Sunday, October 23. 2011
Will’s voice faded into the distance, carried off by rattling carriages. Orpheus bestrode the platform, the slightest of hitches in his gait. He waved Angela off every time she tried to help him. The bare outcrop of concrete could barely be called a station. There were no turnstyles, no buildings and no staff. Only a single post sprouted from the mass of grey and perched upon it sat a clock. Angela looked beyond, to gravelly slopes that led into the maw of the mists. The desolation felt almost beautiful.
“Cheerful,” she announced.
“For the dead,” Orpheus replied, eyes fixed upon the clock. The second hand skimmed round, inflicting a noisy ticking upon the station. He limped toward it, metal in hand.
“So do we wait here or try to find the dock?” asked Angela, eyes upon the roiling fog.
Orpheus said nothing or rather nothing distinct. He lifted his hands, lips voicing a language Angela could not place. The metal spun from his fingers, webbing about itself. Angela watched him weave. When he was done an assemblage of cogs clicked erratically. It didn't match the clock's time at all.
“The dock,” he said.
She couldn’t help herself. “Couldn’t you have just brought a watch?”
He grunted. “Time works funny here,”
“Then how does building a clock help?” she asked flatly.
“Will gave me train time. Syncing this with the station clock'll give a point of reference so that, no matter what time we end up in on the road we'll keep to the right time once we get there,”
Angela jumped off the edge of the platform. She barely felt the impact and the gravel did not displace. She called back up “That made so little sense it killed me,”
They descended the hillside. Orpheus regained strength as they moved and soon he was able to outpace Angela. He did not forge ahead though, instead walking with her as they made small talk. She mentioned a play she'd wanted to see. He told a story about a courier job that went hilariously wrong. They talked and walked until the station was long lost to the mists. Despite the landscape Angela felt almost normal, like she was back on her way to work. All the while Orpheus' clock ticked, counting away the minutes like years.
Grey waters pooled at the foot of the hillside. Like everything they stretched off into the mists without a visible horizon. Indeed Angela knew it could not be the sea only by its stillness. A wooden jetty squatted by the shore, illuminated by a lamp post.
“Well, here we are,” she said uncertainly.
The post looked much like the one at the crossroads but held none of its warmth. People did not come down here much it seemed.
Orpheus grunted. “Five minutes. Not bad,”
“What?” Angela gave him a disbelieving look.
Orpheus held up his cog collection. It showed only five minutes passed since they had last seen the station clock.
“You spent that long just complaining about your landlord,”
Orpheus shrugged. “Maybe we spent an hour walking. But it's only been five minutes here,”
“You're really going to have to explain that to me,” Angela insisted.
“It's magic,” Orpheus quipped. “I ain't gotta explain shit,”
They lounged upon the jetty, Orpheus fiddling with his devices. Angela gazed out across dead waters. The only other thing to look at was him.
“So when do you stop following me around?”
He did not look up but she saw his lips curled upward.
“As soon as I get to meet her,”
Orpheus raised an eyebrow. “Who?”
“The girl. The one you’ve come all this way for,”
“Girl?” He snorted.
Angela cocked her head. “Oh? I didn’t think you were… that way,” She grinned.
“You don’t look like you could handle a fight,” his eyes rose to meet her grin. “But you slugged it out in the station,”
Angela shuddered. “That was… I’m not doing that again,”
“Me neither,” he said ruefully. Then, as an after thought “Thanks,”
Angela found her feet extremely interesting. Orpheus stood, stepping before her. Slowly her eyes travelled up his figure. She found his face and her lungs heaved for a breath that was not there. He looked into her and spoke softly.
“What happened to your gun?”
She blinked. “What?”
“Gun. I can’t have you blithering about without a weapon,” he turned away, reaching into his pockets. “Damn it. I don’t even have the bolts for a pistol. Anything you're trained in? No wait, stupid question,”
Angela folded her arms. “Your women are all experienced killers?”
Orpheus sighed. “Forget it. Let me whip up something,”
He set the cogs to one side. Drawing metal forth he added some stray ingredients from a pouch.
“Besides, we still have an hour to kill,”
Angela looked at the clock. She swore it ticked backwards.
An ugly caw broke the silence. There was a crow perched atop the lamp post. Angela peered at it in fascination. Orpheus scarcely noticed, still engrossed in his forging. Coal wings stretched out and the crow dived. Angela ducked, the bird swooping overhead.
“Dead! Dead!” it shrieked, flitting out across the lake into the mist.
“The fuck?” said Orpheus, looking up.
“Nevermore?” suggested Angela.
A boat loomed out of the mist. It bobbed towards them without the water even rippling. The boatman was hard to make out, guiding the boat in with a length of pole. At the head of the boat squatted the crow, treating them to a mad stare of one beady eye. Angela glanced at the clock.
“They’re early,” she commented.
Orpheus snatched up the cogs, crushing the device into a pocket. “Be careful,” he breathed.
The boat came to a dead stop alongside and Angela realized its captain was not indistinct but hidden. A great black cloak swaddled its features. It lifted its pole slightly and a black cowl turned toward them. There was no face beneath, only blackness.
Orpheus took a flying leap, crashing onto the boat. He turned back to offer a hand, only to find Angela already aboard. He scowled, first at her then at the boatman.
“We want to see the ferrymen,” he said.
The boatman held out an open palm. Angela felt a flash of fear. Orpheus shook his head. “When we get across,”
“Sharp! Sharp!” cawed the crow.
Angela gave it a curious look. “Caw caw?”
The boatman dug his pole into the water and they took off.
A damp chill infested the lake water. Angela let her fingers trail through the water several times. It left a tingling in the tips. Orpheus had begun his forging again, sharpening a dagger length of steel. He did cast his eyes over her a few times but never did he voice the thoughts within. The boatman was no less intractable, utterly focused on its work. Angela couldn't guess whether they were male or female. The pole sluiced through the water, leaving red-brown stains in its wake.
“Greater the expectation, longer the journey,” croaked the crow, from its position at the head.
Angela was intrigued. “Are you a live crow or a dead crow?”
The black head whipped round and it leered at her. “The waters of the lethe steal memory and mind,”
Angela jerked her fingers out of the water.
Waves slapped the boat. Angela gripped the seat beneath her. The mists pressed in around, whirling despite no wind. Orpheus stopped his work, eyeing what little horizon they had left. “Maelstrom?” he asked quizzically. No one answered. He leaned over the side. A hissing made him jerk back. The crow hopped from foot to foot, unsettled.
“Waters churn, bones stir,” it chanted.
Even the boatman seemed disturbed, the boat picking up speed.
“What was it?” Angela asked of Orpheus.
He shook his head.
A hand burst from the waters. Angela leapt with fright . It gripped the side, joyriding as the boat skimmed the waves. Orpheus drew steel. With the words of a spell he struck the wrist. The hand came free. A rotted arm was briefly visible, tumbling back into the waters. Orpheus dislodged the hand too. The boatman's pace increased. They made but a few minutes in the choppy waters, fog closing in around them. Angela clung to the bottom of the boat, her stomach insisting she was sick. Skeletal shapes loomed from the murky coils. They whispered and muttered, pointing and waving. Angela made out some Spanish, but most was gibberish. Orpheus hung on beside her, the boat spinning as the lake's ferocity increased. The crow cawed with alarm, then took off. It was quickly lost to the darkness.
“Fuck!” roared Orpheus. His lips moved but the din of the dead drowned it. The boatman abandoned its post, staggering the five steps to Orpheus as if they were miles. A thin hand stretched out. A swell, greater than all the rest tipped the boat sideways. Time froze. They hung in the air, Skeletons cackled at them.
Orpheus screamed “On the other side!”
The boat rolled underneath and they collapsed into it. The boatman raised its pole. A rusted scythe blade graced the end. The skeletons howled as it swept them away. Plunging its scythe into the waters, they drove on into the storm.
The waters were calm by the time they reached their destination. The storm has simply died as quickly as it came. There, stretched out of the lake like a drowning man was a building. It stood upon no land, stone meeting the surface and plunging below. Stone was all it was, ancient rock hewn and set against the water. It looked utterly decrepit, older than any tower or station before. Slowly they drifted toward an opening in its craggy side. A slanted hole in one wall, let light into a cock eyed hall. Orpheus measured the gap but the boatman stopped him. The thin hand stretched out in front of Orpheus. He grunted, dropping something into it. Gold glinted. The boatman tucked the coins out of view. Orpheus scrambled into the hall. The boatman held out its hand to Angela.
“Um, I don't have any-” she began but it took her hand and helped her ashore.
“Thanks,” she said, the thing still clutching her hand. As it let go she felt a strange sensation, she felt lighter all of a sudden, as if a burden had been lifted. The boatman tucked something into its robe.
The boat drifted or perhaps the building did. The gap between them widened until, with some reluctance the boatman put its pole to the water again. Angela watched it depart, half-listening to Orpheus curse.
“There was supposed to be a guide! Damn it! What were those directions again?”
Claws dug into her shoulder, making her yelp. She slapped at it and hit feathers. The crow squalled, taking off in alarm. It hovered in mid-air, head twisting to look her over.
“Don't do that,” she said.
It cawed at her.
“Well... I suppose it's better than walking,”
It settled on her shoulder, lighter with its grip. She caught Orpheus staring.
“What?” she challenged.
He thrust something in her direction. It was a short spear, made entirely of metal. She turned it experimentally. Even though the haft was a rod of steel it did not bend or even bear much weight.
“Wow, thanks,” she breathed. The crow cawed with approval.
“Might come in handy,” He shrugged and led the way into the dark.
A lantern swayed down the corridor. Orpheus looked a cave explorer delving through rock caves. The corridors were almost bare, only windows of stained glass broke the scenery. Light from the lantern flowed into them, illuminating scenes of merriment and mummers of all kinds. The light drained away once they passed, and those figures were lost to darkness. Angela felt the movement of claws. The crow shifted into view, croaking at her.
It motioned with its beak but she wasn't sure what at.
“It's not actually intelligent,” said Orpheus without looking back.
Angela bridled “It talked,”
His head shook. “It's a familiar. Its owner spoke through it,”
“Is this another one of those things you won't explain and then get annoyed when I don't know what you're talking about?”
She heard him snort.
The honeycomb of corridors had no end. They had a destination though. Angela saw light up ahead, and they approached until it embraced them. It was an antechamber of some sort, with smaller doors leading in. Set to one side on its own was a large imposing doorway, beyond which more light showed. Fluorescent bulbs flickered in the ceiling. A table stood in one corner. Papers and curios adorned it, stretching out to plaster the wall behind. The sight was vaguely comforting, some small mark of life. The crow left her shoulder, landing to peck at a porcelain mask.
“Siklos waits,” stated Orpheus.
“And the Sandmen lie dreaming,” recited the crow.
Angela stared at it. It leapt the table, settling once more upon her shoulder.
“Indeed they do,” a voice said.
From a doorway stepped a figure. His robe was much the same as the boatman's. Where the boatman's identity had been shrouded this man did not hide his face beneath a hood. He looked young, too young for the scraggly beard on his face. Two grey eyes stared dully at Orpheus, without a hint of surprise.
“I am Nophys. I see you found your way,”
Orpheus met the indifference with his usual irritation. “There was supposed to be a guide,”
“There was,” The bearded man nodded in Angela's direction. She half-turned before the crow croaked.
Orpheus frowned. “I'm here for passage to-”
“I will speak with you beyond,” interrupted the man. He beckoned Orpheus toward the door.
Angela made to follow but Orpheus held up a hand. “I'll be back in a minute,”
Angela recoiled. “What is this, a boys' only club?”
He merely shook his head, slipping through the doorway after Nophys. Again she followed. This time the crow jumped in front of her. It cawed loudly and fluttered over to the wall, landing on it. Not on the wall. Steps. There were steps, set so close she had thought them patterns. Angela touched the stone, peering up a narrow staircase. The crow took flight, rising into darkness. She climbed.
She emerged onto a sloped balcony. Empty rows of bare concrete descended into the hall, stopping at an old railing. The hall was ill-lit, spot lights hung in the rigging formed pools of light. Great curtains hung at the end of the hall, concealing a stage. A man embroidered onto the fabric yawned, seemingly poised to nap. Angela padded toward the railing, eyes adjusted to the gloom. She made out the pair, stood before the stage. Strangely a shadow sat, right in the centre of a spotlight's glare. It did not change as Nophys stood over it, indeed it rippled when he bent down and touched it.
“Three questions. Those are the rules,” intoned Nophys. His voice carried despite the softness of tone. Darkness pooled under his eyes and Angela was struck by his resemblance to the man woven into the curtain.
“Before we start,” Orpheus' voice always filled the room when he spoke. “The girl out there. I need you to make sure she gets back to the station,”
Nophys peered at him oddly. “Three questions,” he repeated, as if they'd gone off script.
Orpheus paused in thought. “Are you one of the ferrymen?”
“Yes,” Nophys looked bored again.
“Is that the Nihil?” Orpheus gestured to the black pool.
“Yes. It goes to the heart of the Labyrinth,”
Orpheus drew a deep breath. “Will you take me safely through it?”
“Yes, we can bring her back-” Nophys paused, then his mouth dropped open. “Wait, what?”
Orpheus studied the well. “Yes or no?”
“Yes, of course but weren't you supposed to-”
“Good,” Orpheus drew himself up. “Now about the girl. Is that extra?”
“Wait just a second,” Nophys pleaded. Orpheus frowned, his gaze casting out across the hall.
“I'll need to ask,” stammered Nophys. “About the girl I mean,”
He took a step back, withering before Orpheus baleful gaze. He fled toward a side door and was gone.
Angela sat, petting the crow. It had been mere minutes since Nophys had disappeared. Or so it had felt. She wondered where the theatre had come from. Perhaps it had been built by ghosts. Maybe it was a ghost. The thoughts were more entertaining than the one lurking on the underneath. The girl out there. Get her back to the station. Orpheus was fiddling with one of his devices below. After all he'd said, he still wanted to leave her behind. A beak poked her leg. The crow looked up at her. Its black eye reminded her of someone and she touched its beak suspiciously.
“Are you watching me?” she whispered.
The crow drew back in alarm, hopping away from her.
For the briefest instant Angela puzzled over its reaction. Then a hand clamped itself on her shoulder. She rose in surprise but made it only halfway. Somebody slammed into her, shoving her against the railing. The old wood snapped and Angela twisted in mid-air.
There was a loud crash. Two people slammed into the floor and rolled apart.
Orpheus marched toward them. Angela stood woozily. She felt shaken but surprisingly alright. Her attacker had cushioned the fall. They lay a few meters away, curled up in pain. At that moment the curtain rose.
“You were supposed to stay outside!” yelled Orpheus. He waved the metal edge at her.
“Orpheus,” she bleated, staring past him wide eyed.
“My name's not-” he glanced back and the words died away. The stage was set, a road on a busy street. The shapes of buildings framed the backlot, a prop car sitting stage left. There was only one actor though. He wore robes like the night and from his hand a rusty scythe hung. The boatman charged.
Metal screamed. Orpheus met the charge standing. Amazingly the boatman bounced off and was forced away. It brought its scythe in a low sweep, only for Orpheus to block that too. With curt words he dismissed the anchoring spell, steel shaping into a hook. The two opponents sized one another up.
“Knew it was a trap the moment he ran,” Orpheus growled.
The black pool began to bubble.
Angela retrieved the spear. She had few illusions about her skills and settled for kicking her grounded assailant.
“Ohh...” they groaned, in a distinctively feminine voice. Then they rolled over and Angela looked down into a mirror. It was her on the ground. Her clothes, her face, her voice.
“You stupid idiot,” hissed the Angela on the ground.
Angela levelled the spear at the fake Angela. “This is some joke,” she said tightly.
“No, it's not,” The fake Angela gave her a cold look. “And I don't have time to explain,”
Angela's ears pricked at Orpheus' yell. She risked a glance toward the fight. The boatman had Orpheus in a headlock, scythe scattered on the floor. Orpheus jammed an elbow into its midsection.
“Forget him,” The other Angela was standing now. Her eyes were black. “And listen to me,”
“I don't know you and I don't care to,” Angela breathed, squeezing the length of metal.
The other Angela shook her head. “You wouldn't listen to me on the train either,”
“I'm not listening to you now!” Her other self's sentence sunk in. “Wait, you were on the train?”
“I've been with you all along,” said the other Angela. “I'm on your side,”
“You pushed me off a balcony,”
“I took the fall for you,” the other pointed out.
Orpheus' roar interrupted them. He was slamming a fist into the boatman's head over and over. The boatman took it stoically waiting until he paused. Then it raised an open palm and dark strands assailed Orpheus' eyes. He staggered back, blinking blindly. The boatman picked up its scythe and glided toward Orpheus. Angela's made up her mind. She ran at the boatman, spear point levelled. It didn't even pause. A lazy sweep of its scythe crumpled her to the ground. She struggled to her feet as Orpheus recovered and just barely caught a blow aimed at him. He glanced to her.
“Don't move!” he snarled, spitting dust in the boatman's hood. It recoiled and he pressed the advantage.
Angela didn't particularly notice. Her side burned and when she tried to rise her feet disobeyed. She propped herself up on the spear and looked at herself with some surprise. A gash ran her side, right through the clothing. Grey essence leaked and dissipated in the air. It was the car all over again. The other Angela grabbed her as she slumped, helping her up.
“Didn't I tell you?” she chided.
Angela recognised that voice now. Black and cloying, she'd almost missed it.
“They let me out of your head,” mused the other Angela. “You're your own worst enemy after all,”
“You wanted me to go with Sully. Why?” panted Angela. She tried to lean away from her other self.
“I just want what you want. To stop fighting,”
Orpheus still struggled with the boatman a thousand miles away. It was the black pool that drew her attention though. It looked more like a well when she thought about it. A hole in the ground from which was dredged all the earth's darkness. The other Angela patted her hand.
“Come on,” she whispered. She dragged Angela toward the well.
Angela felt numb, her wound oozing essence. The black water bubbled over, flowing across the tiles. The hall was washed away, eaten up by the black wound. Water flowed around Angela's ankles and her feet sank. The black eyed her tugged relentlessly, coaxing her toward the wellspring. She tried to pull back but she was tired. Shadow Angela held her up, standing in front of her. In those black eyes she saw herself reflected. The vision caught her off guard, filling her mind until all she could see was herself framed against the theatre. Other Angela let go. But she didn't. It was Angela herself who had let go. Her hand was stained, as if with ink and pain no longer stabbed her side. She stood in a body marked by shadow as the injured Angela stepped back, regaining strength. That Angela looked at her with pity. She reached out and it melted away. The spear fell into the water and was lost.
Time to go home. whispered the other Angela. The other that was her.
Her footing was lost to the sludge. Orpheus was a million miles away, shouting like he always used to. He faded like a memory as she sank. There was a whimper of protest but it was consumed by blackness. She reached for the spotlights so far away, as if the light itself could pull her back. Her chin touched water and she tried to hold her breath. There was nothing but Oblivion waiting.
Knives closed around her arm. Cold steel bit into her flesh and she cried out. Someone stood over her with his iron grip. The face was so fuzzy, like looking up through soup. There was a black snake coiled within her rescuer's breast and it snapped at her.
“Keep it together!” yelled Orpheus through the fog.
The boatman loomed over them. Through her eyes he was pure horror. The ragged cloak hung like a wreath of hateful nothing. She thrashed desperately, her struggles sinking her further.
“Angela!” Orpheus yelled. He stood firm, heedless of the danger. The scythe came down.
It clashed against upraised claws. Sparks flew as Orpheus twisted his grip. The boatman was driven to its knees, struggling to hang on to the weapon. Orpheus did not look up from Angela, spells falling from his lips. Her flesh cried out at the touch of living metal. This time when she struggled break away a chain clinked in the water. The boatman broke Orpheus' hold and stepped back. It brought the scythe down like a hammer, driving Orpheus to the ground.
Orpheus bayed “Fuck you,”
The murk gave way beneath. Angela tumbled into darkness, the nihil carrying her down. The chain went taut though and a pair of angry green eyes followed.
Display comments as (Linear | Threaded)
“It's magic,” Orpheus quipped. “I ain't gotta explain shit,” - Orpheus is a DM I see.
Huh! This installment is certainly intriguing! The start is a bit muddy and difficult for me to decipher. I don't get their conversation on the jetty at all.
But it seems to pick up quickly as they board the boat.
Enjoyable as always.