that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come
how strange that men should fear death
Mel Anne Norton – auburn, large eyes, too frail and too small and too bony
29 years old (1997):
13 in 1981 (7th grade) – a school trip, a fall vacation, an odd friendship with the boy in the culvert, and a sudden trip to the emergency room
18 in 1986 (prom? graduation?) – an odd friend, the coffee shop downtown, a gang of extraordinary thugs, and a dance Stephen King would be proud of – planes, trains, and automobiles
21 in 1989 (college assault) – other forces take in interest in the fascinating and singular person of Mel Anne Norton, including but not limited to the frat boy forces of light and darkness
23 in 1991 (master’s program discovery) – books too large, a city too small, and the sewers beneath it all; things better left unseen, and the downside to memory
24 in 1992 (doctoral research in St. Louis) – cultural anthropology not at its finest, a swamp-fest (part I of III); Baron Samedi and the children’s hospital
29 (1997) –
Gabriel – a gaunt figure of middling height (5’ 8”) with lank, unpigmented hair; grey, pale eyes almost perpetually dilated
Jonas Hereford – a mage of great caliber, wisdom, and good intent – foolishly guided to remove Gabriel
Astrid Sancroix – homeless sorcerer; an oracle and traitor
Johann “Mycaenas” Jiestro – Gabriel’s old (?) mentor and guide; long since dead, reanimated, dead, reanimated (Gabe’s first puppet)
It’s a perfect day.
I enter the way I always do – by the front gate. The front is always best. Confidence is key; you walk with confidence, and no one stops you. Keep your face somber but slightly agitated – something on your mind – but resolute so no one will slow you down. Clint Eastwood, if you will – but going shopping, not standing someone down in the dust.
I like Clint Eastwood. Like his purposefulness, his clean lines. He’s rough enough – like a cropping of sandstone – but there’s pure steel underneath. Well, at least corundum. You know what I mean – a core that won’t quit, won’t melt at low temp.
Something worth harvesting.
She’s like that, I think. Yes – that might be what keeps me coming back. Her core. The steel in Mel – she’s got steel in her. Starsteel. Meteorite. Real raw stuff, but so hard. So tough.
The problem with hard stuff is that it’s brittle too. Mustn’t forget that. The oak tree topples in the wind – tumbles down – uproots, spilling dirt all around – crashed in a glory of death. So glorious! Ah! What a death! And the other trees must be so jealous!
Meanwhile, Mr. Reed over there is a-bendin’ and a-wavin’, hardly missing a beat. And there are so many reeds – ooh!, or bamboo! One shoot is never alone – it’s for the common good!
But I digress.
Hard and brittle. That’s Mel. She’s… like volcanic glass – obsidian. Pure ebony and oh so sharp. Sharp enough to cut through to the truth. I know it.
If she’s sharp enough to cut me, she can cut anything.
But I digress. I’m sorry – I mustn’t spend too much time rambling. She’s waiting, you see.
So I enter through the front, coat flapping in the breeze of the central air. Too hot. Cold is better. You can always put on more clothes. I hate to see Mel sweat so much.
Up the stairs, up the elevator, up the lobby, up the walls – it’s all up here. On the up and up, she is. Upside down. Upsides to every situation. Up ‘til now.
Her room is the same as ever
–(oh and the orderlies all look at me like I’m some rich white snob oh and if only they knew oh how rich and oh how snobbish and oh how very very white we all are on the inside – or is it red? – I always forget and oh if they knew and oh I will tell them and oh they won’t like it one bit)—
white and creamy and more dead than me.
But Mel… Mel is so…
Alive. Oh my goodness yes I can feel it coming off her skin like an oven. God! She’s an oven of life! Am I a sexist, too? My metaphors used to be so much better than this. Back in Sandyhome my metaphors were top of the line – top of my game – top of the marnin’ to ya, widda O’Brien – top, on top, on top, never on the bottom—
I’ve got to keep her on top.
No answer. No change. No pool, no pets.
“Mel, it’s me. Who did you think it was?
Well, bother you. Good morning anyway.
Yeah, yeah – bother good mornings. Bother it all. Nice state of mind to be in, Miss Sassypants.
Oh, I’m fine. You?
That’s splendid! Really, really it is. Do you think you’ll want something fresh? I brought some peaches – they’re not ripe, but they’re fuzzy and smell like heaven – and some sliced apples.
Of course granny smith! I know my lady’s apple preference, thank you very much.
No I didn’t capitalize her name when I said it.
Well, a gentleman must be consistent, if nothing else.
Well, that hurt Mel. I’m hurt.
We pause. She’s a firecracker, that Mel. So fiery – “my candle burns at both ends…” – so bright, she lights up everything. I wonder if the orderlies see that? Or the nurses? I wonder if they are drawn, too? Like me?
I wonder if I’m her friend or her foe. Both? That’s a sad thought.
It’s good today. So good. She’s so full of spice and everything nice and we’re bouncing off of each other like we always did—
Do. Do. Do. D. O.
“So I was thinking.
No, I didn’t hurt myself.
Any more? You sure? That’s what I—
No, no, go ahead. Get it out of your system.
Well, I was thinking… that maybe next Sunday we could go to Fenario’s. Tea? Biscuits? Your kind of thing, I think.
It’s a date then!
I know, I know. I kid. It’s an engagement.
I’ll make an honest woman of you yet, Melanie Anne Norton. Don’t think I won’t!
Well, yes. It is that time I suppose.
I’d like to stay longer—
You’re right. As always.
Well, take care. It was good to see you!
Yes – please do. I’ll be in the office all day.
Ha! Like I’ve nothing better to do?
You’re right. I don’t. Thank you – my self-esteem appreciated that.
Well, so long. Take care, dear.”
He paused at the door, turning back toward her. She sat upright, blankets covering her from the waist down, auburn hair covering her face in a fuzzy sunlit halo. A nimbus of fire captured in silk. He smiled without knowing it, but it didn’t reach his eyes – pale, grey eyes that seemed to focus on nothing. Just as unconsciously as he smiled, he sighed and, turning sharply on the frame, walked down the hallway.
It always hurt to see her like this. Still, one must do what one must do – and Gabriel was intimately familiar with starting over.
Gabriel walked out the same way he came in – black coat flapping, shoes clipping mutedly along the polished floors of Sandyhome. He thought it was a pity – a kind of sad irony. This is where he’d thought to start it all over again. And it was here that he found himself once more – position reversed, here we go all over again. And again. And again.
As he passed from out the stifling lobby – past the orderlies who paid him no mind this time; past the overweight clerk at the front desk (he was white – god, what a tub of lard; no, not lard, mayonnaise; no, margarine), past the neon hum of the vending machines (all out of Skittles), and through the mechanized revolving door. With the first step onto the sidewalk, Gabriel felt the bite of the January wind shear through the wool of the coat, cutting underneath the flaps and nipping at his flesh. Winter. Snow, half-melted, lay in dying clumps around the cars and bushes and ragged crumbling sidewalks. So different from the Sandyhome he remembered. So different.
He would have to try again. This time, perhaps they could begin without the running, without the hiding. Hiding hadn’t worked – it had only gummed things up. Running hadn’t worked; Mel took his movement as deception. Gabriel had hurt her, yes; sometimes necessarily, sometimes less so. He’d used her, he’d tricked her, he’d even forced her to—
Lying was the one thing he never did to Mel.
As Gabriel turned around, his eyes slid across the leaden sky and fastened on a window. On the white hand pressed against the glass. On the faint silhouette obscured by the distance and the aged, warped glass.
“Soon, Mel. Soon I’ll have you good as new.”
Gabriel walked down the sidewalk and onto the asphalt. His fifth step echoed quietly across the sparse, black lot – but his sixth and seventh footsteps seemed to ring like church bells on a snowy morning.
Then, he was gone.
- Exposition – a realm unstable, ending with a hint of what’s to come
Look at me.
The air is cool. I shuffle my feet in the grass. My shoes squeak a little because it’s wet. I laugh. There are trees all around me. It’s pretty. I look up at the sun. It’s bright, so I squint.
Boy. Look at me.
There are no clouds. At least I can’t see any clouds. No birds either. No sound but me and the trees. They’re talking to each other. I close my eyes and imagine what they’re saying. They speak with the wind. I’d like to talk to trees with the wind.
Look over here, boy. Look at me.
It’s cool. I wish I’d brought my jacket. I wonder if the trees are telling me that? They have bark. Nice and warm. I wish I was a tree. It must be nice in the sun. I feel it on my face. I imagine I’m a tree, too. I pretend I can photo-sintha-sizer. It feels good.
Look. At. Me. Now. Boy.
I shiver. It’s chilly, but I don’t want to leave. The trees are talking to me. I can feel the wind whispering in my ear. It’s kind of scary, but the trees are trying to warn me. What is it, trees? What is it?
What do you want, trees? Run? Why? Where?
I don’t run. I open my eyes. It’s time to go. I turn around. I look at the tre—
What is that, trees?
My first memories are, oddly enough, of sunshine. Though many months of my life have been spent under ground in one form or another, my first clear chapter begins elsewhere.
I remember cool air all around me, the kind of ripe, rich smell that early fall and spring are rife with. Whether it’s the scent of death – decaying plants, exhumed bacteria, chemistry – or the smell of life – seeping water, budding trees, chemistry – it’s always fresh and potent. I guess it’s kind of funny that both our beginnings and ends should be so pungent, especially when our middling sections are so very bland. We start with salt and end with pepper, with nothing but paprika in between.
I hate paprika.
Yet this is not the story of an end or a beginning in the conventional sense. While we, too will leave each other – as is the natural course of things – the meat here is in the middle and a girl named Mel.
I’ve tried to make notes, here and there, to clarify things. I suppose they won’t really be clear until the end. And that’s ok. But I wanted you to know I tried. No, I don’t know you. And you certainly don’t know me yet – nor how I know your name, Mel. But I want you to know that I know you already, and that I want you to understand. Understanding isn’t often easy; in fact, it can be the hardest thing of all to do. So much easier to brush away those around you, to erect barriers to keep out that which you don’t already know. My life ended up being a search for understanding, and while I wouldn’t really wish any of my experiences on anyone else, I can’t think of a better pursuit. Everything we do is rooted in our search for understanding, I think. I just hope that I’m right. I guess I just hope that I understand the big picture, and haven’t gotten lost in some dead-end fractal loop.
So it’s a small glade (I think) because it’s all green and still around me, and it’s cool and it smells strong, like fall (or spring) and everything’s green and cool and slightly damp. I’m standing; the grass is just long enough to tickle my ankles over my socks. They’ve worked their way down under my heels – I really hate that, just so you know – and my toes are wet. Shoes soaked. But I’m not looking at my shoes. I’m not looking around. I’m looking up between the trees.
I remember the way the sunlight was coming through the branches, cutting between the leaves. It was like one of those religious paintings, or the end of Fantasia or something – like the rays of light had become solid things, transcended their physical state and become something much more. Allegorical. Like a seraphim would float on down on the beam, zip line down from on high and deliver some catastrophically important message.
That’s all I remember. How pretty it was. The cool, the damp. My socks. Such silly little things. But I also remember thinking that this was important. That the way the light came through the branches meant something more, was in some way more important than I could really know. Like a tickle on the brain, or the way sandbars can play with waves – you know it’s there, you can feel it, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.
I don’t remember the thing under the tree.
But I guess that’s it. Not sure where it was or when – though I know I was small, very small. Toddling about – you know. And that’s about it until I was in Washington. That’s my next memory, I guess – getting lost in the subway. Most scared I’ve ever been in my life. Plenty of moments like that, though, now that I think about it – scares and close calls and adrenaline rushes. Nothing as pleasant as the sunshine. It was like for a moment, I was the most special person in the world. Like everything was willing to stop for a moment to bring me in on the joke, to let me in on the secret of life.
I don’t remember the thing speaking to me.
Everyone wants a moment like that, I think. Just a second or three when the whole world is on your side and you can do anything. Moments like that can last a lifetime, revitalize you, stick with you forever. I think that one’s mine. There it is, see? The search for meaning. I may not know what it is – ever. Sunshine on my face. But I know that it’s important, so I cling to it.
I don’t remember the thing touching me.
But the subway child is a fun memory, too, by the way. The District (am I capitalizing it when I speak? Sheesh.) was a beautiful place in some ways – so much to do, so much to see, so full of life and importance and all kinds of people – but it also held its share of ugliness. Not trying to be trite; that’s really just the way it is with the big cities.
That one will wait for another time, Mel. I’ll tell you about the subway – and why I was so scared. It’s silly now, looking back. Everything’s clearer in hindsight, they say. There was absolutely nothing to be afraid of – but I was terrified nonetheless.
I don’t remember the thing.
I’ll tell you next time. Take care, dear.
- Act 2 – rising, building – a Jenga tower bound to topple – hints of the past rising as afterimages in the present
Melanie Anne Norton walked along the culvert below the playground looking for absolutely nothing at all.
Not a specific nothing, mind you. Simply that sort of nothing that thirteen year old girls – and boys – look for at every opportunity. The nothing they can point to and say, “See! I told you so. Nothing.” The sort of nothing that all adolescents want to search for and, by searching, disprove.
A time-wasting nothing. She kicked a stone off the graveled path and watched it trace ripples across the surface of the water in the culvert. What was she expecting? What was she looking for? All that Mel came up with was her overall dissatisfaction with life in general. And nothing was as unsatisfying as recess in middle school.
Mel exhaled slowly, pulling her arms tighter around her shoulders. Looking ahead, the loose stone and clay of the path paralleled the overgrown ditch and the trickling, murmuring stream at its bottom. It wasn’t cool enough yet for the grass to die, even though there were plenty of leaves littering the parking lot and the rest of the school grounds. All too soon it would be back to class, back to work, and then back home.
It wasn’t that Mel didn’t like school – in fact, she rather did; it was easy peasy, lemon-squeezy. She knew the rules – and if Mel was good at one thing, it was following the rules. Or at least looking like she was following the rules.
She looked up, squinting at the sky. God, but it was obnoxiously blue. Ridiculously blue. Shading her eyes with one hand, Mel looked down the path; just a few dozen yards ahead, the path was shadowed by the footbridge that ran from the field above (some twelve feet higher than the path she was on) across to the neighboring park. I could make it, Mel thought. I could walk off and no one would know I was missing.
Well, no. That was a lie. But a pleasant lie, nonetheless. Not that Mel wanted to skip – it was just amusing, thinking that she could. Fun. Harmless fun.
Mel didn’t get enough fun, really. And home didn’t have the rules that school did. It wasn’t bad either; it was just hard to know what was going to happen next, hard to predict what the right thing to do was – or would be tomorrow, or the next week.
She shuffled closer to the over-arching bridge, Keds leaving scuff marks in the dust of the trail. Almost there, Mel thought; another fifteen minutes, and then I’m inside. Gotta work the walk – make it last as long as I can. Gotta—
A small noise, soft and rustling, grabbed her attention, and Mel fell out of Mel-land. On the path in front of her, bright and glossy blue-black in the sunshine, a blackbird lay on its side. Its wing was outstretched like a fan; the only movement the small rapid motions of its head and the pulsing of its throat. Mel froze in place, one foot lifted on toe, halted in mid-step. Poor thing, she thought.
Her presence didn’t seem to disturb it further, and Mel took a cautious step forward.
“I wouldn’t touch it if I were you.”
The voice was quiet, a casual warning, and definitely male. Mel shot out of her shoes, pulse rocketing up to an unhealthy pace. She whirled around, looking behind her. No one. She turned back, looking up at the bridge, right to the park embankment, left towards the fields of the school. Nothing.
“Down here.” She turned right again, and let out a small gasp of surprise. Nestled into the bank of the culvert – so still that he was almost obscured by the cat-tails and grass choking the breadth of the runoff stream – sat a boy hardly older than she was. His white hair – white? – was less of a shock than the sudden realization of his presence. A ragged tee-shirt (gray-green, by the look of it) hung off bony shoulders above rolled, torn jeans. Each pant leg was cuffed up around his calf, and she saw the boy was dipping his feet in the stream. Pale gray eyes below black brows caught her own with open and unabashed inquisition.
Silence – horrible, awkward, uncertain silence. The boy looked at her, and Mel looked at the boy. Where the hell did he come from?
“You’ll catch a cold like that.” The words were out before she could catch them, running off her tongue like a third string player on her final chance. Oh, hell. I’m my mother. She hurried to add weight to her words, seeing as she had lost the chance to be cool ever again. Damn. “It’s too cold.”
Another pause, and suddenly he smiled – smiled so big and so wide it was like she had just told him his birthday was going to come early. White, even teeth; the boy flicked his head, bangs no longer hanging in his eyes.
“I don’t get sick that easily.” He nodded in her direction. “S’best to enjoy the water while you can. Days like this are too few and far between.” He looked up, and she followed his gaze. “Blue days are my favorite.”
He said nothing more. She looked down at him, heart finally slowing. Odd kid. “Yeah, they’re… nice.” Mel brought her arms up around her again, pulling one loose strand of hair behind her right ear. “So…” She stopped, faltered. What do you say now? How is this supposed to go? “…Come here often?”
He nodded solemnly, like it was the most important question in the world. After a beat, he jerked his head to the right. “This your bird?”
Mel shook her head. “No, no, I—I just saw it and I—” Her voice trailed off. I what? Thought I should do something? She shook her head. “I was just curious.”
The boy leaned back, twisting his head to the side. “Looks hurt.” With a short sigh, he turned sideways, pulling himself up from the bank. He drummed both hands on his knees, bending over and slapping them rhythmically in a brief one-two salvo. As he straightened, he looked right at her again.
Man, he’s got a thing for eye contact. Mel could feel herself begin to flush and fought to keep it from her face. She shrugged, feigning disinterest. “Yeah. Not much we can do.” She looked down at the bird, then away. “It’s a hard world, kiddo.”
Oh no, Mel groaned inside her head. Bogie would be so ashamed. That was the opposite of cool.
But the boy didn’t seem to notice; he just frowned, nodded, and lapsed into silence again. After a moment, he looked up, a barely restrained smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
“You want to fix it?”
He had warned her about the book.
“If you take this, you’ll get much more than you bargained for.” His slow smile seemed shy; her eyes met his, and blushing, she felt the shy one. Mel looked down, tucking an errant strang of wind-teased hair behind her ear.
Now it was too late.
“I didn’t bargain for anything. You’ve got it wrapped up like a gift – that’s what it is, right?” She half shrugged, and smiled. Meeting his eyes, she squinted into the warm afternoon sun. “It’s just my birthday, Gabe – no need to be so mysterious.”
She tried to smile again, but something in the stillness of Gabe’s face broke the strength of her smile. It felt weakly pasted on her face – like a drooping handbill too many seasons out of date.
Too late for Mel. Too late for the rest of us, too. Too late for everyone everywhere everywhen.
“It’s not for your birthday,” Gabe insisted. In the sun, he looked paler than ever – like some carp dredged up from the reservoir, an off-white funky cream color.
“It’s not for anything. It’s for you.” He looked away for the first time, spots of color rising on his cheeks like chicken pox. It was almost like he was allergic to something. Maybe he was allergic to her.
And certainly too late for me.
Mel blushed again – part in response to his shyness, and part girlish art to tease even more embarrassment out of Gabe. She reached out with both of her freckle-stained hands, took the leather bound book, and hugged it against her chest. The green of the ribbon was rich against the black of the binding, and it felt comfortably cool in her arms.
Too late, too late.
Gabe looked up from the cracked pavement and shrugged without losing her gaze. “Listen – you – there’s something you need to do with the book.”
He paused, and Mel couldn’t help but smile again. There was something in the set of his shoulders, his feet, even his hands that tickled. Like a puppy that didn’t know it was the runt of the litter, or a gorse bush clinging with desperate arboreal stupidity to the clump of dirt on a cliff. An adorable insistency. She waited, secure again in that mature glow that girls develop long before their bumbling counterparts.
She frowned, flustered all over again; it was his damned intensity, the way Gabe said everything – everything – like it was the most important thing ever. Like it was his last words. Stupid things, trivial things, meaningless thing – she was sure, it was the way his eyes stayed unblinking, white and silvery. Like ash that was trying to hold onto fire long after it was cold. It’s what freaked out her friends, she knew; none of them really disliked Gabe. He was just a creep. Her creep.
“Don’t stop what?”
He blinked. “Reading.”
- Satisfaction; a golden, glowing garden of possibilities
The house under the hill
- The swamp – the loa – the life of the dead
- Ruined by a rising interference
Paris, and the old lights of yesteryear
What does Jonas reveal about Gabriel?
“But why, Gabriel? Why down here?” Mel shuddered. “It’s not that it’s just creepy. I can deal with that, I guess. But why so far down? What do you hope to find?”
Gabriel paused, his back to her. She saw his shoulders tighten, then fall as a sigh hissed between his teeth. He rocked his head back and forth in a single, sharp gesture, then turned smoothly on his heel. She saw the smile he had fastened there, knew it to be false, but kept her silence. No matter how he truly felt about this catacombs – or what he expected to find, or hoped to show her – Gabriel was hiding something from her. There was something he didn’t want her to see – something in him.
“Well Mel, I guess… I guess I wanted somewhere specific. Where the natural conclusion would feel right.” His smile looked plastic, felt fake – but his eyes as always burned with a sincerity that Mel felt as keenly as the damp and chill around them. God, can’t he say anything without making it sound like a death sentence? Without looking at me like I’m about to decide the fate of the world? It’s not even a fucking question. Gabriel’s smile faded slowly. “I need to talk to you. To be completely honest with you. And I don’t want you to be… I don’t want you to be muddle by anything else.”
“Muddled? What do you mean?” Her words were sharp – sharper than she intended, but Mel wasn’t worried about Gabriel’s feelings now. She hated these fumbling moments, these awkward pauses where his smooth lines or his babbling nonsense were stripped away. Why did she hate them? When he sounded like her. What bothered her so much? When he sounded human.
Why did that trouble her so much?
He was silent, and the vast network of tunnels and burial chambers – those through which they had passed and those which she had only a vague notion of – seemed to bear down on her. Just the sensation, the notion of the countless bodies around her kept rising to the top of her brain, tickling at her fear, urging her to look around constantly for the threat that just wasn’t there.
Gabriel stood, tapping one foot in apparent irritation. He was always fidgeting when she asked him questions like this, and this time was no different; he was twiddling his fingers, drumming his fingers on his thigh like it would help him think of what he was going to say. “I don’t want you confused. I want you to see it as clearly as possible.” He paused again, frowning, eyes cast down to the floor. As he looked up again – slowly, as if the simple act of making eye contact was one that required great deliberation and formality – he looked almost sad. Wistful, really. It was like he was regretting was he was going to do even before he did it. “Mel – do you remember the book I gave you?”
“Book?” Mel frowned herself this time. They’d talked books before – real and fictional, from the Necronomicon to Gulliver’s Travels, from Altered Carbon to A Portrait of Dorian Gray – but he had never shared one with her. Always allusions, always quoting obscure things she’d never heard of. And quoting them wrong, in fact. “What book?”
His eyes widened. “The book I gave you. At school. Mel, you can’t have forgotten the book.” Gabriel seemed completely taken aback. “It was the only present I ever got you for your birthday. Every other time I forgot. Or we did something.” He shook his head back and forth as if trying to clear his head of some lingering confusion. “It was your birthday present.”
Mel shook her head slowly. “You never gave me a book, Gabriel. I would have remembered it.” She frowned more sharply this time, confused and more than a little cross. “We’ve never spent my birthday together, Gabriel. I didn’t meet you until spring. Sandyhome.” She crossed her arms, narrowing her eyes slightly. “What the hell are you talking about?”
He stood, motionless, his eyes wide and staring. Mel could have heard a pin drop, except for the thunder of blood in her ears that filled the silence – that full silence that builds in any dark, empty place as if in rebellion against the natural state of all black, quiet places. They stood for what seemed like a small eternity, and all the while he was still. So still.
“Your voyage ends here, necromancer.”
The words broke the silence like a stone cast into a still, deep well. She and Gabriel turned in unison toward the portal. On the lintel stood Jonas, his off-white coat overlapping his large brown leather boots. His right hand was held up at chest height, an orb of radiant white light shining; in his left, a snub-nosed revolver was levelled at Gabriel. With a smooth, deliberate motion, he cocked back the hammer. “Gabriel, please don’t move. You are under arrest under the ancient laws that command us all, charged with necromancy, assault, consorting, and trespassing. I’ve come for you and you alone. I don’t want anyone to get hurt – least of all you.” He nodded toward Mel. “And I certainly don’t want the little lady to get caught up in this. Hold still, don’t resist, and this will all be over very quickly.”
Mel’s jaw dropped. How had he found them? What did he mean, crimes? She thought of the past months with Gabriel, and the blood drained from her face. I guess we trespassed – and necromancy is kind of a given – but what assault?
“Good. It’s good of you not to resist.” Jonas’s voice was full and strong, emanating confidence. “I won’t need this, will I? You understand, of course, that we’ll be carrying out the sentence here.” He paused, and Mel could hear the hate in his voice. “You’re considered too dangerous. To volatile. We’ve been asked to… put you down here and now.” His eyes narrowed. “I wanted to bring you back to face justice, you understand. For all of your crimes. Those we have not yet been able to… prove. For our master.” Mel saw his knuckles whiten on the grip of the pistol, then relax as he let out a deep breath. “But I will not break my oath. I will uphold our laws, fulfill my duty. No like you, Gabriel.”
With that, he gestured with his right hand – a small, swift movement, no more than a half inch – and the glowing orb of light darted forward with impossible speed. It seemed as if it would strike Gabriel in the chest – but it stopped short, hovering there like some ghostly marshlight, bathing Gabriel’s face from below with a soft but bright light. He did nothing.
Jonas stopped, as if waiting for a reply, a movement, a reaction of any kind – or perhaps some defense. Slowly he lowered the gun, and slipped it into the pocket of his coat. He gestured to Mel again. “Please step back, Ms. Norton. I don’t want to hurt you, and if you cooperate, I promised you won’t be held accountable for his actions.” He paused again – stop and go, all this threat – what has him so concerned? – and blinked at her. “You understand the severity of what he has done, don’t you?”
Mel nodded once, hesitantly. “I… I know what he’s been doing, I guess. For the past few months, at least. But I don’t…” She faltered. “I don’t know what you mean by assault, or crimes you haven’t proved. And if we’re trespassing, I don’t get what the big deal is. Sure we might not be supposed to be here – but it’s not like there were signs or anything.” Her voice quavered again. “I don’t—”
“Ms. Norton, it’s all very simple.” Jonas spoke slowly, as if to add power to each word by its slowness. “This man is a charlatan – a traitor to his own kind – and while we are here to stop him, we’re no more his enemies than the police are enemies of the public. This man – the one you call Gabriel – is a murderer, a liar, a foul and corrupt being who delights in the torment of others.” He paused, swallowing, brows furrowed, visibly ill at ease. He slid his hands together in a washing motion, then continued. “In the children’s hospital—”
He stopped, and started again, “In St. Louis, you saw with your own eyes.” Jonas stared straight at Mel, unblinking, his gaze boring into her. “The way he treated the remains of those who passed, the way he dealt with those who resisted him, his familiarity with those… others… he dealt with. You saw, didn’t you?”
Mel shrugged, confused. “But he didn’t do anything in St. Louis.” She paused herself, trying to gather her thoughts. Why am I so ready to defend him? Why am I trying so hard? She shook her head again, as if she too were trying to clear herself of confusing thoughts. “We just visited some folks in the swamp. That’s all.” Jonas just looked at her, disbelief in his eyes; Mel drew strength from his silence, and continued on. “He’s my patient, Jo—Mr. Jonas. Sir.” Her voice grew harder. “Was my patient. I’d like to know what he’s charged with. Specifically. Please.”
Jonas raised an eyebrow. The movement infuriated her. Who the hell does he think he is? No wonder Gabriel wanted nothing to do with him. She pulled her arms more tightly around her. Pompous ass. She glanced toward Gabriel, sure at any moment he would pull one of his crazy stunts – magic him off – and they’d be running again. But he wasn’t moving. His eyes were half-lidded, staring straight at her. Mel felt a chill, a cool prickling against her skin, and shivered.
Jonas spoke. “Ms. Norton, perhaps – perhaps it would be better if we were to both come clean with you.” He looked slowly over at Gabriel. “Gabriel here is not just another practitioner like myself. His art is not like my art, or anyone else who operates within the good graces of our senate. And I am not simple policia to come and take him away.” He smiled at her, wanly – but when she offered no response, his smile withered away like so much dead dandelion. He licked his lips, nervously. “I’m more of a special enforcer. I’m only called away from my educational duties when a certain… caliber of individual demands my attention. Someone like Gabriel.”
Mel waited for more, details perhaps or simply more rambling explanation – but waited in vain. Jonas seemed to be waiting as well, for when the silence had filled the span of three heartbeats, he continued tentatively.
“Perhaps, Gabriel, you would like to share your history with your compatriot? I’m certain she’d be better off hearing the truth from your own lips? Or is she already familiar with your peculiar history?”
Mel turned to Gabriel, waiting for—waiting for anything. Refusal. Denial. Explanation. A laugh, outrage, a sorcerous assault with his mysterious power – a power Jonas clearly wielded as well – but nothing came.
“Well, Gabriel? Don’t keep us waiting. After all, she doesn’t have much time left with you – and I certainly want to wrap this up quickly, with a minimum of fuss.”
Mel stared at him.
“Go ahead, Gabriel.”
This time, Jonas’s words had a different feel – a sound that wasn’t quite all sound, a taste in the back of her throat that itched like pepper. She wasn’t the only one to feel it – she saw the way Gabriel stiffened as well. He began to speak – like some puppet suddenly animated by an epileptic hand.
“The children’s hospital…” Gabriel seemed to stutter, his eyes unfocused.
“Well?” Mel could feel Jonas’s anticipation – could see his eagerness in his stance, in his forward lean and dark, shining eyes. “Go on.”
Gabriel’s eyes remained unfocused, like a phantom, a spectre from some horrible dream. Mel desperately wished she was dreaming – that this would all end. But his voice went on, a soft razor removing all of her built-in confidence and strength layer by layer.
“The children’s hospital ended badly. Every child died. Every single one. When we went back, it was all too late – we couldn’t even animate a single one. All that flesh gone to waste…” Again, he trailed off. Mel’s eyes grew even wider, refusing to blink – refusing to refresh this nightmare.
“We went… back?”
Her voice was little more than a whisper, but Gabriel nodded slowly. “Oh yes. It took most of the night to finish the job. When I had cleaned myself up the next morning, I told you we could leave if you wanted. You asked if we could go back – clean up there, too—finish the job – and I said alright, if you wanted. There was nothing to do, though. They had been thoroughly…” Gabriel hesitated, as if looking for the right word. “Broken. Yes, beyond repair – even my skills couldn’t do it cost effectively.”
She shuddered in horror, and thought back, vainly, to the spring time. Hours in therapy… the conversations in the garden… the first drive to the Pulpit… the lake. Nothing was there.
“You wouldn’t remember.”
Gabriel’s words pulled her back with an abrupt force. “What do you mean?” Even to her, Mel’s voice sounded small, muffled against the pounding of her heart and the thunder of blood in her ears. “Why wouldn’t I remember?”
Jonas pursed his lips, radiating disapproval. “I knew I was right. I looked into you, too, Ms. Norton – you didn’t seem like the type of character he’s used in the past. Not a simple proxy or escape vehicle. Your association with him has been lengthy – longer even than I’ve been on his case, and that’s quite some time. Still, in all that time, you’ve never showed any predilection for the type of work this butcher is infamous for. Listen – I feel as if it’s to your benefit more than mine.”
His last word were tinged with sadness, a kind of soft remorse – and Mel turned back to Gabriel. His voice was still soft, barely cutting through the muffling cloud of her hysteria.
“You wouldn’t remember. This was five years ago – back in 1992.”
Mel’s blood froze, her eyes glued to Gabriel’s lips. Still he spoke on, like some infernal record whispering into the black corridor of her mind.
“You’ve been in his company for over twenty years, Ms. Norton.” Now Jonas’s voice was gentler, and she saw the large man’s mouth soften was well in a sympathetic smile. His eyes showed his concern too – Like some big dog that feels sorry that I stepped on its foot, Mel thought. Oh god… it can’t be… five years? Twenty? “Perhaps, Ms. Norton, we’d best cut to the bone for you. Gabriel,” he spoke again as if commanding a child, and Mel had an inkling of that glowing golden orb’s purpose, “why don’t you tell Ms. Norton why she can’t remember any of these events. That might be more fruitful than this haphazard confession.” Wildly, thoughts reeling to the surface in a boil, she turned again to Gabriel.
“Because I removed her memories of these events. I took them out.” Gabriel sounded almost pleased, as if simply answering the question was satisfying.
“And how many times, Gabriel?” Jonas’s tone was infinitely patient – anticipating the response with surety. “How many times have you removed Ms. Norton’s memory?”
“Five.” The swiftness of the answer left no doubt. God, Mel thought, oh sweet Jesus how could that—what do I remember? Who am I? She felt her body tremble.
“First in the spring of seventh grade – you were thirteen, Mel – when I gave you the book—” Gabriel stopped, whispered, “That’s it! That’s why you couldn’t remember!”, and went on. “Then in… your senior year. Mine too – first time I went to school for any length of time. First time I got a diploma, too. Then in college, junior year – you were so bloody, Mel. So bloody. Then when you moved on to your masters – I think you were twenty-three, reading too many books for your own good; I pulled you out of the library. Quite forcefully, if I recall.”
Gabriel paused, as if uncertain of where to go next. Then his face lit up. “Oh! And during your doctorate, too. I guess I just kept popping up during your whole education, didn’t I?” He chuckled, and the sound twisted like a knife in Mel’s stomach. “And that was the last time. In St. Louis – you were doing research in the neighborhood.” He nodded to Jonas calmly, as if affirming an unspoken question. “The dead children.” He looked back at Mel.
“So many dead children, Mel. Their bodies were everywhere.”
The lack of emotion was palpable, as if the human element that had frustrated her just a moment before had been wrung out. It wasn’t as reassuring as Mel had hoped it would be. It was as if she couldn’t even recognize the creature in front of her.
“Well, there you have it.” Jonas spoke slowly, as if to ground Mel back in this nightmarish reality. “And could you tell Mel just how many you’ve killed? Reanimated?”
Gabriel’s eyes narrowed, and Mel’s heart rose – Surely he’s going to tell him off now. It’s all be a ruse – just a trick – and he’ll explain this whole mad story, all this nonsense, and we’ll laugh at the Rue de Honore and fly home and oh please Gabriel don’t let it be—
“Killed is the tricky part.” Gabriel’s voice was like ice on the surface of a lake. “I believe that, counting your master—” Mel heard Jonas’s teeth clench, grinding in the darkness, “—it must be well over twelve thousand. Though we’re not here to boast about records, are we Jonas?” He chuckled again, and Mel could feel the bile rising in the back of her throat. “As for reanimation—don’t give me that look, Jonas. I remember them all. I just don’t feel like telling you now. As for reanimation, it’s nine thousand, three hundred, and twenty-four – not including animals, of course.”
The perfect stillness that followed his response went unbroken for too long. Mel wished she could hyperventilate, faint, pass out, anything. Anything to escape this. Anything to stop this.
“And why haven’t you told this to Ms. Norton?” Jonas’s question was perfectly calm, back in control after whatever jibe Gabriel had sent his way found its mark. “Why the secrecy? Surely as your boon companion, she had a right to know.”
“Of course not.” Gabriel’s words spat from his mouth like sparks in the darkness. “She mustn’t know. How could I possibly tell her? How could I possibly force this on her, as it was me?” He shook his head violently. “If I had my way, she wouldn’t know anything. Nothing. Not a drop.”
He sighed sharply. “And everything I’ve shared has been against my will. No doubting it. I’d love to leave her again – leave her without memory of this. Mel has no business knowing any of this, and it’s been my goal from the first day to keep her in the dark. I haven’t been as successful as I would have liked—but se la vie.” He stopped, and a flicker of emotion ran across his face like flame over a hearthstone. “Too clever that way, Mel. Too clever by far. Far too clever for me.”
Gabriel turned to her, and his slow crinkling frown was only marginally better than the impassivity moments prior. Only a thin slice of humanity to muffle the knell of his heartless words. His emotionless frost.
“I think… I think I wish you’d never come along that first trip. It would have made things so much simpler.” He seemed to look through her, into infinite distance. “Yes. That would have been best. Best if I’d been on my own. Best if you’d never had that birthday. Best if you knew when to stop asking questions.”
“Best if we’d never met at all.”
The silence beat on. Jonas looked on with pity stamped on his face; all Mel was sensible to was Gabriel’s blank face looking back at her. How long had they travelled together? Suddenly, their departure from Sandyhome seemed hazy, like an alcoholic’s fantasy. The escape from the sanitarium, the days and nights on the road, the house under the hill, the trip to St. Louis the first trip? second? oh god how many times have I been there? what else don’t I know? the flight to France, and this midnight journey through subterranean crypts. For what?
“Gabriel…” Her voice was nothing more than a whisper in the subterranean night, lit only by the magelight above his head – and the reflection of his lifeless eyes. No light from within – only a pale reflection, a mirage, a hollow imitation of the life around him. Why didn’t I see if before? She choked down a sniffle, and murmured, “You… you made all this happen? Please, just—please tell me it’s not true.” Sniff. “I just want to go home, Gabriel. Just make it all go away. Tell me you didn’t mean it.” Mel looked toward Jonas, half fearing he would interrupt – but now he seemed content to wait, hands folded over his abdomen.
Gabriel’s voice was a whisper – as soft and empty of feeling as a leaf blown across a curb, rattling through the dark. “I can’t lie like that, Mel. I made this all happen. Me.”
Mel drew back with each word, flinching as if she could draw away physically and thus save herself from the torment. But his words still found her, burrowed their way inside her ears and sank into her heart like lead weights.
“Me, Mel. Always. My doing. My choice. I kept you along for the ride.” Gabriel’s voice was softer now, losing its edge. “It was… regrettable, I suppose. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I needed you along. I needed you to not remember. I’m sure you understand.” He paused. “You understand, don’t you Mel?” His words hung in the air like a death sentence, a euphemistic accusation hovering over her.
“Mel, just trust me. You can trust me, Mel.” His voice was softer still, and the farthest thing from soothing. “It’ll all be all right. Don’t you fret.”
How could I be so… foolish? Naïve? I don’t even know. A thousand horrible possibilities thrummed through her mind at once – manipulation, deception, rape, torture, brainwashing, who knows what she had gone through. And she had no memory of it. Nothing. It was pitiful. Her fingers dug into her arms, and she felt her flesh chilled in the damp air. Disgusting.
“Even the—when I gave you the book that was my choice too. It should have solved this. If you could remember the book, remember why you didn’t want to come here to begin with.” The life was back in his voice, the horrible glass emptiness gone from Gabriel’s eyes. “Remember the book. Please. The book. Remember.”
Mel stood against the wall, feeling the skulls of a dozen ancient dead pressing into her back. Gabriel looked at her and for a split second, she felt sorry for him again – sorry for his insistence, sorry for all the pain rippling across his face. Then she remembered the lie, and the weight of its impossible betrayal came crashing down.
Sorry? Not anymore. No more regret for this man in front of her, this man of contradictions and whimsy. She clutched her bag to her side, looking at the confident figure of Jonas – large, commanding, sure of himself with arms folded in front of his chest – and the small, insignificant shape of Gabriel in the light. She felt almost claustrophobic, like her emotional pain had taken physical weight and was pressing down on her, crushing her chest and pinioning her legs like lead.
“Mel, please. Remember the book.”
Gabriel’s plea was pitiful now. For someone whose voice had once echoed with fervor, whose every utterance had carried such immense weight, it was tragic. Well, it would have been – but all Mel could think of was how he had lied to her – lied to her – and of all people, how she had trusted him, given herself to him—
She couldn’t take it. She couldn’t even face him and his riddles within riddles, his purposeless deceits. The torchlit floor blurred before her as Mel choked down sobs, tears pooling between in the corners of her eyes only to trickle maddeningly down her cheeks. She screwed her eyes shut, and, turning clumsily on one foot, took a single step away.
“I don’t want to hear it!” Her voice echoed painfully in the small chamber. As Mel opened her eyes, she saw Jonas take a single step toward her, hesitate, then pull back. His face at least seemed to echo some of her grief, her anguish. Her betrayal. “I don’t want to hear it. I—I was just another of your puppets, another game for you to play and I really thought—“
Once again, Mel’s breath failed her, and it was all she could do not to choke on the knot working its way up her throat.
“Stop!” Mel’s words came out hard, her voice cracking. Everything was blurry now; the world swam through a veil of tears. “Just stop. I don’t know what was in this for you. I don’t want to know. I just want you to leave me alone.”
With every syllable, her words seemed to bite into Gabriel as he shrank into himself. In the ensuing silence, Mel could hear her own ragged breathing and the pounding of her heart. She’d never felt this much pain before – nothing even remotely resembling this burn – and it seemed like all of the madness of the past months had all been for naught. All the pain, all the heartache, the confusion, the terror – it was all his fault. His fault – and she was done.
“Just leave me alone.”
Gabriel blinked once, and Mel could hear Jonas step forward behind her, a sharp intake of breath indicating his attention was fully focused on Gabriel’s movements. But aside from the blink, Gabriel didn’t move; didn’t slouch, didn’t drum his fingers against his thigh. He didn’t do anything – he just stood there as if waiting for more. His stillness only infuriated her all the more.
“What? Haven’t you done enough? Isn’t that a reasonable thing to ask?” She spat the words as if hoping they could cut into him, slice into his shell of detachment and wound him like he had wounded her. “I just wanted you—I just wanted the truth. All along, that’s all I wanted. And you promised it to me.” She broke off, bottom lip between her teeth. “And I guess I was just another game to you after all.” The tears were gone now – just raw, sticky streaks down her face. Mel felt empty, hollow, worn out beyond all repair. “Please, Gabe. Just leave me alone.”
She began to turn, half moving away, when she saw Jonas step forward purposefully, hands relaxed and open in front of him. His long coat brushed against his pant legs as he walked, and his jaw was set with inexorable purpose. “Gabriel, it’s time. You’ve caused enough trouble, and I am here – empowered by our superiors – to put you away for good.” He sighed, a long pent-up breath that fogged white in the cold subterranean air. “Prepare yourself as best you can, I suppose. It will be easier for you if you don’t resist – but I am prepared if you do.” He seemed so calm, so utterly sure of himself – and still Gabriel just stood there, motionless, like a wild thing caught in headlights, a wild thing of the dark discovered red-handed in the pantry. Mel supposed he was; he’d broken into her life, turned it upside down, and filled her head with impossible fancies and ludicrous promises. Things that couldn’t be. Things that shouldn’t be.
The thing was, they had been true. He’d opened her eyes to a whole new world – a world of danger, to be sure, but also a world of wonder. A world of unseen force. A world of alien presences lurking around, above, beneath, and within humanity. A world of Gabriel’s subtle but irresistible magic. A world of Jonas’s forceful sorcery.
A world of demons. A world of power. A world of the dead.
And it had all been some sham, some trick to use her. Jonas had said it himself – Gabriel had only picked her out for her gullibility. Her foolishness. She wondered what he had wanted from her that he had yet to accomplish. Mel supposed it was only luck that he hadn’t forced himself upon her – but god, how close she’d been. How close to this madman, this murderer. She shuddered at the thought, and glanced around; the endless bodies of the exhumed dead in stacks and walls were everywhere. They didn’t simply litter the ceiling or walls or floor – their bodies made up the very fabric of the catacombs surrounding them. Perhaps she had been intended to add to the pile. Another brick in the wall. Mel looked down at an ochre skull, blackened by time, rot, and ruin. She shook again, shivering in the unnatural cold of the chamber.
“What did you want, Gabriel? What—why all this?” She made on last desperate attempt for closure – of some kind, any kind. Something to make this make sense – or at least hurt a little less.
For a moment, he seemed about to speak. But Gabriel didn’t move, didn’t twitch, and she realized it was only her imagination, her delirious hope running away with her. Like it had this whole damned summer. Mel turned again, clutching her arms to her sides, trying to hold what little sanity she had left to her person.
“It doesn’t matter what I want, Mel. Or wanted.”
Gabriel’s voice was cold and quiet, but despite the distance between them it sounded like a whisper in her ear – like he was right beside her. Terror ripped through her body, and Mel spun suddenly, stumbling and almost falling on the uneven floors of the catacomb. He still hadn’t moved, but she saw that Gabriel’s eyes were fastened on her – locked on her own, their strange grey colorlessness glowing in the darkness. She wondered how she ever could have thought they were normal, natural. She wondered how she could ever have believe that he was normal or natural – or even human.
Jonas brought both hands together, and radiant runes blazed into riotous golden light around his hands and eyes. They twisted and ran like sunbeams around his fingers, and she saw his eyes being to emit the same golden glow.
“It’s never mattered what I’ve wanted. Ever. Only you. Only what you want.”
She bit back a scathing reply. It rang true – like everything he said, it all stank of the truth. But Mel knew better now – knew the capacity for falsehood inside those silvery eyes. She knew the power to wound others hidden in those delicate seeming hands and long sensitive fingers. She knew the decay and putrescence lurking within that mind. To Mel, all it sounded like was Gabriel trying to talk himself out of yet another tight spot. This time, she wouldn’t listen. This time, she wouldn’t cave.
This time, she’d walk away. For herself. For those who had died so she could save herself.
“And, if you want me to go, I will. Whatever you want, Mel. As long as you want.”
A sharp syllable cut through the air, and Mel turned towards Jonas in shock. The fiery letters of sorcerous power had spiraled out in a sudden flash towards Gabriel and now circled him like some magical solar system of arcane wisdom. Jonas continued to mutter under his breath, a soft liquid sounds of ancient syllables and words Mel didn’t even have an inkling of. The glowing runes spun closer and closer around Gabriel, until they seemed like they would cut into his body – but still he stood, motionless, heedless of the magic twisting around him.
Without warning, one line of luminescent writing spun closer and struck Gabriel in the arm. Before her very eyes, Mel watched as Gabriel’s clothing scorched and burned without sound, without smoke – burned into the flesh beneath as the runes wound themselves around his arms and legs. Within the space of ten heartbeats, Gabriel’s entire form was covered in a glowing array of magical script, burning his flesh without sound or smell. And still he stood, motionless, eyes locked with hers. The skin on his arms and legs had been scorched down to the bone in some places – wherever the web of magic had touched him – and she watched in helpless terror as Gabriel’s flesh seemed to melt away. It was still creamy white in some spots – still too white, and now blackening around the runic chains – but the parts that should have been flaring into flame with a horrible stench of human flesh were, instead, simply crumbling away like ash. Still his eyes were locked on hers; Mel could feel herself growing weaker and weaker and less and less certain of what she had done. What she had to do.
“There you are, necromancer.” Jonas spat the last word with the same venom Mel had cursed Gabe with moments before. For a second, his eyes narrowed, and Mel could feel the tension of the room increase palpably as the sorcerer looked at Gabriel’s motionless form. “Bound by my will, lich-thing. No more will your spirit roam unfettered from form to form. No more will injustice live in the festering wounds you have left behind. Tonight, I avenge those glorious fallen who have resisted you, all those who have died doing what is right. By the power vested in me—“
“How long, Mel?” Gabriel’s voice cut over Jonas’s like a car crash on a busy Saturday afternoon garage sale, like the shattering of glass in the dead of night as you lie awake. Mel twitched in response – jumped really – and blinked, uncertain of how to respond.
“How long?” The question came again, and Mel could feel his old insistence rising, that same old certainty – the need to be definitive – in Gabriel’s voice once more. “Because if you want me to go away forever, I will. I guess.” His voice cracked – how strange that she should be his focus now, and not the mystic bonds that were even now biting deeper into his body – and he blinked just once, his silvery eyes bright in the darkness. “I’ll go as far away as I can. When I – if I come back, you tell me if it’s long enough. If—if it isn’t, I’ll stay away this time. I promise. I only came back because—well, because I had to, I guess, I just had to—but I only really came back because you asked me to.” He sighed again, short and dry and full of sadness unspoken. “And when—”
“Enough!” This time it was Jonas who broke out, his smooth tenor abruptly abrasive in his urgency. “Damned monster, by the power vested in me by the magi and the unwritten code which rules all of our deeds, I deliver your sentence.”
Slowly, pendulum-like, Jonas swung his hands together. Rather than a muffled clap, Mel heard a deep ringing noise – a massive reverberation in her core like that of an impossibly large church bell – and felt a strange pressure rush through her body like a distant roll of thunder far too powerful to comprehend. Before the sound had faded, she saw the golden chains rip into Gabriel’s body, tearing him limb from limb, pulling him more and more powerfully into himself.
Then, he was gone.
They stood in silence for a moment. The walls held their tongues as well, keeping the silence as slowly – slowly – Mel’s pulse returned to normal. It was all too surreal. Betrayal. Execution. And now – silence? It was all too much, too anticlimactic, and she couldn’t handle it. She felt tears building in her eyes once more, and prayed to get away from Jonas and whatever other cronies he’d brought. If only she could get away – get home – maybe this horrible nightmare would be over. She could return to Sandyhome and – who knows? – start again. Pick up her practice, her research, where she left off.
Jonas’s hand on her shoulder deflated any ideas she had of return to the sanitarium, to her career, to normalcy. She pivoted toward him, pulling her shoulder from his uncertain grasp.
“What?” Too snappy, she thought too late. He’s just trying to help. And I’m certainly not.
Indeed, Jonas seemed at a loss of what to do next. He stood, swaying in place, opening and closing his mouth; then, with a gesture toward the spot so recently occupied by Gabriel’s body, seemed prepared to speak. Mel waited, beyond impatient. Now was simply time to wait. Time to wait. Time to work harder and be more careful.
“Ms. Norton. It had to be done.” Those essential words out – and uninterrupted – seemed to give Jonas strength. She couldn’t think of him as an inquisitor or even a sorcerer; he was just Jonas. Bureaucratic. Bumbling. Finding courage in her quiescence, Jonas continued. “You have no idea how many he’s killed. I don’t know what he told you, but you’re lucky to be alive. That man – that thing – was a monster.”
He waited, but Mel wasn’t having any of it. She simply looked up at him, and Jonas’s hands continued to fiddle distractedly with his buttons – suddenly so different from his previous smooth articulation and show of magical force. Jonas tried to start once more.
“We’ll have to bring you in for questioning, you see. Nothing to be worried about – just the usual precautions. And, of course, we’ll have to alter your memory of these horrible events – not that I think we’ll have to ask you twice to forget the horrors you’ve experienced.” Jonas, now in his element, waited patiently; he seemed more and more comfortable the quieter Mel was. Good to note. “I give you my oath that it will be nothing like what that fiend did to you. No one deserves to have memories like that. I’m certain you feel betrayed. Robbed, even. But the hospital…” Jonas cleared his throat again, coughing quietly into his hand. “No, you’re better off without it. We’ll make certain you return to your home cleansed of all his contagion.”
“Why?” Mel blurted it out – almost unheard – and Jonas froze, frowned, and looked down at her. He blinked once.
“What do you mean? For your own good, Ms. Norton. And for ours.” Jonas’s voice was smooth, still calm. “The less you remember about this whole mess, the happier – and healthier – you will be. And the quieter—” at this, his eyes rolled upwards in supplication “—for those of us afraid of something waking up.”
“No.” Mel hissed through clenched teeth. “Why did you need to… do whatever you did?”
Jonas frowned, then smiled. “Ah. You think we killed him, yes? Eliminated him? That was one of our options; however, the hypocrisy would not be lost on me were we to kill someone to eliminate the threat the posed to the rest of our society. That would simply be inefficient and quite… counterproductive, if you ask me. So rather than kill him, we simply removed him from the equation. Elementary, you see.”
He paused expectantly; seeing no reply, Jonas began again saying, “Elementary, that is, if you can remove the element from the equation. All we needed to do was alter his place in time and space – send him back to a previous time. Thus removed from our timestream – and therefore unable to cause any additional damages – Gabriel ceases to become a problem.”
He smiled, and Mel was suddenly struck with Jonas’s overpowering commitment to this idea.
“You moved him in time?”
“Yes,” Jonas chuckled. “Simple and elegant, I know. His patron will be unable to contact him or support him with his own sorcery. Gabriel will be, in effect, a prisoner of the time he ends up in.” He smiled, self-satisfaction oozing from every pore. “Don’t be unnecessarily worried for the monster – though,” he added hesitantly, “if you’ve developed some attachment for that creature, I wouldn’t be surprised. Stockholm syndrome and all that. I didn’t plunk him down in the Inquisition – in fact, a few years after. He’ll be fine – if he keeps his wits about him, and doesn’t succumb to whatever foul flaws bent him toward his past acts of evil—” Jonas gestured emptily with an open palm, then made the hand-washing motion once more. “Then it is done. No more than he deserved, by any means. There were – are – some among us who still think his kind are best served with execution. Torture.” His eyes hardened. “And thinking of that hospital makes me reconsider my position. Still, my own morals cannot be compromised by his foulness.”
He nodded, as if convinced by his own words. “No, it is better this way. He can do no harm now. The dead will rest easy.”
“I—I don’t know who the hell you think you are, or who these others you seem to hold in such esteem are,” Mel’s words dripped with bitterness, “but as his mental health professional, I demand a better explanation. You need to prove his guilt—you need to—” Mel stopped, stunned by her own words. Health care professional? Fucking HEALTH care? She shook her head. “I mean – there has to be a due process here somewhere. Even if—” she swallowed, “—even if he did do something to me, I am still responsible to him. For him.” Mel paused, frowned. “And even if, assuming you’re right, he did something, I don’t think your punishment will work. There was – there was something Gabriel always said, about not relying on anything or anyone – or anything – for anything.” A half-smile plucked at the corner of her mouth. “He was always saying things like that, things that made no sense. But I never heard anything about a patron or whatever the hell it was.” She tossed her hair, defiantly. “And I would hope, sir, that his boon companion for twenty years—” she stuttered over the phrase despite her fervent desire to keep this professional façade strong, “—would know something about his personal business.”
“Whatever you think you know, or knew, clearly you were wrong about a great many things, Ms. Norton. Not that I blame you.” Jonas shrugged, unfazed by her sarcasm. “Whatever, he might have told you, he’s gone now, and won’t be able to—“
“Bother you again?”
Mel and Jonas froze. The third voice had come not from behind them down the corridor but from somewhere else in the chamber. Mel froze, holding every fiber of her body still in the hope that she could catch whatever it was before it caught her.
A dry, wheezing chuckle came from behind them, and Mel whirled around. Jonas gasped beside her, a sudden sharp intake of breath that seemed to speak of shock more than pain, but she didn’t even glance at him. Her eyes were only for the darkened corners of room, the skeletal remains that made up so much of the walls and floor and ceiling of this macabre hole. Nothing moved there – but, suddenly, she saw a slow movement on the floor. All was still save only for the painfully deliberate motion of a single skeletal arm pulling itself from the floor. It was soon followed by the chest and skull as a full body peeled its bulk from the tamped clay and bone floor of the catacomb. Leisurely, as if reluctant to rise from so long and so consumptive a sleep, it stood, and the shadowed figure began limping slowly but surely towards her.
“I can’t say I won’t bother you,” it whispered as she stood still, “but I can say that I’ll try.” It stopped, raised its head, and stepped forward again. As it stepped into the light, Mel began to shake uncontrollably. Slowly and surely, the bony figure moved further into the light, prowling forward with predatory surety. Craning its smooth skull backward, Mel heard soft, whistling noises – what she could only guess were sniffing noises – and the thing swung its head back and forth between her and Jonas. Still it stepped forward, swinging it’s hands to and fro with each step as it found footing.
It stopped, cocked its head back and forth once more, and then with a sudden lightning-quick movement, slashed one hand in front of its chest.
Mel heard nothing but a whisper; however, the stillness was immediately followed by a dry cackle from those she had served. It raised skinless fingers to its sides as if holding its gut in mirth, while its skull rocked back in silent laughter.
“Silly Jonas. You can’t keep using such crutches all your career. One would hope a promising sorcerer like you would have other ways of making magic, of persuading the universe to bend to your will. If not… this will be very short.” It chuckled again – a creaking, whistling noise like wind through barren branches. “Or we could duel in a more… civilized fashion. I used to have quite the interest in sigils and runes and rhymes. ‘Fiddle-dee-dee, a kidney for free’ and all that nonsense.” It brought one bony finger up to its chin and stroked it solemnly. “Though nothing’s more efficient than simple kinetic transfer for a direct statement.”
Mel glanced to the side again and shrieked in horror, a piercing cry that was lost too soon in the cavernous tomb. Jonas stood, trembling, both arms raised in front of his chest, blood dripping from each wrist. His face was a mask of terror and torment, and a high-pitched whine emanated from this throat. Mel looked down, and gagged in simple disbelief. Her hand flew to her mouth and her eyes widened in shock.
Both of Jonas’s wrists poured forth black blood in the night air; his hands hung down – palms up – from the joint, limp and motionless. As he shook with pain and fear, the skeletal thing moved forward again, closer, laying one claw-like hand on Jonas’s arm and gently wrapping its other around Jonas’s trembling hands.
“What’s the matter, pal? You think a little flesh and blood was going to slow me down?” Again, that soundless laugh filled the air – made it tremble, reverberate – and the skeletal monstrosity shook its head. “Mind over matter, my fat friend.” It paused, looked back at Mel, and seemed to pause in uncertainty. “Or did you always tell me that those who matter mind it? Those that don’t matter, may mind?” It shrugged (how did it shrug? what did its shoulders do?) and shook its head in mock sadness. “I can never remember everything.”
Mel stood, frozen in fear, heart hammering in her chest. The… thing stood in front of Jonas, as plain as day, real as everything else. She scrubbed her face with her hands, hoping to wipe away the horror before her. Yet it remained. It cocked its head at her, jaw clacking. “What, you don’t recognize me? You used to say these old bones of mine were the only thing that could make you laugh. Oh! Frailty! Thy name is…” It let go of Jonas’s hands, blood dribbling down his forearms and spattering the shinbones below. “Woman—No! Bones! Bones are frail! Meat is strong.” It nodded, turned back toward Jonas. “Right, my friend? Your flesh is strong. So strong.” The sibilants hissed like the promise of the adder, simultaneously seductive and fearsome. “Perhaps… ‘Woman, thy name is…” It paused, as if in thought, and then intoned, “Forgetfulness.”
It stopped again, then nodded once with decisiveness. “Yes. That’s right. Forgetfulness. Far too much to remember.”
She was mad. Insane. That was it – something about this whole bizarre trip through Paris, down through the underground, past the ancient crypts and obscene monuments – had broken her mind. That was all. Nothing strange here, nothing unnatural – just the echoes in a broken mind like so many shards of light from a shattered mirror. Mel stepped forward hesitantly, her foot sliding, shuffling through the bones scattered around her feet; she could feel each cobble and brick beneath her toes as she moved each foot slowly forward. A nervous giggle bubbled out of her throat, rising into a laugh of pure hysteria and surreal fright. All the while, Jonas’s whine wavered up and down in between his panicky sobs. A moment later, the skeleton joined in again with its soundless cackle, throwing its head back wildly, lifting its fleshless arms to the ceiling.
“Oh, Mel,” the thing chuckled as she moved forward. “I thought you’d never remember.” Its jaw clicked, and bony fingers rapped rhythmically against the yellowed ribcage, brown and brittle in the light of the circle of illumination provided by the magelight above. It turned back to Jonas once more, and smiled oh god not smiled it can shrug but how the hell can it smile?, teeth gleaming in the darkness like fine polished pebbles.
“You see?” It chucked again not it can’t fucking chuckle it can’t make noise there’s nothing there to make noise, and eased an arm around Mel’s shoulder. “You thought you could split us up. Or maybe you just misread the situation.” Those hissing syllables again, like some cadaverous snake from a horrible science fiction flick. “Misread it, chief. We’re Thelma and Louise. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Pinky and the Brain.” It jabbed one finger into Jonas’s sternum, punctuating each word. “Don’t. You. Forget. It.”
Jonas just stood there, saliva and sweat soaking his chin. His whisper barely reached Mels’ ears. “What are you?”
It drew itself up. “Oh, really? Surely thou jesteth, Petruccio. Knoweth not me? ‘I know these bones, Horatio!’ Nothing? No resemblance?” It cocked its head to the side. “Perhaps you merely underestimate the power of coincidence.” It turned back to her, and suddenly everything seemed just fine and dandy peachy keen okey dokey. “And what do you think, missy? Surely you want me to take out the trash?”
Mel stood still, leaning into the corpse at her side. Nothing was making any sense, so why not? What harm could there be? “Jonas was just trying to help. That’s why he sent Gabe away.” Gabe? Why not Gabriel? Where did that come from? “And it’s ok. I’m not so sad. No too sad.”
It cocked its head to the left slowly.
“Mel… I know. That’s why I came back. Any sad is too sad for you.” It reach down with its left arm, tapping her bag. “I had to, you see. ‘Cause you didn’t remember the book.” It sighed, that soft whistling whisper slipping from between its teeth. Its voice as softly chiding. “You never do, Mel. And you keep calling me back.”
Mel reached inside, curious. Her fingers came up against the smooth feel of leather, cool and yielding under her touch. “My book!” she gasped. “I thought I’d never see it again!” Why do I say that? Why am I so happy to have found the boo—how do I know it’s a book?
“I told you, Mel. What would you do without me?” The fond warmth in its voice made Mel smile – a small spot of sanity in a sea of confusion. What the hell am I thinking? A skeleton is making me smile? How is that sane?!
It turned to Jonas thoughtfully. “Well, before we hit the road, we need to wrap up this business first. Don’t worry friend – I won’t leave you without your well-moisturized friends.” Bony fingers flew forward, and its left claw stroked both of Jonas’s wrists. The sorcerer gaped, raised both hands to his face, and sobbed in relief. Though both wrists were still caked in gore, it seemed as if whatever injuries had crippled him so completely had gone as quickly as they had come.
“There we are!” it crowed. “Good as new! Now,” it warned, finger wagging sternly, pulling Mel closer with its right, “for one who’s so eager to cast the stones of memory manipulation, you seem like the type that might come after us. Clean up more messes. I’ll give you a hint.” It leaned closer, conspiratorially. “Don’t.”
“Let’s go, Mel. Time to hit that old dusty trail.” Gently it pulled her away from the broken, sobbing form of Jonas. Mel stopped, still balanced on the brink of crumbling down entirely. Gabriel… Gabe? I still don’t remember everything—anything—and this bag of bones is leading me along like we’re old pals.
She blinked, looking straight into its empty sockets. At the darkness there. At the silvery glint winking from the back of the skull. Again she had the unshakeable feeling that it was smiling.
“C’mon, Mel. It’s me. Gabe.”
- Recovery – Paris, magecraft, betrayal, and new promises
Mel didn’t remember the
- An exploration of old tombs – Stonehenge unhinged – star-stones and monuments, graves and ghouls – and the straw that breaks the camel’s back
- Toppled, ruined, broken – and REPETITIVE