Maggie is the mother of Lucy, our second main protagonist that we meet in the new prologue and in chapter two. (Which was the old chapter one before we added the new prologue - I know, it's confusing, trust me. This post explains everything.)
As always you can find previous chapters, here, here, here & here
This chapter introduces us more to the world of Limbo, and how our protagonist Nephys, really is an odd duck, to say nothing of his companion Hiero.
I hope you enjoy it.
Update: I originally titled this blog entry as "The Bark of Nephys" - that's a couple of chapters on. Mistakes like that happen when you decide to change the chapter order at the last moment. Oops.
Nephys thrust the punting pole down into the reedy, black mud and slowly pushed the skiff forward on the stagnant water. Hiero was at the prow like some demented figurehead, scanning the featureless horizon. From where he stood in the stern, Nephys could barely see above the tall reeds. They were well beyond the plains of Limbo now, out into the marshes and dark swamps that surrounded it for miles. Nephys didn’t like going out this far, but fortunately, he still remembered how to navigate his boat through the thick bulrushes like he did when he was alive. There wasn’t much he remembered, but he did remember that. They hadn’t seen many shades though, so he had that to be grateful for.
“Do you see anything yet?”
“Fhank-blatt,” the bagpipe spluttered.
That meant “no.” An imp could sniff out a suffering soul like a bloodhound could sniff out a blood trail – except imps could do it over open water. Suffering was their life bread – they fed on it, and it didn’t take much to set them on the scent…a galling mistake, a frustrating afternoon, an embarrassing memory that suddenly came rushing back, anything really, and an imp would be on you like a tick. Still, the two of them had never been out quite this far or long before, and Nephys was getting nervous. Shades could be as hungry as imps were, though they preferred the taste of sadness and despair.
“Are you sure you sensed something this way?”
Hiero’s whooshing breath went silent for a moment, and then the bagpipe exploded. “Fhank, thaaaarn, thookooool bummm-paaaarhntf!!!” which, as near as Nephys could translate meant, “If you’re so darn anxious to get there, then why don’t you…USE YOUR DEATH SIGHT ALREADY!!”
It was true. Nephys could use the inner sight and all the reeds would become like glass and he could see to the horizon. The bright flame of a newly departed soul would be easy to see, but he had already used the Death Sight once this morning. Each time you used the Sight, it caused your natural eyes to atrophy a little more and he wasn’t quite ready to go blind that much sooner. Turning back had it’s own risks though. He didn’t want an angry, psychotic bagpipe following him around all day.
He was just about to suggest giving up when Hiero bleated out a triumphant, discordant note. Hiero plunged the big butcher knife forward with his spidery arm and nearly threw himself out of the boat in the process. Nephys could see something above the reeds ahead. The water grew shallower and Nephys pushed the boat forward onto a nearby shoal. Hiero was out of the boat and splashing ahead, using the knife like a machete to clear a path, hooting and slashing in anticipation.
“Noisy thing,” muttered Nephys. He’d bring every shade within a furlong down on them. Fortunately, shades were just as scared of imps as everyone else. Nephys secured the boat and stepped off; his feet sunk deep into the black muck. It pulled and sucked at every footstep. Eventually, Nephys managed to find firm ground and pulled himself free, following Hiero’s trumpeting cacophony. The ground here was firmer and drier and the reeds became less thick; with a final push, Nephys pressed on past the rushes into a small, damp clearing. Hiero was nearby, silent, and even Nephys gaped at what he saw.
It was a tree, a large tree, with two large trunks, shaped like a “V.” High up, higher than a person could reach was some awful, huge, twisted hunk of metal and glass squeezed in the scissor grip of the tree, like a poor animal in a trap. The tree was denser and more solid and somehow more real than its surroundings.
Once, there had been trees in Limbo, whole orchards in fact, but now there were none outside of a few twisted, dead trunks near the acropolis of the city. The whole landscape of Limbo had changed over the centuries. The plains progressively got swampier. The center of Limbo was getting lower as well. Like a sandcastle melting in the surf, the whole of Limbo was slowing eroding. Since the orchards of the dead had disappeared long ago, this tree could only have come from one place – it had been dragged from the land of the living.
Such things were not impossible, but they didn’t happen very often. Most souls arrived in Limbo in the usual way, through the gates of Erebus, muttering, disoriented, and bearing the wounds and marks of the method of their parting. They were generally not in the best of sorts, but they knew they were dead and more or less resigned to something like a compliant state. There, the servants of Death processed them, recorded their names and measured their wounds, but it was not the only way to get to the afterlife.
The world of the living lay over the top of the underworld like a tablecloth on a table. In certain places and at certain times it could be very thin. So thin, that if a person’s death was violent enough, traumatic enough, it could tear through and drop them here, in the swamps surrounding Limbo, or further away, in the barren desert wastes that surrounded the Pits of Punishment. When that happened, the dead often dragged something, an echo you could call it, a psychic manifestation of their death, with them. A murder victim could conjure the weapon that had killed him. A person who was long sick on their deathbed would often bring a shadow of that bed with them, but Nephys had never seen someone drag a whole tree after them before. The soul must have been wrenched from life suddenly with a near unfathomable amount of pain and horror, like an arm torn from its socket by a wild beast. No wonder Hiero could smell this thing from so far off.
Nephys scanned the tree and the twisted hunk of metal. He recognized the wheels and suddenly knew what it was. Over thousands of years, the arriving souls had changed their dress and language a great deal, but for most of that time Nephys could tell the world was largely the same place he had left. Every culture had its bakers and blacksmiths, millers, scribes and politicians, housewives, maids, and cobblers. People were people and no matter how strange or foreign, they still had to eat and they still got around by horses and carts, but in the last century that had all changed. Spirits started showing up with strange devices of no discernable purpose. Worse yet were the ones with horrifying wounds with bits of glass and metal embedded in them. Some carried strange wheels still gripped tightly in their hands, while others had the marks of wheels on them, heavy wheels that crushed their bodies as they passed.
In snatches of conversations between these new arrivals he had overheard how men now moved about in strange, fast-moving carts – metal and glass carriages powered by steam and fire without horses. How these conveyances worked was a mystery to Nephys, but it was certainly some sort of evil magic, because they extracted a heavy toll. Never had so many mangled souls entered the Gates of Erebus before. The Children of Limbo referred to them as “death-carts” and were convinced they were a conspiracy on the part of the Great Master to speed up the work. Nephys had never seen a whole one before, but this mangled metal thing stuck in the tree had to be one of them.
“Phlarnk!” Hiero nudged Nephys’ leg, hooted and gestured with his nose trumpet. Nephys could see a woman struggling frantically at the base of the tree. She was desperately trying to climb it to reach the metal carcass of the death cart, but she instead clawed helplessly at the bark, sliding back down to the ground. With each failed attempt, she became more desperate until she collapsed at the base of the tree, sobbing hysterically.
Hiero was right. They had to put an end to this right away. All that crying was bound to attract some shades. There were certainly shades nearby, and Nephys didn’t want to meet up with any way out here. Touching a single shade was like thrusting your hand under ice water for several minutes. If several shades surrounded you, it was like falling into an icy lake, and release only came when you managed to escape or became a shade yourself.
Nephys quickly padded over to the sobbing woman. Hiero splashed alongside him in the puddles like a lame, but excited, dog. When he got closer he could see that she was tall and thin and dark haired, but not young. Middle-aged he guessed. It was hard to tell her age exactly; after a while all of the dead looked the same to Nephys. She was dressed in the strange, tight-fitting pants that so many souls wore now, but they looked uncomfortably binding to him. Nephys stopped just a few feet short of her and didn’t know what to say or do. Hiero looked from Nephys to her and back to Nephys again.
“Haaaarnt!” Hiero hooted exasperatedly. Then he shoved Nephys hard behind the knees until he nearly fell over.
“Stop that!” Nephys muttered hoarsely.
“fhun, fhun, fhun…weeeeeeenarn,” Hiero bleated sulkily. He hated dithering.
“Alright then, fine.” Nephys took a few cautious, small steps forward. Nothing was worse than being less decisive than a demonic wind instrument. Nephys approached carefully and said nervously, “Hello.”
The woman didn’t notice and kept on sobbing. Nephys tried a little louder, this time with some throat clearing as well. Still nothing. Nephys had learned many languages working as a scribe in the record houses of the dead. He tried various greetings in several of these, but still nothing. She couldn’t see him. She couldn’t hear him. It was like he wasn’t there at all. This was bad. A soul torn so swiftly and violently from the land of the living was often in such a state of shock, it couldn’t be made to understand the nature of its new reality. Most did not even know they were dead. If she couldn’t be made to see the truth, and quickly, she would be locked forever in a state of denial, forever clawing at the base of the tree, sobbing. That is, until she became a shade, at which point she would wander without a thought at all, clinging only to the memory of the terrible sadness that had consumed her.
Persons who fell so far from the Gates of Erebus were rarely recovered. Their numbers were so small that the bureaucrats of Death could hardly be bothered with them. Anyone lost out here would usually become a lost soul, a shade, a mere memory of their former selves, with nothing but hunger to guide them.
Nephys wasn’t sure why Hiero kept dragging him out here to find these hard-luck cases. Perhaps he had become a connoisseur and the vulgar flavors of torture, rage and obscenity of the Pits of Punishment no longer appealed to him. Now he liked the salty wine of sadness and despair. He was an imp after all; it was in his guts – even if he didn’t have any. But none of that explained why he dragged Nephys along on these rescue missions. Nephys went all the same, but mostly out of boredom. Still, of all the scribes and courtiers of Limbo, why choose him to share these adventures? Nephys would have thought to ask him if he wasn’t certain that Hiero would respond with a string of flat, minor key raspberries.
The woman kept sobbing. Nephys felt the slightest trace of wind, and inside it was the touch of frost. The air of Limbo was normally as stagnant as the fetid pond water. The movement of air could mean only one thing. The shades had noticed them, and they were approaching. This was getting serious. Nephys was frozen in thought and deliberation, not knowing what to do – that is until Hiero snorted out a “BAARNT” and stabbed him in the back of his calf with the point of his butcher knife.
“YEAARRRGH!!!” Nephys screamed. He reached down and grabbed the calf in a moment of agony and looked as the gash Hiero had made quickly disappeared. Nephys glared at Hiero, who only blithely rolled his glassy eyes in indifference. The afterlife was full of bitter and cruel ironies. You could hardly feel light or warmth or cold, you couldn’t taste or smell anything but flatness or stagnation, you couldn’t feel your breath, or a heartbeat, and you lost your eyes a little day by day, but a deranged imp with a rusty butcher knife could still stab you and hurt you as real as anything. Then the wound would instantly fade, disappear entirely, so of course, the cursed imp felt no compunction against doing it again. Meanwhile, the wounds you acquired in life remained indelibly, permanent. Hiero had stabbed Nephys a dozen or more times, usually just to get his attention, and not a single wound remained a second afterward, but the large black gash across Nephys’ throat was always there.
However much Nephys disliked Hiero’s tactic, it had worked. The woman had noticed, and stirred herself from her despair. She stopped sobbing and stood up gingerly and spoke weakly. “Is…is someone there? Oh, please…anyone?! Can you hear me?!!”
Nephys stepped a little closer and said, “Yes, yes…we can hear you. I’m here.”
“Where?! Where?!! I can’t see you.” She said, even though she was standing less than two feet from Nephys and looking right at him.
“I’m right here. Are you alright?” Nephys tried to sound reassuring.
She gazed directly at him, her brow furrowing, she was having a hard time seeing him, but then she blinked a time or two and a look of surprise passed over her face as she finally recognized Nephys.
“Oh! Oh, thank God.” She lurched forward at Nephys and grabbed him by the shoulders. Nephys stood awkwardly not knowing what to do. “I’m so glad you’re here…I need help…we were driving…it was night. Some kid ran out into the street and …I don’t know what happened, but we went off the road into the trees. I must have been thrown from the car….” She continued on, disjointedly, occasionally sobbing between breaths, trying to collect her thoughts while Nephys nodded complacently.
This was not good. She may have seen Nephys, thanks to Hiero’s executive decision, but she was still not seeing him. She was still trapped in the delusion that this was the land of the living and that she was still alive. To her, Nephys was just some passerby who had come upon the accident. The newly dead saw what they wanted to see. This was a harder case than either he or Hiero had ever stumbled upon. Once, they had met a man who was convinced the swamp was the Florida everglades, and he wouldn’t leave until he had pulled in that big fish. He said this all the while not noticing the alligator bite-sized piece missing from his middle. When Hiero had stuck his knife through the empty space, the man came right to. Nephys had no idea what else to do in this situation but to play along and try to get her to listen. The hard part was finding a way to enter the woman’s one-sided conversation.
“Look, we are here to help you…” Nephys began awkwardly.
“I was driving when…out of nowhere!...was this boy…what on earth was a boy doing on the highway in the middle of the night?!!” She was rambling.
“I know this will be hard, but you need to listen to me,” Nephys tried to implore the lady, but she just continued her ranting; she was in shock.
“I must have been thrown from the car, but I can’t find her anywhere, so she must be up there still.”
“Look, I know this is hard, but…wait…her?” Nephys asked carefully.
“Yes, HER! My daughter. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!!” the woman screamed frantically, and just then a chill wind blew through Nephys. Shades were coming.
“I’ve looked all around, but I can’t find her! She must still be in the car!”
No wonder the woman was still in a state of denial; she was searching for her daughter and was still attached to the thought that she might be alive.
“Fhween,” Hiero hooted impatiently. Nephys glanced either way and then closed his eyes. In his Death Sight he could see dozens of shades slowly approaching, though still a few hundred yards off. He looked up to the strange vehicle, which was now like glass to his sight, but no soul flame was in the metal wreck. He opened his eyes again. Even from this short use they were dimmer.
“Your daughter isn’t in the…the thing up there…Now I know this must be hard, but we can’t wait, we must go…”
“What? What do you mean? Have you seen her?”
“Well no…” Nephys began, but the woman wouldn’t let him finish.
“Then how can you be certain she isn’t in the car?!” she said angrily gesturing at the metal thing in the tree.
Nephys had no easy answer for her. Trying to explain the Death Sight to her in her condition would be worse than useless.
“Look,” Nephys said exasperated, “if I can prove that your daughter isn’t in that…car…then will you go with us?”
She looked at him oddly, but was silent. Her eyes seemed to alight on the gash on his neck, but she closed her eyes and shook off whatever recognition had touched her.
“Yes,” she said tentatively, “I’ll go…but please hurry.”
Nephys nodded once at her and then turned to Hiero and raised his eyebrows at him while he tilted his head towards the tree.
“Fwhooont,” Hiero completely deflated, the pipes on his back laid down nearly flat.
“Don’t give me that!! I’m not the one that dragged us out here!! I can’t get up that tree and we need to get out of here and…”
“FHWEEM!” Hiero cut him off and was already thrashing ahead to the tree. Using the butcher knife like a pick, he clawed up to the wreck with remarkable speed. The woman moved aside as he passed and stared at him as if he had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. As Hiero stabbed at the glass and metal, she narrowed her eyes at him uncertain of what she was looking at. Whether she thought he was a trained monkey, or a rescue dog, or a hunchback dwarf, Nephys couldn’t tell, but she was so desperate to find her daughter she didn’t care.
Hiero began wrenching doors and parts off the wreck, raining them down below with little regard to who was underneath them. Nephys reached forward and pulled the woman out of the way. With great dispatch, Hiero passed through the whole vehicle, finally emerging from the gaping hole where the door had been and gave a short, flat hoot.
“Nothing there,” Nephys said, turning to face the woman, “Now we really need to be going.”
Nephys had turned to go and Hiero had already dropped to the damp ground beside him with a splash when the woman spoke.
“No,” she said in a whisper.
Nephys turned around. Hiero just wheezed impatiently.
“What?” Nephys said, “but you just said…”
“I DON’T CARE…what I said,” she replied resolutely. She had suddenly become far less hysterical and seemed almost calm. “I’m…I’m not leaving here without my daughter. She has to be around here somewhere. I’ll look over here while you look…”
Just then a cold breeze made Nephys shudder. They were running out of time. This had to stop. Nephys strode over to her and grabbed her by the shoulders, took a breath and blurted it out.
“Look, I know this is hard to understand, but I have some very tough news for you.”
She gazed at him and her momentary resolve began to slip. She looked down at him with moist eyes as if she were about to cry again. “You mean…” her voice trembled, “she didn’t make it?”
Nephys sighed. There was no easy way to say this.
“No,” Nephys said, “she did make it. You didn’t.”
A brief happy moment of relief that passed over her face was replaced by confusion.
“Look at me, and tell me what you see,” Nephys said forcefully.
She looked at Nephys and shook her head, looked away, but then cautiously looked back. Her eyes looked over his face – his strange eyes, his odd robes and some recognition flickered across her face. Then her eyes saw the black gash on his throat and the look turned to disgust. She closed her eyes quickly, shrugged off Nephys’ grip and stepped backward.
“No…” she spoke it softly, then louder, “NO!”She was close now. She had, at least for a moment, acknowledged the possibility, but forced it away. She had seen something. Now Hiero stepped forward to seal the deal. He slowly stab-dragged his way to her feet, looked up at her and blew out a single, horrid, cacophonous note. Her eyes followed over his body with growing disgust and horror. At last, her mind could not find any last minute rationalization (Monkey? Pig? Mutant duck?) that could explain the hideous imp in front of her. The final realization hit her…she was dead…and then she screamed…for nearly twenty minutes.