I returned to consciousness, although only reluctantly.
Normally, I am very good at making sure that I don’t get hangovers. As a child, I would frequently become dehydrated, because I was a fat sack of shit even back then. I found myself waking up with a dry mouth and a pounding headache six mornings out of ten. I got into the habit of drinking water constantly in college, and haven’t stopped since. Normally, this insulates me from all but the most severe binges.
Yesterday had been bad. I’d woken up with a headache from the previous night’s drinking, and decided to- against all of my own rules- enjoy a hair of the dog. I’d wound up going through an entire pet store.
Today, there was no such option. My skull throbbed. Everything was too bright, the sun too viciously cheery. I could feel it stabbing at my corneas straight through my eyelids. I thought the one upside to Binghamton’s gloom was that it went easy on drunks. I dragged a pillow across my face, clutching the cool fabric against my skin, grateful for the relief. Sweat soaked my forehead, and I could feel each heartbeat against my temples like a claw hammer wielded by an obsessive compulsive murderer. I took a deep breathe, and the throbbing lessened slightly.
My phone alarm went off like the cries of the Furies. Alecto, Megaeara and Tisiphone tore screeching at my eardrums, as I sat up, and grabbed the phone, mostly intent on throwing it as hard as I could at a wall.
The alarm read “Stop drinking, you fucking disgrace, it’s time to save Alfred: 11 AM.”
I rubbed my eyes. I didn’t remember going to bed. I’d ordered a pizza, and I couldn’t remember it being delivered. That seemed to be about the cutoff point before I blacked out. That left a few hours, at least, of lost time. I wondered what I’d done. Who I might have hurt. What I’d done wrong. That was always the panic that started when I awoke from a blackout, which was infrequent. I checked my phone history and my messages, and miraculously, neither showed any sign of me having made any embarrassing calls or announcements. I stumbled down the stairs, feeling a churn in my guts. Jack sat at the dining table, apparently enjoying the cold pizza.
“Morning, Atina,” said Jack, waving to me. She was wearing one of my shirts, which hung down to around her knees in a deliberate act of cruelty and mockery of my height. I grunted, and sat across from her, taking a slice of pizza. I chewed for a few seconds, and then decided to bite the bullet.
“Did I do anything… bad, yesterday?”
“Well…” Jack let a languid smile spread across her face, leaning back in the chair, lifting one leg provocatively. “I don’t know if I’d say bad.”
“Hrngh,” I grunted, chewing the pizza thoughtfully. I knew she was being teasing. She’d improved substantially since her session with the Atlanteans. We’d scheduled another one for next week, and were planning on doing more. She’d been much less morose, much more active. She still wasn’t any good at lying, though.
“Those MST3K episodes were a lot of fun. I didn’t know that robots could be that intelligent. Or that they could be stars.”
“Those were puppets.”
“Oh.” She frowned. “Well, that’s disappointing. You didn’t take the bait, anyway.”
“I’m confident that of all the awful things I might do while drunk out of my mind, you’re not one of them.” I smiled a bit, my stomach recoiling a bit as it started to digest the greasy slice. It would thank me for it, eventually. “I’ll be back tonight. Any calls from Roy?”
“No,” she said, softly. “You miss him, huh? He’s been gone for longer before, though.”
Had it really been just three days? One of them I’d spent totally drunk out of my mind. I’d wanted to see Roy so badly. I checked my phone again. He didn’t have a cell phone number. He just showed up occasionally. Maybe if I’d been able to contact him… “Yeah. I just… really need to talk to him about something.”
Why did I think it would help? Why did I think that Roy, of all people, would save the world? He was a threat to the world. He was a monster. He was a nightmare. He was…
I remembered the sight of him beating a goddess into a crumpled heap without breaking a sweat. The look of arrogant confidence as he saved my life.
I’d never had anyone like that in my life. My father had been a wonderful, kind, and gentle man, but he had never been someone I believed could take on the world. He had been a trickster hero, clever, full of ideas, but avoiding conflict carefully. Roy had told me that he would never help me, but some pathetic, childish part of me believed that if he was only here, and I explained it all to him, he would save me from this mess. He’d make everything right.
But most of me had more pride than that. I sighed, and stood up, stretching. “Alright. I’d better be going.” Then I felt my stomach cramp, and let out a low groan.
With a soothing coating of Pepto Bismol in my belly, and a great deal of embarrassment, I drove to Dean Morton’s office.
Alfred had not been using the office proper, preferring to take care of his new duties from his tiny TA’s room. There were three good reasons for this. First, it let him cling to habit. Second, it prevented the Dean’s room from being soiled with the psychic smearing of people visiting it, feeling emotions, having experiences, and thus would preserve the crime scene, magically speaking.
The last is that the room was still a deeply disturbing place. Dean Morton’s gigantic shark jaw remained in place, locked shut as a sort of moat in front of the door, forcing me to step over it like a knee-high fence. The shattered and unshattered orbs of sunlight remained sitting on the table- nobody had, apparently, been willing to touch them. “Any chance of our investigating those?”
“One of them incinerated Dean Morton, we’re presuming,” said Li Fang Fen. She sighed, eying the rapier. “I’ve got no interest in sharing his fate, and we don’t know what’ll happen if we move them. They might all be rigged to go off. I’m trying to see if I can find anyone who can- and this is something I never thought I’d have to deal with- identify what kind of sunlight it is.”
“There are different kinds?”
“Lots of legendary beings capable of producing sunlight. Jenny Nishi, Helios, Apollo, Ra, Ethniu, Amaterasu…” Li rubbed her chest self-consciously, frowning at the sword. “I’ve been tracking down a Buddhist monk who claimed to be a connosieur of daylight, but I haven’t had a lot of luck. As for the fairy who was repairing Alfred’s rapier, they’ve disappeared.”
“Disappeared ‘they’re probably dead’, or…”
“A large deposit was made to their swiss bank account, and they bought an international plane ticket. Not been having a lot of luck in tracking them down since then.” She sighed. “So it’s anyone’s guess. The maddening thing is, whoever made the deposit is good with technology. Lots of tricky online banking proxy bullshit I had to have explained to me. Do you know who that rules out?”
“Every non-mortal, pretty much. Whoever did this must have been working through a mortal proxy. I’m given to understand most supernatural types can barely keep a computer working for an hour straight.” I looked up at Alfred. “So, it’s ready?”
“For a couple of days.” he paused, looking as though he wanted to ask me something, and then shook his head. “Li, Polly? Are you ready?”
“Yeah,” said Polly. Li shivered.
“Hate these things. Atina, you’re the only one of us who’s remotely good at this. I’m usually lucky to see anything. What’s the point in all of us trying?”
“It’s about the multiple perspectives. It’s a way of getting an idea, of…” I sighed. “Hell. You’re right.” I took the vial, and gave Alfred a look. “Let’s see what I can get from it before we force everyone else to go through it, too. Who knows what the asshole got up to in here. At least if I’m the only one scarring my psyche, that’ll help.”
I tossed back the Dreamwalk potion and suppressed my gag reflex. The slender clear vial contained about half an ounce of mostly-pure alcohol, and various illegal impurities. It tasted absolutely awful, but my headache retreated as I swallowed it down. After a few seconds, I felt the world slowly shatter around me, lines appearing in the air and then widening, everything falling around me like a glittering dust.
Then, in an instant, everything was back. I stood in the office. The great shark jaw was open, there was no soot on the ground, all the papers were in something approaching order. Dean Morton was sitting at his desk, the only other person in the room. He looked up, and smiled. “Enter.”
Alfred walked in, carrying a briefcase. The same briefcase I knew contained the glass spheres. He took a seat across from Dean Morton. “Hello, Dean. How’s death?”
“Oh, can’t complain, can’t complain. It’s so rare I get a visit from you, Alfred. I was overjoyed when I heard you were coming to see me. What can I do for you? How was your recent trip?”
Alfred smiled, slowly. “Europe was lovely. Truly beautiful. Many interesting discoveries, many revelations. Even got you a little present.” He set the small statue of Ishtar on the Dean’s table, and chuckled. “I know she’s your favorite.”
Then, Alfred’s eyes darkened. “There is a threat coming. Something terrible. Nightmarish beyond words. The world is at risk. I need power, Dean.”
“Power?” said the Dean, his expression surprised. “I’m sure we can come to an agreement. I wouldn’t mind a favor from you, after-”
Alfred set the briefcase on the table, and opened it. “Concentrated sunlight. Enough to reduce you to ashes.” He took a letter and an envelope from his breast pocket. I recognized it. “Sign it. Then disappear. Forever.”
“Alfred… You must be joking-”
“I am deadly serious,” he said, his voice very soft. “I am sorry, Morton.”
Dean Morton shifted for a moment, looking as though he was considering making a move. Then, finally, he sighed, and took a fountain pen from the desk. He signed his name, and I could see the way his hand shook. “There, I-”
The rapier impaled him, appearing as though by magic through his sternum. Morton gasped, eyes opened wide with shock. Alfred stood with one of the glass balls in hand, a grim look on his face. “I am sorry.” He opened his hand, and Dean Morton opened his mouth to scream as the glass sphere tumbled serenely through the air towards the table’s surface.
There was a brilliant flash of light. I was blinded for a moment, and sat up blinking from the floor, eyes watering. I shook my head, dislodging the tears. Alfred was frowning at me. I was back in the present.
“It’s a forgery,” I said. My head was aching a bit more. “Someone dummied up a memory. Illusion, maybe, or emotional magic, or whatever bullshit they could pull out of their ass. It was way too clear, just a straightforward image. No way it’s real.” I narrowed my eyes. “We’re hitting it again.” I took the second vial out of the four.
“Atina, these are really, seriously not meant to be taken in rapid succession. One of them is hard enough on the system. If you take more than one in a single day-” Alfred trailed off as I shot him a look.
“I can handle this. Okay? If this is a fake, it might not stand up to repeated strains. I’ll hit it again, and again, See if it brings something new.” I drank the second vial.
The vision repeated, exactly. I noted that it was an obvious fake. The dreamwalk was supposed to be abstract, intuition-based. This was much too clean, a straightforward memory rather than a dazzling sequence of imagination. I came to, dizzy, my hangover back, skull throbbing violently.
“Atina-” began Polly, helping me to my feet, which was very unnecessary.
“Again,” I said, waving her off. I grabbed the third vial, and even as Li stepped forward, reaching for my arm, I drank it.
The vision repeated again. This time, there was fuzziness at the edges. It stopped and stuttered in places, like a video trying to load on a slightly too-slow internet connection. I came to feeling my stomach twisting. Nausea fought with dignity, and was eventually beaten back down as I pulled myself to my feet. “Atina,” said Alfred, his eyebrows knitted.
“This is a very bad idea,” said Polly, looking nervous, toying with her hair.
“Let me take a round,” said Li, grabbing my arm firmly, meeting my eyes.
“You’re not the bitch who’s drinking herself into oblivion while her friend is being sentenced to death!” I said, and realized I was not entirely sober. Li took a step back, her eyebrows raised, looking genuinely shocked for one of the few times I’d ever seen her that way. To cover my embarrassment, I took the last vial and drank it in one swift movement, wiping my mouth with a grimace as I felt a trace of stomach acid at the back of my throat. “It’s working. That last one was getting weird. Just once more. I can handle this. Just trust m-”
The world shattered. The vision appeared. Dean Morton sat in the chair.
“Well, hello, Atina,” he said, quite pleasantly. “Fancy seeing you here.”
“Dean Morton?” I said, my head spinning.
“You really do drink too much,” he said, and then vanished into ashes.
“Atina,” said Alfred, stepping into the room behind me, and smiling with a mouth full of Megalodon teeth, his jaws suddenly too large and too sharp. “You really need to relax.” He opened his mouth, laughed once, and then began to choke and gag. Something emerged from his mouth, like a shark’s fin from water. It was a nose, and it was followed by a face. Alfred’s face grinned at me from inside of that set of shark jaws, and began to laugh, and it repeated, and-
“Atina.exe has experienced a fatal error,” popped up a box in front of me as the scene froze, a stripe of color painted vertically across the world, gray-and-green-and-purple, like a cracked monitor. “Abort, Retry, Fail?”
I reached out dizzily, and tapped Abort, laughing at the absurdity of it all. The box disappeared and reappeared with a new set of options. “You can’t escape. There’s no getting out of this mess. Retry, Fail?”
I pressed the Retry button. I couldn’t stop laughing. It was too damn funny, and the laughter kept getting stronger. There was a low ‘glunk’. The box disappeared and reappeared. “No second chances. You started this. You have to live with the consequences. Fail?”
I turned around. I gritted my teeth, biting into the laughter, killing it stone dead. I was in control. No matter how funny this was. “What is this, huh? Some fucking psychic assault? Overdose? Am I going insane, or are you just trying to convince me I am? The joke’s on you. My mind is my own! I didn’t go insane when I was in fucking high school, you’re not going to make me lose it now!”
I had been sent to an asylum. Briefly. Just long enough to prove I wasn’t crazy. I knew what to say. I knew how to stay lucid. I knew the difference between madness and sanity. I didn’t go crazy. I didn’t lose it! I didn’t feel all of that pressure on my sanity and the terrible responsibility for my friends and everyone I loved and the world build and build until I snapped like a twig and SCREAMED AND NEVER STOPPED!
I turned to the box, and glared at it. A new button appeared on it. It was my mind, god damn it, my lunacy. The button read ’Fight.’ I hit it.
“You can’t fight Fate. Fight, Fail?”
“You can’t fight Fate. Fight, Fail?”
I howled and punched the box, and the world m~e~l~t~e~d—
i saw the first rider and it was alfred and his eyes were cold and gray and his hair was silver and he rode forth with a shining sword and a scabbard and he ruled and it was good~~~
i saw the second rider and it was a man i had never seen with tiger striped flesh and hair red and slick with gore and the strangest hazel eyes and he rode forth with fists red as sin and he broke and it was good~~~
i saw the third rider and it was a woman with green eyes and a smile and the ears of a cat and a hungry look and she rode forth and ate and it was good~~~
i saw the fourth rider and it was a girl, it was jack, and she rode with a soft frown and bright blue eyes, strapped across the back of her horse was a bow and in her teeth was a knife, and she rode forth and killed and it was good~~~
i saw an angel rise up in front of them, with golden scaled wings, and he raised his fists to them, and he fought them for everyone and i saw him beat them one by one until it was only roy and the tiger striped man, fighting with blows that shattered faith and love and hope and it was good~~~
and then i cried out roy’s name and he turned his head towards me for just a moment, and there was a sword in the tiger striped man’s hand, and then it was in roy’s throat, and all i could think as roy bled on the firmament was that this was my fault and as the world ended my last thoughts were that it was good~~
i saw the names pass before me like fire, on letters that burned, and i could not read them, but faces came to me, and emotions, protectiveness and soft almond eyes~~~admiration and fearsome spectral talons~~~respect and glittering translucent skin~~~apprehension and sharp teeth like a anglerfish’s~~~loathing and salt-and-pepper hair~~~fear and crooked hair~~~ and i laughed because i had done it i had stared madness in the face and torn lucidity and truth from it and then he was there
I stood in the black. Utterly black. Not just dark- not just the sensation of having your eyes closed or being in a dark room, where false color can be mistaken for real. This was so dark it terrified the ocular nerves into stark obedience, giving nothing to the human trapped within but pure, unvarnished black. There was a faint sense of suction, as though if I were not careful, it would pull my eyes from my head, my sanity from my mind, my soul from my body. I stood in it, and the madness seemed preferable.
“Oh,” said the man, standing there, with gray hair and a kindly smile, over a table where someone let out a soft whimper, someone with a voice like a young woman. His gaze met mine, and his eyes were gray and utterly sane. “A guest.”
“I don’t put out much in the way of hospitality. You know how it is.”
“You pushed through, did you, Atina?”
“I knew you would. I trusted you.”
“I know you’ll do what I made you to do.”
“You’ll kill him stone dead.”
“Hah! Hah! Hah! Hah!”
My lungs were burning. I felt someone pressing down on my chest with terrible force, my ribs creaking ominously. I tried to tell them to stop, and couldn’t through the taste of acid.
“Atina, for heaven’s sake-!”
Another ferocious push. My lungs cleared explosively, and I gagged and choked as bile ran down my lips, gasping in sweet lungfuls of air flavored with acrid tang.
“I got it,” I managed, rolling onto my side, and feeling my stomach cramp. Fruitlessly, as there was nothing left in it. I felt hot shame and disgrace at making a fool of myself in everyone but more than that I felt triumph, the thrill of knowing I had been right, that I was stronger than people gave me credit for. “I saw something. Faces. People. They know. I’ve got all the pieces.” I shook my head, wiping my mouth. “Just gotta figure it out.”
“Atina, we’re going to get you to a hospital,” said Alfred, and I shook my head sharply.
“Don’t need a hospital. Hold up fingers. I’m fine. I can handle it. ”
Several hours later, I glared at the three of them as I stepped out of the doctor’s office. “She told me not to drink so much next time. I told you I was lucid.”
“Atina,” said Alfred, softly, frowning. “You were screaming bloody murder. We had to hold you down to keep you from hurting yourself.”
“No physical symptoms. No mental symptoms. I’m fine. It was just an intense vision, alright? I’ve had them before.”
Alfred and Polly exchanged looks.
“What, don’t you trust me?”
None of the three of them met my eyes.
“Fuck you guys.” I pushed past them, out through the front door, my shoulders hunched. I was halfway down the block when Alfred caught up with me.
“You know, far be it for me to seem ungrateful,” he said, “but you are pushing yourself too hard.”
“It’s your life on the line. You want me to leave you to the wolves, just say the word.”
“Atina. I may not be able to change my fate. But if saving me drove you over the edge, I’d choose death first.”
“I- I’m not that goddamn fragile, you chauvinist piece of shit,” I said, but my spirit wasn’t in it, and I could see Alfred could tell.
“Atina.” He put an arm around my shoulder. “Do you think for a moment, I don’t see how hard you are pushing yourself to save me? Do you think I don’t appreciate how far you are willing to go for a chance at clearing my name? What you are doing- It means the world to me, to know I have a friend who cares so much about me.”
“If I was any kind of friend,” I said, softly, “you wouldn’t still be on trial. I’ve been at this for three months.”
“The truth has been well hidden. You are going far above and beyond what could be expected, Atina. And if you fail…” He smiled. “You will still be one of my greatest friends.”
“If I fail, it doesn’t matter how you feel about me.”
“It does. If my fate is to be reawakened as King Arthur, my identity consumed… Perhaps it will help to have friends close to me. Those who remember me as I was.” He looked over at me. “No matter what happens, I wish you to be alive and well. My survival is not important.”
“If I let you die- if I fuck up here, where it matters most-” I shook my head. “How am I supposed to live with myself, if I do that?”
“One day at a time. Failure is not so terrible a thing.” He looked over his shoulder. “Ah. There’s Polly.”
Polly drove up in my car, and smiled at me. I considered my emotions. Stupid goddamned supportive friends. If I stepped into the car now, I’d be admitting that they were right, and that I’d be happier to be with them, and that on some level I wanted them watching over me and caring for me. I’d be sacrificing all the pride and dignity I’d accumulated by storming off.
I opened the door and sat down, grateful, but trying not to show it. “This would be so much goddamn easier if I respected Earlen Wen. If I thought, for a moment, that I could trust her. I could show some goddamn respect if she could show me any.”
“Mum’s always been… troublesome, about those kinds of things. She’s not a bad person, you know,” said Polly, hesitantly.
“We met for the first time because she wanted you to execute me.”
“Yeah, and that turned out pretty well! Things have a way of working out. It’s… She’s like a wolf.” She looked out through the front window, distantly. “You can’t blame someone for following their nature. You can’t hate a wolf for eating when it’s hungry. All you can do is try to understand them, and keep them from getting hungry.”
“People shoot wolves, Polly,” I said. “People don’t show a lot of sympathy for anything that eats them. She once set a wolf on me. Or a wolf-man. I wasn’t clear. I haven’t let go of that grudge.”
“She was a good mum, is the thing. She took care of me. Taught me how to survive in this world. Bandaged me when I hurt myself. She’s just… ambitious.” Polly sighed. “Do you want me to talk to her?”
“No. Honestly, I’d be surprised if she knew anything,” I said, leaning back in my chair. “Do you have that page I wrote while you were driving me to the hospital?”
Alfred fished around in his chainmail, and withdrew the page. I wiped a bit of bile off of it, and studied the notes I’d made. “Atina,” he said, and rested a hand on my shoulder. I looked back at him. He held the sheath out to me. “Excalibur’s sheath. Some experiments have proven it to have other effects, beyond just the ability to prevent bleeding. It cleanses the blood of toxins. Including alcohol.”
I stiffened a bit. “Alfred. What I’m about to say isn’t about the attempted intervention, here. I’m not stupid, I understand you two care about me. But, are you fucking insane?”
Alfred and Polly exchanged a look. Polly coughed. “It’s… We’re worried about you, Atina. Jenny’s noticed it. Jack’s definitely noticed it. Li noticed the hell out of it. You’ve been drinking a lot, especially over the last couple of days. Jack said you were blackout drunk. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like that.”
It will burn.
I shook my head. “I’ve just had a lot on my plate. Not just the case. Other things. The will.” The end of the world. I had to tell them, of all people, I could tell them-
“That’s why I want you to have the scabbard, Atina-”
“You know what I love about alcohol?” I said, softly. “It doesn’t kill you fast. It takes decades to kill you, one drink at a time. My grandmother died early, drank herself to death, and she was in her 50s. You’re going to die in your 20s, Alfred, and there are very good chances it’ll be because you bled out because you didn’t have Excalibur’s sheath on you. If you’re going to insist that fate is an important part of this story, you keep that goddamn sheath no matter what. Do you understand me? If we’re living the last days of Arthur, no fucking your sister, no trying to burn your loved one to death, and no losing your scabbard. Can you follow those simple rules for me?”
“Well,” said Alfred, a smile on his face. “If you can promise me that you’ll tell us what’s wrong.”
I swallowed, hard. “Alfred… What if I told you I thought you were right? That there is something that’s going to threaten the world?”
“I’d be surprised. You would never admit that, even if it were true.”
Polly looked over at me. “Because of something here?”
“No. No, I think this is just a side-show. A little diversion from what’s really happening. The thing is…” I looked down at my hands. “I don’t think there’s anything I could do about it. There’s no one I can call about the end of the world.”
“No one?” asked Alfred. The air fairly crackled with tension. Polly looked to the side at the two of us, a hint of a question in her eyes. “Atina… Should I… Look, Polly, of all people, deserves to know-”
“No,” said Polly. “I know something strange happened that night. Something big. You should have been dead, Atina, because I fecked up. Someone else saved you. Someone stronger than a goddess.” She looked forward through the window. “Who it is is none of my business. I know how these things work. You reveal the contract- Be it brownies cleaning your house, or a huldr wife- and they abandon you. My curiosity innae worth you losing whatever’s protecting you.”
I leaned back in the chair. “Thanks, Polly.”
“‘sides, if I can’t figure it on my own, I don’t deserve to know it.” She winked. “I won’t say a word about the Half-Faced Man.”
Me and Alfred have very good poker faces. She studied us for a moment, and sighed, looking back through the window. I looked at Alfred in the rear view mirror. “So, the page. I can figure out a lot of these. An emotion I felt about them, and a physical descriptor. A few of these are easy- Fearsome spectral talons, that could only be Lady Ann Willing. She’s the only Wight I know of in the New World. Crooked hair is a giveaway too, that has to be Tadodaho. Respect and glittering, translucent…” I tapped my fingers on the page. “I think I need to see Edwin Link. Do you mind if we take a detour, Polly?”
“It’s your car.”
Binghamton Airport loomed before us. When I was young, growing up around this area, my father used to take me to the landfill. On the way, we’d pass the airport, the huge guidelights glowing on a girder that extended hundreds of feet, out and over the road, leading to a steep escarpment that supported the airport. It was the work of the gods to a child. As I’d grown older, I’d been exposed to more works of engineering and grand feats of architecture, and I could walk through New York City itself with nary a moment of wonder nor fascination. This airport was, in the grand scheme of things, nothing special.
It was still really damn cool looking, though.
Polly dropped me off, and sat in the car with Alfred in the parking lot. I went to meet Edwin Link.
Edwin Albert Link was born in Indiana, but he lived in Binghamton, back in the days when Binghamton was a glorious, vital city. I’ve mused about his skills before, but just to be clear, this is a man who taught himself to fly, and then taught countless other people how to fly. He deserves to be up there with Wilbur and Orville Wright. There’s a very good reason for Respect to be next to his name.
He was flying. He often did that around Binghamton, though most people never realized. I waved up to the ghostly Cessna, and it let out a low, thrumming rev of its engine in response as it flew down and landed. It was as much a part of his soul as his face, his arms, and it stood shimmering in the evening light as I smiled at him. Edwin nodded at me. “Good to see you, Atina. I was wondering when you’d come to talk.”
“You too, Edwin. How’s the airport?”
“Ah, the airline industry is a mess. Talk about your perverse incentives.” He sighed. “We can cross the world in hours, and for most people, their time just isn’t valuable enough to justify that. Air travel’s not worth the hassle. Goddamn disgrace, isn’t it?”
We had this conversation, it seems, every time we met. Ghosts, like most old people, have a few arguments that they like to have over and over again. I nodded sympathetically. “It’s a damn shame.”
“So. I admit, I thought I’d see you sooner.” He crossed his arms. “You’re here about Dean Morton.”
“Alright. Ask away, my girl.”
“Do you have any idea who killed him?”
“Not one,” said Link, who was about as far from being a fairy noble as a man could be. “It’s been driving me nuts. The man was an annoyance, god knows, but never a nemesis. We were good friends for most of the time we knew each other, and even at the other times, I never knew him to do anything bad enough for murder to be an appropriate response.”
“He had power.”
“A lot of people in this world, in this town, have his kind of power. The only thing I can think of that separates it is…” He sighed. “You know, the sun is the enemy of the undead. I can’t say why it is, and the reason doesn’t really matter. What matters is that there’s no undead who do well in the sunlight.” He paused for a moment, and a smile creased his features. “Well, except for that Nishi girl. She’s something special. But the rest of us, summer is a time for us to stay indoors. Cool down. But that’s not happening. People are boiling over with anger, with rage.”
“I haven’t seen anything,” I said, frowning.
“That’s the way of these things. It isn’t a slow escalation, with the undead. There’s patience, right up until it reaches the breaking point. The conversations are getting curt.” He crossed his arms. “The Winter Solstice is when the night is longest. If things aren’t fixed-”
“I know,” I said, more sharply than I meant. Edwin looked at me, his head tilted, and then smiled apologetically.
“You’re under a lot of pressure, kid. Carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.” He looked out at the field. “You’re worried you’ll realize the solution to a problem only after it’s killed someone you care about.”
“I read about your son,” I said, softly.
“Yeah,” he said. “Brilliant man that I am, I could have saved him, if I’d just had access to a time machine.” He leaned against the Cessna, shaking his head. “When you lose, Atina, when you lose someone you care about, you can’t lose yourself, too. The best thing you can do is figure out how to keep anyone else from going through the same thing.” He chuckled. “Dean Morton always told me that. When his wife died, he cursed himself for not finding a way to save her. He’d tried to persuade her to become undead, but she’d refused. He spent decades working on a phylactery after that. Seems it never worked.”
“So, he actually had a phylactery?”
“Well, an attempt. The issue was… Well, how do you bind a soul to two places at once, one of them an object? The soul is an indivisible whole. You cut it in half, you don’t get two souls, you get no soul. The only way to do it that he ever found involved transferring the soul at the moment of death. For a phylactery to really work, it needed to be able to link them together so that when the body was destroyed, the soul would flee to the object, instead of past this mortal coil. He talked about it incessantly for the last couple of months before he died.” Edwin frowned. “Almost as though…”
“He suspected someone was going to try to kill him,” I said, feeling the little burst of intuition build. “He might have succeeded. Did you know anything about what his phylactery might have been?”
“No, I’m afraid not. They’re theoretical. It was hypothesized that they might be something akin to those Japanese things that the Atlanteans talk about, but I don’t know how you’d find one. I mean, the whole point of the phylactery was lost if the damn thing was obvious.” He looked over at me. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking that there might be some new options. He was worried, which meant he saw this coming, which means it must have been someone he knew.” I sighed. “Thanks, Edwin. It’s not much, but it’s something.”
“Of course, Atina.” He nodded, and turned, staring out at the darkness. “It’d be nice to believe he’s still out there, somewhere. That he might come back.”
“Yeah,” I said, softly.
Even as I left, the melancholy warred with a certain satisfaction. The paper had been right. The dream had been right. I had been right.
I just wished people could recognize that a little more often.