A broken rib is no big deal. Sure, it hurts like Hell, but three or more broken ribs hurt worse and, snapped and broken and freely moving under the weight and pressure of a 280lb man can be unpleasantly deadly. The man in my body struggled madly, and Jerry, angry and frightened for his dying friend with the giant sliver of wood sticking from out of his chest, fought executionerofthewill back to the cell floor to contain him.
My separated ribs floated freely and one penetrated my thoracic cavity. It sliced cleanly through the protective layers of fat and sinuous fiber shrouding my lungs and heart. Blood vessels exploded and blood bubbled liberally into my lungs. I was drowning, but of all this I was blissfully unaware, for I sat under a golden sun in a faraway time with a hairy Chaldean at my side.
Lilith was the first to stir, and standing shakily, she looked to Becky and then to Bartholomew and me sitting under the waning sun. If the Chaldean was surprised at her change, he did not show it. Lilith went to Becky in two strides. Her new reptilian toes tore rents in the fresh grass as she went. She bent over Becky and prodded her with a single talon on her left hand.
Fearing that Lilith would hurt her, I rose up from Bartholomew’s bearskin and went quickly to them.
Lilith heard me coming. She straightened and turned towards me. She was easily ten foot in height now. The beak that was her mouth opened and closed quickly with the sound of “Lincoln” hanging in the air, but it faded quickly as her yellow, pterodactyl eyes dilated and then recognized me for who I was.
“exnzpat?” she asked, disappointed.
“Yes, Lilith,” I replied. “It’s me. How are you?”
“Confused, but I will be myself soon again.”
I reached her and wrapped my arms about her in a tight embrace. Her skin felt like that of a frog’s, wet but dry. Not slimy, it was more like coarsely woven silk that had once been wet and then hung under a hot sun and had wrinkled.
“What is wrong with your woman?”
“I don’t know.
“Ask him?” I thumbed my hand in direction of Bartholomew who had remained sitting on his bearskin. “He did something to her. What I don’t know, but she seems to healing herself.”
And it was true. While we had waited, I had checked on both Lilith and Becky many times, as they went through their respective transformations. The cuts and bruises on Becky’s skin were slowly healing – disappearing before my very eyes – just as Bartholomew had said they would. And for it, I was grateful, but there was more too. It made me uneasy. Something seemed different in her. Becky had a pleasant disposition and a fair serenity in her that one seldom finds in people. I remembered her voice in court: soft, compassionate, efficient. Yes, she was clearly interested in executionerofthewill and her presence, only because she worked for the prosecutor, was necessary, but at the same time, even though she never addressed me directly, I heard and felt an air of pity and an absence of horror of me that I felt from everyone one else I encountered during that terrible time. And even though my eyes were bandaged because of my injuries I heard, or rather I felt, much more in her voice than simply stringed words and phrases. And now that I knew her, she was as I had imagined her: short, bob-haired, pretty, kind and yet somehow absent. She seemed to me different from other women I had known. Her tone and inflection changed noticeably between prosecutor, police witnesses, and other clerks of the court while she did her business, but when she spoke to executionerofthewill, well, I could tell she was someone special, and executionerofthewill – possibly the biggest dummy I’d ever met – barely acknowledged her. She saw something in him though, but God knows what I don’t know.
I remember nudging him and saying, “She likes you.” To which he snorted in derision and shuffled his notes embarrassedly.
And now here she was. I stared down at her in the grass, amazed. The change in her I did not understand. It was not simply the physical disappearance of cuts, scratches, and scars from her skin, but also that benevolent innocence imbued in her had vanished, too. She was a virgin no more, but I do not mean this in the physical sense. As her skin healed, that change within her became elastic and as wearable a mask. She now looked feral to me, or better, to put it simply, downright cold and dangerous.
“She is lost to you exnzpat,” Lilith said. Her voice sounded like a rasp pulled across a steel edge.
“Yes. I see that,” I replied. “But what is happening to her?”
“She comes into her own now, I think.” Lilith put her arm about me and led me away. We walked over to the Chaldean, who, still seated smugly upon his bearskin robe, glared at the two of us. He did not rise.
“Chaldean, Uranus’s child will soon wake, but as pro-Magus instead of the child she once was. She will try to kill you or ally herself to you. I task you however, to do neither. I need you alive. I need you to lead us to your tower. We have business with your master there.”
Bartholomew sneered and said cruelly, “You jest, naked one, I can best her in war. Yes, I am a drone with only partial powers, but kill her I will, and do not fear, an alliance will be unlikely. You don’t tell what to do in my world!” and he spat on Lilith’s clawed feet.
I backed away quickly. Lilith leaned down and, catching Bartholomew by his neck, pulled him smartly to his feet as if he were no more than a naughty boy caught writing profanity on a schoolhouse wall.
“Uranus kneels before me, beast! This is my world. My crimes are many. Snapping you in two would be a pleasurable diversion from my many tasks and crimes. Uranus will not miss you. No one will miss you.” Bartholomew struggled in her grasp, bringing up both hands to try to break her grip on his neck. At seven foot tall, he was huge enough, but not huge enough for I saw the tips of his cloth boots tiptoeing in the grass as he searched for solid ground. The bindings of the Chora tangled about Lilith’s arms. These too seemed distraught at the rough handling of their prisoner, for they began to flash an alarming red color at his struggle to breath.
After a breathless moment and with his face blue, Lilith tossed him to the grass in disgust. He hit the ground with a thud that reverberated in my feet.
“You will do as I say!” Lilith said, but not with her voice. She used her mind and her phantom words resonated in both Bartholomew’s and my brain as if they were an errant ball loosed from its bearing race. Bartholomew’s face was dark with hate. There was little the big man could do or say in reply. And staring at him spread-eagle in the grass, I laughed. It’s good to have bigger friends than he.
* * *
In the cool of her air-conditioned car Mia sat. The mist that had taken control of her eyes faded and she saw the bar rise. For a moment, she did nothing but stare stupidly at the open mouth of the dark parking garage and the warm light of the new morning and the fast moving cars in the street beyond.
The car behind her honked its horn. Anger flared her nostrils and she cursed. Beside her, the inaudible voice of her sister came: “Careful sister, careful. Ben needs us. I feel him coming and I have seen his Eidolon emerge from the darkness.”
Mia calmed, stifling her confused fury at the girl in the grass and the honking car behind her. She retrieved her card from the slot, put her car in gear, and drove carefully out onto the busy street.
* * *
When Becky woke, she woke immediately. Sitting bolt upright she looked about and stood. She stood with purpose, her facilities were intact and she marched toward us with purpose and business flashing in her green eyes.
I went to her. Her skin was smooth and fresh as if she had just come out from under a hot shower. Her eyes were cool but there, inside them, I saw a wildness that had never been there before.
I reached for her. She brushed me aside and, saying nothing, she removed my jacket and tossed it at me. I saw her arms, and like her face and legs, they were free from all injury and scaring.
She went up to Lilith and said, “I’m ready now. Let’s go. There is someone up ahead. He waits for me. I am ready to kill.”
Confused and shocked by her words I gaped. Lilith turned her big head towards her, and I fancied that her great, bony beak smiled.
“So, at last you have come of age, but Scudamour is not the Magus you seek. You will make war with no one unless I say so.”
“Who are you,” she shouted, glaring unafraid and unabashed at Lilith’s enormous, reptilian frame, “to tell me what to do, you… you ugly monster!”
Lilith gave a small squawk, stepped back, and with the back of her clawed hand swung it hard against the side of Becky’s head. Becky’s feet left the ground and she flew a good five feet before collapsing into a heap in the thick grass. She sat up dazed, holding her jaw in pain.
“Lilith!” I shouted. “Holy crap, what the…”
I ran to Becky’s aid and tried to lift her. A bruise the size of a grapefruit began to swelter on her cheek.
“Becky, are you alri…” was all I managed to say before she brought up her right fist up and slammed it into my groin. I gasped in agony, and went down in the grass beside her. Bright, spinning lights floated before my eyes. I remained conscious, but barely. Suddenly Bartholomew was there. He lifted Becky to her feet. She struggled in his arms, placing a few well deserved (I felt) kicks at his shins. He held her steady by her shoulders and took her blows well.
“Be still, sister. We cannot hope to overcome the naked one here. When we arrive at the tower, you, my brothers and I will kill her, and… and her little dog, too.” At this, he looked down disgustedly at me writhing in pain under his long, dark shadow.
There was a sudden, sharp emotional pang at the word ‘dog’ in my head. It came from Lilith. She stared at us three for a long moment and I felt a terrible misery emerge in her as she remembered Lincoln’s death. Saying nothing, she turned and strode off across the field of grass, her lilting, crippled gait casting bent and crooked shadows behind her.
I am not Childe Roland, and yet to the tower I go. What I would find there, I did not know, but I guessed it would not be anything good.
* * *
Mia, hunched over, leaned into the wheel; her fat seemed to encompass the whole of it. She did not speed, there was time yet and death was not an exact absolute, she knew. She thought of Ben only. Her memories of him, finding him half dead in the thirteenth tent buried beneath the actual dead and left to die slowly – he had been singing – and she had heard him. No, it was not a sound she heard, for the constant bombing from the front three miles ahead of the slowly, crawling hospital she worked in, was her constant thrumming companion day and night, its din encompassed all, but still, coming brightly to her ears between echoed thumps, she heard Ben’s song. It rang clearer and louder than any bomb ever did.
Ben sung beautifully as he died. His song was Glorious and only she heard him. His song was reticent and full of love. Surely, he was a fine young man who loved life as much as he did the creeping death coming for him.
Mia had searched the beds of the living. The hospital was all tents, twelve of them. They were huddled together like clustered beetles. And it was raining. It always seemed to be raining, and water struck the canvas shells in buckets, pounding misery into all that sheltered beneath them. The floor was plank and the red, Bordeaux mud squished up between the boards as she searched; mud, bombs, and the cries of “nurse” was a world she had know for a year now – and now this song – the first and only song she had heard here, rang true in the invisible ears of her head. His song was gold and it was strong. It called her forth, compelling her to find him.
By the time she reached the twelfth tent and no singer was found, she stopped, puzzled. For there was no other place to look but the thirteenth tent – it was part of the hospital but nobody, including Mia, thought of it as part of the hospital. The thirteenth tent was the tent of the dead. It was the one place nobody lived and certainly, nobody sang there.
The thirteenth tent was three hundred yards forward of their position, toward the front where the bombs came down. Soldiers would come, drop the dead there, and carry those who still lived those few extra yards to the hospital proper in the hope salvation really did exist.
Mia started forward. She did not cover her head and the rain freely down her hair and face. She did not care, for as she came closer to the place she felt the song brawny and golden. He called for an angel, but Mia went forward anyway.
* * *
Bartholomew led, Becky behind him, and Lilith and I, limping pitifully, came up behind them both.
Becky, none the worse from her blow from Lilith, stalked the big man like a wolf. Her short legs pounded the grass mercilessly, pounding the grass into submissive, bent stalks. She was changed; no longer the woman I knew, I saw hostility and a ridged determination in her person now. Her attitude bristled upon her skin. She glowed pale like a cold moon. She reminded me of a wax. Her change frightened me, for I did not know what any of it meant.
Each crest of the long, grassy field brought on another and yet another wave of carpeted greenery. It was endless. And I was thirsty and hungry; something I had not noticed in me while we journeyed in Wormwood.
And Lilith struggled mightily beside me. Her bowed legs and clawed feet were no good for this kind of thing, the stress on her body was terrible, for I felt the physical pain of it in my head. Her powerful self, weakened by the distance we had already traveled, made me nervous. I wondered if Bartholomew knew it. And in her mind, she struggled terribly. Her despair over the loss of Lincoln was inconsolably.
I told her stories of Lincoln as a puppy and growing large with my family. It was a distraction of course, and I was not sure any of it helped. A mind filled with grief at the loss an only companion, consumed with sorrow, is hopeless, and Lilith I found, was not so much different in regards to this human experience as the rest of us are. And with our thoughts and minds as comingled as a tossed salad, I was drawn in. It was an awful place to be.
There was an exhausting desperation to her grieving. It was frightening, for that absent objective presence, Lincoln, was so overwhelming. It mirrored my own grief at the loss for my family and dragged me down with her. Yes, Lincoln had been part of that family, but he was, after all, a dog. To me, people are far more precious, and yet, in Lilith’s mind I saw the same or worse in her anguish than I had ever felt in mine. In her mind, the scant four or so billion years of her existence was a beginning only. To find Lincoln so soon in her wanderings and then to lose him so soon in her wanderings and to expect to wander forward into eternity without him was an atrocious, cruel injustice. She was as broken inside, and without crutch, as she was crippled and hunched. The enormity of her sorrow I felt as an imaginary pressure sitting on my chest. It held me down and slowed me, trapping me to her ambling gait and devastated mind. My breath shortened, and I began to question at the air here. It seemed thick enough, but my lungs did not seem to appreciate it.
Onward to the tower, we struggled. In the soft grass beneath our feet, green grass snakes scurried and slithered away from our wavering tread. Ahead of us, marching boldly and assuredly into the orange glow of a cloudless, setting sun went Bartholomew and Becky. What they felt I did not know. What they saw ahead I did not know. Only, I knew, their passions differed, but in what way, well, I did not know that either.
Everything was changing. I wiped the sweat from my face. On my hand, I saw a small fleck of blood there. Surprised, I touched at my mouth again and found more blood. I wiped it away on my jacket. I said nothing to Lilith, for it was getting dark now. We crested one last wave of green and I saw, terrible and tall, the tower in the distance. It looked like a hole in the sky. It was black and, silhouetted against the vanishing sun, its blackness beckoned me COME!