A piece that I had submitted to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It didn’t quite pass muster – I’m working on getting these right though, so maybe the next, or the next. Until then, there’s this.
Family and All Its Trappings
Qoth hated the sound the dead men made. He scuffled his feet in the dust and stone of the yard between buildings, the creak of the Wheel drowning out his meager noise. Frustrated, he sighed and looked up, the Wheel filling his vision. It was a massive contraption of solid oak boards, pegs running its circumference. Each of the pegs held a noose, though only one was occupied at the moment, and the boards underneath the nooses were stained deep brown and yellow, remains of the men condemned there. The man currently attached to a noose made thick gagging sounds as the Wheel turned, almost matching the pitch of the bearings that smoothed its motion. His feet kicked, the black hood billowing in and out over his mouth as he struggled to breathe.
Qoth shuddered, the sight still hard to see after so many years. He wondered which sadist cum mystic had first thought of the Wheel, the idea that dying men might, in their last desperate moments between life and death, gasp out visions from the other side. The Wheel turned another click, and the man in the noose sucked in a breath, then keened it out as his trachea was pinched, the sound like a fleshy teakettle. The boards beneath him took on a darker hue, the contents of his bowels spilling into his trousers and soaking through, and red-robed seers and the motley collection of peasants leaned in close.
This was it. This was the moment of prognostication. Or bullshite. The talkers that actually broke through on the Wheel tended to mutter incomprehensible trite, a fact that never bothered the seers as they carefully recorded each word and frenetically pored over every syllable afterwards – at least until the next poor cutter was hung. Qoth wasn’t sure what they intended to learn. The gods were mute, blind, and deaf as far as he was concerned. He knew. He had once been a priest, a man of Atiesh. At least until the pox caught his family in its black grip.
The square drew quiet and Qoth glanced at the Wheel. It had reached its apex and stopped, the man on it hanging at the noon position. A slight breeze stirred, rippling the hood over his head and then, a voice, creaking like branches in the wind, spoke.
Lost and black
From Winter’s halls
And swollen tongues”
The last came as a strangled whisper, hard to hear, and yet the words reached Qoth’s ears anyway. The fabric of the hood darkened as blood gouted from the cutter’s split throat. Qoth looked away even as the seers pressed in, urging their scribes to write faster. The peasants were already turning away, and Qoth joined them, heading in the general direction of the warden’s office. There, they would have a wagon and the body. There, the dead would be still, and his work could start.
Qoth watched a spider crawling in a corner of the room, rolling something wrapped in webbing ahead of itself. The spider rolled the ball up the wall and affixed it with a strap of web. That done, it crawled into the center of its web to wait. Qoth thought that was the envious life – eat, mate, and sleep. He wondered how things would be different if he had never met Irina, if they had never had Iliana. Would he have turned down a different path, been more like that spider, perhaps? Would he even now, be lounging in a sitte den? Would he maybe even be a predator, waiting in the alleys and warrens of the city for his next prey? He didn’t know. Because he was what he was. As he had been, because of Irina. Because of Atiesh.
The warden that approached him was short and thick, a tree stump of a man who wore the typical leather and steel of the wardens, a dagger at each hip, and a small crossbow on his back. He cleared his throat when Qoth didn’t look up right away.
“Thank you.” Qoth stood to go, heading toward the door in the back that would lead to the small yard and the wagon with the body.
The warden gave him a look, one eye squinted. “What do you do with ’em anyway?”
Qoth shrugged. “All things served Atiesh in their time. Perhaps they will serve his soul in the afterlife as well.”
“Better you than me.”
Despite the fracturing of his faith, Qoth knew that the proper application of a platitude, or the appearance of a man sweeping the steps of his temple kept most from questioning him, especially if he had kept that temple shuttered for some time. Some viewed him as eccentric, others necessary – handlers of the dead were rare in an age of superstition – even if everyone knew his faith had collapsed.
Qoth spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “I do what I must.”
The warden grunted, and handed Qoth a sliver of steel. It was meager payment, but it would do. Qoth slipped it into his vest and left the room as the warden busied himself at a small desk with a pile of parchment and a quill. Outside, the sun was still and hot overhead, and the yard here as dusty as it had been in the Wheel’s square. A small row of tarps lay against one side of the building in shadow, the bodies beneath waiting purification from the surgeon inside. Behind them, a wooden cart, handles long enough for a man to step between, stood with another piece of canvas covering it. Qoth approached and situated himself between the wooden poles, grasping one in each hand. With a grunt, he kicked off, and the wagon began to roll behind him. He maneuvered it into the street and down the hill, keeping to one side of the road. As he went, men and women avoided him. Death was commonplace in the city, but no one liked to be reminded of it. Heedless, he continued on.
His mind drifted. It was a bit of a trot to his temple, and between the weight of the cart and the sun overhead, he wanted only to occupy his thoughts with anything other than the heat and the labor.
“What do you desire?”
They were curled up in their bed, a great goose down mattress under them – a gift from the parishioners. Irina snuggled in next to him, her nose and lips against his neck, sending thrills through his chest. He shifted a bit, and looked at her, nestled in the crook of his arm.
She smiled, and her hand traced the hair on his chest.
“And you, my succubus?”
She lowered her lids and the corners of her mouth curled up, mischief shining in her eyes. “This.” She rolled herself onto him and pushed off his chest until she was straddling him. He watched the muscles in her arms and belly, the inward pucker of her belly button. He grinned back at her and opened his mouth, thinking to quip at her. She leaned in, her hair falling around him like a curtain, and her lips found his. They were soft, and tasted of strawberry and wax. He closed his eyes, and-
“Watch it, you gobshite!”
Qoth blinked away the memory and stopped. A man was pacing away, gesturing, his fingers held up in a vee, muttering curses as he went.
“Forgive me, sir,” he muttered, then sighed, and continued on his way.
The body was starting to stink. The heat wasn’t helping things, but it wasn’t like winter, when you could pack the dead with ice and snow and dally for hours before the first signs of bloating appeared. Qoth stopped and walked to the back of the wagon, lifting the sheet that covered the man. He was an odd blue-yellow, the whites of his eyes shot to blood, his tongue protruding at an angle. Livid bruises surrounded his throat, and a rend in the flesh by the man’s voice box was puckered like overripe fruit that had burst. Qoth poked the naked skin of the man, and it took a moment for the dent to recover. Bloating had already set in. He’d have to hurry. He picked up the handles of the cart and began to move faster, trotting a little to set a quick pace. After a while, his mind drifted again, and he forgot the stink.
“I feel like a yak.”
“You look much better than a yak.”
Qoth curled his arm around Irina’s swollen belly and pulled her close, his lips finding her neck. She swatted him away, laughing, and stood.
“That’s how we got in this situation in the first place, you great horny goat.”
He chuckled and watched her as she tooled around the kitchen, chopping vegetables and setting a kettle over the fire.
“Will you do the meat?”
“Will you do the meat?” he asked.
She shot a look over her shoulder, and he joined her at the table, pulling a thick shank of beef from its paper, then a knife from the block. He set to work removing the fat and slicing it into thin strips for the stew. As they worked Irina began to hum. Qoth joined her.
Lift your skirt
But mind the copper
Drop your trousers
Mind your dandy”
They burst into laughter, and laughter became tears as they fed each other’s good humor. Qoth looked at his wife, smiling, her eyes wet, and his heart ached.
The shadow of the Spire fell over Qoth, and he stopped the cart for a moment, glad to be from under the sun’s thumb. He stood that way for a time, wiping sweat from his brow, letting his heart ache. Atiesh would have approved. Through grief, joy. Through joy, service.
He waited until he had his breath back, and tears no longer stung the corners of his eyes, and moved on.
He was close. Qoth had entered the warren where his little temple stood. Small homes and hovels stood side by side, often wall to wall, their graying stone and rough wood competing for every inch of space. Once, this had been the heart of the city. But as the city grew, the warren was left behind. As are all things, Qoth thought. He thought again of how Atiesh had abandoned him. How he had run, desperate and mad with fear, from temple to temple, begging anyone – any god – to help him, and how he had been met with silence. His faith and family had died that day. It took him a long time – a year, maybe more – it all blended in the end. Finally, he had taken up care for the dead. Someone had to do it. Someone had to let the families of the lost know their loss was not in vain.
He rounded a corner, and saw the chemist’s shop. Memory flooded in again.
“Please, I need wort for my family!”
“I don’t – look, when your sister was ill, who brought her soup every day? Irina. You were at Iliana’s baptism – this is a community, for gods’ sake!”
The chemist looked at him. “Wort is expensive, preacher. I’ve got a family, too.”
“Then loan it to me – you know I’ll pay when alms come in!”
The chemist shook his head. “I cannot. Please go before I call the wardens.”
Qoth let out a strangled cry and turned, fleeing from the door. He ran the distance home. He’d left them alone too long. He burst into his home, but it was too late. His daughter – Iliana, who had only been two summers, who he had sang lullabies to when the moon was just growing in the sky – lay in her crib, still as a stone. Grief constricted his heart, and he managed to stagger to the bedroom he shared with Irina. He stopped in the doorway, a scream escaping his lips. Only flies moved in the room, her eyes frozen to the ceiling. He’d fallen then, on his knees, and begged for the gift of resurrection. For the ear of a god – any god – to numb him, to take him, too. No answer came. No quarter was given for the grief he felt.
In the end, he had decided if he could no longer do for the gods or the living, he would find solace in the dead. That was where his family was, that was where he should be, or at least he thought. Yet every time he held the knife to his breast, fear stayed his hand. So, he collected the dead. He studied each one. And he made use of them, for the day he would be brave enough to join his family.
Not this day. Maybe not the next. But one day, surely.
Qoth rounded another corner, and the temple was before him. It was a small thing, clapboard and brick, with a steepled roof and the symbol of Atiesh – an open hand – on the peak. He aimed the cart for the back of the temple. He’d kept the place because it was perfect for his work. Being a religious institution, it was somewhat secluded from the bustle of buildings shoving each other for room in the warren. It had ample room on either side, and a spacious cemetery in the back. He reached the fence surrounding the cemetary, and dragged the cart in, then shut the gate behind him. That done, he dropped the handles and made his footsore way into the rear of the temple, where his living quarters were.
It was simple inside, a small living area, a kitchen, and a bedroom. Behind the temple stood a small water closet. The church had a little money for luxuries, usually reserved for promising students, and before they had installed him as preacher here, they had enchanted a pipe above the sink. It brought him warm but clean water from the well, saving him some work pumping. He touched it and a stream started, trickling into the basin. Qoth ran his hands under the water, watching it come away muddy as the dust was stripped from his skin. Next, he splashed his face, washing away more of the silt and sweat that seemed to make up so much of the city.
He touched the pipe again and made his way to the living area. He sat on a small chair and looked around, listening to the buzz of flies and the drip of water. A slow throb in his feet signaled a sleepless night, but it would be that anyway. He had work to do. He stood again and took down his knife, a simple sturdy blade, made for this kind of work, and went to the yard. He uncovered the body, the smell strong, but not overpowering. Someone had forgotten to close the dead man’s eyes, and he stared to the heavens. Too bad there’s not much to see there, Qoth thought, and got to work.
He dragged the body into the chapel proper. Two hundred eyes stared at him. One hundred mouths hung open, their muscles slack. It was a side effect of the words he’d carved into their chests. Calach – speak. Menoch – see. It had taken him some time to gather the bodies, each a hanged man from the Wheel. This one he pulled to an open spot on the wall, beside Irina. Her eyes saw nothing, and her lips were still, yet he felt as if she’d approve. He hoisted the body and nailed it in place with a steady hammering – spikes through the wrists and ankles. When he was done, he sat back, sweating. The bodies formed an unbroken chain that covered the walls and ceiling of the chapel, a tapestry of flesh he had meticulously gathered.
It had been work, keeping the stink down. He’d had to use a small battalion of charms to keep the decay and stench to a minimum. There was nothing he could do about the flies, though. Qoth stepped back and surveyed his work. Each word carved on the dead connected to other words, but for one – Iliana. Qoth moved to her, and with shaking hands, raised the knife. He could hear her small laughter in his mind. He carved the final word. Yanoch – live.
Fire raced across the words, connecting each to each, until the room glowed with it. As one, the dead groaned, and a voice spoke. It filled Qoth’s ears, and its sweetness made his heart ache.
“My love. Bring them to me.” In a corner, a rat that had been gnawing at the toes of one of the dead men burst, a spray of gore painting the corpse’s ankles.
Qoth fell to his knees and wept.
The doors of the temple of Atiesh were unbarred. Qoth stood on the steps, passing out fliers, smiling and chatting with passer-bys as they went about their day. Curious, Tvent – chemist by trade – approached. Qoth pressed a flyer into his hand.
“Opening the temple again, Qoth?”
“Oh, aye, aye. Please come.”
“Found your faith again?”
“Never lost it, my good man. Now scurry along, and tell the others. The temple is taking new parishioners. You’ll want to hear this sermon.”
Tvent looked at the flyer in his hand and back to Qoth. The man’s excitement was palpable, and somewhat infectious. He walked away, and Qoth watched him go. When the flyers had been turned out to the last, he stepped into the temple, closing the door behind him. Candlelight glowed on a hundred bodies, and two hundred eyes watched as he approached Irina and stroked her cheek.
They came, one by one and two by two to the chapel. Families and friends, clutching the flyers he’d handed out, chattering of what it all meant. Inside, Qoth had hung tall white sheets he’d painted with scenes of family, portraits of Iliana and Irina. The congregation settled in the pews, and Qoth waited patiently for the last of the stragglers to arrive. Children darted between the rows and people chattered while passing around small cakes the local baker had made. It was a celebration, after all. A new leaf. A new life.
When they were all inside, Qoth closed the doors, and locked them. He carved a word into the chain of words around the jamb, closing the spell that would ensure nothing short of a giant’s axe could open them. He looked around, pleased. It seemed the entire warren had shown up. He took his time getting to the pulpit, stopping to greet Tvent – the man had brought his entire family – and the baker who had denied him bread more than once for fear his dough would be contaminated. Qoth smiled and shook their hands and asked after their businesses and extended family. Then he climbed the steps to the pulpit.
A low humming began in the room, and the congregation sat a little straighter, began to quiet. He took the rope in his hands that was tied to the sheets, and smiled beatifically.
“Welcome, friends. And goodbye.”
He pulled on the rope. The sheets fell. The screaming began. It did not end until the goddess he had made broke them all. When it was over, Qoth sat on the steps of the pulpit, the bodies stinking in their pews. A low humming filled the room, sweet to his ears. It was the lullaby Irina would sing to Iliana as dusk fell.
Here’s the moon
I’ll see you soon
In the land of dreams
Don’t you cry
I’ll be by
To see you in your dreams
So tell me that you love me
Love me so
And don’t you cry
I’ll be by
I’ll see you in your dreams
Qoth closed his eyes and listened, and for a moment, he saw the sun-dappled room and his wife and daughter, side by side in the big chair, their heads pressed together as she sang.
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.
“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?”
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?”
“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.”
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.
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.”
He inclined his head. “Pleased to meet you, Lyssa. How can I help you?”
“I want to bring someone back.”
“Oh? Are you sure?”
“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.”
“Cause of death?”
“Date of death?”
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.
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.
For a change, I decided to interview one of my characters from Into Nod, my forthcoming novel from Curiosity Quills. Zane (or Zee as he likes to be known), has a few thoughts he’d like to share, so I gave him a platform in exchange for him not making me make a bunny sound. Here’s Zee:
Jesus, this guy. What are you, an albino tree? Hate to run into you in a dark comic book shop. Anyway – the interview. Not doing it. I’m using this space for something else. Deal with it.
Here’s Zee’s Short Guide to the Underworld:
Holy balls, are there a lot of monsters here. Echoes and Naga, eerie undead children, and spooky triplets who wouldn’t even make the grade for a Doublemint Gum commercial. That doesn’t even count the human monsters. Lunatics and killers, power-mad sorcerers and Sham-Wow vendors. I’ve often thought about second death – no one really knows where you go when that happens – and have pretty much decided to stay as close to Elysium as possible. There are walls, a guard, and a train if I need to run. I’m much less likely to get eaten by a Stalker in the Red Waste than be bored for a short eternity. I’m fine with that. Though, I have considered growing a beard and filling it with bees for defense. People will call me Honey Beard. Children will throw stones at me. All of which is okay, because I will then send the beard bees into their faces.
Pain. Did you know you can still feel it when you’re dead? It’s an interesting and really unfair thing. I think about this a lot. There’s physical pain, mental pain, emotional pain, phantom pain. The stuff comes in all flavors and colors, and for the really lucky, one bleeds into another like blood in the water. It’s supposed to be helpful – a signal to the brain that tells you something is wrong. Boy, don’t I know it. Usually, it’s accompanied by the obvious – slam your hand in the car door – yes, there’s something wrong. My hand is now the size of a Mickey Mouse glove and throbbing. Other times, it’s not so obvious. Something in your clockwork has gone all fuckity, and you get to play twenty questions, usually to the glee of hospital administrators who bleed you so dry they’d give vampires a bad name.
The thing about pain is, it has a lot of really unhelpful side effects. Like meth, but without all the benefits. Depression, fucked-up interpersonal relationships, inability to do simple tasks, like wash a dish, or on the worst days, your own ass. Imagine someone asking you a question, and you shit in their Cheerios because you ache so bad you lash out. Pain’s like a fire – intense at first, scorching everything in its path – then, it settles in. Think of going out on a winter day, staying out for a couple hours. The cold gets into your bones. Your fingertips ache, your skin is sensitive. Then you get inside, and though you’re a little numb now, your body starts to prickle as you warm. The pain rushes up for a moment until you’re comfortable. Now imagine you never get warm, and that ache’s always in your bones.
Pain’s a bitch.
Yeah, this hurts too. A funny thing about the underworld. You think “At least when I’m dead, I won’t have to deal with stupid people.” Nope. Stupid people die too. At an almost alarming rate. At least those who aren’t backed by a state-run health and retirement program. Ahem. I’m actually surprised no one’s set up some sort of customs line to slow the influx. Expect to see a good deal of them. Push them into the path of the aforementioned monsters. They make good speed bumps.
The people of Nod trade in memories. Plan accordingly. You never know when that trip to Niagara is going to pay off. I once bought a full copy of Hemingway’s Corrigan’s Dogs. Yeah, never actually written. Except here. All it cost me was…shit. The thing about losing memories is you never remember what you lost. Some people spend so many or find themselves so far in debt, they lose them all. Then they end up Echoes. Not a pleasant experience, and a good way to find yourself in the Queen’s foundries. Worse yet are the demigods. They trade in favors. You really don’t want to owe a divine being a favor. Ask Hercules.
Back to you, Treebeard.
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!
So, here it is, an official announcement. I always kind of envisioned this as one of those old parties where they stand you up front in your 1920s tuxedo while glitter and champagne reflected the light in the room, and embarrass the hell out of you, but this works, too.
My first novel, Child of Nod, was picked up by Curiosity Quills Press. It’s a dark take on Alice in Wonderland, with a bit of Lovecraft, Pratchett, King, and the Old Testament thrown in for good measure.
It’s scheduled for a tentative release date of November 11, 2017, so hold on.
In the meantime, enjoy the champagne and the band, and try to say hi to Gatsby at some point.