The Ghost of things to come
I went up the tree and, taking one last look across the pallid, soup-bowl horizon of Wormwood, I saw it as dismal. Its flatness and smell of rotting vegetation from the vast swamp below seemed somehow now appalling to me after the glory of the hive mound. I looked away and pushed my way through the ferns and vines of the enormous tree to find whatever was hiding up there.
Wide branches the size of regular tree trunks had grown together to make a flat, woven raft on which it was easy to walk, drifting dirt had caught in its weave and from out of this grew grasses, ferns, and tall flowering plants. The flowers were not particularly attractive. They looked sickly, and from out of their gaping, mouth-like petals wept a pale, viscous fluid that looked poisonous. Only one branch was clear of them and so I made my way along it. There was a path of sorts along this branch and I decided that it must be right one. And after only a few yards I was rewarded with a brilliant, golden light creeping in between the fronds of the wide-splayed leaves of the old oak. I pushed the foliage aside and stepped out onto a pasture of green grass.
I was long past questioning how that it could be, how a pasture of grass could be here, but nonetheless, pasture was too small a word for what I stepped in to; it was an ocean of grass. A scintillating sea of greenery, and like a sea, it undulated, falling and rising in pure, green waves that disappeared into a distant horizon. The tree and its bushy grove were but a ship and the tree, still rising high above me into a profound, suspended, blue sky, a steady and reassuring mast.
Above me was a sun. It was a sun heavy and thick with syrupy golden, liquid light that fell all round me. And for one giddy moment I thought I might still in the hive mound of the Chora, for everything was three colors: yellow, blue, and green. The sun’s brightness hurt my eyes and so when I looked up, I immediately covered them in pain.
Shuffling forward and looking at my feet, I moved away from the tree and its bushy hollow that surrounded its extensive girth. Though, as mighty as the tree might be, it gave little shade, for the sun was directly overhead, but in this light, there was warmth, something that so far in Wormwood had not been present in the many suns I had witnessed. And I wondered, looking at the field of lush greenery before me, was I still in Wormwood? For the fishbowl-like experience of Wormwood was gone.
I heard voices on my right and moved toward them. “Hello?” I called.
“Over here.” came the gruff voice of the Chaldean. I looked up, winced at the light again, and looked away. I saw Bartholomew. He had removed his heavy bearskin and it hung easily over his shoulder. He looked like a rough roadside worker with a dirty T-shirt removed and hanging carelessly down his back.
The three were under the thin brim of shade that the tree offered, and I felt instant relief from the heat when I returned to the shade.
Bartholomew was standing in front of Becky. Beside them on the grass lay Lilith. She was in pain and the closer I came I felt her agony in my head. Her right leg was fully elongated and the reptilian creep wove cruel windings now all the way up to her waist.
“Where are we,” I said.
“Home,” Bartholomew answered.
“And where is home?”
He was silent for a moment and said, “Earth. Do you not know your own place in the universe?”
“Apparently not,” I said annoyed. “This is not my home. I’ve never seen this place.”
“My home, the tower of knowledge, is but a three hour walk behind the falling sun. That way.” And he pointed.
“If that is what you call it.”
I gave him a weary look but became suddenly distracted by the wounds Becky had suffered at the claws of the Chora, I ignored Bartholomew completely, and went to her.
Becky’s cuts and bruises looked as horrific as a car crash. The skin about the cuts on her legs was swollen, rich, and ruby purple, so purple they seemed to pulse. The deep bruising about her eyes was so grave she looked to be wearing a mask.
“Jez, Becky. You look awful,” I said needlessly. “We need to get to you to a hospital.” And then to Bartholomew I said, “Do you have doctors and medicine at this tower of yours, Bartholomew?”
“Medicine, yes, but this girl needs neither.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I replied incredulous. “Look at her.”
Becky leaned toward me and in a despairing, sad voice said, “He says everything I need is inside me. I don’t know what he’s talking about. But I really hurt.”
She had both hands wrapped about her belly in a pathetic attempt to protect the fetus growing there.
I wrapped my arms about her and held her in a long embrace. I was shocked at the heat emanating from her body. She was in deep fever. In my arms, she was as broken as a human body could be, devoid of energy and completely deprived of joy.
“Becky,” I whispered. “It’s going to be okay. I’ll get you help.”
“She is all the help she needs,” said Bartholomew in a haughty tone. “I am trying to help her see that, now step aside little man.” His voice was commanding, strong, and I hate to say it, but it filled me with narrow hope. Despite my distrust of him, I released her. Perhaps he knew something I did not. His hand fell on my shoulder and pushed me gently aside. I did not resist him… it was almost as if I could not.
* * *
The floor was sticky with Ben’s blood. The wooden blade of my bed poked out of his chest at an awkward angle, broken splinters had snapped against his chest bone at my plunge and, lifted by force of the plunge, had snapped upwards and pierced his neck. Blood spread freely across his white orderly gown, soaking it as if it were a sponge.
Over his sobs of rage and fear, Jerry could hear his orderly comrades coming to help. They did not have a key. One was in Jerry’s pocket another was kept in the office. He heard shouting and running feet. Someone banged a fist ineffectively against the door. The office seemed a million miles away. Jerry hoped they would be quick. He did not dare let the squirming man beneath him to rise up to continue his mad attack upon his friend. He shot a glance at Ben. His heart fell at the devastation wrought. Jerry’s fury for the man beneath him intensified. He squeezed down hard on exnzpat using all the weight and force his huge bulk could apply. He heard something snap. A rib. Good! Serves the bastard right.
* * *
Mia ran to the parking lot. The elevators moved too slowly and the stairs were much too high. Terror roared in her ears. How could she have been so wrong? A pattern is a net. A net catches – she had not seen that, but only because she did not know what is to be a caught thing. Magus observes, Magus directs, Magus controls; Magus is never victim or bystander. Magus is never caught!
Sweating profusely, she stripped off her uniform and flung it carelessly into the back seat of her car and, tossing her purse into the passenger seat, fell heavily into the driver’s seat and turned the ignition. The engine turned once and then died. Incredulously, she stared blankly at the dials of her car wishing it alive. She turned the key again and the engine exploded into life, startling her.
The employee lot was on the top floor of the hospital parking lot, an ugly edifice of concrete slabs attached to the hospital’s eastern wall. She peeled out of the spot almost missing a concrete pillar and then shot down the numerous ramps to the turnstile waiting on the busy street below.
* * *
Noon, Bartholomew had said. Well, it was hot enough. Very hot. Bartholomew took my coat from Becky’s shoulders. The bruising and cuts on her upper arms looked worse than her legs and face. Everything was brazen-blue and purple.
“No!” she snapped at Bartholomew and pulled the coat back to her shoulders. He let her take it back and I saw she was shivering.
“All you need, girl, is your mind. The essence of a great truth resides there.”
He lifted his hands. I saw that the manacles of the Chora did not shine. He was not trying to escape and so what was he…
“Hey!” I shouted, but it was too late. Bartholomew reached out with the finger of his right hand and pushed it hard against Becky’s forehead. It was not a violent push but Becky gasped when his finger struck her. Becky’s face scrunched like balled paper. She fell backwards as if he had just struck her with a cannonball. I sprung forward just in time to catch her. He had felled her like a tree. She was a dead weight and as lifeless as a corpse in my arms. Her eyes were wide-open. I stared at her horrified, for the light had gone out of her eyes completely. She looked dead.
“What did you do?” I shouted at Bartholomew as I struggled to set her gently to the ground.
The big man shrugged, reminding me of a giant, dark bear carelessly shaking water from out of its hair.
“Nothing more than helping her to help herself. When she wakes, she will be healed. She will find her way, I am sure of it.
“As to the naked one.” And here he turned to look at Lilith. “She is beyond me. There is legend of such a woman… and a man of your description. The knowledge you seek may be in the tower, but I do not know this for sure, but my master will know.”
I stood and stared daggers at him and said coolly, “And who is your master?”
“Scudamour. And I hope for your sake, exnzpat, he will know.” He turned away from me and walked some distance across the open field of grass. He spread his bearskin in an unhurried manner upon the grass and sat down upon it. Once seated, he called to me, “It will take some time, exnzpat. Join me under the sun, won’t you?”
I ignored him, knelt beside Becky, and smoothed her hair away from her deathly, ashen face. Her hair, so black, so beautiful against her pastel skin and that of the bright green grass below her head seemed to me to be the fan of a peacock. Never before had I seen her so beautiful. I put my ear to her lips, and yes, I heard faint, shallow breaths. She was alive, but that was all. I kissed her in the vain hope she would wake. Nothing happened. I sat awhile wondering what would become of her and our child.
After a while, when nothing at all changed with her, I left her and went to Lilith.
Lilith lay sprawled in the grass in an untidy heap. Her body, in the short time I had argued with Bartholomew and sat with Becky, had swollen and elongated. The lizard-like skin that entwined her like barbed wire now engulfed her breasts. Her right arm was beginning to grow at the shoulder, and her elbow had now bent backwards at an impossibly cruel angle.
Lilith kept her pain from me, but the vibrations of it writhing in her body I felt. I shuddered at how it must be for her. I knelt beside her as I had done Becky. I took up her left hand and held it tightly. And looking over at Becky, I knew that no matter how brief our encounter, I was not for her. We had come and gone. I felt Lilith’s fingers grip in mine. Not hard, and I knew that some conscious part of her knew she could break my hand, and easily. I began to cry then. And these were not the weepy tears of parting I had cried when leaving Maxwell and her troupe, but true tears of bitter sorrow for my strange, maligned friend. What God would inflict this perfect woman of all women with such wretchedness? And Lincoln was gone, too. That faithful dog that she had expected to share her eternal, miserable life with; his death, finite, I knew. He would not be back to comfort her. Lilith’s loneliness and sorrow became mine too, and I wept anew by her side.
* * *
Mia fumbled in her purse for her parking card and finding it, slammed it into the slot. Nothing happened. Perplexed and angry she shoved again, and again nothing normal happened. The bar did not rise. And just then, a misty, startled expression filled her dark eyes and instead of being in a hospital parking lot, she found herself standing in copse of underbrush that grew thickly about an enormous tree. She saw light and stumbled toward it. The world she saw was green. The parking garage, the street in front of it, and the noise of the city were all gone. She heard only the rustling of living leaves high above her head. A soft breeze blew gently across her face, cooling her temper. She was not afraid, for her surroundings were tranquil, but all the same, Mia did not like it, for she felt anything but tranquil. She steadied herself and shoved the pressing feeling of dread for Ben’s safety deeply down into her gut. She was suspicious only, and looked carefully about. Something had brought her here. A feeling of birth permeated her senses. A birth – a beginning of something she knew not what, but whatever it was it something she was supposed to see.
She stepped from the bushes and saw the pale form of a women lying asleep in the grass. And she knew immediately what she was here to see. She went forward cautiously and walked round Becky, not once but twice, just as Simon the Clerk had done her. Mia had a sudden feeling of Déjà vu looking at the girl. The dream that first night in Barrett’s home in England, Simon had come. She had been something he was supposed to see. And wearing the mask of a crow he walked about her sleeping form, watching her, analyzing her. He had seen but a small girl. His arrogance and power so mighty, he discounted her as a threat to him. Beneath his mask, she saw that he smirked. Foolish Magus. Very foolish and now long dead. She could not afford to be so mighty and yet… she snorted in derision looking at the woman in the grass. She was little more than a girl… as she had once been, and here she paused, thinking it through. Simon had been a fool, and she must she decided be careful, but despite these warnings to herself she could not help but let a virulent hatred flow out of her. Her own self-love filled her full, making her.
There were two lives in the grass, that without and the other within. There was a deception here and she suddenly felt uneasy looking at the girl. She was pretty, to be sure. And that alone was a power; an easy power over men, and it in itself would take her far. The seed of the Magus that permeated the woman in the grass was consummated, but not fertilized. If she could, Mia would have killed her then and there, but because this was a vision only, and the laws of the universe allowed her only two walks about the form of what was to come, she could only grind her teeth in anger and want. For Mia knew, to be fertilized, the seed only needed one last thing: to come for her as she had come for Simon.
A terrible expression crossed Mia’s face. It resonated down across her face like furrowed field of brown dirt and came to rest upon her partially open mouth. She turned to me. She knew me and I knew her, and she said in a cold, expressionless tone that hung cruelly upon large, vulpine lips, “Exnzpat, I’m a comin’ for you and when I get you I will kil you ded. And when I’m done with you, I be back for her.” And she pointed a single, crooked finger at Becky. She turned, walked back into the bush beneath the old oak, and vanished.
And for the first time in a long time I was terribly afraid. I gripped Lilith’s hand and held on. I never wanted to let her go. I held it until it was a claw and only released it when that claw metamorphosed into a bony fist of talons.