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Nov, 2012

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BURN IN HADES

BY

MICHAEL L. MARTIN JR.

Text copyright © 2011 by Michael L. Martin Jr.

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, scanning, or other—except for brief quotations in critical reviews or articles, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Chapter 1 – Cottontail
Chapter 2 – King Cross
Chapter 3 – Ebony Bird
Chapter 4 – The Man Who Remembers
Chapter 5 – Diamond Tooth
Chapter 6 – A Cross To Bear
Chapter 7 – Soul Mates
Where to Purchase BURN IN HADES
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Map of the Underworld

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CHAPTER 1

Cottontail

Rest in peace, my ass.

Cross squinted up at the bright flame-filled sky and aimed his arrow straight up at the giant bird. At that height it appeared only slightly bigger than the head of his arrow, but most adult barbots were at least the size of a stallion. He could taste the juicy meat already.

He cocked the bowstring back and kept an eye fixed on the featherless bird as it soared peacefully through the red flames that swirled about in every inch of the sky, licking downward like a serpents tongue. The exploding bursts of heat that boomed out of the sky would have scorched any other spirit, but not barbots.

The bowstring snapped, lashing his forearm and neck.

“Dammit!” He slammed the bow to the balcony floor and crushed it under his boot. “Worthless piece of—”

The giant bird spiraled down out of the fiery sky like a comet. It slammed into the black garden with a ruckus, colliding with tree branches in a crackling thud and vanished inside the thick brush.

Cross hadn’t shot it down though. His arrow lay impotently on the grimy balcony floor of the ruined temple. Either he was lucky that the bird had fallen or there was something more sinister afoot. Given all his knowledge of the underworld, it was most likely the latter.

He refused to enter the haunted garden to retrieve his quarry and headed back into the dark temple of skulls to wait for another barbot to fly over. But how the hell would he bring the next one down with a broken bow?

A terrible cramp stabbed through his belly like a butcher was gutting him with an icy hook. The pain brought him to knees. His hands slapped the soiled stone.

He clasped his hands together and drove his fists into his stomach. The blow snatched the air from his lungs, and the mysterious vermin swimming around in his stomach finally quit squirming, but they were still hungry.

“Hobble your lip you stinkin’ varmints,” he said. “I’ll go get the damn bird.”

His condition wasn’t nearly the same thing as being pregnant, but still, to have something living inside his stomach gave him a new respect for the wife he once had. Before the memories could penetrate his train of thought, he hummed one his favorite old spiritual songs: “Ride up in the Chariot”. The lyrics alone gave him a little boost in his soul, and concentrating on the melody kept his mind away from the disturbing memories of his child, whom he never had a chance to meet.

He pulled himself from the floor, grabbed his obsidian blade, and exited the temple down the stony staircase. The temple acted as a divider between the ball court and the wretched garden he’d planned on never entering again, mostly to avoid the little girl that lived in there. He faced the webs of fragile weeds, each primed to topple. He hesitated, clutched the grip of his blade and proceeded up the stone ramp into the garden to fetch his meal.

The only good thing about the garden of One Death and Seven Death was its temperature. The cool shadows provided a rare and refreshing chill, a much welcome respite from the barrage of heat from the flaming sky. Dead weeds in the garden grew three times as tall as Cross stood. None of them were green. They were all pale or dark, and they grouped together like an angry mob surrounding a runaway slave. Scraggly vines ensnared headless statues of the deities who had once owned the garden, and they blocked most of the torturing heat from the sky, encasing everything in a nice canvass of shade.

With his obsidian blade, Cross hacked away at every brittle weed that barricaded the garden. As his shoulder brushed the lifeless foliage, they flaked to the ground like snow, and leaves of mush and slime squished under his boots.

Spirits wept in the shadows, but he couldn’t see them. The deeper he trudged into the garden, the louder their cries grew, as if the Great Goddess would hear them, feel sorry for them, and rescue them from their lament.

Cross knew better. Magna Mater only helped those who helped themselves. Moping around and crying never solved any problems. He stopped near a putrid pond of poisonous water that some God must’ve spent time soaking in at one time. A stone head of one of their decapitated statues lay next to the pond staring up with an asshole grin.

Cross picked up the head. “I’ll give you something to cry about.” He tossed the head into the darkness at the spirits.

Instantly, the stone head shot back out of the blackness.

Cross was lying on the ground with a throbbing head before he could even think about ducking. The stone had hit him right in the soft spot of his head. As he rubbed his forehead he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the murky pond water beside him. He cringed at the unsightly dark hole through his forehead and splashed his fist into the pond to disturb his reflection.

The little girl whom he had hoped to abandon now stood over him as if she had been there the whole time. She was a brand new soul, no more than a few weeks dead, so she didn’t look as sallow as he did. Neither of them knew exactly how long ago she had become a member of the damned, but she was about nine years old at the time of her death. She didn’t remember her exact age, but that’s how old she appeared to Cross.

He moved to pick himself up and wobbled backwards, still shaken from the blow to his head. She dropped to her knees. He turned his head away as she caressed his cheeks in her tiny hands.

“Let me take a look,” she said, tending to his injury as if she were a nurse or something in her past life. She cared too much.

He swatted her touch. “Ain’t the first time I butted heads with anyone.”

“That’s because you haven’t figured out what ‘heaping coals of fire’ really means.”

“What do you know? You’re just a snot-nosed little kid.”

She grabbed his arm and helped pull him from the ground. He did most of the heavy lifting. She was just a puny little girl with dark, bushy hair. That’s why he nicknamed her Cottontail.

“I know that the weepers don’t want you here,” said Cottontail. “They cry louder every time you’re around.”

Cross chuckled. “A realm where I’m not wanted? That’s a first.”

“I don’t want to be here either. I hate it here. The only one I can talk to is you and the skull with the funny name. It said you were leaving.”

The only reason the skull knew of Cross’s plan was because Cross couldn’t keep his big mouth shut.

“I told you to wait here until I got back and not to talk to anybody,” he said, wagging his finger at her nose. “That’s your problem. You don’t listen.”

She hammered a fist into his stomach. The blow came as a shock but didn’t hurt. He almost laughed out of gladness that he had finally gotten her to express some toughness that she would desperately need in the future.

“You were never gonna come back,” she said.

“I’m here now.” He smiled.

“To get your stupid barbot. You didn’t come back for me.” She turned away from him and stared down at the pond. “But I forgive you. If I were you, I’d leave me too.”

“I was gonna share the barbot with you before I left,” he said, which was partially a lie. He was really going to leave her portion of the food behind before he ditched her. “It should be around this dump somewhere.” He peered deep into the shadows. “You seen it?”

Cottontail folded her arms.

“I thought you said you forgave me,” he said.

“That doesn’t mean I want you to leave.”

“Well, I guess the ants are gonna get it now. And I was gonna let you have your favorite piece this time. Too bad. I know you’re hungry. You haven’t eaten since the last time we ate together yesterday.”

Her child-sized stomach gave a wimpy gurgle. She pointed the way to the bird without relaxing her cute little scowl that always chipped away at his solid heart. He followed her direction deeper into the garden and into louder cries from the weepers. Cottontail’s footsteps squashed through the mush beside him.

He found the barbot wrapped up in vines, but it wasn’t dead like he’d hoped; its wing appeared to be its only injury. It lay curled up in that fetal position that everyone resorts to when suffering immense pain. Its beady, dark red eyes were scanning its surroundings. It might’ve seen them coming before they saw it.

“She’s one of the more beautiful ones.” Cross admired the bird’s smooth brown skin. Barbot’s were usually harder looking, but this one was a lot less wrinkly.

“Looks like a big ol’ saddle bag to me,” said Cottontail. “Like all the others.”

He’d seen uglier barbots and she would too if she survived long enough. There were plenty of them in the underworld. The scaly birds fit his mind’s image of dragons, only smaller, and lacking the scary horns and the useful ability to breathe fire. They were gentle creatures.

Cross crept up to the featherless bird whispering in his friendliest voice all kinds of pleasantries to make it feel comfortable. A bushel of fresh calabash lay next to the bird. Their smooth green skins were burst and split open, emptied of all their poisonous, green juices.

He’d been drawn to the garden intentionally, and he knew exactly the sneaky bastard who had led him there. But it was too late for him to do anything about it now.

He leapt on the barbot’s leathery back. It gave a great squawk and flailed around. If its wing hadn’t been broken the tight area of the dense garden would have prevented it from taking flight anyway, but that didn’t stop the bird from trying.

It gave Cross a rough ride; it thrashed around, trying to leap into the air only to bash Cross into the limbs of frail trees. He held on firmly, arms wrapped around its thick featherless neck.

“It’s alright,” Cross said to the barbot. “You’re safe. Best be glad I got to you before those ants. They ain’t got no respect.” He placed a comforting hand on its head and gave it a pat. The barbot calmed.

“Good. Thata girl,” he said. “Now, this is going to be scary at first. But when you start to feel tired, you just go on to sleep. Everything will be all right.” He reached down and clutched the underside of its beak, and pulled its head up. The bird resisted and struggled against him. He tightened his grip and held firmly onto the bird.

“I hate it when you do this part,” said Cottontail.

“I want you to look this time,” he said, pointing the tip of his obsidian blade at her. “Don’t you turn away. You hear me?”

She shook her head. “I can’t.” She stared down at her feet.

“If you’re going to make the journey to paradise you’re going to see a lot worse than this.”

Slowly, she lifted her head and squinted her eyes as Cross placed his blade at the bird’s neck.

“May the Great Goddess have mercy on your soul,” he said to the bird and sliced its jugular.

Cottontail winced, but she didn’t look away. He understood her reluctance to see such brutality. That was the only reason he didn’t force her to kill the bird herself this time, even though he should have.

The very first time he ever killed a chicken, he was a kid, and the sunny-side-up eggs he had eaten that morning for breakfast left his stomach and soiled his only shirt. He had raised that chick from the cutest little fur ball to full grown. It was his first friend. There weren’t any other Negroes his age to play with, and that chicken was his only companion on the entire plantation. When Mama made him kill it, he cried for a day and couldn’t bring himself to eat it. He had come a long way since then.

Life goes on. And so does death.

He propped the dead barbot against a tree upside down. “Always let the blood drain out completely,” he told Cottontail. “You can’t get too much of that stuff in your stomach. It’ll make you sick like you never thought possible.”

She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. “This is why I need to be with you. You know everything.”

“Yeah, sometimes it’s not good to know things. Sometimes you can know too much.”

“But if you keep teaching me stuff like that, I won’t be so useless.” She kicked at a stem with no head.

“I wish I could be a dumb little kid again,” he said. “You ain’t gotta do nothing but eat and sleep while somebody else takes care of you. Why don’t you make yourself useful and you won’t be so useless.”

She never lifted her gaze from the ground and heard a little sniffle escape her. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so mean to her, but she needed to toughen up. Out in the underworld, she’d experience much worse things than his cold attitude. If she couldn’t handle him, she wouldn’t last a second with any other spirits.

“Useless souls don’t make it to paradise,” he said, gently. “And I’m gonna see to it that you make it.”

She lifted her head back up, and flung herself into him, wrapping her scrawny arms around his waist. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I promise I’ll stay out of your way. I’ll be quiet. I won’t ask a whole lot of questions.”

“You misunderstand me. I’m not bringing you with me.”

She released her grip on his torso and stared up at him. “What then?”

“We’re gonna meet in paradise. You’re going by yourself.”

Her eyes widened and glazed over. “I can’t go alone. I don’t even know the way.”

“Paradise is east. That way.” He pointed eastward, but the light of paradise couldn’t be seen from inside the shady garden. “Go east and you won’t miss it.”

“I’ll toughen up. I promise. You can call me whatever names you want. Just take me with you. I could even help you fight off those squal things. We’ll be a team.”

She would make a great companion in another life. She reminded him a little too much of his childhood friend, Kate. Knowing he had to part ways with the runt hurt him, but the spirits hunting his head would have no problem burning Cottontail to get to him.

He refused to allow that to happen to another soul, especially her. As happy it made him to have her around—or anyone around for that matter—she was safer staying as far away from him as possible. She was too pure to allow the underworld to taint her like it did every other soul. Her innocence was rare and precious. Her compassion was a gem worth coveting and keeping secret from the rest of the underworld. He wished he could hold on to her sincerity forever.

He’d rather she not make the journey to paradise at all, but she was as stubborn as he was; she’d follow him throughout the underworld no matter how much he protested. She already followed him around like a little lamb. Mapping out her quest to paradise was at least a way of giving her a better shot at survival.

He sat down on the cool dirt and patted his lap for her sit. She snuggled up with him like he used to do with his mother when he was little. Mama’s arms were the safest place in the whole wide world.

“Between here and paradise is hell,” he said to Cottontail. “Not the Hell. Well that’s somewhere along the way too. But I mean hell as in really bad stuff. What’s out there ain’t got nothing on the ants, or the bats, or the jaguars, or even the squals. That’s why I still think you should stay here where it’s safer.”

“You said there is no such thing as safe in the underworld.”

Her memory was nearly as good as his. She just didn’t remember anything about her life, unlike him. She didn’t know how she died, while he could never forget the perplexing events that surrounded his final moments. Of course, no other soul knew what he knew. None of them remembered like him. That’s why his headful of memories was so prized. But soon he would forget; once he made it to paradise.

“This is what you’re going to do,” he told her. “You’re going to call for Charon. It comes to spirits no matter where they are. It usually takes you where you’re supposed to be, but sometimes it takes you where you want to go. It already did that for me before. It’s not going to do it again. But you’re new. You have a clean slate. And you’re a kid. You’ll get slightly good treatment.”

Her frail spirit trembled in his arms. “I don’t know if I can,” she said.

He was hoping that he’d at least instill enough fear in her to make her want to stay in Xibalbá with the weepers, but his scare tactics only caused her to cling to him even more.

“A little bit of fear is good,” he said. “That means you’re paying attention. And when you’re paying attention, it’s difficult for something to surprise you.” He poked his finger in her stomach and tickled her. She giggled and squirmed.

“How long have you been in this place anyway?” asked Cottontail.

Cross caressed her bushy head and brought her close to his chest. “Long enough,” he said.

Sometime during his 300th year, he had given up on counting his sleep cycles—the only way souls could keep track of their personal time spent in the underworld. Since that year, it seemed as if he had languished through the underworld’s endless day for double that amount of time. Eternity was a restless bitch.

The blood had fully drawn from the barbot and now he could cook it for the both of them. Cross sat Cottontail aside gingerly, rose to his feet and chopped off the bird’s head.

“If I’m going to meet you there,” said Cottontail, “then I think I should tell you my true name so you can find me.”

“Tell it to me when we see each other again,” said Cross, confident that she would make it to paradise, but a lot less sure about himself. He had a long treacherous journey ahead of him and his bounty hunters always trailed closely behind.

The garden swished and the barbot’s head rolled away into the crumbling foliage.

“Ants!” Cottontail whispered as if trying to hold in a frightful scream.

He thought they would’ve been gone by the time the ants smelled the barbot blood.

“They don’t want us,” he said. “Just our food.” He snatched up the barbot’s tail and lugged with all his might. It was like hauling a dead horse.

A forager ant race out of the brush and latched onto the other side of the barbot. The ant was the size of a fat rat and easily lifted its half of the bird in its clamping jaws. In a tug of war Cross pulled his end while the forager ant towed in the opposite direction.

Cottontail picked up a statue head in both her hands and raised it above the ant.

Cross released the barbot’s tail and threw up his hands. “Don’t—”

Before he could finish warning her not to kill the ant, she splattered the overgrown insect with the stone head. The weeping in the shadows stopped in an instant, and the garden itself belted out an angry hiss. It was the sound of an army of ants swarming upon him and Cottontail.

His thick spirits blood ran cold. “Now they want us,” he said.

Her trembling fingers touched her bottom lip. “I’m sorry.”

“Get to the ball court as fast as you can,” he said, remaining calm for her sake. “The ants never go there. Take this.” He wrapped her jittering hands around the grip of the blade, making sure she was holding it firmly. “I’m right behind you.”

Without hesitation, she began hacking the brittle weeds, making a path for him to drag the barbot through.

He threw the barbot’s tail over his shoulder and trudged forward through the dead kudzu in a fury. The sweeping trickles of the ants grew louder, gaining on him. His calves bulged to the point of bursting, but he dragged the bird through Cottontail’s path, past the tiny temple and then tumbled down the stony slope into the ball court.

The ants halted at the edge of the garden. Cross, out of breath, gasped in laughter. He raised his fingers up to his head and mocked the ants’ wiggling antennae.

“Too slow,” he said, giggling like a little girl.

“Don’t tease them,” said Cottontail.

“They were gonna eat us.”

“Because of me. I smashed one of them. That was one of their sons or uncles or something. They’re just hungry like we are. I feel like we should share our food with them now.”

“They weren’t gonna share with us.”

“They wouldn’t have teased us though. And it’s not like we ever eat the entire bird in one sitting anyway. Even with your pet cornurus, there’s enough for all of us.”

Her compassion was one of the many things he liked about Cottontail, but that was also the exact attitude he had to break her out of if she was going to survive. He was just too reluctant to destroy something so uncommon.

He turned to the ants still standing at attention at the edge of the ball court. “You have her to thank for this, fellas. Remember that.”

The ants waited patiently as he chopped off pieces of raw meat for them. Yanking the giant bird through the garden had strained his lower back, making for a tougher job as he bent over, but the obsidian blade ate through the flesh like a flame to a love letter.

He thanked the Great Goddess for finally repelling the scorching blue sky that had tortured them all week. It would char the meat before he could even sauté it and it took several periods of sleep to rid his mouth of the sooty taste.

But even when the smoldering sky dimmed red as it did that day, souls still weren’t immune to its wrath. A river of perspiration rippled down his back and sizzled right on his skin. Even though clouds of smothering smoke swirled above, they offered no relief from the baking heat and only served to bathe the realm of Xibalbá in redundant gloom.

“I get the breast this time,” said Cottontail, rubbing her palms together and licking her cracked lips.

“The breast is for Gimlet.” Cross lopped off the wings.

“You said earlier that you were going to give me my favorite piece.”

“Lesson one. Everybody lies.” He had to be tough on her. The underworld wouldn’t go easy on her just because she was a little girl. Something as simple as a meal could be her end. “Gimlet always gets the biggest piece because she’s the biggest.”

“Well, I want the wings then.”

“No, I get the wings because I killed the damn thing. That’s lesson two. When you kill it, you can have whatever piece you want.” He chopped the raining pieces off the bird. “Legs, thighs or tail? Take your pick.”

Cottontail huffed. “Legs then,” she grumbled.

“And your ugly little friends can have the rest.”

Curiously, the ants had climbed on each other’s backs forming a totem. The tower of ants wobbled and leaned into the ball court, nearly toppling over. Cross scooped Cottontail off her feet and dashed her out of the way of danger before the ants could crush her. The ants dangled over the barbot breast and snatched it up in their jaws.

“That’s not for you,” said Cross, grabbing for the breast, but merely swiping the air.

The tower of ants sprang backward into the garden and collapsed like a waterfall. They scurried away, carrying the breast with them, leaving behind the legs, thighs, wings and tail.

“Let them have it,” said Cottontail. “Gimlet can have my pieces. I’ll eat the thighs or tail. It doesn’t matter.”

“Nobody steals from me.” Cross darted into the garden. His eyes locked onto the barbot breast bouncing through the jungle as he chased. Suddenly, the breast rolled to a stop, but the ants continued scurrying into the garden and vanished into the darkness.

“That’s right,” said Cross. “Run! You know you can’t beat me.”

He reached for the barbot meat. The weepers halted their cries leaving only the wispy sound of dead grass swaying. He paused and surveyed the shadows.

The ground rippled and buckled, throwing him off his feet. An enormous green worm leapt out of the ground like a fish breaking the surface of water. It sailed over him, gaping its tunnel of a mouth and plunged back into the ground with a slimy splash as if diving back into the sea.

The worm was big enough to have swallowed Cross whole. He was lucky that it barely missed him. He searched for the barbot breast, but it was gone. Son of a bitch. The goddamn worm had devoured it.

The ground raked up again, and snaked toward the ball court where Cottontail stood with the rest of the meat. The weepers wailed like he had never heard them cry before.

Cross sprinted back to the court, rushing against the worm as it swam under the earth, but it was winning the race.

He spotted Cottontail and waved frantically for her to move away from the meat, which he no longer cared about. The worm could have the meat.

His efforts to warn her went unnoticed. She probably couldn’t see him as he was still draped in the shade of the garden, and the weepers seemed to be quelling his screams. He pushed his already exhausted legs harder, barreling through the jungle and finally tumbled down the stone ramp into the ball court shouting, “Get away from the meat!”

“What’s happening?” She stood there as if frozen in fear.

The ground exploded beneath her, sending her upward with a violent jolt, and then tumbling back into the worm’s mouth with barely enough time to scream. The worm sank straight down into the hole it came from.

Cross dove for the worm, but dirt had already filled its hole. The beast had vanished into the ground with his food and his friend. He dug the loose soil desperately with his hands and nails, scooping and tossing dirt, calling out for Cottontail.

“You stupid, dumb kid! Why didn’t you get out of the way?” He slammed his fist into the ground.

It never made sense that she would be in the underworld anyway. What could a sweet little girl like her ever do that was so bad in her life that she would end up in such a hopeless place?

A sudden burst of inspiration hit him. If she was truly gone, he’d know it. When someone close to him burned he always received a special sign. He checked his palm. Nothing. He shook his hand, slapped it, pinched it and squeezed his fist. Still no sign.

No sign meant something good, like Goddess willing, she hadn’t burned yet. She could still be in that he worm’s stomach, which meant she could be rescued. But he had no tools to dig with, and there was no telling how deep that worm had traveled by now. If Cottontail hadn’t burned yet, she would soon.

He picked himself off the ground and stormed further into the ball court. He trampled over the brown, flattened grass that covered the court and pounced into the shadow of the umbrella-shaped tree that sprouted out of its center.

“This is your fault.” He yelled up at the old tree. In a tremendous echo, his voice bounced off the two walls that fenced either side of the ball court. “Wake up, goddammit!” He kicked the tree trunk repeatedly.

He booted the tree so hard, if the branches had borne any leaves they would have fallen off. Its barren limbs, which linked and weaved like folded fingers, simply rattled. Then they jolted as the tree snapped to life, stretching at length with a crackle and pop. A skull poked its boney face out from amidst the branches, yawning.

“Rest is a very rare thing,” said the skull in its ancient, windy voice. “I suspect you have only awakened me because you are bearing good news.”

CHAPTER 2

King Cross

Stupid tree. There was no such thing as good news, except maybe for the predictable consistency of the underworld to never giveth and always taketh away. It always found ways to bleed a soul dry, mentally and physically. That was the one thing Cross could always depend on, if anyone could call that good news.

At least, he had suspected he’d lose Cottontail at some point. Anticipating it while being incapable of preventing it was what always hurt the most. He couldn’t trust most spirits, and losing the ones he could was eternal Hell. Everything that ever went wrong in his life and death flooded into his mind, and rage stroked the fire in his heart.

“I didn’t ask for your help, Skullface,” he scolded the tree. “I didn’t need your help. You sent me into the garden. And now…”

“Cottontail should be with you.” The skull’s skeletal jaws clunked happily together as it spoke and its eye sockets bloomed with a white hot glow.

“You don’t get to say her name!”

“If I had lips I would smile at the sound of her name. Where is Cotton—?”

Cross grabbed the bottom of Skullface’s jaw and held his boney mouth open. Unexpected moisture wet his hand. At first he thought it was some kind of sap, but its watery consistency was that of spit.

Dry bark grew over most of the skull’s bones giving the skull an appearance of having incomplete flesh; there were tribal markings tattooed all over the exposed portions of the skull; and some deep scratches made Skullface look as if he had gotten into a fight with an angry bird, but nothing indicated that the skull produced any saliva.

Cross released the skull’s jaw and wiped his hand on his shirt.

“That was very rude of you,” said Skullface. “And dangerous. You must never do this again.”

A branch whacked Cross over the head. It stung. He massaged his head and then checked his palm again. Still no sign of Cottontail’s second death. There was still a chance he could save her.

“How deep do those worms go?” he asked.

“Sometimes they go deeper than I can sense.”

“How deep is that?”

“My roots reach so far into the bowels of the underworld that I can feel the vibrations in the Inferno many sleep cycles before it erupts. By the way, expect a rather large eruption soon. If you stick to your sleep schedule, you should expect it to happen in your 119th period of sleep.”

“Can sense any of those worms around right now?”

“Currently, there are approximately one hundred eighty-two in this vicinity. But they come and go.”

Cross needed an object of the dead to rescue Cottontail or a miracle from the Great Goddess herself. Even with digging tools, he’d never be able to find the exact worm that ate her. No way could search the stomachs of one hundred eighty-two worms without getting eaten himself. If he had known her true name he could have tracked her. Now she was lost forever.

Cross sat down in the dirt, facing the tree and mumbled to himself. “Every time I bring someone with me they don’t last so long.”

“What is all this about?” The skull’s voice clattered in a panic. “Where’s Cottontail?”

“She’s on her way to paradise.” Cross chose to spare the skull’s feelings. It seemed happy to hear good news about Cottontail, and he didn’t want to break its heart—if it even had a heart.

“Gone to paradise?” The bark peeled upward from the skull’s eye sockets and the glow inside them bloomed in surprise. “All by her lonely? I had hoped she would go along with you. I told her all about your scheme to leave her behind, and I promised that I would not allow that to happen. That’s why I lead you into the garden.”

“The only reason I even told you is so you could feed her while I was gone.” Cross sprung from the ground and snapped a branch off the tree.

A limb grabbed him by the arms and dangled him in front of the skull. Its glowing eye sockets dimmed.

“Since the wars,” said Skullface, “no one would visit. I’m here all alone. Then you came. And you brought Cottontail.” Skullface’s eye sockets glowed white hot again, and the bark curled up the corners of its mouth. “I cherished every day you both spent here with me. Very much so. The three of us really make great companions. But I knew you couldn’t stay. And sorely, I am unable to move from my spot in this here ball court. This is my onus. But this inability to join you on your quest is what inspired me to do something nice for you. I only wished that you two would partner up at least. My true friends.”

“We’re not friends.”

“The cruel things you say,” said Skullface.

“Well, now you know better than to get too attached to anyone.” Cross tried to wiggle himself free from the tree’s grip.

It dropped him. He plopped to his bottom.

“You always preach loathsome words like this,” said Skullface. “I don’t know what to do with you.”

Cross cleaned the dirt from one of his fingernails with a twig. “There are two kinds of souls in the underworld: those that burn and those that don’t. I’ll never burn because I’m smart enough to realize that you can’t make friends in this place. The trustworthy ones burn. The others turn on you like Judas.”

The limbs of the tree swished from side to side. “Such a tragic view,” said Skullface. “Fear is no reason to pass up good things. Everyone could use a friend. And I shall have you know that I have never been a betrayer and do not ever intend to make myself into one.”

“And that’s why we’re all here. Because the damned never foresee their damnation. If they did, they wouldn’t be damned.”

“Why don’t you have a refreshing calabash? Hopefully, it will rid you of all your irksome gloom.”

A single green bottle-shaped fruit ballooned out of a barren limb and dangled. Cross gave the strange fruit the evil eye. It was shiny and juicy looking, but it would quench his thirst the same way a bullet to the gut would.

“If you want to be my friend so much, why do you keep trying to make me drink poison?”

“Poison?” The bark over Skullface’s eyes formed a deep V down the center of his eyes sockets as if the skull were offended by the accusation. “The calabash is not poison!”

“Don’t act like you don’t know your fruit hurts souls.”

A pointy limb stabbed toward Cross and stopped just short of his neck. It was like a giant thorn.

“Watch your tongue,” said Skullface. “It does no such thing.”

“I guess you never get a chance to see the effects because you’re stuck here in this ugly ball court. But back in Vingólf, the place where I used to live, souls would frequently end up there half burnt, warning us about a talking tree that made them sick. Most were even afraid to admit what exactly happened to them, but I’ve seen their stomachs blow up.”

The thorn swayed away from Cross, and Skullface’s glowing eyes dimmed nearly black.

“You are mistaken,” said Skullface. “My one true friend, I would never hurt you. I only wish to replenish your soul. That is all. Do you not trust my words?”

“Words are just words,” said Cross. “Your intentions might be good, but good intentions can do as much harm as cruel ones. I believe you when you say you don’t want to hurt me. But that doesn’t mean you won’t.” He smacked the fruit with the back of his hand. It sailed across the court and splashed on one of the walls. “The answer is always no, Skullface.”

“What is this name you insist on saying to me?” said Skullface. “How many times must I tell you that this Skullface name is not what I shall be called? I am Bolon-Hunahpu.”

“Then it’s your funeral, Bolon. You know it’s not wise to use true names.”

“I am never frightened of any spirit.”

“Good. ‘Cuz they’ll come soon. And I have to find Gimlet before I lose her too. I’m going to start tying her ass up from now on.”

Bolon-Hunahpu pivoted its trunk and twisted its branches. Eyes bloomed on the tip of each twig of the bony branches. The pupils darted every which way, and the branches swayed as though a breeze nudged them, but no such breeze ever swept through the underworld. That would be too comforting for the damned. Cold places existed in the underworld, but they were just as tormenting as the hot ones.

“I can’t see her,” said Bolon-Hunahpu, “but I sense that your pet cornurus is currently behind the palace. It appears she may be hunting. I shall draw her over to me. But before you leave, you must finally tell me how you’ve come to be here in this place.” A branch reached down patted Cross on the head gingerly.

Cross swatted the branch. “The same way everyone else got here. I was a good guy once. But bad things happened.”

“What kind of bad things?”

“It doesn’t matter. The past is dead. Or at least it should be.”

“The seed cannot sprout upwards without simultaneously sending roots into the ground. The plant reveals what is in the seed. There grows no wheat where there is no grain, soil, season, and sun. This explains why I bare no leaves, why the gardens are dead and why you will never move on if you kill your past.”

“Move on to what?”

“That is for you to find out.”

“Knowing what I’ve done in life, if there’s anything after this, it’s probably worse. I never even wanted to be an outlaw. There a hundred other things I would have rather done with my life, but I had to do what I had to do to survive. Now I’m here. Makes me wonder what you ever did to get where you are.”

The bark receded up the corners of Skullface’s mouth and peeled away from his glowing eye sockets. “I am so pleased that you’ve finally asked this of me!”

Cross waved his hand. “Now hold on. I didn’t ask you anything. I just had a vague curiosity. That’s it.”

“Take a look over at that wall.” Branches reached down like a hundred hands with a thousand fingers and pointed to one of the walls of the court.

Of the many souls carved into the walls, depicting some sort of ancient ball game, a single man stood as the only soul decapitated. Streams of what appeared to be blood sprouted from his neck and formed a serpent.

“That is Hun-Hunahpu,” said the skull. “He was the very first—”

Dog-like cackles echoed from far away in the north. Cross leapt to his feet at the yelping.

The unpleasant barking didn’t come from hellhounds however. The noise wasn’t even the howl of a dog, but something more unsettling. The sound was celebratory laughter from the only kind of creatures that lived in the Metnal Mountains, and they were coming for Cross’s head. If they were still in the mountains and not in the valley, he still had time to eat before he escaped.

Bolon-Hunahpu swished its branches upward at the taunting noises. “Squals!” Each of the eyes, which still bloomed on the branches, scowled. “I despise those miserable creatures with all my bark and bone. I once offered them my calabash, and they attempted to carve me out of the trunk. Can you believe? I barely managed to fend them off, and not without suffering much abuse. I strongly suggest you try some calabash. It may be of some aid to you in case of confrontation. If you so desire the fruit of this tree, you shall speak it unto me.”

The squal laughter grew louder. Cross still couldn’t pinpoint how close his hunters were, but the screeching noises of the squals were definitely coming from the north. They heckled him from their lair in the mountains of Metnal as if they wanted him to know they were on his heels. It could mean they were closer than he anticipated. Or it could mean that they were far away and were just trying to spook him. It worked.

“Is this fruit not delicious in its appearance?” said Skullface.

“Shut up you big, dumb tree! You’re gonna get me burned.”

“I AM NO TREE! I am merely a skull! A round thing placed in the middle of branches.”

“You’re gonna be firewood if you don’t shut your squirrel hole.”

The tree bent upwards with a scraping wisp. “The walls of this court were designed to carry sound at great distances, so I believe it was your yelling earlier that has alerted them to your whereabouts. But if it is I you wish to quiet, I shall grant you an extended silence.” Skullface buried himself back inside the trunk and the tree stood lifeless.

An apology nearly slipped from Cross’s tongue. He didn’t truly mean what he said about burning down the stupid tree. Bolon-Hunahpu was just way too sensitive. Cottontail had thicker skin than all the bark on Skullface’s trunk, but she was gone now and Bolon-Hunahpu was partially responsible.

His stomach began to gurgle and squirm. Religious folk like his old friend Mr. Beckwourth failed to mention that at least one thing never died in the underworld: hunger. But satisfying one’s appetite didn’t exist either, and under the underworld’s tricky, manipulative hand, a spirit never simply starved to second death. That would have been a luxury.

Within his first week as a member of the damned, Cross was lucky enough to have witnessed the monstrous sight of a soul’s insides turning on its spirit and eating its way out. Ever since then, he had eaten religiously. No matter what the predicament he found himself in, he fed his insides before they fed on him. He actually needed Bolon-Hunahpu’s help now more than ever.

He stood and faced the tree. “Skullface—I mean Bolon-Hunahpu? You there? I didn’t mean what I said. Honest.”

The skull emerged from the branches. “I heard the beast in your tummy.”

“If I don’t eat right now, Squals will be my least worry.”

“You refuse my calabash. And you refuse my friendship.”

“I’ll be your friend. I am your friend. From now on, you and me, we’ll be like the Hatter and the Hare.”

“I have come to know that you can be very cordial when you’re not angry. Sometimes you let your rage get the best of you. You have a tendency to allow your anger to dictate your decisions. It really hinders you from progress.”

“Do you want me to burn, Skullface? More help. Less talk.”

The skull rolled itself back into the branches once again.

“Okay,” said Cross, sighing. “You’re right. I won’t yell at you again. I promise. And I’ll even consider having one of those calabashes.”

With Bolon-Hunahpu’s help, Cross retrieved a new barbot. He dragged the bird by several of the many weed-covered houses that populated the kingdom of Xibalbá. They were all scattered about and separated by lanes and alleys of statues.

An eerie silence pervaded the house of darkness as he passed; hail thumped and swirled about in the shivering house; and the clatter of wind-chime sounds twinkled inside the blade house. The jaguars must’ve been resting in their house. He couldn’t see inside because they were sealed in tightly. Skullface had mentioned that they were locked in their cage for their own protection. They were the last jaguars of the underworld, just like the giant bats were the last of their kind. The deities would someday return and retrieve them both.

Through the bars and fencing of the dome shaped aviary, Cross spotted a couple of those bats flapping around in the dead trees. The only two houses he had never entered were the bat aviary and the jaguar cage for fear of the creatures that dwelled inside them, but he had explored all the other houses for useful objects. The blade house kept all the weapons.

The Palace of the Lords dominated the kingdom, stretching across at least a mile and a half. Dead weeds attempted to strangle the palace, but its mighty stones burst through them like muscles on brawny man wearing a shirt that was too small.

Beneath the vines were carved depictions he hadn’t noticed before in the couple of weeks he had been hiding out in Xibalbá. It was as if the vines had peeled themselves back to reveal the carvings of skulls and impaled heads to him specifically. They also showed him a carving of an ugly serpent just like the one decorating the ball court, but this one had faces etched into its body. The serpent led up the side of stone staircase and into the dark palace.

In the cooking area of the palace, Cross sliced up the bird using the blade he had retrieved from the blade house. Good thing barbots didn’t have feathers. It would be time-consuming hell plucking a bird so big that it could eat a horse. And if he was going to remain among the damned, he had to eat fast, find Gimlet and shin out. He was determined to reach the River Lethe and wipe his mind before any miserable soul could get their dirty claws on his memories.

A calabash fell out of the barbots neck and sizzled on the cooking pan he was preparing. Sneaky old Skullface must’ve hid it in there. Cross grabbed the fruit before its poisonous juices could empty into the pan. He sat the fruit on the wooden tray with no intention of eating it, but he kept it around just in case he found a use for it.

He fried the rest of the chucks of meat. The warm scent almost covered up the palace’s musty smell of years of neglect. Barbot meat was the closest he had ever come to the taste of chicken in the underworld. How ironic that the only meat the damned could eat tasted the same as one of the best meats enjoyed by the living.

He carried the meat and calabash on the wooden tray, and on his way into the dining hall, he tossed the barbot legs to the mysterious critters that lurked in the shadows. It was Cottontail’s idea to feed them, and out of respect for her, that’s what he did. They clunked and scraped on the hard surface as they munched in the darkness, but they were much quieter than those annoying weepers so he didn’t mind doing something nice for them.

He didn’t know how many there were and could only hope that it was enough food for them all. He had never once seen the draggles up close and he preferred it that way. Not that he was afraid of the creatures. They behaved as if they were more afraid of him than he was of them. It was just better to keep everyone and everything at a distance as much as possible.

The draggles seemed friendly enough. If they wanted to eat him, they would have attacked long ago. He nicknamed them draggles because they followed him from realm to realm as if they were his apostles. The thought seemed fitting in that moment, as barbot might one day be his last supper.

Unfortunately, they posed a potentially huge problem to his survival. They might’ve been the reason others spirits, like the squals, kept finding him in all of his hideouts. He never suspected the draggles were spies, but their stealth didn’t go beyond remaining hidden in the shadows. He always knew of their presence, and if he knew they were following him, then everyone else knew too.

In the dining hall, dull light beams poked through the tattered animal hide that covered the glassless windows in the tower and landed on sections of a long slab of stone that formed the dining table.

He lingered over the roughly carved table for a moment. Cottontail had already blown away the webs of decay that littered the pottery and wiped the dust out of the forgotten ceramic bowls, all left behind by the ancient gods and goddesses who had once feasted at that table. She had made everything almost new again.

The two of them had even crowned themselves King and Princess of Xibalbá and its abandoned kingdom just for fun. Once again, that came from Cottontail’s imagination. Getting him to act childish was her way of brightening up all the gloom. No matter how hard he resisted the sentiment he always enjoyed those moments.

The candle holder she had found and polished rested on the table. He lifted it up and held the candle wicks within the concentrated beams of light until the candles sparked and lit. He sat at the head of the table and raised a cup of devil’s water to the imagined dignitaries that sat around the table with him.

“To Cottontail,” he said. “May the Great Goddess have mercy on her soul.” The lonely king drank and promised himself that he’d never break his number one rule again. No more companions.

He tucked an old tattered rag into his shirt as a bib, and once the critters had finished chomping on their bone and settled down, he listened for any suspicious sounds. Only the fiery lake that was the sky crackled outside.

His mouth watered at the sight of the barbot wing. It was bigger than his head. He held the wing up to his mouth with both hands. The draggles claws tapped the surface of the floor as if they were scurrying away. Something had spooked them. He squinted his eyes and peered into the dark corridor in front of him.

Three lanky figures skulked into the hall. Each of them was hunched forward due to pronounced curves in their spines and with knees that pointed backwards which forced them to bend even further forward. If they were crouched just a few inches lower they’d be standing on all fours. Squals.

Cross held his breath as the three squals slinked around the room slowly as if they hadn’t seen him yet. The creatures investigated the area the draggles had just evacuated. If the draggles hadn’t signaled him, he wouldn’t have heard the squals enter. But they also could have been the reason he had just been found. If they were true friends, they would have stayed around to help him escape.

Before he could blow out the candles, his stomach barked with hunger. At once, the squals snapped their heads toward him. If only they had showed up five minutes later after he had taken a bite.

The squals stalked him from the other side of the room, drumming their claws on the floor and dripping with a nasty wetness. The light beams that poked through the haze of dust from above shined on the smooth sheen of sweat or slime that covered their hairless bodies and glistened off their leathery skin.

“You have a mind,” said one of the squals, “beautiful enough to be worth nine objects-sss.”

Cross’s mouth dried up. He had burned the last squal that came for his head. The ones standing before him now wouldn’t take any more chances. Seconds passed.

The squals stood at the other end of the hall sizing him up through the layer of skin that grew over the top half of their faces, covering any trace of a nose or eyes. Only their mouths were exposed on their beady heads. Their tiny thorn-like teeth bared.

Good thing they needed to take him prisoner before they chopped off his head. That was the only element fueling his confidence that he had a chance at to survive. If they had planned to kill him on sight, he’d have already met his second death long ago. Even if they caught him this time, he was determined to make it as difficult as possible for them to steal his memories.

His insides squirmed as if worms were burrowing their way to the surface.

“Do you mind?” He said to the squals and gestured down at the food on the table. “I know how important I am to you.”

“Your head,” said the center squal, “or rather what’s-sss in-sss-side it is-sss important. Not you.”

“Same difference.” Cross shrugged. “The thing is, you interrupted my meal, and I’m really hungry. My head is no good to you if I burn.”

The squals turned to each other as if taken aback by his nonchalant attitude.

“One bite is-sss all you need,” said the center squal. It must’ve been the leader of that particular posse since it did the most speaking.

Cross raised the wing to his mouth and paused. “Where’s my manners? You three came all this way. You must be hungry. Sit down. Dinner’s on me.”

“Eat quickly! Or we’ll feed your pet cornurus-sss to you.”

Cross bit into the barbot wing, savoring the juicy chicken flavor. It was delicious. He had outdone himself and wished he could enjoy the rest or even share it with Cottontail. He’d even give her the wings. He chewed the meat slowly, buying time, trying to figure out his next move.

The squals blocked his only exit. If he could draw them away from the main corridor, then he could make a clean escape. The squals would easily catch him if he ran to the compact cooking area. But that’s where he had left his obsidian blade, and if he could get to it, he could make a better stand against them.

He sat there and swallowed his food hard. His stomach settled and relaxed. He licked his fingers then wiped his mouth and hands on his bib.

The center squal leapt into the air and crashed onto the opposite end of the table flipping bowls and sending pottery crashing to the floor. The other two squals held back, purposely blocking the main corridor.

The squal crawled along the table and finally reached him. With its hand-like foot, it grabbed the barbot breast and tossed it backwards. The other two squals leaned to the side to dodge it.

Cross snatched the barbot wing off the table and lurched back, nudging his throne. The chair legs screeched across the floor sending an echo bouncing off the walls.

He swung the wing like a baseball bat. The squal leaned back and he missed. His second swing swiped clean over the squals head as it ducked the blow. He faked a third swing. The squal dodged out of the way of the phony swing and when it recoiled, Cross smacked the squal in the head. As it twisted in the air, spit flew from its foamy mouth. It flopped to the floor. The other two squals scrambled around either side of the table just as he wanted them to.

Cross leapt onto the table and sprinted across it. A claw wrapped around his ankle. He crashed to the table, knocking over centerpieces.

One squal shoved the other. “Do not damage the head!”

“It already has-sss a hole in it.”

They shoved each other. Cross grabbed the lit candle and jammed it in the closest squal’s face. It hissed as the layer of skin covering the top half of its face melted. Stringy skin dripped down its chin until its veil was gone, uncovering two empty pits of eye sockets. The calabash fell off the table and rolled across the floor.

“Fresh fruit?” said the other squal and chased after the rolling calabash.

That wasn’t one of the uses Cross had anticipated using the fruit for, but it would work. He jumped off the table and landed near the first squal he had thumped with barbot wing. It was dazed and pulling itself to its clawed feet.

“How about a second helping?” Cross whopped the dazed squal again with the wing. He took a step toward the cooking area to retrieve his blade and halted.

The other two squals were blocking the doorway. The one squal was still eating the calabash while his melted-face companion was gathering itself off the floor.

The wing would have to make do as a weapon for now. He sprinted through the main hall, turned down a couple corridors, and headed for the rear where Bolon-Hunahpu had last sensed Gimlet. The nails of the squal’s feet scrapped the floor behind him. He raced past several rooms, tipping over statues to slow the squals down.

At the end of the hall, the gloomy orange haze from the flaming sky poured into the window between the animal hides. He aimed for the window and flung himself through it, grabbing the animal hide on his way out, clutching it. He swung. His shoulder slammed into the stone wall. The animal hide ripped, and he plummeted two stories to the ground.

He jumped to his feet and checked around for Gimlet. She was nowhere to be found. That’s what he got for not tying her up and giving her freedom to roam. Last time he’d be nice.

“Gimlet!” he called out into the vacant grounds, turning his head every which way in search of his pet cornurus. Skullface had said he would draw Gimlet over to the ball court.

A squal vaulted through the window he had just jumped through. Cross dashed down the lane of statues and cut around the palace.

The melted-faced squal met him in the courtyard. It had cut him off by going through the palace. The two squals approached cautiously from front and behind.

Cross turned sideways so that he could keep an eye on them both.

“You’re the mo-sss-st sss-stubborn sss-soul,” said the squal on his right. “When you sss-set your mind to sss-something, it is-sss sss-set.”

“I’m not worth all this trouble.” Cross stepped backwards. “Just go back and tell your clan someone else already captured me before you got to me.”

The melted-faced squal to his left stepped forward. “Your beautiful mind is-sss worth the trouble. And even if it were not, we are forbidden to return without you.”

“Then, I guess I’m going to have to burn you all like I did the last one.”

The melted-faced squal stepped closer. “There are three of us-sss this-sss time. How do you sss-suppose you’re going to take us-sss all?”

“That’s a surprise.”

It was so much of a surprise, not even Cross knew exactly how he was going to do it yet. His best option was to make it to the blade house. But the blade house was several houses away and the path to it was blocked by the squal in front of him.

The dome shaped Bat Aviary towered right next to him. He could lose the squals in there and then make his way to the blade house.

Cross sprinted through the alley of stone-carved bats leading up to the aviary. The squals chased. He slammed the iron aviary door behind him.

The squals bashed the solid door from the other side. It cracked open just enough for them to slash their claws through. They ripped his shirt sleeve, trying to grab him and pull him out.

CHAPTER 3

Ebony Bird

Cross shouldered the iron aviary door with all his might. Finally, the squals snatched their arms back. The door closed. He slid the latch in place, locking the door, and backed away. He drew in a shaky breath. The squals would never give up.

A narrow wooden bridge wound from the entrance through a jungle of dead trees and vines. It was elevated above the forest floor which was filled with boulders and a few hazy ponds, bubbling. It would be a bone breaking jump down. The canopy of the trees rose even higher, but barely touched the top of the dome shaped fencing of aviary.

He spotted a wooden shack at the other end of the bridge in the center of the aviary. He had never been inside the aviary, let alone that shack. There had to be a way out somewhere on the other side of that shack. Most of the other houses of Xibalbá had back doors.

The iron door banged. The squals were throwing their bodies against it without any regard to their health. Either they were going to break through the gate or end up breaking their own bones, possibly both.

The canopy above wisped. Shrieks and flapping noises exploded throughout the aviary. Bats swooped down and swarmed out of their cave-like roosts below.

Cross rushed across the bridge. Bats half his size snapped their fangs at him and snatched with their talons. He ducked them, sprinting toward the shack.

Halfway across the bridge, a bat swooped in front of him. He swung the barbot wing and knocked it out of the air. It spiraled to the forest floor several feet below the bridge and splashed into a pond.

Behind him, the squals burst through the iron door, knocking it off is hinges. A swarm of bats flew out the door, while others attacked the squals, lifting some of the pressure off Cross. Not nearly enough though.

A bat wrapped its talons around the barbot wing. The wing snapped in half. Another bat slammed into his back, sinking its talons into his flesh. The force sent him tumbling into the dark shack. He rolled around trying to get the creature off his back and writhed in pain.

“Off of him.” A squal snatched the bat off Cross. Some of the skin on his back ripped away along with it. Cross arched his back in agony.

Both squals tussled with the bat. The lower jaw on one of the squal’s dangled. Cross must’ve broken it when he bashed it with the wing back in the palace.

The bat latched its talons onto the slack jawed squal’s chin and ripped its lower jaw right off its face. Black blood gushed out of its neck. It collapsed, hissing.

The squal with the melted face, whom Cross had stabbed with the lit candles, slapped the bat against the floor repeatedly until it quit flapping and shrieking.

Melty-face then stepped over Slackjaw, who was lying on the senseless floor, and reached out to Cross as if it honestly cared about his wellbeing. “They did not injure you did they?”

Cross backed away on his bottom, scanning the one room shack for an exit. A door was directly on the opposite side of the shack only a few feet away.

“You’re only delaying the inevitable,” said Melty-face.

“That’s the point,” said Cross.

“We will have your memories-sss. You cannot run forever.”

“I don’t plan to.”

“Yes-sss. We know all about your plan to go to paradise and drink from the River Lethe. Quite ambitious-sss. But you’ll never breach the great wall. The guards of the A’raf will annihilate you on sss-sight. And that does-sss no sss-soul any good. At least if you come with us-sss, you’ll be giving back to the community. Your memories-sss will help all of the damned. You’ll be a hero. The Man Who Remembers-sss will, himself, be remembered as-sss a sss-savior.”

Cross sprang to his feet, raced through the shack and out the back door. He slammed the wooden door behind him. It was much weaker than the iron door at the entrance and it was rotting away. He braced it shut with his back.

The bridge continued from the rear of the shack and led to the other side of the aviary where there was a rear exit.

Oddly, the squal hadn’t yet tried to break down the door like they had done with the entrance. Cross peeked through a crack in the door. Slackjaw’s body remained on the floor still bleeding to second death, but Metly-face was nowhere inside the shack.

The squal must’ve circled around to the rear exit and was planning to meet him in the back of the aviary. There would be a squal waiting for him outside either door. Squals were tricky that way.

Maybe there was a hole in the fencing at the top of the aviary that he could slip through. If not, he could make one. Everything in Xibalbá was ancient and falling apart. With some brute force he could break through. He could sneak through the top and then slide down the side of the aviary. The squals wouldn’t expect that.

He climbed onto the bridge railing and vaulted over to a tree. He scaled high enough up that he could see the entire aviary below. No sign of any of the squals and most of the bats had flown the coop.

Melty-face entered the aviary through the rear entrance just as Cross had suspected it would. The squal stopped at the edge of the bridge where it met the shack, turning its head side to side, searching.

Cross grabbed the wired fencing above him and shook it, trying to find a weakness. Vines were wrapped tightly around the wiring, giving the fence extra strength. It wouldn’t budge.

The tree limb he was standing on snapped. He tumbled. His chest slapped a limb. He hugged it, preventing himself from falling further.

“Come down from there,” said Melty-face, pleading with its clawed hands. “You’ll fall and damage that beautiful mind.” The squal scrambled up the tree.

Cross wished he had a gun so he could threaten to blow his own brains out. That would make the squals back off.

He swung a leg over the limb, and regained his footing. The squal drew closer. A vine swung down and slapped Cross in his face. It hung directly from the top of the aviary where he had been jostling the wiring. He must’ve loosened it. He pulled it taught to see if it could hold his weight. It held.

He thanked the Great Goddess for such a blessing and kissed the vine. He wrapped the vine around his arm and flung himself outward just out of the reach of the squals swiping claws. He sailed above the aviary peacefully, and then his momentum slowed; he swung back toward the welcoming arms of Melty-face.

He lifted his legs as high as he could over Melty-face’s outstretched arms and swung pass the squal, then over the roof of the shack. He was too high to jump onto it without breaking bones.

With nowhere to land safely, he was just a naked pendulum, and his clock was ticking. At the peak of the swing, the vine jolted as though on the verge of snapping. The wiring at the top was buckling and lowered him down a drop, now at the perfect height for the squal to grab him easily.

Melty-face waited patiently on its perch. Cross bunched his knees to his chest and kicked off of Melty-face’s body. The squal clawed at his legs, shredding his pants and skin.

Cross sailed over the bridge, looking for somewhere he could jump before the wiring gave way. Melty-face leapt onto his vine. It snapped. They plummeted.

Branches broke his fall on the way down and nearly broke one of his ribs. He plowed into the bridge on his shoulder and debris showered him. Melty-face next to him was staggering to its feet, jostling broken shards of bone from the barbot wing.

Cross kicked the squal in the head. It keeled over onto its back. He snatched up the dagger sized shard of bone and plunged it into the flailing squal’s chest.

The miserable spirit withered into the black ash-like state of second death, crusty and hard on the outside, soft and gooey on the inside. It was now stiff and frozen in the position it burned, arms and legs curled like a dead spider. That didn’t always happen when spirits burned, but the contorted appearance always gave him the willies.

Cross dropped the bone and crossed himself. The Mother, the Maiden, and the Crone.

“You did that to yourself,” he said to the charred spirit. “Told you to leave me alone.” He wiped its black blood off his hands and onto his shirt.

Burning a squal wasn’t as easy as stomping on a cockroach, but just like squashing a bug, a squal dying a second death didn’t mean shit in the grand scheme. More would follow. No one could get rid of them all.

He sprang to his feet, only a short distance to the front entrance where the third squal was most likely waiting outside—unless the poison calabash it had eaten had taken affect. Then he’d have one less squal to worry about. Not taking any chances, he proceeded to the rear exit and raced out that iron door.

A squal met him there.

“Son of a bitch!” Cross threw his head back in exasperation. They tricked him. “I thought’ you’d be out front.”

“That’s-sss what we wanted you to believe,” said the squal.

It stood taller. The curvature in its spine had straightened. Its knees pointed forward and its skin was drier. The moistness seemed to have been sucked out of it. It must’ve been the squal that had eaten the calabash. The poisonous affects were taking place. It would burn soon.

“What if I had went out the front door then?” asked Cross.

The squal shrugged its unusually broad shoulders. “You would have had a much bigger head sss-start.” Slowly, it curled the corners of its slimy mouth upward and flashed its thorny teeth.

Cross darted down the lane to the shivering house. He could trip the unsuspecting squal on the slippery ice inside.

He flung the door open. A green jaguar lying just inside lifted its head and growled.

“Shit!” Wrong house. Cross slammed the door in the jaguar’s face and spun around to flee. Only then did he notice the alley of stone jaguars leading up to the house. He should pay more attention.

The squal raced up the alley towards him. Cross dove out of its way. The squal slammed into the door and broke through it. Jaguars growled inside. Cross scooted backwards on his bottom.

The squal launched out of the jaguar lair as if tossed. It tumbled backwards and landed on all fours in a slide. The squal hissed and backed away from the house.

A handful of green jaguars poured out the house, snarling. They flocked around the squal, attacking it from all sides. A cloud of rustled dust obscured Cross’s view. Gnashing and tearing of skin.

“Eat him,” Cross cheered the jaguars on. “Eat him up!”

They’d have him for dessert. He hopped to his feet.

A couple of jaguars launched into the air, hurled outward from the pack and thumped to the ground on their sides. The rest of the group dispersed into the grounds of the kingdom, leaving three jaguars lying dead with the victorious squal standing triumphantly.

Cross’s heart rose in his throat. He rushed to the blade house, at last. This time he made absolutely sure he had entered the intended building.

He swung the door open, sending a draft swirling into the house nudging the thousands of blades that dangled from clotheslines strung along the walls and the ceiling. The wooden paddles and axes clunked together; the obsidian blades swished and clinked.

He grabbed the first blade closest to him, a flat wooden paddle with triangular obsidian blades around the edges. The clothesline was threaded through its handle and prevented him from taking it.

He yanked on the blade. The rope pulled taught and a blade swung down from the ceiling. He jumped backwards. The blade swung toward the entrance. The squal entered the house and dodged the razor-sharp pendulum.

Cross gripped his new blade and snatched. The rope came with it and dangled from the loophole in the handle. He chopped at the squal. It ducked, grabbed his shin with its hand-like foot and pulled his leg from under him.

His back slapped the ground, widening the gaps torn open by the bat’s talons. The squal grasped his neck with its foot and leaned over him.

“Our chieftain ordered us-sss not to burn you. We are to bring you back in one piece. But sss-some of us-sss wonder if you’re truly worth all the trouble. No one is-sss for certain if we absolutely need every piece of your sss-spirit intact. It’s-sss a mere precaution.” It tightened its grip around his neck.

The largest blade in the house hung over them. Cross followed the line of a rope near him. It led from the floor, up the wall and to the large blade. If he could cut the rope, that blade would drop onto the squal’s head. He needed a distraction.

“It’s true. You need me in one piece,” said Cross, not really knowing for sure himself. He slid the blade back and forth, sawing at the rope as he spoke. “But you don’t have to take my word or it. Take me captive. I ain’t goin’ nowhere. There’s no need to anger your chieftain. He’ll reward you for following his exact instructions.”

“Our chieftain is female,” the squal snapped, with a hiss of hot breath and stringy drool.

Cross kept sawing. “My mistake. You all look alike. I can never tell. I have to say though, you’re better looking than the others. Not my type—no squal is—but you’re the most attractive squal I’ve seen so far. Still not sure if you’re male or fe—”

The squal clasped his throat cutting off his air supply. Its gaze landed on the rope Cross was cutting. It followed the rope up to the large blade.

Cross hacked the rope. It snapped. The large blade rained down.

The squal released Cross. Both of them rolled out of the way. The large blade staked into the vacant floor and would have skewered them both together as one kabob.

Another blade stabbed the floor inches away from Cross’s ear. Hatchets swung back and forth from the ceiling.

Cross clung to the wall. He followed along the wall, cutting more ropes as he went until it was raining knives, daggers and swords. Neither the squal nor Cross was concerned with each other now. They both dodged for their afterlife.

A battle axe swung down and lopped one of the squal’s arms off at the shoulder. Black blood spouted out the wound. The squal roared in pain and collapsed.

Cross didn’t bother waiting for it to burn, and by the protection of the Great Goddess, he managed to dodge blade after hailing blade and rolled out of the house uncut.

Immediately outside, another squal met him. It had a gaping hole in its neck and no bottom jaw. He’d assumed that Slackjaw had died a second death after the bat tore its jaw off.

The squal wheezed through its torn open neck. Black blood gushed out of it and clumped to the ground.

Cross groaned. “Why won’t you hurry up and burn?”

Something hard bashed Cross in the face. He wiped the splattered calabash juice off his forehead, making sure none of it slipped into his mouth, and gazed up the hill at the tree in the court.

Bolon-Hunahpu was laughing as only a skull could. Cross could almost hear its annoying jaws clunking together. The branches swayed backwards and shot forward in a snap just as the squal lunged at Cross. A bushel’s worth of calabash smacked the squal in the back. It toppled face first into the ground, knocked out cold.

Bolon-Hunahpu waved its branches side to side. It was a goodbye wave. They’d probably never see each other again.

The skull yelled across the land: “Catch up with Cottontail for me!”

Cross raised his hand to wave back. Slackjaw began to gather itself to its feet. It stumbled. Cross raised his obsidian blade and lopped off the squals head. The head rolled down the hill and the body dissolved into the nothing of second death.

Cross crossed himself—The Mother, the Maiden, and the Crone—and spotted his pet cornurus.

“Where you been, Gimlet?” he said as he raced over to her.

Unlike trees, his cornurus never talked. But that didn’t stop Cross from holding full conversations with the bulky half bull, half lizard. He found comfort in talking to someone who couldn’t talk back. Gimlet couldn’t lie to him or take advantage of him. He preferred the companionship of animals because of their loyalty. He always knew where he stood with a beast.

Gimlet grunted and turned her entire grey body just so she could look at him. Her fat head left no space for a neck and her mouth wrapped wide enough across her face that she always appeared to be grinning, an expression most idiot spirits mistook for friendliness.

Half of a giant rodent dangled from her lips. It was most likely a Sisyphean hodder. They were stout-bodied rodents about the size of prairie dogs, and Gimlet’s favorite food.

“I knew I should have tied you up to something,” Cross scolded his pet. “I’m over here running for my life, looking everywhere for you, and I find you chowing down on some hodder. You didn’t even check to see if it had any objects, did you?”

Gimlet slurped the rest of the Sisyphean hodder into her mouth and licked her lips.

The one-armed squal stumbled out of the blade house, bleeding out its wound. It collapsed near its headless companion.

Cross mounted Gimlet and gave her a swift kick. They galloped down the graveled road, through the ruined gates that once protected the kingdom and into the jumbled obsidian landscape on the outskirts of Xibalbá.

After racing at top speed for what seemed like hours, Gimlet slowed down. She was the toughest pet Cross ever had, but the sharp terrain must’ve be painful on her hooves. And she also had to carry both of their weight. He pulled her to a stop.

He now had rope to tie her, but there was nothing to tie her to. The land where they were taking their break was barren and lifeless. Cross stepped into the center of four crossroads, each made of a different colored stone.

The road they had just traveled spoke: “I will take you north.” The gravel rumbled and chunks of obsidian stone rolled down the hill.

The obsidian road was lying. They had just come from the west, not north.

“I will take you east,” said the shimmering white road.

Because of the obsidian road’s lie, Cross disbelieved the white road immediately. He never trusted anything that talked that wasn’t supposed to talk anyway. He ignored them. His old friend Sinuhe had told him that paradise was always in the east.

Cross faced the shinning white light deep in the peaceful east. In the vast distance he could make out a hint of the great wall that divided the paradises from the rest of the underworld. Its heavenly light teased him from afar.

To his left in the icy north, the vaporous gloom of Mount Mictlan towered above the smaller but more numerous Metnal Mountain range. The Inferno loomed to his right, miles away in the hazy south. Its orange glow raged within the stormy black clouds where thunder stomped and lightening stabbed.

“I will take you south.” The east road shook its sharp red stones.

“I will take you west,” said the south road with a toss of its friendly yellow stones.

All the roads lied. Years ago, he would have baffled as to why they would try to confuse him, but he had learned that it was more insane trying to figure it all out than to simply accept the underworld’s chaotic nature. The underworld begat inconsistency when a soul needed consistency the most. It rewrote its laws at will. Every time the underworld started to make sense to him, something so strange would occur that it would challenge everything he had learned. He’d given up trying to fathom its many mysteries and came to terms with its devious ways.

He said nothing to the talking roads and weighed his options. The Inferno was known to be the dead center of the underworld—emphasis on dead. Even when the mountain of fire was in its dormant period, no soul or spirit, not even the deities, would purposely journey there for fear of meeting a certain second death. Any of Cross’s bounty hunters would have expected him to run directly to paradise and not towards the Inferno.

When Gimlet was ready to move on again, Cross mounted her and guided her down the south road—the real south road—toward the terrifying mountain of fire.

Since the obsidian blade didn’t come with a sheath, Cross fashioned himself a makeshift holster out of the rope it had come with. He tied the two ends of the rope together and wrapped it round his body. The rope hung over one shoulder, circled around to his back and crossed his chest. The flat side of the wooden paddle lay along his spine and the grip pointed upwards for easy access. It was a crude, dangerous and far from perfect construction, but it was best he could do with what he had.

For stretches of road there was nothing but deserted land surrounding him, just like on the frontier. Plateaus of black glass rose up blocking his view of the Inferno and the light of paradise. In some areas there wasn’t much of a road to follow. The yellow stones were broken and patchy in spots.

Eventually, the bumpy road ended at a river not filled with water, but with a yellowish brown substance. It flowed smoothly and slowly and seemed thick enough that if Gimlet galloped her fastest, her flat hooves could possibly pass right across the surface.

He drew her away from the smelly river to give her a running start then gave her a good kick. The bull-headed lizard held fast and huffed, refusing to budge.

He leaned over his cornurus and whispered into the chipped horn protruding out of her ear: “I don’t want to go in that stinking river either. But you know where I do want to go? Paradise. Don’t you want to go to paradise, Gimlet? I hear they have all the hodders you could ever eat.”

That was only a guess. Having only been to paradise once, and his stay had only lasted about an hour before he was kicked out, he couldn’t have been sure. It was feasible. Paradise had everything else. Why wouldn’t they have hodders? Those rodents infested every corner of the underworld.

“Run your fastest,” he told her. “I think we can make it all the way across without falling in.”

He rubbed the top of Gimlet’s head and the cornurus raced toward the river. At the last second she hesitated. She slid and they both plopped into the gooey river with barely a splash. Cross wiped the gunk out of his eyes and held his breath. The liquid reeked worse than Gimlet’s rear end. She snorted and blew the sticky muck out of her nose and mouth as she plowed them through. The river came up to her belly.

To make matters worse, inky rain began to fall from the black clouds as soon as they climbed out of the river. The combination of the black rain and yellow puss sticking together made them look like bumblebees, especially Gimlet with her round, fat behind. And both of them smelled like a hundred outhouses.

It would be hard to find new clothes, but he needed something fresh. He stank much more than usual. The accumulation of months’ worth of filth nearly made him choke.

Still, no smell was worse than the repugnant stench of charred souls that the great mountain of fire spewed into the air. Even though they were still a good three hundred miles away from it, the odor scrapped the insides of his throat. It was the kind of smell he could never get used to.

The oily drops falling from the sky thickened the closer they drew to the dark towering Inferno. Rivers of fire spilled down its skirt into the pits of Hell, glowing like evil jewelry. He and Gimlet sought shelter from the black rain in the trembling canyons. Every now and then the mountains around them would sneeze and shiver dust off their shoulders as if allergic to his and Gimlet’s presence.

Cross cleaned the oily rain and yellow pus off himself and Gimlet with a dingy rag he kept in her saddlebag. He scooped the gunk out of her eyes, and after removing her saddle, he scraped her scaly back and husky legs with a flat slab of stone before the slime could dry up, restricting her movement and making her uncomfortable. There was still some purplish crud left over by the time he was done, but he did the best he could without water. The rest would crack up and fall off at some point.

They hid in the canyons for several sleep periods in order to place distance between Cross and any of his pursuers. Finally they abandoned the yellow road and headed east, slowly over the jagged lands.

A few hours into their trek, a vicious dust storm kicked up. Wind whipped past Cross’s ears, bellowing with the whispering voices of spirits. Sand pelted his face. A sudden gust knocked him off Gimlet’s back and swept him up into the blob of black air. He slammed into the dirt and rolled to a stop in the center of the funnel. The twisting whirlwind caged him inside. This was not a normal dust storm.

Pebbles and rock shot out of the funnel cloud and clumped together before him. The detritus formed three skeletal beings.

Fortunately, the rudimentary life forms weren’t known for concerning themselves with silly things like memories. Unfortunately, the incomplete spirits collected entire souls.

More dirt and grime swirled out of the storm and wrapped around the bones, imitating flesh. Debris swirled in and around their incomplete bodies, which were made of more than just dust.

Objects rolled around in them. One Rudimen had an old doll’s pigtail sticking out of its cheek; the second had a spur spinning on his shoulder; and a kettle bobbed in and out of the chest of the third, like a heart beating.

At least he always stood a fighting chance with the squals, but there was no fighting the Rudimen. Stubbornly, he crawled for his blade anyway.

The funnel sucked the blade away and it disappeared in the cloud. The Rudimen slid toward him without bending a knee as if the ground were ice; sand collected up their legs along the way.

“Dni mlu fitu aeb.” They all spoke at once but they had no mouths. Their voices hummed in his head in a deep tone almost as if they had projected their voices into his head.

The dusty apparitions leaned over him, all whispering the same thing at the same time. “Suet elp moce sa elp.” The voices bounced around in his mind and tormented his thoughts. Mouths formed on their faces, and gaped open like swirling portals into their being.

Pressure squeezed his ears with the roar of a locomotive drowning everything. He stretched like taffy. A violent tug yanked him forward, and there was a pop like a cork had shot off a bottle of wine…

He dove into a milky pool and swam in the white void. Whatever he had forgotten, no longer mattered. The three nice men would take great care of him for the rest of his days. They gave him everything he had ever been missing, and he would return the favor by giving them all his memories. They needed them more than he did. With his help the rudimentary life forms were one step closer to completion. He was glad to help his new friends. Suddenly, the ocean of milk dried up and cracks grew into the lake’s bed.

Pressure on his chest and head snapped him back to the underworld. He was lying face down in the dirt now. His slurring tongue licked the ground as he found himself absently calling out for the Rudimen to return.

Whipping sounds slashed through the air like lightning strikes. Cross pushed up with his hands to get a look but flopped back down on his chest as a terrible weakness paralyzed his muscles. He lay there with absolutely no strength to move, his head cocked to the side looking as far up as his eyes could travel.

A black winged beast flapped down into the funnel in between Cross and the Rudimen. Streams of light cracked out from the gargoyle as if it were lashing the Rudimen with lightening. With the dust blasting at his eyes, Cross couldn’t get a clear glimpse of the ebony bird. Its wings were facing him and the flashes of light it produced obscured it further, veiling it beneath a silhouette. He imagined that it looked twisted and horrible like a squal or something.

It drove the Rudimen to retreat. As the dust devils floated away, they exploded one by one, evaporating in clouds. The dust funnel finally settled.

His obsidian blade slapped down a few inches away from him. The shadow of the monster approached. Outrage charged in his chest. He would slay the ugly creature for sending his friends away. He crawled to his blade and placed his hand on the handle. A heavy black boot smashed down on it, preventing him from lifting it.

He dragged his gaze up the leg of what appeared to be a pirate at first. The ebony bird was actually a woman, and she wasn’t nearly as ugly as he initially perceived.

She tucked her beastly black wings behind her back and stared down at him squinty, icy and blank. Not a positive or negative hint in her emotionless eyes.

“Smart move, coming this close to the Inferno,” she said, picking up the blade. “You fooled that one-armed squal, but not me.”

She was dressed in sand-colored justaucorps. It was filthy as all Hell, as everything was in the underworld, and she didn’t seem to be bothered by the heat of being draped in the thick wool. The justaucorps reached down to her knees and there was barely any moisture on her pale face. Even with the coat unbuttoned, like she wore it, had it been him cooped up in that thick coat, he’d be burning up.

She thrust her hand into the inside of a beaten up top hat before sitting it over her silky black hair. The top hat had been through its share of battles. It was crinkled and had stitches going up the side. Her entire wardrobe was completely mismatched, a combination of garments taken from various time periods and thrown together. But strikingly, the way she wore it all, each piece complemented the other as if she had purchased it as one outfit from the same maker. All the different identities formed a unique one that was all her.

Cross knew of this woman. Spirits called her the Raven. He was familiar with her reputation through the circles they both ran in, but he never had any interaction with her before. The mere mention of the Raven’s moniker struck visible fear in the eyes of his old friend Diamond Tooth, the demon of pain and suffering.

The Raven was after his memories like everyone else, but they belonged to his friends, the Rudimen. He gathered himself to his feet.

“I asked the Great Goddess to send me an angel,” he said, trying to mask the fearful tremors in his voice. “Thanks for coming when you did.”

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” she said with a deadpan expression. “How much is that head of yours worth now?”

Cross hesitated before answering. Was it a trick question? If she came to collect the bounty placed on his head, she would know. “Nine objects,” he said.

A rope slithered around the Raven’s slender waist as if it were alive. It was alive. A dart at the end of the rope lifted on its own accord as the head on a cobra would when preparing to strike. The dart shot towards him in a blink and wrapped its ropey body around him. It squeezed his arms to his sides and constricted his legs together until he tipped over and splashed in the sand.

Son of a bitch. Here we go again.

CHAPTER 4

The Man Who Remembers

Hands tied behind his back, Cross bobbed up and down, riding on Gimlet’s rear, watching her spiked tail dragged through the dirt, as the Raven guided his pet cornurus through the plateaus of black glass. The pressure of bouncing up and down on his chest stole his breath at times, but he could still speak.

“Where’re you taking me?” he asked the Raven.

“Metnal,” she said.

Cross wiggled his body like a worm and rolled off Gimlet’s back.

The Raven hopped off the cornurus. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“You can’t deliver me to the squals. My memories belong to the Rudimen. Cut me loose.”

She stuck her thumb onto his eyelid and peeled it up. “Looks like their effects haven’t worn off.”

He jerked his head away.

“The Rudimen did something to your mind,” said the Raven, “I think I interrupted them before they could finish. So, the damage might not be permanent. We’ll see.”

“They would never hurt me. They care about me. They’re my true friends.”

“And they usually get the soul they come for. Let’s hope you get back to normal by the time I turn you in to the squals. I want all the nine objects they’re paying me.” She lifted him up to place him back onto Gimlet.

He squirmed and twisted, making her job more difficult. “You’ll pay for this,” he said. “I hope you end up in a bone orchard eaten by the Nothing. Cut me loose, you ugly buzzard.”

The Raven transported him back across the mucky, yellow river. This time his cornurus galloped across the surface like she should have the first time they had crossed it.

The crossroads attempted to confuse the Raven, but she ignored the lying roads. She guided Gimlet past the ruined kingdom of Xibalbá and up the north road.

Cross hummed spiritual hymns every day of the past seven periods of sleep to strengthen his spirit, and eventually came to his senses about the Rudimen. They had given him an taste of what it would be like once he finally forgets his past, but if he had gone with them, he wouldn’t have simply given them his memories like he thought he wanted to, they would have stolen his entire soul. He would have become a part of them forever. They had altered his mind just like the Raven had said, but their spell seemed to have worn off now.

Unfortunately, the squals were going to chop off his head.

They traipsed into the squal-infested mountains of Metnal. The miserable souls waited, sidelined in the shadows, as they trotted through. Slowly, squals crept out of the crevices and crowded around Gimlet. Hundreds of foamy jaws greeted them with hisses. Squals stroked their gangly fingers along Cross’s forehead as he went by. He yanked his head away and bit at the fingers.

At a massive cave, the Raven pulled on Gimlet’s reins and the cornurus halted. She hopped off Gimlet and lifted Cross off the cornurus’s back. That rope dart of hers was still wrapped tightly around his body.

She posted him up against a monolith in front of the cave, where he faced the entire hoard of thirsty squals. Hundreds more hung out of crevices above. They gnashed their teeth and slobbered foam all over their sloppy, lipless mouths.

Cross spat in the Raven’s face. She slapped him silly. He tumbled to his face and rolled over to his back.

“Untie me,” he said. “Then, see how tough you think you are. I ain’t never been a woman beater, but if you let me go right now, I’ll forgive you. You go your way. I’ll go mine. We’ll forget this ever happened.”

The Raven left him lying on the ground and disappeared into the dark cave.

“You dirty pigeon. I hope they clip your wings and—”

Cross choked on his words as the largest squal he had ever seen stepped out of the gloomy cave.

It must’ve been the squal chieftain. Her minions stumbled over themselves to make a clear path for her. Her bulging muscles and blade-like teeth portrayed a meaner and tougher presence than the smaller squals.

The chieftain stooped down to meet Cross face to face. He turned away from the hot stinky breath blowing his face. The chieftain gripped Cross’s chin with her foot and forced his head side to side.

“You got the wrong pig in the tail,” said Cross. “I’m no one. I don’t even remember what I ate for lunch. Did I even have lunch? I don’t know, I forget. See, I’m not who you’re looking for.”

“sss-So, you’re not the man who remembers-sss?” asked the chieftain. She could have been wearing a pearled ball gown. She spoke like a distinguished snake with an air of nobility, and a nasty hacking came from the back of his throat.

“Nope,” said Cross. “Not him. I don’t even know who that is. I’m sure if you keep looking you’ll find—what’s his name again? I’m just so forgetful. I never remember anything.”

Still gripping Cross’s face with her foot, the chieftain unrolled a sheet of vellum with her available hands. “Do you recognize this-sss man?”

She shoved the vellum in Cross’s view. A childish drawing of his mug was displayed on it with the recognizable black dot on the head representing the bullet wound on his forehead. Under his face was the sloppy script of the squals, which read: “Nine objects for the capture of the ‘Man Who Remembers’.”

“Yes-sss, it is-sss you,” said the chieftain.

“You can’t even see,” said Cross. “All your eyes are covered under a layer of skin. And you don’t even have eyes under that, you ugly piece of—”

The chief jammed a lanky claw in Cross’s mouth. He gagged on the grainy and salty toe.

“Dependence on sss-sight,” said the chieftain, “is-sss for those sss-souls-sss who lack faith.”

The toe slipped out of Cross’s mouth and he dry heaved trying to vomit. The Raven exited the cave carrying a burlap sack full of the objects of the dead that the squals had rewarded her with for turning him in.

“The chief’s giving her your precious, hard earned objects,” Cross yelled out to the crowd of squals. They ignored him. The Raven stepped over him.

“Those objects will destroy you,” Cross shouted to her. “The Great Goddess hates your kind. You know who you are, Raven? I know whose daughter you are. You’re the daughter of Lilith, the very first whore!”

The Raven stomped her boot on his stomach. He curled up and rolled to his side unable to comfort the pain as his hands were flush against his sides.

“You bitch!” he said. “I never hurt anybody!”

The Raven tossed the sack over her shoulder, saddled his cornurus and rode off into the shadows.

“You vulture!” he called after her. “Come back here!”

The chieftain and her minions circled him and lifted him up.

“All of you,” said Cross. “You’re nothing. Nothing but a deck of cards. I’ll burn you all down.”

The minions placed him on a rocky platform and prayed over him in their miserable language. He prayed to the Great Goddess and wished he could cross himself.

“The Great Goddess hates you miserable souls,” said Cross. “That’s why you’re so ugly. You’re cursed. You can have my memories, but you’ll always be deformed and hideous.” He laughed through his terror as sweat dribbled down his forehead and dipped behind his ear.

The chieftain slipped her slimy fingers under Cross’s chin and curled his cold palms around his neck. Stringy saliva dripped on his face.

“Cross-sss,” said the chieftain, “known as-sss the Man Who Remembers-sss, wanted in more than thirty realms-sss, is-sss finally ours-sss. His-sss neck will be sss-sliced open. His-sss blood sss-shall flow. His-sss head sss-shall fall into our hands-sss. We sss-shall devour his-sss fles-sss-sh and all his-sss memories-sss will be with us-sss. May the Great Goddess-sss have mercy on his sss-soul.”

“To Hell with all you squals and all who gave birth to you!” yelled Cross.

“To Hell we have already been.” The chieftain raised a sharpened stone above Cross. Every single squal erupted in a joyous hiss that echoed in the mountain walls.

His face was drenched in a combination of his own sweat, tears and squal saliva. His breathing sharpened to the point that he could barely inhale. He closed his eyes, preparing to be executed for things he knew but wished he didn’t. All his life, and afterlife, everyone always wanted something from him. He was tired. Maybe it was for the best that he go.

A crack of lightning boomed around him, stinging the air. That whipping noise he’d heard before the Raven saved him from the Rudimen sliced through the air. The squals screamed and hissed in terror. Cross opened his eyes to see the chieftain spinning wildly through the air. She crash landed into the vertical rock face.

Cross rose up from the slab of stone. The rope was no longer wrapped around his body. He thanked the Great Goddess for delivering him from evil and scooted off the rock.

All the squals gawked up at the mountain where his savior stood. Her intimidating wings spread angelically, the skirt of her justaucorps whipped in the wind. Streams of light beamed from her and struck squals like lightning.

The Raven swooped down onto Gimlet’s saddle and her eyes fell on him. She stalled as though waiting for him.

He understood now. She’d just used him as bait to con the squals out of their objects. It wasn’t the most ingenious scheme; it was the oldest trick in the book in fact, but it was certainly well played. He just didn’t appreciate not being let in on the con. He used to run swindles in his past life. He could have helped.

He rammed his shoulder through a group of three squals, bowling them over. The Raven whipped more squals with the flashes of lightning, which, he discovered, came from her rope dart. It attacked the squals like a snake injecting its venom into its prey and dragged a tail of light behind as it darted and recoiled.

On his way to his guardian angel, Cross ducked slashing squals. The Raven tossed him the obsidian blade. He caught it and slashed any squal in his path. When he finally reached her, she lifted him onto his cornurus and they rode out of Metnal leaving their pursuers behind chasing on foot, no match for Gimlet’s gallop.

Back at the talking crossroads they took the east road toward paradise. Miles down the sharp red stoned path, a red river blocked their way. It flowed with blood. Gimlet refused to cross it. Cross stroked her horn and she paddled them through the knee-high blood to the other side.

They cleaned the blood off their clothes as much as they could without water, and they set up camp. His distrust of the Raven never wavered, but there was a time to fight and a time to sit back and see what happened. He didn’t have a weapon as deadly as the Raven’s rope dart so he’d lose any kind of dust up. Besides, she could have burned him at any time, but she hadn’t so far, which meant she needed him for another con perhaps.

She snatched a barbot out of the sky with her rope dart, and they ate together. He kept his guard up and watched her every move, while only acting as if he’d made a new friend in her.

“How’d you domesticate a cornurus?” she asked.

“I can tame any beast,” he said. “First, you have to let them know who’s boss. You’re in control. Once they respect you, they let their guard down. Then you have to connect with them. Show them you understand them.” He rubbed Gimlet on the nose. “Give back the respect they gave you. And sometimes it’s just as simple as feeding them.” He held the barbot meat up to Gimlet’s wide mouth and she fed. “They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Same for beasts.”

Gimlet chomped on his hand and almost took a chunk out of it. He bopped her with the bottom of his fist. He knew her bite was an accident. She’d never purposely hurt him, but anger got the best of him. “Never bite the hand that feeds you! Here me, Gimlet?”

“Gimlet?” asked the Ravens.

“It’s what I named her,” said Cross, calming himself. “The Roaring Gimlet.”

The Raven reached into her sack and pulled out a bushel of calabash. She snapped one of the green, bottle-shaped fruits off the bushel and tossed it over to him. He caught it and stared at the calabash.

“Where’d you get this?” he asked.

“Fresh fruit in a very rare thing,” she said, flatly. “You’re welcome.”

No matter what words came out of the Raven’s mouth, her face remained totally expressionless. It was as if she had complete control over her emotions or was cursed with a permanent indifferent attitude towards everything. She obviously had her own goals, but she never smiled or frowned. She didn’t even show any anger towards him when he cursed her out back in Metnal.

Not only did that quality make her the perfect swindler, it also made it difficult for Cross to determine whether or not she knew that the calabash was poison. But if he could get her to drink from the fruit, he could take all the objects they had gained from the squals.

“You take one,” he said. “It’s no fun drinking alone. Let’s you and me have a drink.” He raised his fruit in the air.

She slid the rest of the calabash back into her sack. “I’m not thirsty.”

“There’s no such thing as not being thirsty. Your lips are as dry as mine. You think you’re too good to drink with me or something?”

“You have a tendency to let little things get you all riled up. Try being thankful for what little you have and enjoy that.”

She might’ve been trying to accomplish the same thing as him. She was seemingly trying to get him to drink the juice first.

He rolled the fruit back over to her. “Skullface told you which way I was going didn’t he? That’s how you found me.”

“He said you could use a friend,” she said, with a shrug.

“He talks too damn much.”

“You two have that in common. That’s the only reason I can think of why he would take such a liking to you.” She grabbed his calabash from the ground. “Then again, he did insist on poisoning you. He made me promise to give you one of these calabashes before he told me which way you went.” She tossed the fruit back into her burlap sack with the other items. “If I were you, I’d watch who you make friends with.”

After a brief rest, they continued east for a few more miles and came to yet another river. This one flowed with live scorpions, millions of them, all clamoring over each other, stinging and fighting. This time Gimlet plowed in with no hesitation and swallowed scorpions as though it were a feast thrown in her honor.

The Raven grabbed Cross by the arms and flew him to the other side of the river before the scorpions could attack them. They brushed and plucked dangling scorpions off their clothes. Gimlet refused to climb out of the river when Cross called her out.

“You eat too much,” he said, “you’ll get a tummy ache. Here, I’ll bring some along for the ride.” Cross bagged a few of the scorpions in a pouch and promised to feed them to her later. Gimlet grunted in agreement and finally climbed out of the river.

It took about four periods of sleep for them to arrive in Viņsaule. Four black orbs hovered over the canyons like dead moons. He and the Raven took shelter from an acid rain storm in a shallow cave and built a fire. Cross fed Gimlet the leftover scorpions as promised. The cornurus picked over the few dead ones and devoured the live ones.

The Raven opened her burlap sack full of objects of the dead, reached in and pulled out a spoon. She swirled it around in the air and tapped it on a rock. Then, she handed it to Cross. “One for you,” she said. Next she pulled out a mirror. She stared into it and then her gaze wandered behind Cross. “This one’s for me,” she said.

Cross turned around and saw only the dark tunnel leading into the heart of the cave. No matter what the mirror’s ability was, he didn’t want it anyway. Mirrors were evil. Not only did they show him who he truly was in death, but in life, beings from other worlds often spoke to him through the glass. They always harassed him with messages of terror. He tried his best to avoid all reflective surfaces.

The Raven drew a comb from the sack and combed her silky black hair with it. Her hair color changed to white.

“Nice look, Blondie,” said Cross.

She grabbed a handful of her hair and held it in front of her face, and then combed her hair again. It changed back from day to night. She tossed the comb to Cross. “Two for you,” she said.

The weird abilities contained within the underworld’s objects never ceased to fascinate Cross, but a comb that turned black hair to white was not something he thought would ever be useful. He thumbed his spoon, wondering what powers it contained, but if it were valuable, he wanted to keep it a secret from the Raven. She might steal it from him.

She lifted two more objects from the sack; a cigar lighter and a blanket. She spread the blanket down on the rocky cave floor and invited him to sit with her. His bottom hadn’t touched anything soft in years. He almost smiled at her courtesy of allowing him to share it. He gladly sat with her.

She struck the lighter and flaming salamanders crawled out of it. One scorched her hand. She dropped the lighter. The fiery salamanders blew away as though they were fragile candle light and evaporated into puffs of smoke, slithering up to salamander heaven.

The Raven searched for the lighter, which should have been on the blanket where she dropped it, but it had disappeared as if the blanket had swallowed it. She patted the surface of the blanket searching in vain. “Well, that’s two and three for me,” she said.

Object six was a beaded necklace with a brass cross hanging from it. The Latin cross had no corpus and was plain except for an ominous glow about it. The longer she held it, the brighter its halo bloomed. It lit up their area of the cave like a lantern and soon overpowered the camp fire. The Raven shivered as if disgusted by the sight of it and slung the necklace over to Cross. It dimmed in his hands.

“Three for you,” she said and emptied the sack of the last three objects. A compass, an amphora, and a flask rolled onto the cave floor. The Raven seemed to take care that none of the objects fall onto the blanket where they would vanish.

She peeked into the opening of the flask and turned it upside down. No liquid poured out. It seemed to be empty, but even he could smell the bourbon from where he was sitting across from her. She raised the mouth of the flask to her nose and drew a cautious sip. She swirled something around in her mouth and twisted the cap back on.

She held out the compass next. The pointer spun wildly as though it didn’t know which way was north. The spoon shot out of Cross’s hand. It smacked into the Raven’s chest, and on impact a green aura sparked over her body. It vanished as quickly as it flashed. If he had blinked he would have missed it. The spoon clung to her breast like it was glued there.

“That’s mine.” Cross reached for his spoon and unintentionally ended up with a palm full of her goods. He only left his hand on her chest so long because it felt so nice. He hadn’t been with a woman in forever and had almost forgotten the warmth and ecstasy of their delicate bodies. Even a hard woman like the Raven was soft to the touch.

A thin strip of coldness slid under his chin breaking him from his enchantment. The Raven was holding his obsidian blade at his neck.

He released his grip on her chest and held his palms up. “I didn’t mean – I was just—”

She pressed the blade up under his chin, forcing his head upwards. She twirled the blade away from him and dropped it back to its original position on his back holster. When she tossed the compass back into her sack, the spoon lost its mysterious connection to her chest and fell to her lap. She pitched the spoon into a dark corner of the cave. “Fetch,” she said.

He paced over to the corner and hunted for his spoon, feeling with his hands in the darkness. A burned soul crumbled in his hands and startled him. He fell backwards.

“What is it?” said the Raven. Her rope dart held its head high preparing to strike.

“Nothing,” said Cross. “A Nothing. Just a nothing.”

Every spirit and soul burned to a crust when they died a second death and were called Nothings. Cross usually avoided being near them and refused to touch them for fear of bad luck or something.

Nothing’s were hellish things. Webs of charcoal-colored muck grew around their boney structures as though a spider had tried to rebuild their charred flesh. Yet, the decayed Nothings were delicate as an egg shell. The simple prodding of a stick could crumble their hard outer layer to ash, spilling their juicy black insides and reducing the rest to dust.

He spotted his spoon deep in the center of the black powdery chippings of the Nothing. He covered his mouth and nose with his arm and squashed the awful Nothing under his boot. He picked up his spoon from the ash in a hurry.

White dots fell out the scoop. More of the white speckles lay in the soot of the Nothing. Strangely, they seemed to be grains of rice. He checked around the area for more rice grains and only found them within the Nothing.

He turned around to see the Raven flipping the amphora upside down to view its bottom. While her attention held, he sneakily swirled the spoon in the Nothing. Uncooked grains of rice formed out of the ash.

He pinched a grain, and blew the ash off of it. He smelled the grain, stuck it on the tip of his tongue, crossed himself and ate it. It was real rice. He swept the rest of the rice away with his hand before the Raven could see it.

A great whoosh sound boomed behind him, and Gimlet grunted. Cross spun around ready to strike. Water gushed upwards out of the Raven’s amphora like a geyser splashing the cave ceiling. The water stopped spewing just short of drenching her, but she was wet enough for him to see through her shirt. The water must’ve been shivering cold.

His nerves calmed. He forced his gaze away from her chest area and tried to focus his stare on the water dripping from the spiky cave ceiling. Dazzling blue and violet flowers bloomed on the ceiling and patches of garden sprang up from the floor in the puddles.

The Raven plucked a flower from the ground and smelled it. “Ankhami,” she said with her eyes closed. She twirled the flower by its stem between her fingers and tossed a few chosen objects into the blanket. They vanished inside it. She rolled the blanket up and stuffed it in the burlap sack. “That’s four, five and six for me,” she said.

She kept all the best objects to herself. Out of his three objects, the Latin cross was the only thing he was interested in. Not just because of its wondrous glow, but because of what it represented. It gave him a sense of being and reminded him of his prize in peaceful paradise. One day all his troubles would end. He hung it around his neck. The spoon could come in handy, if he was ever desperate enough to gorge on Nothings, but he was fine with his barbot diet. The comb was pointless.

“What the hell am I gonna do with this spoon and comb?” he said.

“I’ll take them off your hands.” She held her palm out.

Cross stuffed the spoon and comb in his pockets.

“Congratulations,” she said. “You’re now worth thirteen objects.”

She offered him a drink from the empty flask. He took it and drank from it. The liquid seemed to appear at his lips, while the flask itself remained empty. The smoky, syrupy flavor of Peacock whiskey, his absolute favorite brand of bourbon, touched his tongue and fell smoothly down his throat. It tasted better than he even remembered.

And with that shared drink, he knew she had recruited him to be her partner—an unequal partner, but a partner still. It was better than burning to Nothing. He tugged his Latin cross, oddly confident that he was either going to steal all her objects from her or convince her to at least share them with him evenly.

“My neck is on the line,” he said. “Next time I want more objects. More than half.”

“You may deserve more, but when a job isn’t worth my while, I seek out other employment opportunities. Sometimes that hunt interferes with my current position. And I don’t think you want me to be late for your execution.”

“Well, if you’re late, you better not even show up. No one crosses me. Souls that try find out why they call me Cross. Eventually, they all get nailed.”

The two of them could fight off enemies and steal their objects better together than alone, but they weren’t friends. It was in his best interest to go with the flow of things for a while in order to get his hands on more objects of the dead, whether they were new or stolen from the Raven. He needed to collect as many useful objects as he could to help him break into paradise so that he could finally drink from the River Lethe and wipe all his memories away. Then all the damned would leave him alone.

A sting in his palm brought the sign he had been dreading for weeks. He squeezed the splinter from his skin and plucked it out knowing that it meant Cottontail had finally burned. She was a tough little cookie to have survived so long after being swallowed by a worm.

He didn’t count the periods of sleep since the worm had swallowed her, but he guessed that it must’ve been about seventy of them ago, give or take. He regretted giving up on her so easily. He was disgusted with himself. After all that time, he could have searched each of the one hundred eighty-two worm stomachs. She could have been with him.

Her second death would not go in vain though. In the name of Cottontail’s memory he vowed to himself to complete his journey no matter how difficult or who he had to cross.

He spent about a total of two months’ worth of sleeping and waking periods living with the Raven in the canyons, all the while keeping his eye on the burlap sack filled with all those useful the objects.

None of the objects in the Raven’s sack packed any of the fire power he would need to break into paradise, but he could have improvised and used the salamanders to light some explosives and maybe blow a hole in the great wall. He would just have to steal some explosives from one of the warring gangs. Since the compass attracted metal, he could use it to remove any bolts or hinges that stood in his way, possibly even buckle entire entrances, or relieve the guards of their weapons.

Every now and then, the Raven would throw on her justaucorps and fly off somewhere taking the sack of objects with her. He contemplated running away, but she would only find him. Then, the next time they ran their con she’d give him zero objects.

He also tried to line his sleep cycles up with hers so that they would both sleep and be awake at the same time, but she didn’t keep consistent sleeping patterns. He found himself falling asleep while she was still wide awake. When they slept at the same time, he would wake up to discover her up and about.

They lived as a team in the canyons of Viņsaule and developed a strange chemistry between them. She hunted and he gathered barbot. Her rope dart snatched barbot out of the sky as if she were pulling fish from a shallow pond. Very few things could swim in the lake of fire that was the sky. Barbots were one of them.

The underworld itself seemed to also decide that barbots would never become a Nothing. There was no official answer, but perhaps it was because the gentle birds were bred in the underworld, they never died a first death, which meant they could never die second deaths—the only way he knew for a soul to become a Nothing.

Most of his time spent with the Raven sailed by quietly. She wasn’t much of a talker, but she wasn’t so bad. All the shocking stories surrounding her had yet to reveal themselves to Cross. She was clever and beautiful—not primitive and grotesque as the tales depicted her. One morning she even brought back fresh barbot eggs she had stolen from a nest. They scrambled them for breakfast.

He was getting used to having her around. He liked the way she smelled and she was rather pretty, even in those manly clothes. She was delicate underneath. He liked the way her silky black hair swayed beyond her shoulders when she wasn’t wearing that awful top hat. He wanted to run his fingers through it.

Then, one day while he ate lunch, the Raven snuck up on him and began tying him up.

He dropped his barbot leg. “What’re you doing?”

“Binding you,” she said, stringing his hands together by the wrists.

“Why?”

“We’re going for a ride.” She tied his legs.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“Duat.”

“That’s at least a week’s ride from here, including sleep time.”

“Mmhmm.”

“That’s a long way to go and be tied up.”

“If our little act is going to work you need be bound before we ride into town.”

“I don’t think anyone will notice if you wait till we get a little closer.”

“You just keep your neck attached to your shoulders. I’ll do the thinking.”

She lifted him up and placed him on the back of Gimlet face down. She mounted his cornurus and they made the treacherous journey from the Viņsaule canyons to the desert of Duat.

With endless swivels of Gimlet’s tail, the landscape gradually changed from jagged mountain ranges to waves of sand. From what he could see from his downward angle, the only indication that they had made it to the city of Amenthes were the sandals fitted onto paws. All the people of Amenthes wore funny garments from a time long before his.

He raised his head to take in the most beautiful city he had ever seen in the underworld. Amenthes shined and sparkled despite the sand, but even the sands shimmered in a golden gleam. The folk there sure knew how to take care of their realm.

Until Cross became a wanted soul, traveling throughout the underworld had never appealed to him. That’s why he had never seen many of the wonders—if you could call them that—each realm offered.

The giant pointy structures and temples that made up the realm of Duat were on full display in shiny black, gleaming red and shimmering white. The magnificent triangular buildings rose to different heights, and the smooth stone that each were made of glistened in the fiery glow of the red sky.

He raised his head to see the peaks of each. The drawings in his old boss’s study had always featured an eye at the peak of the structure, but there were no giant eyes on any of the building peaks of Amenthes.

“Are these really pyramids?” he asked the Raven.

“Sure,” said the Raven. “And they have all kinds of objects locked in them.”

Nine pyramids equaled a lot of objects. It could be millions. They closed in on a temple and rode up the causeway. Cross met the eyes of a group of feline-faced women standing aside. He winked at one. She scoffed at him.

A painted gate surrounded the temple; it stretched across the realm from one end to the other and was decorated with colorful drawings of people and animals. The entrance led into a large open room without a roof. The walls of that room were decorated in the same colorful paintings as the front gate.

“Raven, you ever wonder why these souls would give up their precious valuables to chop off my head? I mean, they only want memories. What good are those? Mine ain’t nothing but—they’re just useless.”

“Useless maybe to you,” said the Raven. “To them, there’s nothing more valuable than life, even when it’s just a distant memory. Some would do just about anything for an exodus. No matter how minor the escape.”

A crowd had gathered inside the courtyard of the temple. Among the normal-looking human souls were dog heads and falcon heads on human bodies, human heads on lion bodies, spirits wrapped in bandages from head to toe and more of the beautiful cat ladies.

The souls of Amenthes were nice enough to make his execution more of a festival. In an odd way, he appreciated all effort they put into the decorations on such short notice. They didn’t know he was coming and already musicians were playing instruments while singers harmonized to the wondrous melody. The hypnotizing symphony was all for him, and he loved it for what it was.

He caught himself smiling and bobbing his head to the music and had to thrust himself back into character so as to not raise any suspicions. Hundreds of souls had gathered to see the show, and a show they were about to get.

He and the Raven repeated the con they had successfully pulled off with the squals. She turned him in. He cussed and fussed and protested. She collected the sack of objects. Two dog men grabbed him at his sides.

“Get your paws off me,” said Cross, playing up his role.

The mongrels shoved him past a ghostly spirit holding a sign that read: The Resurrection of the Dead Approaches. The End Is Near.

“You must mean the rear end,” said Cross. “Because your head’s far up your ass.”

One of the dog-men punched him in the stomach—a real punch that snatched all his wind from his lungs. There was no faking in his reaction. He doubled over trying to gather his breath and stamina.

The mangy mongrels dragged him across the glossy black floor, guided him up to a crystal altar and stood him in front of the high priest, a lion with all its hair shaved off. Ugly dark splotches tainted his wrinkled pink skin. The Raven held Cross’s blade out flat in both her hands and presented it to the high priest with her head bowed.

“As a token of my gratitude,” she said to the high priest, “I would suggest you use this blade.”

The high priest waved her off without even glancing at the blade. “We have our own.”

“Oh, not like this one,” said the Raven. “This once belonged to the goddess Sia.”

The high priest dropped his gaze onto the obsidian blade. “Are you sure?”

“I discovered it in Re’s boat. Thought maybe I’d find the sacred papyrus in there too, but this was all I found. The deities sure left in a hurry.”

The Raven lied almost as well as Cross, but he couldn’t figure out why she wanted the high priest to use his obsidian blade specifically. Even the high priest hesitated, lifting a suspicious eyebrow—or where his eyebrow would have been if he had any hair.

“Look, I have my bounty already,” said the Raven holding up the new sack of objects. “I could’ve left town without saying a word and kept the blade for myself. I just thought it would mean more to you and your people than it does to me. But if you don’t want it, I’m sure it can make some hodder happy.”

The high priest placed his paw on the blade. “No, no. We shall take it.”

The Raven sneaked a wink at Cross. He knew everything would be alright even as the dog-men laid him over their altar. He struggled as believably as he could without actually trying to escape.

“Let me go, you dirty mutts,” he said. “Why don’t you go chase your high priest down the road like the dogs you are? Your high priest is nothing but a bald pussy. You know it. I know it. Everybody knows it.”

The Amenthesians prayed over him just like the squals had, but in their own unique, guttural language. Their native tongue sounded as if they were chanting magic spells, even though the only magic in the underworld lay within the objects that special souls brought to their afterlife in their death.

The high priest waved over him a gold object that looked similar to his Latin cross, except it had a loop extending out of the crossbeam. The hairless lion touched Cross’s nose with the object. It sparked and sent a tingle throughout his bones from his head to his toes and then back. The high priest then touched the soft spot on Cross’s forehead with the object and held it there. The skin on Cross’s head tightened and his eyes pinched shut. Upon its removal, his skin relaxed and went back to normal.

“He is ready.” The high priest sat the object down, and then raised the blade to display it for the crowd before speaking a few more words in the harsh but magical sounding language.

With the Raven on his side now, an extra bit of confidence resided within Cross, perhaps more than deserved. But since he was powerless to escape on his own, trusting that the Raven wouldn’t double cross him because she needed him for another con was more respectable than pleading for his afterlife like some yellow belly.

He laid there on the crystal altar waiting patiently for the Raven to strike. Anytime now she would swoop down heroically and rescue him, the damsel in distress. The idea of him being a damsel suddenly felt wrong, but it was better than getting his head chopped off. All he had to do was wait. And wait he did. And he waited some more.

The Raven sure was taking her time to whip out her rope dart. The longer the high priest spoke without any intervention from the Raven the more anxious he grew. Real sweat dripped from his face to his ear. What was taking her so long?

The high priest switched to a language he could understand. “The Man Who Remembers!” The crowd burst into a gleeful yells and hollers at the announcement of his alias. “We condemn him to be beheaded by the blade of the goddess, Sia. May the Great Goddess have mercy on his soul.”

Cross tilted his head up and searched behind the crowd for the Raven. He surveyed the pyramids peak, checked the temple wall, and scanned the crowd. She was nowhere he could see.

If the Raven had decided to end their partnership now, she could have easily ridden off with all those objects and never come back. Had she abandoned him?

He should have never trusted her. No one’s word was their bond anymore. No honor was left in the damned. They had lost all their honor in life. He was a fool, a fool that was going to lose his head because he’d lost his head around the wrong soul. He should’ve known better.

The high priest pressed Cross’s head down flat onto the cold altar. He struggled sincerely.

“Wait! Don’t do this. Please!”

The two dog-men restrained his limbs from either side. The high priest raised the blade and swung down.

CHAPTER 5

Diamond Tooth

Diamond Tooth guided her hellhound up the canyon walls of Viņsaule. She followed the four dead orbs that hung suspended directly over the mesa where Carson’s lonely abode nestled. Two baby barbots strutted around the cliff dwelling. The hellhound barked and the birds flapped away. Barbot soup aroma swam in the air. A head too big for the body it was attached to bobbed away from behind the drought filled well and raced into the isolated house, probably to warn the rest of the family. Diamond Tooth hoped so.

She tied the hellhound to a post and stood in the doorway of the home. She waited at the threshold for a moment and basked in the family’s nervousness, unrest, and uncertainty. Their wave of despondency showered over her and filled her with mirth.

Across the room, Carson wiped the glass cage strapped around his head with a rag. A larger cage wrapped around his waist and surgical sutures ran along his body where the wounded mutt had stitched himself back together. It was homemade patchwork designed to mend the injuries he had sustained in the wars, injuries that would never heal under the medical supervision of the underworld.

It severely irked her that he wasn’t suffering though. Not only had he made amends with his disfigurement, he wasn’t even afraid of her. The rest of the family’s fear caked the air with the same strength as a baking factory. But Carson’s scent painted him as a pillar of intrepidness.

He must’ve known someone was coming for him. He was prepared. And there was nothing remotely intimidating about her appearance. Souls often underestimated her in that regard. Even though her blond hair always remained undone and she didn’t bother painting her face with silly makeup, she was more equipped to seduce a man than frighten him. But seduction was never her style and she never allowed her physical beauty to prevent her from causing physical harm.

The wife exchanged looks with her husband. She bore no arms; a makeshift arm hung around her neck on a string like a necklace. The whole family appeared as if they had been assembled from body pieces they found lying around. Their daughter with the adult sized head glanced up at her mother. The woman’s fake arm caressed the girl and they walked out the rear of the house.

Diamond Tooth stepped inside the man’s home as if she had been invited. Her heeled boots clomped across the tiled, chessboard-colored floor. She passed a tower of boxes that defied the normal laws of gravity. They were stacked from the ceiling down and never reached the floor. Four brooms came alive, and swept up the dirt she had tracked in. She sat down at the dinner table and helped herself to a bowl of barbot soup.

Carson sat across from her. “Rowings sent you.”

She smiled, spooned more soup and ate.

“Tell Rowings I don’t have any new information,” said Carson. “I just want to continue this miserable existence in whatever peace I can grab. Tell him he should do the same. He’s tormenting us both. To go on searching is futile. The last Toran is lost. We’ll never find it again.”

She held the spoon before her lips and lifted her head in attention at the mention of the Toran. Rowings never mentioned anything about a Toran.

“When we found the burial site,” said Carson, “we couldn’t uncover any more without witnesses. So we reburied it. We came back, it was gone. It disappeared. I can’t tell Rowings what happened to the gate. We had our chance. Now it’s moved on to some other soul. We’ve missed our window. Go back and tell him that.”

Diamond Tooth carved a piece of bread using the tiger claws protruding from the bagh nakhs at her knuckles. It would have felt nice to elicit a sense of dread within Carson, but the idiot remained resolute in her continuous silence. She would have to resort to another tactic.

“Rowings knows you’ve met with Tivoli.” She slurped a spoonfull of soup. “He might also be interested in this Toran business, but I’m only here to get one name: Tivoli’s pseudonym.”

“Why do you think Tivoli’s using a fictitious name?”

She lifted her eyes to Carson. Everyone’s true name had a unique scent. No two names smelled alike in all the underworld. But she couldn’t track a name that wasn’t in use. Unused names existed less than false ones which all smelled exactly the same: artificial and bland. If Tivoli had been using his true name she would have found him already.

She spotted a child’s drawing on the wall. It depicted Carson, his wife and two oblong headed children; one a girl, the other a boy. The drawing of the boy stood out, not only because his arms looked as if they were made of barbed wire, but because he was colored darker than the rest of the family as though he were special.

“I’ve never seen a soul stitch together a whole family,” she said. “Beautiful work. Must’ve been tough fitting all those pieces together.” Diamond Tooth dropped her spoon in the bowl.

Carson’s glass helmet fogged up and sweet anxiety spilled from his pores. She had found her angle. Sometimes the obvious method isn’t always obvious at first.

Carson cleared the steam from the glass with a rag. “Balfour. Clem Balfour. That’s his new alias.” He rose from the table and reached into a cabinet. Diamond Tooth aimed her bagh nakhs from under the table and prepared to shoot.

“I’ll do you better than the three objects Rowings is paying you to burn me.” Carson returned holding an object by its cord: a brass disk with thin brass plates inside it. Engravings marked a ring around the outside of the disk. Another brass piece sat fixed on top and cutaway into an ecliptic circle.

“This is the key to the gate,” said Carson. “Only the wearer of this astrolabe can pass through the Toran.”

He sat it on the table. The clock-like hand on the object swiveled, the ecliptic circle shifted and the plates spun all on their own accord.

“That’s a useful object,” she said. “But if it does what you say, why don’t you use it?”

Carson dropped his gaze to his glass incased body. “I’ve made peace with my death. There’s nothing out there for me. Now go! Leave me be.”

“I would. But the thing is, I need something from you. And the only way for me to get it is to burn you.”

Carson excreted a pheromone of panic, not over his own miserable life, but for his family. She’d smelled that salty scent many times to know it.

His eyes widened and his chest expanded. He drew for a weapon inside the glass box at his waist. Diamond Tooth was way ahead of him. She had only waited that long to soak up all his fright.

From her seated position, she shot four of her tiger claws out like darts. sish. The claws leapt off her gloves all at once, sliced through the table, shattered the glass around the Carson’s waist and penetrated the flesh of his exposed torso. Another set of tiger claws grew into her bagh nakhs, replacing the ones that had fired.

Carson desperately tried to hold himself up and remain standing, but it was futile. His spirit burned and shriveled to Nothing. His entire afterlife sucked out of him, frozen stiff in place. What was left of him tipped backward and fell upward, collapsing to the ceiling as though it were the floor. In a splintering crash, the shell of his hollow spirit broke a part on the ceiling, spilling the moist dark insides and painting that section of the ceiling the blackest of blacks. The saluting brooms leapt up to the ceiling and swept the ash into a pile.

Diamond Tooth grabbed the astrolabe off the table and hung it around her neck. Footsteps rushed toward her. She turned and discharged tiger claws into the oblong head of the Carson’s golden-haired daughter.

The little girl withered to nothing like her father and collapsed from the ceiling to the floor. Her ash spread along the chessboard-colored tiles. Diamond Tooth stepped over the Nothing and walked out.

After she straddled her hellhound, she waited and listened for the pleasuring screams of a newly widowed woman and bastard son. That’s why she burned Carson.

She closed her eyes and submerged herself in the shattered family’s pain and suffering. Soothing bells jingled in her head. Beautiful rainbows flooded her vision. The flaring underworld sky forced its way back into her consciousness abruptly.

It wasn’t enough. It was never enough. She snapped the reins on the hellhound and trotted off to Amenthes to meet a rouge squal.

After her pit stop in Amenthes, Diamond Tooth headed to paradise, the only place she dreaded in the entire underworld. She yanked on her hellhound’s reins a few yards away from the A’raf that sectioned paradise off from the rest of the underworld.

The great wall ran from the northernmost tip of the underworld to the southernmost tip, as far as the eye could see and as far as any known spirit had ever ventured. There was no going around it, under it or over it.

The ancients had fooled the righteous souls on the other side into thinking that the wall kept evil at bay. The security was certainly deadly when needed—the good guys of paradise had likely burned more souls than she had. She personally witnessed them annihilate foolish spirits who’d tried to break into paradise. Even those souls with wings would be shot down before they could fly halfway up the wall, and beyond that, only a barbot could get close enough to the scorching sky to completely scale the wall, but if she could get in, anyone could get in.

Their great wall was less a security measure than a means to obscure their awareness of the real world—the underworld. No matter how many positive mind tricks or denial acrobatics they performed, they were in the underworld just like everyone else. She’d be delighted to reveal the harsh reality to them and watch the shock grace their eyes. She’d devour their dismay.

From her perspective, the A’raf was a shiny prison gate. They could polish it up however they wished, but a cage is a cage. They had signed up for voluntary incarceration. It was as if the deities built the A’raf so many years ago simply to boost morale and force the righteous to feel grateful for what puny afterlives they all had. That way none of them would begin to think of their deficiencies, because they didn’t really have anything to begin with. Paradise was just a small area of the underworld, and the righteous were locked in and protecting nothing special.

Diamond Tooth guided the hellhound up to the A’raf.

“Turn away or burn, demon,” a voice boomed from within the great wall before she got too close. The guards hid behind an impenetrable veil and sounded as if they spoke through a speaking-trumpet.

“I have a divine sanction,” she said and waved her lumenite back and forth blindly. The glow of the rare stone pulsated with every color in the visible spectrum and hummed like a soul detached from its spirit.

“You stole it,” said the guard.

“No sir, it was given to me.”

“Sanction or no sanction, no demons allowed in paradise.”

“According to the Divine Laws, the righteous are permitted to issue a single lumenite to an underworlder that they deem fit for ascension. The guards of the A’raf are obligated to acknowledge this sanction, and never are they to deny passage to any lumenite possessor or they too shall be denied paradise by the Lord.”

Several seconds of silence passed before the guard spoke again. “Approach the A’raf slowly.”

She trotted the hellhound the rest of the way and met the wall.

“Pass your lumenite through the A’raf for authentication.”

She reached her entire hand into the wall up to her arm. The wall rippled like water but felt solid around her wrist. A hand snatched the pass from her from inside.

“May the Great Goddess have mercy on the soul that gave you this,” said the guard.

“Oh, I’m sure she won’t mind,” said Diamond Tooth. “That’s how you got your cushy job isn’t it? Don’t pretend like you’re so different from me. We’re exactly the same, except I’m out here and you’re in there.”

“Hellhounds are forbidden beyond A’raf.”

“But they’re so cute and cuddly.” She scratched the hound behind its ear. Her finger tangled in its matted hair. She left the saddle on its back. She’d steal another one if she needed it. She jabbed her tiger claws into the hellhound’s hind parts. The mangy mutt howled and trotted off into the underworld.

“You may proceed,” said the guard. “Step through.”

She stepped through the wall as if it weren’t there at all and appeared on the other side instantly, as though walking through a doorway to the next room. It was like going from a nice dark room into a room that was much too bright.

Light hit her at all angles. It illuminated from nowhere and everywhere at the same time, touching everything on its side of the A’raf with rays of pure, despicable love.

She almost turned back to leave. She shielded her eyes with her hand from the shimmering grass and forest before her, and paced through the roads and trails, squinting. Her drying eyes felt like they would soon split open from all her blinking. She splashed gross fresh water in her eyes. They sizzled with steam and began to itch. The more she scratched them, the more her vision blurred. She kept her staggering pace and in less than thirty minutes, she made it to the beach almost by shear memory.

The edge of the world met the beginning of the white void. The northern islands of paradise, Mag Mell, hovered in white space, while the southern islands of Jannah rested in sparkling waters. The islands of Aaru divided void from ocean. Half of the main island of Aaru floated above the white void while the other half sat on the crest of Anima Falls, an endless waterfall where the entire Oceanus emptied into the white void.

Pure light emitted from deep within the void and was too bright for her to stare at directly or even indirectly. It was not meant for her, and she was jealous. She forced herself to look into it, and the light seared her eyes and bruised her lids.

Black robes waving in the breeze caught her attention. An Ankou waited down the road in front of its ferry. The pale horses that drew the boat across the white void to the various islands neighed.

She approached the Ankou. The top of its pointy hood rose way over her head. Its robes fully covered its gaunt skeletal frame, shielding all the dead from the sight or touch of the being.

She would have stolen its cloak for her own protection from the piercing light, if Ankou’s weren’t so powerful. They worked for Death itself, one of the few deities that could keep the master at bay.

She paid the Ankou an object of the dead to ferry her over to the floating islands of Mag Mell. She tucked herself into the dark corner of the cabin area of the boat and shut her eyes until she arrived at her destination.

The ferry docked on the main island of Mag Mell. She tumbled out of the boat in a rush and proceeded to trample over endless vegetation, kaleidoscopic gardens, and virginal forests. Paradise was the real Hell. The fresh air scalded her lungs. It felt like hot coals swam in her chest with every breath. The water was too poisonous for her to drink. Holy water burned demons to Nothing.

The righteous paraded around in the nude with the attitude that covering up was a sin. It was sickening. Not that they were naked. She was no prude. Outside of paradise, it was she who was young and beautiful among mangled beasts, pitiful souls, and deformed demons, but every soul in paradise was younger, more beautiful and more vibrant than she. Not one gray hair or wrinkle existed on any of them. Not an ounce of fat on their bones. Muscular chests chiseled on the men. Succulent breasts flaunted on the women. Compared to them, she was an old crone.

Their constant music playing and partying drilled through her head like an iron spike. Her temples throbbed, and her forehead pulsed. Even the white rabbits hopped to the beating drums, the tooting flutes and, worst of all, the plucking harps. She imagined snapping those strings and strangling the harp player. No one would even notice.

They were all so busy frolicking and serving themselves that they weren’t even cognizant of the fact that a demon walked in their midst. The same way the light blurred her vision, their joy blinded them to the corruption walking right past them. That annoyed her more than her suffering. Pain she could handle, but no one ever ignored her.

But it may have been more than just blindness to evil. She was that unaccepted in their world. They ostracized her with such intensity that they physically could not see her. Their glances slipped past her, around her and through her as if she were invisible. For a second she wished one of them—any of them—would acknowledge her existence.

She climbed up to her employer’s tree house and dry heaved before she walked in.

Rowings lay in his bed fast asleep. He was bald on the top of his head with hair on the sides that connected to his scraggly beard. His Tribulation uniform tunic was draped over the chair at his bedside and his hat sat on top. She waited beside him for a few seconds, watching him breathe and cough violently in his sleep.

He was another casualty of war, and she gathered great pleasure from his misery and his helplessness. The irony of him living in the land of no-sickness or disease and being bed ridden gave her an extra boost of satisfaction. She regained some of her sight, and saliva lubricated her throat.

Rowings coughed himself awake and upon the sight of her looming over him, he pushed back in his bed.

“Ah! Diamond Tooth,” he said, relaxing on his pillow. “So good to see you, although you don’t look very well.”

“You should take a look in the mirror,” she said.

“Did you shut the door?” He pulled the blankets up to his neck. “They cannot see me like this. Not yet.”

“Yeah, I shut it.”

“Good,” he said, and released his grip on the blankets with a wide smile. “So, I assume your presence means you have the information?”

She loosened her collar, but was still strangling her. She took a breath and dragged her tongue around in her mouth. It went dry again. “Tivoli is using the name Clem Balfour.”

“You did a very good thing.” Rowings leaned over the side of his bed and pulled out a burlap sack from his bedside. “Worth three objects.”

She reached for the sack and spotted the ring on his finger. The Sigil of Ameth flickered in its own heavenly light nearly scorching her eyes.

He hid his hand and snatched the sack of objects away before she could grab it. His smile turned to a shaky grin. “Did he say anything else?”

She massaged the back of her stiff neck. “He made mention of a gate.”

“Yes, yes. The Toran. Did he say where it was?”

“He didn’t know.”

Rowings slapped his fluffy mattress. “I told you he would lie. He wants it for himself. You should’ve done what you demons do. That’s why I sent you.”

“Don’t worry about that. He’ll never say nothing to anybody again.”

Rowings grimaced and rose off his pillow. “What did you do?”

“Oh, you only meant for me to rough him up a little. Sometimes I take things a little too far. Sorry about that. But you get what you pay for.”

Rowings wrenched his comforter and glanced downward at the foot of the bed.

“If it’s any consolation,” she said. “He was telling the truth. I know when someone’s lying to me. He sort of implied though, that Tivoli knows where to look for your Toran. He gave me this key.”

“Give it to me!” A sharp tinge of obsession and frenzied-persistence flared in his voice. For a man as cheerful as Rowings portrayed himself to be, it was a wonder why he wanted to leave paradise so badly. He must’ve known what she knew about its illusion.

She removed the astrolabe from around her neck and handed it to Rowings.

“Ah, the astrolabe!” His pupils dilated and he reached for it slowly with both his hands as if reuniting with a long lost love. He caressed the object in his shaking palms. The ring on his finger blinked in the light. “Why would he give this to you?”

“Maybe he thought I’d burn you, find Tivoli and then leave the underworld forever.”

Rowings laughed like a man drunk on life. She laughed with him. They laughed together, but for different reasons.

“Funny thing is,” she said, “He was right.”

Rowings cut his laugh abruptly.

“You already know what I need from you,” she said. “And there’s only one way for me to get it.”

Rowings backed away in his bed. She shoved a pillow over his face, aimed her bank nakhs and sent tiger claws into his head, chest and neck. sish. When she removed the pillow Rowings gasped. A wheezing whistle escaped his lungs and his mouth quivered.

“Don’t try to talk,” she said. “You’ll just burn faster. And we can’t have that. I gotta make it out of here.”

She plunged into the stench of his convulsions, the sweet scent of his torment. Her mouth watered, the itching in her eyes subsided, and she took a much needed moist breath.

She pried the astrolabe from his cold hands, draped it around her neck, and tucked it in her shirt. She ripped the ring from his finger, slipped it into her pocket and tossed the burlap sack with the three objects over her shoulder. Now only she and Balfour knew of the Toran. And as soon as he told her where to find it, she’d burn him too. The Toran would be hers alone.

Before leaving, she indulged in Rowings’s agony one last time. She inhaled every drop of his evaporating life as he dwindled into the murky charred form of second death, staining the bed sheets black.

Strange web-like fibers reached out of his spirit, hundreds of them. They slithered across the bed, threaded through the wood-carved headboard and crept up the walls, never dethatching from Rowings. In a way, they were like arms.

Whatever the nature of this anomalous occurrence, it claimed the entire opposite side of the room and began to swallow the rest of the tree house. She backed away to the door fixated on this bizarre behavior too fascinated by it to run away.

The black strands of Nothing curled around the beams of light entering the window, avoiding a collision, and then squeezed through the slits in wood flooring. The tree wobbled. Her feet yanked from beneath her and she slammed to the floor.

She’d never seen the Nothing behave that way before. Usually a spirit burned and there were no fireworks, no grandiose show, just poof and a soul was gone. She had just witnessed something extraordinarily unprecedented and powerful.

She scrambled out of the tree house and climbed down the ladder as fast as she could. She raced past the nudists and turned back only when she reached the Ankou’s dock.

The Nothing bled out of Rowings’s tree house. The tree itself leaned and collapsed into an explosion of screams. She wanted to stay and enjoy this new work in all its glory, but there was a part of her that was unnerved by the sight. Plus, the light was cooking her again and the authorities would discover her as the culprit if she remained.

She rode the Ankou’s ferry back across the void and lurched back through the golden city. Outside the A’raf, she dropped her sack of objects and her hands fell to her wobbling knees. She inhaled the fine sulfuric smell of eternal rotting souls and slowly regained her strength.

“Halt Demon!” said the guard inside the A’raf.

She rose up from her knees and clenched her bagh nakhs, preparing to go down in a bloody battle to the finish.

“Do not forget your lumenite,” said the guard.

She sighed with relief. “Keep it.”

Diamond Tooth used the three objects Rowings had given her to pay for a ride on a domesticated colossus going to Duat. Riding a colossus was one of the fastest ways to travel throughout the underworld, which was why it was so expensive. As the largest creatures in the underworld—since the mountainous xrafstars had retreated with the ancient deities—the colossi, walking on all-fours, could cross vast stretches of land in one stride, covering a handful of sleep cycles’ worth of travel in hours even in their sloth-like motion.

She climbed the ladder up the monstrous foot and ascended the steep hill that was its leg. A tribal community of pygmies known as the Nwa-Efé lived on the backs of the beasts like fleas on a hellhound. The nomadic civilization bummed around from realm to realm picking up travelers along the way. Every soul had their own personal Hell in addition to the general ordeals of the damned, and the underworld inflicted the Nwa-Efé with wandering forever, incapable of resting or settling. They only stopped to hunt and gather. For them, no place would ever feel like home.

Ushers escorted Diamond Tooth through the wilderness of the colossus’s hair. It grew to the height of trees on the earthy back of the beast and the Nwa-Efé kept their land properly cut as a way of grooming the colossus. They used the excess hairs to build their community of domed huts and also weave their clothes. The hairs offered the traveling city protection from the blistering sky. It remained the only yielding material known to be immune to the heat the sky produced.

The ushers politely lead Diamond Tooth to a hut where all passengers were required to stay for their own protection while the colossus traveled. She kicked back in a corner and enjoyed the rocky ride.

In just a few hours, the colossus arrived in the gang free city of Amenthes, now home to refugees who had fled from their native realms after the gang wars knocked down all the gates that separated the realms from each other.

The colossus lay down as flat as a mountain could and allowed the passengers to safely exit by way of a series of step ladders.

The town of Amenthes had gathered for a festival of some kind. Their singing and dancing wasn’t as bad as the righteous souls in paradise. It only slightly grated on her ears. The gritty tune almost sounded devilish and was surprisingly pleasing to her when the chorus came around.

She entered the temple’s courtyard and waded through the crowd, scouting for Forfax, the rouge squal she had hired about a month ago to find out more information on Clem Balfour. She passed a man holding a sign that read: The Resurrection of the Dead Approaches. The End Is Near.

A familiar voice yelled out. “Get your paws off me!”

A couple of dog-men dragged her old friend Cross over to a crystal altar. She smirked to herself, thinking how Cross was always up to his neck in trouble. He surprised and impressed her with his consistent resilience. With all the beasts hunting him, he should have been burned a long time ago. If any of his pursuers had hired her to do the job, he wouldn’t still be around. The Amenthesians were so incompetent that they couldn’t even see that Cross showed zero evidence of any fright. There was no sweat or wrinkle on his bullet wounded head and he wore a fake frown.

His pores told even more truth. They bled the stench of assurance. He struggled and cursed like a soul fearing second death, but it was an act. She recognized when a soul was truly in fear for their life, because she had embodied that very fear in the eyes and hearts of many. She seemed to have caught Cross in the middle of an interesting con. But what game was he playing?

The fishy odor of Forfax caught her attention before the slimy squal scrambled up to her. The Tribulation uniform he wore looked silly on such a sallow thing. White bandages wrapped around the emaciated creature’s head, and blood seeped through.

“Do you have it?” Forfax flopped around her in a circle like an overzealous dog. “Do you? Do you?”

Diamond Tooth rolled the ring between her fingers. He snatched for the ring. She pulled it back out of his reach.

“What’d you find out?” she asked.

The vile creature huffed and gazed out into the crowd. All animalistic heads bowed in silence as the high priest prayed over Cross.

“Where’s Clem Balfour?” whispered Diamond Tooth.

“All I know is-sss Balfour used to be Tivoli. He’s-sss one ear short and he lives-sss with a girl called Manauia.”

“Where is she?”

“I sss-suffered a head injury you know. My memory’s-sss not sss-so good.” He snapped his gangly fingers and wiggled them, hinting at the ring.

Diamond Tooth tossed the ring to the squal. He cupped his spindly hands and caught it. He held the ring as though it were life itself and hopped around joyously, coveting his precious.

“Now where is she?” asked Diamond Tooth.

“Mictlan. Mictlan. sss-She’s-sss in Mount Mictlan.”

Diamond Tooth rushed back to the colossus area seeking one going north. Only three colossi were left, including the one she rode in on. She asked its tribal leader first. They were headed south to Jahannam. The second tribe was on their way back east to paradise. The third tribe was her only hope, otherwise she’d have to make the long journey on foot and risk missing Balfour.

“Here is as far north as we’re going,” said the stout third tribe leader.

Diamond towered over him and each of his pygmy guards and she was nowhere near the tallest of demons. They all stood no higher than four feet.

“We’re heading west to Kurr,” said the leader. “Where’re ya headed?”

“Mount Mictlan,” she said.

“Mictlan? Are you sure? The only souls that venture there are moonstruck conquerors and squals.”

“Well, I ain’t no squal.”

“I can see that.” He ogled her body up and down, unabashedly. “Well, we’ll be passing through Xibalbá. That’s as close as we can get you to Mount Mictlan. It’ll cost you three objects.”

“Full price?” said Diamond Tooth. “I’m not even traveling the whole way.”

“Two objects then,” said the tribal leader.

“All I have is this.” She held out her last object.

“A match?” said the tribe leader.

“It’s re-lightable. I’ve lit it at least a thousand times. It never burns down.”

She demonstrated. The match burned at the tip and the flame never dropped down the stick.

“Where we live we don’t have much use for fire. Sorry. But protection and hunting is always a concern of ours. How about those?” He nodded his head at her bagh nakhs.

There was no way she was giving them up. She squeezed her fists, contemplating burning the entire tribe and stealing the colossus for herself.

The guards thrust their spears up at her.

“There’s no need for bloodshed,” said the tribal leader. “We’re all friends here.” He made a clicking sound with his mouth and waved the men away. They stood at attention and posted their spears upright.

“Obviously, those objects hold some sentimental value for you,” he said. “And I’m sympathetic to your predicament of being stranded, but not enough to allow you to ride for free. So, either I’m the new owner of those bladed gloves or we work something else out.” He slid his hand from her shoulder down her arm; his eyes lingered all over her chest.

She could easily lop that fat arm off and snatch his eyes out of their sockets. “Don’t you have courtesans in your tribe?” she asked.

“There’s always room for more.” He snatched his arm away from her. “Of course, you can never be too sure with these things. They don’t always work out.” He turned to walk away. His tribesmen helped him up the ladder on the colossus’s foot because he was too fat to make it up alone.

Her options were limited. The colossus ride would get her to Mount Mictlan faster than any other form of travel and with the least amount of struggle. Trouble always lurked for those traveling the underworld on foot.

A colossus avoided every inconvenience by simply stepping over it or on it. A herd of wild colossi once flattened an entire realm in one stampede. She welcomed danger as much as any other demon, but in this instance it would only serve to prolong her journey to her ultimate goal: to find Balfour before he disappeared yet again.

“Wait,” she called after the tubby tribe leader.

He made the clinking sounds again and combined them with a jumble of words in the Nwa-Efé. Eight nearly naked vixens fluttered down the ladder like faeries and greeted Diamond Tooth, giggling.

“My hetaeras will show you to my quarters,” said the leader.

Hetaeras weren’t average whores. They were sage as much as they were beautiful. It was a wonder they’d allow themselves to live like harlots, especially to the runt sized men of the Nwa-Efé. The one thing Diamond Tooth respected of any soul was an educated mind, and hetaeras were sophisticated enough that they could have had any other afterlife they wanted. Instead, they walked a path of disrespect to their very selves. The only thing that made sense about their life choice was that it may not have been a choice at all.

The hetaeras surrounded her and guided her up the step ladder, which lead up the immense foot of the colossus. Then it was a three minute hike up its leg to its back. The hetaeras escorted Diamond Tooth through the hairy wilderness to the tribe leaders hut. It sat all the way at the front of the colossus near its head.

Inside the hut, a woman with bright cherry red hair and emerald green eyes stepped all the way around Diamond Tooth, examining her from head to toe.

She appeared to be the oldest of the hetaeras, and was certainly the most attractive of them. Diamond Tooth might get some enjoyment out of the trip after all.

The rest of the hetaeras sat back and watched this woman’s every move as if waiting for her command. The woman stood in front of Diamond Tooth with one arm folded across her exposed midriff and her chin resting on her limp wrist. All of her fingernails curled like claws; they were painted and glittery. The woman lifted Diamond Tooth’s hair away from her face. The jewelry on her wrists jingled with every movement she made.

“He usually likes brand new souls,” said the vixen. “But I see why he picked you. There’s a beautiful woman underneath all that filth. A diamond in the rough you are. We’ll clean you up, make you presentable.” She tapped her index finger on the tip of Diamond Tooth’s nose. “My name is Mnesarete, favorite of Mnubotu and madam of the hetaera standing before you.”

“I’ll just call you Mnesarete for short,” said Diamond Tooth, teasing her.

Mnesarete tilted her head to the side and contorted her luscious, glossy lips. “Madam Mnesarete,” she said, emphasizing her elevated stature with a sneer.

“And I’m the demon of pain and suffering. But you can just call me Diamond Tooth.”

A couple of the hetaeras glanced at each other after Diamond Tooth’s pronouncement. With a wave of a curly fingernail, Madam Mnesarete gave her hetaeras the order to begin their tasks. Hesitantly, two hetaeras stripped Diamond Tooth out of her slacks and shirt. She tucked the astrolabe in her bundle of clothes.

One strumpet grabbed her bagh nakhs. Diamond Tooth jerked away and stuck the tiger claws under her neck. All the hetaeras backed away except the madam.

“I must file your nails,” said the courtesan with the blades at her neck, trembling.

“Find a work around,” said Diamond Tooth. “These don’t come off.”

“They do or you don’t ride with us,” said Madam Mnesarete, sternly. Her gazer lingered on Diamond Tooth as she slipped the bagh nakh’s off herself. “You won’t need them anyway.” She sat them on a table in the corner. “Here, they will remain within your sight at all times.”

Madam Mnesarete’s stunning curvaceous frame would remain in Diamond Tooth’s sight at all times.

The rest of the hetaeras each took an individual task as if Diamond Tooth was a personal project of theirs: one courtesan bathed Diamond Tooth in fresh water. Afterwards, two of the women slipped Diamond Tooth into a skimpier ensemble to match their revealing attire. Another hetaera toiled with Diamond Tooth’s hair. A fourth applied makeup. The fifth one was supposed to file and paint Diamond Tooth’s fingernails at some point, but instead hunkered back in the corner the entire time, massaging the red marks on her neck where the tiger claws had pricked her.

“You frightened her,” said Madam Mnesarete. “She’s a brand new soul. We picked her up a few sleep cycles before we found you. I think you may be her first demon.”

“I don’t frighten you?” asked Diamond Tooth. She found the madam’s dauntlessness intriguing. She appreciated a tough woman, and very few spirits weren’t afraid of demons.

The madam clasped both her hands around Diamond Tooth’s hand. “Let’s you and I enjoy the view of the festivities. I hope we get a chance to see the entire ceremony.” She led Diamond Tooth over to the window. “You could polish a diamond with your hands. Your manicure is the next.”

They gazed down at the ceremony below. The high priest held a blade over Cross’s neck.

“I’m glad they got him,” said the madam. “The Man Who Remembers. He thinks he’s the only one that deserves to know what’s out there in the beyond. Such knowledge should be freely available to all and not just one soul. Now we will find out if the myths are truly myths or not.”

Diamond Tooth snickered.

“What do you find humorous?” asked the madam.

“Men with blades at their necks don’t always lose their heads. Even a miserable soul like that has a guardian angel.” Diamond Tooth sniffed the crowd and detected the scent of another waxy alias in the vicinity besides Cross. She traced the stale aroma.

Just as she suspected, hidden atop the columns in the courtyard, she spotted her nemesis: the black winged angel with the top hat.

CHAPTER 6

A Cross to Bear

Cross lay on the crystal altar, eyes closed, wondering why his head hadn’t fallen into the filthy paws of the shaved kitty yet. He felt the rope slither around his body and a loud clang sounded. He opened his eyes and found his obsidian blade lying next to him with a large hole pierced through the center of the wooden paddle’s flat side. Black blood stained it. His blood. He grabbed his neck. It was still attached to his shoulders and was barely nicked.

He grabbed the obsidian blade’s hilt as tightly as he could, given his bound wrists, and rolled off the altar into the sand. A spirit wrapped in dingy white cloth grabbed for him. Cross sliced through the bandages and the spirit fell apart as if it never existed.

Three dog-men waved sickle-swords. He bobbed and weaved each slice and stab. The Raven’s rope dart impaled two dog-men at once. They withered to Nothing. The remaining mongrel turned toward the Raven, barking. Cross shouldered his way through him and other random spirits.

Fortunately, not all the souls attacked him. Most were just normal people who had simply gathered for the show. He squeezed through the ones who didn’t make a hole for him to race through, and he bowled some innocent folks over who shouldn’t have stood in his way like idiots.

Most of the crowd reacted as though they were just as afraid of him as he was terrified of them. They lurched backward in fear and allowed him to pass. The lion women hissed in fright and yanked their cubs away from him as if he were the crazy one trying to chop off someone’s head.

The Raven rode toward him on Gimlet’s back, and when she reached him, Cross swiped at her with the blade. She leaned her head out of the way.

“Such gratitude,” she said.

“Let’s get the hell out of here!” he said.

She helped lift him up as he climbed onto Gimlet. Her rope dart attacked every soul that came close to them.

They kept a southward heading, and immediately outside of Amenthes they met a river. Even though it reached up to Gimlet’s neck, they crossed it easily. It was one of the most normal rivers he had ever come across in the underworld, although the mysterious blue substance that flowed through it wasn’t water.

After passing through a field of wandering shadows who were more eerie looking than they were bothersome, a silver river, more chaotic than the last one, blocked their path. Spirits swam in it, moaning and whispering, and seemed as if they were trapped within the metallic liquid. Gimlet hissed and bucked backwards.

“I think I’m with Gimlet this time,” said Cross. “I don’t think we should go in there.”

“This is the River Nun,” said the Raven. “There’s no way around it without going back the way we came.”

“Well, before we go in cut these ropes off.” Cross held out his bound wrists.

“Not yet.”

“We’re doing another con?”

“Just sit back.” The Raven rubbed Gimlet’s horn, imitating the technique she must’ve remembered Cross using, but he knew it wouldn’t work from her hands. The cornurus ignored her gesture and grew more agitated, grunting and backing away.

Cross laughed at the Raven’s inadequacy. “It’s alright, Gimlet.” He leaned forward and caressed her horn as only he could. The cornurus calmed.

No one else had his magic touch. He never understood how the ability worked himself. His connection to animals came to him as natural as breathing. The magic was just always there all his life. More puzzling to him was the fact that magic like his wasn’t supposed to exist in the underworld. That’s why collecting objects of the dead was so important to spirits. Objects were the only source of magic.

He probably retained his ability to communicate with animals because he still remembered his past life, and maybe once he drank from the River Lethe and wiped his memory, he would lose that valuable skill. That made him a little reluctant to go through with his quest.

Gimlet plunged them into the river of chaos, and they waded through the watery waste. It smelled of a mixture of rotting meat and that cheap perfume his old friend Kate used to wear. Spirits swam around them and through them, but never left the comfort of their river bed. Several slipped through one of his ears, whispering nonsense. So many voices jumbled all around them that hearing one voice was impossible.

Arms pulled them under the surface of the silver liquid. The Raven vanished from in front of him, Gimlet disappeared from under him. Suddenly he was alone with the surface of the water over his head. If his wrists weren’t tied, he could have swam.

He sank. A sudden weight fell upon his neck, pushing him down further. The silver liquid didn’t choke him like water would have, but he held his breath anyway, not wanting those spooky specters to enter his body.

Legs dangled at his chest wearing the Raven’s boots. He gaped upward. She was sitting on his neck looking just as confused as he felt. Meanwhile, Gimlet—a bullhead lizard the size of a carriage—as now riding on the Raven’s neck.

Cross parted his lips to speak and could only grunt like a cornurus. The words he wanted to say came from the Raven’s mouth but with his voice.

“What the hell is going on?” she said—or rather he said.

“I don’t know,” said Gimlet using the Raven’s voice. “Just hold on.”

Cross’s fingers tingled. The binds still around his wrists were too tight. He raised his hands to his face to bite the ropes off and found juicy sausages protruding from his hand. He knew it would be the wrong thing to do, but he couldn’t fight the urge to bite into the juicy sausages. His stomach gurgled and mouth watered. He hadn’t had any sausages since he was alive. He chomped on them.

“Ow!” The Raven used his voice and shook her own hand as if it hurt. “Don’t do that, you idiot!”

Hearing himself call himself an idiot from someone else’s mouth was beyond disconcerting. His head flooded with madness. Poisonous thoughts pervaded his mind. Cutting out his own tongue and sticking it in his ear just to see how it would sound was a stupid idea, but the urge to actually do it was overpowering. He slapped himself.

He had an odd sense that the Raven’s head was filled with apple butter. Bashing her skull to drink the apple butter crossed his mind.

The Raven was a decent enough angel, but if he cracked open her skull, he could keep all the objects for himself and get more objects by selling her apple butter. Souls would pay many objects for apple butter. It didn’t exist anywhere in the underworld, the same as sausages.

The Raven removed his blade from his holster and held it under her own neck. His arms leapt upward and snatched for the blade without his control.

Finally, Gimlet carried them out the other side of the river, snapping them all back to reality. The spiritual sludge that was clinging to their clothes slipped back into the river, wailing.

The Raven slid his obsidian blade back into his holster for him, and they continued their journey in silence. Neither he nor she spoke of what they saw or thought while in the River Nun. They seemed to mutually agree that it was too weird to bring it up.

The ridiculous notion of squeezing apple butter out of her skull was no longer a realistic idea to him, but he still wanted those objects. He contemplated how he could steal them from her. His easiest option would have been to slit her throat. If only he could reach his obsidian blade. His bound wrists made grabbing it out of its holster difficult, and with gimlet bouncing up and down as she galloped, both his hands were busy holding on to the Raven so he didn’t fall off the cornurus.

Hours later, the Raven pulled back on Gimlet’s reins on the outskirts of Duat, near the city of Neter-Khertet and on the edge of the desert realm of Sheol. Miles long strips of rubble, left over from the fall of the gates that used to section off each realm from each other stretched out before them.

The Raven turned her ear back toward Amenthes. This was his chance. Cross raised his fists high above her head figuring he could knock her out, take the objects and leave her in the desert.

“We’re still being followed,” she said.

Quickly, he lowered his fists and turned around to see who was following them. “I don’t see anyone.”

“They stopped when we stopped,” she said. “They’ve been following us ever since Xibalbá. At least five of them. I tried to catch them when we were in the Viņsaule canyons, but they kept escaping. I think they’re following you, but oddly enough I don’t suspect that they want your head like all the others.”

“Oh, that must be the draggles,” said Cross. “Don’t worry about them.”

“Draggles? I never heard of them.”

“That’s because I made up that name. I don’t really know what they are. I’ve actually never seen them. But they won’t bother us. They’ve been following me for a very long time. I think they’re just really shy.”

He reached inside the saddlebag and grabbed a strip of leftover barbot meat. The saddlebag didn’t do as good a job as an icebox would have, but it kept the meat fresh long enough before it became too rotten to eat.

He tossed the meat to the ground for the draggles to get later. “But you my friend, you and Ropey. I have a bone to pick with you two. I wanna know what happened back there in Amenthes. I was this close from losing my head to my own blade.”

“Last time with the squals,” said the Raven, “I had to wait for you to get close enough to me so I could toss you the blade for you to protect yourself. This time I figured I’d put the blade a bit closer to you early on. It worked.”

“I don’t care about that. I wanna know what took you so long.”

“Oh, I ran into an old friend and lost track of time. You’re still all in one piece.”

He gripped a handful of her justaucorps. “Nobody’s late when my neck’s on the line! I felt the Nothing crawling up my back. You know what that’s like?”

“I haven’t had the pleasure,” she said.

“You better hope you never do. When the Nothing bites your ass, it really sinks its fangs.”

“You’re right,” said the Raven. “Thirteen is a sacred number.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I don’t think you’ll ever be worth more than thirteen objects. And too many spirits know about you now. More and more of them will be coming for your head, and one of these days they’re gonna get it, even if they have to go through me.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying, let’s not both lose our heads.” Her wings flapped and slapped him off his cornurus into the sand.

“I’ll hold on to my objects,” she said, “and you can keep whatever it is you already got, even that holey blade in case you decide to fall on it.”

“You filthy, double-crossing bitch!” Cross reached for the obsidian blade tied around his back, but his bound wrists prevented him from grabbing it. The Raven’s rope dart snaked its head up and challenged him. It bobbed its head from side to side and stared him down as if it had eyes.

“Paradise is that way.” She pointed east. “But you’ll have to walk through Sheol. If you’re lucky, it’ll be about nine periods of sleep.”

“Get off my cornurus, you coward. I tamed her. You walk.”

“They say people with fair skin can’t take too much heat. So, you’d do a lot better than me in a desert.”

“You best watch your back,” said Cross. “I’ll be seeing you and Ropey soon. Very soon, you filthy split!”

The Raven tied a bandana over top of her hat and under her chin, and she prodded Gimlet into a fierce run. They galloped away in a cloud of dust.

“You soiled dove!” he called after her. “If I ever catch you, I’ll pluck all your filthy feathers off and skin you alive, you rotten snatch! I’ll rip your wings off, fry them in the pits of Hell, and feed them to the hellhounds!”

Cross marched through the desert of Sheol under the tormented red sky. Although heat was nothing new in the underworld, compared to every other realm he had ever set foot in, Sheol was the hottest. It was hot as a whorehouse on nickel night. He gasped for every breath, and the humidity stole it away each time.

Something as simple as trying to reach his blade so that he could cut the ropes from his wrist became too much of an exertion in the heat. The reaching and stretching exhausted him. After several tries, he finally swung it around to his wrists. He stuck the blade between his knees, sawed his bindings and plopped down on his back, drained and wearied.

Sometimes the smoldering skies would crackle gently like a kindling fireplace on Christmas. Other times it would explode with the fury of dynamite. That day, it emitted a chiming noise. Bursts of light flashed within the flaring sky like exploding bulbs. The dead sun, the only dark spot in the sky, peered down at him, never blinking, never sleeping, defying the logic of time.

He prayed that the Great Goddess would help him make it out and trusted that she would stick with him like she always had. She wouldn’t have placed him in such a circumstance unless he could handle it.

His old friend Sinuhe always said that the underworld had a way of tormenting a soul, not just physically but mentally, and only got rid of you when it was done with you. If it didn’t want to let you go, you didn’t go, and if it wanted you out, you were out.

Cross declared his own terms, though. If the underworld never rested, then neither would he. If the underworld never cooled down, then neither would he. He was going to beat it at its own game.

He staggered to his feet and trudged over dune after dune, only to meet more of the endless ocean of dust. Nothing else lay in sight in all directions. Not a soul. Not a landmark.

Legend had it that spirits had wandered the desert of Sheol for all eternity without ever happening upon another soul. But not, Cross. He would be the exception. Even if it took him a thousand years, his stubborn feet would keep moving. One foot at a time. Left, right, march, like the soldiers. He had always endured when others gave up. He had survived while everyone around him succumbed. That would never change.

He sang “Motherless Child” to himself as he put one determined foot in front of the other. Without the old spirituals he had learned from the slaves back at the plantation, his afterlife wouldn’t have lasted so long. The hymns kept his spirit up, kept him moving forward.

Heat sat on his neck like a devil jamming its claws into his back. He dropped to a knee and cursed at the skies. It showered him with the warm, red blood of the living as if to tease him with what he used to be and emphasize the reality of his death. He stretched out his arms at his sides, stuck out his tongue and tasted the crimson, copper-tinged drops, drinking them in defiance.

“Keep it coming,” he said to the sky and laughed. “You ain’t so tough.”

Adding to the madness, details of his days among the living zoomed in and out of his mind as he trudged through the red-soaked sand. If only he had made it to the River Lethe, he could have erased all his memories and continued his miserable existence in ignorant bliss. The souls without memories were the lucky ones. His memory was a gift, but also a curse. It was his main advantage to surviving the dangers of the underworld, but also the reason every soul wanted him to burn.

His mother appeared before him, just popped into existence. Her dark, immaculate skin glowed unlike any spirit he had ever seen in the underworld.

The red rain showered harder, beating down on him with heavier and heavier drops. The thick blood stuck to his clothes, but avoided his mother’s halo; she was there, but not there in full, too heavenly for the underworld to taint her, which seemed to hate her presence. She radiated a serenity he hadn’t encountered since he was booted from paradise so many years ago. Her holiness touched the center of his spirit. He bathed in the rapturous light from her celestial smile. Without her ever touching him, she embraced him, wrapped him up in safety of her arms like she used to. Like a goddess, love poured out from her and enveloped him.

But never had he met anyone from his former life since he had been dead, and it wouldn’t have been the first time he had been tricked by someone pretending to be a loved one. Seeing his mother had to have been a dirty trick of the underworld. It was an evil ruse, a cruel joke meant to build up his hopes only to crush them. No matter how good it made him feel to see her, perhaps because he wished so badly that the spirit truly was his mother, he couldn’t trust the vision, couldn’t appreciate a potential gift from the Great Goddess.

He hated the underworld.

“I’ve sent you help,” said Mama.

“I don’t need anyone’s help.” He stepped past her, and she was still standing ahead of him as if he had never moved.

“You’ve always been strong,” she said. “You’re stronger than anyone I’ve ever known. Your problem is your ego. You’ve allowed your experiences; both living and dead, to make you believe you can do everything on your own. In turn, it has made you selfish. You can’t go through any existence only caring about yourself. One day, you’re going to need someone. I just hope that when that time comes you’ve given them a reason to help you.”

“You know how long I’ve been down here? Because I don’t. Not anymore. It’s always the same day here. There’s no night. Every soul has to count their own sleep cycles if they want to keep track of their individual days. So a day for me won’t be the same as a day for another soul. And it’s not like you get any real rest anyway. Don’t even get me started. But I stopped counting. Know why?”

Mother pursed her lips and head dipped downward off to the side as if she knew what he was about to say, but would allow him to voice his frustrations.

“I kept track of months and years,” he said, “but after a while I had to ask myself why. Why the hell was I counting? It’s not like I’m ever going to leave this place. I didn’t think you were real at first. But with your no man is an island speech, I’m convinced you’re definitely not from around these parts.”

He wiped the tears from his cheeks. Red blood stained both sides of his hands. He held his palms out and closed them. “It must be real nice up there or wherever you came from, Mama. And I’m glad you made it. I’m really happy for you. But you can’t come all the way down here after hundreds of years and scold me for something I have no control over. John Donne wasn’t talking about me, okay. I’ve been on my own since I was nine. I can take of myself. I always have. I always will.” Defiantly, he walked through her.

She appeared in his path again. “I’m sorry I left you, Charles.”

“Don’t call me that,” he said.

“When I left, you didn’t see everything that happened, because it was meant for you not to see. Had you been watching me, everything would have been different.”

“I wish everything was different. I wish none of this ever happened.”

“I can’t say that everything happens for a reason. But this did. I promise you, one day this will all make sense. Just remember, you don’t have to change the world around you. You only need to change one mind.”

“Yeah? Then what?”

“Then we’ll see each other again.” Her smile beamed and her halo grew brighter.

She reached out to him as if she wanted to caress his cheek. He raised his hand to hers to feel her warm touch once more. She vanished, leaving him with his own palm nuzzling his cheek, abandoning him yet again.

He pressed on through the red rain like the soldier he was, one foot in front of the other through the endless dust. Left, right, march.

CHAPTER 7

Soul Mates

Nine year old, Charles may not have understood everything that went on around him, but he always paid attention because one day everything would all make sense. He knew a lot more than everyone around him gave him credit for, because he kept his mouth shut and was an expert listener.

He heard the plantation workers whispering of a “Moses” aiding slaves in escapes far off in the old states. He heard them planning their own revolt. When that night came around, he was ready for the rifle shots and the screams of torment, the chaos and commotion. He had prepared himself for the deaths or recapture of the slaves he had considered family, but all of it still made him cry.

He and Mama fled north for a few days after the uprising. They hid from the bloodhounds in the cold woods at night. Mama kept him warm in her tight embrace. He tried to wrap his arms around her to keep her warm, but he was too small, and she wouldn’t let him anyway. She claimed she was warm enough, but he could feel her shivering.

“Tell me about paradise again,” he said. “I like to hear you tell it to me.”

“Paradise,” she said, her teeth chattering. “Oh, it’s a place where the sun is always shinning. You never want for nuffin’, never need for nuffin’, and the work ain’t too much you can’t handle. It’s all that is good in this world. It’s peace. It’s freedom. And only one master rules in paradise. God A’mighty. Our Lord, Jesus.”

Her words warmed him up. Every time she spoke of paradise, a calmness set over him. All his worries washed away. Then he fixed him mind to ask something he had never thought to ask before. “Where is paradise?”

“A long long, long way from here.” She pointed to the sky. “See that star right there. It’s the brightest one in the sky. It’s called the North Star. We follow that, its gon’ take us all the way to paradise. Keep your eyes on that star. Don’t let it out of your sight.”

He did as told and kept his eyes pressed onto that North Star every night. They passed over hills and through meadows, swam across stinky swamps. One evening they crept into a town so Mama could steal some food for him. It was odd to Charles that she didn’t include herself in the plan to eat, but he stayed quiet. Mama knew best.

The town was crawling with men holding shotguns and rifles. On the edge of Main Street, Mama shoved Charles behind a wagon filled to its brim with wooden beams.

“You tell them I made you do it,” she said. “You just a boy, they’ll believe you. And they won’t whip you too bad. No matter what, don’t you look now, hear?”

He nodded and she took a long gaze at his face as though drinking him in, stamping that moment in her memory for one last time. She stepped around the wagon.

“Hey you,” said a man Charles couldn’t see, but the voice snapped through the air like a whip. Footsteps shuffled. “Hold it right there. Where you goin? Hey, we got one, boys!”

A thump pounded the ground as though a body had fallen. A scream exploded in Mama’s voice. Charles crouched. Through the space under the wagon, he viewed his mother being dragged across the ground by her hair, kicking and flailing.

Charles shut his eyes in obedience to his mother’s last wish. A whip cracked through the air. He covered his ears, but that only muffled her screams. He buried his head between his knees in an attempt to silence the world around him, but with each lash the crowd boomed with boisterous glee and carried on as if they were attending a festival. Charles rocked back and forth, pretending his Mama was holding him in her arms again, and when all went quiet, he sat there, still too afraid to look.

He worked up the courage to stand, and he peeked around the wagon. To both his joy and horror, his mother remained alive. She sat horseback with a noose around her neck. Her gaze fell onto him. She blinked tightly, and nodded, signaling him to close his eyes, but he froze.

He squeezed the wood in front of him. A splinter stabbed his palm. By the time he looked back up to Mama, she was drifting at the end of the rope in a slow swing. He had missed it. He knew seeing his mother drop would have been devastating, but in an odd way he wished he had seen her last moment, if only to see where her soul went, so he could follow her.

His body flushed with coldness. The world around him wobbled and turned black, little glimmering lights appeared in his eyes, blocking his vision. Nothing felt real. The splinter in his hand no longer hurt. He became aware of a presence near him, but he couldn’t bring himself to turn his head from Mama.

“You better get low,” said a young girl’s voice beside him. Small hands gripped his shoulders and guided him into a crouching position. The girl disappeared around the wagon as heavy footsteps pounded toward the wagon. Under the wagon, he saw a man’s boots and slacks and pale legs extending from the bottom of a girl’s dress.

“If you’re looking for the other one,” said the girl. “I saw him go around the building. Hurry, you might can catch him.”

The man ran off in the opposite direction of Charles’s hiding spot. The girl waited for a while then shuffled her way back behind the wagon.

“Hurry,” she said. “You better shin out while you got time.”

Finally, he gazed upon her, a girl about his age with angel eyes that bore into his soul with grace and kindness. The glint in her gaze was like a light leading out of a deep dark underworld. A North Star.

“It’s ok,” she said. “My name’s Kate. What’s your name?”

“Charles,” he said softly, surprised that he could still speak.

“Where’s your momma and poppa?”

He wiped his wet cheeks and gestured out into the area where his mother hung.

“Oh.” Kate’s mouth hung open, and she stared down for a while. “I think you should come with me. My father will know what to do. We were just getting inside our coach when I saw you standing here.”

Another man raced up to them. Unlike the wild men who hung Mama, this man was well dressed and clean shaven. “Kate, don’t you ever run off like that again,” he said. “These mobs can turn dreadfully ugly.”

“Father, this is Charles.”

“Hello, Charles. Come on, Kate.”

“That’s Charles’s mother.” She pointed to the short drop.

Kate’s father removed his hat. A lock of his hair curled down to his forehead. He placed his hat on his chest. A ring on his finger glistened in the dark as though it bore its own light. “My condolences,” he said. “I’m deeply sorry for your loss, Charles, but we have to go. This town is getting restless.”

He placed his hat back on his head and grabbed Kate’s arm. She grabbed Charles’s arm and hauled him along to the center of the dirt road.

Her father halted. “Let him go, Kate.”

“We can’t just leave him here.”

“He isn’t our responsibility.”

“You always tell me to care about all life. He’s all alone.” She gripped his arm tighter.

“I’m very sorry for him,” said her father. “Truly, I am. I can’t imagine what he just experienced. But he can’t come with us. He belongs to someone else.” He nodded to Charles. “You understand? If these were honest men, they’d have returned you and your mother to your master, jailed you or at least sold you to the highest bidder. But these aren’t men of reason. Those vigilantes don’t care about reward money, only punishment. They’ll hang us all for aiding runaways. Now, I don’t know who your master is, but for your own sake I suggest you find your way back to him as soon as you can, all right. I’m afraid that’s all the help I offer you.”

Kate’s father spun around and came face to face with the barrel of a rifle.

“What you doin’ with that boy?” said the rifleman. A bristly blonde mustache covered his mouth. His chin was clean shaven. Nothing about the man was familiar to Charles except the man’s voice.

He was the man who dragged Mama.

Kate pulled Charles closer to her. “He’s with us.”

The rifleman eyed Charles and then Kate’s father. “Is that right, Mister? This nigger boy yours?”

Kate’s father opened his mouth to speak but said nothing.

“Lower your weapon!” A bearded man raced over to them. “Put that rifle down, you idiot. Do you have any idea who you’re addressing?”

“I’m addressing a runaway and his possible aide,” said the rifleman.

“You’re a guest in my town only for as long as you capture your fugitives, but this man here is a friend of mine. And that little girl is his daughter. I will not tolerate this inferior treatment directed towards them. Nor do I take to either of them as liars. If they say this boy is with them, I’ll take their word as bond, understood?”

The rifleman hesitated, glanced down at Charles and flipped his rifle to his shoulder. “Apologies, Mr. Garrett.”

“Don’t apologize to me,” said Mr. Garrett. “Apologize to Miss Katie, whom you’ve just frightened with your crude brutality.”

The rifleman gave a quick nod to Kate. “My apologies, Little Miss.”

Mr. Garrett shuffled them off to the side of the road, ran his hand along his beard, and sighed. “Now, please tell me I didn’t just help you aid a runaway, Mr. Carson.”

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