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 Goddess of the Grove


I was not afraid… at least I don’t think I was. It’s been a long time, but I remember it as though I am still there. I followed the unspoken command of my guardian and began to walk, slowly at first, toward the center of the grove. Gliding over the turf in a state of childlike daydream, I moved unconsciously toward my destination while gazing up at the heights. If only the mists hadn’t hung so thick about the heavy branches, perhaps I would’ve seen the green treetops or the open roof of the surrounding crater letting in the light of a pale morning sky.

I was startled by a surge of cold running through my foot and along my ankle. I felt the sting before I ever heard the splash as my foot made contact with the water. I quickly pulled myself back, dragging my foot in the grass as I edged away from the bank of what I quickly recognized to be a small, silver spring. To my right, I could see where the river flowed out from the far right side of the bank and where it emerged from behind the spring. I can still hear the rush of water sighing alongside wet blades of blue grass.

“You have disturbed my waters.”

A woman’s voice rose from the stillness. Tiny ripples bubbled up from the center of the silver, glassy pool as the feminine voice spoke, and little waves brushed up against the soft, grassy bank.

“Forgive me,” I said. “I was looking up.” For some reason, I wasn’t as stupefied as some may think I ought to have been.

      “Yes,” she said. “I know you were. So was I.”

I often wonder if I ought to have waited a few more moments before saying what I said next. Perhaps I might have learned something of life’s great mystery, or maybe I would have been granted some foreknowledge of my destiny, or maybe I would have awakened from a dream… had I only waited.

“Why do you hide from me?” I asked, curious. “Never have I been rebuked by so pure a voice as yours. Please, allow me to look upon you.”

“Are you always this direct with women in your own country?” She asked.

“No… well, I don’t know. I’ve never had much in common with them.”

The waters stirred with an onrush of fresh ripples, making the pool seem like a miniature sea during a tempest. She was laughing. And it was such beautiful laughter, not like the kind that mocks or makes fun of the listener, but the kind that makes the listener unable to do anything but smile and laugh back.

“Few men do,” she said as soon as her laughter had faded again into stillness. “You are the first of your kind, John Seeker, who has asked to look upon me. I find that interesting.”

“You know who I am?”

“No, I only know your name. Only you can truly know who you are. But that is a matter of conversation to be set aside for another time.”

“Why have I been brought here? Into your world, I mean.”

“It is not my world, John Seeker. And why do you say ‘brought’ as though it was not by choice that you came?”

I tried to think of something to say in response, but the question so confused me that all I could do was stare out beyond the pool with something of a drone-like expression on my face.

“Many who live in this world would recognize you by voice alone,” she said after a few moments, “for it is your voice we often hear echoing over the plains, stirring the ill creatures to life and spurring them on to greater mischief. You see, you have been disturbing my waters for some time now, long before you accidentally put your foot into my pool.”

“My voice… I don’t understand. Your men took me from my home and brought me here to you.”

“Nevertheless, you were looking for a way to get here and you found one. Be thankful the others didn’t find you first.”

I could see the truth in her words. I had for a long time been dissatisfied with my own world. I had always been looking for an escape.

“What others?” I asked. I suspected who she meant, but feigned ignorance in order to lessen my growing sense of guilt.

“The ones you name otherling. Strange that you call them that. I thought that our words were much the same as yours. You wanted them to find you, but we found you instead. Are you disappointed to be robbed of your inspiration?”

Suddenly, as if I had been gifted with a portion of her intelligence, I understood what she was telling me. I understood why she knew me by my voice, why she regarded me with an unexpressed sentiment of disappointment and even anger.

“I didn’t realize… All that I have written—”

“Not only what you have written, but all that you have ever imagined: every nightmare you have ever entertained by regarding it as inspiration, every dream you have corrupted by your fascination with darkness—these you have in turn brought to life. All the evil that has for so long lain quiet beyond the Divide has been awakened by your thoughts and your words. And this world suffers violence as a result.”

       Her voice was firm, queenly and authoritative. I knew that I could not contest such a voice, nor did I have any desire to do so. Her words revealed to me the truth of all that I was responsible for causing. The otherlings were waking up because I was calling them into action. Even in my own world, fresh nightmares were being pressed into the hearts and minds of so many children, and I was the one doing the pressing.

“I know your heart is true, John Seeker,” she said, interrupting my thoughts. I could tell that she had returned to using a more gentle tone. “I can sense your sadness, the pain you feel because you are always alone. I too am alone, and I too am sad… sad to see what has become of the sons and daughters of your world, and it pains me worse to see what becomes of them when they depart from that world and enter into this one. Many of them never come to this sacred place… many are forever lost to wander in darkness beyond the Divide. And of those who do come here, none ever ask to look upon me. Do you still wish to see my face?”

“Never have I wished for anything more,” was my honest reply.

In the whole of my life I had never spoken the truth with more fervor than I did in that moment. Her voice was like a thorn in my heart and with every word she spoke, the thorn drove deeper. By this point it was taking every ounce of my will-power to keep myself from diving into the pool like a mad fool. The mist had grown thicker, more saturating. Each time I inhaled, her scent became more potent to my senses.

“Return to me after sunset, when the moon is at its highest.”

“But—”

“Tonight, John Seeker.”

Without another word I turned and began walking away from the pool, compelled to obey. I followed the stream without thinking until it led me to the place where the throng had been earlier, but where now only one man remained: my guardian.

The open, grassy space was more visible now that the mists had risen high above our heads, hanging up among the branches as a haze of blue cloud. My guardian didn’t speak or even make so much as a gesture as I emerged from among the trees.

“Where are the others?” I finally asked him.

“Rains are coming soon,” he said, glancing up at the overhanging mist. “Rain always comes so that the grove may be refreshed.”

“Your people do not like rain?” Curiosity was driving my every thought, word, action. It took all of my willpower not to ask more than one question at a time.

“Rain is for the grove, and the goddess who tends it must be refreshed. The rain is also cold, and my people do not like the cold. The others have returned to the cliffs where the air is dryer. I have stayed behind to wait for you. Now, you will be wise to follow me, John seeker… before the rains come.”

He motioned to me with an outstretched hand. As soon as I started off toward him, he turned and began leading me to the left, past the wide entrance I had come through earlier. In order to travel this way we had to cross the stream again.

My guardian was conspicuously careful not to touch the water. He hopped lightly across to the other side, then looked back at me. I did the same, being careful not to make contact with the stream… and then I remembered my previous blunder with the goddess’s spring. My shoe was still damp from that encounter. I didn’t feel inclined to mention the fact to my guide, however. For some reason, I felt that it wouldn’t improve things if he or anyone else learned that an outsider had touched the waters of the grove. To him and his kind, this grove was a sacred place.

Even so, I couldn’t help but wonder: did he fear the stream because of its sanctity? Or did he fear it because of what it might do to him if he touched it? The question was unconsciously put out of my mind as we came upon a heavily wooded trail leading up among the surrounding mountains.