Not Alone

Cassidy had finished watching the Miss America pageant—or had watched her fill of it, anyway—and left the living room to go sit in her bedroom, on her bed, in the dark and by the one window that looked out upon the road where all the other houses were gloomy-eyed with sleepy apathy. A streetlight glowed sullenly, cutting across the road and etching the bare oak tree and fence from the rural murk that spread like a black ocean farther down the neighborhood. Beyond the fence, the black hills rose up toward a star-spangled sky, and below it— lost in shadow—the interstate lay lurking, distinguished solely by the red and yellow and orange lights that sped along its heady darkness.

Cassidy’s mother was not home, and likely would not be home until the morning. She had another date with a man who smelled of car grease and had a greasy smile. Cassidy called him Greasy Greg, and tried not to think about him or his mother being out together. It just made her angry.
Miss Ohio had made Cassidy angry, too. When asked by the host what was wrong with the world, she had said, “Loneliness”. As if such a pretty woman knew anything about loneliness, Cassidy thought bitterly. Miss Ohio had hundreds of thousands of social media followers—people who adored her—and likely never had need of help or attention or friends. Cassidy didn’t even have a cell-phone, and didn’t have any friends. She knew people at Fairdale Middle School, but they were acquaintances, not friends. None of them called her on the landline at her mother’s rental house; no one wanted to know her phone number. Besides, people didn’t really talk on the phone anymore. Her classmates texted each other, both in class and out of it, and Cassidy came home everyday after school to an empty house, her mother working 2nd shift at the local gas station. And when her mother wasn’t scheduled to work, she had dates; dates with men like Greasy Greg. Cassidy understood why, however. Her mom had been alone for years since Cassidy’s father left— or “got hit by a train”, as her mother sometimes said bitterly—and now Cassidy was old enough that her mother could date again. Cassidy told herself that she did not mind that her mom was dipping into the dating pool again. She just hated the fact that her mother dragged the bottom of the sea when she went fishing, and often came up with slippery, slimy eels.
Cassidy was more often than not bored at home when her mother was away. Today she cleaned the bathroom and cooked herself some beans and rice for dinner. Cassidy was not anything if not productive. She received good grades in school, if for no other reason than she would spend her time reading her schoolbooks ahead of the teacher to pass the long hours of solitude. Consequently, she was bored in school— having covered the subject days ago— and would spend her time daydreaming in class, or simply watching her fellow classmates and trying to understand how they thought, who they were, and the dynamics between them. She knew which boys had crushes on which girls, and which girls had crushes on which boys. She lived vicariously through them, or so it seemed to her.
Cassidy’s mother could not afford an internet connection, and kept the cellphone on her person in case of emergencies. Cassidy was only ever supposed to call her mother’s cellphone on the landline if there was an emergency, and was berated when she would— at least twice a week—call her mother for no other reason than to try to speak about everything except what she wanted to honestly say.
And what Cassidy wanted to honestly say was that she was miserable.
A truck roared down the street, its bright headlights flooding Cassidy’s eyes and skull with obnoxious luminosity. Often she went to bed early— even on weekends— but sometimes she felt restless; her insides squirming with anxiety. Tonight she felt no anxiety; only a hollow numbness.
“Neanderthal,” she said absently, blinking as the afterimage of the truck’s headlights swam across her vision, like paramecia in a midnight pool. She continued to sit by the window, staring out into the black, empty night as the taillights of the truck disappeared into the darkness. She wished she could channel the radio waves and satellite signals that pulsed across the earth; that she could hear conversations between girls and boys her own age, and see their texts, and disdain them their presumably vapid conversations.
“They’re so shallow,” she said.
The silence answered her, and the numbness. She sighed, and fought the urge to go to the living room and call her mom. On some nights Cassidy would leave the tv on, with the volume up loud, so its chatter fended off the silence of the small rental house. She wished she had a dog, at times, or a cat, even if the house itself reeked of the previous tenants’ cats, her mother fumigating it daily with scented candles and deodorizing spray. Even now Cassidy’s room smelled like cat urine and lavender. She did not know which smell was worse, and would keep the window open on warm nights to let in fresh air.
Cassidy really, really hated Miss Ohio. Who was she to lecture anybody about loneliness? Who was she to receive applause for stating something like she did? To Cassidy it was as if a fully-abled person was preaching to a quadriplegic about being handicapped. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. The idiots in the audience couldn’t see how it was, but Cassidy could. Miss Ohio? More like Miss Sayonara.
Cassidy stared out her rented window toward the black hills. They rolled upward and downward like the body of a giant asleep beneath a blanket of shadows. There was a soft white smudge of light pollution from the distant city, cradled in the valley between the two hills. The water tower stood atop one hill, its red light atop its bulbous head blinking. Occasionally, the triangularly-arrayed lights of an airplane passed over it. A radio tower, too, blinked in the darkness, like a cyborg’s spine. Cassidy blinked, too, and felt something wet drip down her cheeks. She tried to concentrate on the tower, as if it was her own spine, its pulsing beacon her own mind. But silence and solitariness remained.
Cassidy stood up, wiping off her cheeks, and started toward the door. A light flashed at her back. Passing headlights through the window, she thought. She reached the door, then stopped. She did not have to turn around to know she was not alone. There was someone in the room with her. She turned around.
The light was gone, but silhouetted against the backdrop of the window was a figure. It was not entirely human. Its head was too large, its limbs too thin and winnowed. It wore no clothes, its gray skin slightly wrinkled. Large, dark almond-shaped eyes stared at Cassidy from a face pinched toward a small slit of a mouth. The eyes did not blink. They only stared. Cassidy stared back, inert with surprise and alarm. The light flashed behind the figure again— drowning the world in light—and Cassidy felt herself floating while a roar rose in the back of her brain, a roar louder than any truck or train or airplane, and she screamed silently inside her skull.
The flash of light consumed her, as did a whirling sense of languid vertigo, and when she came to rest she was immobile upon a table. Three figures peered over her, their overlarge black eyes unblinking. There was a distant pain— everything happened at a distance, it seemed— and she watched herself prone upon their cold metal table, simultaneously looking up at herself in the eyes of the creatures around her; as if she was both the reflection in the eyes and the black eyes themselves, looking down. Looking down.

***

Cassidy woke in her bed, blearily blinking at the cold, silvery dawn through her window. Her head throbbed and there was a sharp pain behind her left ear. When she rose from bed, a wave of nausea swelled from the pit of her stomach to the back of her throat, spiraling. Staggering on wobbly legs to the bathroom, Cassidy bent over the toilet just in time to spew out last night’s popcorn and pretzels. Breathing heavily now, she righted herself with effort and went to the sink to clean up. In the mirror her eyes looked tired, circled with black rings to underscore her sleeplessness. Using a hand mirror, and the mirror over the sink, Cassidy attempted to look behind her left ear, pulling her long black hair up and out of the way. The area was sensitive and red, as if aggravated, but there was nothing otherwise unusual. No lesion. No scar. Not even a pimple or bug bite.
After washing her mouth out with baking soda, Cassidy went into the living room. It was a Saturday and her mother was not home yet. She had stayed at Greasy Greg’s house, it seemed. Cassidy wasn’t in the mood for food— her stomach was still queasy and her head spun like a top about to fall down—so she sat down on the old, faded loveseat to rest. She did not turn on the tv, but she did stare at her reflection in the black screen.
The black screen reminded her of black eyes, and how she saw herself supine in those black eyes, and saw herself laying down beneath those black eyes, as if looking from those void-like eyes. She shuddered and told herself it was all a bad dream. Maybe, she thought, this fear would vanish sooner or later, much like the hurt she felt last time she tried to talk to her father.
Cassidy heard her mother’s car puttering down the highway. It was just after nine when her mother pulled into the driveway. Her mother came in through the backdoor, probably thinking Cassidy was still asleep. Her mother was smiling, her hair disheveled.
“Morning, Cass,” her mother said, not even embarrassed. “Been up long? Hungry?”
“No and no,” Cassidy said. “Late night?” she added, more caustic than curious.
“Early morning,” her mother said lightly. She had that dreaming faraway look of love in her eyes that some of Cassidy’s classmates had when Peter Armstrong flirted with them, oblivious that he flirted with all of their friends.
“The car sounds pretty awful,” Cassidy said.
“Greg is going to fix it,” her mother said. She went to the fridge and took out a carton of milk, drinking straight from the container. Her mother was a pretty woman— most men said so—and she had blonde hair and blue eyes. She was even prettier thirteen years ago, before Cassidy was born. She could have been a Miss Ohio. Cassidy had not inherited her mother’s beauty. She had, instead, her father’s dark hair and brown eyes and wide jaw, along with several other things she never wanted from him, like his non-apologies.
“Greg is a Greasemonkey,” Cassidy said. It was not a question.
Her mother giggled, nearly spilling the milk. She lowered the carton and beamed at her daughter. A white mustache of milk innocently gleamed above her lips, mingling with smeared lipstick. The latter was not so innocent.
“He’s a keeper is what he is,” her mother said. “A real gentleman.”
Cassidy muttered. “If you say so.”
Her mother acted as if she did not hear her, chugging again from the milk carton.
He’s still better than your deadbeat daddy.
Cassidy gawped, dismayed and pained. Her mother could not have said it and yet her voice sounded in Cassidy’s head as if she had. Her mother was no ventriloquist, so Cassidy was confused. She dismissed it as a fancy of her imagination and her own anger. She went into the living room and read a schoolbook while her mother took a shower and went to bed.
“Wake me up at two,” her mother said as she wrapped her beautiful blonde hair in a towel.
Cassidy did what she was told, and kept her tears to herself.

***

Cassidy walked along the road that ran parallel to the interstate, divided from that deadly barrage of traffic by a fence, a rambling cluster of trees, and undulating land that changed from valley to hill, obscuring and revealing the afternoon traffic in turns. The road was fringed with ditchlines crowded with the dead wildgrasses of Summer, all tall and vividly colored like rusted orange. The fields were still green and lush, though they were yellowing in patches. Black trees stood stark in the warm blue sky, contorted and ugly in their nakedness. It was closer to the beginning of Winter than it was to the beginning of Fall, but the sun was bright and the air was warm and it felt closer to Summer than Fall.
This road led beneath the interstate overpass— beneath the large square columns of concrete— and on toward the gas station where her mother presently worked. Her mother did not like Cassidy walking that road alone. Kidnappers and murderous motorists sprang everywhere along that road, or so her mother seemed to believe. The last time Cassidy walked this road she went to visit her mother in the gas station. Her mother had made quite a scene, chastising her daughter and, ultimately, driving her home. At least her mother was talking at her, if not to her. It was better than the silence. Even so, Cassidy resented the lie her mother told her. Her mother claimed she was upset because her boss did not approve of children staying at the gas station while their parents were working. It was a “distraction”. But Cassidy knew it was because Greasy Greg was lingering there and her mother did not want her daughter scaring away her newfound beau.
As Cassidy walked the road, she looked at the houses and trees and trailers that she had seen a hundred times before. The houses were of the keenest interest for her. She always wondered how people of “fuller families” lived during the weekends. Sometimes she glimpsed children playing in their yard, or a father on his patio, grilling hamburgers, or a mother tending to her flowers in her garden. She rarely saw teens her own age. Either they were indoors and online or texting each other, or they were at the mall in the city, hanging out and being bored together. There were sometimes a few skateboarders by the abandoned granary, skating around and performing tricks and laughing at each other near the collapsed silos. The last time she looked at them they made obscene gestures and called out to her. She walked more quickly down the road, and was always hesitant to pass that part of the road, crossing instead to the farthest side and walking behind a clump of fat-skirted cedars.
Cassidy did not walk for exercise, nor to keep out of the small confines of the house. Those were benefits in conjunction, but not the primary goal. The primary goal was to glimpse as much life as she could that was not her own. The kids playing, the parents working, the birds flying and the cows grazing: such things did not so much as please her as distract her. She surrounded herself in a crowd of things held at a comfortable distance. It was the same as at school: surrounded, yet singular and apart. Birdsong, childish shouts, and the passing hiss of traffic along the interstate busied her brain with sensations so that it felt replete and occupied. She needed her mind full of something other than that inner voice that asked the same refrain every waking moment of her life: Why?
Cassidy was passing an old white vinyl house when she saw two little boys burst around the corner of the house, one chasing the other with a toy zapgun that blinked and whirred and buzzed; the other boy in front of him giggled hysterically. They were facsimiles of one another.
“I got you!” the boy with the gun said, still pulling the trigger victoriously to churn out lights and sounds of a cacophonic future world.
“I’m Superman,” his brother said, laughing triumphantly. “Bullets don’t hurt me!”
“This doesn’t shoot bullets,” the other boy said. “It shoots lasers.”
“Lasers don’t hurt Superman neither,” his brother said. He turned to face the noisy zapgun, his hands on his hips, arms akimbo, and his chest puffed up defiantly. He had a red towel hanging down the back of his blue pajamas. All of a sudden the two boys turned as one, gawping at Cassidy.
What does she want?
The twins did not say the words, but Cassidy heard them anyway. Their thoughts were almost as alike as their faces, stature, and hair. Cassidy hastened down the road while the twins went back to playing.
Farther down, a large elm stood at a street corner where a back-road ended at the highway. Beyond the tree a yard sprawled that was so large it might as well have been a field. A man sat on his lawnmower, cutting the grass. He had a hat on his head, headphones on his ears and dark sunglasses over his eyes. Even though Cassidy never really knew her father well, she knew enough about dads to know how obsessed they were supposed to be when cutting the grass. She watched him for a moment, wondering why the grass should matter so much. Behind him and his noisy lawnmower, his wife lay on a foldout lounge chair, sunning herself to a crisp brown. Their large brick house dominated the center of the meticulously kept field.
What a waste of puberty she’s goin’ to be.
The man’s voice touched her mind, though his lips did not move and she could not see his eyes behind his sunglasses. She knew he was referring to herself, however.
But at least she isn’t like that shriveled old prune, raisining in the sun.
Cassidy was so upset, and dismayed, that she decided to turn around and return home. She had not felt well since last night’s bad dream.

***

Her worst encounter that day was when she passed by the dilapidated granary again. Beforehand, it had been vacant. Now, however, the skateboarders had gathered and she was too discombobulated to notice, foregoing concealment behind the cedars and walking unwittingly in plain sight of that rural ruin. What they yelled at her was obscene, but it was what she heard from them when their lips weren’t moving that pushed her into a sprint homeward. By the time she dashed onto the driveway, she was ready to pass out from heat exhaustion, fatigue, and breathless terror. She staggered indoors, feeling the burn of bile welling up in her throat, and walked around, sobbing and breathing heavily.
It was during this emotional turmoil that her mind opened fully and she could hear the voices of billions of people all over the world and see the visions in their lives— all cascading over her mind like a tsunami of humanity that crushed her beneath its burdensome experiences.

***

The entity that had been known as Cassidy had become something else. She was a hub, a nexus, a radio tower. She did not need the internet, for she was the internet, and she was much more. Her mother found her later that night in a comatose state, passed out on the living room carpet. Her mother had nearly wrecked her jalopy twice while speeding to the hospital in the city. She carried her daughter into the ER and fell upon her knees, wailing like Mary over the body of Jesus.
The adolescent was put through tests. The hospital ran brain scans on her. Instead of finding limited activity, the scans revealed that the totality of Cassidy’s brain was accelerating its synaptic relays, firing wildly, the images showing a colorful jumble not unlike bioluminescent jellyfish all tangled together.
“It is not that she has little brain function,” the neurologist concluded, “but that she has too much. It is like epilepsy, but she isn’t showing the other signs of a grand mal seizure. There are no involuntary muscle spasms as a consequence of the bioelectric eruption. Her brain is overworking itself, and that is why she has lost consciousness. We must decelerate the brain activity with a suppressant.
Nothing worked. Cassidy’s brain remained a tangle of Christmas lights burning overbright. Yet the bulbs did not burst, and all the hospital could do was wait..
In the meantime, Cassidy was found to be dehydrated, so they put her on an IV drip and monitored hourly while her mother stayed in a chair beside her hospital bed. Questions from the doctor prompted Cassidy’s mother to give hesitant, shame-faced answers. She had to admit that most days Cassidy was left by herself while her mother worked. When asked if Cassidy took drugs, her mother vehemently denied that her daughter would do such a thing. When asked about Cassidy’s friends, her mother admitted that she didn’t know any of her daughter’s friends.
“Peer pressure can make the best kids do what they normally wouldn’t,” the doctor said.
“Cass wouldn’t do that,” her mother said, though doubt ate at the rigid timber of her tone like termites. “I don’t think she would. Would she?”
The series of questions continued, agitating Cassidy’s mother all the more until she could only sit and sob, trembling all over with grief and shame and fear. Meanwhile, the hospital staff began to have headaches—one by one—and so, too, did the patients.

***

Cassidy slid from one slipstream to another, connecting consciousness to consciousness in rapid, if not simultaneous, succession. Faster than light were the impressions of the lives that fed into her the stimuli, memories, and experiences of other people. Just as soon as she was a girl in Delhi, working a merchant stall, she was an old man in Japan treading through flooded rice paddies. The next nanosecond she was two hundred people— a bricklayer in Honduras, a schoolgirl in Italy, a mother of six in Brazil, a widower in a trailer park in Kentucky. She was her mother, too, crying over her daughter, and Greasy Greg, who was not a terrible man after all, and she was the skateboarders and the twins and the husband and wife, now in bed, making love to each other in the blind, accepting dark. She was even Miss Ohio, surrounded by people wanting her picture, her phone number, her smile and kiss and laugh—wanting everything but her. And among all those people, Miss Ohio was lonely, too; as lonely as Cassidy felt.
One world, so many people. One person, so many worlds. E pluribus unum. E unibus pluram. Her mind had to map the pathways to all of the minds. Once chartered, she could relinquish them and find the next thousand. In time she had mapped all minds, and soon mastered control, channeling one at a time, or ten, or more if need be. It was arduous, but became easier as her mind grew to an intuitive navigation of the psychosphere it had connected to.
And then her mind reached out to the beings that had changed her. They received her softly— over many lightyears—showing to her what they saw from their spacecraft: a lonely, burning star in a dark, deep, vast blackness, and orbiting that star like a speck of dust, the earth and all of its billions of lives being lived from brief moment to moment. Lives scarce and rare and precious in a cosmic void where so little sentient life prospered for long before succumbing to the indifferent natural forces that would snuff them out forever, without the dignity of malice or mercy to justify the abortion; as it had the planet of those entities that now showed Cassidy what she saw. Loneliness, she realized, was a sickness. It was a disease. It caused people to do terrible things.
In seeing this revelation, and understanding it, Cassidy woke up.

***

We are not alone, she told them. We have each other. But we’re all we’ve got. We do not have forever. We only have today. Beyond the horizon of Tomorrow there crouches a terrible thing that will silence all of us, so that not even our echoes remain. We must talk to one another now. We must acknowledge one another’s existence while we can. No one else will.

Sic Trans Gloria Novae Mundi

It was low tide and Jacob stumbled down the white dune, staggering stiffly toward the lapping surf on the New England coast. Bubbly froth lazed forward and withdrew, then lazed forward again, tumbling planks and splinters of wood and other flotsam in its playful foam. Jacob hobbled with his arms raised for balance as the dune finally plateaued onto the white beach. His backside still stung from yesterday, when his father had whipped him so hard with a leather strap that he could not sleep all night long. He had shoved his little sister. As atonement— in the eyes of his parents and of his God—he was to collect mussels from their clusters among the seaside stones on the beach, or catch crabs, or harvest whatever else God would provide since the Natives had retreated further inland with the advent of Autumn. His father said that the Natives helped the previous Winter only because God had inspired in them His love, but that the pilgrims could not rely on the Natives now. There would be no more help from the heathens, he said. Jacob wondered why.
Jacob was grateful to be away from his family. He was angry, but was too young to understand much more than he was tired of his sister following him incessantly and betraying him whenever he attempted to do anything besides chores. Susan was a little Judas, he thought, and he wished for no more flagellations on her behalf. He had only wanted to walk by the creek, alone, and catch frogs, perhaps, or skip stones. But Susan was stubborn as his shadow, and clung to his trail as steadfastly on her short little legs. Losing his temper, he baptized her in the creek with an abrupt shove of his hands. Yes, she almost drowned, but he saved her, drawing her small body up from the hole he had not seen in the creek. Weeping, but still breathing, she clung to him as he carried her back to their village. Her dress was drenched through and she had nearly drowned herself again in tears by their arrival in their drab stick-and-wattle house.
Jacob hated Susan as he walked along the shore, aching at the seam of his britches. It was his tenth Autumn and the seventh since crossing the Atlantic to the New World. He could not remember the voyage except vaguely— impressions of dark, dank cabins cramped with other pilgrims seeking new lives away from England. Within the shadowy, fetid ship he had felt it sway back and forth upon the grumbling sea and it seemed as if they were in the belly of the Leviathan. His sister had not known the Hell of floating upon the sea. His mother had tried to comfort him with kisses and caresses, and his father had tried to comfort his mother with the Word. But a toddler knows when his parents are lying to themselves. It was evident upon their faces, which he remembered most vividly of all. Their faces were like the damned, and they shuddered as he did at the endless roar of the godless sea.
Seagulls cawed shrilly above, drifting sideways with their white wings lifted aloft, suspended almost magically on the salty winds. Jacob wondered if angels possessed such wings, and if they flew in the same manner in the firmament. The seagulls’ voices reminded him of Susan’s as she cried, and so they infuriated him. He stooped down to pick up a shell or pebble to throw at the birds, but his hand happened upon something strange on the shore. Brushing aside the sand, he found a little doll made of withe and decorated with a pale blue ribbon. Picking it up, he dusted it off. The face of the doll had been painted, but the smile was erased by brine and sand. It reminded him of his sister. He glanced about, and saw more things upon the beach, tumbling languidly to and fro in the lethargic waves. They were remnants of what had been a ship. It had been a large ship, he knew; not unlike the ship which he and his mother and father boarded years ago to come to this wondrous and terrifying world.
The pain in his backside had kept Jacob from sleeping last night, but so, too, did the storm that raged distantly at sea. The winds bellowed like demons and the thunder boomed like pagan gods in a terrible war. Rain leaked in through the roof of their house and pooled in the village square. Not even the stone church was spared flooding. Now that the storm had passed, the sky was crowded with pillars of white clouds through which the sun gazed wanly. The sea had calmed itself, though the wind still hissed uneasily, as if resentful; its grudges not yet relinquished.
It was easier to believe in pagan gods than his father’s God in this New World. His father had said that the New World would be a new Jerusalem; a paradise on earth, born in the belief and the devotion to their God. It would be different than the Old World and all of its iniquities.
The seagulls cried overhead, like angels in agony, and Jacob felt a deep sadness. He untied the blue ribbon from the doll, then hobbled up the dunes and onto the wind-blasted, rain-flooded New England grass. Using a stone, he dug a small hole in the muddy earth and set the doll within it, covering it over. He then used the ribbon to bind two sticks together and propped them up above the small grave. He tried to say a little prayer, but it died on his lips. His eyes burned, but not from the chill, briny wind.
Collecting up an armful of mussels, Jacob hobbled home and gave them to his father. He then apologized to his sister and spent time with her, watching her as if she was the most precious miracle in the world. All throughout the week he never spoke a cross word to her, nor lost his temper with her. And if he became angry, he remembered the drowned doll that had washed ashore.
Susan saw him cry only once—a few tears while he fed the chickens—and asked him what was wrong.
“The world,” he said. “Old and New, it’s all wrong.”

Shallow

Everything seemed out of season.  The leaves of the Maple tree glowed like the flaring flecks of a somber fire on the street corner, its crown traced in the orange light of a lamppost. The brickwork of the nearby townhouse was half lit by that same light, or else lost in shadow, only a single window on the second floor etched apart by a candle’s glow. All other houses down either street were drowned in black night, neither porchlight or inner light refuting the tenebrous uniformity of the late hour.
It was said the Wizard put a spell on his neighbors, one and all, to urge them to bed early—even on weekends—so that he would never be disturbed during his midnight lucubrations. There was no traffic on the road, nor even foot traffic. Occasionally some local drunks would go wandering away from the local bars, but never would they wander this way, and all sober people shunned this road at night. The single rear light of her father’s old pickup truck had disappeared from sight a few moments before, heading home where her mother waited, weeping at the kitchen table.
The Wizard was a mysterious celebrity within the county. Everyone knew of him and spoke of him, but no one really knew him or spoke to him. His house sat at the corner of two streets and two worlds, seen by many and yet frequented by none. They said he was a kingmaker, and a king breaker. Between light and darkness, he existed. People hoped for, and dreaded, the call to his house.
Her mother had curled her red hair, and selected the green summer dress for her to wear— a slight slip of a dress that left her freckled shoulders bare, and was sheer down the flat of her chest, and hitched high with a hem at her freckled thighs, showcasing knobby knees that popped sometimes as she walked with that awkwardly bouncing stride of a fawn bounding dubiously through its first summery field. Her father had insisted on the makeup she wore—the red lipstick that made her slight buck-teeth more pronounced and the mascara that only ran down her freckled cheeks because of the tears she had shed during the drive over here. Why the Wizard wanted her, she did not know. Her eyes were too large, her cheeks too shallow, her chin too slight and her overbite too disastrous to be cute. She was not pretty, or even plain. As a child she was pretty, perhaps, but not now, fresh upon her fifteenth year.
She stared up at the townhouse looming over her. She stepped up on the first concrete step. The house intimidated her, as did everything that belonged to the wealthy and powerful. The strange L-shaped stairs led up to the front door aslant, and a lion statue lounged on the brickwork, at its crook. Its slumbrous brow was bathed in scant light from the lamppost. Its eyes were sleepy, and its mouth closed. The gleam of the light on its bronze mane fascinated her, briefly, as she passed it. It lionized the ascent with its presence.
She idolized Reba McEntire. As she took another step up she heard “Fancy” playing in her head. She was not wholly ignorant concerning men—homeschooled, but not ignorant. A boy at her church had grabbed her shallow breasts when she first began to blossom, and shortly ended blossoming, barely larger than he was. And her strange cousin, Mikey— whom her parents referred to as “slow” and “not right”—showed her his penis when she was eleven. He was seventeen at the time, but weighed twice as much as her father. The small, ugly thing between his legs was barely visible beneath his ponderous gut; like a mushroom poking out from under a white boulder covered in hairy black moss.
She took another step up, and the second run of steps angled perpendicular from the first, leading up to the black metal door with its lion-headed knocker. The glass was blackened by shadows. The opal moon shone at the back of the house. The front facade was shrouded with a veil of darkness where the lamppost’s sullen glow did not touch it.
The door opened silently. It did not creak or screech on its hinges, unlike the doors at her family’s old farmhouse. Yet, this house seemed older than her home; older than times her great-grandfather knew nothing of.
The door opened, but no one stood there at its dark threshold. She hesitated, naturally, and shivered in the warm, summery breeze. The inner vestibule was palled, but there was a soft light deeper within the house, radiating gently down a staircase and its elaborate rails. All else was darkness and obfuscated suggestion.
Knowing she had no choice, she entered the house and headed slowly toward the soft-lit staircase. The door closed behind her, silently and of its own accord. At the bottom of the inner stairs, on the lacquered wood of the landing, sat a cat. It was a large cat with a creamy white-and-brown patched coat and a black masked face. It had clear blue eyes which were oddly shaped like almonds, and, when paired with the strange down-curve of its lips and a face as flat as a wall, gave it the permanent expression of irritability and grumpiness. It waited until she stood before it, then turned about and walked up the stairs at a leisurely pace. She followed the cat, coming to the landing upstairs. The light down the stairs extinguished at once, and only a single light glowed on the second floor, down the hallway from an open door. All other doors were closed and dark. She walked down the hallway and came to the dimly illuminated room, its door open and waiting to admit her.
The Wizard sat at a table, reading a book scrawled with no human language upon it. He squinted down at the book, aglow in candlelight, and when she entered the cat leapt upon the table, sitting patiently beside the book while its face remained in a perpetual flat-faced frown. The Wizard did not glance up, but pointed to a long mirror standing in a corner of the murky room. The tall mirror was lit by a five-stick candelabrum.
“Undress,” he said. He said no more, but continued to read the mad spirals and cross-strokes nonsensically arrayed upon the splayed book.
She hesitated, then went to the mirror, thinking of her mother and father and siblings; of the farm and the letters from the county, and the bank notes, and the massive debt.
She hesitated again in front of the mirror. She stared at herself in the mirror; amidst the gloomy murk blurred by tears. Her curly red hair, her knobby knees and freckled shoulders; her mascara running down her cheeks. She was a child, really, and she was only old enough to realize that she was still a child. Taking a deep breath, and hating herself, she pulled the green summer dress up and off of her.
She did not take off her bra or her underwear. She had to look away from the shame in the mirror, drying her eyes and happening upon the jars that gleamed on the shelves lining the room, half-concealed in the burning candle dusk. There were skeletons both familiar and bizarre in those jars. Here a cat; there, a rat with a human skull. A bird’s skeleton with a long, reticulated neck and a dog’s head at the end of it. Eyeballs that stared at her, and a human heart that continued to beat, disembodied. In other jars were more innocuous things: flowers, grasses, liquids of various colors. Ash, flint, pebbles, roots. Yet, however banal, they all excited in her young heart a fear that made her tremble violently in the Wizard’s study.
The Wizard continued to read. She did not know if this was supposed to be part of a means of exciting torture upon her or if he had simply forgotten about her. He did not seem interested in her at all. Nor was he what she had expected. He was of no specific age— that is to say, he could have been in his thirties or his fifties. He had no beard, nor a robe, but wore khakis and a simple blue collar shirt. Brown loafers were upon his feet and his face was free of spectacles. His hair was black, frosted white at the temples. He resembled a doctor more than a fairytale Wizard.
She gazed again into the mirror. She was not a pretty girl; not even cute. She had callused hands from milking cows and pitching hay. She was bony from too much work and too little food. Whatever idle fat was supposed to hang on the breast and buttock had been burned away irreparably by daily chores on the farm. Her forearms were too boyish with muscle, as was her whole body. She knew no other life other than from hearsay from the other kids at her church. They went to public schools, and rarely talked to her because they lived very different lives. They lived on their phones, and the internet. Her parents could not afford a cellphone or the internet, nor satellite tv. They watched three channels on broadcast, and that was rarely more than an hour a day. Chores consumed everything, and a farm could not earn anyone a living anymore. It could feed a family, but lose itself on its own mortgage. Only corporate farms and hobby farms remained strong. And they were not real farmers. They were pretenders. Nowadays fake lives could earn more money than a genuine life ever could.
“We’re underwater on the mortgage,” her father had told her on the way here. “And he promised to help with all that. You just got to…got to put yourself out there.”
Like a cow, she thought bitterly. Put out to market.
Startling her, the Wizard shut the book suddenly, sighing irritably. He pushed his chair back and stood, turning around. Instinctively, she shrank from him, huddling in a corner where three stacks of books towered. Bumping into them, she fell them like dominoes, sprawling them out across the strange Persian rug on the floor.
“Sorry,” she said automatically.
“I said undress,” he said firmly.
She gawped, and then the tears came anew, flooding her face. Her heart hammered horribly between her shallow breasts, threatening to burst her lithe, boyish frame. She felt faint, and swooned, a heat in her head like a matchstick soon to ignite into an immolation of shame. He came forward and took her bra off impatiently, and her underwear while she wobbled on one leg and then the other. She did not fight him, swaying with the movement like a scarecrow being shaken by the seasonal winds. She closed her eyes, the tears burning along her sockets.
After he had taken her remaining raiments, he stepped away. She had anticipated fondling hands and hot breath and a great pain within and without. Instead, he turned about in seeming indifference. When she dared to open her eyes, she saw him laying a large elliptical bowl on the table, next to his book and his cat. It was very much the same shape as the standing mirror. Into this bowl he poured a silvery liquid from a strange jug that looked like a coiled conch. He waited a minute or so after pouring the syrupy liquid, then he closed his eyes and whispered a few words she could not understand. He passed his hands over the bowl several times. He had an Apple watch on his wrist. She glanced at the elliptical bowl where the silver liquid resided. It was as thin as a Judas coin.
So shallow, she thought.
“It may seem shallow,” the wizard said, as if reading her mind. “But it can still drown you.”
“We’re already drowning,” she whispered.
If he heard her, he did not seem to care.
“Stand in front of the mirror,” he commanded her. He stared intently into the bowl. “And uncross your arms. Stand completely still and do not move. It could be catastrophic if you disrupt your image within the Constancy.”
She did as she was told, dropping her arms to her sides and standing still in front of the mirror. She was skin and bones and freckles and buck-teeth and overbite. Only her red hair was truly pretty about her, and it burned like fire in the light from the candelabrum; burned like Maple leaves in Autumn. A willowy skeleton of a girl, her ribs etched softly beneath breasts that would have been nonexistent except for the small nipples dotting where breasts should have been swelling. Narrow hips and slender thighs.
“What do you want?” he asked her.
She blinked in disbelief at the question, and turned her head to look at him.
“I told you not to move,” he chastised her absently. He was holding a white twig above the water, from which a chrysalis hung. “What do you want?”
“What does it cost?” she asked.
“Everything,” the Wizard said.
“What will you give me?” she asked, also knowing the thirst of want.
“Everything,” the Wizard said.
“Then I want everything,” she said without hesitation.
He nodded, almost with clinical disinterest, and dipped the chrysalis into the silver liquid, swirling it around slowly while the image in the mirror distorted and swirled, growing her breasts, widening her hips, and swelling her flat butt. She grew curvaceous in the flesh. The pain was excruciating, but she knew it was worth it. She stared at her new body in the mirror where such changes had been wrought, and she was transfixed. She had a new nose, fuller cheeks, pouty lips, and her chin was extended out so that her overbite disappeared. She still had her freckles, and her red hair, but the two complimented her new body. She was beautiful.
He warned her of various things she should not do, like reaping bad karma, or finding religion, or following a cult.
“You are your own goddess now,” he said. “And others will follow you. You will be your own religion and will trend for as long as you live in beauty.”
The cat rubbed against her ankle, looking up at her with its perpetual frown. She realized she had seen it somewhere before. She thought she could hear the clapping of hands at a distance, and fought the urge to take a bow.
The Wizard became disinterested in her once again, sitting down at his table and opening his large book again. Looking over his shoulder, she was surprised to realize she could understand the strange symbols on the pages. The @’s and the #’s were like symbols in a language for stargazing, and she could read them now. Her horoscope was written in their strange code, and she saw that it assured her ascendancy.

***

They nicknamed her the “Ginger Kardashian”. She was an Instagram model, social media influencer, and a makeup and fashion Youtuber. She built an empire out of her lips, breasts, and hips. She never worked at a farm again and moved out to LA where she bought a McMansion that dwarfed every house in her hometown, including the Wizard’s townhouse. She became a millionaire many times over and trended every week on every platform. Her fake life earned more money than a real one ever could, and though she was never happy, she pretended like she was, and often looked at her own posts online with a sense of awe. Her image had become a goddess. Her image had become a religion and had gained many followers around the world. But she also became a follower herself, envying the same goddess others envied and knowing she would never feel so happy as her shallow image on the other side of the looking-glass.

Overpass

Away from the County Fair and its bright lights in the center of the dark field—where children laughed as they rode the rollercoaster and the teacups and the Ferris wheel— farther across the field parallel with the interstate, and beneath the dim orange lampposts along the highway, the overpass was a soft clash of subdued orange light and a Summer’s night washed out with shadows and starlight. Two figures stood beside the railing of the overpass, beneath a lamppost, talking.
“That’s dangerous, isn’t it?” she asked. “I mean, people are always dying over there. They talk about it on the News all of the time.”
“That’s why I get hazard pay,” he said. “And it’s not that bad where I’m going. You’d be more likely to die from E Coli or dysentery than an IED.”
“But that’s still pretty bad,” she said. “It’s just so…so dangerous.”
The golden butterfly necklace splayed across the flat of her chest, between her shallow breasts. She wore a pink sleeveless dress and had her black hair cocooned-up into a retro-beehive which she thought complemented her 50’s soda pop shop pink skirt. Her eyes were hazel and green, like the woods before dark.
“I’ve been over there before,” he said. “Three tours. But this is private contracting. That’s why the pay’s so good. I will be able to make a whole week’s worth of wages in one day over there. Three months on, a month off. If I stay after the three months are up then I get time-and-a-half. It’s good money. Great money. I can’t pass it up.”
He wore a green camouflage T-shirt, ready at a blink to disappear into the dark foliage of the distant woods rearing upward into the hills overlooking the interstate and Fairgrounds. His tan khakis were stained here and there with motor oil and dirt. No matter how much he washed his face, it always seemed a little dirty, but his smile— and his blue eyes—always shined through the grime.
“Just promise me you’ll be careful,” she said. She let her gaze fall to the railing, and put her hands on the steel bands, leaning. The pink frills of her dress revealed goose-bumped brown legs.
“I will,” he said. He grinned, and his dimples deepened.
She glanced up at his face, then looked away. She sighed.
“I don’t like it.”
He shrugged. “What else can I do? Go to college? I went for a year. Wasn’t for me.”
“You could stay here,” she said. “Become a car mechanic or something.”
His grin disappeared. “You’re going to Minneapolis. You’re not staying, either. It’s good that they accepted me because we can both leave this dead-end County behind. It’s a Win-Win for both of us.”
“Yeah,” she muttered. She kept her eyes on his nose because it hurt to look at his eyes. He looked at the slender arc of her neck as she inclined her head, trying not to look at her pouty lips.
“We both knew this was going to happen,” she said, more to herself than to him. “But today was really nice. All Summer’s been nice. I haven’t been to the Fair in years.”
“I just wish I could have won that pink elephant for you,” he said. He shook his head and his fist. “That air rifle was rigged. Two targets went down easy, but the third shot made less noise, which meant the guy had decreased the air pressure.”
She giggled and light came into her green-and-brown eyes; sparkling brighter than the headlights passing under the overpass.
“Sure thing, Rambo,” she teased. “Blame the gun. Still,” she said, considering, “two out of three ain’t bad.”
“Are you quoting Meat Loaf?” he laughed. “Miss Grad School over here, quoting Meat Loaf. I always thought you were a Bananarama girl.”
She frowned. “Meat Loaf? I don’t get it.”
He frowned also, scratching his blonde hair demurely. “Never mind. I thought you were making a joke.”
Crestfallen now— though she was not entirely sure why—her pale brow hung heavy and she leaned against the railing more heavily with her slight frame, looking like a marble statue swooning over a tomb.
“You could go to Minneapolis,” she said. “There are plenty of jobs there you could work. It’s a lot colder than Afghanistan, but it would be a lot safer, too.”
“I don’t know if it would be safer,” he said, “not with all of those college girls up there.” He leaned against the highway’s lamppost. “Actually, Afghanistan can get pretty damn cold,” he said. “At night it sucks. Especially in the mountains.” He watched the evening traffic pass to and fro, humming beneath the overpass. “I couldn’t do anything in Minneapolis except grind in place. I couldn’t make the money I would in Afghanistan. And I’m going to need money to settle down somewhere. Eventually. If I don’t go crazy from staying in place.”
“That’s the problem with being a Military brat,” she said. “Wanderlust. You’ll never be happy anywhere for long.”
“Look who’s talking,” he said, playfully. “Isn’t your dad a US Corps Engineer? My dad was just a grunt. And a drunk.”
The night sky was vaulted with cobalt, pierced with white-hot stars. To the North the vault was stained with the glow of the city. Down below, the headlights and taillights of the traffic cycled through the darkness. The Fair was an outpost of twirling radiance and swirling cadence in a field otherwise plunged in darkness. Here and there the moonlight gleamed on the windshields of the hundreds of cars parked around each other in the field, packed together like an immovable labyrinth of chock-a-block gridlock.
“Just be careful over there,” she said.
“You be careful, too,” he said. “Don’t party too hard.”
“I’m too old for that,” she said. “It’s all work from here on out. I’ll be too busy to party.” She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “What about you? You’re the party animal, aren’t you?”
“Not anymore,” he said. “I’ll probably just spend my downtime playing videogames and watching Youtube.”
“Yeah,” she said, tucking a strand of black hair back behind her ear. “That sounds like you.”
Their shadows were nailed down to the overpass by the lamppost overhead. She came away from the railing, and stepped toward him, but stopped. He glanced toward the bright lights of the Fair to keep himself from looking at her wet cheeks. His lips twitched restlessly.
“I love…I love that you’ll be doing what you love,” he said. “It must take a lot of brains to become a Pharmacist.”
“Pharmaceutical Scientist, actually,” she said, laughing through tears. “Yeah, it’s all about Chemistry.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s all about Chemistry.”
Her laugh died, but he did not miss a beat.
“Chemical reactions, right? Or am I being dumb again?”
“You’re right,” she said, wiping her eyes. “Medications and how the body reacts to them. Kidneys, lungs, heart…”
“And penis medication,” he said with a laugh. “Boner pills.”
“Yeah,” she said, grinning painfully. “It’s a growing branch of medicine.”
They both laughed, their tremulous voices swallowed by the empty night overhead and echoing in the underpass down below. When the last echo faded, only a sad silence remained. The silence swelled— no traffic passing for a long, anxious stretch. It split open and bled with the chiming alert of her cell-phone.
Fumbling her fingers in her purse, she pulled out her phone. Little strips of paper fell out as she withdrew her phone, scattering everywhere. They were cinema stubs and fortune cookie slips and the wrappers from the bubblegum she chewed after they ate out, all obsessive-compulsively folded and refolded again and again, spilling out across the highway and opening slowly as they tumbled, like chrysalises hesitant for inevitable change.
She read the text, her brow crinkled with emotions, and then shoved the phone back into her purse. She could not gather up all of the paper slips. They had fluttered away in a rising breeze.
“Shit,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“She hung her head to one side, staring up at the night sky at an angle, letting the glare of the lamppost blind her. She then looked at him; him and his blue eyes.
“Some friends want me to go with them to a bar,” she said. “Last night out before I head to Minneapolis.”
The Ferris wheel slowed to a jerking halt in the distance, its light-strewn buckets swaying. Slowly, it let its riders out, one bucket at a time.
“I can take you there,” he said.
“You can go in with me if you want,” she said.
“I’d like to,” he said, “but I can’t. I have to pack my things. I’ll be leaving for training camp early Monday morning. Two weeks in Fort Myers and then I’m off to the quagmire.”
“Oh,” she said. “At least Fort Myers is nice. My family lived near there for a while.”
“So did my family,” he said, “before the divorce. We bounced around everywhere after that. Then again, we were always bouncing around.”
“So were we,” she said.
He glanced over at the field where many of the cars were starting, headlights flashing on and engines rocking to life.
“It’s a good thing we parked at the gas station,” he said. “It’s going to be a mess down there. It’ll make leaving so much easier.”
“Yeah,” she said. “And I didn’t mind the walk. It’s nice outside tonight. Everything was perfect.”
“Yeah,” he said, “and a perfect Summer, too. Hard to top it.”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Yeah.”
The Fair was closing, its small city of lights blinking to blue-blackness; bulb by bulb, bit by bit. They looked at the Fairgrounds and watched the maze of parked cars line up to leave. It was a disordered nightmare with no sense of reason or patience. Slowly they walked toward the gas station with a sense of relief and sweet sadness. The crush of traffic fell far behind them.

Visitations

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It was a moonless, starless, lightless night, and the old wizard slouched in his leatherback chair, dozing in the old cottage, chin to chest, with a cup of lemongrass-and-ginger tea on a small round table beside him, its steam a wispy trail floating thinly above its chipped ceramic rim. There was no sound except the grumbling blaze in the stone hearth, and the heavy rain muffled upon the thatch roof, and sloshing in the grass, forming rivulets that trickled downhill to the surrounding forest beyond the summit.
The old wizard wore a faded green robe with an expansive hood— large as a potato sack—and it enveloped much of his hoary head, keeping off the chill of the rain as it breathed faintly through an open window. He had a long, distinguished nose, as wizards sometimes did, and from his snoring nostrils there spilled hair like whitewater, curling down either side of his pale lips, the confluence gathering again at his chin and jaw, then tumbling down as a waterfall beard that cascaded over his shallow, heaving chest.
Books lay open in every nook and cranny of the room, or else were closed and piled high in tottering stacks on the floor, and atop these tomes were amphoras with skinny necks and large bellies full of strange liquids. Runes were scattered here and there, made of faintly glowing stones, and charts and maps and drawings of various creatures spread themselves lackadaisically upon the old oak table, and between the stacks of books; all forgotten after zeal had run its course and given way to lethargy and exhaustion. There was a rusted bird cage hung from one corner of the cottage, long abandoned to disuse, the droppings gone to dust and the dust carried away by the winds alongside other dust— mountains of dust from a mountain of discarded ages.
All was still in the world, save for fire and rain and the wind through the window, and all was restive.
Suddenly, there was a gentle knock at the door, as if by someone patient and measured, with endless days ahead and all of the time in the world. The wizard was roused but by half an eyelid of care.
“Come in, if you must,” he muttered.
In stepped the sunrise, or so it seemed, as the lovely young lissome lady entered, illuminating rain and cottage and wizard alike. She was golden-haired, and a youthful bloom of cherry flush betook to her cheeks, and her radiant garb was of golden gossamers. Within the spiraling tresses of her hair sat a diadem that rainbowed its golden triangles above her childlike forehead.
“Hello, Wagnard,” the young lady said.
The wizard opened his eyes a little more, flinched at the luminosity, and pulled at his overlarge hood, squinting painfully from behind its sheltering shade.
“Haven’t you some place to rise over today?” he muttered.
“Always,” she said.
The wizard snorted, then shifted uneasily in his chair. He sighed with fatigue and irritation. The young lady came to his side. The teacup’s steam was a ghostly strand.
“I wished to see you one final time,” she said. “Many times have I smiled upon your works, Wagnard, and, even unto the end, you always did well by others where others would have done well only by themselves.”
“It is easy enough to do,” the wizard confessed, “when it means they should cease their whining. I cannot abide that, you know. It is like shepherding a bleating flock of sheep.”
“And yet you aided them in their times of need,” she said.
The wizard waved a dismissive hand. It was knotted about the knuckles, like the boles of a tree, and veined blue through the paleness of his mottled skin. “As you say.”
The radiant lady came nearer to him, still, leaning over him and his hood. He stubbornly turned away from her, and yet she nonetheless snatched at his hood with deft, albeit, dainty fingers and pulled it back, thereupon planting a girlish smack of lips upon his wizened forehead. When she released his hood, he pulled it over his head once again to shield his eyes from her bountiful radiance.
“Thank you, Wagnar,” she said.
She headed toward the open door— blazing more brightly than any hearth or dragon’s fire.
The wizard roused suddenly, his eyes wide. “Wait!”
She paused at the threshold, turning toward him with a sad smile. “Yes?”
“In my youth,” he said, “I loved you most of all.”
She nodded. “I know, Wagner. I know.”
Beyond the threshold, she receded over the horizon to some other place in the world.
The door somehow closed, now, the wizard fell asleep once again.

The rain continued, generous as ever, and the fire blazed on, ever so warm, but the teacup’s steam narrowed to a strand like spider silk, wavering in the cold wind. The wizard’s snore became a labored wheeze. His shallow chest trembled as it rose and fell beneath his green robe and waterfall beard. The wind through the window became colder, promising another Winter in due time.
There was an assured knock on the door, as if by someone who had accomplished all they needed to that day and was sure that whatever remained undone, there would be time for it tomorrow. Wagnar did not hear the first rapping. The second rapping roused him reluctantly.
“Come in,” the wizard said, “if it please you.”
The old oak door opened and in bounced a buxom madam in a crepuscular dress. Her hair was dark auburn, like the wooded shadows at dusk, and held her freckled fists to her wide hips, her arms akimbo.
“It does please me to come in,” the woman said. “The question is, ‘Does it please you?’”
The wizard squinted at the woman in the dark evening dress, but whether in irritation, or in wry amusement, he did not himself know.
“Your company was once a pleasure,” he said. “So, I suppose, at one time or another it pleases me to have you here.”
“Ho ho!” the woman said, the wide smile making dimples in her round cheeks that glowed like a full Harvest Moon. “Ever the wit, my dear, even by a whit!”
She bustled over to him, knocking over books and maps and things with her womanly hips. He did not seem to mind the mess, for his sleepy eyes were entranced by the pillowy expanse of her bosom. His head slumped toward her cradling chest as she leaned over him. She was a large woman, with welcoming brown eyes that were warm as a fireplace after a long day in cold woods. Her freckles reminded him of falling Maple leaves— blazing orange and lovely on dusky skin tanned by years of toil in fields and fens and forests alike.
“I remember your many evenings of study,” she said, “and the many evenings when you laid aside your frets and surrendered yourself to my embrace. But I also remember the aching evenings when needs meant your pulling away from me and braving the cold and the rain and the snow to see to the care of a sick child, or a woman in labor. You are a good man, my beloved Wagnar.”
“Am I?” he said. “I did what I did to stop them from pestering me, and much of the time wished to be left alone, especially in our evenings together.”
The woman smiled sadly. “But you sacrificed your own peace for the sake of theirs, and did it with a committed heart.” She twirled the curls of his long beard with her meaty, calloused fingers. “Even if you masked it with a quarrelsome mouth.”
She leaned down and kissed him deeply on the lips—as a wife would her husband–then held him close to her broad bosom, his wrinkled face relaxing amidst her cradling cleavage. When she withdrew from him, he swayed, half-asleep again. She walked to the door, less swagger in her hips; her stride hesitant and slow.
Wagnar sighed tremulously. “I looked forward to you most,” he said, “in my manhood. After a day’s work was done and I could relax and smoke a pipe, or lay with my loves, and be content for an evening. After the struggle was done and the embers of the day cooled in my heart.”
“I know, my dear,” the auburn-haired madam said. “Now rest. It is well-deserved. You always deserved a rest.”
A gilded tear in the outer dark revealed a dusky horizon, and she sauntered through that tear, mingling with the dusky gold of another place, and another time.

There came a hush upon the rain, and a silence to the the grumbling blaze in the hearth, and the wind at the window was less than the husk of a whisper. The steam from the cracked lip of the teacup was a wobbling wisp, like a pinch of frail cobweb in a billowy breeze. There was no knock at the door. The door simply opened and the old crone stepped in, cloaked like midnight, her withered face and wintry white hair veiled with a shawl of shadow. She said nothing as she approached his slumped body. Her tread was silent, as was the sway of her black garments as they swept the dusty floor. The cottage was cold, but he did not feel it.
“So it is time,” the wizard said, his eyes unmoving behind their lids. “Time for rest. Time to let go of the worries of this world.”
The old crone said nothing. Her face was illegible behind the veil.
“I feared sleep when in my youth,” the wizard said, “lest I miss the busy world and all that happened within it, and, in my manhood, I thought sleep welcome, but also a bother, commanding so much of my time that I could have employed otherwise— with more work…more studies…more efforts in bettering the earth. But now…now I welcome you more than the others. My bones are brittle. My lungs are frayed. My heart hesitates at times, doubtful that it should go on, and my mind is not a bright candle, but the melted wax with a drowning snub of a wick. Take me. I go willingly to my final sleep.”
The crone said nothing, but covered him with her deep, dark shawl, pressing her lips to his. He sighed, but whether in peace or surprise or restive resignation, it was never known. The steam guttered out and the tea went cold. The rain and the fire and the wind carried on.

It was a rainless, shadowless, cloudless dawn, and the birds sang loudly in the crowns of the trees while the squirrels chattered and chased one another, gathering acorns for the coming Winter. The old wizard lay in his leatherback chair, in his old cottage, unmoving and dreamless and untroubled. His hearth was but black ash and his scattered runes but cold stones upon the cold floor. His door remained open, and the dawn smiled brightly upon him, reaching her light inward upon his many tomes, and the evening moon, too, was increscent with love for him, her milky glow gleaming upon the fat amphoras, and the nightfall embraced him and all about him, as had all nights for millennia before when he had fallen asleep after a long day of selflessly serving the troubled world beyond his magnanimous doorway.

Crabby

Craig could only see the crabs through the hole in his shirt, right at the crook of his left arm. If he tried to look at them through the neck sleeve, over his shoulder, or through the wrist sleeve, up his forearm, he saw only his arm. He tried to reach into the hole to pull them out, but they would only dig their sharp legs into his flesh and pinch his fingers with their long pincers. He tried to shake them out, but that did no good, either. Their oddly shaped carapaces scraped up and down his bicep and forearms with the motion, and made a godawful scraping sound, like the grinding of teeth.
He knew he could not take off his shirt, or it would all be over for him.
Craig could not remember when exactly the crabs had proliferated inside the crook of his arm. It could have been the other day, when, at work, Benny had the gall to steal a good table of tippers from him at the restaurant. When Craig confronted him about it, Benny said Craig should have been quicker and more attentive because the family was becoming restless about their drinks. Craig talked through his teeth, fuming and saying that Benny had asked Craig to look after Benny’s table while Benny was taking a leak. Benny’s table had been an old man who complained about everything and wouldn’t stop complaining, even as he shuffled out the door, recounting the long personal history he had with the restaurant. Yeah, the crabs pinched at Craig’s arm bad as Benny split the ten dollar tip that was rightfully Craig’s.
Or maybe it was when Craig when to pick up his girlfriend a few weeks ago and he saw Rafael flirting with her out on the sidewalk while she waited for Craig. It wasn’t so much that Rafael was smiling his sleazy, dimpled smile with his slicked-back black hair— it was that Lily was smiling back so hard, her skull and eyeballs about to pop out of her face. Lily had never smiled at Craig like that. The crabs knew this too, and they scurried sideways and pinched and set his nerves on fire. On the ride home Lily said Rafael was “Just a friend”. The way she said it was as unabashed an admission as if she had said, “We fucked by the dumpsters on our lunch break, and I came three times.”
Or maybe the crabs colonized his arm a month ago, at the intersection, while he was on his way to work when some asshole in a delivery van ran a redlight and struck Craig’s Prius and spun his lightweight car around like a dreidel. The delivery truck was not even scratched, but the Prius— and Craig’s neck— was all bent out of shape. What was worse, Craig went to the hospital, after the paramedics insisted, and came out with a bill that his insurance company, and the at-fault driver’s insurance company fought tooth and nail to refuse to pay. Craig had been fighting with the two of them over his bills since the wreck. The wreck had also put a crimp in his love life. Whenever he and Lily tried to get intimate his neck would start hurting, or his back, and she would leave the bedroom in an angry puff, going to watch tv in the dark living room. He would take an Ibuprofen and fall asleep. One night, however, he had gotten up to go pee and had heard Lily talking to someone on her cell-phone. She crooned and giggled and was talking like a schoolgirl in love. When Craig went to wash his hands near the sink, he felt a searing pain in his neck. Looking up in the mirror he saw a Red King crab clutching the base of his skull with its large pincer. When he reached for it, the crab was gone, but the ache wasn’t. It spread.
In fact, the crabs spread all over him. They pinched him at the most inconvenient of times and places. While walking down the street, when someone bumped into him, or when receiving the wrong food at a fastfood restaurant. There were crabs behind his ears, and under his tongue, and folded up under his armpits. There were small crabs pinching at the nerves in his eyes, holed up in his eye sockets, and antagonized with eye strain. There was even a crab somewhere scuttling about in the chambers of his heart. He knew he would never be able to remove that one. Its spiky crustacean body scuttled restlessly as if the very beat of his heart set it off in a fury.
And he didn’t ever remove his shirt. He kept it on, even as it began to stink. He knew it had to remain, or all else would fall apart. It was the first thing Lily had bought for him when they had first started dating. It kept everything together, even as the holes in it grew larger and multiplied, revealing crabs in every ragged aperture.
It seemed to Craig that the crabs became worse during certain activities. Work, for instance, exacerbated them, sending them scrambling and pinching and poking him in various places. Driving in heavy traffic, too, made them worse. Having arguments with Lily really intensified them.
And then, one day, everything escalated. He was late for work because of a traffic jam, and Lily wasn’t returning his calls, and Benny kept taking smoke breaks during the busiest times of the day, then returning to poach Craig’s tables. Craig cussed Benny in front of customers, was reprimanded, then cussed his manager, was subsequently fired, and walked down the road in a fury, leaving his dented Prius in the parking lot. He walked all the way down to Lily’s place of work— an artisan café shop—and saw her flirting with Rafael while on break again. Craig felt an awful pain shoot up and down his back. Gritting his teeth, he went to a window of a nearby building and stooped over, raising his hood. In the faint reflection off the window he saw a giant snow crab sprawled across his back, its extraterrestrial head rising as its two eyes stared blankly at him from atop their stalks. His anger flared and went right up to Lily and Rafael and, punched the flabbergasted sleazeball right in his perfectly gleaming grin. Lily shrieked, further angering the crabs that scurried all over Craig. He slapped her across the face, then left down the street. As was his luck that day, the police came by fairly swiftly, demanding that he put his hands on his head and kneel on the ground. Instead, Craig lifted his shirt and flung it off, dissolving into a cast of crabs that scuttled sideways down the street.

Venom Pies Part 11

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Cousins, uncles, aunts, and various other relatives by blood and by vow all greeted the heir of the House of Lorwynne and his people as they were taken at point of sword and spear. Eseus knew it wiser not to fight, though every vesicle throbbed in him to take a blade to the complacent faces of his relatives. They sneered as he was stripped of his sword and rendered powerless. The looks upon their faces reminded him of the same arrogance present upon their faces at the feast wherein Kareth’s father died, except now they were one and all peacocked out in plumage and armor which ill-suited them.
“How could they know where we would emerge?” Iadne said. “We did not know ourselves.”
“Kareth is a sorcerer,” Eseus said. “I doubt there is much she does not know.”
“You are correct in your assumptions, traitor,” one of his cousins said; a dandy with a golden helmet and a purple plume. “She sees all. She knows all. Your treachery had no hope of success.”
The fop sneered, then raised the mouthpiece of his helmet and sneered again so Eseus could this time see it.
“If Kareth can see all,” Eseus said, “then she knew of the imminence of her father’s death, and did nothing to prevent it. Thus she wished for his death. Do you deny this?”
“Silence, traitor!” the fop said. He raised a gauntlet, as if to strike Eseus, but even the silver gauntlet could not steel his nerve toward violence. “It is ill luck to strike a relative,” he said, relenting and lowering his hand.
Eseus shook his head slowly, ruefully. “No, you fear to strike me because Kareth does not wish me harmed,” he said. “That much is easily seen.”
“True,” said another relative; a grandaunt stepping forward with as haughty a voice as her plumed son. She was one of his grandfather’s younger sisters. Her son— the dandy— was ten years Eseus’s senior. She walked like a woman possessed of years and power, and unrivaled arrogance. She spoke as someone who had never been brought to suffering by the pomposity of their tongue. “But that does not hold true of others in your treacherous number. Do you wish to tempt harm upon them?” She looked meaningfully at Iadne. “Those ill-bred peoples of the moor are not afforded the same mercies obligated to those loyal to a House. Wherever they go, they go with the shadow of a blade above them, eager to fall.” She gestured toward the women and children following behind Eseus. “And even your peasants can find themselves afoul of a noble temperament should they prove unworthy of Queen Kareth’s magnanimity. Loyalty is expected above all else, and the very whisper of disobedience is merit enough for a culling of their sniveling multitude.”
Eseus did not hide his sarcasm. “Loyalty seems a fickle thing in our family,” he remarked darkly.
“Indeed,” his grandaunt said. “Especially with your recent betrayals. Did you think she would abide your alliance with the Spider clan, let alone the assassination of Lord Oxenford?”
Eseus could not muster even a frown of incredulity. His grandaunt seemed rehearsed in the narrative that Kareth wished to present, and so, likely, the rest of his extensive family. Thus, he knew that Kareth was scheming beyond the House of Lorwynne and the domination of the moorland provinces. Her ambitions were doubtlessly exuberant, and reached elsewhere and afar.
“Lord Oxenford had my father assassinated,” Eseus said. “That he should be assassinated in turn seems divine retribution. And I am eternally grateful to the one responsible for that comeuppance. Had I the chance, I would have slain him myself and served his fat flanks at the feast in his honor.”
“But you did not slay him,” his grandaunt said simply. “Your ally did.”
She did not indicate Iadne beside him. She did not have to. The hateful glares that followed the Spider clan girl informed him, and her, that all present knew who she was and for what she was responsible.
“And,” his grandaunt continued, “you know as well as I that there was nothing divine in Lord Oxenford’s death, except, perhaps, that his daughter should reign afterwards as an ascendant Queen of the All Ways.” She threw her hands fussily in the air, as if shooing them all away. “Enough chatter now. We march. See where your words will take you while in judgment by your esteemed cousin. She will likely be more merciful than I would be, but I think she will nonetheless exact recompense from you, in some form or fashion. I eagerly await that judgment, too.”
“As do I!” her son said with childish glee. She gave him a withering look, but he was too gleefully spiteful to notice.
Eseus, his mother, Iadne, Percevis, Edea, and the remaining women and children of Lorwynne were all conducted through a passage walled by blades on either side, led to the military caravan already arranged along the Oxenford Road. They began the long march toward the House of Oxenford. Eseus glanced back in the direction where he thought lay the House of Lorwynne, but could not see anything. Above them, the Gray was as thick as ever, and beyond them, too. Much of the Oxenford army was concealed in the fog. Eseus could not see anyone among the Crow clan.
“Where are your allies?” Eseus asked. “I do not see them.”
“Your cousin feared for your safety,” his grandaunt said, her voice one of mild amusement. “She wished that they stay and hold the castle, weeding out whatever worms remained among its nooks and crannies.”
“They are pilfering and butchering,” Eseus said. His hand went to his hilt, but they had already taken his sword from him.
“Crows have their uses,” his grandaunt said. She stank of glamor-laced perfume. “As do peasants. So long as you surrender to Queen Kareth’s forces she will spare all those remaining. As I have said, loyalty matters to her. Her plans require many more forthcoming soldiers. The boys remaining will be trained to be obedient to her and to serve loyally in her army. The women, too, shall have their uses. No one will be squandered, and those unhelpful will find themselves unnecessary.”
Eseus looked to Iadne, to his mother, to all of the women and children sobbing behind him. He saw Percevis’s grim, blood-drained face, and the anger there, but also saw the illegible look upon Edea’s face. The old Spider clanswoman gave no feelings away at all, and Eseus knew wisdom in that.
“I will plead for mercy from my cousin,” Eseus said, sighing. “On behalf of all my remaining people.”
“Her remaining people,” his grandaunt said. “Otherwise we would round them all up like sheep and slaughter them as we did their treacherous husbands and sons. Be thankful, thus, that you have all been allotted mercy by being inducted into the Queen’s ownership. All that was yours, is hers. Your people, your castle, your mother, your soul. All belongs to Queen Kareth.”
“As you say,” Eseus muttered.
The Oxenford soldiers did not bind him, nor any of the others. They saw them as no threat. Only Iadne did they watch sidelong with suspicion and wariness. So far as they knew, she was something of a sorcerer in her own right. This was not entirely true, but also not entirely a misreading of her capacities. She kept the clew close to her heart within her hooded robe, next to the dragonrock.

***

It was a long march, protracted by the length of the caravan, the loads of supplies, and the prisoners of war thronging between it. The whole company crawled along like a lethargic dragon suffering an illness. This frustrated many among the nobles— in particular, Eseus’s foppish cousin— but there was no effective remedy for the circumstance.
Eseus was offered to ride in a guarded wagon, but declined. His mother also declined this dubious hospitality, though she grew faint with each passing day until she had to swallow her pride and climb aboard a wagon. Eseus insisted that the elderly and the young be given places among the wagons also. This request was granted by his relatives, but not, in fact, out of kindness; rather, it was obvious that everyone— from low Oxenford soldier to highborn noble—feared losing Queen Kareth’s newly gained subjects. Thus, the elderly and the young had their burdens lessened, many choosing to stay on the wagon wherein the Lady of Lorwynne resided.
Eseus felt Kareth’s presence always. While she was not among the convoy, her eyes and ears strained everywhere. At night when they slept, and Iadne refused to part from Eseus, he could feel a hateful glare upon the two of them. Iadne seemed to sense it, too, for she insisted with a spiteful delight that he share her robe with him. As they held each other, she smirked at the unseen intruder eavesdropping upon their moments of intimacy.
“He is mine,” Iadne whispered. “You cannot have him. He is mine. Always.”
The prisoners were fed hardtack that stank of skunk and given water every day. Eseus would not have deigned to eat, but Iadne admonished him to do so. Often at night she would supplement their poor diet by Willing grubs up from the moor, as she had done weeks prior while on the trek to the House of Lorwynne. Eseus ate all begrudgingly, knowing that she was correct: he needed his strength. His people needed him to be strong. Moreover, they needed his mind to be clear and well fed.
Yet, Eseus felt hollow. Shame had withered him from within, and alongside that shame was a restless beast; a creature caged by circumstance which sought fanciful means of salvation for his people as he imagined miraculous escapes and impossible moments of vengeance against the forces that had bereft them all. But he remained impotent, raging silently within his own skull as he awaited the inevitable arrival at House Oxenford. Disgraced and powerless, his mind reached back toward the Bull beneath the Labyrinth. Iadne sensed this stagnating rage. When he succumbed to such moods she would clasp his hand in hers as they walked, squeezing when the fury in his heart pitched downward into desperate fury, like a seaship diving headlong into a whirling maelstrom.
“Do nothing reckless,” she told him, “or all will be truly lost.”
“It is a fury I have never known in life,” he confessed, “and so it is a steed that throws me from within. It bucks and leaps and I feel the violence in its hooves. It wants to trammel everything. Foremost, myself. The shame is unbearable. The rage overwhelms when I think of all that could yet be lost because of my incompetence.”
“Do not let it overmaster you,” she said. “I know it is hard. Believe that. I know better than anyone what it is like to lose everything.”
Eseus felt a sudden shame of a different kind. “I am so sorry, Iadne,” he said. “For what happened to your people. For what has happened to you.”
She smiled at him sadly, and tears were in her eyes. “I feel shame, too, Eseus. For in all this misery, I feel hope. And happiness. Our daughter will come. I have read it in the web. She will make things right, as things should be. And I am ashamed because this happiness I feel would not have been had my clan not been extinguished. Without their deaths, I would have never known you. And you are mine. That, no one can take away. Not even you.”
Eseus shook his head sadly. “Nor would I. I promised you my life, and you shall have it.”

***

The caravan came to a stop, the prisoners kept in tight groups overseen by spearmen. In turns the women and children were allowed to make water upon the moor. While Iadne took her turn, Eseus saw to his mother. She sat among several women and children, all of whom had the looks of frightened rabbits as wolves prowled nearby.
“They have treated me no worse than anyone else,” she told him. “It has been a bumpy ride in the wagon, but worse would it be to walk. The soldiers have been more or less courteous; more so than to the other women.”
“They would not dare harm you,” Eseus said. He said it mostly to reassure her and himself, and feared only half-believing it.
“You have lost weight,” she said, touching his face. “You must eat, Eseus, and stay strong. Your people need you.”
There came an angry volley of voices from the other side of the Road. Two men shouted, one Percevis and the other an Oxenford soldier.
“Keep off her, you brothel-born by-blow!” Percevis roared. “Or I’ll split your head like an overripe pumpkin in want of mushing!”
“Search the woman,” the soldier ordered, ignoring Percevis. “She was doing something suspicious out on the moor.”
Percevis hobbled toward the soldier, meanwhile clutching the wound at his chest. “Yeah, she was pissing, you leaking bucket of hog-water! Didn’t get enough of an eyeful then, hm? Want to see where I keep my other sword while you’re at it? You filthy tree-peeper!”
The soldier ordered two other soldiers to bind Percevis, then grabbed Edea by the wrist, pulling her roughly to him. Inspecting her garments, he began to strip them off of her, one by one, until she was left with only her undergarments. He nearly stripped these, too, but for the eyes upon him. Instead, he stuffed all of the Spider-silk cloth into a large pouch and hooked it to the saddle of his horse. He looked quite pleased with himself.
Eseus rushed forward, even as the spears closed in around him.
“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded. “Stealing from an elderly woman? Have you never a mother of your own?”
Red-faced, the soldier stiffened and snarled. “I am confiscating these items lest they be used for witchcraft.”
“There is no witchcraft in human decency!” Eseus cried. “Nor in warming oneself from the moor! Would you have her freeze to death?”
The soldier snorted as he mounted his horse. “What loss would it be to for an old witch to die on the moor?”
Percevis pulled at the reins of the horse, turning it aside and flipping it down upon its flanks. The soldier rolled from the saddle, scrambling to find his feet. The horse was unharmed, but startled, and righted itself up and fled from the scene, startling other horses with other soldiers upon their backs.
Before Eseus could intervene, the thrown soldier came at Percevis and struck him a harsh blow across the face that sent him reeling. The old man’s chin was streaming crimson before he collapsed to the ground. Edea screamed, but was held back by the other soldiers. Eseus leapt forth and struck the soldier so hard that his helm went spinning off his head, joined in short order by the man himself. Straddling the downed man, Eseus beat him near to death before another Oxenford soldier knocked him aside with the hilt of his sword. The world spun and plummeted into darkness. All was darkness.

***

And then there were stars. Mesmerizing stars. Countless stars above and beyond. And he was a man staring out from a balcony upon a tower in the Southerlands around which white sands stretched seemingly forever, horizon to horizon. He saw the stars above his barren world, and marveled at them, yearning to pull them down and bind them, under yoke, to his will. More than anything, he coveted the twin Bulls that drove across the heavens, chasing even the moon itself in its arching path. The power of the Bulls pulled at him, like a madness, and so he sacrificed much to work miracles with his magic. He sacrificed whole forests and swamps and generations of creatures to harness the yoke whereby to call down the Bulls from the sky. He knew they were the beasts with which he would build a kingdom upon the misty moorlands.
A great road he furrowed, forking upon forks to create many paths to many castles. These castles he built up with magic, stone upon stone. Below them he cut a great labyrinth wherein to house his coveted beasts so no one might take them from him.
A woman came to him in time— a sorcerer of aspiring talent, and unequal beauty—and he longed for her companionship. But she feared the Bulls— not the beasts themselves, but the glimmer in his eyes when he thought of them— and so he gave unto her one castle over which she had dominion, and he kept his own castle, over which he had absolute dominion, and so he halved his power to double his love for her, visiting her in her castle whenever he was not dabbling in darker arts and studying the Bull beneath Oxenford. Her castle— Eseus’s ancestral home—was a cage for her, as it was for the Bull entombed beneath it. Like the Bulls, she felt separate from him, and so divided, and paced restlessly above or below the earth.
***

Iadne watched over the man she loved, tending to the wound dealt to his head. She cleaned the bloody contusion with hot water and honey, then bound it with fabric cut from her own robe. She gave him water and watched him for signs of fever. He did not wake, but he did not weaken, either. He merely slept.
When she was not tending to Eseus, she attended his mother, reassuring her the best she could about their circumstances. She also tended to Edea, though she knew that in moments of grief there was merit to solitude also, especially those among the Spider clan. Meanwhile, she also assured herself of the future of her clan. The clew remained, pregnant with promise, and so, too, the dragonrock. She did not know when an opportunity would present itself for escape, but she knew she and Eseus would need to take it. Yet, he was so stubborn. She knew how he felt about his people— she knew better than most. However, he would not be able to free those remaining. They would be inducted into slavery to his vile cousin, and if he and Iadne did not escape they would be tortured and humiliated and executed. Or so it seemed to her.

***

When Eseus roused he felt the world swaying and rattling violently. He thought it an earthquake at first, then saw his mother leaning over him, and Iadne, and the cloth backdrop behind them. He was in one of the caravan’s wagons. Disoriented, he lay still, listening as his mother and Iadne spoke to him. He had been struck half-dumb, but slowly regained his wits. Words resumed meaning in his head and he could at last understand what they were saying.
“Do not exert yourself,” his mother said. “Or your wound may bleed again.”
There was a spider-silk bandage across his forehead. He reached toward it curiously, but Iadne stayed his hand with her own.
“Leave it be,” she said. “Or you will be twice the fool you were earlier.”
“Percevis!” he said with a start, suddenly remembering everything.
The look upon their faces revealed all, grave and wan as they were.
“Where is Edea?” he asked, holding back his tears.
“She is here, in this wagon,” his mother said. She glanced toward the corner of the wagon, where Eseus could not presently see. He heard a woman’s sobs, faint above the rattle of the wagon wheels. His mother wiped a tear from her eye. “She grieves. They wished to bind her, but I would not let them. She is now our responsibility.”
“And Percevis?” Eseus whispered. “Did they…did they bury him?”
His mother and Iadne exchanged concerned looks.
“The moor will see to him,” Iadne said. “Do not rise up in a furor over it or you will be joining him. His burdens have been…eased. Relinquish yours, for a time at least.”
Eseus clenched his teeth, but did not rise. He knew it would do no one any good. The world rattled on, noisy and unfeeling as ever before. He closed his eyes and listened to the cacophony of the caravan pass along the Oxenford Road; the snorting of horses, the japes of soldiers, the weeping of the women and children, and the wobbly wheels of the wagon upon which he lay. The commonplace sounds were transformed monstrously in the wake of so much death and destruction. It drove the spark of his anger like a fire in the fields, burning bounty and blight alike until there was only the flames, and the desire for it to burn the unjust world to ash.
“Are you not angry?” he said.
“Of course we are angry, Eseus,” his mother assured him. “But we can do nothing now.” She looked wan and weary, her auburn hair graying. She trembled as she spoke. “We are are at the mercy of circumstance. It is not resignation…but we must abide. Your father would not want you to throw your life away in a noble, but futile, gesture. Nor would I. It would kill me to lose you.”
“Had she wanted me dead I would be dead. She has other proposals in mind.”
“‘Proposals’,” Iadne said, her pale lips creased at one corner; neither with amusement or anger. “That is the choicest of words for the matter.”
Edea sighed, her sobs subsiding. Then her sobs renewed. Eseus turned his head just enough to see her crumpled form in the corner. Her children and grandchildren huddled around her, comforting her, and themselves, in their loss. Eseus’s rage was suddenly overcome with pity. Pity gave way to outrage once again and he vowed revenge. Yet, despair undercut outrage, and the realization that he was powerless was as a bloodletting upon his anemic soul.
“I am useless now,” he groaned. “What a shame it is to be the last living man of the House of Lorwynne.” He shook his head, a tear streaming down his cheek. “What shame I feel. What disgust…”
His mother laid a gentle hand on his cheek, and Iadne rubbed his chest with her palm. In this way did the women of his life comfort him until he fell asleep once again. He dreamed of Labyrinths of Time, and a wall-less Labyrinth without Time, and the Celestial Bull, and all that would come to pass before the end of the world…

***
The witch looked out from her tall black tower overtopping the trees of Beggar’s Bog. She sat in a rocking chair, slowly rocking back and forth upon the balcony. She sipped from a tea made of mushroom caps and spider-grass, and occasionally nibbled from a biscuit flavored with gingerweed and sugar rushes. The dark canopies that stretched beyond her tower appeared like the moor itself—solid and traversable by foot. Below the foliated mirage of the trees, however, were plummeting depths and strange songs and drowning waters. Hungry mouths rummaged everywhere for meals. Aqueous throats gurgled, and guttural croaks deepened into growls. The trees of the Bog stretched outward forever, disappearing into the Gray that lay heavy upon the sky, occluding the heavens like a malevolent miasma that hoarded covetously the Northlands.
And because of these things, and many more, the witch considered her tower one of the safest places in the whole of the All Ways. It was safe enough for her, anyhow. The tower had stood for thousands of years, and she had lived in it for hundreds. Waiting. Watching. Wondering. Even when she could glimpse in her scrying glass the world beyond the Bog, she wondered at its machinations. Something foul was afoot. The House of Lorwynne had fallen, and now a great imbalance threatened not only the moorlands, but the entirety of the world. She feared it was the same power that had enthralled and ruined so much so long ago.
Yet, she calmly sipped at her tea and nibbled at her biscuit. She knew the threads would weave their way to her soon enough. Inevitability reigned here, as it did everywhere else. Not even the Master— whoever he or she happened to be nowadays—could overpower inevitability. Fate had its say, regardless of whether it accorded mankind cruelty or kindness. In the witch’s estimation, kindness and cruelty were often the same thing. And if she ever forgot such a thing, she would look down upon the Bog and be reminded of how the world was.

***

Eseus lay on his back, brooding. The ache in his head had departed, but the ache in his chest remained. His mind turned back often to the Celestial Bull beneath the House of Lorwynne. He envisioned himself driving the gigantic beast out over the moor and toward the various Houses that had conspired against his people. He saw the Crow clan scattering before its earth-shaking hooves, trammeling them to dust. With its horns lowered, the Bull charged the various castles, smashing them to ruins, the bodies of his duplicitous kin strewn among the fallen stones.
But he saw, too, the cost of such a vengeance. The House of Lorwynne would collapse as the Bull rose from its tomb, for its tomb composed the foundation of the castle. To free the Bull would mean to forfeit his ancestral home. He saw, also, that the Bull would not stop until all tall towers upon the earth were razed to the ground, for the Bull wished to refute all aspirant towers arrogantly thrusting themselves toward the stars. It was not that he could not have driven the Bull away from such a destructive path, but that he knew— deep down in his blood—that he would also have wanted to level the earth of all conceited enterprises accosting the heavens.
It was no use, all this wishful dreaming. Eseus sat up, steadying himself with his hands upon the wagon bed. The women and the children were asleep now. He could hear their restive breaths. He could not see in the dark of the wagon. Night roosted upon the world and the caravan had stopped. He wished to step outside, and relieve himself, and so carefully crawled toward the back of the wagon. Nights upon the moor were as black as chthonic passageways, but he could see the fires from the camps of the soldiers. An Oxenford soldier approached him as he climbed down from the wagon.
“I need to relieve myself,” Eseus said.
“I will relieve you of your head,” the soldier said, “if you do not return to the wagon.”
“Then I shall relieve myself here,” Eseus said. He fumbled with his britches, still feeling dizzy from the blow to his head.
The soldier stood guard meanwhile, his sword in hand. When Eseus had finished, the soldier shoved him up into the wagon.
“Animal,” the soldier said.
Eseus wished to kick the soldier’s helm off his head, but refrained. He sat at the end of the wagon, looking out at the soldiers and their many campfires. He felt dizzy and wished for water. Someone approached. To his surprise, Iadne appeared from around the wagon’s wheel, climbing up into the bed, unseen by the soldiers.
“They possess poor eyesight at night,” she said. She sat next to Eseus at the back at the wagon, her pale face cut softly from darkness by the faintest flicker of a nearby fire.
“Where have you been?” Eseus asked.
“Your mother was taken for questioning by some of your kin. Do not fear. She is safe and will be returned shortly. I crept about, finding the tent and listening to their questions.”
“What did they ask of her?”
Iadne glanced around, briefly, to see if any soldiers were within earshot. She whispered. “They asked what we had found in the crypts. She told them we had found many generations that would be ashamed of them all. They did not take kindly to that answer, but did not strike her either. They threatened to kill a peasant child for every turn she took at balking. She told them of the beast beneath the castle. This pleased them and they prepared to have her returned here. I left, naturally, before they could observe me.”
Eseus could only nod.
“We must escape tonight,” Iadne said. “I have a plan. It will require haste. How do you feel? Can you run?”
“I cannot run,” Eseus said. “I cannot leave the other women and children here.”
“They will be fleeing with us,” she said.
“Not all of the women and children would escape,” Eseus countered. “Many would be recaptured. Many would be slain. I cannot forsake them.”
Iadne scowled at him, and the darkness did not soften the spite.
“I have lost one daughter once before,” she said. “I will not lose another.”
“That is why you must take my mother and flee together,” Eseus said. “So long as I remain, the heir of House Lorwynne, they will be satisfied.”
Iadne’s scowl hardened. Her wild white hair, paired with her red-eyed glare, made her appear like a gorgon in the dark. “You would abandon me? You would abandon our child?”
Eseus looked away from her. He heard the multitudinous breaths in the darkness of the wagon—the women and children whose fathers and brothers lay heaped upon his ancestral grounds. When he spoke, his voice was soft and slow and full of memory.
“When I was a boy I wished to play as the peasant children played. I saw them from the stone towers of Lorwynne and wondered why I could not indulge as they indulged in mirth and sunshine and games. But my father dedicated me to training and education, instructing me about the world and the moor and governance. Whenever I bemoaned my lot my father would take me to the fields where the peasantry toiled. There I saw the children toiling, too. I saw how bent they would become, as their fathers had, and I saw how gnarled, and some broken by the hard labors of the fields. The children played but a few hours a day, whereas their chores lasted long hours, grinding them with its stooping and digging and planting and reaping. I saw their present lives, and I saw what their future lives would become. My heart ached for them, and when I confessed this to my father he said that wisdom began with a lent heart. By lending my heart to others, I could understand their lives. When I asked why we should allow the peasants to break themselves in the fields, he told me it was a necessary evil. He said that leadership must also including stepping beyond the immediate empathy to think of tomorrow’s plights. Small pain presently was better than greater pain— perhaps even deathly pain— later. Famine, he said, was the demon driving us forward beneath the yoke of necessity. As for me, he said I could not play as other children because there were too many lives ever upon my shoulders. Innumerable deaths, he said, would be the harvest of such play. And so, thinking of those small boys and girls, I dedicated my life to the role set before me. Even now I see those children in my mind, playing innocently for a handful of hours and then toiling endlessly in the field. Those little boys are all as one dead, strewn among the green in the House of Lorwynne, and those little girls are here, older now and weeping for the fallen while clutching little boys and little girls of their own to their hearts lest they be stripped from them and lost forever in the silence hereafter. All of my years training and learning— what good did it do any of them? What good would it do any of them if I abandoned them now? It would be a worse betrayal than that of abandoning their men to die on the green. I cannot do it. I will not do it.”
Iadne opened her mouth to rebut him, but he spoke quicker.
“And that is why I want you to take my mother and Edea and escape. Please. Save my mother. Save our daughter. Raise her to be a child of the moor. Do not tell her of me. Do not thread her path to the House of Oxenford. Take her South. Go to Gran Stone, or even the Southerlands. See the Silver-Scale Sea. Let her know freedom. Let her know happiness beyond all this misery.”
“You can go with us to the Southerlands,” she said. “Leave all of this behind.”
“Kareth will not allow it,” Eseus said. “You do not know her. Her heart is a cold, immovable thing. Glaciers would melt ere her heart would change. The retribution against the women and children…it would be of terrible cost to them. I must remain. You must leave, and take my mother with you. But I am bound by fate now.”
Iadne leaned toward him, her pale lips curdled angrily, but her red eyes sad. She grabbed his shoulders and stared into his eyes. “But you owe me your life,” she said. “It is not your decision to make.”
“I do owe you a debt of life, Iadne,” he said. “But my greater debt was always to my people. Had I a thousand more lives, Iadne, I should give each to you. I love you.”
Iadne said nothing. There was nothing left to be said. She felt the world churning irrevocably— the great millstone of Fate grinding what was into what could never be again—and it tore at her heart. Yet she remained silent, though she wished to scream.
Presently, a trio of soldiers came to the wagon, the Lady of Lorwynne between them. Eseus and Iadne leaned upon one another, pretending sleep, erstwhile listening to the soldiers.
“She’s a pretty one,” one of the soldiers said. “For her age.”
“No touching, you fool,” another soldier said, “or they will gut you for sure. That’s a Lady, even if she is a traitor.”
“A little pinch is all I want,” the other soldier said. “Never pinched a Lady before.”
“And I am telling you your neck will be in a pinch if you try it!”
The two soldiers argued quietly while the third soldier helped Lady Lorwynne up into the wagon.
“Go to sleep,” the third soldier said. “And don’t try anything unwise.”
“Of course,” the Lady of Lorwynne said.
The three soldiers left, the two grumbling amongst themselves. When their gripes died at a distance, Iadne and Eseus sat up once again.
“We must leave,” Iadne said. “It is our one chance.”

***

The dragonrock sparked, setting the spidergrass alight. Three sparrows carried the flaming wisps in their beaks, diving into the wagons wherein some of nobles resided. The canvas bloomed aflame, and many voices screamed as soldiers scrambled. The night became as dusk with the flames.
Iadne clasped the Lady of Lorwynne’s hand tightly, leading her urgently away from the conflagration and the chaos at their backs. Edea followed also, her eyes no longer grieving, but hardened and flashing like the sharp points of vengeful daggers. Her family members, too, followed her, and so their throng fled over the moor.
Soldiers shouted for them to stop. Naturally, the women did not heed them, but hastened their flight through the darkness and the mist. Arrows flitted past them, whining near their heads in futile fury.
“Where is Eseus?” the Lady of Lorwynne asked.
Iadne remained silent.
“Eseus?!” she called. She tried to stop, looking about for her son. Iadne yanked upon her wrist, hastening her.
“He will come,” she lied. “Now, run for your life!”
Iadne was too disoriented with emotions to know which direction she was fleeing. She was upset, and her eyes burned, and she wished the world to burn, too, for all seemed a ruin of what it should have been.
And then there came a light; a shimmer in the darkness. The woman beckoned to them from the edge of the swamp. She was fair-haired, her skin lustrous like starshine, and her dress was as black as the darkness between stars. Her neck was long and slender, and moved with a precise, almost unnatural deliberateness. The women and children followed her, surrendering their fates to her as they came to the edge of Beggar’s Bog. Iadne hesitated but briefly, fearful that she was being led astray by a wisp or some other malevolent creature. The radiant woman saw the doubt in the young woman’s eyes. She held up both hands, and therein were stars like the guiding stars of morningfall.
“Fear not,” the radiant woman said, “for thy deliverance I grant unto thee.”
The woman’s voice was soothing, devoid of malice, and renewed Iadne’s faith in her intentions. Thus, she followed, pulling the Lady of Lorwynne along while Edea and her family kept close behind. Soon they disappeared into the swamp. The soldiers of Oxenford were loath to follow.