The Magus on the couch remained catatonic, lost to the past and to her charges in Wormwood and too, her sister in the Shadow Lands. Lester on the bed, almost dead, and we: Maxwell, Lilith, Becky, the Chaldean (for that was his race), and I walked out from under the living umbrella of the Hive Mound of the Chora.
Mia, the Magus-She, gasped aloud, and coughing, drew back from her England and saw the pattern clearly before her eyes.
It was that which had brought her here to begin with: Ben! Her curiosity aside, she saw the net unfolding and Ben floundering in blood at its center. And suddenly awake and aware. Her essences and powers flooded back into her like an overfull river and pushed the crushing pain of her heart aside.
Ben. Ben. It began with Ben and not the ghost in her kitchen.
* * *
When we left the hive nine Chora detached from it and joined us. Together they made a protective shield around their queen. The big guards loped ahead and behind Maxwell and appeared ready for battle at every quarter. The Chaldean had not yet spoken, but once away from the hive he began to take interest in his surroundings and the company that kept him.
“What manner of man are you?” he asked me. His voice was surprising soft for such a rough, coarse giant.
“Me? I’m just a man, nothing more,” I replied quickly, remembering Maxwell and her soldier’s sensitivity to sound.
He stared at me as we walked, and after a moment said, “No. You are two things. One man and one other… someone else.”
I did not know how to answer this, so I said shortly, “If you like.”
He said nothing more.
We crossed the beautifully trimmed lawn and entered the cultivated forest that encircled Maxwell’s strange home. The widely spaced trees were a comfort after the openness of the lawn and I glanced back at the writhing mound one last time before the lush forest brush hid it from sight. I suddenly had a feeling of loss at not seeing it. I wished I could return to it one day and lose myself once more in its vivid, dancing net of colors.
We continued in silence; the only sound was our feet brushing against the needled, feathered bed of pine leavings that lay on the forest floor like a hairy, cushioned carpet. There was a path here of sorts, and I saw that before me that it was beaten down; walked by either whatever animals lived here or the Chora themselves.
Soon the forest of tall, thin pines gave way to rougher, coarser ground. Common, untidy trees blocked our path and the going was harder. And following Lilith, we left the path and made our way across a rocky escarpment and came to the edge of nothing.
The nothing was the edge of a cliff a mile high looking out across a desolate plain of what appeared to be an endless marshland spotted by small islands of densely packed scrub and gangly, hanging trees that, in the distance, appeared to be a type of willow.
The sun rotating the horizontal rim of Wormwood was tiny, pale and white. It was not a happy sun, but a sad, dull one, for its watery luminescence seemed to be biding me a farewell of sorts. Of shadows, there were none, and an overwhelming sense of loss took me just then as I stood staring out upon the dimly lit wilderness.
To one side of where we stood, standing alone upon the cliff’s edge was the largest oak tree I had ever seen. And just like in those black and white photographs of loggers in the American North West, not ten men but more like twenty men, holding hands, would barely encompass this goliath.
And Lilith, she went to the tree, and without a word and not looking back, began to climb it. As she climbed, I saw that the whole of her right foot was black and coarse with the beginnings of her change.
Unsure of what we were to do we stopped to watch her climb. Maxwell reached out to me and rubbed at my shoulders.
“exnzpat, you are always welcome in my home.”
I looked up at her. I felt tears smart in my eyes at her kindness; the salt in them stung my face. I touched her back, “I don’t want to go. I want to stay.”
“You are tied to the First Woman. You must follow her until she is ready to release you.” I looked away from Maxwell’s big, sad eyes to Lilith’s pink body as she climbed the old oak.
The oak, knotted with large boles and rough bark was a natural ladder. She was almost twenty feet into her climb when she spoke to me in my head. “Tarry no longer. Bring the others. Becky must go first, the Chaldean second, and you last.”
Maxwell’s arm stiffened on my shoulder. A startled, confused expression spread across her face locking her features in place. The Chaldean too, looked surprised. He looked first to me and then at the climbing figure of Lilith, now almost obscured in the great tree’s brush that hung down from its lowest cradling branches.
After a few moments, the big man’s and Maxwell’s shock at Lilith’s mind transmission subsided and Maxwell stroked at me once more. “Ah, please don’t answer her. That, the most ancient and first form of communication is worse to us than the other.” Her arm gently pushed me. “Now go, friend exnzpat,” she stroked. “She waits.”
I moved along the cliff edge to the tree, mindful of the terrible drop the edge offered.
I led the others to the base of the tree, and when I looked back, Maxwell and her troupe of soldiers were gone.
* * *
The Magus melted into the couch and then leached once more into Wormwood. Much had happened in her absence. The golem had obeyed her spell of deception and led the man into the cave. The man saw it as her cabin from a past romance. His mind sufficiently dulled, felt little surprise at his imagined surroundings. But the golem was beginning to fail.
The Magus sat quietly in Lester’s head. She studied the man and listened to his conversation with the Eidolon through the Eidolon’s ears.
The man was young. Certainly, he was not the man who fathered three children, two of them teenagers. This man looked to be in his late twenties only, and yet the spirit of the boy trapped in the golem recognized him as his father and so the Magus knew it to be true.
“Hospital? Which hospital?” the man asked of the Eidolon. And the Magus heard the tinny, hollow sound of Lester’s voice reverberate from the throat of the Eidolon and go out into the stone cold space the cave offered.
“This one, silly.”
But the evasion of the Magus in the Lester’s head stopped her midsentence, for the Eidolon suddenly saw the cave and the memory of the real cabin that lay in the head of the Magus. The interruption confused the girl, for she saw both places at the same time. The Magus quickly recovered and hid the cave and the knowledge of the hospital bed from the Eidolon’s mind, but still these things lingered.
The man said something silly in response. And to give her time to think, the Magus had the Eidolon focus on the three stones she had fabricated as hot chocolate and reach for the nearest.
“You have to be careful with hot things. You might get burned,” the Eidolon said.
The man took his own mug, nodded, and said that he agreed. And like hypnotized guests of a stage magician the two drank from the stones they thought to be mugs of hot chocolate.
“We’re not in the hospital anymore are we? We’re in a cave on the side of a gi-normous mountain, arn’t we?” the Eidolon asked.
The man smiled and said, “I’m not sure, but that sounds right, but I don’t remember this cabin being here.”
Spells, no matter how good are never perfect and the human brain is a cunning and perceptive thing. The Magus waved an invisible hand and whispered an enhancing charm to repair the quickly failing dam of illusion.
“Below the mountain I saw a giant river with tons of islands. I bet there’s pirate treasure buried on at least one of them. We could find it if we looked.” It was the Eidolon who spoke, and the Magus knew the charm had repaired the dam. But the golem was another matter. Its purpose served, it was beginning to melt. It was coming undone and its tether to the Shadow Lands weakening. The Magus quickly saw into the fading synapses of Lester’s brain. They too were slowly shutting down—the effect of death. It was ruining everything.
The man, distracted by the golem, began to study it with concern and suspicion.
The Eidolon spoke and the man, confused by her words and trapped by the charm, asked about Lester’s parents.
“Treasure? Maybe, but I think it’s more important that we let your mommy and daddy know you’re okay before we go hunt for pirate treasure.”
The Eidolon bit her lip and looked about the cabin. “I guess. My dad won’t care, though. He went away.”
“Yeah,” she reached out and touched the man’s hand, “…and brace yourself, ’cause I’m goin’ to swear,” she said. “My mom said he was chicken-shit, and that’s why he left.”
“He left? Where did he go?”
Shrugging her shoulders the Eidolon reached for her hot chocolate again. The Magus knew that Lester’s last memories would be her most painful, that they should come out now was not a surprise to her.
There was a sudden outburst from the golem. It said, “My mom’s dead.” The entrapped soul in it seemed about to depart.
The Magus took full control of the Lester’s Eidolon and had her stand and walk over to the grey, collapsing thing. She needed to touch it. A spell as powerful and as complicated as a golem needed a physical presence upon it. And transferring a tiny part of what was left of Lester’s life-force into the creature gave it a semblance of substance and firmament once more. It stilled and remained whole.
The man, entranced by the spell of the Magus, but also too by the melting golem, only stared. But he must have seen something. Anger flared in his eyes and he began to stand. The Magus muttered a short spell and held him down, keeping him in his place. The man, confused and disoriented struggled to rise, but could not. The Magus felt the charm break in him—he was beginning to question his imaginary surroundings. She cast another charm and he, as if coming under the influence of morphine, began to calm and relax once more and settled back upon the stone he thought to be a couch.
The Magus released Lester’s Eidolon to her own musings and heard her say, “This is a pretty place. I saw the river, the islands, green forests, and mountains that just seemed to go on forever. What’s the name of this place?”
“Wormwood,” the man said.
“Ugh. That’s an ugly name. Is it named after the plant?”
“I don’t know. Maybe, I think it’s a herb, but I’m not sure. I don’t know much about plants.”
“How did you come here?” asked the Eidolon.
“A lady brought me,” he answered.
Wormwood, now that was interesting biblical reference the Magus thought. And the nude in the snow—she had brought him. Whoever she was, she had a power unlike any the Magus had known. And this man—this physical presence of a man—was certainly not that of exnzpat and so could only be that of the lawyer, executionerofthewill. The Magus sensed nothing him, the body of him displayed no connection to the Shadow Lands whatsoever. He was whole and perfectly complete. One soul stitched into the body of the other so seamlessly… And to her horror, the Magus suddenly realized the answer to the riddle was not here, it had never been here. …Ben and Jerry at the hospital with…
The Eidolon began to jump up and down in her seat excitedly and the Magus knew it was time to go and let nature take its course and return her Taken Things to their rightful places. The Magus slipped quietly out of Lester’s head and with great difficult rose from the couch and sat beside Lester on the hospital bed and, taking her hand, watched her die.
It was not a slow or easy death, for as Lester faded she momentarily revived, gasped and rolled her head from side to side in pain. Salvia ran from the sides of her mouth and Mia, using her forefinger, wiped the spittle from her little face. And in her head as Magus, Mia saw the Eidolon and their connection snap together just then in the Shadow Lands, joining with Lester in the final victory of life.
The white soldiers, at last the pyrrhic victors overcame the little girl and then lost the war with her final, dying breath.
* * *
I sent Becky first. Still, she said nothing. Only, when I prompted her and told her what I wanted her to do did she protest at all, giving a single, simple groan of reluctance when she realized I expected her to follow Lilith up the tree.
I stepped back, mindful she was wearing a dress and not wishing to look up it as she climbed. The big man, the Chaldean, looked at me and, recognizing my embarrassment for what it was, let out a hoarse guffaw. He said rudely, “And yet little man, you have no such qualms when it comes to the naked one.”
I stared hard at him and did not reply. Becky reached the first of the lower branches. There appeared to be a small platform of detritus and fauna there. Star shaped oak leaves hung from above and bushy ferns grew about a bole of thick branches there.
“Are you okay,” I shouted up to her. Her head appeared from out of the ferns. She gave me quick nod and then she was gone.
“You next,” I told the Chaldean.
He grinned merrily at me. His smile looked surprisingly charming on such a hard-beaten face. His teeth were straight, well kept and bright. He had a nice smile.
“My name is Bartholomew.”
“My name is Bartholomew,” he repeated mildly.
I hesitated, remembering Lilith’s words in the catacombs of the hive.
“My name,” he raised one manacled hand to his chest, “is Bartholomew.” The noose that the Chora had used to bind his wrists began to glow just then. It was a warning that he was attempting an escape. Maxwell had explained how the manacles worked, “If they begin to shine like a yellow sun, then he is plotting, devising, or about to break his bindings.” I looked down at his feet to the rope there. It too shone as yellow as any sun I’d ever seen.
I stepped back a few paces and said, “Go on. Get up there or I’ll push you off this damn cliff.”
His smile waned. He did not fear me, rather, I feared, he would wait for a better time. The glow about his hands and feet diminished in intensity and fell back to their base, dull golden color.
“Come on… Bartholomew… get up there. We don’t have all day.”
I caught a quick flash of light in his eye, and a surreptitious smirk crossed his face as he went to the tree and began to climb it easily with his big hands and feet.
When finally he disappeared into the ferns above only then did I follow.
* * *
The single tone of the heart monitor rang out and then came the repetitive beeping of the drip bag as its electronic brain realized that its flow had stalled. And at these things, Mia climbed from the bed. She shut off the sounds and left the room.
The old nurse, still trapped under the spell of malaise, woke immediately when Mia touched her shoulder.
“She’s gone,” was all Mia said to the nurse. The nurse simply nodded and rose from her station. Together they went to Lester’s room to prepare for the coming of the mother.
* * *
There was blood everywhere. Jerry was shouting for help. Tears streamed from his face as he sat upon exnzpat’s body with the soul of executionerofthewill trapped inside.
Executionerofthewill screamed; his words incoherent. He struggled to breathe. He was confused and stunned. The big man astride him had broken two ribs when he slammed him to the floor and now, sitting atop him, the crushing pain seemed too much, for Jerry’s weight was squeezing the very life from him.
Ben lay back against the wall. He had fallen from his chair. Sticking up from out of his chest the long needle of wood I had plunged there stood up straight. There was a slight curve to it. It looked as cruel and as sharp as the beak of a crow. Blood bubbled from out between Ben’s lips. He was not dead. Not yet.