One trial done.
I still had others to face down.
It had felt like it had taken years, but no time had apparently passed here. I could barely remember where people had stood before I’d let Carl reach out for me…
If there’d been something solid to hit, I might have hit it.
Old wounds scraped raw. Shame, regret…
The thought was quiet, almost not in my own voice. It’s not real.
A weight lifted off my shoulders. It was much as it had been when I’d first arrived in the Drains. I turned my face skyward, drawing in a deep breath.
Difference was, back then, it had almost been because things had been so bad they couldn’t get much worse. Now…
This was a kind of relief. Things made sense, and knots were coming untangled. Some things still didn’t make sense, there was a kind of horror to this, but I wasn’t burdened by my past anymore.
Because I didn’t necessarily have one.
I exhaled that deep breath I’d taken, and I saw vapor. Moisture leaving my body? More moisture inside my body? Dust? Something else?
I tried again, exhaling on purpose, and I didn’t see anything.
Some branches were still growing, trying to find places on the exterior of my body to entrench themselves. There was a sound like splintering wood as they lurched and spasmodically grew to reach their new vantage points. I could feel them embracing me.
I unzipped my sweatshirt to peer at my bare chest. My chest was untouched, my ribs and back had the branches. My face- I couldn’t see any of my face except my left cheekbone, nose, and part of upper lip when I moved my face in certain ways. I didn’t see any marks.
No telling about the other side of my face. I had only one working eye, now that I was back.
A spatter of water ran over my face and head, and I wiped it away – smearing a bit of grit over my forehead. I wiped it off as best as I could, rubbing the grit onto my pants, and then ran damp hands through damp hair, pushing it back out of my eyes. Silty grime and moisture kept it in place.
There were more birds on me now. All tattoos, still, some hiding among the thicker branches, only the dark circles of their eyes peering out.
“I’m guessing you’re the spirits that possessed me as I cracked?” I asked. Filling in the gaps. I tried to get a better view of the birds, rolling up my sleeves and moving my arms-
A creaking, splintering sound as I moved my arm. No damage done, only the branches on the skin moving. I tested my movement, but the sound was far quieter. Just a bit of stiffness, working out the kinks.
I resumed moving my arms to get a better view of the birds, and I could see how they were looking up at me. They weren’t moving, but when I looked away and looked back again, they’d taken entirely different positions. Still on the same branches, but turned in different directions, wings in different positions.
It would have been almost cartoonish, if they didn’t look so eerie. The color was almost entirely gone. Even the birds looked like ghosts. Echoes.
“You’ve got a nice window seat now, huh?” I asked.
No response, of course.
In the wake of coming out of the Shadow-place, I’d felt cold, and I’d felt like I was almost in shock.
Now, as the seconds passed, I didn’t feel my heartbeat.
I wasn’t breathing, and I hadn’t been since I’d intentionally exhaled, but I wasn’t purple in the face either. I reminded myself to keep up the act. Breathe in, breathe out, just like I’m supposed to.
I found the breathing became automatic.
There would be rules to be followed, as an Other. As a vestige.
Sucks that I don’t know exactly what those rules are.
I turned, looking around. A small handful of people were staring at me.
I collected myself, getting my clothes in order, rolling down my sleeves. Hood up. I fixed the bandage around my ruined hand and the bandage around my gouged wrist.
I’d faced down the reality of my past.
My present? The future?
My present situation was marked by my visions of what was going on elsewhere. I was stuck here.
The future… I wasn’t even sure how to parse that.
Maybe I could connect the dots if I had another dream, but I didn’t feel like sleeping anytime soon. Not so recently after that experience. A part of me still felt like I could embrace it. I could just… give up and let it happen.
Accept somebody else’s idea of peace.
I felt a thrum of alarm and unease in my chest at the idea, as if my heart was a box and something was inside, fluttering in momentary panic. The vibration of it ran through me.
I turned. I had questions, and I had only one place to go to get them.
I drew a small handful of curious glances.
The door to the Witch’s hut was closed. I heard voices through the windows – there wasn’t any glass.
I walked a distance away, and I waited.
One of the birds tattooed on my hand was peering around my sleeve, looking in the direction of the witch’s hut. I pulled my sleeve down.
I mulled over the questions I had, and tried to figure out what I could offer as a gift.
The door opened. The hinges were makeshift, not actually hinges, and the door opened in an odd way. The man struggled with the door until the witch held it. He lurched out, a bundle swaddled in his arm.
In the swaddle was a very small, frail woman or maybe a child. The individual was riddled with the long, hard kind of mushroom that grew on the sides of trees, nearly to the point of being buried by them.
The man looked despondent as he hobbled away. I watched him go.
“You’re back,” the witch said, her eyes on me. “You look quite different, considering how short a time you were gone.”
“Oh, it’s hard to measure time here. Hours?”
“The only gift I can offer is a bit of story, knowledge.”
“It’s only a convention,” she said. “Not an obligation.”
“I remember coming to a decision, maybe a year ago,” I said, “I wouldn’t accept something for free. I didn’t want to give someone else that power over me. To make me dependent. I just discovered that that decision was only an illusion. I’m honestly not sure if it holds any weight, but I feel like it can’t be a bad decision.”
“If everyone felt the same way, the world would be a fairer place,” the witch said. “If you’ll tell me what happened, I’ll give you my attention.”
“Thank you,” I said.
She stood out of the way, inviting me in.
“…a vestige,” I finished. My recap had been loose, general, skipping whole chapters and ideas. The story wasn’t as important as the underpinnings.
I met her eyes, “And you knew.”
“I had an idea,” she said. “Vestige isn’t the idea that leaped to mind.”
I nodded. “It’s funny, but names mean so much, symbols, all that, but all the same, at the end of the day, labels are a bit of a trap.”
“Yes. Any of us have had labels applied to us over the course of our lives. Some are accurate, some aren’t. Man, woman, normal, freak, genius, ‘good’, idiot, ‘wrong’…”
“Fool,” I said. “High Priestess.”
She arched an eyebrow.
“Labels that were applied to me,” I said.
“They were scrying me or something, using a spell to read me. They drew the Fool with the right hand, the High Priestess with the left.”
“Ah. I don’t know that particular trick.”
I nodded, “me either. Didn’t really get a chance to research after, either.”
“The Fool can be the lowest value or the highest value card. The ‘zero’.”
“I know that bit.”
“Fitting, for someone who doesn’t really exist.”
I grimaced. “Ugh.”
“The High Priestess addresses the veil of awareness, about intuition,” she gave me a pointed look, one eye peering at my hand, where the tattoos were more intense.
“Well then,” I said.
“For those of us who know about the practice, it has a second meaning. The very first thing we perceive when we enter this realm.”
“Yes. Make of that what you will.”
“Left and right hands?”
“I don’t know the exact ritual or the exact meanings. I do know the most basic aspects of the left and right hands, practically and symbolically. The right hand is the active hand, the hand fixed in the now, the one with which you address the world.”
“Sure,” I said.
“The left is the hand we use when we’ve got our hands full, in times of stress, more clumsy, but we’re strongest when we use it in concert with the other, rather than relying on the other alone.”
“Except-” she started.
I looked up.
“The left hand has another meaning. When referring to the parts of the body, terminology for the right side is Dexter, as in dexterity. When referring to the left, the word is Sinister. In superstition, the left is viewed to be the side closest to evil. When we spill salt, we’re to throw a pinch over our left shoulder to ward off evil. When the angel and devil are depicted sitting on a man’s shoulders, the appropriate representation puts the devil on the-“
“Left side,” I said, in concert with her.
“With allowances for artists who don’t know what they’re doing.”
“So,” I said, “What does that mean? This decision I just made is evil?”
“Not necessarily. As I said, the left hand is the hand you use when the right hand alone isn’t up to the task. We use it when we’re in a desperate situation,” she said. She gestured at our surroundings. “And our actions tend to be clumsier. Not wrong, not evil, but it’s not a stretch to jump to that conclusion, when all’s said and done. I’d worry more about when the High Priestess intrudes on your life and it’s not in moments of desperation.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well that’s a relief, then. Because I don’t think I’ve had a minute to breathe where my circumstances weren’t desperate.”
“In the quieter moments between fits of whatever it was you were doing.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
“The possibility remains that I could be very wrong. Give some thought to whoever did this reading for you, and why. The only time I imagine someone should be concerned with your left hand is when they’re your enemy, and they want to know what you have up your sleeve, how you might function in a moment of peak stress, or if they wanted to put a ring on your finger.”
“I’m not being entirely serious,” she said. “We put rings on that finger because of the myth that it was the sole finger with a direct line to the heart. I’m not sure it has any meaning.”
“Uh huh,” I said. I thought of the Behaims. “I’m not entirely sure what they were planning. What about the Hanged Man in the right, the Chariot in the left hand?”
“My, uh, mirror self. The girl who took my place when I came here.”
“The Hanged Man suggests suspension. Patience, waiting to act to achieve a better outcome. Being stuck. Despite the implications of the name, the man is often depicted hanging from his ankle, not his throat.”
“Enough said. The Chariot?”
“Victory, control, overcoming obstacles. It can mean travel, reaching a new point in life. It suggests aggression finding a clear outlet, being honed, often in the frame of being articulate, winning arguments, and confidence.”
“My concern is what it means in the left hand,” I said. “I’m… rather worried about what she’s doing.”
“For that, we can look to the image on the card. I’m working from memory, but the card usually features a man with a laurel or crown on his head. The victor, if you will. The conqueror.”
I leaned back, my head striking the door, making it bang against the frame.
“That’s ominous,” I said. “Very ominous, considering the events prior to me making my way down here.”
“The black and white sphinxes that pull the chariot frequently refer to mysteries, and the stance of the man in the chariot suggests will being enforced, not strength. Schemes, rhetoric, arguments, travel, it might point to some reckless path to ruin, or to glory. Just like your High Priestess, it’s not necessarily an evil path, but on the crux of this, she may find glory or ruin.”
“Sphinxes, conquest,” I said. “No, this is suggesting ruin more than anything else.”
“Too many parallels,” I said. I fidgeted, fingers drumming my knee, where my legs were crossed, me sitting on the floor. “Oh man, this is going to get worse before it gets better. I’m getting a sense of what she’s going to do. I gotta get out of here. Soon.”
“Don’t we all?”
“I passed one trial. I faced the question of my past, my origin. I need to know… how do I face the others?”
“I don’t know about the future. I’m not even sure how your future would get its hooks in you. The present, well, I can only tell you my experience.”
“Except there’s a problem of sorts. I… hm,” she said.
“Just give it to me.”
“It’s not that you don’t want the answer,” she told me. “I just don’t know how to frame it. When I did it, I was looking for a way out. These sewers showed it to me. A glimpse-“
She paused, frowning, looking off to one side.
I waited, patient. Something told me that if I pushed, she’d just shut down and kick me out.
“I suspected it was responding to the route I’d chosen. If I’m right, then the closer I got, the clearer the picture. When I realized exactly what it was showing me and why, I turned back. The images haven’t plagued me much since.”
“Right,” I said.
“The problem is… if you were anyone else, if you just had the Shadow plaguing you, then I’d expect this to be it. You gave this place what it wanted, it broke you down on a level. It should cooperate with you. I don’t know enough to guess what you’ll have to deal with here.”
I rubbed the stubble on my chin, silent.
“That’s the best I can do for you,” she said, her voice stirring me from my quiet musings.
“Right. Thank you. I mean it.”
“Not at all,” she said. “I should ask for a token gift or payment, in exchange for the information. The spirits might not oversee us, but… equity. I shouldn’t dole out advice for nothing.”
I nodded. I plucked at my wool sweatshirt. “Will this do? More fabric, quality is pretty good, it’s warm. I’ll be cold, but I can deal. Not so much use in holding onto my humanity, when I know I’m not human.”
“Your sweatshirt will do,” she said.
I unzipped it, then pulled it off. I folded it, then handed it over with both hands.
She took it, letting it sit on her lap.
“Guess I won’t be seeing you,” I said, half-standing, head bent so I didn’t bang it on the corrugated steel ceiling. “Thanks again. If I get a chance, I’ll visit that grave.”
“Hey,” she said, as I turned around.
Something hurtled at me. I caught it in my right hand.
“A gift, to wish you well on your expedition.”
I unfolded the bundled sweatshirt. My sweatshirt.
“It’s warm,” she said. “Fabric’s pretty good quality. Do what you can to hold onto your humanity. Keep the best parts. Take the good that comes with being Other, too. But don’t just throw any of it away. Be smart about it.”
I gripped the sweatshirt a little tighter.
“Also,” she said.
“It crossed my mind while you were talking, but then I got distracted. I was going to ask, but I’m not sure if it means anything. It’s only a thought, but it might be a thought worth carrying with you.”
“Are you right handed, or is it the injury to your hand that’s making you favor your right?”
“I’m right handed.”
“Okay,” she said. “Your mirror self is a southpaw, then?”
“No,” I said. I searched my memories, before coming up with a fairly confident, “No.”
“Hmm,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s odd, isn’t it? Given the mirror thing?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Worth thinking about,” I murmured. I didn’t want to say goodbye again, so I shot her a salute, before pushing my way through the door.
I stood in the center of the settlement.
This… wasn’t going to be fun.
The rehashing of my ‘past’ had been one thing, but there hadn’t been any real chance of being irrevocably destroyed, devoured, facing a fate worse than death, or an ignoble end with one stupid misstep on a ledge.
At worst, maybe, I might have been mentally broken, left catatonic all over again, or I might have made the wrong decision, failed to see the falseness for what it was, and trapped myself down here, perpetually ignorant.
Now I had to go back.
Face the present.
While my future was waiting, probably with its hand behind its back, hiding a weapon it was preparing to blindside me with.
I started walking.
Back the way I came.
Along the posts. Back to the dark tunnels.
I’d had one fleeting vision in there.
A starting point.
“What the are you doing here?”
Rose stared as her parents came down the driveway, Ivy in their arms.
Her parents, not mine.
I should have made the connection, seen the clue. If they were going to name their firstborn daughter after Grandmother to curry favor, why would Ivy be ‘Ivy’ in a world where I was the elder sibling?
“We wanted to see how you were getting on.”
“Rose,” her father said.
“It’s done, it’s over. The house is yours and-“
“You wanted to see if you can’t worm in and get a piece of the profits if and when I sold it?”
“No,” he said. He managed to sound exasperated.
“I’m not selling the house. I can’t.”
“That’s fine,” he said. “Whatever you want to do. We just wanted to see you. Are you okay? With this whole thing that happened to Molly, and what Irene was saying about how she was acting…”
“What was she saying?”
“She was distant, cut off, and she wished she’d done more to help Molly. Look, we made the trip here because we were worried. The phone is disconnected-“
“Yeah, that wasn’t me.”
“Rose,” her mother cut in, stepping close, Ivy in one arm. She reached out with her free hand, seizing Rose’s. “Please.”
Rose didn’t even flinch. Her expression was placid, not betraying a single emotion. “Please what?”
“Don’t shut us out. We’re close, and we’re here out of genuine concern.”
“For the money?”
“No. For you. You’d tell us if something was wrong, wouldn’t you?”
“No,” Rose said. “No, I wouldn’t.”
“Can we work on getting to the point where you could?”
“In the realm of theory? Maybe. In reality? No, I’m not interested, and no.”
“You’re being ridiculous,” her father said.
“No,” Rose said, expression unchanging, “I’m not. You want to start on the road to reconciliation?”
“You’re implying we did something wrong,” he said.
“Yeah, yeah I am. So I was about to make a deal with you, but now I have to amend it. If you want us to get along, I’m going to need you to sign a statement that swears you won’t take any money or profits from sale of the property-“
“What?” her father asked.
“And, I’m going to need an apology,” she said, her voice hard. “Not for all of it, but I’m going to need it worded in such a way that you recognize and admit culpability for some of it.”
“Look,” her father said. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we raised you perfectly, or that I don’t have regrets. A lot of it stemmed from the way I was raised. Our family was so cutthroat, my mother pushed us to fight each other every step of the way, and that was… in a large way, it was the only relationship I knew for a long time. We certainly weren’t allowed to make friends at school. I’ve changed in some ways since meeting your mother, and since I became a father to you- taking you figure skating, or to gymnastics.”
“When I was eight.”
“Like I said, I’m not saying I was right. We made mistakes, and when you started becoming more independent, resisting us when we were trying to put you on the right path-“
“By attacking my cousins.”
“Maybe. Some of it. But that’s the competition I was talking about. It was ingrained into me. I saw you back away from it, and I trusted you to figure out your own path. Your own way to be effective and strong in a very hard, unforgiving world.”
“Well, congratulations,” Rose said. She spread her arms. “This is it. This is me. You want to blame Grandmother for making you into who you are?”
“Shh,” her mother said. “Don’t wake Ivy.”
Rose glared. “You want to blame her? Well, you have only yourselves to blame for who I am, and I’m someone who doesn’t even want to waste five seconds in your company, let alone however many minutes we’ve been talking already.”
Her father clenched his fists. I imagined the expression on his face was very similar to my own when I was angry.
“Rose,” her mother said.
“That’s okay. We can leave it at that. But right now, I want you to take Ivy. Because whatever’s going on, between you and us, that doesn’t impact your relationship with your sister, okay? You have to admit that’s the case.”
“Yeah, I don’t want to wake her up.”
“It’s okay. Just take her. Hold her.”
Rose didn’t budge as her mother shifted Ivy around in her grip. Ivy made a small whimpering sound.
“Take her, before she fusses.”
Reluctantly, Rose took Ivy.
“We made mistakes,” her mother said, in a low voice. “I won’t deny that. Help us avoid making the same mistakes with Ivy. That’s all I ask.”
Rose was stiff, holding the sleeping infant.
“Please?” her mother asked.
“Yeah, maybe. How?”
“We just want to see you from time to time. Time and place of your choosing. Next week?”
“There’s a small cafe downtown.”
“I know it,” her father said.
“I’ll maybe call you,” Rose said, “Let you know.”
“Okay,” her mother said. She reached out, and Rose began the process of handing Ivy back.
Her mother, however, hugged her and Ivy both.
Rose, still rigid, allowed her forehead to rest on her mother’s shoulder, eyes still open, moving by fractions, as if she were thinking and calculating about things far beyond the realm where she could see.
The scene went dark. For a moment, I was disoriented, and I feared I was blind.
I wasn’t – I was only in utter darkness. The pitch black of being in a cave where the last light source was a twenty minute walk down winding corridors behind me, and the next one was twenty minutes ahead of me.
“If you’re trying to get to me,” I said. “You’re going to have to try to do better than that. Rose has a better relationship with her parents than I did? Good for her.”
I laughed a little. Not loud – only a little. “She’s real. She’s busy plotting? Spooky, when I’ve seen the recent vision, but good for her. I’d hope I’d be taking every chance I get to plot as well. You want to get to me, Drains? Try harder.”
In retrospect, it might not have been the most brilliant idea to taunt the primeval engine of entropy and destruction. The compost heap of reality.
Still, it gave me the courage to keep moving forward.
I’d unzipped my sweatshirt, taking it off, and tied it around my waist. My boots were off too, laces tied together, so they were around my neck. I walked with fingertips trailing the wall to either side of me.
The cold was bitter, it hurt like an icy fist closing around me, but it didn’t damage me. I wasn’t wounded, I wasn’t frostbitten.
I wasn’t sure if that was due to my particular nature or if it was just this place, only wanting to use the cold to make me uncomfortable.
After walking another five or ten minutes, I felt the temperature of the air drop a degree or two in temperature. Not a cold wind, but even so, the still air was cooler here.
I slowed down.
Steady steps, careful, heel, then toe.
Cooler still. My skin would have prickled with goosebumps, if I were still human.
I wonder if I can get wings after all.
It was a giddy, delirious thought, a little unhinged, as I approached the spot where I no longer had walls on either side of me. My arms were stretched out all the way to either side, and I touched only air.
Heel, toe. It was quieter than tiptoeing, as my heel touched a frigid puddle where a gentle groove had worn into the bridge, and I controlled the way I lowered the rest of my foot so it wouldn’t splash.
I felt the cold radiating from my right, and I very nearly hissed in pain at the sharpness of it. Nearly.
I tried to remember the degrees of cold.
My arms were still extended to either side. I didn’t dare move them, out of a fear that they would creak.
I didn’t breathe. My heart didn’t beat. I was a false person, a doll, a man of branches and feathers.
Another step, another… the front of my foot came down in a way that had the toes touching only open air. I adjusted the angle I was walking, to stay on the path, and I made my steps more careful, until I was more sure.
Five more steps, and I felt the acute cold, sharper than it had been, across my right foot.
I brought my left foot forward.
I shifted my weight, balancing on one foot, and raised my right foot, extending it outward, half-inch by half-inch.
I wobbled, arms windmilling. The branches didn’t creak or splinter.
Controlling my movements, I stepped forward, over the limb that was draped over this narrow bridge.
Raising my back foot over was just as precarious, just as dangerous. If I touched it, I might lose my foot, before it simply got me.
My hand touched something cold and slimy, and I felt another mad birdy fluttering of panic where my heart should have been.
But my other hand touched something cold and slimy.
The two walls of the tunnel.
I made my way into the tunnel, hands still trailing the sides.
“Missed me,” I said, loud enough for my voice to carry into the chamber I’d left behind.
A limb struck the wall, hard enough to make a cracking sound. Cold air blew past me, frigid enough to tear the wind from my lungs.
When I’d caught my breath, I had to resist the urge to laugh.
It was frustrated.
Was I a little crazy?
No. Well, yes, maybe.
But that wasn’t exactly it.
“I’m not so afraid anymore,” I murmured to myself. “For better or worse.”
The Astrologer stared at the burning building, tears streaming down her face.
I edged above the slumbering greater goblin that served as the omnipresent terror to the small cluster of people on the watermill bridge.
For long moments, I contemplated attacking it.
If I had metal, something that worked as a weapon, and if I had enough courage to simply step from the ledge I was on and plunge down onto its back…
Something told me that in the vision of the future I’d seen, an action like that had been what had started me on my path.
Kill it, share the meat for favor and more tools, skin it, and take the pelt…
In some cultures, wearing parts of the beast meant taking on their strengths. The book Valkyrie had touched on that. Binding spirits into objects, then carrying those objects.
The vision taunted me. The knowledge that I could do this, I just had to decide to.
The knowledge that yeah, maybe I could have wings.
What did it matter? I wasn’t real.
I remained where I was, debating the possibilities, for far too long. I felt almost paralyzed.
On the surface, it was a dumb question. Of course I wanted to stay human.
But this went beyond the surface.
What was my dream? What did I want?
I wanted peace. To be left alone. To explore, and not be bound to one place.
Ideally with Evan at my side, my friends a phone call away.
Except they weren’t mine anymore. Not in the normal sense.
This was, in part, what that vision had been about. Taunting me with a future that highlighted just what I could and couldn’t have.
I might never get to ride my motorcycle again.
In a way, my heart broke a little with the thought. Owning that little piece of work had been my first real accomplishment. The first real thing I’d bought that hadn’t been for my own raw survival. The first thing I’d wanted to buy.
It was a symbol for me, symbolic of a lot of things.
Now I looked down at the goblin below me, and I saw it as another symbol. The other path.
I touched my sweatshirt, which I’d put back on, and I remembered the Witch’s words.
I’ll keep my humanity.
But, if this even counts as a third trial… I’ll accept this reality about my future.
I probably won’t ever ride again.
I started edging along the ledge, as quiet as I could manage, teeth clenched.
You want to take something away from me, Drains? That hurts more than losing my humanity.
Why? It was simple.
Humanity? It varied.
“Yo,” Mags said.
Alexis and Ty exchanged glances.
“I’m the postman today,” Mags said.
“Rose is sleeping. She was up late,” Alexis said.
“Something about a Barber?” Alexis asked. “Any idea? Might have something to do with what she was saying about us needing the big guns.”
“Huh,” Mags said. “No idea. I’m just hoping those guns aren’t too big.”
“Me too,” Ty said. He looked tired.
“Not me,” Evan said. He looked like he’d lost a few feathers, a few more were sticking up, as though they were on the verge of falling out. “I don’t need to sleep anymore. It’s a luxury.“
“Lucky runt,” Mags said.
“You should sleep,” Ty warned. “It conserves energy, and it delays the time until your next transfusion.”
“Bring it,” Evan said. “I’m saying we should do the fire spirit thing. Make me a phoenix, bro. C’mon.”
“No, bro,” Ty said.
Ty looked to Alexis for help.
“You got him started on that,” Alexis said, “You egged him on.”
“Ahem, listen,” Mags said. “I have letters I’m delivering in my official capacity as ambassador, and it doesn’t matter if Rose is asleep, because they’re for you… three.”
“Tiff’s hurt,” Ty said. “I’ll take hers to her.”
Mags handed over three letters. The envelopes matched.
Ty tore his open. Evan hopped down to his wrist to get a closer view.
“A declaration of war,” Ty said. He looked up at Mags, concerned.
“Damn, didn’t know,” Mags said. “They said they’d do it.”
“We didn’t-” Ty started. “We thought Rose stopped them from agreeing to those accords.”
“They’re still sticking to them, just not so officially,” Mags said.
“Damn it,” Alexis said.
“For all three of us?” Ty asked.
Mags shrugged, “I can only assume.”
“Picking off the pawns before going for the checkmate, I guess,” Alexis said. Her voice was calm, but her hand jittered as she reached for her pocket. “Damn, need a smoke. I’ll be back.”
“Not in the house,” Ty said. “Rose said not to, and if you burn this place down-.”
“I’m not doing it outside,” Alexis said. “Declaration of war, remember? We could get attacked. I’ll do it in the bathroom with the fan on.”
She muttered some curse word, inaudible, as she stalked off toward the ground-floor bathroom.
“Thanks, real Mags,” Ty said.
“Sorry,” she said. “Good luck.”
His own emotions were betrayed as he hurried to shut the door, barely even paying attention as he shut it in her face.
He slumped against the door, while Evan fluttered up to the top of his head.
“Damn it,” he said.
He looked utterly miserable.
The guilt that fixed me was like a spear to the chest. Violent in its intensity, force, and the pain that hit me where my heart was supposed to be.
I had asked this place to try harder. Now it was dawning on me. The objective, the message.
Hitting me where it hurt. I didn’t want to wrestle with the idea until I had more validation, more confirmation.
Keep moving. Wrestle with it when you’re out of here.
In the end, there weren’t many paths to try.
I was at a ledge, not far from Green Eyes. Not far from the gargoyle’s perch where I’d first sat down, gotten my first glimpse of the present.
She’d told me to go left. Her last bit of advice.
Coming back the opposite way, that meant I was turning left, to take the path she’d warned me off.
Another dark tunnel, sloping downward.
Water pattered down on my head and shoulders from above. It ran down the walls in trickles and streams.
I saw light at the end of the tunnel. My path was lit up, brighter than I’d seen yet.
I heard a buzz, a dull drone, like a low note, held continually.
Further down the path, the ground was shattered, ruined. It was limited to chunks that only barely held together, haphazard, with deep cracks between each that I could fit a limb into.
As I got further down, the amount of running water increased, the light grew more intense, and the state of my surroundings grew even more precarious, more crude. I almost had to hop from one shelf of stone to the next.
Twice, I had to stop to calculate which path posed the smallest gamble, three times I had to pause to work out how best to navigate over piles of crumbled masonry, or open chasms that were too wide for me to leap across.
The drone increased in intensity.
The light was in sharp contrast to the darkness here, and the sharp shadows that were cast were misleading, suggesting gaps where there were none, or glare hid the cracks that did exist.
I rounded a corner, and I was blinded.
Fell’s grave, the snow falling heavily.
“We’ll come back tomorrow,” the old woman told the little girl.
Then light once more. Almost worse than the darkness. My skin prickled with it.
In the midst of whole sections of the Drains that had broken away was a cavern. Quite possibly what the Drains had been before they’d mutated into the drains.
In the midst of that cavern, a face stood out from the wall. It wasn’t stone, but it looked like something close. Bone, perhaps, or calcified flesh.
I had to wrestle with the idea that it was simultaneously further away than it looked and very, very big. Especially for a face.
It could very well have been as large as a mountain. The area between it and me was empty of anything, vast, a chasm as wide as the gap between countries, maybe.
It rested at an angle, leaning against a distant solid surface I couldn’t make out, surrounded by cracks that cities could have been built in. It was cracked as well, with gaps running along its pale features, almost to the point that it looked like it might shatter any moment. The eyes were open, and a light radiated from the eyes, as intense as the sun.
The noise it was making, the size of it, I couldn’t comprehend it, not cognitively, but in my would-be heart? I felt something swell.
Light shone from the open mouth, too, and the drone emanated from the mouth, deep enough to touch me in the core of my body.
The size of it, the sheer base… I wasn’t even sure how to phrase it. The simpleness of it? No, that was wrong. The appearance, the light, the utter monotone of the sound it generated, it was more like it was at the heart of simplicity, at the heart of something from which more complicated things could emerge.
A lesser god?
Forgotten, fallen through the cracks, swallowed up by this place that had existed before the Drains were Drains?
But… if my eyes weren’t deceiving me, this place and the area around the face had become Drains, only to break away. The face, presumably, had been buried.
It had been revealed now.
It came back to the same question I had just faced.
I looked at the wall where the light was shining.
Where there was light and water, there was life. Plants grew, scraggly, weedy, dangerous looking plants that probably had thorns or poisonous oils. Because I doubted anything else would grow here.
Where there was light, however, there was shadow.
In that deep shadow that remained where the light couldn’t quite reach, I saw something move.
I saw darkness move.
My ‘heart’ beat its mad panic beat inside my chest.
I knew the name of that particular darkness.
“Ur,” I murmured.
It was working its way into this place that lay through the cracks. Into the Drains. The only thing that had stopped it, cutting it off from the heart at the source of it, was the accidental uncovering of this ancient forgotten god.
The panicked movement within my chest only got worse as my thoughts turned over, grasping the import of this.
Alexis, sitting in the bathtub, using the drain to put out her cigarette, a book on her knee, her other hand on her head, fingers in her hair, pushing it back.
Ty giving Evan a push, sending Evan fluttering off to where they’d stowed the video game console. Evan was slowly dying, even his flight faltering, and he didn’t remember our bargain, he wouldn’t know to keep it, to move on. Ty was too weary to move away from the door, too stressed to even want to.
Tiff, nose crusted with blood, blankets pulled up around her on the couch, where she was so still she looked dead.
Carl, sitting in his living room, smiling at two of his friends. One had a cup of tea, the other a joint.
I swayed, the battery of scenes leaving me virtually unable to put two thoughts together.
I didn’t even have time to contemplate the fact that Carl existed.
“I get it,” I said. “I get it. The abused becomes the abuser. It’s my fault, isn’t it?”
Only the scouring light and jet blackness answered.
“I made a cabal, just like Carl made his cult. The world was worse off for having me in it?”
I took a step back.
I stared at the chasm in front of me, the light that lit up the motes of dust that were thick in the air, the waiting tendrils of Ur.
“And I have to go out the same way I came in?”
If my heart felt like an animal in bondage, thrashing to escape, I felt like it was crawling its way to my mouth, ready to flee.
Another step back.
Ground gave way underfoot as I planted my foot down. I still leveraged it into a jump. I crossed the chasm.
I’m so light.
I hit with my ribs taking the brunt of the impact. Masonry broke away, deep gouges cut into it by Ur’s devouring tendrils, and I fought to keep my place. I climbed a small avalanche of falling brick and stones that disappeared almost as quickly as I could grasp them.
No fucking way was I leaving it at that.
I saw tendrils move, escaping the cracks they’d been hiding in, reaching.
My climb slowed. I lost headway.
Clawing with my hand, I tore away a section of brick that was blocking the light. It flashed across the gap, and the tendrils disappeared.
I found footing, leaped once more, almost straight up, grasping a handhold.
Again, I tore at brick to kill the tendrils.
I leaped to one side to put myself in the light, to catch a breath.
Metal gleamed in the dark. A rod, radiating with spikes.
I grabbed the rod with my damaged left hand, letting the spikes impale flesh.
It would, if nothing else, keep the two halves in place.
I pulled the Hyena free.
This is the place for lost things.
And I was close to the place that served as entrance and exit both.
But not quite there.
Tendrils were breaking free, clutching for me, using the same shadow my body cast.
I wasn’t going to make it like this.
Tendrils seized me around the middle, and they bit into my sweatshirt, consuming it, finding gaps in my flesh.
I couldn’t even look to see the damage it was doing. I had to avert my eyes.
I had to…
Ask for help.
I screamed guttural, as close to the same tone as the god that shone its light into this dark chamber, fighting Ur for as long as he lasted.
I worshiped that lost god for just a moment.
The light grew more intense, and Ur burned away. Even the pieces in my arm.
I found the gap, unable to see, and clawed my way through, fighting through the shadowy places Ur had just occupied.
The light faded.
I was in the factory, lying in a heap, the dim morning light streaming through the windows, basking me in everything that was ordinary and warm.
The same place from which I’d entered the Drains.
The guttural god of light didn’t reach here. The light faded.
I found my feet.
Ur, too, recovered. Shadows breaking out of the walls, cutting off my escape.