Humanskin: Pack Mentality

Dear Readers: I am in the process of world-building, creating a common setting for a group of stories and longer works. An earlier piece posted on this blog, “A Different Kind of Werewolf Story” introduces a set of characters that I revisit in this piece. Enjoy it, and please let me know what you think! Also, look forward to the next chapter of Afterglow: Godfall–and if you haven’t, take a moment to read the first installment. As always, thank you for your interest and support!  – Alexander C. Chirila

1.

Old Mother had tried to save the little girl, but it was too late. She was supposed to have been the newest member of the pack, one of the youngest awakened to the Totem’s gift. They had watched her for nearly a season. The snows covered the sleeping earth and the vibrant scent-trails of autumn faded into the muted palette of winter. Colorful pockets of warmth were hidden among the blacks, whites, and browns of midseason frost; bear-dens and foxholes, bird’s nests and underground warrens.

The smell of human cookfires drifted in billowing clouds, torn by the wind into bands of thick scent. Burning fat, crisping hides, firewood, death, sweat, blood, and the overpowering fog of humanity hung over the western foothills. How noisy they were! Iron and Snow found it difficult to imagine how the others could have spent so much time surrounded by so much noise. Even at night, in the deep hours between moonset and sunrise, the pack could hear them rustling and breathing, crying aloud in their nightmares and shushing their children to bed.

The little girl would wait until her mother was asleep, wearied by a day of toil in the settlement. Then she would sneak away, silent as a born hunter, and stalk small prey among the dogwoods. She did not hunt as the humans hunted, with traps and tools. She pursued her prey, running it down and biting through fur and flesh with teeth that were made for rending and tearing. There was no question that the Totem was with her.

The pack kept near her, day and night. Her scent-trail became familiar to them.

Rust and Coal adored her. He had even risked contact, though the Alpha had warned them against it. One night the girl had chased down a rabbit; she crouched over it, preparing to tear into its soft abdomen. When the wind changed she caught the pack’s scent and froze. But she wasn’t afraid. She eagerly scanned the trees as if anticipating the appearance of a long-awaited friend.

Rust and Coal slinked cautiously forward, ignoring the warning growls of the Alpha. The girl sighted him. She didn’t move. When he came closer, no more than a breath away from her, she lowered herself down and nudged the fresh kill towards him. He bowed his head and obligingly nipped at the carcass, leaving her the greater portion. When it was done he brushed past her, allowing her to touch him, and loped into the night-shadows of the surrounding forest. The Alpha punished his disobedience, but a little bit of bloodshed wasn’t enough to cause Rust and Coal to regret the risk he had taken.

Soon, the Fever would overtake her. Young as she was, she wouldn’t be able to hide it; the symptoms would manifest and the wolf would wax strong inside of her. Old Mother prepared the ritual tools she would need to free the girl from her original humanskin when the time was right.

They had all been born with an original humanskin. Each of them had been weaned on human milk and nurtured by human mothers. They came to the Totem only later. Overtaken by the Fever, they had chosen exile over quarantine and death. Driven to the staggering precipice of madness by the visions, they had each of them ranged far into the wild. Old Mother had found them all, bringing them flailing and frenzied to her dwelling-place.

She had torn through their tightening shrouds of frail skin. Their screams became howls, echoing among the rounded, forested mountains of Appalachia. Only Iron and Snow had seen the ritual firsthand. Her practiced hand, guided by a bloodline as old as the world, had never failed to release the wolf from the dying chrysalis of human flesh.

At last the Fever came. Her human mother hid her away. A Fever-stricken would not be allowed to live, child or otherwise. It had happened before; an entire settlement wiped out, left rotting under the baking sun and reeking of death.

It had been known by different names in the beginning, when the healers in the World That Ended still believed they could defend their species against it. Before the packs of humankind fell by the droves, rotting alive in their dens while the healthy among them vied like rabid dogs over the corpse of their civilization. By the time the Fever had run its course, the cities were dead, the tribes of humankind scattered into small settlements huddled against the vengeful wilderness. Traces of the Fever still remained, but things were different: the Lineages had awakened, for so long dormant and hidden in the blood of the Old Mothers. Those who belonged to the Lineages were called by the Fever. Some wise-men may have known what it was, having seen it before even in the World That Ended…but most men believed it was the plague returned to finish off the few survivors that had escaped.

They all knew how it was done; all of them except Iron and Snow. The victim would be weak and sluggish for several days. Then, on the fifth day, the delirium would begin. There were fleeting glimpses at first, and strange sounds; a sense of disembodiment. It would progress until it seemed a great crack had appeared in the reality of things, a crack though which poured endless rivers of indescribable vision and sensation. At this point, unless the individual was a solitary wanderer—as Bone and Sand, the ghost-wolf, had been—the settlers would quarantine the Fever-stricken. If the symptoms persisted, as they often did, the victim would be killed and his or her body and belongings burned. His or her family would be quarantined until they were deemed clear of the Fever. This, at least, was the merciful approach.

Mercy was often a luxury of the rational mind.

The little girl’s mother couldn’t keep her condition hidden away. Humans asked too many questions. The pack knew this was coming. The people began to secrete fear. It smoked through the air, a pungent tang that played and tugged at the pack’s instincts.

The day came when an overeager neighbor ran to one of the elders and announced that one of the settlers had been taken by the Fever. That was all it took. Word spread, like maggots through rotting meat, and not an hour passed before the settlers swarmed around the little girl’s dwelling-place. Agitated and gibbering they clustered and gestured. At last the settlers’ leaders came forward and held council.

The men of the encampment chose their brand of mercy. They dragged the poor girl kicking and screaming from her sweat-soaked cot and over to the tanner’s field. They made certain that her flesh did not touch theirs. They threw her down with as much compassion as their terror would allow. One of them drew a pistol. He made ready to shoot her.

Her mother had run after them through a gauntlet of restraining arms and blows, yelling for her daughter. ‘It’s not the Fever,’ she shouted, ‘It’s not the Fever!’ The men did not listen. She threw herself over her daughter and the bullet meant for the little girl found her instead. The crack of the shot echoed against the mountains.

The sky was a thick red color over the empty vastness of the west. Above the mountains the first stars gleamed from the cobalt heights.

The girl managed to squirm out from under her mother’s dying body. Covered in blood, her breath pluming in the winter’s bitter cold, she staggered into the field. She stood there, bewildered. Her eyes scanned the shadows of the woods. She was looking for him. She was looking for Rust and Coal. She could scent him, waiting for her just beyond the field.

She took one step forward, then another. The man with the gun pointed it at her, his hand trembling. The mob surged behind him, urging him to shoot. He swallowed and straightened his arm, trying to call up the strength for it. He failed. He lowered the pistol.

Then the little girl howled.

Rust and Coal went feral, breaking away from the pack and the concealing shadows of the forest. The mob was fixated on the little girl; they didn’t even see him coming. A young male had strayed close to the edge of the woods. He heard the rustle of tall grass and the low growl, turning too late. Rust and Coal hamstrung him; his warning cry turned into a gasping wail.

The crowd looked towards the sound.

The young male’s shrieking warped into a bloody gurgle. Rust and Coal looked up, his muzzle slick with blood, the ribbed cartilage of the boy’s windpipe dangling from his teeth. The man with the pistol trained it on him, but his target was too far and there were too many people in his way. He started to run forward, momentarily forgetting about the little girl. She did not waste the opportunity. She broke into a run, her bound hands stretched out before her.

Rust and Coal darted around the other side, trying to distract the man with the pistol. The mob rippled and shifted like a school of fish surrounded by circling sharks. The girl had almost made it—a few steps further and the welcome dark of the forest would have enfolded her. The pack would have protected her.

But the man with the pistol was not the only man who had brought his weapon. A second, older male brought up his long-barreled rifle and leveled it at the small, fleeing figure. There was just enough light to see her, and that was all he needed. He fired. This was a weapon born of the precise machines that still worked in the World That Ended. The girl’s body was hurled sideways by the impact of the bullet.

Iron and Snow was the closest to her. She was a deer’s long stride away from him. He knew the wound was fatal the moment she hit the ground.

The man with the pistol fired on Rust and Coal and missed. The wolf ran towards the downed girl, pausing long enough to seize her by the fabric of her clothes and drag her into the forest. The two men met in the field and ran forward; after a few paces the one with the long-barreled rifle stopped and gripped the other man’s shoulder.

‘No,’ he said, ‘why bother? That wolf wasn’t the only one; the rest of the pack has to be nearby. They must have smelled the Fever on the girl. Let them have her. They’ll finish her off if my bullet didn’t. We can post a guard to make sure the settlement’s safe.’

‘But she could wander back…the Fever…’

‘Didn’t you see what just happened? Look,’ the older man said, ‘this all went down wrong. Her mother’s dead and the girl will bleed out long before the wolves make a meal out of her. Look at the blood!’ he pointed to the darkened grass, nearly indiscernible now in the gloom.

The younger man relented. ‘Her mother was probably infected anyway,’ he said.

The mob dispersed as the last of the daylight drained behind the world. The wolves waited, protecting the girl in the deeper dark of the forest. They waited for Old Mother to come and take the girl to the Totem’s Pool by the hidden paths of the mountains. Old Mother would surely save her. She was an unparalleled healer. She would save the little girl. The pack would be complete, then. Old Mother would save the little girl.

But the tiny wolf trapped inside that weak, broken shell wasn’t strong enough to hold on. The spirit fled, leaving only the rigid cold behind. By the time Old Mother came, it was too late. The girl was dead. Old Mother gathered the body into her arms and started back, the pack sullenly keeping pace with her steady, trackless step.

 

* * * *

 

This was a Wolves’ Moot; a pack gathering. Old Mother sat on the broken trunk of an old oak felled by lightning a few seasons past. She was silent, listening to the growls, howls, ululations, and subtle variations of the pack’s language. The wolf-speak had come easily to the human-born members of the pack, who even in their former lives could understand the melancholy symphony that haunted the moonlit night.

Rust and Coal was calling for revenge.

Night and Stone, the Alpha and eldest member of the pack, snarled at the younger wolf. Vengeance was not the way of the wolf. If the pack had gotten to the girl earlier, they could have safeguarded her. It was a failure; no more, no less. What would vengeance accomplish? It would draw attention to the pack and to the Totem. The wolves knew what humans did to the sacred. They destroyed it. It was best to move on.

Smoke and Copper moved closer to her mate, her eyes fixed dangerously on Night and Stone. She was careful to moderate her body language, but there was no mistaking the intent in her eyes. Iron and Snow knew she was instigating Rust and Coal to challenge the Alpha; but for all his stubbornness and ferocity, Rust and Coal was not ready to make a bid for leadership. Smoke and Copper was the younger of the two females in the pack. She was also almost feral; more vicious than Rust and Coal, very nearly uncontrollable. Old Mother was the only one she really listened to. She heeled to the Alpha, but only because he dominated her—as he dominated all of them. Old Mother had chosen him first, and he had earned his position many times over. Still, Smoke and Copper did not respond well to his leadership.

Sooner or later, she would goad her mate into challenging Night and Stone. The old wolf would not go easily.

Bone and Sand, the ghost wolf, did not give expression to his thoughts. He never did. He only listened. Iron and Snow suspected that Old Mother knew his mind, as she knew all of their minds. She kept his secrets.

Ice and Soot snapped at Smoke and Copper. It was a warning; she would not abide the younger female’s challenge in front of Old Mother. The pack waited to see whether Smoke and Copper would snap back. Iron and Snow was almost certain she would, but not this time. The younger wolf lowered her head and back-stepped slowly away from the confrontation. Ice and Soot’s curled lips and furrowed snout smoothed, her amber-gold eyes glittering in the moonlight streaming through the trees and setting the small clearing aglow.

‘The humans have done what they always do,’ Old Mother told them. ‘If we attack them, we will have no choice but to protect the Totem at all costs; until all of them are dead or fled. Had we a larger pack, I would drive them from this place. They are too close to the Totem as it is. I fear that it is only a matter of time before the winter drives them deeper into the mountains. Then, we will have a choice to make. But now…’ she sighed, ‘we are not in a position of strength.’

Night and Stone looked at each of them in turn, dominating them, pushing them into submission with an unseen force of presence and strength that did not abide resistance. He would not fall until his ability to dominate the pack visibly weakened. Iron and Snow suspected that Rust and Coal was waiting for that moment. Until then, the unwritten laws that governed their little society would remain the axis around which their actions revolved.

Still, in the World After, things were different. These wolves had been human beings once, and they were able to clothe themselves in human flesh again. Some trace of that humanness lingered, sewn into the mind of the wolf. Was Rust and Coal ambitious enough, reckless enough, to challenge the Alpha before his weakness showed itself?

Iron and Snow loped after Old Mother, leaving the rest of the pack to prepare for the Night Hunt. This was something the young pup loved: to walk beside the Guardian of the Totem, Heiress of the Lineage. If she was so inclined, she would speak her mind to him. He didn’t always understand her thoughts, but it was enough that she trusted him.

She followed an uphill trail that crested one of the smaller peaks in the range. You could see the mighty Atlantic from the promontory, crashing against the eastern hills of the Appalachians. In the distance, over the black sheet of the ocean, lightning flashed behind smoky layers of gray cloud. Thunderheads marched towards the moon, slowly erasing the reflected band of sparkling light that carpeted the waves below.

‘I am disappointed,’ Old Mother said suddenly.

She didn’t turn to Iron and Snow, but spoke out over the steep drop. The wind whisked her voice away, down through the slopes below and the frothing surf beyond. ‘The Lineage must be stronger if we are to hold our own against the settlers. If we cannot grow our numbers, it will be as before, in the World That Ended. They will hunt us down, powerful as we are, and drive the Totem into a silence so final that no upheaval will awaken her again.’

Iron and Snow waited for her to continue, laying his head on his forearms. She said nothing for awhile. The thunderheads overtook the moon; the lightning broke through the cloud bank, streaking through the space between sea and sky.

‘I had counted us fortunate to find a sister so close at hand,’ she said. Now she turned to look down at Iron and Snow. ‘There is nothing quite like the taste of hope turned to bitterness in your mouth. Still, there is one more door open to us.’ Iron and Snow raised his head. Old Mother frowned. ‘When the pack returns from the Night Hunt, I will tell them.’

First Chapter from AFTERGLOW: GODFALL

Greetings, everyone. It’s been awhile since I’ve posted in any of my categories here. Meditating at the Crossroads is back, however, and I plan to keep it up and running with frequent updates. What follows below is the first chapter of what *may* turn into a larger novel…IF the first chapter seems to resonate with YOU, my dear readers. If you enjoy it, please do not hesitate to indicate your feelings either in poll box or comment section provided below. At any rate, let me know what you think of it, and enjoy! Thank you for your support and your time.

1.

 

Beryl Toren needed to wash the stink of the Stronghold out of his mouth, and in his experience, the best way to do that was with a tall shot of moonshine. Not the filthy swill poured out of the Council-sanctioned taps, but actual, honest-to-goodness homemade spirits. There was only one man in the Northeast Stronghold he knew had the stones to make it.

He started walking towards Barry’s bar, already looking forward to the indulgent perfection of the man’s homemade liquor. The prospect of returning to his studio filled him with disgust. The children next door would be wailing disconsolately for a mother who wasn’t there; that unnerving skittering and crunching sound carried on sporadically throughout the night; and every Moon Day’s evening a Council-sanctioned Tout would holler a litany of new ordinances passed throughout the Nation until midnight, when he would host a sequence of inane advertisements sponsored by Council-sanctioned merchants. The Council openly claimed that it did not interfere in merchant business, but the Sixth Council member was a merchant himself, as were his brothers, uncles, and distant cousins. Together they commanded a dynasty that dominated the market, peddling everything from liquor to soap. Nor did the Sixth Council member shy away from passing ordinances that made it difficult—if not impossible—for his competitors to do business; including an ordinance that penalized bootlegging with exile. Barry Windham was an exception to the rule, and there’s a story behind that.

Two years ago, one of the transport Millipedes had derailed, tearing off the tracks at breakneck speed and plunging into Slum Quarter 25 in the south of the Stronghold. It didn’t happen often, but every now and again one of the Great Beasts would remember that it had a mind of its own. Most of the citizens on the Millipede had died immediately, and a good many others were lying contorted in pools of their own blood or writhing underneath piles of debris. A few people managed to worm their way free of the wreck, and one of these was the fifth daughter of the Seventh Council Member. There are Eyes and Ears all over the Stronghold, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a corner, alley, hovel, or hole that wasn’t crawling with the Council’s spies—but the denizens of the Slums know their territory, and they know when and where those eyes and ears are turned in other directions.

When that poor girl came up out of the canal all bloodied and messed up, she found herself face to face with a few area boys who would have vented their frustration with Council policy on her in a few choice ways—starting with rape and likely ending with butchery. It would have taken the Medicals a good bit of time to get there (no rush: seems no one knew the Seventh Council Member’s fifth daughter would be on that Millipede); plenty of time for the mongrels to have their fun. Lucky for her, Barry Windham had business in Slum Quarter 25 that night.  He fought off the mongrels and saved the girl’s life. He did her one better, too: kept her hidden away until the ruckus surrounding the accident died down, so the girl could contact her mother privately and be taken home without too many prying eyes speculating as to why such a prominent citizen would have taken a public Millipede to begin with.

In exchange, the Seventh Council Member turned a blind eye—and all other eyes—away from Barry’s illicit business. Only a few people knew this story, and Beryl was one of them…primarily because he had helped bind the poor girl’s wounds. Trick he learned from his ex-wife. He was in Slum 25 on business also: tax collecting. A euphemism for wading through blood, tears, and hate on behalf of the Council; especially in the slums, where the citizens knew well that they were giving up their coin for nothing they would ever see in return. That’s where the blood came in: no coin, one less mouth to feed.

Beryl was no Skull player, but tax collectors were expected to be imposing. They were expected to frighten the submissive and intimidate the aggressive. More than a few bravos had tried their luck with him in physical combat. If they had stopped to think about it, they might have remembered that tax collectors receive intense martial training for years before their first assignment, and practice consistently thereafter. Unlike those who enforced the Council’s laws, tax collectors were trained to subdue rather than kill, bruise rather than break, immobilize rather than mutilate. You couldn’t pay your coin if you were dead, and you couldn’t make your coin if your legs were broken.

There were a few patrons in Barry’s dingy backwater joint this evening; two regulars, several strangers, and a honey-trap sitting at the end of the bar. Half the prostitutes (“sexual service providers”) in the Stronghold were Council-sanctioned, a little better than the Eyes and Ears skittering in and out of sight or droning blatantly on the message poles. A little bit of pillow talk could get you killed if you didn’t keep your mouth shut any better than you kept your pants up.

More than a few of the girls, though, were just down-and-outs looking to make a little coin.

Beryl knew this one. He didn’t exchange the common greeting with her (“Prosperity and Progress, citizen”), as in this part of town that would more than likely elicit a sneer and a curse as anything else. He was reviled enough as it was for his work. He was thankful at least for one rule that made sense: tax collectors never worked where they lived. They worked among strangers. They were constantly rotated throughout the Stronghold, and in a metropolis of over forty million people and one tax collector for every two thousand, it was easy for them to remain faceless and anonymous. Of course, it was still hazardous. Most of the tax collectors worked in at least one of the slum quarters, and a bit of common sense went a long way. Asking the desperate and angry to give up what little they had usually added another body to the murky canals that crisscrossed the city. Beryl had often written “pending” in his ledger, giving more than a few citizens the opportunity to defer payment until his route took him through their neighborhood again.

He was under no illusions that his leniency was any kind of help to them. If they couldn’t find work to pay their coin, they would make money some other way—and they would keep making it that way. Lizzie was a perfect example. Poor girl was no simpleton; her ambition had once painted her in colors far more vibrant than these. But another tax collector had written “pending” in his ledger one too many times.

“You missed the Tout,” she said.

Beryl grunted. “What’s the news of the day, then?”

Barry Windham came out of the stock room, his face brightening to see Beryl. One look at his friend’s haggard countenance and he disappeared again, no doubt to retrieve the good stuff.

“There’s to be a Godfall,” Lizzie said.

That took Beryl by surprise. There hadn’t been a Godfall since he was a kid. It was rare for any citizen to witness more than one in a lifetime. His own father had seen only one, and his grandfather had been a boy himself when he saw his own. “Huh,” Beryl said, taking a stool and breaking into a grin when Barry came out with a clear bottle of his specialty.

Barry nodded, uncorking the bottle and pouring him a shot. “They say it’s because the Stronghold is larger. More people. Takes more power to keep everything running. Makes sense to me,” he said, pushing the glass across the narrow bar. Beryl took the shot, slammed the glass down, and savored the aftertaste—watermelon. Real watermelon. Not the “tweaked” monstrosities peddled in the Council-sanctioned markets. He motioned for a refill.

“Savor it this time, you philistine,” Barry said. “I don’t sweat over this stuff so you can go through it like water.”

Beryl grinned. “First time’s to set the mood,” he said. “Which one of the Old Gods is it?”

“Who knows? Tout said something about them turning off the water and rationing supplies…”

“One of the Old River Gods then,” Beryl said. He took a sip of the moonshine, but the taste had lost a bit of its luster. The Stronghold would be in a riot over the Godfall. It would generate more excitement than any of the games, parades, or celebrity appearances that kept the citizens from focusing on anything important. Until it was over and they cast the spent husk of the Old God from the Pinnacle Tower, there would be talk of little else. Beryl had no stomach for it. As far as he was concerned, it was a hideous spectacle with an explicit motive: a testament to the unassailable supremacy of the Council over the world and the utter annihilation of everything that had once been magical, wondrous, and divine.

His granddaddy told him once that the Old Gods had been worshiped. That they had willingly given a portion of their immense power to those who knelt before them and to the priests who invoked their names. They had spread the Wild like a blanket over the created earth; they had gathered up the mountains from the bedrock of the world; they had dipped their hands into the mighty oceans and scattered the first rains with their palms across the dry country. They had given shape to the beasts and the Great Monsters that had once ranged beyond the fragile habitations of humankind.

Now they were chained in pens beneath the Strongholds, bound by the techno-sorcery of the Alchemists. Their power was used to fuel the Strongholds and the Council’s innumerable machines. The Siphons drained them day and night, funneling their divine energies into the immense network of pipes, conduits, and arteries stretched between the 9 Strongholds. There was even some speculation that the network itself had been one of them, hollowed out and used to funnel the energies of its brethren across the country.

“I wonder what they look like,” Lizzie said, “you know, before they’re all drained and everything…”

Barry looked at her oddly.

“What?” Lizzie leaned over the bar and whispered, “I don’t see any Eyes or Ears in here.” Beryl made a slight gesture with his head towards the strangers sitting around a table in the back. “Oh, them? They’re just some working boys out for a drink,” she winked.  Beryl rolled his eyes and shook his head. “What?” Lizzie challenged him playfully. “All you have to do is ask, Beryl, and I’m yours for the night.”

“Quit it Lizzie,” Barry said. “Lay off your talk or I’ll cut you off.”

Lizzie frowned. “Don’t tell me you never wondered, Barry. What they look like.”

“No. Never wondered. All I know is they keep the city running. You may come here for a shot or two of homemade, but at the end of the day, you get your food from the Dispensaries like everyone else. Ride the Millipedes to work like everyone else. Breathe the same filtered air. You want to try your luck with the exiles out in the barrens and Wilds, you just keep asking the wrong questions.”

“There’s a Godfall coming up, Barry. You think I’m the only one asking these questions?”

“Lizzie,” Beryl said, “you shouldn’t…”

“Shouldn’t what? Barry’s bar is safe, Beryl; been safe for two years now. Besides, I know better than the both of you how to protect myself. I’m no Council-sanctioned whore. And working boys like those,” she jerked her finger towards the three men in the back, “feel comfortable enough to talk to me about all kinds of things. An’ more than one of ‘em’s wondered about the Old Gods, locked away under this prison of a city. Wondered what it must’ve been like in the old days before the War, when there were still monsters to fight and heroes to fight them. Sure, most guys don’t give a damn one way or the other—they eat, they drink, they work, and their cares pretty much end at what’s between my legs and whether or not they’ll catch a show. But some of ‘em have more between their ears than they have hanging below their bellies—only they’re too damn scared to say anything within earshot of anyone other than me.”

“You think this place is safe, Lizzie?” Barry asked, shaking his head. “You’re a fool to think so—she watches me closer than anyone because of what happened two years ago. She wants to make sure I don’t tell anyone what happened. So why don’t you just calm down and lay off the subject…”

Lizzie growled and slammed her empty bottle down on the bar. The men in the back turned their heads sharply in alarm. Beryl nervously clenched his fist. “It’s good that there’s someplace I can go to feel safe,” Lizzie said. Barry shook his head, opening his mouth to interrupt, but the words that poured out of her mouth may as well have been boulders tumbling downhill.

“Safe from the damned Orders and their robed freaks!” One of the men in the back coughed up his drink. “Safe from all those damned abominations!” One of the two regulars all but ran out, bursting through the door in a blur of frantic desperation. Barry reached over the counter and tried to grab Lizzie’s arm. She pulled away, tipping over her stool. “Safe,” she hissed, looking around the room, “from all the ‘citizens’ who could care less about what the Old Gods looked like before they were chained up. Safe from the damned Council!”

“Lizzie…!”

“Alright, I’m done, I’m done!” She glanced around with a look of desperate disdain. “It’s dead in here anyway, and time for me to get to work…” She abruptly closed her mouth as the door opened.

A robed figure entered the bar, features obscured by a gray hood pulled low. Silence fell over the room, and in the quietude—punctuated only by the sputtering of the gas lamps in their dusty globes—everyone could hear a low whispering coming from the figure. Pale lips could be seen moving quickly beneath the shadows. Hands gestured in tandem with words spoken too softly to be heard. It could have been male or female, but everyone knew what the black robe and gray hood meant: it was a member of the Order of Whispering. The warning-givers (“Woe unto those to whom the Whisperers speak”).

The Whisperer approached Lizzie, who stood immobile and terrified. Beryl knew what she was thinking: how did they know? How did it happen so quickly? The strangers in the back rose and made themselves scarce. Lizzie started shaking her head and trembling. She was losing it. The regular boozer tottered to his feet and made for the door. He slammed against the dead music-box and crashed to the floor, dragging himself on his hands and knees towards the exit. The Whisperer was towering over Lizzie now, leaning in close to utter its fateful warning.

Then Beryl saw it. One of the Council’s Ears.

In the days before the War, there were all manner of lesser beasts. During the Period of Ascendance, before the Old Gods were enslaved, the Alchemists began to “harvest” them. Capturing them and twisting them to serve their purposes. Beryl didn’t know how they did it—no one but the Alchemists themselves knew—but the abominations they created were grotesque. People had gotten used to them, apparently, but Beryl couldn’t stand to look at them.

The Ears used to monitor the citizens of the Stronghold had been made from the feral cats that once wandered the streets. The Alchemists had emptied them of their innards, pulled their naked skin over unnaturally extended limbs, and replaced their red blood with some foul brew drained by the Siphons from one of the Old Gods. Their skulls had similarly been reshaped; wrought by vulgar hands into a bony jumble of canals and orifices designed to capture and isolate sound. They heard everything. The Alchemists had also found some way for the Ears to transmit what they heard directly to a receiver. Beryl knew this because, sometimes, a dumb fool who had let slip something he shouldn’t have had thought to capture and kill the Ear that had heard him—but it was never any use. Someone somewhere already knew.

There was a Godfall coming up, Beryl reminded himself; there would be Eyes and Ears everywhere.

But dammit all, she’d just asked a honest question…! Beryl watched the Ear slink into the overhead shadows, seriously contemplating throwing a bottle at it. He turned back to see the Whisperer move away from Lizzie. She looked even paler than before, turning a dismal gray color. She seemed on the verge of fainting. Beryl gave the Whisperer a wide berth, trying to catch a glimpse of its face under the gray hood—he could only see those ugly lips moving.

“What did he say to you, Lizzie?” Barry asked from behind the bar after the Whisperer had left.

Lizzie said nothing. Instead, she reached over to the bottle she had finished, and with a quick snap of her arm, broke it over the edge of the bar.

Barry and Beryl both shouted, but she was too fast: she struck the jagged edge of the broken bottle into her neck and drew it across her throat, flaying the skin open. She dropped to the hardwood floor, gouts of blood spurting from the ghastly wound. Too much blood to stop in time.

Beryl tried to stem the flow, but it gushed up between his fingers. Lizzie tried to speak some final words, freed by imminent death from the prison of her fear. Beryl leaned in close, wanting to comfort her, to tell her that was going to be alright…but he didn’t. He needed to hear what she was trying to say.

“I just wanted to know what they looked like. They must have been beautiful…”

Then she died. Barry was standing over Beryl and trying to pull him away. “You have to calm yourself down, man! You have to…” Beryl pushed his friend roughly aside. He knew her. He had known her. Now she was dead, so much meat for them to cart away and dump in the wastes beyond the walls.

Barry tried to tell him there was nothing he could do, but he was wrong. There was something he could do. In his heart the decision had already been made. Beryl rose to his feet, smiled at his old friend, and walked out of the bar. The Whisperer was gone, but that didn’t matter. The Council was everywhere. Watching. Listening. Not far from Barry’s bar there was a square, one of the innumerable hubs where the boulevards and avenues crisscrossing the city converged. When the Gods fell, nothing remained of them; but trophies of the slain Great Beasts were on display all over the Stronghold. Testaments to the supremacy of the Alchemists.

This one had been a creature of immense size; its skull stretched the length of five men. Beryl didn’t know what it had been called by the people before the War, nor even how it must have looked when alive. What mattered to Beryl now was that one of the Council Touts was drawing a crowd. Appropriately enough, he was announcing the upcoming Godfall.

Several years ago, Beryl had been working in Slum Quarter 37 in the northeast quad of the Stronghold. Tax collectors weren’t authorized to break down doors, but, if they didn’t write “pending” in their ledgers, they instead recorded the addresses of those who believed that a closed door would spare them. Sooner or later, someone who was authorized would come through and break down their door; they would take a pound of flesh as interest. On this occasion, Beryl had knocked on a door that looked the same as every other door in every other building in the quarter—except for a small symbol etched into the wood.

The door had opened of its own accord, swinging wide as if in response to some magic word. He would never have expected what he saw inside. It was a vigil. His mother had taught him the word; but it was a forbidden rite in the Stronghold. The dead were dead. Nothing but husks to be thrown unceremoniously away. Citizens were allowed to mourn—an emotional, human habit that couldn’t be stopped—but any observances or rituals devoted to the dead were punishable with exile.

An old man had been reading something over the body of a child. When Beryl entered he snapped around, surprised. He rose in a fury, his eyes wide and frantic. He started shouting at Beryl—What are you doing here? How did you get in? When Beryl told him that the door had simply opened, the man stopped abruptly and stared at him. He looked back at the body. He had been nervous, fearful that Beryl would report him. Instead he said, “The door wouldn’t have opened otherwise.” For awhile, he said nothing else. Beryl stood awkwardly in the foyer, ledger in hand.

When the old man spoke again he said, “I’m going to give you something. Words. But you must remember them. They aren’t just any words. You must never utter them unless you mean it. You must never allow anyone in this place to hear them—not until you are ready for the consequences. They are the words of a very powerful prayer. Do you know what that is? A prayer?”

“They were spoken to the Old Gods by their priests, before…”

“Yes,” the old man had said, interrupting him. “Before. I am going to give you the words of a prayer. Will you remember them?”

Yes, Beryl had said. And he did. The words came to him when Lizzie’s blood was gushing through his fingers. He knew why, and he knew what to do with them. Now, he was ready for the consequences.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw them. People used to call them “dogs.” Packs of them would wander the streets, scavenging for food. People even kept them as companions. They were commonplace before the ascendance of the Alchemists. After that, they were harvested. As with all the other lesser beasts, their desired ability had been distorted and exaggerated, wedded to the machinery of the Alchemists’ craft and subordinated to the will of the Council. In this case, it was empathy; some part of the dog’s brain that could tune into human emotions, developed over centuries of cooperation. The Alchemists had toyed with it, discovering that its function could be heightened when exposed to the effects of a certain chemical. They rounded up the street packs, and for decades it became increasingly rare to see a dog roaming free. In the meantime, the Stronghold commanded that a certain vine be grown throughout the Stronghold—a thorny, tangled, and oily thing that clung to every lattice and stairway, choked every narrow alley and wound about every ruin and crumbling façade. This vine secreted the very same chemical that the Alchemists used to warp the dogs’ natural ability.

Then, only about a decade ago, the dogs were released. They had been bred to feed on the vine, but its side effects were…unfortunate. The oil from the vine had physically warped them, and from one generation to the next they had adapted to survive these mutations and use their enhanced empathy with uncanny precision. Some of them had elongated limbs, stilted legs that supported a skeletal torso; others were sheathed in a tight skin that pulled their lips away from their fangs, stretched taught over every rippling muscle.

Different breeds were trained to respond in different ways to different emotions—excessive emotions. Fear, anger, guilt; all of them seeped from human pores with a specific scent. Gestures, movements, voice patterns; no amount of subtlety or restraint could prevent one of the dogs from catching on. The larger, more aggressive breeds responded to anger. Packs of leaner, quicker brutes responded to fear. Others responded to remorse, others to euphoria, others to caution. The Keepers of the Dogs tracked them and every citizen that they took an interest in. Sometimes, the dogs got overeager.

Beryl could not even begin to describe what he was feeling. Ecstasy? Rage? Fulfillment? Everything at once? Every damned pack and stray in the city would be coming for him.

He stopped within thirty yards of the Council Tout. The dogs were moving in closer. People at the edge of the crowd were starting to exclaim, murmur and scatter. Beryl had only a moment to say his piece before the dogs frightened his audience away, and he needed an audience for this. People had to hear it.

He moved forward, startling the Tout; the boy stammered in midsentence, his deformed throat quivering grotesquely. The Alchemists worked their craft on people, also. How else would a human voice be able to reach hundreds, even thousands, across the din of a crowded sector? He was using only a fraction of his volume now, and his voice could easily be heard on the far side of the square and across Processional Boulevard 6.

Beryl seized the flustered youth by his shoulders and learned forward. The boy cowered under his grip. “There is something I want you to say,” he growled. The Tout nodded. “You will say the words exactly as I say them, pronouncing them exactly as I pronounce them. If you do not do this, I will make sure you never speak above a whisper again. Do you understand?” Of course he did: the “children” of the Alchemists were task-specific citizens; if they couldn’t perform their tasks, they would be discarded like unwanted refuse. Beryl wasn’t entirely sure if he could do it. The boy was innocent, after all—no one asked to be “adopted” by the Alchemists. But after what happened to Lizzie, Beryl didn’t really know where his limits were anymore. Apparently, that showed clearly enough in his eyes. The Tout nodded frantically. Beryl loosed his grip, nodded and swallowed.

The words were still there, in his mind. Good.

He spoke them; slowly, carefully, mindfully. The Tout repeated them perfectly—they could mimic virtually any sound or voice imaginable. Choruses of Touts would put on Council-sanctioned performances in the squares at least once a week. Beryl never cared for them, but nearly every citizen in the Stronghold eagerly attended at least half of the biweekly performances. One needed to wander far indeed not to hear them echoing about the streets.

Beryl cocked his head to look at the crowd. The people were frozen. Their eyes were wide, their jaws slack, and they looked for all the world like a choreographed and synchronized mimicry of utter disbelief. Beryl wasn’t sure they would even remember what a prayer sounded like; it had been years since any prayers had been heard in the Nation. But they did remember. Even the young ones somehow knew what it was they were hearing. Beryl looked into the Tout’s eyes. Even he knew.

Beryl smiled. This was exactly what he’d wanted.

Then something happened that he did not expect. Near the prayer’s end, the dogs stopped in their approach and sat back on their haunches. They started howling. Howling!

Beryl understood, in a flash of insight, why the old man had given him the words of this prayer. They had somehow hidden his grief for his dead son. Otherwise the dogs would have been there, their claws skittering up the steps of that dingy building, their ravenous panting echoing up the stairwell. But they didn’t come. The old man had offered a prayer to one of the Old Gods, and whatever It was had heard him, shielded him, protected him.

The dogs turned tail and ran, darting about the motionless citizens and vanishing into the innumerable cracks and crevices of the Stronghold. They were no longer a problem…

…but the cloaked figures moving toward him with gliding, unhurried steps were.

 

2.

 

Backwater Brook came in through the Hedge behind Slum Quarter 46. It ran underneath the barricades that kept citizens from trying to cross through the Hedge (willing exile was forbidden, and the poisoned thorns of the seventy-foot tall bush made the attempt almost certain suicide). It passed through the trading stalls of the slum markets (you could find literally anything there), wound through the mazelike gutters of the quarter, and emptied out into Canal 108. It circled through the pipes and purification tunnels, finally emptying out of Murdock Fountain. While in Slum Quarter 46, it passed in front of a peculiar shop, nestled between two decaying brownstones on the west side of what the neighborhood called Parlor Street. A handwritten sign posted outside read “Appraisal Shop.” When people wanted to barter their goods, it sometimes paid for them to make damn sure they knew what their goods were worth on the market. Otherwise, an exaggerated price could easily anger the wrong potential customer. Many a stall had been trashed by an irate resident who thought he or she was being cheated.

This indispensible service was offered by Owl Tannerson. His daddy was a trader in tinctures, salves, balms, and unguents. On the side he traded in bones. Owl’s granddaddy had been a trapper Beyond the Hedge in the old days. But he didn’t trade with the Alchemists. Never once in his life. He traded bush meat in the slum markets. Back then, the Council Dispensaries were running, but an intrepid fellow with skills and a set of brass balls could make a living dealing in real, fresh, normal meat. No one did that anymore, but the Tannerson family remained well respected in 46. Owl was no lover of the Council, that was for sure. The tax collector had written “pending” in his ledger the last time he’d come around, though, and Owl did not relish the thought of running afoul of the authorities.

At this moment, Owl was entertaining a rather nervous client. On the table between them was a pile of assorted baubles and trinkets. Unfortunately for the nervous man, they were worth less than the ashtray next to them.

Fiction: Totem Cycle, part 1

‘They’re vintage,’ the trader held up a yellowed bundle of papers, ‘newspapers from the World That Ended. You won’t see anything like them. Not here. Maybe on the other side. But here…? I can see that you’re interested. Look at them. See that headline? It’s from 4 years before the War.’

‘I don’t know…’

The trader smiled knowingly. ‘This is knowledge, right here. I’ve already read it. But I don’t know anyone else who has. Come on; you only know the stories people tell you. This here,’ he tapped the newspaper, ‘is the truth. The absolute, unvarnished truth. In fact, it’s priceless…’ he frowned, ‘…but I can’t carry them anymore. See, my father entrusted them to me, but I’ve already lost so many of them. Half of them were stolen by Red Robert’s people…’

‘You survived an attack by Red Robert?’

‘I was traveling with a caravan. Me and one other survived, a blacksmith living down near Arizona Bay. He could tell you. I lost 3 more in the rain last season. You remember it? So I’ll give you the rest for a good deal. I’m telling you, this is a last-chance opportunity here.’

‘I don’t know that I have anything to trade…’

The trader scanned the old hunter quickly, assessing what he could see, guessing at what he could not. A hunting rifle, and not one of those made since the War. No, this was an antique even older than his newspapers, kept in impeccable condition. The old hunter wouldn’t want to part with it, or with any ammunition he carried for it. His clothes were soiled and torn in places, but the belts that held his knives and tools were fairly new.

‘I’ll take one of your knives. I’ve only got an old hunting one, but it’s in bad shape.’

The hunter frowned. ‘A knife for a few pieces of old paper?’ He shook his head. ‘The knife is more useful, whatever those papers say. What can I do with them? Stories are better than the truth. Who is ever going to ask me for the truth?’

‘Alright then, you tell me.’

‘Tell you what. You come back with me, break bread at my table, and we’ll talk. You can tell me the latest word, and we can trade over those newspapers.’

‘How do I know you won’t just kill me?’

The hunter snorted. ‘This would have been a better place for it. There’s no one living in these woods for miles.’

The trader considered the offer for a moment, but his stomach had already decided the matter for him: ‘Sure, sure. Why not? It is as you say. How far is your home?’

‘Not far. You’re lucky I was on my way back. These woods aren’t safe after dark.’

Their footsteps shuffled through wet brown leaves, thick on the trail and sodden with last night’s heavy rain. The late afternoon sun dipped behind the trees, shimmering between leaves the color of sunset. The air was cold and crisp, but not yet biting with winter’s harshness.

The two men did not speak again while they walked. The trail had been level beneath a ridge of small, rocky peaks; now it fell suddenly, cutting deeper into the forest below and winding through the western foothills of the Appalachians. The smoke of cookfires rose into the still air and deepening blue of the cloudless sky.

‘What do you call this settlement?’ the trader asked, breaking the silence.

‘Forthright,’ the hunter answered.

‘I’ve heard of it. It’s one of the largest settlements in these parts, isn’t it?’

‘Shouldn’t you know? Where were you going?’

‘To the District Barony,’ the trader answered after a moment.

The hunter glanced at him over his shoulder. ‘The Barony? Are you a fool, or a liar?’ he stopped and looked hard at the trader.  ‘You couldn’t get within fifteen miles of the Barony. The whole city’s surrounded by a ring of marauders, scavengers, and butchers that would kill you in a heartbeat and trade your wares between themselves…and make no mistake: your organs, whether they’re healthy or not, can still fetch a bargain.’

The trader met the hunter’s eyes steadily. ‘You’ve been there?’

‘When I was young and stupid.’

‘Well, that’s where I’m going,’ the trader said. ‘I’ve haven’t anywhere else to go. Besides, I have a few tricks up my sleeve,’ he added enigmatically. ‘There are places even the marauders, scavengers, and butchers won’t go.’

The hunter chuckled derisively. ‘You mean the swamps? That’s been tried. There’s a reason no one goes there. There’s just no way to make it through the swamps alive. No way. No one’s been in or out of the District Barony in thirty years.’

The trader shrugged and lapsed into silence. The trail widened into a small, shadowed clearing. A sentry tower stood in the center, a scaffolding of wooden beams topped by a small shed. The guard standing watch leaned over the railing, an arrow notched and pointed at the trader. When he saw the hunter he nodded but did not lower the bow. ‘Devin!’ he called out. ‘How was the hunting today?’

Devin looked up and waved. ‘Some rabbits is all.’ He motioned to the trader. ‘Met a trader on the trail. Invited him to break bread with my family.’

The watchman lowered the bow but kept the arrow notched. ‘Where’s he going?’

‘Says he was headed here, to Forthright,’ Devin lied. ‘He’s got some old newspapers to trade.’

‘Newspapers?’ the watchman thought about this for a moment. ‘From when?’

‘I have a series from 2100 to 2115,’ the trader called out, ‘in good condition.’

‘Let me take a look at them,’ the watchman said. ‘Come up.’

The trader smiled and ascended the tall ladder, followed by Devin. The watchman shook hands with them both. ‘Good to see you, Nick,’ Devin said warmly. ‘How’s Sam?’

‘She’s fine,’ Nick answered, ‘healer’s looking after her. How about Annie and Winn? They getting on?’

‘I would have taken them with me, but Annie’s been feeling out of sorts for the past couple of days.’

‘Want me to tell the healer to pay a visit?’

Devin shook his head. ‘No, it’s nothing serious. Really. You know those kids have always been sensitive. It’s just the winter coming on. They’ve always been able to feel it.’

Nick looked as if to press the point of the healer, then relented. He nodded towards the trader and said, ‘Alright. Let’s take a look at what you’ve got there. 2100 you said? That when the War started?’

‘No, no,’ the trader replied, ‘the Third World War started in 2110. But, see, a great many things happened in the decade preceding the War. Scandals and court cases, skirmishes and embargos, revolutions and invasions. It’s the truth of what really happened!’

Nick smiled. ‘Does it make for a good story?’

The trader looked bewildered for a second. ‘Of course!’ he answered at last. ‘It’s the best story there is!’

Nick nodded to a woolen cloak hung from a nail in the corner. ‘I’m sold. I can’t read all that well, but my grandfather used to tell me stories about history. Said he used to read books. Imagine that! Well, since he died I miss those stories…if these newspapers of yours are anything like that, I’ll trade you that cloak there for a few of them. How about it? Winter’s coming on, and it comes down hard in these parts.’

The trader looked over the cloak, rubbed the material between his fingers, examined the seams. ‘Fine,’ he said at last. ‘It’s got a few years on it, but it’ll hold for another season. Go on—look them over and take a few that you like. October 14, 2103 is a good one. That’s a nail in the coffin for sure.’

Silence hung in the shed, broken only by the rustle of old paper and muttered exclamations of interest from Nick. Devin had taken the rifle from his back and laid it on the knotted wooden railing; his hunter’s eyes scanned the trees. The sun was going down behind the hills in the west. A few minutes and it would be gone.

The season was turning, and the leaves were changing in that bittersweet pageantry of color that marked the end of summer. The mountains stretched out on either side to the north and south, fading into shades of deepening blue. The birds had stopped chattering among the trees. A blanket of cold wind settled with a whistle of harsh breath over the sentry tower. Devin shivered…

…and heard a series of howls rising up from the forest.

They washed over the treetops like a wave of sound, lapping softly up against the wooden frame of the tower. Everyone looked sharply up. Devin readied his rifle. He glanced at the trader; the man did not appear in the least bit afraid. He was looking out over the forest as if he knew exactly where they were coming from. Devin leveled the rifle’s sight in that direction.

‘How many?’

‘It’s been at least 15 for the past three nights,’ Nick answered. ‘They came past Darwin’s post last night, and he killed one and clipped another. It was 17 that night. Joey swears that 20 of them came past his tower two nights before that, and that was the night we lost Tom’s kids and 5 heads of cattle. I’m telling you, if we don’t figure out a way to stop them, we’ll be left hungry for the winter…already they’re starting to talk, saying that our stores won’t make it into February.’

Devin grunted.

‘You won’t be able to stop them,’ the trader said softly.

Nick looked at him sharply. ‘Don’t say that,’ he growled. He glared at the trader contemplatively and said, ‘Where did you sleep last night? They would have eaten you alive anywhere in these woods…’

‘They’re big woods,’ the trader snapped, then pointed. ‘Pay attention; here they come.’

They broke out of the gloom, loping towards the tower. There were 16 of them. It was the largest pack Devin had ever seen. Their yellow eyes gleamed, lips curled in snarls of rapacious frenzy. Their rust and soot colored coats tangled behind their ears and gathered in thick manes behind their jaws. Others were the color of iron and midnight, and several were pitch black.

The elders said that the old wolves had been different; more like to avoid a man than attack him outright. Things changed. Hearing howls in the woods was a death-knell to any group of travelers few in number, armed only with knives and tools—even guns were no guarantee. The wolves had plenty of game to eat, to be sure; but they preferred the blood of men.

Devin waited and aimed with patient precision. Only when he was sure of the shot, he fired. The rifle thundered out across the canopy and the muzzle flash was bright in the twilight. There was a cry as one of the animals was thrown against its side. The echo of the shot struck the mountains. Devin was already reloading.

Nick released an arrow, but the shaft thudded into the soft ground. He notched and loosed another, just missing one of the wolves. They spoke in growled utterances and sharp yips, coordinating a predator’s strategy. Circling the tower, an overzealous wolf made an attempt to scale the scaffolding and tumbled down, glaring up at them in cold spite.

‘We can’t possibly get them all before they reach Forthright,’ Nick said through clenched teeth. ‘What are they going to take this time? Our children?’ He hissed in desperate frustration, notched another arrow, and let it fly. It struck through the wolf that had tried to scale the tower. Devin fired the rifle again, taking another wolf down.

The pack gathered and started off towards the town. Nick cursed and rang the sentry bell. The old iron clanged and Devin listened for the reply; another bell answered, in the east tower beside the city walls. Whoever was in the fields outside the walls would be running in; the stragglers and those too far away to make it in time would have to rely on luck and the aim of the guardsmen. Others, living in the houses and shacks outside the settlement, would bolt their frail doors and wait it out—but the wolves were known to break into homes, and God help anyone with a wailing infant among them.

‘I’m gone,’ Devin said, hastening down the ladder. When he reached the ground he broke into a sprint towards the settlement. If the guards were able to scatter them, he might have a shot at one of two of them.

He underestimated his vigor—he’d been trekking all day, and his legs were not the legs of a young athlete anymore. He had to stop within sight of the settlement; the wolves were barely visible as dark shapes moving quickly toward the gray face of the city wall. It would be a wasted shot, most likely, but it was the only shot he had. By the time he gathered his strength to run again the wolves would have scattered, each smaller pack looking for a kill. He propped the rifle against the crook of his elbow, got down on his belly, and followed one of the darting shapes. The sentry on the east tower fired, and a small cloud of dust shot up next to one of the wolves; it paused, momentarily distracted, and Devin fired. The bullet took it in the head.

The pack scattered. Every shot now was wasted; they stayed out of the spheres of light cast by the lanterns atop the wall, groups of two or three moving quickly through fields and outlying houses. Annie and Winn…! Devin rose and charged forward with renewed energy; he knew his grandchildren. They wouldn’t have gone in behind the wall without him. Winn was good with a shotgun, and he would keep it loaded and handy; but against three wolves…! He increased his pace, fueling his aching muscles with panic and desperation.

Devin finally saw the red brick of his small house, the green door, the herb garden; he listened for any sound of struggle or pain. It was quiet. The wolves were around here somewhere, he had seen those three heading in this direction…he readied his rifle and slowed his pace, approaching the house cautiously. He had rushed to defend his grandchildren, but he was a likelier kill than anyone behind closed doors.

The thought occurred to him just in time; one of them had been watching him from behind the house. It charged at him, moving faster than he could possibly hope to point and shoot. He dropped the rifle, drew one of his hunting knives, and braced himself. He anticipated that the wolf would lunge; he would bring up his forearm, let it try and bite through his coat, and stab it through the heart—but he anticipated wrong. The wolf came in under his arm, turned its head, and tried for his hamstring. He twisted his leg out of the way, but it cost him: he was on the ground, scrambling to get up. Too slow, too slow…

The wolf came over him, its jaws snapping over his face, its wild yellow eyes glowing against its charcoal fur. It was near 180 pounds of snarling wolf, but Devin managed to push up and throw it off him for the split of a second he would have before it came up again—just enough to grab the knife, and follow through with a hasty stab on his hands and knees.

He was lucky; the knife went into its throat and it bit down on the empty air, whining in sudden pain and drawing hastily away. It loped quickly off, shaking its head and losing blood. Devin panted tiredly and got up. Where were the other two?

‘Winn!’ he shouted, ‘Annie! The wolves are here…!’ Devin stumbled towards the house. Why haven’t they responded? He slammed himself against the door and threw it open.

They were sitting at the table, looking at him as if he were raving. Annie, Winn, and the trader. Annie was putting down a tray of fresh bread and Winn was looking over the newspapers; the trader was smiling at him as if passing a secret between them. Devin took a moment to process the scene, his heart thudding in his chest, his knife clutched in his hand, his torn pant leg trailing blood over the floor.

‘What happened?’ Winn cried, rising from the table and moving forward.

‘Wolves…’ Devin answered, slowly trying to come to his senses. He stared at the trader. ‘How did you get here so quickly? You were still at the tower…’ he focused on his grandson. ‘When did he get here? Didn’t you hear the bells? There are wolves in the camp!’

Winn stared at him, then glanced back at the trader. ‘Bells?’ he asked wonderingly. ‘I didn’t hear any…wolves? Are you sure?’ he looked again at his grandfather and moved quickly to take up the shotgun beside the door. ‘I know this man—he’s traded here before. He told us you were with Nick at the tower, and that you were on your way.’

‘Grandfather…?’ Annie set the tray down and moved towards the sound of their voices.

‘Annie,’ Devin said, moving forward, ‘step away from him.’ Annie backed away from the trader. Winn looked at him questioningly, but Devin didn’t have time for explanations; as far as he was concerned, this man was dangerous. He would have seen the man moving toward his home; how did he get here so quickly…?

He started with the basics. ‘Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘You’re no trader. You said you were for the District Barony…why? You knew where the wolves were coming from; you had no fear of them. What’s your business here? Answer me!’

The trader put up his hands. ‘I come with a warning,’ he said. ‘I should have gone about it differently…but if I had told you the truth from the beginning, you would have shot me in the woods and left me for dead.’

Devin smiled dangerously. ‘I’m like to shoot you right here. You’re a stranger. No one would question a man defending his family against an intruder. You’ve nothing to lose by telling me the truth now. I guarantee that it will go poorly with you unless your explanation satisfies me.’

‘Very well,’ the trader put down his hands. ‘They’re coming for your granddaughter.’

Winn and Annie both started talking at once; Devin stared at the old trader, trying to make sense of what he was saying. With another ear he listened for the wolves, prowling around the grounds outside.

‘Annie,’ Devin said, ‘open the door.’

Outside, there were two men standing naked in the cold and dark. There was no shame in their nakedness; only a quiet, subtle danger that shone in eyes the color of gold. Still, Devin was momentarily grateful that his granddaughter could not see. Winn leveled the shotgun on them, as did he; they were often of a common mind, he and his grandson. He hoped that was enough to get them through this alive.

‘Who are you?’ he demanded, wondering why he didn’t just shoot them. Winn was waiting on his signal.

The men said nothing. They simply stood outside, waiting for a signal of their own. From the trader, no doubt. Devin turned, another question ready on his lips…

The old wolf stood on the wooden table, its hackles bristling in threat, lips curled over the feral horror of its exposed gums and vicious teeth.

The naked men bowed their heads in submission.

‘The Totem has chosen your granddaughter,’ one of them growled. ‘She will come with us.’

‘The hell you say,’ Devin replied. He turned and fired on the old wolf…

 

 

 

 

 

True Immortality: The Second Chapter

Dear Readers:

True Immortality is now available on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords.com (which means it will be available on most e-book platforms). I have posted below the second chapter of the novel, hoping to whet your appetite for the whole manuscript. The first chapter is posted below. Enjoy!

 

Chapter Two:

From the Heart

 

 

Three Weeks Ago

 

They had made love that night, and even now she wanted to remember it as something other than what it was. She wanted to remember it as the consummate expression of a final goodbye she never got to say. Gentler and more passionate; more primal and rhythmic. But it was as it had been for months, an obligation that he fulfilled mechanically.

In the beginning, Paul Daniels was an aggressive lover. She mistook his aggression for ardor, responding in kind. Their sex had been an often violent affair, a struggle that resulted in mutual sweat and panting. They weren’t speaking the same language. Their physical exchange became a sequence of gestures repeated without intimacy. She chalked it up to his troubles and dealt with it; but his aggression was never replaced with sincere affection, not in all the nights they spent together.

Only months after she’d married him without knowing his family, Paul had been summoned home by his father. William had come back from Alaska, and there was something he wanted to share with his eldest son. Mary was finally going to meet the infamous William Daniels, the man obsessed with the legacy of his crazy great-grandfather.

After meeting William, Mary had started to wonder whether Paul had been running from his father when she found him; running into the arms of a woman to soothe him. She thought he was stronger than that, but every day spent at the Daniels estate confirmed his unshakeable loyalty to William. Paul would honor his father’s wishes whether he questioned them or not. How else could she explain this sudden trip to upstate New York? One minute, her husband was talking about going back to Boston and getting back to work as a freelance journalist, and in the next moment he was telling her they were going to New York. Why? Because William Daniels had said it was something important.

Meanwhile, Harper had flatly refused, challenging William at every turn. There was a truth he was trying to get at, a truth that Paul knew about but was probably hiding from his wife and brother. Harper had even tried to talk to Paul, but that conversation went the same way it always did, and ended the same way it always ended: black eyes and split lips.

Had Paul read the journal, even when she knew that William had expressly forbidden him to? Did he secretly cultivate a backbone and go behind his father’s interdiction? Did he know more than he was letting on to everyone, even William? His behavior on the trip, at the hotel, all of it pointed to something that he knew—something that his father wouldn’t have told him. William wouldn’t have told him anything that would have given him second thoughts about going to New York.

On that night before they left, he had turned his back on her after their intercourse. He heaved a deep sigh, which she had lately taken to interpret was his way of saying that he didn’t want to talk. But that wasn’t going to work. Not on that night.

“Why are we doing this?” she asked him.

He turned his head in the darkness to look at her. “My father’s trying to find some information on the journal he recovered in Alaska. Apparently Jonah’s research partner, this McEvelin Roberts, kept something from him and sent it away to a colleague of his for safekeeping. Jonah never knew about it.”

“What was it?”

“A piece of a stone tablet recovered by Jonah Daniels in South America. You remember my father going on about how Jonah disappeared after that? Until three years later, when he resurfaces in a few crazy stories across the U.S. before vanishing completely in 1901? Well, this Roberts guy sent a piece of whatever they were working on to Upstate New York. The missing piece was transcribed into a book and passed on from one generation to another, and now it’s somewhere in an antique bookstore owned by the grandson of Roberts’s hidden colleague: one Isaac Peerson.”

This was more than he’d ever told her about what he and William discussed. He was hoping she would take it and leave further questions aside—but that wasn’t her style. Mary tried pressing him for more information; why was this missing piece so important? Why were they treating this journal like some world-shattering relic, and how the hell did William Daniels even find out about it?

“William thinks this is really important,” Paul declared with finality, “and I have no reason to doubt that he’s right. Now Mary, it’s just going to be a short trip. Besides, you’ll get to see New York City.”

She’d listened carefully, and Paul hadn’t really told her anything. For the past year William had been obsessed with this journal. For months afterward he did nothing but lock himself in his study with a bottle of Black Label Walker and that wretched leather-bound book. Night after night, he hoarded over it, bitterly refusing to answer any questions about it.

“Listen, Mary, that’s all I’m going to tell you. Now if you don’t want to go that’s fine; you can just go back to Boston and wait for me there.”

He breathed heavily into the oppressive silence of the bedroom. She fumed in rage for a moment, leafing through remotely appropriate answers to that. Wait for him? The hell she would. “Don’t take me for a fool, Paul Daniels,” she said. “Now you listen: I’m coming along because I need to know what’s going on, and what your father’s got you all wrapped up in. I have a right to know, whether you plan on telling me or not. I intend to get it out of you any way I can.”

Paul huffed angrily. She knew that he was either going to get frustrated, angry, and unpleasantly aggressive—or he was going to shut down like a threatened child and pout his way through the night. He was going with option number two.

“Alright,” Mary acceded bitterly. “Why isn’t Harper going?”

“Dad hasn’t told him anything about all this. As far as our father’s concerned, Harper doesn’t need to know anything—not after what he did in Richmond.”

Mary was glad Paul couldn’t see her rolling her eyes. “That wasn’t his fault, Paul.”

“How was it not his fault? He should be grateful it ended better than it could have. If those two men hadn’t gotten up and ran away, Harper would likely have killed them!”

“Didn’t you say they attacked your dad in the street?”

“They were common muggers, Mary—two sick, homeless people who probably wanted spare change. My father tends to exaggerate things. I have no doubt they gave him a good scare when they came out of that alley. William told me they were pale and diseased-looking. I’m sure it was terrifying.

“Now Harper’s with him, interprets their actions as violently hostile, and explodes into a frenzy. He beats them into the ground, pushes one of them into a street, and throws the other one down a stairwell. Somehow they get up and flee the scene, leaving my father badly shaken and Harper salivating for more blood. I mean hell, Mary, my father’s no weak-hearted man, but even he told me that Harper’s reaction was extreme. I don’t know what my brother’s problem is, but I’m sure William is doing the right thing by keeping him out of all this.”

Mary didn’t say anything.

“He’s a loose cannon, Mary. If he knew more about that journal, there’s no telling what he’d do. Trust me on this; it’s better that Harper knows as little as possible. If he wants to throw a fit, curse our father, and refuse his wishes, then that’s his business.”

“And what about me, Paul?” she challenged. “Am I a loose cannon, that you’re keeping all this from me? You say, ‘we’re going to New York,’ and I say, ‘ok.’ I don’t usually ask why, but I’m asking you this time. What’s going on?”

Paul hadn’t told her.

They had left the next day. They reached New York City in the late afternoon after driving for over seven hours. They checked into a hotel in Manhattan, driving through the car-clogged arteries of the city while the sky darkened threateningly overhead. A storm had followed them up from the south.

Paul had become increasingly paranoid during the trip, going from his usual irritability to a heavy unease that was palpably choking the atmosphere. They had driven with little talking, and this was unlike them. After checking in, Mary had suggested they go out, but he tried to insist that they stay at the hotel.

Mary had reached her breaking point with him; damned if she was going to stay trapped in a hotel room while he panicked and brooded in stubborn secrecy. Either he was going to offer her some well-deserved answers in exchange for her obedience, or he was going to have to stomach it and take her on a walk across the Big Apple.

She had never been to New York, but she had created a version of it in her mind, composed haphazardly from books and television shows, rumors and second-hand stories of rude pedestrians and lunatic taxis. The reality of it was immediate and abstract, a perpetually sudden chaos of lights and noises, towering buildings and unexpected architecture. Gothic churches and cathedrals towered menacingly over boutiques and souvenir shops selling gaudy trinkets. A swelling tide of people and cars, trucks and buses crashed against the cavernous and echoing chasms between skyscrapers.

She loved and hated it at the same time. It was powerful and uncaring, unpredictable and base. That night it started to rain by the time she dragged her husband into Times Square, one of the most recognized urban landscapes in the world. It was as a extravagant as she expected it to be, as unapologetically commercial, and she wanted desperately to enjoy it.

Then Paul muttered something peculiar. “We shouldn’t be out in the storm,” he said. She turned to him, narrowing her eyes and peering at him. She wanted to know whether he was just changing tactics on her, trying to pity her into relenting and going back to the hotel, but he had been sincere; his eyes told the story of it. He was genuinely afraid.

“What are you talking about?” she demanded, brushing a wet strand of red hair out of her eyes, the better to glare at him.

She had never seen him look so helpless. “This is going to sound crazy, I know, but I really think we should stay out of the storm. It was something my father said…” She knew he was lying.

“You won’t get me to listen by quoting your father,” she snapped, “so don’t lie to me about it. William just told you to run up to Albany and buy him a book—that’s all. And he told you not to read the journal. But you did, didn’t you? What was it? What has you both so riled-up, so frightened?”

That should have stung his pride. Mary had never known her husband to accept that he could be afraid. Her words didn’t even faze him. “I can’t tell you, Mary!” he yelled, startling a few passerbies and embarrassing her in the process. “You just have to trust me, and come back with me to the hotel…”

“Paul,” Mary said, shaking her head in angry astonishment, “you keep telling me about this mysterious journal. What do you think about all this, about what you’re doing? If you told me that someone was following us, or that we were racing against time to find this book before someone else did, I would be more prepared to understand that! But you’re telling me that we should stay out of the rain, for God’s sake!”

She would have continued arguing, but Paul had stopped paying attention to her. They had wandered into the Diamond District, a narrow street closed to traffic and lined with jewelry stores. The rain had intensified and was coming down in torrents and curtains. People were huddled in alcoves and doorways, clustered against one another. Others peered out of store windows, leaning over glass counters alight with the glow of gold and diamonds on display. The buildings towering darkly above the street made it seem narrower, tighter, shadows in the hidden spaces vying with the artificial glitter of flashing signs and backlit advertisements.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. The two of them were standing in the middle of the street. People were looking at them, their eyes twinkling in the shadows, but they were just figures painted into a gray background. She was focused on her husband, whose eyes were scanning their surroundings the way a man expecting an ambush would.

“Paul…?”

A shock of thunder and burst of lightning shook the street, so mighty that nearly everyone flinched and started back. Mary didn’t avert her eyes. She saw it clearly:

It came out of a curtain of rain in the instant of the lightning flash, darting towards Paul in the boom of thunder. She had time only to widen her eyes when its hand erupted out of her husband’s sternum, holding his bloody heart cupped in its hand. His face was a mask of horror, his eyes staring at the ruddy, red-veined hand holding his dying heart, a pulpy thing ticking in weak beats.

Mary had time only to open her mouth before the monster seized Paul with its other arm and tossed him over its cloaked shoulder. It darted away just as quickly as it had come, vanishing into an alley. She turned to follow, the people around her starting to recover from the suddenness of the blinding lightning and echoing thunder. She ran towards the narrow crevice between buildings, but she already knew that it was too late. The alley was empty.

The vampire had taken her husband away.

A few people had been looking curiously at her, but no one had noticed anything. The rain lessened and they began to venture out of the doorways and alcoves, flooding the street, moving uncaringly around her. She hadn’t even been able to cry out, or scream, or call for help. She could only stand there in numbed bewilderment, pacing the alley for desperate hours afterward as if Paul would pop out from behind a car, alive and well.

She had seen what she had seen. It wasn’t a hallucination; that much was confirmed by William and Harper when they arrived in New York less than a day later to join in the search. Harper was relentless, but she had hated William for doing close to nothing to find his son. He just gave up, reviling and pitying himself, slinking back to his estate with fatalistic despondency.

 

* * * *

 

Now

 

A portion of the woman’s shoulder erupted in a gory splash of blood and splintered bone. She screamed and fell backward against the mantelpiece. In falling her right arm passed through the grate and into the fire. She wailed piteously as her skin blackened sickeningly. She pulled her arm away while the other hung by a shred of skin and muscle from the pulped shoulder.

“What have I done?” Henry moaned, the hunting rifle tumbling from his hands.

Susan lay crumpled against the wall next to the mantelpiece, panting in semi-conscious agony. I finally reached Henry. I picked up the rifle, took a step away, and turned to aim the barrel point-blank between his eyes.

I didn’t hesitate, and he didn’t move.

His head was nearly cleaved in two by the blast. Henry collapsed backward, his head a ghastly mess above his jaw. His body writhed on the floor, his hands blindly trying to push the pieces of his face back together.

I watched in horrified fascination as he succeeded; the white skin began to mend itself.

Where was the vampire?

I turned to see it stooping over Susan. It fastened itself over the wound in her shoulder and began to heave inward, chugging the blood out of her thin body. I cried out in hateful protest, but it was already done. The vampire let her go and looked at me. I averted my eyes.

I heard a whimper and turned to see Henry start to convulse, his teeth gritted and his skin darkening to an ugly gray. He glared up at me as he withered, his body crusting over like a piece of wood burnt out from the inside. The husk spat and coughed in collapsing protest until it crumbled inward, sighing into a mound of dust. The dust swirled in place and snaked across the foyer and through the open door, scattering into the rain and night.

Both of them were dead. I was alone with the monster.

The vampire moved closer.

You will give me what I want, Harper Daniels. You will give me bits and pieces of yourself until there is nothing left but that which you are withholding from me. I will sift this out from among the ashes of your spirit and continue my journey, passing over the place of your death with no more concern than a cloud casting a moving shadow over the ruin of a fire-pit.

I was a fool to think I could handle this. The vampire did not speak aloud. I don’t know why I expected that it would. It bore only the semblance of human form, its language a strange mimicry of ours. Its words swirled like a vortex in the hollow of my chest, a chaotic pulling that made me gasp, trying to gulp mouthfuls of air as if they could relieve the intense pressure of its words. It was as if the vampire spoke directly into my heart.

The windows burst into the living room, shards of glass catching the firelight as they sprinkled through the air. The curtains tore away around the bulk of three black forms that leapt into the room.

Black dogs.

They crouched next to Susan’s body, sable hair bristling with hackled rage, fangs bared in slavering hunger. They made no sound as the fur around their nostrils rose in seething aggression. Their eyes were intelligent, keen, and calculating. They belonged completely to the vampire. They prowled around it, bowing their heads in deference to their master.

I backed away toward the foyer. I needed to reload the rifle, and the box of ammunition was still there.

The dogs started gnawing at Susan’s body, gnashing their teeth into her skin and digging with grotesque abandon into the broken cavity of her corpse. They locked their jaws on her and snapped their heads back and forth with a violence and speed that blurred the movement. One tore at her limbs, tugging and pulling until the ligaments and muscles, empty of blood, gave way and broke into tattered ribbons. Another busied itself with her organs, and the third pawed at her bones, its red tongue darting to get at the marrow.

I loaded the rifle, cocked it, aimed, and fired at one of the dogs. The bullet struck it in the shoulder, but the beast took it without pausing or expressing any sign of pain. I fired the second shot and got it through the eye. The frenzied orb ruptured in the socket, but the dog didn’t so much as flinch.

When I recovered from my shock and revulsion I realized that all this gruesome scene took place without a single noise except for the cracks of the two shots in the uncanny quiet. There was no sound otherwise, neither the crunching of bone nor the wet grating of torn muscle. It was as if the beasts were cloaked in an impenetrable vacuum of silence; not even the scratching of their claws over the carpet could be heard.

I watched in amazement and terror as they finished their grizzly work, devouring the body so quickly and so thoroughly that, in short time that I stood there, all evidence of the old woman’s slaughter was entirely obliterated. The dogs walked casually past me, casting me a glance of such inscrutable and impossible intelligence that I shuddered.

When this was done, the dogs turned in unison to their master. Something must have passed between them, for the dogs rushed through the broken windows in a flurry of black fur and disappeared into the night. I looked over to where the old woman had been, and I could detect no trace of what happened. Not a single drop of blood.

“Why are you doing this?” I demanded.

It must know that I didn’t have the journal. It must know that I would never tell it where the journal was. I didn’t care how much I suffered. I would hold onto that promise. I was no stranger to pain. I looked forward to the death that would seal my lips forever. It would spare Mary from having to face this horror.

The vampire looked at me.

Your family has caused me a good deal of trouble, Harper Daniels. Your ancestor gave his blood to quiet my appetite for a time, and I awoke from my silence to find his descendents troubling me still.

“I am the only one left,” I said, closing my eyes.

By design. I have bitten at the tree of your family’s life, waiting for you to ripen. I have fattened you with sorrow and righteous anger, preparing you for the slaughter. When you are ready, your blood will be like nectar to me. You will see that this world is ruled by desire, and desire is strongest in darkness and shadow. And there is no desire in the heart of man greater than the desire for immortality.

When you are ready, you will give me what I need.

Something in the air shifted, a palpable and charged heaviness that amplified every sound. The clouds overhead were latticed with branching lightning. The undulating shadows enveloping the vampire became agitated, writhing serpent-like.

“I’m never going to help you,” I said.

You already have.

“What are you talking about?”

You and the journal are bound to one another. It will find its way to you again, and all those who touch it will fall to me, as your father and brother have fallen. They will serve me, as your father and brother have served me.

My brother Paul always said I was thoughtless.

The rifle was useless against the vampire, but there was a butcher knife on the table. I grabbed it, lunging toward the vampire and plunging the blade into the center of the murky distortion that was its body. I don’t know what I expected to feel; the soft, pliant resistance of flesh, the wet yielding of torn muscle, the hard crunch of metal against bone.

I felt nothing of the kind. It was like stabbing a paper doll: a brief sensation of the knife’s tip passing through something, and then a hollowness, a cold absence that arced up my forearm like a magnified shiver. I dropped the knife and it clattered uselessly to the ground. I pulled my arm close to my chest, gasping in agony through clenched teeth.

I looked at my arm. It was shriveled and blue, the skin hanging in creased and mangled folds around the bone. I wanted to scream, but panic and shock had seized my throat. I gasped like a fish out of water, realizing in a distortedly logical way that I was going into shock.

The vampire turned, calmly, and reached out.

I was so startled by the sight of its arm, sliding lithely toward me, that I forgot my trauma and fastened my eyes on it. It had the same blurred quality as the vampire’s uncertain features, and seemed made of fired clay, a ruddy brown that reminded me of ancient pottery. Veins of crimson visibly palpitated with stolen blood, snaking over the ligaments of its hand.

I wanted to back away, but I stood transfixed, cradling my ruined arm against my chest. The vampire clamped its hand over my desiccated wrist. There was a sensation of unpleasant warmth, and I watched in repulsed fascination as my arm changed beneath its grasp.

When the vampire took its hand away, my strength and challenge went with it. My vision swam as I looked at my arm. It was horribly altered. Pallid and strange, it looked like the arm of an antique porcelain doll, white and cracked.

“My God, what have you done to me?” I whispered.

I can take life and I can give life. The life I give is immortal life.

“I don’t want your life!” I screamed. I dropped to the floor, clutching at the knife. I gripped it in my left hand, closed my eyes, and stabbed it into my right arm. The knife crunched into the flesh, passing sickeningly through the skin, glancing against the bone and chipping the tiled floor underneath. I opened my eyes to see the knife lodged there. There was no blood. There was no pain.

“God no,” I breathed. I didn’t want this. I drew out the knife, watching the skin fold back into place. I looked up at the vampire, rage in my eyes.

You will become my instrument, Harper Daniels.

It raised its arms and there was a sudden rush of wind through the open door. I stared in awe as the vampire seemed to dissolve, unraveling into tendrils of thick smoke. It coiled into the stormy night. The house shook with thunder; the vampire was gone.

I ran to the threshold of the doorway. I stood braced against the frame, my body shaking violently, my vision wavering in fevered disorientation. I wanted to believe that none of this had happened, but my arm was testament to the cruel reality of it. I couldn’t bear to look at it. I wanted to take the knife and try again, but I knew it was useless. The house was empty. Those damned dogs had even managed to lick the blood off the walls.

It only took a moment, replaying it in my mind. A moment, and I was irrevocably altered. I almost wished for pain, something to mark the transition from what I was before—I flexed my strange, inhuman fingers—to what I was now. Something tainted.

I tried to piece together the chain of events that had led to this, a chain stretching back for generations to one man: Jonah Daniels.

My mind flashed back to Mary, running for her life to a place where I hoped she would be safe. She might find a way to end this. I didn’t want to be responsible for undoing all that Jonah had martyred himself to accomplish.

I needed to get out of here.

The vampire had taken the storm with it; the night outside was clear. The predawn stars paled in the softening sky. I turned to walk towards the center of town, dragging my feet and keeping my corrupted hand deep in my pocket. I didn’t want to see it. It was wretchedly cold; my breath blew past my face in vapors. I was staggering drunkenly. God, I was so weak.

I didn’t get very far.

A figure stepped out of the shadows in front of me, coming to stand just beyond the ring of sickly yellow light thrown over the sidewalk by a streetlamp. I halted, wavering on my feet, peering at the silhouette.

I thought it might be a mugger, a petty mortal predator skulking after drunken passerby in the early hours of the morning. Then I saw, when he moved beneath the light, that his face was wrong. He had the same colorless and cracked appearance as Henry, as my arm.

He looked fragile, as if a strike with a hammer in the right place would shatter his face into countless pieces. I knew otherwise. There was a feral quality to the man, the restless pacing of an inhuman, bloodthirsty thing.

“Harper Daniels!” He shouted. How did he know my name?

I stumbled to the side, my shoulder crashing harshly against the brick façade of a storefront.

“You’re not going to make it very far,” the man said.

“What do you want?” I mumbled weakly, feeling myself sag brokenly.

“I want to help you,” he said, coming closer.

“Stay away from me. What are you?” I asked, trying to rally my strength. I succeeded in pushing away from the wall. Damned if I was going to let this thing get a hold of me.

“I am like you,” he said, moving closer. His eyes moved down to my arm. I tried to move away. Running was out of the question. The night had taken its toll, and the vampire had made certain I wouldn’t have the strength to do more than lurch a few paces before dropping into a gutter. It had sent its servant to pick me up, drag me wherever it wanted.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” I hissed, digging deep for strength. Let him think I was stronger than I looked. That might be enough to deter him, out in the open. He wouldn’t risk an altercation where anyone passing by might take notice.

It didn’t work.

In a flash, he was on me.

 

Jonah Daniels’s Journal

 

 

10 August, 1900

 

I should have known better than to believe that I could ever see my wife and son again. Roberts tried to tell me, but I would not listen. How could I? The past two years have been one unbroken nightmare, unrelenting and unremitting since my discovery of those wretched tablets in South America. How I wish I had never found them! How I wish that I had never seen that place, hidden in the dark bowels of the earth; and how right my poor guide had been to consider those caverns an extension of hell, born up to the surface of the world the way a man might vomit a poison unsettling his belly.

I credit myself with only one moment of lucidity; for I had thought to bring those tablets home and translate them there, in the comfort of my study. Yet I knew, somehow, what ill-fortune my discovery would bring. At the time, I thought it a scholarly decision; Florence, Rome, and the great libraries of Europe boast resources unmatched even by the ivy-covered universities of New England. Surely I must have known, when I had a few moments of peace to regard those tablets and the language etched into their clay, that there were no resources anywhere in this world that could have availed me—none, truly, but one: McEvelin Roberts.

Despite all that happened in Florence, I was foolish enough to imagine that I could go home to my wife and son. All that I suffered, all that I learned and felt, was so far beyond the ken of normal men that it seemed as if I were adrift on a treacherous sea beneath alien stars, with no compass or sense of direction. I went so far as to book passage to Virginia, gathering my belongings with the blind fervor of an addict clinging to the illusion of choice. Roberts, in one of his rare moments of genuine understanding, did not interrupt my preparations; indeed, if he did, I would have shot him dead. I had to arrive at that conclusion myself, without his interference.

Before we parted ways, Roberts and I discussed whether I should destroy this journal. He was of the opinion that I should burn it. It will remain a lure to the vampire for as long as it survives, and neither I nor anyone who comes in contact with it is safe. Containing the only transcription and translation of the tablets’ contents, I have all but guaranteed that I alone possess what my immortal pursuer wants more than blood: the key to uncovering the location of its birthplace.

I know that my life is over. I will as faithfully as possible here narrate the content of a most remarkable encounter. If not for the man who intercepted me just prior to my quitting Italy, I would have sailed to my home shore and signed my own family’s death warrant. I have known war to follow men home from the battlefield, tormenting them unceasingly and distorting their perceptions more ably and terribly than any opiate—but this—this demon will never let me go.

Leaving Roberts was a breath of fresh air, and with this journal in my satchel I allowed myself to entertain the ludicrous notion that, with our work accomplished, I could put all that behind me. I was giddy with anticipation, and I fully expected that I would see my family in a fortnight. I took a room in a hotel some distance away from the port at Lido di Ostia, allowing myself to marvel at how much the world had changed in less than half a century. The marks of the industrial revolution that had seized England were rapidly encroaching even here, in the birthplace of the Renaissance. The great galleons and sailing vessels that had chartered the seas and braved the edge of the world were replaced by the titanic metal behemoths of a new era.

When evening came I found myself hungrier than I had been in months. I went down to the bar and took a stool near a cluster of foreigners speaking French. I know the language well, and delighted in eavesdropping on their conversation. I did not interrupt, but contented myself with listening to the common talk of people who did not know that monsters were real. I found myself smiling, remembering when my conversations were similarly innocent. So enrapt I was that I did not see the man who sat down beside me.

I noticed his hand first, white and scarred. I glanced surreptitiously at him, only to find him staring fixedly at me. Unnerved, I drew away. He smiled and leaned forward, his eyes glittering beneath a deeply furrowed brow, his pale face grizzled with an unshaven beard that would never grow longer nor succumb to the edge of a blade.

“I know who you are,” he said, “Johan Daniels. Your work has stirred up quite a bit of trouble. You’ve caught the monster’s attention, and it has set its sights on you.” His eyes drifted down to the satchel at my hip. “You’re a liability to everyone around you. If you’re not careful, you will leave a trail of bodies in your wake.”

I reached down, brought the journal into my lap, and tightened my grip on it. “Who are you?”

“Someone who knows about those tablets you recovered from South America. You can’t unearth something like that without anyone noticing, Mr. Daniels. Admittedly, we expected you to return to Virginia with your prize and go about making a show of it.”

Something in his tone made it plain that he—or whomever he represented—would have taken measures to prevent that from happening. “And when I didn’t…?”

The man smiled. “We lost track of you until you reached out to a colleague of yours. This circle is woven tighter than you can imagine. You see—we know McEvelin Roberts. We’ve known him for a long time.”

“You’re American,” I said.

“I am,” he said, “all the way from New York. Now I’ve a story to tell you and I advise you to listen carefully. I already know that you’ve taken passage on a vessel bound for Virginia. That is a mistake—” he raised his hand to interrupt what I had been about to say, “and if you consider the matter, you will see plainly enough that to return home is tantamount to murder. The vampire will slaughter you and everyone around you. It has done this before.”

“What would suggest I do, then? Destroy the journal and surrender myself?”

“Why don’t you?”

His question gave me pause. Why indeed? I was the one who discovered the tablets; I was the one who brought them to Italy and contacted McEvelin Roberts. I was the one who insisted we complete our work, knowing full well that the dark fable recounted by the ancient writer whose etchings we translated spoke not of an imaginary monster, but an evil as old as the world itself. Surely, I should hold myself accountable.

All the while I struggled with these thoughts, this man regarded me as if knowing every thought as it appeared and turned in my mind. He knew also that I would not do it. I would neither destroy the journal nor surrender myself. The only question remained whether he would try and seize the journal himself, and do what I could not.

“If I’ve guessed your thoughts correctly, Mr. Daniels,” he said, “you intend to stay alive. Very good! If you thought me here to convince you otherwise, you are mistaken. No—I am here at the behest of a woman very dear to me…someone whose sight was not limited to the past and present but encompassed the future also.”

“It is not enough that I should believe in monsters,” I said, “you would have me believe in oracles also? What sort of game are you playing? Speak sense, or leave me be—”

He frowned. “I can do neither, if you will not listen! She knew you would not surrender, Jonah Daniels. She knew you could not, and she also knew that you would have a good deal further to go from here—farther even than you can imagine now.”

“Who is this woman?”

“Her name was Helen. Years ago, after McEvelin Roberts abandoned his studies at the University, his path crossed hers. She knew even then that Roberts possessed an uncanny knowledge, more dangerous than he could have realized. She knew about the tablets, and she knew that he alone could translate them…”

“How could she have possibly known that? Those tablets had been buried for centuries! It was only by a bizarre turn of circumstance that those caverns were even opened at all! For heaven’s sake, an earthquake had unsettled a wall of solid rock that had sealed off an entire village buried underneath a mountain!”

The man smiled. “Nonetheless, she knew. Helen also knew what Roberts was hoping to find: there are clues scattered across the world, and it takes a keen eye and a willing mind to recognize the mystery they point to…”

“The vampire.”

“True immortality. That is what Roberts was looking for. All he needed was a push in the right direction. Helen promised to show him something that would point him in that direction—an artifact of incredible age and power. Roberts didn’t hesitate. He agreed to meet with her, and she made good on her promise.”

“He didn’t tell me any of this…”

“Of course not. Roberts is a secretive man. Does it surprise you that he would have this from you? Besides, telling you outright may have dissuaded you from finishing your work on the tablets.”

“What did she show him? What was this artifact?”

“I’m afraid any description of mine would do it little justice,” he said. “ Suffice it to say that it was enough to commit Roberts to his course. After their meeting, Helen ended her journey in New York. She died in the wilderness of the Adirondacks, among a unique collective of people who undertook the burden of her stewardship.”

“Stewardship? Of this artifact?” The man nodded. I made the connection instantly. “You were among this collective of people,” I said.

He nodded. “I am. If I could have foreseen the strange turnings of fortune that brought me there, only months before Helen’s arrival, I would have remained where I was. But these are idle daydreams. It is no easy burden that Helen left us with, but we didn’t have a choice and neither did she. Her flight had come to an end, and she was with child. She could go no further, and it was there beside the waters of our encampment in the forest that she died in childbirth, leaving us with the responsibility of rearing her daughter and safeguarding the artifact. That was some time ago—over ten years, I expect, though I had little sense of time beyond the passing of seasons.”

He smiled. “This is a story that will require more time than we have at present. Rest assured you will hear it; but for the moment I will tell you only that Helen entrusted me with an additional task. She misjudged Roberts, and in showing him the artifact she expected that his course would lead him to the vampire—a problem that would take care of itself. She didn’t expect that you would find the tablets and contact Roberts. No one can foresee the strange threads that bind us together over time and distance, nor what happens when we tug on a single one of these.”

“Things rarely happen the way we would wish them to,” I said.

“When I learned that Roberts had received your letter and was en route to Italy, I had no choice but to follow…not the simplest proposition, Mr. Daniels, when you have not a penny to your name and no name besides. I arrived in Italy too late, but I am hoping I can salvage some of what I set out to do.”

“What was it, dammit?” I hissed, my anger suddenly stirred by the damnable mystery of it all. “What did Mary show Roberts? What is this artifact, and why is it so important? Why are you here? If you mean to help me, then be plain about it, and do away with all your vagueness!”

The man raised his hands in a gesture of mocking placation. “Come now!” he said. “Not all mysteries are better revealed all at once. Besides, I have good reason for keeping you in the dark: you must agree to accompany me to New York, into the Adirondacks, and I must have your word that you will speak to no one until we arrive at our destination.”

“Are you mad?” I demanded angrily. “I have no intention of going anywhere with you…”

“Are you planning to return to your family, then?” he asked with a cruel scoff. “What do you imagine that you left behind in Florence? Do you suppose Roberts is well? Drinking his Italian wine and smoking his opium? What now—I suppose you reckon that everything can be explained away?” he continued relentlessly, his words turning a knife in my gut. “What else? Will you sit with your wife and son and relate all your brave adventures over supper?”

I glowered at him, refusing to avert my eyes. He did not shy away from my gaze. “Listen, Mr. Daniels, I am here for my own reasons, I’ll grant you that—you are no fool, to think my motives entirely courteous. But let me tell you that my reasons are your reasons. I want to be free of this nightmare.”

“What of Roberts?” I challenged. “What do you know?”

The man sighed. “What do you think? The monster took him, Mr. Daniels, only days after you left.”

Roberts was dead, then. The news should have shaken me, but instead carved a hollow into my soul. With every minute and hour that passed I imagined myself closer to my wife and son; but at that moment, following this man’s words, that hope fell into sudden darkness. I couldn’t see my wife and son. Their faces were smeared over, the canvas of my memory torn by the hand of a predator older than history.

The man must have known that his words had struck a violent chord, because he remained silent for awhile, waiting for me to digest the news of Roberts’s death.

“So,” he said when I looked at him again, “what is your answer? Will you accompany me to New York? Will you agree to see what Mary showed Roberts, all those years ago?”

“What then? If I should agree to your terms, what then?”

“Then, Mr. Daniels, I expect you will have to make a decision. I am offering you the opportunity to make a well-informed decision, at least. Now, you are fleeing blindly, and you haven’t a chance in the world to outrun the storm. Come with me, see what I have to show you, and you may yet find a way out of this…you may yet find some way to set us both free.”

What choice did I have, really?

 

True Immortality: The First Chapter

Dear Readers:

What follows is the first chapter of my full-length novel, True Immortality. I will soon publish the entire manuscript on Amazon Kindle. If you enjoy the excerpt below, please look for the full novel or contact me for more details on how to find and download it. If you enjoy vampire fiction, and believe that vampires should be frightening, read on!

 

Prologue

 

 

 

I am your perfect predator.

I have never been mortal. I have never been human.

I evolved alongside you, darting through the shadows in the mud you crawled from, watching as you staggered upright and babbled in the infant tongues of your race.

I have always been there.

In the days before the Flood I ranged over the earth, drinking the blood of living things to sate my unending thirst. I came in the storms, in thunder and lightning. When the sky darkened and the clouds gathered, beasts fled the meadow and creeping things bowed low to the ground. In curtains of cold rain I descended and culled the wandering tribes of men. In every place they settled I came to them and hunted them.

I was there, when you cowered in your mud-hovels during the night. I was there, when you poured your sweat and blood into the foundation-stones of temples that no one would remember. I was there, listening to your grunting as your took your pleasure in one another, as you spat out blood-soaked children from your wombs, as you labored in the fields, as you withered on your pallets while the priests of your clans muttered their base incantations.

I was there until the flood-waters usurped the earth. I languished in the deep places, listening to the echoes of your dying. The earth became silent. Even by my reckoning the earth remained silent for many ages.

I heard again the tongues of men, seeping into my awareness like a blotch of ink crawling through the fibers of a paper. My thirst was rekindled and I arose, finding the world changed. The place of my origin had been lost to the waters, and in my long slumber the knowledge of it had passed from me and from the collective memory of my prey. I searched for it, passing over the earth in the storms, but I could not find it.

I adapted as you adapted. You learned to wield iron, I learned to withstand its sharp touch. You learned to fire thunder, I learned to relish the flame. Civilizations rose and fell, ages of wonder followed ages of darkness. And still I came in the storms to drink the wellspring of your blood, and in my silent predation I went unknown and unseen, becoming a thing of tales, legends, and fictions.

Another age began to dawn. The meaningless superstitions of your childish imaginings were replaced with the equally meaningless jargon of reason. Towers rose above temples, coins replaced icons, and the watchful ancestors of your tribes faded into murky remembrance. Your history died, and from its carcass came spurting and squirming the promise of a new era: an age of industry, where the fires that had warmed your fragile flesh in the winters and cooked your kills would now fuel the machines of your irrepressible greed.

I cannot die. There is neither art nor industry that can end me. I am eternal. My thirst is eternal.

I look for my place of rest. Only there can I let go of the storms that follow  me, and abide in utter darkness. Only there can I make another in my image, and consummate the sacrament of my pilgrimage with the gift of true immortality.

 

 

Chapter One:

Laying it Out

 

 

Now

 

I turned off the water and punched the shower stall. The pain gave me something to focus on. Drying my face with a clean towel, I was momentarily startled by my appearance in the mirror; my thick brown hair was tangled and unkempt, my face was pale and haggard, nearly lost in the dark moss of an unshaven beard. My gray eyes gleamed underneath a troubled brow, encircled by the rough marks of many sleepless nights.

I dressed and went downstairs to join the old woman for dinner. A glass cabinet gathered dust in one corner of the dining room, the shelves lined with trinkets collected from every corner of the world. Family portraits spanning several generations stood in tarnished silver frames on an old cherry wood table topped with handmade doilies. A tall ceramic vase holding dry reeds and old cattails stood underneath a painted copy of Degas’ ballet dancers.

She had prepared a banquet fit for a king. I was her only guest, as far as I knew—I had asked her that question when I checked in—but there was another place setting put out.

I nodded toward the place setting and asked, “Is someone else staying here?”

The old woman smiled, her warm eyes crinkling at the edges. “No,” she said wistfully. “I keep a place for my husband; he’s been gone six months now.” She looked over at the plate and silverware, arranged to perfection on the table.

“I’m sorry,” I said, seating myself. A plate of soup steamed in front of me, and I didn’t realize how hungry I was until I asked myself how long it’d been since my last meal. It was days ago; a diner, just before I said goodbye to Mary. I remember looking at her across the marbled table, saying nothing, watching her red hair tumble across her forehead as she looked down, unwilling to meet my eyes.

“…there was a storm,” the old woman was saying, and I looked up. She was staring at a picture of her husband on a small table. “A terrible storm. We didn’t see it coming. It knocked out the power lines. We were sitting here, huddled beside the fireplace…” her eyes narrowed as she braced herself against the memory. “He heard someone calling for help,” she continued, “out there in the storm. You couldn’t see your hand if you held it out in front of your face; everything was covered in ice and buried in snow. Everyone here knows better than to go outside when it’s like that. But my husband…he heard someone calling for help.” She smiled. “He could never turn away someone who needed help,” she said proudly. She sighed and a distant look came into her eyes. “He was lost in the storm.

“They looked for him, of course,” she continued, noticing that I had finished my soup. She rose and took my plate into the kitchen, returning to load another with buttered toast, venison, and a generous portion of spiced potatoes. “Everyone pitched in; he was a well-respected man. I keep a place setting out for him, hoping that he’ll find his way home.”

I glanced at her, trying to gauge whether she seriously believed that her husband had survived the storm and was wandering around in the wilderness, looking for a way back. She did.

She sat down again and watched me with a warm smile. “Do you like the food?” she asked.

“Oh yes,” I answered earnestly. “It’s the best I’ve had in a while.”

“You know,” she went on, hardly touching her own plate, “you remind me of a man who passed through here six months ago, just before the storm came.”

I looked up at her. She was gazing abstractly into her memory, oblivious to the whitening of my knuckles around the silverware I was holding. I already knew who she was talking about, but waited breathlessly for her to remember. When she looked at me again she smiled and said nothing.

“Who was it?” I said, struggling to control my voice. “Where did he come from? What did he look like?”

The old woman was taken aback. I had questioned her too fiercely. I looked down at my plate and took a bite of food, trying to mitigate my intensity. The pain of her husband’s loss was still fresh, and here I was rubbing salt into the wound. But I needed to know.

“He looked rather like you, come to think of it,” she said cautiously. “He didn’t say where he was from.”

“What was his name?”

“I’m sorry, young man, but I don’t remember.”

I looked away. “My father passed through here, six months ago,” I said. What I didn’t say was that he was looking for a journal written by Jonah Daniels, his great-grandfather. Jonah died over a hundred years ago.

He sacrificed his life to put the vampire in the ground for a century.

Six months ago, on a somber Tuesday in the middle of a wintry February, my father discovered the ruins of an old market town. It was deep in the wilderness of northwest Alaska, near the gray Pacific, nestled in a knot of mountains blanketed by pine forests and laced with glaciers.

Over a hundred years ago, an ancient evil had destroyed an entire town in that place. Not a single person was left alive. Everything from surveyor’s maps to civic records were somehow erased. Everyone who knew anything about it vanished or was killed in apparently unsuspicious ways; a string of deaths and disappearances that would appear meaningless to anyone but those directly involved.

Jonah Daniels’ sacrifice had spared my family two generations of death and suffering, but at the end of the day, the vampire had crawled up out of the bowels of the deep earth. My father’s recovery of Jonah’s journal guaranteed that it would hunt down every member of my family until the vampire repaid my ancestor’s victory with the blood of his descendants.

“Oh!” the woman exclaimed, “that was your father…”

She would have said more, but a knock at the door abruptly cut her off.

The old woman paused and looked momentarily bewildered. “Goodness,” she said, “it’s already dark outside; who would come knocking now?” She rose from her chair. I felt a wave of apprehension sweep over me. I wanted to stop her from answering that door. I knew beyond doubt that nothing good would come of it. I kept my place, watching her walk past me and into the foyer.

I got up, turning to see her peering through the windows of the door.

“Don’t do it,” I managed to whisper, but it was too late. Her eyes widened, her hands flew to her mouth in surprise, and after a moment of speechless disbelief, she burst into a weeping shriek of joy. I moved closer, feeling the steely terror that a prisoner feels when faced with a firing squad.

It was happening. The vampire was here.

 

* * * *

 

Two weeks ago

 

“Let’s start with what we know,” Mary said.

“Let’s start with coffee,” I said, flagging the waitress over. Mary shook her head and smiled. She tried to start again, but I put a finger to my lips and grinned. She huffed, blew a wayward strand of red hair away from her face, and sighed. When the coffee came a few minutes later—the first brew of the day—we took a few minutes to enjoy it. I was grateful for that.

“We can’t fight it, we can’t outrun it, and we can’t outthink it. It is older than the pyramids. It is immortal, impossibly powerful, and virtually unstoppable. It manipulates an army of Changed Ones across the world, like pieces on a chessboard. It changes shape, rides the storms, and damn near nothing can hurt it, much less kill it.”

Mary glanced out the window, lowering the coffee cup as her eyes focused on the sky above the small street outside the diner. I heard the clink of the cup as it shook against the saucer. Mary noticed it too and her eyes snapped back to the table, immediately fixing on the old journal between us.

“It wants two things above all else,” I said. “Blood, and this journal,” I reached out to tap the leather-bound book. “I’ll bet you wish you’d never read it.” I put down the empty coffee mug, ignoring the emptiness in my stomach. I was too tired to eat. Too tired, and so knotted up with fear and anxiety that I found myself daydreaming about running out there and shouting up at the storm, having it out with the damned vampire and finishing it. I just wanted to end this godforsaken torment. I had reached my limit with it.

I willed myself to snap to and focus my attention on the present moment. I narrowed my eyes at the journal and cursed it, cursed my father for finding it, cursed the trail of poison breadcrumbs that had led him to it.

When the waitress came around again I started to motion for the check.

“Oh no, you don’t,” Mary interrupted, taking the poor girl by surprise. “You’ve been subsisting on nothing but trail mix and vitamin water. You’re going to look at the menu again, and you’re going to order something…” she looked for the right word, “…positively gluttonous.”

I stared her for a moment. I broke into a grin—the vampire can go to hell, I thought—and ordered something that would fill my belly. I caught Mary smiling at me across the table. I knew what she was thinking, clear as if she’d outright said it: Paul wouldn’t have reacted the same way.  He would have ignored her.

God, how he wanted to run with her forever! To the edge of the world, even; but he knew that there was no place they could go the vampire could not follow. The only question in my mind was what we were going to do about it.

“My father and brother died for that journal,” I said. “Every instinct is telling me that we should just burn it. We’re endangering everyone around us. That journal has left nothing but horror and misery in its wake. I wish you had never read it, to be honest.”

Her green eyes pleaded with me. “I had to, Harper. After what happened in New York, I started to remember…” she cut herself off. I could tell she was weighing how much she wanted to tell me. How much had she told my brother? She must have guessed my thought when she looked into my eyes. “It was already too late to tell Paul,” she said. “He couldn’t possibly have known that the bloodlines of our two families have been entwined from the very beginning.”

“What’s the plan, Mary?”

She looked out the window—first at the clear blue sky, then at the street. They were just outside of Albany, New York. “Come with me, Harper. You don’t have to do this. We can do this together.”

“Mary,” I said, “you know what this thing is capable of!” We both knew. My father and older brother were dead. Behind us, all was pain and sorrow. “You haven’t told me where we’re going, Mary.”

“The same place your great-great-grandfather went, after he fled Italy with this journal and long before he found himself in central Alaska: the place where I was born and raised, Harper. The place where my mother entrusted me with secrets that I have since buried so deep that I remember nothing but a childhood dream-world of phantoms and mysteries. There is something there, Harper; something that my mother believed would help us against the vampire.”

I grabbed the journal off the table and stuffed it violently into my satchel. I didn’t want to look at it anymore. I knew what I had to do—the decision was already made. I hadn’t been able to focus on it because of how I felt about her, but my feelings were the reason I knew I had made the right choice.

Mary glanced outside the window again—it had become second nature to us both, in so short a time—and she saw the bank of dark clouds gathering to the south.

“I see it,” I put the fork down and slid the plate away. “I’ve lost my appetite. I really do wonder,” I said, looking at the incoming storm, “with all those satellites, telescopes, cameras, and high-end toys used by the governments of the world…can no one see it?”

“You know the answer to that, Harper.”

“Incredible. Listen, Mary—it’s better if I play the bait in this game. Don’t…” I put my hand up to forestall her interjection, “…just don’t. If it’s the two of us running, there’s just no chance. No chance in hell. We have to split up, Mary. I’ll lead it on a merry chase, and you get yourself to this place you keep talking about. And don’t tell me where it is. You can’t. If I know, and if…no, when…the vampire catches up to me…I can’t know anything about where you’re going.”

“So you expect me to just leave you? That’s brilliant.”

I played it more cavalier than I felt, but she saw right through me. “It’ll be alright,” I tried weakly. I didn’t want her to penetrate into my reasons—now wasn’t the time for her to know how much I felt for her. I was ready to sacrifice myself for her.

“Everything will be alright once you find this artifact,” I said. “You find it, bring it back, and we’ll use it to put the vampire in the ground. Only this time, it won’t be for a hundred years. We’ll destroy the journal once it’s done and make sure this never happens again.”

“What if I’m wrong? What if it’s not there anymore? It’s been years since…”

I shook my head. “What do you want me to tell you? That’s it’s a long shot? It’s the only shot we got, Mary. You told me yourself, not too long ago—one of the only things you’ve told me—is that your mother knew this would happen. You didn’t believe it then, but you sure as hell believe it now…”

“Paul’s dead because of me, Harper,” she began to say.

“My brother is dead because my father retrieved Jonah’s journal, and my father’s probably dead because it doesn’t make sense that the vampire wouldn’t tie up every loose end we’ve left behind. Right now, my ignorance is the only thing I can use to defend you, Mary…”

That was it; I had given myself away. She knew then that I loved her.

She also knew that she couldn’t stop me.

“I’ll try,” was all she said.

 

* * * *

 

Now

 

“Henry!” the old woman cried, “you’ve come back!”

I shook my head, reaching out toward her. I may as well have been moving in slow motion. She tore open the door, her hand clutching at her heart as if to steady it. There was a man standing outside; he looked to be in his late sixties, and his face matched the picture on the table—but something was wrong with him.

His skin was as white as his hair and laced with a fine network of tiny cracks. His face was almost translucent, shimmering beneath the drops of rain that traced his countless wrinkles. His eyes were cold above a strange, disconcerting smile. His wife didn’t notice any of this; she was transported with elation. All she knew was that her husband had come back. She was right, she knew he would, and now everything was going to be alright again.

“Susan,” he said. She rushed forward to embrace him. A peal of thunder rocked the house, and I looked up to see the stars blacked out by a night-storm flashing with lightning. Snow fell mixed with rain, and it was so cold that the water was already freezing on the ground.

“Can I come in?” he asked.

“No!” I shouted, but my warning went unnoticed.

“God yes,” Susan whispered breathlessly, disengaging from the embrace and stepping backward into the house. “Come in where it’s warm,” she said. She turned to me. “Young man, won’t you go into the kitchen and prepare some water for a hot tea?”

“I…” she wasn’t listening. She ushered her husband over the threshold and guided him toward the fireplace in the living room.

“Henry, you must be freezing,” she cooed. “Where were you all this time? Are you alright? Oh, I have so many questions! Goodness, but you must be famished! I’ve made some dinner…”

“I’m not hungry,” he said.

She continued to fuss over him, but he gripped her by her frail shoulders and held her at arm’s length. “Susan,” he said, trying to keep her from flurrying about and seeing to comforts he no longer needed, “Susan!” She stopped at last and focused on him. She looked into his eyes and I knew that she was beginning to realize something was utterly wrong.

“Henry, are you alright?”

He smiled coldly again. “I’m fine,” he said. “Susan, listen. There is someone waiting outside, in the cold and dark. He’s a friend of mine, someone I’ve been waiting all this time for you to meet. Can he come in?”

“Susan,” I said, “you can’t…”

“But you must,” Henry said to her. She looked at him and nodded mechanically.

“Of course,” she said, “you know I wouldn’t turn anyone away.”

“That’s my girl,” Henry said darkly, pushing her toward the open door. I saw something outside. In the cold and dark. Glittering eyes and writhing shadows. Susan must not have seen the same thing I did, because she smiled and invited it inside.

I glanced at the mirror opposite the entrance. The glass fractured with a sharp report, blackening as if a blot of ink had burst behind it. The wall behind it sighed and a crack sprang up from underneath the floorboards and raced across the ceiling. The mirror fell with a crash. The hanging Tiffany lamp trembled and its bulbs burst, scattering darkness over the foyer. A quiet thicker than a winter’s night in the empty wilderness swept into the house.

The vampire crossed the threshold.

It was draped in shadow and blurred edges, and I tried to focus on it. I couldn’t; it was like trying to look through a broken camera lens at an image underwater. The vampire’s features sharpened for a moment, then became indistinct. I looked at its clothes and saw only shapes and suggestions. It was frustrating and agonizing and it didn’t make sense. I clenched my teeth and stared and tried not to blink but it didn’t work. 

There was only one constant: its eyes glinted from dark, shadowed sockets, regardless of the light, regardless of whether it turned its face this way or that. There were no clear features around its eyes at all, neither the vague outline of lids or crow’s feet, nor the bony ridge of an emptied skull. It was only shadow, and those pinpoints of light shifting through colors as if prisms were suspended where its eyes should have been, catching and refracting stray bits of luminance.

I knew it was staring at me, but I couldn’t look at it. It was like looking at a black hole.

The old woman began to tremble and quiver; she was staring fixedly at the floor. Henry came near her, wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and led her away from the vampire. He sat her in front of the fireplace, kneeled before her, and whispered something I couldn’t hear. She nodded weakly. Henry got up and walked toward me.

“Harper Daniels,” he said to me. I didn’t reply. “The vampire told me all about you. I met your father, did you know that? I met him when he passed through here six months ago. He was carrying something.”

I said nothing.

“A journal,” Henry continued. The vampire stood behind him, silent.

I took a deep breath and tried to get my heart to stop rattling my chest with its thunder, tried to stop my stomach from crawling up my spine into my throat. It wasn’t working, and the effort was bringing on a fierce headache that was making this nightmare a good deal worse.

“A journal written by your great-great-grandfather. Where is it?”

This was good. Things were going exactly as I’d expected; the vampire had come after me. Right now, hundreds of miles away, Mary was getting herself to safety.

“Don’t play games with the vampire,” Henry snapped. I glanced at his wife; she was trembling. I began to fear for her life. Henry smiled, catching my look. “You worry about my wife?” he asked. “How noble of you. She’s a nice old woman, isn’t she?” Something in his eyes flickered, some trace of humanity lost six months ago, the day the vampire called out to him from the storm.

“Aren’t you worried about her?” I demanded.

Henry glowered at me, turning to look at the vampire. I wondered how he could bear to look at it. I tried again, and it felt as if my mind were suddenly seized by a rough hand and pulled through a meat grinder until nothing remained but a mess of madness and fear. I tore my eyes away and watched Susan instead, weeping in front of the fire. God, that poor woman—

“Harper,” Henry said, turning back to me. “You’d better just talk to me. Don’t try and play the hero, because it won’t make any difference.”

I shook my head. “No? Jonah made a difference. He put the vampire in the ground for a hundred years. His sacrifice spared countless lives. I’m willing to make the same sacrifice,” I declared, clenching my fists.

Henry looked dejected. “You seem like a nice boy, Mr. Daniels,” he said. “Six months ago, I would have applauded your bravery. I would have turned to Susan and said, ‘this world would be a better place if there were more like him.’” He shrugged. “I look at things somewhat differently now. In the end, the vampire will always come back, whether it takes a hundred years or a thousand. In the end,” he said, “the vampire will continue its pilgrimage until it reaches its destination.”

“Its pilgrimage?”

Henry nodded. “That’s right. The vampire’s just trying to find its way back to where it came from. That’s what all this is about…”

“I told you,” I said, “I don’t have the journal.”

“But you read it, didn’t you? You know what’s in it. You can give the vampire what it wants. Do it, and all this can end right now.”

“No,” I answered.

“So it’s back to the basics, eh?” Henry asked sadly. He turned away and walked into the living room, disappearing around a corner for a moment. He continued to talk. “Every pilgrimage has a destination. It is both a journey and a sacrament validated upon completion.

“This is a pilgrimage that has lasted for as long as men have killed one another over plots of land and proper sacrifices,” he said, reappearing with a hunting rifle in one hand, a box of ammunition in the other. He set the weapon on a small table across from the door and proceeded to calmly load it.

“Do you think you’re in a position to stop it?” he asked, cocking the rifle. “Do you think anyone’s in a position to stop it?”

He turned and pointed the weapon at his wife.

“What are you doing?” I roared. “That’s your wife…!”

“I know,” Henry said, a tremor in his voice. “I don’t want to do this…” he whispered, his own pale hand trembling. The rifle barrel shook in the tensioned air. I was conscious of the vampire pivoting in place, turning its masklike face toward Henry. “I can’t do this,” Henry said, raising his voice.

“I won’t let you do it,” I said. I started to run toward the living room. Henry stood aiming the rifle at Susan, who had turned in the chair to stare incredulously at her husband. She shook her head pleadingly.

“You can put an end to this, Harper,” Henry yelled. “Just tell the vampire what you know about the journal. Tell it where the journal is!”

“I don’t have it! I can take you to it!” I lied, trying to infuse my voice with as much angry sincerity as possible. In truth, I was terrified. I couldn’t say anything that would point the vampire in Mary’s direction, and I needed to say just enough to pull its attention away from the old woman. I was excruciatingly aware that her life was hinged on my every word and action.

“Liar!” Henry roared. “Don’t make me do this,” he raged, his eyes wild.

Susan rose from the chair, extending her arms in supplication towards him.

He fired.



From the Vampire Preludes Collection: Passing the Test

Alexander Chirila 2013

 

Passing the Test

 

When I was a little kid, I was afraid of thunder. My elder brothers would force me outside, dragging me to the nearest electrical tower. I can remember screaming and wailing, looking up at that metal scaffolding in wide-eyed terror while my brothers laughed and hooted. I remember lying there in the rain and wet grass, that line of electrical towers tethered to one another by humming cables, marching in line towards some unseen end.

When I got older Theo and Hess quit their game, but they never could understand what it was about the thunder and lightning that terrified me so much. Maybe I knew, even then, that the storms around here brought bad things with them.

We lived on a farm house on the Eastern Shore. It was all flat land, crisscrossed by stretches of woods, local roads passing through small towns, and several highway arteries that branched off after the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and converged again near D.C. We lived near the Atlantic side, a few miles out from the shore.

There were three other farm houses in sight, and the same families had lived in them for generations. We were all kin out here; least we acted like it. In reality my brothers and I hated the poor Widow’s boys, tolerated the dim-witted twins down the way, and fought one another over the right to ask Kitty for her hand in marriage some day.

We knew all the local area boys, and by local I mean within a radius of about 50 miles. We’d see the ones far out maybe once a month during a game; but every kid who could get away from his folks would come through the shopping complex on the weekends. That was our spot, our social arena. That was where we watched the elder boys hook up with girls and play out the violence and passion of arrogant youth. That was where we mimicked their games and learned just how high the stakes were.

Ronny Calloway ran an old mom and pop joint up the road from the complex, which used to be a whole strip of mom and pops until they went under. Ronny kept on, the old survivor, and he’d keep on until every last old family in these parts died. Sometimes I’d leave my brothers and kin to their ruckus and walk over to Ronny’s after the Sunday-school crowd went home. He was an old soldier, from a long line of soldiers. He was our elder, our storyteller, and I still respected his role. Someone needed to hear his stories before they were lost, and he hadn’t any kids to do it. He wasn’t a boast, and he wasn’t a liar. Far as I could tell, Ronny told the straight truth and backed it up if he could. His stories cut right to it, and I appreciated them all the more because he didn’t spare any details. I might’ve been a little young to hear about some of it, but he just told me to keep my mouth and remember that ‘this world will never be anything but a wilderness.’

One night in mid October I remember sitting with my brothers in the pizza shop at the edge of the complex. The people who ran the shop were move-ins from New York; they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms, damned Yankees, but they made one hell of a pizza pie and they were forgiven.

On this particular night I was feeling restless. We were all feeling restless.

Now, looking back, I know what it was: we were anxious for the test. All the boys were tested at some point, whether by fate or by the ancient social mechanisms that grind children into men. We had watched it happen to those before us. We all thought it would have something to do with sex, or graduation, or the first mistake you make driving your parent’s car. It was more complicated than that.

It had something to do with blood. That much we understood. The blood is the life, and the test was real when blood was at stake. Old Ronny had said it best, ‘Even money is meaningless until you bleed over it.’ That’s what we were all waiting for. We were scared, anxious, and excited all at the same time.

We were restless because we’d all been feeling it coming. That night had a charge to it.

‘Paul came through from Talbot County two nights ago,’ Theo said, bringing our wandering attention back to the table. ‘I heard him talking to dad about something that happened up that way.’ We waited patiently for him to continue. Theo was the firstborn. ‘You remember that storm a few nights back? Talbot caught the brunt of it. Paul’s a 911 responder, right? So he gets this call and there’s a woman on the line, says that someone’s been stalking her. She’s called before, the police never found anyone, no one believes her—says that she keeps seeing things following her on the street. Sometimes it’s a guy, sometimes it’s three black dogs.’

‘Three black dogs?’ Hess said. He used to dote on Theo when he was younger and I was still crawling on my hands and knees. When he got a little older, he started to realize how different he was from his older brother. Theo would thrive in this place; people would respect him, honor him. Even now the elders often took him hunting with them. Give him a few years to round out, they said, and he will be a man about this town. Hess’s ambitions were going to lead him elsewhere. I often imagined him roaming around the world in far-off, exotic places. He often said that he would take me with him.

‘That’s what she said,’ Theo replied. ‘So now Paul figures this woman’s a loon, right? Then she starts telling him that she’s made a terrible mistake. She tried to kill herself—took a razor to her wrists right up the street…’ Theo glanced at me. Sometimes he caught himself wondering whether I was still too young to hear about such things. He shrugged and went on. ‘She’s bleeding out in her living room, holding the phone and sobbing into the line; Paul’s listening to all this and trying to calm her down, telling her that EMS will be there soon. Only he knows that soon is not soon enough. Storm’s raging, the roads are cluttered with accidents, it’s raining so hard that no one can see more’n a few feet…no, he knew that nobody would get there in time.

‘Still, he keeps her on the phone. Then she starts talking about the dogs again. Says that she can see them outside her window. They’re coming towards her place. Paul figures she’s just hallucinating, you know, from all the blood loss; then he hears her screaming, and glass breaking, some kind of struggle on her end…then she hangs up,’ Theo slapped his palms against the table.

‘Then what happened?’ I asked.

‘Well, first responders get there and find the roof sheared clean off. They find her, dead on the floor from blood loss. Only here’s the thing…there wasn’t a drop of blood anywhere.’

Hess stared at Theo blankly. ‘Really?’ he asked in a deadpan voice. ‘I’m a little too old for ghost stories; I don’t about Jesse over here…’ he punched my shoulder. ‘I was hoping you heard something about what Caleb said the other night. You know, about what happened up at the Pines…’

Theo shrugged. ‘What? About Kitty’s cousin? What more is there to say? She was a meth head; she was always going up to the Pines. It was only a matter of time before she got herself killed, and worse.’

‘What’s worse?’ I asked.

Theo smiles. ‘A few things are worse. Anyway, that’s what happened. Now everybody’s waiting, ’cause you can be sure that Kitty’s older brother has already heard about it.’ He leaned forward over the table. ‘But I did hear about something going down tonight. You know that Russian kid? Sasha? He’s got friends who live by there and he told me that Kitty’s brother was on his way down from Wilmington. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if…’

We heard the screeching tires and turned; a familiar car ripped into the lot and slammed to a halt that nearly sent the back wheels off the ground. It was Kitty’s older brother Tom. He tore out of the car and took off down the lot on foot, his head snapping from side to side like he was looking for something. We all knew Tom—sort of. Sort of in that we only knew his last name and his little sister. No one talked about him, and last time he came by we were all too young to register more than a disturbance in the adult world. The only other things we knew were what we had heard: he worked in Wilmington, and he ran with the kind of people that eventually get you killed.

My brothers and I looked at one another. Theo was older than Hess by a year and me by two. We were watching Tom storm off when Theo said, ‘There’s someone else in the car.’ Sure enough, there was someone we didn’t recognize slumped over in the passenger seat. Theo got up and we followed him outside the pizza shop. On the far side of the lot, I saw Tom approaching some of the area boys. Theo and Hess peered into the car, muttering to one another. I heard snippets of what they were saying, but I was watching Tommy round up the boys.

‘Shit, he’s been shot!’ Theo exclaimed. The boy in the car—couldn’t have been more than nineteen—stirred and groaned. ‘He needs a hospital…’

That didn’t seem to be Tom’s priority. He jogged back to the car, pausing when he saw us clustered around it. He wasn’t going to spare us a word. He pulled open the door and Theo said, ‘You need to take him to a hospital.’ We all stared at him. What was he doing? We weren’t supposed to get mixed up in whatever this was!

Tom regarded our elder brother for a moment. ‘No hospitals,’ he said, ‘until we clear this up. Now get back inside,’ he nodded towards the pizza shop. I glanced behind to see everyone inside looking at us. Gigliani had the phone to his ear. Tom didn’t miss it. He cursed and slammed the top of the car. ‘You didn’t see anything, you understand? He’s just sleeping it off, ok?’ His eyes narrowed and we all understood what he meant.

‘But what happened?’ Theo said. We all stared at him again.

Tom shook his head, exasperated, and threw out two words before sliding into the car and slamming the door. ‘Goddamn meth heads,’ was what he said. He reversed out of the lot and drove away, followed by the older boys in our circle. They were going to the Pines.

Gigliani came out of the pizza shop. ‘You boys had better get back inside. Matty and the rest of them will be here any minute. They’ll handle it.’ Matty—Matthew Henderson—was the local law enforcement. Tom and the boys were likely going to wage war, and there would be a firefight. If Matty caught up to them, they’d get thrown in the can for a couple of days while the cops raided the Pines and scattered their enemies. Second chances for everyone. Tom knew this, and he didn’t give a damn about second chances.

I went to see Ronny. He poured me a glass of lemonade, added half a shot to it, and listened. When I finished, I expected him to dispense his usual wisdom and follow it up with a war story. Instead he said, ‘Now’s not a good time for this. Storm’s coming in. We don’t need any blood being shed now.’ I asked him what he meant.

‘This is old country,’ he said. ‘There were rituals here from long before. They weren’t just superstitions. What some people call savagery and barbarism was just survival—then as now. There was something that people used to do here, before they forgot. When the storms came in, they would call a stop to any kind of violence and bloodshed. No fighting, no warring, no hunting.’

‘No hunting?’

‘No hunting. The watermen could go about their business, but everything else was off-limits. No bloodshed. Anyone who broke the rules would be dragged out to sea and left alone, hog-tied in a canoe. There’s a story someone told me; an old waterman from Tangier Island out in the bay. I could hardly understand a word of what this fellow was saying. Anyway, he said that this is an old story.

‘On the first day of the storm season, a waterman was coming in from a long day out on the open sea. Not two days before, the blood-taboo was declared. The waterman was gathering up his net on the beach when he looks up and sees them,’ he moved his hand horizontally, his eyes narrowed as if he were seeing this himself, ‘coming up out of the water. Some had been dead for years. They should have been bloated, or falling apart—but they walked up out of the surf looking as strong as they did when they were alive. Only their skin was somehow different; it was like porcelain or fine china, smooth and cracked and glossy.

‘They came inland and overtook the village. They caught everyone unawares; trussed them up and nicked ’em on the neck,’ Ronny drew his thumb in a quick gesture across his neck. ‘Not enough so they’d bleed out; just enough.’

‘Just enough for what?’

Ronny smiled enigmatically. ‘Remember what I told you, kid. This world is nothing but a wilderness. Those boys got themselves into a serious fix. If this was back in the day, they would have been punished for shedding blood. They would’ve been hauled out in a canoe and left to the sea. But not today. Today, nobody remembers the old rituals. Nobody remembers how to survive. Let me tell you something: you can bet that our predator’s hasn’t forgotten how to hunt us…’

‘The hell, Ronny, I have no idea what you’re talking about…!’

I didn’t get a chance to press him for an interpretation. Theo and Hess found me and told me that Matty and the others were here—with our father. I groaned, glared at Ronny and his poorly concealed smirk, and left with my brothers.

I figured it was over. Some of the men went after Tommy and the other boys, calling ahead to cut them off before they made it to the Pines. Matty stayed with us, riding back in our car. ‘If things go south, and we don’t get to them before they cause trouble, Tommy’s going to try and make it back to his folks’ place. He’ll likely cut across the back way by your property. I’m sorry for the bother, Frank…’

Our father shook his head. ‘Pay no mind,’ he said.

‘What about the other guy?’ Theo demanded.

Matty looked into the rearview mirror. ‘You boys are the only ones who saw this other boy,’ he said. ‘You tell me he was shot. How do you know? Did you look at him that closely…?’

‘I looked at him close enough,’ Theo said defensively. ‘There was a lot of blood. It was obvious that he needed a hospital…’

Matty shook his head. ‘Well, Tommy’s not headed to the hospital.’

The storm followed on our heels all the way home. I kept thinking about Ronny’s story. I kept thinking that it was too late: that boy was just bleeding, spilling his short life into that car. I kept thinking that the boy had failed his test; he would never become a man. He would die a boy, just a foolish boy.

It started coming down and we dashed into the house. My brothers and I made it through the gauntlet of our mother’s worried chastisement, our father’s stern reprimand, and Matty’s friendly reminder to avoid associating with the wrong crowd. He never did specify what the right crowd was.

Eventually the call came. We listened to Matty’s clipped answers and pointed questions, watched his facial expressions and awaited his explanation. ‘They found the boys,’ he said after he was done, ‘at a gas station just off the state road. No sign of Tommy. He hasn’t shown up at the Pines, either.’ Matty glanced at Theo. ‘If your boy is right,’ he said to our father, ‘could be Tommy found himself with a dead body on his hands and decided to get rid of it.’

Our mother gasped. Matty put up his hands and chuckled. ‘Sorry ma’am, didn’t mean to be so blunt about it.’ All the same, he winked at us. I remembered why I liked Matty. ‘Listen, Frank, I’m going to go ahead and get going. I’ll be needing to keep an eye on the Tanners’ place; if Tommy makes it back, he’ll have some explaining to do. I’ll have a look over his car, too—blood’s not something that washes off so easy.’ He smirked at our mother and left.

The storm broke something fierce. The clouds unfurled over the sky like an angry mob pouring out of a side street, waving lightning and shouting thunder.

 

* * * *

 

This was a season of storms. Nothing ended up happening that night and we all thought it’d blown over. But the sky remained overcast and I couldn’t shake this feeling. I remembered the girl on the phone and what she said about being watched. I remembered Ronny’s story and wondered whether the blood-taboo would have been passed by now. Three days later, another storm was about to break.

I was standing in the kitchen when the power went out. I had been trying to see past my reflection in the glass door; the sudden darkness threw into sharp focus the silhouette of two figures walking across the property. I ran upstairs to call my brothers down. Quietly we skirted past our parents and out the back door.

The wind lashed my face with coils of icy rain. ‘Can you make out who they are?’ Hess asked.

‘Let me get the gun,’ Theo said. He returned a few minutes later with his 10 gauge Browning. He was especially proud of that gun; it was a gift from our uncle. He kept that weapon in impeccable condition and made real good use of it. He stood on the deck and peered out. ‘Can’t make them out,’ he muttered. ‘Let’s go see what they want.’

‘Maybe we should call dad,’ I said. Hess scowled at me.

Theo considered it for a moment, then shook his head. God, how eager he was to face his test! ‘We can handle it,’ I remember him saying. How wrong he was. ‘If it’s Tommy,’ Theo said, ‘he’s probably just looking to get home.’

It was Tommy, alright—and the other boy, the one who had been bleeding to death in the car. They were still about three hundred meters away, moving toward us. Theo called out, but the wind stole his voice and threw it somewhere behind us. He decided that body language might convey his message more effectively: he loaded the shotgun and leveled the barrel towards the approaching boys.

When they came closer, I saw their faces and remembered what Ronny had said: their skin was somehow different; it was like porcelain or fine china, smooth and cracked and glossy. I could see it. Tommy’s face looked like the face of a doll, animated by a surreal parody of expression. I looked at Theo; did he notice how different Tommy looked? Did he realize how wrong he was?

‘Look at you, all grown up,’ Tommy shouted. ‘Frank’s boys. I remember when you three used to chase my sister around. You still chasin’ Kitty around, boys? What are you aiming to do once you catch her?’

‘Matty’s looking for ya, Tommy,’ Theo called back. ‘Did you get your friend here fixed up?’

‘Something like that,’ Tommy said. He glanced at the boy next to him. ‘Listen, Theo, you know what they say about pointing a gun when you don’t mean it. Now we’re just passing through; why don’t you and your brothers step aside and let us be on our way?’

‘Nobody wants any trouble, Tommy,’ Theo says.

Tommy looks up as a heavier downpour of rain pelts across the field. There is something almost sorrowful in his dark eyes. ‘What nobody wants and what everybody gets are two different things, kid.’

I looked at my brother. I thought, he should shoot. Instead, Theo lowered the gun. I knew that it was a mistake as soon as he did it. A glint in Tommy’s eye gave him away. A massive thunder-clap disoriented by brother long enough for him to make his move. Fortunately, I listened to my instincts and tackled my elder brother to the ground. Tommy blurred past us, his arm extended with a knife in hand.

I turned in time to see the other boy dart forward towards Hess. He sliced my brother across his upraised forearm; Hess cried out and staggered away. Theo recovers himself and braces the shotgun on his knee. He had only to spare before Tommy assaulted him again; he took quick aim and fired. The shot caught the other boy in through the back, right where his heart should have been—but there was nothing there. It was like he’d been emptied out.

Tommy laughed. ‘Oh my! They’ve gone and figured it out. Too little too late, boys. The game is up!’ He raised his arms and threw his head back. ‘The amazing race for immortality has begun! And now for the host of our game this evening…’

The Vampire descended from the sky like a curtain of rain taking solid shape, alighting on the electrical tower. It was beautiful in its own way, the way something deadly is beautiful when it does what it does best. It was like sighting a rare predator in the wild.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw our father running towards us from the house. Hess was cradling his arm and crying. Theo was just sitting there, the shotgun in his lap, looking up at the thing on the tower. Tommy and the other boy were watching us, expressionless, all mimicry of human emotion erased from their features. ‘Looks like we got a volunteer,’ Tommy said, reaching inside his jacket and withdrawing a .38 pistol. He turned and fired; our father was thrown off his feet by the impact. He rolled away, howling and trying to keep the blood from spurting out of a fresh hole in his gut.

Behind him, standing on the back deck, our mother screamed and shouted our names.

Theo fired the shotgun a second time; the shot took half of Tommy’s face with it. He went down cursing. My eldest brother was already up and reloading the shotgun. Hess was running towards our father. I look up…

The Vampire’s face was neither grotesque nor monstrous, but somehow worse than both. It was so uncannily inhuman that it blurred, defying focus and certainty. Its eyes were opaque shadow, pools of inky blackness punctuated by twin pinpoints of reflected light. I felt myself pushed against the earth by its terrible gaze; the Vampire didn’t move, but those pinpoints of light grew larger and larger, pressing me down.

It spread its shroud, like a pair of immense raven wings stretching out over the field—then it collapsed like a fountain jet cut off at the base. It swarmed over the metal scaffolding of the electrical tower, clambering like an enormous millipede down the length of the structure. Theo and I backed away from the skittering monstrosity. It pooled into a shadow that stretched across the grass, snaking over the ground towards our father. He extended an arm towards our mother, shouting at her to go inside and call for help…but the storm crushed his words as soon as he uttered them.

Like a shark smelling blood in the water, the Vampire rose over our gasping father. Hess tried to strike it—what a brave soul he was! The blood drinker tossed him towards Tommy and the other boy as if it were tossing crumbs to a pair of obedient dogs. They closed in on him; Tommy fastened his lips over the wound in my Hess’s arm, his Adam’s apple bobbing and his cheeks sagging with each drought of Hess’s blood. Tommy’s face unraveled itself like a piece of crumpled paper straightening into place, the ghastly wound closing seamlessly. The other boy knelt down and made an incision in Hess’s leg, severing the femoral artery; he leaned forward, sticking his tongue out to catch the blood.

Theo yelled and discharged the shotgun. The shot took the other boy in the side, throwing his clear of Hess. Tommy, his white lips covered in gore, grinned and threw my brother down. His teeth flashed behind the blood and he stepped forward. ‘Not bad, kid,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry—in another time and place, this would’ve been the night you became a man. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? To prove yourself. How are you handling it, Theo? This is isn’t your test, you frail little bag of watered-down meat!

‘This is my test!’ he yelled, ‘and I’m about proving myself to a god!’

Theo fired the second shot, taking Tommy full in the chest. The bastard flew backwards laughing. My brother grabbed the knife Tommy had dropped in the grass. ‘This is it, little guy, this is what it’s all about,’ he said as he ran past me. Those were the last words I heard my brother speak.

The Vampire stooped over our father. Theo reached it, but the predator didn’t stand to be interrupted; it rose and turned as he drew near. Its shroud wavered like smoke and then rippled as if shaken by an unheard sonic explosion. Theo stopped and fell, as simple as that; when he struck the ground his head rolled back lifelessly, his eyes, nose, and mouth streaming blood. My father shouted his name. My mother collapsed on the back deck.

I wondered, how does a boy make peace with a God he will never know as a man?

The Vampire embraced my father, its fangs folding outward. Its head was strangely distorted, as if its skull were changing shape to accommodate the sickening blades that descended from the roof of its mouth. It lifted my father up over its head and stabbed its fangs into the gunshot wound in his abdomen. It burrowed its face into the blood, gnashing its teeth into my father’s body; he flailed and gurgled in the monster’s grip, his hands clutching at the Vampire’s snarling black shroud. His fingers closed over nothing but oily smoke.

I heard someone call my name. I looked towards our house to see Ronny running forward, a .45 hand-cannon in his hand. How had he known? He drew to a stop and fired at Tommy and the other boy. Two shots! They were blasted off their feet and sent sprawling away in broken heaps. Ronny shouted my name again and sprinted forward. He fired into the other boy’s crawling body and laid him out. He did the same to Tommy, a headless mess of white flesh and torn clothing.

I grabbed Ronny and yelled at him to help my father; I shouted at Theo, telling him to get up, just get up. Hess was lying immobile on the ground—I roared and started to charge forward. Ronny grabbed my arm so roughly that my legs nearly flew out from under me. ‘Let me go!’ I cried, ‘I need to help them!’

‘There are some tests you pass by surviving,’ Ronny said.

This was it. This was my test. I kicked Ronny in the shins and grabbed the .45 out of his stunned grip. I rolled away and pointed the gun at the Vampire, gorging on the blood of my father. As my finger found the trigger and pulled, I thanked Theo for teaching me how to shoot.

I fired; the Vampire dropped my father, turning its face to me. I fired again, and the shot struck it right in the face—I expected blood, pain, something—but the Vampire just kept coming.

Ronny leapt in front of me, pushing me away. He told me to run and I ran. I ran because my courage was exhausted. I ran because I could do nothing else. I ran because I was still a boy, and the test was unfair.

When I finally stopped and turned to look, I was already at the far edge of the Widow’s property. From that distance, I saw my house shake and break apart, planks of wood and rent fabric twisting into the fierce wind. The lightning flashed, turning the pieces of my life into so much flotsam caught in a torrent of rain and thunder.

I saw the Vampire ascend, its hunger sated, an awful black bird soaring into the charcoal pillars of cloud turning in the sky.

 

* * * *

I push the skiff into the surf and jump aboard. The waters of the Atlantic are choppy; it takes me a while to paddle out past the breakers. I timed the storm just right. It breaks over the open ocean; a crack of thunder and the clouds pour down rain like broken water jars.

Now’s as good a time as any.

I draw the knife across my palm, clenching my fist and teeth. I shake the blood over an old picture of my family. ‘I never did pass that test,’ I tell my brothers, ‘but I never did forget. This world will never be anything but a wilderness.

I sit down and load my brother’s shotgun. I am a much better shot these days, but it won’t make a difference. I watch the sky, waiting. Then I see it.

The Vampire is coming in the storm.

 

 

Short Story: The Hidden Road

This is based on some of what I have learned in southwest Nigeria. I would like to extend my gratitude for those who have helped me learn more about the Yoruba and their spiritual traditions. While this narrative is an exaggerated account (in some respects), I hope my readers will recognize how rich and deep the practice is.  Enjoy, and don’t forget to “like” it if you do.

Alexander Chirila 2013

Alexander Chirila 2013

 

 

The Hidden Road

 

They say there is no power in magic without blood. Olumide is dead. Tokunbo had prevailed over him; he and the men from Ilé-Iku had killed everyone in the compound. Olumide, his wife, his firstborn, his junior brother—everyone.

Olumide was babalawo of the village; the spirits were strong with him. They did not withhold knowledge of the future from him. When the sick came to him, he healed them. When the troubled came to him for divination, he consulted the Oracle on their behalf. Everyone said that his predictions were accurate. How many had ignored his warnings only to find that Esu had taken their wealth? Even the oba had come to him for his blessing.

I was his apprentice. Clothed in white robes, I listened to him recite the verses. I watched him cast the divining chain. At first, I did not believe the spirits spoke to him. I secretly doubted his reverent silence, eyes closed, immersed in contemplation. When he nodded sagely and extended a wrinkled hand over the tray, his finger trembling above the dust, I credited his performance. When he cut the markings in the dust and interpreted them, I credited his imagination.

I know better now.

The spirits told him that there would be an attack. That death was coming. That only the most extreme sacrifice would suffice to keep death away. When the markings were cut in the sand, his eyes widened and his teeth chattered. ‘Get out!’ he yelled at me, ‘This is not for your eyes to see!’

But I had already seen. I needed to know what the markings meant. I approached another diviner—a taboo of the highest order to Olumide—and showed him the arrangement of figures. At first, he refused to interpret them. Then he wanted to swindle and mislead me. To him I was just another oyinbo with a fetish for African juju. There are serious prohibitions against disclosing the traditions to outsiders. Let them have stories and falsehoods, they won’t be able to tell the difference.

I could, and I made sure he knew that.

At last he told me that the markings meant almost certain death for the diviner who cast them. He said that the only way to prevent the prescribed destiny was to offer the highest order of sacrifice.

‘No snail, no pigeon, no rat, no she-goat,’ he said. ‘Only human.’

 

* * * *

 

‘There are hidden gods,’ Ona-Ode says, ‘that have never left this country. Some of the Orisha traveled with our people across the waters. Shango, Ogun, Osun; they have worshipers in Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, the United States. You may not have realized it, oyinbo, but you have met Osun before. You may know the Orisha by different names, but they were the spirits of this place long before Islam came to the north and long before your people brought Jesus to our shores. There are spirits that your people have never seen. Spirits that went deep into the bush when the foreigners came. Spirits that could not be placated and did not suffer themselves to be hidden away.’

Ona-Ode is the lastborn of seven brothers, himself an Ifa apprentice. He wears the white robes, as do I. I serve Orunmila, the Custodian of Destiny and father of divination; a white deity and one of the most powerful and benevolent among the Orisha. Ona-Ode serves Osanyin; he can tell you the medicinal properties of every single tree, root, and herb in the Yoruba nation. He ranges across southwest Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, administering his mixtures and concoctions throughout the local villages. His son runs a shop in Lagos, selling herbs and potions to urban Nigerians and foreign businessmen.

Olumide would often buy medicines from him; that’s how I met him. Ona-Ode is a genius when it comes to traditional medicine. Of his six brothers, only two remain; one is a devout Christian. The other lives way out into the bush and miles away from even the smallest villages. Awo-Iku serves an entirely different sort of spirit.

We had taken the car as far as it would go off-road; the rains had gutted whatever dirt track there was. Ona-Ode and I trek out into the forest, following a vague herding trail that wound into the hills north of Ogbomosho. ‘Black, red, white. The ancient colors. All creation is balanced between these forces. White is good, benevolent, wise, and cool-headed. You can reason with the white deities; only don’t offend them, and observe their taboos. Red is violent, bloodthirsty, always angry and hot-headed. You can work with the red deities, but you must be very careful.’ Ona-Ode grabs a thick vine slung across the trail and cleaves it aside with his machete. ‘In my village, there was a stone they used to worship Shango. No one was supposed to touch it. There are stories in the Corpus that say the old gods went into the ground and became immortal.’ He grins at me. ‘Is it not true that you would call this idolatry? This worship of stones?’

I smile; Ona-Ode knows I am a practitioner. His question is both a test and a jibe. ‘We don’t worship stones,’ I say. ‘The stones are only vessels, a place for the spirits to rest when we call them to consult with us.’

Ona-Ode nods. ‘This is so. This stone was in my village since before. One boy, he was the son of the babalawo. He saw the stone when he was initiated by his father. He went and told his mates about it, and they all wanted to see it. This boy, he was stubborn. He took the stone from its place and showed it to them. His father hears of it and goes to consult Shango and make ebo, so that his son would not be killed. Shango now tells him that his son will die; but because of the ebo, he will not kill all the boys that saw the stone. The boy was killed by lightning. Some of the boys who saw the stone went blind, and others went deaf because of the thunder. Now the others in the village, the fathers of the boys who were blinded and made deaf, they now gather against him. “How can you be our babalawo when you allow this to happen?” They are too hot against him; it was Shango, you understand, who caused them to be so hot. They killed him and burned his body.’

I look at him. He grins and says, ‘This place is not like where you come from.’

‘What about the black?’ I ask.

He frowns. ‘The black,’ he begins hesitantly, ‘is dangerous. Unpredictable. Like death. You never know from which direction death will come. Black is like that. They say that the black deities cannot be invoked or summoned. They do not listen to human beings. Others say that they respond to human sacrifice.’

‘Why would anyone want to work with gods that demand human blood?’

‘They are extremely powerful,’ Ona-Ode says. ‘They will do anything for the one who sacrifices to them. They can kill anyone, anywhere in the world. They can bring wealth, children, abundance. But the black deities are somehow. They say that no one who has sacrificed to them has ever lived long enough to enjoy their blessings. They are greedy and deceitful.’

‘But there are those who still sacrifice to them,’ I say.

‘Yes. My senior brother, Awo-Iku. You do not know the kind of man you must become in order to sacrifice to the hidden gods,’ Ona-Ode says. ‘If not for Olumide, I would not be coming here. You say that he was killed by magic. That the Odu foretold his death, and that he refused to offer the prescribed sacrifice.’

‘Of course he did! Can you imagine Olumide offering human sacrifice? Even for his own sake?’

Ona-Ode motions for us to stop. He looks intently ahead; the trail goes on for a few steps and then vanishes. While he scours the terrain, I look around. The sun shines over a dense forest, a lush, green, breathing organism unrolled like a carpet over the stepped hills. In the far distance I can see a radio tower and the rusty corrugated metal roofs of a small town. Someone is burning a tire; a column of thick, choking smoke pillars into the blue sky.

‘No, he wouldn’t do that,’ Ona-Ode says, answering my earlier question. ‘So what are you looking for? Revenge? There is nothing you can do unless you are willing to go further than your teacher.’

I shake my head. ‘It’s not that. Olumide knew Tokunbo. They were rivals long before I came to Nigeria. Olumide didn’t expect that Tokunbo would go so far…the kind of blood that he needed to spill, to do what he did…I don’t want anything to do with that. No, this is about something Olumide said to me before they came for him. “You are my student,” he told me, “initiated into my lineage. A part of my spirit, a part of my ori will always be with you.” You know what that means, don’t you?’

Ona-Ode looks at me. ‘Tokunbo killed everyone he could find,’ I say. ‘He intends to utterly destroy Olumide’s lineage. I am the last living heir to his teachings. Oyinbo or not, I am the only person to whom Olumide entrusted his knowledge. Tokunbo and his people will come after me, now.’

Ona-Ode thinks about this for a second. ‘It is good that we are going see my senior brother, then. If you mean to defend yourself against this kind of magic, Awo-Iku well tell you how to do it.’ He shoulders his pack and sets off further up the slope. I don’t see the trail, but he moves with certainty, the clack of his machete resounding in the moist, heavy air.

‘Awo-Iku was initiated by “Reed Mat Covers Deadfall,” an itinerant diviner from a little village just over these mountains.’ Ona-Ode points in the direction we are going. ‘The village is empty now.’

We pause on a small outcropping of dark stone overlooking a rushing cascade.  The trees here are ancient, prehistoric monsters that must have witnessed the birth of humankind and the movement of tribes across the Continent. We are mercifully shaded from the baking sun; our ascent had been exposed, and by now my shirt is soaked through with rapidly cooling sweat. From here on out we descend into the small, densely forested valleys of the mountains. There are no roads here, no wide trails; just imperceptible windings.

I have the sense that I am standing between worlds. Behind me is the patchwork reality that is Nigeria, filled with torrents of modernity intermingled with blood and tradition. Ahead is darkness and wisdom and the courts of the old gods.

‘Ready?’ Ona-Ode asks.

Not at all, I think. ‘Let’s go,’ I say. He nods and starts on the descent, picking his way down a tumble of piled boulders. I smile and look out over the hills of northern Oyo State.

 

* * * *

One year ago on the road from Lokoja to Ibadan. The bus was rickety and hot and filthy. Four hours out of Abuja and my head was spinning brokenly around an epicenter of nausea. We were driving behind a truck, its back painted in bright, garish designs—what looked like swans entwined around a collage of Christian symbols. The truck was trembling and sputtering towards a bottleneck in Okene. A single, narrow, broken road squeezed between ramshackle shops and concrete buildings, filled with jalopies, motorcycles, and transports. It was a disastrous, breathing wreak that sucked in lives and machines and coughed exhaust fumes over the cries of hawkers standing precariously between lines of traffic.

Olumide had sent me to meet a man named Norman Westwood, a British expat who worked with an NGO out of Abeokuta. He was doing business in Okene and agreed to meet with whomever Olumide sent. Olumide had performed a service for Mr. Westwood and had chosen not to ask for money. Norman could have paid him a small fortune. He offered 5K in Pounds, a sum that would have gone a long way. Instead, my teacher had asked him for a favor. When I questioned him, Olumide answered, ‘A favor from a powerful man is worth more than his money.’

I called a stop, shouldered my backpack, and stepped down from the bus. Okene was a loud place; loud enough to be uncomfortable. Behind me and down a rocky embankment shadowed by trees, a group of women were washing clothes in the stream. It was the middle of the rainy season, and the small river rushed along between the boulders while the women kneaded and twisted the colorful fabrics. There was a line of dusty shops on the other side of the narrow road; I was supposed to meet Westwood in a small restaurant. I jogged through a standstill of trucks and cars, dodging motorbikes and hawkers.

Westwood was waiting for me by a Baobab tree next to the place. We exchanged greetings and went inside. ‘You know they don’t serve good coffee outside of cities filled with foreigners or businessmen,’ he said. We waited while a woman cleaned off a wooden table for us. We sat down and asked for egusi soup with goat meat and peppered snails; soft pounded yam and two bottles of Star beer. ‘It’s good that you enjoy Nigerian food. I couldn’t handle the peppers when I first came here. I know they say British food tastes bland, but it most certainly does to me now. So,’ he said, looking me over, ‘you’re Olumide’s new apprentice? An oyinbo? Then it’s true what he tells me; that none of his children are interested in learning the tradition.’

‘He has only one son. You know the story; he refuses to teach any of his three daughters. He loves them to death, of course, and dotes on them endlessly…but he won’t teach them. Osunlana is keen on it, and she keeps asking and asking. She’s going to become a priestess of Osun.’ The food came and we started on it, exchanging snippets of conversation as we ate.

‘How did you get into…all this?’

I dip a piece of the pounded yam into the soup. ‘I came to Nigeria as a graduate student. I was working on my dissertation. Some nonsense about development. Don’t ask me about it now. Anyway, I was staying at Obafemi Awolowo University. I met some people who knew about…all this…and it wasn’t long before I started asking the right questions.’ I didn’t want to say anything else about it, at least not to him. I shifted the conversation to the business at hand. ‘What about you? What did Olumide help you with?’

He took a swig of beer, smacked his lips, and shrugged. ‘I was fresh out of Manchester with some work…some nonsense about development,’ he smiled. ‘You know how it is for expats, right? This was my first time out of the country. I didn’t know what I was getting into, and Nigeria is not an easy place. It’s not an easy place at all. I ended up getting into some business I shouldn’t have. Now in England, something like this happens and the local boys come knocking on your door in the middle of the night, drag you outside and give you the beating of your life.’

‘That happens here too,’ I said.

‘Sure does,’ Westwood agreed. ‘but something else happens here too. Sometimes they decide they’re not going to risk getting into trouble for coming after a white man the old fashioned way. They decide they’re going to resort to juju.’

I frowned at the word. ‘Witchcraft?’

He nodded. ‘The worst kind. I had a fondness for palm wine, and there was a little shanty I would go to. There was a woman who sold freshly tapped palm wine there, and she ran a popular little business. Late afternoon, towards evening, you could find a few people enjoying a cup of palm wine and exchanging gossip. One night I drove out there and the shanty was empty. I don’t know why, but I got out of the car and approached the place. There was a little path that ran through a field and into the jungle. I was standing there waiting for the woman to appear when I saw a man walk out of the jungle and towards the shanty. He was wearing a cap, black on one side and red on the other.

‘When he came near he stopped and went over to the barrel. He opened it and took a cup from the table nearby. He looked at me and motioned for me to sit down on one of the wooden benches, saying nothing all the while. I must have been aware that it was all quite strange, but it was like a dream; I couldn’t do anything about it. I sat down and watched this man lower the cup into the barrel. When he handed it to me I saw that the liquid was red. I knew that the woman served only clear palm wine. I drank it anyway,’ Westwood whispered over the table. He shook his head and frowned at the peppered snail in his bowl. I had already finished mine. I wondered whether he wanted his own.

‘I don’t really know what happened next,’ he continued. ‘I can drink quite a few cups of palm wine, but that wasn’t like any palm wine I’d tasted before. It wasn’t like anything I’d tasted before. I slipped in and out of consciousness, as if I were nodding off right there on the bench. Every time I opened my eyes I saw something different. I saw that man, only he kept changing. At one point he seemed to have a face divided between black and albino; then he seemed older, far older, stooped over a cane. Then I heard him laughing at me, standing over me, and his laughter became a ruckus of cawing as the sky was suddenly filled with crows—so many it seemed that night had fallen.’ He finished his beer and gestured for another, handing back the empty bottle.

‘When I woke up I was sick and my car was gone. I had to walk, hoping someone would pick me up and take me back. I must have passed out a half-dozen times on the side of the road. Given the way they drive here, it’s a bloody miracle I didn’t get run over. No one would have noticed. When someone finally rescued me they took me to the local hospital. I had a raging fever and the doctors diagnosed me with malaria. They gave me medicine but it didn’t work. It just kept getting worse. I kept going back to the hospital and each time they would tell me something different and prescribe different medicine. Nothing. Finally someone told me I should see a babalawo. They pointed me in the direction of your teacher, Olumide. You know what happened next.’

‘Olumide told you that you had been cursed,’ I said, ‘that you had to offer sacrifice and make restitution.’ I cleansed my hands in a large metal bowl and passed it over to Westwood. ‘Olumide gathered the materials, performed the sacrifice, and sucked the curse out of you. What you don’t know is that I saw him struggling with whatever he took from you.’ Norman stopped what he was doing and stared at me. ‘That’s right; he suffered for a week after that, caught in the grips of an intense spiritual battle. He would lie sweating on the reed mat in the temple, his head moving back and forth; sometimes he would get up and thrash around. At one point I thought he would die. Wracked with pain, he fought with whatever had been sent after you; in his dreams, in his waking life, it went on. At last he won over it, and it was finished. He was exhausted as hell, but he was healthy.’ I looked at him. ‘That was some nasty business.’

Norman nodded. ‘Yes, it was. You know what I offered to pay him. More than I needed to pay off those buggers I fell in with. I tell you—after all that—the world became a different place. This work in Abeokuta is lucrative, but I can’t wait to get out of here. Once you get past the sheen of the cities, the bush is hard, ancient and unforgiving.’ He paid the bill and we left the restaurant. We stood by the tree and he lit a Dunhill cigarette. ‘So,’ he said, ‘what is it your teacher wants from me?’

‘The man who put the curse on you, his name is Tokunbo. Olumide knows him. It took him a while to figure it out, but it seems that each of the traditions, each of the lineages, works in a different way. To an outsider, these differences may seem slight—in one tradition, Olorun or Oludumare is the supreme deity; in another, it is Orishala. But it’s more than just mythology. Each of the lineages invokes different aspects of the deities; the Orishas have many faces, many dimensions. Some are so bipolar that you would think them entirely different spirits…’ I scanned his face to make sure he was still following me. ‘Each of the lineages leaves a specific mark on the magic.’ Westwood nodded and took a drag of the cigarette. ‘Olumide was able to trace the curse back to its caster. But there’s a problem. This Tokunbo is from a rival lineage, and he knows that it was Olumide who turned back his spirit. We believe that he wants to start a war. A spiritual war.’

Westwood threw down the cigarette. ‘What in the bloody hell do you think I can do?’

‘Olumide isn’t asking for something he knows you can’t do,’ I said.

‘That would be a first in this country,’ Westwood muttered.

‘My teacher knows what you did,’ I said, cutting to the heart of it. He inhaled sharply and looked at me. ‘He knows what kind of business you got into. African artifacts. You thought you could fetch a pretty penny by selling genuine West African antiques back in the UK.’ He stared at me, mechanically lighting another cigarette. ‘When you didn’t find anyone willing to deal wholesale, you decided to ask around; seems the local area boys were willing to get their hands dirty for a few stacks. They said they could find what you were looking for, and you didn’t ask any questions. Does that sound about right? You stole the wrong artifacts from the wrong people, Mr. Westwood. When you made restitution, you gave most of it back, didn’t you?’ He nodded. ‘But not all of it. You paid for a few items in cash and claimed that you had already sold them. You still have them.’

Westwood said nothing, looking out over the busy street to where the women were still washing clothing in the stream. Taking his silence as confirmation, I continued, ‘Olumide needs something you took from Tokunbo; a piece of fulgurite, shaped in the likeness of a man holding a pouch and carrying a fly-whisk. Do you still have it?’

Westwood gritted his teeth and nodded reluctantly. ‘A favor is a favor, Mr. Westwood. That stone is very important to my teacher, and fitting repayment for your life. It also has more value as a ritual instrument than it does as an art object.’ I wanted to add a threat, but I guessed that it wasn’t necessary. We arranged to meet again a week after that; I had a few more errands to run for Olumide in Lagos.

When I returned to Okene, a week to the day, there were no women washing clothes in the river. There were no trucks rumbling down the narrow street; no motorbikes, no hawkers. There were a few pedestrians hurrying up and down the road, a few people half-glimpsed in dark windows. A car drove up a quiet junction street.

Westwood wasn’t there. Instead, there was an old woman waiting by the tree at the entrance to the restaurant. A wind started to blow; it looked like a storm was coming in from the southeast. Lightning flashed near the horizon. I crossed the empty street and walked up to her.

‘You are far from the gods of your homeland, oyinbo,’ she said.

It was a riddle; fortunately, my teacher had prepared me with a proper answer. ‘Tí a bá wí fún ni, tí a bá gbó, ayé a má a ye ni.’ It was part of an Odu verse, a snippet of divinatory prediction passed down from practitioner to practitioner. Roughly translated, it meant: life is easy and comfortable for the one who listens to and accepts a warning. ‘I hear what you say. What do you have to tell me?’

‘There was a taboo on the man you came to see. He broke it. The cost of breaking this taboo was death. Didn’t your teacher warn you? There is always a condition. Go back to Olumide and tell him that the stone has been reclaimed. Tell him that he should consult Ifa. He will not like what the Odu tell him.’

‘You would leave Olumide defenseless against Tokunbo?’

The woman smiled. ‘Olumide cannot be defenseless. What has begun will find its end far from here.’

 

* * * *

We pass through a curtain of reeds into a clearing. The small house in the center of the clearing is surrounded by shrines. A collection of artifacts and trinkets favored by the orishas decorates each shrine; here an iron railroad spike consecrated to Ogun, there a laterite half-buried in the ground, doused in red palm oil. Streaks of blood discolor the stone. The heat is oppressive, magnified by an almost visible humidity. The trees seem pressed in conference over the house; brightly colored birds flit musically across the gap in the canopy.

I remember Olumide’s response when I returned from my trip to Lagos and Okene. ‘Reclaimed!’ he had bitterly cursed. ‘Those foolish witches! Would they rather Tokunbo surpass me in power? He is wicked!’ That piece of lightning-carved fulgarite would have made all the difference in the upcoming battle. It would have given my teacher access to spirits of such blinding whiteness that Tokunbo and his people would have run wailing back to their jungle hovels. Instead, Olumide became despondent; the Odu seemed to have abandoned him. There was no ebo  he could perform that would stay death’s march towards his door.

Ona-Ode and I stand in front of the temple house. I can feel the power pulsating from it, like a giant heart half-buried in the forest, pumping raw power into the air and through the ground. The trees shake and I look up; white-throated monkeys swing into sight from hidden perches and chatter at one another. A storm is coming in; thunder rumbles in the southwest. An image flashes across my mind—of a man, clad in a warrior’s dress and wielding a vicious club, striding across miles of forest. Shango, spirit of thunder and lightning.

When I look down again I see the same woman who was in Okene. I should be surprised but I’m not. Ona-Ode greets the woman in Yoruba. She returns his greeting and looks at me. ‘I am sorry for Olumide,’ she offers. ‘Sometimes, this is what happens. You are the heir of his lineage; Tokunbo will not agree to let you live. The matter must be settled.’

‘I don’t even know how their rivalry started!’ Now that I’ve heard the words Tokunbo will not agree to let you live, the reality of this long sojourn sinks in with all the terrible finality of a dial tone after a desperate phone call to a jilted lover in the middle of the night. I’m not handling it well. I am conscious of Ona-Ode looking at me, but I just go on. ‘He never told me this was happening! Why does this have anything to do with me? This isn’t fair!’ The old woman stares at me the way a grandmother would stare at a petulant child throwing a tantrum, waiting until I exhaust my supply of protests. I cut them short, snapping my mouth shut.

I get it. This was always part of the bargain, always part of the sacrifice. The consequences of the choice I had made come rushing through my brain like a comet trailing a tidal wave of emotion. My stomach turns, my head pounds with pressure. So this is what it means to learn Ifa. ‘Ok,’ I hear myself saying, ‘ok.’

I look up, composing myself. ‘We’re here to see Awo-Iku,’ I say.

The woman nods and grins at me. ‘He is inside.’

We take off our shoes and enter in through an anteroom. The entrance to the inner chamber is covered by a beaded curtain. In the dark recesses of this room I can see someone else sitting there. A chill runs up my spine. I look at Ona-Ode and he is frozen in awe, staring at the man.

He is dressed in white, bent over a mortar, grinding herbs into fine powder. Behind him is an iron crossbow and three arrows set against a small mirror. A stag’s horn lies on the reed mat beside him. He reaches over without looking up and gathers another bunch of herbs into his palm; he throws them into the mortar and grinds them up with the others. When he is finished he produces a small glass decanter of liquid and pours it into the mortar. He sets to grinding again until he is left with a paste. He takes one arrow after another and daubs their pointed tips into the paste.

I look at the mirror behind him again. In the mirror, he is dressed in red.

The old woman steps in front of me and ushers us into the inner chamber. Awo-Iku is reclined against the far wall. There are shrines and statues all around us, shrouded in shadow and colored cloth, adorned in the blood of sacrifices and palm oil. My vision trembles. They seem to be moving; now growing larger and rising from their places, now turning to one another, slowly and ponderously, as if to utter some terrible word that would send the universe careening from its foundations.

Ona-Ode’s brother is dressed in black; he is holding some kind of curved bone in his right hand. His eyes look suspended in the recesses of his face, long and smoothed in conformity to the shape of the skull beneath. His dark skin is etched rather than wrinkled, as if an artist went to work with a scalpel and a delicate hand, just grazing the surface, laying down an intricate cartography of lines.

Êgbön Ôkùnrin,’ Ona-Ode says. ‘It is good to see you.’

Awo-Iku smiles, and he seems for all the world like a normal man; but something else dances behind his skin, smiling in mimicry. The brothers exchange words in Yoruba, catching up as if we just happened to be passing through and dropped in.

Then Awo-Iku turns to me and says, ‘Oyinbo, I have thought of a name to give you: A Stranger Who Travels Home by the Hidden Road. The Odu have spoken well of you, but there is still something you must do.’ He turns to Ona-Ode. ‘Go and have words with your friend outside. There is something I would say to A Stranger Who Travels Home by the Hidden Road.’

Ona-Ode nods and steps into the antechamber. His senior brother bids me sit down and I do. He gathers his black robes and makes himself comfortable opposite me. I see something in his left hand. It looks like a divining chain, but like none I’ve ever seen before. Instead of the dried halves of kola nuts, the beads are strung together through tiny skulls. He taps the curved bone against the ground between us, whispering under his breath. He does this three times before reaching for a bottle of schnapps. He pours a shot-glass, offers an oblation and recites a prayer. ‘Asé’ he says after every phrase. He takes the shot, pours another, and hands it to me. I do the same.

‘You have inherited an enemy from your teacher,’ Awo-Iku says. ‘I have consulted Ifa on your behalf, and I will now tell you the ese that the Odu revealed to me.’ I nod—the ese Ifa are the stories that form the bulk of the mythological Corpus of the tradition. To an outsider, they are just stories; narratives involving gods, humans, and anthropomorphized creatures of all kinds. Some stories have the expected moral lesson, while others are more…opaque. To a practitioner, however, the ese are far more than just stories: they are encoded with a wealth of information, secrets to harm or heal, to kill or bless.

Awo-Iku begins the narrative, changing his tone in way that I’ve heard Olumide do countless times before. It is a tone that brooks no interruption and commands complete attention. ‘A Long Journey Does Not End With Death divined for King Efòn.

‘King Efòn inherited a calabash from his father, sealed with a lid.

‘He wanted to see what was inside, but he could not open the lid. He called his warriors and they could not do it.

‘He then said, “let me consult a diviner.” They called for A Long Journey Does Not End With Death. He said, “is this one a diviner?” His advisors said, “yes, he is a diviner.”

‘A Long Journey Does End With Death came and inquired into the matter of the sealed calabash. He now returned with an answer and said to King Efòn:

‘“you must gather 28,000 cowries, a giant rat, a black cloth, and a woven net. Make a sacrifice of these items. Then you will be able to open the calabash; only be warned, as there is one taboo you must observe: when the calabash is opened, you must be ready to trap whatever is inside when it comes out. You must wrap it in the black cloth, and you must never unravel it. It should remain wrapped in the black cloth.”

‘King Efòn gathered the materials and performed the sacrifice. He opened the calabash with his left hand, holding the woven net in his right hand; with the lid removed there now came a snake from the calabash. King Efòn cast the net over the snake and seized it. He then wrapped it in the black cloth, wondering all the while why his father would have kept a snake hidden away in a sealed calabash.

‘The snake now said to him, “Let me go and I will help you. The people of your father’s kingdom are plotting against you. Let me go and I will tell you who they are and how to deal with them.” King Efòn said to himself, “what? If I let this one go, I may never know who is plotting against me!” So he unwrapped the snake and set him free.

‘The snake now went and bit King Efòn’s wife and firstborn son; the snake went and bit them. Desperate to save them, the King summoned A Long Journey Does Not End With Death, who said to him, “I told you not to unwrap whatever came out of the calabash! Now see what has happened to you. If you would overturn your misfortune, you must allow the snake to bite you. When it bites you, strike its head and kill it. When the snake is dead, make a sacrifice of it by mixing your envenomed blood with that of the snake.”

‘“Won’t I die?” asked King Efòn. A Long Journey Does Not End With Death, divined for King Efòn. Do you understand?’ Awo-Iku stares at me.

‘Do I understand what? The story has no ending!’

Awo-Iku smiles enigmatically. ‘No,’ he says, ‘not yet. The story is here, now. The story ends with a question that you must answer. Now go outside—the snake is waiting for you.’

‘What?’ I stand up and rush out of the temple, through the empty antechamber and out into the clearing. Ona-Ode is already outside, but he looks—different somehow. He is dressed in white robes, holding the bow and poison-tipped arrows. Where is the other man?

Tokunbo is here.

He looks past Ona-Ode and meets my eyes. ‘Oyinbo!’ he calls out. ‘You have come far into the bush! The gods here do not recognize you!’

I assess him; he is younger than I, dressed in red robes. His eyes are wide and feverish. He radiates power without presence. Why did Olumide fear him so? ‘Why do you hide behind Ochosi?’ he calls out.

Ochosi? What is he talking about?

Ona-Ode starts forward, and I see that it is not just Ona-Ode but Ochosi also, Orisha of hunters and of medicine. Ona-Ode notches an arrow, raises the bow, and lets the arrow fly. Tokunbo just stands there, watching him—I hold my breath—

I would have thought it impossible for a man to move so quickly. He darts underneath the arrow and charges forward. Ona-Ode notches another arrow, but he is too late. Tokunbo roars and the sound is like a shockwave. The black sheets flutter wildly on their lines; the trees bend and sigh above us. Ona-Ode tries to discard the bow and raise an arrow to defend himself, but Tokunbo is on him—he strikes with a blow that is like lightning splitting a tree down the middle. Ona-Ode falls to the ground and rolls away, his hands covering his face.

Tokunbo stands, and it seems as if his entire body is vibrating in place. His attention slowly focuses on me. If I don’t figure out a way to defend myself, he will strike me down as easily as he did Ona-Ode. My mind goes frantically after an answer. I remember what Awo-Iku said: the snake is waiting for you.

I remember something Olumide told me on the day he first cast the diving chain for me: ‘When you come to a far place, you will know it for your home.’ I know what I need to do. I am A Stranger Who Travels Home by the Hidden Road.

I stare at Tokunbo and whisper under my breath, calling out a name I couldn’t possibly know, a name that was never taught to me, a name that rips out of my throat like a barbed arrowhead from a wounded animal.

It is the name of a hidden god.

I move toward Tokunbo and he falters. I can see doubt in his eyes; he did not expect that I would stand against him. The trees whisper to one another in hushed tones and the tall grasses surrounding the clearing bend and wave. Tokunbo steps backward. I chant at him, calling out the names of diviners and spirits in a thunderous litany. All the verses taught to me by Olumide come pouring out distorted, as if I were somehow retelling them from another, darker perspective. I weave narratives of terrible magic around my enemy, strangling him with a power that creeps out of the black earth like some writhing vine. He shouts at me but I hear nothing.

Ona-Ode tries to tell me something, but it is too late. I have it: the end of Awo-Iku’s story, left incomplete so that I could use it as a weapon. ‘“You will not die.” A Long Journey Does Not End With Death. Divined for King Efòn. King Efòn let the snake bite him; the snake bit him. He struck it down—’ I raise my hand. Tokunbo wavers and cowers before me.

‘The snake died at his hands; the power of the snake belonged to him. He was dancing,’ I snap forward and strike Tokunbo down; he falls to his knees. ‘He was rejoicing—’ I strike him again and he falls onto his back. ‘He praised his diviner, A Long Journey Does Not End With Death!’

I roar down at him and the shadows that have been crawling along the edges of my vision lunge forward, focused to a point aimed directly into the center of Tokunbo’s forehead. He tries to rise and resist, but at the moment of my exclamation his head snaps back and strikes the ground. I can almost see something leave him, some red spirit of wrath and rage and bloodthirst; and then it is gone, snaking away through the tall grasses.

Ona-Ode inches closer to me. ‘You shouldn’t have invoked that Odu,’ he whispers. ‘Look at what you’ve done…’ Tokunbo lies dead at my feet. I stare down at my hands. I shouldn’t have been able to do that. I am bleeding from an unknown wound in my belly; I am holding an unfamiliar knife in my left hand. A memory flashes across my mind—of Awo-Iku handing me the knife during his recitation of the ese. I was holding the knife when I ran outside.

I used it to make a sacrifice of myself. Human blood. I used human blood.

I stare at Tokunbo’s body. There is no discernible wound on him. His eyes are rolled back in his head, his mouth gaping open. How did I kill him? What terrible power could fell a man without physically wounding him?

Awo-Iku appears outside the temple. He comes forward and smiles at me. ‘Long have I pitted Olumide and Tokunbo against one another; the white against the red. Long have I cultivated this moment. Now you are mine, A Stranger Who Travels Home by the Hidden Road. You have invoked a spirit known only to my lineage. You have stained your white robes black. You are bound to a different destiny, now.’

‘No…’

Oyinbo! You are mine-o!’ he cackles at his junior brother. ‘You have brought me a fine gift, Ona-Ode; an apprentice of uncommon power to reinvigorate the tradition. Olumide thought himself the highest among us, and Tokunbo thought himself a worthy successor to a throne of ancient power. Now both are slain and what was hidden shall be honored again.’

‘I am sorry,’ Ona-Ode says to me.

And just like that, I know. I will not leave here. It is as Tokunbo said; I have come far into the bush. But he was wrong—the gods here do recognize me.

I am at home among them.

 

A Different Kind of Werewolf Story, Part 2

This is the SECOND half of the story. Please see the previous post to start from the beginning. If you enjoy it, please “like” it and share it.

Alexander Chirila

Humanskin, Part 2

We enter the town hall to see the settlers in an uproar, shouting incoherently. The stench is almost overwhelming. Wearing the humanskin dampens our senses, but this sweaty, unwashed, agitated mass of humanity produces a miasma thicker than water. It is profoundly uncomfortable. I have two choices: I can either smell, listen, and feel all of it at once, or I can focus on a single thread of sound and scent.

A noise uncoils itself across the room, like a wave unspooling over the surf. They are saying something, shouting…I know what this is. To call it a ‘trial’ would be a mockery of whatever that word might have meant in the world that ended. There is an accused, there are witnesses, and there is a moderator. Then there is a churn that turns a crowd into a mob. The reality of the thing is simple: either you’re forgiven by the mob or you’re not. If you’re not, there is exile and there is death.

My father had taken me to one of these when I was still a boy. ‘You need to see what a mob is capable of,’ he had said. And I did. They were pronouncing judgment on a thief. Everyone agreed that there was ample testimony: the one witness who claimed that he had seen the accused running away from his house with his daughter’s virginity.

The man begged and pleaded for a mercy that would never come. ‘Never expect mercy from a mob,’ my father had said, ‘anymore than you would expect respect from the vultures who are going to pick out his eyes while he hangs from the old oak tree down the road.’

‘What now?’ Red and Coal mutters.

‘Let’s find out,’ Soot and Snow says, pushing her way into the crowd. Old Wolf grunts and follows, as do we. We are barely noticed; every eye is bent towards the far end of the room, where a dais is separated from the crowd by a polished wooden banister.

Then I see her. I remember her. My wife—Elizabeth. Lizzie.

My will is overtaken; something from deep inside my mind comes tunneling forward. I am conscious of my pack-mates moving towards me. White and Gray is looking at me with concern. Red and Coal is shaking his head. Soot and Snow realizes what is happening almost instantly. But it is Old Wolf I fear, who is looking at me steadily with those yellow eyes of his. I am helpless to acknowledge him. All I can do is listen as one of the elders—Nick’s father!—raises his hand to quiet the surging crowd.

‘This woman,’ Mr. Robbins motions towards my wife, ‘stands accused of a most uncommon crime.’ He pauses for a moment, trying to find the words to express his thoughts. ‘In the world that ended, many of us believed in impossible things. Many of us believed in salvation. That the world would begin anew. Well here we are, in the same world. You have told me some tall tales, I believe.

‘Now I know that you’re all scared. These attacks have taken an incalculable toll on all of us. Many of us have lost loved ones,’ he nods to a grim-faced man, ‘but we cannot allow our fear to drive us into suspicion and superstition,’ he spits out the dirty word. ‘We have buried these beliefs alongside the bodies of our fathers and grandfathers. We have left them in empty churches, where they belong, among the ruins of a world that we can never go back to. This town hall was built sixteen years ago. It was the first building that we labored to build out of this wilderness. This is what we believe in. We can’t afford to resurrect the ghosts of our past; they led us astray once before. We have a chance to preserve whatever good we can. Witch hunts, inquisitions—let’s just leave those things behind.

‘Please, I implore you…tell me the truth.’

The crowd roars at him, a barely restrained animal baring its teeth at a trainer standing too close. ‘You’ll get the truth!’ a woman cries out. ‘The truth!’ an elderly man warbles incoherently. Mr. Robbins raises his hands and nods.

‘Let’s hear it then, from our witness. Mrs. Miller, please come forward and have a seat right here…’ he taps on one of the several chairs arranged opposite Lizzie. Where is our son? I start looking around. My pack-mates regard me warily. White and Gray nods at me, trying to remind me of what we’re here for. None of this matters to the pack. If anything, this is an inconvenience: a mob is harder to scatter, single-minded as it is. Soon, Black and Rust will set up his distraction to lure the settlers out into the open and towards the outskirts of the encampment…

I remember Mrs. Miller. She was our neighbor, an old widowed woman whose husband had died of the fever. She was a comfort to me after my father died, when I lived alone in the years before I married my wife. What could she have to say against Lizzie? She was midwife at our son’s birthing!

After a bit of prompting, my former neighbor begins. ‘I want you to know that I understand what you said before, Mr. Robbins, about superstition. In the world that ended, my mother was a good Christian woman. She went to Church near every day and prayed for salvation. She used to tell me that the world would end, but that she and I had nothing to worry about. She’s been dead near thirty years now, and I haven’t set foot in a church since. This isn’t about that. What I seen, I seen with my own eyes. What I tell you is the truth, and you can all decide for yourselves.’

‘Well go on then, Mrs. Miller, and say what you have to say.’

‘Just a little over a year ago,’ she begins, ‘I saw something. Something old. Something evil. Lizzie was struggling with her newborn. Her husband had been taken by the fever,’ she whispers the last word. ‘After he left, she had a hard time of it. I tried to help as much as I could, but she just kept getting worse. I remember talking to her but once before it happened. She told me that she thought maybe her child had the fever, too. I know the signs of the fever, and that baby was healthy! She kept on about how sick he was, so I decided to keep an eye on her. If she decided to take the baby into the forest, like they used to do when the fever was bad—I would follow her and try to stop her.’

What is she talking about? Lizzie would never…!

‘Why now, Mrs. Miller?’ the schoolteacher asks. ‘Why did you keep this to yourself for so long?’

She looks at him as if his question had been asked in another language. ‘No one would’ve believed me!’ she shouts. ‘With all these wolf attacks, I had to come forward. You don’t understand. I saw it with my own eyes. Meeting in secret with an old crone in the wilderness…!’

My head snaps towards my pack-mates, immobilized in their places. ‘…some kind of witch-woman. Lizzie brought her child with her. I followed her, you see? The night she took her child away, I followed her deep into the mountains. I kept thinking she would dash the boy’s head against a stone or just leave him crying somewhere. She just kept walking as if she knew right where she was going in all that darkness! We come across a river and she tracks it upstream to a cascade, well into this narrow valley on the other side of Clingmans Dome.’

Red and Coal slinks away from the crowd. His hands are shaking. Soon, he will break free of his humanskin. I understand the implications of what Mrs. Miller has just said. If we fail tonight, they will come into the heart of our territory and destroy the Totem. I can feel my hackles threatening to shear through this paper-thin skin. The crowd waits. I can almost feel it about to start. I am hoping that it will—these memories, these feelings—I want them torn asunder in the ripping freedom of release. This humanskin is choking me, strangling my mind.

‘They made some kind of pact that night,’ Mrs. Miller says. ‘She and the crone. I know it. Lizzie left the witch’s hovel alone. Don’t you see? She sacrificed her own babe to that monstrous woman…! I couldn’t just leave. I needed to see what the crone intended to do with the child. I creep up to the window unseen…’

Something isn’t right with this. Old mother may be old, but her senses are as keen as any of ours. Mrs. Miller wouldn’t have been able to creep at all without tripping over her own feet, much less unseen, and much less after a grueling hike through the mountains. Unless I never really knew her at all.

‘…and I see the old witch holding a knife to the child, preparing to cut him open on an altar! Surrounded by the talismans and charms of her foul religion! She howled as I ran from that place, howled like a wolf!’

Our son? What did she do to our son? I stumble backward in confusion. I remember the day he was born. My baby boy.

There’s an expression I never understood before I met Elizabeth. ‘Love at first sight.’ Before her, it was just another one of those sayings that have no context in this world.She was alone in a world where women who walk alone rarely meet with a kind fate. Most of the women who abandon the dead cities without a partner or companion do not survive long unless they join themselves to a larger group. Lizzie walked alone and unafraid. No one had ever seen anything like it. She was beautiful and raw, unapologetically merciless with anyone who crossed her.

I eventually learned that she had been tracking her mother. The woman had left her years ago, but Lizzie had come across someone who insisted that she was still alive. Lizzie told me that her mother had ‘gone crazy’ just before she fled from the dead city; that she had fallen terribly ill. It wasn’t the fever, and it wasn’t any kind of sickness that she’d seen before.

‘I felt like she was in two worlds at the same time,’ Lizzie told me, ‘this one, and another one that no one could see but her. Sometimes I think I see it too.’

We were married two years later. She told me that she knew she would marry me when she realized that she had given up on finding her mother. Our boy was born shortly afterward.

The crowd, setting free its own true face, rumbles and shakes, churning itself into a mob. The wooden floorboards thunder with their stamping feet. Lizzie didn’t stir in the slightest during the whole proceeding; now she rises and looks out over the thrashing mass of people.

Mr. Robbins is yelling for the crowd to just calm down, but there is no calming down. ‘This is insanity!’ he shouts, ‘Madness! How can you believe this testimony? Come now, listen to some reason…’ at last the crowd seethes back, momentarily rebuked. ‘Good, good,’ the schoolteacher breathes heavily. ‘Now Mrs. Miller, what exactly is it that you expect us to believe? That an old witch in the woods sacrificed this woman’s child in some occult ritual? Why, that sounds like a fairy tale!’

I am hardly listening now—my head is spinning—why would old mother have lied to us? Why would she have lied to me? Why would she have told us that she had found the infant drowned in the cascade pool? Old mother had made it seem a predestined thing, that a woman of her lineage should have tried to drown her firstborn in waters sacred to the Totem she unknowingly served. ‘She must have thought that she was destroying something monstrous,’ old mother had said, ‘but the spirit inside her knew otherwise. She was simply giving her baby to the only power capable of ensuring his safety.’

When I saw Black and Rust for the first time, he was a sodden little thing peering at us with large, frightened eyes. A wolf pup cradled against old mother’s bosom. It wasn’t until he took on the humanskin for the first time that we understood what he was: a wolf-born, the first of his kind.

‘I don’t expect you to believe me,’ Mrs. Miller says, rising from her chair. ‘I expect you to believe what you see, just like I did.’ She digs her hand into the pocket of her homespun dress and holds out a familiar object—a ceremonial knife.

It is the same knife used by old mother to shear through my humanskins on the night of my rebirth. ‘It is time,’ she said, hovering over me. My last human memory is of old mother, invoking the Totem and holding that dagger with both hands above her head, thrown back in the ecstasy of her magic. A brazier from the world that ended burned with hot coals to my right. Gusts of cold, rain-sprinkled wind blew into the dim room, tossing the ragged old tapestries that hung over the windows. I tried to rise and push her away from me, but I was too weak.

Mrs. Miller stabs the knife into the table and says, ‘This is what the witch used to cut the child! This is the murder weapon!’

Old mother thrust the dagger into my chest, just underneath my floating ribs. I expected her to push through but she leaned forward, concentrating, parting the skin horizontally across my abdomen. When the flesh was opened she extended her right arm towards the wound. I stared—way beyond pain or shock—as she pushed her wrinkled old hand through the divided skin and into my body. She reached in, the blood pooling and soaking around her thin forearm. Her hand clawed through me until her fingers closed around my beating heart. With a triumphant grin she withdrew, gingerly holding the organ in her hand, pumping in her palm.

She arched her back and howled. She screamed and wailed her incantations, holding the my heart like some offering to a deity stepping through a wound in the skin of reality. When she was done she bent forward again and pushed the heart through the cut, stretching forward with her arm until it seemed as if she wanted to crawl entirely inside my body.

‘Blessed are you by the Spirit of the Wolf,’ she cried, lifting me into her arms as if I were no more than a stick figure. She carried me outside her hovel and to the cascade pool, laying me down into the cold waters.

I was somewhere between life and death.

Lizzie suddenly stands up, her fists clenched and her thin frame shuddering with anger. She starts to move towards Mrs. Miller, but then she stops and scans the room, her nostrils flaring. She’s looking for something…or someone. Then she sees me.

Lizzie starts walking towards me. The crowd is pushing and pulling, beginning to turn, congeal, and sharpen itself into a mob. My pack-mates have already scattered to the far corners of the room. I need to talk to Lizzie.

I push my way towards her, locking eyes with her as I move forward. When I get close enough, I seize her my her arms and bring her close to me. ‘How do you know old mother? What did she do to our son?’ I growl into her face. She is trembling and shaking her head, her eyes wide and staring at me. I ask her again, shaking her roughly. Somewhere in the background, I hear an impossible gargle distorting into a howl that only a wolf could produce. People in the crowd are screaming.

Lizzie turns to me and brings her lips close to my ear. ‘She’s lying,’ Lizzie whispers to me, ‘I sent him to you. I knew you were still out there…’ How could she have known?

She turns away to look. It is impossible not to. Old Wolf is tearing free of his humanskin.

The Totem wraps us in humanskin, but it is an illusion. It feels real, to both ourselves and to anyone who doesn’t pay too much attention—but it’s a veil. We are wolves, a new species of monster born together with a new world. We really are something new. When we shed the humanskin, there is no bone-breaking, agonized transformation. It is subtle, almost impossible for the human eye to register. I see it—and so does Lizzie.

Old Wolf’s humanskin sighs into a curtain of vapor, like moisture revealing a seam in the wall of reality. The beast comes out, parting the curtain and taking shape like a shadow imbued with sudden form and substance. To the human eye, this all happens in less than a second.

When it happens, the humans’ reaction is something to see. In the world that ended, it would have been worse; how cowardly they were by the end! When it all came crashing down around their heads, many of the survivors envied the fever-stricken. Five to seven days of agony compared to watching the husk of civilization break apart.

‘They almost stopped believing in monsters,’ Mr. Robbins once said to me. ‘They managed to convince themselves that they weren’t real. Real monsters existed only in stories and nightmares, fictions and hallucinations. There were only monstrous people. The beast was in the mind.

In this new world, the real monsters have returned.

If they were ever truly in our minds, they must have crawled out of the broken skulls of the billions that died when the world ended.

Nowadays, humans don’t scare so easy. Most of the people flee the town hall in a panicked frenzy, but the stalwart remain; those who carved this settlement out of the wilderness with their bare hands. About twelve settlers stay. I recognize all of them from my old life, but they wouldn’t recognize me. My humanskin is not the same.

When I lived here, there were only seven shotguns, eleven pistols, two rifles, and enough ammunition to keep the settlement safe under normal circumstances. Two of the shotguns are here, and I know who’s holding them—Mickey Donahue and Alan Griselli, refugees from what used to be New York City. Otherwise, unless things changed, the first town rule is that no one carry firearms to a public meeting. Tensions were always high, and one of the first incidents that provided a precedent for that ordnance cost ten lives over a petty dispute.

Old Wolf charges, his jaws open, the skin of his snout pulled back and his teeth—still sharp for all his years—snapping with an audible crack that I can hear above the yelling of the settlers. I step in front of Lizzie and push her behind me. Old Wolf leaps forward, a blur of yellow eyes and gnashing fangs. How quickly he moves! I brace my arms, knowing even as I do that his massive jaws can close over both my wrists and snap them like dry branches. I am ready to sacrifice my arms to protect my throat, but Old Wolf lowers his head and slams into me. I am thrown backward several feet, and he is already over me before I have a chance to raise my head. He snarls at me, defenseless beneath him. I know what he is asking me to do.

He is asking me to submit.

Behind him, a man grabs Lizzie and holds her arms behind her back. Several others cluster around him; one of them slaps her across the cheek. Her hair whips around her face with the force of the impact. I can hear her snarling. She struggles against her captor, her eyes locked on mine. Across from her, White and Gray paws at the wooden floor and mutters a nearly inaudible growl that I understand well enough: now isn’t the time.

I said I would kill Old Wolf tonight.

The doors to the town hall burst open. One of the night watchmen staggers in, his clothing in tatters and his intestines snaking out from between his clutching fingers. Is this the distraction Black and Rust had in mind? I expect him to burst through the doorway with blood around his mouth and gore hanging from his fangs. Instead, two more settlement men come shuffling in, holding a bulk of matted fur and caked blood between them. If not for all the competing scents in the town hall, I would have known sooner that it was Black and Rust.

In the middle of a transformation, we really do think with two minds. The wolf was nearly feral, a confused mess of anger and survival instinct. As for my human mind…She said that she had send him to me. Our son. Why didn’t old mother tell me? Why didn’t she tell me that Black and Rust was my son? My son! What have they done to my son? Old mother once told that me that the most dangerous part of the transformation is when both minds vie for dominance over the Spirit. ‘The human spirit is more cunning,’ she told me, ‘but the wolf spirit is older.’

The two settlement men throw their burden down across the floor of the town hall. It is a calculated move. The others had been trying to stay hidden, letting Old Wolf distract the mob; they had slunk into the shadows and side chambers, waiting for the signal to attack. Now they spring forward, unable to hold back from assessing our pack-mate’s condition and protecting him from further assault. I am no different. I lunge forward across the floor. The settlers back away, but more slowly. The men are starting to realize that they have the upper hand here. The element of surprise we were depending on is lost.

The pup is alive, but seriously wounded. They shouldn’t have been able to capture him. Black and Rust moves faster than any human. He is stealthier than all of us; stronger, deadlier. My son! How did they know he was coming? How did they find him? The rest of the pack circles Black and Rust, their hackles raised, an unbroken harmony of vengeful growling undercutting the fatal quiet of the hall. We are in defensive mode, uncertain of what to do next. Normally, we would all look to Old Wolf for guidance—but he has betrayed us. Why did he attack Lizzie? What is wrong with him?

‘You see with your own eyes!’ Mrs. Miller yells, holding old mother’s ceremonial knife.

Mickey Donahue steps forward and levels the shotgun at Red and Coal. Soot and Snow yips and darts in front of her mate. Mickey fires, the buckshot taking her full on the side. She tumbles away, skidding to a bloody stop against the far wall. Another man, holding a knife, brings his arm back in readiness to stab it through her. Red and Coal is in motion already. He leaps towards the second man and bites through his forearm, pulverizing the bone and turning the muscle to useless pulp.

White and Gray launches herself at Mickey Donahue; he brings up his hands to defend himself, but she doesn’t hold back the way Old Wolf had done with me. The stock of the gun strikes her face, turning her away just enough so that her jaws close around the man’s elbow. She bites down and nearly severs the arm at the joint. She is about to crunch through his face when Old Wolf advances and locks his jaws around her neck. Her pulls her away from the struggling settler and throws her roughly against the floor. She thrashes and snaps but he forces her down, biting until she stops fighting.

He is trying to force her to submit. She is resisting him with every ounce of her strength, her muscles rippling underneath her fur. If she doesn’t yield, he will keep biting until his fangs break through her skin. I want to ask him what he thinks he’s doing. I want to ask him why he betrays us. But I don’t have the words anymore. I have only action. I spring forward, crashing my right shoulder into his flank. He rolls away from White and Gray and my vision narrows to nothing but him: I am ready for this confrontation. I am ready to take my rightful place as alpha.

White and Gray steps between us, tilting her head to look at me. If you were to translate every nuance and gesture of body language expressed by every creature, you may appreciate the immense vocabulary at our command. Add to that the unique scent attached to every emotion on the spectrum, and you may understand that the wolf can discern more in a single moment than what can be spoken in many. Now is not the time, she tells me.

The men to my right are still holding Lizzie. Red and Coal has driven the settlers away from his wounded mate; those who didn’t choose flight chose death. My son’s wolf blood has already sealed his wounds.  The other settlers are likely regrouping for another assault. Those that return will return with weapons. If we stay here, they will finish us. Much as I hate having to back down, White and Gray is right. There is no disgrace in shifting my attention to the more immediate threat.

The schoolteacher looks directly at me for the first time. ‘I know you,’ he says. I stare at him. There is something off about him. I didn’t notice it before, but it seems obvious to me now. My eyes focus on Mrs. Miller. I see the same strange effect. Their eyes don’t match their expressions. They don’t even match their faces.

They are wearing humanskins.

They are not wolves underneath. I would have known. Lizzie would have known. ‘What are you?’ I shout at Mrs. Miller. ‘You’re no wolf!’ Those blessed by the Spirit of the Wolf know one another, regardless of the humanskins they wear.

‘Territory is power,’ she says. ‘That old hag of yours has been snatching up more than she deserves. And this pup,’ she motions disdainfully toward Black and Rust, ‘is a player best removed from the game early. As is your wife…’ She brandishes the ceremonial knife and moves toward Lizzie.

The men holding my wife stiffen when Mrs. Miller moves forward, uncertain of what to do. In that, they give themselves away: this whole affair has been coordinated. Some of them knew what to expect when Old Wolf shed his humanskin before their eyes. Clearly, some of them knew where to find my son. Why would Mrs. Miller have chosen this night, of all nights, to publically denounce Lizzie? She must have known we were going to attack. Old Wolf called the attack. My wife had led a rival to her own mother’s den. I have learned all I can from this vantage, wearing the humanskin. The wolf will be able to tell so much more.

When the decision is made to shed the humanskin, there is no cunning, no intelligence, no anchor of self-identity that can prevent the wolf from coming through. It is a release, not an agony, like relaxing a muscle cramping with tension.

I unloose the wolf-mind, shedding the illusion as if it was an awkward facial expression held for too long. I pass through the tear in the wound between worlds. On the other side is strength, speed, vitality, and clarity. Perfect clarity. On the other side is my true form.

The last question in my mind while wearing the humanskin—what are they?—is still my first priority. I need to identify the threat. I sift through the mélange of scents clouding the town hall: human, dog, rat, ant, fly, blood, feces, urine, bile, phlegm, tobacco, wood, stone, earth, plant, cooked meat, sickness…wolf…and something else…something that doesn’t fit…

Serpent.

I focus my senses on each of them, trying to learn as much as I can before springing into action. The woman—Mrs. Miller—smells like old mother, but different. With old mother it is human and wolf and…magic. The man—Mr. Robbins—smells like serpent tinged with the familiar, subtle odor of humanskin. Old Wolf smells like…disease. Sickness. Like an animal bitten by a venomous snake. And Lizzie…I know that scent. Human and wolf and magic.

Three targets, three choices. Red and Coal moves forward and catches my eye. He is ready. I look down at Black and Rust, training my senses on him; he is conscious, playing possum. White and Gray is dutifully lowering her head to Old Wolf, but things have changed. The men holding Lizzie are coming around to realize that they aren’t in control of anything. They are surrounded by monsters.

They look to the schoolteacher for direction, but Mr. Robbins only stares at me and says: ‘You are not the only monsters born into this new world. The Great Totems have all returned, choosing their blessed ones from among the survivors of the world that ended.’ He suddenly drops to his belly. ‘You may play at wearing humanskins, but to you they will always be cumbersome. They are like gloves to us. You knew me when you were children. I insinuated myself into this community long before the big bad wolf came huffing and puffing. I was there in the grass, waiting for the best time to strike.’

The magic of transformation is the same, but the movement is different. The humanskin becomes dry and brittle, crumbling away from the serpent beneath. The beast itself is massive. He unravels himself from between worlds one great length after another, until it seems the whole hall is filled with his coils. I briefly hope that his bulk limits his speed, but he demonstrates his impossible swiftness only a moment later—darting towards Alan Griselli. Alan fires a round, but his arms are shaking and his senses are static with terror. The shot clips the serpent’s scales, shattering a few into translucent shards. The monster that was Mr. Robbins swirls around Alan, crushing every bone in his body with an audible series of wet pops and crunches. When he is a boneless ruptured mess the serpent gapes open its muscled mouth and leers over him; it funnels down, swallowing the poor man whole. It gulps and undulates, forcing him into its body while the pack watches.

I should have anticipated that those blessed by the Spirit of the Serpent would move with unimaginable speed. The men holding Lizzie let her go and flee from the town hall. Mrs. Miller laughs and plunges the ceremonial knife into my wife’s belly. Lizzie cries out, clutching at the old woman’s arms as if they were two boxers embracing after a fierce exchange of blows.

Black and Rust ends his charade. With a rumbling growl that passes into the dreadful silence of an unrestrained attack, he lunges at Mrs. Miller. The serpent lashes out at him, knocking him aside with a whip of coiled muscle. My son yips in frustration and rebounds, charging at the monster. The snake tries to wind itself around him; he is too quick and too agile. He evades every turn and winding strike, but he is on the defensive. I look towards Red and Coal, who acknowledges my signal. In that moment, all rivalries are forgiven and set aside. A pack member is in danger. My brother sprints into the battle. Soot and Snow, unwilling to let her mate face the threat alone, forces herself up. The ghastly wound on her side is closed, but she’s lost a good deal of blood. She shouldn’t be standing, much less fighting, but that doesn’t matter. My pack-mates charge the serpent.

‘There is an old story that the Great Beasts came first,’ Mr. Robbins once said. ‘In the world that ended, people uncovered their bones buried in a history book of stone. But bones are physical remains. What happened to the spirits of the great beasts? We can argue that they didn’t have any…but what if,’ his voice lowered as the class listened enrapt, ‘they just went into hiding? What if they were just waiting while the humans scurried arrogantly about and proclaimed them gone forever? We once celebrated our power over them by wearing their faces as masks. What if they are doing the same, celebrating their return?’

Lizzie’s broken away from the snake-mother, trying to stem the flow of blood from her abdomen. The witch turns too late to evade my attack. I come in from below, angling my head so that I can open my mouth over her belly and rip through the flesh. She screams and staggers away; I taste blood and muscle in my mouth. I press the assault, nipping at her hamstring as she stumbles in agony towards the exit. She goes down, hissing and dragging herself across the floor. Stepping over her, I give her a muttered growl that I hope conveys everything I feel for her. Then I close my teeth over her face and grind through her skull as if it were a walnut. I relish my kill—what a delicacy!—but I have to restrain myself. Lizzie is bleeding out and the settlers are returning, no doubt armed with every firearm in the settlement.

To my left, Old Wolf is holding his own against White and Gray, but she’s younger, faster, and stronger. She’s playing it safe, knowing that he will exhaust himself long before she does. Behind me, Mr. Robbins thrashes in his death throes as my son, my brother, and Soot and Snow finish him off, crunching through the bones of his spine.

I catch her scent a second before I see her. How did she get inside so quickly? Old mother is here, kneeling over my human wife and administering a pungent tincture that smells like healing. I turn to the battle between our former alpha and his mate. Old Wolf seems to have caught a second wind; he hooks White and Gray’s leg with a bite, severing the tendon. She stumbles, yelps when she puts her weight down, and slips.

I don’t waste any time. Old Wolf sees me coming and turns, but I am counting on that. I have one shot at this. I lower myself when I get close, feigning a posture of submission. He makes to get a hold of my throat. I lunge upward and bite as deep into his neck as my fangs can find purchase. He tries to pull away, but I clench my jaws and pull against him. The serrated backs of my canines cleave through the muscle and tissue of his throat. When he succeeds in jerking his head away, most of his windpipe catches between my teeth.

I can taste the sickness in him. The serpent-mother corrupted him somehow. She must have taken him when he wore the humanskin; otherwise he would have sensed what she was. ‘Have you met Mrs. Miller’s new squeeze?’ Lizzie was always fond of using expressions from the world that ended. ‘He’s an older gentleman from one of the dead cities further south. Atlanta, they used to call it. He’s been on his own for quite awhile, hunting and trapping in the marshes near the bay. He’s a bit strange, and there’s something about him I find unnervingly familiar. I keep thinking I’ve seen him before.’

‘Strange? Everyone around here’s strange, Lizzie.’

She’d laughed. ‘Fine. How about this, then: I saw him around back one evening, just outside the light of the torch behind our house. I could swear that his eyes glowed in the darkness. He walked off towards the mountains, and I kept watching him. I’m telling you, when he got out past the road he disappeared. A second later I saw a wolf run off into the forest…’

‘Wait…this was at night? You can’t see anything past the road, even when there’s a full moon! Lizzie, if you’re going to tell me stories…’

Old mother is already administering to Soot and Snow. Lizzie is standing, a poultice binding her wound closed. We have to go, she says to me, tell your pack that it’s time.

My pack.

I mutter a soft growl of command. The others snap to attention. Old mother returns to Lizzie’s side and nods at me; she and her daughter will take care of themselves. I run towards the window on the far side of the hall. I tuck my head down and propel myself through the glass, landing at a run and taking off through the back ways of the settlement. Through the communal herb garden, past Mr. Frederick’s house, down the dirt road leading past the tannery, and into the relief of the dark woods. I know my pack is behind me; I can hear and distinguish their individual gaits and scents. Soot and Snow is keeping up. She will need to rest, but not before we are well into the forest and over the ridge nearest the encampment.

White and Gray paces beside me. My eyes catch hers. You are the alpha now, she says. But that’s not all she says. My human wife is a living heir to the lineage of our Totem. My human mind, with all its memories and sentiments, is still mated to Lizzie—now more than ever. But the wolf has already chosen White and Gray. Black and Rust, loping ahead to my right, is invigorated by our victory. He is Elizabeth’s son; he is our son.

I can’t help but wonder how many lineages exist in this new world, whether we will vie with other monsters for territory. How many of them wear humanskin? How many of them will consider themselves our enemy?

I remember sitting with Lizzie on the ridge overlooking the settlement. ‘Do you think we’ll make it this time?’ Lizzie asked me.

‘I don’t know,’ I answered. ‘They say everything is different. Mr. Robbins once told me that time is cyclical. The age of humanity has ended, he said. Things are going back to beginning; back to an age of gods and monsters.’

‘Maybe we were the monsters,’ Lizzie said.

A Different Kind of Werewolf Story

What follows is the first half of a story entitled “Humanskin.” It presents a different take on traditional werewolf mythology, employing a setting and perspective that is unique and provocative. If you enjoy it, please “like” it.  Share this narrative with anyone you believe may appreciate it. I write first and foremost for my audience, so let me know if I have one! Thank you for your time, and I hope you enjoy it. Look for the second half of the story to appear soon.

Alexander Chirila 2013

 

Humanskin

I am going to kill Old Wolf today.

The others are expecting this. They see me trying him. I know that, when I was a man, I would not have killed him. I would not have killed anyone. But it is good that I should kill Old Wolf today. It is good that I should take his place as alpha.

Tonight, we hunt with purpose.

The humans’ dwelling-places are encroaching. They do as they did before; they burn, they destroy, they spread and they consume. We will remind them that this is our territory. They will come for us, but we know their weapons. We know their movements. We know their scent.

We run between the dogwoods and falling leaves, quickly over the uneven earth and through the tall grass. Winter is in the bitter wind, in the early morning frost. We lope alongside a river. It is clean, good water. Dark, slippery pebbles shift as we pad upstream. The mountains are blue in the predawn. The distance between their round, forested peaks is measured in shades of blue.

I can smell a buck somewhere on an adjoining peak, separated by a narrow valley. I am hungry, but I can wait. Normally, White and Gray would break off from the pack and see to her own belly. Even she obeys tonight.

She knows that I want her, that I would take her as a mate. She belongs to Old Wolf, and he guards her jealously. He is old, and his eyes are weak. He is no longer fit to be the alpha. It is time for him to find a new place.

The wind shifts, west to east. The scent-trails of cookfires cut through the forest in visible ribbons. On the surface of the ground, there is a fine mesh of varied smells. The more intense seem to move and shift, while those weathered down by time and season are still and faint. There are trails within this network; the footprints of an animal, the burrowing of insects. Our own signatures mark our territory like signposts stapled to trees.

I glance to my right—Black and Rust is darting agilely through a tumble of boulders; young, strong, and just coming of age. Full of piss and vinegar. Damn fool made a play for Soot and Snow last night, but my brother checked him. Nearly took his eyes, and would have served him right. Old Wolf intervened, but Red and Coal nearly made the bid for alpha there and then. Better that he didn’t. My brother should know that my time has come.

* * * *

I don’t like wearing humanskin. I must have been comfortable in it once, when it was mine. I just want to claw it off now. It feels fragile, thin, vulnerable. When I wear it, I remember snatches of things, like pieces of dry tendon sticking to an old bone left out in the sun. I can’t put them together.

Human speech is getting more difficult. I don’t talk to the others—there’s no need. I can read their body language better than if they were whispering their innermost thoughts into my ear.

I’m shivering. It’s harder to feel things, sense things, smell things. I have to paw through all this debris in my mind—I want to see my family again—to find the simplest thing…

For all his weaknesses, Old Wolf remembers everything. He remembers when he wore his own humanskin. He remembers himself. He walks upright without difficulty. The first time I walked upright, I tottered and reeled, flailing my arms like a bird with broken wings. I’ve gotten better since then, but the pebbles are slippery with mist thrown off from the cascade pool. My brother laughs when I fall—he is not my brother—and I try to growl at him. My throat cannot make the same sounds.

Black and Rust changes so quickly. He dons the humanskin smoothly, effortlessly, and it is an irony that a born wolf should so easily wear the mask of a boy. It is a face I always think I recognize. He watches me clutch at the embankment for support, standing with his flat white teeth showing in his face. Impudent pup.

I see White and Gray rising from a stand of cattails, her smooth shoulders flexing as she stretches. I must have wanted other human females—I loved my wife—when I was a man. Then, their skin must not have seemed so thin, or delicate; their shape must not have seemed so awkward and ill-suited to the harshness of the unforgiving earth. She is different. Somehow the wolf is visible, like a new moon on a clear night.

There is an impulse that tears through every single coherent thought, an electric need snagged on an exposed livewire. I just want to take all this energy and do something with it. I want to fight, I want to hunt, I want to range over the wide earth…

She soothes me.

My brother and his mate help one another rise. Red and Coal casts a vicious human eye at Black and Rust. It is the eye of jealousy. He is right to be anxious. When Black and Rust grows, he will become the strongest among us. He is a born wolf. When the time comes, he will make a play for Soot and Snow, and there is a chance he will emerge the stronger. I know that my own time as alpha will be short, when he grows. It is a thing as inevitable as the turning of the world in the dark.

Further up the ridge, away from the cascade pool and the Totem who guards it, there is a ramshackle little hovel assembled from bits and pieces of the world that came before. The world that ended. The old woman who assembled it is the last living heir of an ancient lineage dedicated to the service of the Totem. The Totem herself is a focal point, a living crossroads between worlds.

‘Very few people know about the Totems,’ my wife told me once. We used to walk together for hours to get away from the settlement. Our normal route would take us west, towards one of the many decayed roads that linked the dead cities together. On this day, we went into the mountains.

She would tell me stories of her life in the dead city; about the gangs, the fever breakouts, the starvation, paranoia, and violence. When I asked her why anyone would cling to those crumbling tombs of glass and steel she told that me that many people believe the wilderness is worse—reclaimed by ‘a Mother Nature pissed off at the world.’ Yes, I would tell her, the earth is pitiless and unfriendly…but at least it is alive.

She would also tell me stories about Her Great Journey South, a lonely exodus of refugees that trekked the abandoned roads in search of new homes and new lives. I always imagined that if you could fly above the country, as they say people once did, you would see campfires flickering here and there in the blackness between settlements. Wandering bands of refugees huddling over their light, surrounded by dangerous mystery.

Lizzie was huddled around one of these lights on the night she heard the story, in the company of a strange group of travelers—they were wolves wearing humanskin—who explained that ‘when the world ended, it left a wound. The wound had been there for a long time, but the people had sewn it up with their roads and machines, skyscrapers and subterranean tunnels. The wound bled inside, never clotting up. There was too much poison thinning the blood. But afterward the Fever, with no people to keep stitching the wound, the sutures broke open and the tainted blood poured out. But that’s how it’s done—the poison needs to come out so that the blood can run pure again.

‘When the earth took back what was hers, her children came with her. The Spirits of things. The Totems. They spring up in places where the pure blood flows again. There are people who can see them. They say that in the world of man, the medicine of the Spirits was quieted; but after the world ended, it was reignited. Old lineages that had dripped sleeping down the generations were awakened to power.

Old Wolf is already speaking to old mother by the time the rest of us drag our awkward bodies up the trail and into the clearing. Black and Rust is probably inside already, dining on the lavish meals she prepares for us. ‘I used to cook,’ she once told me, ‘but I have no children to cook for except for the six of you. And you’—she’d laughed in a way that reminded me of a little girl bounding through a field of wildflowers—‘can’t enjoy what I cook unless you wear the humanskin.’

It is she who advises Old Wolf, and we who listen. It is she who knows when the Totem will sheathe us in humanskin, that we may walk among our enemies.

‘What news?’ Old Wolf asks her.

She glances at me. Does she know that I will kill him tonight? Of course she knows. She will say nothing of my intentions to him. She never interferes in the business of the pack.

‘The humans are gathering tonight,’ she says, ‘to deliberate.’

Black and Rust appears in the doorway behind the old woman, his mouth stained with elderberry juice, his eyes glaring. Of all of us, he is the fiercest defender of the Totem. She is at the heart of our territory; she is the caretaker of the blood that binds us to one another and to our ancestors. To him, she is an undying surrogate to replace the mother that tried to sacrifice him in his infancy.

Old Wolf growls; he does not seem to suffer the strictures of his humanskin throat. ‘Their hunting parties kill our brothers and sisters. They push closer to the Totem with each season. Any further and they will find her resting-place. I know what humans do to the sacred.’

He knew. Old Wolf was among the first to be given the Spirit of the Wolf after the wilderness swarmed over the empty habitations of the world that ended.

‘You have harried them for too long,’ old mother says. ‘Now it is time to go for the jugular.’ She grins and draws a bony finger across her thin neck. ‘Go in among their dwelling-places; attend this gathering and be wary of their suspicions. Your attacks will have stirred them into a vengeful frenzy—but this is what we intended. They fight for their survival. We fight for our dominion.’ Her eyes narrow. ‘Show them the boundaries of their territory.’

‘Let me be the one to lure them,’ Black and Rust says, ‘I am the fastest of the pack.’ Old Wolf looks at my brother. Red and Coal says nothing, but his silence is plain enough to understand. The alpha grunts, and the upstart pup bears his flat human teeth in a triumphant snarl.

With the matter settled, the others are ushered into the hovel by the old woman. I remain outside for a moment, staring at an old tin board with the drawing of a woman holding a glass Coca-Cola bottle. I remember that drawing. Old Matheson’s General Store. Trinkets and relics from the World Before. My father loved that store; for every derelict and ruin of bits he could tell the most wondrous stories.

‘You came from this place,’ Old Wolf was saying. ‘If you are not strong enough to find your way out of it again…’

I bear my flat human teeth in response to his not-so-subtle challenge. ‘There is no trap of theirs that can snare me.’

* * * *

‘I know what you’re planning,’ Black and Rust says, interrupting my reverie. I turn from the cascade pool to regard his approach.

To the others, Black and Rust is a trickster. A mischievous spirit, both man and wolf, comfortable in both skins. Old Wolf does not entirely trust him. My wolf-brother would just as soon finish him. Soot and Snow tolerates his impertinent advances. It is only with White and Gray that he behaves like a pup; they roughhouse with one another, and he always comes away with nicks and scratches. I’ve no doubt that she could overcome her mate, but that is a human thought. She will remain with Old Wolf until he is defeated.

‘Do you?’ I ask him mildly.

He smiles. Both as a wolf and wearing the humanskin, he bears his teeth often. ‘You should do it,’ he says. ‘The time has come for it.’

I turn pensively back to the cascade pool. ‘Yes. The time has come for it. He is reluctant to attack the settlement outright. I can smell his unease. He is too cautious. Still,’ I add uneasily, ‘he is an elder. I am a member of his pack. He was chosen by old mother before all of us. What right do I have to vie for his place?’

‘It is the way of things,’ Black and Rust says.

I shake my head. ‘I envy you. Old mother brought you into this pack as a pup. Have you any human memories in you at all?’

This is a sore subject with him. Old mother had found him lifeless in the cascade pool. The child’s mother had drowned him and left him for dead in the water. Her footprints had been plain to see; the stink of her fear and regret hung like snakeskin from invisible branches in the air. When the pack had arrived in response to old mother’s summons—a call inaudible to the humans in their settlement—we had found her cradling a wolf cub.

The pup had been born a wolf sheathed in humanskin, able to shed one and take up the other with no need of the elaborate ritual conducted by old mother. For the rest of us, she observed the movements of the stars and listened to the murmuring voice of the Totem. When all the auguries of her craft deemed the moment right, she summoned us. We came, and amidst incantations and terrible contortions she implored the Totem to sheathe us in humanskin—what a torment it always is! With Black and Rust it is different. The magic is inside of him. He was born of it.

‘Only a woman of my lineage could have birthed him,’ old mother had said. She herself was a woman too old to bear children. Why would the pup’s mother have tried to destroy him? This is a question that remains unanswered even now.

Black and Rust joined our pack no more than a year ago, only a few months after I received the Spirit of the Wolf. I have known him for all of this life. I realize now, just looking at him in his humanskin, how quickly he has grown. As a wolf, it seemed only natural. In another several years, he will be full grown. Looking at him now, I realize how strange it is that he should so rapidly advance in age. To a human, he would appear to have grown a full ten years in the space of one. In another year, he will wear the face of a young man. Would the mother who birthed him even recognize him now?

Black and Rust looks at me. ‘I know that your time has come. I know that I would rather follow you than Old Wolf. All I have ever known is the pack. It doesn’t matter to me where I come from, in that world,’ he gestures towards the settlement, ‘any more than it matters to any of you. We all died to that world when we received the Spirit of the Wolf.’

‘It’s just that you’ve never had a chance to live in it,’ I say.

This startles him. He considers it for a moment, eyeing me strangely. ‘Maybe,’ he says, and I marvel at how easily human speech comes to him. Maybe. What a human word that is.

* * * *

There is a barren place in the foothills, like a burn-blister gutted out of the flesh with a clamshell. I used to call this place home. I remember settling down here with my father when I was a little boy. It used to be nothing but a gathering of tents in a clearing. We were a family of hunters and trappers; we weren’t  refugees from the dead cities. We knew the woods.

It is more than a gathering of tents now. The humans had smoothed out a crossroads and town square. Around it they had built up a town hall, general store, schoolhouse—like something malignant beaten back again and again only to crawl forward in the same, repetitive, inevitable way. There were only a few other children there, the sons and daughters of something new. They were always telling us how we were ‘something new.’ This is a new world, they kept saying, and we must learn from our mistakes. My best friend Nick was the son of the schoolteacher, Mr. Robbins. He was a haunted man, as all our fathers were, fled from the horrors of the world that ended. His father, Nick’s grandfather, had survived the Third World War, the Fever, and the struggle for survival that followed. They burrowed like maggots through the corpses of the cities until Mr. Robbins and his son fled into the open country.

He was a learned man, and he knew more about history than anyone in the settlement. ‘This isn’t something new,’ he said to me once, in confidence, ‘this is something old come back again. An age of monsters.’

‘Hey,’ Red and Coal growls, ‘pay attention.’

We are approaching the settlement from the northeast. In our true forms, we could have run from old mother’s den to the settlement in little over an hour. Wearing humanskin, we’ve been trekking since dusk; it is now well into the evening. While dulled, our senses are not entirely impoverished. We can see well enough in the dark.

We pause on a ridge overlooking the settlement. The torches around the town square are lit, as are many windows in the wooden houses that line the dirt road. Several night watchmen patrol the crossroads, meeting in the square to exchange a few words of an ongoing conversation before continuing their circuit.

After the world that ended, the humans began to creep out of their hiding-places. They were not like the ones that came before. They were neither soft, nor dull, nor cocooned in their chrysalises of metal and artificial light. They came as scavengers first, picking at the carcass of the generation that birthed them out of a dying womb. Now they come as settlers, trying to reclaim territory that we have since taken as our own. The men are dangerous and rough, tempered on the forge of a world no longer under the dominion of their grandfathers. To them a wolf is a wild dog, and it is no complicated thing to put a bullet into one, or into a dozen, even. They know better than to come alone; they learned that quickly enough. We taught them that lesson.

Now it is time for them to learn another.

We come down from the ridge. I am getting easily caught up in the clothing given me by the old woman; the fabric against my skin is distracting and disconcerting. I concentrate on my surroundings. A wave of wind rolls through the canopy of trees, shaking loose the leaves ready to fall and causing the bare branches to clack together. It feels like winter. It smells damp, like rain on dark loam. Ahead, my pack picks its way silently among the rocks and broken branches and dry leaves.

‘We finish them,’ Old Wolf says.

We reach the leveled ground of the settlement. I remember the last time I stood upright on this road, wearing humanskin. The fever left its victims with little choice. They were quarantined or euthanized outright, and then burned to nothing; medieval medicine at its best. There was a doctor among us, an elderly man with a proper degree from the world that ended. Cut-off from the machinery of modern medicine, he was just another healer in the wilderness, forced to learn his craft from scratch. He did what he could, bless his heart, but the fever had nearly slain an entire world. Its vector had cut a swath across the most populated places on the planet, reducing the entire human equation to an endgame of strategy and survival.

In the world that followed, despite the constant fear of sickness, despite the bitter mercilessness of a landscape that culled the weak with an overeager hand—there was still joy. Fragile, fleeting, and terrible in its contrast to the world beyond the small, flickering light it cast on the tired faces of those who tasted it. My family. My wife and son. The last time I stood on this road, it was to say goodbye.

‘Your memories of this place are better than mine,’ Soot and Snow said. This is true. The pack had taken her three years after I had torn free of my humanskin. We had found her buried underneath a heap of deer carcasses. She had been raped by the settlement boys, the darlings of our little community. Red and Coal had been about finishing her off there and then, but White and Gray had stayed his jaws and loped off to summon old mother. When she came she had bid us drag the broken human on a makeshift pallet all the way to the cascade pool. There she had performed her rituals and invoked the Totem, as she had done with all of us.

Soot and Snow remembered everything. Unlike the rest of us, her transition did not throw up a barred gate between her human life and her life with us. To her, it was all one continuity. Old Mother said this was remarkable; that normally, without this barred gate, the mind breaks against the strain. The wolf goes feral. When she first arose from the pool, we thought she was feral—the only choice would have been to finish her. It was Red and Coal who stopped us then. He recognized her anger for what it was. He knew what she wanted, above all else. She wanted it with one mind. Revenge.

The entire pack was ready, of course, but Red and Coal insisted that it be only the two of them. He had already chosen her as his mate. How the settlers had defended those three boys! I knew them. Knew them and hated them. Those little mongrels. They were treated so well, forgiven every sin. They were handled like princes, pathetic as they were, and their families let them have their run of the place, to piss on every damned bush.

I often wondered what the others must have thought, when they found the bodies horribly mutilated among the deer carcasses. Whatever they kept telling me about this ‘new world,’ it didn’t seem right that pain, suffering, violence and fear were the signs of a better dispensation. We were all survivors. As far as I was concerned, my father had rightly taught me the only rule worth following: you fight so that you and your family can survive; but unless your own survival depends on it, you must never endanger the survival of another. ‘We are too few in this world,’ he had said, ‘and we need one another.’

With their guns, hidden behind their walls and windows, the humans can pick us off. We can do a lot of damage, and we have. We can destroy stores of food, massacre their livestock and trample their crops—but we cannot so easily kill them. If they should come against us in force, we are outnumbered. Wearing the humanskin, we are vulnerable. In exchange, we can walk amongst them, allay their suspicions. One moment they will believe their numbers swollen with unexpected aid from a group of strangers. In the next, they will know that this is not the world of their fathers and grandfathers. This is our world now.

Old Wolf’s plan is too simple. I dislike it; he relies too heavily on the strategies of another world, another time. He takes advantage of Black and Rust’s eagerness to prove his worth. He intends that the pup should distract them with a ruckus. When they pour out of the town hall to investigate, we will be among them. If they expect a trap, they will be reassured when they find nothing but a rogue wolf causing trouble.

It is then that he expects us to shed our humanskins and attack them. He assumes too much; he assumes that the humans will accept our disguises—for they are disguises, regardless of whether we were human once. He assumes that they will take the bait and readily abandon the safety of the settlement. He assumes that Black and Rust is faster and more cunning than their hunters and trackers. He is placing the pack in danger.

Part of me thinks that I should have challenged him already. Still, I will not assume that the rest of the pack will accept my right to challenge him. If White and Gray defends him, my bid is lost and I will be disgraced. She must see how foolish he has become. I only hope that we can survive it—and that when it is done, his failure will stand in plain sight for the pack to see.

We approach the first of the houses on the main road. The night watchman spots us. White and Gray steps forward. The moment he sees her, his body language and posture change. The air is suddenly suffused with the unmistakable pheromones of his lust. She knows this, playing her disguise to perfection; nor is she awkward in her mimicry of human speech. She explains that we have come by road from a settlement just over the mountains. There was a settlement there, destroyed by a rival pack claiming the eastern Appalachians as their own.

The night watchman, regaining enough of his wits to look us over, notices that we have no weapons to speak of, nothing that could be perceived as a threat. Old Wolf looks like an elder. My brother and I are playing the part of weary and haggard. Soot and Snow clings to her man, just another refugee looking for safety in numbers. We have absolute command of our bodies. We have meticulously orchestrated every twitch, sigh, and gesture. We betray nothing that we do not wish to.

The night watchman agrees to take us to the town hall meeting; someone will provide us with a fair supper. He offers no guarantee as to our accommodations, but then none is expected. Strangers are not often welcome, and rarely anticipated. That we should be received at all is a gamble that we thought might not succeed. Old Wolf did not tell us whether he had an alternate plan.

The wilderness had received me, another one of countless exiles driven away by the fever. I had been so concerned for my newborn son and young wife that I had failed to see the symptoms in myself. It wouldn’t have made any difference if I had. Still, it was not until the fever took me that I realized what happened. There was time enough to gather some few belongings and say my goodbyes from a safe distance.

For nights the pack must have watched me suffer alone in the forest. I had taken shelter under a natural lean-to of moss-carpeted boulders and the fallen trunks of old growth trees. It rained every day and every night, trickling in glittering fever-enhanced streams from the canopy above. When it did not rain the insects droned on in the night and the wolves whispered in a language of breaking twigs and rustling leaves.

Old mother came to me on the fifth night. The way the fever works, you languish for days in agony. Your skin feels like the skin of some dead bird stapled into the raw muscle. My brain felt like a jigsaw puzzle assembled and scattered over and over again by a lunatic child. On the fifth night, the fever breaks. Just like that. The pain and brokenness is abruptly replaced by clarity. Perfect, uncompromising, enlightened clarity.

She came to me, and I saw her as she was.

‘Strange night for you to be coming through,’ the night watchman says as we approach the town hall. ‘You folks are going to have to explain some things,’ he says, ‘like how you managed to pass over the mountains unharmed.’

‘We never said we were unharmed,’ Old Wolf answers quickly. What a sharp mind he has! ‘If you’re talking about the wolves, we already know about them. We fought them off more than once—but not without loss.’ He nods toward White and Gray, who joins his play as if they had laid it all out beforehand. She bows her head, exuding sorrow and mourning. Old Wolf nods and turns back to the watchman. ‘In the first attack, they took her baby…’

‘Oh!’ The night watchman’s mouth opens in shamed horror. ‘I’m sorry—my apologies—yes, yes, then you already know…’ he recovers himself. ‘Yes, well, there wolves have been harassing us for years. I think they’re trying to run us off…like we’re in their territory and they want us out.’ He nods sagely, proud of his conclusion. He couldn’t possibly know how accurate he was. ‘Anyway, in the past few months, they’ve managed to destroy our stores and slaughter our livestock. We’ve had to trade with the western settlements. They’ve killed our men and women.

‘Everyone figured this was just the way of things; that the wolves were here before us, and they’re just trying to hold onto what’s theirs. But now, they’re saying that maybe something else is going on. It may sound crazy to you folks,’ he looks at us apologetically, ‘but they’re saying that maybe the wolves are being sent after us, deliberately, like someone sicced them on us…’ he shakes his head. ‘Anyway, I think I’ll let you hear all about it for yourselves. Just don’t get involved; the people are pretty riled up tonight. Just hang back and I’ll ask Maggie to look after you.’

From the Modern Fable short story series: Telling True Stories

 

“The world was birthed in violence,” the old man said to the boy. “Among the elder gods there were two brothers. The younger of the two delighted in creating all kinds of things, and the other was a skilled craftsman without imagination. He could build according to any design, but he could do little more than what he was told; his dreams were empty. His younger brother, however, was full of imagination, but less skillful with his hands; they could not give form and substance to what he saw in his mind’s eye.

“One day, the younger brother created the world, but he could not get it to work. It was dull and senseless, and nothing like what he had imagined. He called his brother and asked him to build another world according to his design. The older brother, desirous of greater acclaim among the other gods, saw his opportunity to overturn their disappointment: he would build the world and claim that he had dreamt of it himself. If his brother should protest, he had only to show them the dull lump of lifeless clay the younger one had tried to create.

“He set to work and made the world according to his brother’s design. He created the fiery heart of the world and surrounded it with earth; he poured water over the hot clay to cool it, working it with his fingers until it took the intended shape. The waters coursed and pooled into the grooves he had made with his fingers, and he took some of the water and spread it over the ridges and plains. When it seemed that he had finished, he brought the world before the other gods and displayed it proudly. ‘Look what I have done!’ he exclaimed. ‘I dreamt it and gave it form and life with my hands!’

“But the other gods did not react as he expected,” the old man continued after a pause. “They looked at his work and admired it as they did all the work of his hands, but they did not look upon the world with wonder. They nodded and told him that it was an interesting little bauble, handing it back to him with no further concern for his effort. He returned dejectedly to his workshop and thought, ‘I have done something wrong. Anything my younger brother does is greeted with admiration and esteem; yet I have done better, and have little to show for it. I will bring my younger brother in here and let him see what I have done. When he tells me that the world I have made is how he envisioned it, I will know that the other gods have slighted me without cause.’

“When the younger brother saw what the other had done, he smiled and said, ‘Yes, very good, that is exactly how I imagined it. Now, give it back to me so that I might finish my work, for there is yet something that I must add to it.’

“Now this, the older brother did not expect. Startled, he said, ‘It is not finished? Why did you not tell me this? Why do you ask me to give it back to you now? If it is unfinished, tell me what needs to be done and I will do it. If I give it back, you will only ruin it—don’t you know that nothing you try to create with your hands turns out as you intend?’

“‘Nonetheless,’ the younger brother replied angrily, ‘this is not something you can do—it requires imagination.’ He seized the world his brother had fashioned at his request and went away with it. The older brother resolved to follow him and see what he would do; he reasoned that his brother wanted to keep it secret, and this did not sit well with him. His already felt betrayed in that his brother had not told him there was more to do; but his anger stemmed from the reaction of the other gods, who he had fully expected would receive his effort with praise rather than disinterest.”

“But grandfather,” the little boy protested suddenly, “you’re talking as if these were ordinary people! Didn’t you say that they could never die, and that they were more powerful than ordinary people? They sound like everyone else!”

The old man laughed. “‘Ordinary people’ had to have come from somewhere,” he answered with a wry smile. “Where do you think we learned how to behave the way we do? From the gods!”

The boy shook his head. “I don’t believe you,” he answered stoutly. “You promised me that you would tell me a story about real gods.”

“Well, I am,” the old man said stiffly. “Now do you want to hear what happens next or not?” The boy pouted and rolled his eyes. He said nothing, but the old man understood that the boy wanted him to continue. He smiled and went on, “Very good. Now the younger brother took the world to his place of work, and there brought out something that he had made; he had labored over this for many days. It was a palette, daubed with all manner of colors and designs, each one of them intricate and unique. They were unlike anything the older brother had made; they were frail, delicate things that sparkled as if composed of fine dust.

“The older brother watched as the other gathered some of this dust between his fingers and scattered it over the world. When the dust fell across the grooves and pools of the world, a slight movement stirred; the older brother strained to see, craning his neck and peering curiously into the workshop. The pools of water tossed and churned, small things flitted back and forth beneath the surface; a flutter of shapes darted across the airy skin covering the sphere. The younger brother took another sprinkle of powder from a second design on the palette and scattered this also; on the surface of the world, between the ridges, another sign of movement erupted into a rush of shapes across the plains and level surfaces. Again and again the younger brother scattered the powders he had made over the world, and each time, another portion of the sphere was endowed with movement and life. But the older brother could not see any of this clearly from his hidden vantage point, so he decided to make himself known and enter the space.

“When he appeared, his younger brother hastened to throw a cloth over the world. His older brother frowned and said, ‘Why are you taking such pains to hide your work from me? Are you so embarrassed of your effort that you wish no one to see your failure? Come now, let me see it.’

“‘Why do you ask me this?’ demanded the younger brother indignantly. ‘Are you so angry that I did not tell you what I intended to do, that you would charge in here and confront me? Do you wish so badly to see what I have done? Here, look!’ he tore the cloth away from the world, now filled with myriad forms of life in all its corners, and his older brother beheld the wonder and mystery of it.

“‘You will show what you have done to the other gods?’ whispered the older brother.

“‘Is that your concern?’ inquired his sibling. ‘You fear that my merit will eclipse yours?’ he smiled at his older brother, his anger softening. ‘The remedy is simple: we will go and present our creation to the other gods together. I will tell them that I could not have finished my work without you. The world that I had created was dull, and would not have received the final imprint of my vision; but the world that you fashioned for me was perfectly crafted according to my design. Why would you bear me ill-will now? Do you think I would have brought the world before the others and claimed it my work entire?’

“The older brother realized that he had made a grievous mistake: he had taken the unfinished world to the other gods and had claimed it as his own. If his brother presented the world to them now, they would know what he had tried to do. They would punish him. They would exile him and send him away into a place of suffering and anguish…”

The boy’s eyed widened. “Just for that?” he asked incredulously.

The old man nodded seriously. “Oh yes,” he answered, “just for that. So, you can imagine how fearful the older brother became. He tried to dissuade his sibling, saying, ‘No, you mustn’t take this thing before the other gods! Look, you’ve already ruined it,’ he said, pointing to the world, ‘just as you always do. Surely this is not what you intended; if you take it before the other gods they will ridicule your efforts. Come, listen to reason: abandon this project.’

“‘The younger brother looked on the world. It was beautiful to him, exactly as he had imagined it. He had so labored to create life on it, and now that he saw all the profusion of living things bustling in every corner of the world, he could not destroy them. So he said, ‘It is beautiful to me; I will not destroy it. Why would you have me do this thing? Are you so envious of this little thing I have done that you would bear me hatred on account of it?’

“When the older brother saw that he would not prevail over his sibling, a wicked notion came into his heart. He pushed his brother aside and seized the world, straining his arms to crush it; great rents and cracks appeared in the earth, and the waters overran their courses and flooded over the level surfaces. Fire bubbled up from the heart of it and swept in burning trails over the living things, scrambling to get away. The younger brother cried out and tried to stop him, but to no avail; his sibling was stronger by far than he.

“So he grabbed some of the powder he had made and threw it into his brother’s eyes. The older one shouted in pain and dropped the world; it tumbled over the ground. The younger brother took it up, concerned for the work he had done. When he saw the damage done to the world, he began to weep; many of the living things were destroyed, and the shape of it had been utterly distorted from his original vision. Truly, he thought, it had been ruined. His brother had won.

“But that was no longer enough for the older brother; his sibling’s instinctual reaction had done more harm than intended—he was blind! He flailed about, enraged beyond reason, and his hand chanced to brush over a familiar object: the dull, lifeless world his brother had earlier tried to create himself. The clay had hardened. He smashed his fist against it and it shattered into pieces; his hand closed over a sharp fragment. The edges bit into his fingers. The younger brother was still surveying the damage and weeping, oblivious to his approaching sibling; the sound of his mourning was guiding the other to him.

“It was too late when he came at last to his senses. His brother’s hand darted forward, the pointed shard of his failed world piercing his heart. His lifeblood poured over the damaged sphere, and his body collapsed on top of it. His brother struck and struck again until his anger was spent; and when at last he realized what he had done, he dropped the fragment and screamed. His wail was so loud that it alerted the other gods, and they rushed out of their chambers to see what had happened.

“The older brother sat beside his sibling, lamenting what he had done. He did not see that his brother’s blood had mixed with the earth, giving rise to new, unexpected life—his body shrouded the world they had wrought together, and so many times pierced that countless wounds shone with his luminous lifeblood. The gods were rightly angry, and some of them even clamored for the older brother’s life; ‘blood for blood,’ they said. But mercy prevailed that day, and it was decided that the older brother should be banished to the frozen wastes beyond their celestial home. First, however, he was to perform the funeral rites for his sibling as further expiation for his terrible crime.

“He stood vigil over his brother’s body, still wrapped as it was around the world. The other gods had since left, and the chamber was silent—until the older brother began to hear a slight noise. It sounded like voices and music. He went to the door and listened, but the halls of the gods’ home were silent. He listened intently, following the sound. It came from his brother’s body! Or more accurately, it came from the world his body enshrouded. Gently, mournfully, he lifted his sibling’s body and laid it beside the sphere; he leaned closer, intent on discerning the origin of the sound. He could not see, so he relied entirely on what he could hear.

“There was still life in the world! There was movement of all kinds, and much of it the older brother recognized: the crying of the birds in the airy veil of the world; droning of insects and the calls of wild animals; even the songs of the leviathan beasts that moved ponderously through the waters. But the shapes of the waters and ridges and plains were altered, and a new kind of living thing seemed to have propagated across the surface of the world. This new thing was nothing like the others; the older brother leaned closer, trying to listen—and he heard more clearly now, music and voices raised in chant and song. When he had taken aside his brother’s body, the bright light of his workshop’s lamp shone over the sphere, and a great change swept over the world: growing things spread across the level surfaces; life teemed in the waters; and the music and chanting became so loud that it rang into the workshop and sounded against the walls.

“The older brother cupped his hands over his ears and shouted for the noise to stop; but it only became louder and louder, until it seemed to him that this new life was crying out for the brother he had slain. In a panic he blindly ran to his own workshop and shut the door. Still he heard it, the shouting and chanting and music, as insistent now as the thunder of rain against a thatched roof. He could no longer bear it! He groped around his familiar space, finding at last the door to the furnace; he stoked the fire until it roared. He meant to burn the world and all the living things on it, if only that would silence the noise! He made his way into his brother’s workshop and gathered the sphere into his arms, rushing quickly down the corridors he knew so well.

“When he entered his workshop he set the world down and locked the door; he couldn’t have any of the other gods bursting in…”

“Didn’t they hear the noise?” the boy demanded. “He’s not going to burn the world, is he? If he is, then I don’t want to hear the rest of it. You can change it, can’t you? If that’s the ending, you can change it so that he doesn’t burn the world…”

“Of course he doesn’t burn it,” the old man answered with a huff. “We’re still here, aren’t we? And no, I can’t change the ending. That’s not how stories work. They’re supposed to be remembered the way they’re told.”

“Well that’s silly,” answered the boy with a superior air. “You’re the storyteller. If you want to change the ending, then you should be able to change it.”

The old man shook his head. “Then no stories would be true,” he pointed out.

The boy glared at him incredulously. “You’re telling me this is a true story?” he asked doubtfully.

“Why not?” the old man asked. “I’m telling you the story the way it was told to me, and it’s been told this way since the beginning. It has had the same ending all this time. Now do you want to hear the ending or not?”

“Fine,” the boy replied indignantly. “But if the older brother burns the world, I don’t want to hear it.”

The old man sighed. “Well,” he continued, “the fire was roaring in the furnace, and still the older brother could hear the music and chanting. The people were calling for the one whose blood had made them. Their cries sent shards of guilt and anguish into his murderer, and the older brother relented in his decision. He could not destroy the world; it had been his sibling’s first and final true creation. His blood had given new life to it.

“It seemed only fair that his blood should be given to it in sacrifice.

“He took the hammer and chisel he had used to shape the world and struck the point into his heart. His lifeblood spilled over the globe, and wherever it fell it caused strange life to spring forth: brambles and thorny vines among the green things; predators long in tooth and claw among the wild animals; birds that feasted on the carcasses of dead things; and those fish that prey alike on men and others of their own kind.

“‘What have I done?’ whispered the older brother…” The old man paused and shook his head. “When the other gods came, they also heard the music and the chanting. They wondered and marveled at the world, even at the beasts and predator and poisonous things that swarmed over it. ‘What should we do with it?’ they asked one another. ‘The brothers both paid their lives for it,’ said one. ‘We should preserve it.’

“So it was decided that the brothers’ work would be preserved for as long as it should last.”

“That’s it?” demanded the boy.

“That’s it,” answered the old man, “that’s how our world came to be.”

The boy shook his head. “I still don’t believe it,” he muttered stubbornly. “It doesn’t make any sense!”

The old man smiled and reached over the tousle the boy’s unkempt hair. “Not now, perhaps,” he said. “…but that isn’t the only story I have about how we came to be.”

The boy frowned. “But you said it was a true story! How can two different stories be true at the same time?”

The old man laughed. “There are many stories that are true at the same time,” he said with a smile.