The Deeps (Book Three of The Liminality), Page 2A. Sparrow
“And who do we have here?” said Frankie.
“Excuse me?” said the girl.
“I am asking your name? Me, I am Francis. And that is Rudolph, my cousin. The skinny, white boy in the corner is our friend, James.”
“Um … I’m uh … A. Ellen Greywacz.”
“A? What kind of name is A?”
“Oh … uh … sorry. I’ve been filling out too many forms. The A comes from my grandma. But I don’t use it, except for signing my name. Most people call me Ellen.”
“So what does the A stand for? Annie?”
“I’d … uh … rather not say.”
“Antoinette? Alice? Amanda?”
“Agatha?” said Rudolph. “Aretha?”
“Please. Just call me Ellen.”
“And what horrible crime against the Queen have you committed that these people want you out of their country so badly?”
“I … uh … overstayed my student visa.”
Frankie reacted in mock horror.
“Oh my God! Such a criminal! Too much education! You overdid your studies.”
“Well, actually … it was the opposite,” she said, sheepishly. I quit school but stuck around. I’ve been working in a pub. One of the Polish waitresses turned me in. I don’t know what her problem was. Didn’t like Americans, I guess.”
She seemed a little more perked up now. Frankie seemed to have that effect on people.
“So why are they kicking you guys out?”
“If we tell you,” said Frankie, lowering his voice in mock gravitas, “We have to kill you. Actually, I tink they got too many Jamaicans, they don’t want any more of us.”
Ellen’s gaze fixed on me and hovered like a pesky gnat. I glanced away quickly. I wasn’t feeling very sociable.
“So who’s the shy one?” she said.
“I told you. His name is James.”
Chapter 2: Transit
They ended up putting the four of us, plus two private security guards on a British Air flight to Newark, one guard for the Jamaicans and one for me and the blonde girl–Ellen. I’m not sure why we needed so many chaperones. Me and my new friends were all pretty docile and good-natured and resolved to be going home. We weren’t going to cause anyone any trouble. If anything, I was the surliest of the bunch.
The British Air folks had us deportees board first, even before any parents with small children or disabled folks needing extra assistance. They wanted to make sure we were in place and buckled down before they let the regular folks on.
Our seats were in the very last two rows of the plane, next to the washrooms. Frankie and I took window seats. They kept the Jamaicans together. Rudolph while Ellen sat next to me. The guards, both American, took the aisles.
They were both wary and taciturn with us, way less pleasant than Hank and Mr. Osborne. Frankie got told to sit down and shut up when he tried to kick up a chat with a lady the next row up.
That was fine with me. I wasn’t in any mood to talk. I think Ellen sensed this, because she didn’t pry. I appreciated that.
Ellen was an old soul. I could tell that from her eyes. They held wisdom and sadness beyond their years. She had seen a lot of stuff in her time, some of it quite bad.
It amazed even me that I could tell that from a glimpse. I had never found myself particularly empathetic or perceptive, but Root had taught me a lot about people.
She caught me looking at her a little too long and I blinked away, pretending it unintentional. But in that glance, I found a confidence and optimism that contrasted greatly with Rudolph’s twin pits of doom. She might be bitter about life, but she had come to grips with it. I was pretty sure she had never seen Root. Few people do and even fewer live to tell about it.
Overhead bins slammed. The aisles cleared. Ellen picked up a Sky Mall catalog and commented on some strange cat toy. I stared straight ahead and grunted.
She probably thought me rude or standoffish, but I was just trying to settle down and get my head into that fugue state where Root could come and take my soul away for a while. Then again, even when I tried to be friendly, my social graces had never been anything to brag about.
We taxied. Stowed our electronics devices. Ignored the safety briefing. And the plane took off.
Still not a glimmer of Root showed itself. I wanted to go back there so badly. Too badly. That was the problem.
Once we got up to cruising altitude and the stewardesses brought the beverage cart around, I gave up trying and broke out of my shell.
“Where you from?” I blurted, out of nowhere.
She put down the ‘in flight’ magazine and looked at me like I was some piece of furniture that had miraculously acquired the power of speech.
“Um … well, I grew up in Connecticut, but I had been going to school in Maine … before I came out here.”
“Bates,” she said.
“Oh!” I said, feigning recognition even though I had never heard of it before.
“Yeah. They say it’s a really good school, I guess. I … uh … wasn’t a very good student. I kind of hung out with the townies—my Somalian friends in downtown Lewiston. I really only went there for the study abroad.”
“Why didn’t you just go to college in England?”
“I … I wasn’t sure I’d like it. I had never been there before. I just thought it’d be cool, I mean … I was a big Harry Potter and Dr. Who fan. Turns out, it’s more like ‘Skins.’
“A series on E4. Dysfunctional teens. Suburban blight. You know. That sort of thing. The slimy underbelly.”
“So … you going back … to Bates?”
“Nah. I’m done. I’m done with college.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Oh? Where did you go?”
“Are you even … college age?”
“Um … yeah. Don’t I look it?”
“You look young,” she said. “Younger than me.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m … almost twenty,” I said, truthfully, though I was tempted to lie.
“Hmm. You look even younger,” she said. “Except … except for your eyes.”
I wondered if she could see the Root in me the way I saw it in Rudolph. Would she realize what she was looking at if she did? Doubtful.
“So where did they nab you?” I said. “Did I hear you say you were working in a pub?”
“Yup. In Cheltenham.”
“Sounds … familiar.”
“It’s a nice, little tourist town on the edge of the Cotswolds.”
“Oh, right. I think I’ve actually been there. I was working for a while on a goat farm in Brynmawr.”
“South Wales. Yup. I know it. We were practically neighbors.” said Ellen with a big smile that betrayed as much bitterness as it did sweetness.
As the meal cart inched its way down the aisle, I leaned against the window and stared through the broken clouds. Ponds took turns glinting at us, one by one. We passed over villages—clusters of cobble and slate, nodes in a network of roads and walls. And then came an abrupt and jagged line of bluffs and beaches, waves breaking in frothy arcs.
It pained me to watch all that green terrain slip away into open ocean. I hadn’t felt half as bereft leaving Florida for good, and I couldn’t understand why.
The feeling of connection I felt with the British Isles was a little difficult to explain. I was three generations removed from my Dad’s Irish ancestors. Was it because this was the only place I had ever known the earthly version of Karla? Could it be that simple?
All my pondering spurred an involuntary but familiar chain reaction. I stifled a sly thrill, disengaging my mind, nurturing the process, letting things fall where they may. Any attempt to guide the outcome would make it all go away. This is what Karla called ‘surfing.’
And wouldn’t you know, those dang tendrils came
for me, entangling my soul, pulling it free from my body. I felt myself tumbling through the floor of the plane. It didn’t matter if a soul was six feet under or cruising at thirty-nine thousand feet when the Liminality calls.
Chapter 3: Grave
Low clouds dumped a steady rain. Drops pocked every puddle. I was back in that hollow, nestled against the foothills of the massif harboring Frelsi and its dead sister city from which I had raised an army of Old Ones.
Rainy season had set in with a vengeance. The once dainty trickle of a waterfall that drained a hanging valley was now an engorged and dirty torrent that pounded into its bowl. My little pond was a sea, submerged by the overflow of the flooded creek. The few patches of high ground were now islands.
One such island surrounded the big old weeping willow I had created from a shrub. Its droopy and pendulous branches swayed in the wind. It amazed me that it had not already come undone. At its base, flood waters lapped at Karla’s grave mound.
The sight jolted me. It was still difficult to believe that she was gone. My pulse pounded. I had a pilgrimage to make.
I waded through knee deep water across the shelf of sediments that formed the banks of the pond in dry season. The hilt of the ancient sword I had found in the ruins where I had awakened Mr. O protruded above the surface, right where I had jabbed it into the mud beside my throne of clay. I yanked it out and swished it around in the water to clean off the mud. Not a hint of corrosion marred the gleaming metal.
Keeping my eyes on that willow, I swung around in a wide arc, working my way over to the other side of the pond, probing the mud with my toes to avoid ledges and holes obscured by the murk. The water was surprisingly warm, but then again, my body didn’t seem to sense temperature extremes as acutely in this place.
When I reached Karla’s grave mound, my heart plunged like a slug of molten lead. It dropped me to my knees. I lowered my forehead to the moss covering it.
I remembered the first morning after dad’s passing. I woke up, half alert, assuming he was still alive, just like he had been every other morning of my life. That our family was intact. That it was the beginning of another ordinary day.
Then it was like, oh shit! He’s gone! He’s really gone!
Seeing this pile of dirt that I dug out by myself, knowing who lie beneath it because I put her there, that made the reality hit home. This wasn’t a dream, either. She was really gone.
I reared my head back screamed, my wails echoing off the walls of the canyon, reverberating until the roar of the waterfall swallowed it back up. Leaning heavily on the sword, I got back up on my feet.
I couldn’t stand the thought of Karla’s body down under all this mud, protected only by that thin, cloth shroud. The image greatly disturbed me.
But what was I going to do? Dig her up and move her body to higher ground? I told myself that body down there wasn’t really her. It was just a receptacle for her soul, one of many probably associated with every manifestation of existence. This particular shell of hers might be ruined, but there was another one somewhere, right now roaming the Deeps.
That sort of made sense, but I wasn’t sure I believed it. It sure felt like she was gone forever.
I turned and faced the exit to the canyon, gazing out over the pitted plains. I needed to pay a visit to my old buddy Bern.
Chapter 4: Attack
I picked my way along a pile of stony rubble at the base of the canyon wall, the only dry land between the cliffs. The plains at least would be dry once I got beyond the fan of outwash that spilled from the mouth of the canyon. Those pits and tunnels were good for drainage, if nothing else.
Stones clattered down from the opposite bluff. Something bulky moved across a cleft in the boulders topping the promontory. Someone was up there watching me.
Duster spies, perhaps? Urszula? I beamed a smile up into the rain and waited for her to show herself on her mantis.
But nothing budged. The rain continued to pour down. A puff of cloud drifted down and veiled the rocks, but otherwise all was still. Maybe the stones had been loosened by the rain.
Suddenly self-conscious of my nakedness. I plucked some leaves from a shrub and expanded them into a cottony fabric that I shaped into my typical black hoodie and blue jeans. If I was about to have company, I had to make myself look presentable. No one wanted to look at my skinny behind.
I continued on my way. A pair of leathery triangles rose out of the mists at the crest of the butte. Wings. But they belonged to no dragonfly or mantid. They were dark and jointed and angular like a pterodactyl’s.
The beast that owned them looked like a winged maggot. A horn-like proboscis projected forward from its narrow snout. The damned thing was a Reaper—one of the mutant variants the Frelsians had gotten so good at breeding—spiker with wings.
The beast that owned them launched itself off the precipice. It dove straight at me.
I looked for a place to flee, but didn’t have much choice. I was trapped between the flooded creek and the canyon wall. I gripped the sword in both hands and braced myself. The thing was neither nimble nor strong as a flier. It was more a glider. When a blast of wind knocked it off course, it struggled to curve back around.
I tried to stay calm. I held out the sword and tried to summon a spell. But the two goals worked at counter purposes. Staying calm was not compatible with powerful spell craft. So I let the fear take me. I let myself be annoyed.
I was running out of time. The spiker crashed and skidded on the bank of the creek, wing joints and rear claws scraping a deep groove in the damp sand. It was an ugly thing, with a semi-translucent hide through which the outline of its organs was faintly visible. It jabbed its elbows in the ground and clambered after me.
I had no choice but to use my sword as simply a blade. The spiker lunged, trying to impale me with its proboscis. I dodged aside and took a swipe, slashing a furrow in its hide. With a groan, it wheeled around and came back at me. I danced away, taking advantage of its clumsiness on the ground. But it made up for its unwieldy wings with vicious determination.
I backed away down the narrow strip of dry land along the canyon wall. It was all I could manage not to trip on the loose rubble. I scanned the sky over the plains for a friendly mantid or two, but all I saw were low-hanging clouds, rumpled and quilted beneath.
Across the canyon, another shower of gravel came spilling down a chute. A second winged spiker surmounted the butte and stretched its wings. Things were about to get twice as hairy.
A strange cloud appeared over the ridge-top and a swarm of smaller things came zipping through the cleft harboring the waterfall.
The first spiker took advantage of my distraction to hurl itself at me. Only my reflexes saved me. I leaped back and batted its lance-like snout aside with the flat of my blade. It crashed headlong into a cliff. I scurried away, crab-like while it regathered its ungainly self.
The second spiker came gliding down, aiming for an outcropping of bedrock between me and the outlet to the canyon. The damned thing was aiming to trap me. I got up and ran, tripping and sliding over the loose stone underfoot.
The gliding spiker adjusted its flight path, squealing with anticipation as it homed in on me. I fell, dropped the sword, retrieved it, frantically.
Panic thrummed my nerves. The first spiker flailed at me with a pair of hooked claws projecting from its wing tips, just missing. I dove into a pocket in the rubble as it slashed its other wing where my head had just been.
The first beast was so close now I could smell it and it reeked like spoiled meat. This was a Reaper through and through, an enemy of the soul. Its mere presence inspired a primeval hatred to ignite in me, for all the humanity this breed of demon had dragged to destruction.
Something switched on inside my heart. The sword became more than a sword. I took a deep breath as something loosened inside me and a buzzing energy filled my nervous system.
The first monster reared up over me, aligning its proboscis with my chest, ready t
Without any conscious effort on my part, the energy building inside me released. It broke loose like a dam with too much river piled up behind it. A beam of diffuse light came pouring out of the sword tip, bending at random like a lazy lightning bolt.
It struck the spiker full on in the snout and blew its head to bits. Its body instantly slumped.
The second spiker crash-landed behind me, sending up a shower of wet grit. I rolled to face it, to do battle with it next but it was already writhing in the rubble pile with a half dozen giant bees attached and a dozen more swarming about in tight, angry circles, itching for a sting.
One bee flew over and landed right next to me. Oblivious to its battling sisters, it regurgitated a drop of nectar and offered it to me. I wasn’t in the mood for refreshment. I shooed it away.
The headless spiker slashed its claws about blindly before collapsing in a pool of its yellowish blood. The other beast lay crumpled on its side, as the bees continued to pump it with venom.
I got up and staggered off towards the outlet of the canyon, anxious to put some distance between me and the now spiker-infested hollow. A few stray bees did some loops around my head before buzzing off.
That little sneak attack had totally wrecked my composure. This had to have been a planned hit. The damned Frelsians were out to get me. I expected mutated Reapers to come bounding from every crevice and overhang.
I made my way up the shoulder of the nearest of the two bluffs that flanked the outlet of the canyon. The tilted slabs of bedrock made for easier footing, even though the stone was slick from rain.
I paused at the brink of the pitted plans to get my bearings. The creek here fanned out into a lacework of channels. Beyond this wash, the plains looked fairly homogeneous. There weren’t many landmarks once you got away from the hills.
My eyes homed in on a heap of what looked like wreckage on the rim of one of the nearer pits. I shook the grit from my clothes and clambered down to the flats, keeping my sword at the ready.