Lethe

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Chapter 43

Chapter 43: Alecto’s Lair

“Where are you?” I say. The orb glows soft amber, shedding barely enough light to distinguish land from sky.

“Just follow my voice,” says Haurvil. “I vill speak.”

I spot him. His outline blocks the weak reflections coming off the marsh. He walks to the marshes edge.

“I can’t cross that. I’ll sink.”

“Ees not deep,” says Haurvil. “My mistress, she crosses all ze time.”

I step and my foot catches on a floating mat of tangled moss. It bears my weight. I feel my way barefoot, step by step, retracting my foot when it slips through holes.

I lose sight of Haurvil, but he is singing softly in French, and he doesn’t change direction, crossing directly to the other side.

With relief, I step onto solid ground. Haurvil’s voice lifts up the hillside, like tiny speakers on an ancient phonograph.

I am climbing again and I feel it with every upward step. Nothing severe, just a headache and soreness beneath my ribs. Like a junkie for heroin, I long for the feeling that symbiont brought me.

Gentle hooting emanates from a brush patch. The brown monkeys have bedded down for the night.

I surmount the ridge. A hollow dimples its back side. I see lights below—a bonfire within a cluster of huts and smaller, guttering flames along a walkway. Upslope from them, a ring of bulbous structures like giant puffball mushrooms sheds a soft glow.

“You see now?” says Haurvil.

“What am I looking at?”

“My mistress’s house stands alone. Her people stay in their village. You will stay out of my house now, yes?”

“No problem. Marco’s there? She has Marco?”

“He came today with the others,” says Haurvil. “Maybe he is no more.”

I look down at the lights, and descend without hesitation.

I reach the path connecting Alecto’s bizarre abode to the collection of smaller, more conventional huts. Haurvil’s singing trails off in another direction. I am glad to be rid of him.

The huts to my left are nothing special—mud wattle walls, roofed with layered sheets of bark. The fire in the middle of the compound has burned down to orange-red embers, the sort one might use to toast marshmallows.

People sit around the fire, or amble about the compound with a smattering of goats. If these are Alecto’s infamous “Facilitators,” their domestic life certainly belies their fierce reputation.

I step out onto the path. A shape emerges out of the darkness.

“Lost, sweetie?”

He is no Shade. He is a man.

“I’m looking for Alecto.” I can barely make out his features in the reflected fire light.

He peruses my tattered dress, sizing me up.

“Fringer,” he says. “What business do you have with her?”

“I don’t know. She … she summoned me,” I say. “Jean-Francois … Haurvil … said she wants to see me.”

“Haurvil, eh?” says the man. “I thought I had heard his blasted singin’. Well, you’d better get up there quick. She’s settling in for the night. And her house doesn’t like her disturbed in her sleep.”

Her house? “Thank you,” I say, wondering if the man misspoke.

“Good luck to you,” he says. He passes by me and continues down the path. A stout longbow with many laminations is slung on his back beside a quiver of massive arrows, their shafts as long as my arm and as thick as my thumb. I wait till he puts some space between us before continuing on.

The path climbs to a flat area scooped out of the hillside. It does not look like a natural contour. A stone fence arcs around the gulch-side of the compound. Monoliths several times my height bracket an unguarded gateway.

I pause to rest, uncomfortable, but the discomfort is at a level I can bear. I enter a broad compound. Fatty candles sputter atop of posts. They smell like pork fat.

A ring of bulging huts, roofs indistinguishable from walls, connect by membranous tubes to form a ring. Some of the units harbor a bluish glow that seems to pulse through the walls.

Above the compound, on the side of a hill, three crossed posts form a triple X. Two of the crosses appear to have bodies strapped to them.

I stay clear of the huts and head for the crosses. I have a bad feeling about who might be strapped to them.

As I approach, I see that one X is unoccupied, and that bodies hang motionless on the other. I step closer, tensing with dread.

Eyes open and a head turns. It is not Sabonis. And neither is the figure on the next post over.

The man looking at me has no hands or feet of flesh, only blackness where his flesh should be. His legs are broken and bent at unnatural angles.

His face is striking, with bony cheekbones and elongated chin accentuated by a dark mustache and goatee, like an El Greco Jesus. Intelligent eyes follow me with weary amusement.

“Que pasa?” he says.

“Fine,” I say. “I guess.”

“What new torture is this she sends my way?”

“Are you … okay?”

He looks at me as if I am a cretin. “Do I look okay?” he says. “My heart does not beat. My Shade is ready for the picking … like a ripe plum.”

“I can cut you down.”

“Why?” says the man. “I have no blood. No hands, no feet. She fed them to the monkeys and made me watch. I did not give her the pleasure of a reaction.”

A dark pool glistens beneath his cross. The hollow canes that drained it still jut from the major arteries in his thighs, upper arms and throat. They drip slowly.

“Who are you?” I say, even though I’m pretty sure I know.

“I am Hector Delgado,” says the man. “Or at least I was. It looks like Hector will be no more … once more.”

“Why did they torture you?” I say. “Because you go back … to life?”

“This is all Alecto’s doing,” says Delgado. “She loves the drama … the playing. For me, this torture is pointless. I was doomed to be a Shade from the moment they captured me.”

“But what they say is true? You go back … to life?”

“It … was … true,” says Delgado.

“One thing I don’t understand,” I say. “If you can return to life … why do you keep coming back to Lethe?”

“Pah!” he says. “This is a much better place to be … for the dead.”

Black patches ooze out of his skin and seep back in, pulsing like a moth in a chrysalis.

“But why is that? I don’t understand.”

“You would know … if you returned,” says Delgado.

“But how? How do you do it?”

“Any fool can find their way back,” says Delgado. “All it takes is a good boat. Like the one I took from Marco. That was a damned fine boat. He was wasting it dicking around, keeping to the shoals.”

“Have you seen him? Sabonis?”

“He is here,” says Delgado.

“Where?”

“She is saving him for play, feeding him to her house, perhaps. Come back tomorrow and he’ll be on that cross beside us.”

My skin tingles as I stare at the unoccupied cross and its tethered hooks. A basket bearing a neat bundle of hollowed, blood-letting canes rests at its base.

I recognize the body dangling silent from the second cross—Mr. Corduroy—and feel yet another unvoiced hope die within me.

I slink back towards the complex of huts.

“Take care, senorita,” says Delgado. “That woman is a slithering demon. She’s a Shade maker.”

I hear humming, its melody matching the little ditty that Haurvil likes to sing.

888

An ancient rosebush spreads its gnarled branches in the center of Alecto’s compound. It looks more like a tree, its main stem as thick as my thigh.

I stand between two huts, listening to footsteps patter away from me. The wall looks like some sort of fibrous, extruded stucco. I place my hand on it, and quickly draw my hand back as if stung. It feels warm but prickly, soft as mushroom, but alive like an animal. I look up into the eaves and see gills beneath the overhangs.

I find no door, only slits that melt away at my touch. The walls glow a faint blue in response to my warmth. I leave glowing hand prints that fade after a few seconds. A puff of breath is enough to conjure a gentle glow.

The first hut I enter is barren and dusty. Crusts and abandoned swallow nests and spider webs clog its creases. I pass through another slit and the next hut is much the same, except dirtier, with a pile of dark pellets on the floor—goat droppings.

I continue around the ring, entering a hut that is piled with miscellaneous debris like a hoarder’s closet—hunks of bleached driftwood with swooping curves, bottles encrusted with barnacles.

Finally, I find a living space with a floor that looks like it has been swept, stacks of wooden bowls, mats woven from the reeds growing in the marsh I crossed with Haurvil.

I pause at the next junction. About three huts down the chain I see a glow seeping through the walls. A fainter glow moves away and into the adjoining hut.

I move on along the ring, but the contents of the next compartment arrest me. It is packed with stacks of clothing, folded neatly and sorted by item. There are firefighter’s coats, military uniforms and coveralls; polyester tops, little black cocktail dresses and dungarees. I rifle through the piles. Much of it is torn and stained and worn through.

I can’t resist. I peel off the shreds of my peasant dress and slip into a pair of sweat pants, an oversized flannel shirt and a cotton hoodie. I feel the warmth already building in my skin.

At the next junction I study the patterns of glow ahead. The brightest patch illuminates an entire wall two huts away in the chain. Two huts further on, a fainter glow paints a horizontal slash near the floor.

I move on to an empty hut with blood spots on the floor and walls that squirm like tangles of thin, pale worms. A blue glow emanating one hut down illuminates the next juncture.

I hear a noise—something like a wheezy snore. I stop, look and listen before I move on. I pass through the slit.

Sabonis hangs embedded in the wall. Squirming whitish-blue strands entwine his limbs and fill his nostrils and mouth. They glow purplish where the pink of Sabonis’ blood blends with the blue.

From the width of his eyes, he’s excited to see me, but he can’t say a word because a thick rope of bluish-white coils jams his throat. I try pulling at them. The strands resist and start attacking me, the points of the tendrils turning hard and jabbing me like blunt little hypodermics.

I look around for some way to cut him free. I spot a lance on the floor. A foot-long shard of obsidian is mounted on a stout shaft that appears to have grown around the stone while the sapling was alive. I grab it near the base of the blade and try wielding it like a knife.

My hands shake. Sabonis cringes as I wiggle the blade close to the strands winding up his neck. Some of strands gather to sting my arm. I slash at them. The obsidian parts the white filaments cleanly and they curl away from the blade. A thousand slender worms disentangle and trickle down Sabonis’ chin, dangling like a beard before they tumble to the floor, writhing like baby-blue nematodes.

Sabonis hacks and coughs and spits up blood. “My ears! Get ’em outa my ears! They’re coming in everywhere.”

I slash at either side of his head, and at the ropy tangles restraining his arms. He falls forward, thighs still embedded. I peel his legs free and he rips himself out of the wall, leaving a Sabonis-shaped impression behind. He collapses on the floor, clawing at the coils penetrating every orifice, scrape or contusion.

The slit opening to the next room begins to glow. A dark-eyed woman with tidy eyebrows and a waist-length braided ponytail peers into the chamber.

“My, my,” says Alecto. “Look who’s been a very bad boy.”
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