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Book Five 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: HobbsEndBooks@yahoo.com

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

—Edgar Allan Poe

Prologue | Black Hole

“… art thou listening?” the prefect was saying.

Dravidian straightened. “Very much so, Prefect,” he lied.

“Clearly thou wert not. I just told thee to meet me at your gondola in one quarter of an hour. Yet you have not taken a single step.”

“I would not presume to walk before you, Prefect.”

Asmodeus smiled. “Ah, very good.” He began moving in that direction. “I understand thou visited the cellblock …”

Dravidian thought quickly. “I—yes. I had considered speaking to her in private … in the hope of encouraging her to submit. But I changed my—”

“Therefore my promise has been rescinded.”

Dravidian looked up sharply—saw only the prefect’s hunched back. “The girl shall be put to torment. Therefore it’s possible she shall live, and it’s possible she shall not. That depends on the both of thee. Thou wilt be present for the excruciation, Master Dravidian.”

He had arrived slightly early, he knew, but was about to enter the brightly-illuminated tent anyway when he heard a pronounced and prolonged sniffing—and stopped dead just outside the open door-flap, after which he turned away slowly, delicately. He wasn’t sure what the sound had been; but he could see his master’s shadow far beyond his own on the deck before him, and Shekalane’s, too: she knelt between his gondola and the ignudi cage while the prefect again lingered by its door, and this time, Dravidian was quite certain that Asmodeus was reaching into it, at least until he moved away from it at last and appeared to circle Shekalane slowly.

“Fear not, dear woman,” he heard Asmodeus tell her. “We are not as harsh as we look.”

Dravidian stared forward as the River breathed around them like a giant.

“Such a beautiful creature,” the prefect went on. “What a pity thou should be … wasted. We prefects can, of course, grant amnesty.”

It was a lie. No one could undermine the Lucitor’s authority, not even a prefect of the ferrymen.

Asmodeus stopped in front of her at length. “Surely, thou dost know what I mean, yes?”

She did not answer and Dravidian saw him pluck gently at her hair.

“Oh, come, such doors have been opened before thee before. Unless, of course, thou art too pure. Tell me, beautiful creature, art thou too pure?”

When still she did not answer the prefect continued, “Thou playest the enigma, and deignest not even to be wroth with me. But I tell thee clearly: a purity such as that would bear fruit somewhere in the record. And I have such a record right here.”

There was a rustling of pages as the prefect appeared to consult his ledger.

“Ah, yes, here it is. Shekalane Ravencraft … tile number 232-77-7217 … chosen in the autumn tumbling, notified by courier on ….” He trailed off abruptly. “Oh, now … what is this?”

Dravidian’s pulse quickened as a flickering green-white light filled the tent. A hologram. The hologram.

You have carried out a brilliant deception for the cause, my love,” he heard Valdus say. “But time is a luxury we are running out of fast. I ask that you wait here while I attend to something.”

Then, Shekalane’s voice, as smooth and vespertine as the twilight: “And I ask that you make time for me. This one time. Help me to help you.” —followed by the sound of trousers being unbuckled.

Asmodeus broke his silence. “Well now, isn’t this interesting?”

And if I refuse?” Valdus again. “Will you have the stomach for what comes next?”

Let me show you what I have the stomach for …”

“Tell me, Shekalane,” Asmodeus whispered at last, appearing to watch intently. “What was going through thy mind as thou bestowed this great affection upon our mortal enemy?”

Yes, Shekalane … like that ...”

“Was it appreciation for the hundreds killed in random attacks across Ursathrax in the last year alone?”

Oh, God, yes …”

“Or was it for the love of the suffering and starvation caused by his relentless raids upon our barges and farmlands and supply ships?”

Yes …” Grunting and moaning. “Your skills as a courtesan … remain unrivalled ...”

“Or was it just … base carnality ... perhaps even pure ignorance …”

Ahhh … Ahhhh …”

Asmodeus closed the book slowly.

Dravidian’s head ached as the prefect paced around her once again.

“And thus we return to the heart of the matter. For if it was the former, I dare say thou knowest what comes next. He, our Lucitor, will feed thee to thyself bit by bloody bit—only to resurrect thee and do it again. But if, say, it was the latter … Surely thou dost knowest—a beauty such as yours could not help but knowest—that there are … options. Options which bear with them an official writ of amnesty and freedom from the Lottery forever.”

Dravidian could listen to no more. Asmodeus had grown drunk on the dust and sought to rape her! His mind reeled from the realization; it all made sense now: the prefect’s passion and grandiosity during the bulk of their conversation in his cabin … his gradual mellowing as the dust released its hold—a prefect of the ferryman had become a common addict!

And now Shekalane was in danger not just of torment and death but of the ultimate violation—indeed, of the very thing she feared the most, the very thing which had made service to the Lucitor so repugnant to her. The notion filled him with despair: Was there nothing in Ursathrax that was not decaying? Must the integrity of the ferrymen wane also?

“I would rather open my legs to a snake,” he heard Shekalane hiss, and it sounded as though she spat at him.

He saw the prefect’s outline backhand her, heard Shekalane crumple to the deck. He could see their shadows clearly now: a bent, witch-like figure with its arm held out and its fingers dangling … and the subtle curves of a woman, writhing near the floor. The two outlines lay parallel along the boards like creeping shades as he glared at them in disbelief.

It appeared she grabbed his ankle—and bit it. He swiped the back of his hand across her face again. “Rebellious Whore!”

Dravidian’s heart knocked against his chest. He saw her shadow crawling toward the gondola but tried not to watch, choosing instead to focus on the silhouettes of the ignudi, who careened about their cage furiously, frightened by the proximity of the violence.

She cried out and he nearly burst into the tent; instead he again looked to the shadow-play in front of him: the prefect had grabbed her by the arm and was wrestling her from the boat. She resisted vigorously and he threw her to the deck; it looked as though he stepped on her throat.

“What a sweet beast thou art,” he said, and added, “I’m sorry, did I say ‘beast?’ I meant, of course, bitch … Dravidian? Is that thee loitering outside the flap?”

He froze. “I—yes, my lord. I heard a commotion … and didn’t think it my place to—”

“Stop your speaking and enter.”

He entered the tent … and could only stare at her, for she was bleeding from lacerations to her forehead and right temple.

Asmodeus said: “Behold how frightened your charge is, ferryman. Didst thou terrorize thy poor thing? If so it has made her … willful.” He studied him carefully before shifting his eyes to Shekalane and back. “Easy, ferryman. That is none of thy concern. I tried to offer this striking young woman her life. But instead she resisted … and now we shall proceed with the excruciation as planned.” He held out a set of keys. “Go to the cage and bring me an elfemale.”

Dravidian noticed that his pale lips bore hints of golden glitter. It was quite obviously ignudi dust. Staring into his eyes, he could tell the prefect had been corrupted by it. He hesitated even as Asmodeus rattled the keys impatiently.

For he knew now what the prefect intended, and did not know if he could stand by while such an abomination unfolded. Indeed, he knew nothing save that he loved Shekalane and had betrayed her beyond any hope of redemption; that no matter what he did now it was far too late, and that the darkness, the sub umbra, the shadow behind, would win out at last. And that this total annihilation, this consuming of all light and sound and thought, was precisely what he deserved, although it was not what Shekalane deserved, not what Chantilly had deserved, not what the boy or his father from so many years hence had deserved—not what anyone born of any time and place did. And yet surely that was the way of things, it had been since the beginning of time, and he knew also that any salvific action on his part or any other’s would have to wait until the next life, the next age, when the all-consuming dark might once again explode into a new age, a new epoch—a once and final chance to set things right.

Black hole, white fountain.

I | Poised to Strike

It had all come down to this; everything which had come before was preamble. And now, standing at the vanguard of an army numbering in the thousands, Valdus was ready. In a sense, he had the ferryman’s raven to thank for it: the creature had led them on a jolly good goose chase to the end of Cuniculum Amoris, but they had used that detour to extract conscripts from every village, town and city along the way. And while the quality of recruits was not always what he would have liked, their numbers alone would prove valuable beyond measure; for the Revolution would not be won by the tip of the spear alone—that is, his original army—but also by a sturdy shaft with which to drive it. And now that he had that, he knew the Revolution might yet prevail.

Even now he found their reversal of fortune after the debacle in Flax almost too amazing to believe. Who among them could have imagined that they would more than quadruple their numbers so soon after? Or that a spy once thought lost should suddenly reestablish contact and alert him to the fact that a turncoat ferryman and a beautiful woman in green had been apprehended on the River Dire—by Asmodeus himself? And while he had no idea why Shekalane and her ferryman should return to Styx Flumen, the fact that they had had allowed him to salvage most of his original plan.

And yet many uncertainties remained, foremost among them: Would Shekalane detonate the ring? For if she did not, they would have no choice but to storm the dragger while its shields remained intact, which meant their archers would be useless (for the fast-moving bolts would merely bounce off the fields). More importantly, it meant Asmodeus would still be alive and thus coordinating a response to their attack—and that, Valdus knew, could be the difference between success and failure. Nor was it merely the success or failure of a single battle which concerned him; for Hirth was correct in asserting that they would never get a second chance at such an operation.

So it was with sweaty fingers that Valdus gripped his binoculars and adjusted the focusing ring—seeing the dragger’s outline clearly as it rounded the curvature of the world, but not, as yet, able to make out any details. For he knew that two things needed to happen in order for the attack, and by extension the Revolution, to succeed. First, their brownie had to deliver his message to Shekalane (as well as disrupt any outbound communications once the attack was under way).

And second, Shekalane had to find it within her to forgive him … if not completely than at least enough to act on behalf of the Revolution in spite of him.

II | The Calling of the Cloud of Witnesses

Dravidian took the keys and walked to the ignudi cage, where he opened the little door and reached in, catching a red one by the tip of her wing, then drew her out, shutting the hatch. In his despair he forgot to latch it, much less to lock it. He walked back to the prefect and handed him both the keys and the creature.

Asmodeus took the elfemale and held it close over Shekalane, rubbing its wings with his thumb so that ignudi dust fell glittering into her hair, and onto her face, and over her entire body. When he was done he allowed the red ignudi to fly free.

“There we are, much better,” he said, then rose his hand and snapped his bony fingers, shouting, “Drop the curtain and play the mating call.”

Dravidian heard brownies shuffling along planks and immediately the black curtain surrounding them dropped and the strange call began emanating from the dragger’s speakers. A moment later he saw the first raven zig by in the dark beyond the bulwark; then another, and another, and soon there were many, as they began alighting on the netting one by one and turning their heads this way and that, searching for the usual cloud of color and sustenance but finding only Shekalane.

And as the murder of crows congregated, a clock began to tick in Dravidian’s ear; not a literal clock but rather the gears of memory awakening yet again—and he somehow sensed that many paths were converging all at this moment; that the dead hand of the past had suddenly squeezed its fist and reopened, and that it was drawing open the curtain on both the first act and the last. So, too, did a memory of Chantilly’s texts come unbidden to his mind: The Calling of the Cloud of Witnesses, from something called The Bible. And he remembered the man, a fire-eater by trade, and the boy, and how he had come to meet them only hours after he’d made love to Chantilly amidst the stacks …

III | The Fire-eater

Although he was many miles and hours away from her now and once again standing beside his gondola at the end of a fog-shrouded sacrificial pier (as he would be doing repeatedly over the month-long course of the Sacrificium), he was still thinking about his night with Chantilly when something moved amidst the gloom.

Only after a moment did the silhouette of a man emerge, and such was the size and build of him that Dravidian immediately unhooked his scythe and tapped his mask—it being his habit to confirm that his face was protected, for the mask had already become like a second skin even in his short time as a ferryman.

But the man did not step forward, and instead addressed Dravidian from precisely where he stood. “Are you dutiful? Honorable? Do you define yourself by such attributes? Do you love, and are you loved by others, even if it’s but one or two in all the world?”

Dravidian froze, mentally and physically.

“Know that I was, too,” said the man. “And know that I was dedicated to my work just as you are—that, indeed, we bore much in common, for I wore a costume and awed the masses also. I was a fire-eater, and I breathed it, as well, and I entertained thousands over the course of my life, up and down the River Dire. Know, too, that I paid a price for my dedication; and that, while it did not cause my wife to lose her love for me, it lessened it, and I mean in such a way that cannot ever be fully repaired. Know that everything you have ever felt and thought … I felt and thought, too. For I am not just a number upon a tile, and this you must know before I submit to stepping forward.”

Dravidian said, “I know it now, fire-eater. And while I am still young and foolish in many ways, I … I believe I understand you.” He gripped the handle of his scythe tightly. “Now come forth and submit to your bonds.”

At length his charge stepped forward, revealing himself—in bulk, for they were of approximately the same height—to be even more of a giant than Dravidian had anticipated. It was sweltering hot, and the man loosed the blue scarf from around his thick neck and swiped it across his forehead ... before allowing it to drop, his expression uncowed. And yet something happened to his firm, noble gaze as he continued to behold Dravidian—something Dravidian had come to expect since his ascension to duty as a ferryman. Something he could only attribute to the design of his accouterments, or the pale of his skin and eyes. Regardless, the giant seemed to shrink noticeably all in an instant, glancing nervously at Dravidian’s meat hook-like weapon and then over his own shoulder into the mists—before resuming eye contact and beginning to breath heavier than before. And, fearing his charge was about to flee, Dravidian strode toward him immediately and loosened the shackles from his belt.

He needn’t have bothered. For after closing to within a few feet he saw that the giant was hyperventilating and clutching at his chest, and it became clear that he was suffering a seizure, perhaps even a heart attack, as he collapsed to the boards at Dravidian’s boots and began writhing in pain. Dravidian could only look on as the man rolled his eyes up at him—his red hair soaked in sweat and matted against his forehead, his mighty limbs trembling—before he dropped to his knees next to him and set the bonds aside (but not his scythe), and, laying hands upon him, said, “Easy does it, easy, just breathe. Do not be afraid. Look, see …” He pressed the pad at his temple and released his mask. “I am just as you are, as you said so yourself. It is all a charade, mere stagecraft. Relax. I have some water in my gondola …”

But the fire-eater’s eyes had become murky ponds and only quivered with fear and revulsion—until at last they went completely blank, and Dravidian set about reviving him with a fevered intensity, alternating, in the manner in which he’d been trained, between blowing into his mouth and pumping his chest. And it was at that moment that there was a commotion on the shore and the sound of someone running along the planks toward them. An instant later a boy burst from the fog, and, seeing Dravidian looming over the dying man, stopped dead in his tracks … before a pair of sentries arrived with a rattle of armor and wrestled him back into the gloom. But not before he’d swept up the blue scarf and his eyes met Dravidian’s square on and he shouted, “A curse on you for killing my father! A curse on the ferrymen!”

IV | Chantilly

Recounting the episode to Chantilly in the Bibliotheca, he noted her expression take a turn toward the pale and asked if perhaps she were feeling ill.

“No,” she said, tentatively, then added, “and yes. It’s just that … it’s so horrible. That he should die at that moment, under such circumstances … and that his son should bear witness.” She leaned against her cart as though suddenly tired. “He must have thought you killed him … were killing him. Oh, Dravidian, don’t you see? How for every person chosen in the Lottery a dozen others are impacted? Don’t you see how the Lucitor’s enemies will breed like flies until, until ….”

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