The broken counter just amuses me a lot. It feels like my chapters are getting shorter, but they're also feeling more natural. Once I get back to juggling a few more characters at a time though, I'm sure things will pick back up.
Chapter Nine - The River of Souls
It watched them.
It waited in the dark, on the other side.
Such breaches were no longer common, and they needed to be stopped. The times of magic were gone, faded to the past. Times of science now ruled, and magic was kept to the shadows. Magic was persistant, and would never go away in its entirety, but the guardians of these things kept it in the shadows.
But now here was a ghost and vampire, conversing, on this night where the Veil is weakest between worlds. Nothing good could come of this.
The watcher in the water could see there were things unsaid between the two abberations, and decided to see how things played out. It was not without compassion, in its way. This is why the Veil would part on this day, and only this day; so the unsaid could at last be said.
So it waited.
It wondered at the confluence of events beginning to circle. These two creatures that should not be, in this place, on this of all days, and it was only made worse by its own presence. Too many things were colliding too fast, too soon.
It found comfort, if such things could feel comfort, that at least all these things were involving those creatures of the otherworld, and no mortal lives were witness to what was happening. Things could still be contained, the balance could be maintained for awhile longer if it was put a halt to now, tonight.
The vampire was still problematic. Its interactions with mortals could tip the scales yet, could hasten things not yet due, but it could take care of that as well, if it felt that was necessary.
It wondered when the last time a spirit had pierced through the Veil like this. Not in recent memory, but memory to creatures such as it were long indeed, and some things were long forgotten. Ghosts often peaked through the Veil, when the time was right, when the place was thin, but a manifestation like this had not been heard of in centuries at least, millennia at best.
A look well known to one such as the watcher was on each of its charges. The time had come to end this.
It rose up out of the water. It rose up far higher than the shallow river should have allowed, but spatial dynamics were of no concern to this thing. No water dripped off its towering black form as it glided across the water towards those it waited for.
When it announced its presence, something in the fabric of everything shuddered. Too much was happening that should not be happening. It knew that things were happening beyond its control now. Any thoughts of putting the genie back in the bottle were gone.
"Who are you? What do you want?" the ghost demanded.
"I have come for you, Marcus Alan Boyd." Its voice projected out from everything. It considered, and Alyson somehow knew it was looking at her. Or would be looking at her, if it had eyes. "I should also take you as well, Alyson Simone Montrose. You yet carry a spark of life within you, as much as you should not. Your time is past, and you would be welcomed if you chose to come across the river with the spirit."
"I don't understand," said Alyson.
"As it should be. My time is past as well, but I still have my duty."
"You're a reaper, you're here to claim my soul, aren't you?"
The thing somehow laughed in its strange ethereal voice, and it did nothing to set the two at ease. "No, I am no reaper, Marcus Alan Boyd. Legends of the reapers did start when people would catch glimpses of me, though. And your soul is already claimed. I am merely here to take it to where it belongs."
Marcus stared at the imposing black pillar of a creature. "What are you?"
"I am the ferryman. It is time for your soul to cross the river, and travel to its resting place in Elysia." It said this with such matter of factness, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, right up there with, 'the sky is blue'.
On any other day, Marcus would not have believed it. However, today he was a ghost, talking to a vampire, on Halloween. It was a time for exceptional beliefs. "You're Charon."
"I have had many names, and that is one of many. Others call me Michael. To some with no imagination, I am simply Death. But always my charge remains the same. And so I come to take you, Marcus Alan Boyd."
The young man stood there, and stepped forward. He was resigned to his fate, and was ready to go, as much as he wanted to stay. He would have given anything for more time, but Marcus knew he was no longer meant for this world.
Alyson on the other hand, was having none of that. "You're a long way from the river Styx, pal. Aren't you out of your jurisdiction?"
It was always amused by defiance. It was the one thing which no living creature could deny forever. Not even the vampires. They all would feel its touch some day.
"All rivers are the river Styx. They all flow to the same place in the end. All rivers are my jurisdiction. I am guardian over their souls, and over the waters. I safeguard these places of power, and make sure all flows as it should."
The thing, this ferryman had pushed the wrong buttons, and Alyson was furious. "You protect these places? You make sure they're safe? Well you did a shitty job! Where were you when Marcus was being killed, huh? Where was your protection then?"
She lunged forward and pounded small, balled fists against the tree trunk of its form. It was like hitting stone, but at least it was something to hit.
It reached out and placed a calming hand on Alyson's shoulder. Its hand was still shrouded in darkness, and its touch was like that of ice. And yet, it also radiated calm.
Alyson hung her head in shame and sadness, letting her hands drop to her sides. The fight fell away from her.
"You're right. I'm sorry."
"It is all right, Alyson Simone Montrose. You are not the first to rage against the end, and you will not be the last. To every season, there is a time. It is now time for Marcus Alan Boyd. Let him go with grace. Let him go with dignity."
"Can you at least tell me what did this to him?" she begged.
A sigh shook the trees, and Alyson didn't know if it was the creature, or the wind. "I cannot. I am not all knowing. I do not know what killed your friend. Even if I did, I could not tell you. To do so would break every law my kind holds sacred."
Alyson hated being dragged to this level, pleading for anything, but she persisted, "Please, is there anything you can tell me?"
"Nothing you will like," it said. "You have a destiny. You are here for a reason. The future is unclear as to which way it will tip, but you will help decide the final balance."
The ferryman took its hand away, and straightened up, towering into the trees above. Marcus moved by its side, and the two turned their backs on Alyson and walked towards the river.
Alyson stood there in silence and watched as both their forms were wrapped in darkness as they moved farther away.
They came to the riverbank, and as Marcus was about to step forward, he cried out. His cry of pain shook the trees and awoke the birds. His travelling companion did the same, and they both came to a sudden halt.
"What the hell was that?" shouted Alyson from her vantage point by the monolith.
"I...I do not know!" Alyson could hear the confusion in its voice, and she knew it was not an emotion that the ferryman was too familiar with. It was all about plans, and destiny, and times, and seasons. Now here was something truly unexpected in its experience, and it didn't know how to react. Alyson tried not to take any joy in the moment.
Marcus was hugging himself, shivering and afraid. He hadn't felt pain like that ever, and didn't think he would have felt it since he was dead.
"This has never happened before." Many people have made such claims, but when something like the ferryman made it, it carried a whole new level of weight to it. The number of souls it had carried across the way, the multitude of people, and never before in all of recorded history and unrecorded time before, this had never happened.
Never is a long time to an immortal.
It placed its hand on Marcus's back. "We must try again. I am sorry."
Marcus gave a scared nod, still hugging himself. He was afraid to try, but this was not a place for him anymore.
They moved forward, and again cried out. This time it was more subdued since they were expecting it, but the pain was not diminished. Marcus would have suspected it was more painful before, but that may have been because he still felt the last jolt still ringing through his bones.
Alyson rushed down by their side. She tried to take Marcus's arm, but to no avail. His form was as immaterial as the air around him. The electrical charge rushing through him only served to make him wince all the more, and Alyson drew her hand away.
"What the hell is going on?" the vampire demanded from the guardian of the dead.
"If I knew, I would say. Not knowing, I cannot say."
"Any theories would be nice at this point, pal."
The black figure moved forward, leaving Marcus on the shore. It continued forward until it was halfway across the river, and then returned once more to Alyson's side.
"The way, it is not barred. I can pass through the Veil and back. But your friend cannot pass through."
"And that would be because...?"
"The only reason someone would not pass beyond is because it is not yet there time."
"But I'm dead," gasped Marcus, recovering some of his composure.
"Yes, you should be drawn across with me. The only explanation I can conceive of is if your destiny still lies upon these shores of the river."
"But I'm dead!" Marcus never thought he'd be so insistent that his death was the way things should be. In truth, he never thought he'd be arguing anything after his demise.
"And yet, you are forced to remain here. You belong in neither world. Yes, I see it now. You are dead, but stuck inbetween. You are meant to be here, in the state you are in. I am sorry for the inconvenience, Marcus Alan Boyd."
"Wait, what will happen when this night is done?" Marcus was concerned, and with good reason. Either he would fade away to nothingness again, or he'd be visible to one and all. Neither was a very good outcome.
"Again, I do not know. Never before in my long existence have I seen such an event, and I do not know what will happen. But know this. You are both touched. This place does not call to people lightly. The fact that both of you are here, and have seen me, and seen so much more, are ill omens for everyone and everything. The riverbanks will overflow before this is all done. But there is hope, and it begins with the two of you. There will be others. Watch for them. A great blackness flows through the waters, and if the tide is not damned, it will consume everyone."
The two dead things stared at the creature that should have taken them both long ago. "A bit melodramatic, don't you think?" said Alyson.
"When you've lived as long as I have, you're allowed a little drama."
"Would it do any good to ask for more information about this coming darkness?" Alyson asked, with only a glimmer of hope at an answer.
The small glimmer was crushed without a second thought. "No. I only know that it is coming, not the shape of things to come. There is no guide, no prophecy, no signs to watch for. Just a sense that things are beginning to spiral out of control. And I am not one who likes chaos."
The creature stood there, watching the two of them for a moment. "I have tarried too long already. I have others in need of my attentions. We will meet again, Marcus Alan Boyd and Alyson Simone Montrose. Until then, you are as much a guardian of these waters as I am. I charge you with a great duty. Do not disappoint me."
It moved away, and they were unable to tell if it had turned around, or was gliding backwards across the waters until it reached the center of the river. It sank back under the surface, causing not a single ripple to appear across the surface. Leaving no trace that it had ever been there, it was gone.
Alyson turned to Marcus, "Did that just happen?"
"Yeah, I think it did." He stared at the spot where he almost went with it into the water. "If I wasn't dead, I'd probably die of a heart attack right now."
"Well, my heart is still beating, and I may just about join you."
The pair of them stood and stared at the Black River in silence. Neither of them quite sure what to make of what they'd just seen. Their minds wanted to run off someplace warm and safe, and have a nice, long nervous breakdown.
Alyson at last broke the silence and asked, "Um, so now what?"
"Like I have any idea? You've been dead a lot longer than me, I was hoping to get some pointers from you."
"I'm only mostly dead, you're like, really dead. I got nothin'."
The vampire sighed, watching the white wisps of breath flitter through the moonlit air. Marcus exhaled, but more out of habit than necessity. No air was drawn into nonexistant lungs, and none was pushed out. Alyson could hear him going through the motions of breathing, but her breath was alone in the cold night air.
"I guess I still have a party to go to," Alyson murmured.
"Mind if I tag along," inquired Marcus.
"Won't you just get yanked right back here?"
He shrugged. "At this point, I don't know what will happen. This is not what I expected death to be like."
"Tell me about it."
"So? How about it?"
Alyson relented. "It's probably not the best idea I've had, but sure. If you get yanked, you get yanked. If not, you shouldn't actually come into the party with me, though. Even if we could explain you away as someone in a Marcus ghost costume, it would be in poor taste."
"True enough," Marcus sighed. His first chance to go to a party with all the cool kids, and he was too dead to attend. It's like he had never died at all.
Alyson smiled and offered a bent arm to her ghostly companion. "Still, I would enjoy the escort, for as long as it'll last."
The young man attempted to take his lady's arm, and as they both expected, but hoped for otherwise, it passed right through it. The two turned away from each other in unison. They began their trek out of the woods without words. Saying anything seemed woefully inadequate to their situation.
They both made it out to the sidewalk along main street, and could see clusters of children dotting the way in both directions. Ghoulish shadows passing through the orange glow of the halogen lights above them. They danced and laughed and skipped along, enjoying their ritual of collecting candy that came around once a year. If they only knew that the traditions that made it possible to satisfy their sweet tooths had made it possible for a real ghost to walk amongst them, for just this one night.
How would they react? Marcus wondered. Would they scream? Would they run? Cry for their parents? Or would they instead investigate it with that youthful, innocent wonder and curiosity that only chuldren were capable of?
He considered giving the children a scare, but thought better of it. Doing such things wasn't in his nature. Marcus was more than content to spend the time he could with Alyson, and not raise any suspicions.
Alyson, however, was in her element. Marcus turned to her as they walked, and saw she had changed into her face into its vampiric form, and was hissing and growling at the children passing them by.
They giggled and screamed, having a fun time with the good natured mischief. Marcus could see Alyson was enjoying this chance to not have to hide herself away behind a mask, and to not be seen as a monster. Or at least not as a true monster.
Some of the adults chaperoning the children shook their heads and shot baleful glares at Alyson for trying to scare the kids, even though most of them were enjoying the show. Others smiled with understanding, and complimented the young woman on her costume.
"Where did you get it," they asked.
Alyson's only response was, "It's homemade."
If only they knew.
Alyson noted that Marcus seemed to be staying with her for some time, but figured it had to do with the main drag through Krafstbury ran almost parallel to the Black River. They were moving further away from his anchor point at the circle of stones, but the direction they headed in was more favourable than others, and still kept him closer to water.
They drew closer to what passed for the center of town, and came upon the town green; a small triangular park, if you could call it that. It was a patch of grass surrounded on all sides by roads, and a number of trees planted at each corner. The centerpiece of the green was a small gazebo, decorated at the moment with black and orange pumpking streamers, as well as a few real pumpkins placed upon the steps. There should have been more, but evidence of pumpkin guts and shards of the outer husk littered the grounds around the gazebo. Dried corn stalks were tied around each of the six posts that stood at each point of the hexagonal gazebo. It was an ode to the harvest.
In front of them, across the street that marked out the shortest side of the triangle of grass, stood a modern church. It was a blend of a more modern house with a porch, and architecture made up of more curves and smooth lines than harsh corners in other churches. Unlike a home though, it had tall conical spires reaching into the sky, grasping at heaven. The duo stood and looked up, each of them feeling rejected by God and heaven in their own way.
They crossed the street inbetween cars, ignoring any actual crosswalks they could have used, and headed up the street that was a continuation of the one that ran along the right side of the park.
Alyson and Marcus took no more than a few steps up the sidewalk that was just beginning to increase in slope as it moved uphill, when Marcus slowed.
It took Alyson a few steps along the sidewalk before she realised that she was only hearing the click and scuff of her heeled boots along the pavement. Once she saw that Marcus was no longer by her side, she spun around on her heel and saw Marcus standing behind her, closer to the base of the hill.
He stood there motionless, watching her.
"Molasses time?" she asked, fearing the answer.
Marcus gave a slow nod and a shrug, as if to say, "What are you gonna do?"
She came back down the hill towards Marcus and stopped by his side. "So what happens now?"
"I either keep moving forward, and you get to watch me doing the world's most accurate 'walking against the wind' bit, or I stand here and wait, until the rubber band attached to my ass snaps me back to the river."
"Not much has changed, I guess, huh?" Alyson hated this, hated every second of this horrible teasing existence they had fallen into.
"It was nice being seen," Marcus forced himself to smile, although he meant what he said. "I may not be here tomorrow, but at least I had tonight. Whatever the sunrise brings, it brings."
"In my experience, it brings headaches."
"Always with the jokes."
"It's how I cope. I learned it from Darien. So how long is this going to take?"
Marcus searched for an answer. "I don't really know. I never really timed it out. Watches don't see to work on this side of things, you see. It usually happened when I wasn't paying attention. One second I'd be who knows where, and the next -"
And he was gone.
It wasn't like watching him snap back along his path, or a tape being rewound as his movements were undone. One second he was standing there next to Alyson, and then there was nothing but empty air. She didn't even think she blinked. It was like someone had flicked a switch and turned him off.
There were a few other people nearby, but none of them seemed to notice anything. Not a single person reacted to where once there had been two people, there was now just a girl, standing there alone. It would seem that someone suddenly blinking out of existence would have been noticed by someone, but Alyson had seen that people were good at ignoring things that didn't make sense in their simple worlds. Had they even seen Marcus at all, or had they only seen the young girl dressed as a vampire this whole time? She didn't know for sure, and found she didn't really care either.
All that mattered in that moment was that she was alone again. With nothing else to do, she continued on her way. Her feet sciffed along the sidewalk, barely caring to lift them off the ground as she shambled forward in silence like a zombie.
The party was the last place Alyson felt she wanted to be, yet she continued onwards. She was expected to be there, and if she didn't show, Darien would worry. That was the last thing the town needed. So she continued onwards in silence.
There were fewer people out as they all were finding their ways home, but she still saw a few small clumps of munchkins and escorts as she travelled. Some of the kids pointed at the vampire and made mock screams of fear, but she paid them no mind. She had lost interest in amusing herself and the children with her true face. She was much more likely to growl and hiss at them in earnest rather than jest now, so she instead ignored them.
She heard the party long before she saw it, and wondered what Rachel's neighbours thought of the commotion. Rachel's house was set back from the sidewalk by a good sized front yard. Large enough for a large oak tree to have grown there over the course of many years. A small fence ran between the lawn and sidewalk, but it was more for show than anything. Even someone as small as Alyson could step over it with ease. It was covered in fake spiderwebs made from cotton, and lit up with orange lights that would have been called Christmas lights if not for the shade and the time of year.
Carved jack o'lanterns sat on either side of the break in the fence that opened up on the stone pathway leading up to Rachel's front door. The pumpkins were carved with simple faces, the classic triangular eyes and jagged teeth. Nothing creative, but a signature of Halloween, nonetheless. Wooden graves were placed all along the pathway, painted with various names and epitaphs, most of them making some small attempt at humour.
A plastic skeleton hung from a branch, dangling from the oak tree and feet almost touching the ground. A scarecrow sat against the trunk of the tree, looking as if it had drank too much during the party, and found the nearest spot to pass out.
More pumpkins sat atop the railing around the small porch. Unlike the ones by the sidewalk, they were a bit more creative. The faces weren't just two eyes and a mouth of some ghoulish person. There was a cat, one was a haunted house scene, others still just showcased skills with a knife that the others had lacked. These were the show pieces, and the other two were there for the scene, but were sacrificial lambs in case mischievous kids came by. Also, these had candles inside them, flickering in the light but cold breeze of mid-autumn in Vermont. Alyson found herself wishing she'd worn something a bit warmer as the night had become colder than expected, but she'd be inside soon.
The porch lights had been swapped out for orange bulbs, adding to the atmosphere, but also making it harder to see things. Even Alyson's eyes were finding it hard to adjust to the unusual shade of light.
As she drew nearer the front door, Alyson saw someone sitting up on the porch, in a mimicry of the scarecrow by the porch. It looked like whatever had replaced the punch at the party had claimed its first victim.
Alyson recognised the girl as Crystal from chorus, and called out to her as she climbed up the stairs. The stairs and porch were painted red, and in need of a new coat, as the dark wood underneath could be seen poking through many spots where the paint had worn thin. The poor girl resting on the porch seemed very out of it, in what appeared to be a skimpy version of Red Riding Hood's classic outfit.
Instead of going to the front door, Alyson went over to Crystal, and gave her a poke which illicited no response. Alyson grabbed her shoulder, and gave Crystal a shake, and still she didn't wake up.
Alyson pulled her hand away, and noticed it was sticky with something she knew all too well once she sniffed at the air. The body slumped some more in her spot against the wall, until she fell with a hefty thump against the red wooden floorboards of the porch. Even for a small girl like Crystal, the sound was louder than most would expect. Dead weight was just that, heavy and cumbersome, and even a mere hundred pounds and change was a considerable amount. Especially when falling against the ground or a floor.
The body fell and lolled to the side. Even if her matted and stained hair hadn't been stuck to her clothes and out of the way of her neck, Alyson wouldn't have needed to see Crystal's neck to know what had happened. The twin puncture wounds being so visible just made it all the more clear.
Before Alyson could do anything, the front door opened upon the scene. Framed by the open portal stood Rachel, staring at a bloody Alyson with her fangs in view for all to see, standing over Crystal's dead, drained body.