Sunday, August 12, 2012

Part 13: Stoners and Allens

The silence had hung among them for ages. All the while Stoner had picked at the meat stuck amid her crooked teeth and looked everywhere but at Kopczik. But eventually she had to admit that she didn't have a good response, so she shrugged and shook the dirty strings of hair clear from her face.

"Okay," she said. "Maybe I don't."

"Mebba y'doan what?" asked Brown Lizzy, utterly confused.

"Jeez, are you stupid?" Stoner said. She scratched mindlessly at her left shoulder, and didn't even notice when her fingers came back stained with her blood. "Kopczik said I really don't understand. OK, well, maybe I don't understand. Anything. So why don't you two just explain it all to me?"

"Y'do 'member Rachel, don'cha?" asked Brown Lizzy.

"Yeah," Stoner said blankly, and she held her right hand up in front of her and gazed at it curiously, as though she had never seen it before.

"Rachel, our oneiromancer," put in Kopczik. "She can understand things she sees in her dreams, remember?"  Stoner said nothing, and he pushed desperately onward. "Her dreams led her to find us, and they helped us to find the only source of water in this entire area that hasn't been claimed or defiled by the warclans. They've guided us through this entire area, and led us to people we can trust. The Allens got her."

"Rachel?" asked Stone. "Brown hair, kind of short, right?"

"Yes," said Kopczik, and not for the first time, he wondered why they bothered to bring someone as useless as Stoner with them. The first time they had met her, Stoner had been crawling around on all fours, insisting that she was a goat and that if everyone called her Herbert, she would give them milk in the winter and wool in the summertime. Now she was picking small rocks up from the ground and rattling them around in her hand as though they were dice.

"Where is she, anyway?" said Stoner. "Gotta be at the airport this afternoon."

Kopczik groaned, and silence fell back over the group again while he pored over the map they still had of the area.

* * *

Rachael had been having a grand time in her mother's office, with her mother, who been explaining to her mysteries that had haunted the young girl almost her entire life.

"So you're saying that the whole time, my Barbie doll was over at Susie's house?" she said, as she helped herself to the last of the S'mores her mother had offered her.

"Yes," her mother said. "You went over there for the party the day before they moved, and I told you not to take the doll with you, because I knew how careless you could be, but you wouldn't listen to me, and took it with you anyway."

Rachael sighed, an exhalation of air that released a moment of exasperation that had overstayed its welcome by more than 10 years. She leaned back into the brown leather sofa, and gazed emptily at the wall opposite, where hung an oil painting of a seascape. A lighthouse stood on a rocky shore, while a ship headed dangerously toward the harbor.

"I looked for that thing for weeks, and couldn't stop crying for months, when my stepmom got me a new one," she said. "It never really replaced it, you know. It knew it wasn't really Barbie Boo-kins, no matter what she said."

Her mother nodded, but already her attention was being consumed by a piece of Ikea furniture that was waiting to be assembled.

"I'm sure I can find you the real one, if you want. My company may not be the biggest one, but I do have enough authority for that," she said. She lifted a board, and looked at the imposing hex nut in one corner. "Could you pass me the Allen wrench on my desk?"

Monday, August 31, 2009

Part 12: Food

Sitting in the dark by the dying light of the fire, Brown Lizzy and Kopczik continued to stare in dismay at Stoner, who was busy picking her teeth with the splinter of an eagle bone.

"Yep, back in my day, we used to use the whole eagle," she declared, and started to giggle. It wasn't long before she lapsed into uncontrollable laughter, flicking the bone into the fire and wiping the tears from her face as she gasped for breath. She looked across the fire at her companions, who were clearly not amused. If anything, their expressions were of a yet deeper disapproval than before.

"Sheesh, lighten up, dorks! You're always looking for signs and crap like that, but I think I know a real sign when I see one. That stupid bird was pretty much wearing a sign that said 'KFC', know what I mean? We gotta eat."

"You're pathetic," Kopczik muttered. "Do you even care that we lost Rachael?"

"Oh yeah, like you care about her!" Stoner snorted disdainfully. "You're just sore because you lost your precious 'annoy-o-mancer'."

Brown Lizzy looked startled. "You talkin' like you don' b'lieve in Rache. I thought you even said--"

"I was joking!" Stoner laughed. "You think I really thought that someone's dream was the 'real' world? Come on! If nothing else, if it was the real world, wouldn't we all dream about it? You've certainly never mentioned dreaming about it, Liz ol' gal." She picked up one of the chunks of wood they had gathered, and tossed it on the fire. "See, in the dream world, these pieces of wood are the Allens, and instead of having to fight them, we toss them in a pile and make s'mores!"

Stoner paused, and a look of seriousness passed over her face. Kopczik wondered for a moment if she was done with her sarcastic harangue, when she spoke again. "Damn, I'd just about kill for some chocolate."

She kicked a small pile of feathers into the fire. "I don't even remember my dreams, most of the time. When I do, I don't find them particularly enlightening. Last dream I remember, I was eating at a Chuck E. Cheese, and they had the best pizza in the world, which I'm pretty sure isn't true in any world.

"Look, I don't understand why we struggle so hard to get by in this horrible place, just because some dream told us this is where we had to be. There's got to be some way to get back someplace civilized, right? Why don't we just leave?"

Kopczik and Brown Lizzy looked at each other in surprise, exchanging something wordless. Finally, Kopczik spoke.

"You really don't understand, do you, Stoner?"


The elevator came to a stop as the indicator reached nine, and the doors opened. A breeze wafted in that carried more of the self-contradicting sensations Rachael had experienced before. The odor was somehow both sweet and acrid at once, and while the was something smoky in the air as well that suggested warmth, cool goosebumps were immediately raised on her arms.

Her mother motioned to her to follow out of the elevator into the office space before them.

The office was strange, but not nearly as disorienting as much of what Rachael had seen before in this realm. The floor, although solid (and cool) enough to the touch, appeared to be a shifting mass of lava, which stretched across the office from one wall of fire to another. Despite such an appearance, like many like many offices in our world, the office was decorated with small potted ferns sitting in the corners and pictures of abstract art hanging from the walls. The only furniture in the room was a large desk with a swivel chair on either side, apparently made of glass.

Rachael's mother moved to the chair behind the desk and indicated the other one. "Come, sit. Are you hungry? I see someone has brought us some snacks!"

Rachael stepped forward and sat in the chair, which she realized was made not of glass, but ice. It seemed like something out of a dream as she looked on the desk and saw plate of, well, they were...

"S'mores?" her mother asked, as she pushed the plate towards Rachael.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Part 11: Throne of Minos

Rachael came to, with Nate buzzing annoyingly around her face. She tried to swat him away, but with no success. Nearby, Necros7 stood watching disinterestedly, while from somewhere either above her or below her drifted the sound of sighs so weary that just to hear them tugged at Rachael's heart. Above these soft, dolorous sounds came the strain of distant cries of souls lost in torment. Rachael heard these cries and for a moment she recalled standing on a ladder, climbing downward into an Abyss that hung impossibly above her. Her mind rebelled against the memory, and she nearly heaved. All she wanted to do was to slip back into unconsciousness, but something forced her to her feet.

"Where are we?" she asked. "Nekros7, can you get us out of here?"

If a robot could be irritated, then that was the tone in Nekros7's voice as he responded. But it sounded more like profound boredom.

"Is that the most challenging task you can think of?" he asked, his voice a weary monotone.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply -- "

"Oh, don't worry about it," Nekros7 said disinterestedly. "It's the sort of thing I'm used to. 'Tell me how to get to Kroger's, Nekros7.' 'Do my taxes for me, Nekros7, and don't forget to use Schedule SE and to include my itemized deductions.' Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and no one comes up with an interesting task for me to do. It's never 'Find an intelligent national energy policy, Nekros7' or 'How would *you* recommend reforming health care, Nekros7?' Ask me about the time I saw President Obama at the White House."

"You've seen President Obama?" Rachael asked, impressed. Too young to vote, she nonetheless had been captivated by the president's inspiring campaign and his commitment to make government work for the people instead of just for industry, as his predecessors had done. "What's he like?"

"Bipedal," Nekros7 said despondently. "Bilaterally symmetrical, and carbon-based. Depressing, really. All he could ask me to do was to throw out the empty take-out containers that President Bush had left in the Blue Room."

They had been walking as Nekros7 talked, and now the three travelers found themselves in a large chamber. Marble pillars stretched from floor to ceiling, and a vast crowd as silent as the grave filled the room. At the front of the room a man in judge's robes sat behind a wooden lectern. Fatigue was etched into the lines of his face, and as he read the book before him and listened to the testimony of the woman before him, he pursed his lips as though he were eating a bitter piece of fruit.

At last he brought his thundering gavel down on the podium before him, and the marble hall echoed "doom" with the finality of that blow. What happened next Rachael did not see, because just then a familiar voice intruded. It was scarcely more than a whisper, the noise a solitary reed might make when the wind blew across it, yet in that room she would have heard it even if the speaker had been across the room.

"Rachael?" She spun and found behind her a man in his mid-forties. His face was tanned from sunshine, and though he was still young, his long, braided hair was the color of smoke. A hawk sat upon his shoulder, its right wing badly broken.

"Daddy?" she said. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm dead," he said, then the hawk added, unnecessarily, "I was killed looking for you."

"Killed?" she asked, alarmed. "By whom?"

"Jonathan Stone Crow!" The voice of Minos rang out in the hall, and whether he would or no, Rachael's father began walking toward the seat where the judge sat.

"Beware your sisters," her father's ghost whispered, and the bird said: "Anorme."

Rachael watched helplessly, unable to hear what was said, as Minos and her father spoke. Then, horrified, she saw a long red cord whip out from beneath the podium where Minos sat, and coil around her father's chest once, twice, three times, until it had completed eight circles about him. He gave no grunt or sign of distress as it squeezed. With no immediately apparent effort, the cord hefted him and thew him through a portal that appeared suddenly behind Minos, and he fell into the Abyss. He hung suspended there, receding in the distance, growing smaller but always perfectly visible as he fell farther and farther while the seconds passed like long hours.

"NO!" The scream tore itself from her, and it occurred to Rachael somewhere deep within her that it was the first real outpouring of grief she had expressed since her father had disappeared when she was seven. She fell to her knees, conscious of the eyes of the entire courtroom upon her.

She expected to be reprimanded; she half-expected that hideous red whip to lash itself around her and dispose of her as it had disposed of her father, but neither of those things happened.

The hand that touched her on the shoulder was gentle, like she had always imagined the hand of her mother would be -- her real mother, not Lisa, who had raised her almost begrudgingly after Jonathan Stone Crow had not returned from his weekly trip to the pharmacy for the Sunday paper and a packet of chewing gum, but the one she had never known save in her idle fancies and daydreams.

She looked up, tears brimming in her eyes, and found herself looking at the most intoxicating woman she had ever known. Her hair was a red as deep as fire, and her eyes were bewitchingly calm as the open sea. The woman smiled, and Rachael found herself wanting nothing more than to be held by this woman, to be comforted by her, and to be told that everything was going to be all right. At the edge of her vision, Rachael could see that Minos had risen reverently to his feet, while bailiffs all around the great hall had bowed their heads or fallen to their knees.

"Everything's going to be all right now, Rachael," the woman said. "I knew you would find your way here when the time was right."

"My lady," Minos said. "It is has been ages since the First Among the Fallen has come to my court. You honor us with your presence here."

"My daughter is here," the woman said. "I had to come for her."

"Your daughter?" Minos' tone was hushed and awed, and wonder rippled through the guards and all the souls gathered in the room. "This is indeed a great honor to our court. Not only the Adversary, but her dear child as well." The kindly old judge looked at Rachael, and his eyes crinkled with tears. "It's been fifteen years," he said at last, and though he had found his voice, it came with only the greatest effort. "I can still remember the day your mother had you at the hospital. You couldn't have weighed more than seven pounds."

"Six pounds, four ounces, actually," the woman said, and she cradled Rachael in her arms. "My breasts ached for weeks afterward, for want of you, but they wouldn't let me have you. But now you're here, and we can be together at last. Things will finally begin to happen as they should."

Rachael looked around, bewildered. It was too much, too fast, and she couldn't even begin to make sense of it.

"Come with me to my office," her mother said. "It's down on the ninth floor. You two" -- and here she indicated Nekros7 and Nate -- "can wait right here. We'll send for you when you're needed."

And with that, the woman opened a door in the air, and ushered Rachael through. Only when they had disappeared did Nate dare to speak.

"What an extraordinary woman," he said. "But imagine the idea of us just standing here until she returns, as though she has any authority. Who does she think she is?" He stood still for a moment, and sweat began to bead on his forehead. "I say, Nekros7, can you move from that spot at all?"

"Is that the most challenging task you can think of?" Nekros7 asked, and for a long moment, he did nothing. Then at last he said, "No, I can't."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Part X: Confusion

Temporarily distracted from Stoner's audacity, Brown Lizzy and Kopczik turned to eye the hawk. The hawk was definitely eying them in return.

Kopczik scratched at his beard in thought for a moment, trying to remember the last time they had spotted a bird of any sort in these parts, much less such a grand specimen as this. "Do you suppose--?" he asked Brown Lizzy.

"Sure as I do," she responded, before he could complete the thought. "Ain't no way that a reg'ler bird."

"So what then?" he said hesitantly, "Are we supposed to, what, follow it or something?"

There was a loud thunk and a flurry of feathers. Lizzy and Kopczic turned in horror, simultaneously screaming, "STONER!?"

Stoner moved quickly to the carcass and scooped it up. "I'm HUNGRY dammit!" she said defiantly, clutching the bird to her chest. Picking up the rock with which she had killed it and brandishing it defiantly, she looked back at her companions, daring them with her eyes to say another word. "Somebody make a freaking fire, 'cause we're having chicken!"


As Rachael followed her companions, it occurred to her that she was probably supposed to be at the airport by now. Of course, that was assuming that there was any sort of normal flow of time at the moment, which seemed doubtful.

They approached the edge of a cliff, and Rachael looked down. The effect was strange. Down below, there seemed to be a deep blackness, something beyond dark and into what might be called negative brightness. It was as though she were looking into a vast pit of fire that gave off darkness and cold.

"Hurts the eyes doesn't it?" Nate asked with a chuckle. "That's not the worst of it, either. We're going down into it, and the journey might make you a little sick, since we're going there." He indicated a spot a few meters to their left.

Rachael's stomach took a flip. A rickety old wooden ladder rested against the edge of the chasm. She thought to herself momentarily that having to climb down such an unsteady thing as that might be hair-raising enough, but the way it was arranged? Was there nothing that approached normal in this place?

The ladder clearly was placed there to allow access to the lower level of this pit of cold fire, and yet at the same time, it was clear that in order to descend into the pit, one needed to climb up the ladder. As if to prove that it was no mere optical illusion, Nekros7 had already begun to climb. Nate motioned for her to follow. She put a hand on either side of the ladder, closed her eyes, and began her ascent (descent?).

Now that she was over the pit, she noticed a sweet-smelling smoke rising from the cold flames. She wasn't sure whether it was the height or the smoke, but she began to feel dizzy. "I don't know if I can do this!" she yelled to Nate.

"Just hold on and keep climbing," he shouted back. "It's not as far as it appeared from above."

She opened her eyes and immediately regretted it. While she would have never said that she was a person afraid of heights, the darkness below her seemed to stretch away forever, and her sense of vertigo increased. She felt her hands slip off of the ladder as she tipped back and her arms went slack.

"Do you require assistance?" she heard Nekros7 say as she lost consciousness.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Part 9: Into the Woods

If the sleep of the just is sound, then it is fair to say that Khepri never had an easy time when it came to sleep. She had long since got Mufane and Elizabeth under her thumb so that together they could manipulate Rachael into the task that Khepri had selected her for, and such controlling behavior no longer troubled her. Even murdering Scott Allen and making it appear to be a suicide, all to build and reinforce the illusion that Mufane was an out-of-control New Age freak, was practically a matter of routine. There were sheep, and there were wolves, and the laws that governed the sheep did not govern the wolves. Common morality was for weaklings like Mufane, Elizabeth and poor beknighted Rachael. It was not for the strong like Khepri.

Yet it would not be fair to say that she was untroubled by the cruelty she visited upon her sister, nor by the string of murders she had committed. She would never acknowledge to another, nor even to herself in her waking hours, but her sleep was tormented at every cycle by nightmares of horrible violence, where her victims roved at will through the ruins of the world and she was forced to depend upon those she held in contempt for her very survival.

Khepri clung to amphetamines like a programmer holding to a battered TRS-80. They no longer worked, but she could not let them go. As the sun began to rise over the Staples office supply center across the street, she fought desperately to stay awake. If she could, she would stay awake forever.

She could not. At her sister's house, hiding from the law, Khepri fell asleep.

* * *

The sun was beginning to set when Kopczik awoke, his arm throbbing where one of the Allens had bitten him. They had been able to escape from the ruined hotel after an intense fight, but not unscathed. One of the Allens had caught Rachel around the throat and dragged her back, screaming, into the building while Kopczik, Brown Lizzy and Stoner had been driven by the size of the assault backward and ultimately out of Allen territory.

"Aw hell," he muttered. The bite felt like it was on fire; it was probably infected. "I'd hoped it was just a dream."

"Youse looking like you's had a bad one youself," said Brown Lizzy. "Is it th'same'n, where you's a girl and we's all sisters?"

Kopczik nodded, but didn't say anything. He had made the mistake once before of telling the others about his bizarre dreamworld, where he was a cruel and domineering woman named Khepri living in the world as it had been before Autumn came, and the others had never passed up a chance to talk about it. And when they had discovered that each member of their band had an analogue in his dream -- Rachel as Rachael, Stoner as a woman named Mufane, and Brown Lizzy as Elizabeth -- Stoner especially had made the analysis almost unbearable.

"You know, maybe your dream is the real world," said Stoner. Her eyes were unfocused, and her mouth hung open so that a long strand of drool fell unnoticed to her patchwork pants. As she talked, she removed a dried plant from a small pouch and rolled it into a paper. "Remember that butterfly I talked to who said he dreamed of being a man? I bet it's just like that."

Stoner paused to light her cigarette on the last embers of the fire, and took a long drag. She closed her eyes and felt her agitated mind relax and lose focus.

"You guys hungry?" she asked. "We got any groundhog left?"

Copzik said nothing. He just shook his head, and turned his attention to Brown Lizzy.

"So what are we going to do, Lizzy?" he asked. "They got our oneiromancer, and I don't see any way to get her back."

Brown Lizzy bit her lip and stared into the dark and forbidding forest that once had been a city. Rachel's dreams had been their best guide, and now she was gone, captured by the Allens, and her dreams with her.

"Come on, I'm really jonesing something to eat," Stoner said. "Don't hold any roast groundhog out on me. I know you got some stashed somewhere, Kopczik."

"Before we lost Rache, we was gonna go into the city," said Brown Lizzy. "We was hoping Rache's dreams'd tell us the safe way."

"She said she saw someplace restless," Kopczik offered. There was a rustling sound from their supplies. "That was all she was able to tell us before the Allens attacked."


At Brown Lizzy's cry, Kopczik turned and looked. Stoner had scattered all their supplies on the ground, looking for the supply of smoked groundhog meat she was sure they still had. His toothbrush -- a priceless artifact of a lost civilization, in that it had helped him prevent the sort of oral infections that had claimed his last companion before he had met up with Brown Lizzy and her crew -- was lying in the dirt; the only other shirt he had was lying in the spilled water; and their pre-Autumn maps of the region were scattered and in some places torn. And still Stoner was digging through their supplies like a wild animal.

"I'm hungry!" she said as Kopczik grabbed her and tried to pin her arms behind her back to stop the rampaging destruction. "I haven't eaten in hours. Where's the bag of groundhog?"

There was a loud cry overhead, and the three of them turned in wonder to see a large brown hawk alight on the low-hanging branch of a nearby oak.

Monday, July 6, 2009

פרק ח:גולם

As Scott disappeared into the waters, the dogs were upon Rachael. While some stood on the edge of the river, snarling at the spot where Scott had sunk beneath the waves (but not daring to follow), the majority of the beasts turned their attention to her with great fervor.

Well, at least, upon the spot that Rachael occupied; it seemed that like so much of this realm, the dogs and their masters were largely incorporeal to her. They leapt upon her, tried to bite at her legs, but all to no avail. Well, mostly; as it happened, as their vaporous teeth and paws sunk through her, she repeatedly felt a great chill settle over any part of her body so affronted. Although there was no pain per se, there was something quite eerie and unsettling about it.

A cold hand grabbed her by the shoulder and jerked her away. Before she could see who it was, she heard a voice speak to her, saying in what oddly enough seemed to be rather bored tones, "Run. I will hold them off." Gladly, she ran.

Looking back over her shoulder as she ran, she saw a man who appeared to be fighting with the hounds, driving them and their infernal dog-walkers back the way they had come. She faltered, suddenly realizing that she didn't know who it was that had come to her rescue, what it was she was being rescued from, nor, for that matter, where she was supposed to be running. It was not as though there was somewhere to hide, as this side of the river seemed to be severely lacking in landscape, at least as far as she could see around here. She waited and watched.

The man who had pulled Rachael away from the dogs seemed rather odd for numerous reasons, most of which she couldn't put her finger on. There were obvious things about him that were odd, although she wasn't sure what to make of those things, since they had to do with the apparent supernatural quality of this realm: The dogs occasionally bit at the people who had come across on the ferry, and their effect was much as that of the bites of normal dogs on normal people, it seemed; while the people showed no wounds, they did seem to be experiencing pain. The strange man, unlike Rachael, seemed to make physical contact with the dogs, but appeared none the worse for it. The hounds and their keepers seemed to note this, and eventually retreated. He turned towards Rachael.

"I think we have found the third member of our party," Nate said, making Rachael jump. She had forgotten in the chaos of the attack that he was with her.

"Who is that?" Rachael asked.

Nate smiled and shook the hand of the man, who had come to stand in front of them. "I'll let your other companion explain himself, I think."

The stranger extended his hand to Rachael, giving a slight bow of his head, and speaking in the same bored voice she had heard earlier. "I am Nekros7. I am here to protect you." She shook his ice cold hand, realizing now what he was.

"You're a robot, right?"

He nodded. "That is correct. It was surmised that the spirit beings of this realm, while incorporeal to living matter, are susceptible to manipulation by non-living matter. This has been shown to be true. Furthermore, while the hellhounds could not physically harm you, they could cause great distress to your soul. I do not have a soul to be harmed."

Rachael considered this for a moment, then said, "I guess I should thank you for saving me, then? Or would that be appropriate?" She looked to Nate questioningly.

The robot responded, "I assure you that it is of no consequence. It is no trouble for me. I am merely doing that which I was programmed to do."

"Are you programmed to tell me what the heck I'm here for? Nobody seems to want to explain anything to me, and I thought I was just on my way to the airport."

Nekros7 shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, the most human gesture he had displayed so far. "I am sorry to say I know nothing of your purpose here. As yet I have not even been told your name. I am merely here to serve the living."

"Rachael's purpose here may soon become clear I hope," Nate said to the robot. "It's not my place to tell her, though, but I hope as we're now ready to begin our journey, it will soon become clearer. Let's go." He walked away from the river, beckoning them to follow.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Part 07: Over the river

Exactly what had changed because of Rachael's ignorance, Nate refused to say. He waved off her questions and began to walk down toward the river, and when she failed to follow, he simply stopped and turned toward her, with all the patience in the world, until she finally yielded to his stoney obduracy and moved to his side.

The silence that engulfed Rachael on the brief walk to the river was neither one of hushed expectation, nor one of growing dread. It was simply empty. As the path sloped gently to the bed of the river, a crowd gathered around her and padded in a silent procession toward the ferry she had seen earlier. Their feet glided across the ground without even the gentle swoosh-swoosh of feet on grass, and if anyone noticed the others, they gave no indication of it. They kept their eyes fixed on where they were going, and moved relentlessly forward with a weary, resigned patience. Not a soul there was disturbed.

Except for one.

To Rachael, the gathering crowd was a vise that tightened upon her heart and lungs with each step. She wiped her hands anxiously on her jeans, and glanced furtively about, looking desperately through the crowd for a familiar or at least friendly face. Not a single eye met hers; it was as though the people in the crowd weren't aware of her.

She could feel the panic welling up within her when she was still a hundred yards away from the bank of the river. By the time she was 50 yards away, she was shaking with a terror she could not name. By the time she reached the bank of the river, it was impossible to move another step. She fell to her knees in the mud and began to sob, hiding her face behind her hands.

In all this journey, no one in the crowd had taken the least notice of Rachael. Now, to her surprise, she felt a gentle hand rest lightly upon her shoulder, and she heard a soft, tremulous voice.

"Are you all right, girl?" Rachael lifted her eyes and saw a weathered, careworn face looking back down at her. It was the man she had seen earlier, from a distance, poling the ferry across the river. He was dressed in a tired gray outfit that had long since lost whatever shape it had once had, and the deep lines on his venerable brown face showed his great age. "It's not often we see someone like you here, but the way you breathe, I heard you coming an hour ago."

"It is willed that she come this way, where such things are willed," Nate began, but the older man brushed him off impatiently, without even a word.

"Where am I?" Rachael asked at last.

The old man smiled mirthlessly, and helped her onto his feet and onto the ferry, but still said nothing. It was as though, at his age, he had long since grown weary of words and the effort it took to communicate things that he felt people should be able to figure out for themselves. Around them the ranks of passengers swelled, more than the wooden carrier should have been able to hold, but still it sank no deeper in the water than when Rachael first stepped onto it.

At some point, though, the ferry must have reached its capacity, because at that point, the old man touched his long pole to the shore and pushed off. The far side of the river was far off, and at the speed they were going, it seemed to Rachael that it would take them all day to reach it. She sighed, and a long deep shudder worked its way through her, and she looked back at the shore they had just left. Already a vast crowd had begun to gather at the edge of the water, and still more people were streaming down the hill in eerie silence.

"Where are we?" Rachael asked the question scarcely above a whisper, not expecting an answer, but in truth she had forgotten that Nate was still hovering right by her. His voice came at once in a high, irritating pitch.

"'She stands at the very cusp of nightmare,
Daring not to admit what already she knows,
Keeping secrets and truths from herself
That could unlock the deepest mysteries
That none but she would keep hidden;
Here where the sun never sets, respite
Forever denied those who suffer 'neath
The groaning burden of their wickedness.
And yet, not there, merely on the edge,
Nearing the very door where faith, hope,
And love lay forgotten, abandoned;
There she rides --"

There was a loud crack as the oarsman struck Nate a staggering blow to the crown of his head with the paddle.

"Shut up, you pest!" the old black man shouted. "I've no time and no patience for your doggerel." His eyes seemed to burn like fire in his head as he glowered angrily at Nate. Then the fire subsided, and he sank the pole into the river, and began moving them once more to the far side. At length, his eyes alit upon a bald-headed man with a gray beard that jutted forth from his jaw.

"You there, balladeer," he said. "We've another twenty minutes to go to the other side. Have mercy on an old man and sing us a song, will you?"

The bearded passenger nodded, though he seemed scarcely aware of where he was or what was happening. It was more as though the oarsman had turned a key in a clockwork and started the passenger walking down familiar paths. Literally from nowhere, the ferry passenger produced a long neck banjo and began to strum it.

"The song I'm going to sing comes from the Georgia Islands," he said. "It was a sea shanty sung by slaves as they rowed from one island to another, but it also told them about freedom in the North, where they could go to escape their lives as slaves. If you know the words, I'd like you to sing along with me."

And then, in a tenor voice, he led the way, joined automatically by almost everyone on the ferry.

Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelujah.
Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelujah.
That River Jordan is mighty cold, hallelujah.
Chills the body, but not the soul, hallelujah.

There were many verses sung, and they had the desired effect. Although the balladeer and every passenger on the ferry fell eerily silent once the sung had ended, for Rachael – if not for the others – it shortened the ferry ride tremendously. The boat reached the far bank, and the passengers began at once to disembark in the same empty silence that they had boarded in. The oarsman gave Rachael his hand, helped her off the raft, and then began his long journey back to the side they had just come from. For a moment, Rachael had an image of the oarsman, poling the ferry across the river, time after time, through the unrelenting passage of years, and she felt an odd sympathy for the man.

She was aware that someone was buzzing in her ear and pulling at the sleeve on her shirt. It was Nate, of course, but what was unexpected was that he was drawing her attention to someone else who was coming toward them. It was Scott, Mufane's late husband, and he was running toward them as though all the demons of hell were at his heels.

"Scott?" Rachael managed. He was wild-eyed and desperate. "What are you doing here? They told me you were dead. How--?"

"No time to explain," he said. "There's stuff they don't bother to keep secret from you on this side of the river. Rachael, don't trust them. It's too important."

"What are you talking about?" she said. "Don't trust who?"

"I don't have time to explain," he said. There was a commotion behind him, something -- or someone – was coming after him, and it was clear they weren't coming with a friendly intent. "It all comes down to you, that's why they killed me."

"Killed--? Who?" The world was tilting now, making less sense than ever, and Rachael struggled to find some way to balance it again.

Scott wouldn't give her that chance. He leaned in close, and whispered in her ear. "You're still a child, but don't let them use that against you. You have the means to stop them." The clamor was tremendous now, and Rachael saw a pack of massive dogs, straining heavily against their masters, coming toward them. The dogs' teeth were bared, their masters dressed in the austere clothing of those who have power and authority to punish. They would be there in seconds.

"Anorme" Scott whispered, and then without another word, he dived into the river, and before Rachael's eyes he faded from view.