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Book Four of the Ferryman Pentalogy

by Wayne Kyle Spitzer

Copyright © 2017 Wayne Kyle Spitzer. All Rights Reserved. Published by Hobb’s End Books, a division of ACME Sprockets & Visions. Cover design Copyright © 2017 Wayne Kyle Spitzer. Chapter VIII repurposed in part from Constance Garnett’s public domain translation of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Please direct all inquiries to:

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this book is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

“Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?”

—Edgar Allan Poe

Prologue | Luminis Sub Omne

When Dravidian awakened, he found the temperature had dropped still further and that he could now see his breath. He also found one more thing—which was that Shekalane was no longer by his side … and, realizing the implications of this, he sat up with a start.

But though he scanned the chamber thoroughly, he saw no sign of her—although he did observe a darkened recess in the cavern wall that could have been a doorway. It was curious he hadn’t noticed it before.

He put on one of the great fur coats, shivering, and investigated—found that it was, indeed, a passageway. Moreover, it was a warm passageway—strangely, a hot wind blew through it—equally strange, it was illuminated, although the source of its red-orange light was clearly at a distance.

He hadn’t progressed far when he came upon Shekalane’s shoes and fur coat, abandoned on the passageway’s rough-hewn stone floor. He stepped over them and continued, coming next upon her green shawl … then her camisole, then her garter belt and emerald stockings, until at last he rounded a corner and entered a large chamber and beheld her standing naked before a Cyclopean, rounded, vertically–positioned grate, beyond which, in the inky blackness, burned a red-orange disk, itself as tall as one man standing on the shoulders of another.

And yet Shekalane’s lithe, beautiful form was not the only figure in the room, for all around stood statues depicting humans of every size and shape, posed just as she, with their arms spread wide and their palms turned up, their fingers splayed, some upon the floor and others upon alters and inside coves, and scattered among these were baskets of fruit now withered and fallen to rot. So, too, had someone piled Jamais’ finest pelts and textiles all about. Had Dravidian been pressed to explain what he saw, he would have offered that the red-orange disk was some ancient device tasked with regulating the temperature of the world, similar to the great warming vent they had passed upon entering Cuniculum Amoris, but a thousand times more potent. And as for the statues, they were representations of worshipers, perhaps, and the fabrics and baskets of fruit, offerings.

He read the words chiseled crudely into the stone above the grate: ‘Luminis sub omne.’

“The light … under all.” He looked at Shekalane as she turned around. “What does it mean?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” she said. “But I feel something has changed … something in the mechanics of Ursathrax itself. What blew cold last night now blows hot … as if the world has … corrected itself.” She turned and gazed at the inscription. “Perhaps it refers to a kind of mirror image of what Montair calls the demonic sublime—are you familiar with that?”

“Yes,” he said, then shook his head, shirking off the fur coat, allowing it to crumple to the floor. “And no. In truth, I have never really understood that aspect of his thought.”

“It refers to … a dark intent … that underlies all things. What my father used to call sub umbra, the shadow behind.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

She turned to face him again, then glanced him up and down, appearing to admire how he looked in only his boots and trousers. “You have a demonic sublime. It … shows through … not only through your musculature and how it forms fearful and compelling patterns, but in how you are looking at me right now.”

She took several steps toward him, utterly confident in her nakedness, her chin held high, her dark eyes full of resolve. “What would you do with me, Dravidian? My own demonic sublime … it calls to you. Can you hear it?”

She lowered to her knees before him and pulled on the thong that secured his trousers, then loosened the laces and pulled the sturdy, black garments down just enough to free his metal, which rose to meet her mouth almost gracefully, its beautifully-formed, dead-blue head crested with a dewdrop of precum.

“I feel as though we commit a sacrilege, Shekalane …”

She paused, looking up at him. “Then let us commit it.”

And she pulled him down upon the pelts and fabrics as he gave into the seduction, realizing he could no more resist taking her than he could change the fate the Lucitor had given him.

He could not lie.

The truth was that from the moment they hit the bed of sumptuous textiles, and he knew her sultry face and languid body would be his to ravish, the question of where they were no longer existed in his mind. Carnal selfishness overrode all else. He wanted her, and he would have her. There was no room for questions of honor, ethic or duty in the equation.

Perhaps sex is a divinity, as some would say, he thought. For do not divine configurations always function above the confinements of right and wrong?

She traced her fingers over his face as he pecked at her lips and pulled back, repeatedly, roughly. “You are youthful-looking for a man of thirty-five,” she whispered, then added, “But the gauntness of your face hints at the rugged and weathered man to come. You really are quite desirable. And those eyelashes—Dravidian, have you ever had anyone tell you that you would have also made a lovely woman?”

He started to say that he had not when she cupped his cheeks in both her hands and drew him into her bosom.

Free at last, Sthulhu flew.

But he did not fly as his captors had intended—for he had heard their exchange clearly, and knew they had fitted him with a beacon and expected him to fly straight away to his master … and thus betray his position.

Instead, he flew directly past where his circuitry informed him his master was … and beat his wings onward:

Toward the end of this new region, wherever it may lie (for only then would he remove the beacon, and he knew just how to do it, and return to his ferryman, having first set their pursuers on a false course). Toward the end of the River Dire …

To the end, if need be, of Ursathrax itself.

I | War

Shekalane knew. She knew somehow what the smell was even before they rounded the bend and began floating past the village of Flax on their way to Parvus’ homestead. It was an acrid smell, an obscene smell, a smell at once coppery and metallic, but also earthy, oily, a smell that was unnatural and acidic and yet cloying, musky, sweet.

It was the smell of human flesh burning. She knew it even before the great bonfire of corpses came into view, for the smoke coated her mouth and nose, and she knew, also, that it would never leave her, not if she scoured herself a thousand times with soap and myrrh. Dravidian knew it, too, based upon his expression; at least so much of it as she could see, for they had disguised themselves in rich clothing and wide-brimmed hats from Jamais’ store (and concealed Dravidian’s gondola nearby) for their re-entry into the village.

But the pile of burning corpses, which the villagers were adding to even as the pair walked past, was not yet the worst of what appeared to be the aftermath of a violent battle. Rather, it was the four severed human heads which had been mounted on pikes near the waterline, above a plank upon which had been written, in blood: ‘This is what resistance to Valdus looks like.’

Dravidian craned his neck to examine the heads as they passed them, and, although he remained calm (as always), she could see in his eyes that, like her, he was having difficulty processing what he saw. “Did you realize he was capable of this?” he asked.

And there was something about his tone, something bewildered and outraged—a thing unintended but palpable—a hint of judgment; that when combined with the memory of what she’d done to get the key, as well as the horrific reality of the death masks, smote her completely … so that she fell to her knees in the shadows of the heads on pikes and vomited violently.

He waited patiently for her nausea to pass, rubbing and patting her back, before saying, “Jamais’ boat, Shekalane. The charts ... We must get to them.” —then helped her up with the assistance of a passing villager in an eyepatch, whom he asked: “What happened here?”

The old woman straightened and answered gruffly, “What do you think happened? Marauders … pirates. They came in the middle of the night and began kicking in doors. They were looking for someone—a man and a woman …”

She paused, scrutinizing them with her one milky eye, and Shekalane quickly turned Dravidian by the chin to gaze out across the village. “Look at the carnage, my love. It’s terrible.”

She hoped the repositioning of his face away from the old woman would discourage further scrutiny, which it did, at least momentarily, as the three of them looked on. The village, meanwhile, lay nearly razed beneath its canopy of towering mushrooms, the rising smoke from its smoldering dwellings catching the shafts of late afternoon light between the treetop–like mushroom caps and causing a funereal glow.

“Some resisted and were killed,” said the old woman. “Most the villagers still strong enough to fight were conscripted, and their loved ones taken hostage. The attackers were merciless … they struck our mightiest limb from limb, some while they still slept. Their leader, a man named Valdus, spoke of a great war, and said it had come now to Cuniculum Amoris.”

Shekalane nudged Dravidian away from them. “Where is he ... this Valdus? Where are his soldiers?”

“Oh, they have left,” said the woman. “He said they were not interested in capturing territory, only in unseating a tyrant. In truth, I do not remember much of what he said. It seemed to me he spoke long but said nothing, as such men often do.”

“They left no garrison, no detail of soldiers?”

“Only bodies … in a place where even the dirt is too poor to inter them.”

“Shekalane, look,” said Dravidian, peering upriver, and she followed his gaze to where a single column of smoke rose billowing beyond the village—in precisely the place where they’d left Jamais’ boat.

II | Sthulhu Returns

The cage, like Jamais’ boat, was completely destroyed. Dravidian had returned to it (while Shekalane scoured the ruined ship for any surviving charts) to retrieve his cloak and other accouterments, but he had secretly hoped the lift might yet be salvaged. It was clear to him now that that was not to be.

He sat down upon a boulder amidst the still smoldering ruins and contemplated their situation, wondering if Shekalane were­­ doing the same, and knowing somehow that she was. He was looking at his now tattered and arrow hole–ridden cloak (still attached to the rearmost bars of the cage) when Sthulhu alighted upon a nearby branch.

Awk,” squawked the bird, his feathers ruffling as he folded his wings.

Dravidian looked up as if from a dream. At length he said, “Is it really you, Sthulhu?” He glanced at the plaque attached to the bars: Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream? “Or just some cruel mirage come to haunt my darkest hour?”

“It is I,” said Sthulhu. “Awk!” He turned his head sideways and regarded him with his cybernetic eye—its ruby red beam falling upon Dravidian’s naked face. “Is it you?”

Dravidian touched his bare cheek, suddenly reminded that his mask still hung at the back of the lift. “It is I, old friend. Although … I dare say, you have never seen me like this. Much—much has changed since we last saw each other. We have a new directive.”

Sthulhu cocked his head as though consulting hidden data, which, considering he was connected one and the same to at least a fraction of the Lucitor’s vast mind, Dravidian supposed he was. “Incorrect. Directive remains the same. Pick up and deliver recipients of the black coin to processing terminal at Flumen Finem.”

Dravidian stood slowly and approached him. “Your master commands a new directive. From this point forward we are charged with delivering all of Ursathrax to Thesea, the processing terminal beyond Flumen Finem. This—this directive comes from a higher authority than the Lucitor … and must supersede all others.”

He looked at Sthulhu hopefully; even so, his hand wandered close to the hilt of his scythe. “It is feared the capitol has fallen,” Dravidian said. “And that the enemy now speaks with the Lucitor’s voice. Our position must not be betrayed under any circumstances. Do you understand?”

Sthulhu did not move, but remained frozen with his head cocked.

Dravidian closed to within striking distance and paused. When Sthulhu still did not speak, he said, “I must know that you understand this directive, Sthulhu.”

He moved his hand slowly so that his fingertips just grazed the hilt of his weapon.

At last Sthulhu reoriented his head and his cybernetic eye changed color from red to a greenish blue-white, and a hologram appeared amidst the smoldering wreckage. It depicted Valdus and Shekalane at the edge of the River Dire, he standing and she bowed upon her knees before him.

Yet there is still so much to be learned, Valdus. He has told me so much. And I can promise you he will tell me still more. But I need more time.” She lowered her head. “The choice is yours, of course.”

Dravidian cocked his head, watching, listening.

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