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.