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Chapter 36

Chapter 36: Grotto

On a bed of wind-flattened willow, I strain to forget my existence. For a while, my agony dulls, but I can’t sustain this null state for long. Images of my lost life keep intruding into my mental viewfinder, invoking pain as potent and relentless as the wind screaming over the ridges. I lay as limp as a worm in a puddle. I can’t stand it anymore. I rise. I descend.

In Cato’s face, I saw my future: withered, weathered, scarred—and that would be the best case scenario. I can’t Ascend. I don’t have the strength or the will. I am destined to Squat.

As I stumble down ledges, raucous cries rip through the air. A dozen gray and white monkeys with frilly tails and bushy manes spread out and pick through the heather, salvaging the spilled offering. They glare at me with eyes as bitter as Cato’s.

I try running at them and shooing them off with the empty basket, but they counter my bluff with a rush of their own, and by the looks of their fangs, they’re not bluffing. I back away, keeping them at bay with shouts and well-placed stones. I maneuver around them, giving them plenty of leeway.

The stitches in my side ease. My brain no longer rattles its cage.

When I reach the valley floor, the inhabitants have trickled back to their trenches and catacombs. Yoshiko is standing there waiting for me.

“Thank you oh so much,” she says. “Did he speak to you?”

“Yeah,” I say. “But I didn’t understand a word.”

“You missed … some excitement down here.”

“I saw. What happened?”

“A force of Facilitators attempted to ambush Hector. He managed to evade them.”

“Is Marco—?”

“He’s safe … and in my home. Come.”

She leads me down into the cave where she dwells, lighted by wells and mirrored panels. Sabonis huddles in a dark corner, paranoiac eyes fixed on the entrance, an ax cradled in his lap.

“That fucker Delgado got away,” he says, fondling an ax. “At least, if the Facilitators had gotten him, we would have gotten back my boat.”

“If they caught him, what makes you think they wouldn’t have caught you?”

“Only thing they’d catch is this fucking ax in back of their skull.”

“I’ve got a problem,” I say. “I can’t climb as high anymore. I’m losing my breath.”

“No shit,” says Sabonis. “What’d you expect? If you don’t climb and Clear, you slip and Fall. That’s how things work around here. Where do you think all these Squatters come from?”

“I didn’t think it would happen so quickly.”

“Not everyone’s … like me,” he says.

“What do you mean, like you?” I say. “What makes you so special?”

Yoshiko laughs. “She doesn’t know?”

“Know what?”

“Marco is Unfettered,” says Yoshiko. “Elysium has no grip on him.”

“Well … I wouldn’t say no grip,” says Sabonis. “They found a way to sink their claws into me. I can’t climb like I used to, either.”

“Unfettered? What does that mean?”

“Means I ain’t intended to be here.”

“Where are you intended to be?”

“Not … here,” he says.

“Well, you’re always welcome here in Zion, Marco,” says Yoshiko.

“Who isn’t?” says Sabonis. “You guys even let in Delgado.”

“Yes, well … I don’t suppose he’ll be back anytime soon,” says Yoshiko. “I bet he blames the Facilitators attacking him on us.”

“It wasn’t?” says Sabonis.

“Marco. You know better than that. The Pope would never jeopardize his supply of Marmite.”

“That all he wants? Get me my boat back, I’ll get him some Marmite.”

“Then the Facilitators will target you,” says Yoshiko. “Best leave the traveling to Hector.”

“They’re already after me,” says Sabonis, shrugging.

“Why are you so dead set on going back?” says Yoshiko. “Hector, I can understand. He ran a drug cartel. Smuggling is in his blood.”

Sabonis stroked the handle of his ax. His eyes went blank. A faint smile crept.

“I gotta go back,” says Sabonis. “I gotta see Joanne.”

“You miss her?” I say, projecting my own rationale for returning to life.

“Miss her?” He guffaws. “Fuck no. I’m going back to kill that bitch. No one deserves to die the way I did. All I wanted was a simple goodbye. I didn’t ask her to kiss and make up. Just a goodbye. Bitch refused to respect my stupid little last wish. She deserves to die. I’m going back to smother that bitch in her sleep, put this axe through her head ... whatever. I want her dead like me. I want her to know how it feels to die alone like I did.”

Yoshi sidles close and whispers. “There’s a reason his soul was sent to Avernus.”

Footsteps pitter-patter down the stairs leading into Yoshiko’s courtyard. Sabonis fumbles with the axe, hefts it over his shoulder.

A glow precedes the approaching figure. Bianca enters the grotto.
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