sitting in her kitchen with the smooth tan wood and the crisp white curtains. The wind blew them in and out, their sharp fabric moving like canvas sails, and she thought it was the same. In or out, positive or negative, though she thought maybe that wasn’t right either, because the absence of something wasn’t a negative, it was nothing. A blank void, waiting to be filled. A flat plain. In the end, she decided that though she wouldn’t remember, and therefore know no pain, she would rather risk the pain and fill in the hole that already existed.

Lyssa’d saved for it, this day when she finally made a decision, and she went to the tin box on her dresser and opened it. Inside, neat green bills sat alongside crumpled, torn, and faded ones, and scattered among those were silver coins, both shiny and tarnished. She saw that dual nature in everything now – it was plain these days, writ large. She sat on the bed and counted it again. Three-hundred-forty-five dollars and seventy cents. That was roughly the cost of the human soul. Or so the alienists had decided. She bundled the money carefully into her handbag, and then placed the tin back on the dresser beside a bottle of White Shoulders, a small clean square waiting amid the dust where it had sat. Clean and dusty. Opposite. Dual.

She left the house, locking the door, though she had left the windows open, and walked the twenty-two blocks to the alienist. On the way, men and women, adults and children, poor and rich, beautiful and ugly and fat and skinny and all other things that made people people crowded the sidewalks and drove on the roadways and also hung from their balconies shouting at lovers below. Lyssa watched them from the corner of her eye, wondering which were reborn, which were forgotten for others. She wondered if any were.

It began to rain when she reached a street corner, and she pulled the hood of her coat up and let it splatter harmless against the cloth and cool on her hands. From somewhere close, she could smell hot dogs from a vendor’s cart, savory on the air. She wondered if everyone making momentous decisions felt this way, if they knew the world was changing for them and their mind started taking notes, filling in the blank spaces for reference. She wondered what the opposite was. Was it forgetting? Or was it ignorance? A car splashed by, making ripples dance in the puddles in the street, and she decided that for this moment, it didn’t matter.

She crossed the street and saw the building just down the way. It was small, pinched between two other buildings like a piece of meat forgotten between molars. A sign jutted from its front, with a simple logo, two triangles intersecting and pointing in opposite directions – one up, one down.  A few short strides later, and she stood in front of the door with aching legs and trembling fingers, the glass stenciled in lettering that held no nonsense. It read: JONAH LATHE, ALIENIST. She gripped the knob and pushed through the door, and was standing inside.

The room was cozy and cool, and done in soft earth tones. It smelled faintly of sage and lavender, and a pair of comfortable chairs occupied a space behind a short counter. Behind that, a door set in the wall led to parts unknown. A young woman, her hair a blaze of red, her eyes deep brown sat behind the counter with a ledger and a serious expression. She looked up at Lyssa’s entrance and gave her a small smile.

“May I help you?”

“I – I’m here to see the alienist.”

“You have payment?”

Lyssa nodded and fumbled with her handbag for a moment before pulling out the money she had so carefully saved. She lay it on the counter, her hand giving a small tremble, and waited while the woman counted it. When she was done, the receptionist squirreled it away and gestured to the chairs.

“Have a seat. Jonah will be with you shortly.”

Lyssa took the seat nearest the door and sat, her hands in her lap, her gaze straight ahead. For the first time, she noticed the wallpaper border that ran around the room, the sun and moon orbiting one another on the thick paper. She heard a click nearby, and the door beside her opened. A man entered, tall and thin, bordering on gaunt. He wore a gray suit with a red tie. His eyeglasses caught the light, and for a moment she couldn’t see his eyes, only a glare that gave her the impression that he could see through everything. He spared her a small smile – it seemed to be the only other currency in this office – and folded himself into the seat across from her, hanging one lanky leg across the other.

“We haven’t been introduced. I am Jonah.”

“Lyssa.”

He inclined his head. “Pleased to meet you, Lyssa. How can I help you?”

“I want to bring someone back.”

“Oh? Are you sure?”

She nodded.

“You know, Pablo Neruda wrote about what we do. Though, I don’t think then that he knew what we do. He said ‘Love is so short, forgetting is so long’. Are you sure you want a short pain versus a long peace?”

She nodded again and straightened. Her voice was stronger. “Yes. I’ve given it a great deal of thought. There is nothing so bad in my mind as choosing the easy path over the hard when the reward is greater.”

“And the risk.”

She shrugged. “You took my money. I can always find another alienist.”

He chuckled a little and raised a hand. “I’m simply making the argument we’re mandated to.” He gestured to the receptionist, who had swiveled her chair and was taking notes. Discomfort crawled across Lyssa’s skin. She shot a glance at the woman, who didn’t seem to notice, then back to Jonah. “She’s only noting the relevant items. Payment, names. All above board. Now. Who is it you miss?”

Lyssa cleared her throat. “Farrah Palmer.”

“Age?”

“Twenty-eight.”

“Cause of death?”

“Drowning.”

“Date of death?”

“April third.”

“This year?”

Lyssa grimaced. This was the tricky part. Most alienists only took on recent resurrections. Some, further out. All of them agreed you couldn’t go further back than three years.

“Two and three-quarters,” she lied.

Jonah nodded, and the receptionist’s pencil scratched furiously.

“You have something of hers?”

Lyssa nodded again and reached to the chain around her neck. She hadn’t had to think about bringing this with her. It had been as close to her as possible. She unclasped the necklace and pulled the ring free, passing it into Jonah’s hand with only a moment of hesitation. His fingers closed around it, and for a moment her heart clenched like his fist.

“Good,” he said. “That’s everything, then.” He leaned in. “Listen carefully, now. I’m going to go into the room beside us. You will hear things. Do not be afraid. Be patient. In less than an hour, the door will open. Farrah will be with you. Take her home, live your life. You may not return.”

She listened, marking every word, and when he had finished, Lyssa nodded and sat back in her chair. Jonah stood and exited the way he had come in. The office became deathly still, the receptionist with her back to Lyssa again. Time ticked on in measured seconds and minutes, hours something not considered this close to her goal. The air seemed to grow thick, a quality she hadn’t considered possible until now, as though fog were tickling at the corners and sniffing around her ankles.  A sound, a banging like a hammer thrown against wood made her jump, and Lyssa’s head swiveled toward the door. She grimaced and resettled herself.

The next sound was a wail, a long drawn-out sound like that of a cat and a coyote singing in unison. It sent shivers up her spine and gooseflesh crept across her arms like chill spiders. She closed her eyes and took a breath, and tried to think of more opposites, to put what was happening in perspective. Life and death was the only one that came to mind, and she clung to it like a stranded man on a buoy. Another wail, though quieter, echoed across the room. This time, it held the edge of Farrah’s voice, and she stifled the urge to burst through the door, to see what was the matter. Warmth slid down her cheek, and she realized she was crying.

The seconds crept on, time seeming to dilate where she sat. Another cry, this one entirely human issued from the room, and she did half-stand that time before catching herself. She was just sitting again when the door opened with a click, and Lyssa’s heart beat a timpani against her ribs. Farrah stood there, clothed in a simple dress. Her ring was on her finger, and her bare toes pinted in just so slightly. She looked around the room with wide eyes, and then at Lyssa. She heaved a sob, and Lyssa stood, letting her wife fall into her arms. With care, ever so much care, Lyssa led Farrah from the building and down the street.

Once outside, the light seemed brighter. The heaviness had gone out of the air. Time flowed right again, and the susurration of car tires on pavement brought the reality of the world crashing back around them. They walked, Lyssa’s hand around Farrah’s shoulders, her forearm tickled by her wife’s hair. She whispered in Farrah’s ears, simple words of comfort, trying to soothe her nerves. The rain stopped, and at the hot dog cart, Lyssa offered to buy her one. Farrah looked at the meat, her eyes hollow pools, and turned away. They walked on in silence.

At the house, Lyssa helped her up each stair, and then through the door. She helped Farrah onto the couch, where the other woman sat, her legs tucked under her, her face slack. Lyssa went to get her a glass of water, the curtains still blowing in the kitchen. She saw where the rain had dotted the counter, and let herself cry there, her tears making unnoticed marks alongside the rainwater. When she was done, she hitched a breath and brought her wife the glass.

A little life had returned, color peaking in Farrah’s cheeks. She turned toward Lyssa and placed a finger against the younger woman’s cheek, where the tears had left a track.

“Don’t. Cry.”

The words broke a dam in Lyssa and she sank to her knees, the water forgotten. She wept, her head in Farrah’s lap. They sat that way until the sun went down and exhaustion took Lyssa.

*

When she woke, the room was dark and the house was silent. Lyssa stood and padded to the kitchen. No Farrah. The curtains hung limp. She shut the window, the air too cold now to do the house good. She walked up the stairs, to the room they had shared for so many years. Farrah laid there, a bottle of pills beside her open hand. The corpse stared at the ceiling, tear tracks marking her cheeks. The room smelled of White Shoulders. Lyssa wanted to cry, but found she was unable. Numbness spread through her. She opened the dresser and pulled out a pad filled with notations from each year. Method, year, age. She noted this one down as well, then put the pad away and walked over to Farrah.

Lyssa pulled the ring from her wife’s finger and slipped it back onto the necklace. Love is so short, she thought. Forgetting is so long.

Pretty Pretty Pretty Good News

By this point, some of you are aware, and maybe others aren’t, that I signed my book, Into Nod, AKA Child of Nod, with Curiosity Quills Press. I still can’t shut up about it, to be honest, and it’ll probably only get more annoying as time goes on, so brace yourselves. Anyway, the book is due out in November, but you can follow its progress here, on Twitter, or on the CQ book page, which I’ll link momentarily.

I do want to take a minute to once again thank everyone who helped me with the book – my editor, Lisa Gus, my wife, my moms (plural), and the entire staff at CQ for their support. Here’s the blurb:

Alice wakes one day to find herself on the other side of death, in the corrupted fairy tale land of Nod. Unable to remember much of the events leading to her demise, she sets out on a journey to discover her memory and the reason for her presence in Nod. Unknown to her, the man responsible for her death, Jack, is on a mission to find her spirit and end her second life.

Alice takes flight, only to find herself drawn into the lives of those around her and the mystery permeating that place. From the humble streets of Elysium to the mirrored spires of Memoria, her journey takes her on a path that leads to a decision that will affect the fate of Nod.

Along the way, she meets a cast of characters that include a madman with a dark secret, her faithful companion, Dog, and woman made of memory. Together, they help her on her journey as she uncovers the truth of Nod and the woman behind it all, the Red Queen.

You can read about the book, and see my ugly mug here: Child of Nod. In addition, as art is available, I’ll be sharing that here and around social media.

Thanks for reading so far!

Clayton