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Book Two of the Ferryman Pentalogy

by Wayne Kyle Spitzer

Copyright © 2017 Wayne Kyle Spitzer. All Rights Reserved. Published by Hobb’s End Books, a division of ACME Sprockets & Visions. Cover design Copyright © 2017 Wayne Kyle Spitzer. Please direct all inquiries to:

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“Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?”

—Edgar Allan Poe

Prologue | Aftermath

By the time they caught up with the larger pieces of wreckage from the ferryman’s gondola, they had moved downriver far enough so as to no longer even be in the same region; rather, they were now fast approaching the Archon Narrows.

“Mind your binoculars,” said Valdus, his voice seeming raw and more agitated than usual. “Anything that glints, zero in upon it and do not let it leave your eyesight.”

For he knew the keys were made of a light substance and were gold on the surface only—and would float.

Hirth glanced at him sidelong before exchanging looks with Lieutenant Crith—an interaction that did not go unnoticed by Valdus, who thought: They think me callous to the fact that I may have killed my betrothed. And Hirth, at least, suspects an ulterior motive. But I for one do not believe she was on board. Why would she not have activated?

Because she may not have received your message, said a voice, which he pushed from his mind immediately.

The important thing right now is the key, he told himself. And yet as his men examined the bits of wreckage (catching them with their oars as they were able and drawing them close) it was becoming increasingly evident that they might at last find nothing. And thus a new plan of attack would be needed, for one of the keys belonging to the ferrymen had to be acquired; nor would he abandon Shekalane to be raped by the Lucitor (for that was what was in store for her, surely). However cold-hearted and simple of purpose his men seemed to think him, he was not so single-minded as that.

His gaze landed on the opposite bank of the River Dire as he brooded, where an abandoned platform could be seen at the mouth of the Archon Narrows; then, after focusing on it briefly, he panned to the side of the river from which they had come … and saw an identical platform. He squinted as an idea began to form, but his train of thought was interrupted by Crith, who said, simply, “A glint, my lord.”

Valdus moved toward him so quickly that he nearly upended the boat, snatching the scopes from him as the man pointed and pressing them to his eyes. He zoomed in on the glint, working the focusing ring furiously, but such was the distance and the dark that he could not tell for certain. What he could tell for certain, however, was that something golden was floating in the water, something connected to a jagged-edged mass.

“It is what remains of the ferryman,” he said, his eyes full of intensity. “And something is attached.” He glanced at Hirth, who was already looking at him—suspiciously, it seemed. “A communications device, perhaps. Hurry. Steer us alongside it.”

The men rowed vigorously as Valdus returned his attention to the platforms. Yes … it might work. The bigger question is … do we have the time?

He took the oar from the man nearest him as they approached the floating object, thinking, I will rescue you yet, my love. And then I shall have you as well as the key to the Forbidden Channels …

He used the oar to maneuver the piece of debris along the starboard bow, but, as they had moved well past the orbis lunae, the darkness was near total. “Lantern! Quickly!”

Crith held a lantern over the gunwale as the object bumped against the hull, and they saw at the same time that it was not, indeed, the ferryman’s remains, but a child’s near-headless doll … around whose neck a small, golden necklace gleamed.

Valdus looked up to find his men, almost to a man, staring at him expectantly.

Well, what did they expect? That there would be no more incidents such as the All Servant’s Parade attack? That somehow all of their hands wouldn’t run red with blood before this was all over? “It is not the first time,” he said. “Nor will it be the last. You would all do well to remember that. Now man your oars, time is of the essence.”

He reached for the doll—but before he could touch it a red dot fell wavering on its half-face, and his men let out a collective gasp as a raven called somewhere in the gloom.

The dot moved up Valdus’ arm to his face, then quickly touched on all their faces one by one, cataloging them, marking them. A bowman managed to squeeze off a shot almost instantly, but the bolt missed its target and the raven’s beam continued to swing in the fog, falling upon bits of the wreckage and at last targeting the base-cave itself.

“Row, men,” said Valdus urgently. “Our lives depend upon it now. But do not fear!” He shot a glance at Hirth. “There is another plan.”

I | Awakening

She awakened with a rush, drawing in air which smelled like ammonia and pain, and found herself lying on the floor of the gondola while Dravidian crouched over her and Milkweed—Milkweed! She lived!—purred against her ear. The gondola’s lanterns had been extinguished so that they floated in near blackness.

“My lungs burn,” she managed, reaching up to pet Milkweed and realizing suddenly that both her wrists were now free of shackles.

“It’s the smelling salts,” said Dravidian. “It will dissipate quickly. How do you feel otherwise?”

“I feel—I dreamed of a white fountain.” She looked into his eyes. “You were there with me …” She drew her hand away from Milkweed and rubbed the ignudi dust (so prized for its qualities as an aphrodisiac) between her fingers. “So were you, Milkweed, it seems.”

“There’s been an attack,” said Dravidian—then paused, holding a black gloved hand to his temple.

Shekalane heard a jumble of garbled voices emanating from his mask’s circuitry.

“At least one ferryman and his charge have been killed,” he said, “and power stations throughout Ursathrax have been sabotaged.”

“A ferryman killed? But how …?”

“I don’t know. Early reports indicate the terrorist Valdus is using a new weapon—one capable of penetrating shields.” He stood abruptly. “I must get us underway. So long as we drift we are particularly vulnerable.”

“This weapon …” She sat up on her elbows. “Is that what caused the white light?”

“Yes,” he said, and mounted his dais. “As well as the shock wave that rendered you unconscious. I, too, lost consciousness briefly.” His fingers danced across the control pad as he appeared to check readings. “I’m redirecting all power to the port and starboard shields. But with weaponized energy of that magnitude ….”

Shekalane thought of the ring and sat up the rest of the way, her senses rapidly returning. “Where are we? And how long was I out?”

He took up his oar and placed it in the forcola. “About an hour. You stirred once in response to smelling salts—you must not remember—then fell into a deep sleep.” He turned his mask to face her as he began rowing. “Our charges often haven’t slept for days prior to the Sacrificium—I estimated you needed the rest. As for where we are at, we are approaching the Archon Narrows.”

She looked at the green ring. Activate it by pressing the emerald when you approach the Stygian Flowstones ...

“Dravidian, I—I’ve always wanted to see the Stygian Flowstones. And now—with our fates in the balance—I wish to see them more than ever. Will we be passing them soon?”

“I am sorry, Shekalane. But we passed them while you slumbered. Had I known of your wish I would have awakened you and rowed us close. It is a custom among us, some of us, to grant such last wishes when we can.”

The magnanimousness of such a custom struck her, and she looked at Dravidian—pushing and drawing on his oar, harder even than he had before they’d gained the middle of the river, and realized he was doing it for them. For her. To protect her.

The ferryman is already dead.

She could not disregard that part of the note. And yet— was she herself not, in a sense, “already dead,” if the near certainty of being forced into sexual slavery didn’t drive her to act?

There is no choice, Shekalane. You must activate the ring.

But her conviction swayed like a tree in the wind. How could she possibly do that now that she knew her jailor as a man and not a monster? Now that she knew him as a man of uncommon depth for whom she felt—did she dare even think it?—a stirring?

Again the pendulum swung. It was all well and good to have met a kindred spirit on the way, but he himself had said they wouldn’t see each other again after her deliverance. Certainly she had to consider her own survival first—wasn’t it at least possible that Valdus would spare him if she were to ask?

A new weapon. One capable of penetrating shields.

The terrorist Valdus.

No. No, she was being a fool if she thought Valdus would spare an enemy, much less a ferryman same as Asmodeus, for whom his hatred was complete. Nor could there be any warning if such a weapon were being used; indeed, they could be stricken at any instant, and he (Valdus) had already shown his willingness to risk innocent life.

Again she looked at Dravidian, at the strangely earnest living-dead man intent upon his rowing, as well as the weapon hung heavy at his hip, glinting, and the answer came to her with such sudden clarity that she was amazed she hadn’t seen it before.

Activating the ring was their best and possibly only chance for survival. Even Valdus would not risk the life of his own betrothed in order to simply kill another ferryman, she was sure. And thus he would be forced to approach them and penetrate the shields slowly, which would allow her an opportunity to negotiate or at very least give Dravidian a chance to defend himself.

She fingered the ring gently. Forgive me, Dravidian.

She had just started to press when Sthulhu came cawing back out of the gloom—urgently, frantically (causing Milkweed to dart away yet again), and alighted on Dravidian’s upraised arm.

II | Crucible

“What is it, Sthulhu? Speak.”

“Enemies,” said the raven. “Port and stern. Many men, heavily armed, awk!”

Dravidian began to reply when a great sound tore the night—a sound so lumbersome and ultimately shrill that it could only be iron crying out in distress. It came at once from left and right, and was followed by what sounded like chains rattling—but hundreds of chains, thousands of chains!—as water gurgled and dripped, after which a third sound, a sound which clanked and creaked and ratcheted faster and faster, grew prominently amidst the cacophony.

Shekalane saw light from the orbis lunae glint metallically in the blackness ahead of them. Dravidian must have seen it too, for he triggered the bow spotlight, which shown whitely from the blade-like ferro and revealed an enormous blasting net—impossible—rising from the blackened waters. No, not one blasting net, Shekalane realized, but many, all conjoined so that they spanned the entire width of the Narrows!

“Enemy closing off the port bow,” said Sthulhu, who had leapt from Dravidian’s arm to the top of the ferro and trained his red beam on the shore.

Dravidian activated the port spotlight and Shekalane saw longboats with many oars approaching rapidly; she counted five, maybe six, spearheaded by a green lead boat—at the bow of which crouched a man in a hooded cloak of the same color.

She leapt to her feet almost instinctively. “It is Valdus!” she cried.

A bright light caught the corner of her eye and she looked behind them; Dravidian had activated the stern spotlight so that yet more boats were visible—a mid-sized vessel with a small cabin and two additional longboats—which were closing rapidly. All of the ships both port and stern bristled with men and arms.

“Dravidian—what do we do?”

He commanded: “Sthulhu, quickly, while they are blinded by the spotlights, locate the next vetitum portas. It should be near.”

She saw the raven’s beam swing in the dark—then lock onto something. “Exactly one nautical mile,” he said. “As the crow flies, awk!”

They were again engulfed in blackness as Dravidian killed the lights. “Sthulhu, distract them,” he ordered—and she heard the bird’s wings beat furiously into the night. To her he said: “The key around my neck is to access the processing terminal at the end of Ursathrax. But it will also open the vetitum portas—the gateways to the Forbidden Channels—although we are forbidden to do so except in the direst emergency. You may have noticed there is no riverbank on our starboard side in this region, therefore there is nowhere else to go. I will angle us for the doorway but I can’t promise I will judge the distance correctly or that I will be able to out-row our attackers. I—I have heard the rebels have begun capturing women and children for use as human shields. I will do my best, Shekalane. You are free to help me if you wish; there is an extra oar attached to the gunwale directly behind you. The decision, of course, is yours.”

She watched as he began rowing with powerful strokes, her vision having grown somewhat accustomed to the dark, rubbing her wrist as she did so, then turned and looked at the oar fastened to the gunwale.

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