READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Goddess of Nod (The Balance, #3) by C. W. Snyder
An easy peace has descended on the land of Nod, but when an old ally turned enemy returns, loyalty and the fabric of the afterlife are stretched to their limits. To save the land she loves, Alice must choose to sacrifice everything she knows for the greater good, or be swallowed by the vast black of the encroaching Nothing.
Get carried away into the sparkling world of The Balance in this, the third installment, GODDESS OF NOD by C. W. Snyder—out next Tuesday, January nineteenth. Pre-order your copy NOW!
ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS A GIRL WHO WAS DEAD. Then again, she was something more than that. She was no longer a girl in the strict sense of time, though her appearance belied that assumption. She had been innocent, once. She had been a queen. She had been a warrior. Now, she was something else entirely. She had seen worlds broken on the back of corruption and friends fed into the maw of oblivion. To look at her, one would mistake her for a young woman, with black hair that lightened to red at the tips, and pale skin. Still, if you looked closely enough, you saw the ravages of time, even on an immortal frame. Scars crossed her arms and cheeks, her right hand still glistened raw and red, and her stare carried the weight of ages. It carried the weight of responsibility; an iron will forged in a blazing fire. She may have been dead, but she carried the burden of life like a yoke.
Alice sat on the veranda, staring out across the once-ravaged hill and vale of the Waste, now a thriving verdant belt. A rustle at her hip, the sound of fabric on fabric, and Maggie’s weight pressed into her. Her hand found Alice’s, her palm warm and soft. The other woman, beautiful in a way that made words slip Alice’s mind, frantic in the same way water rushes under ice, brushed her lips against Alice’s cheek.
“Come back to bed,” the whisper tickled her ear, and she squeezed Maggie’s hand.
The world outside the city of Axis Mundi was a green panoply of vine and arbor under the light of a bright moon. The followers of Bacchus found the fertility of the valley agreeable, the urge to plant and seed as alive among them now as it had been when they walked the Earth. They gathered on the outskirts of the city in a paradise of their own making, the grapes their children, wine the final satisfaction of that matura tion. They had built villas and vineyards, working the presses by day, rousing even the most apathetic spirits at night. Even now the other villas around the hills were brightly lit, and the sounds of piper and viola trilled across the cool night. The bucolic scene calmed Alice’s jangled nerves, smoothed the gooseflesh on her arms.
She’d been dreaming. The dead didn’t need sleep, nor eat or drink, though some did regardless. It was a way of holding onto what had once been for some, a comfort in familiarity for others. This dream though—a frown crossed her brow, and she looked inward. She saw fragments: Oberon atop a cliff that spanned a vast and hungry gulf, and Casca, his chest a writhing mass of corruption; a heart aflame, and the stirring of something vast and incalculable. Other friends lurked in shadow—Cain and John, and she wondered at their fates—their eyes milky, the pupils yellow like those of wolves in the moonlight.
Maggie squeezed her hand again, and Alice shook herself. She looked over at the woman she'd come to love and smiled. “Everything okay?” Maggie asked.
Alice nodded. “Fine. Just a dream.”
“Come back to bed then.” A wicked smile played on her lips. “You can worry about dreams later.”
Alice grinned before Maggie turned and ran. She chased her wife through the house, and though they
fell into bed, they did not sleep for some time.
In the wee hours, while Maggie slept softly in their bed, Alice stared up at the ceiling and watched the light make patterns of the shadows thrown by beam and plaster. She tried to see futures in them—any one of a thousand, a million, a hundred million, but even with the threads of possibility available to her, there were too many. What matter did the future make when you had an eternity to get there? Instead, she turned her thoughts to the past, to the woman beside her.
Their courtship had been tempestuous. Maggie was hot blooded, prone to violence as easily as a smile, passionate in her belief. She’d had a hard life, and a harder death. She’d traded a part of herself to be whole, though what that might be, she was unwilling to discuss with Alice. Alice sympathized—she had been through much the same. An abrupt, brutal death, a harsh embattled afterlife. A part of her traded, and at what cost? In those things, they’d found common ground. It grew from mutual respect, from shared experience, and blossomed into something more.
The world had settled into some semblance of normalcy after the Breaking, and they had struggled with their emotions. Alice knew in their hearts that Zee and Maggie feared her. She’d brought down a god, after all. Zee, as a companion who had watched her grow from a naive waif to a woman who could bring down the heavens. Maggie, as a once-enemy who’d been spared and forgiven the darkness in her heart.
While Zee pulled away, making his own distance and creating a sense of safety, Maggie had done the opposite. She’d found herself drawn to Alice, found herself intrigued by this woman who had the capacity for violence and forgiveness in equal measure, sadness at the things she’d been forced to do the weight that kept the scales between the two even. Alice was a balance to her own roiling rage, her lack of remorse, her almost insatiable need to break the things that had brought her to this world.
Alice understood all this in a way most didn’t. Among the threads of possibility, she’d seen possible pasts and futures. Bloodshed, wounds repaired, lives reduced to ash, and love rising from the ashes like a phoenix. She saw for her friends a thousand lives, a thousand maybes and what-ifs, but for the road she trod, she saw only a black fog ahead. It did not bother her. She was no oracle. She’d leave that to the Sisters in their mountain redoubt. As for her, she had found love, and hoped for the time being, it would be enough.
Alice still remembered that warm night, Zee away with Cade, her and Maggie alone for the first time in months. They’d had wine from the bacchanalists, music from the cellists, and moon light. They had stayed up, speaking for hours, of the things that had passed, and what might come. Before she could even think —her lips still tingled with the memory of the kiss—Maggie leaned in, her breath sweet and heavy with grape, her lips full and warm. Alice smiled at the memory and looked over at Maggie, her sleeping form still in the early hours. She stroked one gentle finger across her wife’s face, the other woman smiling in her sleep and curling closer to her.
The threads of possibility twisted and vibrated around her, and Alice dropped her hand. She was being summoned. Hooks of imperative lodged themselves in her spirit, a compulsion she couldn’t refuse. She sighed and took a breath she didn’t need, then another, and another.
HER ENVIRONMENT SLIPPED AWAY, AND ALICE FLOATED IN THE space between worlds, the demesne white all around, like a blank page. Alice opened weary eyes to the ever-shifting goddess Enya tapping a foot impatiently.
“You’re late,” Enya said.
“I was nearly asleep. Even cosmic agents get a night off, don’t they?”
“No,” Enya said.
Alice sighed with resignation. “Fine. Let’s get to it then.”
Enya walked a circle around her, stopping to occasionally prod her spine or straighten her hips. Alice watched as the deity walked, shifting shapes between friends and foes she’d known. Silence stood for a time, a wedge of comfortable familiarity between the two women. They’d become…if not close, friendly, in the time since Alice had made her bargain to return to Nod. She never could tell what constituted friendly for a god, but if anything, she supposed it might be the absence of attempts to steal more of her precious life.
The only sound in the space was that of Enya’s footsteps, which made no sense in a formless void, but Alice thought it hard to argue the rules of physics with a god. It was hard to argue anything with a god, really. In Alice’s experience, it was easier to concede the point and do what she wanted once out of the deity’s line of sight. Sure, she felt a child again doing so, but you had to choose your battles. Finally, Enya paused, her lips pursed, and Alice forced her attention back to the now.
Alice let a small sigh leak out. “What?”
“Your concentration. We’ve been here an hour, and you’ve managed to avoid manifesting a couch, what I can only assume was a pizza, and Cate Blanchett.”
Alice blushed. “That was...unfortunate.”
“Yes. Now, close your eyes.”
Alice did as she was told. The floating feeling was both comforting and distracting, but she was growing used to it. “There are pieces of the worlds, bits of what you call the Balance. Reach out, try to touch them.”
She took a breath and imagined lines extending from her, seeking out those lost pieces. She found them almost immedi ately. A warehouse in New York. She knew this one from past exercises—this was where the Blood held council. She pushed past it, and on into the darkness in her mind. One by one they lit up, a soldier in Iraq, a doctor in Brooklyn, a housewife in Van Nuys. They were little parts, holding a small amount of talent. She pushed harder, and a light, unlike the others, burned bright in her mind, igniting like a bonfire. She followed the thread, and saw a girl, no older than fifteen or sixteen, sleeping deeply. Light coruscated from her in waves. Alice’s breath caught in her throat, and the fire burned brighter, making her head suddenly throb and pulse. Her eyes flew open, and she sucked in a breath.
“What was that?”
“The first piece of the puzzle. You have found the White. There are three. The Red, the Gray, and the White.” “What of the Black?” Alice asked.
“The lynchpin. None would exist without the other. Nod has already gone too long with those seats empty. Your father broke the world when he impregnated Alma. When he killed her. You followed and broke it further. Your sister, Mr. Black. It’s your job to heal it now.”
“How?” frustration echoed in Alice’s voice. “With magic glue? Am I supposed to just trade some beans for a tube, and stick it all back together?”
“This is your mess.”
“If I hadn’t ended them, they would’ve done for me. Would you do different?”
“Are there those who could end me?”
Alice gave her a hard stare. She didn’t know if it was arro gance or simple fact to the goddess, which made the entire conversation all that much more frustrating.
“Find the pieces. Put them back on the board,” Enya said, ending the conversation.
Alice found the space around her slipping away at the words and struggled to hold on. The white walls receded, and as if from a great distance, she heard the goddess.
“You need to move soon. Nod will not heal itself.” Then she and the demesne were gone.
Alice opened her eyes to the sun, the light leaking between the slats on the overhang to the veranda and painting the stucco walls of the villa brilliant white. The house stood on the edge of Axis Mundi, in a suburb that had sprung up around the city in the intervening years since Leviathan’s defeat. She shaded her eyes and looked further, to the only still visible scar of the Reach, stretching away into the distance. Somewhere at the end stood the remains of the Crown.
“Did you find them?” Maggie’s voice cut through her thoughts.
Alice sighed. “No. I’ve no idea where they are.”
“Where who are?” Zee sauntered onto the patio; a clutch of grapes grasped in his new silver hand. Cade’s presence surrounded him like a thin cloak, stared out from his eyes.
“What are you doing with those?” Maggie asked.
He shrugged. “Holding them. Hephaestus says it’s supposed to be good practice. Don’t crush the grapes, won’t crush uh, other things that are like grapes.” He ended his explanation with the question again. “Where who are?”
“John and Cain. They’ve been missing since the Breaking,” Maggie said.
He shrugged. “Ah. What else am I supposed to say?” Maggie rolled her eyes and turned to Alice again. “Did you find anything?”
Alice rubbed her forehead. “Something, yes. I found the White, according to Enya.”
“I’m sure it is. The Sisters hinted at something of the sort when they made me agree to give up the Crown.” “So now what?”
The question hung in the air. Alice wasn’t sure what the next step was, but she felt she needed answers to move forward. “I think I need to talk to the Sisters again.”
“Fairly soon. My gut is telling me that there is something going on. Especially with this girl appearing out of the blue after so long.” She gave Maggie a level look. “Are you up to stepping through the Gloaming?”
Maggie scrunched her face up a little, one corner of her mouth puckering in. “I’ve been a little iffy about it since Gren del, but if it’s important, then yeah.”
“What about me?” Zee piped in.
Alice gave him a long look. “Are you okay to travel?” He held up his hand, the grapes cradled in it. He dropped them on a small table by the women’s seats and flexed the metal fingers, then rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah. Sure, yeah. Better than fondling grapes.”
Alice stood and dusted off her leggings. “Let’s meet outside in the morning.”
She moved off, leaving Zee and Maggie alone. After a long quiet, Maggie spoke up.
“Yeah. Look, I have to be...”
He wandered from the veranda, leaving Maggie alone with the grapes and the smell of fresh-turned earth and the light.
Maggie stared out at the vineyards, clusters of royal purple glowing among the emerald strands of green. A cool breeze kicked up, stirring the leaves on the arbors, sending them dancing. Light, dark; light, dark. An image of close tunnels, of chill dirty water that crept to her thighs, and hollow-eyed infants and adults flashed into her mind, and she heard the rumble of the beast behind her, the stink of its breath on her neck.
She squeezed her eyes and counted down from ten. Ten, nine… blood in the water…eight, seven…gleaming teeth…six, five…gnawed bones in off-white piles…four, three…screams…two, one…
The images faded and Maggie opened her eyes. She shook herself and stood, then took a brisk walk around the villa, pretending to inspect the well, the tiny garden she kept with Alice, the shed with their tools. She looked across the fields to Axis Mundi, the spire disappearing to the heavens, gleaming steel like a spear through the heart of the world. It made her think of hearts pierced and hearts broken, and she was glad that Alice had her. Who else would take on the horrors of memory for her love? Who else would bear the scars of violence done?
She wrapped her shawl tighter and went into the house.
Zee stood in the early light filtering through his room, conversing with ghosts. Cade whispered in his head, his trip to Hell still not forgotten. Occasional flashes of an image accompa nied them, broken bodies hung from rusted chains, hooks threaded through flesh like needles piercing a skein of thread. Blood covering every surface, refusing to dry. Entrails festooned steel girders and rafters, great loops of intestine stretched to their full potential and bloated with the gasses of the dead and dying. Screams echoed from stone walls as men were forced to shed their skin as one sheds a coat.
He shook himself and found his wife and child standing in the space between him and the window. Morning light limned their edges, gave them an unearthly glow. No words passed between them then, but the chaos in his heart and mind stilled, and he took a deep breath, smelling dust and smoke. He no longer felt their loss so acutely, nor the horrors that had taken them from him. In its place, a sort of serenity.
He sat on the bed and wept anyway.
Though the dead need not sleep, they can if they wish, and in doing so, dream.
Murder is easy. It’s the part that comes a#er—the blood and sinew spilled like human dross, and cold staring eyes—that is what makes murder hard. Most can’t deal with it. Not because of a weak stomach, or bowel-clenching moments of doubt and remorse, but because they don’t love.
He wipes his blade on the woman’s coat. It parts wool as easily as flesh, even laid along the side, so he has to clean it in a couple places before the steel is unmarked. No need to mar the flesh underneath any more than necessary. He holds it up to the dim light that seeps through the tram’s windows and inspects the surface. Runes etched in the steel catch the pale yellow glow and throw back reflections &om the sodium arcs. He sheathes the blade and steps to the faded grey and white doors of the tram. After a moment, they open and he steps onto the platform. Cold white tiles and the smell of ozone greet him. He leaves the body behind. Others will take care of it. Others always do.
He has always dreamt. Vivid nightmares, dreams both fleshy and senti mental, and the typical—falling, running, screaming. All with bouts of lucidity blended with pure terror. There is one though, that stands out. It has for almost fifteen years, &om a time when his dreams were composed mostly of anxiety and sex, when he would wake entangled in sheets damp &om sweat or semen.
In the dream, he’s always in a desert. Sometimes there are others, a caravan of sorts, what he imagines to be nomads, maybe peddlers. They matter little, except to distract when he should be making the pilgrimage. He suspects they are disciples too, however, other travelers seeking her out, maybe even doing her work. When they sit around the fire in a canyon built &om red rock buttes and red sand turned almost black &om the night, in the flickering light, you can almost see the writhing black behind their smiles.
Most times though, he is alone, in another valley built &om the same red rock. Rough columns rise to either side, so worn &om wind and sand erosion that it is impossible to tell if they were once man-made. A path, half-buried in blowing sand, lies before him, the parts he sees worn smooth where many feet before had tread. At the end of the path lies a temple, half-eroded, hewn &om the same red rock of the desert, architec tural styles blending and shifting until nothing is certain. In the center of it all lies a wide set of stairs that lead to an opening flanked by Roman columns.
Without moving his feet, he is before that opening, and the air is different there, no longer dry, and parched, but cool, almost to the point of a chill. He steps inside, into a vast chamber black as night. The cool air stirs with a directionless breeze and carries a damp smell with it. Some thing moves in the darkness, something vast and long-dead, and he takes another step. Only then is he inside.
The temple proper is carved &om the same red rock as outside, yet somehow larger than the exterior would su'est. The walls and ceiling are rough-hewn and glow with a light of their own. The floor is black and white marble laid in a checkerboard pattern, statues lining it every six feet, forming a processional that leads to a raised dais, and a throne carved &om bone and steel.
The air here is not as cool as before, and smells somewhat musky, like sex and perfume mingled with the coppery tang of blood. He notices the statues, each rendered in painstaking detail, flesh and bone carved with an anatomist’s precision, and twisted in positions that echo agony and lust. In the back of his mind, he registers arousal, and pushes it down; sure that to give in here is blasphemy.
He turns and sees her where she hadn’t been before, striding across the marble floor. Her skin is alabaster, accented by red hair and lips, her eyes a deep green. She wears a vinyl bodysuit that stops at her breasts, pale and heavy, her nipples pink and erect. Behind her flows a train of lace that whispers as it slides across the stone.
Above all though, is the glint of steel. Sword hilts and lengths of blades protrude &om just behind her arms and form a fan, as though she were a peacock made &om flesh and steel. The display ends just above her head, the hilts crossing to form a halo of sorts. He looks down at the floor, and sees where she has walked, footprints traced in blood marking her path. He doesn’t need to see her &om behind to know that each blade is woven through the skin of her back, like threads in a tapestry.
He kneels as she approaches. He feels her palm on his head, and looks up to see a slight smile play across her lips. He rises, and she stands on tiptoe to kiss him, and then, he awakes.
He takes the stairs out of the subway, steam rising to the street as he exits into the cold November air. It’s late, and few cars roll along the city streets, an off-duty taxi, the occasional patrol car, and a lone family sedan —probably someone passing to their job cleaning offices—none concern him. In the alleys the homeless huddle under &ayed blankets and newspa pers. Some are still awake, staring past the mouths of the gaps between buildings, or staring up at the stars. Some mutter in low voices, maybe prayer, maybe conversations, maybe just memories spoken aloud. He turns up a narrow tree-lined street, towards a modest brownstone wedged between others of its kind. He mounts the stairs, fetches his keys out, and a#er the lock clicks open, steps inside.
Inside, he locks the door. The keys go on a hook, clothes in the hamper in the bathroom, and the knife in a box by his bed. He lays between cool sheets and thinks of her.
He’s in the temple again, amid the statues of the throne room. She is there, as always, this time lounging on the throne, one leg thrown languidly over an arm, half-reclining, and one hand on the head of the woman sitting beside her. At first, he doesn’t recognize the newcomer dressed in white silk, a red scarf draped around her neck. Then she turns her head to glance at her mistress, and the scarf shi#s, and he sees his handiwork, the thin incision in her flesh where her life bled out.
The Lady stands and glides down the steps of the dais, waving a hand behind her dismissively. The girl in white follows suit, silk clinging to her form as she walks from the throne to a dark alcove behind the statues and disappears in silence. When they are alone, she reaches up and caresses the side of his face, and he sees her intent. Faces blur through his mind, until they settle on another woman, young and blonde. He enjoys the touch of her skin on his before concentrating on a name that sifts to the &ont of his mind. He dips his head to acknowledge his task, and she smiles and drops her hand, and turns away.
He wakes once more.
The funeral was held at dawn, under skies threatening to burst and deluge the countryside. The service is in a small chapel in the center of a graveyard of rolling hills dotted with elm and pine. The pastor finishes his sermon and they walk outside, rain already beginning to patter down in drops the size of quarters. Umbrellas unfurl, and they walk beneath, a slow procession of black under black, until they reach the graveside. The coffin sits suspended above the grave. Walnut rails with brass tops demark the outline of the pit, a velvet rope for the dead.
The preacher speaks, and everyone bows their heads in prayer. He only half-listens while the clergyman speaks. He wonders why men bow to a deity they cannot see or feel or touch. One who claims love and peace for all, and sits idly by while men commit acts of hatred and war; demands faith and loyalty, yet claims that if men are ready, they will follow those ways of their own free will, and should they not, there’s always a Hell waiting for them.
He glances up, and notices the prayer reaching a head. He dips his head again and thinks of his Lady. She knows love. She knows the values of faith and loyalty. She is not a&aid to touch her subjects. “Amen.”
They echo the prayer’s conclusion and raise their heads. Last goodbyes are spoken, and as they pass the coffin, a rose is placed here, a handful of damp dirt tossed there. They drift away, towards their cars, and he is approached by a pretty young blonde. She matches his step and draws in close, so her umbrella shelters them both.
“Eric, right?” She asks. She tilts her head up to see him better. “Were you and Sophie close?”
He shrugs. “We had kind of lost contact over the years, but yes, as kids we were pretty close.”
He stops walking, and looks over at a small copse of trees, the leaves already painted in Fall color. She stops with him.
“Sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” he says.
He starts walking again, angling towards the trees, and she follows. He’s not sure if it’s curiosity or foolishness.
“Has anyone talked to the police?” She asks.
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve been away,” he lies.
We cross the tree line, and the day becomes just a bit darker. He hears rain dripping on the leaves overhead and smells the loam underneath. She stops just behind him, and he turns.
“Very pretty,” she says. “Sophie would have liked it here.” He takes another moment, looking around. He turns toward her and takes a step as though to leave again. He’s close to her now and he sees through the screen of tree trunks that the cemetery has emptied. “Should we go?” She asks.
He doesn’t answer but instead takes a half-step toward her and places his left hand on the back of her head. Her hair is damp, and so#. His right comes up fast, the blade in it a blur. It enters under her chin, piercing flesh and muscle and sinew. He feels the resistance of her palate, and presses harder, the blade breaking through with a snapping sound. Her eyes go wide, but in that moment of panic, she’s frozen. He buries the blade to the hilt, all ten inches, and she tries to speak around it.
“Guh...guh...” There is a clicking sound in her throat.
He twists the blade, and the light in her eyes goes out.
He lays the body in the leaves, surrounded by red and gold and yellow. He puts the blade away after cleaning it on her coat, and walks from the trees to his car. The rain is still coming down, and he pulls his coat tighter. One last look around, and he leaves, the cemetery dwindling in his rear-view mirror.
He’s dreaming again, wrapped in warm sheets in a cool apartment. In this dream, he’s five, maybe six, and his mother has brought them to the great gothic Roman cathedral downtown. They’re kneeling behind the front row of pews, the cathedral lit by the soft glow of flickering candles. The priest at the altar is dressed in black, the white collar at his neck catching and reflecting the glow in the room. A woman—his mother— is dressed in her Sunday best: a flower print dress, sensible shoes, and her hair braided and pinned back. She puts her hand on his arm, and they bow their heads.
“Try to pray, Eric,” she says.
He closes his eyes, and asks for blessings for &iends and family, and waits. Inside, he feels the first signs of panic. Mother always says that if you’re very still, even if He doesn’t talk to you, you can feel Him. What he feels is a void. Nothing. His breathing starts to come fast, and he feels panic clawing its way upward, forcing his heart to race, and his eyes to sting with tears.
Why doesn’t He hear?
The panic is in his chest now, and he’s breathing hard, and his mother is gripping his arm so hard it hurts, and he knows there will be a bruise. He realizes his cheeks are wet, and tries to stop it all, tries to shove the panic down, but that just makes it fight back harder, and he’s wheezing. He opens his eyes, and spots blossom in &ont of them. His legs are weak, and he slips off the kneeler. He sees his mother and the priest standing over him just as his vision goes dark, and imagines they are disappointed.
He floats in the black, empty, and alone. It’s not until he sees her, smiling down that he realizes he is no longer alone, her pale skin glowing in the dark. He sees the blades in her back, and the black in her eyes, and is not a&aid. Someone is here, and as she takes him in her arms, he knows that someone will always answer.
Morning comes, and he wakes to light filtering through the blinds. He gets up, gets coffee, cleans up, and reads the paper. For the first time in days, he feels at ease, and knows it’s because he’s served well. The paper is silent on the girl le# at the cemetery. He’s not surprised by this. He’s not the Lady’s only servant. A knock at the door rouses him, and he puts the paper down.
He opens the door and has to look down to see his visitor. It’s a girl, maybe eight or ten, dressed in white, holding a package. She smiles, and he sees in her eyes. A second set of pupils dot her irises—they are small and easy to miss, but he sees them, and knows her for what she is. She holds the package out.
“This is for you, Eric.”
He takes it from her and thanks her. She smiles again at that, and he sees the points on her teeth. Not a little girl, but an Emissary, doing their Lady’s work. She turns and walks down the hall, and he closes the door. He takes the package to the coffee table and sets it down, the soft wood of the box clicking as it touches the glass. He sits and opens it. Inside is a note, and nothing else.
My son, my dearest love,
I have always tried to guide you, to show you the love and compassion others would not. In the darkness I cradled you, in your doubt, I provided clarity. In all this, I have asked only one thing above all—devotion. I lay before you now two choices, two paths. One, come to me. I would see you by my side, your heart guided by my hand, two as one. Two, continue to do my work here until I present this opportunity a second time. A final time. Whichever you choose, know that I will be here watching. Watching and waiting.
He finishes reading the note, and places it in the box before returning the lid to cover the box. The room is silent aside from the ticks of the fridge from the other room and the clock on the wall. He wonders why— why didn’t this come in a dream, why she didn’t bring this herself—and discounts it.
Devotion is all he has now, all he needs.
He walks to the bedroom and opens the box by his bed. Inside, the blade she gave him on the day of his christening lays in a depression carved &om the wood. He takes the shining blade out, and sits on the bed, turning the knife over and over in his hands. He watches the light play on the blade; watches his reflection in the cool steel. It seems like such a simple decision. He places the point of the blade under his chin. One quick thrust…the tip digs in ever so slightly, and feel warm blood drips onto his thumb. He is not afraid.
He pulls the knife away and wipes the blood off on his jeans. He places the blade back in the box and closes the lid. He is not afraid, but he is not finished.
The subway is dark this time of night, the few overhead lights still working flickering in and out. He watches the woman on the end of the platform, overcoat wrapped tight around her, tall leather boots climbing her calves. He walks over beside her and waits. She looks up at him, smiles. She’s unafraid. It’s a start.
Alice, Maggie, and Zee woke from the shared dream. Alice knew it for what it was—her father, serving the Red Queen. As for Maggie and Zee—foreboding doesn’t always need a reason, though it is fond of slipping fear between the ribs anyhow. A shiver rippled gooseflesh in a chilled wave across them one by one, and even as the sun rose, it took some time to shake the memory. Zee and Maggie stood outside the villa and watched the light filter again into the world, turning the snowcaps of the distant mountains brilliant. It crept across the waste, and as it touched leaf and trellis, it threw the landscape into a riot of colors—the green of vine, and the brown of the stick, and the lush purple of grapes. They watched it come and when Alice arrived, their hearts were a little lighter, their eyes brighter.
She looked at them, the melancholy that hovered like an unwelcome guest. “My sister?”
“She lingers. That much rage…”
Zee put a hand on her shoulder, and Maggie embraced her. “It’s not you,” she whispered into Alice’s ear. “Not you.” Alice nodded, and returned the embrace, then they sepa rated. She looked around and led them to the lee side of the house, where a shadow had pooled opposite the new light. She looked at Maggie.
Maggie took a breath and nodded. She grabbed their hands, and the sensation of drifting enveloped them, like the surrounding world had come loose. Light faded, dimming the morning to twilight, and when it stopped, they stood in a gloomy space, their feet making ripples in water that climbed their ankles. Luminescent fungus glowed gently in the near dark, giving just enough illumination to see by.
“Maggie? Lead the way.”
Maggie stood for a moment; her eyes closed. She swayed gently, and then turned; facing what seemed to be an arbitrary direction. With no landmarks and no true light, east and west, north and south meant little. She opened her eyes and walked toward what Alice supposed was their destination. Alice and Zee followed, water splashing in their wake.
“How do you know where to go?” Zee asked. “I’m just saying, how do we know we’re not going to end up in the middle of the ocean, bobbing around like shark chew toys?”
Maggie glanced at him. “Instinct.”
“Oh good. Instinct. I’d prefer you said GPS, but sure, mumbo jumbo is acceptable.”
“Someone get up on the wrong side of the bitchy bed?” “Mellow, you two,” Alice admonished them half-heartedly, as though her mind focused somewhere else. Maggie glanced over her shoulder.
Alice stopped and looked behind her, a scowl creasing her brow. “I keep thinking I can hear someone following us.” “Well, you can just barbecue them, right?” Zee sounded a little worried, and hopeful.
Alice shook her head. “We’ve talked about this. It doesn’t work that way anymore.”
“Oh good. Unpredictable mumbo-jumbo. That’s great. Spiffy. Now what?”
Alice held up a finger for quiet. For a moment, silence crept in around them, encroaching like a big cat, the only sounds their breath and the rush of blood through their veins. The sound of a footfall in the water startled them all.
“What do we do?” Zee whispered.
Alice signaled to Maggie she should start moving, and they rushed through the water, feet splashing, pant cuffs soaked from the hurry. Behind them, the footsteps became obvious as the interloper did their best to keep up. Maggie put on speed, and Alice and Zee fought to keep up.
“How much further?” Alice asked.
A roar from nearby interrupted them. Alice glanced back, and a man appeared out of the gloom, his skin covered in tattoos, his hair cropped close. He wielded a massive blade that reminded her of a cleaver, and he raised it toward Zee’s back.
“Casca, no!” She screamed.
For a moment, the man paused and looked at her. Black holes stared from where his eyes had once resided, and she saw in his moment of stillness that dark tendrils crawled their way from a wound over his ribs, seeking across his well-muscled chest.
“Run!” She turned to shout at Zee, and he broke from his deer in the headlights moment and sprinted forward. Maggie called out from ahead.
“Here, it’s close!”
Alice ran as well, sprinting toward the other woman’s voice. Maggie appeared from the dimness, standing near a doorway that looked like to be hewn from stone. Zee caught up, Casca hot on his heels, and the three plunged through the doorway, coming out to blinding light and the smell of wildflowers.
Alice blinked the light away as fast as able and cast about. They stood in the shadow of the entrance to the Sisters’ moun tain cave. Casca was nowhere in sight. Either he couldn’t follow or had decided not to. She wondered briefly what manner of thing possessed him, then cut the thought off as she looked for her friends. Maggie and Zee leaned against the stone of the tunnel, catching their breath. Zee looked up at her approach. “Yeah, next time let’s just take a plane. That’s on fire. And covered in spiders.”
Maggie nodded. “I agree. We can take the train back. The Gloaming isn’t safe anymore.”
Alice looked down the tunnel and behind one more time. If Casca could travel the Gloaming, they only had so much time before the godslayer was on them. They’d have to hurry.
“We really shouldn’t keep the ladies waiting. They’re busy women.” She turned back to her friends.
“Ready?” They nodded, and she walked into the mountain. Behind her, Maggie and Zee groaned and pushed themselves from the wall, trailing behind.
“You think she found a Starbucks?”
“What?” Maggie said.
“I mean, she’s really uh, active. Maybe there’s a cocaine field somewhere nearby.”
“Meth,” Maggie offered. “She’ll probably clean the damn cave when we get in there.”
They continued, quipping at one another as they followed.
The sisters sat in their room as always, shadows long on the wall. Clotho bent over the loom, the shuttle clacking as it moved from one side of the frame to the other. Lachesis paced from spool to spool, feeding thread into the machine as it worked, and Atropos moved businesslike, measuring and snipping threads according to some pattern only she saw. The friends watched them for a moment, the women absorbed in their work. Alice watched the fabric fed from the back of the machine, the tapestry intricate, a story winding out across its surface. She thought for a moment she caught a glimpse of herself among the threads, pale and dark. Then Clotho noticed them, drawing her attention from the weaving as the older woman stood in greet ing, a smile on her face.
“Hello again.” She turned her attention toward Zee briefly. “Fool.”
“Hey—” he started, but she’d moved on.
“Warrior,” this to Maggie.
The woman favored her with a smile.
“And Goddess,” as she addressed Alice. “What brings you to our doorstep?”
“I’ve seen the White.” Alice stated it as plainly as possible. The sounds of scissors snipping and spools spinning paused briefly, though they resumed quickly enough. A wrinkle furrowed Clotho’s brow.
“You know then of the Unraveling?”
Alice shook her head.
“Is that like when your rug there gets all snarled?” Zee quipped.
Maggie elbowed him, forcing a grunt from his chest. Clotho ignored him.
“Beyond the mountains that bound the world, Nod is begin ning to crumble. You’re seeing the White now because it’s time to bring her home. You need to see her to the Crown to stop it.” “Sounds easy enough.”
Clotho shook her head. “Don’t be too hasty. There are others. The Red, the seat once held by your sister, and the Gray, the seat the man named Poe held—they will need to be filled as well.”
Alice blanched a little. “You expect me to fill all three? How much time do I have? How?”
“The ‘how’ is not important. You’ll figure it out. You’re a bright woman.” She looked over Alice’s shoulder. “You have friends. You don’t have to go it alone. As for time—who can say? Time has never been right in Nod. The deeper you go, the less so it is. Now come, we have one last story to tell you, in our own way. You are almost done.”
She led the way to the loom and sat on the bench, scooting over to allow Alice room to share it with her. Alice sat and waited. After a moment, the other women joined them, standing at their shoulders. The closeness felt odd, but somehow right to Alice, as if she were with family again. Clotho spoke, and the other women joined her, each closing a sentence, or starting a new one as they went, as if they shared one mind. Alice relaxed, and listened.
Ishtar was the Lady of the Gods, the Goddess of fertility. She had been unlucky in love. Her husband Tammuz, the great love of her youth, died when he was still young. She fell in love with Gilgamesh, that great king, but he spurned her advances.
In Babylon, the dead were sent to the Underworld, a place of darkness ruled over by the Goddess Irkalla. It was said that in this place they lived on dust and mud. After Gilgamesh rejected her, Ishtar became depressed and decided she would descend into the Underworld to be with Tammuz. So, dressed in her finest garments, brilliant jewelry, and her magnificent high crown, Ishtar entered the cave that leads into the Underworld. Irkalla’s realm was surrounded by seven walls, each with its own gate that had to be passed to get to the dark Place where the dead resided.
When she got to the first gate, Ishtar called out to the watchman, “Watchman, please open this gate and let me enter!” The watchman’s faced peered at her from over the gate. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t open the gate either. So, she called out again, “watchman, if you don’t open this gate for me, I will force it open, I will break it down, and I will set free all the dead that reside in this dreadful dark place. I will set them free from their gloom and the rule of your merciless mistress and take them to the land of the living! The dead will be so plentiful on earth that they will take over from the living!”
Nedu, as the watchman was called, looked at this fine lady, her crowned head held high, in her splendid attire, and said, ”please lady, don’t break down the gate. I will go and take your message to the Lady Irkalla. Please wait until I get back.”
When Irkalla heard that Ishtar demanded to be admitted to her realm, she was terribly angry. She thought she would teach this intruder a lesson and instructed her watchman to admit the proud lady. Nedu returned to the first gate and opened all the bolts and locks.
“Enter into the realm of Irkalla, fine lady,” he said. “Welcome to the place from where nobody ever returns.” As he spoke, he took Ishtar’s crown.
She wanted to know why he had taken her crown. “Oh lady,” he said, “if you wish to enter you must submit to the law of Lady Irkalla!” She bent her head and went through the first gate.
Ishtar walked the short distance to the second gate. The watchman opened all the bolts and locks before speaking once more. “Enter into the realm of Irkalla, fine lady. Welcome to the place from where nobody ever returns.”
As he spoke, he took the eight-pointed star which adorned her neck. She wanted to know why he had taken her jewel. “Oh lady,” he said, “this is the law of Lady Irkalla!” She bent her head, her radiance gone, and went through the second gate.
Ishtar walked the short distance to the third gate. The watchman opened all the bolts and locks, and said, “enter into the realm of Irkalla, fine lady. Welcome to the place from where nobody ever returns.” As he spoke, he took the gold and bejew eled bracelets from her wrists. She wanted to know why he had taken her bracelets. “Oh lady,” he said, “this is the law of Lady Irkalla!”
She bent her head, her radiance gone, and without her magnificent gold ornaments, and went through
the third gate. Ishtar walked the short distance to the fourth gate. The watchman opened all the bolts and locks, “enter into the realm of Irkalla, fine lady. Welcome to the place from where nobody ever returns.” As he spoke, he took the shoes off her feet. She wanted to know why he had taken her shoes.
“Oh lady,” he said, “this is the law of Lady Irkalla!”
She bent her head, her radiance gone, and without her magnificent gold ornaments, barefooted she went through the fourth gate.
Ishtar walked the short distance to the fifth gate. The watchman opened all the bolts and locks again. “Enter into the realm of Irkalla, fine lady. Welcome to the place from where nobody ever returns.” As he spoke, he took the splendid veil that covered her face. She wanted to know why he had taken her veil. “Oh lady,” he said, “this is the law of Lady Irkalla!”
She bent her head, her radiance gone, and without her magnificent gold ornaments, barefaced and barefooted she went through the fifth gate.
Ishtar walked the short distance to the sixth gate. The watchman opened all the bolts and locks and spoke, “enter into the realm of Irkalla, fine lady. Welcome to the place from where nobody ever returns.” As he spoke, he took her magnificent outer robe. She wanted to know why he had taken her outer robe. “Oh lady,” he said, “this is the law of Lady Irkalla!”
She bent her head, her radiance gone, and without her magnificent gold ornaments, without the protection of her outer robe, barefaced and barefooted she went through the sixth gate.
Ishtar walked the short distance to the seventh gate. The watchman opened all the bolts and locks, and said, “enter into the realm of Irkalla, fine lady. Welcome to the place from where nobody ever returns.” As he spoke, he took her dress. She wanted to know why he had taken her dress, leaving her naked. “Oh lady,” he said, “this is the law of Lady Irkalla!”
Now in the nude, she bent her head, her radiance gone, and without her magnificent gold ornaments, without the protection of her outer robe, barefaced and barefooted she went through the seventh gate, where she found Irkalla.
Irkalla, the Queen of the Underworld had the head of a lioness and the body of a woman; in her arms she carried her pet, a deadly serpent. She summoned Belisari, the lady of the desert who was her scribe, and who came carrying the clay tablets on which all Irkalla’s decrees would be written down. Behind these two the dead gathered. There was no light in their eyes; they were dressed not in cloth but feathers, and instead of arms and hands they had the wings of birds. They lived in darkness. Ishtar became frightfully anxious seeing them, and she wished she had never ventured in this dark place. She had expected to find Tammuz here, but now she realized that this was a hopeless quest. Desperate, she begged Irkalla to allow her to return to the land of the living. Irkalla uttered a cold and contemptuous laugh and when she spoke, it was as if an icy wind blew against Ishtar’s naked body.
Irkalla said, “Ishtar, you may be the Lady of the Gods, but you are in my realm now, and nobody returns from this place of darkness. This is called the House of Darkness for good reason, and whoever enters here, magistrate or warrior, king or shep herd, milkmaid or goddess, can never return. Whoever enters this house has no more need of light. Dust will be your bread and mud will be your meat. Your dress will be a cloak of feathers. The gates are already bolted behind you, lady!”
Having said this, Irkalla summoned Namtar, the demon of the plague. Namtar appeared from the darkness, a viper’s head on a human body, naked underneath a cloak made of bones, and eagles claws instead of feet. He embraced Ishtar, making sure that the plague spread over her whole body. Feathers grew on her, and the light disappeared from her eyes. She tasted dust and ate mud. All memory of her past existence, of her great love Tammuz, disappeared with the light.
On earth a profound change came when Ishtar descended into the Underworld. Love and desire became strangers to man and animal alike. Birds no longer sang. Bulls no longer searched out the cows. Stallions were no longer attracted to mares. Rams no longer cared for ewes. Wives no longer caressed their husbands when they returned from business or war. Husbands no longer longed to lie with their wives. The women in Ishtar’s temple became lonely, nobody wanted to spend time drinking and singing and making merry with them. Shamash, the sun god, was deeply perturbed when he saw the changes that had befallen earth. He could foresee the disaster that awaited earth. Without procreation, without regeneration, there would be no life left on earth once the people and animals who were there now died off. The beings that the gods had created would all be extinct. He knew this was because of Ishtar’s descent into the Underworld, but he also knew that his power was not great enough to over come Irkalla. Shamash went to see Ea, the great god, and told him that Earth’s creatures were not renewing themselves.
“How is this possible?” asked Ea.
Shamash then related that Ishtar had descended to the Underworld, in search of Tammuz, and had not returned. Ea then created a being he called Udushunamir, which he made devoid of all emotion or fear. With the power of all the gods, Ea sent him as an emissary to the Underworld court of Irkalla, where he would demand the water of life from the dark queen. Because Ea, the great god, had created Udushunamir, Irkalla had no power over this creature and could not stop it entering her realm. Udushunamir entered the Underworld, and stood before Irkalla, where he demanded in the name of the great gods that Irkalla provide him with the water of life, and that Ishtar be brought from the darkness. Of course, Irkalla was furious at this demand. Her body trembled with rage as she roared and cursed both Ishtar and the emissary and all the gods everywhere, but to no avail. Udushunamir, being devoid of all emotion or fear, was unaffected either by the terrible sights in this dark place or by Irkalla’s curses. Irkalla could do nothing but submit, and she ordered the water of life be given to this crea
GODDESS OF NOD
ture, and so it was. She then summoned Namtar and ordered him to bring the Lady of the Gods from the Darkness. Ishtar, covered in decrepit feathers, was brought before Udushunamir, who then liberally sprinkled the water of life all over her. The dust fell off Ishtar. The mud fell off Ishtar and the feathers and bird’s wings fell off her. She was alive again. She stood before her enemy, Irkalla, her head still bowed, colorless, weaker than a newborn human, just as naked and shaking like a leaf in the storm, but dead no longer.
Udushunamir guided her through the darkness to the seventh gate, where Nadu the watchman handed her the dress he had taken from her earlier. She covered her nakedness with it. She passed through the seventh gate and Udushunamir guided her to the sixth gate. The watchman opened it and gave her back her outer garment, which she put on over her dress. She passed through the sixth gate and Udushunamir guided her to the fifth gate. The watchman opened it and he handed her back her splendid veil. She took the veil and covered her bare face, then passed though the fifth gate. Udushunamir guided her to the fourth gate, where the watchman handed her back her shoes. She put them on her bare feet and proceeded through the fourth gate. Udushunamir guided her to the third gate. The watchman opened it and handed her back her bejeweled bracelets. She took the bracelets and put them on her bare wrists. She passed through the third gate and Udushunamir guided her to the second gate. The watchman opened it and gave her back the magnificent eight-pointed star. Ishtar accepted the jewel and put it back on her neck. She walked through the second gate and Udushunamir guided her to the first gate. The watchman opened it and gave her back her high crown. She took it in her hands and put it back on her head. Now Ishtar, her garments and orna ments reinstated, could leave the realm of Irkalla.
When she emerged from the cave, the earth was silent. There was no birdsong. No sounds came from the herds of cows and goats. No sailors’ songs came from the harbor. No music
came from her temple. But as she walked from the cave her power returned, her neck straightened and her head bowed no longer, her splendor shone brilliantly and she walked as a goddess once more, a smile on her face. The stallion bayed and the bull bellowed. The rams reared high. Soldiers and merchants alike made excuses to rush home to their wives’ fond embraces. The women in Ishtar’s temple picked up their instruments and sang beguiling words to the men passing by below. All of creation rejoiced in the return of Ishtar. All the gods rejoiced too, knowing that their creations would renew themselves and would survive to honor and serve them.
Their voices fell silent, echoes playing in the shadows. Alice waited for the question, and when it didn’t come, she turned a puzzled look on Clotho.
“No question this time, child. I think you understand, the Balance is broken. Restore it.”
Alice nodded and stood. She looked at her friends, who had grown quiet during the story, and then back to the Sisters. For a moment, as years ago, their shadows shimmered on the wall, spider and woman. They turned to their work and Alice joined her friends.