“Come on!” I growled, tugging Ku. She stared at the dissolving figure. “Ku! There’s only so much-” I looked down the corridor, and saw half a dozen Atlanteans in strange and colorful armor swimming towards us. “Oh, fucking hell!” I looked over at the wall. “Get us away from them!”
The current kicked up, suddenly. As the Atlanteans shouted in surprise, the god in the walls began to pull us along, the current rushing us down the corridor. We shot past an open corridor where a half dozen more guards had been moving in to flank us, so fast I barely caught a glimpse of their faces. Then we were past them, speeding through the Temple’s corridors.
“You came for me,” said Ku, sounding slightly surprised.
“What the heck did you expect me to do?”
“Oh. Of course, you would not be able to escape this place on your own.”
“Huh?” My mind spun around that. “Oh. Right, yeah. Mister self-interest, that’s me.”
Ku’s expression spread into a chainsaw smile. “Liar. I knew you were more than you seemed. How did you subvert one of the Temple Gods? It should only respond to the commands of those it’s been trained to recognize. It should’ve raised the alarm the moment it saw you.”
“I don’t know, I talked to it, it seemed frightened, and when I gave it a straightforward request-” I paused for a moment, and looked over my shoulder at her. Despite our speed, there was very little sound around us as we moved through the halls. “Ku. You’re a goddess.”
She looked aside. “I was hoping you would not notice. I wasn’t trying to deceive you. I didn’t even know, until… That thing told me.”
“How could you not know?”
“It’s not as though I had much to compare it to,” she said, a petulant edge to her voice. “And they kept it a secret from me. That thing…”
“Yeah, what was that about?”
“That is… was, my father. Atlantis has had many gods. We even once had a pantheon. But after we were cast out to this dimension, they abandoned us. Returned to your world, seeking… worshippers. Power. Strength. They sought the faith of humans, because we were too few in number, too great in age and cynicism, to satisfy their desires. They became… twisted, by their search.” She stared into the middle distance as we floated through the narrow corridors. Black basalt lined with streaks of green ice passed us by. “Then they crossed Bastet. And she killed them all.”
“Not all of them, I suppose,” I said, frowning. “She always had a bad habit of playing with her prey. One of them must have gotten away.”
“No,” said Ku. “This one… I know she killed him. He was the chief of the pantheon, after all. He was the one who offended her, by murdering one of the humans she loved.” She saw me turn my head sharply at that, and smiled. “Yes. I am sorry, Horace, but Betty’s past is littered with those she has loved, and lost. She is beguiling, but she is surrounded by death. Those who are close to her die. They are taken from her, and that keeps her fighting. You may believe you are different, that you are special. But the only priests of Bastet who saw old age are the ones who forsook her before they died, too.”
“I’m not different. And I’m not special,” I said, the words grating as I said them. I hadn’t used to feel so bitter about the idea of not being special. But then, I’d seen what being special was like. I’d been surrounded by special people. I’d seen them hurt because I wasn’t good enough. But there was no time for that. “But I need to be there for Betty. We need to reach her.”
“I tried,” said Ku, frowning. “The Keeper of Gates is aware of me. She is resisting me. Keeping me from opening-”
“Take us to the Keeper of Gates, please,” I said to the wall. “And try to move any guards out of our way. Gently.”
The current reversed, shifting, as the wall seemed to radiate a pleased satisfaction. Ku seemed taken aback again.
“What’s the matter?”
“Those gods are supposed to be trained to respond only to those who they’ve been shown are trustworthy. They’re creatures of habit. It shouldn’t be doing what you say for half a dozen reasons; You’re not using the right language, you’re not the right shape, you’re not someone it recognizes, you certainly shouldn’t be able to make it trust you over the guards.” She stared at me for another few seconds, and as I kept my eyes on the corridor ahead of us, watching for any sign of guards, I could practically feel her gaze boring into my back. “What are you?”
“It’s not something strange. These things are like animals. Right? There’s been a big shake-up here. If some old god has returned and is taking things over, then it’s natural that the gods of this temple are going to be frightened. Their owners are acting strange, out of character, stressed and anxious. Angry. Frightened. Maybe even taking it out on the gods. So someone approaches, unfamiliar, but confident, and giving them the things that they’re been missing from their owners, affection and confidence.” I reached out, my fingers trailing across the walls as we sped down the hallway. There was an ineffable sense of well-being from the wall. “They just need to be cared for.” I frowned. “How much did that god tell you about what was happening?”
“Some. There is a civil war. Between the forces of the old god, those Atlanteans who believe in him, who are once again worshipping him, and… another. Nachtka Wai was my father’s fiercest rival, and he has made a bargain with a creature of fell countenance. A truly ancient being. Something from beyond this world, a dead ocean-”
“The Dead Ocean,” I said. “Yammy. I’ve been thinking about that. Its name is a thing of power. Might as well give it a nickname to diminish that power. But I’ve encountered it before. Its Ateroleum thralls tried to kill me. That’s how I met Betty, actually. I met it again after that, and it was… solicitous.”
“Yes. It has always been something we are aware of, here. We know much about Lost Gods. But we do not brook Gods controlling us.” She was quiet for a moment, and I could see the way her expression fell. “We didn’t, anyway. Now… Yammy, the thing possessing my father, and me…” Her eyes wavered, and if we’d been above water, I thought they might be filled with tears. “It all began with me. The god told me, he possessed my father when he was making me. He was desperate to give me life, to make me. He made the bargain without even realizing he had, let the god into his heart, and it… It ate him.”
“The god said there was nothing left of him. Nothing but a shell. That he’d been eaten whole.”
“And do you trust him?” I turned towards her, twisting in the current to face her. “Maybe he’s dead. We can’t think about that now. But I’m not giving up, and I’m not letting you give up either.” I turned back towards the corridor. “You’re a god. There’s got to be something you can do.”
“Like what? I can’t hurt my people. I can’t persuade them, even. Those within the palace are swayed by the old god, those outside by Nachtka Wai.”
I was silent for a moment, and sighed. “We need to find Betty.”
We floated in silence for some time, travelling ever inwards. I wondered just how deep the temple was. Then I took a deep breath, and spoke.
“You know… There’s a story that humans tell. It’s about a boy, whose father was a terrible, wicked man. The boy was given the power of a god, but he didn’t want to wield it. He didn’t want to hurt anyone, he didn’t want to be in danger. He had lost his mother to the god, though he didn’t know it. The boy was forced to fight for others, to protect them, but he found himself being protected more often than not. Mostly by his mother, who still lived inside the god. But finally, he found the will to protect everyone. He threw himself into danger, and fought to save everyone. Nobly, bravely, against impossible odds, for the sake of everyone he loved.”
The silence continued for a few seconds. Ku’s voice came from behind me, soft. “What happened to him?”
“The god’s power deserted him at the last moment. He nearly died, and was only saved by his mother’s intervention, but it broke him.”
“… That is a terrible story.”
“Don’t go to depressed people if you want happy stories,” I said. “The point is that will and power are both necessary. The story always drove me nuts, because the boy had power. He had what he needed to protect everyone. Everyone! But his suffering and all the sad shit that had happened to him left him just… useless. I can’t stand people like that. People who have the power to change things, to do something to protect those around them, but who… don’t.” I was quiet for a moment. “I’m sorry. I want to help people, but I’m not powerful. No matter what people tell me, I’m not. And I wish I was. I wish I could solve all of this, instead of having to look for Betty.” I chuckled. “Always running off to find some protective mother figure. Kind of sad, isn’t it?”
“I do not think,” said Ku, with the tone of voice of someone preparing to yank a thorn out of a tiger’s paw, “that it is power that you lack.”
The current stopped. I twisted in the water, and faced Ku. I wasn’t quite aware of it, but I realized my knuckles were aching. My right hand was clenched into a fist. Ku’s eyes were wide. “What did you say?”
“I watched the closest thing I ever had to a father die, killed, because I couldn’t even talk him out of trying to murder Betty because of a decades-old grudge, and I couldn’t stop either him or my friends from fighting. I watched someone I really, truly cared about, someone who had just started to turn their life around, die saving Betty because I couldn’t do a damn thing. Do you think that if I could do something, if I had the kind of power you have, that any of that would have happened? That I would have let any of that happen?! Do you know what that would make me?! Do you know-”
“Horace. You’re frightening me,” she said, very softly.
“Why?! What the hell do you think I could do to you?”
“You could hate me,” she said softly.
I gritted my teeth, turning away. “I’m sorry. You’re right. That was uncalled for. But…” I took a deep breath. “I’m tired of people telling me that I’m powerful. If I were powerful, we wouldn’t be in this situation.” I took a deep breath, and then another, letting the anger drain away, getting control. I rested my hand on the wall, and felt the small god approach again, gingerly, uncertainly, like a cringing dog. I ran my fingers over it. “It’s okay. I’m not angry at you. Or you, Ku. Just at myself.” I closed my eyes. “You have power, Ku. You are strong. You’ll find out how strong. I’ll help. I may not have power, but I can support you.” I smiled, and looked forward. “Alright. Let’s keep going.”
“You really miss her, don’t you?” asked Ku. “Betty.”
“And Li Xue Zi. And Phoebe. And Dane. And Christ help me, Randall” I shook my head. “I just wish I wasn’t the only one who had been around to help you with this. Because there’s not a lot I can do to help you.”
“You rescued me, and you have subverted at least one god. That is more than many- ah. We’re here. The Hall of Divine Trophies.”
The center of the temple was huge. A roughly half-spherical shape, with tables and nets hanging everywhere, crowded with items. My eyes danced from object to object. A pair of rotting, overlarge hands, each with palms that opened into large mouths full of unsettlingly human teeth. A flute carved of some strange stone, twisted and kinked in ways that didn’t look healthy for whatever sound it produced. A piece of what looked like jerky, tough and black, roughly egg-shaped. A glass sphere filled with a fine, powdery white ash. A writhing cloth sack, filled with something that moved like eels under the surface, tied with a silver wire. Those all stood out in the corner of my eyes, as I stared at the object in the center.
“Ku,” I said softly, my jaw tense. “What, exactly, is the name of the god who possessed your father?”
“It… There was an island, in our most ancient mythology. A place of dreams, a place of paradise on Earth, where sorrow and pain were gone. It was said that the living could only arrive there in sleep, when they were guided by the god. Its name was Thule, and he was the god. Of course, he was a god of war, as well, an aspect of it, much like me-”
“It… It was Ku-Thule. Why?”
I stared up at the monument. It towered, dominating the center of the chamber. Winged. Loathsome. Tattoos carved the ‘skin’ of the statue, the green stone lined with conduits of some strange light, making it glimmer in the murk of the Hall of Divine Trophies. A set of tentacles dangling down from its mouth. Its claws definitely suggested it needed more exercise.
“No reason,” I murmured. “Where is the Keeper of Gates hiding?”
“Hiding?” asked an unfamiliar, feminine voice. Suddenly, the wall by us shifted. Tentacles slowly coiled and uncoiled, colors moving to mimic the ones behind them as a pair of large eyes opened. The irises were green, covering almost the entire eye- and the pupils contorted and shifted nauseatingly, curling into a stylized W as she focused on the two of us. Like The Lass, she was vaguely humanoid from the waist up, and below that, her body resembled the skirt and tentacles of an octopus. I wondered about that for a moment- the Atlanteans I’d seen so far were almost entirely bipedal. Maybe it was a way to separate humans from gods. “So, the little lost god, and a human. You’re not supposed to be here, you know.”
“We’re looking for Betty. Bastet,” I clarified. “Please. Can you open a gate to her?”
“No,” said the Keeper, softly, smiling. “I would do it. Out of amusement, if nothing else. I find these power struggles entertaining to watch, and I don’t care, particularly, who wins; The victor must keep me around, or risk all their plans being ruined.” Her eyes flicked to Ku. “Unless they got ahold of you, of course. You can open the gates. Ungracious of you to take away my job security.” Her eyes returned to me. “But I am afraid that where Betty is, I cannot reach.”
My shoulders tensed. “Why?”
“I do not know. Perhaps she is dead. Perhaps she is in another world, one without water that I can reach. Perhaps she is simply surrounded by gods who do not wish her to be accessible, and whose power is greater than mine. Your path is at an end.” The goddess smiled. “I could send you home-”
“No. I do not think you will be doing that.”
The tentacled, winged, clawed Atlantean entered the chamber, from a passage perhaps a dozen feet away. He moved strangely, and I found it hard to focus on him. It was as if his movements were played on a stuttering film projector, moving from one state to another without passing through the intervening places, an image playing at ten frames per second. It made my head ache to watch as he approached us. The Keeper narrowed her eyes, but bowed her head.
“I understand your desire to preserve your own uniqueness,” said Ku-Thule, smiling- at least, I presumed that tug of the jaws and that writhing of tentacles was a smile. “But I cannot allow you to take away my queen.” It turned its head towards me, and narrowed its eyes. “As for you… Go in peace.”
I hadn’t been prepared for that. “What?”
“I am prepared to allow you to leave. To see you on your way, safely returned to where you came from. Find Betty. You will not return here, of course, but our plans will not come to fruition for a few years yet. We will take the time to build up our forces, quell the chaos here, and then take your world. I am offering you years. And, of course, you will have time to prepare.” He let out a gurgling noise vaguely reminiscent of a laugh. Very vaguely. “Who knows? You might win.”
I stared for a moment. “Why are you offering this?”
“Why? Well, many reasons. For one, I have encountered Bastet once before. My pride was my downfall, then. I attacked the human she was with, killed him, stone dead, much as I could kill you right now if I chose. But that didn’t weaken her. It drove her to… excesses. Mind you, it might have led to her death in the long run, but it didn’t do me much good.” He smiled. “If you are alive, you can keep her on an even keel, sailing straight on towards an inevitable destruction, trading a chance at victory for a little more peace.”
“Not very persuasive, I have to say. What makes you think I won’t die just to spite you?”
“Because you are weak. You are prone to sentimentality, to compassion beyond what you should show. You are, for lack of a better word, a crybaby.”
My knuckles tightened into a fist around the rubbery ball in my pocket, but I overcame the rage. ‘Crybaby’. Words from childhood. Words that had always cut deep for being true. “And?”
“And, you can’t stand the thought of Bastet, standing over you, her eyes full of tears, bent over and wailing… But, shall I tell you a secret? Bastet doesn’t care about the humans she loses.”
“That’s not true,” I said, my heart pounding, my fist so tight around the ball it hurt, feeling the tails wriggle, not sure if it was my imagination, my nerves shaking me, or the power responding to my emotions.
“Oh, she feels rage and loss and pain. But she doesn’t remember them. Has she ever spoken the name of one of her past humans? Has she ever told you about Howard? Hah. I didn’t think so. No… You know what this is like. It’s like a pet. Certainly, you humans love them. You grow phenomenally attached to them. You ennoble them, you care for them, you watch them grow old. Grow weak, and infirm, while you’re still as strong as you ever were. And then you watch them die. And it hurts, but only a bit, because they were so very much less than you.”
“Horace,” whispered Ku, behind me, the water stirring as she reached out for my back.
“Except, you’re not even like a cat to her. Not even a mouse, or a goldfish. You’re like a favorite butterfly. So colorful and pretty, a flash of color in a gray life, here, and then gone. Beautiful because you are so very brief.”
“You’re doing a very bad job of convincing me that I shouldn’t die just to spite you,” I said, conversationally, as my cheek twitched.
“You are so small, and so fragile, and you have been lucky. Save her a little pain, and the two of you can die together, happy. Doesn’t that sound nice? I’m offering you hope, here. Something better than the fate you are plunging towards. Just give me my queen.”
Ku-Thule laughed again, the burbling sound filling the air as he reached out a hand. “Think about it, bo-”
He withdrew slightly, his eyes widening. “How dare you say no-”
“Keeper, open the gate home. Now.”
“Don’t you dare-” began Ku-Thule, his eyes widening. But the gate was already opening beneath us, the world spreading open, like the sucker of an octopus opening. It swiftly rushed up, and devoured us.
I realized, suddenly, that I was underwater, and I couldn’t breathe. I began to choke and writhe, clawing for air. Something huge, scaly, and warm hit me, and bit me. I struggled harder, thrashing a bit, until suddenly I broke the surface of the lake, being dragged along in Ku’s arms, sharp scales pressing into my skin. Lake Huron was around us, bitterly cold despite the summer heat, as she dragged me onto shore. I lay on my back, gagged, and then vomited out a great deal of cold water, coughing and choking till I spat out every last drop of it. I lay on the sand, and stared up at the sky. The first rosy fingers of dawn were visible on the undersides of clouds, and the Thunderbird sat on the pavement where I had left it. I looked down at my feet, and groaned softly.
“Are you alright?” asked Ku, her voice curiously subdued.
“Lost my damn shoes,” I said, lifting one of the yellow-and-blue fins, carefully slipping it off. “Guess I’m driving home barefoot.” I stood up, and turned towards the car.
“We’re regrouping. You’ll come with me. We’ll get back to my home, and… wait for Betty to show up. Or not show up. Wait for Li Xue Zi. Call Dane, hope she’s okay, just…” I sighed. “Fuck. Fuck!” I kicked a rock. “MOTHERFUCKER!” This last because I’d forgotten about not having shoes on, and I thought I might have broken a toe. After ensuring that I had not, I limped over to the car. “Come on.”
“Horace. You could have left me behind. Taken his offer.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I asked, with more heat than I meant. When I saw her expression, I held up a hand. “Look. Even if he hadn’t been pushing my buttons like a spastic elevator operator, he was still a psychotic god of dreams who wanted to use you for some twisted purpose. I wasn’t going to leave you with him. I’m just glad that the Keeper changed her mind.” I opened the car door.
“Did she?” asked Ku, her voice soft. I turned, and saw she was regarding me with an expression that held uncertainty, and just a touch of fear. “You have a… powerful effect on gods, Horace. I am not sure what it is, but it’s not something I have seen before. Usually… A godwhisperer cajoles gods, trains them, leads them along through words and persuasion, but you have a forcefulness to you. You do not whisper. You shout.”
“I do not-” I shouted, and stopped, biting it down, seeing the way she turned her eyes away from me. Submission gestures. All those little things a predator did around something that could kill it. “I… don’t like people being scared of me.”
“Don’t you? Isn’t that what you really want, to be respected? Feared?”
“No,” I said. “I just want to take care of the people I love.”
She looked at me strangely at that, an eyebrow quirked. “Love?”
“I- You know what I mean.”
“I’m not sure I do.” She smiled a bit. “You love me, then?”
“I mean, I don’t want anything bad to happen to you, and I want to help your father and your people. That’s love, okay? That’s the beginning and end of love for me.”
“Love is a priority, Horace.” She was quiet for a moment. “If you were in danger, and it was a choice between you, or the world, which do you think Betty would choose to preserve? Between spiriting you away and leaving the world to its fate, or stopping the apocalypse but losing you… Which would she choose?”
“I should hope that she’d choose the world. I’m…” The word came out bitter as ashes. “Replaceable.”
“You are not, though. You do not need to be with her. You are someone special, Horace. You deserve more than to die, and be forgotten.”
“She needs me,” I said.
“She needs a human. I need you.”
I looked up at this, frowning. Ku stood on the other side of the car, her eyes earnest, honest.
“I need you, Horace. You’ve saved me twice, now. I need you to protect me, to guide me, to help me be what my people need. I need someone who has your status in this world; guardian of Bastet, someone who must be respected, who can make my message ring out among humans. I need you by my side.” She was quiet for a moment. “We could make a pact, together. The two of us. You would not die of old age, not before I do. You would be a focus of my powers. The power of a god of War. The power you want to protect the people you care about. Be at my side. She feeds on you. But we… we could work together.”
“This… isn’t just a business partnership, is it.”
Her eyes flickered down. “It… You would be my consort. My companion.” She opened her mouth, as though searching for another word, and then closed it.
“That would be an appropriate way to describe it.” She looked up at me. “A bridge between our worlds. A peaceful solution. We would still have to stop Nachtka Wai and Ku-Thule, but…”
I nodded slowly. “That’s… That’s one hell of an offer, Ku, with a lot of serious implications.” I looked up at her. “You aren’t scared that I might control you?”
Her face fell, her eyes tilted downwards. She really was rather pretty, for a terrifyingly huge shark woman. “If we made a pact, it would… I believe… make it less likely that you could.”
“Ah. So this IS just a marriage of convenience.” She looked up, her eyes full of hurt, mouth open to deny it, and then she saw the smile on my face.
“You are teasing me? At a time like this?”
“Gotta know when to laugh,” I said, and tapped the top of the car twice. “I’ll think about it. I can’t promise you anything, but… I know what that offer means, Ku. And you are beautiful. And I’m… really, really tempted.”
She nodded slowly. “What does she do, that makes you so willing to face your own death for her?”
“I’m not going to die because of her,” I said, my voice firm. “That’s why she needs me.”
Ku looked like she was ready to argue with me, but she just closed her mouth, her eyes turned away from me as she climbed into the car, changing back into her more petite human form.
The drive was a long one. Even starting from dawn, it was mid-afternoon by the time we finally approached home. Drained, silent as the trip went on. Even the passage through the falls had been quieter, this time.
No way to reach Betty. Dead, trapped, or simply… unreachable. Li Xue Zi several days away. I had no idea if Dane was okay. I would try calling the Colonel the next day, but help from him seemed unlikely, at best. I was on my own. Or…
I could take Ku up on the offer. I didn’t know if I was in love with her, but she wasn’t an unpleasant person. We could probably be quite happy together. We could work together. She could make a pact with me. Like I had with Phoebe, for that brief period before she had died. After I’d found that lawyer’s blog, I’d recognized some of the details of what she’d described in her stories as reminiscent of what Phoebe and I had done.
I could accept Ku’s marriage proposal. Live forever. Married to a goddess who was- all things considered- fairly beautiful, fascinating, who was the queen of an entire civilization. Who could give me the powers of a god of war.
It’s called the invulnerability of youth. When you’re young, and few of the people you know have died, you are inclined to think you will live forever, in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary. Death isn’t a real consideration, which is why young people are generally given to sudden and shocking deaths doing incredibly foolish things. Enough near brushes with death is usually enough to abrade this away.
I thought back. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven… I could think of, at a bare minimum, eight different times when I probably would have died, if not for the intervention of Li Xue Zi, Phoebe, or Betty.
It was a sobering thought. I looked up at the highway signs as I approached the turn-off.
“I’m going down to Binghamton to pick up my things from my apartment. Want to join me?”
“Okay,” she said, somewhat subdued.
“We can get something nice to eat while we’re there.”
“Okay,” she said, a great deal more enthusiastically.
Packing up my things didn’t take long. Two crates of books, a couple of hampers of clothing, and the old sports trophy that- briefly- had given Phoebe a shape. I didn’t own much. It was hard to want to hang onto possessions when I moved so frequently, growing up. After leaving the key with the landlord, we drove to the Chicken House, and I spent more money than I should have, which was always the way when I was feeding people. We didn’t talk much more. I think she was a bit embarrassed by the intimate offer. Afraid of what would happen next. Wishing she had an idea of how to proceed. That was certainly what I was feeling.
I didn’t know what to do next. That wasn’t an unfamiliar scenario. For the moment, my instinct was to go back to work, cover the small things, because there was nothing I could do about the big things. Try not to lose my mind worrying about things I couldn’t do anything about.
We arrived home as the sun was setting. I lifted the first set of luggage out of the car, hauling it up to the house along with Ku. She went inside and fell asleep on the couch in short order, while I moved the second set in. When I’d finished, I went out to the car, realizing I’d left it unlocked.
It was a beautiful evening. Twilight had fallen, the sun just sinking below the line of the horizon. Spectacular colors filled the air, but they tended towards oranges and blues. Not the proper red and purple that you can only get from severe air pollution. The sight made me nostalgic for New York City. I stood on the concrete pad, resting my hand on the hot hood of the car. Then something rustled in the woods behind me.
I spun, staring into the woods. They’d featured not-infrequently in my nightmares when I was a child, ever since my mother died. In those nightmares they had contained monsters. Terrible things that wanted to kill me and everyone I loved. I stared, watching for a moment or two.
Two brilliant eyes glittered in the darkness. Something else glittered beneath them. My eyes widened as I lifted my phone, hitting the flashlight button.
A black fox, with silver strands glittering in its fur, stood among the bushes. Phoebe’s trophy was in its mouth. It turned, and sprinted into the darkness. I stared for a moment, and then bolted after it into the night.
It ran quickly, but the trophy must have been slowing it down, because it never managed to get out of sight. I chased, trying to keep my footing on the stiff slope, the years of leaf buildup beneath the trees making for a difficult footing at times, nearly sending me into a neck-breaking fall more than once. “God damn it, drop that!” I shouted, briefly forgetting that the damned animal wasn’t a dog. “Fucking thing!”
It vanished into the darkness. I ran on for a couple of more seconds, not willing to give up yet. Then, the flashlight in the phone lit up something glittering on the ground. The golf trophy, still coated with saliva, sitting on-
It was a cairn. Small. Scattered somewhat, probably by storms, and winds. Stones stacked into a small place. A crow called its raucous cry somewhere in the woods above me as I stared down at it. Two pieces of wood sat atop it, slightly askew.
My mother had enjoyed martial arts. She’d kept a pair of Japanese-style wooden swords in her bedroom. I’d never found out what my uncle had done with them. They hadn’t been in the house when I’d arrived. It turned out that they had been right here. Bound into a cross by a few rotting strips of cloth, turned yellow from the harsh caress of sun and rain. I reached out softly, and rested my hands on them. The trophy lay atop the stones.
It was a strange feeling, resting my hand on the hilt of the shorter blade, the old wakizashi. The two swords were in perfect shape despite the neglect, their lacquer still lustrous and perfect. I’d never had anything by which to remember my mother. A handful of pictures which I hadn’t looked at in years, a bunch of painful memories.
I gently lifted the swords. There weren’t many people who I could see being responsible for them. Only Randall. Some strange monument he’d made to her. He was dead, now, and I was the only one left, and I wasn’t going to let the things that my mother had loved so much rot in the rain. I carried them down to the house, along with the trophy.