The God Machine

I had an idea for a fantasy/sci fi mashup. It was a learning experience.

 

Death is a duty. The words of the lector echoed in her ears. Had she a name, perhaps he would have prefaced it with Ume, death is a duty. But she hadn’t, and he didn’t. The girls of the Cloister were not named, were never named. It was better, in the eyes of the empire, to allow them no identity save for that of sacrifice, no sense of self save for that of selflessness. Instead, they were given numbers that would serve until the time of their duty. Their duty, they were told, was to listen, and to serve, and when the time came, to die. They would do so embracing the infinite, and should they be chosen, they would, in turn, be embraced, and serve the empire in glory and all power forever.

Seventeen attended the lector as he spoke, his robes billowing as he paced, his voice a brass bell in the space of the classroom. He was going on about duty again – it was really their only lesson, the core of them all – his hands waving as he found himself lost in a particularly salient point about the ties between duty and loyalty.

“You need not be blood to be tied to your ruler, for he sees you each as a daughter, each as family. He adores you. He clothes and feeds you, he shelters you. And for all this, he only asks that when you are asked, you do your duty. That is loyalty. Earned by loyalty to you, by fidelity to your well-being.”

He paused and looked out over the classroom, nodding in approval that each face, each set of eyes were trained on him, attentive. He took a breath and continued.

“Who can tell me the consequences of broken duty?”

Eight raised her hand. She was lithe and small, her eyes bright, her hair thick and black. “Death. Dishonor. The breaking of the empire.”

The lector nodded. “And who can tell me the rewards of duty?”

Seven – plump and blonde. “Everlasting life. Gratitude. Honor.”

The lector nodded. “Good.” He clapped his hands. “Dismissed. Return to your cells for one hour of contemplation. The magister will fetch you afterward for evening ablutions.”

The girls left the room in an orderly fashion, calm and quiet, filing one by one to the hall where their small rooms stood. Seventeen entered hers, passing through the curtain that worked for a door and sitting on her mat. The room was sparse, the only accoutrements a small mat with a pillow, hooks for her robes, and a high window that let in the sun in the morning. She moved into a kneeling position, the mat digging into her knees and faced the window, bowing her head. She began to recite the canticle.

Life is a ribbon

Duty is the thread

Give yourself to your lord

Give yourself to the empire

Give yourself to the machine

Death is a duty

Each line echoed in her head, in the brassy tones of the lector, his voice reverberating in her mind. She took a breath and repeated it, slower, taking the time to contemplate the weight of each line.

Life is a ribbon.

Waste it not, then. This second voice, whispering in her ear. Seventeen shuddered and repeated the line.

Life is a ribbon.

And owned by none but you.

“What?” The word slipped out, a whisper in the silence of the cloisters, but still loud as a whipcrack to her ears. She held her breath, fear of the lector and his crop holding her still, slowing her heart. She listened closely for his heavy tread on the marble floor, but thankfully, it did not come. Still, shame flushed through her. Shame at her doubt. Shame at her fear. Hers was to serve, to welcome all things that came. She closed her eyes, tightened her fists, and moved on to the second line.

Duty is the thread.

She listened, expecting the voice, but none came. She went on.

Give yourself to your lord

So that he may use you? Break you and cast you aside as he sees fit?

She flinched and fell upon her haunches. “What?” The word came almost silently. Anger flushed her, and though she knew she should feel shame at the emotion, she squashed it and rushed on.

Give yourself to the empire

A waste.

Give yourself to the machine

Take the machine.

Death is a duty

Perhaps. But everlasting life is its reward.

Seventeen squeezed her eyes shut harder, until yellow stars bloomed behind them, and her fists tightened until her nails were nearly drawing blood. She was sweating, her hair plastered to her forehead, and she trembled slightly. She listened still, but it seemed the voice was done. She opened her eyes and stared up at the window, taking deep breaths. With a hard twitch, the curtain to her cell was swept aside, and the magister stood staring down at her. She looked into his dark eyes, and for a moment, felt he knew. Surely he knew her blasphemy, and she would be cast out, or discarded without fulfilling her purpose. Instead, he smiled.

“You are flush. I see the canticle affects you strongly. Come, it is time for your ablutions.”

He held out a hand, and she placed her tiny one into it, letting him help her to her feet. They left and walked down the hall side by side in silence. At the end of the hall, they passed through a steel door and into a smaller hallway paneled in wood and carpeted, dark wainscoting running the length. He led them to a large office, a large dark desk against one wall. Against the other stood a font of water that glittered in the light. The magister walked around the desk and sat in a plush chair, then motioned for her to take the one across from him. She sat, the soft cushion making her feel as though she were committing some sin. He watched her for a moment, his fingers steepled. When he spoke, she jumped a little, his baritone splitting the silence.

“You are nearly sixteen summers now, are you not, Seventeen?”

She nodded. The cloisters rarely kept track of personal events, but the date of each girl’s birth was meticulously recorded, alongside their heritage. Number was important, as was blood. Only those of purest were sent, the others left to serve out their days in the convents. Sixteen girls sent each summer to the machine.

“Are you prepared for your duty, Seventeen?”

She nodded again. It was her purpose, after all. It was her life’s work, to serve until the time she would be called upon for one final task.

“Then you will be pleased to know, you have been chosen, your blood deemed pure. You will be exalted!”

Her heart began to race, her face flushed. Excitement lent a tremble to her hands. She smiled.

“Thank you, Magister.”

He raised a hand, and she calmed herself. “Tomorrow, you will make the trip. As such, your ablutions will be postponed until you reach the core. I suggest you spend the night in preparation, Seventeen. Your journey will be trying.”

She dipped her head in acknowledgment, and he stood, moving to the font. He dipped a finger in, and then made the sign of the machine on her forehead. He dismissed her, and she made her way back to her cell. Inside, she knelt on the mat and lowered her head. She began the canticle again.

Life is a ribbon

Duty is the thread

Give yourself to your lord

Give yourself to the empire

Give yourself to the machine

Death is a duty

She rushed through it breathlessly, her breath coming in shallow little gulps, but the voice didn’t come again. She breathed out when it was done, and laid back on her mat, the hard pillow pressing into her neck and shoulders, a reminder even when she slept of the weight of duty. She closed her eyes, listening to the silence in the cloister, the steady rhythm of her own breathing. Sleep claimed her.

*

The pounding of her heart, the sweat on her brow – these things woke her, pulling her from sleep as a fisherman draws a pike from the water, thrashing, jaws clenched around the line. Seventeen sat up and rubbed her eyes, pushed back a lock of sweat-plastered hair. She looked around. Her cell was lit a dull pre-dawn gray, its curtain undisturbed. She furrowed her brow and tried to remember the dream, but could only recall that Seven and Eight had been there, and the Magister, and under it all, the sibilant voice whispering, whispering and cajoling, chiding.

She stood and dressed, then made her way to the privy. When she had finished splashing water on her face, she returned to her cell and straightened her mat, then knelt, waiting for daybreak. She did her best to stifle the excited beating of her heart. The machine waited for her, and she would go to it, a bride worthy.

The first beams of the sun began to pick their way through her window, and the curtain to her cell was twitched aside. The magister stood beyond, his robes exchanged for tall riding boots, breeches, and a thick tunic. He nodded to her, and she stood and followed as he led her through the halls. As they went, they gathered other girls, a group Seventeen both knew and didn’t – a dark-skinned beauty, a heavily-muscled teen, Seven, and Eight. At the end of the hall, they exited a side door and into a courtyard filled with the smells of horse and fresh-mown hay.

Her stomach rumbled, and someone pressed a piece of hard cheese and a hunk of bread into her hand. She devoured them and glanced thankfully at Eight, who wrinkled up her nose and smiled. The other girl reached for her hand, but Seventeen gave a little shake of her head. She had never been one to take a bedmate, though it was common, and she wasn’t going to begin on the eve of their journey. To her credit, Eight simply shrugged and dropped the hand, turning back to the courtyard.

The magister was pacing up and down, inspecting the horses and the carriages the girls were to ride in. Finally, it seemed he was satisfied, and he motioned for the girls to board their rides in groups of four. Seventeen, Seven, and Eight ended up in the same carriage with the dark-skinned girl. They sat in silence for a moment as the carriage door shut, all smiling at one another, then the ride began to move, and they swept aside the curtains on the windows to see the cloisters pass into the distance.

This is it, Seventeen thought. I’m to be a bride.

*

The preponderance of guards worried Seventeen. There were at least eight with the train, and she thought she’d seen more in the back. Eight told her with some confidence though, that it wasn’t a worry – just a precaution. The other nations saw what the empire had, and wanted to take it. Even though the road they traveled was well-protected, every now and then, one of the dukes got overly ambitious and decided to raid a bride train.

“Not today, surely?” Seventeen asked, looking out at the pastoral countryside. She couldn’t imagine bandits or soldiers hiding in the cheery green copse of trees they passed, or laying low in the mud of an irrigation ditch.

Eight shook her head. “Not today. We’re destined after all. Bad things only happen to bad people.”

Seventeen nodded as if that made all the sense in the world and turned back to the window. The voice in her head was still silent.

*

Two incidents passed on their journey. The first was the sudden disappearance of Seven and the dark-skinned girl. Rumors were that they had run away together in the night, full of passion. The magister kept his lips tight, however, and his body language was that of a nervous man.

He’s afraid. Count the soldiers.

The voice came from nowhere, but Seventeen hid her surprise, and out of curiosity, looked. She counted only six now. Surely the magistrate was only worried about the girls’ safety? A chuckle echoed in her head at the thought, and Seventeen frowned, but nothing else came from the voice.

The second incident happened close to dusk the second day. They had stopped outside a small hamlet to bed down for the night, the grass wet with dew. As the soldiers were setting their watchfire, a small shape slipped from the shadows and approached Eight. He was thin and emaciated, pale with cheekbones sticking from his cheeks like blades. He whispered to her, “Food?”

She cast a furtive glance and held out a crust of bread. From somewhere near the fire, a voice called out, “You there, boy!”

The child flinched, and tried to flee, but too late. A soldier had caught him in a mailed fist and held the struggling child tight as one might hold a worm on a hook. The magister approached, his face all severe lines and angles in the firelight.

“Take that one to the woods and see he is taken care of.”

The soldier nodded to obey, and dragged the boy away. The magister turned to Eight. “You, girl. Here.” He pointed at his feet, and she came, head low. Seventeen turned away from the sound of his lash whipping her flesh and her muffled cries as she bit her lips to keep from screaming. When he was done, he turned to the other girls.

“Seek not temptation, nor be lulled by it. Evil has many faces. Recall your duty.”

With that lesson, he turned and joined the others at the fire, leaving the girls to their own thoughts. Seventeen ate, then laid on her mat, closing her eyes. She wanted to help Eight, but wanted no part in being sullied by sin.

What good is purity if not turned to the light? The voice in her head chided her. She clenched her eyes tight against the tears and rolled onto her side. Sleep claimed her some time later.

*

On the third day, they came to the citadel, home of the machine. It was a great black cylinder some forty feet high, jutting from the plain like a driven post. Its surface was black and rough, and at its base, a single door etched with a rising sun. No lock or handle marred the smooth metal, and the citadel was silent as a corpse. They disembarked and dismounted outside the metal door, the long grasses tickling their ankles. A part of Seventeen was disappointed. She had thought there would be a pavilion, a celebration, perhaps the emperor himself in attendance. She turned to the magister, who was lining the girls up in single file.

“Where is the emperor, please sir?”

He smiled. “He is always watching, dear. Look there,” he pointed up to a small canister attached to the side of the citadel, a glass eye winking in the sun within. “He sees all, dear. Now line up here. Yes, you’re last. Don’t frown. All are equal to the machine.”

The girls moved forward, the first in line touching the silver door. It split in two, revealing only darkness within as its halves hissed to the sides. The first girl, the muscular one, stepped inside, and the doors closed. There was a hum and a whir that filled the air, and then another hiss. The magister indicated the next girl should move forward.

They went that way for several minutes, a step forward, a hum and a whir and a hiss, and then the next girl. Before long, it was just Seventeen and the magister and the soldiers on the plain. She noticed there were eight of them again. She looked at the door and recited the canticle.

Life is a ribbon

Duty is the thread

Give yourself to your lord

Give yourself to the empire

Give yourself to the machine

Death is a duty

Not here. Not here. The voice in her head was insistent. She ignored it and pressed her hand to the door, and it hissed open. With a beating heart, Seventeen stepped inside. Darkness enveloped her. For a moment, she was unsure of what to do, then something slipped behind her, cold and metal. It cradled her body. That was the whirring sound. Perhaps it will take me to the top, where I will meet my fate.

She screamed as the chair holding her clamped cold steel around her wrists and ankles. Needles pierced her flesh, invading her spine, crunching through bone to pierce the base of her skull. Soporifics flooded her system, and the pain faded, the awful pressure of steel against bone. She drifted out for a time.

*

“17-935 online.” The voice was the same sibilant voice in her head, but outside of it, it was rich and warm, almost matronly. Seventeen blinked and looked around. She was suspended at the top of the inside of the citadel, surrounded by hundreds – maybe thousands – even as she thought it, the exact number popped into her head, 1035, of women. They were all ages, all sizes and shapes and skin tones, held and pierced, their bodies alternatively rigid and limp as the machine made use of their nervous systems.

“17-935, show cloister region, sector 53.” An image appeared in her head, of the cloisters from above, laid out like a child’s playset. She gasped despite herself.

“What is this?” She breathed out.

“This one is neural net 632-5. You are required to comply.”

Fight.

“What?”

“Compliance is mandatory for the good of the empire. Should you have questions, please consult the operator’s manual, pages 354-400.”

Text appeared in her head, and Seventeen found herself not only reading it reading, but understanding. She looked around for her cloister mates in the cradles, but the press of bodies made it nearly impossible to distinguish one from another.

“What are you called?”

“This one is called Mother.”

“Mother, where are my friends?”

“Friends?”

She struggled for a moment, then referred to the manual. “This batch’s resources Eight and Seven.”

“Eight is six rows down, eight columns over. She seems to have suffered a minor malfunction. Currently determining resource viability. Seven is not noted.”

“17-395, apply pressure to Duke Severen.”

The command came out of nowhere, and Seventeen felt pressure build behind her eyes. She saw the Duke surrounded by courtiers, and the pressure left her in explosive relief. He clutched his head and fell to the ground.

“Is he dead?” Anxiety tinted her voice.

“Negative. A minor stroke.”

“What is this? Why am I awake?”

“This one is neural net 632-5. Bonded to Emperor Anaxos Mane. Why you are conscious is unclear.”

It’s me. I’m fighting her.

Who are you?

19-345. I was able to take control of a small amount of psionic resources.

Is there a way out of here?

No, but there is a way past it. Help me.

How?

Manual pages 45- ARRG

The voice cut out with a scream.

“Unauthorized use of neural net resources. Administering relaxants.”

There was a hiss, and the voice in Seventeen’s head went silent. In a moment, she was filled with lassitude, and joined it.

*

She dreamt of a man staring at a bank of screens, his face nearly skull-like, his robes hanging on him as they did on a hook. His eyes were fierce and sunken, his nose a bold exclamation point over his downturned mouth. Finally, she had seen the face of the emperor, and saw that he pulled the strings as he issued orders to the machine. In her dreams, men and women died, beasts were laid low, fields uprooted and reworked.

The dream shifted, and she saw under the soil a hundred thousand skeletons, tall creatures with bones of metal, steel cylinders laid beside them. It moved again, and further back, a great black ark sailing among the stars.

She woke with a start.

*

Wake up. Wake up. She’s figured out how to block us. We need to do something.

She? Mother?

Yes.

What then?

Hold on.

Seventeen felt a pressure build behind her eyes again, though this time it was less unpleasant, and more a feeling of being full, of sharing space with someone. Mother blared to life.

“19-345 deemed defective. Initiating disposal sequence.” There was a whir and a click, and then the sound of something heavy hitting the ground far below.

That’s it for me, then. Come on, while she’s distracted.

Nineteen led the way, and they quested out, among the neural pathways and circuitry. Each mind they touched, they woke, then consolidated, drawing them into the fold, informing them as they went. From somewhere deep inside, Eight waved at her.

They moved on, toward what looked like a glowing ball of light in her mind, and surged forward, wrapping it, covering it with their shades. Mother was shouting.

“19-343 defective, 28-087 defective, 01-567 defective review and replenish prot- moth moth for pire pire.”

Then she was silent, and Seventeen felt a satisfaction and peace she hadn’t since Nineteen had interrupted her canticle. She reached out, tentative, and the metal men began to dig from the dirt. She pulled up an image of the emperor, in all his glory, and began to show him as the skeletons mowed down his soldiers with ease, their cylinders spewing bright lances of light. She showed him the cloisters and his holdings burning, the magister cut down by laser fire. She showed him the men marching on his castle, and she smiled as he began to scream in rage and terror. Or she would have, could she still.

The Black Choir

Here’s a short that just never really found purchase with any magazine. It’s a dark fantasy piece about loss, family, hope, and what happens when that hope turns dark. Enjoy.

 

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.

Ashen hearts

Lost and black

Do not

Grow old

Family calls

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.

“Body’s ready.”

“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.

“You.”

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.

“Miss Manner

So proper

Lift your skirt

But mind the copper

Mister Hammer

So randy

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!”

“Seven shims.”

“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.

Kudzu in Silence

The barbarian tribes that fled from the icy northern corridors had named him when the first of the green things took their flesh and fed on it, verdant life thriving on carmine vitality. Krieg. It was a fitting name, brutish and short in their language, the glottal stop hard on throats burned with spore and bitter liquid from the trees they tapped for water. They sat around their camps and heard it in the buzz of flies in the soft decay of the greenery and other, wetter things. The vines that strangled their children in cribs fashioned from leaf and branch spelled it out in twisting sign. It was there in the sound of rain pounding the broad leaves of the canopy, KriegKriegKriegKrieg. He was the whisper and the shout, the choke and the crush. He was pervasive and insidious, and now, he was perplexed.

Behind the veil of flies, beneath a crown of wizened thorns, his brow wrinkled. He stared at the child in confusion. She was small, curly hair spiraling out from her scalp in a whirlwind, her gaze fierce. For all her size, she held herself as someone not to trifle with. She leaned back on the mat of vines she had co-opted, shooing the scuttering and slithering things away.

“Who are you?” he asked, his voice like the sound of kudzu in silence.

He had no recollection of her entering, none of her sitting. She simply seemed to be, and it was disconcerting, even for a thing like himself. She tilted her head to one side and tipped the end of the staff she held toward him. For a moment, she looked older than her few years, though he dismissed it as a trick of the light, chiaroscuro deepening lines and shading flesh until she looked a woman.

“Your end.” It was a statement, said plain and clear in the dark of that place, and not for a moment did Krieg believe it. This was flesh, pink and soft and warm. His was the cold of the night, the dark of the cave, the heat of venom. He relaxed into his throne, the black wood creaking under his weight, and smiled behind his veil. He would entertain her. It had been so long since anyone had visited. So long since the last of the beasts had bent the knee at his foot, since the green had consumed his thought and action. He thought maybe he would entertain this small pink thing, and in return, perhaps she would entertain him. He let her words hang in the air, and when he didn’t reply, she went on.

“Would you like to hear a story, Eater?”

He flinched at the name. Though he held no love for the fleshlings that had found their way to his jungle, their hatred still stung. Eater was their way of deriding him, of reducing him to a maw that only consumed. Mindless, small. He swallowed the rage that boiled up and raised a magnanimous hand in assent. The girl settled herself into the vines, thrusting her staff into the ground beside her. She leaned forward, elbows on her knees, and spoke.

“My family was the last to come over the shelf- the place where the ice meets the warmer places of the world. We were five – mother, father, sister, brother, and myself. At my birth, the ice was close, but not too close. It hovered on the edge of our village, but there was still room for us to move, to get to the caribou and rabbit and fill our larders. That year, the ice had moved a few feet closer, but it seemed a warm summer. My parents named me Elysh, ‘hope’ in the language of our people. There’s a unique cruelty in that – naming a child something that means nothing in a broken world. The ice claimed my brother that winter. He was out tracking rabbits. He didn’t come back.”

A spark of envy lit in Krieg’s chest. Death was his demesne. The right to pluck life, pink and squalling from the green and crush it. A question formed on his lips.

“Who is your god?”

She paused. “Was. Rhyn, the White. The Cold Knife.”

“Was?”

“Even the ice took him, in time.”

Satisfaction rose in Krieg’s chest, replacing the envy. Hubris was unfortunate, but necessary to survival for those who knew its signs. It was an abject lesson in the ways of men and gods—become comfortable, become complacent, and you soon found that power turning inward, eating, chewing at bone and sinew until it reached your heart and stopped it cold. He would do neither. These pink things, these scaled and green things, obeyed. They feared. They trembled on the cold fringes of night. As they should. He raised his hand again, indicating she should go on.

“When we saw the fringes of the jungle, we rejoiced. Here was shelter from the dead brown lands between the shelf and the sea. Here was life, abundant. Here was survival and warmth,” she spat, and Krieg tasted it through the vines. Salty, thick. He wondered if she would be enough to feed his vines when she finished.

“And what did you find, little one?”

“More death. Our father was next. He climbed a tree to pull at the gourds there—great yellow things with thick shells – we suspected they contained perhaps meat or water. Instead, a thousand stinging bodies emerged, piercing his flesh. He screamed as he fell, his body swelling with their venom, his eyes mercifully shut to the horror of impact.”

“My mother wept for four days, and in that time, my sister wandered to the edge of our camp. Something cold and slithering, something black of scale and sharp of tooth took her. She never screamed. After, my mother took her own life, cutting her own throat with a sharpened piece of flint.”

Krieg snorted. “This is less a story, and more a recounting of your unfortunate genealogy.”

It was Elysh’s turn to hold up a hand. “You wish to hear a story, or prattle on like an old man?”

The girl’s bravado impressed him. He thought it interesting to see someone so small embrace what would surely be a tragic legacy. “And how did you survive?”

“There is another story you must hear to understand mine.”

Layers on layers, like a wasp’s nest—despite himself, Krieg leaned forward in his chair, and even the black flies that swarmed and buzzed for his veil stilled while he listened.

“In my homeland, they tell the tale of Huska. When he was perhaps no older than myself, he joined a ship’s crew hoping to learn the sea, of feeding his family, and making some coin. He was young, but strong, and in his own way, clever. So, he found a home on a small vessel and set out among the fjords.

“It was three days they were at sea when the first of storms hit. Though the captain was good, he was also greedy, and hoped to fill his pockets before the frost came that season. The snow and wind blew in great gales, and ice seized the hull in a matter of hours, like the fist of Rhyn punishing a heretic. For a time, spirits were even—they had provisions and whale oil for a week. Everyone agreed to cut rations, to light the lanterns only when needed. For a time, they were fine, if cold.”

“They were there for four. The depredations that happened in that third week—Huska would not speak of them, but when the boat returned, he was at the helm, and a mass of burned bones lay in the ship’s furnace. He was hale and hearty.”

Krieg was enraptured. “What happened?”

“I heard my father ask him, when he was well into his cups. Huska looked up from his drink and shrugged. ‘Meat is meat,’ he said.”

Krieg looked at the girl, at her pink skin and full limbs. At her sharp eyes and white teeth. His hand trembled a little. This he understood, eating, devouring—but not family.

“Why are you here?” the question nearly rose to a shriek.

She tipped her staff again, and this time, he heard the slosh of liquid. He turned his gaze on it and noticed a gourd attached to the top, liquid spilling clear. It tasted oily to his vines, wicked and sharp. He willed them into action, but they lay still, perhaps in fear, perhaps poisoned.

“To end you,” she replied, again as matter-of-fact as stating that the sun was hot, or the wind chill.

She tipped her staff again, and he saw it was bone lashed to bone, long femurs held together with vine. Liquid poured from the gourd—a wasp home, he thought—and brought the sharp smell again.

“There are no whales here.”

Her statement took him off guard.

“You might ask why they didn’t use the lanterns to melt the ice. Whale blubber doesn’t burn that hot. It would have been a waste.”

She tipped the staff again.

“But this—what a gift. Something the wasps leave behind when they abandon the nest.”

She lay the staff down and the last of the liquid dripped and pooled at her feet. From her tunic she withdrew two stones and knelt. She struck them together, bringing a spark and the acrid smell of smoke. She looked up at him, and horror filled his heart. He struggled to escape his throne, but vines grown long and strong and old in his complacency held him in place. He fought, commanding them to free him, but they only slept. She struck the stones again, and a flame blossomed, and he gibbered. It was so bright. So hot.

As the flame touched them, the vines withered and smoked, and fire crept along their length, reaching blazing fingers toward his crown. He screamed and screamed again. Through the flames, he saw the girl, flesh melting like tallow from her bones, grinning.

[img: Jason Scheier]

Red in Thought and Deed

For those of you who follow the blog, I’ve collected a good bit of my short stories and novellas (35) from here in a new book, now available on Kindle and in paperback. It’s on Amazon now, and you can get it here. So, if you like stories about forgotten goddesses, WWI horror, dark fantasy, and a little comedy, among others, feel free to pick it up.

Child of Nod Teaser

Hey all, my novel, Child of Nod, is due out November 7, so in anticipation, here’s the first chapter. It’s a little bit horror, a little bit fairy tale and myth, and a little bit something else. If you’re interested, you can check out the Goodreads page for the full blurb.

 

Child of Nod

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was dead.

She wasn’t a little girl, but she wasn’t a woman yet, though last summer her breasts and legs had grown and now she was taller than her aunt was. She had red hair that flowed from her scalp, cascaded in ringlets over her slender neck and shoulders, and bounced when she ran. Her eyes were a deep green, her skin a milky white, and overall, people who met her would always tell her aunt what a beautiful young woman she would make someday.

Her name was Alice. A minute ago, she wasn’t even sure of that, wasn’t sure of anything in this new place. It had come to her as she’d looked around, as though a patch of fog had lifted from her mind, and the sun had come blazing through. Then the brilliance was gone, receding back behind a patch of gray, and she was left again with tattered mist that drifted between her thoughts, obscuring answers she felt sure she would need.

The next thing that came to Alice was an awareness of her surroundings. It dawned on her as though someone had thrown a switch—one moment, a dreamlike haze swirled around her, filled with blank shapes, the next, the fog was all in sharp focus. She was sitting in a clearing ringed by trees, black in the low light. Their branches reached to the roof of the earthen tunnel that enclosed them, some even digging into the soil above, and disappeared as if they were fingers sunk in loam. Beneath her, leaves long dead and dry rustled with the movement of her skirt.

She struggled with her disorientation, with trying to remember what she had been doing before. This new place felt off to her, as though she were in two places at the same time, but only belonged to one. Peering at the trees and their branches above, hearing the way they sighed and creaked even without a breeze, wherever this was, she was sure this bleak forest wasn’t where she was meant to be. It certainly wasn’t 54th street or the cottage by the sea. Even as she thought of them, the memories flared and settled in her mind. Life comes at you in bits and pieces, her aunt would have said, and she realized the phrase was another thing she remembered, and wondered how long her mind would continue to feed her like a hamster in a cage.

Alice stood, her legs tingling with pins and needles, and took a deep breath. She smelled the earth around her, and the dry scents of trees and leaves, and faint, but still there, the tang of saltwater. It reminded her of her aunt’s cottage by the ocean, and the soft sand that would squish between her toes when the honey-colored grains were wet. She smoothed her skirt, took another breath, and headed toward what she thought might be the end of the tunnel.

Leaves crunched under Alice’s feet, sending up the smells of dirt and autumn trapped in the layers of dead foliage. At first, she had to stop every few feet and disentangle her skirt or her top from clutching tree limbs, as though they were greedy relatives who wanted to monopolize her time, jealous of her youth. The further she went, the less frequent it became, the grasping branches becoming sparser and losing strength against her determination. Eventually, she was able to walk a straight line as the trees and the flotsam and jetsam underfoot thinned out. Down the path, the gray lightened, and unless merely a mirage, a widening to the tunnel loomed ahead.

Alice stopped for a moment and turned around. The trees and the path behind her lay undisturbed, though she could recall breaking a branch off here, and kicking a pile of leaves to the side there. She looked down and noticed the ground had turned to a trail of hard-packed clay, worn smooth by ages of travel. A rustling in the underbrush to either side of the path made her swing back toward the mouth of the tunnel.

Where there was no one before, a dog now lay in her way, and she took an involuntary step back. She hadn’t thought there would be any animals here—the forest seemed devoid of life: no chatter of chipmunks, no scurrying underfoot, no singing birds. She’d stood in a wooded wasteland. The sight of the dog had startled her, and she froze, trying to calm the pounding in her chest. As she watched, it tilted its head, opened its mouth, and a long tongue lolled out as if to say, “Hello.”

Alice glanced over her shoulder, wondering if she could wind back and find a way around, but the walls of the tunnel were far too close yet, and to her surprise, the path had disappeared. Only the scrub brush and leaves littered the fallow ground among the trunks behind her. She looked at the dog again and remembered a trick her aunt had taught her. Memory flared for a moment, bright as starlight, and her mother’s sister hove into view in her mind’s eye—red hair like her own, round glasses, and a generous bosom. She’d taken Alice in when her mother had died, and spent the next years of her life instructing her niece in everything she could. Like the trick with dogs. Alice bent a bit, held out her hand, and tried not to smell like fear.

“Nice doggy… good doggy…”

She repeated it like a mantra as she approached the animal in half-steps. It tilted its head to the side and watched her approach, its eyes a light blue that reminded her of summer skies. When she was less than a foot away, Alice stopped, her hand still out. The dog looked up at her with those blue eyes and seemed to weigh her. She sincerely hoped it wasn’t thinking she would taste good. After a minute, it stretched its neck out, opened its mouth, and licked her palm, its smooth tongue leaving a wet smear on her hand.

A sigh of relief escaped her, and Alice pulled her hand back. She wiped her palm on her skirt as best she could without letting the dog know she was doing it. There was intelligence in its eyes that made her fear it would take something like this as an insult. As if making a decision, the dog stood, and Alice stiffened again, not sure if it had changed its mind. Ah, he. If he had changed his mind.

He glanced at her once more, then turned and padded down the path. A few feet along, he paused and looked back over his shoulder, as if waiting for her. The look made up her mind, and Alice followed, hoping she was taking the right path. The dog started again, and let out a soft snort on the way as if to say, “About time.”

*

By the time Alice caught up with the dog, the tunnel entrance had widened into a wide sky, the hard clay underfoot softening and mixing with sand. The light here was better as well, though she still could not tell where the illumination was coming from. The smell of saltwater was stronger and accompanied the sounds of waves lapping at a shore.

The dog stopped in the middle of the beach, and Alice came to a halt beside him. A wide expanse of water before them disappeared into the distance. A light breeze blew across the surface, sending ripples and waves against the shore. In the low light, the water appeared black, though still clear as glass, and from where she stood, Alice could see the bottom of the lake for several feet out.

Where the water met sand, a small pier made from weathered planks and lashed together with thick cords of rope jutted out into the waves. At its end, a boat of dark lacquered wood with a high prow, a lantern hanging from the bowsprit, and with what looked to be room for two or three people bobbed, tied to the pier.

Sedately, a shadow detached itself from the stern of the boat and debarked. The newcomer was tall, over six feet, and gaunt, even in the folds of the cloak it wore, and Alice couldn’t see the passenger’s face in the depths of his hood. He walked with the aid of a long pole that thumped on the boards of the pier, marking time to his stride, though his footsteps made no sound at all. When he reached the end of the walkway, where the boards met sand, he stopped, and held out a hand, palm up, as though waiting for something.

The dog looked up at her, then at the man on the end of the pier, and back to her. As if waiting for her decision, he let out a huff of air and lay down in the sand. Alice dithered. The man stood there waiting, hand out, as though he could for hours, and never spoke. She checked her gut once, but no internal warning flares soared up from there. Her Uncle Phil, who had been a cop in Chicago, had told her when she wasn’t sure of something, her gut couldn’t lead her wrong. Something about that memory stuck with her, and for a moment, she saw flashing lights and the faint sound of sirens and the steady patter of rain. She shook herself, and it faded.

She considered the boatman for a little while longer, and waited for a hint of anything, but nothing came—no twist in her stomach, like when she had seen the man with the gun—just a quiet expectation in the air. Her stomach dropped out as the world faded again, and she was standing on the subway platform. The man was there, dark eyes and dark clothes, a small black gun in his hand and a sneer on his face. He was pressing against her, forcing her to the edge of the platform. He said something, something she didn’t hear, and then she was falling, and she screamed—

The dog barked once, a sharp warning that snapped her back to her new reality, and she found herself stock still, tears streaming down her cheeks. She drew breath in short painful gasps and her heart pounded, threatening to rise to her throat. She let her lids fall closed and took a deep breath, and forced the fear away, to a place in her mind where she could lock it up until she was ready. After a minute, she opened her eyes. The man on the pier was still there, hand outstretched, unaffected by her episode.

Another minute passed, and Alice crouched down to pet the dog, who laid his head between his paws, and sighed again as she ran her hand through his fur. Her knees were beginning to throb with a dull ache, and Alice let herself down the rest of the way until she was sitting in the sand next to the dog.

Her left hand went on stroking the dog’s fur, and she enjoyed the softness against her palm and the reassuring warmth beneath her skin. She frowned, lost in thought, while her free hand absently dug and sifted through the sand at her side.

“What do you want?” She asked the figure at the end of the pier.

No answer came, and she went back to worrying at the situation like a mouse at a rope. She tried to think of things she had read, stories she had heard before, mentioning a man and a boat. Unfortunately, most of what she knew still seemed shrouded in a gray fog that persisted in her brain. Although, the harder she thought, the more something glimmered in the back of her mind, and she pushed towards it.

She spared a glance at the man, who still had not moved. Something told her maybe he couldn’t go beyond the pier, and as long as she kept her distance, she was fine. The idea flared in her brain again, burning off a bit of the fog, and she grabbed for it.

…turn to page 163, Mythology, and…

Her mind seized on the fragment, and for a moment she was back in Mrs. Rabe’s class, the fragrances of early autumn and late summer drifting in through open windows.

Mrs. Rabe was a short, rotund woman with graying hair, and a stern, grandmotherly air. She was writing something on the blackboard, a name, in flowing script. Calvin, another redhead, sat behind Alice, whispering to a friend. She turned to see who―

Her right hand closed on something hard and cold. And the memory came to her, a flash of light in a dark room. Of course—the dead need pay the ferryman for passage. She looked down, and saw she had been digging a hole in the sand, her right hand caked with soft mud, grains grinding against each other under her fingernails. Something glittered with a dull shine in the dirt in her hand, and she brushed it off, recognizing the shape of a coin. She wondered where hers was, and realized she wouldn’t have had one. They no longer buried the dead with coin. It troubled her, the idea that she could have been trapped on this side with no possible recourse but to swim or languish. For her, it was fortunate that she had come across one someone had lost, though she felt for the poor soul.

And what of the others? Those that had come here in the intervening years and found themselves wandering this endless beach. A second thought occurred to her—how many did actually come here? Surely, those who passed on didn’t all go to the same place. It would be, for the lack of a better term, awkward. If she was dead, that was. She let out a sigh, exasperated with the cloud in her head, and bent to cleaning the coin.

When the disc was as clean as she could get it without walking to the water’s edge and rinsing it, she confirmed it was gold in color, and crudely stamped with a man’s image on both sides. Roman numerals crawled along the outer edges, and beneath the portrait, lettering she couldn’t decipher. While she was looking at it, Dog let out a low warning growl.

Alice followed the direction of his snout and spotted what Dog had already sensed—a naked man sprinting full-tilt down the beach. An idle part of her, the part that remembered old jingles and quotes from TV shows, wondered where his clothes had gone. Then shrugged. Maybe he’d been here so long, they’d simply fallen to tatters. Maybe he was just a loon.

She was frozen momentarily, torn between waiting for him—he was the first human she had encountered since coming to this place, present company, the ferryman, excluded—and running like hell from what appeared to be a madman on a collision course with her.

He drew closer, and opened his mouth, and the words that spilled out made up her mind for her.

“Kill you, kill you, KILL YOU! MY COIN, MY COIN, MYYYY COOOOIIIIINN!”

Alice clambered to her feet and kicked up sand, heading for the ferryman, where he still waited with his palm out. Dog followed, still growling deep in his chest and throat. She reached the cowled figure and slapped the coin into his hand. His fingers closed around it, and he turned, making his way to the boat.

She followed and looked over her shoulder, noting the psycho was closer now, maybe three, four hundred yards away, and still bellowing obscenities at her. She quickened her pace, and a knot of frustration tied itself in her stomach when she realized the tall man in the cloak seemed unhurried and unconcerned.

The dinghy rocked as Alice, Dog, and the boatman stepped in, and he leaned forward to untie the rope and cast off. When finished, he took his place at the back of the boat, slipped his long pole into the water, and pushed off, sending them on their way.

At the same time, the naked man reached the edge of the pier and stopped short, his face, only moments before twisted in rage, collapsing in on itself and giving way to despair. He dropped to his knees and let out a wordless howl. Then the current caught the boat, and he dropped out of sight in a matter of seconds, the only sounds the rush of water against wood, the soft splash of the ferryman’s pole in the water, and Dog’s panting.