I Am


I am, says the Eternal Flame to Man.

The Man is afraid, abiding the moment as one in a trance or stranded in a dream idling on the edge of wakefulness. The blaze is hot but not stifling. It is a perfect heat, if such a thing can be perfect. Purple and pink tendrils of lighting reach over the mountaintop as if drawn by the flames. The fire drinks the rain. It is a fire unquenchable just as the force fueling it is unstoppable.

The ground is sacred – take off your shoes and feel the earth. Be in this moment. Hear me. Believe me. Trust me. Do everything I say and never again know the fear of man.

Wake up. I am the Lion and I am the Lamb. I spoke and light tore through dark matter like a splintered diamond. I breathed and the wind skipped across an eternal storm igniting a restless ambition. Wake up. Be light. Know me. I am the Lion and I am the Lamb.

I never tire of the flames or of the furious speed. I do not grow weary at the vastness of my thoughts. The songs of stars are not repetitious to me.

Have you ever waited and listened for the trumpet blast of supernovas? Have you counted the gems of Heaven? Do you know their names or their ages? I have waited – I am Time’s Master. I have counted them all. I know their names. I remember when each was born.

I am the Lion. I am the Lamb.

I am the Phoenix. And the resurrection fire is my cloak.

I am the Healing Serpent untethered and shedding his bronze scales; they lie like sunbaked husks in the desert. You could follow them but your path would be aimless, for the relics do not point to me.

I am the unexpected creature that comes after the Great Unraveling of Time and Space.

I am Abel’s blood, shed on every battlefield. I am the mark, both upon Cain and upon the desperate mob in swift pursuit. Blood for blood. Mine for yours.

I am the Lamb.

Where can righteousness be found? Who is seeking it?

Seek the Lamb. You will be cleansed.

Seek the Lion. You will be vindicated.

Seek the Phoenix. You will be restored.

Seek the Serpent. You will be forgiven.

Seek the unexpected creature. Follow her into the storm, beyond the great terror at the edge of infinite possibility, where love perfected drives out all fear. When you arrive, the only dread will be the dread of me.

The Man blinks and the fire is gone. His dripping clothes sag and cling coldly to his skin. The leaves jostle in the wind and cast a cool mist. No smoke. No ashes. A flick of lightning far off tells him the storm passed hours ago. But he knows that one day it will return to this hallowed place.

It must return because it isn’t finished.

He turns and appraises the dirt path that will take him down again into the valley, across the mile-long field and at last to the tent where his wife and sons still sleep. Could he not lie down beside them and wait for the morning? Could he not go back to tending sheep?

It isn’t finished. And neither is he.

Featured Photo credit:
pastoreid.com

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The Hunted King


I spent most of my days singing songs and offering praises to my God for his protection. And yet, many of my nights I spent fearing for my life. Not in the way of a tree planted by living water. The glory of my youth having long since passed, I saw that though God was often with me, he was not in me, and my desire for all that I could not be—all that he had always been in spite of me and all that he would remain after my death—became the thirst that drove me deeper into the wilderness of my years. A thirst for God will often lead you into a desert.

* * *

I waited by the stairwell with my back pressed against the wall when the bunker hatch opened, squealing on its hinges, letting in a stream of concentrated moon, star, and planet-light. I waited for the intruder to cross the threshold of the stairs before lowering the barrel of my pistol to his right temple. He froze, and in the faint gleam of twilight I caught his smile.

“Don’t kill me, Áedán,” he said.

I lowered the weapon, and then he turned toward me.

“Don’t sneak up to my bunker in the middle of the night,” I said.

“If I had been sneaking, I would’ve knocked first.”

“Why have you come?” I asked.

“You must leave the camp,” he said. “Tonight.”

“Is that all?” I went to the sink beside the toilet and splashed water on my face. A cold shock to liven the blood.

“That’s wasteful,” he told me.

“No cleansing is wasteful,” I replied. “The unclean may spare water and so waste himself.”

“Father is sending men to kill you,” he said. “I’m supposed to kill you if I see you. You have to go.”

There was a painful, terrible moment when I wondered if he really had come to kill me, and I felt shame at the thought.

“How long am I to be gone?” I asked.

“Until I can convince father that you are not his enemy.”

“So this is a permanent exile, then,” I said.

“Not if I can help it,” he said.

Outside the porthole, wind rustled in the shrubs and among the trees; a few pebbles scuttled downhill and came to rest. His hand went to the pistol at his hip while we each held our breath, listening for the scuff of boots in the dirt and watching for shadows.

“It is wind, Asger,” I whispered.

“You’re probably right,” he said, and his hand dropped to his side. Sliding his pack across his shoulder, he said, “I’ve brought you food and ammunition. Exchange belts with me.” He unstrapped his belt and held it out, removing only his pistol. It hung heavily with the weight of loaded cartridges.

“More stones for my sling,” I said. I took his belt and fastened it about my waist, then retrieved mine from beside the cot and brought it to him. “How did you know I was running low?”

“You never have enough of anything,” he said, as if it were a law of nature I ought to have known. He fastened the belt I had given him with its one remaining cartridge.

“Someone may wonder at that,” I said, pointing to his new belt.

He shook his head. “I’ll have restocked by the time anyone sees me. You can be sure of it.”

“How am I to find you when all this is over?” I asked.

“Wait for my sign,” he said. “Hide in the hills west of the monolith. If all is well, I will place a single mark on the stone. If you are compromised, I will leave three marks.”

“I will wait two days but no longer,” I said. I had just finished filling my satchel with canteens and a few packets of the dehydrated food he had brought. Sealing it, I swung it over my shoulder. “You’ve risked too much—”

“Stop,” he said. “That was never a consideration, nor will it ever be. Don’t insult my labor.”

“I fear for your life,” I said.

“Fear for your own.”

I nodded. That was him saying to get a move on, or so I thought. As I moved toward the stairwell, he stretched out his arm to bar my way.

“Let me have a look at the field first,” he said.

I laughed softly. “As you will.”

When he signaled for me to come up, I crawled from the hatch as one rising from a tomb. Above us, Iunia and her two moons splashed the hilltops with radiant light. The night reminded me of a line from one of my songs. “In peace I will lie down to sleep,” it went, and the melody would fall on the word “sleep” with certain finality. Now, the line had taken on the weight and force of a warning, for I wondered how many sleepless nights awaited me in the desert. A little slumber, a little folding of the hands in rest, and so will a man lose everything.

My bunker lay on the camp’s southeastern perimeter, near the woodland. The forest teemed with acacia and corkwood trees, and through its heart a stream flowed from a riverhead thirty kilometers eastward—the camp’s water supply used to come from this source until the Dagonah poisoned the head. The barren-lands, inhabited by every tribe and clan of this persistent enemy, were north of the camp. Less than half a kilometer in that direction, the shrubs and grass dwindled until the landscape shifted into a hilly terrain of loose, dry dirt and rocks. Water was scarce in that region.

“Make for the desert,” he told me.

“I have nothing to give you,” I said.

“What you have already sworn is your gift to me,” he said. “Our sons and daughters will live in peace together. Go and wait for my sign. It will not delay.”

I left him and did not look back, as it would have been a sign of distrust not to be borne among brothers. The thought that this was that last of him I would ever see, I buried with all other idle projections. Perhaps it really was the last time we would meet; perhaps I would die in the wilderness or live the rest of my days as an outcast—one can drift quite peacefully in a wasteland of variables. Tonight, in the here and now, we had met as brothers. It was a thing established in the heart, and not even death could break it.

Passing along the outskirts of the camp, I met the eastern watchman at his post.

“I’m going into the forest to pray,” I told him. “Do not be anxious for my return.”

He nodded. If there was any suspicion in his eye, I could not tell. His hood was drawn closely over his face in the manner of night watchers.

I turned eastward toward the dark, shadow-ridden line of trees. Entering the forest, I followed the stream northward, ever keeping to the lesser-known paths. Iunia, like an eye of emerald in the heavens, sunk slowly into the northwest as the night waned. By the time I reached the desert she had at last begun to set, and the heat of morning found me alone and exposed on the barren fringe.

* * *

Through the cold night I waited on the ridge overlooking the vale. I would not go within a hundred meters of the monolith. Black upon a midnight grey, like a thin void cutting across the stars and into the desert, it grew more mysterious after dark. Now, at the hour between Iunia’s vanishing and the hesitant thrust of morning I waited among the crags, watching and listening. There isn’t much else one can do in the wilderness.

Before I saw anything, I heard the mellow yet distinctive hum of engines. From the south, a black shape sped across the flats toward the towering rock while something like a small whirlwind followed in its wake. I used my binoculars to get a better look: a single chariot with a single pilot, hooded and masked to guard from the gritty and chilled night air. Behind him the drape of his cloak danced like a standard in the gusts. He did not slow until he came within ten meters of the rock; I watched him dismount and walk up to it. He drew something from his cloak and used it to mark the stone—I watched the motion of his hand, the thrice dipping of his wrist.

Then, as if moved by some guiding sense of the present, he turned toward me or in my direction at least. Slowly, he removed his hood and drew the mask down below his chin, exposing his face to the night. It was only for a moment, delicate and fleeting, and then he returned to the chariot. Securing again the mask and cowl, he sped into the south whence he had come. Even from a distance, his sign was clear enough. Shouldering my pack, I started northward across the stony passes and made for the Canyon of the Fount.

* * *

Those who believe in fate cheapen the power of human initiative. The day I went out to face the Iunian half-breed, I did what any human could have done under the hand of God. Many disagree with this, arguing instead that I was chosen. Yet, I am confident that it could have been anyone; it did not have to be me.

Still, I was the one who killed the warrior from another world: shot him in the left eye with a five-chamber hunting pistol, and only because he had taken off his helmet. This, some argue, was an act of God in itself and perhaps this is true. Perhaps the giant would not have taken off his helmet for a real warrior. Nevertheless, the fact remains that a human being assumed the risk and performed the act. As I have grown older, I have come to see that belief in God is neither thought nor feeling—it is human action in defiance of the inevitable.

It is from such acts of defiance that legends are born… No, not born. Spawned and disseminated like larva, or a plague. The people sang songs about my victory, and it wasn’t long before they were making up new songs for victories I’d never had, for battles I had never fought. With the giant, I did what needed to be done just as I always had, what I knew God wanted to be done.  Yet, an interesting thing happens when you carry out the will of heaven—people will sing your praises and forget the one who drew you from the dust. Since those times, I have learned that there exists a form of idolatry as debilitating as the superstition of our ancestors.

It is the worship of heroes.

An infant mind dreams of becoming a hero, and looks to the hero for guidance. But anyone seeking guidance from me will only receive this admonition: do nothing to be noticed, but serve God quietly and in secret. Go out into the wilderness, live among the homesteaders, find a wife and raise children who honor God. Last of all, remember that nothing is worth the loss of a father’s love. Nothing. The price of slaying giants has turned out to be more than I could ever hope to pay.

* * *

For a while he stood outside the cave, peering in. What did he expect to see in the shadows, looking with sun-stained eyes? Man is so dependent on his physical capacities that he will peer into darkness in spite of both blindness and shadow, expecting all the while to see. But then, I did not blame this particular man. When approaching a cave in broad daylight, you could never be certain that you were the first to have found it without risking your life in the quest for that certainty. The hesitating stutter of his movements told me he knew as much.

He was alone, armed only with a short knife at his right hip and a pistol holstered at his left. My weapon was already drawn and pointed; I had seen him climbing the hill toward the cave, could have killed him then and been out of sight before anyone knew where to start looking. I could kill him now, only the echo of a gunshot in a cave would carry far out into the canyon, perhaps over the distant plains. But what did that matter? Gazing past me like a blind fool, here stood the man who had driven me into the desert, who had slandered me among my brothers and sisters, who… who had given me a home and a family when I’d had none to call my own.

The pistol grew heavy in my hand; I followed him with the nose of the barrel as he stepped into the cave and moved toward the rightmost wall. Resting his forehead against the rock, he unbuttoned his trousers and began to urinate, his water spattering the dirt. He truly believed himself to be alone.

When he had finished he turned and left. If that was all he had come for, then his men were somewhere close. His dark head, slick with sunlight, sunk lower as he descended the slope. I let my arm fall at my side—I wanted to drop the pistol in the dirt. Suddenly the line separating mercy from cowardice had become a blur or an illusion or nothing like a line at all, and I found myself unable to distinguish between the one virtue and the other vice. A voice inside me whispered, “Arise, you who judge the worlds.”

Pushing out into the heat, I saw him at the bottom of the slope. He was heading for the spring situated at the canyon’s lowest point, and with each stride a heap of dust swirled about his ankles.

“My lord!” I said.

He turned and at the same time reached for the pistol at his hip, but his foot struck a small boulder and he fell backward into the dirt. I heard him curse as I sprinted down the slope—he tried to level the pistol again but I kicked it out of his hand and struck him in the jaw. His other hand reached for the knife but I stepped on the wrist, pressing it into the dirt. Just enough force keep it down without snapping the bone. He shouted again as I took the knife and tossed it to the rocks. Then I backed away two strides, drew my pistol and waited.

He looked up at me while favoring his wrist, and then rested his back against the boulder. His hair was unkempt and his cheeks were flushed from struggling. His gray cloak was yellow with dust.

“What are you waiting for?” he said.

I knelt so as to be level with him. “What evil have I done?”

“Need I tell you?” he scoffed. “You have turned the people against me. You conspire with the sages and priests. You are a thankless son and a usurper.”

“If I were a usurper you’d be lying dead in a puddle of your own urine back there in the cave. I was with you the entire time. Now tell me again: what evil have I done?”

He was silent as he looked at me, his eyelids squinting in the sunlight.

“My father,” I said. “You have ventured three days into the desert with a hunting party of your best men for the purpose of taking my life. You would have sent Asger, my brother, to kill me in my sleep if he had only been willing. I ask for the last time: what evil have I done?”

His tongue moved only to lick the blood from his lower lip.

“My lord,” I said. “Do you truly hate me so?”

“You will be captain of our people,” he said. “God will put you in place of me, in place of Asger. This is the evil you have done. Do not insult me by denying that you know of it.”

I stared at him. “I do know of it. It was told to me in secret many years ago.”

He smiled coldly. “Much is done in secret it seems. Even God hides his deeds from me.”

The sun was still high in the northwest, though above the canyon heights to the east the bald top of Iunia began to rise. The earth was hot beneath us, so hot I could feel it seeping into my boots.

“I have no say in matters of God’s judgment,” I said.

“Yet you are not hesitant to embrace that judgment when it favors you,” he sneered.

“I live or die as he chooses—what he hopes to do with me he can just as quickly do with another. He can forge a ruler for his people from the fire and the pit. You and I are nothing, Father.”

“For God’s sake stop calling me that,” he said.

I gazed at him then with indifference—an old man in a tattered coat with a bloody lip and a sprained wrist. It surprised me at first, but the longer I looked at him the more I shared his disdain for the word.

“To appease his anger,” I said. “That’s why you took me in, isn’t it?”

“You know nothing,” he said, and he looked away, anywhere but into my eyes.

I refused to relent. “You thought that if you showed compassion on me he might change his mind, because you knew that he had chosen me even then. The signs were clear enough.”

“You are arrogant and naïve,” he said.

“I only speak the truth. Why didn’t you kill me then?”

“I nearly did several times. Have you forgotten?”

I shook my head. “No, I haven’t forgotten.”

He looked over his left shoulder, out into the canyon. “Promise me something,” he said.

“As you command.”

“Stay true to Asger,” he said. “Stay true to his children. Swear to me that you will not destroy my family.”

I nodded. “I swear it.”

He looked at me again. “Now where does that leave us?”

I rose and holstered my pistol. “I will leave this place. And you will stop hunting me.”

“Where will you go?”

“To the Dagonah,” I said. “Perhaps they have forgotten my former deeds. Will you let me go?”

He gazed up at me for a moment, as if deliberating. Then, he nodded.

“Yes,” he said.

“And let us come to one more understanding,” I said. “It will be the last thing that passes between us.”

“What is it?” he said.

“You were never my father. I was never your son. Are we clear?”

Again he nodded. “Yes.”

I said nothing, but turned and ascended the slope toward the cave. Retrieving my pack from the inner recess, I emerged just as a cloud was passing over the sun. Iunia darkened in the shade, while beneath her the canyon lay desolate and noiseless but for a calm, east wind. My enemy was gone, but whether to betray our agreement or to fulfill it I could not yet know.

Quickly, I filled my canteen at the spring, then shouldered my pack and took to the northern pass. I ran in places where the climb was smooth and when I reached the rolling plains I ran in spite of the evening heat, ever northward. By nightfall I had come to the edge of the mountains where the Dagonah dwell in large numbers. There, I rested and prayed and waited through the night for him to answer, but no voice spoke to me—only I had this sense that he was with me even in his silence. When dawn came I slept as I’ve never slept, as one without fear. My present hope was to take refuge with the enemies of God, for I knew I would no longer find it among my people.

Deadland: Awakening


Chapter One

“And then I wake up,” I said.

My half-clothed body hung in the suspension cylinder, my arms outstretched toward its curved walls like a crucified man. I could feel my heart-rate decelerating, and my breaths were longer and deeper. The cylinder was doing its job well.

“Does the dream ever change?” A soft feminine voice asked me. I knew this session was being recorded, possibly even being viewed by an unseen live audience.

“No,” I said. “It’s the same every time.”

My voice lacked inflection, a result of the cylinder’s vocal modulator. The monotonous tone was designed to produce a calming effect on the speaker. When my time came to be placed in the cylinder, I was surprised by the modulator’s immediate effectiveness in regards to myself… it made me feel like I could say anything without fear of consequence. A dangerous feeling.

“That concludes this session, Lieutenant Allon,” the female voice said. “Would you like to remain in the cylinder for a while longer?”

“No,” I said. Too much of a good thing was never a good thing.

The holding field within the cylinder slowly dissipated, lowering me gently to the ground. I stepped through the door as it was opened and retrieved my clothes from the table in front of me. I said nothing to Gwen as I put on my pants. I watched her without appearing to watch, and I could sense that she watched me with the same acuteness—a glance showed me that her eyes were on her note tablet… then another and her eyes met mine. It had been a careless exchange on both our parts.

At the same time we both looked away, hoping that the people monitoring the room hadn’t noticed. I quickly put on my shirt and left. We would not attempt to meet again that night as we had on previous nights. It was too close to the hour of departure; no need to risk our one ticket off this cold, rotating derelict of a city.

She was the psychiatric officer enlisted for the voyage; her responsibility was to analyze all crewmembers prior to the launch, excluding Captain Dominic, who was analyzed by a separate committee. But the rest of us were approved or denied based on her professional assessment.

If anyone knew that we were seeing each other…

Captain Dominic was her father, an honorable man for whom I held the greatest admiration. He respected and trusted me. Like everyone else, he had no knowledge of my relationship with his beloved daughter.

As I walked the transparent floor of the ultra-glass corridor, I looked out over the city, upon the long rows of metallic towers varying in height and structure—they glowed with a blue radiance under the light of Geira’s gray star. There were no trees or plants above the surface on this world because they could not survive in such lifeless light. Instead, we kept them in underground greenhouses, where they thrived in artificial survival conditions. I’m not entirely certain as to how the greenhouses functioned but I know that the oxygen was harvested from the plants, where it was then ejected into our shielded atmosphere and continually recycled. The elementary basics of offworld civilization.

I had never seen Earth—I’d been told for most of my life that it was a place far worse than Geira. But now, for the first time in my twenty-four years of living, I was going to find out for myself.

When I was young, I remember asking my mother about it. She said it was nothing like the paradise it had been at one time, said it was a place to rob men of their souls, where the once glistening blue oceans had now become saturated with the blood of her own children. At the time it had sounded like an exaggeration.

I think she hated it, Earth I mean. My father died there… there in some cold, sunless desert or in some cavern outpost at the hands of the Unseen Enemy. Little news had come to us of his death. Little news ever came from that place many had come to know as Deadland. Now, I often wondered if there was perhaps more truth to my mother’s words than I had originally suspected.

I heard footsteps in the corridor behind me, but I didn’t look back to see who it was. I listened to the pattern of the footfalls, the rate of movement, the clicking of heels against the crystalline floor. I slowed down and waited for him to get closer.

“Hello, Tertius,” I said without looking at him.

“Good morning, sir,” he said in a voice that sounded remarkably human, more so than usual. “I sense that you are troubled. Do you wish to speak of it?”

“No, thank you,” I said calmly. “It’s nothing serious anyway… it’s just I haven’t been sleeping well the past few nights and I’m nervous about my first spaceflight. I spoke of it already to Gwen.”

“It is normal to experience apprehension prior to taking a deliberate life-altering course,” Tertius said.

“Life-altering?” I asked. Something in the way those two words had been forced together unsettled me. But then I guess it just meant I was normal.

“Yes,” the halfman said. “You have been here for the entirety of your life, brought up as a soldier but also kept within reach of your loved-ones, with whom you have fostered a safe attachment, an attachment that has served its purpose and now must be severed.”

I nodded but said nothing. No point in contending with a halfman on the matter of severing attachments.

We walked through the spiral glass doors and emerged onto a balcony overlooking the main lobby, where once it would have been normal to see over a hundred people going about their business. Since the Exodus, such a bustling community was not so common. The lobby was nearly empty but for two armed guards watching the entrance.

I would never openly say it, but I liked the city better now that half of its inhabitants had left to seek out other worlds, presumably never to return. Mankind had always been a divided species; it only made sense that we should break apart into distant factions.

“I find the quiet relaxing,” Tertius said, as if in tune with my inner thoughts.

“Yes,” I said. “So do I… whatever anybody else says.”

When we had descended a flight of stairs, we turned away from the main entrance and headed toward the elevator. I did not wonder that Tertius was with me. Likely he was due to report at the command center just as I was, and anyway I was glad of the company whether human or half. Turning down the central corridor, I saw a man at the end facing the elevator doors. His hands were in front of him, hidden from view. I then noticed that the elevator was not active. He could have entered at any time but he just stood there and waited.

“Tertius…” I spoke under my breath.

“Yes, sir?” He lowered his voice to match my own. I knew he could sense my feelings, but whether he grasped the reason for them I could not guess.

“What is this man doing?” I asked.

We were approaching more slowly now. The man was a little less than ten meters away from us, idling. I saw Tertius analyze the scene, watched his face grow solemn.

“It is odd,” was all that he said, but I could see that his guard was up.

Neither of us was armed, at least not in the external sense. We moved toward the man from behind, not attempting to hide our presence from him. He would’ve had to be deaf not to know we were there.

“Trying to decide on a level?” I said. We had stopped about six paces from him.

He stood motionless with his back to us. There came no reply. I glanced at Tertius, saw that his eyes were locked on the man like the crosshairs of a theron’s diamondpoint. I knew the halfman was analyzing the stranger’s every subtle movement, every minute gesture that I in my limited human ability could not detect.

I stepped two paces closer. “Turn around and face us,” I said. The time had come to put aside pleasantries. The man slowly turned, but in an abnormal fashion… it was as if his body was being unwound by a coil of thread.

When I saw his face, I became certain of my death. His mouth and chin were washed in blood, which had run down his neck onto his clothes. Where eyes should have been, there were two red sockets staring back at me. I could see that the blood around the eyes was still fresh. In that fleeting moment, I could feel the man looking through me, reaching into my mind and sifting through my thoughts in search of something I did not possess. But he found other things.

This child is like the other. A son of dissonance.

I could hear his voice—frail with a fluctuating pitch. I had been taught about this creature but never before had I encountered one. The Skoll they were called. Tertius was rushing forward at a speed which no living thing could counter, but I was not aware of his movement. My death was wrapped up in this moment… and so the moment lingered. No man abided long the presence of the Skoll.

The non-human will defeat us. Depart now. The voice thundered in my mind, paralyzing me. I watched as blood began to stream from the two sockets and the open mouth in vast quantities… the first and only sign of what the Skoll referred to as departure. Tertius stepped between me and the thing that held me immobile. His movements were beyond my ability to calculate. I felt the halfman’s irremovable grip on my ribs, his thumbs almost converging at my sternum.

He threw me back the full length of the corridor and in the same movement launched the Skoll with a heavy thrust of his left palm, battering him against the elevator doors.

On impact the creature detonated. The force of the explosion threw Tertius some twenty feet down the corridor. A rush of fire surged along the narrow channel of the hall and then dissipated in another breath.

For a long time I could not hear anything. I lay for several moments, struggling to regain my breath. Slowly, sounds were becoming more and more distinguishable. I could hear the flames crackling near the elevator. I finally found the strength to roll onto my stomach. One of the guards was standing over me, saying something. I know I heard him but I never registered the words.

I saw Tertius lying a short distance from me, his form almost hidden in smoke. Another of the guards had seen him and had rushed over to him, obstructing my view of his motionless body. I wondered if he were dead or merely unconscious.

I felt my body being lifted into a suspensor field. The time passed quickly, and there were moments when I didn’t know where or even who I was. The next moment, I opened my eyes and saw Gwen hovering over me, taking me somewhere.

“Tertius,” I heard myself say. “Is he… alive?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“He saved me,” I said. I felt my mind slipping. I wasn’t sure if they had drugged me or if I was suffering the aftereffects of my encounter with the Skoll.

“Yes,” Gwen said. She and another medic led me into the rehabilitation room and began performing a number of tests. I lost track of their movements—lost track of time altogether. I awoke several times during the course of the day. Sometimes Gwen was there, but then sometimes I was alone. Finally, late in the evening I suppose, I fell asleep and did not wake until the following morning.

I dreamed something but I don’t remember what it was… I only remember that Tertius was there, in the dream.

Midnight Star (or The Vigil)


I sat by the window in the dark, hunched down so that my eyes could see just above the sill, and looked out over the moonlit field. The house so quiet you could hear the oak floors groaning in the outer hall; not the groaning of footsteps. I had not heard footsteps in a long time but I knew well enough what they sounded like at times like these. Sometimes I thought I heard the soft tread of her footfalls coming from the bathroom and I had to remind myself it wasn’t her—wasn’t anybody.

Still, I knew she was out there somewhere. Not in the field. Out there with Polaris and the others. So I sat every night, just like this, and waited for my chance to go after her. I knew it would come as long as I remained patient, watchful. Didn’t matter how many nights I had to sit up; I would be ready when the chance came.

She and I had been the last. When they took her that left just me and the house. Not even my house, but an old friend’s from before the Great Unraveling of time and space. He was the one who had told me to come here, said he would meet us. That was five weeks ago, or maybe six. Hell, I can’t remember. He had gone with the rest of them too. The proof of it was in the knowing.

Every time they took someone, you’d know it somewhere inside—because they wanted you to know it. I saw it like a game of musical chairs in my head: with each pause of the song, someone new would get taken out of the game. That’s how I knew I was the last. Somehow, I had managed to win the game.

 

Author’s Note: This is all I’ve got so far… just a concept, without form and void at this moment. I hope to continue work on this (and several other ideas) in the near future.

Tertius – A Character Profile


I am both man and machine, and therefore incapable of God-knowledge: the knowledge of spirit and supernal entities. I am a being dependent on the limited capacity of a mind, superior to most but limited nonetheless. I am the third to survive that unholy bionic transformation with the awareness of my old self yet intact and so they named me Tertius, meaning “third”. They wondered how a mind like mine continued to function in the aftermath of those inhuman and mortifying experiences which no man or woman should ever be forced to endure as I was forced to endure them even as a child.

They said if I had been older that I would not have survived—the conversion would have done to me what it has done to every living halfman, each of whom is only aware of his beating heart in terms of its necessity while ever I am aware of mine in terms of its capacity to keep me alive—me and my soul.

There is a difference there that many fail to perceive; it is one that separates the synthetic nothingness of every tick-tocking halfman from this one… this one who regards himself as human but who must function at the caliber of artificiality in order to maintain his existence amid this collapsing universe in which he has chosen to reside. I say “chosen” because, if I had wanted it, I could have died in the conversion chamber as a boy, which would not have been an undesirable destiny. I could have failed as all halfmen fail if I hadn’t been fool enough to think it might be worth my while to remain in this… this abominable form.

Abominable: a machine cannot possess God-knowledge but the man at my core remembers something of what it meant to believe in or disbelieve in God. That paradoxical concept does not frighten me because my conditioning has taught me the worthlessness and the impedimentary nature of fear. I have not felt fear since the conversion and as time has passed I have become more detached from any form of it. To believe in a god, one must fear it, and yet I feel as if I could believe without fearing…

And so I fear there must have been some error in my conditioning, though I use the word “fear” now only as it is used among humans to indicate belief in some negative or undesirable future variable.

Lineage


             I awoke as if I had been summoned.

            A pile of glowing embers that only made the darkness more pronounced was all that remained of our fire. I heard someone say once that darkness had palpability, a thickness, that it wasn’t just an absence of light—can’t remember who said it. I never believed it.

Sat up and listened. Wondered why the darkness and the cold reminded me of what somebody said about something I didn’t believe, whose name I couldn’t even remember. Absence is its own presence and all that nonsense. Doesn’t feel like nonsense now, I thought. I wanted to laugh, only it seemed a sacrilege. Didn’t believe in sacrilege either, but night can make you renounce old doctrines and become a proselyte to just about any kind of craziness in the time it takes for a dying fire to draw the cold to it. I told myself that I didn’t laugh because the cave would just laugh back and wake Noelle.

I slithered from my blankets and crawled close to where she was—my hand bumped her, but she didn’t budge. Her breathing, faint and hollow as a ghost, was the sleeping kind; heat from her nostrils bristled the tiny hairs on my knuckles. Feeling her breath, I remembered what I had always known, that more than one kind of light exists. Sometimes it’s the light you feel but can’t see.

That’s what hope is, I thought. Faith and all that goodness Mom and Dad used to talk about before putting us to bed. All of it was light felt and not seen. That was why we were hiding in a cave, to protect the true light in a world of reversing polarities. What that man said, maybe he thought it sounded clever. I don’t know. Maybe he really believed in the palpability of nothing. The rest of the world seems to believe it—they worship it now.

Got up and walked to where the cave opened to the escarpment leading down toward corkwood and canarium trees. The full moon cast its light through the trembling jungle leaves and reached toward the cave’s mouth, but I didn’t let it touch me. Been teaching myself how to think fast and move slow; seems the best way to protect yourself in a world where people are doing just the opposite. God knows I wanted to bathe in that light, but I kept close to the shadows, listened and watched. You learn to listen and watch for a good minute or two.

“Addy,” I heard her whisper. Her cold hand on my dangling wrist.

“Go back to sleep,” I said. Wind whispered in the jungle.

“I can’t,” she said.

“Another dream?”

I could feel her nodding “yes” behind me. Didn’t have to look anymore. More than one way to see. More than one kind of light.

“It was Mom and Dad,” she whispered.

I heard an anomalous crunch of leaves and almost shushed her, but thought better of it. It was an animal’s sound—the other kind would never announce themselves that way. With them it was always what you didn’t hear, what you didn’t see. I knelt down and, taking her by the hand, drew her back into the greater shadow.

“What did they tell you?” I asked.

“Mom didn’t say anything,” she said. “Dad just said tell you ‘Genesis 12:1’. I asked him what he meant and he said ‘wake up now’. After that, they were gone.” She started to cry and so I held her close.

“Don’t cry, Noelle. I know what he meant.”

She looked up at me. “You do? I never know what he means.”

I smiled. “Gather up our things as quietly as you can,” I whispered. “I’ll put out the fire.”

“We’re leaving?”

“Yes,” I said. “Dad wants us to and so we’ll make for the mountains. Tonight.”

I nudged her off and followed her. Covered the embers with rocks and dirt while she rolled up the blankets and stuffed them into our packs. Dad and I had agreed on Genesis 12:1 well before the onset of things. Get out of your country. Noelle was special—the other kind couldn’t listen in on her dreams the way they could mine. Mom and Dad knew that. I seldom dreamed anymore; if I sensed a dream coming, I would wake up on instinct.

“Ready,” she said. She handed me my pack and donned hers. I looked her over and remembered I would kill or die or both if it meant protecting her.

“Me too,” I whispered. “Stay close. We’ll keep to the shadows.”

From the escarpment, we began climbing the layered ascent above the cave. When we had climbed for about an hour, I looked down through the wiry branches at the jungle floor touched by strands of a falling moon. Shapes of men, like bats fluttering, were darting between the rocks and trees.

“What is it?” she asked.

I turned away. “Nothing. Keep climbing.”

We climbed until dawn.

* * *

            When Noelle was three and I was nine, we drove up to the farm to visit Granddaddy and Grammy. Four hundred acres of arable land surrounded by a forest of pine and evergreen. The snow had fallen heavy on the earth, so thick that I could climb in through the kitchen window without having to jump for the sill. Dad had said it was more because I had grown, but I liked the idea that the snow had somehow raised me up, as if it were on my side.

One night Dad woke me up, told me to put my warm clothes and boots on and to meet him outside. I asked him what was wrong and he said nothing yet, but that I should hurry and make certain I layered up. Passing through the foyer on the way down, I saw Mom in the kitchen but she didn’t look at me. She sat holding a mug of coffee, staring down past its rim the way she always did when she was searching somewhere inside herself.

“Hurry,” she said. “Don’t keep your dad waiting.”

In her cold reclusion I sensed something inevitable—that I had been awakened in the night because I was about to be born and so I needed to be present for it. For a moment I watched her without saying anything, as though to preserve her as an icon in the shrine of my heart. I knew that I would never see her with the same eyes again. In my first birth she had played the most active part, the lead role even. But in the birth that awaited me out there in the winter night she could have no part.

When I stepped outside, I closed the door gently behind me and stared at my father standing at the edge of the steps that led down from the porch. He did not look at me either. I wondered if he even could.

“Ready?” he asked.

I nodded. He made me follow him and I could tell we were heading toward the barn. As he walked, he plowed a gulley through the snow and I followed in it as if it were a lighted path carving its way through a crowd of night.

“Why are we out here?” I asked him.

“That question can’t be answered in the time it takes from the porch to the barn,” he said.

Then he glanced back at me or past me, I’m not sure which. When he saw that I was lagging, he told me to speed up. His tone was calm but I could hear in it a chill that had its roots somewhere in the core of his heart, sliding its branches into his veins and spreading a deep freeze through him. And then I knew—he was afraid. My father. A man marked by an incapacity for fear, known and respected for it. That realization of my father’s humanity was the first rush of blood and water thrusting me toward a new advent.

* * *

            Noelle was asleep next to me while I leaned against a tree, watching the slope we had climbed that morning. We were hidden behind a thin veil of leafy bushes and projecting rocks, but I could still see the treetops in the forest below. The sun was warm and I could tell the day was going to get hotter the higher we climbed. I didn’t like the idea of stopping so soon but she was tumbling in her steps, slipping on beds of loose pebbles. If we didn’t rest, I would either have to carry her or let her sink face-first into the black dirt. So far from their nearest enclave, the other kind would be reluctant to travel by day.

At least, that was my hope.

From my coat pocket I drew my short knife with its fat blade and its polished horn handle. Held it in my open palm, watching the sunlight burn through the glassy edge, casting a rainbow on the tip of my boot. I had only used it to kill small animals for food; Dad had taught me how to kill a rabbit and then skin it so as to preserve the meat. I always told Noelle to hide and look the other way during those times but I couldn’t stop her from watching if she wanted to see. The first time she saw me kill an animal, she refused to eat it. It took an hour to convince her that we either ate or we starved. That had been right after we left the village—two weeks ago. Since then, life in the wild had thinned her out.

Still, I didn’t know how much longer I could keep up feeding the two of us while we ran for our lives. We had to find help. If nothing else, I had to get Noelle someplace safe. I didn’t care what happened to me anymore, not like I used to anyway. It wasn’t just me they were after—if they got me without Noelle they had nothing; they’d have to kill me. But if they got her… if they got her I’d do anything they wanted.

“Addy…” Her voice came up from some buried place.

“Yeah?”

Birds fluttered in the branches overhead; an ant was crawling across my knee and I flicked it away with the knife.

“How much longer do we have to climb?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Until we find Uriel, I suppose. He lives somewhere near the summit.”

“How do you know?”

“That’s what the doctor told us back at the village, remember?”

“What doctor?”

“The tall man with the big hands,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. “I didn’t know he was a doctor.”

“The village doctor. Kofi.”

“Did you believe him?”

Did I believe him? What other choice was there but to believe him? Either I believed him or I threw away everything Mom and Dad had fought for… were still fighting for. They had sent us to the other side of the world because of what they believed, and so far they had been right about most things. They had been right about Kofi; it stood to reason that Kofi was right about Uriel.

“Of course,” I told her. “That’s why we’re out here.”

“The other kind are close, aren’t they?”

No reason to lie to her. Dad always told me to keep as much as I could from her but to answer her questions truthfully. She was young but she wasn’t a simpleton.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s why we can’t rest for much longer.”

For a few minutes we sat and listened to the life of the mountain and the forest. The day was deceptive in its peacefulness, just as the night had been.

“Addy,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“What if Uriel doesn’t exist?”

I sat quietly for several lingering moments, waiting for an answer to come. It came with a renewed burst of sunlight as a cloud passed.

“Then God will send someone else to help us,” I said, wondering if I believed it. Hell, I had to tell her something.

As we returned to the slow labor of the hike, I kept sensing movement to my left. When I  glanced in that direction, there was nothing. We would go on for a while and then I would sense it again, like an extra shadow moving apart from our own, parallel to our ascent but keeping itself at a distance. Of course, when I looked for it again, I didn’t see anything except a bird hopping in the brush. I don’t know if it was really anything; it didn’t feel much like the other kind. I can’t really describe what it felt like—all I know is it was with us for a good ways.

* * *

When we came to the barn, he had to shove his full weight against the door to open it. The door squealed on it hinges and skidded against the concrete floor, sounding like fingernails on a chalkboard. The doorway loomed like a rectangular maw of shadow; the air within felt colder than outside and as Dad stepped over the threshold he was half enveloped by darkness. From the inside wall, he grabbed an electric lantern and, switching it on, was ignited in a soft glow that made me suddenly miss the warmth of my bed. I thought about turning around and running back to the house.

“Hurry up,” he said, beckoning me inside. I stepped across and thought of Julius Caesar. Except I had no army.

I was startled to see the blackened shape of a man sitting on a workman’s stool at the far end of the barn, barely visible in the dim light of Dad’s lantern. He sat beside Granddaddy’s covered-up 1959 Chrysler Imperial. As we got closer to him and the light revealed some of his features, I got the sense that he was out of place beside that American relic, not because it was American but because it was of time and space. When the light hit him full on, I saw his face clearly, and I could’ve sworn then that he was both the youngest and oldest man I had ever seen—he didn’t fit beside the car because he didn’t fit anywhere.

“Addy,” he said, looking me in the eye.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

He nodded, as if assessing my response. Then he looked up at my father. “Leave the lantern,” he said. “You can wait outside if you like but I would suggest going indoors where it’s warm.”

“I’ll wait outside,” Dad said. He looked down at me and started to say something, but a look from the man made him swallow an empty breath instead. He nodded at the man and then walked back to the other side of the barn. The door cracked shut and suddenly I realized I had been left alone in the bone-freezing cold with a man I didn’t know.

“Do you know who I am?” he asked me.

“No, sir,” I said.

“I know you don’t but I have to ask,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“In case you did know who I was,” he said, smiling.

“How would I know you?”

His smile faded. “You would only know me if you weren’t yourself.”

I started to say something but he lifted a gloved hand to quiet me. He wore a heavy wool coat that covered his knees almost to the rims of his black boots. His hair was long and gray and he had matching stubble on his chin and cheeks. His eyes were black in the lantern’s red light.

“I don’t have time to answer questions,” he said. “Rather, I’ve come to ask you a few myself.”

“All right,” I said, a little reluctantly.

He sat up and started to lean back even though there was nothing to lean on; he was taller than I had originally guessed.

“Let’s start with a hypothetical question,” he said. “You know what hypothetical means, right?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, and my voice croaked from the cold.

“Good,” he said. “Now, let’s begin. You live a very long time, so long that you don’t know how old you are anymore—we’ll just say you’re half a billion years old. You keep getting stronger but the earth is dying and its people are diminishing. The sun grows dim and the planet is getting colder. Then, you realize it is within your power to destroy everything and attempt to create a new world, but you still have a choice: you can let the earth and its people fade, or you can put it all to an abrupt end and try to start something new.”

I was quiet for a moment, then asked, “Can I do both?”

He shook his head. “You must choose between them. Also, remember that there is great risk in destroying the old world, because there is no guarantee that a new world will be created. Only the potential exists. Still, the old world is dying and another opportunity to create a new one may never come again. Knowing that, what choice do you make?”

I started to answer what I thought to be correct: that it wasn’t my responsibility to make that kind of decision, that it was not within my power—only something in my insides locked up when I tried to say it. I went rigid, felt a sudden upwelling of terror without knowing what I feared. He saw the hesitation and lunged forward. In less than a second he held me in an iron vise with his right forearm, and then I felt something cold prick the skin of my exposed neck.

“If you’re one of them,” he said. “I won’t hesitate to kill you. Answer the question.”

“It’s not a question,” I rasped.

“What?” His grip loosened a hair’s breadth.

“It isn’t a question,” I said. “It’s something I’ve already done.”

“Explain,” he said.

“A dream I had three nights ago,” I said. “In the dream, I destroyed everything. I had a choice, like you said. I couldn’t let things go on as they were. I didn’t want to tell you because… because it scared me that you knew.”

In the moment, I was shocked by my own explicit honesty. I had never spoken with such clarity.

I heard him let out a heavy breath; his arm fell away and I rushed forward about six paces when something caught me. I looked up at a man of similar build and with a face that carried the same aura as the other man but unique in its own right. My captor gently turned me around to face the other, who was back on the stool and smiling with a kind of warmth that seemed out of character for a man who had just threatened death. Out of the corners of both eyes, I saw two more men appear, one to the left and another to the right.

“These are my brothers in arms,” the gray-haired man said, indicating the men who had just appeared. Then he held aloft a shining, phosphorescent blade—I was startled by how sharp it seemed.

“Are you going to kill me now?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No, Addy,” he said. “I never held the blade to you. I only let the crest of the hilt touch your skin.”

“Why?”

“The simplest explanation? To test how you respond to fear,” he said. “I had no intention of killing you, but the threat was necessary.”

“But you said you wouldn’t hesitate.”

“I said I wouldn’t hesitate to kill you if you were one of them,” he said. “I already guessed that you weren’t. But then you hesitated to speak the truth. Why?”

“I already told you,” I said. “I was afraid.”

“Afraid because we knew about your dream?”

“Yeah,” I said, forgetting the sir. “That among other things.”

He smiled again. “The dream is proof of your humanity,” he said. “I sent you that dream to prove that you weren’t one of them.”

“But you said you already knew I wasn’t.”

For the present, I overlooked the revelation that he had sent the dream, whatever that meant. I didn’t understand it but I didn’t doubt him either—in some way, it made sense if only at a subconscious level.

“Yes,” he said. “I did know.”

“Then why go through all of that?” I asked.

His face grew solemn. “Because you need to know for yourself that you are not, nor will you ever be, one of the other kind. Do you know about them?”

“Dad has told me some things,” I said. By some things I meant very little, but I did not feel compelled to explain that to him. He seemed to know enough without me telling him anything.

“Did you know that they are incapable of dreaming?”

I stared at him. “No,” I said. “I didn’t know that.”

“They have proven more than capable of spying on the dreams of human beings,” he said, “but that is where their powers stop. Have you ever felt that someone or something in one of your dreams was both an outsider and a threat?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Lots of times. I always try to wake up.”

“Good habit,” he said.“The dream you had about the earth is one we sent to numerous individuals, but you are the only one who made the choice to risk everything. That makes you a very important person. And, while it tells us what we need to know about you, it also means you can never safely dream again.”

Never dream… never again. “Why?” I asked.

“Because the other kind were present in your dream too, if only as silent listeners,” he said. “And now they know who you are, just as we do.”

“And who am I exactly?”

He laughed softly. “Someone who might make a difference.”

* * *

            In a narrow cleft of rock we huddled, while from behind a thick bush of prickly needles I peered down at a silver stream, scanning the stony riverbank from the high ground to where it bended toward the lower valley. No one in sight but that never meant much. I listened and watched for a good five minutes if not longer. Below us, the sun was flooding the rocky slope with light and heat. There’d be nowhere to hide when I came out from our meager covering, but we needed water.

“All right,” I whispered. “I’m going down. You can watch me from here. Just keep low. Okay?”

She nodded. “Just hurry.”

Hurry. Everybody was always asking me to hurry. Just like I was always praying to God to hurry. Please help us and hurry and don’t let us get caught and hurry and send someone to help us and please, please hurry.

I climbed down from our lookout and ran with stunted strides toward the stream bank, skidding on moist pebbles as I neared the water’s edge.  A series of short, grassy shelves carried the stream into the valley like an uneven stair, flowing in little dips and falls that hummed with the surge of water. Trees were thicker on the opposite bank. I hunched down with my boots touching the stream.

Filling the first canteen, I scanned the dark network of leafy branches and low-hanging limbs as they swayed between narrow bands of sunlight and shade. And then I felt the presence, a noiseless shadow hovering toward me, and at the same time I heard Noelle scream.

The knife was out of its sheath and glistening in my right palm even as I turned toward the presence at my left. I saw the tall shape of the hooded man, the markings on the ashen face, the eyes gleaming like tiny shards of ice in the stream’s reflected sunlight—more light than they were used to and yet this one endured it.

In that split-second, I was aware of more than his proximity, of more than the long, outthrust needle between the knuckles of his left hand. How many were with him? They had heard Noelle scream; how long before they got to her? How many seconds did I have before the one approaching at my back would strike? If there was one in front then there was one behind. Count them when they’re dead.

The blade did its work quickly—the hilt left my palm and the knifepoint struck the enemy in the heart. Stained with his blood, the weapon was in my palm again in almost the same instant and I hadn’t even moved. I did not see him collapse before I felt the force of the blade leading me, and so I turned with it, all the way around toward the valley-side of the stream. But I was too late.

A shock of ice coursed through my arm as the whip struck, curling around my wrist and tightening like a boa constrictor. The knife twirled in the air as it spun loose from my hand, its guiding power lost to me now. It landed somewhere in the bed of long grass as my enemy tackled and drove me backward into a rush of cold water that swelled above my ears. He held me there while drawing something from his cloak, and then I saw the needle flash as it caught the sun.

God, not here. Not now.

His weight lifted from me as though it had been torn away. A yellow blur leaped across my vision and displaced the enemy’s black shape. I lifted my head in time to hear a wild animal’s roar followed by a crunching sound, like bones snapping. After that it was just the trickling of the stream, the slight hum of the miniature waterfalls.

Blood in the water but it wasn’t mine.

I saw the black-robed body lying face up against the opposite bank—a tawny lioness stood over him and stared at me, licking her teeth. This was the Africa I had been told about but had not yet seen, at least not up close. She stared at me as if waiting for me to thank her, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. And then I thought of Noelle. Had they gotten her? Why wasn’t she calling out to me?

“You all right, kid?” A man’s voice from my right.

His low-cut boots, splashing through the slow current, seemed heavy enough to make the stream rise up and flood the bank. I looked up at his face: young and yet old. His blonde hair, suffused beneath a trekker’s hat, would turn white depending on how the sun hit it. I couldn’t tell what color his eyes were in the shade of his hat. Across his chest he carried what looked like an M-16 assault rifle. I didn’t say anything, but kept looking between him and the lioness.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “She won’t eat you.”

I stared at the rifle, at his finger resting near the trigger.

“And I’m not going to shoot you, either,” he said.

“Where’s my sister?” I said, but he just looked at me.

I jumped up and ran back toward the slope, calling Noelle’s name as loud as I could and not caring if the other kind were still around to hear it. She didn’t answer. When I got to our hiding spot, I found her pack.

Just her pack. No footprints, no sign of struggle. I remembered her scream. She had screamed only once. From behind, I sensed the man nearing and whirled on him as if he, like the other kind, had come with an ungodly purpose.

“Where is she?” I demanded.

He didn’t say a word, but just stared at me the way he had before. Like he didn’t know anything… or like he knew something I didn’t.

* * *

            That night on the farm, he told and showed me lots of things I can’t talk about. At least I can’t talk about them yet. He sent one of his men to bring my father inside and then had us stand together. Dad didn’t say anything, but waited like he knew all the rules; what you did and didn’t do. That was when the gray-haired man gave me the knife. As I held it in my open palm, it glowed with a pale, distant light… almost as if it were a mirror reflecting the farthest stretch of the known universe.

“Never let another man wield it while you possess it,” the man said. “Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “But what would happen—”

“What would happen is meaningless so long as you keep your word.”

I only nodded.

Seeing my withdrawn look, he added: “It will not bend to an evil will. Rather, it will destroy itself before it lets the will of darkness command it. That’s the way I designed it. Let it guide you only in times of need—otherwise, keep it hidden and don’t use it.”

I nodded. “I won’t use it. I hope I never have to.”

He smiled. “We all hope that, Addy. Though no man hopes for it more than your father.” He and Dad exchanged knowing glances. “Still, I feel better leaving you well-equipped,” he added.

I had been staring at the knife, at its inexplicable phosphorescence, when I was stricken by the weight of his words. He was leaving. Why did that matter to me? I barely knew him… and a few minutes ago he had threatened to kill me, or pretended to threaten I guess.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“My work does not allow me to put down roots, or to rest my limbs for very long,” he said, rising. The drape of his cloak hung below his knees. “I’ve already spent more time with you than I ought to have.” He looked at my father and said, “The rest of the work lies with you now.”

“I’ll teach him everything I can,” Dad said.

The gray-haired man only nodded. He gave a subtle glance to his men, and they moved to the back door of the barn—the one that faced the nearest vanguard of trees that led nowhere but deeper into a wild forest. One by one they vanished into the outer dark, while the winter chill howled at us from the open door. Following his brothers, the gray haired man was about to cross the threshold when I called to him.

“Wait,” I said. He stopped and turned his head. Standing in front of the covered car, he waited for me to speak.

“Who are you?” I asked.

He smiled. “Just a half-billion year old man abiding the space between you and everything else,” he said. “My name is Michael, or at least that’s what they call me in your world. So long, Addy.” He gave a little two-fingered salute and then stepped outside.

Compelled by some unnamable force, I sprinted after him. Dad just stood where he was like he knew what to expect; I could feel him watching me. When I got to the door, I stared out at the flat, white plain of snow as it stretched toward the forest. In the cloud-covered darkness, I could just make out the black outline of the trees.

Not a man in sight. There weren’t even tracks in the snow.

* * *

“Addy…” Her voice, unmistakable.

She came up from under a thick row of bushes, holding the knife. Still streaked with blood, it beamed a full spectrum of colors in the hot, midday light.

“I went down to help you,” she said. “But then the man with the lion came, and so I hid again.” She looked up at the stranger, and then at me. I found it curious that she seemed less suspicious of him than I was; it comforted me a little. She handed me the knife and I started to wipe the blood off on my shirt.

The man thrust his hand toward me as if I were about to step from a ledge. “No,” he said. “For God’s sake don’t do that. You’ll be lit up like a bonfire on a midnight plain.”

“What?” I looked at him with questioning eyes. Noelle crouched under the net of leaves, poised to dive back into her newfound hiding place at the first sign of danger.

“The blood,” he said. “They can smell their own blood better than they can smell yours. Come, we’ll wash it off in the stream. We need to be quick though. More of them are headed this way.” He started back down the slope.

I looked at Noelle. “What do you think?” I asked her.

“I think he’s Uriel,” she whispered.

I took her hand in mine and we followed him to the stream. When we got to the bank, I saw the lioness hovering over the water, drinking. She looked up at me, and then at Noelle; just as before, I was startled by the lucidity of her gaze. More than this, I discovered that I knew her by her presence more than by her look. She was the presence I had felt walking with us earlier that morning, during our ascent up the first slope.

“Let me see the knife,” the man said. The rifle was strapped across his back, while his hat hung by a thin, leather cord around his neck. He scooped water into his cupped palm and then rubbed it through his hair. The water ran down his forehead and along the curve of his narrow cheeks like tears.

“I was told never to let another man handle it,” I said.

He smiled. “Michael gives explicit instructions. But I’ve never heard of him giving away one of his weapons, least of all to a scrawny kid. You must be a very important person. You said your name was Addy?”

“I didn’t say what my name was,” I said.

He laughed. “No, you didn’t. But she did.” He pointed to Noelle with his eyes. “My name is Uriel, in case you hadn’t already guessed. I was told to expect you.”

“I told you,” Noelle said, looking up at me.

“How do we know you’re who you say you are?” I asked, ignoring her.

He laughed again. “Boy, there’s wisdom in caution. But don’t pretend you don’t already know who I am without me telling you. Learn to trust your heart. Things move a lot quicker that way. I am Uriel, and nothing else in this world can attest to being me. Now, clean that knife so we can be moving. I’ll fill your canteens.”

A red murk loosened from the blade as I dipped it in the water. While letting the stream do its work, I saw Uriel whisper something to the lioness and point toward the descending slope, where the stream curved and faded into the trees of the valley. She sprinted off in that direction and in less than a minute was out of sight.

When I had dried the blade, it glistened with renewed intensity. We set out just as the sun began curving toward the west. Noelle clung to my side while Uriel walked in front of us. A little ways into our journey, Uriel glanced back and saw that I was still handling the knife.

“You had best keep that hidden for the rest of the way,” he said. “It isn’t wise to reveal a weapon like that unless need demands it. Power draws lust from even the humble soul.”

I returned the weapon to its sheath. “Are there more people where we are going?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “But that’s another day’s journey ahead, which means one more night with the enemy tracking us. We’ll need to find a good hiding place sometime after sundown, but we should walk for as long as possible. I can carry the little one when her legs give out, at least for a while.”

When, not if. Noelle looked at me with clenched teeth behind taut lips—an expression I knew too well. I squeezed her hand the way I did when I wanted to let her know everything was going to be all right.

“Where’s the lion?” Noelle asked, her voice like a baby’s when contrasted to Uriel’s staunch tones. She seemed to have forgotten our guide’s prior foresight regarding her legs.

“I sent her to spy on our pursuers,” he said. “She will remain near our trail, but she will not approach us unless the enemy is too close to ignore.”

“I thought they were already too close to ignore,” I said.

“The two you met by the stream were scouts,” Uriel said, his eyes ahead of him. “The rest of their party is much larger, perhaps even more than I could handle in close quarters.” He lifted a low hanging, thorny branch so that we could walk under it. “That’s why we must keep moving for as long as possible. And we really shouldn’t talk either.”

And we didn’t talk, except to answer when Uriel asked us how we were managing. The landscape folded and rose, folded again and rose again toward greater heights as the sun sank toward the west and burned like the last strand of wick in a candle. When night fell, we walked in the dark, up and up, sometimes climbing with our hands in places where the slope was steep and rocky. By the time the moon had risen, Uriel had to carry Noelle.

I dreamed while I walked, even while I climbed. Of the night before, when it had been just the two of us in the cave. Of when we left the village and spent our first nights alone in this country’s wild jungle, more afraid of what was hunting us than any animal that might have killed us for food. Of Kofi, the village doctor, who told us where to seek Uriel. Kofi… was he still alive or had they gotten him too? I dreamed of Michael and the night he gave me the knife. Of my dad teaching me how to survive in the cold wilderness on Granddaddy’s four hundred acres. Of Mom sipping her coffee the night I was born, I mean really born. And through the haze of it all, Uriel was there—a fiery star amid the shades of my past.

When the dreams had at last abandoned me to the cool and hollow night, Uriel was still there, carrying my sister over his shoulder. He was that rare kind of fire that burned long after all the other flames turned cold. And then I wondered if God hadn’t sent us all the help we would ever need.

To Be Continued…

The Glider


The train traveled swiftly, the tracks winding through hollow desert valleys and over canyons of unseen depth. Eliot stared through his window at the sweeping view of wild, barren landscapes—sand so white it reminded him of salt flats. He tried to remember where he had seen salt flats before… and then he wondered how a world without any semblance of physical light could show anything but darkness. Yet, the desert was white. It was white because he could see that it was, even though there was no light to see by.

Turning from the window, he scanned the aisle and the rows ahead of him, only to note the backs of heads forming a pattern of browns and grays, with a few dirty blondes here and there. The car was not lit by anything except the surreal glow of the outer world. Eliot noticed that the seat nearest the aisle one row up and across was headless. Near its base, he saw two slender, denim legs sticking out with a pair of white sneakers as their termini. A child’s wrist dangled over the armrest; he couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl, though if he’d had to bet he would have said girl. He scanned the rows one last time, ignoring the person beside him, and turned again to the window.

“You know where this thing is taking us?” It was the person beside him.

Eliot flipped his head round and met the other’s stare. The passenger was a dark-haired man with gray eyes and grim, weathered features, almost like the bark of an oak but not quite as aged.

“No,” Eliot said. “You?”

The man shook his head. “Nah,” he said. “I mean, I suppose I could repeat one of the ten rumors that’s been going around since we got on—that we’re on the trans-elemental railroad headed straight for you know where, or that the train just goes on for eternity and we just sit here waiting to go nuts. Truth is nobody really knows.” The man fidgeted in his seat. “God, I could go for a smoke. I wouldn’t suppose…”

“Sorry,” Eliot said. “Never took it up.”

“And yet, here you are,” the man said, smiling.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Eliot said.

The man threw up his hands. “I’m just in awe of the limitless possibilities. For instance, how did you get here?”

“Well,” Eliot began, and then hesitated. He was surprised that he had not considered the question until now. I remember getting on the train—no, wait a minute, no I don’t. I just opened my eyes and I was staring through the window. My god, how can that be all there is? He wondered about the loss of memory and tried to correlate it with what he knew about eternal torment. He felt his heartbeat or something like it quicken as his lungs sank into the deep of his chest. That’s fear is what that is.

“It’s fine if you don’t want to  talk about it,” the man said. “Me, well, I just overdid all the things they tell you to take it easy with, I guess. Cigars, red meat, you name it. The name’s Crowe, by the way.” He offered his hand.

Eliot shook it. “I’m Eliot,” he said. At least I do remember that much.

“Eliot,” Crowe repeated. “If you don’t mind my asking, Eliot, what’s your relation to the little girl across the way?” Crowe nodded toward the white sneakers dangling from the seat.

A girl. What in god’s name is he talking about?

“I’m sorry,” Eliot said. “I don’t follow you.”

Crowe just stared at him. “I shouldn’t have asked. The way you two showed up together. Ah, well, it must have been some tragedy. But there I go again, saying more than I should. But you don’t have to talk about it. Nobody should ever have to talk about things like that.” Crowe turned aside and looked across the aisle.

At first, Eliot thought to prod him with more questions, but then doubt gripped him and so he relented, sinking quietly into his seat and turning his inner eye toward some chasm of idle reflection. As if being lured, his gaze drifted again to the lean arm dangling from the armrest, unadorned and pale in the dimness of the car. So it is a girl, after all. The monotonous whirring of a speeding train, coupled with the encroaching darkness, soon cast him into a dreamless sleep.

 

* * *

When he awoke the train had stopped and people were getting up from their seats. He searched his mind, trying to remember a journey. There was nothing, only some obscure perception of motion through a swirling mesh of darkness. He got up from his seat and followed the crowd out onto the platform.

He looked back at the train and decided that he must have just come from there. He had no memory of having been on a train.

It wasn’t until he was being led out of a cave and into the chilled, open air that he first began to retain his experiences as they came to him, one after another. He looked around and saw that he was among a slow-moving herd of people, all with their eyes on someone at the front of the procession—a man as far as he could tell.

Eliot could not see the man with any clarity, as he seemed to be shadowed against the light of the cave’s outlet. Above the sea of swaying heads, he saw the man lift up a hand and beckon to the crowd with it.

“Keep up, folks,” the man called. “Almost there, now.” His voice broke into an echo that swam along the deepening walls into darkness.

Eliot looked down at the dusty floor ridden with pebbles. He had not imagined it being anything like this. He tried to remember how he had imagined it, but couldn’t remember what it was. He didn’t know what this was either. Still, one thing he knew with certain and definable resoluteness was that, if the chance came, he had to escape—whatever that meant.

A little girl came up to him and tugged the sleeve of his sweater. She had dark hair that shined even in the tunnel’s hollow luminance. Her eyes were like olivine crystals.

The color green. Light and color. The shock of such a memory was profound to him because he had nothing to connect to it except some former rendition of himself. Who and where but never why. But that was something, wasn’t it? He knew they were green eyes and he had always had such fondness for—

Again the girl tugged his sleeve.

“What is it?” Eliot said.

“I can’t find my daddy,” she said. Daddy, fathers, children. That must have been life for some. But what’s it to you, now?

Eliot took her hand in his and held it tight. He did not feel as if he should or should not—he took her hand, considering the action like he considered the air he wasn’t breathing. One cell bonding to another, unconscious of the act.

“I’ll help you look for him as soon as we get out of here,” he said. Help her? Why? Help yourself. If escape was the ultimate goal, then taking up with a child was anything but conducive toward that end. You could let go. Twist free of her frail hand and lose her in the crowd.

“I don’t think he is here,” she said. “But I bet you could find him if anyone could.”

What is that supposed to mean? Eliot looked down at her face and traced it—eyes, nose, lips, chin—but found no match for his memory. Her hand was wrapped so tightly around his that he could feel the blood in his fingers pulsing, a sensation he had not felt until now. Until her.

Keep her close for a while longer. See what comes of it.

“Maybe he is here and maybe he isn’t,” he said. “Anyway, we’ll look just to be sure. He may be with another group.”

The little girl seemed satisfied with this and stuck close to Eliot the rest of the way. He didn’t know if there were really other groups, but something in him felt inclined to keep the girl close, at least for the present. When they came out into the light, hand in hand, he realized that it wasn’t light at all. He didn’t know what it was because he had never seen anything like it before.

“Is that a sky?” the girl asked.

Sky… clouds… strobes of white in the black, black airy chasm. Eliot could not remember what a sky looked like, or if it were something to be touched as well as seen. But the girl remembered. Come to think of it, she seemed to remember lots of things that he could not. Keep her close.

“Doesn’t look like one,” he said. And for a while he gazed up at what was not a sky, wondering at the invisible weight he felt sinking to the bottom of his soul.

Along a wide ledge overlooking an empty valley, he and the little girl followed the crowd. The grass in the valley was a rich, dark green; much darker than the girl’s eyes. From far off, the fields appeared both holy and at peace under the grey light that was not a sky. An opaque mist hung about the ridge, bending upward against the valley walls and curving down again like the bowed necks of clerics in prayer.

“I’ve seen this place before,” the little girl said. “In a dream.”

“Really?” he said. “I think I have too.”

Dream… is that like a sky? No… no, it’s something we do. As he looked out beyond the sloping grass toward the high-rising cliffs guarding the valley on the far side, he saw a dark recession high up in the face of the precipice. Another tunnel or cave by the look of it. He wondered where it might lead. Up out down in.

Guardians were posted along the ledge to keep people on course. One of them heard Eliot and the little girl talking and, stepping into their path, snapped his finger at them.

“No talking during the procession,” he said. His lightless eyes, drawn together in the perfect symmetry of a porcelain mask, stuck to them as they walked past in silence.

Eliot remembered something being said earlier about the need for silence during the journey, but that had been right after a shrill whistle; the slithering of a hundred shoes on a dusty floor as he floated among the herd; colorless eyes that looked neither up nor down nor forward. Then, a little girl had tugged his sleeve and he remembered the color green.

“Why don’t they want us to talk?” the girl whispered after they had walked a ways.

Eliot shook his head. “Just the rules, I guess. Oh, before I forget, what does your dad look like?”

“I… I don’t remember,” she said. Tears began to form in her eyes; olivine turned to emerald.

Eliot could hear her sniffling, and for a moment was startled by the memory of tears. Eyes alight with fire of Zeus god of thunder a cloud is asleep and is not a cloud when he wakes he floods mankind and cleanses their shadows by removing their bodies. For a moment, he wasn’t sure what to do, if anything. He kept walking, pulling her along with him as if he were a little boy dragging a stuffed animal. She continued to cry, inhaling long sniffs.

Lightning caught in a legion of tears the sky weeps for it knows not whom it knows not whom.

Eliot stopped, looked around, then knelt down beside her. His knee stuck through the hole in his jeans, grinding into the hard path. He felt the abrasion of pebbles against his dry, bare skin, and wondered at the sensation. Physical pain was something to be remembered, something to seize and even protect.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered. “We’ll find him. All right?”

She nodded, wiped her eyes. He felt guilty for lying, but he couldn’t stand to see the girl cry. Things were heavy enough without a child’s tears.

“Promise?” she asked.

He looked into her sad, watery eyes and felt something cold press against his heart. He had not anticipated that she would ask him to give his word, and yet more startled was he at the power that concept held over him. Speak and be bound forever.

“Do not stop!” It was the same guardian from before, glaring at them with an outstretched and bony finger. Mene mene tekel….

Eliot got up and, taking the girl’s hand again, moved back into the solemn procession, or what was left of it. Forming the tail-end of the line, they followed the ledge along the jagged cliff walls until the path opened out onto a flat shelf overlooking the valley. From his position in the rear of the group, Eliot could see that everyone was being rallied together on the shelf. He felt the little girl’s eyes on him.

“What’s your name?” she whispered. He was glad that she seemed to have forgotten about the promise.

“Eliot,” he said without looking at her. “What’s yours?”

“Eliza,” she said. “Our names are alike.”

Don’t get to know her. Don’t get comfortable with her. She’s not the plan. He looked down, saw that she was smiling, and then looked up again to see another one of the guardians eyeing him suspiciously—this fellow had the same face as the one before.

“I think we better keep quiet until this is over,” he said after they had passed beyond the guardian’s view. Eliza only nodded. She was a strange girl, Eliot thought. He glanced down at her again, noticed that she was actually very pretty. He thought about her father and felt pain at the thought. She was so young. Not your concern.

As they halted on the wide ledge, he felt her hand tighten around his own, then felt it tremble as a chill wind blew through the quiet throng. He could not see very far over the crowd stretching on like a field of somber statues. Nobody moved; nobody breathed.

“Eliot,” Eliza whispered nervously.

“Let’s just wait and see,” he said, trying to comfort her. He felt her hand loosen a bit. He looked back at the way they’d come, only to see three of the guardians forming a phalanx across the path. He turned away from their hollow stares and looked out over the crowd. As far as he could see, the only other path led toward the end of the shelf, toward the enclosure of the valley. The only visible outlet was the dark, gaping hole in the far precipice.

wait, wait, always and forever and give give give and wait don’t touch don’t speak don’t think just wait

Amid the silence, they listened, watched and waited. Eliot saw a man step onto a rocky platform overlooking the crowd. His thin, white hair slid behind his ears—an extension of his skin’s pallor. His eyes were cold and grey, while his lips seemed eternally drawn into a knowing grin that spoke of supernovas and the unraveling of time and space. When the man spoke, Eliot recognized him by his voice. It was the same guide that had led them all to this point.

boots heavy black blundering boots and a cape a swaying cape tattered and slit the man the cloak his steps echo the thunder and the thunder cries his name

“All right, folks,” he said. “Pay close attention because I will not be repeating myself.” His voice carried over the platform, echoing down into the valley. “Most of you are probably wondering where you are, and with good reason. Well, let me start by saying that this is not Heaven.”

A few people in the crowd gasped; others seemed less concerned. Eliot was among the latter. He could remember something of what he thought Heaven was supposed to look like—white-robed men and women, golden gates and light, lots of light, so much light you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face—and this place did not look anything like it with its sloping green valley, its overhanging shrouds of mist. He looked down at Eliza. She appeared calm, unmoved. He wondered if she even knew about Heaven.

“It’s not Hell either,” the man quickly added.

Whispers of relief fluttered from mouth to mouth as the frightened people in the crowd settled along with their cooling blood.

“No,” the man said, “this is the place that exists between the world you came from and the world into which you are headed.”

Again rose the cohesive murmuring of muted voices. When he heard the guide’s affirmation, he saw the logic of it almost as if he had anticipated it. He realized why the valley had the aura of something both desolate and peaceful. It was the place between places, a mere interstice in the spine of worlds.

Such is the nature of a grave. Again his gaze drifted toward the black cavern, set high in the cliffs, at the far end of the valley. That’s it. It has to be. But how to get to it? And with the girl dangling from your arm. You’ll have to lose her. She’s not your concern.

He felt Eliza tug his hand and so he looked down into her questioning eyes.

“I don’t want to go to another world,” she said.

“It’ll be fine,” he whispered. “Don’t worry.”

The guide began to speak again. “But before you go on to the world that awaits you…” he paused a moment, observing the crowd, preying on their anticipation. “…it is your right to be granted an opportunity.” He smiled.

Eliot found something about that smile unsettling, almost as if there were a malignant thought at the root of it. But then he was looking at the man from far away, and the light—or the indescribable substitute for it—was just odd enough to play tricks. Still, his strange offer roused Eliot’s interest. Maybe this was the chance he was looking for. Don’t count on it. Don’t count on anything they give.

A man’s voice rose up from somewhere in the crowd: “What’s the meaning of all this mystery? What the hell kind of place is this, anyway?”

The guide shifted his eyes through the ranks of people, all dying to know what he was going to do or say next. Eliot could tell that the man was enjoying himself; and why shouldn’t he? Why should anyone dispute his right to toy with beleaguered souls? This was his stage, his circus of fear and wonder. The guide turned his head toward the valley.

“Bring up the first glider,” he called.

A sound came from somewhere beyond the edge of the cliff, a sound like metal wheels rolling on a track. People near the back were standing on the tips of their toes, trying to see what was coming.

“I want to see it,” Eliza said. Her fingers formed a steel vice around his wrist as she pulled him into the crowd.

“Eliza,” he said. “Wait.”She’s going to get you penned up for sure.

“Come on,” she said, and pushed forward through the ranks, tugging Eliot along with her. They bumped into someone different at every step. Eliot tried to ignore the bounty of irritated looks he won as Eliza forced her way through the crowd. He glanced up to see the guide eyeing him from the platform. The man still had that curious smile on his face, as if he were delighted by the sudden stirring of inquisitive souls. Now everybody was looking at them.

“Eliza,” Eliot said, “please stop.” Shake free and be done.

“We’re almost to the front,” she said.

He only followed because he was afraid to pry her fingers from his wrist—it never entered his mind to hold her back with force. As they neared the edge of the shelf, the sound of machinery grew louder. The people near the front saw them coming and stepped out of the way, though Eliot was certain it was not out of reverence or consideration. Good luck getting out now.

Eliza halted as the valley opened before her. Beyond the ledge, the green fields rose and fell like waves in a thunderous ocean; the sharp points of smoke-colored rocks broke out from beneath the hills. Eliza looked up at Eliot and smiled.

“That was easy,” she said.

Eliot just stared down at her in silence. Then, gathering himself, he took a quick look around. He stood now at the edge of the road, with only a  steep and deadly drop before him. There wasn’t even a path leading down to the valley. No way down. No way out. Suddenly, he saw the grey edge of a triangular shape peek above the ledge; the rolling of mechanized wheels could be felt coursing through the rock on which they stood.

“Looks like a kite,” Eliza said.

To Eliot it looked like a hang-glider, only bigger. He was surprised at himself for making the connection; he knew what hang-gliders looked like, only he didn’t know how he knew. It was being brought up by a rising platform that looked metallic, only it didn’t reflect light because there was no light to reflect. The wings of the glider stretched out beyond the edges of the platform, casting no shadows. He heard the metal wheels lock as the platform leveled with the edge of the flat shelf. There was a boom that resonated in the cliffs at all corners of valley, then died out somewhere among the empty glades and scattered rocks. The glider rested in silence.

“Does it really fly?” Eliza asked. Eliot started to answer—

“Magnificently,” a voice said.

They both looked up to see the guide standing before them; he had come down from his pulpit to walk among his sheep. He smiled at the little girl without showing his teeth.

“But don’t take my word for it,” he said. He looked up at Eliot and frowned. “So you are to be the first to fly it?”

“Uh, I didn’t…”

“He was in the back of the group the whole time,” a voice spoke from behind. It was the same voice that had spoken out earlier. Eliot turned to see a grim, aged man scowling at him from the front line. The man stepped forward.

“He shoved his way to the front only a second ago,” the man said. “Hell, you saw him do it. Why should he get to fly it first?”

“He’s right,” Eliot said. “We did push our way to the front. It wouldn’t be fair. And besides, I’m not sure why I would want to fly it.”

“Why indeed?” the guide said. “For where would it take you?” The guide stepped past Eliot and addressed the crowd. “I spoke of an opportunity. Here it is.” He motioned to the glider. “On the other side of this valley,” he continued, “there is a tunnel.”

 

He pointed to the dark spot Eliot had been evaluating since he first set eyes on it. Once more, Eliot gazed up at it, noting how small it seemed. To accommodate something as big as the glider meant that the tunnel was a lot farther away than the eye made it appear.

“This tunnel leads back to the world from which you all came,” the guide said.

“You mean back to our lives?” the man from before asked. “We can go back to living again?”

“If you make it through,” the guide said, the lack of confidence evident.

“What happens if one of us goes and doesn’t make it?” the same man asked.

Eliot noticed the guide brighten at this question, almost as if he had been waiting for someone to ask it.

“If you do not succeed…” he began, and then he looked at Eliot, who was standing off from the rest of the group with Eliza hanging at his hip. “Then you die the real death,” he said.

A shudder swept through the crowd. Whispers and murmurs rose together and blended into that single, inarticulate voice which Eliot knew so well.

“My daddy is on the other side of that tunnel,” Eliza whispered.

“You don’t know that for sure,” Eliot said. You can’t take her. Don’t even think of it.

“Yes, I do,” she said.

“Those of you who are unwilling to take the risk,” the guide said, “will accompany me by train to the next world, where you will be dealt with justly. Of that I can say no more.”

“Eliot,” Eliza said, her voice pleading, “I don’t want to go to the other world. My daddy is not there.”

Eliot stared at her for a while, thinking. Then he looked back at the glider. The great wings seemed to linger in the air, sometimes lifting at the slightest force of wind beneath them. Once, the glider leapt up as if to fly, but the ropes tying it off at the bottom held it in place. It settled again onto the platform as the breeze dwindled.

gust, gust the thund’rous bellows will he find faith

“Is there only one glider?” Eliot asked. He remembered the guide had called it the first glider.

The guide laughed. “Good god, no. There is one for every person here. But, usually no more than one ever goes out.”

“Why is that?” Eliot asked.

“Because nobody ever wants to follow the one who failed, especially after they see it. So, who will be the first to fly?” The guide turned back toward the people. The same man who had complained about Eliot pushing through the crowd stepped forward.

“I’ll fly it,” he said.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the guide said, “our first volunteer. Your name, sir?”

“Crowe,” the man said.

“Mr. Crowe. If you will follow me, please.” The guide led Crowe onto the platform.

Eliot felt his sleeve being tugged.

“What is it?”

“See what?” Eliza asked.

“What are you talking about?”

She sighed. “He said that nobody ever wants to fly after they see it. What do they see?”

Eliot thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” he said.

As soon as Crowe was secure in the glider’s harness, the wind began to blow hard, pushing up against the wings. The glider leapt up into the air and hung there, pulling the ropes taught. Crowe seemed tense but collected, holding the bar with both hands. Eliot noted that he never once looked back.

“You’re right,” Eliot said. “It does look a lot like a kite.”

“Let her go,” the guide called. The ropes uncoiled by themselves and fell back to the platform. The glider shot out over the valley and rode the wind over rolling green hills. Crowe flew as if he knew what he was doing, Eliot thought. The guide walked back over the platform and stopped next to Eliot, who watched the glider get smaller as it traveled into the distance. It wasn’t long before it looked like a speck in comparison with the dark cave—an open mouth in the face of grey cliffs.

Then Eliot saw something move inside the mouth, or thought he saw something.

“What was that?” he asked.

“What?” Eliza replied.

Narrowing his eyes, he searched for several moments but didn’t see anything.

“What was what?” Eliza asked.

“I saw a shape inside the cave, like a shadow or something.” He looked over at the guide. The man stared blankly across the valley as if he had heard nothing.

“I see it,” Eliza said.

“Where?”

“It’s gone now,” she said. “It did seem like a shadow, though.”

“Like black outlined against black, right?” he said.

“Yes,” she said.

The glider was close to the tunnel now. Eliot turned toward the guide.

“You didn’t tell him everything.”

“Didn’t tell who everything?” The guide continued to stare out into the valley.

Eliot gestured toward the glider off in the distance. “The man—Crowe.”

“I made the risks known,” the guide said. “And then he chose.”

Eliot turned away, disgusted. More and more he found himself hating this place, this desolate place with no sky and no light and—

“Eliot,” Eliza cried, “look!”

He looked out over the valley just in time to see the thing erupt from the cave’s shadow. The wings unfurled to reveal the muscular, bird-like legs curving down toward buckled claws. The skin was as black as obsidian, yet opaque and dull as ash. The narrow head coned up behind the spine just like… like…

“A pterodactyl,” Eliza said.

Eliot heard her speak but could not lay hold of her words, could barely comprehend what he was seeing. He felt like a child and an old man all at once and neither of them resembled the Eliot he thought he was. He watched the glider turn away from the winged monster, then saw it bounce through the air as though it were in a panic.

The beast brought its wings up and snapped them down, folding them inward with ageless grace. The glider spiraled downward, its flight broken by the new force of wind. Then the beast swooped down, caught the glider in its claws and in one motion tore it apart. Shreds of lacerated fabric floated like strings of confetti, at last vanishing beneath the hills. The creature never roared or gave any kind of cry as it flew back toward the cave; the only sound came from the resonant beating of its wings.

“Eliot…”

Eliza’s voice seemed to come from somewhere afar off. He looked down at her with vacant eyes, saw that she was in tears again.

“What?” he said. “What do you want me to say? That everything is going to be all right?”

“Eliot, please.” She began to cry harder as she pulled at his shirt with aimless hands.

“Nothing is all right.” He squeezed her tiny arm. She stared up at him, helpless. “Because in the end,” he said, “it’s always the same monster. Always. So stop standing there expecting me to sing you back to sleep. This is not a dream, and I’m not your father. I’m not… I’m not…”

He fell down into her arms, hugging her as if she were his. Her tears seeped through the fabric of his sweater, felt cold as ice against his shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean…”

“I know,” she said. “I know.”

He looked into her green eyes. He knew now the truth he had to face: that escape was a dream far beyond reach. That was the point of this place, he realized now. To break even the most stubborn will and tame the rogue spirit. Perhaps that was why he had found her. Perhaps she was to him a measure of grace—a small parcel of joy to be had in a world where little remained worth hoping for. Keep her close.

“We’re here for good now,” he said. “Do you understand? We have to face that and move forward, whatever the outcome.”

“But I can’t go to the other world,” she said. “I can’t. My daddy is not there.”

“You really think he’s on the other side of that tunnel?”

“I know he is,” she said.

“How? How can you know that, Eliza?”

“I know it the same way I knew you were somebody I could trust,” she said. “I knew it when I saw you back on the train.”

“Train?” he said, his eyes floundering about, searching within. “What train?” smoke whistles white deserts starless deepening canyons

“See?” she said. “You’re already dying a real death, Eliot. I know because I can feel things slipping from me, silently, under my nose. Like my daddy’s face. I lost it back in the tunnel when I found you. What else I’ve lost I can only wonder.”

“You don’t talk like a child.” It was all he could think to say.

She smiled through her tears. “So you remember how a child ought to talk, then?”

Yes, I remember that. A way of talking.

“You’re really not afraid to go? Even though you know we have no chance?”

She took a deep breath. “I didn’t say I wasn’t afraid. But I know what I have to do, Eliot, and I’ll do it with or without your help.”

god give me a child’s courage

With her, everything was clearer: memories, sensations, everything that mattered. He had felt that from the moment she touched him but only now did he lay hold of it. Without her, he would have been like all the other empty souls standing out in the crowd: lost, alone, afraid. If she was resolved to going, then there was no question what he had to do. Taking her hands in his, he looked into her eyes ablaze with green fire.

“All right,” he said. “I’m going to get you out of here.”

it is a promise to be much loved and so awake, awake it is time to go

Eliza only nodded, then looked up at something behind him. Following her gaze, Eliot turned to see the guide staring down at them. The man appeared perplexed, as if he had never seen two people crying before. Then, the guide abruptly turned toward the people—rows of headstones staring out into the valley. “Who will go next?” he asked. The crowd rustled; a bed of dead leaves suddenly windswept.

“We will go,” Eliot said, rising to his feet. The guide looked at him, then down at the girl.

“Both of you? At the same time?”

“Yes,” Eliot said. “Is that against your rules, as well?”

“There are no rules,” the guide said. “But if it is to be both of you, then both must choose. What is the girl’s choice?” He stared down at Eliza while waiting for her to answer.

“I want to go home,” she said.

“Very well, then,” the guide said, and then turned toward the platform. “Bring up the next glider,” he called out. The rumble of machinery echoed down into the valley as the abandoned platform began receding into the precipice.

“Are you out of your mind?” a man from the crowd said to Eliot. “You won’t stand a chance against that… that monster.”

The guide stood by calmly, waiting. Eliot started to speak—

“I’m not going to let you take that little girl,” a woman near the front cried. “You’re insane and she doesn’t know any better. She’s only a child.”

At that, Eliot just stood in silence, holding tight to Eliza’s hand.

The woman turned to the guide. “If he wants to go and get himself torn to pieces, then that’s his affair. But he can’t take her. He can’t.”

Seeing that the guide made no attempt to respond, the woman stepped forward and stretched out her hand toward Eliza. “Come here, sweetie.”

Eliot looked at Eliza. “Stay by me,” he said.

“Don’t you say another word to her!” the woman snapped. “Sweetie, please come here.” The woman took another step and leaned toward them, stretching farther with her monochrome hand.

“I’m going with Eliot,” Eliza said. The woman was about to say something else but the guide stopped her.

“The girl has chosen,” he said. “Now get back if you will not fly.”

“You can’t just—”

“I said, get back.” A crack of thunder came from nowhere and then sighed in a brush of cold wind. the fiery flood of ire and blood

The woman looked down at Eliza, then narrowed her eyes as she looked up at Eliot. She turned and went back to her place among the crowd. Eliot saw a man turn to her, heard him say: “Poor girl. It’s really a shame. You did the right thing, though.”

“They don’t understand,” Eliza whispered. Eliot thought her voice sounded older.

“No,” he said. “They don’t.”

“This way,” the guide said, beckoning them to follow.

Eliot turned to see that the next glider had been brought up, and then he and Eliza followed the guide onto the new platform.

“The girl will have to ride atop your back,” the guide said. “And she’ll have to hold on.”

“Can you hold on?” Eliot asked her.

“I’ll have to,” she said. “I won’t go if I have to fly by myself.”

Climbing into the torso harness, he tightened the straps around his thighs and then wrapped his hands around the guiding bars, all the while trying not to think about how he was going to fly the thing. Eliza climbed onto his back and wrapped her arms around his neck, then fastened her legs around his torso.

“You on?” he asked.

“Yes.”

Eliot looked over at the guide. “I guess we’re ready,” he said.

The guide just stared at him. Eliot saw that the man’s curious smile had found its way back to the surface, only this time there was something different about it that Eliot could not quite place. It was as if the smile was such that it teetered on the line dividing true hope from a kind of mockery. Which it was more, Eliot could not say.

The wind swept under the wings and the glider lifted, causing Eliot to center his gaze over the fields—the cave looming in the distance. He felt Eliza’s arms and legs tighten around him. The subtle leap made his stomach rise; he remembered that he had never been fond of flying.

“Set her free,” the guide called, and the ropes holding the glider fell away.

Eliot could feel the wind lifting them up high above the valley and pushing them forward with great force. Flying was easier than he had expected—all he had to do was hold on.

“You all right?” Eliot called, tilting his head to the side.

“Really cold,” she said, raising her voice above the hum of wind.

“Me too,” he said. “Just don’t let go, all right?”

“I’m not going to let go.”

The glider rose and held its course toward the cave, which was growing larger. The rocks and boulders in the valley looked like pebbles. Eliot tried not to look down. He kept his eyes on the cave. They were almost there, but to what end he dared not think.

“Eliot,” Eliza said.

“What is it?” he yelled back.

“I don’t think we’re going to make it,” she said.

“We will,” he said. “Don’t worry. Just hang on to me.”

The glider lifted higher as another gust of wind pushed against the wings. The cave opened before them, a stygian maw ascending into their heaven, or descending into their hell. For a while Eliot peered hard into the nearing dark—at last he saw the shadow move. The beast dropped down from some high place in the tunnel, its wings folded back behind it, and shot toward the glider like an arrow. Eliot was startled by how large the creature was; its head alone was the size of their glider, perhaps bigger.

He felt Eliza bury her head into his shoulder.

He looked for the eyes—he wanted to look into the eyes of this terror before he conquered it, but there were none. Where eyes should have been, there were only black folds of calloused skin. The creature was blind, and yet it saw everything. The world it saw with blind eyes was lightless and yet the world was there to be seen by any who would choose to see it. Wind blew from all directions and yet the grass in the valley below lay still, and with every burst of wind the glider grew more unruly—with every burst, Eliot grew more afraid.

“My god,” Eliot said.

“What?” Eliza cried, barely lifting her head.

“I know how to beat it.”

“How?” she cried.

He could not believe what he was thinking, could hardly bring himself to say it. It was one of those thoughts that intruded upon the flow of logic, the kind that contended with the reason of the articulate self. He saw the beast’s wings rise up high into the air.

“You have to let go,” he said.

“What? You’re insane, Eliot. I’m not letting—”

When the wings came down, the blast met them head-on and sent the glider spinning. Looking away from the whirling horizon, Eliot focused on harnessing the undercurrent. When that failed, he focused on harnessing his fear… a little dying star that spits and sputters gust, gust the thund’rous bellows against the torn black sail but will he find it when he comes… He brought the glider back up to ride the wind, then turned it around to face the cave. He saw the beast fly upward and then dive after them. He pushed that sight from his mind and held his gaze on the tunnel.

“Eliza,” Eliot said, “We don’t need the glider. Let go. I can’t climb from the harness with you on my back.”

The beast swooped down, claws outstretched. Without seeing, Eliot anticipated the creature’s movement and pushed his weight forward, diving out of the monster’s path. The glider plunged toward the hills and then shot upward. He looked back to see the beast coming around, its wings flattened against the grey world behind it.

“Eliza,” he said, “I can’t keep this up. You have to trust me.”

“I’ll fall if I let go,” she cried.

“That’s just it,” Eliot said, “You can’t fall—not here. No rules, Eliza. It’s all one big trick. You can fly out on your own.”

“Eliot, I… I’m afraid.”

He felt a shadow rising, felt it swallowing the glider. Again he didn’t see it, but he knew that it was there. nothing is seen only felt in this place we are all blind

“Eliza,” he yelled, “Let go!”

He felt the weight on his back lift off. For a moment he wondered if he had done the right thing in telling her to let go. Looking to his right, he saw a little girl flying through the air, her hair blown back and dancing like a flag in a storm.

“That’s it, Eliza,” Eliot cried. “Now fly home! I’m right behind you.”

He watched her vanish into the cave’s enveloping dark, then turned the glider down and to the left just as he felt the shadow enfold him. He pulled at the bands securing him to the torso harness, then went for the leg straps. He was able to get the right one loose.

The claws tore through the wings. The glider lurched to the side as the beast caught it and lifted it up toward its narrow mouth. With its jaws it caught the wing. Eliot looked up into a fold of black skin, into the eye that was not. He ignored the sound of fabric tearing, the razor-tipped teeth gnawing away the metal braces inches away from him. He unstrapped the final band from his left leg and fell free.

As he felt the cold wind rush against his chest and into his lungs, he thought he was going to keep falling until his body would be thrashed against some jagged rock in the field below. But flying came so naturally, so quick. All he had to do was ride the wind and let it carry him, just as the glider had. He never looked back to see if the monster followed, but kept his eyes on the tunnel. As he flew under cover of the cave’s top rim, he could hear the sound of metal rods snapping as the beast tore the glider to ruin.

As he drove deeper into darkness, he saw the tunnel curve up toward something… something that had the look and feel of light. As he rose toward it, he thought he heard a shrill cry coming from over the plains outside the cave. It rose like a gusty howl atop a stormy sea, and at last dwindled into a beleaguered moan—a cry to tear asunder the fabric of worlds.

 

* * *

 

The light began to dissolve and through the white haze he glimpsed the form of a little girl. She was lying on something white close by and all around her everything was white. She was staring at him with half-closed eyelids and for a moment he felt as if he knew her or had known her once in some other time or some other place. She was beautiful, fragile, alive.

She whispered something, called him by a name that he wasn’t sure belonged to him. She called him the name again and then he knew who she was to him, and who he was to her. He wanted to speak but no words would come. He wanted to tell her that she was right, that she had been right about everything.

 

The End