An unexpected place
Her big, wide car slowed as it turned on Erehwon Street’s narrow lane. She felt the house before she saw it. Its breath was hot, stale, and stank of death. It came to her, carried easily within the porous membranes of the hot summer air. She pushed it away and took in the rest of the street.
Tall oaks lined the street and many of the homes were shaded in delightful relief from the sun above. All but number φ had a cool pleasant look to them. The house sat back a ways. It was bare of trees but for a few whiskered shrubs that seemed to wilt before the house and the towering sun overhead.
The lawn was kept, but it was untidy with weeds that crawled like snake-vine across it; their pale, leafy heads quailed and squabbled under the sun’s unrelenting heat.
There was an untidy fringe of hedge under the front windows. Blanched and stickled with thorn the hedge had rubbed and scratched at the house, helping the sun in its job of peeling away its already faded paint.
The house was a very sorry thing to look at. And the bare lawn behind it and its brown boarded windows projected a character of neglect. Mia saw two cars parked in its driveway, but even so, it was easy to tell that no one lived within the house’s forgotten walls. To normal eyes, the house was pathetic.
But Mia saw more, for her sight was not normal.
To her, the house breathed like a dragon, blowing its own hot stench into the summer air as if to compete for dominance of Erehwon Street with the fat sun overhead. The dragon’s essence was almost tangible; it was as if she could simply reach through the car window and touch it. It seemed so big and so close. And Mia saw it shiny; colored and armored like the worm Gilgamesh slew before the gates of Cedar Mountain. The house sat exactly as a dragon sits. Its armor slick and iron hard clattered like a machinegun in the quiet of the afternoon, only the cicadas and the chatter of birds overhead kept pace to its wheezing, snuffling, sonorous outbursts. The creature was asleep; nevertheless, its odorous breath was fire-hot and stunk of rotting fish and other dead things. The tattoo of its heaving snores belched not the pitch of Welcome, but the pitch of Warning. And even sleeping it saw her and knew her for what she was. And its mouth seemed to open wide because of her presence, and not with a reminder to ancient deeds done, but to a resolute yearning for deeds yet to come. And Mia imagined that she saw saliva drip from its tired, listless jaws. It seemed hungry.
Ordinarily, Mia, in her youth, had loved such places, but not this thing. It was different, and hideously so. And its difference lay not in its hunger but in its presence. For such haunted places were always hungry. And their presence of personality was either rampantly happy or rampantly psychotic—and it’s a fine line that divides the two, but here, Mia saw something very different indeed.
A Magus had been here. And it was not one she knew. And she had known them all.
In spirit, she had walked with Zoroaster, Apollonius of Tyana, Johann Heidenberg, Giovanni Battista Della Porta, John Dee, Roger Bacon, and the rest of them. She had visited with them all throughout the ages; treading even down into Neolithic times when man was but a neophyte to this world. And there had been many, and she knew the scent of each and every one of them, and yet, no such scent existed here. Not in this house. Not in this dragon.
Could a new Magus have come to replace me? she thought. And she reached into the dragon’s breath seeking an answer, and the answer came back, No. But a Magus had been here all the same.
In life, she had walked beside Simon the Clerk. He was the Magus she had replaced upon this world, but not until she had become a full Master herself, and during the time she knew him she had feared him. She had expected him to kill her at any moment, denying her her birthright and take it for his own. He had tried, but he had failed. Had Simon now returned, embodied in this little home, this snarling, vile dragon-thing? She breathed deeply, analyzing the essence, and again, the answer came back, No.
What about a Pretender? Could a Pretender have unleashed this thing? It was possible, she knew. She had once met Aleister Crowly, and she thought him capable of such dreadfulness, dead or alive, but he was quite insane, as all Pretenders ultimately are. So again, the answer was, No. No Pretender could have manufactured such a disciplined, colorful, and shiny thing as that that sat before her now.
Mia came upon the house with her eyes narrowed. It was good that no traffic opposed her on the road or came up behind her because the dragon upon the weedy lawn had all of her attention now.
As a girl, she tutored under Francis Barrett. Barrett had been a Pretender and the visions that had come to him during their time together drove him slowly mad. Her presence sped up the process, she knew, and so she left him before he went completely insane. She thought of Barrett now. What explanation would her teacher give to the presence of a Magus when no known Magus could be found? For Barrett had always had a passion for logic and sought it whenever and wherever he could during his more lucid periods.
A Magus unknown is still a Magus, he would have said, and if not a Magus of the present or the past then perhaps a Magus of the future? And why not?
Mia sighed in realization. So narrow were her eyes and so tight were her lips and so concentrated and so penetrating was her gaze, her sigh escaped her lips like boiling water from a teakettle.
And the dragon upon the lawn whistled in reply; it came to her as a vibration. And there was nothing thrilling about that vibration. It was discordant and jarring, and came in alternating pitch and cavalcading tone, as if it were a piano falling down a stairwell; the sound shook the effervescent spell of protection she had placed about her before leaving the safety of her home.
Wickedness loomed from the dragon’s clapboarded, sightless eyes. Coarse and eel-like the whole of it slithered to see her approach. Mia gasped in surprise, for the thing was still sleeping. Its sharp armored scales tore into the reedy, tawny lawn tearing it into heaped, furrowed leavings. Its slithering plates clattered and jangled. A cacophonous burst of sound shot into the porous ether, startling Mia in her trance, for its metallic rattle came in answer to her gasp and sounded like a whisper of delight. Mia shuddered because of it.
She parked across the street from the house and sat there assessing it. She was not afraid. She had never been afraid. For nothing on Earth but Ben’s cancer had ever given her true fear. The dragon was not death, though death clung to it dearly, shrouding its sagging frame like an Armani jacket, dressing it well, for there was old death here and new death, too.
Mia took a long, deep breath and drew the sign of the Cross in the air before her.
She looked at the two cars in the driveway. Under what amounted to nothing more than a covered porch there was a black BMW, behind it, almost at the curb, a small yellow Honda sat like a lump of melting butter under the unrelenting sun. The Honda had seen better days, for it was as faded and as chipped as the house. The contrast here was the shiny BMW. Black and slick, smooth and sheen, enameled like toffee, it did not belong here. It must belong to the lawyer, executionerofthewill, Mia thought, it was the car Ben had told her about; he and Jerry had driven it the day before.
Mia shut off the ignition to her car and closed her eyes. She spoke a spell into her car’s dying conditioned-air and a cool mist leached from out of it. It had no color but Mia saw it white and she wheeled it gently, gathering it about her fingers, she wrapped it about her head as if it were a shawl. And for a few minutes, she twirled and fiddled with this spell-woven halo, thickening and whipping it with her fingers until it became a truly wearable object. She wanted to go about unseen, both to the people of this neighborhood and to the hungry dragon sitting upon the tawny lawn before her. She hoped the newly woven cloak would keep her that way. It had been a long time without magic in her life and her fingers felt swollen and clumsy as she fitted the gum-like fey pelt over her head; she could not be sure if it would work. Magic was sometimes like that, but as long as the dragon slept, she would have no problem here and invisibility would be all the magic she would need.
She was wrong.
In absolute silence, she emerged from her car. She looked about. The street was silent. She thought to cloak her car also, but realized that such a spell could take her many minutes and she did not have that kind of time. Her shift at the hospital began in less than hour—she had little enough time as it was. And so, like a phantom, she stretched-out across the street toward the dragon-house pulling any nearby shadow with her to keep herself fully hid. Trees, houses, fences–their shadows made good cover, and Mia stole their quintessence as if it had always been hers. They complained loudly to her, but Mia ignored them, and upon reaching the shade of the covered porch, she released them all gladly. She was so out of practice the effort required for such a simple invisibility spell had drained her almost to exhaustion. She leaned against the black BMW wheezing and panting, glad for the shade of the covered porch.
And catching her breath, and looking about to see if she had been seen, the enormity of the dragon’s presence above her suddenly fell down upon her and she staggered heavily against the car and crashed to the concrete floor in total emotional exhaustion. And, for a moment, she lay there next to the black BMW doing nothing at all. She was conscious and yet unsure of what had just happened to her. She was overweight, yes, and it was a very hot day. Her Earthly magnitude could easily have accounted for her fall, but had it? There was Evil here, yes, but also Good, too; and neither Evil nor Good had ever touched her in such a manner. Perhaps there was more to this dragon than her third eye had shown. A touch of the Grail perhaps? But if so, then it was only a touch, for whatever was here remained barely visible to her, and not knowing the color of that touch she could only imagine that the rushing, thumping, coursing pulse of this house hid some other power.
She watched as the dragon’s scaly belly wormed, lifted, and wound about above her. Its white-hot confidence was a marvelous thing to behold and Mia could only lie upon the cool concrete floor and stare up at it and wonder. Whatever this dragon might be, it was definitely it, which held her pressed tightly to the ground. She tried to rise, but could not. In desperation, she twirled her fingers, moving very carefully from her left forefinger to her left pinky; she recited the Tetragrammaton, and as she proclaimed the magic words into the underbelly of the beast, its pressure upon her lifted.
Using the BMW as a crutch Mia pulled herself up and looked about. There was no one in the street. And judging by the unbroken thick hum of the cicadas and birds in the trees round the neighborhood, no one had seen her fall, and so no one was coming to help.
She peered cautiously through the outer gum of the dragon—it was a screen door. Inside she saw a kitchen. On the kitchen counter was an open purse. So, someone was here, after all.
She called back the shadows she had stolen earlier, and again, wrapped them tightly about her. The screams and groans from their owners she ignored completely. When one gives up their quintessence, either voluntarily or involuntarily, they are gone forever unless the pity of some greater Magus intervenes. And because these recently acquired things belonged to her now, Mia took them without any thought to the protesting cries of dismay from their rightful owners, and that in itself was a sign her rusty powers of magic were fast returning.
She was surprised to find the kitchen door unlocked. Though, had it been locked it would have made no difference to her. In her past, she had unlocked far sterner doors than this one. And closing this one quietly behind her, she entered the dragon’s mouth and stood upon its tongue. Silently, using her third eye to guide her she looked about carefully, seeking out the kernel to this dark and hoary dragon-house thing.
And in doing so, because Mia sought its heart, the dragon recognized her presence once again, and Mia grew suddenly ill as the weight of the dragon’s gullet descended once more upon her.
Confidently now she mumbled the Tetragrammaton, but this time moving across her fingers in reverse order. The heavy weight of the dragon’s belly halted in its descent and hung there, just a few inches above her head. She smiled. Her magic was billowing now, it returned as if in flood. Too long had it been absent in her life and the thrill of its return was exhilarating. Her skin prickled at its electricity. It arced in and out of her body and then back in again as if it was a porpoise leaping for joy.
She called out into the rooms beyond the kitchen.
“Hello? Is anyone home?” She needed no spell to determine if there was any mortal thing here. And the absolute silence that greeted her query confirmed that the house was indeed empty. She moved to the first room. It was a small dining room. The house was Open-Plan and the little dining room was no more than an alcove that opened into a larger living room. Beyond that, a small tiled entryway exited immediately to the front door. To the right of that an L shaped corridor led away to the bedrooms.
The air conditioner was running and it gave the dragon its breath. Ben had told her that I paid to keep the house in good order. He had told her that I refused to rent it or sell it, and as she stood in the dining room, she did not wonder why. For she knew its physical representation to the real world was that of a ratty, little shit-hole. Yes, it rattled loudly with ghosts, any fool could see that, but she knew that I knew of the dragon about her, and now, as she stood there, she wondered about me. Who exactly, she thought, is exnzpat?
Mia shivered where she stood. Her big, dark eyes rolled in their sockets right into the back of her head and now only the whites of them showed. She was in full trance and she lifted her head as if using her physical eyes for sight. And her third eye saw no living thing in the stomach of the beast. If exnzpat was here, then where was he? And whose is the purse upon the kitchen countertop? Ben had not mentioned a woman.
She sniffed at the air. Her wide nostrils flared as they pulled the smells of the house into them. The first scent she touched upon was Ben’s. He had been here, and so had Jerry. She recognized him too, but their presence was overwhelmed by the cigarettes they had smoked here and she expelled them from her head in disgust. A sudden and overwhelming anger swept across her: Ben smoked too much, and Jerry did nothing but encourage it in him! It would definitely kill Jerry and soon too…, but not Ben. And thinking of Ben her anger slowly softened… she needed to refocus. Her lapse in concentration had given the dragon quarter and she felt it shift and sway above her head menacingly.
She stood very still beneath it, gauging its presence, and filled her mind with the spatial nature of all her eye could see. She smelled the perfume of the woman, simple, unadulterated. An uninteresting creature, but for one thing… she stopped suddenly and looked up.
The dragon shifted, distracting her. She smelled the man, executionerofthewill. Ridiculous, extravagant, arrogant, and youthfulness, these were the words that came to her mind, but she knew they could have easily been prejudiced because of Ben’s description of him. Mia knew that enchanted testimony worked best with all emotional ties severed. She needed push her love for Ben aside; keep him at a distance if she was to be successful in her investigation here.
Once again, the dragon shifted, and Mia refocused.
Ghosts had walked this house once, but they were no more. Who or what had exorcised them she could not tell, but definitely, she was not the first of her kind to be here. There was a rank horror here too, one that seemed completely solid, and it hung there before her roving eye like a hanging carcass upon a hook. Mia needed no magic to deduce that horror. She, like most people on the East Coast of the United States, had read in the newspapers of this house and the horrific murders that had occurred there the year before, and those of the mother and child back in 1976. But Mia’s eye could not detect the pheromonic scent of murder. Instead, and she frowned, her big face, ruby black, and as smooth as a grape, crinkled into that of a dried raisin as her eye examined the ancient air about her. It was sacrificial magic! But of what type she did not know.
Without warning the weight of the house lowered. It touched the top of her hair that the hospital made her tie into a bun.
Mia knew of no murder, no sacrifice, or no spirit that could touch her hair in that way, and her flesh crawled upon her neck despite the mighty weave the Tetragrammaton had emblazoned about her.
Cabaliftic Art, of which she was Master, had no answer for her. She searched her memory and came up wanting. This house was not like a dragon. It was a dragon! It exhaled and inhaled, breathing exactly the way a real dragon should breathe. She felt its fire. Mia knew that dragons did not exist but it did not matter, for in an instant, her tightening, crawling skin became absolute. Her mind raced and her heart quickened, and she realized she was experiencing what normal human beings called terror.
She bent over, away from the dragon’s touch. She smoothed over her hair, shying away from the house’s invisible claws.
Mia knew now she could not control it, and the heaviness above her head was thickening, expanding, growing: the dragon above her head seemed to be waking!
Mia did not linger. Its weight above her now was becoming stupendous and far beyond her powers to control. She must hurry…
From the newspaper’s account, she remembered the house contained three bedrooms. It was a small house and her imagination need not wander far.
She skirted quickly across the living room floor, keeping close to the walls with the foolish notion that the walls would somehow keep the ceiling up and away from her hair. The room was bare but for a few tables. In the corridor, next to the master bedroom, a table stood, blocking her passage.
At three hundred pounds, Mia was as much an obstacle as the table was, but she was strong. She easily dragged the table into the living room and pushed it aside. She went back down the corridor and stood where the table had been. The house came down upon her there, and she gasped at its ferocious touch; its fiery breath scorched her hair and she felt her mind begin to swim away from her. She mustered all her inner powers and called out one mighty spell after another.
Hunched now, bent like a cripple beneath the dragon’s weight, she looked up. There was a trapdoor in the ceiling. But it was more than that, she knew. It was a Thin Place. They were rare, she knew, and she reached for it to feel its essence. She was barely able to breathe, the quintessence of the dragon, its heat, its strength, were all but suffocating her now. She checked off the Tetragrammaton once more upon her outstretched hand, calling aloud the ancient Jewish Runes right into the dragon’s throat.
Mia was a big woman, not only in girth, but also in height. At six foot, her rhyming fingers, punched into the hotness of the house that was slowly collapsing round her. She wove her bubble of safety anew, and in it, she almost brushed the trap door with the tips of her fingers. But the dragon pushed her back, trapping her where she stood.
Suddenly, she had a revelation. This is not it! This Thin Place was not the kernel she sought. The heart of this dragon lay elsewhere. And she looked about her. Suddenly a hot, orange light filled the corridor. Its brightness and heat built to that of the surface of the sun. It was as if the roof of the house had suddenly ripped from its joists and Mia, bare and naked before the universe, was suddenly exposed.
She screamed in pain, shielding her third eye to protect it from the majesty of what it saw. Her physical eyes she did not shield, for they saw only the dimly lit corridor about her physical self, and she used them now to move away from the trap door. The Thin Place above her was not the key. It was not for her, and Mia quickly withdrew her hand and the dragon relaxed somewhat because of it.
Adjusting the spectral membranes of her third eye to help protect it, she walked into the light using her real eyes to guide her. There were no more obstructions in the corridor to block her path, and in a small utterance of faith, she thanked God for it. She looked down at her feet as she walked and happened to glance at her watch. Damn, she thought. She would be late for work!
She licked at the air as she moved, curling it and twisted it into a small ball, and combining it with her spit, she tucked it under her tongue for assessment at some later, safer time.
There was nothing in the master bedroom, and so she moved down the corridor, following the light. And despite her great wisdom and knowledge, she could not shake the feeling she was moving deeper and deeper into the effervescent, palpable heart of a real dragon.
Mia was conscious of her protective weave slowly unraveling as she went. Forced back into her cripple’s hunch, she stumped along the corridor as if carrying a load of bricks upon her back.
The first of the small bedrooms held nothing of interest, but the last bedroom, the smallest of the house, it…, it was the kernel she sought. And standing before its closed door a long column of magic swept, unintentionally, from out of her mouth like vomit. She was in real spiritual pain now, but also its presence upon her mighty Magus-self burgeoned into real physical pain.
Crippled, both in the real world and in the divine world, she crouched before the door. For there, in there, the burning, technicolor heart of the dragon lay, it was the beating heart she sought.
Mia, stooped over like a crouching animal, called out to her Magus King, Jesus, for the strength to enter.
And as she stood there muttering prayer and incantation upon incantation, the little room glowed orange with the source fire from which Wormwood was fueled. It pulsed and pumped, stoked like a smithy’s furnace, the starry wind that kindled it rose and fell to the very metronome that was God Himself, and because of it, tears rolled down Mia’s cheeks without check.
Mia put her big hand on the door and pushed—-and it burned…
Molten Magnesium flowed into her hand like lava; it burned at her, licking immediately at her massive frame like that of a happy dog. Fire poured into her eye as if it were water from broken dam. She staggered forward and the momentum of her physical weight carried her into the room and toppled her like a tree under an axe man’s blade. She lay In the middle of the room, and seeing its chance, the dragon fell upon her.
Spread-eagle upon the floor, Mia gasped hopelessly for breath. She was like a little fish in a net, floundering. The dragon sat upon her back and drove the breath from out of her chest. For it was He, the arrow of Wormwood. For it was He, that pierced her strange quintessence to the quick with His mightiness. For it was He, whose feathered tail, beginning in 1976, blasted through space and time, to become a nose hanging a million years hence. It was He, the dragon who was Wormwood, who tied Mia to the bedroom’s bare, wooden floor, killing her.
Mia, stuck in trance, muttered the Tetragrammaton in chant. She sung it the way the wheels of heavily laden freight trains most often do, for her prayer had become a thundering roar now. Suddenly she saw me. Now dumb, her glazed third eye stared, its spectral filters fluttering out of control; they saw me asleep at Becky’s side.
And she stared at me in wonder. And as the embers of our fire died, so too did she.
Terrified for her, I snapped open my eyes, and instantly she was gone.
* * *
An embarrassing silence fell between us, but not Lilith who pretended to ignore Becky and me, all the while allowing Lincoln to leap repeatedly up and down at her. She grabbed at his big paws and made a little waltz in the snow with him. But between Becky and me, the silence was very real and it felt as cold as the air about us did, and the worst of it, I knew Lilith watched us with interest. I could feel her eyes upon me even though she continued to play with Lincoln.
Snow whirled about us, but it was not snowing; rather, I saw, it was windblown snow from the mountain above; it filled the air with a gray gossamer haze that tumbled, rolled, and changed with the sporadic rhythm and beat of the mountain wind that came down upon me like a knife against its cutting board.
I shook the flakes from my hair and brushed them from my shoulders. The effort was pointless. It did not help that I was soaked to the bone from the swim I had just taken. I was freezing!
“Exnzpat, you had better go to the fire and be dry,” Lilith said with an unmistakable smirk pasted to her lips. “Your woman will make you warm.”
I stood there for a moment, taking it all in, and when I could stand the cold no more I rushed to Becky’s little fire.
It was a cave of sorts, winding back into darkness for perhaps only twenty feet. Inside, the temperature was considerably warmer, but not much warmer. Its walls were smooth as if brushed clean by some ancient ocean, for I saw little curled shells littering the cave floor. They crunched under my bare feet, making me dance, hurting me.
Becky continued to ignore me, and so I continued to pretend to explore. She had lit her fire at the mouth of the cave. Above her head, a large slab of granite jutted outward from the shear, mountain rock. Without any visible means of support, it hung above her like a porch-covered roof. It was perfect cover for her little fire. Smoke billowed outward and away from the cave, and sucked into the blowing snow it became one with the quiet gray world out there; its winding, curling passage reminded me of the river had I just left and the willowy, beating branches of the Muppet trees that had been marching steadily toward me just moments before.
Becky kept her back to me; she remained closed and as silent as whatever ocean it was that had once washed in here, and I suddenly wondered why I had come, and finally, when the cold became too much for me I went to Becky. She stoked the little fire with an animosity that was palatable, refusing even to look up.
“Umm…,” I said, unsure, and after a moment, Becky rewarded me by saying, “Your clothes are wet. Take them off and give me those fish.”
I went to the back of the cave to undress, and feeling rather stupid about it, realized I had nothing to replace my soggy clothing with, or to dry myself off with for that matter.
Becky called to me again.
“What are you doing? Bring me those clothes and come and sit by the fire!”
And when I came forward, shyly naked, she exploded.
“I’m having your baby! Bring me your damn clothes, now!”
I squeezed out the last of the water in them and brought them to her.
Self-consciously, I sat down on a smooth rock next to her. She continued to poke angrily at the fire without looking at me.
“I don’t see what Lilith sees in going about naked? It’s quite uncomfortable,” I said, hazarding a joke.
Becky, not amused, said nothing. Instead, she took my clothing, spreading them round the fire to dry.
“We’ll need more wood, and soon.”
“Yes,” I said, seeing a small pile of dry branches near the cave wall.
I rubbed at my skin with my bare hands, drying my skin the best I could. It would take some time before my clothes would dry and I wondered if I could sit here this whole time naked before I froze to death.
Lilith called to me from the snow.
“Exnzpat, come and fetch wood with me. Becky has sent me on this manly errand, but I’m quite sure I’ll need your strong, firm muscles to help me.”
“Oh, my God,” muttered Becky under her breath, so low that I barely heard her, for Lilith had battered her eyelids like a star struck starlet when she had spoken.
“I…, I don’t think so. I’m not dressed for it.”
“Exnzpat! Oh, my God. Just go with her! Get out there and bring me some damn, dry branches. And do it fast if you don’t want to freeze to death. There’s a small forest round the other side of the ridge… she’ll show you…”
I hesitated and then looked at the dark anger in Becky’s face and decided I was probably safer out in the snow with Lilith and Lincoln than in here with her.
And so I went. And damn it, it was cold! I don’t think I’ve been colder in all my life. I was completely naked and the gusting snow seemed to come down harder the moment I stepped from the safety of the cave.
I followed Lilith and Lincoln round a small rocky prominence of ice and exposed granite. And turning the corner of the mountain the wind almost stopped me in my tracks. Its coldness impinged upon my skin, passing through me as if I were an open window. I gasped in protest; my only salvation was back in the cave with Becky or ahead in the thick, little wood with Lilith and Lincoln.
The wood grew within a natural bowl set against the cold mountainside rock. Above it, through the swirling snow I caught sight of the shear granite mantel that was the mountain. It went straight up into the sky as if it were unbroken wall, disappearing into the cloudy, ice mist above. The damn thing reminded me of a tombstone; and once I thought it, I couldn’t shake the idea from my mind. The only thing that was missing from it was my name carved upon it.
We were up high, and the little copse of trees seemed to be the only vegetation up here. It clung to the mountainside as if in desperation, for it nestled in the only cup of shelter this side of the mountain had to offer.
I watched Lilith and Lincoln go ahead of me. They faded into the tree-line, and I hurried along to catch them up. As I went, a mighty gust came down from above, dousing me in snow, and when it cleared, I caught a glimpse of the valley below the mountain.
I saw my friend, the slow moving sun. It rolled leisurely along the rim of my dinner-plate perspective as if it had never left me. It was dimmer up here though, probably because of the raggedy shadows cast by a vast range of mountains that stretched away to the southeast.
Directly below me I saw the river and its winding tributaries. The valley was a far wider expanse than I had imagined from down below. It was a tapestry of rock, pasture, forests, water, and islands. I could not see my island: the island with the lake in its middle and the bridge that crossed over top of Gomorrah, but I knew it was down there somewhere. There were many other islands down there too, and I fancied I saw a sail shifting between them, but it could just as easily have been a snowflake in my eye. I could not see the ocean or the foothills that lifted the Dias up above them, but out along the far horizon I recognized a shimmer of deeper blue reflecting off Wormwood’s paler blackish sky. How high up the mountainside I was I could not tell, but it was high enough to give me pause as I hurried along the narrow, icy path toward the little wood.
The wood consisted of a mix of pines and oaks. The needles of the pines hung cold and limp from the weight of the snow upon them. The oaks, their bare branches, smooth with ice from some recent storm clung to them brightly. They glistened like painted fingers in the weak light that filtered through the gray flurry of the unruly, anxious sky outside.
I looked for Lilith and Lincoln’s footprints, but they disappeared into the mix of dirty ice, blown snow, fallen leaf, and tawny pine needles that littered the forest’s floor. There were many felled trees and branches lying amongst the living wood too, all of it frozen, and all of it silent and still. In places, I saw branches piled in large heaps as if pushed together by giant Beavers, and I wondered at this, for they were not natural formations.
Above me, the trees creaked and groaned under their load of ice and snow. It was dangerous to be here and I looked about for Lilith and Lincoln. Had Lilith not told me to ‘beware of the forest?’ Yes, she had. Though I had the distinct feeling that this was not the forest she was referring too. Nevertheless, I kept my eyes up. Many a fool had wandered into a forest after an ice storm and then been found dead under a fallen branch or toppled treetop.
I went to the nearest deadfall. This pile of heaped branches was much like the others about this silent woodland floor, neatly stacked and orderly placed, I wondered who put it here, for it was all a little too regimented to be Beavers.
I looked, and found plenty of dry branches beneath the deadfall. I pushed my way in and dragged out some choice firewood when suddenly Lincoln came up behind me dragging a huge branch in his mouth. I turned, and right behind him, came Lilith.
I was surprised to see she had a pile of branches in her own arms. Reading my mind, she said aloud, “Well, I would hardly allow you to freeze to death.”
She smiled her best, full-bright, enchanted and bedeviled smile at me, and in spite of Becky’s anger and my need for warmth, I returned it.
“How is your body?” she asked.
“Will you not let me warm it with mine?”
I laughed, and it felt good to laugh, for it broke the crisp chill of my breath. “Oh, Lilith, I would if you could, but I think Becky might have something to say about it.”
“Oh, poo on Becky. She is so boring. And it is not even you she loves. It is one part that fool of a boy, executionerofthewill, and that other part that is you. You are everything she dreamed of in men. But you are not real. You are a man in the body of a boy—-she is only angry because she knows it and is confused because of it. She loves that thing that I created, and despising me, she despises you. Yet, she loves you too.
“It is a common lament in women.” She added this last part reflectively.
“I…, I kind of figured that out for myself,” I replied, and immediately I felt guilty for saying it.
“But it cannot remain…,” Lilith replied. “But no matter what, exnzpat, I shall always love you.” And not looking at me she looked to Lincoln and petted him between his ears. Lincoln grinned and chewed happily on the giant branch hanging comically from one side of his mouth.
I leaned away, pretending I did not hear and began to pile sticks in my arms.
“You know the secret to Wormwood now. Together we could travel to more private climes and leave our bossy companions for a time.”
“What of your quest for the Mirror-heart and of mine for the Dark Tower and Scudamour?” I asked.
“To be alone together in this busy universe; it is not a crime. Is it not your dream, also?” She bent provocatively, leaning sideways so as not to drop her branches and continued to pet Lincoln’s big head. His tail thumped heavily in the snow behind him in delight.
“A little dance about the crossed-bones and we could be off together, alone at last.”
I blanked my mind, shutting her out. Truthfully, it sounded like a great idea, but I owed Becky…, I owed Becky something… though because of the freezing air about us and I think the numbness in my limbs had soaked into and permeated my brain, I could not remember what it was I believed I owed Becky.
“You can never be with her again, you understand this?”
Side by side, with Lincoln behind us, we trudged toward the forest’s edge. Our bare feet crunched upon the snow and prickly pine needles as we went. My feet were so cold it was as though I was wearing lead boots; I felt nothing down there at all.
Lilith sighed beside me; and inside my head she said, “I cannot keep you in this body indefinitely, exnzpat. Soon I must set you free. Adam commands it.”
“Since when do you do as you’re told?”
“It was the bargain I struck for your resurrection.”
“And the Magus?”
Lilith fell silent as we came to the tree-line, and then, when clear of the wood, she said, “You must face the Magus without me, but not in this body. It will be in your own body, in your own world, and as you really are. Either convince the Magus to release her man unto Adam’s care or kill him or kill them both.”
“It seems wrong to me. I am not a murderer.”
“But you are.”
And I knew she was right, and as I pondered this truth, she said an odd thing.
“Ask her about her father, exnzpat. She is useful yet. Becky can school you the shallow ministries of these genetic mutations. She may have some purpose other than the obvious.
“For I know you wish to be saved.”
We said nothing more until we came to the cave. We dumped our wood beside Becky who said neither a good word nor a bad word to us, though she did think to thank Lincoln with a hearty ear rub and a few kisses on the nose for his good work, but to us, she simply pointed back the way we had come. Together Lilith and I turned back to the path, and I thought to myself, doing my best to keep it to myself and away from Lilith’s mind, how wonderful a warm, sandy beach and Lilith at my side would feel right about now.
Once in the wood again, Lilith surprised me by saying, “We are close to the tower here.”
I looked about expecting to see some sign of brick and mortar.
“Not here, exnzpat, a few more steps round the crossed-bones and we will be there.”
“What? Then what are we waiting for? Why not just go now?”
“No. You may know Wormwood now, but you have not learned the true secret of the crossed-bones. The bones are stacked, like pancakes at a breakfast table. To take shortcuts through the stack we must travel with our feet to find the next proper one. You three will need rest before we move on, and that is true.”
“Yes,” I replied numbly, knowing she was right. The firewood I had gathered in my arms slipped and fell to the ground. I could barely feel my feet, hands, or arms now.
“Who put all this wood here?” I asked, reaching down to retrieve my fallen load.
“Oh, giants, I think.”
I stopped. “What?” And reading my mind she said, “Oh, yes, quite dangerous, I’m sure. This is probably their firewood that we are stealing.”
“We’re not stealing,” I said.
With my load retrieved, I readjusted it and looked about nervously. The snow continued to blow and the thought that giants might be lurking somewhere nearby gave every tree a treacherous feel to it that it did not have before, and so, duly motivated, I hurried on behind Lilith and back to the cave.
Night did not come. But about the time I felt it should come the sweeping flurries of snow from above died down, but no sooner did they die, then a wind from the mountain below swept up an even wetter, thicker, and heavier barrage of snowflakes. The world round us disappeared once more into a dismal, gray blanket of opaque bleakness.
We huddled before the fire. We did not speak much. Lilith seemed to drift in and out of a trance, her eyes, vacant and staring through the fire and into whatever lay beyond, appeared dead and like that of an animal’s. What she saw I could not say, for she had closed her mind to me.
Becky nudged me and together we looked at her. Becky widened her eyes, bug-like, imitating Lilith’s stare. I stifled my laughter and together we wrapped ourselves as tight as we could in my newly dried jacket. The air was still cold, but with Becky there beside me, and a smile upon her face, I didn’t feel its bite as I had earlier in the day.
I tried to explain the navigation of Lilith’s ‘crossed-bones’ to her before we slept, but Becky was only half-listening. She told me that Wormwood was weird enough to begin with, and doing the two-step about a point was no weirder than any other part of it.
“I was worried about you. Well, you know who I’m talking about. I followed him because I thought he was in trouble. I…, I really don’t understand any of this.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, and meant it. “I don’t understand any of it either.”
Before I slept, I flexed at my left hand where the Muppet Tree had stabbed me. With the warmth of the fire and Becky beside me my body was slowly thawing, and my hand began to hurt once again because of it.
We fell asleep in each other’s arms, and with Lincoln snoring heavily beside us, I felt completely happy and completely safe. The fire burned warmly before us, and Lilith, seeming to need no warmth or comfort, was slowly becoming lost in pain. Before I slept, I felt it come creeping into my mind. She tried to shield it from me, but in those half-waking half-sleeping moments before sleep takes us, I could feel it in her. The heel of her foot was beginning to color and the skin beneath it beginning to rot once more, and I regretted my recent bout of humor with Becky. Whatever Lilith really was, she could feel pain, and because of it, I loved her for it.
It was morning when Mia’s eyes woke me. Transfixed as a Cobra’s, they locked upon mine and remained there in her powerful grip. Her third eye crawled across my skin like an insect. It explored and probed me, touching all but my heart. It attempted to know me.
I snapped open my eyes, waking, and breaking her spell.
I pushed myself away from the fire and stood, regretting it almost immediately, for the bone chilling coldness of the mountain had not departed while I had slept. And as I stood there shivering, part from fear of Mia, and part from the icy blast of mountain air upon my skin, and not knowing which was worse, I saw that Lilith and Lincoln were gone.