Titles and Home Pages

As I wrap up shop for the evening–posting old NaNoWriMo work, checking formatting, and such–it comes to mind that I’ve never taken the time to explain anything here. Nothing of substance, at least.

So, in that vein, a few thoughts before I close out. Feel free to add questions/comments/etc. in the space below; the whole idea of making the process of writing here, uploading here, and being here habitual will require more of my attention, so it’s a done deal that I’ll get back to you.

  1. The title of the site.

Stolen directly from Kahlil Gibran’s poem (poetic compilation? philosophical manuscript?) of the same name. I’ll link my favorite online version here; if you’re not familiar or haven’t checked it out recently, do so. It is one of those rare works of literature that is always refreshing for the soul. I mean that in the least hippy-dippy way I can; there are gems in there that make life feel good. I mean, jeez:

“Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky. We fell them down and turn them into paper that we may record our emptiness.”

So the title steal is pretty straightforward. Gibran’s poetry has the honesty, the vivid imagery, and the lasting value I hope to attain–so it’s nice to have that goal right up front.

  1. The goal of the site.

Smooth segue. Simple: this is a place for me to publish my work for public perusal–an arena for me to force myself to share my work.

“Since, my friend, you have revealed your deepest fear/
I sentence you to be exposed before your peers/
Tear down the wall” (“The Trial,” Pink Floyd’s The Wall)

The more I force myself to share, the better my writing will be, and the more I’ll write.

Anyway, that’s the plan.

  1. What you might get out of the site.

Hopefully something to enjoy. Comments, questions, etc. are always welcome; it would even be a favor–another impetus for me to engage even more deeply with this site as a place for my work. Hopefully if you’re teetering on the verge of doing something similar yourself, this might serve to push you over–but I don’t have any solid aims for anything so grand.

***

That will do for introductions for now. Thanks for reading, and hope to see you again soon.

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NaNoWriMo 2016: Work in Progress–FULL TEXT RUNNING VERSION

“I am waiting.”

***

Three hours earlier, I had not expected to end my night talking to—with?—a cat. Yet here I was in the early blackness of midwinter morning staring into the orange eyes of a tabby-colored creature, arched whiskers and arch expression eyeing me intently from across the bar, short tail tucked neatly along its haunches. It yawned, and I looked away from the cavern of its throat to seek the source of my current discomfort in the pitch of my pint of bitter.

I am Eionn Rankin, itinerant scholar, calligrapher, teacher, and this is not my story. I am a jack of relatively few trades (though, I would say, the most useful ones): time to time, I’ve made camp on cliff faces and in barrows; ate with princes and then slept soundly in their dungeons; shoed horses and milked the occasional goat; reinforced bulwarks and bridges; loved women—and the occasional feminine creature of mystery; in short, all a man could ask to do in the wide world. Such vagabond activities lend themselves to peregrinations of both the local and the transcontinental kind, and I’ve found myself in a variety of positions comfortable and less than so in just about every clime known to those who go on two feet.

So it was that I found myself one cold Ember day in the Dew-Drop Inn, my personal favorite haunt on the dock-side of Kynnsport; the drollery of the name (and barkeep) along with the bitterness of its brews (and that of its servers) brought out rather than snuffed the warm, sweet notes of its cinnamon bread, its fresh-churned butter, and its hearth. That same hearth was what sent me in search of the Dew-Drop’s worn benches and the warmth of the atmosphere. It’s certainly not any warmer than any of the other fine institutions familiar to Kynnsport inhabitants—the slate-shingled roof of the Bear and Maiden, the leaded windows of the smugly fashionable Smulley’s, or any of the room and board claphouses avoided by the more respectable gentry.

No; it’s the proximity to the docks—to the river, more specifically—that made and makes the Dew-Drop so very tempting. On these wet, chill nights at the falling of the year, sheep are slow to break apart from their mates, sailors clutch their sodden woolies with greater appreciation, men cling to their wives in beds too small a month ago, the drifters begin to feel the frosty nip of Asha’s icy lips at their heels and begin the proper calculations necessary for survival, and the odd traveler walking down the mist-choked rickety dockways of Kynnsport feels a great and sudden need to dry out his clothes in a space inhabited by others like him—those who want warm food and warm beds and warm beer to chase away the clutching clammy fogs that creep up and down the Kynning this time of year.

And such a traveler I was (and have often been). So, at the end of a long Reaping’s walking down the wide, silvery serpent of the Kynning’s length from, I stopped in Kynnsport to rest my weary feet and—gods willing—find some honest business. The flat, smooth silver of the river on my right, the coal-red sun setting behind the walls and roofs of the town on my left, the river-fog already tickling at my boots, the Dew-Drop Inn was just the haven I needed for the night. And who knows? Perhaps I’d find more than an open bench or bar; a warm bed seemed just the thing, and Deila knows it had been long enough by half.

And so it was that, cloaked by the misty-moisty evening and hurried on by the chill of Ember’s endings, I found myself seeking shelter and camaraderie against the cold.

Soon enough I was ensconced in the warm cocoon of my favorite friendly dive. It was quiet—a few longshoremen and scullery drudges gathered at tables, mingled with tradesmen and working women, the stout figure of Connaugh Dougherty moving from bar to table to bar again with a grace and efficiency that belied both his size and efficiency. Most expensive about the place was the old bar—real mahogany!—and the lanterns which even now burned brightly to lend cheer to the evening. A few pennies passed hands, and a fully belly and continued warmth were assured for the evening. I slid myself over to the far end of the bar and tucked into a bowl of unobjectionable things—a stew of some variety, filled with shreds of what once had been some kind of meaty beast and indistinguishable vegetables leeched of nearly all color or resistance to my hungry palate. The bread was the thing here: sweet, firm, warm, still moist—you tore it open and a steamy burst of tangible freshness and tastiness wreathed your face like some holy beard of deliciousness. Simply indescribable; my words don’t do it justice. The interplay of cinnamon! The buttery innards! The crispy crust! No physical form—male or female—baits my lust like Dew-Drop bread.

A few pints later, and the outside world was all a-dark. I’m sure from the outside the inn must have presented will-o’-the-wisp promise; glowing amber in the wet air, I’m surprised more creatures of ill-repute didn’t crawl on in the same track I did. I was quaffing my fifth (or sixth) mug—for, in such an environment, even a gentleperson such as myself can shed the cloak of false civility that we all wear in polite society—when a rattle at a window caught my ear. Even as I turned around Connaugh had come from behind the bar and, with a casual flip of his wrist, flung open the leaded pane; a substantial furry form dropped to the floor, and he closed it again.

Weaving in and underneath the tables that littered the room asymmetrically was the most magnificent tomcat I’d ever laid eyes on. He was four feet long if he was an inch, and brindled all over with gray and tawny stripey bits. Quicker than a Kynning salmon he made his way to the bar; Connaugh trailed behind him, touching a shoulder here and picking up a mug there, ever the congenial (if silent) host.

I lost sight of the beast for a moment, and then—wonder of wonders—he was beside me, springing to the bartop with a weighty thud. A good forty pounds he was, all tufted ears and golden eyes glaring ferociously about him. I near shat myself with surprise; a tribute, perhaps, to the bitter than I didn’t. Connaugh’s scuffling steps creaked pleasantly behind me, and the giant found his way behind the bar again.

Up close as I was, even his girth seemed dwarfed by the great cat. Had I been sober by half sure I would have been a bit more anxious—claws like those could flay a face if I pricked his fish away from him, or came across a she-beast in an alley at the wrong moment—but pleasantly addled as I was, the thing to do seemed to me to give him a scratch ‘hind the ears.

And so I did. You never heard such a purr—a mighty bellows he was, all rumbling and slanted contented eyes. I swear the glasses themselves knocked together with the vibration.

Not much was said ‘twixt the three of us: Connaugh tended his bar, refilled my drink; I drank my drink, hence the refilling, drawing down more of that warming black bitter to help me sleep a’nights; our furry friend, offering the silent mouth and open ear of a cloistered priest, played the part of the sympathetic confessor.

Dark came on in full, and as it grew progressively darker outside the patient glow of the coal-strewn hearth seemed ever more delightful. At this point my tufted feline companion had reclined fully along the end of the bar, short tail twitching occasionally as the weights of a clock patiently swing away the minutes, slow and effortless but full of hefty portent. He had his own meal, too—a saucer of cream. It did my heart good to see such a patently wild creature—sure more bob than cat, half lynx and two dashes of cougar in him—looking so dignified and stately with a splotch of cream upon his nose and styled whiskers.

“Cat,” I says, for the brew was working its own wondrous magic, and I was waxing verbose, “cat, sure as is you are a fine example of gentry in these parts. Serious, but not too serious; dignified, but not above the simpler pleasures.”

He looked up from his cream, pink rag of a tongue sponging his muzzle, and I had that distinct impression unique to the cat that I was being most critically evaluated and (therefore) must remain on the very best of behavior.

“O cat,” says I, “for cat-kin you be, think you can teach my lumbering friend here some gentle ways? For he is in sore need of wife and home to still be waiting on vagabonds like myself.” I jerked my thumb in Connaugh’s direction, but the oaf took no notice. Warm enough in person, but smileless like a hearty tree that cannot dance in the breeze any more. More the pity; my long acquaintance with him as provider of shelter, protector of the innocent (me), upholder of justice (me again), and solver of disputes had revealed a keen sense of humor. You just had to know where to look.

The cat returned my stare, blinked once, and proceeded to wash itself on the bar.

I sighed, leaning back from my empty bowl. “Cat, if you don’t know how, then I can’t either.” Tentatively, I reached over the bartop and gave him a gentle scratching behind his tufted ears. You never know when a beast as wild as this can turn on you, quick as that, but I was rewarded with a hearty rhythmic rumbling from within his furry chest.

Connaugh put the last of his glasses away and caught my eye. A pointed finger made his question clear, and I took my final refill with a happy face and happier hands. He made his way up the narrow stairs to the left with deceptive quiet; if there’s ever a man who knows how to handle his bulk surreptitiously, it’s Connaugh Daugherty.

Cat-kin and I kept company, myself waxing ever more open and loose at the tongue (the bitter working its magic still), he as silent and self-absorbed as ever.

“Well, here’s to a profitable voyage. May I find honest work waiting for me, with honest trusting people along with it; and, if the gods be kind, an honest open-hearted widow to welcome me to her hearth for a while—” I cocked an eye at my feline friend as I tilted the glass, draining another hearty bite of black brew. Swallowing, smiling, fuzzy-headed, I said, “—for it’s the widows that are most open to itinerant bachelors. You know that, kitty-kin?”

He seemed to take offense at the familiar moniker, for abruptly he straightened himself from his curled pose of felinity and sat upright, luminous orange eyes catching the firelight like mirrored disks. Under those haughty brows and piercing pupils, dark slits of daggerlike judgment, I felt the sudden imposition of guilt—and the need to expiate sins not yet consummated.

“You don’t understand, whiskers! So long on the road, a man gets lonely.” I paused. “And he should find someone alike in loneliness, what a pity it were not to remediate this tragedy? What a sorry state of affairs to keep kindness from one who would return it. I would not be such a fool for all the world!”

Still the unblinking eye of reproach. Half to the cat, half to myself, and perhaps half to the women waiting down the roads time, destiny, and chance braid together in indistinguishable murk, I muttered, “For it’s a sorry heart that keeps its sorrow to itself. It’s in the sharing that we lose half our burdens, and in the keeping them to ourselves that we make them.”

A weighty touch like a glove finger brought my eyes back up. The massive tom was closer, clawed paw carefully but full pressed on my forearm. A quizzical chirp, like some Kynnish knave roguishly curling his Rs, rolled from his throat.

“Aye, cat.” I murmured. “A fine beast like you knows the sorrow that comes from loneliness.” I glanced around the now-deserted inn. “For what else do you seek shelter from the fog-ridden night?”

His tail wrapped around him, my friend posed the perfect captive audience. It is not true what they say of cats and hounds and the occasional falcon; they hear, and they judge well. A man whose witty words might otherwise soothe the sullen sheep of his constituency will find the keen nose of the dog or the eye of the hawkish judge a better measure of his insincerity. Thus, as the gods and men know, beasts, though dumb, measure character like a confessor. Or something along those lines.

I couldn’t resist the opportunity. Sliding backwards off my stool with what little grace was left to me, I turned a stumbling slide of the foot into a graceful bow of the northern courts.

“And you, oh cat-kin! What patience! What magnificent solitude! To thee, I offer my salute!” Imagined hat in hand, invisible cloak peeled back delicately, I gave my most respectful leg. He blinked once, slowly—a sure sign of respect returned.

“And what, O cat, dost thou here? Do you slake your thirst with me and the rest of the miserable shufflers? The hard-handed farmers and gilded-throated merchants? The working women with their callused feet and hands and harder hearts?”

Leaning forward, I cradled the slight remains of my pint in one hand before draining it. “What are you doing here, cat?”

“I am waiting.”

I swallowed again, sucking down foamy remnants, nodding reflexively. It wasn’t ‘til I put my foam-laced glass down and slid my way back on to my stool that I realized my erring.

There was no one else in the main room.

No one but me, for Connaugh had long since gone to bed. And the cat.

I looked at him sharply, and gave in to the giggles. With as much time as I’ve had between bouts of thirst and monsoons of quenching, I have no steady compass of appetites. When it pours, I glut myself; when a dry season happens along, I tighten my belt and think pure thoughts. Pure thoughts, of course, are weak opponents for the filthy thinkings that any and many a man is prey too (me being no different); yet I find that pure thoughts help to starve an appetite. Thoughts of… other varieties tend to fuel it, feed it all ablaze again until! the mind is frustrated, embittered, unable to follow its natural desires.

Such a state must I be in. I looked at the glass with a friendly glare.

“My friend, you do me wrong. Interrupting me mid-phrase—and we were talking so pleasantly! Poor kitty, the drink has quite gone to my head. You were waiting, yes? Have you found what your royal paddy-paws was looking for?

This time, there was no denying it. As I smiled at my whiskered companion, wide-toothed and rosy-cheeked, I saw his whited muzzle nod, and his pink tongue flicker and maw move in undeniable speech.

“Yes.”

Oh no. You’ve done it again. Ale-cats and dream women speak with magnificent volume, nearly louder than the rumbling of carts of market day after a night of drinking.

“I think I have found what I was waiting for.”

What else is there to do when faced with madness? Either run or comply, and running off into sleep or insanity has never been especially attractive. I am only a coward in the practical sense. Magic and fae foolery are unavoidable. I swallowed hard, blinked, and did the only reasonable thing I could think of:

Continue the conversation.

“What were you waiting for?” I sputtered, hands hard-knuckled on the stool and edge of the bartop.

His tail, curled about him like a winding rug, twitched once at the tail. “A companion.”

I looked at the glass again. Surely Connaugh hadn’t drugged me. Surely this was all a dream. Better to play along, yes?

“A companion?” A pause; just a tail-twitch and a slow wink.

“What does a cat need a companion for?” I wondered aloud, then shot a guilty glance at him. He still hadn’t moved, hadn’t reacted at all.

Best to play along with the fantasy. If this was an ale-dream, all the better to enjoy it now before the morning came. I looked down, then back up at the cat.

His silence made me bold. “Perhaps… adventures among the gutters? Hunting the king of rats down for crimes against kitten-hood?” Nothing.

“Or perhaps the Kynnish hounds of the local constabulary have you on the run? A cat-thief?”

“The saying is cat burglar.”

He paused. “And nothing will be burgled. Not so crude.”

His voice was so correct—a sharp, warm tenor, not the didacticism of a schoolteacher or the knuckle-rapping of a stern aunt. It was the voice of a fellow student, fed up to full with his mate’s foolishness. Matter-of-fact, cut and dried. He blinked again, and turned his full attention to his right haunch for a moment.

I waited a moment, embarrassed by the perspicacity of my drinking companion. “W-ell then, what do you need the comrade for?” You’ve done it now, I thought. You’ve pissed off the talking cat in your dreams. An extra aching head for you.

And no more late nights on an impoverished purse, I added. The price you pay is too high already. Maybe this time you’ll learn.

After a full cleansing, he turned back to me. For the first time, I saw that the cat had few of the battle scars I would assume came with the life of a wandering tom—in a large town like this one or among the wilds surrounding Kynnsport. River to the west, wooded hills and valleys north and south, and the foothills of the Kir’Bolg Mountains to the east. Aside from his cat necessaries—wide wiry whiskers, broad splayed feet with great fuckin’ claws biting cleanly into the aged wood of the bar, a short tail with a  full body, banded and ticked fur, tufted ears rising above furry chops and piercing orange eyes—he had a nearly hidden leather thong wrapped ‘round his neck. A small bead of glass was threaded through under his throat, pale sea-green in the lamplight.

He blinked at me, and I looked at him, waiting. Patience in dreams is just as worthwhile as patience in love; haste either ends the joyful hour too soon, or drives away the self-same pleasures sought. Slowly, carefully lest I slip to the floor in my drunken stupor, I took a stand myself.

He yawned, a great gaping maw of white teeth, pink gums, and raspy tongue. He closed his jaws—I swear, there was an audible crack as they shut, if ever so quiet—and sprang to the floor with a graceful motion possessed only by felines, cranes, and noblewomen, a quick flash waterfall of fur and tail reappearing as cat on the floorboards of the inn.

He looked up at me, slit-eyed and slowly winking from knee height. “It will be a theft. Of sorts.” He stretched himself out, head down between fuzzy forelimbs, tail curling a presumptuous question mark in the air. “And you will help, yes?”

“Yes, of course,” I assured the vision. Play along, Eionn. Play nicely with the drinky-cat. If you do, there may be a drinky-nymph waiting for you in your dreams! “I’m at your disposal, O cat.”

“Good!” Self-satisfied, he rubbed against my shins again, loud purr rumbling even through my boots.

“But not now, manling. Time for bed.” Quick as only cats can, in a liquid lightning glide he was behind my legs, nudging me in that endearing way that cats door before they claw your pants to hell.

“That, cat-kin, is greatest sense.” I didn’t even try to keep the relief from my voice. And why not? It’s a rare vision that leads the drunkard to his rest; usually, mine tire me out in cobbled streets and pigpens. Kind drink, I silently prayed, thank you. Thank you for leading me to my bed, for now I will remember this lesson. I will engrave it on my heart and never forget the kindness of ale which leads one to sleep in a bed and not in the gutter or in a untethered rowboat.

And so up the stairs we went, to bed, and to sleep, I beneath the sheets and the cat at my feet.

***

An errant shaft of sunlight was tickling my face—the kind of warmth that brings with it squinted eyes pressed into tight wrinkled peepholes and a perfect balance between warm waking contentedness and the bitter realization that coming any closer to the surface of wakefulness means a hammering head and aching joints. O you veterans of hanging over, you know my travails and trials when I awoke. The boots—one on, one off; clothes beneath the blankets and sheets still full encumbering your body despite clear evidence of unlacing the night prior; stiff drool stains on the pillow; and a fuzzy, comfortable sensation giving way to both a terribly ferocious hunger and the immediate bodily response that food would never be welcome again.

It is at times like this that I become, for the moment, a man of prayer. True, the gods show their faces in myriad ways throughout our lives; yet it is when we feel the cruel claws of fate most clearly, pinching at the buttocks of our good fortune and shoveling forth the ill, that we turn to those Higher Powers who will deliver us from the various evils we have delivered ourselves unto.

How much moreso must we feel our indebtedness when there is a talking cat to greet us in the morning?

“You’re awake.”

Again the surly sound of reproach, a younger brother (better behaved and, therefore, the favorite; mine had always simply been sneakier in his troublemaking—a good lesson for me later in life, but quite unappreciated at the time). I raised my lids past half mast and saw my tawny friend erect at the foot of the bed.

What else can a man do when faced with repeated evidence of his madness than swallow that bitter pill? Take it like a good fellow and accept it with quiet dignity?

Much else.

Had I been sober, my scream of terror and shock might (hopefully) have sounded more like a mature cry for assistance. Ho, landlord! What talking beast is this in my bed?! Witchcraft! Call the exorcist!

As it was, the best my drunken self could manage was a pitiful whimper and a slithery slide off the sheets and down to the floor. Even that slow drop of slight height made the bells and clamor of Caiden Caelian spread cymbals through my soggy brain, and my whimper of fear (civilized outrage, I’m sure) turned to the sleepy self-pitying moans of the married man risen before his time. A state I knew better than many and less well than most.

I could see it just above the edge of the bed; the beast rose to its feet and walked over to me, peering down in the quizzical way of such creatures. I rose my hands to ward the thing off (they made it halfways up my chest) and spoke as surely and steadfastly as I could, mustering every ounce of courage and fire in my blood, “Away, foul thing!”

Perhaps a more accurate representation might be, “Geh-way, ful thang,” with added floppiness in the wrists. Intimidating, I’m sure.

The discerning reader has no doubt recalled—and even the infantile city sycophant will conclude with enough prodding from yours truly—that I was… encumbered by my imbibing of the night before. So it is. Think not that my stamina and constitution lack the necessary fundament to withstand your various ciders, wines, beers, ales, and liqueurs, both light refreshment and potent potions of forgetfulness; think instead of the weighty power of that dark, bitter ale that I was (somewhere in the farthest recesses of my still unresponsive mind) cursing just as bitterly. I promise, were you to ingest as much as I, you too would surely struggle with its weight and vigor. On my honor.

The thing blinked, and slid down to my level with far more grace than I had mustered. I think I gestured again, but the room slid sideways in a most alarming way, and all my wits and strength were required to maintain my position. Acrobat’s training, you know.

“You’re drunk.” Less judgmental now, more… curious? And such a clear voice. Persistent vision or visiting demon from the blackest depths of the abyss, I couldn’t let such a mistake slip by. A scholar’s curse—too much book learning.

My fear gave way—if only slightly—to pedantic lording. “Shtupid catth. I’m not drunkth. I’m—thick.”

“Thick.” I swear the fucking thing smiled. “Yes. Thick is what you are.”

It sighed (the cat fucking sighed) and stepped past my feebly flailing arms (sorry: make that feebly twitching hands, curling fingers trying oh so hard to remember how their joints worked; let it never be said that I, Eionn Rankin, lack authorial integrity). Lifting one massive clawed paw, it touched my forehead with the pads beneath its rich fur.

And I shit you not, the eyes glowed—orange like the harvest moon.

My head was clear. A great rush ran through me, veins and bones and achy arms. I blinked, mouth in a bewildered “o,” and slowly let my no longer shaking hands drop to my thighs.

What devilry is this?

“There. Now you can think.”

I gaped (or, technically, continued my gape). It’s hard to catch one’s breath when talking cats and drunken deliriums combine and then separate without taking the speaking animals with them. “I-I-I can think?”

“Yes.” It cocked its head at me, and I swear its eyes narrowed. “Have you reconsidered our arrangement?”

I blinked. “Arrangement?…” Have I struck a deal I forgot? My mind raced, clear now of its brew-driven fog. The priestess? Was the compact real? Has she sent this creature to collect its due? “I am sure that

Its tail flicked back and forth, and it sighed again. “Soft-skin. I need your help.” Sighing a third time, it gave consummate attention to its left paw, brushing it clean of invisible dust with its rough tongue before looking back up at me. Its ears flicked back.

“I can pay.”

As may be expected, the mention of compensation broke my dazed state and inspired me to renewed attention.

“How much?” I bit my lip, inwardly cursing my innate greed. O lust for gold! Thou hast done me in for sure.

Rather than answer, the cat began to pace back and forth in front of my stretched legs.

“Enough.” He seemed restless, and I had the sudden inexplicable urge to open the window and let him out. Out of my life and drunken head, back in the street and in my ale-dreams where he belongs.

Except, of course, I was no longer drunk.

He stopped, head bent in my direction, feet frozen midstride. “You will want a number, yes? Exact?”

I nodded all too quickly, suddenly pricked by the sensation of imminent… perhaps not danger, but a vibration of anxiety. What strange creature is this? For the first time, thought of harm—aimed at my poor self!—intruded on my thoughts. Forty pounds… more like fifty, if he’s anything. And those claws

As if on cue, he slowly turned in place, settling on his backside, paws lined up in front with his fucking talons biting into the grooved wood of the floorboards. His tail curled about him, and as he spoke his tufted ears seemed pricked even higher.

“Half now, half when done. Four hundred crowns outside of town, and four hundred upon return.”

The cat is richer than I am. For some reason, this thought depressed me even more than the thought of imminent face scratching or abdominal laceration. Why is the cat richer than I am?

Why is life so cruel? What profit the gods to see me suffer so?

“What could possibly be worth that much money to—to a cat?”

He blinked once.

“A woman.”

My hyperextended jaw hyperbolized the floor with the softest of thuds. I am nothing if not discreet, you see, and I fain would not have woken the guests below. If my drunken ravings—or hallucinations—or, as was becoming more and more starkly apparent, the fantastical horrors of reality—caused me in alarm to waken my fellow sleepers, I would never forgive myself.

And I swear by all the gods the damned cat smiled at me. And without a sound save the merest of mewlings in the back of its throat, its whole body seemed to melt away, tawny ruddy fur becoming olive-bark colored skin with longer, dexterous fingers, large orange eyes with pinprick pupils, a roughhewn leathern kilt, oversized feet covered by handstitched pointy-toed shoes, tan sackcloth shirt stitched and re-stitched, reddish-brown hair curling in an untamed crest, over two large pointed ears.

A goblin. Now the cat’s a goblin. And he has a knife. Why is the goblin a cat? How is the cat a goblin? What will he do with the kni—

“I will explain. You will listen. Yes?”

What else is there to do when faced with madness? I could not run.

So I listened.

***

“I—

(Here, of course, the cat begins his tale. Since I am here and he is not, you will have to take me at my word that what he said is this and what he said is true and that I am not taking liberties with the speech of some poor cat-kin easily bamboozled by an urban sophisticate like myself.

Trust me. My story would be better.)

—am Dagg’t. My people are the DrenBolg, so I am Dagg’t DrenBolg. We rule the forest to the—”

“How are you a goblin?”

He stopped midbreath. “Manling,–”

“I mean how are you a cat?”

“I—”

Are you a cat? Or a goblin?”

“I will—”

“I just don’t understand. A talking cat is one thing; ale dreams are another thing; a talking cat in an ale dream is another less unlikely thing, but I cat that leaves an ale dream and then bargains with me and then becomes a goblin is entirely too much. I would like to speak to my solicitor, please. I don’t want to dream this dream any more. In fact, I would like—”

Be silent.

And I was. It took some effort, let me tell you. Still, when a magic goblin-cat tells you to be silent and his eyes glow, sometimes something seems extra persuasive about his request. In short, I found myself rigidly still on the floor save for the fluctuations of my breath and the palpitations of my poor overtaxed heart. Who knows what I would have—

He sighed again (remarkably like the sigh of the cat—take note of that) and, grasping the blanket with his long fingers and kicking his oversized feet up, heaved himself somewhat gracefully up onto the bed. I say somewhat gracefully because something with the head of a grown man but the body of a child and the hands and feet of an elven man but the teeth of weasel can be but so graceful.

He sighed again; it seemed a trademark affectation.

“You will understand soon. Listen.

I am Dagg’t DrenBolg. My people rule forests and lower slopes of the Kirbolg. Krasst KirBolg rules mountain, in and out. He is King—Gren’Bolg. King of Mountain. We hunt, but not past trees. He leaves us alone. It is good.

Many, many season ago, I was taken from my whelpmother by our Woodspeaker. He made DrenBolg friends with forest. Long time—before I was whelped. He made oak-heart in home—DrenBolgEhn. He taught tree climb instead of rock climb. He taught wood run instead of tunnel run. What say, sprint? Sprint.

Many, many seasons. DrenBolg hunt. Eat. Breed. Teach. Grow. No king; Gren’bolg Krasst big King. No need king. Need hunters. Need whelpmothers. Need builders. Need carvers. Need trappers. Suppose need whelps.

Need Woodspeaker. Need him more than anyone. He brings heart of forest to home. DrenBolgEhn safe for all folk.

So after seasons—forty? thirty? many—taken for teaching by Woodspeaker. Be…how you say, Behn?

Youngling. Learner. Apprentice! Yes, apprentice. Good word.

I learn his ways. How to walk. How to climb. How to hunt. How to eat—and how to cook. How to see—and how to see like a hawk. How hawk flies. What berries can stain hands, what roots stain leather. What to eat, what not to eat, what to feed to enemies so they die screaming. How wolf hunts. How she smells. How she walks—so. How she hears. How to move like cat—how to be cat.”

Here he paused again, and I noticed for the first time the green bead threaded on the leather thong around his neck, noticed for the first time the kestrel feather bound to a tawny braid of hair at his temple, noticed the bone piercings in his ears.

“In time, I became Woodspeaker. He die, I take place. Maybe…another one hundred seasons, all told.”

He paused, fingers resting on his knobby knees.

“This is my thirty-fifth frost. I think—yes. They are still clear in my mind. Clear as ice. Cold.

I have helped out people through many seasons. When elk ran south, I helped stew mushrooms with white caps and red caps, but not both together. When Ig’tOrlk—big, big boar, big tusk—go crazy, mouth foamy, red eyes, I try to calm. Woodspeaking, whisper in pig tongue. Talk of piglets and fat sows. Talk of acorns and sunbathing. Nothing. I try to drive away. Bite heels. Scratch flank. Howl in night time. Nothing. So I kill. ‘Put down’ is phrase.

Sad time.

But I take care of DrenBolg like Woodspeaker before me. I listen. She speaks. I do what she asks. When Blagg’t—big brother, mean hands, stupid face—when Blagg’t say ride up mountain and steal Gren’bolg Krasst elk, steal caves, steal mountain, I say no. He say, ‘But hungry.’ I say no. He say, ‘Hunters need hunt. Whelps need meat.’ I say no.

I see danger. I see hard winter. Frost. No game. Whelps die. Whelpmothers sad. Hunters fight. Weak die. Strong live. Learn smarter. DrenBolg too big, too many mud-huts and not enough tree-room.

But no. He go up mountain. He die. King Gren’bolg Krasst kill all hunters. Come down, take tribute. He leave me, leave whelpmothers. Takes half whelps, kill half adults. Tribute. Justice. Way of the people.

Winter harder that year. She knew. She always know. Better listen to her. That Woodspeaker job—make people listen to her.”

I couldn’t resist. The silence of the pause was too inviting.

“Who is she?”

He looked up, and it was like staring down an eagle—all tawny-amber anger and alien strength, a thing that was beyond all communication. Not a man. An animal.

And I want to make one thing clear right here, right now. I’ve known many gobbos. Some are thieving little rat-bastards that would as soon steal your purse as look at you (or, to fit the form, steal your purse, sneak back and cut your throat, then do a dance). They’re also cunning little shits who are quite useful when it comes to guiding one through the mountains are offer quite the fair price in goat meat for the service.

I’m no purist. I’m a half-blooded almond-eyed knife-ear. I know many things about mixing, and many things that won’t mix. I’ve run from mountain orcs who were probably going to eat me; I’ve dined in high elven society where I’ve been all but certain that I was a sneeze away from having my throat slit. I’ve eaten amongst the wild elves and been careful not to try any of the (I’ll let you figure out what that is); I’ve been saved from river rapids by a congenial bugbear who despite his altruism and remarkably good conversation was nonetheless shot by the constable of the next town over. Crossbow bolt to the chest. And the man expected me to thank him.

So I know what I’m talking about.

All the same, when he caught my eye, I felt more like I was talking to an owl outside my window—like a child, safe from the coal-black talons and foreign predator eyes.

“She is the wood.

Woodspeaker speaks to the wood. But mostly listens. Is the best way. Yes?”

I nodded, unsure of what else to say—or if I had offended.

“Woodspeaker.” Here, he pressed one hand on his chest. “She gives me gifts. Many. In return, I serve. It is a good life.

Woodspeaker keeps Bolgen right size, right mind. Take too much, we die. Take too little, we die. Play nice with other peoples, no be crushed. Play too nice, be slave. Balance is good.

So. That me. Question?”

I licked my lips, mind racing. “No—not really. I mean, I’d like to know how you learned to speak the common tongue. Why you need my help. How you picked me. How you turned back into a gobbo—a goblin after being a cat. How you turned into a cat, for that matter. who we’re trying to kidna—er, rescue. But—” I looked up, askance. He smiled

“Well, I suppose you’ll answer those questions in time won’t you.”

He nodded.

I sighed. “Well, nothing for me then.”

He pulled his legs up under him, crossed, and looked about as pleased as any cat I’d ever seen (let alone a goblin-wizard-thing).

“Language is… hard.

I speak Bolgen. Surprise, I know. I know orc-speak, and best curse words. I understand the wood when she speaks to me—but that not speech, just knowing and feeling and hearing without needing to use ears.

She—she first taught me to speak.”

His eyes were so wide at first and so alien that, for a moment, I didn’t notice he wasn’t looking at me anymore. He was looking past me, out through the wall past the roofs of Kynnsport and beyond. No more the bestial expression earlier like an unhooded hawk or cornered lynx. He looked more like a child, small.

“She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Like—like a mountain cat, like eagle. Like snow in spring.”

The goblin was silent for what must have been only a minute or so, but I found myself nearly bursting with pent up breath. I had just resolved to speak with him when his orange eyes found me. Piercing. Yearning. Burning.

“I will find her, manling. And you will help me.”

An explosive sigh.

“And then we will see what will happens.”

***

I will find her…

Two hours later. Dockside. Much warmer. Head (and stomach) empty. Waiting for the goblin (who was once again a cat? somehow?) to fetch his belongings.

Which were, coincidentally, somewhere along the river’s edge with the silt and rot and muck below.

I was sitting on the edge of the dock; the closest fisherman—a dozen yards away—cast his net lazily in the midmorning sun, droplets catching the light like blown glass as the steady flow of the Kynning ran on nigh soundlessly.

“Manling.”

I jumped reflexively. Looking around I saw nothing; it wasn’t until I looked down that the orange eyes of the goblin—of the cat—caught my eye. He was peering up at my from beneath the dock, perched on the jutting bow of some ruined punt. His river-soaked form would have been pathetic there in the cool air, fur plastered down to the bone. Would have, if that same drenched fur look had not revealed the corded muscle and iron-sprung tendons powering his meaty frame.

He’d put a real hurting on any dog that crossed his path. Then again, I thought, I doubt he has any trouble with dogs.

The trip down to the riverside had proved uneventful. I gathered my things, no longer impeded by my no longer drink addled head, and trotted downstairs—cat (secret goblin) in tow—paid Connaugh in full for the rest of my evening consumption, and walked briskly through the moist morning air. The sun was high enough to lend some warmth to an otherwise dewy and miserable atmosphere; in the stoops of poorer buildings and in the cobbled streets the dirty down-turned faces of passersby—set in the perpetual grimace of the struggling poor and striving middle class—told me that those up earlier than I felt the onset of wintry weather commensurately more.

With occasional nudges and mewls (and a single well-timed growl), my companion shepherded me down a cross-cutting of streets to direct dockside. When we reached the end of the pier, he ducked down underneath, grim claws clambering, biting deeply into the aged wood, leaving me with no to-do or word of explanation.

So I waited.

Manling.

Reach down. It is too heavy for me to lift and climb.”

Cautiously (as if the fisherman would care?) I bent down as if examining something in the water. The cat pulled his body back, and I snagged the strap of a large leather saddlebag soaked clear through.

The weight of it was extraordinary. Without proper purchase, I had no way to pull the hefty thing up to the dock. So, with another self-conscious glance around at strangers who would give a fig for a single thing I did, I got down on my belly and heaved the thing up. He followed swift after, shaking the wet out of his fur, and giving his full attention to cleaning it—ever the cat.

I wiped the sweat from my brow and pulled back the flap covering the saddlebag (I have many talents, but lifting heavy things is not one of them. Usually, my talents are directed at getting other people to do the lifting and carrying and hitting for me.) Inside, the pale gleam of white gold greeted my eyes.

Mother Iomedae have mercy

Old, old gold—leaves and laurels, elvish script and stamp, gilded eagle and silvered drakes—a bloody trove, a veritable stash of wealth.

Four hundred crowns

I swallowed, hard.

“Now, manling. Before we leave. More listen.”

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So I did a thing.

***Update: As per a friend’s advice, the actual submissions are gonna be gone for a bit–just so long as necessary for sixfold to do what they gotta do. If you’re want a peek, just let me know!

For those who aren’t in the know (like me, last week), sixfold.org does a regular publication. They take short stories and poetry, and a pal of mine threw it out there. If you’re curious, you’ve pretty much missed the boat for this particular publication. But fret not– check out their site for more information on the next go-round. I’ll be back here with my full report once the experience is over. It caught my attention from the start and, well–

I jumped on it.

Not necessarily because I’m all that confident in my work (the past few hours have proven otherwise with no room for argument). Not because I’m ready to explore writing professionally (although I am teaching the class that purportedly explores careers in writing–go figure). Not even because I’m missing my Shoofly days at Kutztown University (though that’s part of it).

I guess it’s just because it’s been long enough and I’ve grown complacent enough that it was time for a shock.

I’ve put the link for the thing below. Hopefully it’s the first step to coming back here with increasing regularity. And hey–the worst thing that happens? I read a whole bunch of wonderful submissions from wonderful people who make me feel like the shmuck I am (check the details on the website to see what I mean).

The best thing? I dunno. I keep going.

The submission’s linked below–check it out at your leisure.

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“Death: a necessary end”: interlude – remember

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?

Look.

What do you want, trees?  Run?  Why?  Where?

Look.

I don’t run.  I open my eyes.  It’s time to go.  I turn around.  I look at the tre—

LOOK.

What is that, trees?

Hello, boy.

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“Death: a necessary end”: interlude – memory

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.

Sunshine.

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.

Anyway.  Sunshine.

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.

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truth – 11/4/2013

truth is the weight ’round the neck of the drowning man;
the hands of his comrade sunk ‘neath ice five fathoms deep
clinging with fervent desperation to his boots
the numb fingers tugging at his laces, digging into his flesh.

truth is the dark heavy waters crushing all air from life
all light from the world
the unendurable darkness, icy, riveting, inexorable
truth is the bellows of your lungs aching in desperate time ‘gainst the drum of your heart
marching to war, trudging toward a foe you cannot perceive

truth is your own hand on your throat
scratching for a last desperate gasp
a traitorous claw to punish its master so
truth is a sea of red frost tumbling over your vision
as your heartbeat matches that of the impassive universe

we send our babes to sea in coracles of lead
we put our sick to rest in plagued blankets
we ease our wives down into the nuptial bed of rust and ruin
and each day we butter our own bread of bitterness with hate sharp enough to skin the dew from a field of heather

a spare repast of bitterness and rejected reality

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“Death, a necessary end” – FULL TEXT RUNNING VERSION

Premise:
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):
born 1968;
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)

 

Prologue:

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.

Up.

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.

“Mel?”

No answer.  No change.  No pool, no pets.

“Mel, it’s me.  Who did you think it was?

Oh, bother.

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.

Wounded even.”

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.

Yes, really.

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—

But lie?

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.

 

  1. 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?

Look.

What do you want, trees?  Run?  Why?  Where?

Look.

I don’t run.  I open my eyes.  It’s time to go.  I turn around.  I look at the tre—

LOOK.

What is that, trees?

Hello, boy.

Sanitarium?

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.

Sunshine.

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.

Anyway.  Sunshine.

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.

 

  1. Act 2 – rising, building – a Jenga tower bound to topple – hints of the past rising as afterimages in the present

School

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.

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.

“Thanks.”

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.

“Don’t stop.”

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.”

  1. Satisfaction; a golden, glowing garden of possibilities

The house under the hill

 

  1. The swamp – the loa – the life of the dead
  2. 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.

Nothing.

“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?

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.

“No.”

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.

“Mel–”

“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.

“Mel…”

“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.”

  1. Recovery – Paris, magecraft, betrayal, and new promises

Mel didn’t remember the

  1. An exploration of old tombs – Stonehenge unhinged – star-stones and monuments, graves and ghouls – and the straw that breaks the camel’s back
  2. Toppled, ruined, broken – and REPETITIVE

Camden

 

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