Stoic Decay

pictures / projects by gElm / Lem de Grosnpreg

Corpus Wistful

by

gElm (Lem de Grosnpreg)


I finished writing Corpus Wistful many years ago. It is not a high quality piece of fiction. It's a book written by a young man. Worse than that it's a book written by a young man that thought he was clever. I was not, and am not, clever.

It takes place on a world somewhat like our own. There is adventure, ancient gods, mobsters, illustrations, maps, plot twists, strange magic, private detectives, and most of all sadness.

There is entirely too much shivering, falling, hands touching faces, eyes staring, and tears.

There is a fair amount of death, moderate violence, suicidal thoughts, physical and emotional scars, and moderate sexual encounters.

In late 2013 I tried to enmesh parts of this book, with other characters and stories from the same universe, in a strange hybrid picture book tumblr called Hofnfoh. But Hofnfoh, like this book, failed in too many ways, and I eventually abandoned it.



Table of Contents

Introduction
Chapter 1: Disgrace
Chapter 2: Spill
Chapter 3: The August King Carnival & Delirium Side Show
Chapter 4: Austere, Ahstyr
Chapter 5: Puzzles
Chapter 6: Burn
Chapter 7: A Nice Mourning
Chapter 8: A Doomed Accountant's Journal
Chapter 9: Slapstick Veritas
Chapter 10: Prey
Chapter 11: Optical Chimeras
Chapter 12: A Lie or Pre-truth
Chapter 13: Heaven's Nothing More than Atmosphere
Chapter 14: Tetradus Fatum
Chapter 15: Fall
Chapter 16: Whispers Beneath Water
Chapter 17: Anchored Obscenities
Chapter 18: Autumnal
Chapter 19: Life is Pretty if You're Mentally Blind
Chapter 20: Dreams are Like Water
Chapter 21: Relax
Chapter 22: Dreams are Like Air
Chapter 23: Eyes
Chapter 24: Things Change
Chapter 25: Points of View
Chapter 26: Power
Chapter 27: A Warm Halo
Chapter 28: If One is Lonely, Then What is Zero
Chapter 29: The Turn Around Delusion
Chapter 30: Standard Paradigm
Chapter 31: The Sight of Broken Things Sick with Wisdom
Chapter 32: Trust
Chapter 33: Nocturnal Interlude
Chapter 34: Ollgossehwed
Chapter 35: Bifurcation
Chapter 36: Paradoxical Sleep
Chapter 37: Conscience
Chapter 38: On Ice
Chapter 39: A Leap of Faith
Chapter 40: Diefast
Chapter 41: Wicked Tender
Chapter 42: What?
Chapter 43: Mister Moonlight
Chapter 44: Stationary Objects
Chapter 45: One Day
Chapter 46: Answers
Chapter 47: Protection
Chapter 48: Nea       r
Chapter 49: Brevity
Chapter 50: Retrospect
Chapter 51: Detached Cerebrum
Chapter 52: Hyper-vigilant or The Doctor's Monologue
Chapter 53: 'Twas Brillig
Chapter 54: Wunderlich
Chapter 55: The Good Old Days
Chapter 56: Facade
Chapter 57: Lekieil
Chapter 58: The Same Deep Water as You
Chapter 59: Elanif Prelude
Chapter 60: Snark or Boojum
Chapter 61: Elanif Reversed
Chapter 62: Detached Cerebellum
Chapter 63: Popular Journalism
Chapter 64: Fiction
Chapter 65: Money on the Dead
Chapter 66: Toothpaste
Chapter 67: Guns Don't Kill People, Guilt Kills People
Chapter 68: Darkness Depart
Chapter 69: Away
Chapter 70: Prescience
Chapter 71: Dark is Life, is Death
Chapter 72: Rara Avis or No Unscheduled Stops
Chapter 73: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
Chapter 74: Cowards are Ghosts
Chapter 75: Touching Death
Chapter 76: Goodbye
Chapter 77: Is that the Question
Chapter 78: Curiosity Killed the Cat-like Man
Chapter 79: Free are the Fallen Angels
Chapter 80: Tomorrow Shines Brightly Dark Cloud




Introduction




Chapter 1: Disgrace

Time Rath: Interior Monologue

Smoke billows around the hallway. I hear her cry out from beyond the door.

Reach out with my right hand: I am a hero.

Reach out with my left: I am a villain.

Try as I might to make a change, I reach out with my left and my palm is seared with pain. I cannot turn the red-hot handle and as I realize my villainy, I reach out with my right hand always too late. The ceiling collapses upon me. Pinned to the floor beneath smoldering beams, unable to speak, barely able to breathe for the weight on my chest, I listen as she slowly dies. All alone she cries out for help until she suffocates in the smoke and fumes. But I mimic things through a warped glass, for she was not alone.

I pray for death.

Knowing I dream, I ask that I never awaken.




Chapter 2: Spill

Sangren

1:37f.d.p. Fantus, 20th of Sedalas, 1777

As Time Rath passed the Drummond Meat Packaging Plant, a delivery truck pulled out from between the high gates, blinded him briefly with its headlights, and sped away. He continued on, passing a condemned factory of some sort and then a couple of warehouses.

Fifty paces from the International Dye Works the rotten fish smell from the outside open-air tanks filled his nostrils. By the time he had reached the stairway that led up to the side entrance, his nose was already deadened to the stench. He climbed upwards, flexing his left arm.

He rapped loudly on the side door, and waited for his employer, the seductive anuran woman, to unlock it and let him in. The hushed sound of the sea, crashing on the fog hidden rocks far below, kept him company while he waited.

"You're late," she said, after opening the door. He stepped past her. Reading the clock on the corridor wall, he saw he was five minutes early.

"They are very hungry tonight," she said, slamming the door shut, and then the deadbolt. She advanced past him, the sleeve of her lustrous red dress brushing against his arm. She had worn this dress before. It was of a color so violently crimson it was hard to draw your eyes away.

She can't be more than fifty, he thought, watching the sway of her hips as he followed her down the corridor. She was quite rich though, and the rich had many ways in which to keep themselves looking young. Still, he decided, she could not be more than fifty; she could pass, without much effort, for a woman in her early thirties.

Watching the way her dress clung to her ripe peach-like bottom, he wondered, as he had many times before, if she was deliberately teasing him with her plushness. He wondered if she was truly a murderer, and if he was going be her next victim.

As he followed behind her, the enticing wickedness that seemed to linger upon her reminded him of the stories he had heard when he first began his employment at the dye works swabbing out tanks during the day-shift. Stories of how her significantly older husband had been the victim of a mysterious death. Time recalled many variations: her husband had fallen, or was pushed, from his office window to the rocks below; a 'thief' had broken into the dye works and shot him to death, taking nothing, not even the spare change in his pockets; and Time's personal favorite - he was enticed into a tank of blue-34 by his wife and they were fucking vigorously when he died of a heart attack and sank to the bottom. He wasn't pulled out until the next morning and he was later buried stained a blue the shade of a Seven Islands sky.

All Time's coworkers, the tellers of the tales and their variations, had agreed upon two things. The first, that the anuran woman had in some way caused her husband's death. The second, that they'd still do her, without hesitation.

When Time first heard the stories he doubted any of them were genuine. Now, knowing what he knew, he more than half believed them, and perhaps subconsciously, even hoped they were true, for therein lie his exit.

• • •

The anuran woman unlocked the door to the criss room and pushed it open. She smiled, her perfect white teeth shining viciously between her red lips. "Let me know when they are done feeding." She turned and walked across the hallway into her office, shutting the door softly behind her.

Time watched the door for a moment and then entered the criss room, flipping on the light switch and closing the door. The room was not a large one and it was empty except for a chair, a small metal stand upon which various small articles rested, and a large glass tank which lined the far wall. Within the tank there were at least a dozen brownish-black beetles the size of a baby's fist. The fabled umber criss of the anuran jungle.

Time took off his jacket and hung it over the chair's back. Rolling up his left sleeve he leaned forward and stared into the tank. The heat lamps cast a dim orange light through the mist sprayed in from the tanks corners, making it appear like a humid oven. The umber criss, sensing his presence, scurried towards him, crawling over each other agitatedly.

"You are hungry tonight," Time said, grabbing a jar from off the metal stand. After he had wiped the ointment from the jar all over his left arm, he retrieved a rubber glove and pulled it onto his left hand, cinching it tight at the wrist. The umber criss moved now in a frenzy.

In the glass front of the tank there was a circle double-cusp enter patch, and through this Time thrust his arm. The umber criss' took to flight, rising up and alighting upon the exposed skin of his arm. He felt only a few bites before they had pumped enough of their natural analgesic into his arm to numb it completely. Now, all he had to do was wait.

• • •

For most of the first year, he had been unable to watch as he was fed upon. Now, it didn't bother him at all. He had even begun to feel a morbid affection for the beetles, almost like that of a shepherd for his flock. A strange symbiotic triangle had formed between him, the beetles, and the anuran woman; he gave the umber criss his blood; they gave her their shit; she gave him a full day's wages for a little over an hour of work. Of course, it was not that simple, but when he looked at it simply he was better able to forget the dark undercurrents that flowed beneath it all. Many unanswered questions still cast shadowy doubts within his mind, and they were all shaped like a bewitching sinister woman, curved seductively across the inside of his skull.

The things he knew always led him to cryptic suspicions. Part of his job, maybe the most important part, was that he keep his mouth shut and tell no one of what he did at the dye works. She had made that excessively clear from the very beginning, explaining that the umber criss were inconceivably rare and valuable, and that she did not want anyone to know she possessed them. He was sure, at least on that point, that she had spoken the truth. A quick perusal of an encyclopedia had verified that. The umber criss were thought to be either extinct or a creature of myth. Aboriginal tribes deep within the marshy anuran jungle still slaughtered a wild boar every summer solstice in a ritual of appeasement to myshsuriss, the cloud of little deaths. It was the last few paragraphs of the article that had tainted the anuran woman's lushness. In the closing years of the last century, when colonization and exploration were the bywords of the day, a dylidaen expedition seeking a lost temple of Ollgossehwed, deep in the jungle's interior, had disappeared without a trace. Two years after they vanished, an archaeologist from the expedition wandered out of the jungle and into an observation post on the Seppherith River. Half dead and struggling with madness, he told the commander of the post a wild and disturbing tale, before succumbing to corfvul fever.

A few months out, the expedition had stumbled on to what they at first thought to be a slave mining camp run by novantian mercenaries, but on closer inspection discovered was something far more hideous. In fine mesh cages of trovl wood, jungle natives were being held captive and fed upon by large parasitic beetles. An attempt by the explorers to free them was thwarted by the well armed mercenaries and the surviving members of the expedition were placed in captivity alongside the natives. Slowly, as the months went by, the archaeologist had watched as those around him, natives and fellow explorers, weakened and died. He reported that for every native that died, many of them women and children, the mercenaries had brought in more, though from where he had no idea. Why they were all being used as livestock for the beetle to feed upon, he could never find a full answer. He did know it had something to do with the beetle's feces, because every morning the mercenaries came and collected the beetle's red dung from the bottom of the cages.

With the final words before his death, he had told of his horrific escape. One morning, mistaking him for dead, the mercenaries had carried him out of the camp and placed him in a large pit filled with the other unfortunates that had expired during the night. After dousing the pit and its contents with sap oil, they tossed in a match and returned to camp. Awakening to the smell of burning flesh, finding himself beneath a pile of corpses, he squirmed his way to safety and escaped into the jungle unseen.

Despite the many subsequent reconnaissance missions the anuran military sent into the jungle in search of the novantian mercenary camp (perhaps hoping to use the existence of the camp as part of the propaganda effort it launched against Novantium in 1694, in preparation for its invasion of Triboli Point, the act of aggression which started the War of Retribution, 1694-1697), no hard evidence was ever found to support the archaeologist's story; the many insect bites found all over his body being attributed to unusually large mosquitoes or marsh flies.

• • •

Time shifted his arm and saw that it was bare. The criss had finished feeding and were now scurrying sluggishly at the bottom of the tank. Slightly dizzy, he stepped backwards, dragging his limp arm out of the tank and letting it fall against his side. He pulled the rubber glove off his left hand, the latex sticking to the round scar on his palm. Massaging his arm and the little bites on his skin, he walked to and knocked at the anuran woman's office door and entered at her request to come in. As had happened on numerous occasions in the past, the image of the anuran woman bent over her desk with her dress pulled up above her waist waiting for him, was shattered by the reality of her seated behind her desk in front of the window. Still lightheaded, he told her the criss had finished feeding. She told him to sit down. He obeyed, sitting opposite her, the desk between them.

As he arranged his left arm in his lap, with his palm down, she cleared her throat. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to let you go. I'm sorry," she said, without a trace of apology.

Taken aback, he looked down at his numb arm and rearranged the fingers of his left hand on his thigh. Finally: "What?"

"These are you're final earnings," she said, sliding a small stack of tentrums across the desktop.

He stared at the money, a quiver of anger running along his jaw. "What?"

When she did not respond, he looked up and gazed at her intently. The slight smile that had been tugging at her lips vanished. The uncertainty and weakness she usually saw in him, the qualities that had caused her to choose him in the first place, had disappeared and she now felt uneasy. She decided she had misjudged him. With a subtle sweep of her hand she edged open the middle drawer of her desk a finger's width. I had hoped I would not have to kill this one, she thought to herself, opening the drawer further. Oh well, I guess the storcheh will have to make another body disappear.

As she slipped her hand into the drawer, Time leaned forward, a short quick motion that somehow hinted at abrupt violence and stopped her from gripping the pistol beneath her fingertips.

"Why?" he said. His voice, no longer a soft force-less thing, made her lean back in her chair, pulling her hand out of the drawer empty.

This was not going at all as she had planned. She scratched the side of her breast through the lustrous red material of her dress, searching for a convenient lie. Finding one, she composed herself, allowing a modicum of false compassion to fill her voice. "The dye works is bankrupt. I have no other options but to shut it down. I am sorry."

The intensity of his focus lessened. His gaze seemed to gyrate inward. He was staring her straight in the eye, something she could not remember him ever doing before, and yet his eyes were unfocused, at the same time staring at a point far in the distance.

He suddenly began to speak in a subdued voice, "But the dye works is a front. The umber criss, they are what brings in the money, their shit." The loss of blood was making itself more strongly felt and his focus was wandering further inward. "Their shit is used to make a dye, a rare dye. But could a pigment be that valuable?" he said dreamily, and then remembering the encyclopedia article: "It was valuable enough in the past to kill for…"

The anuran woman, knowing nothing of the encyclopedia article, grew afraid. How did he know she had killed? Had he been playing her for a fool all this time? Who was he working for? Fat Theodore? Had Fat Theodore decided to betray her? Was he a professional? Was he going to kill her now? Should she take a chance and try for her pistol?

Her mouth suddenly dry, she watched him. He had ceased talking and was staring dazedly at the money on the desktop. Was he toying with her? Having a little fun before the kill?

Time was not having fun. He was sinking. His blood deprived mind was thinking about the empty future before him. He had accepted this job as a self-punishment, hoping it would kill him. But he was still alive, and soon he would be money-less, then homeless, and then who knew what. One thing he wouldn't be was dead. If cowards died a thousand deaths, then he had died a thousand times over. Perhaps that was why death never found him, though he called for it. Being already dead, death had no reason to claim him. Cowards were ghosts. And he was an apparition.

The anuran woman, the tension grown unbearable, was slipping her hand slowly inside the middle drawer. This was nothing like holding a feeble man's head under dye-stained water or blowing the brains out of a drunken wino while he slept. She had felt no fear when doing those things. Now, she was terrified.

As the tips of her fingers touched cold metal, Time awoke from his daze and decided to simply take his money and leave. He stood up quickly, the blood rushed from his head and, suddenly dizzy, he fell against the desk for support. The anuran woman, believing the death blow had come, jerked to the side. Her knee slammed into the middle drawer, closing it upon her hand with great force. Shrieking she jumped up and back, pulling the drawer wide with her injured hand.

Time, leaning over the desk, the dizziness subsiding, reached in the open drawer and lifted the pistol. He backed away, his numb left arm swinging wildly at his side.

"please… please don't kill me," the anuran woman said, real terror distorting her voice.

Time stared at her dumbfounded, with the pistol held before him. Taking this as a bad sign, the anuran woman, on the verge of tears, pleaded with him some more. He did not respond. His vision was blurry. Little dots were popping in his mind.

"I will do anything," she said, lifting her lustrous red dress up her thighs, revealing sheer black panties. The feeling that he had lived through this moment before struck him forcefully. Leering at her, unsuccessfully fighting off an erection, his mind now even less clear, he briefly fell into a fantasy of the next few moments. The fear on her face shook him back to reality. "Why," he said, "What, what's going on?"

The anuran woman let her dress fall into place and backed against the wall, beginning to realize her error. Having already reached the depths of her fear, she quickly rebounded. His voice was once again weak and unsure. Fear had caused her to draw unwarranted conclusions. He was simply a boy, easily dealt with. What had caused her to ever think otherwise?

"I thought you were going to attack me," she said. "I was going to use the gun to make you leave."

Time's head was spinning. He tried to make sense out of the last few minutes. She could be telling the truth. She probably wasn't. Grown unbearably weary, he leaned against the chair beside him. His limbs, like weights, pulled upon him. He wanted only to sleep. To close his eyes and sleep, preferably forever.

There wasn't anything left to do. Nothing mattered anyways. He set the gun down on the edge of the desk and swept the tentrums into his pocket. Recovering the pistol, he backed to the open doorway. He opened his mouth to speak and found he could not draw enough breath to create a sound. He watched her for a moment and then went to the criss room. He grabbed his jacket and seeing the criss tank, he walked forward and placed his hand flat against the glass. Turning away, walking out the door, he felt a twinge almost of sadness, as if he were leaving behind beloved pets. Passing the anuran woman's office, he saw she was still backed in the corner, watching the doorway. He kept walking and headed for the side exit.

Out of the dye works, standing at the top of the stairs with the door closed behind him, he turned and threw the pistol out into the fog, to the rocks far below.

At the bottom of the stairs a figure emerged from around the corner of the building. "Hey mister, can you spare half a tentrum, I'd be much obliged," said a scraggly bearded panhandler, with a patch over one eye.

Time, unfazed by the sudden appearance of the vagrant, reached into his pocket, retrieved a tentrum, and extended it with his right hand. The vagrant took it and buried it somewhere within the folds of his ragged clothes.

"May Fanjis bless you and all your children," said the vagrant, moving away in the direction of Ridge Street.

"Watch out for delivery trucks," Time said, watching the old man hobble down the middle of the road.

The old man kept going and was swallowed by the fog. A moment later his voice drifted back on the wind. "The only delivery truck I watch out for is the one which will deliver me to heaven, all others be damned. But, thanks, mister. May all your wounds be healed. And all your scars redressed."

Staring off at the streetlight punctured fog, Time lifted his benumbed left hand with his right and placed it securely in his left jacket pocket. Stepping out onto the street, he set off for his apartment through the haze shrouded night.

• • •

The anuran woman, upon hearing the side entrance door close, moved to her chair and sat down. She closed the middle drawer of her desk. This had not gone at all as she had planned. She should have simply shot him in the back of the head while he was feeding the umber criss. Why she had ever thought she could allow this one to live was beyond her. Perhaps she had in some small way, over the past year and a half, formed a slight attraction to the boy. Which would explain why, of late, she found herself dressing at her most seductive and the subsequent thrill she received when she felt him watching her, which during the brevity of their time together, was often. It would also explain the curious sense of disappointment she had felt when rebuked for her attempt to offer herself to him in exchange for her life.

She gripped the edge of the desk and then smiled. His response to her appeal to his lust had revealed a morality she suddenly found delicious. If she had gifted herself to him under any other circumstance he would have tore off the wrapping and opened the box with greedy fingers.

Rubbing a finger along the corner of her mouth, she asked herself why she even cared? He was far from the typical men she made use of. She liked handsome men, tall, strong-jawed, well built. None of which he was. In fact, he was more boy than man, at least he had seemed so until this evening. It was because of this brief appearance of man instead of boy, that he would have to die.

She laughed quietly to herself. It would have been interesting to fuck him just once before he died, to see if there was anything to her musings. Or better yet, to kill him while they were fucking, to fire a bullet into the side of his head at the moment of climactic apogee.

No matter. It was useless to cry over unspilt milk. She was going to have to send Fat Theodore after this one, without a doubt. Maybe, if she was persuasive and paid a little more, she could talk F.T. into letting her have an hour or two with the boy before he was killed; or better yet, to be joined the moment they killed him, allowing her to find out what it tasted like when you mingled sex with death.




Chapter 3: The August King Carnival & Delirium Side Show

Sangren

5:01f.d.p. Fantus, 20th of Sedalas, 1777

In the half-light before the coming sunrise, the capitol city of Novantium slumbered, an immense beast preparing to awaken. The Riparus, wide and sluggish, flowed quietly, the buildings hanging over its sides appearing like animals lowering their heads to drink against a dark blue-black sky. North of the river the city was quiet, except for a pocket of noise here and there: the rumble of delivery trucks; dogs barking; the occasional alarm clock sounding from half-opened windows; and the sound of gears grinding on metal. From the Sangren Principal Fairgrounds the latter sound emerged. Amid the muted colors of countless flag topped tents a ferris wheel revolved slowly, empty carriage after empty carriage reaching the apex and then beginning its descent.

At the arrival of an occupied carriage to the greatest attainable height, the gears ground to a halt, leaving the carriage to rock slightly in the wind. One of the figures within the carriage waved to someone below. Doorsnail, the someone below, waved back. Then, stepping away from the ferris wheel's controls, he began stretching out his pudgy arms and legs.

When he deemed himself to be sufficiently limber he straightened up, and as he did so he caught sight of long-legged Annabelle Sky entering the main high wire tent. As she passed within the tent's flaps the interior electric lights shimmered off her hair, bringing a smile to his thick moist lips. The tent flaps closed and she disappeared from sight. Happy to sad to passive, his face altered.

He looked away quickly and with an assured grace began climbing up the metal framework of the ferris wheel.

• • •

As Doorsnail climbed into the carriage, Erastus 'The Bear Man' chuckled. "Took you long enough."

"I had to stretch out."

Erastus smiled, the short fur which covered his face crinkling like velvet around his cheeks. "Annabelle was off to practice early wasn't she."

Doorsnail shrugged and sat on the bench opposite Erastus. He looked to his right at Mortimer Samuel Corrigan 'pound for pound the smartest person in the world.' He was a dwarf suffering from some kind of gigantism which had enlarged his head to the point where it actually looked larger than his torso and legs combined. He wore custom made eyeglasses with tiny round lenses which helped to make his head appear even larger, which was the point since his eyesight was perfect. As Doorsnail looked over at him, Mortimer cleared his throat politely and in a well trained voice, with a slight quibian accent, said: "Erastus has been enlightening us on the secrets to a woman's heart, or more precisely to her underpants."

Rotgut, the man sitting next to Erastus, laughed. He was a thin sick looking fellow with dark rings around his eyes and cuts and scars on his lips and mouth. He held a long wooden staff, twice the length of Mortimer in height, at the end of which was attached a wooden puppet head bearing a loose resemblance to the face of a lion. "Rast says all I need to bag the chicks is the right attitude."

The bear man shook his head. "Damn fuck, Rotgut. I said all you need is confidence, no self-doubt. Then you get charisma and when you get that the woman will fall at your feet and suck your dick. What I'm saying is that the women will go for you if you have total self-confidence. That's what gets them. Look at Stempen. He's so muscled he borders on grotesque. But the bastard has no doubt in anything he does and the women fall all over him. I mean look how Annabelle impales herself on him whenever he wants her to."

Pain flickered across Doorsnail's face.

Erastus grimaced apologetically.

Mortimer coughed into a handkerchief. "Your theories may have some truth in them. But you're overlooking one undeniable fact that changes everything when you enter one of us into the equation. We are abnormal. We are freaks, if you will. Even with huge amounts of self-confidence our chances are slim to nil. To quote Ramelep: That which is unique remains alone."

Erastus laughed. "Maybe so. And do you know what I have to say to that?"

"What?"

"Thank God for whores."

Rotgut snickered. "Man, you can say that again."

• • •

Off to the west, above the dim outline of numberless buildings, and slightly arching hills, and the crests of sharply cut mountaintops, the sun made its way to the sky. All four of the carnival freaks watched in silence.

• • •

When the sun had risen and shed its starker beauty, leaving the surrounding skies a paling blue, Erastus pointed to the puppet in Rotgut's arms. "What's wrong with Lionwood, he hasn't been quiet this long since the time August glued his muzzle shut for calling him a fat-ass."

Rotgut smirked. "I dropped him earlier and a chip of wood got knocked off the back of his head. A real tiny chip. Almost a speck of sawdust. He said a few choice words and then told me I would get what was coming to me. He hasn't opened his muzzle since. I think he's a little peeved."

The bear man laughed. "At least he's quiet."

Doorsnail watched the puppet warily.

• • •

Down below, carnival people were beginning to emerge and set up for the day.

Erastus scratched at the side of his head. "Anyone hear any good jokes lately?"

"The Snakeboy told me one yesterday that was pretty good," Rotgut said.

Erastus grimaced. "It isn't the one about the old farmer is it? He told me that one last week."

"Yeah, it's the one about the old farmer, now shut up and let the others hear it, alright."

The bear man shrugged his shoulders disdainfully.

Rotgut began, "Well, there's this rich old farmer and in anticipation of the spring harvest he hires this new farmhand, a handsome young man. Now, this rich farmer is newly wed to a girl half his age, a marriage his spinster sister is vehemently against. A few weeks later, while the old farmer is in his study figuring out his finances, his sister enters and tells him that his new wife has been unfaithful to him. He asks her how she knows this. She says, 'A few days after you hired that new farmhand, I was in my room and I heard, from the courtyard below, your wife say, Yes, yes, that's it, keep going, keep going, we're almost there. Then the farmhand say, Here it comes, get ready. Then your wife say, Stop, stop, now look what you've done, you've gotten it all over my leg. Then the farmhand say, Sorry I didn't know it would come out so fast. I raced down to the courtyard but they had already gone.'

"The old farmer laughs and says, 'My dear sister, what you were hearing was our new farmhand helping my beloved wife pump water from the well.'

"His sister nods her head and then says, 'Perhaps, but then what of the things I overheard only last week. I was walking past the pig barn and I heard the farmhand say, What do I do now, it smells like fish. Then your wife say, You're a big boy, use your hands, it's fun when you really get into it. Then the farmhand say, Like this. Then your wife say, That's right stick your whole hand in there. Then the farmhand say, You're right this really is fun. I ran around to the front of the pig barn but they had already gone.'

"The old farmer laughs and says, 'My dear sister, what you were hearing was our new farmhand helping my beloved wife slop the pigs.'

"His sister nods her head and then says, 'Perhaps, but then what of earlier this morning when I-'

"The old farmer interrupts her saying, 'When you what, my dear sister, when you heard them doing the laundry or plowing the field or milking the cow?'

"His sister shakes her head and says, 'No, when she was sitting on his lap naked, with her head between my thighs."

They all laughed except for Erastus. "I thought the punchline was: No, when he was fucking me from behind and I had my tongue between her thighs."

"That does sound more like the Snakeboy," Mortimer said.

• • •

"Looks like we've got half an hour," Erastus said, looking at the increasing activity below them. "Hey Snail, write anything new lately?"

Doorsnail thought for a moment and then nodded his head. "A little story."

"Let's hear it."

"I don't think it's ready yet."

"That's what you always say. Come on. Let's have it."

Doorsnail shrugged, pulled a small notepad from his pocket, and began to read:


On Clarissa's first day at the new school she bragged to a girl named Samantha and to a girl named Jill about the two white mice she had gotten for her birthday.

* * *

On her second day at the new school she brought one of the mice to class with her. When she was showing it off to Samantha and Jill, Ronny the Ratfink saw her. He ran over to Mrs. Thomason and finked on Clarissa.

Mrs. Thomason looked like a snake. She had a long neck, was very skinny, and barely had a nose. She even moved like a snake as she slithered over to Clarissa and snatched the mouse in her fist.

"Gimme back my mouse," Clarissa said.

"No," Mrs. Thomason said, walking to the front of the room. "We all know what happens when someone brings a pet into my classroom, don't we?"

"Yes, Mrs. Thomason," all her students (except Clarissa) answered in unison.

Mrs. Thomason nodded her head approvingly, and then ate Clarissa's mouse.

* * *

On Clarissa's third day at the new school she brought her other mouse to class with her. Just as the day before, Ronny the Ratfink ratted on her, and Mrs. Thomason took away her mouse.

"You're not very bright, are you," Mrs. Thomason said to Clarissa.

Clarissa shrugged.

"This one isn't too lively," Mrs. Thomason said, bringing the dangling mouse up to her squinting left eye.

"I call him Sleepy, because he's always sleeping," Clarissa said. "Please, please don't eat him, Mrs. Thomason."

"You know the rules, Clarissa," Mrs. Thomason said, with a gaping smile. "I must do what I must do."

"Please don't," Clarissa said.

Mrs. Thomason tilted back her head and dropped Sleepy between her teeth with a crunch. She chewed twice and swallowed.

"I wish you hadn't done that Mrs. Thomason," Clarissa said, with a growing smile. "I really wish you hadn't."

"And why is that, Clarissa?" Mrs. Thomason asked. "And why in heavens name are you smiling?"

"Because, Mrs. Thomason, this morning I fed Sleepy a whole bunch of poison with his mouse pellets," Clarissa said.

Mrs. Thomason's throat constricted. She tore at her neck and face with her fingernails. She fell to the floor and expired.

Ronny the Ratfink leapt up from his chair. "I'm telling," he screamed.

Clarissa tripped him as he passed by her. His head hit the floor with a loud crack. She lifted a can of lighter fluid from her pocket and flipped off the lid. She doused Ronny the Ratfink from head to toe. She struck a match. She placed it on Ronny the Ratfink's head.

For a moment, before he was engulfed in flames, Ronny the Ratfink wore a wig of fire. Clarissa thought it suited him well.


Doorsnail looked up from his notepad expectantly. Erastus patted him on the shoulder and said with a smile: "Where do you come up with this stuff. You know you're sick in the head, right."

Mortimer Samuel Corrigan was chuckling softly.

Rotgut was laughing his hard torn laugh. "You're twisted, Snail."

Doorsnail smiled happily. The sun was up higher now and he wiped a few drops of sticky sweat from off his forehead. Abruptly, he stopped smiling. Terror filled him as he watched the wooden lion puppet's jaw-muzzle begin to open. He cringed and prepared himself.

The voice that echoed out from the puppet's muzzle was harsh and caustic. "Pathetic. More pathetic than I have come to expect from all of you, the righteous king's of pathetic courtliness. Are you trying to be kind in your attempts to praise this sticky one's poorly strung together words or are you simply mocking him? For surely even you simple minded half-wits can see he deserves only mockery. Or are you less intel...lig...en..."

They all watched silently, surprised the puppet had ceased speaking of its own volition, as they usually had to stop it forcibly or with threats of fire.

The silence grew and then something strange happened.

The puppet's eyelids began sliding up and down with a clicking like an epileptic clock. The violence of the rhythm soon escalated and then, as if on cue, the eyelids slid upwards and stopped moving. The jaw-muzzle dropped open and hung slack.

Rotgut held the puppet a little away, staring at it sharply. "Fuck," he said. "It looks like we're going to get one hell of a prediction."

The puppet's right inner eyelid opened slowly revealing a bright white glowing from within. Rotgut jerked backwards. The light, strong and mesmerizing, steadily grew in intensity like a star exploding. Then it died away and the inner eyelid slid closed.

Rotgut shook the puppet gently and then looked up. "Have any of you ever seen him do that before?"

Doorsnail, remembering, bit his tongue.

The puppet's jaw-muzzle opened and closed, opened and closed, as if it were tasting the air. "Something catastrophic has happened," it said.

Silence.

Erastus tried to laugh. "What the fuck are you talking about?"

"I am talking about the end of the world." Silence. "Or the return of an old one."

Silence.

"Boy, Lionwood. You sure know how to ruin a nice day."




Chapter 4: Austere, Ahstyr

somewhere high in the northwestern range of the Eldaurgren Mountains

7:49f.d.p. Fantus, 20th of Sedalas, 1777

The cold metallic ringing of the minaret bell shook the high priest from his meditation. Disturbed by this unusual lack of concentration he opened his eyes slowly, waiting for them to adjust to what little light there was in the domed chamber around him. Looking up, from where he sat on the rough hewn floor, he saw a pale blue-grey light filtering reluctantly through the clerestory windows. He decided that the sun was up and covered by a cloudy sky. For many moments he watched the stone walls around him. Everything was tainted blue. He could taste the dry cold wind that whispered across the stone. He shut down sense after sense. He wiped his mind clean.

• • •

Again he was lackawine and his eyes were opened. The aroma of a blown out match newly struck with fire filled his nostrils. Down the aisle of stone pews, above the altar of her that brings release, a light blossomed. A perfect rectangle of white, as a door was shaped. He threw himself upon his knees and prostrated himself. As her hand broke the shimmer of white, he wept. With blurry eyes he watched as she stepped fully upon the altar, a beautiful angular form clad in blue so dark it appeared black. In one hand she spun two metal spheres and when she stopped them with her thumb the door of light behind her dissolved.

Like a bird, sleek and feather-born, she leapt down before the altar. Across the stones she approached him. Her eyes, the only part of her not covered with cloth, were completely black, almost insect-like. She stopped an arms length from him and he wept.

Beautiful with cruelty her voice caressed him. "All these years and you still wait."

He wept.

Her arm rose upward and swept the cloth from her head.

He wept with joy at the sight of her pale, hairless white skin tinged with blue. And then he remembered what he had been taught for long hours during his apprenticeship so long ago. The words he was to say and the gift he was to present.

"I wait as a child, as a creature old with loss, old with mourning. With down-turned hands I offer up the one who imprisoned you."

Her voice curled a spiral around him, joyful. "You have him. You mean he is here. This is beyond compare. Father will never believe…" She drew her finger across the side of her hairless scalp. "Where?"

"In the highest tower, sedate and unmoving."

She shed the cloth that bound her in a flutter of unraveling blue, her naked skin shimmering.

"You, and the many before you, have served me better than I ever dared hope. Even through my long absence. I reward you as I rewarded those of your distant forebears who served me well."

The high priest wept as she lifted the robe from off his wizened frame, careful not to touch his bare skin. His heart faltered and he tasted blood on his tongue. Already he was succumbing to the poison that was to be near her.

Her lips were blue.

Her nipples blue.

Her lips were blue as she lowered herself upon him. At the first touch his heart stopped, and as he released inside her, his last breath issued from past his lips to blow warmly on the cold skin between her breasts.

• • •

In the northeastern tower, standing in a short corridor before an archway open to the sky, two mortyrites spoke, an initiate and an acolyte, while looking out past the sheer drop to the valley far below.

Initiate: "Have you ever seen him wakened?"

Acolyte: "Never. Though I once saw his left arm stir when the brother on watch before me miscalculated the dosage. I am proud to say that always when I am on watch you could stick a needle in his ear and he wouldn't shift an eyelash. He is drugged to the gills."

Initiate: "Do you…."

Acolyte: "Go ahead, boy, ask it, they all do."

Initiate: "Do you really believe he is a god? I mean, he doesn't look like much."

Acolyte: "I'll tell you this much. He has not aged a day since I first viewed him, what, some thirty years ago. Now I'm not sure if that makes him a god, but it sure don't make him a normal man. If you know what's good for you, you'll not say a word of doubt when the high priest is anywhere near. He has the ears of a cat and can strike just as quickly."

Initiate: "I understand."

Acolyte: "Now, can you tell me whether it is an eastday or a westday? These damn clouds hide the slightest trace of the sun, and I am sure it has risen."

Initiate: "I think west, I remember watching the sun set across the valley yesterday, I think. Or was that the day before. No, it was yesterday, I'm sure. Fairly sure."

Acolyte: "I think you're right. Westday it is. Hmm. All these clouds look like rain. Remind me to close the library windows when our watch is ove…"

Their goddess appeared unclad before them on the balcony, silhouetted against a dark grey sky. The acolyte dropped to his knees. The initiate stood without movement. The goddess, naked white flesh phosphorescing in the gloom, walked between them. As she passed, the initiate, eyes wide, reached out without thinking and touched her softly on the shoulder, testing her reality. Before she had taken another step, he was lying on the floor, his eyes wide, but not from amazement.

At the far end of the corridor she stopped before an iron door. Tugging at the latch she found it locked. She turned around gracefully. "The key?"

The acolyte, with shaking hands, pulled a large metal key from his pocket and turning, shuffling on his knees, he extended his hand upwards, keeping his eyes upon the floor.

"Hand it to me. Do not be afraid."

The acolyte rose slowly and watched his feet as they took him to her. Stopping at arms length, he again offered her the key.

As she took the key from him, instinct jerked his hand away. "Lift up your eyes," she said. "Do you fear my touch?"

The acolyte looked up and stuttered, his nose beginning to bleed. "I… I both fear and… desire it."

"The young one, however brazen, allowed his desire to conquer his fear."

The acolyte's heart stopped and with a vice like pain recommenced with a fast staccato beat. "Forgive me," he said. "I do not think he ever truly believed, until… he was falling."

"And over all these years did you always believe?"

"Not always, no," he said, his vision blurring. "But most of the time… I did. When it mattered most I did. When I was so alone, so alone that the pain in my heart was unbearable, then I believed stronger than I ever believed in anything else."

Emortir smiled. Ones like the acolyte, ones who had truly felt the isolation, the bitter loneliness, eased her anger and faded her cruelty. She spoke softly. "Do you wish my touch or do you wish to live on? I give you this choice."

"Your touch," he asked.

And received.

• • •

The iron door opened on well-oiled hinges. The cell was small; the walls lined with rusted steel. In the center was a stone altar upon which a short man lay recumbent, motionless. Emortir laughed quietly. "You should never have shown us even the possibility of leniency, but even without the heart we gave you, you were still a man bound by the laws of justice. A fool."

She stepped forward with her hand extended.

A gunshot echoed in the corridor behind her. She turned around slowly. A hunchbacked man with a disfigured face stood on the balcony with a gun pointed at the sky.

She stepped back into the corridor, her voice lowered to a whisper. "Littendur, is that you?"

"Yes, it is me. Have I grown even more misshapen over these millennia. Move away from him. Emortir. Do not make me hurt you. You know I have never wished to do that," the hunchback said, pointing the gun at her reluctantly. "In fact you know I have ever only wished to ease your sorrow."

Emortir's voice became wrathful. "Is that why you helped him to imprison me. To ease my sorrow. Do you know the torture I have endured for the past two millennia? He deserves to have blood leaking from all his pores. That will ease my sorrow. Nothing else." She took a step backwards, towards the cell.

Littendur fired. The bullet struck her above her right collar bone and knocked her against the wall. Recovering quickly, she leapt through the cell door, reaching for the comatose man upon the altar. The second bullet caught her in her right temple and she crumpled to the ground.

Littendur hurried forward and knelt beside her, his face contorted into a torturous mask. Both places where she had been hit were bruised and turning a dark purple. He reached out his hand a hairsbreadth from her shoulder. A long forgotten prickling swelled across his fingers and palm. He pulled his hand away. Tiny droplets of blood were squeezing out from the pores in his skin, all the way up to his wrist. A lump formed in his throat and his eyes welled with tears. With an effort he moved away to the altar, removing a syringe from his pocket. After sticking the needle in the short man's arm and depressing the plunger he stepped back.

Within seconds the man began to stir. Groggily his eyes opened. He saw the man standing at his side. "Littendur…"

"Yes, Daurgren."

"The date? What is the date?"

When Littendur told him, he covered his face with his hands. "Then I am too late," he said. "They are released and the stone is theirs. What have I done."

"Nothing yet," Littendur said, helping him rise. "For now we must escape this place, she will awaken soon. But know this: the stone is not theirs. At this very moment, it travels. And I alone, aside from the one who sent it on its way, know of its final destination with absolute surety."

The short man rubbed his eyes. Upon seeing Emortir sprawled across the threshold of the cell door, he said: "It seems once again I owe you a debt I will not be able to repay. Though, I hope this time I at least make an attempt to."

Littendur, helping the short man to step carefully past the unclad figure, tried to hide the sorrow on his face. "Hurry, we must away, or both our days are less than numbered. We have much to do, and time may be against us."

Stepping out upon the balcony, Littendur pulled a pair of metal spheres from his pocket and began spinning them in the palm of his right hand. The air became electric and a door of white opened before them. They both stepped through and a moment later the doorway vanished.




Chapter 5: Puzzles

Divers Island

10:37f.d.p. Fantus, 20th of Sedalas, 1777

Lieutenant Inspector Liemon Werl had seen many dead bodies during his long tenure in the service of the Diveran Constabulary; but up until he stepped through the dock front warehouse on the island's west side, he had never seen such a massive amount of slaughter.

"What a mess, eh, Inspector," a uniformed walkabout said, gesturing with the cigarette in his hand and blowing smoke into the sunlight streaming through the open warehouse doors.

The Inspector nodded his head and continued past.

He moved forward slowly, studying, taking care not to tread on the fresh human remains or the puddles of blood that were strewn in great quantities across the entire warehouse floor. One thought kept repeating over and over in his mind, stopping all further conjecture. What, in the name of Fanjis, could have happened here.

"Inspector?"

The Inspector looked up into the puzzled face of the coroner.

"This is a bad one," the coroner said.

The Inspector nodded his head, and then asked: "How many bodies are there?"

"Well, that's hard to say," the coroner said, scratching at his head. "On an offhand guess I'd say fifteen. But, until we get them all to the morgue and piece them back together it would be impossible to know for sure. And that's going to take some time. I mean, this is going to be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. No, it's going to be like putting together fifteen or sixteen or seventeen jigsaw puzzles with all the pieces from all the puzzles mixed in the same box. If all the pieces are here."

Once again Lieutenant Inspector Liemon Werl found himself contemplating what possible events had occurred to lead to such a brutal tableau. And for the first time in all his years of investigating, he was not so sure he wanted to be the one who was supposed to find out.




Chapter 6: Burn

Sangren

11:15f.d.p. Fantus, 20th of Sedalas, 1777

Becky Townsan combed her shoulder length blonde hair. Then in quick succession, she brushed her teeth, put on some reddish orange lipstick, and took a birth control pill. After swallowing the little white capsule, she laughed at herself in the bathroom mirror, wondering why she had even bothered. She hadn't been out on a date in more than four months. She studied her face in the bathroom mirror. The problem wasn't there. Her face was as pretty as ever. She smoothed down the blouse she was wearing and arched her back, jutting out her breasts. The problem wasn't there either. She turned around slowly, looking over her shoulder. After a moment of contemplation, she realized the problem was not physical, she was as fit and trim as she'd ever been.

In fact, now that she thought about it, her recent stretch of isolation had been largely self imposed. She was propositioned at least as often as she had been in the past. She just wasn't accepting the invitations. Handsome men whom, before she came to the city, she would have jumped at or on, had now somehow lost their luster. She wondered if she had simply become jaded. If she had been burned so many times she was now afraid to even strike a match.

She was not apprehensive without reason. Recalling her last relationship, she shuddered. At the first appearance of the whips and blindfolds she had made her exit. The final words he had said, as she walked out the door, still disturbed her. Perhaps she should have known from the first moment they met that they were destined to be incompatible. The instant he told her he was a litigation attorney for a large corporation, she should have excused herself politely and hastened away.

As offensive as he had become, he had not been the worst of her past romantic entanglements. He had simply frightened her and dimmed her view on humanity, he had not broken her heart as so many of the others had. Some time before him, at a point she could not specify, she had withdrawn her heart and encased it somewhere safe inside where others could not reach; perhaps, she thought despondently, where no one would ever reach again.

Walking out of the bathroom, she tried to shake off the melancholy of the past few moments. Catching sight of the clock on the wall, she quickly grabbed her purse and keys. She had less than ten minutes to arrive at work. Today, and the rest of the week, she worked a split shift; 11:30 till 2:30, then 7:00 till midnight.

After locking her apartment door, she ran down the hall and took the elevator to the parking garage below the building. Pulling her car up and out into traffic, she headed east down 22nd Street. Catching the first stoplight, she leaned over the steering wheel and looked through the windshield, up at the sky. It was a cloudy day, threatening rain. Watching the dark clouds move across the sky, their gloomy depths pierced by the taller buildings on either side of the street, she felt her melancholy return. Do all matches come from the same matchbox, she wondered.




Chapter 7: A Nice Mourning

Time Rath: Interior Monologue

I awaken to a fragile world. I am utterly alone. I wish my heart had stopped while I slept. I close my eyes to keep from shattering.

• • •

I open my eyes. The world is still paper-glass-thin. I shiver. If I move, everything will splinter. And fall in shards around me. I lay still. I close my eyes slowly.

• • •

I open my eyes. As I try to grasp at the reality of my surroundings, I stare about from where I lay, half tangled in a single blanket, on a thin mattress that rests upon the bare floor. I study the decrepit one room apartment in which I have spent the last two years of my life. I try to reassure myself with its solidity. With its squalid familiarity.

The walls, in most places, are covered with wallpaper so begrimed, the pattern which lies beneath is obscured and hidden. The pattern itself, where it shows through, is an old design in black against a congested yellow background. This pattern has plagued me from the moment I first laid eyes upon it. It is a pattern full of watchful menace, the curves and loops repeated legion, beneath a mask of stains and dirt. Though I have told myself innumerable times that I am letting my imagination get the better of me, the patterns assemble into tiers of sinister abstract-lined faces, scrutinizing my every movement. Even now they watch. But they are just lines, just patterns, given life by the cowardice of my mind.

I look away to the east wall of my room at a window covered by discolored blinds. Through the cracks, I can see it is an overcast day. A gloomy day.

I look to the west wall of my room. The entire wall is barren except for the front door and its many locks and chains, and a small trashcan in the corner.

I look to the south wall of my room and my study in decrepitude is brought to a halt. Above the desk, hanging on the wall, is the one drawing I drew that did not deserve to be burned, that just barely merited the frame in which it rested. I drew it two years ago. I have not drawn anything since.

I bring my left hand up to my face and contemplate the round scar upon the palm. This is the only thing I need to know, about myself and the world.

• • •

Solidity reinstates itself. The precipice recedes. I can move and the world will not shatter.

I get up slowly. The clock reads 12:14. I have four days until the rent is due. Counting what the anuran woman gave me last night, I have twenty four tentrums inside my jacket pocket. The future looks bright.

• • •

I open a can of soup and begin to eat.

A loud banging starts coming from the neighboring apartment. My drawing goes crooked. I can hear angry yelling. Suddenly the banging and yelling stops. I wonder if the police will be coming again. Maybe this time they will be coming for me. Maybe the anuran woman was telling the truth. The dye works was bankrupt and she was closing it down. Maybe she's disposed of the umber criss and has called the police. But what had I really done?

From the wall, a muffled yell, footsteps.

I become very still. Trapped. Room collapsing inwards. Footsteps above me. Boards creaking. I try and breathe quieter. I do not move.

I cannot breathe, I need air.

I go to the window and start to lift the blinds. But the old fears take hold and my hand is paralyzed. I can feel them waiting for the blinds to rise. I back away.

Dizzy. Mouth dry. I try to swallow, my throat tightens. I choke, cough noisily.

In the bathroom, the faucet. I try to drink water from my cupped hands. I splash my face and try to regain control. But there is no control. I am surrounded and confined. I wish I was far away. But no place is far enough away.

The yelling starts up again louder than before. I need to get out of here. Out of this box. Out of this city.

The yelling has stopped. In an ominous silence I dress quickly, knowing they can hear my every movement. As I try to smooth down my hair, my appearance in the bathroom mirror makes my stomach sick.

I pull on my jacket and take a last look around the room. This place has never been safe, never given me a true moments peace, never been enough of a barrier, despite my attempts to give it structure. I grab my drawing from off the wall and set it on the bed. I pull my backpack from the bottom drawer of my desk and begin to fill it with the stuff I can't leave behind. The binder full of my pathetic writings; a few of my favorite books; my sketchpads and small tin box of drawing supplies which I have not used for so long; a change of clothes; and four cans of vegetable soup. The pack is full. The rest I will have to leave. I shoulder the pack and lift the drawing from off the bed.

I walk quietly to the door and listen intently for anyone in the hall beyond. It is silent. As always, obsessively, uncontrollably, I tap the wall simultaneously on both sides of the door, then unbolt the line of locks. I open the door slowly, making sure the hall is empty. I step into the hall. I close the door. I lock the door. I move quickly towards the stairwell, wondering why I bothered to lock the door when I will not be returning. But I know why. I locked the door because I know I will not escape. I will end up back here. You can't escape hell, especially one you belong in, one that you created yourself.




Chapter 8: A Doomed Accountant's Journal

blue ink in a green journal

Fat Theodore said today something cryptic. I was working in that enormous library of his (full of books he has never read) tallying out the daily expenditures, or at least the ones he deems it fit not to hide from my eyes, trying to figure out how to make his money clean, and he walked past the library door with that strange man he calls Agan. They must have stopped a little past the door because his coarse voice came echoing towards me clearly, "... I don't know what he's up to, the bastard. I've already bought off three of the people on the team. They haven't reported anything useful so far. I know he's after something important. He wouldn't have spent that much money on the technology for that submersible simply because he was interested in archaeology. The only history he's interested in is his own. I think it's time I finish this. I've waited too long. No one tries to blow me the fuck up. Tries to kill me. Kills one of my favorite girls, what was her name… Ellen… Elli… Elise, yeah Elise, Elise. Man what a cunt that girl had. No one does that and goes unpunished. I mean he blew her all to hell and if I had been on time I would have been blown all to hell with her. That fucker has no honor. Four people died in that blast, did you know that, and one of them was only a tiny baby. Goddamn, a little baby, Fanjis bless it. I think its time we hit him, hit him hard. No more trying to be subtle, no more worrying about how he's got half the government in his pocket and the rest of the storcheh scared shitless. It churns my belly that he's still alive, that he made me back down. Its time we pulled out the hardware, got all the boys together, went straight at him, and put one in his fucking head-" Then one of them, probably Agan, noticed the library door was ajar and slammed it shut. I heard nothing more. The rest of the time I was there, until I finished off my work, his words seemed to whisper around that cavernous room, and I thought of my danger.

* * *

I have just returned from checking up on my secret bank accounts in Forsentheu. I went to the National Trust Bank south of the river near Tolpin Plaza. I took three cabs to get there and in between the second and third cabs I walked through the Fifth Street open air markets, and I am fairly sure I was not followed. The bank was not very crowded and when I crossed the wide lobby floor I could not help feeling a bit conspicuous. But once I was inside one of the computer terminal booths and had drawn the curtain I felt my heart begin to calmly slow. And after I inputted my account information and passwords, and my total balance appeared on the screen I began to feel that inner joy that makes all my risks worth while. I left the bank with a smile and the knowledge that the weeks I had left before leaving for paradise could be counted off on my left hand.

* * *

I ate dinner at that cafe on the corner, the one with the gaudy trilateral designs mockingly displayed across the front cornice. The service was terrible, but that was not what disturbed me most about my short stay there. Halfway through an unpalatable portion of overcooked stemerla, a large dog, so large in fact that I at first mistook it for a karkajan, appeared from somewhere in the darkening shadows across the street. Having thought it would be nice to eat outside on one of the sidewalk tables and watch the stars come into being, I found myself face to face with this beast. With my usual ill luck, the cold wind that had been blowing in from the sea had driven inside those few who had braved the chill as had I. Alone, with the beast standing a few steps from my table, I looked back towards the cafe windows, thinking I could motion for the waiter or catch some vigilant customer's attention, and thus find some ally to drive the beast away. With an eerie feeling of dread I saw that the place seemed to be empty, filled only with a sickly yellow light that brought a shiver to my spine. When I turned back to the beast I was given quite a shock as the devil had somehow climbed its way into the chair opposite me and was watching my shaking form with a quiet menace. Long moments passed as it studied me, its eyes betraying what to me felt like an intelligence beyond its capabilities, but that was surely just something I imagined, something brought on by weariness. A howl echoed between the buildings down the street and the beast leapt from the chair and bounded off into the shadows, reappearing in the cone of light from the first streetlight, disappearing in shadows, reappearing in the light from the second streetlight; and so on until the light from the seventh streetlight which it never entered. I rose quickly, placed an ample amount of money on the table, kept myself from looking, even out of the corner of my eye, at the cafe and its corrupted light, and hurried off home in the opposite direction the beast had disappeared into. I am calm now, though it took me a long time to become so. Also, the tumbler full of Gut-Eater and the seven Red Trippers I popped should not be overlooked, as they become more and more my best and most trusted friends. The walls are beginning to wave. I think I had better lay down and try to sleep.

* * *

I awoke this morning feeling confident and seeing as I had no clients to attend to and my entire day was free, I decided to visit Isobel. I dressed and arranged myself meticulously, combing my greying hair as I use to when I was young. The walk there was pleasant, mostly because as I went I played a childish game wherein whenever I saw a bird, I swallowed a Red Tripper. The final number of pills totaled twenty three.

When I arrived, Isobel's hand was poking from the ground in front of her gravestone and I had to scold her repeatedly until she reluctantly drew it back under the earth. After I had smoothed out and gently stamped down the little mound of dirt she had caused to rise, we had a warm-hearted conversation that passed away the time like good wine. So engrossed was I in our conversation that I had not even noticed that the sky had clouded over darkly and that it was beginning to rain. I quickly whispered my good-byes into the earth and hurried my way down the steep, winding, gravestone lined paths of Memorial Hill, into the rain splattered streets that surrounded it. Halfway home I began to hear the howling of the wild dogs. First to my right, then to my left, then behind me, and finally before me. When I pulled open the lobby door I swear they were at my very heels, but after I had shut the door and built up the courage to turn and face them, I saw through the wet glass only an empty street glistening in the rain.

* * *

I have not written for a while, but today I write with renewed vigor. My reputation must be growing. Erskine Caldwell, quite probably the richest man in Sangren, wishes to meet with me regarding an unspecified matter of some importance. One of his secretaries called me around noon and set up a meeting for next week. I spent the next few hours attempting to decipher the cause for this upcoming engagement, to no avail.

* * *

I did not sleep at all last night. Incessantly, the howling of the wild dogs kept my eyes from closing.

* * *

I received a telephone call earlier this evening that has been bothering me unceasingly. It was from Fat Theodore, he wants to meet with me the day after tomorrow. I am not scheduled to work on his books until the end of the month. I think the crow has finally been caught stealing from the ice fisherman's lines. I am surprised he tipped his hand so sloppily, I had thought him more cunning. Today is the day. The time has come for me to use that ticket to Forsentheu, and retreat to the safety of the Anuran Jungle, the curve of native women, hidden paradise, and forgetting. My steamer trunk is already halfway packed and my only regret is that there will be no time for me to say goodbye to Isobel. But perhaps it is better this way. And perhaps in the drowsy jungle I can forget her. I hope she will forgive me.

* * *

The wild dogs will not permit me to leave. I was halfway down the hallway outside my apartment door when the elevator slid open revealing the remains of Fred the elevator operator and the cause of his demise. Two wild dogs, as large as the one which confronted me outside the café, sat licking their bloodied muzzles, watching me, awaiting me. I quickly raced back to my apartment and locked the door. It took three quarters of a bottle of Gut-Eater to calm my nerves enough to allow me to put pen to paper and here record what occurred.

* * *

I have taken to sleeping in the day, waiting for the falsely reassuring morning light to stream through the windows before placing my weary head upon the pillow. During the night I become vigilant. I hear the wild dogs come out onto the streets below and begin their prowling, and when they discover a victim, a vagrant sleeping in the gutter, a lady of the night selling her charms, or a young couple on their way home from the late picture show, I hear their triumphant howls echoing victory off of the concrete, brick, and stone.

Other things I hear also, things whispered, vague, and indistinct, that bring with them an unsettling fear of the unknown.

* * *

I have not left my apartment in I am not sure how many days. I am running out of pharmaceuticals. I must have missed my appointment with Fat Theodore by many days. I think I will try and leave again tomorrow. Yes, definitely tomorrow. No doubt about it. Or perhaps the day after.

* * *

There is a scratching at the door, they've come, Oh god, there is a scratching at the door




Chapter 9: Slapstick Veritas

Sangren

2:13s.d.p. Fantus, 20th of Sedalas, 1777

When Time Rath reached the Bridge of Giants, his plan, his ill-formed notion, to head north and keep heading north until he left the city, began to fall apart in his mind. All my plans collapse at a glance, he thought. This did not stop him from continuing on his way up the ancient megalithic stones of the pedestrian-only bridge. He would keep walking until his legs failed him.

He passed a small mob of chattering tourists with vacant eyes and laughing mouths. The arch of the bridge levelled and he could see, past the far building lined shore, above the apartment buildings and office buildings and skyscrapers, the mountains reaching alone into the cloudy grey sky.

• • •

At the bridge's far end he stopped and leaned on the wide stone balustrade. He was calm now. Worn out. And cold. It didn't matter where he went. It was all the same.

Happiness lasts as long as a string to sever,
Sadness a dark forever.

Distant thunder rolled far to the west above the sea. Earlier in the morning, when he had first stepped from his apartment building onto the street, the skies had been torn with long thin threads of white cloud. Now those threads had woven themselves into a massive blanket of dark billowing grey with here and there a few small cuts of pale blue sky.

A gentle breeze blew into his face bringing the smell of wet pavement from somewhere in the city. He tilted his head back and breathed in deeply. A few errant drops of rain splashed on his upturned face. He looked down at the river far below and, as he lowered his head, a shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds and fell across the large balcony terrace of a building that hung over the river on the near bank, glimmering off the many red and white umbrellas that were perched there. Against the huge expanse of threatening clouds, piled higher and higher across the horizon, the brilliant colors of the sunlit umbrellas seemed to radiate an undying warmth.

The wind blew colder and he shivered. He was numb and looking at the sun upon the terrace he wanted to be there with the warmth on his skin. The terrace looked to be part of a restaurant, and though he loathed the claustrophobia they instilled in him when they were filled with people, this one looked empty.

Knowing the gap in the clouds would soon close, ending the warmth, he rushed towards the end of the bridge, to the street below.




Chapter 10: Prey

Sangren, The Riverside Bar & Grill

2:25s.d.p. Fantus, 20th of Sedalas, 1777

Becky Townsan finished wiping clean a table just as the front door opened hesitantly, admitting a thin young man. At first she mistook him for one of the vagrants that slept under the bridge and sometimes came begging for food at the restaurant's back door. On second glance she realized, scruffy though he appeared, he was more likely a poor student or, when she saw the picture frame in his hands, a struggling artist, of which in this city there were many.

He took three steps forward, noticed the sign saying please wait to be seated, stopped, started to walk forward and then stopped again. Becky smiled. He moved like an unsure child. "Where would you like to sit?" she asked.

He looked up, met her eyes briefly and looked out at the terrace. "Out there?" he said quietly.

"Sure. Go ahead and pick a table and I'll go get you a menu, alright?"

He smiled insecurely and nodded his head, already moving away. He pulled on the glass door to the terrace, when you had to push it open, and embarrassed he stumbled when he finally stepped outside.

Becky laughed quietly and retrieved a menu from behind the bar, yelling to the cook that they had a customer.

When she stepped out onto the terrace she saw the thin man sitting as far from the door as was possible, at a table at the railing with his chair pulled out from under the umbrella, the sun falling upon him. She wondered why he had chosen to sit so far out, thinking perhaps it was because he wanted to watch her as she walked to and from the table. This was not thought in pure vanity as she was quite pretty and often felt eyes upon her.

A few steps from the table he glanced around and she smiled and handed him the menu. He took it anxiously, mumbling something that sounded like thank you. He held the menu in his right hand and she noticed it was shaking just a little. His left hand was in his jacket pocket. His backpack was resting on one of the adjacent chairs and the picture frame he had been holding was face down on the far side of the table.

He looked up and in a hushed dry voice asked for a plate of potato wedges and a glass of water. She smiled and said she would be back in a few minutes. Then she held out her hand for the menu. He stared at her for a moment, realized what she wanted, and then clumsily handed it to her. She smiled and turned away slowly, walking back across the terrace. Re-testing her theory, she glanced around to see if he watched her, but he was facing the other way.

• • •

Walking back over the terrace, with a plate of potato wedges and a glass of water, she watched the thin man. From the uneasy stillness of his posture she could tell he knew she was coming. Again, when she was a few steps from him he turned around.

"Here it is," she said, placing his order on the table.

"Thank you," he said, in a voice so quiet she read his lips more than actually heard him.

She smiled and moved away, but not back towards the inside of the restaurant. She got off work in a few minutes and the manager had asked her to wind down the umbrellas on the terrace, as it looked like a storm was coming and he didn't want to lose any over the side as they had the month before. She started with the umbrellas on the far end of the terrace, working her way back towards the end where the thin man sat.

• • •

On the next to last umbrella, the last being the one at the thin man's table, the crank stuck and she could not wind the umbrella down.

"Excuse me," she said, to the thin man's back. He seemed not to hear her, even though she stood close enough to reach out and tap him on the shoulder. "Excuse me," she said again. This time he lifted his head and turned around slowly.

She smiled and gestured at the umbrella beside her. "Could you help me with this? The lever's stuck."

He stood up clumsily, knocking the chair back against the railing. "I'll try," he said, his left hand in his jacket pocket.

He moved to the far side of the table, away from her, under the shade of the umbrella. He gripped the crank with his right hand and put his weight against it. It would not turn. He tried again, with the same result.

"Here," she said. "Maybe if we both try at the same time." She placed her hand over his, feeling it tense beneath her palm. She pushed; the tendons on the back of his hand tightening against her skin. The crank gave and wound a quarter of a turn. Task accomplished, she felt him try to meekly pull his hand away, and perhaps because of this she held it tighter, forcing him to continue turning the crank beneath her fingers. The umbrella rhythmically folded inward.

"Almost there," she said, wondering at the pleasure she was getting from this tiny act of domination. I've become a sadist, she thought to herself. She looked over at the man she was, however trivially, enforcing her will upon. He was watching her with a curious intensity. He had a rather ordinary face, a bit gaunt and melancholy. His hair was short and unruly, and he hadn't shaved in a couple of days. He probably was an artist, she thought. A starving artist, no doubt deservedly so. He looked lonely, like he lived a solitary isolated life. She let go of his hand, feeling sorry for what she had done.

He pulled his hand away. The umbrella was almost completely folded. He tilted his head to the side and looked past her up at the sun.

For a moment she was dizzy. The Red Tripper the cook had offered her while she was eating lunch, had finally started to hit her. It made the thin man's face appear tragic, almost beautiful, bathed in halos of light. She closed her eyes. She grabbed the side of the table and took a deep breath. A long moment passed. She was afraid to open her eyes. Afraid she would be looking over the edge of a cliff at a field of stars. Find herself dropping though space into a depthless sea.

"Are you okay?" she heard a voice saying. A hand gently encircled her wrist.

She opened her eyes. The thin man was staring at her. There was real sadness on his face, but most of the beauty had vanished. "I think… I just need a second to rest," she said.

The thin man helped her to a chair beside his table and she sat down. Unnerved by the way he stood there watching her, she said, with a little more venom than she had intended, "Sit down, for god's sake. You're making me nervous."

He pulled his chair back from the railing and sat down. Not wanting to look at him, she studied the table and the things upon it. His plate of potato wedges was untouched, the glass of water half full. She reached out and ran her finger along the back of the picture frame. "Is this something you did?"

Out of the corner of her eye she saw him nod his head.

"Can I have a look?" she asked.

After a moment of silence he said, "Sure."

She lifted it in her hands, flipping it over. She was pleasantly surprised. It wasn't horrible, as she thought it would be. A pen and ink drawing of a stylized landscape, with a small silhouetted figure standing on a hill before the setting sun. It was a strange picture. It made her think of endings, of things closing down. She decided she liked it, though she didn't know why. She turned towards him. "It reminds me of a painting I saw in a museum once," she said, dreamily.

He smiled, his true smile she thought, not the one she had seen before. This smile was different. His entire face changed. The timid awkwardness disappeared, replaced with a sad charming glow.

She felt the sun on the back of her neck dwindle and then fade. Shadow claimed the terrace and began eating away at a patch of sun-dappled river below. She watched the thin man's face change. He was staring above her, where the sun had been, with an expression of sadness and loss that at first embarrassed her and then made her feel actual sorrow within her chest.

He closed his eyes and in a quiet voice said, "It's cold." He drew his hand across his brow, and then opened his eyes.

She smiled warmly, the melancholy that enmeshed him tugging gently at a part of her she found she liked. "You should see the painting your drawing reminds me of," she said, watching as something crumbled within him, leaving a fragile child in its wake. "It's right here in Sangren, in that museum across from the Guntern, the Neyksbeyg I think it's called. Have you ever been there?"

His eyes met hers briefly and then he looked down at the table. "I… no, I haven't, I… I always meant to… but…"

A strange attraction made her want to reach out and grasp his hand, then stroke it gently. There was an innocence about him that was not derived from ignorance. She felt like she could read his every thought and emotion. That he was stripped bare and naked before her, possessing none of the walls and barriers that others erected and then hid behind. He was defenseless and part of her wanted to protect him, while another part of her, a stronger part that she had never known before, wanted to devour him. Suddenly, she felt like a hunter and he was her prey. She liked this feeling. In this city she was chased often, and the ones which caught her always turned out to be viciously carnivorous; she rarely escaped unscathed. Now she was the one with the sharp teeth and claws. She was the one who could give and then take away, consume and then abandon. She licked her lips, contemplating how she would trap her prey.

"Would you like to see it," she said. "The painting I mean?"

Still looking down at the table, he nodded his head wearily. "Yes… probably… but… I don't think I ever will…"

She smiled. "No, I mean would you like to go see it now… with me?"

He looked up from the table, stunned, as if she had just told him she wanted to sit in his lap and fuck him. Good, she thought, first confuse and disorientate, it will make him easier to catch. She could tell he didn't believe her, that he thought he had misheard. She couldn't really want to go anywhere with him. Fear was commanding him to run away, but desire was compelling him to stay. She smiled reassuringly.

Casting aside any remaining doubts about what she was doing, she decided to give him no choice. "Help me with these last two umbrellas and then we'll go see that painting, alright?"

Timidity slightly faded, his gaze converged upon her. A touch of vertigo jostled her. No more drugs, she told herself, setting the picture frame on the table.

The corner of his mouth curled upward in a shy smile. "Okay," he said.

She stood up. "Why don't you fold this one, while I tie that one down," she said, moving to the umbrella they had folded together. While she strapped that umbrella securely to the pole attached to the table, she heard him quickly winding the other umbrella's crank. When she turned back around, he had already finished closing his umbrella and was strapping it to the pole one-handed, his left hand disappearing into his jacket pocket.

"Come on," she said. "My car's on the street. By the way, my name's Becky."

He watched her. "My name's…" he paused, as if he were trying to remember. "Time," he said. "My name's Time."

Time. I'll ask him about it later, she thought. As he shrugged on his backpack and lifted the picture frame with his left hand, she studied the dark clouds above. He reached in his pocket with his right hand and lifted out a few tentrums.

"Just leave them on the table," she said. "The waitress on the next shift will pick them up with the dishes."

"Um… what about your tip."

"Letting me see your drawing was a better tip than I usually get," she said.

He smiled graciously, placing the coins beside the half emptied glass of water. She decided he really was naked, that she could read him plainly and what she saw was the truth. Over the past few years, she had been fed many lies. She had been tricked and used. But this one would not tell her lies. And if he did, she would know it instantly, and she would not hesitate to cut and maim with her newfound teeth and claws.

"Well then," she said. "Let's get going. Maybe we can get there before it starts to rain. I hate driving in this city when it rains." She grabbed his right hand, pulling him forward. Before she let go, she felt his hand shaking nervously, and parallel sensations intertwined within her: she felt as a young girl out on her first date, and as a serpent coiled around her prey, tasting the fear as her tongue darted around his face. She moved in close beside him, letting her hand brush against his as they walked across the terrace.




Chapter 11: Optical Chimeras

Time Rath: Interior Monologue

"Well, what do you think?"

"It's much better than mine," I say, staring at the large canvas. "It makes mine look childish. But you were right, it… it has the same kind of feel."

She smiles. "I told you so." She leans forward, scrutinizing the small metal plaque at the picture's side. "Golden Sunset, The Master of Treipolii, circa 1149," she reads aloud, then looks at me, watching me with her pretty eyes.

Nervous, I look away, back at the painting, studying the gold-leaf enhanced sunset and the stiff regal poses of the figures arranged at the picture's bottom half.

After a moment, she says, "Time. That's an interesting name?"

I turn and try unsuccessfully to keep my eyes locked on hers. "Yeah, I guess it is," I say.

"Is it your real name or a nickname?"

"It's my real name," I say. "Though it's not the name my parents first intended." She looks at me quizzically, so I continue. "If my father's handwriting had been neater my name would be Tim instead of Time. When my father filled out the birth certificate he wrote my name as 'Tim Eril Rath,' only his writing was a bit sloppy and bunched together, so when the nurse typed up the final certificate she read it as 'Time Ril Rath.' A couple of weeks later when they received it in the mail they considered having it corrected but then changed their minds. They tell me it was because they decided they liked Time better than Tim, but I always tease them saying the real reason was they were too lazy to have it changed."

She laughs, placing her hand on my arm. "I'm glad they didn't, I like Time better too."

"Um… what about you, is Becky short for something?"

"No, it's just Becky, plain Becky."

"Never plain," I say.

She looks away, and I think I've said the wrong thing. When she looks back up, her head is tilted down slightly, and an elusive smile is lifting the corners of her painted lips. "I need to go to the bathroom," she says.

Why did I say it, it probably sounded false, like a prepared line. Going to the bathroom is just a ruse. She will not return.

Almost as if she is reading my thoughts, she reaches out and touches my right hand. "Don't worry. I'll be back before you know it," she says, and then walks away. I believe her. Still, I want to follow after her; but I do not. I would follow her for the rest of my life, but I know I will not. Things cannot go this well for much longer. I do not deserve them to. Cowards deserve nothing but isolation.

I walk away, past a row of giant stone columns that disappear into the shadows of the vaulted roof above, my every step sounding off the marble floor and echoing away. I should keep walking. I should leave. She is a nice girl, and I am a coward. I should leave. I berate myself for forgetting my picture in her car, and then think better of it; I will leave it as compensation for the kindness she has shown me. I shift my backpack on my shoulders, thinking my picture a rather poor compensation for the time she has given me. Fighting off doubts, I continue walking. To stay would lead only to a sharing of my despair. I continue walking.

Directly beneath a green stained glass window depicting a benediction, a painting leaps out and catches my eye. It looks how I feel. It is painted all in the same shade of red, the paint, maybe gouache or watercolor, looking as if it were applied with the handle-end of the paintbrush, or perhaps even the tip of a finger. Because of the primal, brusque style in which it is executed, and because of the overwhelming agony of the face it depicts, it makes me think of death, of dying.

"It's interesting you should say that," a voice says, close at my side. I control my surprise, staring at the old man that has appeared beside me. He is dressed in an elegant dark blue suit with a yellow flower in the lapel. He leans on a polished mahogany cane and his right eye is clouded over with a film of white. "What?" I say, wondering if he is half blind.

He smiles. "You were saying this painting made you think of death," he says, gesturing at it with his cane. I run my hand over my face, trying to remember having said anything. "And in fact, the man who painted this, died shortly after he finished this very portrait. To be more accurate, you could say this painting killed him, that he died for his art. Do you know the story?"

I shake my head. Had I been talking to myself and he overheard?

"Donal Jacob Calbe," he says. "The man who painted this, lived at the turn of the last century. He was a brilliant, unrecognized artist struggling to perfect his art. In order to do this he needed canvas and paints and models and a place to work. He soon fell deep into debt, and when those he owed came to collect what was owed them, he had nothing to give them, except for the paintings he had done, but these they did not want, and so they set the lawyers upon him and he was thrown into jail. For months he rotted away inside a cell, slowly being driven insane by the memories of the court auctioning off his paintings, his life's work over which he had sweated and slaved, for mere half-tentrums, to pay for the smaller of his debts. All this time, he begged his jailers to give him paints and a canvas, or at least a pencil and a single sheet of paper on which to draw. They refused him. One morning they found him dead in his cell. He had cut open his wrist and used the blood to paint this picture," the old man gestures with his cane. "Using as his canvas the coarse sheet which covered his straw bed. It is not technically, his best painting, but it is the one with the most power to move, the one with the most, excuse the pun, life behind it. The majority of the people who see this painting only see that it is made of blood, that it was created in suicide, they see only the tabloid macabre of it," he says, turning toward me. "I'm glad there is still some who can feel its despair. My name is A. R. Gemon, glad to make your acquaintance." He extends his left hand.

I lift my right hand and then, realizing the awkwardness of a right hand shaking a left, I let it fall, deciding not to shake his hand at all; but then unable to endure the rude cruelty of this decision, I warily draw my left hand from my pocket. "Time Rath," I say, as his hand closes over mine.

"That's a devil of a scar you've got there. Not to worry though, we are all scarred in one way or another, aren't we," he says, winking his cloudy right eye. "Well then… I must be on my way, important matters to attend to, and all that bunk. But, before I go," he says, squeezing my hand before releasing it, the scar on my palm tingling as it sometimes does. "Have you ever heard the riddle the anonymous jester told to the anonymous king?"

"No," I say, wondering at this strange man before me. "I haven't."

"One day a jester asked his king, 'If, at the moment of death, you could hold all the days of your life cupped in your hands, like sands from an hourglass, and death would be held at bay for as long as you held them within your fingers, but while you did this, the woman you loved stood before you with tears rolling eternally down her face, what would you do?' The king answered, 'I would hold the sands in one hand, and with the other, wipe away her tears, and so live forever.' 'Wrong,' the jester proclaimed." The old man looks closely at me, with the green light from the stained glass window falling upon him and turning his skin to jade, transforming his cloudy right eye into a phosphorescent ivory marble swimming in a verdigris sea. "Why was he wrong?" the old man asks.

"Because, she has two eyes," I say, not thinking at all, just letting the words flow. "One would be neglected while the other was soothed. I would let the sands run through my fingers and then, wiping the tears from both her eyes, touching her cheeks and her lips for the last time, I would die, gladly, knowing eventually she also would find peace."

The old man smiles, then looks past my shoulder.

"That was beautiful," a voice I recognize, says from behind me. Becky appears at my side, and captures my right hand with both of hers.

"I see you had an unfair advantage," the old man says. "If this lovely girl were standing before me crying, even I would cast my life away to wipe the tears from both her eyes. Now, I must be going. It has been a pleasure." He bows his head curtly and then turns away, striding resolutely, his feet and cane tapping a rhyming cadence upon the floor.

"Who was that," Becky asks.

"I'm not sure," I say. "He just appeared at my side, a lot like you did."

She blushes. "Sorry about that. I didn't want to interrupt, so I waited until he finished telling his riddle." She looks at me strangely. "You had never heard it before?"

"No," I say, shaking my head.

"How did you come up with the answer so quickly?"

I smile. If I were not a coward, I would run my fingers gently down the hollow of her cheek and then across her lips. "He never said it was the correct answer," I say.

"It was the right answer," she says, her fingers running across the back of my hand. "If anything, it was the riddle that was wrong. An answer that beautiful could never be wrong."

A loud rising hum, like the sound of a generator when it is first switched on, fills the air. Light surges around us in great bursts. With the hum dying away, I look up at the huge arc-lights that line the vaulted roof above, brilliantly illuminating the entire hall. In the half-light of closing day all, except the lamp lit paintings, had been dull and sober; now everything is exploding with color and detail. The veins in the polished marble floor stand out a rich brown against the alabaster white, the intricate designs carved into the walls are no longer hidden by shadows, the hall has come alive and looking down its length both ways I see we alone occupy it.

"It must be four," she says. "I remember the last time I was here they turned the lights on at four and I asked one of the guides why they didn't keep the lights on all the time and he said the government had cut the museum's funding and they were trying to save money. I forgot how much better it looks."

Perhaps because of all the beauty surrounding me, it seems as if my own darkness and ugliness has been wiped away, I find myself looking carefully into her eyes, searching for I'm not sure what, seeking a connection that will never be.

She stares back, her mouth slightly open, the bottom lip moist and glistening.

Her eyes unfocus. She wavers and falls against me. I catch her, both my hands around her back, one between her shoulder blades, the other against the small of her back, tasting the soft ridge of her spine through the cloth. "What's wrong," I say, my voice sounding panicked even to my own ears.

Her arms are against my chest and she moves them slowly up and around my neck, intertwining her fingers, pulling herself closer, her breasts pressing against my chest. "I'm dizzy," she says, turning her head to the side and resting it on my shoulder with the same sleepy innocence as someone who is sinking into a pillow after a long hard day. I breathe in her perfume, terrified. It has been so long since I have been this close to anyone. It is exhilarating. And dangerous. Hope is the worst thing for a coward. Ultimately, it breeds the darkest despair. And she is hope incarnate.

She begins to pull away and I let my hands drop and fall to my sides. With her fingers unlinking and sliding across my neck she says, "Let's go for a walk."




Chapter 12: A Lie or Pre-truth

Time Rath: Interior Monologue

The smell of the ocean is strong. The water is calm, a dark reflection of a shadowing sky breaking gently upon the sand. We walk across the stretch of Stilltow beach that lies between the three tunnels and the bastion of Entilanto. To our right, a small motorboat is pulling away from the end of a solitary wooden pier. She, Becky, a pretty girl so very near, stops walking and watches it. Nervously, out of the corner of my eye, I watch her.

After the boat has disappeared she continues to stare off at the sea. She has barely spoken since we left the museum. The city is quiet, maybe in anticipation of the coming storm, it seems deserted. The entire length of beach is empty of all but a few gulls and egrets, and they also are quiet.

A silent gust of wind comes in from off the water, breathes across her face, and draws a lock of her pale blonde hair across her forehead, pushing it before her eyes, leaving it to rest upon the side of her face. The warm golden light from the falling sun, newly emerged from behind the clouds, touches her skin, showing a few sparse freckles on her cheek. She is beautiful. Like a fool, tears fill my eyes. I wish I could lock this moment, loop myself in it forever. I blink away the moisture as best I can, fearful she will see. Then, as always, I feel my selfishness, my cowardice, like a brand, like a puppet, disfigure me, rend my skeleton into a crippled framework of corruption.

The expression on her face, the posture of her body, suddenly makes itself known to me. She stands fragile, easily broken. Watching the sea, she brushes the errant lock of hair behind her ear. "I can't go in the water," she says. "It's stupid," she says, "it's insane, but I can never go in the water. If I do I might die." She smiles weakly, looking across the face of the water. "There's something wrong with my inner ear," she says. "Supposedly, if water gets inside and the pressure is strong enough, it can get through to my brain, or something. It might kill me or give me brain damage, at least that's what the doctors said ever since I was a little girl. It sounds ridiculous." She laughs bitterly. "You know, I hate the beach, I really do. Because of that. But it seems like I always end up here." Her voice becomes as quiet as the water lapping at our feet. "One of these days," she says. "I'm going to walk out there and just..." Her voice fades as she watches the movement of the water, as it drifts in and away, in and away.

I open my mouth to say something, but say nothing. My eyes again fill with tears.

She is one of the lost, as perhaps we all are, and at this moment she sees it clearly and feels the isolation. She is alone, broken and fragile. I want to comfort her, but I know no adequate words. I want to reach out and draw her near, but I am a coward. I remember. I am twisted and small. I do not move. I do not speak.

For a second time, a slight breeze brushes a few strands of her hair across her eyes and she lifts her hand to push them behind her ear. As her hand descends back to her side, I see it is pale and cold, pink around the knuckles, and that it is shaking. There is such desolation in the way she holds her hand at her side. My cowardice is overwhelmed, I slowly extend my trembling right hand, enclosing her hand in mine.

She turns her head and stares at me, as she stared at the sea. With panic I wonder if, like the sea, I reflect back her own self, or if my surface is transparent, laying bare the wretchedness which lies beneath. I almost pull away, but then her hand presses mine, drawing my gaze downward. There is such beauty in the sight of two hands intertwined, the more so when one of them is your own. When I look back up, she has leaned in close and with her eyes closing, her pale eyelashes dropping down over irises of open blue, she kisses me. The fears leap and scream, and then quickly lessen, the softness of her lips, the warmth of her breath, pushing them aside.

• • •

When she opens her eyes and our lips part, a flash of lightning strikes far out past Castle Greymisthaven on the sea's dark horizon. We both watch and wait, and moments later a crash of thunder echoes across the water. She presses against me. The closeness of her, her body against mine, the reassuring solidity, the connection, fills me with a joyful hope I had forgotten existed. It makes me stupid. Foolish. It loosens my tongue. A few words, that are not yet wholly true, spill from my mouth without thought. Before they even fade into silence I know I have destroyed everything. I feel her tense and draw away. "What?" she says, with something close to hatred in her eyes. "You don't even know me. You don't fucking love me."

I am suddenly terrified. I open and close my mouth a couple of times and then words stumble and trip out clumsy and confused. I can barely understand what I am trying to say. Something about need. Something about loneliness. Something that begins to sound like a pathetic insanity.

She does not say a word in response. She watches me with the hatred turning to pity. Or so it seems. I am not sure I can even read her at all. All I know is that I have lost her. For some reason I reach out and grab her arm. She shakes my hand off and turns and walks away. I start to follow and then stop. It is useless.

She is a girl who has been lied to all her life. Perhaps, when we first met she sensed that I was someone who would not tell her lies, and I wouldn't, but I had. I hurt her, like so many others must have hurt her, and without even meaning to. She was lost like me and I had pushed her farther off the path, deeper into the darkness of the forest.




Chapter 13: Heaven's Nothing More than Atmosphere

Divers Island

5:24s.d.p. Fantus, 20th of Sedalas, 1777

Lieutenant Inspector Liemon Werl sat in his office, the room growing dark and cold, the sun having dropped past the edge of the world in the east. Beyond the window the sky was a pale desaturated blue, a color he had seen many times before, the color of dead flesh. The sun would never rise again. It would just grow darker. And colder. He stood and opened the window. Below, in the winding, descending streets of the city, lights were flickering on all the way to the sea. He leaned out of the window and placed his hand flat against the stucco of the outside wall. Faint traces of warmth still lingered within its shallow crevasses.

"Lieutenant?" George Macready said from the half open office door.

The warmth was fading quickly. The office door creaked open further.

"Inspector Werl?"

Reluctantly. "Yes, Macready. What is it?"

"There's been a break. We know at least one of the archaeology people is still alive. A small plane was chartered a little after seven this morning by a Paul Rath."

"Where to?"

"Sangren. We've checked the computers and he has a brother living there. What do you think. Want me to call up the Sangren Police and have them pick him up when he lands?"

The warmth had faded and the Inspector pulled his hand away from the wall. "No. If he escaped whatever happened at that warehouse or was the cause of it he will not be that easy to catch. Get me a ticket to Sangren."

"But Inspector, shouldn't we leave that to the novantian authorities. We have no jurisdiction there and there are still things here we need to-"

"The pieces here will reveal nothing. The piece that is hiding is the one that makes everything clear. He has all the answers. Whatever they may be."

"Alright, Inspector." Macready started to leave and then stopped. "Want me to turn on the light?"

"No. Leave it off. And close the door."

With the door closed the office was dark and the window showed a sky with emerging stars. The Inspector sat in his chair and wondered what he was chasing after. This was no puzzle he was trying to solve. This was a wave washing him towards a coming horror. The puzzle was why he was following after, letting it sweep him into its grasp.

Watching the stars appear like blinking eyes in the dead flesh sky, he came to the conclusion that terror was better than cold.




Chapter 14: Tetradus Fatum

Sangren

7:44s.d.p. Fantus, 20th of Sedalas, 1777

To begin with, the night was dark. The building silent. Four blind children walked down a stairwell littered with corpses. Behind them, following, and before them, retreating, mock human creatures crept along quietly, watching, their rippling flesh wet with blood. The children, four delicate identical girls with shoulder length blonde hair, stepped knowingly over the carnage while holding hands, which they swung gently. Across their eyes, tied behind their heads in a bow, a white satin band hid their eyes from view. As they passed downwards they sang an ancient rhyme, which echoed around the stairwell like water lapping at the shore:

Once caged and coiled,
Unable to move,
Flesh becomes spoiled,
And the ravens feast.




Chapter 15: Fall

Sangren

8:01s.d.p. Fantus, 20th of Sedalas, 1777

Agan Gignoskein met the anuran woman at the curb as she emerged from the taxi. The immense shape of Poorfellows Stadium rose up behind them, lit up brightly by a thousand lights. Leading her across the sidewalk through the milling crowd, he gave the top halves of two tickets to an usher and they passed inside the stadium through the turnstiles. The concourse was electric with the excited chatter and restless energy of spectators making their way to their seats. After ascending a few flights of stairs Gignoskein showed an usher his ticket halves and they were allowed access to a hallway that curved away in either direction, red velvet-curtained doorways spaced evenly on the inner wall at fifteen pace intervals. Half a minute down this corridor, having passed only a handful of people strolling counterclockwise to their clockwise, he stopped at a curtained doorway, the number 183 stenciled in yellow paint on the wall above, and pulled the red velvet wide, allowing the anuran woman to pass inside, doing likewise he drew the curtain shut.

A dark haired man of moderate age sat in one of the four chairs near the balcony's rail, looking out at the arena below. "Sit down, Feiri. The match is about to start," he said.

"I have been trying to reach you all day," the anuran woman said angrily.

"I've been busy."

"I have a pr-"

"Sit down and shut the fuck up. The match is about to start."

Her nostrils flaring, she sat in the chair furthest from him.

"Agan," he said to the man by the curtain. "You can go take care of that business now."

"The slaughterhouse?" Agan asked.

"No. I've changed my mind. Take that fuck somewhere out of the city. I don't want to know where. And then do whatever the hell you want with him. But make him disappear. Alright?"

"Understood," Agan said, slipping past the curtain.

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: Click here to skip the following sports match which adds nothing to the overall story]

The dark haired man took a sip from a glass resting on the balcony railing. "This is Rayce Tompko's 247th straight start," he said. "He passed Fdior's record of 241 last week. He's a goddamn knocker. I've never seen anyone play like him. Only a quarter of the way into the season and he already has over 100 unassisted knocks. If he keeps this up he's going to break every record there is. Too bad the rest of the team is a bunch of bums, fucking ball-scratchers. If they could get a decent freeman, they could win the title; just Tompko and a halfway decent freeman and the title is theirs."

The anuran woman, her anger dissipating, listened wearily, staring out above the stadium's fluted, partial roof, at the cloudy sky.

"There goes the flags," he said, watching the blue-grey banded Novantium flag and the green hatched flag of Sangren, rise on poles above the arena floor, the repetitive 23 key national anthem blaring from the loudspeakers.

As the anthem died away, lights illuminated the oval arena and the visiting team filed onto the floor. Dressed in yellow uniforms with violet padding and helmets, they ran up the temp-ramp and took their places on the striping boards, the loudspeakers announcing their names and positions. Upon proclaiming the name of the 1st middle - 'Laen Cort' - the crowd roared with disapproval.

The dark haired man stood and jeered. Reclaiming his seat, he spoke out of the corner of his mouth to the anuran woman, "I hate that fucker. He's just a huge no-talent hack. He just stands there and takes the stones like a dumb fucking wall. Pinnacle always gets these kinds of assholes. Maybe it's because that city is such a big sprawling shithole, I don't know. All we need to do is knock that big fuck down and this game is ours. Not that that's going to be easy, he's only had 2 falls in the last 26 matches." He leaned forward in his seat. "This's going to be a great match."

Triumphal high-tempo music filled the stadium and multicolored spotlights followed the arrival of the home team onto the floor and then to their positions on the striping boards. At the loudspeaker's call of: "Rayce Tompko, 1st left flank," the crowd exploded, chants of 'Tomp-Ko, Tomp-Ko," rising everywhere.

The first whistle blew and the crowd quieted. The temp-ramps were wheeled away. Sangren positioned itself in a general spread with the 1st middle and 1st right flank bunched at the far end of the 1st board, leaving Tompko plenty of room for movement, the freeman positioned between the 2nd middle and 2nd right flank.

Pinnacle positioned itself in a tight central sweep with all the players on the 2nd and 3rd boards snug in the middle in a direct line behind the hulking shape of Laen Cort on the 1st board, the freeman taking a generic 2nd right flank position. While the two teams arranged themselves into these formations, with their coaches on the padded floor below giving them hand signals and an occasional vocal direction, the dark haired man of moderate age lifted a small portable radio from his pocket and cycled the charge dial, the slow-drain battery filling, he switched it on.

"-ourse he's taking a chance," the voice on the radio said. "But that's what he's known for. He's a gutsy coach, old school to the bone. If Cort falls under the first volley then this game is pretty much over. The central sweep will backfire and most of the 2nd and 3rd boardsmen will certainly be knocked."

"And if Cort doesn't fall," a second voice asked.

"Then Sangren, Tompko or no Tompko, is going to lose this match. They are one of the few teams in the league without a big blocker like Cort, instead they have opted for a quicker, more agile team-"

"In other words, a less expensive team."

(laughter) "You could say that Joe, I'm not, but you could. This is a team in transition, they've let some of their better veterans slip away to free agency, and at the moment they are a team trying to rebuild. They haven't won a national title in sixteen years and, except for Rayce Tompko's history making year, their past glory must seem very, very far away."

"Well, it looks like the second whistle is about to blow. That was Dan Fortner, ladies and gentleman, we'll be talking with Dan again at the end of the match. Thanks Dan."

"My pleasure Joe."

The second whistle blew, freezing the players on both teams. The referees began tossing out the first-cycle stones and when all twenty players had received one of the apple sized, white and red checked granite balls, the third whistle blew.

The protective netting was raised around the arena's border. The stadium became eerily silent. The dark haired man switched off the radio.

The fourth whistle blew.

Tompko was the first to act. He flung his stone at Pinnacle's freeman and expecting a barrage of stones he leapt to the center of the 1st board. The stone caught the freeman square in the chest, knocking him clear off the 2nd board, he crashed to the floor, unable to pass off his stone to one of his teammates. Pinnacle's 1st right flank and 1st left flank feigned a throw at Tompko and then unloaded towards the other end of Sangren's 1st board. Sangren's 1st right flank took a stone in the head and passed his stone back up to the 2nd right flank as he fell; Sangren's 1st middle, in the process of throwing, was struck in the thigh and his stone went wide into the netting as he joined his teammate below. Tompko, crouched alone on the 1st board, studying the opposing team, raised his hand and the 2nd right flank threw him their fallen comrades stone. There was a moment of heavy anticipation, and then both teams erupted.

The remaining stones flew fast and furious, players on both sides falling. When the last stone crashed to the floor below, the whistle blew the end of the first cycle and only eight players, of the original twenty, remained standing on the striping boards; three Sangren, five Pinnacle; Rayce Tompko, Laen Cort.

"Shit," the dark haired man said, delighted. "That was a volley."

The anuran woman, taking interest, watched as a few of the knocked players were helped off the floor, one being carried off on a stretcher. "What happens now?" she asked, watching a man swiftly mop up a small puddle of blood where one player had fallen.

"The second cycle."

"How many more cycles until this is over?"

"As many as it takes for one team to be eliminated. Don't worry, this looks like it's going to be a short match."

After the remaining players were each given a new stone and allowed to reposition themselves according to the signals and shouts from their coaches, the whistle blew the start of the second cycle; Sangren assembled one player to a board with Tompko in front;

Pinnacle assembled in a tight general sweep with Cort in front.

Tompko, again the first to act, threw his stone over Cort's shoulder and with a terrific downspin it slammed into the 2nd middle who tangled with the 2nd right flank causing them both to fall. The crowd howled in approval. Tompko leapt backwards to the 2nd board, catching the stone the 2nd right flank tossed to him; the 3rd middle giving up his stone in turn to the 2nd right flank.

The players on Pinnacle's 3rd board stepped out and fired their stones.

Tompko dodged the stone aimed at him with a slight dip of his shoulder. The 2nd right flank's shin was hit strongly and pushed from underneath him. As he tried to regain his balance, Laen Cort took advantage and launched a stone at his swaying torso. Tompko slide stepped to the middle of the board and caught the stone before it collided with its target, spinning with the momentum of the throw, he jumped to the 1st board. Again the crowd roared.

Cort, faced with a three stone to nil disadvantage, decided to retreat to the 2nd board before Sangren could set up a simultaneous three stone volley that, unhindered by the lack of possible return throws, would in all probability knock even him. Tompko, seeing Cort move, took a risk and launched one of his stones at Cort's jumping form. The stone hit Cort in the back of the neck and his right foot came up short, his left knee banging against the 2nd board, he somersaulted over and fell downward, the crowd's cheers rising in direct relation to his descent, like the lighter side of an overweighted scale.

Wasting no time, Tompko yelled, "Left," to the 2nd right flank, and after counting down, "Three, Two, One, now," he hurled his stone at Pinnacle's 3rd left flank, Sangren's 2nd right flank throwing his stone in quick succession at the same target. Pinnacle's 3rd left flank dodged Tompko's stone enough to deflect it harmlessly off his arm, and in so doing, ran straight into the second stone, and was knocked violently.

The whistle blew. As the players received their third-cycle stones and took their positions, the dark haired man stood and with his hands clutching the balcony, he leaned forward eagerly. Sangren repeated the same formation as last cycle;

Pinnacle's only remaining player, the 3rd middle, Tose Rupart, stood at the center of the 2nd board, a dangerous position considering the odds. The whistle blew.

Tompko feigned a throw. Rupart half crouched and threw for the Sangren 3rd middle. The 3rd middle, misjudging the speed of the throw, attempted to catch the stone and was pulled off the board by its momentum, unable to pass off, he went down with both stones, the one he had caught and the one he already possessed. Sangren's 2nd right flank threw for Rupart as he leapt back to the 3rd board. The stone passed under his armpit and as it reached the netting, Tompko let his stone fly and leapt back to the 2nd board. Rupart, in the act of spinning around, unable to evade Tompko's stone, somehow caught it and returned it with a precarious sweep of his arm.

Sangren's 2nd right flank, a rookie, dodged the stone and in the process collided with Tompko, knocking him off the board. As the whistle blew, the rookie looked down at Tompko on the floor below, and visibly shaken, tried to stand upright against the sudden taunts and jeers from the angry crowd. The dark haired man spouted a string of curses at the rookie and then spat over the balcony, undoubtedly hitting one of the spectators in the seats below.

Catching the fourth-cycle stone from the referee, the rookie guiltily watched Tompko leaving the floor. Before stepping out of the ring Tompko turned and with a bright smile he flashed the rookie a hand signal meaning victory. The rookie returned the signal gratefully and took up the position the coach yelled to him. Showing no confidence in him, the coach placed him at the center of the 3rd board, in response to Pinnacle aggressively setting the veteran Rupart on the center of the 1st board.

The coach signaled the rookie to wait on the 3rd board for Rupart to throw first and under no circumstances was he to try to catch the stone.

The whistle blew. Rupart feinted and sidestepped confidently. The rookie vaulted at an angle to the 2nd board. Rupart hurled his stone and sprang to the far corner of the 1st board. The rookie took the stone in the right thigh and with his leg lifting out from off the board he fell to his side, landing on the board flat he grabbed the board's sides and the whistle blew a penalty. Scolding himself for touching the board with his hands when he could have stayed on without doing so, he stood up, his coach shouting obscenities at him for not following orders.

A referee tossed Rupart a stone and instructed the rookie to assume the penalty stance. The rookie went to the center of the 1st board and turning his back square against Rupart, he stood with his legs together and his arms spread wide so he was positioned like a cross. The referees, satisfied with the rookie's stance, blew the whistle. The rookie maintained his stance, rigidly trying not to move, awaiting the coming throw, he squeezed his fist over the stone in his right hand.

Rupart, in an act of old-fashioned sportsmanship which the fall arena rarely witnessed anymore, lobbed the stone far over the rookie's head into the netting. The crowd was silent and upon recognizing the honorable gesture, burst into an ovation of cheers. With the stone fallen to the floor of the arena, the rookie was free to move. He lowered his arms and turned. Facing Rupart, he bowed his head respectfully and tossed his stone into the netting at the far side of the arena. As the stone hit the floor the referees blew the whistle ending the fourth-cycle. The applause from the crowd swelled. Rupart nodded his head at the rookie.

Perhaps grown nostalgic from this revival from the good old days, Sangren's coach stationed the rookie at the center of the 2nd board.

Pinnacle's coach placed Rupart at the far right side of the 1st board. Fifth-cycle stones received, the referees blew the whistle.

Both players threw simultaneously. The rookie's throw missed by two lengths, Rupart's did not. The rookie was knocked and Sangren lost the match. The crowd let loose a mild exclamation of mixed jeers and applause. Rupart, not waiting for the temp-ramp to be wheeled over, lowered himself over the side of the board and dropped to the floor. He ran over to the rookie and shaking his hand he said a few words before leaving the floor and joining his team in the locker room. The rookie remained alone below the striping boards, removing his helmet, he looked up at the sky. It had begun to rain and he let a few drops fall upon him and mingle with the sweat on his face. Tompko jogged onto the floor and draping his arm over the rookie's shoulder, he led the younger man away, consoling him as they disappeared.

"Fucking ball-scratchers," the dark haired man said, disgusted, returning to his seat. "Well now, Feiri, it's been a while, what the fuck is so important?"

The anuran woman crossed her legs and arranged the fabric of her lustrous red dress across her knees. "I need you to take care of someone," she said. "It's urgent."

The dark haired man laughed angrily. "You came here for that? Fuck, I've told you before, if you want a body taken care of you call Verule. You don't bother me with that shit. I thought we worked that out last year. I thought you understood?"

"It's not a body," she said. "I need you to watch someone, follow him, and make sure he hasn't gone to the police-"

"The police?"

She nodded her head. "After you are sure he has had nothing to do with the police, I want you to bring him to me. A few hours after that you can dispose of the body."

The dark haired man studied her. "You realize this will cost more than a simple disposal?"

Her lip curled. "Of course. How much more?"

"Ten thousand."

"Fine," she said, scratching at the side of her breast.

"Who is he," he asked, "another wino?"

"He's not a wino," she said. "That's why I need you."

He examined her closely. "What's his name?"

"Time Rath."

"Address?"

"I have it written down," she said, handing him a slip of paper.

He studied it. "Anything else I should know?"

She took a deep breath. "He is unstable. I think he might be a bit off in the head."

"Crazy?"

"Maybe. I'm not sure."

The dark haired man looked out at the emptying seats of the stadium. "Well," he said. "I think I had better have him tailed for a day or two to make sure he's not setting anything up. It would help if you'd give me some more information."

"You know all you need to know."

The dark haired man grimaced and then leaned toward her. "You know, I was talking to Verule the other day and he told me you haven't had anything for him to dispose of for a long time, at least a year. I've always been meaning to ask you, where did all those dead winos come from? I assume it had something to do with the dye works?"

"You've asked me that before."

"I'm a curious fellow, what can I say."

"That information would cost you."

"How much?"

"More than you would willingly give. So let us stop speaking of things which must remain unknown." She placed her hands in her lap.

"Go home," the dark haired man said after a long silence. "Stay by the phone. If you go somewhere, let one of the boys know where so we can get in touch with you. Oh, have the money ready when I call."

She stood up and stepped around the chairs. As she parted the curtain she looked back. "Do not injure him, otherwise the price gets cut in half."

He laughed. "From what you've told me, he'll be dead a few hours after we hand him over to you, so what does it matter if he gets a little bruised?"

"Not a scratch," she said.

"You'll be hearing from me," he said, switching on the portable radio.

She slipped past the curtain and let it close behind her.




Chapter 16: Whispers Beneath Water

Sangren

9:30s.d.p. Fantus, 20th of Sedalas, 1777

Two middle aged men, Jonus Stur and Ronald Hoorboch, sat in the front seat of a dark blue sedan watching, through a rain streaked windshield, the building into which Agan Gignoskein had entered fifteen minutes prior.

"What do you think he's doing?" Hoorboch said, shifting his massive frame forward on the passenger seat.

Stur, a tall, lean, dark-skinned man of tranquil expression, wiped his hand slowly across the window. "Quiet. You're fogging the glass."

Hoorboch grimaced and slipped a small metal flask from his pocket. After a mock gesture offering the flask to the man beside him, he smirked and drank heavily with his head thrown back.

"Ronald," Stur said, his voice cutting gently through the metallic patter of rain on the car roof.

Hoorboch, wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve and returning the flask to his pocket, lifted a camera from off the dash and looked through the viewfinder at the building's entrance. Three men had emerged, Agan Gignoskein one of them. The other two, typical Fat Theodore hardknuckles, carried a large man-sized canvas bundle between them. With the sound of the camera's shutter opening and closing for accompaniment the two men deposited the bundle into the backseat of Gignoskein's car and then reentered the building. Gignoskein got in and started the car, the headlights shooting out through a sheet of suddenly visible rain. He pulled the car out into traffic.

Stur started the dark blue sedan's engine and after a few moments flipped on the headlights. Edging his way slowly out of the alley onto the street, he slipped the sedan behind a yellow cab six vehicles back from Gignoskein's car. Hoorboch tossed the camera into the back seat and switched on the heater. Breathing in the warm burnt smell of heated air, he rubbed his hands together vigorously and hoped it wouldn't be a long drive.

• • •

"I don't see him," Hoorboch said anxiously. Stur pressed his foot down on the accelerator. "You shouldn't of let him get so far ahead after he pulled onto the interstate."

Stur, his eyes searching through the rain for a glimpse of taillights, felt the sedan loose traction as they took a turn too fast. Sliding into the right lane he regained control, the side of the sedan just grazing the metal railing that separated the interstate asphalt from empty space and past that the ocean far below. Hoorboch exhaled deeply and Stur pressed the accelerator to the floor, the rain hitting the windshield with loud rapid cracks. Down Interstate 52 they sped, to the left the blur of the mountainside and the occasional vehicle going the opposite direction, to the right a thin aluminum railing and a vast expanse of empty rain bleared night.

Hoorboch gripped the edge of his seat, "What the Hell are you doing?"

"We're about to hit Cautt Tunnel," Stur said calmly.

Light filled the sedan's interior. The sound of the heater blowing steadily out of the vents entered the spotlight of a suddenly empty aural arena. They had entered Cautt Tunnel.

The sedan rocketed along the far right lane, all four brightly lit lanes empty except for their vehicle. Hoorboch glanced at the serene profile of his friend's face. The hot air from the vents blew into his ear and he turned his head away, the dark opening of the tunnel growing before them. As the sedan leapt out into the wet night Stur let up on the accelerator.

"Were those brake lights that just pulled off the interstate ahead?"

Hoorboch squinted his eyes. "Where?"

Stur let up on the accelerator completely, gently applying pressure to the brakes. The sedan coasted along, the shoulder of the road widening until finally the metal railing at the side ceased altogether, allowing access to a road that clung to the side of the cliff face and descended towards the sea. Stur pulled off the interstate and stopped the sedan at the entrance to the road.

"I saw lights," he said.

Hoorboch, staring down the slope of the road as far as the headlights could illuminate, shrugged his shoulders, "I don't know."

A car on the interstate raced past them splashing water across the hood and windshield. "We might as well try it," Hoorboch said, looking back down the road. "If he stayed on the interstate then we'll never catch him in this rain."

Stur eased the sedan down the road. Hoorboch's hand disappeared inside his jacket and reappeared holding a pistol. He examined it and then put it back.

"Try not to make use of that," Stur said. "Margeon wants him prosecuted, alive."

"Margeon thinks Gignoskein will give up Fat Theodore. That's not going to happen in a hundred years."

"Yes," Stur said, "we know that, but he is the one paying our bill. So alive it will be."

Hoorboch grimaced. "I don't think he'd mind much if I hole up the fucker. Besides, we're through taking pictures. I think we both know what's inside that canvas bundle."

"I am going to take him alive," Stur said.

Hoorboch laughed darkly. "He may not let you. Wait. You can't hear the bullet can you?"

Stur shook his head and smiled at that old inside joke.

The road had begun to level out and was drawing away from the side of the cliff. Stur switched off the headlights and the heater and slowed the sedan to a crawl. Hoorboch rolled down his window, the wind blowing drops of rain against his face along with the sounds and smells of the ocean nearby. He stuck his head outside, his eyes adjusting to the gloom, he could make out the play of the ocean waves crashing upon the rocky shore. The car stopped abruptly and his head knocked against the side of the window frame. Stifling a curse, he pulled his head back inside and saw over the hood the dim outline of Gignoskein's car a short way down the road, the trunk open. Past the car, looming over it, the silhouette of a large building clung to the cliff face and struck out into the ocean.

Stur cut the engine and they both got out of the sedan. Stalking warily towards Gignoskein's car, Hoorboch with his pistol drawn, Stur with a length of cord doubled in his right hand, a muffled gunshot sounded from the building's interior. They both broke into a run, past the car, to the building's open entranceway. Flat against the wall on either side of the opening, Stur raised his left hand and flashed Hoorboch three fingers in quick succession. Hoorboch nodded and Stur peeked around inside and then slipped within. Hoorboch waited, counting down inside his head, listening for the whistle signaling delay. Countdown finished, with only the sound of the ocean off to his left side, he sprung through the dark rectangle and edged along the wall, his free hand sliding across damp concrete, his eyes searching the near complete darkness. The sound of dripping water and lapping waves echoed around him, mixing with the noise of the ocean which had if anything grown even louder. Looking for the cause of this inconsistency, he turned and saw that the entire side of the building that faced the ocean lacked a wall and was open to the elements, allowing the ocean itself to gush its way deep into the building's interior. Silently cursing the gloom, he blinked his eyes and moved further along the wall, looking past a railing down at the insurgent sea below, he wondered where the hell Stur was. And Gignoskein.

A flare of newborn light burst into being far out above him, revealing a meshwork of metal catwalks overhead. As the light grew and flickered into flames he began to make out its source. A rope, tied to a catwalk railing, descended halfway to the waves below, with its end tied around the ankles of a man swinging torpidly in the breeze. The man was on fire. Hoorboch doubted the man minded the heat, not with a hole that large in his forehead.

A shape moved on the catwalk above the burning man. Hoorboch's heart tried to flee his chest. Aiming his pistol, pausing a moment to make sure it wasn't Stur, he squeezed the trigger. The bullet hit catwalk metal and ricocheted into the water. The shape spun, metal glittering in its hand.

Hoorboch dropped, hearing the gunshot, feeling chips of concrete hit his face, he rolled, another gunshot, he slipped past the railing and fell into the sea. Salty water filling his nostrils, he fought back the terror, allowing himself to sink. When his lungs began to complain wretchedly, he swam to the surface, pistol still in his right hand. As his head broke the undulating cover of water he breathed in the air with vast gulps and blinking his stinging eyes he could see nothing but blackness. Treading water, the waves lifted and whirled him about. Far in the distance, the burning man still hung, flaming brighter, and the shape still stood on the catwalk above with gun in hand gleaming. The force of the waves had carried Hoorboch deeper into the building, seemingly out of the range of Gignoskein's vision.

His arms and legs beginning to ache and tire, and the growing dread of the watery blackness clorifying him, he panicked. A rogue wave washed over his head and kept him under as he struggled for the surface, the pistol slipping from his hand. Choking, he won access to the air and through bleary eyes saw the burning man now reduced by distance to the size of a candle flame.

As a child he had harbored a powerful fear of the sea, specifically of one creature that swam there: the gore shark. After seeing an educational film at school about the wonders of the sea, that contained a rather horrifying clip of video showcasing the killing of a dolphin by a trio of gore sharks, he had been terrified of the sea, and of any other water not passably shallow and crystal clear. Now, as the darkness closed upon him and the waves threatened to submerge him, he swore he could feel the mandible whiskers of his childhood fear brushing against his legs. He could feel the pressure of the water they displaced as they swam around him anticipating the slow kill. He floundered and the waves covered him.

Regaining the surface he tried to calm himself, to force himself to think. Using the burning man as a compass, he knew the side of the building had to be somewhere to his right and not very far away. Pushing aside his fears he swam desperately in what he hoped was the correct direction.

His eyes burning, he thought he could make out a steady unmoving darkness ahead and above the murky ripples of the sea. A cascading wave rose behind him and tossed him forward on its foamy crest. He collided hard with a wall of seaweed covered concrete. Water forcing him downward, disorientated, he twisted in the ebony darkness, unsure which way was up and which way was down. Striking out with his feet blindly, he kicked and propelled himself forward, breaking the surface at a forty-five degree angle he righted himself and tried to regain his bearings. The clang of metal on metal sounded at his side and he turned towards it and swam. Catching the rise of a wave as it passed on its way further into the building, his hands struck seaweed covered concrete and the metallic clang reverberated directly above his head. Running his hand up across the slimy seaweed, his feet slapping franticly against the wall as he tread water, his hand caught a length of slick metal-linked chain and held tight.

As he caught the chain with his other hand, another wave crashed over him, lifting his feet level with his head, tugging at him in an attempt to drag him away. He held tight. As the wave subsided, he strained to lift his waterlogged body upwards, his hands slipping unmercifully on the wet chain.

Halfway risen from the sea, he looked up and saw the lip of the concrete wall and the railing to which the chain was welded. Expending the last of his strength he jerked himself upwards and catching hold of the lowest railing strut, he pulled himself up and over onto damp concrete. Consciousness left him.

• • •

At the same moment Hoorboch was attempting to lift himself from the sea, Stur was vaulting across a catwalk meters from where Gignoskein stood looking over the railing at the burning man below.

As Stur was almost upon him, Gignoskein turned, gun raised.

The cord in Stur's hand whipped out, cracking loudly, knocking the gun from Gignoskein's grip.

Snapping the loose end of the cord back to his empty, opposite hand, Stur drew it tight before him.

"The way," Gignoskein said, stepping backwards, then lunging forward.

Stur crouched, bringing the taut length of cord up and with an adept whirl of his hands he ensnared Gignoskein's arm at the elbow. Moving like a puppeteer, he manipulated Gignoskein against the catwalk railing. While he twisted the cord loose in order to trap Gignoskein's free arm, Gignoskein doubled over the railing and leapt forward. As Gignoskein fell, Stur stepped away, the cord flickering free. Gignoskein cleaved the water with a precise perpendicular dive.

Stur watched the surface of the flame reflecting water and waited for Gignoskein's head to emerge. When it did not, he expanded the scope of his search, examining the outer reaches of the fire illuminated water. Looking further inside the building he saw nothing and turning about he stared at the stretch of water open to the sea. A dark shape could just be seen struggling against the waves in an effort to swim out into the open sea. After disappearing beneath a large swell, the shape reappeared much further out, at the limit of Stur's view. Watching the shape suddenly change course, angling towards the barely visible rocks of the shore and the vehicles beyond, Stur turned and ran back the way he had come.

• • •

The burning man was incandescent and the flames had spread to the rope around his ankles. Silently the rope burned through, snapped, and released its burden. Piercing the water with a hiss of smoke and vapor, the shell of burnt humanity sought the ocean depths, wavering as it fell.

• • •

Stur and Hoorboch watched the taillights of Gignoskein's car disappear up the road.

"At least he only did the one tire," Hoorboch said. "And look, it stopped raining."

Stur opened the trunk of the dark blue sedan and removed the jack and the spare tire.

Hoorboch emptied the flask from his jacket pocket, and then gestured distastefully at the building behind them. "What is that place, anyways?"

Stur worked the jack methodically. "It's a hydroelectric tidemill," he said.

"Is that what it was."

"Still is," Stur said. "It wouldn't take much to get it functioning again. It probably closed down when the government finished the hydroelectric stations on the world's edge, a little over a decade ago."

Hoorboch laughed weakly, trying to distract his mind from the darkness of the water. "How come," he said. "You know more about this country than I do, and you weren't even born here."

The lean man crouched down and removed the punctured tire. "Hand me the spare."

Hoorboch, beginning to shiver, kicked the spare tire the brief distance across the cracked asphalt.

As Stur was tightening the last bolt, Hoorboch said: "Who do you think he was?"

Stur, lifting the jack, shook his head. "Gignoskein knows."

Hoorboch walked to the edge of the road and stared off at the sea. "Whoever he was, they'll never find his body."

Stur placed the jack and the punctured tire in the trunk.

Hoorboch wiped his face with his hands, pushing his wet hair back from his forehead. He watched the circle of the moon emerge suddenly from behind the clouds, a ghostly light shimmering darkly across the surface of the ocean. He thought of the man who was now down there drinking water eternally, and of how he had almost joined him. He felt the wetness of the clothes clinging to his skin, his wet feet within wet socks within wetter shoes. A chortle of disbelief escaped past his lips.

Stur closed the trunk softly. "Let's go," he said. "We'll see Jankman first. And then we'll go tell Margeon that we saw Gignoskein kill a man."

Hoorboch turned and stared at the thin, dark-skinned man standing with one hand resting on the closed trunk. Twenty six years. For Twenty six years this man had been his friend, and he thought of those years and, drifting backward, he thought of the many years that had come before them. He saw brutal moments and moments of brief happiness. He saw a war and men dying violently. He saw the life drain from the eyes of many. He re-tasted occasions of almost imaginary beauty and fell back into periods of the blackest despair. He saw his childhood in hazy brief glimpses. And he seemed to taste the memories more than he saw them. They were alive. He wondered at the complex uncomprehending structure that lay beneath his skull. He smiled. He was alive. He shook his head trying to clear away the honeyed euphoria rolling through his mind. His eyes on the ground at his feet, he shuffled to the sedan and got in.

Stur was already inside and had started the engine.

Hoorboch turned on the heater, relaxing back against the seat.

As they drove up the road to the interstate the sound of the vents, blowing steadfastly, lulled at the fringes of his exhaustion. Within moments he drifted off to sleep with the warm air blowing upon his face, images of dark water cascading through his mind, and pale white shark flesh emerging in ripples and sending ghost like shivers along his legs and torso.




Chapter 17: Anchored Obscenities

Sangren

10:54s.d.p. Fantus, 20th of Sedalas, 1777

Three pretty faces sat behind a desk-like fiberglass protuberance, behind them on a false stage wall a logo slanted: Channel 12 News.

A man with a headset, surrounded by video cameras, signaled the pretty faces, and the cameras rolled.

Pretty Face One smiled wide, "Welcome back," it said. "And now we are going to take you live to the scene of a horrific tragedy," the face said, smiling brightly. The man with the headset signaled ferociously and Pretty Face One turned its smile into a look of sadness. "We're going live on the scene with Roger Dyson. Are you there Roger?"

"I'm here Katie," a voice said.

The man with the headset looked down at the monitor at his side. The screen showed Pretty Face One and then cut away to a shot of Roger Dyson standing in front of a police car.

"This is really quite horrific," Dyson said, his lip twitching. "The police have told us that about three hours ago all the residents of this uptown apartment building behind me," the camera tilted up showing a five story edifice, "were brutally murdered. Now, the exact details as to how they were killed and the final number of dead is being withheld by the police until they-" Dyson looked away from the camera and began moving quickly along the street. "Wait a moment, I think… yes, follow me," he said excitedly.

The image on the monitor leapt up and down as the cameraman chased after Dyson. The image regained stability and showed Dyson opening the door of a car that had just pulled up to the curb behind the line of police cars. The image zoomed in on the face of the driver, a bewildered woman staring dumbfounded at the microphone thrust under her chin.

"Do you live in that building," Dyson said.

The women stuttered, looking through the windshield, "… yes… I, what's going on?"

"Do you live alone?"

"No," she said, fear blossoming. "I live with my husband and three children. Why? What-"

"Are they at home now?"

"Yes, they should be."

Dyson looked back at the camera, his eyes shining. "I don't know how to tell you this, but your family is dead. They were murdered horribly. Can you tell us anything ab-"

The women leapt from the car, shoving Dyson away. She ran for the building, a policeman stopping her and trying to calm her down. The cameraman rotated the camera back and framed Dyson standing with his elbow resting jauntily on the open car door.

"There you have it, Katie," he said. "The wife and mother of four of the victims of this terrible tragedy."

The man with the headset signaled Pretty Face One and her mouth opened and spoke: "Thank you, Roger. I'm sure we'll be checking back with you later. And now," headset signaled and Pretty Face One smiled, leaning forward, showing her cleavage, "for sports, brought to you by Topplebiners the tasty treat with teeth. Tom."

Pretty Face Two smiled. "First, the bad news. Sangren lost to Pinnacle, but Tompko did score six knocks, five of them unassisted. And for the…"

• • •

Roger Dyson removed the headphone relay from his right ear, the voice of Channel 12 Sports trailing away as he tucked it into his coat. He stared at the building and then at the policeman talking earnestly with the frantic woman.

"Her purse," the cameraman said.

Dyson smiled. "Right." He leaned inside the car and rifled through the woman's purse. Lifting out a handful of tentrums, he closed the car door and strolled with the cameraman down the street to the news van. Just as they were splitting up the coins, a club rapped loudly on the far side of the van. A policeman stepped into view, "You're both under arrest," he said, and then burst into laughter.

Dyson and the cameraman joined in. "You scared the hell out of me, Chuck," Dyson said, separating the coins into three smaller piles.

"Trying to keep you on your toes," the policeman said, accepting the money Dyson pressed into his hand. "Where's the rest?"

Dyson gave the cameraman his share and then held the rest of the coins out on his palm. "Thanks for the tip," he said, watching the coins slip through his fingers into the policeman's palm, clinking against the coins already at rest there. "What else can you tell me?"

Chuck the policeman deposited the coins into his shirt pocket, behind the shiny metallic badge pinned to his chest. "Not much," he said. "It's pretty hush hush. All I can tell you is there's a hell of a lot of people dead in there, and not prettily. It's a mess. It looks like someone let loose a pack of wolves and then bolted all the windows and doors."

"Who reported it?"

"Delivery man. He walked in, got to the stairs, and after he puked his guts out, he ran screaming into the street, and then get this, the fucking cunt gets hit by a car." After all three of them had finished laughing, Chuck continued, "I think they took him to Jeutre Memorial. A broken leg and a few minor abrasions, otherwise he's fine. You might want to worm your way in and see if you can get an interview."

"Maybe I'll try that. Anything else?"

Chuck shook his head. "They're still in there scratchin' their asses, trying to sort it out. I heard Lieutenant Jankman was coming down here to personally take charge. A couple of the boys were saying karkies looked good for this and that they might try to roust a few curs and see what came up."

Dyson smiled. "Oh, that would be a great angle. What with Rempstool stirring up all that shit around Ket-adr Island, curs look good for anything. Once the news of this massacre spreads the sheep might just riot. Fanjis! I can see it now, mayhem, lynching, it could make that rampage in '64 look like a birthday party, curs hanging from every lamppost in the city." Dyson sighed. "Ah, civil unrest…"

"You can only hope. But, hey, I better get going."

"If you learn anything."

"I know who to call."




Chapter 18: Autumnal

Erskine Caldwell's country estate

11:18s.d.p. Fantus, 20th of Sedalas, 1777

Sera Anig stepped into the library, the high ceiling lost in darkness above her. Caldwell sat in a large red leather armchair in the center of the room and he motioned for her to sit in a matching chair opposite him. As she always did, she obeyed.

"You are to watch and follow this man," he said, handing her a light brown folder. "If he receives any packages or comes into contact with this man," he handed her a dark green folder, "then you are to notify me immediately. If neither of these things occur by tomorrow afternoon, then you are to call in for further instructions. There is a vehicle awaiting you in the garage. That is all."

She stood and walked out of the room. She knew better than to ask questions. He told her only what she needed to know to accomplish the task he set out for her, he told her nothing more. On the few occasions when she had asked for additional information, he had shown her things, other things, that had taught her the error of her curiosity.

• • •

She drove the inconspicuous two-door automobile from the garage, around the circular front drive, out onto the densely tree-lined stretch of pale grey road leading to the estate's exterior gate. Her headlights reflected off the wet pavement, tree trunks, and leaves. After being cleared by the guards on duty, she drove a hundred meters down the winding road which led to highway 12, and pulled over onto the shoulder, the tires crunching on wet gravel. She switched on the inside car-light and lifted the first of the two folders which she had been given.

Inside: a blown up drivers license photo of a rather ordinary young man with short brown hair. She studied it carefully and then moved on to the printout beneath the photo. It was the OGM file for a: "Time Rath," she read aloud. Skimming through it quickly, she grabbed the other folder and found another blown up drivers license photo of a similar looking young man and another brief OGM file. Paul Rath, the title read.

"Brothers," she said, returning the folders to the seat beside her.

Then, as she was about to flick off the light, she looked back at the folders and lifted the brown one. "Feiri Nourus: possible storcheh ties," she read. Thinking back, a bad feeling curled its way around her spine. She tossed the folder back onto the seat and switched off the inside car-light.

Pulling back onto the road, a gust of wind shook the trees, and her headlights swam through the falling autumn leaves.




Chapter 19: Life is Pretty if You're Mentally Blind

Sangren

11:30s.d.p. Fantus, 20th of Sedalas, 1777

Time Rath had been sitting under the wooden dock, his back resting against the cold stone of the promenade wall, his legs splayed on the damp sand, for a long while. He had seen the tide go in and go back out. He had eaten a can of soup from his backpack. He had watched the blue gloom of twilight engulf the city, slowly like ice melting, darkness had fallen. Across the Sound and the River Riparus a multitude of lights had bloomed in bunches and all alone, flickering, merging, and filling the distance with tiny stars, perhaps in compensation for the ones that were being hidden by the dense layer of clouds above. Every once in a while the sound of footsteps would repetitiously tread along the wooden dock overhead, sometimes accompanied by the voices of people, sometimes not.

The rain, which had begun to fall only minutes after Becky left him alone on the beach, had become a softly falling mist after a few hours and then shortly after that had ceased altogether. The changing landscape spread before him had become a still life, except for the waves and the occasional passing of an ocean-bound liner through the cold water in the distance, he was alone.

Sitting in the darkness, surrounded by a city of lights, seen and unseen, he closed his eyes. He came to Sangren to die. And here he was, three years later, still alive. Fire had not killed him, neither had beetles, and a brush with a murderous woman from a foreign land had ended in stalemate. The world was a dangerous place. Others died. Why couldn't he? The innocent died. Why should he be allowed to live? Why didn't the random hand of fate or the calculated hand of god strike him down? Had he not sinned enough for god to take him. Had he not played odds long enough against. What did he have to do to cause the world to shuffle its feet and crush him?

If you want something done right, the old adage stated, then you must do it yourself, he thought and then laughed bitterly. He knew from experience that he would always turn away before that task was fully accomplished.

Opening his eyes he stared down the double row of black silhouetted pillars to the dock's far end, where the light from a large green lantern beacon was cutting through the silky smooth darkness of the water's surface, turning a wavering section of the ocean's depths eerily transparent. He had heard that after the initial horror and panic, drowning could be quite peaceful. He had not believed it then and, staring at the green reflections lapping like oil over an unknown shadowy world, he did not believe it now. The human mind feared the unknown, and that was all life was, unknown after unknown after unknown.

He stood, pulling his backpack over his shoulders. He was suddenly frightened, and as he always did, as all cowards do, he fled. Walking along the beach to the sand covered stair leading back up to the promenade and Reynart Common, he wondered if cowardice was a sign of hope, of a conscious will to live, for a man who truly wished to die would fear nothing.

• • •

He walked through the city blindly, following the path of least resistance, if people appeared on the sidewalks before him, he would cross the street and turn down the darkest corner. He had no destination and everywhere he looked he saw the truth. Pointless. Empty. Stupid. Truth.

Passing through a narrow alleyway he heard a baby crying from a window overhead, and then a hard voice yelling: "Shut that piece of shit up or I'll shut it the fuck up!"

That's all you need to know about life, Time thought and he started running.

As he ran people and events from his past rose up before him, jarring and abrupt they rolled one after the other, a sequence of loss and sadness. He saw his grandfather on his deathbed, the bed he had occupied for most of the last years of his life, a rare disease slowly eating its way up his spinal cord. He saw himself driving a car very fast down a rain slicked street, his seatbelt off, his destination a large tree looming around a turn in the road, unable to finish he slammed on the brakes, skidding to the side of the road, feeling shame, contempt, and elation rise within him. He felt the knife at his wrist, about to draw blood, pull away.

A pitiful sham, his life fled before him, the memories hitting him, not as long drawn out remembrances, but as compact emotional thrusts at his heart, causing him to stumble and run the faster down the city streets, oblivious.

• • •

As he leapt off a curb his foot slipped on a bottle in the gutter and he tripped and fell, his forehead striking the asphalt. He curled and rolled to his feet, dizzy, he fell back and sat on the concrete, his eyes watching the bottle as it slowly spun to a standstill. Holding his head, his forehead bloody, he stared at the label, unable to read what it said, he realized the letters were karkajan. Lifting his head, he looked around him. He did not know where he was. The buildings were run down and dilapidated. He was still north of the river, that was all he knew, he had not crossed the river.

Across the street, standing in a shadowy doorway, four karkajans watched him, the cigarettes in their long protruding muzzles glowing red in the darkness. He and the karkajans were alone. All the windows were dark. The street was empty.

All the things he knew about karkajans went through his mind, as he sat there weary and uncaring. Their pupils dilated when they were angry or aggressive. Their throat and vocal cords were able to utter only the most simple of human words, just as a human could only imitate the most basic utterances in karkajan. He remembered some of the films he had seen with karkajans in them. They were always villains, never the top villain, always they were subservient, the lesser henchmen of the evil mastermind. When they had any lines they were always dubbed, badly.

He remembered a book he had read, written by a karkajan author, translated into novantian. It detailed the experiences of a young karkajan soldier in the Last Border War in 1751. It told of the horrors of warfare with a lyrical savagery and showed how foreign influences were slowly destroying the traditional karkajan culture and irrevocably altering the face of a once proud nation. It won all sorts of awards and was even made into a movie in the early 60's. It was generally boycotted and pulled from most theatres before a full week's run. Every once in a while, late at night, it came on television. It was mediocre at best. The main character was played by a classically trained forsentheun actor who was popular at the time. He wore a rather pathetic suit of fur and silly prosthetics, as did all the other actors, none of which were actually karkajan.

Time watched the four karkajans across the street, feeling a certain kinship with them. They lived in a society that barely tolerated them. They were misfits, outcasts. They probably despised humans, and with good reason.

One of the karkajans dropped his cigarette and ground it beneath his heel, and the others followed suit. Time placed his hands on his knees.

Abruptly, sirens blared from both ends of the street. Two police cars, coming from opposite directions, screeched to either side of the four karkajans. "Against the wall," a voice from a loudspeaker ordered.

The karkajans, captured within the headlights, understood and quickly obeyed, turning and placing their hands against the stone and glass of the building's entrance. Three policeman emerged and began patting them down.

"Will these do?" one of the cops said.

"Yeah," another cop answered. "They all look the same anyway."

"What the fuck are you staring at," the third cop said. "Keep your eyes on the wall, you fucking cur. Yeah, you understand me, don't pretend you don't." The third cop swung his nightstick brutally across the karkajan's muzzle, the sound echoing down the quiet street, blood showing visibly on its fur and dripping to the sidewalk.

Time felt like he had been given a gift. The anger that he bottled up and trapped inside, exploded. He grabbed the bottle at his feet and rising quickly, he took a few steps and hurled it at the third cop's head. It connected just below the hairline, beneath the right ear. The cop stumbled forward and then collapsed to the sidewalk, the unbroken bottle spinning beside his head.

The two remaining officers turned and drew their guns. Whether they would have simply gunned him down or instead took him into custody, Time never found out, for one of the karkajans, the one that had received the blow from the nightstick, lifted the revolver from the fallen officer's holster and jabbed the cold steel barrel into the back of the officer standing closest. Then he uttered a low guttural noise that might have been the word 'no' and the officer froze, dropping his gun.

"Chuck," the frozen officer said to the cop beside him. "Don't. Please, don't."

Chuck, the other officer, looked over and ignoring his partner's plea, he aimed his gun at the karkajan's head, figuring his best chance to get out of this was to put the cur to sleep, even if his partner got killed in the process. As he tensed his finger on the trigger, he felt the presence of the other three karkajans at his back, and realizing he wasn't quick enough to get all four before one of them got him, he lowered his gun and let it fall to the pavement.

Two of the karkajans retrieved the dropped guns, while the third removed the keys and tore the radios from the police cars and threw them down a drain in the gutter. Then with their own guns pointed at their heads, the two cops were separated from their tentrums and handcuffed to their inanimate fellow officer.

Time watched all this as if it were a dream. Three of the karkajans ran off down the street. The one that had received the blow from the club, raised his hand and waved it at Time. Before Time could respond, he was gone, running after his companions.

None of this felt real. It did not feel like a dream. It felt theoretical.

Time took to his heels and ran off down the street, feeling like something imagined, like a flimsy hypothesis in some mad equation.




Chapter 20: Dreams are Like Water

Sangren

1:23f.d.p. Kotus, 21st of Sedalas, 1777

Doorsnail walked back to the carnival fairgrounds carrying a large brown paper bag in his hands.

As he rounded a corner two blocks from his destination, a man slammed into him and they both sprawled across the sidewalk, the contents of the paper bag spilling out and mixing with the contents of the man's backpack which had also allowed its insides to escape.

Doorsnail, uninjured, sat up and blinked his eyes. "Are you alright," he said to the man stretched beside him.

The man stretched beside him sat up and Doorsnail saw he was bleeding from an abrasion on his forehead. "I'm sorry," the bleeding man said.

"Don't worry about it," Doorsnail said, handing the man a handkerchief. "Your forehead's bleeding."

The man took the handkerchief and wiped it across his forehead. "Thank you," he said, holding it distractedly in front of him.

Doorsnail examined him closer. He was a young man, younger than Doorsnail had at first thought. He had short brown hair and his overall appearance was a bit tattered. He seemed dazed and slightly confused.

"You had better hold it on there until you get it cleaned up," Doorsnail said. "Don't worry, you can keep it. I have drawers full of them."

The young man, now appearing more like a boy, placed the handkerchief against the wound on his forehead. "Thank you," he said, his voice quiet and obscured.

Doorsnail gestured at the mixture of possessions scattered about the sidewalk, the street lamp overhead causing them to cast dark irregular shadows on the grey concrete. "Let's get this sorted out," he said.

He separated out the things he had bought at the all night liquor store: a six pack of beer for Erastus; a bottle of Five Star Solid for Rotgut; an imported lager for Mortimer; a liter of apple soda and a bag of chips for himself. The remaining things were not his: a couple of sketchpads; a small tin box; a binder; a few books; various articles of clothing; and three cans of vegetable soup. He recognized one of the books and was pleasantly surprised. It was written by an obscure science fiction writer he admired greatly. This particular novel was one of his favorites.

"That's a great book," he said.

The young man came out of his daze, somewhat. "What? Which one?"

"The one by Schreber," Doorsnail said. "I've read it many times."

"It's full of beautiful imagery," the young man said. "And yet it's still brutally honest. I've often wished he had written more novels."

"I know what you mean," Doorsnail said. "But at least he wrote the three he did. What did you think of his collection of short stories?"

The young man paused, looking down at his possessions strewn about on the sidewalk. "I thought it was pretty good," he said. "But most of the stories felt… unfinished."

"Exactly," Doorsnail said. "I think many of them could have been expanded into terrific novels."

They both stared at the book in silence.

Finally, Doorsnail stood, lifting the brown paper bag in his arms. "It was nice talking to you," he said. "But I'd better be going."

The young man looked up and smiled, a warm sad smile, a defeated smile, and then began slowly placing his belongings inside his backpack.

Fifteen paces down the sidewalk, Doorsnail turned and looked back at the young man. He gave the impression of being somehow lost, not geographically, but generally, as if his place in society had abandoned him and now he was cast adrift in a void. Doorsnail was well acquainted with that feeling. It had plagued him from the moment of his birth. Shaking his head, he continued on down the sidewalk.

After another fifteen paces, he again stopped and turned. The young man was still sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, unmoving, his possessions all packed away.

He's probably homeless, Doorsnail thought, and in more ways than the quotidian lack of a domicile. Before his mind had registered what his feet were doing, Doorsnail found himself walking back towards the young man.

"Have you ever considered working for a traveling carnival?" Doorsnail asked abruptly upon reaching the young man.

The young man looked up, surprised. "I… uh… no, I… haven't," he said. And after a period of contemplation: "What would I do?"

"Can you pull on a rope or clean out a cage?"

The young man thought for a moment. "Yes," he said.

"Would you like to pull on a rope or clean out a cage?"

"Um… not really, but I could probably learn to like it."

Doorsnail smiled. "I'm on my way back to the fairgrounds now, why don't you come with me and I'll see if I can talk August into giving you a job."

The young man rubbed the handkerchief gently across his forehead and then studied the freshly stained pattern of magenta that colored the white fabric. "Alright," he said, rising slowly.

As they began walking down the sidewalk, Doorsnail heard him say in a quiet voice: "Thank you."

"Don't mention it."

When they reached the corner, while waiting for a solitary automobile to pull out into the intersection and drive away down the empty street, the young man said, "I can juggle, sort of."

Doorsnail chuckled. "Sort of?"

"I… uh… don't do it the way you're supposed to," the young man said, as they crossed the street and continued on their way. "With the… things, crisscrossing between both hands. I go in a circle with my left hand always catching them and passing them to my right. I'm not very good with both hands. I can only juggle three, sometimes four objects that way. I'm better with one hand, just my right hand. I can juggle four, and one time even five that way. I know that's not very good, but I never really practiced, maybe if I did I could get better. Though I don't know how well I could do in front of people. I'm… uh… not very good with people."

"You get used to performing in front of a crowd after a while," Doorsnail said. "It just takes some getting used to."

"What do you do?" the young man asked hesitantly.

"You're looking at one of the August King Carnival's minor attractions: Doorsnail, half man half snail, climber of sheer surfaces and ascender of dizzying heights. Seven years ago I climbed to the top of the Korcher-Mkmin Building, scaling the south face, the less ornamental face, in a little over half an hour, one hundred and seven floors in thirty-two minutes. It made the front page of all the newspapers, but that was a long time ago. August King read an article about it and hired me the next day. It was strange how it all worked out," Doorsnail said, the mock showman's bravado that had entered his voice fading away. Whenever he told the tale of his incorporation into the August King Carnival, he always stopped at the point where he was hired and he never told the whole tale. He left things out. Now, for some reason, the things he always left out, suddenly poured forth. Perhaps it was because he sensed a kindred spirit in the young man beside him. Perhaps it was simply because the young man was a stranger.

"When I reached the top," he said. "I intended to jump off and kill myself." He paused, savoring the drama of this statement. "But half an hour into my climb a crowd had formed at the base of the building, like tiny ants below, and a news helicopter began hovering in the distance. When I pulled myself over the lip of the building onto the roof, I was not alone. A throng of reporters and policemen converged upon me. As I was handcuffed and led away. I was asked a hundred questions, of which I answered perhaps ten or fifteen before I was shuffled into an elevator, then to the police car waiting in the street below. But those were enough. My future was sealed. August bailed me out of jail, paid for my lawyer, paid my fine, and initiated me into the art of the carnival performer, an art which he has studied, tweaked, and perfected over the course of five decades."

"August King is really the owner of the carnival?" the young man said. "I've seen some of those placards that are pasted up in the city. I thought he was just an imaginary mascot, a marketing ploy or something."

"Oh no," Doorsnail replied. "He's real. And he owns it, directs it, and keeps the majority of the profits. He started out as a clown. Even though you've seen one of our placards you wouldn't believe how accurate that simplified portrait of him is. He looks just like it. He was not only a clown, but a bit of an illustrated man as well. He had his clown makeup tattooed permanently all over his body, skin pale white (which I have no idea how it was accomplished), blue exaggerated smile, red nose, yellow circle around one eye, purple star around the other, and he dyes his frizzy hair green, and he even wears a hackneyed gold crown. Once you've seen him you never forget him. He makes an impression. And if you don't treat him with respect he makes an even stronger impression, often with the knuckles of his fist or the tip of his boot. If you meet him later, make sure you remember that. If you treat him with respect, he will treat you likewise; though where money is concerned he might not treat you fairly, he is a businessman after all."

They had reached the main entrance to the fairgrounds, a large metal gate padlocked closed. Doorsnail led the young man past the locked gate, a little way along a tall red brick wall, to a smaller door-sized gate. He rattled the smaller gate on its hinges until a man appeared on the other side.

"What d'you want," the man said gruffly.

"Let me in, Ropar," Doorsnail said.

"What d'you got in the bag?"

"Groceries."

"Groceries. Yeah right."

Doorsnail sighed, reached into the bag in his arms, pulled one of the beers from the six pack, and tossed it through the bars of the gate to the man. "Now, let me in."

"Who's that?" the man asked, opening the beer and taking a swig.

"A new employee."

"I've never seen him before."

"Didn't you hear me, I said new employee. If he were an old employee then you would have seen him before, right? Now open the gate or I will climb over and open it myself. You're drinking one of Erastus' beers and he doesn't much care for people who take things that belong to him."

"Alright, alright, don't shoot a load in my face," the man said, unlocking the gate. "Come on through."

Doorsnail and the young man stepped through and the man closed and locked the gate, muttering, walking away to warm his hands at a small fire burning inside an open steel drum.

"Ropar's a bastard," Doorsnail said. "He doesn't mean any harm, but he's still a bastard. Come on."

Doorsnail led the young man through the stalls and tents and carnival rides, and finally after passing through a portable chain link fence at the back of the fairgrounds, they entered an area of trailers, the moveable dwellings of those who called the carnival their home.

Walking around the back of a pale blue, rust encrusted trailer, they stepped into the light thrown off by a large fire in an open steel drum, and Doorsnail was hailed enthusiastically by the three individuals sitting on folding canvas chairs around the blaze.

"The provisions have arrived," Mortimer Samuel Corrigan said, his feet dangling.

Doorsnail nodded and then began passing out the contents of the brown paper bag to those sitting around the fire.

Erastus, the bear man, pulled a can from his six pack, "Want a beer?" he asked the young man.

The young man thought for a moment and then nodded his head.

Erastus tossed the can to him and he caught it with his right hand. "What happened to your head?"

The young man pulled the handkerchief away from his forehead as if he had forgotten he was holding it there. "It hit the sidewalk," he said.

"That is how we met," Doorsnail said. "We collided a few blocks from here."

Time opened the beer and took a small sip and then stared nervously at the fire.

"My name is Mortimer Samuel Corrigan," the very tiny man said. "What is yours?"

"Time Rath," the young man said quietly.

"Excuse me," Mortimer said.

"Time Rath," he said again.

"Time Rath," Mortimer repeated. "Now that is a carnival name if ever there was one."

The bear man stood and extended his hand. "Name's Erastus," he said. After the young man had shaken his hand, he continued: "And that sick looking fellow over there is Rotgut."

Rotgut nodded his head and drunk from the bottle in his hand. "Pleased to meet you."

Doorsnail moved to the fire and warmed his hands. "I was thinking we could get him a job putting up tents or maybe working one of the stalls," he said. "You said you could kind of juggle?"

Time smiled. "Sort of."

He set down his open can of beer and, slipping out of his backpack, he pocketed the handkerchief that was in his left hand. Looking about on the ground for things to juggle, he could find nothing.

"Here you go," Erastus said, pulling the remaining four cans of beer free from their container and tossing them to him.

He held the cans in the crook of his left arm and then threw one of the cans into the air, followed quickly by the other three. Then, letting his left arm fall to his side, he began juggling the four cans of beer with his right arm alone, launching the cans in a tall elongated circle, so that when a can reached the apex of its path, five meters overhead, it was just barely visible in the far reaches of the light cast by the fire. Feeling more confident, he allowed the circle of cans to shrink and contract until his right hand was moving in a concentric blur and the cans were revolving about his head.

Growing tired, he caught one of the cans in his left hand and then one with his right, the third he was able to trap against his belly, the fourth he tried to snare between the thumb and index finger of his right hand. The catching of the fourth can was to be the flaw, or perhaps the ornament, of his performance. It hit his thumb awkwardly and recoiled away, falling directly into the steel drum full of fire, the can's aluminum lacerated and its contents ignited in a miniature eruption of flame.

Erastus let out a great cry of pleasure and Rotgut echoed it. Mortimer clapped bemusedly and Doorsnail chuckled to himself.

Time shambled bashfully over to Erastus and held out the three remaining cans of beer.

Erastus took the cans and clapped Time on the shoulder, "Sit down, my friend… sit down and take a load off."

• • •

Time sat with the fire before him, part of a circle, Erastus on his right, Doorsnail on his left, Rotgut and Mortimer on the other side of the hot steel drum. He listened to them talk and he occasionally made a comment or answered a simple question. Once, he told a joke and though he was sure they had heard it before, they laughed anyway.

And for a while his troubles were forgotten.

• • •

Erastus, having finished all his beers, including what was left of the one he had given to Time (Time not being all that fond of alcohol the can had barely been touched), and drinking a quarter of Rotgut's Five Star Solid, was quite drunk. "A story," he bellowed, "tell us a story, Snail."

Mortimer and Rotgut seconded the notion, and Doorsnail disappeared into the pale blue trailer and returned with a notebook and a flashlight.

"Here's one," he said. "I think it's almost ready to be sent out. It's called: Fear Merchant, Courage Bird." And then he read:


There once lived a rich merchant who was afraid of everything. He never left his mansion for fear of all the dangers that ran rampant past his door. He never ate anything but a smooth gruel for fear of choking. He never went to the second or third floors of his home for fear of falling down the stairs. He only washed himself with a bowl of water and a washcloth for fear of drowning in the bathtub. He let his hair and beard grow long for fear of his throat being cut (whether accidentally or intentionally) when he got a haircut or a shave. He had no wife, no children, no friends, not even servants, for the fear that they would one day rob and assassinate him. By taking all these precautions he had lived a long safe lonely life.

One day while he sat staring out the window at the passing world, a small bird flew up and perched on the windowsill. It watched him for a moment, and then began tapping at the glass between them with its beak. At first the merchant thought the bird wanted to attack him and he drew back. Then after a while, against his better judgment, he grew curious to what the bird wanted and he opened the window a crack. The bird hopped through the opening and immediately said: "It is a beautiful day outside. Why don't you come out and enjoy it? I fly past your home every morning and I forever see you in that chair looking out this window. Are you allergic to the sun or the pure fresh air?"

"It's not safe out there. Someone might stab me. A bee might sting me, and I could be allergic to bee stings. I might die," the merchant said.

"Might," the bird said. "The sky could also fall and the sun could plunge into the sea. But it won't."

"According to some astronomers those things are very likely to occur quite soon," the merchant said.

"And you are prepared for them, I suppose?" the bird asked.

"As a matter of fact I am. I have an extensive series of underground cellars, and I keep them well stocked with food and water. I am well prepared," the merchant said.

The bird crooked its head to one side. "When was the last time you swam in a cool stream or ran through a field of emerald green grass. When was the last time you truly lived, merchant? How long has it been?" the bird asked.

The merchant began to answer with a harsh reply when a memory from his youth filled his mind to overflowing. He was leaping off a tree into a swimming hole. His friends were all around him, laughing and cavorting. On the bank a few girls sat and watched and giggled. One girl in particular he was trying to impress. A girl with red hair and green eyes. Then with an ancient bitterness he remembered that the red haired girl and all but one of his friends had died the next year of the plague. Anger and sadness and fear welled inside him. Strangely, unlike it usually did, it began to fade. It fought against the way the sun had beat down upon him; the way the water had tingled when he splashed into it; the way the laughter had echoed around him as if it would be there always (and he suddenly realized - it always would be). It fought against the way the red haired girl had returned his gazes with meaningful smiles, promises of the future. The future. He realized with growing excitement that the future was still before him. His fear and anger and sadness fought this onslaught of memories and were vanquished.

Seeming to sense what the merchant was thinking the bird said: "There is still time, merchant. The sky is just as blue. The sunlight is just as warm."

A rare smile broke across the merchant's face like light emerging from behind darkened clouds. "Yes. YES!" the merchant yelled, hurrying to the front door. He unlatched the long line of locks down the door frame and threw the door wide. He stepped out into the street and closed his eyes, breathing in deeply the fresh summer air. Far away he heard the bird chirping madly, he thought in celebration.

But the bird was screeching in warning of the six horsed carriage that was barreling down on him unaware.

He never felt a thing. His last thoughts were of a green eyed, red haired girl and a golden summer afternoon long ago.


Rotgut, intoxicated, but to a lesser extent than Erastus, clapped his hands exuberantly. Erastus, newly passed out, began to snore loudly.

"I like this one better than the one you read this morning," Mortimer said.

Doorsnail smiled and then looked at Time.

Time, himself a writer (a failed one), nodded his head approvingly. "I'm jealous," he said. "I once tried to write a book, but I never got further than a detailed outline and a few hundred awkward paragraphs."

"What was it about?" Doorsnail asked.

"It… it was a retelling of the events that led up to the tragedy of the hall of cracks, told from the point of view of Emperor Novant's youngest son."

"You've read Elysium Shadowed?"

"Yeah," Time said. "That's where I got the idea."

"Which translation? The one from the fifteen hundreds or the one that came out a few years ago?"

"The one from the fifteen hundreds," Time said. "I heard the new translation isn't very good."

"It isn't," Doorsnail said. "Though for some reason Mortimer liked it."

"I did," Mortimer said. "The prose is much clearer, less archaic."

"But it's less accurate," Doorsnail said. "And it's practically abridged. It glosses over the entire battle of Sepulchre Falls, to name just one instance."

"The fifteen hundreds translation is abridged also," Mortimer said. "The only complete manuscript is the one that is over a thousand years old and it's written in ancient forsentheun. Only obscure philology professors can read it any more."

"I wonder what was left out," Time said.

• • •

"Hey," Doorsnail said. "Where's Lionwood?"

Rotgut laughed coarsely. "Get this," he said, leaning forward. "A few minutes after you leave, me and Rast are closing up LW's stall, and this little fuck of a kid comes running up with his mother and demands to have his future told. Rast tells him we're closing up and the kid has a fit. So we give in and Lionwood, he was in a bad mood all night, he takes one look at this kid and I knew right then we were in for trouble. He starts telling the kid how when he turns thirteen he will masturbate for the first time and get jiz all over the bathroom mirror. The mom freaks and starts yelling at me like I'm a ventriloquist or something, and then Wood starts having a spasm and then he has another whiteout, like this morning, only twice as bright, I thought I was going to go blind. Even the mom goes quiet. When he finishes he starts screaming for me to take him to August. The mom interrupts and starts saying how she's going to call the cops and suddenly Wood lays a barrage of obscenities on her the likes of which I have never heard. Something about ramming fruit, defecation, and tweezers, at least I think it was tweezers. The mom starts crying. The kid starts crying. Me and Rast hold LW's muzzle shut and the mom runs off with her kid. So then we take LW to August's trailer and we haven't seen him since."

Time looked over at Doorsnail. "Who's Lionwood?"




Chapter 21: Relax

Sangren

2:44f.d.p. Kotus, 21st of Sedalas, 1777

Lionwood's eyelids clicked shut. "I will tell you for the last time," it said. "There is a young man within these very fairgrounds that will bring destruction to us both. He is a focal point and magnetic. Forces draw near. As I told you this morning, though you chose to ignore me, our brethren are released. Their paths are destined to intertwine with his. He must be made to leave immediately."

August King shifted his legs on his desk, knocking an empty blood tipped syringe to the floor of the trailer. "Perhaps," he said, his voice thick and unsteady, "perhaps, perhaps it, it was, will be to our advantage that… if we have the boy near us, then, we, when our brethren come, uh, we could use him, maybe use him to bargain, for leniency, I mean if they catch us."

Lionwood's eyelids clicked open. The clown before it had once been worthy of respect. "It is not the boy himself that they seek. He is incidental. They seek…"

"Yes," August said, the flesh around his mouth slack and moist. "Yes, what, what is it, what do they seek? Don't mess with… toy with, I'll, you'll regret it."

"They seek the stone."

August pulled his legs from off the desk, found they would not support him, and slid involuntarily from his chair to his knees. "The stone… I thought it, I had forgotten, but then what… who, Daurgren? He doesn't have it? He didn't release them, but who… the stone… who has it, the boy?"

Lionwood had prepared for this moment all day. He had planned the fabric of lies and now he would weave it. "No, not the boy." Truth. "The stone is out there somewhere." Truth. "I could not see where, but I sensed it out there somewhere." Lie. "I saw two paths." Truth. "One wherein the boy stayed here with the carnival and that path led to both our deaths." Lie. "The other path lay unfinished, but I saw that we both survived it." Lie. "This second path begins when the young man leaves the fairgrounds." Truth.

August leaned forward, resting his flabby white chin on the desktop. "In the end, who gets it, could it be me who gets it?"

Lionwood blinked loudly. "I do not know." Lie. "But I do know where the stone will be in three days time if we follow the second path." Truth. "And I know that if you let the boy stay, then we will soon be seeing Ampersand and his daughter…" Lie. "You remember Emortir, don't you August. I am sure she will remember you, even with your tattooed skin, and I doubt she has forgotten what you did to her."

August studied the wooden puppet propped against the chair on the other side of the desk. He did not trust it. He had tormented it for too long. But if it was telling the truth, then he had no choice. "You've lied about, to me before," he said. "And I've punished you for it. If you lie now, all that came before will be nothing to the torture that will come."

"As I've told you many times before: I cannot feel pain."

August smiled limply, spit forming at the corners of his mouth. "Then why do you always scream?"

The puppet did not answer.

"No matter," August said, "if this time you lie then I will burn, destroy you. Where is the boy now?"

"He is with Doorsnail and Erastus and the midget and the glass eater."

August grabbed the desk and lifted himself up, swayed, and fell backwards into his chair. He breathed out heavily. "I will run the boy off when I catch my breath."

If Lionwood could have smiled, it would have. For August King had taken the bait and swallowed it. The centuries of torment were close to an end. It had seen the future and it liked what it saw. For it had seen revenge served up on a platter two thousand years cold.




Chapter 22: Dreams are Like Air

Sangren

2:57f.d.p. Kotus, 21st of Sedalas, 1777

As August King stepped from the shadows carrying Lionwood in his right arm, there was an eruption of laughter. Moments before, Rotgut had lit a piece of kindling and holding the flaming stick a few inches above his leg he had shouted as loud as he could, "I'm on fire, I'm on fire." Erastus woke dazedly and leapt to his feet, his head jerking around franticly. Rotgut tossed the blazing stick into the steel drum and Erastus fell backwards over the chair in which he had been sleeping. It was at this moment, as they were all laughing, all except Erastus who was groggily attempting to make sense of the situation, that August appeared.

"What the hell are you doing?" the clown yelled.

Rogut, after composing himself, said sheepishly, "Just having some fun, August, that's all."

"You should all be in bed. If I'm not mistaken you all have early shows tomorrow."

"We do," Rotgut said, standing.

"And who the hell is that?" August said pointing at Time.

Doorsnail stepped forward. "This is Time."

"Time for what?"

"No," Doorsnail said. "No, his name is Time, Time Rath. I wa-"

"I don't care what his name is. Get him the hell off the fairgrounds."

"But-"

"You heard me," August said, his voice taking on a sharp cutting edge.

Doorsnail lowered his head and then said in a quiet voice, "Okay."

"And then all of you get to bed, and stop fucking around, you've all got jobs to do tomorrow," August said, walking away.

Rotgut sat back down and said quietly, "Fuckin' white prick."

Doorsnail looked up and over at Time. "I'm sorry," he said.

"That's… the way things always go," Time said. "Isn't it." He stood and pulled his backpack over his shoulder. "Anyways, thanks for trying."

Doorsnail extended his hand and Time shook it.

Rotgut stood and said, "Hey Time, don't worry about it. Come by next week before we leave town. Maybe we can change his mind. And if we can't then we'll have one hell of a party, how about that."

Time smiled weakly. "Sounds good," he said. "I'll see you later. Bye Mortimer."

"Goodbye Time," Mortimer said.

Erastus rose up from behind one of the canvas chairs and shambled towards Time. "Biysuh shroidhjss," he said in a slurred voice and then grabbed Time by the shoulders and shook him heartily. "I wuzs misdsss," he murmured and then staggered off towards his trailer. They laughed as he went.

Time nodded his head at Doorsnail. "Bye," he said as he walked away.

"See you later, Time," Doorsnail said as the young man disappeared into the shadows.

• • •

Mortimer, Rotgut, and Doorsnail sat around the fire in silence. The atmosphere had become grim and oppressive. Heavy clouds streaked across the sky, looking to Doorsnail like dark minions of death grasping with bloated fingers for the city below. Far off to the north thunder sounded, but no lightning was to be seen. The rain began to fall quietly, soundless like poison it began coating the city. Rotgut leapt up and gestured obscenely at the sky.

Mortimer and Doorsnail also rose to their feet. Doorsnail waved to his friends and then hurried inside his trailer. As Mortimer began making his way to his own trailer, Rotgut stopped him. "Have you had a chance to read my comic pamphlet?"

"Not yet," Mortimer said. "I promise I'll read it before I go to bed."

"Alright," Rotgut said. "Doorsnail helped me with the words, but I drew all the pictures, and of course the story's mine. Remember, I haven't been drawing for all that long, so don't judge it too harshly. I figure if it's good enough I could get a few hundred copies printed up and then sell them after my show, sort of like a souvenir or something, I don't know. It's just an idea I had. I'll see you tomorrow."

"See you tomorrow," Mortimer said, holding his hands above his glasses to shield them from the rain.

• • •

Once inside his trailer, Mortimer turned on the heater and wiped his glasses with a soft white cloth. After changing into some dry clothes, he made himself a cup of hot tea and settled into a small armchair. Then, lifting the clutch of papers Rotgut had given him the other day, he began to read:

His eyes half-closed with weariness Mortimer placed Rotgut's pamphlet on a small table beside his chair. He stood and took his empty cup of tea to the sink and washed it out. Turning off the lamp he stopped before a rain streaked window and stared out into the night. Lightning and thunder were playing across the sky, turning the tents and trailers, and the buildings beyond, into cut out sheets of black and white paper.

This night reminded him of many nights from his past. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

"It is time for sleep," he said.




Chapter 23: Eyes

Sangren

4:02f.d.p. Kotus, 21st of Sedalas, 1777

Eddie and Dimples watched the entrance to the Afterdamp Apartment Building, extremely conscious of the fact that Agan Gignoskein sat in a car similar to their own, a short way down the street and watched them. Which could signify a great many things, few of them good. Either Fat Theodore did not trust them, or he thought they were too stupid to accomplish the task he had set out for them. Or this was a very important job which they were a part of. Or this Time Rath was a seriously dangerous man.

Dimples, in the face of evidence to the contrary, was convinced it was a good sign. He thought it meant Fat Theodore considered them good enough to work with Gignoskein, and he was sort of proud of that fact. He felt like he was moving up in the ranks. And it made him feel bigger, more important.

Eddie was skeptical. They had bungled too many operations in the past. That jewelry store robbery where they managed to kill two people and escape with nothing except their lives, and those just barely. That drug deal where a nervous Dimples started firing away like a water sprinkler, souring a connection that Fat Theodore had been working on for three months. Eddie was tense and he was scared. If they blew this job, then…

• • •

Gignoskein watched a young man with a backpack walk down the sidewalk in the rain and then enter the building. Moments later the building superintendent emerged and waved excitedly. Gignoskein waited for him to go back inside and then he got out of the car and walked through the rain to the car in which Eddie and Dimples were sitting. After telling them to remain where they were and to keep an eye out for anything unusual, he crossed the wet shining street and entered the building.

The super was standing at a flimsy reception desk cleaning his nails with a bent paper clip.

"That was him?" Gignoskein said.

The super looked up. "Yeah. That was him."

Gignoskein flipped the super a five tentrum. "You're sure he hasn't had any visitors recently?"

The super guffawed. "Him. Nah. I've never seen em have any visitors. Never seen em talking to anyone either. A fucked up loner, that's what he is."

Gignoskein handed the super a slip of paper with some numbers written on it. "Keep an eye on him and if you see anything out of the ordinary, or he has any visitors, then call this number. It will be worth your while to do so."

The super smiled and nodded his head knowingly.

Gignoskein left the building and returned to his car. A strange feeling was tickling the back of his mind. The way the boy had walked down the street bothered him. The boy's posture and gait were awkward, as if he had known he was being watched. But there was something else bothering Gignoskein, something undefined. Perhaps his encounter at the tidemill with the dur fen rii practitioner had set him on edge. Perhaps he was sensing imaginary apparitions. But he could not shake the feeling that he was missing something vital that was within his grasp and yet still remained hidden from view.

• • •

Sera Anig watched through night binoculars as the man got back into his car. She knew him. Agan Gignoskein. Fat Theodore's top man. She did not like this. Rath's OGM file had hinted at a possible linkage with the storcheh, but Caldwell would have informed her if Fat Theodore was in any way involved, and he had not. Caldwell was rarely unaware of anything. She did not like this at all. Thinking back she closed her eyes and felt sick to her stomach. She set the binoculars down and moved away from the window, sitting down on the bare floor with her back to the wall.

She concentrated on the job Caldwell had set out for her and the sickness in her belly began to recede. The empty fifth floor apartment in which she now sat was the closest one to the Afterdamp Apartment Building she could find. It was half a block away, but it had an unobstructed view of the building's entrance and with binoculars it was suitable for her task. The lock had proved agreeably submissive and she had seen no one in the halls. Even considering Gignoskein's presence, things were going well.

She stood and went back to the window. Looking through the binoculars, she studied the two men that Gignoskein had talked briefly with before entering the building. She did not know them, but she had little doubt that they were Fat Theodore's as well.

She alone did not watch Time Rath.

Moving the binoculars she studied the building's entrance. She shifted her feet and leaned against the windowsill. It was going to be a long night.




Chapter 24: Things Change

Divers Island

6:12f.d.p. Kotus, 21st of Sedalas, 1777

Five flies flew above a museum on the island's west side and descended through a crack in a skylight window. Soaring through corridors of antiquity with singular purpose, they searched until arriving at a certain glass covered case and alighted on the floor before it. In the duration of an eyelid dropping the flies were gone and five disparately humanoid figures stood on the marble floor in their place.

One of the figures stood at a distance from the others. An angular form clad in blue so dark it appeared black. Emortir was her name and her touch was death, her breath sickness. Her eyes, the only part of her unbound with cloth, were totally black, reflecting no light, they dominated her face like two black suns lying on a field of snow.

The other four figures stood directly in front of a long glass case containing rows of metal spheres the size of plums. One figure stood slightly in advance of the others. Ampersand was his name. Small, compact, dressed in a long spiraling jacket, his skin was a dark peach color. His eyes were wide and his eyelids were heavy, as if he were half asleep and laughing in a dream. His mouth was tiny and lipless, unmoving beneath a long prow of a nose. His brow rose into a ridge of flesh-covered bony protuberances, like the fur covered antler-stubs of a young deer, making it appear as if he wore an ingrown knobby crown that swept across the front of his forehead, lifting higher on the left side and then dissipating as it receded back upon his hairless head.

The last three figures stood minutely in obeisance to Ampersand, though not noticeably so. Directly to his right stood Lassus. Tall, handsome, he was very long of face and limb, and his eyes maintained a constant stare of unfocused glimmer.

The figure to Ampersand's left was Stykos. If you took a brute of a man, an immense man, and crow cut him vigorously, grafting the muscles and sinews of a bull beneath his skin, you might just create an insignificant counterfeit of the creature that stood towering over the other four ahstyr. A mountain of solid flesh, Stykos was animal meat exploded, overgrown, unrepentant.

The last figure was copulation dressed in a gossamer robe. Her name was Ammikis and to every eye she appeared different, to every eye she cast an unrivaled net of opulent flesh.

Ampersand looked at Stykos and then gestured at the case before them.

Stykos stepped forward and shattered the glass case with a flick of his wrist.

Ampersand studied the rows of metal spheres, scrutinizing the runes and symbols that were etched lightly on each pair. Finding the pair he sought, he lifted them within his right hand. After stepping a short way down the corridor, he began spinning them on his palm, metal rubbing against metal. A bright white rectangle of light grew into being and he stepped into it and disappeared. Stykos followed. Then Ammikis. Lassus took a few steps back and bowed with a flourish, gesturing for Emortir to precede him. She watched him closely and then entered the doorway.

Lassus walked quickly to the broken case and, pulling a large pouch from his belt, filled it with spheres. Stepping up to the doorway, he made to step through and then stopped. He looked down at the pouch at his waist and thought for a moment of alternatives to the course he was treading. He smiled and then shook his head. He glanced behind him, staring at nothing, and suddenly leapt forward through the doorway. The rectangle of white vanished.

• • •

The five ahstyr, having all stepped from the glowing white doorway, watched it dissolve into nothingness, leaving them standing on the grass of One Oak Field, in the center of the city of Sangren, north of the river.

The sun was rising in the west above the sea and as it rose it passed behind the gnarled limbs of the Traitor's Tree. The Traitor's Tree itself was ancient, though just a sapling when compared to the five creatures standing within the shadow of its limbs. For centuries it had weathered the storms of both history and nature. And though it was solitary now, it had not always been so. Until the year 1599, it had been just one tree of many in a large tract of forest that served as a royal hunting ground for the novantian nobility. In the spring of that year, Gorwidden the 4th, last emperor of Novantium, was knocked off his horse by a low branch while riding down a fox. After he regained consciousness he had his men put the wood to the torch and decreed that anyone attempting to quench the flames would be put to death. The fire was a great one and it soon spread to the surrounding city. Eventually it burned itself out, but the loss of life and property was horrendous. The entire wood was decimated and yet one tree miraculously survived, an ancient pollarded oak near the field's center. Gorwidden allowed the tree to live, declaring it would be an exemplary reminder to the citizens of the empire of the power of the throne. In the autumn of that same year, during the Bollite Revolution, Gorwidden the 4th was hung from his reminder, by the neck, until dead. He was but the first of many. The tree soon became known as the Traitor's Tree and was infamous for its collusion with death. Nowadays, children ran innocently beneath it on summer days and lost kites within its branches, and climbed on the very limbs from which hundreds of people were hung and expelled their last breaths.

The five ahstyr stood to the side of this tree, the building's of the city surrounding them, and they felt as if they had just awoken from an extended dream. Throughout their long imprisonment they had slept, though not blindly or deeply, as the outside world evolved and the ape-maggots claimed dominion over all they could grasp. Daurgren had not been so kind as to grant them full oblivion. In the murky stasis of their cells they had caught brief glimpses and hazy visions of the shifting events of a history from which they were absent and which they were powerless to affect. That had been Daurgren's revenge. Two millennia of impotence, of paralysis and boredom.

As they stood there, a sprawling metropolis spread out before their eyes, a certain awe overwhelmed them, the awe a child feels when a brand new intricate toy is placed within its hands.

It was time to play.

They all felt it. And all of them, except one, were beginning to succumb to it.

"Not yet," Ampersand said in novantian, a language he had heard in dreams but never spoken. The words played on his tongue and he liked the way they tasted. "We have matters to attend to first. The stone is here, or perhaps on its way. This… city, is its final destination. We are not alone. Others seek it. How boring it would be if they did not. At least a few of the ape-maggots seek it. And Littendur has betrayed us once again and sided with Daurgren, and they will be looking. And let us not forget, we alone were not solitary in release, all our incarcerated brethren are likewise free and many of those, who are still sane, will seek it also, and we are legion."

"We were legion, father," Emortir said. "As I made my way free of my cell and from our prison, though the water was murky and dark, I saw some of the cells holding corpses. You saw none before making your way to the surface? I discerned Coruskit plainly and he was long dead. I saw two others, of whom I was not familiar, newly drowned. One drifting fetid in her cell, the other floating between two pillars his eyes agape."

"Coruskit," Ammikis said. "Oh, Coruskit, my halved little darling."

Lassus brushed his hair from his eyes. "I too saw dead. None I knew all that well. But many a living head I did recognize. Pretensbrag. Megile. And even your own son, Ampersand. We broke the surface of the water concurrently. 'Stollwend,' I cried, to no avail, for he took to the air, his wings dripping water like rain, and flew off to the south. But it is not of our similarly released brethren that I worry. With them we stand in the same boat and are equally cast adrift in a strange sea. What of our brethren who were never imprisoned, it is of them that I worry. They stand entrenched, knowing the age in which they live, their advantages are manifold. Our knowledge is all shadow and suggestion, apparition and mirage. We have-"

"So Stollwend fled to the south," Ampersand interrupted, and then turning towards Emortir he said: "My daughter, it seems your brother has sustained his enmity throughout all these millennia." Ampersand laughed. "He will never forgive."

"As he promised you he would not, father," Emortir said, the patch of visible skin around her black eyes shimmering chromatically in the rays of light from the rising sun.

Ampersand swept his gaze from his daughter, studying each of the other three ahstyr in turn. "Keep a low profile," he said, "do not run rampant. Contain yourselves, we do not want any of our brethren to know we are here. We are one piece ahead, though they have had millennia to study the board."

"You still think all this, everything, is a game," Lassus said.

"If you were not such a fool," Ampersand said, "then you would also see the unstructured randomness of the universe in which we play. But no, you believe in grand flourishes, in a brilliant light from which your eyes must be cast down for fear of the divine wisdom contained therein. You see a final and ultimate purpose to every act, culminating in some glorious finale of Elysium. I pity your foolishness. You have a mind as crapulent as the most imbecilic of the ape-maggots. You seek meaning where there is none. I see nothingness and create my own meaning. I play games to pass the time. You play games thinking you follow some higher path. But you play all the same."

Lassus stared at Ampersand, his eyes unfocused to the point of distraction. "Of us all," he said, "none are so likely to be of Argemon's seed as yourself, Ampersand." He paused, gesturing theatrically with his hand. "And if game this be, then the winner is the one who retrieves the stone. How five can achieve what is only possible for one, eludes me. And why we five have banded together, if such we have done, also puzzles me. Since you know this game so well, perhaps you can tell us the rules and the stratagems for success?"

Ampersand laughed. "The only rules are the ones we impose upon ourselves. As for us five banding together, we do so, in my opinion, only because there is at times safety in numbers. That is the sole purpose for my allowing some of you to remain within my company."

Stykos laughed gruffly. "Allowing us," he said, "to remain within your company? I-"

"You are free to leave at your convenience," Ampersand said and then smiled. "You all have reason to mistrust me. But, I suggest we remain together until the stone is found-"

"And when it's found," Lassus said, "what then?"

A look of amusement played across Ampersand's face. "Then," he said, "let God cast the dice and the victor be triumphant."




Chapter 25: Points of View

Resort

10:00f.d.p. Kotus, 21st of Sedalas, 1777

The Hotel Magnifore stood on the southeastern extremity of the half-planet Resort, its lower floors embedded and carved out of the very rock, giving the windows with southern and eastern exposures an uncluttered view of pure sky without a trace of a horizon. Littendur sat crouched over a table before one of these windows, Daurgren sitting opposite him, the remains of a large breakfast between them, the morning sun streaking in past them and alighting on a well furnished hotel room.

"What now," Daurgren said, "we've been here for a whole day. No one has followed us. And you have been in a trance ever since we arrived. Well, what do we do now? I'm guessing you know where the stone is?"

Littendur sat back in his chair (at least as well as he was able considering the curvature of his spine) and wiped at his disfigured mouth with a cloth napkin. "I don't know where it is," he said, "but I know where it's going."

There was a long silence and then Daurgren said, "Well?"

"I'd better start from the beginning," Littendur said. "I have spent the last twelve years searching for you. Looking through the eye's of millions. I finally found you a month ago, by luck, when a sparrow flew into your cell searching for food. You have never seen through the eyes of a sparrow, suffice it to say, they do not see exactly as we do and at first I did not recognize you, but then a mortyrite adept entered the cell and chased the sparrow away and I shifted my view to his eyes and then I saw it was you and that my search was over."

"Why did you seek me?"

"Because our brethren that you imprisoned would soon be released. Their two thousand year sentence was close to fulfillment."

"Still," Daurgren said, "why did you seek me out? Did you wish me to extend their incarceration indefinitely?"

Littendur looked down. "Perhaps. I'm not sure. I was afraid. I gained their enmity by helping you. Many of them vowed to revenge themselves on me when they attained their freedom. You were there. You heard their threats. They were far from idle. Perhaps I thought you would be able to protect me." He looked up. "Can you?"

"Possibly," Daurgren said. "But not if one of them retrieves the stone. It still contains the majority of my power. Without it I will barely be able to protect myself."

"Just as I thought. So the stone is the key to the continuance of both our lives," Littendur said, swirling a tiny spoon within a silver-plated jam jar. "Before I go on, there is one thing that has bothered me ever since I saw you prostrate in that cell?"

"Which is what?"

"How did they imprison you? The mortyrites, I mean?"

Daurgren shook his head. "I do not know. That is one of the things I have been pondering while you have been sitting in a daze for all these hours. I remember a small city in a country far to the west. I had been living in a tall house, one of many on a great series of terraces and I was quite happy. It was a beautiful place, and reckoning back from the date you have told me is today, it was a little over ninety years ago. One night as I prepared myself for bed, I heard a knock at my closet door. Lifting a candle from the bedstand I walked to the door and opened it, thinking one of the servants was playing a practical joke, something they often did, being a rather jubilant if at times cruel people. But when the door swung open I saw no servant… I saw…" Daurgren paused and stared at nothing as if he were trying to convince himself of something he did not wish to believe.

"What? What did you see?"

"I am not sure. But I… I think I saw Argemon."

A strange terror filled Littendur's face. "That cannot be!"

Daurgren ran his hand along the glass of the window. "I said I was not sure. I saw a man, an old man, with but one eye, or so the flickering light from the candle made it seem. Perhaps it was all a trick of the light. I had but an instant in which to see, for in the next I saw nothing. And everything after that was as if a long dream until the moment you awoke me. It is conceivable that I dreamt I saw Argemon, but then… how was I imprisoned? Did mere men imprison me?"

Beads of sweat began to form on Littendur's crumpled forehead. "If Argemon it was, then why would he turn you over to the mortyrites? It makes no sense."

"Why did he do any of the things he did? He claimed to be father of all the ahstyr, or at least our creator, and yet he treated us as toys, playing with us, arranging us as if actors on a stage, maiming some of us, loving a few, killing others. And finally discarding us, leaving us on our own, or so we thought. Maybe he never left. Maybe he simply kept to the shadows in order to better conduct his unfathomable experiments. Lyren always believed so. And Islsif, who had most reason to hate him, claimed he was still lurking on the edges of everything, and she continued to believe so until the very end when madness took her and Stykos crushed her throat within his fist. Maybe…"

"Enough!" Littendur demanded. "We are accomplishing nothing. Argemon is gone. And if he isn't, then we still have more pressing things on which to ponder."

"What could be more urgent than Argemon's return?"

Littendur wiped at his forehead. "Ampersand for one. Emortir for two. And Stykos for three. They have banded together, along with Ammikis and Lassus, and Ampersand has led them to Sangren, which is where the stone will shortly be. If I remember correctly, Stykos vowed he would tear off both our manhood's and then stuff them in our mouths, and that was just the beginning of his threats. Forget Argemon. If he has returned, then there is nothing either of us can do, he was and always will be beyond our power to control. If we are at this very moment his puppets, then there is nothing we can do but play out our parts as if they were our own."

Daurgren sighed deeply. "Perhaps you are right," he said. "So, the stone will be in Sangren?"

Littendur nodded his head. "It will."

"When?"

"Soon."

"You've seen this?"

"Yes."

"Explain," Daurgren said, "tell me everything."

Littendur smeared some jam on a soggy piece of toast and as he took bites out of it with his lopsided mouth he said, "The last few days have been adventurous to say the least. As I said, I discovered you in your cell about a month ago. It took two weeks, and the eyes of a flock of geese traveling south for the winter, for me to figure out where exactly your cell was located. That mortyrite temple is about as far from civilization as it is possible to get. It took me two more weeks just to arrive there, and all the time as I traveled I feared I would be too late. The two millennia sentence you placed upon our brethren had ended three days after I first saw you in your cell, and as such, anyone, be he man or ahstyr, could remove the stone from the door of the prison and release them and claim the stone as their own."

"How did you know that? I never told you that, or anyone else."

Littendur held up his hand. "Conjecture," he said, "but please, patience, all will soon be made clear. During the years in which I searched for you I also kept an eye on the prison with the help of various aquatic creatures who happened to be swimming near. Two weeks before I discovered you in your cell, six weeks before I freed you, I received quite a shock. I was staring through the eyes of a gore shark that had just torn apart a large squid a few meters from the prison door when a bulbous metal contraption with hinged arms and bright floodlights attached to it dropped down before the shark's eyes. The gore shark, being what it is, attacked. The exploratory submersible, for so I later learned it to be, was in short order destroyed. Later, after looking through the eyes of a few dock workers, I soon found myself staring through the eyes of a man as he walked angrily back into a warehouse on the island's west side. He strode up to an old grizzled man and a well tanned man in a wetsuit. My eyes cursed the shark and the old man said he had warned of the great number of gore sharks that hunted in the waters around the island. My eyes then walked to the other side of the warehouse where a large group of technicians were clustered around a bank of monitors and computer terminals-"

"What?" Daurgren interrupted.

"Oh, I had forgotten," Littendur said, "you have been asleep for so long. Ah, this is troublesome… monitors are like a screen or a photograph that shows you moving pictures sent from a camera. They had cameras before you were put to sleep, didn't they?"

"Yes, I owned one myself. No doubt an antique now. How things have changed. And what about these computer terminals?"

"Yes, well, that's a bit harder to describe. They are mathematical machines that run on electricity and by the grace of ones and zeros almost have the rudiments of a simpleton's mind, a mind that is able to compute extremely complex problems in a short amount of time. They are like something that Lyren would have created. They have already begun to change mankind's civilization."

Daurgren stared out the window. "How things have changed. But, please, continue."

"Well, my eyes walked up to one of the technicians and asked how soon the second submersible could be ready. He was told one month. And so over the next month, by keeping an eye upon them, I was able to learn what they were about. They were a team of archaeologists, divers, and scientists, and they were going to study and recover what artifacts they could from the ruins that lay submerged deep beneath the ocean at the island's foot, or so they thought."

Daurgren smiled ruefully. "Are you saying that our brethren were released by men looking for ancient pottery?"

"No, I'm saying that they thought they were looking for ancient pottery. The man they were working for knew better. His name is Erskine Caldwell and he is almost as much to be feared as Ampersand. He is a man of great wealth and power, and he is a conjurer of unusual skill, at least for an ape-maggot. I have seen him at work through his own eyes and he is as ruthless as Argemon. He was there when the stone was brought to the surface by the submersible. That it is not within his hands at this very moment we owe to a man named Paul Rath."

Littendur paused and drank from a glass of water. "A few hours before I stopped Emortir from destroying you, I was sitting in the cliffs above the mortyrite temple, looking through the eyes of those in the structure below to see if my way was relatively clear to come and free you. It was not and so I decided to wait for a more opportune moment. While I waited I sent my gaze under the sea at the base of Divers Island and found a crustacean that happened to be resting at the foot of the prison door. It was watching a submersible with metallic arms, remove the stone, your stone from a socket in the marble door. When the stone was free, it was deposited in a drawer that slid out of the submersible's side. As the submersible rose, air bubbles began leaking from the cracks between the marble door of the prison and the stone surrounding it. And then with the weight of an entire ocean pressing upon it the door was thrust inwards, followed by a great inrushing of water. My eyes, the crab, were sucked inward and crushed against a marble pillar. I quickly sent my gaze upwards, searching for a new set of eyes. I found those of the old grizzled man I had seen a few times before and I settled in. He was watching from the end of a dock as the submersible was raised from the surface of the water by a crane and lowered onto a cart that was then pushed into the warehouse at the dock's landward end.

"It was early morning and the sun had just risen. Before following the submersible into the warehouse, the old man looked back and stared at the sea for the last time. The calm water was reflecting a blood-gold sky and the old man, I think he must have been a mariner, perhaps having sailed the waves around the island for his entire life, he paused at the threshold of the warehouse doors and he stared. Then the excited voices and shouts of the men within drew him inward and he saw the head archaeologist, Paul Rath, lifting a drab greyish-white stone from the submersible's storage compartment. As he held the stone in his upturned palm there was a commotion from the warehouse's streetward entrance. A well dressed man strode forward with two men at his flank. He yelled volubly at Rath, demanding to know why they had commenced an hour earlier than was scheduled. Rath yelled back, as the man approached, that the sea had been extremely calm and that they had decided to proceed while conditions were good. The man, as he reached Rath, began to yell again, but then ceased when he saw the stone sitting upon Rath's hand. He asked if that was the stone that was embedded within the door and Rath nodded his head.

"Then my eyes, perhaps hearing a change in the sound of the sea behind him, looked back and saw the calm water at the dock's side burst forth geyser like and release a succession of mock human creatures from the spray, creatures which he could never imagine or accept, creatures which we have both seen in the corrupted flesh. The old man's heart must have stopped for he collapsed and my view was cut short. I searched and found the eyes of Paul Rath and stared out at the stone upon his palm. The well dressed man, Erskine Caldwell, stood at Paul's side close enough to reach out and take the stone from him. But instead of just grabbing it he asked Rath to give him the stone. Rath paused and stared at his employer, and it was this brief pause that was to be our savior, for at that moment it was noticed that the old man was lying on the warehouse floor and that behind him through the open doors stood four identical blindfolded young girls silhouetted against the rising sun."

"The tetradus fatum," Daurgren said, stating the obvious.

"Yes, it was them, and they were not alone. The mock human creatures swarmed around them. Before Erskine Caldwell pulled Rath away, I saw the closest of the technicians fall in a gust of red. The two men who had been flanking Caldwell stood their ground and, drawing firearms, they shot futilely at the creatures that were slaughtering men at the warehouse's center. Caldwell dragged Rath to the side door and shoved him through it. Rath sprawled on the ground and looked back to see Caldwell close the side door just as his two guards were eviscerated. Rath stood and looking up from the stone within his hand he saw Caldwell run his hands along the edges of the metal door. Where he touched it the metal fused with the surrounding frame. Rath stumbled backwards and ran down the street to his automobile. While he hurriedly drove away, I chanced a view through Caldwell's eyes. He was standing before the door he had sealed just as it crumpled and flew outward. As the creatures behind it lunged forward he performed a conflagration of triangles and they were seared backwards with the force of a cyclone. He quickly turned and noting Rath's disappearance he got in his own vehicle and fled.

"After cursing myself for allowing my curiosity to send my view to Caldwell, leaving Rath and the stone, I eventually regained Rath's eyes with a sigh of relief and discovered him standing at a wharf on the island's south side, chartering a flight from a small two-plane airline. As the plane was made ready, he procured a small box and placed the stone within it. Wrapping it up tight with string and tape, he then wrote an address on the top, applied a few stamps, and dropped it in a mailbox a short way down the street. As he walked back to the plane he had chartered, I let my gaze drift back towards the warehouse that was now an abattoir.

"What I found was Emortir. There is a bond between us. I was drawn to her eyes and saw her open up a doorway and step through it. I recognized the place she emerged. She was below me in the mortyrite temple and I had run out of time. I will not lie to you. I considered running and leaving you in her hands, but that would have been only a temporary respite. So I did not run, and the rest you know."

"Ah," Daurgren said. "But you have not told me where he sent the stone?"

"Sangren," Littendur said. "I saw it all and the postmark read Time Rath."

"Father?"

Littendur shook his head. "Brother."

"So what do we do now?"

"We wait, and I watch. I've already seen through his eyes a few times. Once, he was kissing a girl on a beach. Next, he was throwing a bottle at a policeman. The last time, I watched as he walked home and went to sleep," Littendur said, pausing and staring out the window. "It was strange how easily I found him."

"Strange?" Daurgren said. "There is much about what you have told me that I find strange, almost frighteningly so. There were far to many coincidences in all these occurrences. It seems to speak of a figure in the shadows pulling the strings, does it not?"

Littendur looked down at the table.

"Do you remember," Daurgren said, "what Argemon used to say: There are no coincidences. Coincidences are things I cause to happen unbeknownst to you."

They were both silent for a long while.

Finally, Littendur broke the silence. "If I can find the stone before Rath obtains it, can we take it for our own?"

Daurgren shook his head. "You know better, as did Caldwell. Just as a heart can not be taken and must be given freely, so must the stone. If we were to take it, its power would be dead to us."

"But, it must be on a plane over the Kelmaur at this very moment wrapped in a small cardboard box. Can this still be considered as given, traveling the distance it will and the vague circumstances of its arrival in Rath's hands?"

"It as good as belongs to Time Rath," Daurgren said. "To everyone else it is useless."

"How can you be so sure?"

"It was mine for two thousand years, remember," Daurgren said, placing his hand on his chest over his heart.

Littendur scratched at his chin. "If we were to kill this Time Rath before he gets the stone, then the stone's power would be forever locked away from everyone, correct?"

Daurgren studied the bent figure opposite him. "Yes, that is correct. But would you have us kill him?"

Littendur rubbed at his face with both his hands. "No," he said. "I do not think I would. But what are we supposed to do?"

"We wait," Daurgren said, "and you watch."

"And when he gets the stone?"

"We convince him that it would be in his best interests and the interests of the world to give the stone to us, or rather to me. Which reminds me, I assume you have a doorway to Sangren?"

Littendur reached in his pocket and held a pair of metal spheres up in the light of the late morning sun. They gleamed brightly as he said, "I know the building where Rath lives, and this doorway opens a little over twelve blocks away."

Daurgren's face became grim. "Another coincidence it seems."




Chapter 26: Power

Sangren

2:57s.d.p. Kotus, 21st of Sedalas, 1777

Sera Anig sat in the diner at a booth near the window. Brushing her red-dyed hair back from her face, she glanced across the street at the entrance to the Afterdamp Apartment Building. Looking down at her watch she decided she had better phone Caldwell. Moving to the far wall she deposited a quarter tentrum into the phone and lifted the receiver. After dialing the number, she turned and resumed her watch of the Afterdamp's entrance.

"Yes," Caldwell said.

"I've made visual contact, but there is a problem. I have Gignoskein and a couple of Fat Theodore's boys sitting out front and they're watching the same prey."

The other side of the line was silent.

"What do you want me to do?" she asked.

"At the soonest possible opportunity operate. I want you close enough to touch Rath at all times. Make him trust you. If he meets or talks with anyone I want you right at his side. Go through his mail. If he receives a drab greyish-white stone, you are to immobilize him and contact me immediately. You're his skin until I say otherwise. Ignore Gignoskein, he'll be taken care of."

The line went dead. Sera hung up the phone. Moving back to the booth, she finished her lunch.

As the waitress was refilling her coffee cup, Sera saw two police cars drive up and park in front of the diner. As the officers got out and stood on the sidewalk, Sera leaned close to the glass of the window and looked down the street to where Gignoskein and FT's boys were parked. It took only a few steps by the officers in their direction and both cars pulled away from the curb and sped away.

As she lifted the cup of coffee to her lips, she watched as the officers got back into their cars and sat there. They would be sitting there until Caldwell ordered their superior officer to tell them to leave.

Sera returned her gaze to the building across the street and waited for the opening that would allow her to operate.




Chapter 27: A Warm Halo

Sangren International Aerodrome

3:00s.d.p. Kotus, 21st of Sedalas, 1777

They confiscated Liemon Werl's gun as he went through customs. He showed them his credentials but they still refused to allow him to keep it, so he handed it to them, collected a receipt, and continued on his way. Angry, he walked quickly to the nearest exit and hailed a taxi.

"Where to?"

Werl paused and thought for a moment. Late last night he had done a little poking around and had discovered that Paul Rath was not the only one he wished to speak with in Sangren. Erskine Caldwell, the infamous tycoon, had been seen boarding his private jet and flying away half an hour after the massacre at the warehouse. Making a few discreet phone calls, Werl soon learned that Caldwell had been on the island for the past week and that he had been the one bankrolling the entire operation that had been working out of that doomed warehouse on the island's west side.

Which first? Caldwell or Rath? In the past, Werl had learned that when he sought after a big fish and a little fish, it was often more worthwhile to seek the big fish first, for on many occasions he soon discovered that in the end the big fish had already eaten the little fish.

"White Apple Tower," Werl said to the cabdriver.

• • •

Werl sat in a plush waiting room watching with tired eyes the way the fabric of the secretary's blouse clung nicely to her torso. Caldwell wasn't going to see him, and he had no authority with which to force him to. This was a waste of time. He stood and began to leave. So it would be the little fish after all.

As he was stepping from the waiting room, the door to Caldwell's office opened and a voice called firmly: "Mr. Werl. I believe you wished to speak with me."

Werl turned and saw a well dressed man standing with one hand on the door handle and the other extended. Werl walked quickly to him and shook his hand. Caldwell led him through the doorway into an office without windows that was, to his surprise, plain and utilitarian. Once they were both seated, he saw the purpose of the office's austerity. There was nothing to distract you from the severe authority of Caldwell's manner.

"What is it you wish to speak about, Mr. Werl? My secretary said you were a Lieutenant Inspector in the Diveran Constabulary?"

"That is correct," Werl said.

"I was not aware your jurisdiction spread so far?"

"It doesn't. But would you mind if I asked you a few questions, anyway?"

"Go ahead. Ask your questions."

"Where were you yesterday morning around five?"

"Let's drop the subject," Caldwell said, checking his watch. "I'm afraid I'm out of time. Perhaps you could come by tomorrow. Good day, Mr. Werl."

"But-"

"Good day."

Werl stood and met Caldwell's gaze. And in that moment, reading Werl's eyes, Caldwell decided to err on the side of caution.

As Werl walked from the office, Caldwell lifted the phone from his desk.

"The man who was just in my office… is he on camera four yet… yes, that's him… I want you to show him Loon Islet."

• • •

When Werl stepped out onto the sidewalk the sky was clouded over and a dense fog had drifted in, obscuring buildings that were only blocks away. He walked to the curb and a taxi pulled up before him. As he opened the door a man in a strict hat wearing a business suit stepped up beside him.

"I'm extremely late," he said. "Where are you going? Perhaps we can share it?"

"No, it's alright," Werl said, "go ahead, I'll find another."

The man in the strict hat pulled a gun from his jacket pocket. "I insist. Get in."

• • •

The counterfeit taxi pulled up to the end of a short wooden pier. Werl was shoved out the door and then prodded by the man in the strict hat across a gangplank to a small rivercruiser. Sitting in the back with Strict Hat aiming a gun discreetly at his head, Werl watched as the false cabdriver cast off the gangplank and the mooring line, and then jumped into the wheelhouse.

The rivercruiser pulled away from the wooden pier and the buildings on the river's shore disappeared in the fog. Werl breathed in deeply and the air was moist in his nose. Besides the sound of the boat traversing the water, the only sounds that reached his ears were the occasional foghorn and, dim and muted, the noises of a city that was a world away. To Werl it seemed he drifted down a tunnel of shifting grey stone and at the end he tasted a grim sward. The slight wind that blew into his face wetted his skin lightly.

• • •

Out of the swirling grey a tiny islet emerged in line with the rivercruiser's prow.

"Are we still on the river?" Werl asked.

Strict Hat nodded his head.

The rivercruiser skirted the edge of the islet and drew up along the side of an ancient stone quay that jutted out into the dark water of the river. The islet was small enough to walk across in less than a minute and at its center it swelled to a small crest of a hill, upon which a weathered bellus tree arose from a ruined structure of archaic stone.

"Bullet, knife, or other?" Werl asked.

Strict Hat lifted the barrel of the gun and waved it insolently.

"Make it clean," Werl said.

Strict Hat narrowed his eyes, eyes that were never far from anger. "Hey, fuck off. Shut your god damn fucking tricky prick mouth. I know my job."

The smugness on the man's face angered Werl. He had jailed dozens of such men. "No, fuck you and your mother," Werl said, and then noticing the ring on the man's finger: "I was going to say fuck your wife but I'm sure someone's doing that for you as we speak."

Strict Hat stood and stepped closer to Werl, but not close enough. "Hurry up and tie this boat up," he said to the false cabdriver. "I want to pop this fucker quick."

Werl leaned forward. "I'm sure that's what your wife said to her first customer at the whorehouse at the tender age of sixteen. Is that where you met?"

"Just keep talking, fucker," Strict Hat said, but drew no closer.

Werl closed his mouth. Strict Hat knew to keep some distance between them. If Werl lunged, Strict Hat could still blow his head off before a finger was laid on him. Werl decided that he would kill this man, somehow. The cold weariness that had plagued him for so long was being evaporated by the anger seething in his veins. He would kill this man.

The false cabdriver jumped down with the mooring line to the quay below and tied it off to a rusted iron ring set within the stone. Then, after climbing back aboard the rivercruiser, he lowered the gangplank and Strict Hat motioned for Werl to walk down it.

As Werl stepped upon it his foot slipped and he fell and slid to the stone quay below, where he lay still with his eyes half open.

"Fuck," the false cabdriver said, "just shoot him from here."

Strict Hat laughed. "Hey, where's he gonna go?" he said, and then stepped upon the gangplank.

Werl grabbed the gangplank's railing and pulled with all his strength. The gangplank bucked and then came loose. Both it and Strict Hat plunged downward into the narrow space between the rivercruiser and the stone quay. For a brief interlude, he and the gangplank were wedged together, stuck between metal and stone, with his neck twisted back at an uncaring angle, and then the rivercruiser drifted slightly away and this tangled mass of flesh and metal scraped downwards and plunged into the water below.

Werl leapt up and ran for the islet.

The false cabdriver, bent over the rivercruiser's rail, looked up and drawing a gun, emptied an entire clip, hitting nothing but stone. By the time he had reloaded, Werl had disappeared in the ruined structure of stone at the islet's crest.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck," the false cabdriver yelled, and then looked over the side at the dark water. Nothing. He was on his own. "Fuck."

He moved to the wheelhouse and was about to steer the ship away when he remembered the mooring line. He shut off the motor and removed the keys from the ignition. Leaping down to the quay, he began untying the mooring line. As it came free he held it tightly in his fists. He could take the rivercruiser and go south, disappear in the Seven Islands or maybe the Broken Teeth, somewhere far away where Caldwell couldn't find him. He retied the mooring line. There was no such place.

He looked up at the islet's crest. Why was he afraid? The guy wasn't even armed. He pushed aside the fact that he had never actually dropped the hammer on anyone. He reassured himself with the thought that he had seen it done numerous times and it had never looked all that difficult. He stood and drew his gun.

• • •

Werl, crouched atop one of the immense limbs of the bellus tree, watched as the false cabdriver edged up to the wall of the ruined structure of stone below him. He moved a little ways down the limb closer to the trunk where the shadows were darkest. He saw the man clearer and saw he was shaking.

The stone in Werl's hand was damp with moss. A few steps closer and he would throw it. One… two… three… four. He aimed for the temple and instead struck the man above the right eye. Blood gushed profusely. Werl leapt from the tree. His left knee collided with the man's collar bone and he felt it snap beneath his weight. His right knee crushed the man's nose. Dropping together, the gun came free and skidded along the uneven flagstones, leaving a path in the fallen leaves.

Werl scrambled quickly to the gun and, lifting it in his hand, he turned. The false cabdriver lay in the leaves on his back bleeding from his brow and his nose and from his right shoulder where part of his broken collar bone jutted through his skin and shirt and jacket. Werl pocketed the gun and then knelt down beside the damaged man. Werl felt his pulse and it was weak and irregular. In addition to his other injuries, the back of the man's head was wet with blood. His skull was probably fractured. Werl lifted the man in his arms and carefully made his way back to the quay, setting him down gently on the cold stone.

Werl looked up at the rivercruiser. Without the gangplank it would be very hard to get the man onboard. He leapt from the quay and pulled himself up and over the rivercruiser's railing. He searched for something that could be of use. He found nothing except rope, and the man was in no condition to be hauled up like a sack of potatoes. But there was nothing else.

He leapt down to the quay with the rope in his hands and knelt beside the man. Before attempting to lift the man aboard, he decided to bind the man's wounds as best he could. A puddle of blood had formed around the man's head and shoulders. Werl leaned close and inspected the man's nose and brow. The man was uncommonly still. Werl grabbed the man's wrist and felt for a pulse. There was none. The man was dead. Werl stood and bowed his head. Feeling cheap and wretched he stepped back from the man he had murdered. Caldwell's face flashed in his mind and he was suddenly furious. Caldwell was behind it all. These two men, the massacre at the warehouse. And it was upon Caldwell that he would exact retribution. As he usually would have, he did not question the rage that was consuming him and then quench it. He was tired of being cold, and the warmth felt good.

He climbed back aboard the rivercruiser and discovering the keys were missing from the ignition, he leapt back down to the quay. He stared at the dead man a long while before he was able to make himself search the man's bloody clothes for the keys. As he searched, a puddle of blood framed the man's head in a magenta halo, reflecting back his every movement in the color of violence. Finding the keys he stood and backed away, wiping his bloody hands on his trousers. He felt strange, almost as if he had stepped through a mirror, for soon some man would be standing over this victim beginning a search for the killer and that man would be seeking him.

He untied the mooring line and tossed it over the rivercruiser's rail. Removing his coat, he draped it over the dead man, making sure to tuck it securely beneath the man's bloody head. He had seen too many cold faces, with eyes pecked out by birds, to not do at least that.

• • •

As he steered away from the tiny islet, he looked back and watched as the prone form lying on the stone quay was lost in the fog. His fingers dug into the wheel. This case was going to kill him and he didn't care, for the blood felt warm in his veins and lurking on the edges of it all he sensed a terror and dread that made him feel alive.




Chapter 28: If One is Lonely, Then What is Zero

Time Rath: Interior Monologue

I awake. I can't breathe. The breath won't come. I cannot remove the sound of the crying from my head, it continues to echo on and on, and then is silent and then begins again, as if not one but countless thousands were dying in succession, the cries of the mother wailing up in mourning with every death. I cannot breathe. And now I am awake. I cannot breathe. I am alone. The world is going to shatter. Being still won't help. I have to move. I roll off the mattress and stand quickly. The world spins. A warm feeling grows in my head. My eyes blur white. I fall. I push and crawl my way against the wall. Into the corner. I try hard to breathe. My vision clears. The warmth in my head fades. I curl into a ball and try to make myself as small as possible.

Slowly, slowly, the world becomes solid. And the cries fade.

• • •

I feel better now. It is growing dark outside. It has been for a while. I'm not sure how long I have been in this corner. But, I feel better now.

• • •

Alone.

• • •

I will find Becky. When she sees how much I need her. She will save me.




Chapter 29: The Turn Around Delusion

Sangren

7:04s.d.p. Kotus, 21st of Sedalas, 1777

Sera Anig dropped a five tentrum on the table and slid from the booth. Rath had finally left his apartment. She hurried out the diner door. In this fog she would have to stay closer than she usually thought prudent. He was already half a block away. She tightened her jacket and began following, walking past the two patrol cars that were still parked at the curb.

• • •

Sera stepped into the Riverside Bar & Grill twenty seconds after Rath had done so. The place was crowded and it took her a moment to spot him. He was standing near the bar talking to a blonde haired waitress. She edged her way closer.

"I'm sorry, will you please just leave me alone," the blonde haired waitress said, and started to walk away.

Rath grabbed her arm gently and she shook his hand away.

"I said leave me alone."

"Please," Rath said, "just listen, for a moment…"

The blonde haired waitress stared at him and then shook her head. "I'm sorry."

She turned, but before she could walk away Rath leapt in front of her, not menacingly, more deer than lion. "Leave me alone," she said loudly.

Sera noticed she was not the only one who watched this little scene. A young man sitting at a nearby table with a group of his friends had taken an interest and was watching them intently. His clothes were stylish. His hair was stylish. If you asked him a question you would receive an answer someone else had put there. He was a follower that had never taken the time to discern the strings that led him. A sheep with sharp teeth. The only thing that separated him from his cloned group of friends was that he had a strong well defined jaw line.

Sera, still looking at the man she had mentally labeled Jawline, heard Rath mumble something and then the blonde haired waitress yell, "Why can't you understand. Just leave me alone."

Sera watched Jawline rise and his intentions were to her transparent. He had seen a chance to play the good natured hero in front of his friends and impress the girl he was with, and perhaps get a chance to kick some ass if things got out of hand. He walked up and placed his hand on Rath's shoulder, "Hey, pal, why don't you leave her alone, can't you see she doesn't want any."

Rath ignored him and tried to pull away. Jawline tightened his grip on Rath's shoulder. From the way Rath winced Sera could tell Jawline had not done this kindly. Rath turned around and Jawline let go of his shoulder, a slight vicious gleam showing in his eyes as he sensed the coming chance to show off violently. Sera started to step forward, to stop the impending altercation and then somehow lead Rath away, but she stopped herself, deciding to wait until Rath had tasted a little pain, her revenge on him for what she would have to do later. She leaned back against the bar and watched, as many others in the vicinity had begun to do.

Rath was now squared opposite Jawline, Jawline looming over him, the top of his head just level with Jawline's chin. Sera smiled. Then, watching Jawline's face, she leaned forward. A touch of apprehension, barely visible uncertainty, had appeared on Jawline's face. She searched Rath's hands to see if he had drawn a weapon, a knife or a gun, but his hands were empty, curled into fists, and that surely was no cause for alarm. Studying the trajectory of Jawline's eyes she determined it was something about Rath's face that was causing his trepidation, but as she could only see the back of Rath's head she was unable to make out exactly what this unknown quantity was.

Rath exploded forward, a dam bursting with incredible force, striking Jawline repeatedly in the chest and face. As Jawline fell, Sera stepped away from the bar shocked, as if she had just seen a wind blown piece of paper knock down a building. She knew a great deal about the martial arts, it was one of the many subjects Caldwell had sent her away to learn, and Rath had not been following any style which she had knowledge of. He had simply exploded, moved with a blinding swiftness, his thin arms striking almost randomly at their target with the points of his fists, not punching through but snapping at, like a whip cracking. Caldwell had not warned her of this, she would have to be cautious.

Those in the crowded restaurant who had not been aware of the small scene that had developed were now taking notice. Sera enjoyed the hush that descended, leaving only the low background music and the sounds Jawline made as he attempted to rise, reaching up and shaking the table in which he had only minutes before been sitting, and rattling the plates and glasses on its top as he used it to clamber to his feet. Sera was again surprised by Rath, this time by his stupidity. He had turned his back and was searching the restaurant with his eyes, Sera assumed, for the blonde haired waitress.

"Man, he fucked you up," one of Jawline's friends said, the girl sitting beside him giggling. "You need some help?"

That was enough to wipe the daze off Jawline's face and replace it with embarrassed rage. Sera leaned back against the bar; at the first sight of blood she would extricate Rath, his injuries the hook she would use to reel him in.

Jawline charged. At the last moment, with a grace Sera had not thought him capable, Rath stepped aside. Jawline plowed past and went head first into a nearby table, sending the remains of a dinner for two onto the table's occupants. The yells of dismay from the two diners seemed to awaken Rath to his surroundings. His eyes focused and he swept his gaze around the restaurant, observing all the people regarding him closely. Now, for the first time, Sera saw fear in him. The eyes of those watching him seemed to burn him and he began jerking his head around in an attempt to find a safe place to stare. His eyes swept past Sera and then sharply returned, locking into place, his head lifting as if he had found something unexpected, beyond safety.

And Sera became uncomfortably aware of what had caused Jawline's trepidation. A severity of concentration, of deadly focus, dissolved the distance between them, cutting into her, laying her bare. It made her think of Caldwell, and this frightened her.

The intensity of Rath's stare was such that Sera did not notice Jawline until his elbow had struck Rath in the side of the head, sending Rath sprawling across the floor. As Rath tumbled, the force of the blow convinced Sera that he would not be getting up, but he rolled with a fluid acrobatic grace and was on his feet, wobbling slightly. That was when Sera knew he had never been trained. All his actions had been pure instinct, primitive animal agility.

With his head bent at a groggy slant he was once again staring at Sera, apparently uncaring that Jawline was advancing upon him, and that Jawline's two friends were rising from their chairs behind his back.

It would not do if he were crippled or killed. Sera pushed off from the bar. "Behind you," she shouted, her voice fluid, smoothly commanding.

Like a slowed down reel of film, Time looked over his shoulder, perceiving the two men coming at him. Sera saw rage overcome him, as if the unfairness of the odds infuriated him. First things first, she thought, stepping between him and Jawline. Jawline made to push her out of the way. She kneed him in the groin and as he doubled up, she brought the heel of her hand against the bottom of his chin snapping his head back. He collapsed, unmoving.

Spinning around, she received visual confirmation that Rath had never endured any formal training. He flew forward recklessly, a stray bullet in flight, and struck the larger of the two foes across the eyes with his forearm, ricocheting into the one behind and dragging him to the ground. His fists flailed into the man's face. The larger man, recovering quickly, captured Rath in a bear hug, pinning his arms to his sides. Just as a bullet becomes impotent when not in flight, Rath was helpless. The larger man lifted Rath and then, twisting him parallel with the floor, he threw Rath head first into an empty table. Rath's head collided with the table's corner and he fell against a chair, sinking to the table's metal feet. Before the larger man could finish the kick he was aiming at Rath's midsection, Sera drove her fist into his back, through the knobs of his spine. He arched backwards and, his neck exposed, she chopped the side of her open hand against his windpipe, careful not to hit so hard as to crush it, just enough to bruise it severely. He dropped away, gasping.

Jawline's other friend was just beginning to recover and had raised himself up on one elbow when she spun and kicked him in the head. He crumpled and lay still.

With the entire restaurant silent and all eyes upon her, Sera brushed her over-saturated red-dyed hair back from her face. Satisfied there would be no more trouble, she turned and walked towards Rath. As she did so, she intercepted and brushed off the blonde haired waitress, who also made her way toward Rath. The girl at first resisting, then giving up after Sera pushed her away with a violent look.

Kneeling down beside Rath, Sera lifted his head from off the floor. He looked up at her unsteadily, a dark red bruise coloring his left temple.

"We had better leave before the cops arrive," she said.

He stared at her oddly, but did not resist when she helped him to his feet. Once standing, he swept his eyes around the restaurant. Thankfully, the blonde haired waitress was hidden by a group of people standing by the bar, and Sera was able to guide him towards the exit. No one attempted to stop them.

As they walked, Rath leaned upon her, his right hand resting insecurely upon her shoulder. After pushing through the door and stepping out into the cold night air, he disengaged himself from her and tried to walk on his own. He stumbled and fell, striking his face on the pavement of the sidewalk.

Sera cursed quietly to herself. Grabbing his arm she lifted it upwards and discovered he was lighter than she had thought. Tightening her hold, noting the fact that her hand easily encircled his thin wrist, she tugged gently and by crouching down was able to get his arm around her neck. As she turned and grabbed his other arm, he regained enough of his senses to half stand on his unsteady legs, leaning awkwardly upon her.

First, he breathed in the sweet smell of the perfume on her neck. Next, he felt the soft cloth against which the side of his face rested. When he finally comprehended that beneath the cloth lay smooth white skin and the flesh of a starkly pretty girl with hair dyed an unnatural shade of deep red, he tried to draw away, but she held him tight and with a slight motion of her hips she coerced him toward the street. Once there, she raised her free hand, hailing a taxicab that was passing by.

Opening the door, she helped him into the backseat and slid in after him.

"Where to?" the cabdriver said.

"One moment," Sera said, shifting closer to where the young man sat with his back against the far door, a dark bruise on his temple, blood trickling from his nose, and a semi-healed abrasion on his forehead. "Where do you live?" she asked.

He looked at the cabdriver and then back at her, nodded his head drowsily, and then held his hand up against his nose. He murmured something and then said, "the… Afterdamp…"

"Do you know where that is?" she said to the cabdriver, who winked, started the meter, and pulled the cab out into traffic.

Sera looked back at the young man with whom she had been ordered to spend the immediate future. In the sparse light from passing vehicles and streetlamps he did not look like much, and at the moment he appeared very much like a trapped and cornered animal, small and frightened and alone. His eyes rested everywhere except on her. This was not a good sign. She would have to operate with a different style than she was accustomed.

"What's your name?" she said.

He watched her, his eyes resting briefly upon her and then darting away, and then returning. "Time," he said.

"My name's Sera."

"What," he said brokenly, "happened after I, hit that, table?"

"I punched that big guy in the neck," she said. "A few years ago I took a few self-defense classes, and so I hit him in the neck. Is your head alright?" she said, sliding over to the middle of the seat, allowing her dress to rise up along her thighs. Watching his eyes look down and then look quickly back up, she decided this would be easier than she had thought. She moved in closer, tentatively reaching out with her hand towards his bruised temple. Before she actually made contact with his skin, he shivered violently, not as one does when one is cold, he shook as if he were trying to contain a seizure. As he recovered he leaned back against the door, pulling away from her hand.

"Why," he said, his head cast downward. "Why did you, why are, uh… um…"

She let her hand fall to her lap where her dress was gathered in folds across the white skin of her thighs. "It was brave of you to not back down," she said, noticing that the fingers of his left hand were curled over the palm.

"Brave?" he said, his voice bitter and scornful. He raised his right hand, pressing it under his nose which had once again begun to bleed.

The cab pulled onto the Poorfellows Tracery Bridge and in the dense fog the upper reaches of the bridge's metal framework were lost in the mist. The streaking arc lights sent their radiance across the lower fluted scrollwork making it appear as if they drove under the branches of an iron forest.

Sera shifted minutely closer to Rath. "Are you all right?" she asked quietly.

He looked at her briefly and then stared down at the floor at his feet. "I'm fine," he said, the blood from his nose trickling down the fingers of his right hand.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

He turned his head, and for a fleeting moment his face held that same severity of concentration she had seen earlier. Then it faded and he looked away. "I'm fine," he said.

The cab reached the south end of the P.T. and pulled off onto 12th Street. They were only blocks from the Afterdamp, and she had nothing by which to hold him near. Contemplating a few stratagems, she decided on the one which would give her more time to operate and hopefully get her into his apartment.

As the taxicab pulled up in front of the Afterdamp, she quickly gave the driver two five tentrums and told him to keep the change. She slid to the far door and opened it. As she stepped out of the cab she thrust her leg hard against the edge of the open door and fell to the sidewalk. Quickly slipping a key from her dress pocket, she stabbed it into the fleshy part of her thigh and then returned it from where it came.

She rolled to her side and looked back. The moment Rath appeared at the door above her, she knew she had him. She let out a childish whimper of pain. She clutched at her thigh, making sure he could see the blood. Pushing out from the cab he stepped over her fluidly and knelt beside her. She bit her tongue hard, causing tears to appear in her eyes.

The cabdriver appeared from around the edge of the cab. "You'd better get that bandaged," he said. "Hey, kid, do you need help getting her inside?"

Rath looked up at him, dumbfounded. "I…"

"Here you go," the cabdriver said, grabbing Sera's arm. As he pulled upwards she caught hold of Rath's hand and he was forced to stand and receive her weight as she draped herself on him. "Got her?" the cabdriver asked.

"We'll be alright from here," Sera said, forcing her voice to quiver.

The cabdriver winked at her and getting back inside the taxi he drove away.

"Do you have, something to bandage this?" she asked, feeling the rigidity of Rath's body as she clung to him.

"I, think, maybe," he stuttered.

She leaned upon him more heavily and he helped her across the sidewalk and into the Afterdamp. The carpet of the lobby was threadbare and in places darkly soiled. Halfway to the stairs she noticed the eyes of the apartment manager peeking out from his office. That could not be helped, she thought.

By lessening the amount she leaned upon him, they were able to make it up the stairs to the fourth floor with no incidents. When they reached his door, he fumbled in his pockets for the key, and as he unlocked it she saw his hand was shaking. Stepping inside, she suppressed the urge to laugh. She had seen many a bathroom larger than his entire apartment.

He flicked on the light switch and the apartment lost all of its humor. There was too much the feel of wretchedness, of sad empty nights with only the sounds from the radio to push away the weight of an all pervading despair. A wave of pity lessened her aversion for the things she would have to do later. Then, as they moved inside and he closed the door, the shabbiness of the place overwhelmed her, the desolation reminding her of things she had tried to forget. Rage filled her. Suddenly she despised him. She had to fight the urge to strike him in the face.

Stepping around the mattress on the floor, he pulled a wooden chair out away from a desk and helped her sit down. He stepped backwards and she let her arm trail off from his neck, allowing her nails to scratch lightly across his skin.

Walking to the opposite side of the room he stepped inside the bathroom and flipped on the light, the green tiles lining the walls making it appear as if he had entered a grungy aquatic grotto. He opened the mirrored cabinet above the sink and, after searching inside it, he returned with a roll of gauze and some medical tape, which he set on the desk. Moving away clumsily he went to a dilapidated dresser and removed a washcloth from a drawer. After wetting it in the sink he returned again and stood before her.

When she saw he wasn't going to clean her wound for her she lifted the washcloth from his grip and, pushing the hem of her dress aside, she wiped away the trails of blood from her thigh and then, removing her other hand from off the puncture, she wiped at the wound until it was clean. Looking up she saw he was nervously studying the wall above her head. She set the washcloth on the desk and grabbed the tape and gauze. "Could you help me?" she said with a slight edge to her voice.

He looked down, meeting her eyes, and then looked away and nodded his head.

"I'll hold the bandage in place while you tape it down," she said, tearing off a strip of gauze and holding it firmly over her wound.

He grabbed the tape and, leaning over her, the hem of her dress was pushed so far up her thighs that, between the triangle of her legs and the cloth, he caught sight of her panties and flustered, he directed his gaze to the strip of gauze and tore off a length of tape. Pressing the tape down gingerly on the gauze and her thigh, he quickly tore off another strip of tape.

Watching him, her anger left her. His timidity was amusing. "You better smooth it down or it won't stick," she said, trying to hide a subtle grin.

He pressed down on the first length of tape with the edge of his curled left hand and then applied the second, and the third, and the fourth in quick succession. Then, grabbing the gauze and the washcloth, he started to move away.

"Wait," she said. "We still need those."

He stopped and looked at her uneasily. "Why?"

She stood. "Your forehead and your nose, remember. Here, sit down." And when he didn't, she placed her hand on his arm and directed him towards the chair. Once he was sitting, she took the washcloth from him and leaning forward she wiped at the blood above his upper lip. His eyes closed and a barely perceptible shiver ran through him. She dabbed tenderly at his nose. "Does that hurt?" she asked.

"No," he said, opening his eyes. For the first time since the restaurant he met her gaze and held it. She stared at him, expecting him to look away. He did not. He watched her with an expression she could not read, an expression that cut deep and examined what it found. She felt strange and looked away, back at his nose, but it was clean of blood and had ceased to bleed. She raised her gaze to his forehead, glossing over his eyes hastily. She studied the abrasion above his right eyebrow. "When did you do this?" she asked, not taking her eyes off the patch of red.

"Yesterday."

"It's already started to heal," she said. "I'd bandage it, but I think it'll heal faster if it's left uncovered. What about that," she said, pointing at the purplish red bruise on his left temple. "Does that still hurt?"

"A little."

Keeping her eyes on the bruise she stepped away and set the washcloth on top of the desk. Looking down she saw the skin covering two of the knuckles on his right hand had split and was crusted lightly with blood. "Give me your hand," she said.

He drew his left hand closer to his chest, and then extended his right hand towards her. She took it and, regaining the washcloth, she gently brushed the crusted blood from off his knuckles. "You must have done this earlier," she said, sliding her fingers across his palm. He still watched her, and she felt naked. Quickly, without considering, she asked, "Who was that girl you were talking with? Your girlfriend?"

She felt his eyes drop away, and though relieved that she was no longer the center of his attention, she knew she had made a tactical error. He pulled his hand away and she could tell by his posture that he wanted her to leave. "Could I have something to drink," she hurriedly asked.

He sat in the chair with his head cast downward, looking like a defeated fighter, collapsed in the corner of the ring after a brutal fight. "There's… probably, something, in the frig," he murmured.

Sera stared down at him, studying him. On operations like this one she usually just showed a little thigh and smiled enticingly and the hook was set. There was no blatant artifice, just sex and wet lips. On other occasions she was required to play the actress, to play a specific part, following an unwritten script she made up as she went along. Taking a deep breath she imagined a curtain rising.

"Time," she said in a plaintive voice barely above a whisper.

He raised his head a little, but otherwise he did not move.

"Time," she said again, quieter. "Can I stay here? I… I don't have anywhere to go…" She thought of her past and began to cry.

He lifted his head and looked at the tears streaming down her face. He watched her dumbfounded, his mouth open. He rose from the chair.

Standing opposite her, within arm's reach, he stared at her, a pained expression on his face. "Don't cry," he said.

Waiting for exactly the right moment, she let her act work upon him, and then she stepped forward and fell against him, wrapping her arms around his back and resting her head upon his shoulder. Remember and cry, she thought to herself, remember and cry. She felt his arms, lightly and timidly, encircle her back. "Please," she whispered in his ear.

"Anything," he said, "just don't cry…"

She pressed her face against his neck and smiled.




Chapter 30: Standard Paradigm

Sangren

9:00s.d.p. Kotus, 21st of Sedalas, 1777

It was quite easy. While he was cleaning the washcloth in the bathroom sink, she dropped two somnols into his glass of apple juice. Then, to make sure there were no mistakes, she lifted her identical glass of apple juice and took a sip, leaving a bright smudge of lipstick on the transparent rim.

When he returned she took another sip and watched him through the glass. She had seduced far worse in the past two years. She did not have to worry about that tonight though. He would be asleep within five minutes of draining the glass.

• • •

He sipped at the laced juice nervously, bringing the glass up to his lips every few seconds as if to give his right hand something to do. His left hand was pressed against the side of his leg with the fingers curled over the palm. When she looked down at it, he turned his body slightly away. Another few quick sips and he had emptied the glass.

The clock read 9:14. She had five minutes to burn. "Do you draw," she asked, pointing at a sketchbook that had spilled from a backpack on top of the desk.

"No… not anymore," he said, raising his glass to his lips. Seeing it was empty, he lowered it, embarrassed.

"Can I see?" she asked, setting down the apple juice and lifting the sketchbook in her hands.

He nodded his head and she opened the cover.

• • •

The clock read 9:45 and he was still awake. Wide awake. Turning another sketchbook page she came upon a blank sheet. She had looked through a few dozen crosshatched drawings in black ink, making approving comments, asking a couple of questions, waiting for him to nod off or at least sit down. But there he stood, watching her, his shy demeanor diminishing with every minute, the intensity of his gaze slowly focusing on her. She closed the sketchbook and returned it to the desk.

Lifting her half empty glass of apple juice, she brought it to her mouth and studied him discreetly over the lipstick stained rim. The somnols were hitting him. He shivered intermittently. She could practically see the adrenaline pumping through him, counteracting the barbiturates, keeping him awake. The way he was shivering told her he could not last much longer. When his adrenaline failed him he would crash. But until then…

She grew more nervous. The way he stared at her was almost violent, though she sensed no violence from him. Moving the glass from her lips, she met his gaze and could not look away. She panicked. It seemed he could read her every thought. Transparent and helpless, she tried to look away.

Quickly, like a veil descending, things changed.

Wearily his eyelids narrowed and a sadness touched his lips. Her fear evaporated. A different person stood before her. She was mesmerized. The gentle sorrow of his face was almost prophetic, like the sculpture in the Cathedral of Tears, the one above the altar showing Fanjis hanging from the noose at the moment of his resurrection.

Heedless of everything she watched him.

He wavered.

His eyes closed. His head fell to the side. He shivered violently.

The glass slipped from Sera's hand. Hitting the wooden floorboards, it did not shatter. It sounded loudly and rolled beneath the desk.

Rath stumbled forward and she watched motionless as he collapsed to the floor at her feet. Staring down at him, she rubbed at her eyes and took a deep breath. Looking up, she saw the clock change from 9:47 to 9:48, and it eerily appeared as if the world had visibly shifted. Caldwell had shown her things that had affected her in a similar way, but the things he had shown her were ugly and twisted and full of corruption. What she had seen in Rath's face was different, powerful, but less concrete, illusory, probably imagined.

She stepped over Rath and filling the bathroom sink with cold water, she submerged her face and held it there until her lungs ached.

• • •

Rath lay between the mattress and the desk with his right arm under him and his left arm splayed across the floor. Sera knelt beside him and studied the palm of his left hand. A circular patch of scarred pink skin was emblazoned upon its surface. Pushing aside her curiosity, she decided she would get him in the bed and then search the apartment for Caldwell's stone. She rolled him over onto the mattress and then removed his shoes. As she was adjusting his head on the pillow, his eyes opened slowly. Expecting him to sleep for hours, she almost leapt backwards in surprise.

"What happened?" he asked groggily.

"You passed out."

He slid his legs over and sat on the edge of the mattress. Feeling wetness on the bottom of his feet through his socks, he lifted them. "Apple juice," he said.

"What?"

"There's apple juice on the floor," he said.

"Sorry. I dropped my glass when you fell. I'll get that washcloth."

Returning from the bathroom sink, she found him with his face buried in his hands. While she wiped up the apple juice from the floor, he did not move. When she finished, she stood over him, trying to see if he was still awake. The washcloth slipped from her hand and fell on the mattress beside him. As she leaned over and grabbed it, he raised his head and her cheek brushed lightly against his cheek, slowly, almost like a caress. While she straightened up she saw a violent shiver run through him, and she wondered if perhaps he suffered from epilepsy or braytman's disease.

She sat down on the bed beside him and, while he watched her, her deeply red hair, she removed his socks and tossed them aside.

Looking over at him she smiled, wondering why he was not asleep. Again, things had changed. Timidity had disappeared. Sorrow had departed. His veneer was numb, frozen, almost catatonic. He stared straight ahead, occasionally blinking slowly.

Sera sat beside him for a long while, at a loss for words or action.

Then she reached out and took both his hands in hers. For the briefest of moments, when she grasped his left hand he pulled away, but like a lantern out of oil the flame quickly died.

Feeling the scar on his palm she asked, "What happened to your hand?"

He was silent, and then in a subdued voice he said, "I was in a fire…"

"It's almost a perfect circle," she said, running her fingers around the edges of the scar. "How did it happen?"

His head lowered. He closed his eyes. "Two years ago… I was living in an apartment on 24th street," he said. "It was a much nicer place than this… one evening there was an explosion… and a fire…"

He did not see it, because his eyes were closed, but her face grew pale and disintegrated. "The Brodufty Building," she whispered.

He did not respond.

"The Brodufty," she said, her voice trembling. "Was that the place where you use to live?"

"Yes," he said.

Her face broke and crumbled. She took a deep breath and tried to compose herself. Even after she crushed it and made her face stoic and mask-like, a darkness lingered.

"I was sitting in my room when I heard it," he said. "And felt it. It knocked me to the floor. I ran into the hall. It was dark and smoke was billowing everywhere. I ran for the stairs. Before I got there I heard a woman cry out from beyond an apartment door. I could feel the heat. I heard her cry out again. I stepped towards the door and the heat grew stronger. Dark black smoke was pouring out of the cracks between the door and the doorframe. I could smell burning wood. I started to reach out with my right hand, but I… I pulled it back because…" an expression of disgust settled on his face, "because I used my right hand for drawing, I stopped like a selfish coward because I didn't want to injure my drawing hand. Instead I reached out with my left hand, my weaker hand, and my palm was seared with pain. I couldn't turn the handle and it seared my skin. As my flesh burned I realized what I had done. I reached out with my right hand too late. The ceiling collapsed upon me. Pinned to the floor beneath smoldering beams, unable to speak, barely able to breathe for the weight on my chest, I listened as she slowly died. But she was not alone. The wail of a baby crying rose up beyond the door which was now beginning to burn with open flames. The mother cried out for someone to save her child, over and over. I can hear them still. The mother crying out and praying, yelling for god to save her baby. The tiny infant wailing and shrieking. Until the smoke and fumes… and the fire, silenced them both forever. Suffocated and then burned their bodies to ash. And I could have saved them. But I am corrupt, a coward. I killed them. I let them to die, killed them. I could have saved them both if I had just reached out with my right hand," he said, staring at his hands as if there were nothing else in the world. "…if I had just reached out with my right hand…"

"It would have made no difference if you had," Sera said, shame, bitterness, and anger spilling tears down her face. "The ceiling still would have collapsed on top of you. What would it have mattered if you had used your right hand."

He pulled his hands away from her. "You don't understand. I felt it give, but my left hand didn't have the strength to wrench it open. My right hand would have been strong enough, it would have."

"You can't know that," she said, the resentment in her voice giving way to anguish. "You did all you could. It…" she looked down at her own hands, "… it wasn't your fault they died."

"It was," he yelled, leaping up and staggering about. Dizzy, he caught hold of the blinds in order to keep from falling, and they were torn free of the wall and fell with him to the floor. Before Sera could reach him he was on his feet, looking out the window with unqualified terror. "The light," he screamed, "turn off the light, they're out there, they're waiting…"

Sera ran to the door and flipped off the light switch. Returning to Time she found him pressed against the dresser in front of the window, rigid with fear. He was breathing in and out rapidly, close to hyperventilating. She clutched his face within her hands and forced him to look away from the window, to look at her. Staring at each other, she began to doubt his sanity, his eyes wild, uncontained.

With the obscurity of water reflecting through glass, his gaze focused upon her. Unable to bear it, unaccountably stricken, her hands slipped from his face, drifted downwards and fell to her sides. He was a breath, a whisper, from destruction. And she had done this to him. He bore the weight of her sins. Tears fell heedless from her eyes. She was corruption. She was vile. She was destruction.

Unable to bear his gaze, she looked away.

Moment after moment passed, the neon lights from across the street filling the darkened room with flickering radiance.

She felt his hand brush her cheek and then rest there, steady and certain, calm and reassuring. For a brief instant she almost let herself go, she almost let down her guard. For no reason she could perceive, she almost felt hope.




Chapter 31: The Sight of Broken Things Sick with Wisdom

Time Rath: Interior Monologue

She pushes my hand away. "Don't…" she whispers. "Don't do that." She is crying more violently, the traces of hardness crumbling from her face.

I am helpless.

"What? Do what?" I ask, my voice trembling.

Her eyes stab at me accusingly. "Make me want to live," she says. "I don't deserve to."

I reach out to her, but she pulls away and drops to her knees before me, her eyes casting tears down her cheeks, teardrop after teardrop falling slowly from her chin and cascading into space, separate and distinct as they disappear.

For a moment I stand there unsure and terrified. The neon lights flash red then green then blue upon her face. Is this real? I close my eyes and when I open them she is still crying and her face is stained blue.

The neon lights: Red—Green—Blue. She raises her head and stares up at me.

And I know why I am afraid. In her eyes I see the truth from which I can not hide. I see the empty hourglass with the sands run down. A paper thin world without meaning or purpose. I see what can not be seen. Absence. Nothingness. The hollow void. She has been crippled by it and she knows that hope is a fabricated thing. I can do nothing for her. Just as I can do nothing for myself.

I am crying. I kneel down beside her. I wipe at the tears on her face. My hands shake. My fingers tremble. My mind races with words to comfort her but they are all lies and I abandon them.

The neon lights: Red—Green—Blue. My eyes blur with tears.

The neon lights: Red—Green—Blue. I can feel her fingers upon my face. It is like she is drowning, grasping for salvation.

The neon lights: Red—Green—Blue. Her skin is moist and warm beneath my fingers.

The neon lights: Red—Green—Blue. She is beginning to shake and I feel more lost with every shudder.

The neon lights: Red—Green—Blue—WHITE.

The long neon sign right across from my window, the sign that rarely works, is on and blazing in all its ivory glory. Sera's face is lit up brightly. I have never seen anything so beautiful, or so sorrowful, in all my life. I want to grab her, to crush her against me, but she is like a porcelain shell upon which is painted a picture I have always known existed but have never seen. I am afraid to touch her, but I am touching her, touching her face, touching her wet skin.

She is pleading with me, not with words, words are meaningless.

I wish I were dead. I wish I could die.

I can not help her.

I hold her face within my hands. My heart catches in my throat. Her eyes are…

None of the hardness that was about her face remains. There is only innocence and pain and fear.

My mind catches at something. "Trust in me," I say. It is not a lie. I will not let it be. It is not a lie.

"Trust in me."

She is quiet and unmoving. Tears streak silently down her face, across my skin. I can barely breathe. I can see inside her.

I am dreaming. I must be dreaming.

Let me die.

Never let me awaken.




Chapter 32: Trust

Sangren

10:25s.d.p. Kotus, 21st of Sedalas, 1777

Trust in me, he said.

She had no reason to. And trust in him for what? It made no sense. But then… Trust. When he said it, it meant something more than those five letters usually implied. It took on a meaning as dense as the night sky was black. It enveloped her, encircled her.

Trust in me, he said.

And she did. Something deep inside her had faith in his every movement, his every word. Sudden blind faith is terrifying, and she was terrified.

• • •

He found her hand and drew it to his chest.

"… please…" he said, leaning forward until his face was touching hers. "Nothing exists but this."

And then he kissed her with all the tenderness she inspired in him, a kiss that was too obsessive to not be awkward, a kiss that was all the more powerful for its lack of polish. Apart from the slightest movement of her lips she was too bewildered to respond. As he pulled away she watched him. And as she watched him she saw a flicker of uncertainty wrench across his face. The power she felt from him was a fragile thing, easily destroyed. If she wished she could destroy it and him. He was meek and ferocious. One moment dominate, the next dominated. Something fierce rose within her. A scornful laugh would break him, would free her from the power he held on her. The dark part of herself, the part that felt corrupted and evil, breathed in deeply, preparing a knife with which to cut open the man before her, and in so doing free herself from a faith which she did not deserve to feel.

As her lips parted and the blade rose in her throat, he suddenly shivered and before his hands dropped away from her skin she felt their cold vibration, a vibration which trembled its way down her spine, causing the blade to evaporate as she exhaled. Her eyes closed and when she opened them his head was slightly downcast, his pose reminiscent of a condemned man awaiting the deathblow. Watching him, clarity hit her. Hanging by a thread he held out his hand to her, for she dangled above the same abyss. Though the attempt might cost him what little he had left he held out his hand to her. And she understood. There were no illusions of an everlasting salvation, they both knew they would soon fall, but perhaps they would not fall alone into the emptiness.

She mouthed a few indecipherable words.

It is one thing to need desperately, and another to be needed desperately; but when the two coincide something voracious is created, something insatiable, one void trying to fill another, a vortex spinning violently on nothingness until it is consumed.

Sera tasted of this and, caught in the drift, she fell upon him and they fucked with a desperate need until sleep overtook them with a purity neither would have thought their corrupt selves capable.




Chapter 33: Nocturnal Interlude

Sangren

1:59f.d.p. Errus, 22nd of Sedalas, 1777

Death and time interwoven. The Gallows Clock Tower was the grim reaper's timepiece. It stood in the center of Blisscham Square, seven blocks south of the river, thirty-nine blocks west of the sea. It rose forty-one meters from the bottom of its base of grey and red bricks to the top of its wrought iron spine. At a point one third up its length the gallows poles began to sprout; four on each of its four sides, one above the other, spaced seven meters apart, sixteen gibbets in all.

Emortir stood on the worn cobblestones looking up at this structure that had once served warning to the medieval citizens of Sangren that a life of crime would be severely punished. Now it simply struck off the hours with a sonorous bell, warning all those within range of hearing that they were another hour closer to death. The warning, without the threat of observable mortality, was a feeble one and by most everyone was ignored.

The clock struck two and the bell sounded twice, forlorn and muffled. Emortir, wrapped in her dark attire, listened as the echoes rolled around the square and then faded to silence.

Ampersand emerged from the shadows to stand beside her. "Come," he said, "I have something to show you."

"But, father, we are to meet the others here, are we not?"

"They will not leave before we return."

• • •

They entered the church as flies. Perching high up on a marble pillar they stared down at the congregation below. A row of pews mostly empty. An altar lit with candles. A priest dressed in purple, a cage with two pigeons before him. A large statue of a man hanging from a noose with his hands clasped in prayer.

The priest recited a brief sermon and then removed one of the pigeons. Wrapping a long ribbon around its neck he throttled it until it was dead and placed it on a tray made of gold. Lifting the second pigeon, he raised it, opened his hands, and released it. It took to flight and, rising upwards, disappeared through a hole set in the dome of the ceiling.

"All these years, and the ape-maggots are still enraptured by ritual," Ampersand said. "Come, I wish to show you something more."

The two flies, Emortir and Ampersand, flew upwards through the hole in the ceiling. Following the dome of the roof they then alighted on a spire open to the sky. Attached to the roof, but hidden from the street below, a pigeon rookery sat quietly beneath the stars. As they watched, a clergyman climbed from a trap door and shuffled to where a pigeon was pecking at some seeds. He lifted it, put it inside a cage, and then disappeared back down the trap door.

"It may have flown free," Ampersand said. "But it did not fly to heaven. In a week, a month, or if it is lucky perhaps a year, it too will feel a ribbon slip round its neck."

"Why have you shown me this father?"

"They have a saying, these ape-maggots, and it is this: 'The more things change the more they stay the same.' They are the same and so are we. They have multiplied, but have not grown more wise. Time has done little to alter them. They are just as easily manipulated, made into toys and playthings, controlled, and finally disposed of when no longer of use or entertainment."

"Again, father, what is your point?"

"Just this, I have lost the thread, my dear. I do not know where the stone is. Only that it will be found somewhere in this city, and this city is exceedingly large."

"What will we do if we cannot find it, if it goes to some other?"

"Do you not see, my dear, that is my point. It is of no vast import whether we find it or not. For when you are surrounded by lesser beings, great power can be achieved with the simplest of machinations. Take heart, my darling, for we have been released in the best of all possible ages. The age of man. An age of fools."




Chapter 34: Ollgossehwed

The Passing Sea

6:08f.d.p. Errus, 22nd of Sedalas, 1777

The quibian fisherman cast his nets over the side of his small vessel, and as he did so the sun rose in the east, appearing above the distant mountains, lighting up the small village perched on the shore. His back turned to the sun, the fisherman studied the calm sea spread out before him. Other ships from his village were scattered about on the water, also casting out their nets. The fisherman lit a battered pipe and, sitting down at the stern, he puffed at it absentmindedly.

The minutes passed. He began to notice a strange wake approaching him from the south. Watching it advance he decided it was too large to be a shark or a dolphin. A whale perhaps?

He stood, the pipe clenched in his teeth, his hands gripping the ship's rail. When the wake was within ten meters, and showed no signs of altering its course, he started the outboard motor. Steering the ship out of the way, he hoped it would not entangle itself in his nets.

Cutting the motor, he peered over the side, searching the depths. What he saw he never told and never forgot. Something large, at least fifteen meters in length. Something pale and slick, flaccid and mottled. Its exact shape he could not discern, but it was no whale, nor shark, nor even squid. Its like had never before been seen. Most grotesque of all were the eyes which peered upwards, eyes containing more of humanity than was either natural or prudent. The eyes of a drowned man, grown large and diaphanous.

The fisherman, grabbing a machete, cut loose his nets. Letting the outboard motor go full throttle he headed with all speed for the shore. Looking back, he saw the wake continue on its way unheedful, as if it had an explicit destination for which it made.

The fisherman turned his face to the sun and watched the shore grow before him.




Chapter 35: Bifurcation

Sangren

7:25f.d.p. Errus, 22nd of Sedalas, 1777

Sera Anig stood at the foot of the mattress. The room was cold and edged in shadows. She watched the figure sleeping below her. He looked as a small child in a crib and as an old man on his death bed. How that was possible she did not know. The duality mesmerized her. For more than an hour she had been watching him. First, from bare inches, as she lay beside him, she had studied him; then while she dressed; then from the chair; then from the window; and finally from the foot of the mattress, near the door. With each station she drew further away, and the further she drew away the darker the stain became on her soul. She could feel it. The return of the corruption that had briefly been swept away.

She moved to the door. She had to leave. She could not stay. He made her forget things she had no right to forget.

She would tell Caldwell that he had seen through her deceptions and that she had been left with no choice but to leave. Perhaps he would believe her. Probably not.

Having made a decision, she felt slightly better. Just as a traveler, having come to a fork in the road, is anxious and wrought with insecurity as to the correct path to choose, and finally picking one and continuing onwards feels much less distress than when standing unsure. But she differed from this hypothetical traveler in that she knew the path she had chosen and that it led to darkness.

Her hand closed on the door handle, and as it did she suddenly wished he would awaken. That he would rise and not allow her to leave. That everything would be as the night before when, in a pure half-sleep, she had felt clean as he held her.

Almost unconscious of it she took a step away from the door, and then another. She stopped herself at the foot of the bed. She knew if she took his hand and led him away, he would follow her anywhere. She knelt down, watching him.

He moved slightly. His left hand drifted out from under the covers and fell across the pillow beside his head.

Sera's face grew hard and she stood quickly. She stared at the scar that lined his palm. The scar she had put there. She moved to the door and opened it. Biting back the tears she looked back one last time. "Faith is for the innocent," she said to herself, stepping past the door and closing it softly behind her.

• • •

As she stepped from the lobby out onto the sidewalk a cold breeze blew across her face. The sky was overcast and the entire street was shrouded in a monotonous icy blue. It could have as easily been the twilight after sunset, as the early morning one hour after sunrise.

She began walking briskly and after only a few steps her progress was halted by an old man in a wheel chair. A huge golden furred karkajan in a mediocre suit leaned over him. A long black town car, with the back door open, purred at the curb, dark fumes spewing from the exhaust pipe. She stepped around them, and as she did, the karkajan made to help the old man into the car, but instead he grabbed her about the waist, trapping her arms. She swung her leg out and swept it behind her. The karkajan evaded it and thrust her through the open car door, pinning her to the back seat. She felt a prick in the back of her neck, and a few moments later the karkajan released her.

She tried to rise, her body going numb, she only succeeded in rolling over on the back seat. An ancient lady sat beside her, placing a hypodermic needle into a bag on the floor.

Sera felt her legs, like limp rags, being pushed inside and the car door close behind them.

The ancient lady looked down and smiled, her ultra smooth face crinkling at the corners of her mouth into a thousand dark lines.

Fading away, Sera heard the old man being lifted into the passenger seat. Her eyes closing, she heard car doors slam and felt the vehicle drive away.

• • •

The superintendent of the Afterdamp Apartment Building sat in his office and lifted the phone to his ear. He dialed a number that was written on a slip of paper. Fingering a small box on his desk that was wrapped in tape and twine, he waited for his call to go through.

"Yeah," he spoke into the receiver, "you said to call when she left, well she just did… no, like I told you last night, she wasn't a cop… yeah, she might've been a whore, but she didn't walk like one… no… maybe… I don't know where she went… yeah, he's still in his room… yeah, I'm sure… I've been watching… no, there's no other exits… yeah, there is a bridgewalk on the third floor… because it doesn't go anywhere, there's a gap where it's collapsed a little ways down the line… trust me… I could do that… what about coinage, you said this would all be worth my while… yeah… alright then, I'll be waiting with the key."




Chapter 36: Paradoxical Sleep

Time Rath: Interior Monologue

I awaken slowly. My eyes are hard to open. I rub at them with numb fingers. My vision is blurred. I remember a strange beautiful dream. Deep red-dyed hair. Blue eyes like an ambitious sky. No awkwardness, no uncertainty. Two shattered halves colliding. Need. A purity only achievable in a dream.

Why does my mind torment me. The dreams where I am not alone are sometimes worse than the ones where I endure fire, for when I awaken I feel all the more alone, as if I have lost something palpable, real.

It's cold. I begin to shiver. The room is full of blue shadows.

I turn my head. The blinds are resting on the floor in front of the window. There is a glass under the desk. A washcloth beside the mattress.

I leap up. Dizzy. Afraid.

The room is empty. The bathroom is empty. There is no one. She is gone. If she was ever here.

Things fall. Apart.

It was a dream. It was too perfect to be real. It was a dream.

I can't breathe. My lungs won't fill. The edges warp and curl. I loose my place. I loose instant after instant. I sense nothing. A dissonant hum. My heart beats one continuous beat. My vision blurs white. Swirl. Shatter.




Chapter 37: Conscience

Sangren

8:15f.d.p. Errus, 22nd of Sedalas, 1777

Eddie and Dimples walked down the fourth floor hallway. Dimples drew his gun. Eddie knocked at the door. There was no answer. He fit the key into the lock. It was already unlocked.

"What do you know," Eddie whispered, "the only unlocked door in Sangren."

He opened the door slowly and Dimples leapt through. A thin naked man lay half on the floor and half on a small mattress. He was asleep or unconscious.

Eddie stepped inside and closed the door behind him. Dimples put away his gun.

"What do we do now?" Dimples asked.

"We wake him up," Eddie said, prodding the young man's foot with the tip of his shoe.

The young man's eyes popped open and he rolled backwards, leaping into the corner. Eddie and Dimples drew their guns.

The young man stared at them unthinkingly.

"Get dressed," Eddie said.

The young man, wavering on his feet, did not move.

"I said get dressed."

No movement.

"Want me to bash him one," Dimples said.

"No, Gignoskein said we weren't supposed to hurt him, remember."

"Oh, yeah, I forgot."

The young man blinked his eyes and, seeming to come to his senses, he stared confusedly about. "What?" he muttered, covering his privates with his hands.

"Get dressed," Eddie said.

The young man, half in a daze, got dressed with two guns pointed at him. Then Dimples grabbed him by the arm and pressed a gun into his back, leading him out into the hallway. Eddie followed, leaving the door open, he stopped and returned to it. "Almost forgot to lock your door," he said, "we wouldn't want you to come back and find everything stolen." He laughed knowingly and winked at Dimples. Dimples nodded his head in amusement.

After locking the door, he placed the key in Time's pocket. They continued down the hallway. "Your name's Time, right?" Eddie said. "That's a strange name?"

The young man stared ahead blindly.

• • •

They drove east towards the sea, Time and Dimples in the back seat, Eddie at the wheel. Dimples held a gun on his knee.

"Quick," Eddie said, "on the corner: Whores!"

Dimples swiveled his head and then whistled. "Damn."

"What'd I tell you, they're always out here on Second Street in the morning, rain or shine. God damn, oh fuck, fanjis, look at that one."

"The one with the tits larger than her head?"

"Yeah, you know it. I'd like to stick my cracker in her polly."

Dimples squawked like a parrot. "Polly wants a cracker. Polly wants a cracker." They both laughed uproariously.

Time stared at his hands. He was trying to reconstruct the night before, to engrave it in his mind, but like a dream it was hazy and parts were already fading from memory. His brain felt wrapped in gauze. He tried to lock her face inside his head, and finding himself unable to see it with crystal clear precision, he grew increasingly frustrated, grinding in a loop that fed a seething rage.

• • •

The car was suddenly jolted as if they had hit a pothole.

Eddie slowed the car and yelled back, "Did I get it, did it go down?"

"What?" Dimples asked.

"Look out the back, did I get it, that cat, did it fucking go down?"

Dimples looked backwards. "It looks like you got it," he said, "what is it with you and cats?"

"I hate cats," Eddie said, "can you still see it?"

Dimples looked back out the window. Time also looked back. He saw a small crushed shape on the road. His face contorted. While his left hand locked over the barrel of Dimples' gun, his right hand slammed into Dimples' throat. Dimples started gagging, and before he could recover, Time smashed his fist into Dimples' nose. There was a loud crunch and Dimples' hold on the gun lessened. Time tore the gun free. Dimples was enormous. And Dimples was too close. Time shot Dimples in the leg. The amount of blood that came surprised him. Dimples was surprised too. Dimples clamped his hands over the wound. Time backed against the door. Dimples, mistaking Time's drawing back as a sign of fear instead of a defensive reaction, roared loudly and lunged at Time.

Time fired twice into Dimples' other leg. Dimples screamed and fell back against the seat.

While Time was shooting Dimples, Eddie had been in a state of panic. At the first shot he looked back stunned, fumbling for his gun. At the second shot he lost his grip on his gun and dropped it near his feet. And at the third shot he slammed down on the brakes, hard.

The car squealed to a halt, Eddie being thrown against the wheel, Time crashing against the back of the front seat, Dimples striking his head against the side of the door and window hard enough to crack the glass. Time was the first to react. He leapt out of the car and wrenched the driver's door open. Eddie was frantically trying to find his gun where it had fallen at his feet. Time stuck the barrel of the gun against his neck. Eddie froze.

For a moment, as all restraint left him, Time's index finger tightened on the trigger. One thing stopped him. Eddie's sweaty scalp. There was something so pathetic, so human, about the way the strands of hair clung to the man's damp skin, to his pale scalp.

Time took a few steps back, his finger moving off the trigger. Eddie, sensing the loss of killer instinct, made a grab for the gun at his feet. Time leapt forward and brought the butt of the gun down savagely on Eddie's head. Eddie collapsed unconscious against the steering wheel. Reassured that it was no ploy, Time knelt down and lifted the other gun from off the floor at Eddie's feet.

Looking in the back seat he found Dimples also unconscious, bleeding profusely from both legs and from his forehead. If he kept bleeding as he was, he would die shortly from loss of blood. Time looked up and down the street. They were in an industrial area and he saw no phone booths anywhere, nor any approaching vehicles. The street was deserted, lined on one side by a long stretch of chain link fence, on the other by the backside of a large brick building.

All he needed to do was draw attention to the car and its occupants and then he could leave with a clear conscience. He went to the edge of the road, where the asphalt was cracked and split, and pried loose an apple sized chunk of tarmac. Taking aim, he flung it through one of the brick building's high windows. A moment later a head appeared and yelled down angrily. Time stepped up to the car and fired one shot into the back rear tire. The head at the window quickly disappeared.

Taking a last look inside the car, Time made sure they were both still unconscious. Then he quickly turned on his heels and ran back up the street. When he found the cat he saw that it was beyond help. Its entire back half was crushed and mangled, and yet it still lived. It made no noise but a hesitant wheezing. Its front paw twitched spasmodically. Its eyes bulged, blood leaking from around the edges and corners. Its lungs, more than half crushed and filling with blood, still strived to perform their function, pushing air feebly outwards and drawing it back in. With every exhale little bubbles would form in the blood clotting its nostrils and then popping would release more blood in their place.

Time could not understand how it still lived. There was only one thing he could do for it. He raised his foot intending to crush its head beneath his heel. But he could not muster the brutality of motion to force his foot downwards. Stepping backwards, feeling a ruthless coward, he felt the guns he was holding tight in each of his hands.

Kneeling down, he took careful aim. And then he fired. With it's head gone the cat's front paw ceased moving.

Time rose up looking back towards the car. This was what life was. And Death. He could no longer think. He saw only pain and blood. He began walking stiff legged back to the car, his fingers clutching tightly at the guns in either hand. He was going to kill Eddie. He was also going to kill the last part of himself that he didn't despise.

As he stepped around the car, all the things that made him who he was, left him. He saw only blood. He raised the gun in his right hand, totally oblivious to the fact that a man had been trailing behind him, had slipped from around the corner of a building only seconds after he shot the cat in the head. Now, as Time took aim and pointed the gun at Eddie's head, the man, like a shadow, sidled up a few feet behind him, a silenced automatic pistol in his hand.

Time's arm was shaking. The man behind him raised his pistol, paused, studied Time, and then lowered it.

Time steadied his arm and then he fired.

Not just blood came from Eddie's head as he jerked to the side off the steering wheel and fell across the gear shift. Time, holding the gun before him, stared unbelieving.

Curiosity satisfied, the man behind Time crept forward and stuck his pistol in Time's back. Time turned around, oblivious to the pistol. The man, reading Time's face, did not fire, though Time could have easily shot him. The man reached out and removed the gun from Time's right hand. Time stared at him. The man removed the gun from Time's left hand. He pushed Time away and leaning inside the car, he saw the blood leaking from Dimples' legs. The man thought for a moment. And then put two bullets in Dimples' head.

Grabbing Time by the arm, the man hurriedly directed him back along the street. In the distance sirens could be heard.




Chapter 38: On Ice

Sangren

8:45f.d.p. Errus, 22nd of Sedalas, 1777

Fat Theodore was sitting in a back office at the Drummond Meat Packaging Plant when Agan Gignoskein arrived with Time Rath.

"Where's Eddie and Dimples?" Fat Theodore asked.

"Dead," Gignoskein said, pushing Time into a chair.

"What," Fat Theodore said, "how the hell did that happen?"

"They were inept," Gignoskein said. He nodded at Time. "He took them both out. He shot up Dimples' legs and blew open Eddie's head. The cops were coming and Dimples was too big to carry, so I put him down."

Fat Theodore stared hard at Time and then looked a Gignoskein. "Good," he said. "Dimples was just stupid enough to talk if the cops got their hands on him. We should have cut them loose a long time ago. They were both liabilities." He stared at Time again. "You're a tough little fuck. Do you know why you're here?"

Time stared at him blankly.

"Well? I asked you a question."

Time stared at him blankly.

"Knock him one."

"That won't help," Gignoskein said.

Fat Theodore read Gignoskein's face. He looked back at Time. "Don't want to talk, huh? You're lucky I don't need you to, cause if I did… you would talk, eventually." He stood and moved to the door. "When it gets dark I'll call Feiri. Until then, lock him up. And oh, knock him one anyway," he said closing the door behind him.

Gignoskein knelt down in front of Time and leaning in close he scrutinized his blank face. Then, with a quick jab, he punched Time in the solar plexus. Time doubled over, breathing hard. Gignoskein sat on the edge of the desk and watched him recover. "Why did you go back and kill Eddie? I'm curious. It wasn't really because of the cat, was it?"

Time stared at him blankly.




Chapter 39: A Leap of Faith

Sangren

1:02s.d.p. Errus, 22nd of Sedalas, 1777

Paul Rath sat in the back seat of the taxicab and stared at the Afterdamp Apartment Building with a sick feeling in the hollow of his stomach. It was a trash can, only one missed bribe from being condemned. He could hardly believe his brother lived there. It was this disbelief which saved him. Had he got out of the cab immediately Caldwell's men would have swooped and caught him up easily. But he sat in the back seat for a long while thinking of the last time he had seen his brother, nine months before. They had both returned home for Versari Aequus. In the most part it had been a joyful holiday. It was the first time he had seen Time since his move to Sangren. He was thinner and his face was slightly gaunt. When their mother commented about it, he made a joke and said it was the long hours at the dye works where, so he said, he was doing very well.

Thinking back about that visit, Paul suddenly realized what a good actor his brother was. He remembered a look of sadness that on occasion briefly appeared in his eyes, a look that Paul had taken for the emotions one feels when seeing one's family after a long time away. Now, having seen the Afterdamp, the entire holiday took on a different color. The way his brother had subtly shifted most of the questions about his life in the city on to other subjects; the bandage around his left hand, an accident while cutting a tomato, so he said; the way he kept telling them they should wait to visit him until he was less busy at work; these things, when placed alongside the decrepitude of the Afterdamp, painted a different picture, a very dark picture.

With the urgency to see his brother intensifying, Paul reached for the door handle and as he did so he noticed a man walking purposefully across the street toward the cab in which he sat, probably looking for a ride. Paul turned the handle and another man caught his eye coming up the sidewalk with a gait that was curiously similar to the first man's. His eyes narrowed. "Drive," he shouted.

"What?"

Paul hit the driver's seat with a slap of his palm. "DRIVE! Go, downtown, now, the river, anywhere-"

The cab moved away from the curb. The man crossing the street was reaching in his jacket rushing forward, the man on the sidewalk was doing likewise. Paul hit the driver's seat again, harder.

"Look, if you do that again I'm going to-"

Paul reached in his pocket and threw a large handful of tentrums across the dash. "GO!" he screamed. The two men were within meters of the cab.

"Anything you say." The cabdriver hit the gas pedal.

Paul looked back. The two men stopped running. A dark green sedan leapt from the curb and they got inside it.

"Uh, where exactly do you want me to take you?"

Paul watched the green sedan race towards them. "I don't know… across the river… and speed it up a little…" The sedan was right behind them. "Make that a lot…"

After a few blocks police sirens could be heard in the distance. Paul had an odd feeling they were coming for him.

• • •

At the exit leading to the onramp to the Poorfellows Tracery Bridge the traffic stopped dead. Paul lunged out of the cab and ran, climbing over the hood of a car, nearly being smashed by a large truck, he reached the edge of the road and ran. Down a narrow stone staircase between two buildings he went, through an alleyway, he did not look back, reaching a long thoroughfare that followed along the side of the river. The sidewalk was thick with people, he dodged around them, between them. Past a flight of steps he found himself running on the thick wooden beams of a long crowded pier. At the end of the pier was a ferry swarming with bodies. The line leading across the boarding ramp contained only a few people. Paul stepped behind the last person and fished in his pocket for some tentrums.

"Your ticket," said the man with the little plastic nametag.

"Um, I don't have one. Here," Paul said extending his hand with the tentrums on his palm.

"No, sorry, the ticket office is back there."

Paul looked to where the man was pointing, at a building at the beginning of the pier. He thought he recognized one of the men from the green sedan walking towards him through the crowd.

"Look," Paul said thickly, "this boat-"

"Ferry-"

"Ferry, whatever, it looks pretty full and I don't want to lose my place, so is this enough to let me on right now?" Paul grabbed more tentrums from his pocket and held them out.

The man looked around nervously and then snatched the coins up. "Yeah, go on, hurry. We're about to cast off."

Paul pushed his way to the back of the ferry and watched the end of the pier while hiding discreetly behind the people standing directly against the rail. After only a few moments three men stepped boldly onto the boarding ramp as it was being disengaged. The man with the tiny plastic nametag went up to them yelling angrily. The three men said a few words to him, handed him something (undoubtedly tentrums), and were then allowed onboard.

Paul cursed and moving to the rail he considered leaping overboard, but he was never that good of a swimmer and the river was dark and choppy. Besides, there was little chance his escape into the water would go unnoticed and there was a high probability that at least one of the three men was a far better swimmer than he was.

The ferry drew away from the pier. Looking over his shoulder Paul caught a glimpse of the three men. They were watching him but they were not moving towards him. It was while he was thinking this over that he noticed the ferry was not heading across the river, but rather was moving down it towards the sea.

His heart sinking Paul tapped a brightly dressed woman on the shoulder. "Excuse me?" he said.

"Yes?"

"Where is this ferry headed?"

The woman laughed. "Don't you know?"

Paul shook his head.

"Castle Greymisthaven," she said, "isn't it exciting?"

Paul took a deep breath. "Thrilling."

The woman, hearing the defeated sarcasm, turned away.

• • •

The ferry blared its horn. It was now halfway across the Sound and Castle Greymisthaven towered higher above them, the sky beyond dark with clouds. Paul glanced at the three men. He did not think they would try to get him when there was so many people around. There was no need for them to even try. When he took the return ferry back from Castle Greymisthaven, Caldwell would probably have the cops waiting to legally take him into custody. There would be no fuss, no questions asked.

Mistakes. Of late, it seemed he had been making nothing but mistakes. It had been a mistake to get on the ferry; he should have kept running. It had been a mistake to go to his brother's apartment; he should have waited, kept calling on the phone until he got an answer. It had been a mistake to mail the stone to Time; Caldwell could have easily foreseen this; but then at the moment it had seemed the right thing to do. He could not in all fairness be blamed for an error in judgment what with his world suddenly hanging askew as it had, with people being eviscerated before his very eyes. He thought he was going to die, that he would not escape the island alive. So he sent the stone away to someone he trusted. He sent it to his brother. And by doing so put his brother in harms way. And for what, a drab greyish white stone. A stone wanted by a powerful man and perhaps other… beings. This was insane. He should have just given Caldwell the stone and then ran. It was just a rock. What did it matter if Caldwell possessed it. From where had that strange urge come, that urge telling him to get the stone away. He did not understand how he could have been so foolish.

Caldwell, it all began with Caldwell. That was his biggest mistake: accepting the job Caldwell had offered him. He had known Caldwell was a shady character, all men of great wealth invariably were. He had heard many of the things Caldwell was rumored to have done. But the chance to go down deeper than anyone had in a hundred years, bringing up artifacts untouched for millennia, was something he just could not resist. And it seemed he would now pay for his curiosity. As the ferry docked at Castle Greymisthaven, he hoped his brother would not have to pay also.

Moving with the flow of the crowd he crossed the deck, passed over the boarding ramp, and found himself standing on the wide stone quay that jutted from the barren rocky base of the island upon which the castle loomed. He looked upwards, suddenly in awe. The castle rose so high that its uppermost portions were obscured by clouds. It was as tall, if not taller, than any of the skyscrapers in the city, and it was still standing after twelve hundred years. Paul felt minuscule. The sheer mountainous assembly of stone dwarfed him. It made one believe in the genius of mankind. It could send synapses sparking and whirling in the most stoical of minds. A feat of engineering to rival any in the world. The Water Acropolis. The Quays of Seawarren. The Sandgropius Gate. The Terraces of Monttysl. Castle Greymisthaven.

Slightly dizzy, Paul lowered his gaze. Most of the tourists had filed away towards the stone-cut road which led up to the castle's entrance. He made his way to the end of the quay, and while he studied a bulletin board inside a covered kiosk, he looked over his shoulder. Two of the men had remained on the quay near the ramp to the ferry. The third man had trailed behind him at a discreet distance and was now smoking a cigarette and staring out across the Sound at a city lathed in shadow, the buildings draped in a gradient ranging from light ash to dark coal, and permeating it all, the sea, the mountains, the cloudy sky, was the slight tinge of a blue as distant and melancholy as the eyes of a quibian water sage in the last stages of the Parallax Miserorum.

Paul turned his gaze back to the bulletin board. PLEASE DON'T LITTER. PUBLIC BATHROOMS ARE IN THESE LOCATIONS. TOURS LEAVING EVERY FIFTEEN MINUTES FROM 10fdp UNTIL 6sdp. 500t FINE FOR VANDALISM OF ANY KIND.

As he was about to turn away, a flier caught his eye and he read it intently. Stepping from the covered kiosk, he smiled, for he now saw the possibility of escape.

• • •

In a structure so large, filled with blathering tourists, it had proved quite easy to loose the third man. Paul simply merged with the crowd, ducked and wove, turned down a few passageways and went up a few staircases, until he found a means of reaching the castle's heights.

• • •

The operator stopped the large freight elevator and called out: "Hall of Cracks. The Final Corridor."

More than half of the occupants filed out and Paul went with them. Moving quickly, he sped ahead and, after going through a few minor rooms, he joined a tour that was already in progress. They were in a large hall with a floor of white blue-veined marble. The far stone wall was entirely pierced with a few hundred glassless windows, a grid fifty high and one hundred wide. Through this grill-like aperture could be seen the ocean far below, dark and grey beneath a sinister sky. The center of the hall was partitioned off with a blue velvet rope, surrounding an area roughly the size of a fall arena. The floor of this area was lined with cracks, with the greatest profusion being near the center.

"Now if you look closely," the tour guide said, "you can see the cut in the floor where legend says, before dying, Emperor Novant dropped his izen sword and it cleaved the floor all the way to the hilt, causing all those cracks you see radiating out from the center. Can anyone here tell me what supposedly happened to the sword afterwards? Anyone?"

There were a lot of blank looks and the tour guide eventually continued. Paul stepped away from the group and made his way through a few passageways until he found his way to a large terrace open to the sky. Many people were milling about. At one end a unique stone bridge arched out away from the castle, the far side opening out onto empty space. The Final Corridor. Paul knew his history. For much of the castle's past this corridor had been used to execute people. They were led along its covered, windowed path and then thrown from its brink, falling for an interminable period and crashing into the sea below.

Paul walked halfway across the corridor and, peering out of one of the windows, he almost reconsidered his plan. But there was no other way off the island by which he could escape Caldwell. He pushed aside his fears and walked back to the terrace where a large group of people were gathered. He made his way through the crowd and then studied a small group of men and women who were assembling hang gliders studiously. For a moment he watched them, trying to decide which one would be the best to approach. Then deciding that this was no time for caution and small gestures, he reached in his pocket and extricated a handful of high denomination tentrums.

"I have seven hundred tentrums here for any one of you who will let me use their hang glider," he said loudly, holding the coins out in his hand.

There was silence and then one of them asked, "Have you ever even flown one before?"

"A few times," Paul said.

"A few times, huh. You realize it isn't like riding a bike, especially here, where we are now. This is dangerous."

"It's not that much different than riding a bike. Only when you crash you crash a lot harder," Paul laughed. "But I won't crash, I can't afford to."

"I don't know about the rest of them, but I've been looking forward to this for months, sorry."

"Anyone? Come on, what do you have to loose, even if I crash and your hang glider is demolished you'd still be up, what, one hundred, two hundred? Come on."

"Hell, you can use mine," one of the men said in a relieved voice.

"Frank, you pussy," another man said. "I knew you'd get out of this somehow."

"I may be a pussy, but I'm a pussy with seven hundred tentrums."

Frank the pussy led Paul aside and after accepting the tentrums he pulled a sheet from his pocket. "You have to sign one of these. It's a release form. It was the only way they'd let us do this."

Paul signed it.

Frank the pussy looked at him. "You're sure you want to do this, you can have your money back?"

"I'm sure," Paul said, beginning to worry that the third man would find him before he took off.

"I'll help you into the harness," said Frank the pussy.

• • •

The leader of the group, standing on the terrace railing, with men on each side holding the frame of his hang glider, yelled back at Paul. "Remember, fifteen seconds, and then take off. Follow me and you'll be fine. But don't get too close, I don't want you ramming me in the ass."

The man signaled to the men at his side and they pushed him out into empty space and he dropped, hovered, and caught the air, soaring out across the sky; the red of his hang glider violently contrasting with the dark grey of the clouds and the bleakness of the awaiting sea. The crowd gave a loud cheer.

Paul was rushed forward and helped up onto the railing. At the count of fifteen the two men sent him outwards and his stomach left him. A strong updraft, that must have traveled all the way up the side of the castle from the sea, caught him and thrust him upwards. For a horrifying moment he thought he had lost control, but the hang glider stopped its roll and dipped downwards, and he did his best to direct it after the man he was supposed to follow.

The flight was terrifying. It was nothing like his other three attempts when he was in Herzlunde. Those had been done on a mild day of little wind. This one was filled with sudden violent gusts coming from above and below and from both sides. He did not think he would survive.

He followed the red hang glider across the sea as it made its way south, past the open water, over an arm of land growing larger, along a brief stretch of coastline, down to a sliver of sandy beach. To his surprise he didn't crash as hard as he thought he would. After unbuckling the harness and brushing the sand from off his clothes and shaking it from out of his ears and hair, he saw he had only slightly damaged the right wing.

Another hang glider, a green one, came in and landed perfectly further down the beach. The man from the red hang glider jogged over to Paul and clapped him on the shoulder.

"I have to admit," he yelled excitedly, "I didn't think you'd make it." He fell back and lay on the sand, kicking his legs in the air. "Doesn't it feel great," he yelled, "like you're new born, like all your troubles are swept away."

Paul thought of the stone and of his brother and of Caldwell, and he realized his troubles had just begun.




Chapter 40: Diefast

Erskine Caldwell's country estate

5:19s.d.p. Errus, 22nd of Sedalas, 1777

Caldwell sat in his library watching the shadows lengthen across the back lawn. Three of his men were dead. The ones assigned to back up Anig, to keep the scene clear for her to operate, had been found dead around ten that morning by the men sent to relieve them. They had been killed sometime during the night. One in his taxi. Two in a nearby apartment. During this period in which Anig had been working without a net, both she and her target had disappeared.

Then, only a few hours after receiving word of Anig's disappearance, he learned one of his rivercruisers had been found illegally moored at a public dock on the outskirts of the city. The two operatives that had taken it out in order to dispose of the diveran inspector had never reported back. Sending a few men to investigate, the two operatives were found dead. One spread out under a jacket on Loon Islet with his head broken. The other found drifting lifeless two kilometers down the river.

Things were not going well.

He decided to call Tactil Rennt. Thinking back, he saw he had been overconfident. It would have hurt nothing to have added Tactil to this operation from the beginning. Anig would have been enough, but he had failed to take into account that unforeseen forces were involved.

After dialing a few numbers, and speaking through a few byswitches, and being redirected a few times, a voice he knew picked up the phone. "Yes," the voice said.

"It's Caldwell. I need your services."

"I can be of no help to you."

"It is a small task," Caldwell said, "a matter of a few days, probably less."

"You do not need me," the voice said.

"How can you know that? As I said, I only need a few days at most, as little as a few hours. Remember, you owe me."

"I do owe you, and I will pay you with this: I can be of no help to you. Goodbye."

"What," Caldwell yelled, but the line was already dead. He placed the phone back on its cradle and as he did so he noticed his hand was shaking, the first time it had done so for many, many years. Rennt had frightened him. He was always mysterious, but he had never refused a job before. The finality of his tone had been ominous.

Caldwell rose and poured himself a glass of water. Taking a sip he walked to the southwestern wall of the library, a wall made entirely of bulletproof glass. The sun had set and the lawn was dark below a purpling sky. He had been so close. The stone had almost been his. If he had arrived a few minutes earlier at the warehouse then it would have surely been his. He laughed suddenly. He was letting the prize interfere with the race. But, oh, what a prize.

The phone rang loudly. Caldwell dropped the glass in his hand and it shattered on the floor.

He walked back to the center of the room. "Speak," he said, lifting the receiver to his ear. He listened intently.

"So you have him," he said, and then, with his face clouding over with rage, "What… How could you loose him there… then he must still be on the island, hiding somewhere in the castle… why didn't you call sooner… it has not been out, I've been receiving calls all day… no excuses, find him, wait, who's watching the Afterdamp… idiot… no, stay where you are, you are not to leave that island until you find him… then you'll never leave, I'll have you planted beneath the stone." Caldwell slammed down the phone. Again his hand was shaking.

Incompetents. He was plagued with incompetents. He walked back to the glass wall and heard glass break beneath his feet. Kneeling, he lifted a long shard of broken glass in his hand. He decided it was time to take a more active role, if still by way of proxy. He went to the small table between the two red leather chairs. Removing the lid from a carafe of water, he pricked the back of his hand with the shard of broken glass and allowed the subsequent blood to drip into the water. After binding his hand with a handkerchief, he plucked seven hairs from the top of his head, seven from each arm and each leg, and placed them also into the carafe of water. Then, undoing his trousers, pulling down his undershorts, he masturbated into the carafe and replaced the lid.

Buttoning up his trousers, he lifted the carafe and walked off down unlit corridors towards dark rooms, rooms without windows containing strange doors.




Chapter 41: Wicked Tender

Sangren

8:06s.d.p. Errus, 22nd of Sedalas, 1777

Feiri Nourus was wearing a lustrous red dress. Agan Gignoskein was leading her through the Drummond Meat Packaging Plant to Fat Theodore's office. She was nervous. She brushed at her sleeve.

They reached a closed door and Gignoskein opened it. She entered. Fat Theodore put out his hand and she took it. He squeezed her hand painfully.

"Where is he?" she asked.

"Where is the money?" he answered.

She handed him an envelope. He looked inside it and then put it in his jacket pocket.

"Agan will take you to where he is." He turned to Gignoskein. "I'll be at home if anything comes up." And then he opened a door behind his desk and disappeared behind it.

Gignoskein took her by the arm and led her back out into the corridor.

• • •

When Feiri saw him, a little shiver ran through her. He sat in the small room on the only chair, his head downcast, underneath a bright hanging light bulb. The floor was concrete and there was a drain below the chair. She closed the door behind her, leaving Gignoskein to wait outside. She took a step forward. He did not raise his head.

"Time," she said softly, taking a few more steps towards him.

He did not move. Gignoskein had told her it would not be wise to be alone with him, that he was a dangerous man. But whatever fear she may have felt was evaporated by the way he sat wretched and alone in the solitary chair. She reached out cautiously and touched the side of his face.

He lifted his head. Light hit his face squarely and he stared at her, stared through her. His eyes were unfocused, blind. He did not see her. She wanted him to see her. She reached out for his face. He caught her hand and held it, his fingers digging into her skin. The sudden pain aroused her. She knelt down before him.

"Time," she whispered.

He opened his mouth. For a moment his eyes focused and his face twisted. Then vacuity returned. "I killed a man," he said flatly. "I shot him in the head. He was helpless and I shot him in the head."

He let go of her hand. His head drifted forward, a great weight too heavy for his neck. His eyes closed.

She stared at him, listening to him breathe. She felt strange, unsettled. An indeterminate mechanism started turning inside her and almost without her conscious will she put her arms around him. As if he were an eggshell or a ticking bomb, she cautiously wrapped her arms around his back, feeling its thin contour. After a few moments, his head descended wearily to her chest, the side of his face pressing against her breasts, only a fine layer of lustrous red fabric separating warm skin from warm skin. But in a way nothing separated them, for the dress was him, dyed in his blood by way of the umber criss, when she wore it she wore his essence, she was wrapped within him.

A thrill ran through her that was only part lust, part something else… tenderness? No, not tenderness, that was something foreign to her, in the past when she had received it from others it had somehow never felt genuine, and as such on the few occasions when she had been moved to give it she had done so timidly, grudgingly, and it had evaporated as quickly as it had come. But, still, this wasn't simple lust. There was something more.

She stroked her hand along his back, gradually becoming aware that he had drifted off to sleep. Innocence corrupted, yet still innocent. Like her, he had killed. He was a murderer. Another thrill ran through her and her heart started beating very fast. She tried to slow it, to calm herself. She did not want him to awaken. She took a long measured breath, feeling one of her stiff upright nipples brush across his cheek through the fabric of her dress. Her breath quickened. She dipped her shoulder until the strap of her dress slipped down her arm. Then with a slight arch of her back her nipple slid free and pressed hotly against his unshaven cheek. Suppressing the small cry that rose in her throat she moved her torso in a slow quiet circle, rubbing her nipple against rough stubble until it broke across the corner of his mouth and touched his lips, slightly parted as he slept, his warm breath caressed her. Restraining the urge to thrust against him violently, she pushed slowly towards him, her knees grating across the concrete until one of his legs was pressing between her thighs. Stroking herself a languid path up his shin onto his kneecap, then back down and returning, the muscles of her legs were trembling when she finally came, her thighs clamping down reverberantly on his leg.

She tightened her hold on him, aware that he was oblivious to what had just occurred. At that thought she pressed harder against him, and quickly, violently, she came again. Clinging to him she felt him stir, but he did not awaken.

She closed her eyes. Breathing long slow breaths she saw herself on a long white strand of beach, the ocean stretching forever to the horizon, the sky so blue it looked solid. She could hear water lapping on the shore. Beside her on the sand, pressing against her, was Time. She could touch him, kiss him, fuck him, hold him, for as long as she liked, in any way that she liked. But how had they reached this beach? How had she gotten him there? With what explanations, bribes, or threats had she led him there, from this cold harsh concrete room, from the fact that she had paid men to have him killed?

She opened her eyes. Gently, tenderly, she disengaged herself from him, until he sat alone, slumped in the solitary chair, asleep in the concrete room, the cloth of his trousers damp around the right knee where she had used him. She pulled the strap of her dress up over her shoulder, returning her breast beneath the lustrous red fabric. Reaching down, she touched herself through her saturated panties. There was a feeling there she quite liked, a warm tremor that spread all the way up her belly into her chest. Swiftly an acute need came over her to mark him, to leave a claim stating her ownership. Removing her fingers from her panties, she knelt and touched his forehead leaving a moist imprint on his brow. "There," she whispered, "you're mine you." She stepped backwards to the door.

First, she would take him away, to her penthouse apartment, to her bed. The white sand beach would come later. Thrusting aside her doubts — would he come with her? when he truly regained his senses would he reject her? — she opened the door and closed it behind her.

Gignoskein stood there quietly. He drew his pistol. "Are you done with him?" he asked.

She grabbed him by the arm and led him down the corridor. "No," she said, "he will be leaving with me."

Gignoskein watched her closely and then shook his head. "He cannot leave here alive."

"What? I paid for him to be delivered to me and now he is going to leave with me."

"You paid for him to be delivered and then disposed of."

"So, I've changed my mind. What does it matter to you, you'll just be getting paid for something you won't have to do."

"If you thought there was a chance you might not want him dead, you should have told us from the beginning. We could have taken precautions. We did not."

The anuran woman shook her head furiously. "You should have taken precautions anyways. What am I paying for, a bunch of dickless halfwits. He's coming with me."

Gignoskein shook his head.

She calmed herself. "Is this about money?"

He shook his head.

"How much?" she asked

"He cannot leave."

She took a deep breath. "I want to speak with Fat Theodore."

"There would be no point."

"You're afraid he'll talk to the police? Why would he? He killed a man. He told me. He shot a man in the head. It wouldn't make sense for him to do anything but keep his mouth shut. What is your problem?"

"I don't know if you've noticed," Gignoskein said, "but he is not a stable person. I have seen enough with my own eyes to know that his mind runs in strange cycles and is prey to an undisciplined morality. He is too unpredictable to have loose and you could not control him. As I said, if you had been more clear, we could have taken precautions, but now it is too late. Do you remember how to get back to your car?"

She stared at him angrily.

"The front gate will open automatically when you drive up to it. Goodbye."

But she did not give up things she wanted that easily. When he turned away she struck him across the back of the neck. He stumbled against the wall. She tried to claw at his eyes with her nails. He caught her arm and twisted it behind her back. He placed the muzzle of his pistol against her temple. She froze. He waited until she understood him clearly and then he threw her onto the floor of the corridor. "Leave now," he said.

She got up slowly and then walked away, shaking, uncertain of why she had just risked death.




Chapter 42: What?

Sangren

8:34s.d.p. Errus, 22nd of Sedalas, 1777

"I called Jankman," Jonus Stur said, sliding beneath the wheel and closing the door behind him. "He'll be here soon. Now we can go in."

"We shouda' wen' in before, Fat Theodore left," Ronald Hoorboch said from the passenger seat, his voice slurred, "We saw em' in there. We coulduv'ad'em both. What?"

"You are drunk, Ronald," Stur said, looking down at the empty bottle at Hoorboch's feet. "Where did you get that? You were supposed to be watching the gate."

"I wuz."

Stur opened the car door and got out. He walked across the street to the gate of the Drummond Meat Packaging Plant.

Hoorboch tried a few times to open the passenger door, jerking clumsily at the knob, before he realized it was locked. He unlocked it and then stumbled out. Halfway across the street he remembered he had left the car door open and he turned and headed back towards it. A car sped by and nearly hit him. He screamed some garbled profanities at the vehicle and then went to the car and closed the passenger door.

When he finally joined Stur at the gate he said, "What d'you see?"

Stur, holding a small pair of binoculars up to his eyes, said, "The woman Gignoskein met earlier at the entrance has just emerged. She is walking to her car. Hurry, get off to the side."

Stur grabbed Hoorboch and pushed him into the shadows. Hoorboch started to complain, and as he did so, the gate opened and a car passed through it and turned down the street. Stur quickly dragged Hoorboch through the gate before it could close. The clanging of metal against metal mixed with Hoorboch's drunken cursing.

"Stop pushin'," he said. "What're you doin'."

"I'm not sure," Stur said, "I did not want to have to lift you over the gate. But maybe I should have left you on the other side."

"What?"

"I'm going inside to get Gignoskein. I want you to wait here. If he gets past me then you will have to stop him."

"No, I'm goin' in too," Hoorboch said belligerently.

"You are drunk. You are staying here."

"No, no, I'm not, I'm goin' in."

"Listen. Ronald. Listen to me… it is a big building, there is a good chance he will leave it before I find him. You must wait here. Do you understand? Do you?"

Hoorboch blinked his eyes and wiped at his mouth. "Yeah, yeah I understan', don' worry."

Stur watched him for a moment and then walked away to the building's entrance. Before he stepped inside he pulled a length of cord from his jacket pocket.

Hoorboch watched him disappear and then, after waiting a few minutes, he drew his pistol and followed his friend inside.




Chapter 43: Mister Moonlight

Time Rath: Interior Monologue

Opening up, falling over, spilling on the dash, blood and… and a voice, get up, Get up, "Get up."

I open my eyes. A man — a man I saw earlier? — stands in the open doorway. He points a gun at me. "Let's go," he says.

"… huh?"

"Come on."

I stand. He steps backwards out into the corridor. I follow. He motions with the gun for me to start walking. For a long while there are no words, only the sound of footsteps. But then I say, "Was there — was the anuran woman, here…"

"She was here."

"Then, she's…"

"Yes?"

"She is paying you to kill me?"

"Yes. Though, earlier, if she had had her way you would have left with her instead. She went in to see you and then changed her mind, but it was too late for that. If that makes things any easier."

"Should it?"

He does not answer.

"Why was it too late?"

"You have seen my face and the face of my employer. You have seen this place. And you could cause problems for us. That is why," he says. "I am curious, if I were to let you go could you honestly say you would walk away and forget everything that has happened?"

I do not answer.

"Why did you kill Eddie?"

Blood, insides of a man's head splashed across a dashboard, viscera, my finger pulling the trigger. Sickened, I lean against the wall. "… was he, your friend?" I ask, holding my stomach, swallowing down vomit.

"I have no friends."

I close my eyes, but the images only grow more vivid. "What… what kind of a man was he?"

"He was the kind of man that would go out of his way to run down a cat in the street."

I fall to my knees and vomit on the floor. I retch and retch.

After I am finished. "Would you please stand."

I drag myself up the wall and he gestures with his pistol to continue walking. After only a few steps the corridor ends and we are walking on a raised metal catwalk. Below us is a massive conglomeration of vats and machines and conveyor belts. Above us is a ceiling of glass and girders. The moon is shining up there, casting down its rays.

"That's far enough," he says.

I stop walking.

"Look down there at that vat beneath us," he says.

I look.

"Ground beef," he says.

I grab the railing. Is this happening? Is this real? Have I lost my mind?

The man turns towards me with a smile. "Are you ready to be slaughtered?"

The moonlight seems to slide off of everything. A half-remembered line from a movie pushes upwards. "Not just yet. Perhaps tomorrow." The corner of his mouth twitches and I'm not sure if I said anything or not. I try to remember. I close my eyes and when I open them his face rises above me and I see it as the fish must see the stars, warped and floating upon the surface of some unknown invisible barrier. The gun looms in his hand and he raises it towards me. His face ripples before my eyes. I blink and it solidifies. The gun barrel becomes a black hole voraciously eating light. I hold my breath, terrified… after the bullet hits… what then… after my heart ceases to beat… after my last synapse fires… what then… what… only emptiness… a fading to nothingness…

… not yet…

Sera… her face, like crystal in a bright sun, lights up my head. Tells me to live. To fight. The ancient part of the human brain, whose sole purpose is to keep the connected organism alive, throws every switch in an attempt to maintain its function. Thoughts of escape, of heroic maneuvers, fill my head, but they quickly fade. For humanity has evolved past the point where survival is to be achieved at any cost. More recent switches have come into being, and these switches allow the will to live to be bypassed.

The dark tainted creature that sits on my shoulder tells me Sera left for a reason. Tells me if I ever found her again I would learn only more truth. Tells me maybe death is better than emptiness.

I watch the hammer of the gun glide back and lock with a subdued click. The creature digs its claws in bitterly. And tells me, when you measure the remainder of your life in seconds, instead of months and years, maybe a single night of tranquility is adequate for a life wasted in cowardice.

I am less afraid. Almost calm. Very tired. It will be nice to sleep, to sleep without dreams, without worries, without cares.

I bow my head and close my eyes tightly. I am not worthy of life. I have killed. I have let the innocent die through selfishness. I am not worthy of myself. I have found my exit. I lift my head and open my eyes to stare at my executioner. "I'm ready," I say.

He smiles. "You are only the second person to answer me so, and mean it. To accept fate is to know true peace." He smiles, but not prettily.

The sound of metal on metal clangs below us. He draws a second gun from his jacket, steps back, and points it over the edge of the catwalk. A large man with a gun in his hand is walking not so stealthily across the plant floor below us. The large man does not know we are above him. He disappears behind a vat, reappears, and disappears behind another.

I look at my executioner. He has one gun pointed at me. The other is aimed at the spot where the large man will shortly reappear between the gap in two vats.

I can die now, alone. Or I can wait a moment and let someone die with me.

I leap forward with a yell, turning my body sideways around the gun aimed at me. I somehow jam my finger behind the trigger of the gun pointed over the edge of the catwalk. The large man reappears. My executioner tries to fire but my finger blocks the trigger from going far enough back. He jerks his hand away, hard. My finger snaps audibly and yet stays behind the trigger. I hear a cry off to my side. Out of the corner of my eye I see his other gun sweeping forward. I catch the barrel with my palm and deflect it upwards.

A gunshot roars.

A wet warmth splashes across my eyes.

I am knocked back on the catwalk, blind.

Something falls heavily beside me. My hand is torn with pain. I try to tear it loose and cannot. The catwalk is shaking with the pounding of footsteps. With my free hand, my right hand, I wipe at my eyes. When I am able to see, I see blood. Only blood… and then darkness.




Chapter 44: Stationary Objects

Sangren

8:48s.d.p. Errus, 22nd of Sedalas, 1777

Jonus Stur ran across the catwalk to where Gignoskein and the other man had fallen. Gignoskein slept the sleep of those who no longer breathed. The other man still drew air. He was unconscious and covered in blood. Stur knelt down beside him, quickly aware that all of the blood belonged to Gignoskein.

The catwalk began to shake. Stur looked around and saw Hoorboch climbing up an attached ladder.

"Is he alive?" Hoorboch yelled.

Stur did not answer.

"I was aiming for his shoulder," Hoorboch said, pulling himself onto the catwalk. "Well I guess the head is pretty close to the shoulder," he said as he drew closer.

"Ronald, I told you to wait outside. In your inebriated state I am surprised you didn't kill them both."

"I'm not drunk, anymore, hardly," Hoorboch said. "Besides, what's to complain about. One dead. One alive. Who's this anyway?"

"I am not sure. But he just saved your life, with little regard for his own," Stur said, studying the young man's left hand where it was tangled in the pistol Gignoskein still clutched. "Ronald, I need your help, his finger."

"How did he get it wedged in there," Hoorboch said, kneeling down, removing the clip from the pistol.

"I will tell you later. Can you free it?"

"Yes," Hoorboch said, disengaging the twisted finger from behind the trigger where it was lodged. He studied it carefully. "It's dislocated, maybe broken. It'll be better for him if I pop it back into place while he's still out."

"Then do so," Stur said.

"You'd better hold him down. He might come to, in fact he probably will."

Stur held the young man down. Hoorboch popped his finger back into place. He jerked awake with a cry. His eyes open, he tried to struggle free, but he was easily restrained.

"Calm down," Stur said. "It's alright. You are safe. There is nothing to fear."

He ceased to move, his face agonized. "Nothing," he said, his voice breaking. "Blood on my hands. Everywhere."

"Here," Hoorboch said, offering him a handkerchief. And when he did not take it, Hoorboch wrapped his injured finger with it.

"Let's get him to his feet," Stur said. They lifted him upwards and he stood shivering. Stur stepped sideways blocking his view of the dead man. "What's your name?"

The young man stared through him, another man's blood drying on his face. "Time," he said.

"My name is Jonus Stur. This is Ronald Hoorboch. We are private detectives. Why are you here?"

"Here… to die," he said, grasping his hands together.

Stur looked at Hoorboch. Hoorboch shrugged. "Why were they going to kill you, can you tell us that?"

"She paid them."

"Who? Who paid them?"

"The anuran woman paid them… but then — it was, too late… wait, wait, did I kill him… did I?"

"No," Hoorboch said. "I did."

Time looked away, up at the moon and his right hand drifted upwards and brushed at his face.

Stur took his shoulder and led him a little way down the catwalk, helping him to sit down with his back against the catwalk railing. Before returning to Hoorboch, Stur removed his jacket and covered the young man with it.

"You know," Hoorboch said, a dark expression on his face, "I just saw the war, for a moment I was back in the war. Fanjis. Remember that corporal from Pinnacle? The one that shot himself in the head the night after we took Redge-aek?"

"Yes," Stur said.

"He made me remember that. The look on his face… it…"

"Yes."

Hoorboch squinted and then smiled grimly. "Do you think he saw Fat Theodore?"

"I do not doubt that he did," Stur said. "And that means this case is over in all but the details. When that young man tells the police of what occurred here, Fat Theodore's days of freedom will be over, and we will have accomplished all that Margeon asked of us."

Hoorboch looked at the figure sitting quiet in the moonlight. "What if he won't talk? He looks like he'd scare easy."

"No. He will talk. He is no coward, Ronald. You should speak better of him. He stopped Gignoskein from putting a bullet in your skull."

"Wait a minute," Hoorboch said. "You said that earlier. But it seems to me like it's the other way round. I heard him yell and I looked up and saw them struggling. If I hadn't shot Gignoskein when I did, then it would be him with a bullet in his skull, not me."

"You saw only the end. I saw it all. And it was something to see, Ronald. I was coming along that corridor and I saw the two of them on the catwalk. They were speaking but I could not hear their words. As I crept forward Gignoskein raised his gun for the kill. I began to run. I saw I was too late, but then there was a loud metallic clang. Which I am guessing was made by you-"

"I tripped and my pistol hit the side of a vat."

"Gignoskein heard this and then drew another gun. He pointed it below. I slowed my forward progress so as not to be heard. That is when I reached the catwalk and saw you drunkenly stumbling about-"

"I wasn't stumbling, Jonus."

"And that was when the young man began to move. He is quick, Ronald. Maybe even faster than I. It was his quickness which saved you, that and the fact that he went for the gun pointed at you instead of the one pointed at him. That took Gignoskein by surprise. He was able to move in close and thrust his finger behind the trigger."

"You mean he did that on purpose?"

"Yes, I believe so."

"Still," said Hoorboch, "by dropping Gignoskein I also saved his life. So then we are even."

Police sirens became audible in the distance.

"But you are still more in his debt than he is in yours," Stur said, pausing to listen to the sirens grow closer. "For I do not think he cares whether he lives or dies."

"What? What's that supposed to mean?"

Sirens blared from just outside the plant.

"That would be Jankman," Stur said. "I'll go get him."

"No," Hoorboch said, with a nervous look at Time. "I'll go. I don't want to have to try and catch him if he tries to jump over the railing or something."

• • •

"So that's Agan Gignoskein?" Lieutenant Jankman said, moving aside to let a couple of plainclothes examine the scene and take pictures.

"It was," Hoorboch said.

"Tell me again why you've been trailing him?"

"We're on a case. Didn't you get the message we left yesterday? We waited around the station for a while but you never showed."

Jankman's face grew serious. "I was down on 28th street."

"What for?" Hoorboch smirked. "Shaking down a hooker? Getting laid?"

Jankman's eyes flashed. "Don't you ever lift your head from the bottle… sorry, I — you've been on a case. You didn't read about it?"

Hoorboch shook his head.

Jankman looked away. "It was bad, Ron. The worst I've seen. I… it was… forget it, forget it. Where's Stur?"

"Went to call our client."

Jankman turned and nodded towards where Time still sat. "So Gignoskein was about to drop the hammer on that kid and you played the hero?"

"Uh, yeah. More or less. He's pretty messed up right now, but he can hand you Fat Theodore's ass on a silver platter."

"Really," Jankman said, distracted. "Well then… let's get him back to the station."

• • •

Sitting in the backseat of a patrol car with Hoorboch beside him, Time stared out the window. The gate opened as they pulled up to it. They drove through it. Half a block down the street, a car passed slowly going the other direction. The driver of that car stared at Time and Time stared at her, at her red dress. He watched her pull away, craning his neck around. Then he looked at Hoorboch. Hoorboch was saying something to the driver of the patrol car. Time sat back in the seat and closed his eyes. What is real, he thought. Was that real?

• • •

Time awoke from a dreamless sleep. Hoorboch was tapping him on the shoulder. "We're at the station," Hoorboch said.

"What…"

"Don't worry, it shouldn't take too long," Hoorboch said encouragingly, stepping out onto the sidewalk where Jankman waited.

Time wearily slid across the seat and stood beside Jankman and Hoorboch, pedestrians staring at his blood-caked face as they passed. Stur emerged from a dark blue sedan and joined them at the foot of the steps leading up to the stationhouse.

Jankman led them inside. A dramatic confusion of voices and sounds rioted within Time's ears. It was crowded, and people were darting about, standing about, speaking, and yelling. Time, like a frightened child, stuck very close to Hoorboch and Stur, as they made their way to the third floor.

Jankman led them to a nearby desk. "Lasser," he said to the man seated there, "I want you to take a swab of blood off this gentleman's face," he gestured at Time, "then take him to the bathroom and when he's done cleaning up bring him to my office." He walked away and Stur and Hoorboch followed him.

Time stood quietly while Lasser rummaged around his desk.

"Then what happened to her face?" said a voice from behind them. "You're saying you didn't do that to her?"

Lasser found what he was searching for, smiled, ran a wet cotton swab across Time's forehead, and then deposited it into a clear plastic bag.

"I… well, I don't know, you know, I was drunk, I…"

"Yeah, yeah. Current address, please. Come on I don't have all night."

Lasser led Time away. At the bathroom door he said, "Here you go."

Time nodded his head and stepped inside, suddenly realizing he had to urinate intensely. There were two cops standing at the long trough urinal talking to each other. Time opened the nearest stall and closed the door behind him. Undoing his pants franticly, he found himself unable to take proper aim, or actually lift the toilet seat, before it started to flow. Urine splashed upon the lid while he fumbled with one hand to lift it. When he had the lid halfway up, it pressed against his injured finger and in agony he dropped it. The sound of porcelain hitting porcelain filled the bathroom, followed by the sound of urine hitting porcelain. His finger throbbing, he carefully lifted the lid, but by then his bladder had emptied.

The bathroom was silent. The two cops had stopped talking.

Time stood still, looking at his hands. The urine had wet the dried blood there. His hands were foul. He closed his eyes, tensing every muscle against a wracking shiver of horror and disgust. Brains and blood spilling across dashboard.

"I heard you an' Chuck an' Rackman got rolled by a bunch of curs," one of the cops said. A water faucet turned on and there was the sound of hands being washed.

"Yeah, one of those dirty fucks hit me in the back of the head with a bottle. Threw it from the shadows, the fucking coward, but then they all are."

"They're all what?"

"Cowards, fucking cowards."

"Yep. I know it don't matter much, since they all look the same, but did you see the one that did it?"

"No. I was out for a few minutes. But don't worry, we got ours back."

"You found the ones that did it?"

"No, but we still got ours back."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. Trust me, my head ain't the only one that still hurts," laughter, "but even so, if I ever find the cur that threw that bott-"

Time burst from the stall. He stood there before the two cops, dried blood and urine on his clothes, his face caked with blood, his face maniacal.

"Whoa," one of the cops said nervously, "what happened to you?"

Time half whispered, half screamed. Launching himself forward he struck at them both.

Lasser, hearing the commotion, rushed inside. He saw three figures on the bathroom floor, one of them flailing wildly about. The two cops, though much larger than their assailant, were not fighting back. They were like men being attacked by a flock of small birds. The speed and random intensity of the blows had them holding their arms before their faces as if they feared their eyes might be pecked out.

Lasser raced forward. As he stooped to enter the fray, Jonus Stur appeared beside him and thrust him backwards.

Leaning over the frenetic striking creature, Stur said commandingly: "Time."

Time, seeing the face of the serene looking black man appear as if from out of cloudy water, ceased all movement like a toy that had been switched off abruptly. Stur lifted him upwards and held his arms as if he were an injured animal that would suddenly panic at the slightest provocation.

"What happened?" Stur said, his voice impenetrable, a subdued accent rolling around the edges.

"I don't know," Lasser said.

One of the cops staggered to his feet and threw a punch at Time's head. Stur pulled Time away and deflected the blow with the side of his arm. Before the man could throw another, Lasser grabbed the man and held him back.

"That maniac should be in a fucking cell," the cop said, pushing Lasser away angrily.

"What the fuck is going on in here," Lieutenant Jankman yelled from the bathroom doorway.

"That fucker jumped out of a stall and attacked us for no reason," the cop said.

"That kid there? He attacked you both and you couldn't restrain him?"

The cop's face turned red. "Yeah, Lieutenant. Well, he took us by surprise, you know, we were washing our hands and, and our backs were turned, so—"

"Shut up," Jankman said. "Get the fuck out of here." The two cops filed out.

Hoorboch, with a can of soda in one hand and a candy bar in the other, stepped up beside Jankman. "What happened?"

"It seems your friend here attacked two of my officers, for no apparent reason."

"He did?" Hoorboch said, laughing. "Two? Way to go kid." He sniffed audibly. "What's that smell? Urine? Hey, Jankman, you really should have someone clean out these bathrooms more than once a year."

"Very funny," Jankman said. "Lasser. What happened?"

Lasser shook his head. "I don't know. I heard some noise and opened the door and found him thrashing at them like a madman."

Stur pulled Time around until they were eye to eye. "Time," he said firmly, "what occurred here?"

Time tilted his head, staring. In a torrent he began to speak, or rather mutter, and ramble, and mumble. He was telling it all, everything, the throwing of the bottle, the corruption, the killing, everything that had occurred in the past few days, but only one word in a hundred could be heard and that one word was mostly incomprehensible.

Stur held him by the shoulders and tried to quiet him.

Jankman led Hoorboch aside. "This is going to give me Fat Theodore's ass on a silver platter? Fanjis! They're going to be handing this kid part of his brain after the fucking lobotomy."

• • •

Time awoke six hours later inside interrogation room #4. Stur and Hoorboch were sitting at a table in the center of the room playing a game of cards. He was lying on the floor with Stur's jacket folded beneath his head. He stood up slowly.

He looked at the two men before him, and he seemed to remember them as if from a dream.

"Hey, you're awake," Hoorboch said. "Want something to eat?"

Time rubbed at his stomach, staring hungrily at the various foodstuffs sitting on the table. He grabbed a bag of chips and sat down. "Thanks," he said.

"Don't mention it."

He pulled at the bag in an attempt to open it. Excruciating pain shot through his left hand. The bag of chips dropped to the table. Hoorboch ripped it open. "Thanks," Time said.

"No problem."

Shoveling chips into his mouth, Time noticed his hands were clean. The injured finger on his left hand was also encased in a splint. He rubbed at his face and it too felt cleansed. He looked up at the two men questioningly.

"Don't look at me," Hoorboch said. "I'm just a half-ass trained, old army medic. Jankman had this svelte fox of a police nurse come in and fix you up. It's not broken, just sprain. You should have seen the way she fussed over you after I told her how you got all that blood on you."

Time filled his mouth with chips. Later, when the bag was empty, he said, "What time is it?"

"A little after four-thirty," Stur said.

"In the morning?"

"Yes."

"You've been here all this time?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"We did not want to leave you here unprotected. There are a couple of men here that would like to cause you serious injury. Jankman would not let anything happen to you, but he cannot be everywhere at once."

"And accidents do have a way of happening to people in jail," Hoorboch said. "No matter how careful the screws try to be."

"Am I being held?" Time asked. "Are they going to put me in jail?"

Hoorboch laughed. "No, why would they. You just hit a couple of cops, there was no real damage done. Besides, they'd never press charges. They'd never live it down if they did. Getting beat up in their own shitbox."

"Then why am I here?"

"Go get Jankman," Stur said to Hoorboch. Hoorboch left the room and returned with the lieutenant.

"Hello, Mr. Rath," Jankman said, "I'd like to ask you a few questions, alright?"

Time nodded his head.

Jankman held up a picture. "Do you recognize this man?"

"He was at the plant, I think he was the man in charge."

Jankman held up another picture. "How about this one?"

Time closed his eyes and then opened them. "That's the man that… the man that died tonight."

"Now Hoorboch told me you knew why they were going to kill you. Could you explain it all to me?"

Time took a deep breath. "Sure," he said, his voice weary. He began with the umber criss and when he saw incredulity on Jankman's face he rolled up his left sleeve and showed him the barely visible miniscule scars that threaded his skin. Next, he spoke of his last night at the dye works and the anuran woman. Then about being picked up that morning by Gignoskein (he left out all mention of Eddie and Dimples). Finally he told of the events at the slaughterhouse. He said nothing of Sera, whose skin he kept feeling beneath his fingertips.

Jankman wrote a few things down, and then said, "Good enough. I'll be back in a little bit, and then you can go home." He left the room.

• • •

"We're out of luck twice," Jankman said when he returned. "I've been sending men out after Fat Theodore ever since you called me from the slaughterhouse. But he's nowhere to be found." Jankman shook his head angrily. "This precinct has so many leaks it's disgusting. But that shouldn't have affected us with the anuran woman. I sent men to the dye works, to her apartment, to her house in the hills. She's gone too. I've put out an S.T.W. on both of them. I'll let you know when anything comes up." He shook Time's hand. "Thanks for your help."

Time nodded his head.

"Hey, Stur," Jankman said with a smirk, "keep that fat fuck out of trouble, alright."

"I try only to attempt things it is possible to achieve," Stur said.

"Fuck you both," Hoorboch said.

Time slipped away while they were talking. Moving like a shadow he left the stationhouse.

When he was standing at the curb he looked both ways down the street. He only vaguely knew where he was. Choosing a direction, he started walking. The moon had already set and it was dark and very cold. It's probably at least an hour until sunrise, he thought. Would he get home while it was still dark? Not likely. He picked up his pace, moving quickly down the deserted sidewalk.

A car horn sounded loudly near him. He jumped and turned about. A dark blue sedan pulled up to the curb. The window rolled down. "Hey, Time," Hoorboch yelled, "we were looking for you. Do you want a ride home?"

Time looked down the street and then back at Hoorboch. He wanted to be alone, but his limbs were tired and his head was full of thick water. "Alright," he said.

• • •

Standing on the sidewalk in front of the Afterdamp Apartment Building, Time thanked them both and shook their hands. They said they would let him know if Jankman told them anything new, and then they got back into the sedan. Before entering the lobby, Time waved, hearing the engine roar to life, sputter, and then go silent. Walking across the threadbare carpet he heard the super talking on the phone in his office: "Yeah, yeah, so she's whining how she found rat shit in her babies crib… yeah, hah, right, right, exactly, so I tell her point blank that no pets are allowed… I did, yeah, I really did, of course she did, so I sez to her if she doesn't get rid of them I'm gonna evict her… no, what could she say, sure this place is a shithole, but where else's she gonna go, stupid bitch…"

As Time started up the stairwell the lobby doors swung open and Stur and Hoorboch stepped inside. Stur walked quickly to him, Hoorboch trailing behind.

"Our vehicle won't start," Stur said. "Can we use your phone?"

"Sure," Time said, slightly distrustful, not because he was suspicious of them, but rather because it was in his nature to doubt the quality of everything.

As they climbed the stairs, Hoorboch cursed the dark blue sedan and Stur listened patiently.

Reaching the door, Time stopped and said, "wait, my key," checking the right pocket of his pants. Then, remembering, he pulled it from his left pocket, exactly where Eddie, the man he had murdered, had put it the morning before. He stared at it for a long while.

"What's wrong," Stur asked him.

"What… nothing," Time said weakly. He unlocked the door and led them inside.

"Hey, what's this," Hoorboch said, lifting something from off the floor. "Time, it looks like someone slipped this under your door." He held out an envelope and Time took it.

"The phone's over there," he said, tearing open the envelope. While Stur dialed, Time read a correspondence that was made from letters and words cut from different magazines:

Time turned the sheet over, "At what?" he muttered, and, "stone?"

"Time?" Hoorboch said. "Time?" he said louder.

Time looked up, confused.

"What's wrong?" Hoorboch asked.

Time shook his head. In a daze, he handed the note to Hoorboch.

"At what?" Hoorboch said, when he had finished reading. He turned the note over. "It must be a prank. Do you even know a girl with red hair?"

Time nodded his head. After Stur hung up the phone, Hoorboch handed the note to him. Hoorboch suddenly smiled. "The envelope," he said, "check the envelope."

Time lifted the envelope from off the desk and peered inside it, finally reaching in and removing a small slip of paper:

He read it and then handed it to Hoorboch. "What if they meant noon yesterday," he said, his voice high with panic. "What—"

"Calm down," Hoorboch said. "What is this stone? A diamond? What?"

"I don't know," Time said, "I have no idea."

"You don't?" said Hoorboch cynically.

Time shook his head, too lost in thought to notice the doubt on the large man's face.

"Let me see the missing slip," Stur said to Hoorboch. Taking it, he studied it closely, flipping it over. "Mr. Donal Sletsir, apartment #29, the Stockbridge Tower, Sangren, Kodjh Province. This could be a trap or a gift. What do you think Ronald?"

Hoorboch grabbed the slip. "This shipping address could have been cut from anyone's magazine. Who knows, he probably stole the magazine too."

"Perhaps, but it is the only lead, by accident or not. Time, I take it this comes as a complete shock to you?"

Time nodded his head.

"Who is the girl?"

Time looked up, again distrustful. "I… I met her the night before last… she… she was gone when I woke up."

Stur looked at Hoorboch. Hoorboch smirked and shrugged sardonically. Stur looked at Time. "I suggest we go to this address and pay Mr. Sletsir a visit."

Time studied them both, his face darkening. "No. It is kind of you to offer, but…" he lowered his head, his mouth opening into a grotesque smile that was not a smile but an unconscious sculpture of guilt and loathing. His voice grew bitter, "… there is already too much blood on my hands. Go away. Please." He rubbed at his forehead obsessively.

Hoorboch looked around the room uncomfortably. He wanted to leave but he knew Stur would not let him. The kid saved his life. Though it still seemed to him the other way around. If the kid wanted their help then it would be different. Fuck Jonus, he thought, just let it go.

Stur's gaze did not waver from Time's face. He could see there were more things than just Gignoskein's death that were eating away at the young man. It took little extrapolation to perceive that if left alone he would either self disintegrate or be led to destruction by the hand of another.

"What of the girl," Stur said. "If this is a trap and you die then she surely will also. We have dealt with situations like this before. We could help you avoid bloodshed altogether."

Time looked up, his resolve wavering. "But you have no reason to go."

Hoorboch cleared his throat. Right at that moment the kid looked just like a kid, like a frightened child. Fucking Jonus, Hoorboch thought, and then said awkwardly, "I do. I… I owe you," he added not very convincingly.

Time looked at him sharply, not understanding.

"At the slaughterhouse," Hoorboch said, his voice a little caustic because of the need to explain, "Stur tells me I would have been dead if not for you."

The kid disappeared, replaced by a grim faced slightly insane looking young man. "You don't owe me anything," Time said in a severely clipped voice. "I risked nothing. If I had died it — I didn't even know you were there."

Stur caught the lie but let it pass. "If you won't accept our help as a balance due, then accept it as a simple act of altruism."

A rush of air that was part laugh and part something else escaped from Time's mouth. "Is there such a thing?" he said with a defeated smile that was all pessimism.

"No, not in its purest form," Stur said, knowing Time had acquiesced. "But there is still such a thing. I admit it is rare."

"From what I have seen of this world I would say it was either extinct or wholly mythical to begin with."

Stur smiled enigmatically.

After a long silence Hoorboch laughed nervously. "Well, let's go then. I'm guessing anyways that this Donal Sletsir will turn out to be nothing more than a dentist or proctologist who's missing a few magazines from his waiting room."

"Perhaps," Stur said. He went to the phone and called a taxi. "When you've finished changing your clothes," he said to Time, "we'll be waiting downstairs." He and Hoorboch left the room, closing the door behind them.

Time looked down at his bloodstained clothes that smelled slightly of urine. He had almost forgotten.

• • •

Time stepped out onto the sidewalk. The sky above was beginning to pale in the east. Hoorboch and Stur were waiting in the dark blue sedan, which purred softly. A tow truck was pulling away down the street. Time got in the back seat of the sedan. "I thought it wouldn't start?" he said, masking the suspicion in his voice well enough to fool Hoorboch but not Stur.

"It wouldn't," Hoorboch said. "The guy from the tow truck looked under the hood, did something, and then it came right to life when I turned the ignition." He slammed his hand against the wheel. "Piece of crap," he said.

As they pulled away from the curb, a taxi drove past them slowly. Hoorboch waved at the driver and smiled.




Chapter 45: One Day

Time Rath: Interior Monologue

The Stockbridge Tower is a tall old building north of the river just west of where the refineries jut into the sky. Its outside veneer fits well with the surrounding neighborhood of dilapidated ninety year old architecture. As we step through the wide glass front doors into the lobby, I am surprised to see it has been kept up extremely well and that the light-veined marble floors are crack-less and highly polished. As I follow Stur and Hoorboch towards the elevator I see many plants not made of plastic, walls which are clean and well lit, and a fair amount of people, most of them elderly, actually sitting down, reading the newspaper, and talking with an air of cheerfulness. Their apparent lack of cares tugs at me with bitter jealous hands and pulls me back to why I am here. Once inside the elevator I feel dark and afraid.

• • •

The doors slide open on the nineteenth floor and we step out into a short hall, dimly lit. This place shows its age. The sole bronze lamp fixture hanging from the ceiling is tarnished and the light bulb flickers. The carpet is worn and the flowered wallpaper is bubbled and stained. A single door awaits us at the hall's end.

Hoorboch brushes past me and I see a gun in his hand. I look over at Stur and he is pulling a long cord from his pocket. I take a few steps forward and he walks beside me allowing the elevator doors to close, darkening the hallway noticeably.

When we reach the door Hoorboch steps back and raises his leg preparing to kick it in. The door opens before he does and a dark golden furred karkajan stands there with its hand to its long mouth, a gesture soliciting silence. He is dressed in a mediocre suit that is slightly to small for him.

Hoorboch taps his gun against the doorframe. "We're here to see a Donal Sletsir."

The karkajan nods his head, raises his arm slowly, and points at his watch, his finger indicating the numeral twelve, noon. He smiles, his muzzle crinkling somehow conspiratorially, and again he makes a gesture soliciting silence.

"It is not a trap," Stur says. "It is a gift." He reaches in his pocket and holds up the slip of paper that has the words 'noon today' on one side and the shipping address on the other. The karkajan touches his chest and then beckons for us to follow.

Hoorboch shares a glance with Stur and then shrugging he walks forward. We fall in behind him.

We walk down dark corridors, passing closed doors, darkened rooms, shadowed hallways. This apartment must take up the entire floor.

Suddenly the karkajan comes to a halt. He points to the door before us and nods his head. "Ready?" Hoorboch whispers. Stur nods his head. I nod my head foolishly.

The karkajan opens the door and steps inside. And so do we.

The room is lit by a small electric chandelier. There is a bookshelf lining the right wall. An unpainted oak door in the left wall. A door painted green opposite the door from which we have just entered. An old man is hunched in a wheelchair by the bookshelf. His legs are covered by a heavy blanket. When he sees us his face contorts with rage.

"You…" he gasps breathlessly, spittle forming at the corners of his mouth, his eyes vicious. Shaking furiously he points a crooked finger at the karkajan. The karkajan stares at him and then does a mock bow. The old man's head spasms, his arms quake. "I should have seen this coming," he says in a voice that is all rasps, "you will pay for this betrayal."

Hoorboch levels his gun at the old man. "Where is she?"

The old man grins angrily. The karkajan points at the unpainted oak door.

I rush forward and jerk at the doorknob. It will not turn. I hear a high shrill voice past the door. Then a subdued cry of pain that trails off. I step back and slam my body against the door. It moves not at all and my head knocks hard upon the wood. I fall to the floor heavily. The old man begins laughing. Everything spins.

When I am able to steady myself I look up, and see Hoorboch walk forward and kick the door. It crashes inward and hangs crookedly from its hinges.

Past the hanging door is a scene, illuminated by the bright, cold winter light shooting through a large window, that seems surreal to me from where I am on the floor. The room is small and bare, with only the one window dominating the wall opposite the door. In the center of the room is a desk. Leaning over the desk is an elderly lady in a maroon dress that would have been fashionable half a century ago. Her face is a smooth pale white set against the bloody red of her lips. Even though her skin is absolutely smooth and clear she conjures up visions of things impossibly ancient. One of her eyes is open wide; the other is squinted shut to a thin dark line. This ancient lady is, just as the door crashes open, slapping the person across from her. The person across from her is Sera Anig, sitting in a chair she is tied to, wearing only her bra and panties, with a thick glaze of stupor molding her features.

As the sound of the slap ends, I am on my feet, past Ronald, and in the room standing before Sera. The light from the window is like ice. It shimmers and slides off her pale skin. Her eyes are closed. Limned in ice, somehow beyond my reach. I shiver.

Ronald is shouting at me. Out of the corner of my eye I see the old woman move quickly and slip something metallic from the folds of her dress. Her perfectly smooth face is suddenly cut deep with a mass of dark lines as she brings her arm and its weapon in an arc towards me. I spin away trying to evade the strike. Her weapon tears along my right shoulder with a curious pain. I continue to spin and the momentum brings my elbow crashing into the old woman's head. She sprawls backward and goes through the window arms wide with glass falling like rain around her as she disappears from view. It takes her a long time to disappear. Then she is gone.

I stare with horror at the jagged glass-teeth-framed window, that is no longer a window but a terrible swallowing maw that I have fed.

I kill and kill and kill...

Behind me, from the main room, there comes a rising wail. The awful sound of it makes me turn and I see the old man fall convulsing out of his wheelchair, vomit spraying from his mouth. The karkajan kneels clinically beside him, watching as he is wracked with seizures and spews forth dark liquids.

Then there is the crash of a door bursting open and Ronald cursing. I hurry forward and step into the other room and see three creatures entering past the green door, with their slick blood-pink mock-human bodies glistening in the cold winter light. Viscera draped in watered milk. Not real. This is real. Is this real? The first raises its long claw-fingered hands and sweeps towards Jonus Stur. Quick and precise he leaps forward to meet the attacking creature, the cord in his hands extended. Somehow he catches its arms while evading its claws, and sends it back against the others with enough force to knock them all off their feet. While they regain their footing, he draws a small knife from his jacket.

Hoorboch turns to me, shakes me until I look at him, and then points at Sera. "Get her out of here," he yells, fear in his eyes. He hands me his gun and draws a long knife. He turns to face the oncoming creatures.

Rubbing at my eyes, trying to breathe normally, I back towards Sera and the ropes that bind her. Half watching the door I try to untie her. I find my one free hand, my injured hand, useless against the knots and with a growing dread I see myself fumbling comically like an idiot in a silent movie while men struggle against death in my place. More blood on my hands. I set the gun down on the desk beside me and frantically struggle with the ropes.

• • •

A drawer opens behind me. I spin around and slam against the desk leg. The gun slides off the desktop and the karkajan fills my vision as he stands on the other side of the desk with his hand within an open drawer. He pulls his hand slowly out of the drawer, a pair of scissors within his furry hand. He pushes them across the desk towards me. "Shihs nih did," he rumbles, nodding his head at the broken window, then dashes out past the hanging door.

Just as I take my eyes off the doorway and grab for the scissors, one of the creatures appears before me. It has no eyes just slight depressions where eyes should be. There is not the tiniest indication of a mouth or nose or ears. Its body is smooth without a hint of gender and it looks wet and shiny. But its hands which are not hands but claws are what draw fear. The claws are like fingers that have been stretched the length of a man's forearm, made razor sharp.

I feel fear. Am paralyzed. It slides towards me almost slowly and some synapse within my brain makes me step backward. Something blocks further evasion. I begin to step around it and realize it is Sera tied to a chair she is sitting in, helpless, without defense. She is mine and I will protect her against anything. I charge forward knocking the creature against the wall. For a few repellent seconds I have its claws trapped flat between my body and its grotesque flesh. Then it throws me aside and sways undecided on whether to cut me or Sera. I remember the gun. I fall on my knees and retrieve it with a sweep of my hand. I am shaking and the trigger feels brutal against my index finger. I leap to my feet in front of the window and fire.

The first bullet enters its chest like it would a piece of cheese, leaving a small hole and little else. It decides on me and I continue to fire bullets into its dark pink flesh. It whirls at me and catches my chest with the tips of its claws. Shreds of my shirt and droplets of blood wave out before me in the air as I fall backwards. Its claws blur towards me. I put up my hand with the gun helplessly and watch the gun fly away with half of my pinkie. Barely through the pain I can feel the wind coming from behind me, tickling the hairs on the back of my neck.

Sensing victory it lunges. I somehow step past it and trip and fall to the floor. When I roll to my feet and turn, I expect to see only claws. Instead, I see a mock-human creature hanging half out of a broken window impaled upon a shard of glass which protrudes from its upper back. It is still moving, still alive, struggling like a worm cut in half to free itself. As I watch, it actually begins to push itself back into the room, the shark's fin of glass moving diagonally up its back, cutting a visible slice without a drop of blood or any similar liquid. When the fin of glass is almost about to break free from its flesh just below the arm, I am knocked aside by Stur into the wall. Without hesitation he plunges his knife into its lower back and slices horizontally through its flesh. When the knife passes through the creatures middle it stops moving like something that has been turned off and slumps deeper onto the glass with the fin pushing out the flesh beneath its arm.

Stur turns towards me and asks if I am alright. Then abruptly, he stares at the wall beside me. I stare at the wall beside me. A streak of blood is smeared down it to where my hands rest upon it. I lift my right hand before my eyes and see only four and a half digits. Stur walks forward and tells me to give him my hand. I do and he wraps a handkerchief around it tightly. I ask him where my finger is and he begins looking for it on the floor. I look at my hand and what is missing.

There are heavy steps behind me. I turn and Hoorboch pats me on the shoulder. "Still alive?" he says with a smile, as he dabs at a cut on his forehead. I raise up my right hand and he stops smiling.

Stur clears his throat and we look down at him. He pats Hoorboch on the knee and says, "Ronald, raise your foot."

Hoorboch lifts his leg and Stur picks up my pinkie.

"Found it," he says. "We are going to need some ice."

"Don't worry," Hoorboch says, wiggling his hand in front of me. "I lost this for a while and after the medics fixed me up it was like it had never been gone. Though I did have to get used to using my other hand for a few months, if you know what I mean." He laughs warmly.

"Help me find some ice," Stur says, walking out past the hanging door. Hoorboch follows him.

I look at the thing on the window and yell, "What if there are more of them?"

Hoorboch yells back, "They are triumvids. They can only be made in threes."

• • •

I cut through the ropes and Sera instantly slumps forward. I drop the scissors and catch her. As I gently hold her up in the chair I see the deep impressions the ropes have left in the skin of her belly and arms. I hope that is the only harm that has come to her. I brush her hair away from her face and after a moment her eyes flutter open. She looks up at me like someone lost and with her head nodding lazily to the side she seems to recognize me. A lopsided smile plays across her lips. She reaches up and wraps her arms around my neck. I lift her in my arms, almost falling over as I do. The pain in my chest, in my hand, and in my shoulder, intensifies and yet seem nothing when compared to the touch of her bare skin, the smooth warm pressure of her body resting against mine.

• • •

A cold wind blows in through the broken window and she shivers and tightens her hold, burying her face against my neck. The scene through the window, framed by the jagged glass-teeth and the impaled triumvid, is all shades of grey. The buildings that spread out across the horizon seem to be bleached of all color and the clouds are moving fast above them like wind blown smoke. Everything stops for me then, for a moment, a perfect moment, with Sera's warm breath on my neck and the cold world passing warped and quick before my eyes.

• • •

Hoorboch is calling my name.

Almost unwilling, I make my way awkwardly to the main room with Sera in my arms.

I find an abattoir. The old man lies where he fell, unmoving, his face twisted horribly. Around and beneath him is the bile and spit and blood that he had evacuated violently from his frail body. The other two triumvids sprawl across the room from one another with their stomachs and backs cut open wide.

Hoorboch emerges from the green door, wiping vomit from his chin. Stur appears beside him. "Jonus?" Hoorboch whispers.

"Yes."

"Where did they get 'em? I mean, Fanjis, you can't just buy a fetus at the store."

"I do not know, Ronald, but it is time we left."

Hoorboch nods his head. He looks towards me. There is a cup in his hand and he waves it at me. "All iced up and ready to go."

Seeing that I am shaking from the strain of holding Sera, he hands Stur the cup, and says, "Why don't you let me take her?" He extends his arms.

And though the pain is tremendous, I would rather hold her than have the pain end. "I've got her," I lie, feeling my strength ebbing, knowing I can not hold her much longer, but unable to release her.

Hoorboch smiles. "Alright. Well then, let's get going."

He leads the way out the hall door and I follow with Stur bringing up the rear.

• • •

In the elevator, Hoorboch takes off his coat and drapes it over Sera. Her breath is warm on my neck. She makes a slight noise, a tiny utterance of contentment that makes my heart falter and my arms tighten around her.

• • •

When the little sign lights up on 'lobby' Hoorboch looks me in the eyes questioningly. I say: "Don't worry. I've got her," and the doors slide open.

• • •

The lobby is still full of people. Most of them are milling about or eating their breakfast in the slightly dropped down lounge area.

We make it half way to the front doors when my arms begin to shiver and fail. I start to loose my grip on Sera. With a massive effort I regain my hold, feeling a severe pain tear across my chest where the triumvid cut me. In the process, I stumble and knock a large potted fern off its stand. It crashes to the floor, shattering its ceramic pot, releasing dirt and fern into the lounge area. Then Hoorboch's coat slips off of Sera and drops in a now utterly silent lobby. All eyes find one focus. I hear a barely perceptible dripping, as of water from a leaky faucet. I look down and see that while regaining my hold on Sera the handkerchief that bound my hand was torn away and blood is now falling in scarlet droplets onto the marble floor. Where my hand holds her, blood is smeared upon the white skin of her thigh. That disturbs me, and I feel despair begin to clutch at my insides.

Hoorboch reacts first. He bends down and retrieves his coat. As he straightens up he whispers: "Start walking." And after a gentle prod in the side, I do.

He comes up on my left side, with his coat over one arm, and an impish smile straining the muscles of his face. Stur comes up on my other side, as calm as always. No one moves or tries to stop us.

At the front doors Hoorboch stops me and Stur, and stares at the doorman until the confused man opens the doors wide. When we step past the staring man, Hoorboch places some money in his hand and says: "Have a nice day."

The doorman looks down at the money in his hand, looks up quickly, tips his hat, and says: "You to, sir. And thank you, sir."

• • •

We drive to the hospital. I hold Sera. Her head is on my shoulder, her warm breath against my neck. Her legs are curled on the seat beside me. We are both covered by Hoorboch's jacket. I do not feel much pain. I feel more pleasure, more joy. For she is near, and she is warm, and she clings to me as tightly as I cling to her.

"How're you doing back there," Hoorboch says, from far away.

"fine… great… fine," I say.

"We'll be there soon, don't worry," he says, from further away than before. I am not worried. She is near.

• • •

She moves a little. Her head lifts away from my neck. She looks at me. "Time," she says, "Time…" She is close, her skin, her lids slightly bruised, every lash curtaining her eyes, a pale blue ambitious sky. Inside me, past all defense. She owns me. Is mine. No trace of darkness. My breath is warm, catching in my chest.

Radiant, haloed, shimmering, she smiles, a soft gauze, she lays her head on my shoulder, her breath is warm, on my neck, she is near…

• • •

… tomorrow, today, tomorrow, today, there is no difference, it is all the same, as long as I am holding her, as long as she is near, time is an illusion, tomorrow, today, yesterday, all the same, one moment, one day, she is soft, warm, I feel no pain, I press my face against her face, my lips to her lips, I hold her tight, there is only her, gentle, warm, mine, I close my eyes, I can hear her breathe, feel her breathe, so near, one moment, one day, hazy, eyes closed, I drift, not alone, away…




Chapter 46: Answers

Sangren

8:09f.d.p. Argus, 23rd of Sedalas, 1777

Hoorboch opened the door to the back seat. "They're both still out," he said to Stur. "Which one do you want to carry? I'd take the girl, but the way he was looking at her, I don't think I want to be the one holding her if he suddenly comes to."

"Then step aside," Stur said, removing Hoorboch's jacket from off the two quiet figures intertwined in each others arms. "He has quite a grip on her," he said, attempting to disentangle them. Finally succeeding, he lifted the girl out and held her up. Hoorboch wrapped her in his jacket. Stur lifted her off her feet.

Hoorboch leaned forward to retrieve Time. Pulling him upwards, he cursed. "Fanjis! I didn't think he was bleeding this bad. Fuck, Jonus. Where's it coming from?" He lifted Time out of the car.

"It is his shoulder, Ronald. I had forgotten the woman struck him there." The back of Time's shirt and the place where he had been sitting were wet with blood.

Kicking the car door closed, they hurried towards the entrance to the hospital.

• • •

"He will be fine," the doctor said. "He has lost a lot of blood, but none of his injuries are life threatening. I reattached the severed digit. The cuts on his chest were superficial and did not require stitches. The wound on his shoulder was another matter. It wasn't deep and it hadn't hit any major arteries, but even after I stitched it up it continued to bleed. Without the proof of his other wounds I would have thought him a hemophiliac. Eventually I had to cauterize it. He's sleeping now, and I have him on an IV. I'd like to keep him here for at least a few hours."

"What about the girl?" Hoorboch asked.

"Yes, you told the nurse you thought she might be having an adverse reaction to some unknown drug. I ran a few tests and it turned out to be Benohydroxinal. I rarely see that one anymore. If this isn't her first time using it, then I would strongly suggest you get her to a rehab clinic immediately. That isn't a drug you mess around with. When she wakes up she is free to go. But remember what I said about the rehab clinic. Before you leave make sure you see the administrator at the front desk. Have a nice day, or at least a better one." The doctor walked away.

"Well that's that," Hoorboch said to Stur. "Hey, where're you going?"

"To make a phone call," Stur said over his shoulder. "Go wait by their room, I will return shortly."

"Sure, whatever you say, master," Hoorboch muttered, bowing his head sarcastically.

• • •

"Took you long enough," Hoorboch said. "I'm starving. I'm going to get something to eat. And I will not be returning shortly." He walked off down the corridor, skirting a man being wheeled past on a gurney.

Stur watched him go and then entered the room. In one bed, lay Time. In the other the girl with red hair, Sera Anig. Her eyes were open. She was staring at Time. Stur walked to the foot of her bed. She reluctantly turned her head and looked at him.

"It isn't all lies, is it?" Stur said.

"What?"

"You care for him?"

She looked at Time. "Yes. I don't know why."

"I had a friend run your name. It sounded familiar."

She wiped her hand wearily across her face. "Are you a cop?"

Stur shook his head. "A private detective. You work for Erskine Caldwell?"

"Yes."

"He also seeks the stone your kidnappers sought?"

"Yes."

"What is it? Why does he want it? And why does he think Time has it?"

"I do not know," she said. "He only tells me what he thinks I need to know. Nothing more. I do not ask questions. I've learned better."

Stur looked at her speculatively. "He has shown you things you would rather not have seen?"

She shivered and nodded her head. Looking over at Time, a darkness came over her face. "I have to leave," she said. "I have to leave before he wakes up?"

"Why?"

She sat up, sliding her legs over the edge of the bed. "Because, if he looks at me… I won't have the strength to leave."

"Then why not stay?"

She gets to her feet, dressed in a hospital gown, and stands over Time. "Look at him," she whispers. "Look at his hands, look at his chest and his shoulder, look at the lines on his face. Every scar you see on him, every cut, every bruise, every worry, was caused by me. That is why I'm leaving. I will only destroy him if I stay."

"I do not think he would agree with you."

"That is because he is beautiful, and innocent, no matter what he may think, he is innocent, and kind, and pure. He can wash away sins with a touch and make that which is foul clean. But just because he can do it, does not mean he should have to. He deserves better. If you are his friend, you will get him out of this city."

"And what would you have me tell him when he awakens and finds you gone?"

"Tell him… tell him…" For a moment she hid her face in her hands. "Tell him not to look for me. Tell him I… I would rather die than see him again." Leaning over him, she reached out to touch his face, but then pulled her hand away as if he were made of the frailest glass. "Tell him," she said, her voice weary and determined. "Tell him it is too late for me."

Holding the hospital gown closed behind her back, she turned and walked away. Stur watched her leave. She was a capable person. She would probably steal some clothes from a nearby room, or she would simply walk straight out of the hospital, hail a cab, and without any money, half naked, go wherever she was heading.

Stur looked at Time. He and the girl were a perfect match, perhaps too much so. They were both broken, full of guilt and sadness. An air of doom followed them. He thought of stopping her, of forcing her to stay, but he was unsure that would be wise. For she was correct, in the end they would destroy each other. But in the end perhaps that was best for them both. To die together, rather than alone.

Stur walked out into the corridor. She was nowhere to be seen. She was a capable person.

• • •

Time awoke a little after noon. Blinking his eyes groggily, he looked around the room. He did not see her. In a quick explosion, he rolled from the bed, the IV crashing to the floor and tearing from his arm. He leapt to the door, the hospital gown flapping about him. As his hand closed on the knob, Stur grabbed him as gently as he could and dragged him back to the bed.

Time screamed unintelligibly. Stur pinned him to the mattress. "Time! Time," he yelled. "Calm yourself."

Hoorboch ran into the room. "What happened?"

"Get a doctor," Stur yelled.

Until Hoorboch returned with a doctor, and the doctor sedated him, Time howled like an animal.




Chapter 47: Protection

Erskine Caldwell's country estate

2:51s.d.p. Argus, 23rd of Sedalas, 1777

Caldwell awaited Sera in the library. He was curious as to what she would tell him.

She entered wearing a long black dress covered by a bulky jacket.

"Sit," he said, gesturing at the red leather chair opposite him. She sat. "Remove your jacket," he said with a smile. "Make yourself comfortable."

"I am comfortable," she said, "it's cold in here."

"As you will," he said watching her. "Why have you failed me? Why are you not with Time Rath as I instructed?"

"I have not failed you," she said. "He has the stone-"

Caldwell leaned forward. "He does?"

"Yes. It is in a safe deposit box, I-"

"How did he get it?"

Sera looked down and then back up. "I don't know. He wouldn't tell me. I have the address and box number written down." She reached in her jacket pocket.

Caldwell made a gesture with his hand. She froze. "I expected better," he said with a smile. "After all, I oversaw your training myself." He reached in her jacket pocket and pulled out the small pistol she had been reaching for. He ejected the clip and set it down on the table beside them. Making the reverse gesture of the one he had made before, she felt herself thaw. The hatred she usually hid, played nakedly on her face.

"Why?" he asked. "After all these years do you choose now to fail me? Once I had the stone I would have had no further use for you. I was going to release you from my service. You would have been free. Why act now on your hatred?" He laughed skeptically. "Is it this boy?"

She did not answer.

He laughed again. "Don't worry my dear, you will see him soon. Considering the effect he has had on you, I have all the more reason to meet him in person. I will bring him here. If he does not have the stone by now, then he never will. He could be of use when I find his brother. Tonight, when it grows dark and the streets empty, I will send less fallible, more faithful servants to retrieve him."

From the shadows of the room, three slick blood-pink shapes moved forth. Sera closed her eyes.




Chapter 48: Nea       r

Time Rath: Interior Monologue

…I can hear her breathe, I can…

I open my eyes. She is gone. I try to move, struggle, strapped down, futile, useless, there is nothing, nothing…

• • •

"Time," Stur says to me, "I'm going to take off your restraints, alright?"

I nod my head. He releases the straps that are holding me to the bed.

He pulls a chair close and sits beside me. "I am going to tell you some things you will not want to hear. You must try and remain calm," he says.

Then he tells me things about Sera. I do not want to believe him, but I do. I trust him. Everything he tells me fits. With his last words all my doubts fade away: Tell him I would rather die than see him again. Tell him it is too late for me.

• • •

I get dressed awkwardly, pain in my chest and shoulder and hands. My pants and underwear are stained with blood, but still wearable. My shirt is garbage. I toss it in the trash. I wear my hospital gown instead, tucking it in my pants.

Hoorboch and Stur are waiting for me when I step out into the hall.

"Ready to go," Hoorboch says.

I nod my head.

The administrator at the front desk says we have to fill out a few forms.

"First, how did it happen?" she asks.

I open my mouth but can't think of what to say.

"He was… mugged," Hoorboch says.

"Really," she says, shaking her head. "It's terrible what's happening to this city. Do you have insurance?"

I shake my head.

"Is that one of our gowns?"

"Yes."

"I'll add it to your bill."

"How much?"

"Oh, only forty tentrums."

"For everything?"

She laughs hysterically. "No, just for the gown. Your entire bill comes up to seventeen thousand twenty six tentrums."

"If you added up all the money I've made in my entire life it might just be enough. But right now I have nothing." I extend my right hand with the smallest finger reattached and bandaged. "Maybe I should just tear this off and you can give it to someone who can afford it?"

Hoorboch laughs. Stur puts a hand on my shoulder.

The administrator stares at me nervously. "Um… well, yes, uh… well, we have very affordable installment plans for the uninsured with very reasonable interest rates. Um, could I have your current address, phone number, and citizen identification number?"

• • •

We drive through the city. The sun has set. The electric lights, the neon lights, the arc lights, glisten and shimmer. This is the city. Passing cars, passing trucks, tall buildings, the people on the sidewalks, a flash and they are gone. This is life.

• • •

Stur looks back from the passenger seat. "Time?"

"Yes."

"Are you sure you will not change your mind about returning to your apartment?"

"I'm sure."

"But why?" Hoorboch says, his eyes glancing in the rearview mirror. "If people are after you for something you don't have, then why make it easy for them to find you, that's just, well, stupid."

"I know. I…" There is a long silence. "I'm tired of hiding, of running. That's all I've ever done, my entire life. Back away, step down, run, hide, avoid. For once I'm going to stand and let whatever comes crash against me; it's either that or slowly drown in my own cowardice."

"You do not seem a coward," Stur says.

A bitter laugh comes up my throat. "You don't know me, I…" A dark shadowed reflection of myself stares back at me from the window at my side. "I am not what I wanted to be. What I have always tried to be. I have failed in all those things that mattered most. I have… people have died, people are going to die, but not because of me, never again because of me. Whatever debt you think you owe me is gone. It never existed. Do you understand?"

"I understand," Stur says in a quiet voice.

"I don't," Hoorboch says, turning on the heater. "Is this about the girl? That I can understand. But that's no reason to do something stupid. I mean—"

"Ronald," Stur says, shaking his head.

"No, we're talking about Erskine Caldwell here, not little Jimmy Two Whore with a tiny plastic switchblade. Erskine Caldwell."

"He's that dangerous?" I ask.

"Fanjis. He could declare war on another country, attack that country, defeat that country, occupy that country, crown himself king, exterminate the general populace, and then sell their skulls to the tourists."

"No, he would not do that," Stur says. "Men like Erskine Caldwell have others to do that for them. They think nothing of pulling the strings that kill millions by proxy."

"If he is that powerful then there is no point in hiding, is there?"

"But you can't just roll over for him, Time," Hoorboch says. "Why make it easy for him. It's a big world, there's plenty of room to hide."

"It's not so big," I say quietly, "when you have no money. Besides, so far his methods have been… bearable."

"They will not remain so if he thinks you have what he seeks and you continue to deny him."

"But I don't have this stone, I have no idea what it is, and if he is so rich why does he want it, if he can buy anything, then why this particular stone, I don't get it?"

"Perhaps it has other properties," Stur says, his voice low.

"What do you mean, like what?"

The stoplight at the intersection before us changes and Hoorboch slows the sedan until we are stopped. Then I see it. "Wait," I say almost eagerly, "are you talking about… magic? Is there such a thing?" I shudder. "Those creatures, those things, then…"

"The triumvids."

"Yes… they, are they magic, made by magic?"

"Who knows," Hoorboch says.

"But if it is magic, if there is such a thing then…"

"Then there is always hope," Stur says, "perhaps, but then if it follows a set of laws, of rules, as in my experience it most often has, then it is not magic but more likely science, but I have no way of knowing, either way. I have seen things, Ronald has seen things, that others would not believe, that I could hardly begin to describe. But to my mind unless magic can break the rules, can make two plus two equal five when doing so would save the life of an innocent, unless it can do such a thing then it is just another cold science to be used for good or ill. And given mankind's basic nature cruelty will reign, as it does with the triumvids. Although I would imagine they could theoretically be used for good purpose instead of bad."

The stoplight changes and the sedan begins to move. "I wonder, if I had that kind of power, would I make things better, or…" I rub at my mouth. "But then Caldwell has that kind of power without magic and he has not made the world a better place. Maybe it would be a better place if he were dead… if someone…"

There is silence. The pain in my shoulder grows. I think of Sera.

We drive through the city.

• • •

At the Afterdamp I get out and they get out. The streetlamp above us flickers. We stand there for a while not saying anything.

"Thank you for… for helping me," I say.

"No problem," Hoorboch says.

Stur nods his head, watching me carefully.

"I… don't stay around here, alright? Don't watch out for me, if that's what you're thinking, don't. I'm on my own. Alright?"

"Understood," Hoorboch says. "We'll come by tomorrow, though. Get some rest."

Stur smiles with a slight bow of his head. "Good night, Time," he says.

I want to smile, I try to smile, but my face feels cast in stone and I do not think I do. "Good night," I say. "Thank you. For everything."

They get in the car and they drive away.

• • •

"Hey dick," the building super yells from his office as I'm crossing the lobby. "Come here. I've gotta' package for you."

I reluctantly enter his office. He hands me a small box. "It looks like it's been opened," I say.

He shrugs. "It came like that."

I read the label. It is from my brother. I notice the arrival date stamp says it has been in Sangren for two days. It was sent first class overnight priority from Divers Island. Bastard. I shove it into my pocket. I can feel the vein on the right side of my forehead throbbing angrily. Don't loose control. "What day did you get this," I say, trying to calm myself.

He rubs at his nose. "Um… this afternoon, around three."

He is a transparent liar. "What. Day. Did. It. Arrive?"

He shakes his head. "Are you deaf. I told you: It. Just. Came. To—"

"Shut your fucking mouth! I know you opened it, and I know you've had it for a while. Answer me."

He stares at me with weak disdain. "Get the fuck out of here," he says. "And, oh, you better have the rent by tomorrow or I'm kicking your ass out on the street."

He is a stupid man. Looking at his face I realize something I should have seen sooner. "It was you?" I say, violence like oxygen shooting through my veins, through every capillary.

"What?" he says, uncomprehending.

"You are worthless."

He starts to smile. I move towards him. His bravado disappears.

"You gave them the key to my apartment…"

He retreats backwards, shaking his head. He is afraid.

"Hey, come on, what, stop it, drift, let it drift, what are you talking about?"

"They had my key," I say, following him step for step. "As we left he put it in my pocket."

"Calm down," he says. He is breathing very fast.

"I guess it doesn't bother you that they were going to kill me."

"Hey, hey, I didn't know what they wanted, I, I thought they were cops, how could I know, I—"

"Shut up."

"It isn't wh—"

"Shut up." He closes his mouth abruptly. Through my anger I am struck by the incongruity of this. He is a much larger man than I am. If it came to physical violence he could probably crush me. Yet he gives way as if I were something I am not. His eyes are wide, flecked with red, they dart about.

"When did you get the package?"

"Two days ago, alright. I got it two days ago."

I step towards him. He flinches. "Never speak to me again. Not a word."

I study his face. There is fear there, but of what? Of me?

Wanting to test its depths, I add, "I'm not going to pay rent anymore. You can do that for me."

He gives voice to no opposition, though he is unable to quench a slight tremor of anger that runs along his jaw.

I leave his office.

He fears me. But why? What have I become? Twice a murderer. Four times. Five. Have my crimes been etched into my face. A depraved iconography. Pariah. If I look in the mirror, what will I see?

• • •

The shadows follow. The hallway is dark. My apartment is less so. The shades are still lying on the floor and the neon lights from across the street are filling the room with a flickering radiance. I see Sera before me and banish her. I do not turn on the lights. I avoid the bathroom mirror. I sit on my bed. All my various wounds throb with pain.

I open the bottle of painkillers the nurse gave to me before we left the hospital. Tiny little pills. They can end pain. They can help me rest. Sleep. It would be so easy to take them all. Swallow them all. Drift. No more pain of any kind. A peaceful exit.

For a long while I consider it.

But as always, I turn aside.

I take only two of the little pills, wondering how long they will take to act?

While I wait, remembering the package from my brother I clumsily open it. Inside, a stone. A drab greyish-white stone. What can this mean? A stone. That which others seek. From my brother. What can this mean. I hold it in my left hand. It is warm. Why would my brother send this? Is he in trouble, is he in danger? Maybe I should call home, find out where he is. Maybe I should call Hoorboch and Stur. I try to stand, to rise up from off the bed, but my legs are exhausted, almost numb. I lay back, forcing my eyes to stay open. Just two tiny little pills and I can't stand… can't keep my eyes open…




Chapter 49: Brevity

Sangren

11:16s.d.p. Argus, 23rd of Sedalas, 1777

Time slept. When his door burst open with a scream of metal and wood, he awoke.

Staring up through the haze of sleep he saw a man in a suit, only it was not a man. A slick pink feature-less skull. Hands (not claws like the other triumvids) which were almost human. And it wore clothes, which made it all the more disturbing. Past it, in the hallway, two more identical creatures came forward.

Time rolled off the bed and grabbed the chair. Swinging it in an arc he hurled it through the window. He quickly followed it, leaping up, shards of glass tearing at him, he dropped past the sill. Falling, slipping on the ribbed tiles, he slid on his hands and knees towards the edge of the short section of slanted roof. His feet caught on the gutter and before they could continue past to the empty space beyond, he was able to grab hold of a vent pipe with his right hand. With a tremendous jolt he stopped his forward progress, the stitches connecting his reattached finger tearing loose, sending the digit ricocheting across the tiles to disappear into the night.

A triumvid burst through the window above, landed awkwardly on the roof beside him, flailed its arms and dropped frenetically to the street below. Thinking quickly, he let go of the vent pipe and edged his way slowly along the roof to where it formed an inverted V. Another triumvid hit the roof. This one did not fall. Scrabbling on the tiles it came for him.

Revulsion propelling him, he pulled himself over the inverted V and, hoping he had remembered the architecture of the building correctly, he let himself slide down the other side and drop past the edge. He landed hard on the weathered stone of the bridgewalk which connected to the Afterdamp's third floor. Standing as quickly as he could, a dark shape fell beside him, blocking off his intended escape route back through the Afterdamp. He turned and he ran, not wanting the thing to touch him, he ran for what he knew to be a dead end. After a few hundred meters the bridgewalk was missing a section the length of a large trolley. Towards this gap he ran, fear and horror of the creature behind him distorting his sense of logic, making him more animal than man.

When he reached the gap he leapt with all his strength, a flailing shadow before the newly risen moon, he sailed onward. A little more distance, a strong wind at his back, and he would have landed cleanly on the other side. Instead his shins collided with the jagged edge and his momentum tumbled him forward, sending him sprawling roughly across the stone. Every part of him feeling bruised and torn, he staggered to his feet, chancing a look back to see if the triumvid dared to follow. It was ten paces from the gap and it showed no signs of slowing.

Time did not wait to see whether it would succeed, he continued to run, looking for a means of escape, his eyes searching. Buildings rose all around him, but none seemed to have a connection with the bridgewalk upon which he ran. Then, appearing from out of the shadow of a sparkling high-rise condominium, an old brick building loomed at his side. Only an arms length from the bridgewalk, a rickety wooden balcony extended from the building, giving access to a door that was slightly propped open.

Time vaulted up onto the bridgewalk's wide stone railing and jumped onto the balcony. Feeling it quiver beneath his feet, he thought for a moment that it would collapse, taking him with it. It did not and he hit the door running.

Entering the building, he knew why the door had been left open. It was oppressively hot inside. Hot and dark. He felt like a heavy blanket had descended upon him. He continued forward, a light flickering before him.

Stepping out of the corridor he saw rows and rows of theater seats. Looking up, he saw a spread vagina forty meters wide. For a brief moment he was transfixed. Spinning slowly in a circle, he saw a man sitting a ways down one row masturbating. Then he saw another, and another. Then the forty meter vagina filled his view once again and this time it was not alone. He felt dizzy and staring at the flickering images above him he stumbled backwards. He had seen similar films before, but never on such a magnified scale. He could hang himself with just one of her pubic hairs, and the vibrating toy she clutched in her fingers could sink a large ship if it were thrown with sufficient force.

He heard footsteps sound directly behind him. Before he could turn, something struck him and he fell. The last thing he saw was an erect nipple the size of a small motorcar.




Chapter 50: Retrospect

Erskine Caldwell's country estate

1:22f.d.p. Stykus, 24th of Sedalas, 1777

"You look like you've seen better days," Caldwell said to the young man when he awoke. They were in a large octagonal library. Caldwell sat in a red leather armchair. The young man slumped in an identical one directly opposite.

"I've had a doctor attend to you. Under my instructions he gave you a slight stimulate to bring you to consciousness. You must be in great pain. For that I apologize. Also, I am afraid you have lost the smallest finger on your right hand, permanently. All that not withstanding, I am pleased to make your acquaintance. My name is Erskine Caldwell. I believe you know an associate of mine quite well. Sera," he called loudly, "you may now enter."

The young man looked at him as if his mind were addled, and when he saw Sera emerge from a doorway and walk towards them, he leapt up, stumbled, fell to the floor, rolled to his feet, and embraced her violently.

Caldwell smiled. Things were going exactly as he had hoped. After his triumvids had brought the boy to him, he had searched him for some clue to his brother's whereabouts, and instead he had found that which he ultimately sought. The stone. The joy he had felt at that moment had been exquisite. And now he had visual proof that the boy wanted Sera intensely. If he played things correctly, the stone would be his within half an hour.

While Caldwell was inwardly crowing, Sera found herself paralyzed, afraid to move, Time clutching her. Then, more terrified of looking him in the face, of seeing his eyes, she buried her face against his neck. Allowing her arms to move about him, she could not understand why she felt such bliss when he held her, why it felt so correct when nothing else ever did.

"All this," Caldwell's voice cut though the silence, "can be ended quickly, and extremely well for us both, if you will simply give me the stone in your right trouser pocket. In return I will release Sera to you, and you can walk off into the sunset and live happily ever after. How could things turn out better for us both."

Sera felt Time go rigid. He pulled away from her. She looked down at the floor so he could not see her face. He stood between her and Caldwell, his stance defiant. With his left hand he reached awkwardly in his right trouser pocket, touching the stone he withdrew his hand. He did not remember putting the stone in his pocket. He remembered falling asleep with it in his hand. How had it gotten in his pocket. He again doubted his sanity, the reality of what was occurring. Perhaps he dreamed. This was all a dream.

Caldwell watched him, his confidence lessening. "Give me the stone, of your own free will," he said, "and I will release her to you; notice I say release, not give. She's already given herself to you, and I do not mean in the pedestrian way of the flesh. You have done what many another could not do, you have caused her to fail me, and for that alone you have won my respect." He paused, trying to read the young man. "Would you like to know more about what you have already won, and which only I have the power to give to you? Sera, tell him of how you escaped from Skarsgur when you were twenty-two years old, tell him in detail."

She did not speak. She did not move. She stared at the floor.

Staring at Caldwell, Time shifted slightly, as if he would protect her from anything.

Caldwell shrugged. "Then I will tell him," he said. "I know it all. When I take someone to serve me I learn everything about them. Every strength, every flaw, every weakness. She was born in Skarsgur. Her mother a translator, her father a professor at the Kansthauss. She lived happily until the age of twenty-two when the new republic reared its totalitarian head. The Kansthauss was burned with all the professors inside it, her father included. If you know anything of the new republic's meteoric rise to power then you need not be told of the terror and brutality. It has been said that the stench of burning bodies could be smelt at the Novantium border for weeks after the worst of the violence had ended.

"Sera and her mother, using the same capable strengths which later caused me to take her into my service, escaped the capital and fled. At the border they found a man who knew a secret way into Novantium. Through the sewers he led them. As Sera was staring out an open grate at freedom, she heard a sound behind her that she would never forget. Turning, she saw her mother being stabbed to death."

From behind him, Time heard the breath catch in Sera's throat. He almost yelled for Caldwell to stop, but he did not. For he wanted to hear more. He wanted to know everything about her. He wanted to know her better than he knew himself. He wanted to understand her to such a degree that he could bind her to him forever.

"She is strong," Caldwell said. "She does not falter. She ran forward, fought with the man, and killed him. Dragging, lifting her mother's dead body she entered Novantium alone. In the next few years she nearly lost herself. Arriving in the cesspool that is Pinnacle, she sent herself into a downward spiral. Drugs, theft, prostitution, she eventually spent three months in Larkspur. After she got out she appeared in an art film that was avant-garde to the point of pornography, and that is how I found her. I was meeting with a candidate for some high office or another and he was being backed by the Fanjisian Coalition for Higher Morals. They are a group I have used often in the past. They are so easily manipulated. During this meeting I was shown this art film while the candidate vehemently condemned it as a sin against God for such lewdness to parade itself as art. But I was not listening to him for Sera had caught my eye. She lay in a white box of a room, spread naked on the floor, orange paint suddenly gushing from all her orifices. The rest of the film was less original. But watching her I sensed she had potential. She moved well and her face, though not conventionally beautiful, could form expressions capable of trapping men. Perhaps that seems ludicrous to you, my seeing all this within such a limited purview, but I often rely upon my instincts, for they rarely play me false.

"I made a few phone calls and I flew her to Sangren." Noticing Time stared at him strangely, he said, "Do not worry, I myself have never touched her. For me, flesh long ago lost its glamour. When you have had twelve naked woman on their hands and knees before you lined up in a row, taking them one after another, you realize that sex is nothing more than ice cream." The expression on Time's face did not change.

"Perhaps you wonder why I am telling you this. Why I am tarnishing that which I would barter. It is because I wish for you to see that I am dealing honestly. And if you no longer want her, then I will give you something else, and I have much to give. Money, power, almost anything. I could make you the ruler of any one of a few small southern countries. Countries you have probably never heard of, which are not only beautiful but are blessed with the resources to make a man rich for many generations. Whatever you dream of, I can give it to you."

The expression on Time's face altered slightly. Caldwell continued, "I spent the next two years having her trained. Her skarsgurn accent disappeared. She learned to kill under the guise of self defense. She learned the psychology of fools and how to manipulate them. And when her training was drawing near completion I saw she had become aware of her potential. She was no longer easy prey for those who would use her. She also realized she did not need me any longer. It was quite apparent she was biding her time for her chance to flee. I decided to bind her to me inexorably.

"I had her deliver a package for me, and inside this package was an explosive device, though she did not know this. It was meant for a man who was giving me trouble at the time, and though he escaped, others died. I told her later what she had done. And to demonstrate to her the power which I could wield, I arranged for us both to be brought up on charges for the crime. Then, after a few days in court, and a lot of publicity, I had the judge acquit us of all wrongdoing. She began to understand that in this corrupt world I controlled her fate utterly. That she was mine until I said otherw-"

"Four people were killed," Sera said unwaveringly, still looking at the floor. "Two by the explosion, two by the resulting fire. A small infant and its mother." Her voice broke, and though Time couldn't see her face he knew she had begun to cry.

"The… the Brodufty Building?" Time asked her, still looking at Caldwell.

He could not see it, but she nodded her head. "Show him your hand, Time."

Caldwell looked at them both speculatively. Somewhere he had missed something. He watched as the young man raised his left hand and showed him his palm. A circular scar lined the skin. A scar made by intense heat. Mentally noting the synchronicity of fate, Caldwell realized his error. As he tried to think of a way to correct it, the young man started walking towards him, a murderous rage on his face. Caldwell made a gesture with his hand, but the young man did not freeze as he should have, he continued to advance. Momentarily nonplussed, Caldwell stepped backward, then drew a strange looking pistol from his jacket. Pulling the trigger a tiny dart shot out and stuck in the young man's neck. When he did not fall or even slow down, Caldwell started backpedaling. Drawing a real pistol he pointed it at the young man, though he had no intention of actually using it. The young man advanced as if he did not even see the weapon.

"If you wish him to live," Caldwell yelled at Sera, bluffing convincingly, "then stop him."

Watching Time she almost believed not even bullets would harm him, that he would continue to advance until Caldwell was destroyed, but then she saw his thin arms, the bandages on his hands, his missing finger, and she was shaken from her trance. Terrified Caldwell would fire before she got to him she ran forward. Dreading the sound of a gunshot she wrapped her arms about him. He ceased moving immediately. She was sure he hated her, that he would cast her away as something foul and disgusting. But without the slightest pause he turned and his arms ensnared her, with the same tenderness, the same need, he held her. She sobbed quietly, and seeing the dart beneath his chin she removed it and let it fall to the floor. She pressed her face against his neck. She kissed his skin, tasting his skin, she touched him softly with her lips. With every touch he grew heavier, until his head slumped onto her shoulder, his arms fell limp away from her, and she was the only thing keeping him from falling. A strange awe overcame her that he was so easily held, that something so light could contain such ferocity. Glass and steel, fragile and unyielding, depending on the moment he would either shatter or be shattered.

Watching them, Caldwell pushed one of the many buttons that were hidden around the library. After a few moments two large men entered, followed by a smaller man with frizzled grey hair.

"Doctor," he said to the smaller man, "it looks like we will be attempting that which we discussed earlier. Is everything prepared?"

"Yes," the doctor said.

Caldwell gestured for the two large men to seize Time. They walked confidently forward. Observing Sera tense, preparing to lay down the young man she held and strike out at anyone who would harm him, Caldwell raised his voice sternly, "Sera, do not be foolish. When you have incapacitated these two I will simply call three more, and then four, and then five. Accept what cannot be changed."

The tension evaporated wearily from her. Holding Time as long as she could, she eventually let the men pull him away. "What are you going to do to him?" Sera asked.

"We are going to make his mind more conducive to giving up the stone."

"You can't do that," she said. "He…"

"He what?"

"He's already a little off. If you mess with his mind you might push him over the edge."

"Don't worry, the doctor knows what he's doing and I've instructed him to be extra careful."

Sera realized something she had not questioned earlier. "Why don't you just take it? Take the stone and let him go?"

He looked at her thoughtfully. "If I took it, it would no longer be what I desired. Unless it is given it is worthless."

"Why do you want it?" she asked. "What is it?"

He was silent and then, "It is power, unadulterated power."

Imagining him with more power she shuddered.

"Come," he said to her.

She followed him and the others down corridors and down stairwells.

• • •

In a small room lined with old stones the doctor removed Time's clothes and dressed him in a sleek bodysuit. From the suit's front, three tubes extended to a metallic canister against the wall. Pulling the suit's skull flap over Time's head the doctor looked up. "I wasn't able to procure a clean air oxygen mask on such short notice, but I do not think that will have any detrimental effects on our final goal." The young man's mouth the only part not covered by the suit, the doctor laid his head gently on the stone floor.

"What are you doing?" Sera asked faintly.

The doctor stood and moved to the metallic canister. "This," he said, turning a knob on the canister, "is full of Gyrosxinidol, a slight variant of Haloperidol. It travels through those tubes into the suit. The inside layer of the suit is veined and porous. The Gyrosxinidol is secreted out evenly across every section of the body and is then absorbed by the skin. The body is then wholly anesthetized. The head receives a lesser dose and if the suit is functioning properly only the epidermis is numbed. Finally, with a clean air oxygen mask (which we do not have), the subject is totally deprived of all sensory stimuli."

"And what is the point of all this," she said, slightly relieved it was not something more sinister.

"Simply this: after twenty to forty hours of being in this state of deprivation, when the subject is released they are invariably weak, confused, delirious, and starving. Kindly offer them a piece of bread in exchange for what you want from them and in nine cases out of ten they crumble. The quibian rachtstal perfected this same technique over a decade ago. It has nearly a forty percent higher success rate than other more conventional forms of torture."

Sera shivered closing her eyes. Caldwell grabbed her by the arm and led her away. "Dinner is waiting in the dining room," he said. "After we have eaten I want you to rest and sleep. When the suit is removed I want you to look pretty. And if he does not give up the stone right away, which I doubt he will, I want you to convince him that that is his only choice. If you do I will release you both. After I have the stone neither of you will matter, nothing on this world will matter. You may both leave taking whatever you wish from the estate. This will open the safe beneath my desk," he said, pressing a key into her hand. "There is over seven hundred thousand tentrums inside. You may take it all. It is a simple thing I ask of you. Convince him to hand over the stone and your life will be yours to live as you see fit." He squeezed her arm painfully. "If you fail me again, I will show you the other side of the coin, and it is more terrible than you could ever imagine."

Walking beside him, she swore to herself that he would never possess the stone. No matter what he did. To help him obtain it would be to kill the last decent part of herself, would make her complicit in his absolute immorality. She would hinder him at every step. She steeled herself to the fact that Time was lost to her, that very soon they would both be dead. But it would be a clean death, no matter how horrible Caldwell made it, and she would die atoning for her sins. She would die cleansed, and Time would die with her, and they would not fall alone into the abyss.




Chapter 51: Detached Cerebrum

Time Rath: Interior Monologue

… I am numb, my arms are numb, are the criss feeding upon me, do they feed everywhere, I cannot see, I am blind, do they suck at my eyes, I can feel my tongue, I can swallow, I cannot hear, where am I, what is happening…

• • •

… my teeth are loose, they come free, bloody, in my mouth, they fill my mouth, I spit them out, I spit them out, but they never grow less, they fill my mouth, I choke, I gag, I cannot breathe, they cut up my throat, close up my throat, I cannot breathe…

• • •

… I pull the trigger, sweaty white scalp, burst of blood, and other things, he falls away, unmoving, I pull the trigger…

• • •

… dark shapes curl about me, hovering over me, light hits them, pink, blood pink, featureless, vile, inhuman, grotesquely born, slick, and terrible, they flit around me, touching my skin, I shudder, I scream, they move to one side and then the other, they wait, corvidius, bloodless, foul, I scream…

• • •

… I am falling into the sea, a sea of dark waves and black water, blocking out the sun, I drift, in the shadows, I drift…




Chapter 52: Hyper-vigilant or The Doctor's Monologue

Erskine Caldwell's country estate

4:01s.d.p. Stykus, 24th of Sedalas, 1777

When Caldwell returned with Sera beside him to the small stone room beneath the estate, the doctor swept towards them enthusiastically.

"Progress?" Caldwell asked.

"He is hyper-vigilant," the doctor said, trying to hide his excitement.

"What?" Caldwell asked.

"Hyper-vigilant," the doctor said. "It is rare in humans. You see it in chimpanzees and some of the other primates. It most often occurs in those suffering from paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorders. I did a great amount of research into it when I was with the OGM. We were…" Seeing he had lost them, he told them to stand back. Then he crept forward, moving beside Time, he leaned close. To their surprise and the doctor's joy Time moved his head as if he felt the doctor's presence.

"That wasn't just coincidence," Caldwell said.

The doctor shook his head.

"You are sure the suit is on correctly?"

"Of course. I put it on myself. What you have just seen is a display of hyper-vigilance. It boggles the mind, does it not? Almost makes one believe in telepathy."

"But how could he know you were there?" Sera asked quietly, thinking back on other occasions when Time had astonished her.

The doctor smiled and shrugged. "I wish I knew. It has fascinated me ever since I first learned of it in medical school. When the OGM hired me to study it further I was overjoyed. They thought if they could take a person who was suffering from hyper-vigilance and reduce or cure the negative disorders that went with it, then they would be on their way to creating a near perfect agent."

"How so?" Caldwell asked.

"For one, they are almost always very quick, with acute reflexes. When they are trained properly their skills with firearms and in hand to hand combat are nearly flawless. Add to that their unearthly 360 degree sense of their spatial surroundings and you have the beginnings of a perfect spy. In one of our tests we had a subject walk down a series of hallways, rooms, and stairways. When he returned we had him draw a map of his route in three dimensions. It was remarkably accurate. A surveyor could hardly have done a better job.

"Reassured by the progress we were making we went so far as to train a few select subjects. We achieved mediocre results with all but one of them. This exception was extraordinary. My superiors in the OGM were extremely impressed. On his first assignment, a relatively simple reconnaissance into a skarsgurn military complex near the border, he slipped over the edge into dementia praecox, and killed between twenty to thirty men and women, not all of them military personnel, before he was captured. I admit I misdiagnosed the severity of his paranoia. In my defense I must say that it is a hard illness to gauge, especially when the subject is highly intelligent, as was this man. Soon after that the OGM closed the project down."

The doctor stared at Time. "This young man has developed a case of hyper-vigilance almost as acute as the one suffered by the agent of which I have just spoke. Which means it would be rather unwise to continue, unless you want him to drift into psychosis. At this very moment, deprived of the stimuli a hyper-vigilant constantly relies upon, he is probably suffering from violent hallucinations. I ceased giving him the Gyrosxinidol a short while ago. In a couple of hours the toxicity should be suitably diminished for him to be removed from the deprivation suit. What will you do with him when you are through?" said the doctor, thinking of a second chance to test his theories. Then, with a start, looking up at Caldwell, he realized to whom he was speaking. "Never mind," he said nervously. "Am I correct in thinking that you have no more need of my services?"

Caldwell nodded his head. "You may leave. The men at the gate will pay you."

The doctor hurried away.

• • •

Getting inside his old fashioned Fenstar the doctor steered his way onto the long grey drive. The afternoon sunlight shot flickeringly through the trees looming around him. Halfway to the main gate he rounded a slight curve in the drive and the sun appeared in the sky before him. Temporarily blinded he let off on the accelerator. Shading his eyes with one hand, he braked quickly. Thrown forward, he stared through the windshield. Squinting into the sun, he saw four young children standing on the drive before him, their shadows reaching towards him across the grey asphalt.

He wiped at his eyes, but it made no change. The four girls were still identical, their shoulder length blonde hair made brilliant by the sun. Holding hands they swung their arms gently. A white satin band hid their eyes from view.

Wondering at the oddity of what he was seeing, the doctor grabbed the handle to the door and opened it.




Chapter 53: 'Twas Brillig

Erskine Caldwell's country estate

4:42s.d.p. Stykus, 24th of Sedalas, 1777

Golden patches of dappled sunlight and clinging blue silvertine shadows did lie upon the grass before night.

At the far end of the immense rectangular back lawn of Caldwell's estate Liemon Werl watched the distant manor house. Ensconced in the gloom of the forest underbrush he waited for the night to fall. For when it did he would come for Caldwell. Emerging from the shadows he would seek retribution.

His legs tired, he crouched down onto his knees. His knees quickly beginning to ache, he dropped forward and lay on his stomach. Drowsily he watched the simple grandeur of golden light stirring across green grass. Overwhelmed by weariness, he laid his head upon his arms, the smell of moist dirt and leaves filling his nose. Drifting off to sleep his mind pondered how the world could be so beautiful and yet contain so much cruelty.




Chapter 54: Wunderlich

Sangren Principal Fairgrounds

5:25s.d.p. Stykus, 24th of Sedalas, 1777

Standing outside Annabelle's trailer Doorsnail read the acceptance letter for the seventh time, night falling around him. His first published story. He looked at the check made out to him for thirty-six tentrums. Stepping up to the trailer door he tried to build the courage to knock confidently. But what would he say? Why was he even there? What did it matter to her that one of his little stories had been published? She would just nod in polite condescension and he would leave feeling more foolish than he now felt.

"Hey, Snail," a voice said from behind him.

He turned around quickly. It was Erastus, moving towards him through the gloom. "Hello."

Erastus looked speculatively at Annabelle's trailer. "Rotgut just told me one of your stories is going to be published. Congratulations. Which one is it?"

"The Grey Man in a Fall of Gold," he said.

"I remember that one. That one was good. When's it coming out?"

"It's already out."

"What?"

"I guess the acceptance letter took a while to reach me because we're always traveling around. The magazine it's in is already on the shelves. Mortimer went to buy some copies, while I…" His voice trailed off and he looked shamefaced at Annabelle's trailer.

"While you told Annabelle?"

He nodded his head in embarrassment.

"Forget her, Snail. She'll only break your heart."

He looked at the door to the trailer longingly.

Erastus sighed. "You know what your problem is, Snail, you think women are different from men. They aren't really. Except for the tits and the ass and the pussy, they're pretty much the same. They're just as stupid, just as cruel, just as shallow. You think they're more pure and kind and gentle. They're not. They're just cruel and shallow and stupid in different ways. They'll always disappoint you. Just like we always disappoint them."

"They're not all like you say. They can't be."

"I didn't say they all were, I said that most of them were. People on the whole are bastards, men and women. I'm a bastard myself. You… you might be one of the few people who isn't," he grabbed Doorsnail around the shoulder. "Enough of that. Let's go find Mortimer and Rotgut, bastards both of them, and read your first published story and go get drunk. What is it that Mort always says… 'Drain your golden goblets to the dregs. Dark is life, is death.' That pretty much sums it all up doesn't it. Mort's a smart guy, still a bastard th—Whoa, talk about bastards, what have we here." He pulled Doorsnail into the shadows.

Five or six trailers away August King strode through the twilight with Lionwood clutched in his arms.

"They look like they're in a hurry," Erastus whispered. "I wonder where they're headed?"




Chapter 55: The Good Old Days

Sangren

5:36s.d.p. Stykus, 24th of Sedalas, 1777

Fat Theodore was a teenager again. Sitting in the backseat of the speeding automobile, checking over the pistol in his hands, a sense of nostalgia hit him like a wave across the face, cold and bracing. He felt good. He had waited too long for this. And now that he was going to have to leave the country, it was now or never, at least if he wanted to do it personally. And he did. He could not wait to drop the hammer on Caldwell, to see his head burst like a rose, a red rose. It was going to be sweet.

It was too bad Agan wouldn't be there. Not that he needed him, what with the amount of money he was putting into this operation. Twenty men altogether. More than adequate for the security Caldwell was rumored to have. And if it wasn't enough, well then he would just have to do it by himself like he had when he was a kid. He felt good.

The automobile sped along like a bullet on its path, followed by five similar vehicles, all of them shining brightly under the streetlamps.




Chapter 56: Facade

Sangren

5:45f.d.p. Stykus, 24th of Sedalas, 1777

Hoorboch and Stur entered the dark hotel room. Margeon sat in a chair in front of the only window, a dim shaded lamp at his side. He wore the same dark opaque sunglasses he had worn on the other occasions they had met with him. When Hoorboch started to sit down, he waved his hand sharply.

"There's no time for that," he said, and Hoorboch straightened. "I want you to go to this young man you told me about last night, the one that helped you with Gignoskein-"

"Time Rath, you mean?"

Margeon smiled. "Yes, he is the one of which I speak. I want you to go to him and give him this," he handed Stur a thick envelope that rattled with tentrums, "for the part he played in delivering Gignoskein to justice."

Hoorboch shifted his feet. "That's fine with us," he said. "We were planning on checking up on him after we got some dinner. We'll give it to him then."

"No," Margeon said. "You will give it to him now. So far I have been very pleased with your work. Do not mar that." He held out his arm and dropped two fifty-tentrum pieces into Stur's hand.

"Go now," he said.

Stur, noticing the belligerent look on Hoorboch's face, said, "Let's go Ronald."

Hoorboch, reading his friend's voice, stifled his objections and followed him to the door. He did not like being ordered around, even for fifty quick tentrums, but if he was reading things right then Stur had seen something he had not.

After they had closed the door behind them and were walking down the hall towards the elevator, Hoorboch said, "What's up?"

Stur was silent for a moment and then he said, "I trust this old man less every time we meet. He has never felt right. Not from the very beginning."

"What do you mean? We checked up on him. His story was ketch. He did have a brother that disappeared and he did sell his company to one of Fat Theodore's fronts."

"It is not his story I doubt. It is him. On our first meeting he did not seem to be trying very hard to sell us on his story, almost as if he knew we would take the case whether we believed him or not."

"Why would he be trying to sell us on it if it were true?" Hoorboch said.

"Do you not remember. When he was telling us how his brother was murdered, he spoke as if his heart were not involved. We both know how revenge can warp a man, but he did not feel true when he spoke. He felt disinterested, as if he had more important things on his mind. And now, just now, when he was ordering us to go to Time, that was the first moment I saw any emotion from him, or any urgency. Last night, when we told him Gignoskein was dead, that his brother's murderer no longer lived, he was cold as ice. He did not even seem to mind that Fat Theodore was on the run and probably would not be found."

"That's how it is sometimes," Hoorboch said, waiting for the elevator to reach their floor. "You live with something like that for a long enough time and that's just what happens. That's the only way you can keep going."

"Then why the sudden emotion, the sudden loss of detachment?" Stur said, as the elevator doors opened.

"Maybe he's just begun to realize that there are other things to live for besides revenge."

"Perhaps," Stur said, as they stepped inside the elevator. "But, I'm getting one of those feelings. I think things are about to get interesting."

"What, can you hear the bullet?" Hoorboch said jokingly.

Stur shook his head in amusement as the elevator doors slid shut.

• • •

Walking down the hallway to Time's apartment they saw his door was wide open and that he stood near the window his head downcast. Hoorboch called his name. He looked up. It wasn't Time. It was someone that looked very much like him.

"Who are you," the young man said warily.

Hoorboch glanced at Stur, noticing the doorframe was busted up as if the door had been forced open. The room itself was in shambles. The mattress, desk, chair, television, tiny refrigerator, and radio were missing. The window was broken and papers were strewn all over the floor. The place also smelled strongly of urine.

"Where's Time?" Hoorboch asked, stepping into the room.

"How do you know Time?" the young man said.

"He saved my life the other night. Or, depending on how you look at it, I saved his. Now who're you and what happened here?"

The young man studied them. "He's a friend of mine."

"He's your brother," Stur said.

Some of the tension left the young man. "Then you do know him," he said. "But do you work for Caldwell?"

"No," Stur said. "We are in truth friends of your brother, even though we met him only the night before last. My name is Jonus Stur. This is Ronald Hoorboch."

"Paul Rath," the young man said, suspicious, watching them. "You said something about saving his life? From what?"

"It had nothing to do with the stone Caldwell desires," Stur said. "Your brother was entangled with the storcheh, but that can wait. If you do not know where he is then it seems likely that Caldwell has him and that means there is no time for lengthy explanations."

Looking at the traces of blood on the broken window, Paul decided he had no choice but to trust them. "I got a phone call from my brother half an hour ago. He said to meet him here at his apartment as soon as possible and then he hung up. I immediately tried to call him back but no one answered. It didn't feel right at all. There was no way he could have known where I was. And look at this," he pointed at the ruined apartment, "this happened a lot more than half an hour ago."

"I agree," Stur said. "We dropped him off last night around six. That means sometime after that the door was forced and this occurred." He went to the window and studied it. Pulling a penlight from his pocket he leaned past the broken glass and shined it out on the small section of roof below. "There is a trail of blood leading to the edge."

"What," Paul said, his voice sick with fear.

"Calm yourself. If he had fallen to the street below then we would have been notified by a friend of ours in the police department," Stur said, knocking the more dangerous looking shards of glass from the window frame.

"What are you doing?" Hoorboch asked.

"I'll be back in a moment," Stur said, climbing through the window and lowering himself onto the slanted roof below. With great agility he crouched low and followed the trail of blood along the roof's edge. Paul and Hoorboch watched him nervously until he disappeared from sight around the corner over the roof's inverted V.

After a minute passed Hoorboch called his name and received no answer.

"Do you think he's alright?" Paul asked.

"He's alright, the bastard. Every so often he pulls shit like this. Hey, why does it smell like piss so much," Hoorboch said, looking around the room.

Paul pointed to the corner of the room, where some papers and parts of books were pushed up against the wall. Hoorboch examined them closer. They were stained with urine. "Fucking animals," Hoorboch cursed. "They steal the place blind and then do this. They should fucking be shot."

"Those are some of my brother's drawings, almost all these papers are, the ones that aren't books that are torn apart. I think that will hurt him most. That someone could do that. He loves books…" Paul looked at the floor. "This is all my fault."

Hoorboch, not knowing what to say, searched the room. "It looks like they missed this at least," he said, handing a binder to Paul.

Paul looked through it. "I think this is my brother's novel," he said.

"He's a writer?"

"He wants to be one," Paul said, his face darkening. "Or at least he did."

Stur suddenly entered the room from the open doorway. "I think he may have escaped. The roof drops down to a bridgewalk and I followed the trail of blood along it until I came to a gap, a large gap. The trail of blood continues on the other side. He must have leapt across and I do not think many would attempt to do likewise. Perhaps he did call you a short while ago, but not from here, from wherever he ran to after escaping from those who chased him. That means he either left here before you arrived or is still on his way."

"Or he was caught before he could get here," Hoorboch said.

"Wait, wait," Paul said. "The more I think about it, the more odd his voice sounded. I thought it was just because I hadn't heard it in a while, but now I'm not so sure. It sounded like him, but… Do you think it could have been someone impersonating him?"

"Perhaps," Stur said. "But for what reason? If they were trying to lure you into a trap, they would have sprung it by now. Nevertheless, I suggest you two wait here in case he is still on his way. I am going to follow the trail of blood as far as it will lead."

"Do not bother," a voice said from the hallway. "He did not escape. He gave a most courageous attempt, but he was being chased by creatures of purpose." A disfigured hunchbacked man entered the room, followed by a short, sturdy looking man.

"Ronald Hoorboch. Jonus Stur. And Paul Rath," the hunchback said.

"Do I know you?" Hoorboch said sarcastically, his hand slipping inside his coat.

"Only by way of myth," the short sturdy looking man said. "I have been known by many names, the one most often used being Daurgren. This is Littendur."

Littendur shook his head at Hoorboch. "The snub-nosed seven round beurit revolver you are pulling from the holster beneath your arm will be of no use to you at the moment. So do not draw it."

"Yes," Daurgren said. "Please do not attempt something foolish. You wish to find Time Rath. I want the stone he possesses. The stone you sent to him," he said to Paul. "If we help each other, both can be achieved."

A look of sudden awe came over Paul's face. "Daurgren?" he said. "The god of justice, the… the god with a heart of stone… stone… then it's all true, those old myths, they really happened?"

"Not exactly as you know them," Daurgren said. "Not exactly as they were told over the generations and written down, but close enough."

"What the fuck are you talking about," Hoorboch said.

"We are talking about the past," Daurgren said, staring hard at Paul. "And we are running out of time if your brother is to have a future."

Littendur's eyes suddenly rolled back in his head and he stood as if in a trance. After a moment he regained his composure. "Things coalesce," he said breathlessly. "The stone the focal point." He glanced at Paul. "Your brother has the stone, and Caldwell has your brother. Many others are drawing near. We must go. Now. There is no time for talk."

"This's bullshit," Hoorboch said.

Stur placed his hand on Hoorboch's shoulder. "I do not think so, Ronald. I too am familiar with the myths of which Paul spoke."

Hoorboch looked at him. "You believe 'em? You think they're gods?"

"We're not gods," Daurgren said. "Some of us may have fooled ourselves into thinking so, but we are not. We create far less than we destroy."

"Bullshit," Hoorboch said, reaching inside his jacket.

Littendur fixed his misshapen gaze on Stur. "Can you hear the bullet?" he asked.

Hoorboch became very still, his hand drifting empty from his jacket.

"If you are who you say you are," Stur said, "then why do you need us?"

"The stone can not be taken by force," Daurgren said. "It can only be given of the possessor's own free will. I need you to convince him to give it to me."

"Why should we do that?"

"Besides the fact that it is rightfully mine, that I paid for it with my parents lives and two thousand years of bitter cold, you must help me because if my brethren obtain the stone, then the human race will be like sheep before wolves. You will all become playthings once again, and the children that play with you will be more cruel and brutal than any you have ever known."

"And you would be different?" Stur asked.

"I have lived among you for a very long time. I will not say that I love all that you do, the nickname my brethren gave you is quite accurate, you are ape-maggots, but you are also capable of great beauty and kindness. I do not seek to dominate you. I have held power unimaginable to you, and I have given it up freely."

Littendur, coming out of a sudden daze, grabbed Daurgren roughly. "There is no more time," he said with horror and panic in his voice. "I do not know how but Ampersand has found a path to the stone. I just witnessed it. From out of the darkness a strand of gossamer brushed against his face. He caught it and he knew, as I knew, that it would lead him to the stone. By what route and duration I cannot speculate. But he is on his way, as are those that travel in his company. We must leave now. There is no time." He turned and lurched out of the room.

Daurgren gave Stur, Hoorboch, and Paul a questioning look. "If Time Rath will not give me the stone," he stated bluntly. "I will have no choice but to kill him and in so doing lock the power inside the stone for eternity." He strode from the room. Paul hurried after him, followed closely by Stur.

"Aw, fuck," Hoorboch said, chasing after them.

• • •

The dark blue sedan shot through the city streets heading west along the river. Sitting in the backseat between two figures of myth, Paul nervously asked, "Were you the one's that called me, impersonating my brother?"

"What?" Daurgren said, surprised. "Explain."

"I got a call from someone that sounded like my brother and he told me to meet him at his apartment."

"When was this?"

"Maybe an hour ago."

"It was not your brother," Littendur said. "An hour ago I was looking through Caldwell's eyes and he was staring at your brother-"

"What, is he alright, is he…"

"He was in no physical danger. Caldwell was trying to influence his decision with the use of drugs, but it was deemed too risky and it was abandoned."

"Could you, can you see him now?"

Littendur's disfigured face slackened, and a brief while later he said, "He is alone. Three men stand outside the room he is in. Caldwell sits in a large library. A girl stands off near the window."

"A girl with red hair?" Stur asked from the front passenger seat.

"Yes. A deep unnatural red."

"Earlier," Stur said, "you told us that Time almost escaped. You saw him being captured?"

"Yes."

"You also saw him get the stone?"

"Yesterday evening."

"Then why have you waited until now to go after it? Why didn't you try to help him?"

Littendur glanced worriedly at Daurgren.

"We tried to," Daurgren said. "But we were unable. We were far away on the half-planet Resort and the doorway that was to take us here when we saw him receive the stone, it would not function. For no apparent reason it failed to open."

"Does that happen often?" Stur asked.

"Never," Littendur said. "It has never happened."

"But it did eventually open?"

"Yes," Daurgren said. "Little more than half an hour ago."

"That sounds fucked up," Hoorboch said, gripping the wheel. "Like someone let you through when they wanted you to come through."

"Yes," Daurgren said, attempting to hide the apprehension in his voice. "There may be a hand in this that is larger than us all."




Chapter 57: Lekieil

Sangren

6:33s.d.p. Stykus, 24th of Sedalas, 1777

The dark golden furred karkajan ran atop the wide white-bricked thoroughfare that was Fourpost Levee. The trees at each side blowing noisily in the wind. The overhanging lights swinging wildly, casting shadows that breathed. To his left the buildings of the city loomed, pricks of light and solid gloom. To his right the ground dropped away to the river below, a distant foghorn calling. He ran, for she was near. He had escaped Sletsir, but not her, never her.

He bounded on, the white bricks stretching out straight before him and behind him. She was near. A shadow fluttered across his path.

The ancient woman dropped down before him, the skin on her neck hanging loose. "Cur," she screeched.

He stopped, defiant. He would no longer answer to that name. "Scrulchil," his voice rumbled. He charged forward.

She cast out a strand, feathery, translucent. He felt his neck tighten. He could no longer breathe. His limbs would not obey him. Light and shadow dancing on her pale white face, her skin sagged and then drew tight. She laughed. His throat opened and he gasped, heavily drawing air.

"We have unfinished business, you and I," she whispered. Pulling him close she swiped her hand across his right ear. He felt great pain. Looking down he saw blood and parts of his ear on the white bricks beside his feet. She licked at her fingers. "But not yet," she whispered. "Not yet. First, you will serve me one final time."




Chapter 58: The Same Deep Water as You

Erskine Caldwell's country estate

6:43s.d.p. Stykus, 24th of Sedalas, 1777

Caldwell sat in one of the red leather armchairs, preoccupied, staring at nothing, deep in concentration. Sera stood where he had instructed her to stand, by the section of library wall that was made entirely of glass. She had been standing there for more than an hour, and in all that time he had barely moved.

"Go tell the men guarding Time to bring him to me," he said without preamble.

She walked across the library floor, past him, through a doorway, making her way to the lower level where Time was being held.

• • •

There were three men in front of the cell door instead of the two that had been there earlier. "Caldwell wants him brought to the library," she said to them, stepping as close as she dared without drawing suspicion. Two of them turned and began undoing the locks on the cell door. Studying the third man's jacket she decided his gun was holstered under his right arm. She threw back her head and faked a sneeze.

"Bless you," the third man said. She stepped into him, with one hand she stabbed her fingers deep into his eyes, with the other she reached inside his jacket and removed his gun, firing one shot straight into his heart, she kicked him backwards. Before the other two could even turn she had fired a bullet into the back of their heads. In less than three seconds, three men were dead. But they were no more innocent than she was, she told herself, the gun dropping from her trembling hand.

She reached for the cell door. It opened no more than a fingers width. She looked down at the bodies which blocked it from opening. She pulled them away and then, not wanting Time to see what she had done, she dragged the bodies further down the corridor into the shadows. Taking off her bloody jacket, she turned it inside out and tried to wipe all trace of blood from off herself. Placing it on top of one of the dead men, she lifted the gun she had dropped and slid it into a pocket in the side of her black dress. Walking back down the corridor she tried to calm herself. She pulled the cell door open and entered.

Time lay in the center of the room. She knelt beside him and lifted the gun from her pocket. She knew what had to be done, but she faltered. She did not want him to die encased in that awful suit. Returning the gun to her pocket, she gently unclasped the suit and peeled it off him, many of the bandages on his body tearing free. She threw the suit into the corner of the room. He lay naked before her. His body a mass of cuts and bruises, one of his fingers missing, long gashes across his chest, his face tattered with abrasions. She began to cry and looking about the room she saw his clothes in a pile against the wall. Retrieving them, she slowly dressed him, dreading he would wake up before she could do what had to be done.

When he was fully dressed, before reaching in her pocket, she leaned forward and kissed him. As she did, he leapt up with a scream, backing against the wall. She ran to him and he stared at her as if she were not real. His face crumbled, lit up, crumbled.

"I saw something beautiful," he stammered. "Before the darkness came…" his voice faltered, "it was you," he said, his voice growing stronger as he placed his hand on her cheek. "You… a white rose floating on the surface of a dark ocean and I am a drowning man. For a brief moment of calm I watch you, as you drift before me on the water, so close I can smell the fragrance off your petals, but still beyond my reach. The sea, a shadow beneath clouds, swells, and a wave lifts you upwards, and away, leaving me alone in the dark unlit, fighting to keep my head from being submerged, fighting to keep you within my sight. Rising to the crest of these mountainous waves, far above me, a gust of wind catches you and carries you into the sky, where a shaft of sunlight, from a sun I will never see again, illuminates you, a vision of peace and light. The ocean swells overhead, blocking my view with its inky gloom, enclosing me in a valley of darkness." His body seized up and then relaxed. He pressed his hand harder against her face. "I sink beneath the waves, no longer afraid. For I have seen…" a shiver, an indistinct word, "…even tasted it, touched it, and now I can die, for it has drifted away… will drift away…" Staring at her, as the psychotic stares upon his obsession, his hand caressed her cheek, leaving smears of blood from the unraveling bandage around his missing finger. Many things collided within Sera's mind. The one with the most force: she wanted him inside her, to feel him inside her, his naked skin pressing hers, to taste his sweat and suck his lips, to kiss him, and to be crushed within his arms. She wished for all the world to die and leave him alone beside her.

A seizure wrenched his frame; a puppet with all his strings cut, his eyes rolled back as he collapsed. She caught him.

Standing there, holding him up and watching him, she again wondered at the fact that he was so fragile, meek and fierce, and so easily killed. That, in itself, drew pain into her chest. Death surrounded them. Things much worse than death surrounded them. Cradling his head within her hand, she kissed his open mouth, tasting blood. Only pain was in their future, only suffering.

Place the gun against his temple and fire.

Place the gun against my temple and fire.

It is the only way this can end well, the only way this will not end in misery and horror.

She shifted him over to her left arm.

Lifting the gun up to his head, she found she could not place the cold steel of the barrel against his skin, the barrel wavered a hands breadth away and would go no nearer. Close enough, she told herself, tensing her finger on the trigger. This is the only way it can end. Before firing, she leaned forward and kissed him one last time. He stirred, though his eyes did not open and his lips were unmoving. His hand instinctively found its way to her face. There was such gentleness in the way he touched her. The gun slipped from her hand. His eyes half opened at the sound of metal on stone. With her lips barely parted from his, a thin filament of saliva still connecting them, fiercely returned thoughts collided within her head. "Touch me," she whispered. "I need you…"

I need you. Those three words reverberated within his mind like a thunderclap proclaiming the birth of a new world.

Ferocity, like none she had ever seen, flared in his eyes. She stopped herself from drawing away, her fear like pleasure colliding. He stood there watching her, consuming her. She adored him. The world had died and they were alone. She stepped back, disentangling herself from his arms. She lifted her black dress over her head. She wore no bra. Her panties were white.

Violently, he seized her, holding her as if sex were not enough, as if he would crush her to him until they were no longer two separate organisms but one solitary whole.

He dropped downwards, pressing the side of his face against her, the thin white fabric. His hands slid up the back of her thighs. She felt his fingers, her eyes closing. The length of his fingers, the side of his face, his cheek gliding up her belly, between her breasts, sliding away. She opened her eyes. He was watching her. He was very still. Her mouth opened a little. She breathed in slowly. There was a rising fear lingering about him, and he was paralyzed by it. The pressure of his fingers had faded to so many feathers gracing her skin. A frozen moment in which the distance between them grew. Desperate to reassure him she closed on him, wrapping her arms around his back, she held him as tightly as she could. The distance evaporated. She felt his hands slide serenely across her skin, trace slow patterns, and encircle her. She closed her eyes.

• • •

Distant gunshots sounded from very far away. He released her and lifted her dress from off the floor. Looking at her, his face an array of devastating concentration, clarity, and ferociousness, he pulled her dress lovingly onto her body, smoothing it down everywhere, he caressed her, his eyes locked on hers.

He grabbed her hand, holding it so tight it tingled. "We're leaving," he said, and though she knew they were trapped, that there was no escape, she believed him. Before they left the cell she grabbed the gun from off the floor.

• • •

As they made their way upwards to the main floor of the manor, Sera began to suspect that they followed a path Caldwell had laid out for them. Doorways that would have led to quick exits were locked. Passages she had never seen blocked were now barred to them. The sentries that prowled the halls were nowhere to be seen.

As they went, he half leading her, she half leading him, she would draw closer and closer to him, until eventually she caused him to stumble. And after these near falls she would wrap herself on him, not letting go until he reluctantly pushed her away and retook her hand. She knew their time together grew short. With every step they took they moved nearer the library, where Caldwell awaited them.

When they turned down the final corridor, and the open doorway leading into the library came into view, she stopped abruptly and pushed Time against the wall. Holding him tight, she kissed him, devouring his mouth, she kissed his face and kissed his skin.

"Don't worry," he said.

"He's waiting for us," she whispered.

He watched her for a long while and then he smiled sadly. "We shall be together," he said.

Walking down the hallway, hand in hand, they entered the library.




Chapter 59: Elanif Prelude

Erskine Caldwell's country estate

6:57s.d.p. Stykus, 24th of Sedalas, 1777

Caldwell watched them enter the library, hand in hand. Sera's intentions were clear. As she reached for the gun in her pocket, Caldwell made a gesture with his hand. Nothing. She continued to draw the gun. He could no longer affect her, but he could affect the weapon in her hand. He concentrated, remembering, quoting ancient things within his mind. The metal workings fused, locked in place. She tried unsuccessfully to pull the trigger. Caldwell smiled. Giving up she let it fall to the floor.

"If I am beyond morality," he said. "Then what of you? Three men were in your way and you erased them. What does that make you?"

Sera flinched, looking down at the floor. Feeling the stiffness of her body, Time pulled her closer.

Faint gunshots were heard in the distance. Sera and Time turned their heads, startled.

"Just a minor inconvenience," Caldwell said. "It is being taken care of. Have you decided? Sera or the stone? Horror or bliss?"

"We're leaving," Time said.

"No you're not," Caldwell said. "I had hoped it wouldn't come to this. There are two men in Rotcreek awaiting orders. Can you guess what those orders might be?"

Terror creased the features of Time's face. "My parents… you…"

"Yes. You seem to care little about yourself, but what of your mother and father? Do you care what will become of them?"

Time's face was eviscerated, all that was human torn away by rage. His head began moving sporadically from side to side, and he leaned forward like a rabid animal preparing to attack.

Caldwell realized he had worded things poorly. In his eagerness for the stone, he had erred. There had been too much threat, he should have begun with reward. "Think of all you could give them," he said, unable to tell if Time still heard him. He cursed his error. The boy was too unstable, too unpredictable. Caldwell began to form a call to his triumvids, but was interrupted by an urgent shrilling in the back of his mind that was telling him an inconvenience had suddenly become a major crisis. As he looked at the doorway beyond Time's shoulder, Time exploded forward. He crossed the distance between them with unbelievable speed and hit Caldwell savagely with his entire body. Caldwell crashed backwards onto the floor, his head colliding with the hard wooden leg of one of the red leather arm chairs. His head sagged and lolled on his neck. Time advanced on him, his face a mask of psychotic rage.

A gunshot sounded and at the same moment Time spun aside. The right side of his torso, beneath the rib cage, let out a swash of blood. Sera cried out as he fell. Running to him, she dropped to her knees. He looked up at her, shock on his face. Footsteps sounded behind them.

"Still alive, huh?" Fat Theodore said. "Damn, you're quick. I was aiming for your heart." He scrutinized Time's face. "I know you," he said, "you're the boy Feiri wanted killed, you're the one that helped take out Agan, god rest his soul. He told me you were fast, but… He should have been more careful with you. You're not faster than a bullet, though, huh. Now get up. I don't like killing a man that's down on the floor. A man should die standing. Girl, help him up, or I'll do you both right now. Yeah, you're going to die too. You didn't have red hair then, when I saw you in the courtroom, after you tried to blow me all to hell, but I recognize you, you fucking cunt. Get up."

Sera helped Time stand gasping, dripping blood.

"Watch the corridor," Fat Theodore said to a blonde haired man that stood in the doorway behind him clutching a heavy pistol in his hands.

Caldwell groggily regained consciousness. Fat Theodore cursed him and told him to stand. He stood.

Sera bit her lip, looking at the wound in Time's side. She lifted his shirt, the blood-wet fabric clinging as it pulled away. She made a quiet sound, a sound of utter hopelessness, letting the shirt fall back to his side. He doubled over in pain. She helped him straighten up, tears in her eyes. He forced a smile. "I'll…" he gasped, "… I'll be alright…" The world spun and his vision blurred. She held him up, keeping him from falling. He steadied himself, a cold unpleasant warmth in his side. "Maybe not," he said with a small laugh that was like a wet rattle in his throat.

"You're right about that," Fat Theodore said. "All three of you are dead." He laughed and then with a string of curses and profanities he reveled in his triumph over Caldwell.

Time did not hear a word that was said. He was smiling. Staring at Sera's agonized face, he was smiling, because she felt his pain as if it were her own. She cared for him. She needed him. There was no doubt. She was his. He touched her face.

She watched him, mesmerized by this unwarranted spark of joy. And feeling his body pressing against hers, the wet blood, his life flowing out of him, she smiled. They would be together.

"Give me the stone and I can still make everything right," Caldwell whispered to ears that did not hear him.

"Hey, you fuck," Fat Theodore yelled at Caldwell. "I'm talkin' to you. You dumb fuck, you stupid fucker. I told you I'd kill you, you fuck. You fuck with me, I kill you, no matter what, no matter how long it takes. You're dead. In the end I win, not you. You fuck."

Caldwell laughed disdainfully.

With his face twisted ugly Fat Theodore pulled the hammer back on his gun.

Caldwell smiled, raising his hand with the fingers extended. He brought his two middle fingers down onto his palm and spoke a single word. A gunshot reverberated. Fat Theodore's chest exploded outward in a gush of blood. He fell forward, revealing the blonde haired man standing behind him with a smoking gun. Caldwell lifted his two middle fingers and brought them back down with a single word. The blonde haired man reversed the gun and shot himself in the face.

Caldwell stepped around in front of Time and Sera. "Now do you see how easy it is to die. But death is easy. Life is hard. Watch."

Fat Theodore's hand twitched. His legs began kicking. For a few heartbeats Time thought he was still alive, but only for a few. He rolled to his feet, blood seeping from his mouth and eyes and nose. As he stepped forward the other dead man, the one with no face, arose behind him and followed awkwardly. Caldwell turned on a radio that sat atop the table between the red leather chairs. He played with the knob and then straightened up. "Ah… A waltz. How perfect. How serendipitous." He twisted a knob and music filled the room. He pointed at the dead men and raised his hands as if he were a conductor.

Time closed his eyes. He could hear the tapping of rhythmic footsteps.

"See how awful life can become," he heard Caldwell say. "Look."

Time opened his eyes.

The dead men were dancing a waltz. They bled as they danced. They bled.

Caldwell walked up to them and grabbed what was once Fat Theodore by the arm. "You look all in, my friend. Why don't you sit the rest of this one out. I see over there a nice young girl who would gladly take your place." Caldwell looked at Sera. "Wouldn't you my dear?"

Sera shook her head, her mouth agape, gripping Time with all her strength.

Fat Theodore backed away and dropped against the book-lined wall, sitting with the mess of his face resting in his hands.

Caldwell beckoned to Sera, standing beside the man with no face. "Come my dear, do not keep this handsome gentleman waiting." He made a flourish with his hand. Sera was torn away from Time and with her eyes wide she screamed. The dead man with no face took her in his arms and whipped her around in exaggerated spins and turns, dark thick blood dripping and curling from off his decaying face. She screamed. Time wanted to move, but he could not. He could not help her.

Caldwell laughed. "You two are dancing a little close aren't you. You're making Fatty jealous. Oh no," he said in a mock falsetto. "It looks like Fatty just can't bear to see his partner dancing with another." Fat Theodore began plucking out his eyes. Pulling them down his face. It was indescribable how far they came before they tore free and fell into his lap.

The waltz came to an end. The dead man with no face still held Sera. "Now, now, my good sir," Caldwell said. "It seems you have forgotten your manners. Isn't it customary to kiss a lady on the cheek after finishing a dance. There you go. Just lean in and kiss her. What do you think, Time, don't they make a beautiful couple?"

The dead man with no face leaned forward to kiss Sera. Time fought and strained and all he was able to do was say a single word. "Stop…"

Caldwell smiled. "You heard what he said, step away from the young lady." The dead man with no face stepped backward and crumpled to the floor, unmoving. Caldwell waved his hand at Sera and she ran stumbling back to Time. Leaping at him, she wrapped her arms around him. With a tremendous effort he remained on his feet through the wrenching pain. Dizzy, he closed his eyes, hearing her whimper. Swaying, he pressed her face against his chest and whispered tender words, the cold warmth in his side becoming tiny razors tracing brutal patterns in his flesh.

Caldwell watched them. He could feel his newfound hold on them weakening. "Now," he said, "do you see how bad I can make things for you? I've just had a thought. How about I bring your family here. Bring them to meet your girl. A family reunion of sorts. Can you imagine the dances we will have." Caldwell chuckled. "The one we just had will be nothing compared to the ballet I will orchestrate. Perhaps I will give Fatty here a leading role. He should be quite ripe for the role by then. What do you think of that, Fatty? Would you like that?" Caldwell waved his finger up and down. Fat Theodore nodded his lifeless head. Caldwell curled his finger. Fat Theodore lifted his dangling eyes from his lap and threw them at Sera's feet.

Sera did not step away. She did not move. For to move would be to draw away from Time, and that she would not do. Time ran his hand reassuringly along her back. She was his. Nothing would change that. He smiled. It didn't matter what happened now.

Seeing that smile, Caldwell shuffled his feet, disconcerted, folding his arms across his chest. "Your choices are the same," he said. "You can keep the stone and watch those you love suffer horribly. Or you can give me the stone and I will hand you all that you could ever wish for. It seems an obvious choice to me. If all that is holding you back is your conscience, then be at ease. I do not wish to rule the world. I could do that without the stone. What I want is to rise above this tainted place. To taste of greater knowledge. The truths that lie at the heart of it all. If you will, I wish to know God's mind. What could be more innocent than that?"

"If that's all you want," a voice said filling the library. "Then ask your first question." The glass door leading out onto the back lawn was open and a short sturdy man leaned against it, four dark indistinct figures standing behind him.

"You are ahstyr?" Caldwell said, bitter frustration eating away at his face.

The short sturdy man smiled. "Yes. You may call me Daurgren. I am not a god, but I am as close as you will ever get."




Chapter 60: Snark or Boojum

Erskine Caldwell's country estate

7:14s.d.p. Stykus, 24th of Sedalas, 1777

Liemon Werl awoke to darkness. Rolling over, rising to his feet, he saw a multitude of dark mock human shapes crouched on the moonlit lawn just past the brush in which he stood. Trying to comprehend, he looked beyond the unnatural throng at the four young identical girls with eyes bound in satin. He felt a wave washing over him. He turned on his heels and ran, branches snagging at his face and bushes clawing at his legs. Heedless, he ran. And they followed. He could hear them, on all fours, chasing.

• • •

Oblivious to direction, his face haggard, he emerged from a grove of low conifers, stepping out into an orchard of white apple trees. The moonlight cast sharp featherlike shadows down the straight narrow tracks between the trees. Hearing thrashing behind him he turned and continued to run, tree trunks passing evenly on each side, the sweet smell of ripe fruit filling his nose as he gasped for breath.

When he was three quarters of the way across the orchard, he saw past the trees a large house in the distance. Part of his mind realized he was seeing Caldwell's manor. Back in the dark of the trees he had circled around and returned like a pendulum swinging.

Running past the last white apple tree he stopped, a terrace blocking his forward progress. He looked up. Standing above him, leaning over a thick heavily carved balustrade of grey stone, a naked woman stared down at him. Her eyes were unnatural, black as coal. Her skin hairless and white.

"Why do you run?" she asked him.

Remembering, he turned around in panic. There was nothing there but the orchard, the trees swaying gently in the wind, a calm sound, reassuring. And past the orchard lay the river, wide, dark, appearing more like oil than water. Dazed, he noticed a fallen white apple at his feet and he picked it up. Turning back around he studied the white skin of the apple and the white skin of the woman above him. The skin of the apple was slick and shiny. The skin of the woman was smooth and glistened iridescently in the moonlight.

Feeling a strong hunger in his belly he bit into the apple. Chewing slowly he let it fall to the ground. He was tired. No more warmth burned in him. His bones were cold. He was weary of standing. His breath was like the sighs exhaled in sleep.

"Would you like to rest?" she asked him, her voice soft with compassion.

He closed his eyes and opened them. He nodded his head.

Sleek and feather-born she leapt down before him.




Chapter 61: Elanif Reversed

Erskine Caldwell's country estate

7:14s.d.p. Stykus, 24th of Sedalas, 1777

"You're all alone now," Sera said to Caldwell, her hand resting on Time's chest.

"I've been alone since the moment of my conception," Caldwell said, backing against the bookshelf lined wall. "But, in the sense you mean, you are incorrect." Three triumvids entered the library, stepping over Fat Theodore's body. These were not the ones that had abducted Time. These did not wear clothing and their flesh was of a slightly paler red-pink and their hands were stretched into long claws. They clustered around Caldwell.

Time shuddered. Sera's leg pressed against his and he felt a wetness on his skin. Glancing down he saw his entire right side was wet with blood all the way to the knee. His eyes blurred and he swayed on his feet. Sera held him up.

Daurgren walked further into the room, allowing the men behind him to enter. "Time!" Paul Rath yelled, starting to run forward.

"Stop!" Caldwell shouted. "Or I release the triumvids."

Stur grabbed Paul before he could go any further. Upon hearing his brother's voice, Time jerked around, nearly lost consciousness, and would have fell if not for Sera. His eyes blurred, he said his brother's name.

"Are you alri…" Paul said, his voice trailing away when he saw the mass of red staining his brother's right side. He again started forward, but Stur held him fast. Struggling to free himself, Stur whispered something in his ear. He looked at the triumvids, noticing them for the first time. Shocked, he wondered how he could have focused on anything else.

Littendur, standing unobserved behind Hoorboch, came out of a stupor, his face terrified. "They are here," he shrieked in Daurgren's ear.

Ampersand entered the library through the same door the triumvids had used. Stepping over Fat Theodore's body, he surveyed the room with sleepy amusement. "Daurgren," he said, bowing his head.

Daurgren stared at him icily.

Stykos, Lassus, and Ammikis, filed into the room. Ampersand looked at them. "Where is my daughter?"

"I thought she was following behind," Lassus said.

Seeing Daurgren, Stykos snarled, rushing forward. Ampersand stepped before him. "Fool," he said. "Do not bring chaos down on us yet. If that boy dies the stone is impotent forever. If you do not calm yourself, I will calm you."

Stykos shrank back and then tried to hide the fact that he had done so.

Caldwell attempted to steady himself. All his plans were crumbling and it did not seem likely he would even be able to escape alive. "Time," he said, his voice desperate. "If you think me immoral, those creatures there would make you weep. If they get the stone humanity will be doomed to suffer for eternity. Give it to me before it is too late."

Emortir appeared in the doorway behind Lassus. Lassus stepped far to the side, dragging Ammikis with him.

"Where have you been, daughter?" Ampersand said. "This is no time for play."

She stepped up beside her father, yet still kept her distance. "Which one has the stone," she asked quietly. Her father indicated Time with a slight nod of his head. She stared at the bleeding young man intently, her naked skin phosphorescing.

A long silence filled the room. Time, feeling weaker, allowed more of his weight to rest on Sera. He pressed his face against the side of her face. He could feel the tension in the room growing. He closed his eyes. The pain in his side was becoming unbearable. His mind was floating in a haze. He focused on the pain to keep himself from passing out. He heard voices rise up angrily, shouts from all around him. The clarity of the words deteriorating into a raging mumble. He held tighter to Sera. The noise grew more violent. Sera was saying his name urgently. Opening his eyes he knew it had arrived. The moment when they would part.

He let go of her, pushing her a little away, he caught her hand as it trailed across his chest. He stared at her. The look on her face was worth the sum total of his life. He brought her hand up to his lips and held it there, watching the emotions play upon her face, feeling each one in turn, he dragged her hand slowly across his cheek, and then gently pushed her hand away, letting it fall, he turned, turned to face the death that awaited him.

He could not concentrate enough to make out clearly what they were all shouting. But he knew what most of them wanted. The stone. He reached in his pocket and pulled the stone free. "Here," he said, his voice somehow commanding attention. He lifted the stone up in his left hand for all to see, resting on the scarred flesh of his palm. Every eye in the room fixed upon him.

There are moments when the paths of many coalesce and unite in an event of singular importance. This was such a moment. Some of the strands that made up this weave went back for millennia, others but for days. Some strands would shortly fray and snap, others would continue on, breaking free of this consolidated tangle they would seek fresher patterns in which they could ensnare themselves. The strand around which all the others were now wound was sitting on Time's left palm, drawing every bowstring taut and quivering nervously in anticipation of release.

Time spun slowly on his heels, revolving in a complete circle, the faces of those that surrounded him passing like spectators who watched as a child circled on a dark carousel. A few he did not recognize, did not even remember entering the room. Seeing Hoorboch and Stur, and finally his brother, he felt guilt and fear for they were all in danger because of him, would die because of him. Passing over Caldwell's face he felt rage growing within him. Then, the circle completed, he turned back and stared at Sera, so close he could reach out and touch her. But he could not, because of the stone. Because of the stone they were both dead.

He looked down at the drab grey-white thing on his scarred palm. Because of this they would not be together. Because of this worthless thing. His fingers closed over it. It was not fair. He clenched his fist, his fingers tightening, contracting, holding it so tight his palm tingled.

The tiny fire deep inside him, the fire that forced him always onward, flared up and seethed, exploded in rage that he was helpless to affect his own future.

For the first time in years he actually wanted to live.

But the stone had already killed him. He tried to crush it, destroy it.

He threw his head back in a wordless cry and felt the stone crack and crumble within his fist.

Lowering his head slowly, he lifted his left hand, turning it with his clenched fingers facing up. Like a flower blooming his fingers opened outwards. The stone lay as sand on his scarred palm. He tilted his hand and let it run like water through his fingers, dropping, falling, cascading downwards. In the utter silence of the room every grain could be heard as it struck the polished wooden floor. Like an enraptured child, he watched until his hand was empty and then he looked up at Sera with an infantile grin of surprised wonder. His eyes rolling back in his head, his eyelids fluttering, he fell forward and Sera caught him. Lifeless, she held him, his skin glacier cold. She was sure he was dead, that he had just died before her very eyes.

The room was still.

Ampersand was the first to move, stepping backwards and resting his arms on a bookshelf, lowering his heavy eyelids, staring through narrowed slits. "Stykos," he said, "do as you will."

The main thread cut, every strand came free and cast outward.

As Stykos charged forward, Caldwell was making his way along the wall with his triumvids in a half circle about him, Paul was running towards his brother, Hoorboch was drawing his revolver, Stur was pulling a length of cord from his pocket, Littendur was standing paralyzed, Daurgren was racing forward to meet Stykos, Lassus was making his way back through the doorway he had used to enter the library, Ammikis was watching Sera hold Time, Emortir was striding towards Littendur, Sera was holding Time with her eyes closed standing in the direct line of the path Stykos tread, Ampersand was resting languidly against a bookshelf.

Gunshots sounded as Hoorboch emptied his revolver into the massive figure that was Stykos. He did not slow at all. Sera, Time's face against her neck, felt the lightest of breaths on her skin. He was still alive. She opened her eyes. Stykos was meters from them. She laid Time on the floor and stood in front of him, prepared to protect him from anything, to stand before him and take any blow.

Ampersand's heavy eyelids widened and he smiled at the courage and futility of Sera's endeavor. She might as well have been trying to stop a mountain from falling. One swipe of Stykos' immense arms and her neck would be snapped, her back broken.

Above them there was the crash of breaking glass. A figure dropped, flailing, struck the table between the two red leather chairs, and recoiled to the floor near where Time lay. Glass rained down across the room. Ampersand looked upwards. For the briefest of moments a dark golden furred karkajan could be seen peering through the broken skylight before quickly disappearing. Ampersand dropped his gaze back to the center of the room.

Stykos, distracted by the falling figure, had slowed his pace, looking upwards. Sera dropped to a crouch and swept her leg forward, catching a thick ankle she kicked out with all her strength. Stykos fell and she rolled backwards beside Time.

Ampersand laughed. The girl was not only brave, she was cunning and quick-witted. Stykos was grotesquely huge about the chest and upper body, but his legs were nowhere near as muscularly enhanced, and that was his weakness. The girl had seen that. He was top-heavy and could be brought down. Ampersand was impressed. He shifted his gaze from the girl to the figure that had crashed through the skylight. It was a woman, an ancient woman with skin that hung loose and then tightened. She rose quickly from the floor, looked up at the broken skylight with hatred, studied the scene around her in a brief glance, and took to flight, her skin coming loose and fluttering about her, she disappeared through the broken skylight. Lekiel, Ampersand said to himself.

Sera, staring in awe at the flight of the ancient woman, was thrust backwards by Daurgren. She stumbled and knelt down beside Time.

Before Stykos could rise, Daurgren brushed his hand across Stykos' broad neck, leaving long liquid strands of glowing starlint, heavy and dense as a thousand oceans. Stykos clutched at his throat and struggled, but remained immobile, fixed to the floor.

While Stur and Hoorboch made their way the short distance to where Paul was kneeling and Sera knelt over Time, Emortir was advancing on Littendur who stood near the glass door fumbling clumsily with his jacket pocket. Finally lifting out a pair of metal spheres he spun them in his hand. A door of white flickered into existence before him. He stepped through it.

Caldwell, who had been sidling along the wall, trying to make his way to the glass door which Littendur had been blocking, saw a better chance of escape. He leapt forward with his arms extended, intending to follow Littendur through the glowing doorway. It closed just as he and Emortir reached it. But he was closer and as it disappeared both his arms were inside it up to the wrist. Spurting blood like some kind of dark comedy, he raised his arms before him, handless, stump-like. Emortir, deprived of her prey, turned on him where he lay screaming. As she reached for him, his triumvids attacked her. Their pink-red flesh withering, they sliced ineffectively at her with their claws. She struck them with her open hands and their flesh shriveled and fell away. In shrunken pieces they lay about her, convulsing wormlike.

As Caldwell was trying to will his mutilated arms to cease bleeding, Emortir leaned close and pressed her hand over his twitching mouth. He jerked, looking up into the face of death, his heart burst, and he lay still. She removed her hand, blood squeezing up and out from the skin around his mouth. She turned and seeing Daurgren, she advanced.

Daurgren was squatting beside Time with his hand pressed against the wound in the young man's side.

"Daurgren," Stur called urgently.

Daurgren looked up and saw Emortir. He stood. For a moment he contemplated fleeing, but then he thought of the ape-maggots beside him. Fragile little creatures, so easily broken, like flowers their bloom was short. A distant memory filled his mind, the memory of Ellhser floating languidly in the Grentwhine, a drowned flower, her life stripped away, an innocent flower drifting in the cold water. He had not cried for her then, how could he when his heart was a thing of stone, but much later he had cried, over the past two millennia he had cried often. They were so fragile.

Looking down at the one that was near death, he saw that they were innocent in this. That they were involved because of actions he had taken long ago. He could not leave them to die. After two millennia justice still flowed in his veins, etched deep, he could not deny it. He stepped forward, embracing Emortir, holding her tight, the pores of his skin prickling with blood. He screamed at the ephemeral creatures behind him to run, to run and live. He did not see whether they heeded his call for his eyes curved blindly inward. Then, to his shock and agony was added the loss of breath, his lungs filling with blood. His heart, like a flower drowned in red, ceased beating, and yet still he clung to Emortir, his arms locked behind her back.

Who can say at what point something which lives no longer lives? At which instant does that indescribable loss occur? And what in all honesty is transpiring? And after that, after that most mysterious of all moments, what then? Those are questions that are not to be answered by the wise of any age, past, present, or future.

But this much is known: sometime during his embrace of Emortir, Daurgren passed away, faded away, into the unknown. And even after this occurred his seeping shell of a body held her, trapped her in place, allowing others to live.

• • •

Ampersand watched his daughter struggle with death and smiled at the irony.

Stykos clutched at the starlint across his throat, gasping, unable to speak or stand.

The fat man with the revolver lifted the boy that had crushed the stone and, with the other four ape-maggots following, he departed the library by the glass door leading out onto the moonlit back lawn.

Ampersand walked to the center of the room, near where Stykos gasped and Emortir struggled, and knelt before the grains of stone that had once contained great power. Taking a deep breath he blew them across the floor into the pool of blood left by the boy that had crushed them. The moment the boy's hand opened, Ampersand had felt the power dissipate. What a waste.

Ammikis stepped up from behind him. "The ape-maggots are escaping," she said.

"Yes," Ampersand whispered, "for now."

"What of Stykos?"

"With Daurgren dead, he will soon be free."

"Father," Emortir called, still trapped in Daurgren's lifeless arms, his body hemorrhaging profusely. "Help me."

"You also will soon be free," he said to her, watching the grains sink slowly beneath the surface of the blood. "Until then, keep quiet. I am thinking of other matters."

• • •

Lassus, his eyes vague with distraction, stood in the shadows on the far end of the terrace, and watched as the ape-maggots ran along the edge of the orchard of white apple trees. They seemed to be heading for the dock which struck out into the river.

Curious as to what had occurred in the library while he hid, Lassus turned on his heels and made his way back there.

• • •

"What were those things on the lawn?" Hoorboch asked, jogging along with Time dangling in his arms. "And were those little girls behind them?"

"Yes," Stur said. "Four identical girls. As for those creatures all I know is that they were blocking our way."

"I see two boats," Paul said. "Maybe we should take one of those instead of trying for the car again?"

"One of them is Caldwell's personal cruiser," Sera said. "The keys are in there." She pointed at a low building beside the dock, but she was looking at Time.

"It would be quicker," Hoorboch said, also glancing at Time. "I don't know how much longer he has."

"Then let us hurry," Stur said.

Reaching the door to the low building, Sera kicked it open, and quickly returned with a keychain in her hand.

The dock was lit at ten meter intervals by yellowish arc lights on metal posts. At the far end a man stood with something cradled in his right arm.

"Jonus," Hoorboch said. "I haven't had a drink all day. Is that a clown holding some kind of a puppet?"

"He is also wearing a golden crown," Stur said, stepping out onto the dock.

When they were halfway to Caldwell's cruiser, the clown called out, "Give me the stone."

"You're a little late for that," Hoorboch said.

The wooden puppet, attached to the pole the clown was holding, the puppet with a head resembling a lion, opened its muzzle. "He lies," it said. "The boy in his arms has it, just as I told you." The river no longer seemed so quiet.

"Give me the stone," the clown said again. He raised his left hand and it was swathed in flames.

There was no time for this. Sera stepped in front of Hoorboch. "I will get it for you," she said, turning.

"No. The boy must give it to me, only the boy."

"I know," Sera said, blocking the clown's view with her back. "Let me wake him." She placed her left hand gently on Time's face, while she reached furtively inside Hoorboch's jacket with her right and drew his revolver. He had not reloaded. She mouthed the word 'shells' to him and he shrugged his right shoulder and looked down at the top pocket of his jacket. Reaching inside with the same hand that held the revolver, she loaded it one-handed and then withdrew it and held it against her chest. She looked at Hoorboch. He winked and gave her a slight grin. She let her left hand trail off Time's cold face and turned swiftly around. She fired twice, once for each of the clown's eyes. Her aim was true.

Blood streaming from where his eyes had been, the clown fell backwards, hitting the dock with a dull thud, his flaming left hand setting the dock on fire. The wooden puppet clattered beside him and rolled to a stop against his feet.

With a quick spin Sera reached inside Hoorboch's jacket and returned the revolver to the holster under his arm. "Let's go," she said, drawing the keychain from her pocket.

A grating laughter filled the air, maniacal, triumphant. As they started forward they realized it was coming from the wooden puppet. The eerie sound pulled Time back to consciousness. He cried out, and at the same moment there was a disturbance in the water past the dock's edge. Then the whole structure shuddered as if from a great blow, the planks at the far end buckling and collapsing into the water, taking the clown and puppet with them.

Everyone except Stur was knocked off their feet. Hoorboch, shifting his weight as he fell, was able to turn his body so he landed on his back, cushioning Time from a more violent fall. Time rolled off him onto the dock between Paul and Sera.

Stur, as the others tried to rise, saw a long flaccid shape surging towards them just below the surface of the water, something pale and mottled. "Hold on," he shouted.

The dock quaked, giving way beneath them, they fell.

Not again, a voice screamed in Hoorboch's head.

Sera reached out, grasping for Time.

Time wavered on the thin line between conscious and unconscious.

Stur slipped from his long jacket.

Paul caught a beam that jutted outwards and held tight, watching as the others hit the water and went under. A few of the arc lights had ruptured and were sending sparks hissing into the air. Paul, the breath knocked out of him, waited for someone to come to the surface. Instead of someone he saw something. Pale mottled flesh skimmed the surface just below him. Before it vanished downwards he saw a pair of huge eyes, eyes that were somehow grotesquely human. He held tighter to the beam and then, remembering his brother, he let go and dropped into the water.

He swam blindly through the darkness, searching until his lungs forced him to rise. Hitting the surface, gulping in air, he saw Hoorboch's head poking from the water a few meters away.

"Time?" Hoorboch shouted.

Paul shook his head, diving back under. Finding nothing, again he was forced to rise. Taking in as much water as air he choked and coughed, seeing Hoorboch and then Stur break the surface. A bright spotlight hit the water between them and swayed erratically. A large boat appeared around the edge of the ruined dock. Above the running lights was stenciled: River Patrol.

As Hoorboch yelled frantically, Paul dived back under. Almost immediately something hit him square in the chest. Taking in water, his mind seeing pale mottled flesh, he grabbed at it and swam upwards. At the surface, spitting water, he saw his brother's face rise before him, slack-jawed, bloody, dripping water, his head moving lifelessly with the undulation of the water.

Holding his brother up, telling himself it wasn't too late, he treaded water, his own head continuously dropping beneath the water, nearly drowning himself, until both he and Time were pulled over the side of a small rubber raft.

"How many went into the water?" a man asked him urgently.

He did not hear him. He was staring at another man that was trying to breathe life into his brother.

"How many went into the water?" the man asked again, shaking him by the shoulder.

Coming out of a daze he thought over the question, finding it exceedingly difficult. "Four," he said, "no, five, five. Five including me."

The man yelled out, "One down, there is still one down," and then dived over the side of the raft.

Paul looked around him. There was more than one spotlight shining from the large patrol boat, illuminating the entire area. Two other rubber rafts were bobbing nearby. Hoorboch sat in one of them. Paul searched the water and saw Stur surface and then dive back under. It was the girl with red hair. She was still down there.

Remembering how Time had clung to her and how she had stood her ground against that extraordinarily huge man, Paul started to rise, to go back into the water. A man on his other side that he hadn't noticed before, held him down.

"They don't need your help," the man said. "Including that black guy who won't leave the water, we have twelve men out there. Sit back, there is nothing you can do. Sit back." The man looked over the side at the dark water. "I hate to say it, but, if they haven't found this guy by now, then they aren't going to."

"It's a girl," Paul said.

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."

There was the sound of violent coughing. Paul looked around and saw his brother vomiting water and blood.

"We've got to get this guy to the hospital," one of the men said.

As the rubber raft motored its way slowly to the patrol boat, Paul grabbed his brother's right hand. It was as cold as ice. Looking at it closer he saw that most of the pinkie was missing and that it was bleeding. He clamped his hand over it and held it tight. In the back of his mind he knew he was helping very little. It was the wound in his brother's side that would kill him.

Pulling alongside the patrol boat, a caged stretcher was lowered on a wench and Time was placed inside it. He was lifted upwards and away. One of the men helped Paul up a ladder onto the aft deck where men were carrying his brother through a doorway. He followed them.

Time's shirt was cut off him and his torso was washed, revealing the gunshot wound in his right side. An IV was stuck in his arm and the medic began examining him.

A hand closed on Paul's shoulder. He turned around.

"How is he?" Hoorboch asked, water dripping off the tip of his nose.

Paul shook his head. "Have they found her yet?"

Hoorboch looked down at the floor. "No," he said and walked out of the small cabin. He stood at the boat's railing, staring over the side. Men would rise and then dive back under, rise and then dive back under. After watching for a while, seeing Stur's head among those who searched for the red haired girl, Hoorboch walked about the ship until he found the captain.

"You had better get some cops up there," he said, pointing at Caldwell's estate. "And they better be well armed."

"They're already there," the captain said.

"What?"

"We got an anonymous call that something was going down out here. And anonymous or not when you hear Erskine Caldwell's name mentioned you don't take any chances. You were up at the house?"

Hoorboch nodded his head. "You have men there now?"

"Yeah. They just radioed in."

"Did they get the… people that are up there?"

"There was no one there. No one alive at least. The sergeant in charge tried to explain to me what he was seeing but he wasn't making a lot of sense. All I know for sure is that there is a whole shitload of dead people and Erskine Caldwell is one of them. What the hell happened up there?"

"I'm not sure," Hoorboch said.




Chapter 62: Detached Cerebellum

Time Rath: Interior Monologue

… Sera, where, can't move, open my eyes, they sting, blurry, strapped to a bed, in a room, it seems large, a bright light above me, things moving about me, can't see them, they make strange noises, something brushes against my foot, I scream, I stop screaming but the screaming doesn't stop, something brushes against my hand, I scream, dropping beneath the dark water, it fills my mouth and nose, I choke, something brushes against my hand, I scream, can't breathe, slipping, drowning, beneath the water, brushing my hand, pale things, far beneath the surface, half blind, pulling me, pushing me, upwards, screaming…

• • •

… moving, strapped to a bed, lights above me pass one by one, through a corridor, a long corridor, someone whistling, a face leans over, leans over close, the shadows twist upon it, its mouth widens and widens, and leans closer blocking out the passing lights overhead, it has no teeth, just bristles and slick pink skin, I scream, it swallows, I scream, laughing, too late, scream, laughing…

• • •

… alone in a small room, can't move, white light, white walls, white tiles on the ceiling, I can't move my arms, strapped down, straps are white, sheets are white, white, everything is white, the white is calming, I can sleep…

• • •

… something brushes against my hand, eyes open, it is dark, things are moving, I stare up at the ceiling and see the moon, falling stars, fire, and a face staring down at me, insane, I am insane, all a joke, listen, it's too late, fall away, laughing, laughing…

• • •

… I feel better, things are still, the ceiling tiles no longer glow and shift, they are white, the white is calming, it is quiet, I feel better…

• • •

… there is a fly up on the ceiling, I watch it as it flies about from one spot to another…

• • •

… a woman came and fed me, she was dressed in white, it was not Sera, that is all I can remember. The fly is on the ceiling again, I watch it…

• • •

They say I am doing much better. They have undid the straps on my arms. The sun is coming in through the window. The thing in my arm is feeding me drugs. I hardly feel any pain. It is hard to concentrate. The fly has been gone for a while now. I watch the cracks between the tiles in the ceiling.

• • •

They lock the door when they leave. Every once in a while someone looks through the small window in the door. Sometimes I wave at them. Sometimes they wave back.

• • •

My brother visited me today. I couldn't concentrate enough to understand everything he was saying. Where is Sera?




Chapter 63: Popular Journalism

Erskine Caldwell's country estate

11:59f.d.p. Lytus, 6th of Hurahtber, 1777

Roger Dyson stood at the far end of the back lawn with his cameraman pointing a camera at him.

"… and those are the facts as we know them. Not much to go on. And with the OGM reportedly having taken over the investigation it seems likely no one will ever know what occurred here on that fateful night eight days ago."

Dyson signaled with his hand. The cameraman lowered his camera.

"That should do it," Dyson said. "Get a few more shots of the house and then we're done. Add that to the film we have of the men at the gate telling us to leave and we have a great fucking story."

There was a rustling in the trees at their side. They leapt for cover, but it was too late. A small figure stepped out onto the lawn. Dyson laughed. "Well, hello little girl," Dyson said. "Where'd you come from?"

The little blonde haired girl did not answer him.

"Why's she blindfolded?" asked the cameraman.

A fierce commotion shook the trees.




Chapter 64: Fiction

Sangren

3:08s.d.p. Lytus, 6th of Hurahtber, 1777

Paul Rath stood outside his brother's hospital room talking to a doctor. Jonus Stur and Ronald Hoorboch stood beside him.

"He's healing really well," the doctor said. "When I first saw him last week I didn't think he would even survive the surgery. And after that, I thought for sure he was going to have to spend at least a month in here recuperating. But the wound was not as severe as I had at first supposed. He can leave tomorrow."

"That's great," Paul said, shaking the doctor's hand before he walked away.

"You were going to tell us how he took it," Stur said.

Paul rubbed at his face. "Not well," he said, shaking his head. "I was going to tell him the day before last, but he was still too out of it what with all the medications they were pumping into him. He asked about her a few times and I was able to change the subject pretty easily. Yesterday, I had to tell him… I've never had to do anything like that before. It was terrible. I've never seen him like that. I mean he's always had problems, but not like that. He was totally out of control. When I told him that her body hasn't been recovered yet, he kept repeating over and over that she wasn't dead, that she was still alive. They eventually had to sedate him. Later on when he woke up, he was real quiet. I think he's accepted it. That she's gone."

"Well, that's a good sign," Hoorboch said encouragingly.

"I don't know," Paul said. "I remember when we were younger he once told me and my parents that he would never kill himself because he knew how much it would hurt us, how we would blame ourselves. I believed him, that he wouldn't do it, but you could tell he'd thought about it a lot, killing himself. My parents were always worried about him. I was too, not as much, I think because I believed he wouldn't do it. But there's a sadness in him now that wasn't there before. I don't want to leave him alone now. What would happen if I didn't leave for Divers Island today?"

Stur looked at him seriously. "Then the deal Parry worked out with the diveran authorities would become null and void. The Sangren police would receive a warrant for your arrest, you would eventually be extradited, and at the very least they would be able to convict you of the lesser charge of fleeing the scene of a felony. Parry said he could still get you off the more serious charges with little trouble. But the lesser charge would probably stick, and that would mean six to ten months in prison."

"Yeah," Hoorboch said, "you'd better go. The deal Parry worked out is pretty ketch. I told you he was good. You just go down there for a few days, tell them how Caldwell was behind everything that happened at the warehouse, and they fall on the scapegoat and exonerate you, and you're on your way back home."

"I don't know," Paul said. "But I'd better get in there. Wait about fifteen minutes before you come in, alright."

Stur and Hoorboch nodded their heads.

Paul opened the door and entered the room. "You're looking a lot better," he said, sitting in a chair beside his brother's bed. "How do you feel?"

"Alright," Time said, trying to smile, but only doing so weakly.

"The doctor told me you're getting out tomorrow."

Time nodded his head.

"I got you a room in the Graevenor. It's where I've been staying. It's a real nice place."

"Sounds good," Time said. "But I thought you were trying to talk me into going home to Rotcreek?"

"I still am, but something's come up. I have to fly down to Divers Island tonight."

"Why? When?"

"My flight leaves at six. I have to clear up that thing that happened at the warehouse. Parry, a lawyer friend of Hoorboch's, set the whole thing up and is going with me. If I lay all the blame on Caldwell, then they'll drop all the charges they have on me. It seems they just want to have something to give to the media. And if they can't make Caldwell the scapegoat then I will do just as well."

"That reminds me. After you left last night I kept wondering why the cops haven't been around to ask me any questions."

"That's easy," Paul said. "Besides the fact that they found more than a few things they can't explain-"

"The triumvids?"

"Yeah," Paul said, "and a few other things Stur wouldn't tell me about. But the main reason is because the day after tomorrow you have to go down to the Guntern and give a detailed account of all that happened to the OGM agents that are now in charge of the investigation."

"The OGM," Time said, a brief smile curling his lips. "Hey, you remember that stupid show we used to watch—"

Paul laughed. "You mean, um… 'Ralf Kriby, OGM Agent #329' yeah, I remember. God, that was a stupid show."

"Remember those cheap sets that looked like they would just fall over if someone breathed on them."

"Yeah, or those fake fight scenes," Paul said, badly pantomiming a blow to the face. Straightening back up he knocked a bowl of hard individually wrapped little candies onto the floor.

"They taste like crap," Time said, as his brother picked them up and put them back in the bowl. "They're sugar-free. I think they're made out of one of those artificial sweeteners that give you cancer."

Paul, returning to the chair, opened one and tried it. After a moment, he spit it back into the wrapper.

"Told you," Time said.

Paul, taking aim, threw it into the garbage can in the far corner of the room. As it clanged inside he raised his hand. "Yes," he said.

Time reached stiffly into the bowl and pulled out a candy. Throwing with his left hand, he sent it into the garbage can.

"Nice shot," Paul said, remembering the games of skill they would sometimes create and then try to best each other at when they were kids. Like tossing a ball up onto the roof, letting it roll along the gutter, and then trying to catch it behind their backs when it dropped. Or throwing a rock up into the air while the other one tried to hit it with another rock before it hit the ground.

"There's about twenty pieces left in the bowl," Paul said. "How about a little contest? Since you can't use your right hand I'll spot you three throws. What do you say?"

Time smiled, remembering happier days. "Alright. You throw first."

• • •

Time eventually lost fifteen to twelve, but he lost laughing, his sadness forgotten for a while.

A little after that, Stur and Hoorboch entered the room.

"Hey, buddy," Hoorboch said. "We brought you some magazines."

"Thanks, Ronald," Time said, smiling. "Hey, Jonus."

"Hello, Time. How is your side?"

"It's good. It doesn't hurt too much anymore. I'm getting out tomorrow."

"Yes," Stur said. "Paul told us. I think we will be the ones picking you up and taking you to the Graevenor."

"Sounds good," Time said, and then looked at Hoorboch. "So your friend Parry is going with my brother to Divers Island?"

"Yep, he's a good guy. He's gotten me out of a lot of jams. You can trust him. I trust him, and I think most lawyers should be lined up and shot."

"What about the meeting with the OGM," Time said. "I don't have to go in there by myself do I?"

"No," Stur said. "Ronald and I will be with you. At least for most of it."

"What am I supposed to tell them? The truth?"

"Yes, to a point. But the triumvids were just regular men and when they ask about what happened in the library say you cannot remember. This interview is merely a technicality, the OGM being thorough. They have already verified the statements which Ronald, Paul, and I gave them. As long as you do not tell them something glaringly different, they will be satisfied. But we can talk more of this tomorrow."

"Yeah, we'd better get going if you're going to make your flight," Hoorboch said to Paul. "Since those bombings down in Rochestor, the security has been extra tight."

"Yeah, alright," Paul said, looking at his brother, unable to hide the indecision on his face.

Time smiled. "Don't worry. I'll be fine. I'll see you when you get back."

Paul leaned forward and gave his brother a hug.

"Watch the side," Time said with a laugh.

• • •

After they had left, Time lay quietly in the hospital bed thinking. But all his thoughts came back to Sera. He could feel himself sinking. He grabbed one of the magazines that Hoorboch had brought him. A name caught his eye. He turned to the corresponding page and began to read:


The Grey Man in a Fall of Gold

By Doorsnail

4-25-1722 - 10:15fdp

Novantian armies were crossing into southeastern Karkaju, and the first Border War was beginning.

Far, far away, in the south a grey man was on his last legs. He had lived most of his life in a grey haze; worked at a dull grey job, in the wide grey vastness of mid-western Novantium; lived in a small rundown house the shade of faded storm clouds; watched the world through lonely color blind eyes; his once vibrant liquid colored hopes and dreams had long ago been bled dry.

He was on a last ditch hopeless quest for color, and his journey was close to an end. He was on a ship docked in the harbor of the city of Forsentheu. He was walking down the ramp-way off the ship mopping sweat from his forehead with an off white handkerchief. At the bottom of the ramp he was stopped by an official in a beige uniform. He handed the official his passport and the official smiled and welcomed him to Forsentheu.

"I've come to visit The Sea Garden," the grey man said.

"Why else you come," the official said in broken novantian, handing back his passport.

The grey man walked away slowly down the wharf to a dilapidated bus with SEA GARDEN TOURS painted across its side in blue and green. The paint was peeling and blowing off on a light breeze in tiny specs like colored snowflakes. He climbed aboard and paid the driver, asking how long a trip it was. The driver shrugged his shoulders and stared off through the dirty windshield. The grey man stood there for a minute and then turned and made his way to a seat that was less torn up than the others. When he sat down he looked out the window at a group of children playing in the street. Poverty and hunger adorned them like a coroner's shroud, and yet they seemed unaware. But for how much longer, thought the grey man, dropping his head. He watched a cockroach scurry back and forth along the dirty floor of the bus, until half of the seats were filled with tourists like himself. Then the driver started the engine and the bus pulled away in a cloud of dust.

* * *

2:09sdp

The atmosphere inside the bus was stiflingly hot as it trundled through the swampy tropical forest with branches and leaves brushing its roof and sides. The grey man's clothes were completely soaked with sweat. His small reserves of energy were sucked away. The other tourists in the bus looked ugly and grotesque, like animals being baked alive in a huge oven. He decided he hated them. Hated them for intruding on his vacation with their vacuous faces. Hated them for their pathetic smiles. Hated them because he knew he was just like them. Hate grew like a raging inferno inside his head.

Then his hate turned to pity. Hate was an alien emotion to him. He had lived almost all his life in a state of constant pity, for himself and for others. He was assailed by the worthlessness of it all, the utter uselessness. He was farther down than he had ever remembered being before. He was fathoms past tears. He was down deep where air could not breathe.

He tried to pull himself upwards. But his mind wouldn't focus. Then he remembered the brochure in his pocket. He pulled it out and stared at it intensely. It said, "The Sea Garden was discovered by a quibian sailor in 1621, when his ship was wrecked and he clung to a piece of flotsam for three days." It said, "Washing up into a well hidden cove the quibian sailor was amazed to discover a garden of large red flowers, the likes of which he had never before seen, rising from the salty waters in great abundance." It said, "The quibian sailor eventually found his way back to Forsentheu claiming to have found the tenth wonder of the world."

With a sickening lurch the bus came to a halt. The grey man filed out with the others, eagerness chewing at his stomach. He was ready for color. He was ready for happiness.

Then he saw it, down below him past a steep winding path, he saw the object of his quest: The Sea Garden. He stared down at it for a long while, the other tourists leaving him behind and chirping happily. Even from this height he could tell it would be useless to go on.

He turned around with bitterness eating away at his face and walked away. As he climbed back on the bus the driver met his gaze almost apologetically and then was again taken by the dirt on the windshield. When the grey man collapsed back in his seat he thought: life is a sick joke.

* * *

5:23sdp

The Forsentheu Museum of Arts and Culture had been closed for over an hour when the security guard entered a bathroom in the left wing. He walked to the sink and splashed some water on his face. He looked up and studied his face in the mirror.

Behind him, something slammed loudly on the tile floor. He jerked around quickly. Under the door of the stall closest to him he could see a shoe and part of a leg lift out of sight. He drew his revolver and took a step forward. "Now, just come on out of there," he said, in anuran.

A long moment of silence passed.

Then the stall door flew open knocking the revolver from the security guard's hand. A large man with bad skin charged out of the stall and plunged a long knife into the security guard's stomach. The security guard crumpled to the floor.

The large man with bad skin stood over the bleeding man silently.

On the other side of the bathroom a thin man with a thinner mustache emerged from a stall. He walked quickly up to the large man and said: "Goddamn, Aiburn, can't you even stand on a toilet seat without messing things up."

Aiburn's face grew red in splotches. With the bloody knife in his hand he pointed at his feet clumsily. "Fuck you, Bartley. It's not so easy for me. I got big feet," he said.

Bartley looked away disgusted and then stared down at the security guard. "Is he dead?"

Aiburn kneeled down beside the security guard and pressed his thick fingers against the bleeding man's neck. "No... he isn't," he said.

In a flash Bartley was in the past, remembering. He was nine. He was hunting with his father for the first time. He didn't want to be out hunting with his father. He didn't want to kill anything. As they walked through the forest he made as much noise as he could to scare away animals he didn't want to kill. After a while his father realized what he was up to and knocked him to the ground with the stock of his rifle. Five minutes later his father spotted a deer in the brush fifteen yards away. His father forced the rifle into his hands and silenced his refusals with a raised fist. He aimed, thinking of missing intentionally until he realized his father would be able to tell, and then he fired. The deer fell in a splash of red. He dropped the rifle and ran to where the deer lay thrashing about grotesquely with blood spurting from its neck. He stared in horror until his father came and placed a knife in his hand. Then with a sadistic grin his father said, "Well you started something, now you got to finish it." And he did finish it. And on a night six years later he slit his father's throat with the same knife he had slit the deer's with.

In a flash Bartley was back in the present. Almost unaware, he heard himself saying to Aiburn: "Well you started something, now you got to finish it."

Aiburn's face showed surprise. "But, Bartley..." he said.

For a moment and for no apparent reason Bartley was filled with the same old fear he used to feel before his father hit him. Then he felt raging anger burst inside him and his face grew hard. He stepped towards Aiburn menacingly. "Go on. You messed up. Finish it," he said.

Aiburn stammered and backed away. He wouldn't kill a man stretched helpless on the floor. That was wrong. "I don't see why we can't just tie him up," he said.

Bartley took another step forward and gripped Aiburn's shirt. "He can identify us."

"He can identify me. Not you. Me."

"If they have something on you then they will have something on me."

Aiburn shook his head. "I won't kill him."

Bartley tore the knife from Aiburn's hand. "Then I will."

Bartley knelt down and cut nearly all the way through the security guard's neck. Then he wiped the knife on the dead man's sleeve, stood and slapped the handle of the blade into Aiburn's palm. "Drag the body into one of the stalls," he said, turning on the faucet and washing his hands in the sink.

"What for?" Aiburn asked.

Bartley sneered. "So if anyone comes in here they won't see it so easily, stupid."

Aiburn looked down at the large puddle of blood growing across the tile floor. He smiled. "And what about all that blood? We going to mop it all up too."

Bartley grimaced. He hadn't thought of the blood. With his jaw quivering he skirted the red pool and opened the bathroom door angrily. "Let's go. We don't have all day."

I got him that time Aiburn smirked, stepping in the blood and leaving a trail out the door.

* * *

5:51sdp

The two thieves stood in the center of a small high ceilinged chamber, in the heart of the museum. The late afternoon sun shot lazily through the tall thin windows in the western wall and reflected off a square of glass on the pedestal before them. Inside the glass case was The Devil's Stone, a rather small ruby that was found in an old chest unearthed on Palviuw Island in 1592. It was said to have been buried there by the pirate Tyrannon the white, but chance of that was small. Whether it was buried by that legendary pirate or not, Aiburn and Bartley were going to steal it.

* * *

6:17sdp

Aiburn and Bartley were hurrying through the dusty streets of Forsentheu, hurrying towards the ship which would take them home to safety. They turned a corner and the ship came into view. They joined the line that wound to the ramp attached to the ship. Then they saw the policeman at the head of the line questioning each tourist before letting them pass.

"Damn," Bartley said.

"Fuck," Aiburn said.

"How the hell did they get here so fast?"

"What are we going to do?"

"Shut up. Let me think."

"I know. I know. Throw it away. In the ocean."

Bartley kicked Aiburn in the shin. "Shut up, stupid."

Aiburn scowled up at Bartley. "Then what the fuck are we going to do?"

The line grew shorter.

Bartley ignored Aiburn. He stumbled heavily against the grey man in front of him. "I'm so very sorry," Bartley said. The grey man looked past him and numbly followed the movement of the line forward.

"What was that for?" Aiburn asked.

"We don't have the stone anymore," Bartley answered.

Aiburn's eyes went wide. "You didn't?"

Bartley nodded his head.

"It's obvious he couldn't of done it. How long till they figure out someone slipped it on him, someone in this line."

"Maybe enough time. So shut up and look innocent."

* * *

6:29sdp

The policeman stopped the grey man and held up an expensive camera. "I am sorry to bother you, sir. But is this your camera?"

The grey man's face was blank for a while and then he shook his head.

"Well, then enjoy your voyage home," the policeman said, letting him pass.

The policeman stopped Aiburn and held up an expensive camera. "I am sorry to bother you, sir. But is this your camera?"

* * *

6:46sdp

The grey man wandered about on the deck of the ship as it pulled out of the harbor. He overheard people saying war had begun in the north. He saw millions dying. He saw the world on fire. He saw the end of it all. Misery.

His quest was a failure. Color was to be denied him eternally. He leaned on the ship railing. He watched as a pretty girl walked past him. Always past him, never to him. He was alone. He was always alone.

A bitter grey cloak settled over him tighter and closer than ever before.

* * *

7:02sdp

Aiburn and Bartley were hidden behind a lifeboat as the sun began to set in a wash of yellow.

Aiburn peeked around the side of the boat. "He's been at that railing an awful long time, Bartley."

Bartley looked at his watch. "Most everyone will be in the dining hall now. Let's do it."

They both emerged from the shadows.

Without a notice of the two men stalking toward him, the grey man vaulted over the ship's railing. As he plummeted to the sea far below, he caught the suns dying rays in a fall of gold.


Time set the magazine down on the table beside him, his face weary. He looked out the window. The sun was shining but dark clouds could be seen on the horizon.

A bird that had been sitting outside on the windowsill took to flight, rising far into the sky. If this bird had looked down it would have seen a city caught in shadow and light. A river half in shade, half sparkling. The ocean glittering past Castle Greymisthaven, further in the distance a dark swath of clouds. And heading south on Interstate 52 a long line of trailers and trucks, the August King Carnival and Delirium Sideshow beginning its journey to Pinnacle, as it had done many times before. Only this time it did so without its namesake, it did so as a cooperative, not as a dictatorship run by a tattooed clown. The motley caravan pulled along the interstate up into the hills. Disappearing into the mountains, it left Sangren behind.

But the bird took no notice of the things below it. Its wings were set and it soared onward.




Chapter 65: Money on the Dead

Divers Island

4:01s.d.p. Lytus, 6th of Hurahtber, 1777

"Don't them damn novies know anything. Look. Look here," the undertaker said to George Macready, pointing into the coffin. "They didn't clean out his bowels or even bother to wrap him in a transfer diaper before they put him on the aero. There's shit everywhere. It's the change in air pressure that does it. Dumbfuckers." The undertaker turned on Macready. "I hope you know it's going to cost extra to clean this mess up, unless you want me to bury him like he is?"

Macready looked down at the lieutenant inspector where he lay in an aluminum transport coffin which lay on a wide metal cart. Four or five meters away, men were still unloading the aero that had shipped his body. The overpowering sound of another aero that was landing on a runway in the distance filled the air. Macready watched it land, casting a long shadow across the tarmac. When the noise had lessened he stared hard at the undertaker. "Are all your licenses in order?" he asked.

"What?"

"If you don't shut your mouth and do your job then I will make sure they aren't," Macready said menacingly.

"What's your problem?"

Macready closed the lid of the coffin. "You're going to clean him up and you're going to bury him in something nice, not this cheap aluminum thing."

"Wait, I don't think so. The city only pays me just enough to break even. I—"

"How about something oak, a nice red oak with carvings on it."

"You ain't listening. He's getting buried in this and I ain't cleaning him up unless I get some more money."

"You stupid fuck," Macready yelled. "This isn't some drug dealer or pimp. This is a decorated member of the diveran constabulary. You don't do what I say and you won't be in business much longer, understand?"

The undertaker stared at him angrily, then, shaking his head, he wheeled the coffin over to the hearse parked nearby. Sliding the coffin in the back, he slammed the door closed.

"I'll bring by a clean suit later tonight," Macready yelled to the undertaker as the hearse drove away.

Macready checked his watch. He wasn't looking forward to the next few hours. Going through the inspector's house and making sure there was nothing inside that would embarrass the department. But those were regulations.

Thirty-six years and all he gets is a cheap aluminum coffin.

"It's time I started looking for a new job," Macready said to himself, turning around.

Past the edge of the furthest runway the ocean sparkled.




Chapter 66: Toothpaste

Time Rath: Interior Monologue

The sun has set. It is dark outside. The light above my bed is too bright. The door to my room opens. I look up. It is one of the nurses. She reminds me of Sera. They all do. Everyone does. Everything does.

"Ready to go to the lounge?" she asks me.

"What?"

"See, you're marked down on my chart," she says, pointing at the clipboard in her hand.

"It must be a mistake?"

"I don't think so."

"I'd rather stay here."

"Sorry, doctor's orders. Do you feel well enough to walk or do you want me to get a wheelchair?"

"I'll walk."

"Don't worry," she says as she leads me through the hospital. "It's real nice in the lounge. Aren't you tired of being cooped up in that room all alone?"

No. "I guess."

"After fifteen minutes," she says as we enter the lounge, "if you still want to leave then I will take you back to your room, alright?"

I nod my head.

"Don't look so gloomy," she says as she walks away. Her hair is brown, but if she dyed it red then it would look like Sera's.

The lounge is crowded full of people dressed in the same white hospital robes as I am wearing. I move over to a chair and sit down. Some people are playing games, others are watching television, a few are talking.

I stare at my hands, waiting for fifteen minutes to pass.

"Don't let 'em brush your teeth," a voice says beside me. I look around. An old man is sitting in the chair next to me.

"Hello," I say.

"Don't let 'em brush your teeth," he says again. "Look what they did to mine." He opens his mouth and shows me a broken set of decaying teeth poking out from swollen blotchy gums. "It's the toothpaste. It rots your teeth. They get money from the dentists to use it. Before I came here my teeth were bad but not this bad. It's a conspiracy," he says, looking about cautiously. "Why're you in here?"

"I was shot."

"Yeah? It was the cops, wasn't it? They're in on everything. They've got a piece of everything. Can't trust 'em. I learned that the hard way. You can't trust anyone. Can I trust you?"

"Probably not."

"I can trust you, if you had said yes then I wouldn't have, but you didn't, so I can trust you, you're not one of them."

"One of who?"

"You know, one of them. The ones that did that to Gary over there," he says pointing at a man sitting a few chairs down. "See how his eyes are all bandaged over?"

I nod my head.

"They performed some kind of experiment on him. Now he's got hair growing out of his eyes. I saw it. Stiff, wiry hair. They also did something to that guy over there," he says pointing at a man that is watching television. The man is wearing a pair of glasses with the right lens colored a muted red. "They gave him bi-chromal vision. It's part of a weapon they're creating for the army. If he doesn't wear those glasses then his mind can't process correctly what he's seeing. He gets terrible headaches. They're making a bomb out of it. They are going to drop it on their enemies before they attack and anyone nearby will be affected and they won't be able to fight and they can just walk right in. It's all a part of their master plan. If someone ever asks you if they can take your picture, don't let 'em. They're working the same technology into the flashes on cameras. Remember."

"I will," I say, trying to think of an excuse to get away from him.

"Remember," he whispers, "the hidden whale of destruction."

"I've got to go to the bathroom," I say, standing up.

"Don't use the soap in there," he says. "It contains tiny nanobytes that get under your skin, and then they can keep track of you wherever you are. They always know where you are and they can hear what you say and what you see and… and if they want to they can stop your heart. I saw it happen to a guy on the street last month. It was terrible."

"I won't use the soap," I say, stepping away.

"Remember, the hidden whale of destruction," he says as I make for the exit to the lounge.

Out in the hallway I run into the nurse with brown hair.

"You want to go back already?"

I nod my head. "There is an old man in there," I say. "I think he might be crazy. He told me not to brush my teeth and not to use the bathroom soap."

"Does he have white hair and a liver spot on his nose?"

"Yes."

She catches the arm of a passing orderly. "Mr. Carlyle is out of his room again," she says.

"I thought they locked him in?"

"He got out somehow."

"I'll take care of it."

"Thanks," she says. The orderly walks down the hall and enters the lounge.

She looks at me. "I'll take you back to your room," she says with a smile. She is younger than Sera. She holds my arm as we walk back to my room, though she hadn't held it earlier.

"What's wrong with him?" I ask her. "The old man I mean."

"Clogged heart. Angioplasty, tomorrow morning. They transferred him over from Saint Krem Asylum last night. He keeps getting out of his room. We're not sure how."

"I didn't get him into trouble did I? He wasn't bothering me really. He just, sort of took me by surprise."

"He's not in trouble. We've been treating him with kid gloves. It seems he's been in Saint Krem for the past thirty years. He really likes to talk to people. This is the fourth time we've found him in the lounge."

Thirty years, alone, in an asylum. That could be me. Probably will be me.

The nurse leads me into my room.

"If I'd known that," I say, feeling tears come into my eyes, "I would have talked with him longer…"

"Are you alright," she asks sympathetically, standing before me.

I close my eyes, trying to push Sera's face out of my mind. She's gone, but she won't leave me. I feel the tears run down my face. She will never leave me.

"What's wrong?" the nurse says, and she sounds familiar, she sounds like Sera.

"Nothing," I say. "I'm alright, I'm fine."

She pats my hand and holds it. "Are you sure?"

I open my eyes and stare at her. She is pretty and kind, but all I can see is Sera.

"Is your side hurting you? Do you want something to ease the pain?"

"No," I say, lying. My side is hurting me, but I deserve the pain. "I'll be alright. Thank you."

She looks away and then back at me. She realizes she is still holding my hand and she lets go of it. She steps backwards. "If you need anything, just press the buzzer, okay? I'll be right down the hall." The door closes behind her.

It's too late.

I need nothing.

I've lost everything.

Sera.




Chapter 67: Guns Don't Kill People, Guilt Kills People

Sangren

7:12s.d.p. Lytus, 6th of Hurahtber, 1777

Sera Anig stood in the parking lot looking up at the hospital before her. A light rain was beginning to fall. She wiped at her face. Every time she came she stopped further away. The first time, she had made it all the way to the lobby. The second, only to the entrance. And now the third, she got no closer than the parking lot. But that was as it should be. She would not come again. She had been weak. This was the last time. She was infected, incurable, contagious. She would not allow herself to destroy him. He was pure. She was tainted. He would see that eventually. She closed her eyes. Yes, it was better to walk away thinking he still wanted her. It was better to die than enter his room and find things had changed.

She put her hand in her jacket pocket. She fingered the gun she had bought from the pawn shop on Huos Street. But she couldn't do that either. Not yet.

She turned and walked away. The rain was falling harder. She tried to distract herself from the escape in her pocket.

The dock was collapsing. The wood gave way beneath her. She reached for Time. She hit the water. Something hard struck her on the back of the head. Water filled her mouth, her nose, her lungs. And then nothing.

When she next opened her eyes her face lay against cold wet stones. Water was lapping at her feet. She sat up. She coughed and vomited water from her lungs. She was on a strand of rocky, pebbled beach. Looking around, she saw the river, and past the river on the far shore, barely visible in the distance, she saw Caldwell's estate lit up in the darkness. Somehow she had washed up on the opposite shore. It was not possible. She could not have floated over a kilometer, unconscious, and wound up there alive.

That was when she saw the footsteps crushed down imprints in the small stones beside her. Standing too quickly she fell lightheaded, her face half resting in one of the shoe sized depressions. Standing slowly, carefully, she searched the beach. There was only that one trail of footsteps. They led from the water's edge where she awoke and then went up into the trees. Suddenly terrified that the footsteps were Time's she followed, running.

The trail disappeared in the trees and she returned to the shore, alone, unsure. She tried to calm herself. The footsteps were not his. Time would not leave her.

She saw his face as the dock collapsed, as they fell. Looking at the river, at the dark water, she saw his face buried beneath the oily slickness, white, pale, eyes closed, mouth gaping.

She ran along the river's edge until she came to a dock with a boat moored at its side. Breaking open the boat's ignition, she started it and maneuvered the craft across the river to where three patrol boats were surrounding Caldwell's ruined dock. The captain of one of the patrol boats hailed her, telling her to stand off. Relaying an OGM code over the radio, a code Caldwell had once given her during an assignment, she asked the captain if there was a Time Rath aboard one of the patrol boats. The captain was silent, checking the code, and then he said negative, a Time Rath had already been taken to the city, priority red to the closest hospital. Turning the boat away she opened the throttle to its limit.

She entered the emergency room lobby making her way brusquely through the line at the front desk. Halfway, that was as far as she got. She was stopped by a smile. An innocent smile. A pretty little girl that was clinging to her mother's leg looked up at her and smiled, the side of her head shaved and bandaged, a slight crust of dried blood peeking from under the gauze contrasting horribly with her immaculate cherubic face. Sera's mouth fell open and with a tremendous effort she smiled back. The little girl turned away and pressed her face against her mother's leg.

Sera closed her eyes and stepped out of the line. She did not belong there. This was where injured people came to be healed. She did not belong there. She was why people came there. She was corrupt, soiled, evil, vile. Tainted. She had almost forgotten. She had almost believed herself to be clean. But the little girl had reminded her with a smile that said — you are a disease. A cancer. Incurable. Contagious. Fatal.

Disgust washed over her and she turned and fled. Later, using a payphone on the corner she called the hospital and, telling the nurse she was an OGM agent, she asked about the condition of a Time Rath, a man that had been brought in earlier. She was told he had been operated on and that he was in stable condition. She hung up the phone. He would live. As long as she did not touch him. As long as she never saw him again.

She spent the next three days and nights in a hotel room a few blocks away, numbing herself into a drunken stupor. In the early morning of the fourth day, after vomiting convulsively for half an hour, she raised her head from the toilet bowl and through a small slit of a window she saw the sun rise. The dense reddish orange sunlight angled in and cast a strip of illumination across her face. She stared transfixed, kneeling on the bathroom floor, vomit on her chin, as the strip of light moved down her forehead across her eyebrows, her eyelids, her eyelashes, and entered her vision like an incandescent flame. She closed her eyes, feeling the warmth on her eyelids, it felt like his hand, his touch on her skin. Like a fuel, hope filled her. She showered and made her way to the hospital. She got no further than the entrance, by then all hope had left her, she was empty. A few hours after that she bought the gun from the pawn shop on Huos Street. The next few days and nights she walked a razor's edge between life and death.

But now, only minutes earlier, again she had found herself walking towards the hospital. Not intending to actually enter his room, she only wanted to see his face one last time. She stopped herself in the parking lot. She was unclean. She would not come again.

• • •

Stretched across a crisp hotel bed, an empty bottle of hard liquor and a gun on the covers beside her, she closed her eyes, thinking of him. His eyes burning into her, his hand touching her face. She reached down and slowly caressed herself, imagining it was him. And when she came, opening her eyes, alone, she did not feel dirty. She felt clean. Simply because she had been thinking of him, she had felt clean. And for her sex had been clean only three times in her life.

The first had been when she was nineteen, when she had made love to one of her father's students. A lovely dark skinned boy that had eaten dinner at their home on many occasions, discussing topics her father had lectured on earlier in the day and other more livelier subjects. On a hot afternoon in late summer she had found herself at the door to his apartment near the university, knocking brazenly. He answered and with very few words, words she could never afterwards remember, they were in each others arms and, with the warm sun pouring through an open window onto them and the bed, they had coupled, the distant sound of birds chirping outside. They only did it that once and after that they never saw each other again. It was something passionate that had burned itself out in one brief spark. He no longer came for dinner, and she felt no more urges to see him. She lost herself in her work, which was also her mother's work, translating novantian literature and poetry into skarsgurn for one of a few small publishers which were later destroyed when the revolution erupted. She sometimes wondered what had become of that boy, if he too had been destroyed in the revolution, his dark skin burned away by fire.

After she escaped into Novantium darkness fell on her. She had lived a sheltered life and finding herself alone, trying to cope with the loss of her family, she had suffered setback after setback, until finally she found herself on the streets of Pinnacle accepting forty tentrums to have sex with a dry harmless looking man that propositioned her while she sat in a bus station trying to stay warm. She was suffering from withdrawals when he fucked her in the alley outside and she had felt very little.

A few hours later, the forty dollars gone, she was flying high, with what was left of a quarter shot in a small plastic baggy tucked in her right shoe. But it wouldn't last her through the night. She prowled the bus station for someone safe looking that had sex in their eyes. The first person she tried was an undercover vice cop. She received a fifty tentrum fine for the prostitution and a three month sentence in Larkspur for the drugs in her right shoe.

A few days after she was released from prison she answered an ad in a newspaper that asked for a model that was willing to appear nude in a short art film. Winning out over a room full of other girls, she found herself lying in a white room with bright lights shining down on her, while she pretended orange paint was gushing from her mouth and pussy and nose and ears and asshole. The paint would be added in later using computers they told her. Before she left they asked her to appear in a few more scenes with actual lines of dialogue. She accepted and it turned out they weren't lying. She didn't have to fuck anyone. She just memorized a few vague paragraphs and followed the instructions of the director, all while fully clothed.

That was when Caldwell snared her in his web. The next few years she closed herself down, while she coerced, lied, fucked, drove people to suicide, ignorantly planted a bomb, blackmailed, beat a man nearly to death, delivered another man to a place where he was murdered, and many other things that ate away at her soul. And she did all these things following the orders Caldwell gave her.

Through that entire period suicide had never occurred to her. Now, with a gun on the covers beside her, she wondered why it hadn't, why that simple escape had eluded her.

And then she had met Time and things had briefly gotten better and then they got even worse. That night in his room when they had become one, she had felt clean, pure, without taint. But the moment his eyes left her she had felt the disease spread stronger than ever before. And in that cell beneath Caldwell's estate, again he had touched her and she was purified. But in the lobby of the hospital, when she saw the bandaged little girl, she realized she was not clean, that she would never be clean. And even if she did feel clean when she was near him, she did not deserve to.

She fingered the gun beside her. She had made her spiral and now she had to go down it.




Chapter 68: Darkness Depart

Sangren

12:20f.d.p. Orsellus, 7th of Hurahtber, 1777

Becky Townsan drove home through the pounding rain. At the stoplight around the corner from her apartment building she watched her windshield wipers screech back and forth until the light changed. Pulling into the underground parking garage she drove her car hurriedly to her space. Getting out quickly, her bare arms shivering, she locked the door and slammed it closed, cursing herself for not bringing a jacket even if the day had started out warm and sunny.

As she was turning away something caught her eye. She peered through the back window of her car. Behind the drivers seat leaned a framed picture. She unlocked the car door and lifted the picture free. Looking at it, she realized it had been there for the past two weeks, that that strange boy named Time had left it there when they went into the museum. Shivering, she tucked it under her arm and hurried up to her apartment. Once inside, she turned the heater up and turned on all the lights in all the rooms, even the one in the bathroom. Making herself a cup of hot chocolate, she sat down in a chair near the sliding glass door that led out onto a small balcony. Sipping her drink, warming her hands on the cup, she stared at the picture which she had propped up against the wall across from where she sat.

Except for the sound of the rain, it was very quiet. It made her feel lonely. And the picture made her feel even more so. She walked about the room, turning on the radio and the television. Sitting back down she pulled a blanket off the back of the chair and covered herself with it. The rain was hitting the windows harder. She looked over at the sliding glass door. All she could see was darkness. It felt like she was looking out into the blackness of space or that she was far beneath the surface of the ocean. Alone in the darkness.

She got up and closed the curtain. Returning to the chair, she pulled the blanket up under her chin.

Staring at the picture across from her, she closed her eyes.




Chapter 69: Away

Reveille Junction, Sangren Metropolitan Station

1:41f.d.p. Orsellus, 7th of Hurahtber, 1777

Scrulchil, the dark golden furred karkajan, was going home.

He handed his ticket to the conductor and he stepped aboard the train that would shortly be heading north, one of his ears bandaged inelegantly. Walking down the aisles, ignoring the looks of scorn some of the passengers directed his way, he reached the four person cabin indicated by his ticket. Two people were already inside. As he sat in the seat opposite them, the train began to move.

The man across from him grimaced and looked to the woman sitting to his left. The woman was reading the newspaper. "Can you believe this," the man said. "I don't know about you, but I'm going to find another cabin."

"Why is that?" the woman asked, lowering the paper she had been holding up in front of her atypically smooth face.

Scrulchil became deathly still.

The man sneered derisively and said, "See what just sat down across from us. I'm not going to spend the next few hours looking at that. Have you ever heard one of them talk? It sounds like two dogs fucking."

The ancient woman laughed. "Oh, I can take care of that for you." Her hand shot up from the paper and clasping something metallic she swept it across the man's eyes. Blood spurted onto the window, rolling in drops down the glass, mirroring the drops of rain on the other side. The man groaned and fell onto the floor of the cabin clutching his face. With another quick swipe the ancient woman severed one of the writhing man's ears.

Looking up at Scrulchil, she smiled. Her face creasing up into a thousand dark lines.

Scrulchil moved to the edge of his seat.

She laughed, licking the blood off the metallic thing in her hand. "I had to cast for days to find you. You have been quite an inconvenience. And now I-" The man on the floor whimpered and begged for help.

Scrulchil edged further off the seat.

"And now," the ancient woman continued, "I've come to end you red. And you are just the first of many. I have sheep to slaughter. But you, you are first. I thought it only proper given all your years of faithful service." Her voice had grown shrill. "Sletsir, my dear Sletsir, would have wanted your blood to fall slow."

The wounded man had ceased whimpering, now unconscious from loss of blood, or from shock, or perhaps from a combination of the two.

"I have worn this skin for far too long," she said, running her finger through the blood on the window and bringing it to her mouth. "It is time I returned to my brethren. Can you believe I have almost grown used to the sunlight, that it does not gall me. An angelic of the blood, a noble Lekieil, awake beneath the sun. I have forgotten many things. It is time I resumed the hunt." Sucking on her finger, she suddenly bit down hard upon it and wrenched it from between her teeth, tearing the skin from off it, revealing a thin leathery appendage, a finger within a finger.

"Do you know," she said, a silvery nail unsheathing, like a cat's claw, from the end of her true finger. "I think it has been more than two centuries since I have drunk the blood of your flea-ridden race. I never acquired a taste for it, but as they say, any meal had after a long abstinence, no matter how paltry, will become the most delicious of feasts—"

Scrulchil leapt out the doorway. She followed, laughing, her skin coming loose about her, she tore free every last pinion, severed the final strands of false cartilage, and cast it away. It had been Sletsir's gift to her a century ago, but he was dead and she had no more need for disguises. Reveling in her freedom she followed the cur that had twice betrayed her. Those who saw her screamed.

Bounding down the aisles of car after car, bowling people over, ignoring the yells and the threats, Scrulchil burst through the door of the caboose and found himself outside gripping a cold wet railing. With no where left to go, rain streaking past him, the buildings of the city growing less prevalent as the train sped into the hills, he climbed his way onto the rain-slicked roof. If he could double back to the engineer's car at the front of the train, get inside and stop or slow the train enough to leap off safely, he might have a chance of escaping her.

The train was crisscrossing through the hills, traversing high spindle legged bridges and precarious cuts in the sides of ridges, diving into tunnels and through steep ravines. Leaping across the roof of the caboose to the next car, a flash of lightning lit up the sky. Scrulchil stopped dead. Standing before him on the wet metal roof were four young identical girls with shoulder length blonde hair. They were holding hands and their eyes were bound in white satin. Behind them and clinging to the sides of the car on which they stood, mock-human beasts crouched and gripped the wet metal.

Scrulchil heard a cry from behind him. As he spun around, his feet tangled and he fell, grasping for a hold on the slick metal roof. Another strike of lightning filled the air. He saw the ancient woman on the roof behind him, a cluster of mock-human creatures descending upon her. Before the thunder sounded, just as the lightning faded, the clawing frenzied mass of nightmarish limbs fell backwards over the edge of the train.

Breaks squealed and the train's velocity diminished to a protracted drawl. Scrulchil was pitched from the roof, hitting gravelly rock he rolled and crashed into hard packed dirt. He heard the voices of men above him. Looking up he saw people had pushed open the train windows and were poking their heads out staring towards the caboose. One of them saw Scrulchil and yelled an alarm.

He leapt to his feet and ran back along the track. He had fallen against a short embankment. A few more meters in either direction and the ground sloped away dropping into a deep gorge. Passing the caboose, men yelling from behind the rail but not attempting to follow him, he ran carefully along the tracks which perched on a system of long metal frameworks that descended into the dark empty space below. Cautious not to catch his feet in the gaps between the railway ties, he made his way to where the ancient woman lay crumpled on the tracks. She had been eviscerated. With a shudder Scrulchil continued walking past her, wondering where the four identical girls and the mock-human creatures had come from; and why they had saved him, if indeed that was their purpose.

He thrust them from his mind, concentrating on the hazardous path before him. After a few hundred meters a steep hill rose up to meet the tracks and he stepped off the rails and climbed to its summit. It curved gently down on the other side and he followed the slope until he saw a large house perched on a hill in the distance. With that structure as his compass point he made his way through the darkness, stumbling through the underbrush, watching for sudden drops in the ground. Eventually he struck upon a narrow dirt road which he guessed led to the house perched on the hill. Going the opposite way, he jauntily strode off, knowing he would ultimately reach a larger thoroughfare.

He was happy.

It was going to be much more difficult to get home, but that did not bother him, did not worry him in the least, for he was finally free.




Chapter 70: Prescience

Sangren

11:24f.d.p. Orsellus, 7th of Hurahtber, 1777

The morning sun stood out against a dark blue sky. A small boy ran along the stretch of Stilltow Beach between the Three Tunnels and the Bastion of Entilanto. Clutched in his arms was a wooden puppet that resembled a lion.

When he reached the spot where his mother and father were sitting on a blanket on the sand, he screamed out, "Look what I found in one of the tunnels. Can I keep it? Can I?"

"You're sure you just found it, Freddie?" the father asked, for his son had the bad habit of taking things that did not belong to him.

"Yeah, Dad," Freddie said, annoyed by the tone of his father's voice. "I told you. I found it on the sand inside the tunnel. Can I keep it? Please?"

"I don't know," the mother said. "That hair looks pretty disgusting."

The father pulled the puppet out of his son's hands, inspecting it. "This is some good workmanship," he said. "We could have the hair replaced. What color do you think we should make it, huh, Freddie?"

The boy smiled happily. "You mean I can keep it?"

"Sure," the father said jovially, handing the puppet back to him. "What do you think about blue or green?"

Freddie swung the puppet in his arms and danced around excitedly. "Blue," he screamed, "no, green, no both, both, both." He ran off to play with his new toy.

"Don't go to far," the mother called after him. "We're going to eat lunch soon."

"Okay, Mom," he screamed over his shoulder.

Running far enough away that they wouldn't bother him, he stuck the puppet's base deep into the sand and letting go, he stared at it intensely.

"Hello, Freddie," it said, its muzzle opening and closing.

The boy fell back in surprise. Rising, he walked carefully around it.

"My name is Lionwood, Freddie. And I am very pleased to meet you, for you are a very special boy."

"How… how can you talk?"

"Fanjis," Lionwood said. "You believe in Fanjis don't you, Freddie?"

"I… I guess."

"Fanjis sent me to look after you, to be your best friend in the whole wide world."

"But I… I found you, you didn't—"

"Oh, I have so much to teach you, Freddie, so very much." The puppet blinked its wooden eyelids comically, left, right, left, right, right, left, and let its muzzle drop open.

The boy laughed and the puppet joined in, but it laughed for a different reason. It laughed because this boy would eventually grow up and destroy the world. With a little help.




Chapter 71: Dark is Life, is Death

Sangren

2:00s.d.p. Orsellus, 7th of Hurahtber, 1777

"Did Jonus tell you," Hoorboch said as they drove away from the hospital, "that Margeon was gone?"

"Who?" Time said.

"Margeon was the guy that hired us to bring down Gignoskein and Fat Theodore."

"He was also the one that sent us over to your apartment at the exact moment your brother was there," Stur said.

"Yeah," Hoorboch said, "he made a fuss about that. A few days ago we went by the hotel he was staying at and he had cleared out, without a trace. We did a little checking but he's gone. Disappeared."

"You guys sound worried," Time said.

"I'm not," Hoorboch said. "He paid our bill. Oh yeah," he reached in his pocket and tossed an envelope back to Time. "When we saw him last he told us to give this to you."

Time looked inside it. "There's like a hundred tentrums in here. What for?"

"Because you helped take out Gignoskein," Hoorboch said.

"Yes," Stur said. "Perhaps."

"What do you mean?" Time asked.

"There was something odd about the whole matter," Stur said.

Hoorboch laughed. "Don't worry, Time. He's always seeing things that aren't there."

"But he's right sometimes, isn't he?"

"Yeah, sometimes."

Time looked out the window.

• • •

The dark blue sedan drove through the streets of the city as the sun set in the west. Shadows, cast like fallen monuments upon the ground, lay everywhere.

"They never found her body," Time whispered from the back seat.

"Did you say something, Time?"

"They never found her body," Time said. "What if… what if she got to shore and then ran… like she did before. It could have happened, couldn't it?"

"I do not know, Time," Stur said, after a heavy silence. "It is possible… but—"

Time looked down at his hands. "I know," he whispered. "I know."

• • •

As they stopped the sedan in front of the Graevenor, Stur handed Time a binder.

"My book," Time said. "My notes for a book. Where did you get it?"

"When we met your brother in your apartment this was pretty much all that was left."

Time looked down and brushed at the cover of the binder.

"At the front desk," Stur said. "All you have to do is tell them your name. Your brother took care of everything else."

Time was hunched over, his posture sad and painful.

"You alright, Time?" Hoorboch asked. "Do you want us to go with you?"

Time shook his head. "No. I'll be fine. Thanks." He opened the door and got out, closing the door softly behind him.

"Remember, we will pick you up tomorrow morning around ten," Stur said through the open window.

"Okay," Time said. And then he watched them, with a curious awe. They had no real reason to care whether he lived or died, and yet he believed they did. "Thank you both."

Stur smiled serenely and nodded his head. Hoorboch tapped his finger to the brim of his hat. "Any time, Time," he said with a smirk, before they drove away.




Chapter 72: Rara Avis or No Unscheduled Stops

Time Rath: Interior Monologue

Walking across the posh lobby I feel misshapen.

"How can I help you?" the person at the front desk asks me.

"My name's Time Rath."

"Yes… and?"

"I, I have a room here…"

The person looks at me, at the bandages on my hands, and then types at a keyboard. "Yes, I have it right here. Room five-twenty-five. Here you go."

I take the key.

"It looks like you have a message."

I take the slip of paper and unfold it. 'Meet me at your apartment at five-thirty. I'm sorry for what I've done. I need you. Sera.'

Sera. This has to be a joke. A cruel joke. But…

"I need a taxicab, right now."

"Sorry, it's rush hour. I can call for one, but it probably won't get here for at least twenty minutes."

I look at a large clock on the far wall. It is already five-seventeen.

"Where do you need to go?"

I say the address of my apartment.

"You could take the bus. There is a stop right on the corner. In fact it is due to arrive in about two minutes."

"Do you know if it will get me near the Afterdamp before five-thirty?"

"I think so. Maybe a little after."

"Thanks," I say, running for the exit, clutching the binder in my hands tightly.

• • •

The bus is full. I sit four rows from the back. At the next stop an old lady sits down beside me. In the seat across the aisle a small boy is trying to swat a fly that is fluttering about the ceiling. I look out the window. The city passes before my eyes. Can it really be her? Is she alive? Am I imagining this? Am I insane?

• • •

Five blocks from my apartment, the clock above the bus driver reading five-thirty-eight, I see her on the sidewalk walking in the opposite direction. At least I think it is her. I rise to my feet. "Stop the bus," I scream. Everyone looks at me. Without looking around the bus driver points at a large sign posted near the front exit: ABSOLUTELY NO UNSCHEDULED STOPS.

"Stop the goddamn bus," I scream.

Someone in one of the seats near the front of the bus tells me to sit down, someone else tells me to shut the fuck up.

The bus is not going to stop. I look back out the window. I see a small touch of red and then it is gone. She is gone. I strike the window with my elbow. And I strike it. Leaning back, brushing against the screaming old woman beside me, I kick the window with all my strength. It does not break, but the frame comes loose. I kick the whole thing free. The bus screeches to a halt. I am thrown against the seat in front of me. My binder is nearly torn from my grasp.

A few men in the bus are rising up, coming towards me. I leap out the window. My foot catches on something. I fall awkwardly to the street. I land on my shoulder and on the back of my head. Horns sound in my ears. Headlights hit me and slide away. There is the squeal of brakes. I roll to my feet. A car is stopped less than a meter from me. The driver is leaning out the window cursing.

I run back along the street, the wound in my side throbbing. I run for her. The sidewalk is crowded. I run through the people. I collide with them, knock them out of the way. Then before me, a streetlamp illuminating her brilliant red hair, I see her. I scream her name. She stops but does not turn. It has to be her.

I grab her and spin her around. For a moment I doubt, and then... Sera. It's her. She stares at me.

"I… I waited, but I didn't think you would come…" She buries her face against my chest, wrapping her arms around me. Sirens are blaring in the distance.

"Come on," I say, leading her down a side street. We will circle this block and then double back to the Afterdamp. It has begun to rain lightly.

As we walk, she has one arm around my back, the other ensnared around my right arm. When I look at her she looks away. She seems more fragile, softer, more tender.

We make the Afterdamp without incident, and without words. Across the lobby it is very quiet. I can hear her breathing in and out. As we tread our way up the stairs I nearly lift her in my arms I feel so good, but there is a painful tingling in my right side, so instead I pull her closer against me.

My apartment door is slightly open, the frame still busted. We enter and I push it closed behind us. When I reach for the light switch she grabs my hand and pulls me toward the center of the room. The hanging street signs fill the room with flickering light. I set my binder down on the floor and kick it towards the wall.

She looks at me, different colored lights touching her face. I am dizzy and I have to shake my head because everything feels unreal. "Time," she whispers.

I stare into her eyes. I draw her near. Her eyelids flutter. I stare at her. There is something in her eyes I have not seen before. She looks away. I touch her chin and lift her face. She leans forward and her lips close fiercely on my own. Her eyes are open. She pulls violently away.

"What?" I whisper.

"I…" Her face darkens. Eyes brutal with sudden loathing. "I hate you," she says. "You are so pathetic. I hate you," she says. "I wish you were dead. I wish I were dead."

She circles around me towards the door. I step in front of her. She pulls a gun from her pocket. "Don't come near me," she says. "I'll kill you and then I'll kill myself."

"Sera… please…"

She pulls the door open. "It was a mistake to come here. It's all changed. It was all a lie. Everything's a lie."

She steps out the door. I can't let her go. I follow her. She lifts the gun towards my head. I keep walking until it presses against my cheek. "I won't let go of you," I say.

A slight indecisiveness shows on her face before a mysterious expression clouds her features.

I reach out for her. She hits me hard in the face with the side of the gun. I fall backwards, stunned. Laying on the floor, holding my face, I watch her walk away. But she is mine.

I leap up and grab her, pull her back into the room, and slam the door.

"You're mine. And I will always belong to you."

The look on her face is unfathomable. She raises the gun. She pulls the trigger.

I move forward, catch the hammer of the gun before it drops, take the gun from her, let the hammer descend softly, and throw the gun into the corner of the room. She looks at me, shock on her face.

"How…" she says, her voice sounding odd to my ears.

I grab her by the arms, and they feel softer than I remember. Too soft. And her body looks more voluptuous, statuesque. She smiles seductively. She. Not Sera. The most beautiful face I have ever seen. But not Sera. I… insane… real… let go… step back… but haven't moved… her mouth opens… slightly… her lips… more enticing than other lips… but not Sera… she isn't Sera. And if she isn't Sera, then…

Sera never left the river.

She is really dead.

She is gone.

This is the way things had to end.

Darkness and cruelty.

Sera is gone.

I will never see her again.

There is nothing left.

The sexual creature before me lifts her hand and touches my face. I close my eyes. Pretending. But Sera is dead. There is nothing left.

This is all a trick. A deception. A cruelty.

I open my eyes. The face before me is unrivaled in covetous desire. She is touching my face. I push her away. I push her away.

She stares at me, her eyes narrowing. She smiles and walks out the door, closing it behind her, she is gone.

Just as Sera is gone.

There is nothing left.

The sands run down.

The hourglass is empty.

I lean against the wall and slide downwards to the floor.

It is too late.




Chapter 73: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

Sangren

6:29s.d.p. Orsellus, 7th of Hurahtber, 1777

On the ceiling, near the door, four flies perched upside down, watching a young man sit despairingly in the corner of the room, a room lit by flickering neon colored lights.

One fly twitched its antennae dramatically:

"Happiness lasts as long as a string to sever,
Sadness a dark forever."

Then it arched its wings for added effect:

"The heavens churn a dark insane,
Then like tears comes a gentle rain,
Sifting down in a bitter gloom,
A weeping for our simple doom."

One of the other flies moved threateningly towards the first:

"Lassus, I have heard enough of your insipid tripe over the past millennia to rot my mind to mush. For once, give us silence."

"Ah, but it isn't mine. It is-"

"Quiet. Here comes Ammikis."

Another fly, having emerged from under the door, flew its way upward and landed on the ceiling.

"That is not what we had planned, Ammikis. He was only supposed to glimpse you from the window. Why did you not withdraw sooner."

"It was not my fault, Ampersand. How was I to know he would exit the transport in such an unlikely way. You were on the vehicle with him, why did you not attempt to slow him?"

"I was in other ways preoccupied."

"Yes, a small child was trying to crush him with a length of rolled newspaper."

"Lassus."

"Yes, Ampersand?"

"Quiet."

"Yes, Ampersand."

"Considering he came upon me unexpected, I think I handled things quite well."

"Did you. Is that including your nearly shooting him with that metallic tool of which the ape-maggots are so fond? Why did you even possess it?"

"The girl had one, so I acquired one."

"And why did you draw it? I saw no reason to."

"You were not standing before him. You did not see the intensity of his gaze. For a moment, I was frightened."

"By him?"

"Yes. He took me by surprise. He was graceful and quick, and ferocious. When he took the weapon from me I hardly saw him he moved so fast."

"But after that you were not frightened, after that your intentions became quite clear. What of that?"

"You were not standing before him. He was suddenly magnificent. I almost forgot my purpose altogether. He needs so strongly. I could not help myself. For the briefest of moments it was as if Egstellion stood before me once again."

"Surely you jest, Ammikis. Egstellion was a hero, a warrior. Through all the trials we ensnared him in, he fought without cease. This… this craven weakling has already been subdued."

"I said for a moment, Ampersand. For a moment his eyes burned with the same fire, if but fleetingly. Now he is only a weeping coward."

"Yes, it is not quite what we had planned, but it will do. I had hoped to induce a long slow descent into madness, but this will have to do. It is a shame he broke so quickly."

"Father?"

"Yes?"

"May I touch him father? From the moment I saw him I knew he was one of mine."

"You might as well, it seems he has provided as much enjoyment as he was destined to provide. I am disappointed though. What good is revenge if it is not entertaining."

A single fly, slightly apart from the others, disengaged itself from the group on the ceiling and began its flight downwards.

"Wait Emortir… Ampersand, call her back. He suddenly does not look the same. I think I see a faint glimmer. Let us watch a while longer. I think… is he laughing… Call her back, Ampersand."

"It is too late."




Chapter 74: Cowards are Ghosts

Time Rath: Interior Monologue

I laugh. It is ridiculous. Everything. Stupid. Pointless. Absurd.

I am tired of crying. Of sadness.

Weary of caring.

It is like clutching at water running through your hands. Useless to try.

I strike my head against the wall.

Pain, what is pain? Laughter reversed? Or is it the same, simple nerve endings?

I am sick of being a coward.

What is there to fear? When nothing matters, what can go wrong. Everything is correct. Everything is the same. Everything a joke, with every injustice, every act of cruelty, a punch line.

Laugh.

Laugh or weep, there is no difference.

I can see it.

I will no longer fear.

A leaf in the wind.

A leaf does not fear.

Death is life and life is death.

The bravest man is the man with nothing to lose.

I will reassemble myself into something dauntless.

Nothing can crush me. I will not shy from any blow.

It does not matter if I am cut or kissed. If my eyes are opened or closed.

It is all the same.

I am free.

Unencumbered.

A leaf in the wind.

Scatter me to the heavens. I do not care.

Life can only batter me. Or toss me about. Life has lost its capacity to make me cower. Life can only affect me if it totally destroys me.

And death is as life to me.

It is fear and desire that creates suffering. It is fear and desire that shackles and confines. Believe in nothing. Covet nothing. And you are free.

A prison is only a prison as long as you believe it to be one. When you close your eyes you choose whether or not you are free.

I am nothing.

And I am free.




Chapter 75: Touching Death

Sangren

6:35s.d.p. Orsellus, 7th of Hurahtber, 1777

Emortir emerged from the shadows in front of Time. As she stepped forward he rose up smiling. That surprised her and she halted.

"I've seen you before?" he said, his voice steady but breaking at the edges like that of a madman.

"Yes," she said, shedding the dark cloth from off her face and body.

"You're Emortir. Death. I've read about you. When I was young you made me cry."

She let the cloth trail from her fingers and fall to the floor. "Why?" she said. "Because I frightened you?"

Time smiled grimly, not looking at her angular breasts or the harsh line of her hips, or her pale hairless skin. He stared into her eyes with a naked ferocity. "No," he said, "because you made me sad. You can never touch or be touched."

Emortir tilted her head downwards and looked at him strangely.

His eyes narrowed. "You know loneliness, then."

Emortir began to answer but faltered when he stepped towards her. His eyes had her and she suddenly felt alien beneath his gaze. Ammikis had been right, there was fire in his eyes.

He smiled and they burned brighter. He reached out with his hand towards her face. She leaned back, away from him, afraid for the first time in centuries. He held his hand still for a moment, grinned, and then he placed his hand gently upon her cheek. Her eyes closed. She was eternally cold. No fire ever warmed her. The sunlight was as the moonlight upon her face. Her world was a world of ice. But his hand was warm. She shivered. The warmth of his hand seemed to be spreading through her skin, down her neck, through the rest of her body.

She opened her eyes quickly and saw he was not dead. He lived. His eyes still burned. Her mouth fell open. He leaned forward brutally slow. She felt weak and her legs gave out on her. He caught her and drew her near. She had never been held for longer than an instant and his arms, tight around her, felt as if they had been there for an eternity. Fear told her to escape. Exhilaration forced her arms around his back.

He pierced her with eyes that could melt the ice of ancient glaciers. "Why did you lie?"

She stared at him mesmerized, not understanding.

He released his hold upon her and she reluctantly let her arms fall to her sides. He said again softer, and yet with more power: "Why did you lie?"

She shook her head slowly. "I did not… I…"

He ran his fingers across her blue tinged lips and a faint blush of red filled them. Her chin began to quiver and tears filled her eyes. Without eyelashes to impede their flow, they spilled down her face freely, leaving trails of warmth across her skin.

"Which one of you came earlier?" he asked.

"Ammikis."

He smiled. But it was not a kind smile, it was all brutality. He gently pushed her away and she shivered as if he had struck her violently. "Why," he demanded.

She shook her head uncomprehending.

"Why?"

"I… I do not understand?"

"Why did you do that?"

"I… I did not, it was them, they… they wished to punish you."

"Why?"

"Because you destroyed the stone."

"Why like that? Why not simply kill me?"

"My father, it is his way."

Hot and cruel Time's eyes cut into her, drawing wound after wound. "Are you another of his ways?"

Emortir trembled. "No, no… I swear."

"Then why are you here?"

"I… I came to help you rest."

"You came to kill me?"

"Yes."

"How?"

"With my touch."

"But you lied, you can be touched. I touched you." His face twisted darker. "I could touch you anywhere." He pressed his hand against the sharp curve of her breast, and feeling her catch her breath, he drew it down her side, across her belly, and as it brushed between her legs he pulled his hand away. They stared at each other silently.

Emortir opened her mouth, and closed it. She looked down, ran her finger along her lips and sucked at its tip. Her lips were still warm. She looked up. "I did not lie. My touch is death. My breath poison. Death should cover you like a shroud."

"Then…"

Emortir shook her head. "You live. I do not know how. But it must mean something." She lost herself in thought and then her face lit up and filled with wonder. "It means… it means you are mine. It means you were meant for me. You are mi—" Suddenly, she turned around and stared up at the ceiling. "No, father…" she whispered, and then fell into the shadows and disappeared.

• • •

Time stood at the window, drops of rain blowing through the broken glass and hitting his face. He was no longer sure what was real and what wasn't. He felt terror edging its way around him. He could feel himself drawing back inside himself. Growing small and pathetic. Anger filled him. He would no longer be contained. He would no longer crouch and hide. He would rise up and contain the world. He punched out the remaining pains of glass before him.

"You cannot bind me," he said quietly. "I am free."

And then he laughed, thrusting his hands out into the rain and pulling them back inside. He wiped them across his face, smearing blood and rainwater upon his skin.

"I am isolated from you," he said. "I don't need anyone. Or anything. I am a leaf in the wind. I am bound to nothing."

He looked around the room. He did not want to possess anything. When you possessed something it could be taken away. There was nothing left in the room but a few torn papers and the smell of stale urine. Remembering, he reached in his pocket and took out the envelope full of tentrums. As long as he owned anything he would be owned. He poured the coins out onto his cut and bleeding hands. With a quick savage gesture he threw them out the window, sent them gleaming into the wet night, dropping the envelope after them. He laughed.

Turning on his heels, he saw, in the shadows against the wall, the binder full of his writings, a reminder of failure and want. He retrieved it and stalked back to the window.

Opening its cover, dripping blood upon the whiteness of the pages, he sprung the catches of the metal rings and pulled the papers free. Dropping the binder out the window, watching it slide across the tiled roof and fall past the gutter, he held the papers up in his hands. A flash of lightning lit up the sky. He watched as the drops of rain splashed onto the topmost paper causing the lines of ink to run and meld. Thunder crashed and echoed between the buildings. He lifted the papers higher. His face grim. An odd smile touching his lips. He cast them outwards, caught in the wind like flapping birds, through the rain they fell.

And he watched them.

A muted cursing came from the apartment next to him.

He turned and stared at the wall. Walking up to it he struck it solidly. The muted voice yelled something more.

Time walked out of the room into the hallway. With one kick he smashed open the neighbor's front door and stepped inside. It was almost as small as his apartment, but much longer. A scowling man was standing before a woman with his fist raised. He jerked around and stared at Time with his mouth hanging open. The woman had a black eye and a bruised plum colored cheek. When Time looked at her she glanced at a television set that sat on a small table against the wall. The television set was Time's, used to be his.

The scowling man stepped towards him and yelled: "Get the fuck out of here!"

Time quickly moved forward and kicked his foot through the glass front of the television set, sparks erupting around his ankle. The smell of burning flesh filled the room. He jerked his foot free, the broken jagged glass slicing deep into his blistering skin.

The television set sparking and hissing, he turned to face the scowling man. With a vicious smile he raised his bloody hands. "You cause pain," he said. "I cause pain too."

The scowling man stepped away, staring at the madman before him. Time swept his arms at the scowling man and the man flew back and crashed against the far wall. The woman let out a sound of astonishment.

Time turned his back on the scowling man's unmoving figure. He walked slowly to the woman. On closer inspection he saw her cheek was worse than he had at first thought and that her cheekbone was probably broken. She was also younger than she looked. Others would not think her pretty, but he saw a crushed loveliness others would not see. Studying her face he saw another possible future that would never be.

She watched him, afraid, her mouth slightly open. He was filled with sadness. The pain on her face was heart wrenching. Not just the fresh wounds but the years of accumulated suffering mapped across her features. He reached out tentatively and, when she did not step away, he rested his hand delicately on her injured cheek. Her bruised eye shut from the pain and a few tears ran trickling between his fingers. Her pain infused him. His eyes closed. He wondered at the way in which fate tangled lives like threads and then tore them apart.

"Your face," she said.

He opened his eyes. She was staring at him in wonder. Suddenly, she looked past him, her face full of horror.

She screamed.

The scowling man had risen and he now stood at arms length with a gun pointed at Time's head. Time spun around, his left hand palm out towards the muzzle, as the trigger was pulled. A surge of heat hit his palm and shot up his arm, closing his hand into a fist. Moving his other arm, he tapped his right hand across the scowling man's forearm and the bones within shattered in a thousand places. The gun fell from the scowling man's hand as he collapsed backwards in agony.

Time felt something hot within his closed fist. Expecting a rush of blood he opened his hand. Something metal dropped to the floor and rolled about.

Time looked down at his hand, wiping at it, he could find no cuts or wounds. He thought he could hear laughter. This was not real. This was not happening. He was insane.

He ran from the room into the hall. The woman watched him go, shock on her face.

He stood in the hall with the world spinning on an unknown axis. Then he saw the stairwell leading upwards and he saw his exit. His escape.




Chapter 76: Goodbye

Sangren

6:37s.d.p. Orsellus, 7th of Hurahtber, 1777

Sera Anig sat in the back of a taxicab that was parked across the street from the Afterdamp Apartment Building. It was raining hard. She looked out the window. She could just barely make out Time's window. The light wasn't on. She shivered and looked at the note that was on the cold vinyl seat beside her. It said to be there at six-thirty, but the window was dark. He wasn't there. Again she looked up through the rain streaked glass. He wasn't there. But that was a good thing.

"Well, lady…" the cabdriver said impatiently. "What'll it be? Are you getting out or do you want to go someplace else?"

She closed her eyes. "Drive," she said.

"Where to?"

"… anywhere, just go…"

"Alright."

The engine revved and the cab pulled away from the curb.

A second later, the cab jerked violently and Sera was thrown forward. The cabdriver was cursing.

"What happened?" she asked.

"Fucking drunk leapt right out in front of me," he said.

Looking out the window, she saw a hoary bearded vagrant shuffling past them down the street, a patch over one eye.

"Nearly hit him," the cabdriver said, just as something small and metallic struck the windshield. Followed by another and another.

"What the fuck," the cabdriver said. One of the objects had wedged itself under the windshield wipers. "That looks like a five-tentrum. What the hell?"

Sera looked out the window, looked upwards. Something dark dropped to the sidewalk across the street. It looked like a folder or an empty binder.

As she looked back up, a flash of lightning lit up the sky, illuminating a pair of arms thrust out of Time's broken window. She saw bloody hands holding a sheaf of paper. As she watched, the papers erupted, were cast free. She watched them fluttering downwards.

A car passed, splashing water onto the window before her. Unable to see, she opened the cab door and jumped outside. Looking back up, the papers had disappeared. In their place, probably blown in on the same wind that had taken the papers away, a gathering of mottled white doves circled.

She ran across the street, thinking, 'His hands were bloody.'

• • •

When she reached his room it was empty. Seeing the door to the neighboring apartment was hanging off its hinges, she stepped past it. A woman was standing on one side of the room and a man was lying on the floor on the other. The man was whimpering, cradling an arm that hung like a sack of wet meat.

"Where is he?" Sera demanded.

The man whimpered and Sera stepped forward, raising her foot, intending to kick him in the head.

"The stairs," the woman whispered.

Sera leapt backwards and ran from the room.

The man on the floor tried to rise and fell. He began wailing. He begged the woman standing on the other side of the room to help him. And when she did not move, he cursed her, and then threatened her.

The woman watched him, almost as a child watches a lion at the zoo for the first time; afraid, keeping back away from the bars of the cage, gradually understanding that there is no need for fear; the creature is caged and all that had to be done to make it disappear was to simply walk away. The woman grabbed her purse from off the counter.

The man, beginning to guess her intentions, screamed out: "Please… what are you doing… can't you see I'm hurting?"

As she stepped out the door, she said, "I can see it. And on the rare occasions when I think about you, it will be a pleasant memory. Goodbye."




Chapter 77: Is that the Question

Time Rath: Interior Monologue

I walk across the roof through the rain. My clothes are wet and they cling to my skin and seem to bind me. I pull off my shirt and then my shoes and then my pants. The rain feels nice on my bare skin. When I reach the building's edge I look up at the sky.

• • •

A leaf in the wind.

I step up onto the ledge and look down at the street and the hanging street signs.

The wind blows against me, a leaf in the wind, my stem coming loose from the branch. There is nothing to fear. I accept everything. Every orbit and collision, every decree of this chaotic universe. Cruelty and kindness.

I raise my arms outward and tilt back my head.

I stand upon the tips of my toes.

I will let the wind decide.

Fall or stand.

Breathe or not breathe.

It is all the same.

The wind is quiet.

I close my eyes.

I am free.

A flash of lightning is barely visible through my eyelids. Drops of rain splash upon my face.

The thunder that follows sounds almost like it cries my name.

Crisp and cold the wind picks up and a strong gust bellows.

It comes from behind.

And I fall.




Chapter 78: Curiosity Killed the Cat-like Man

Sangren

6:39s.d.p. Orsellus, 7th of Hurahtber, 1777

The five ahstyr stood above Time on the rooftop of a nearby building.

"He touched me father," Emortir said, "and he still lives. He must not die. I will not let him. He is mine. He is the one I have waited for. I will no longer be alone." She stepped to the roof's edge preparing to leap downwards.

Ampersand made a stylized gesture with his hand and she froze in place.

"We must wait, my dear. I am curious to see how this will end."




Chapter 79: Free are the Fallen Angels

Sangren

6:40s.d.p. Orsellus, 7th of Hurahtber, 1777

Sera pushed open the door to the roof and stepped out into the rain. Straight in front of her Time stood upon the ledge of the roof his arms spread wide, naked except for his underwear and a large bandage swathed across the right side of his torso. A flash of lightning illuminated his figure into the shape of an angel.

As she cried out his name her voice was drowned and swallowed in a crash of thunder.

A gust of wind blew from behind her.

She ran, but she knew she was too late.

As she ran, he fell forward.

She cried his name, reaching out helplessly.

Lightning lit up the pale cross of his form as he angled downward.

There was a burst of white from past the building's ledge. Time was thrust backwards onto the roof where he rolled and then collapsed. As Sera watched, nearly a hundred mottled white doves flew upwards into the sky, wings beating to the sound of thunder.

• • •

Sera knelt down beside him. His eyes were closed. He lay on his stomach with his head resting in a shallow puddle of rainwater. She gently rolled him over and placed his head in her lap. There was blood on his forehead. She wiped it away with her sleeve. Searching for a cut, she could find none. His cheek, below his swollen right eye, was bruised the color of a plum. Drops of rain were splashing on his face. Trying to provide shelter, she leaned forward over him. She said his name quietly. "Time."

For many long moments she waited, feeling every drop of rain that fell upon the back of her neck and slid across her skin. Feeling every beat of her heart, every breath as she exhaled. Droplets of water collected on her eyelashes blurring her sight. She wiped at her eyes smearing black eyeliner down her cheeks.

Time began to stir. He opened his eyes slowly. Looking up at her he started to shiver violently. He shook his head.

She tried to draw him up into her arms, but he pushed away and rolled backwards to his feet with a wild fluidity. Staring down at her, he shook his head, rain glistening on his naked skin. "Nothing matters," he said. "It's all the same. I'm free now."

She rose to her feet and stepped towards him, her mouth half open and her arms extended. He backed away to the building's ledge.

He looked over the side, down at the street.

He looked up at the darkened sky, blinking as rain hit him in the face.

"Sera," he whispered.

She moved in slow and grabbed him, locking her hands about his waist.

"It's all the same," he said, looking at her serenely, or was it the opposite of serenity, a frantic agonizing despair, she could not tell. "Nothing matters. Not your cheek," he said, caressing the side of her face. "Not your eyes," he said, running his fingertips across her skin. "Not your lips," he said, touching the softness of her mouth, causing her to hold her breath. He traced every curve, every indention, obsessively, searching. "Nothing," he said, "nothing lasts." His face crumbled. "Nothing matters."

He leaned in close. "Why can't it matter, why… why is it all lies… and emptiness, why…"

His arms curled up around her back, pressed hard against her, with his hands held away, his fingers clutching at empty air. He tried feebly to push her away. He did not need her. He did not need anything. He tried weakly to pull away. "I don't — I don't need… I…" He could not say it. His head jerked back and his mouth opened wide. He gaped at the sky, at the rain, at the weight of everything that was descending upon him. "I don't need…" he said, his eyes blurred by rain and tears.

Sera unlocked her hands and let go of him. His head remained thrown back, staring at the heavens. She touched his face. He did not want to look at her. If he looked at her she would ruin everything. He would need. Pain and loss and hope and joy and fear and despair would eventually tear him apart. He was solitary. He was isolated. He did not need.

She said his name, her voice quiet and afraid. But he did not need.

Her other hand touched the side of his neck. But he did not need.

"… please…" she said, and he could hear the tears, the misery. He could hear the need in that one quiet word.

He lowered his head. His vision was wet and blurred. He blinked his eyes and her face became clear and it was beautiful. Everything faded, went black, except for her face. A feeling that was both pain and joy leapt inside him. He tried to kill it but he could not. He covered her hands, her hands that were touching his skin, touching him, with his own hands. "… it can't last…" he whispered. "… nothing lasts…"

She stared at him, pulling his hands against her. "Maybe it can't," she said, "but maybe it's not supposed to, maybe…" a sadness formed on her lips, "… it's only supposed to be this — now — nothing else… this is all we have."

He leaned forward until the side of his face was resting against the side of her face, wet skin against wet skin, they could both feel the breath of the other, hear it, almost taste it. He gave in to it, in to her. He was bound, chained. She owned him.

"You can never leave," he said. "If you leave — if you are ever taken from me, I — I'll kill the world," he said. "I'll kill everything."

Her hands broke from his and snaked around his back. "No," she whispered, "I won't leave."

"…but you could still be taken…" And he felt it, a rope, rough and wiry, wind its way about him, tangle his limbs, burn across his eyes, gag his mouth, mangle his hands, loop, strangle his neck, and finally crush his heart. This was need. This is what he had tried to free himself from. Want and the constant fear of impending loss.

Was he free? Were they free? He needed to know. Needed. One need always led to another, cascading, chainlike. "Are we free?" he said. "Are we free?" he whispered.

Sera felt his body go rigid, tremor, and go rigid again. His eyes, wild, stricken, locked on hers and she grew afraid. Not long ago — but very long ago — she had hung over a dark abyss and he had reached out and pulled her into his arms, not to safety, but to a companion in the darkness. They were both still at the edge. Maybe past the edge. Was it too late? That night had been a promise, a promise to fall together into the void. She looked over at the edge of the roof. Just four steps to the side and then no more pain. Nothing. They would both be free.

He was trembling violently and he did not seem to see her anymore. He was blind, his eyes lost in an emptiness beyond comprehension.

Four steps. And then nothing.

But not yet…

"… touch my face," she said.

He did not hear her. She grabbed his hand and pulled it up to her face, holding it against her cheek. She closed her eyes. His hand was warm. Everything slowed. One moment. Just a little longer and then we can rest…

• • •

It was not like awakening. It was like falling asleep. Like a dream, one moment merging with the next in odd incongruous ways. Her face appeared as if from nowhere and he could not remember placing his hand against her cheek. Her eyes were closed, her head slightly tilted. Raindrops had gathered on her eyelashes, sparkling. Her face was wet. Watery tears streamed down her skin but did not seem to move. There was no sound that he could hear.

Her face was sad and beautiful. He pressed his hand harder against her cheek. He whispered her name.

Like a dream, he heard water splashing behind him, a crash of thunder in the distance, the motionless tears on her face began spilling down her skin, and her eyes opened sending the sparkling jewels on her lashes out into the empty space between them. He leaned forward, closing the space between them, until his breath could be felt on her lips. He kissed her. A soft kiss that brought a sob to her throat, forcing her warm breath through her lips into his.

And then she saw it, in his eyes, a tiny indomitable flame that might flicker, might gutter in the strongest of winds, but refused to be extinguished.

Staring in his eyes, watching this flame, she saw something else, something she had not seen in a very long time — a possible future, not a probable future, but the slight potential for one, as long as they were together. She saw a path, tangled, long, and weary, skirting the abyss, never far from its treacherous void, but if they stayed on the path, did not stray from it, the future would open up before them like a sunrise, limitless, vast, unexplored.

His eyes closed and he pulled her closer. She breathed warmly on his neck. Slowly an innocent smile tugged at her mouth. She brushed her lips across his shoulder, kissing his wet skin. She closed her eyes and pressed her face against his neck. Untainted joy, something she had not known since she was a small child, filled her.

"Free," she whispered.




Chapter 80: Tomorrow Shines Brightly Dark Cloud

Sangren

6:59s.d.p. Orsellus, 7th of Hurahtber, 1777

On a rooftop, watching in the darkness and the rain, the five ahstyr stood.

"Thank you, father."

"For what."

"For not letting him fall. For the doves."

"I did nothing."

Emortir looked around, her eyes resting on Lassus.

"It wasn't I. It was poetic. But it was not I. I do not think it was any one of us."

"Then, how…"

Lassus stroked his chin. "I am not sure. When he destroyed the stone, perhaps…"

Stykos slammed his fist into his palm. "Perhaps what? The power is now his?"

Ampersand laughed. "This grows more interesting."

Stykos scowled. "You are a fool."

Ampersand's tiny mouth curled into a grin.

Emortir quietly tried to slip away.

Ampersand cleared his throat. "Where are you going, daughter?"

"I am going to destroy the whore he is holding. He is mine, and mine alone." A flash of lightning lit the sharp angles of her face.

Ampersand stepped forward to the crash of thunder. "Until we know more, that would be unwise."

"No one shall touch him but me. He is mine."

"You have waited this long, you can wait a little longer."

"Father—"

"Quiet. Calm yourself. Until we know more you will not go near them. Especially her. If you were to destroy her now he would never be yours. He would forever be turned against us. And if he now has the stone's power, then it could mean our end. No. In time he will be yours. And ours."

Ammikis laughed bitterly. "You said the same thing about Egstellion."

Ampersand smiled. "If you will remember, Lyren played more than a small part in our failure. Not to mention your own role, Ammikis. But now is not the time to reopen old wounds. It is the time to plan new ones.

"I admit, I misjudged him. You were right to compare him to Egstellion. He intrigues me. Much pain is thrust upon him and yet he endures. We lay misery upon him, we break him, I know for a moment he was a broken man, and yet he endures. That is where we lost Egstellion. When he fell he could not rise, even though we offered him our hands.

"This one, he is different. He has seen the truth and he has risen above it. He is deep, where Egstellion was shallow. How shall we bring him into the fold? How shall we subdue him?"

Lassus stared vaguely downwards. "He reminds me of Daurgren. Perhaps, Ampersand, it would be wiser to leave him be."

Ampersand laughed quietly to himself. "I do not think so. This is the challenge I have been waiting for. I will have to hone my skills. I think the answer will lie in the one he clings to."

Emortir bristled with sudden anger.

"I have not forgotten you, my daughter," Ampersand hastily added. "In the end he will be yours."

Stykos wrung his large hands together fiercely. "It would be better if I destroyed him now." He glowered at Emortir. "I will not simply touch him. I will snap his bones like twigs beneath the feet of a lion."

Emortir stepped forward, her wet naked skin shimmering. "One step and I will spill every drop of your blood," she said.

Ampersand reached up and placed his hand on Stykos' shoulder. "As usual, you grow overzealous. If you could get past Emortir, which I doubt, you would find it, I think, not so easy to dispose of him. He shows great potential. I think in the future we will discover that comparing him to Egstellion was doing him the injustice, not Egstellion." Ampersand laughed. "Besides, I am beginning to like him."

"But, Ampersand—"

"No. We leave it like this. For now."






[AUTHOR'S NOTE: If you've made it through this entire book, then I hope you've enjoyed at least some of it and do not feel your time was wasted. If you read it and liked it then please consider buying one of my pictures on Society6. Thank you for your time. ]

germnerdgospel@gmail.com