I heard them before I saw them.
Etude didn’t move. He stood in the bramble above the narrow river and watched the far shore as agents of The Winter Bureau walked in and out of Cafe Cinota, carrying all his worldly possessions through the red portal and loading them into a truck. All that remained was the jewel, which hung around his neck. It had been cut and polished, although I no longer remember how. I only know we had carried it in a lead box at first because it had to be cut before it was struck by the sun’s rays, which it now turned to a faint rainbow against his linen shirt.
The crows descended and swirled around the cafe. Dozens, looking for places to land. But my young friend hardly noticed.
“We have to go,” I urged from between the reeds. I tried to pull him down, but he pushed my hand away and took off down the narrow lane toward the main road, which crossed the river half a kilometer ahead.
As soon as we were out of sight, he stopped suddenly and turned. “How did they find us?”
I stood straight, indignant. “What are you suggesting?”
“You know exactly what I am suggesting.”
I turned to make sure no one was watching. “You want to argue about this here? With half the Bureau on our backs?”
He jabbed a finger toward the restaurant. “That is my life! And they are carting it away.”
“It will be the very same story at my house. Not that you ever bothered to ask. How do you think we’ll get everything back? By shouting?”
“For many months I have come and gone without incident. ONE DAY after your arrival and we are discovered. Do not tell me that is an accident!”
“You may chastise me later.”
“There will be no later. Goodbye.” He turned and walked away.
“You need me.” He didn’t answer, and I followed, glancing back repeatedly. “You need me to breach the forest. No one but an immortal has a surfeit of memories.”
“How many have I sacrificed on your adventure?”
He spun. “You wanted them gone! Well, congratulations. You got what you wanted. I release you from our bargain.” He waved his hands over me and started walking again.
The cawing of the crows faded as I continued after him down a slow slope toward the main road ahead. A car passed carrying a disinterested driver.
“Where are you going?” I demanded.
“That is none of your concern,” he replied, marching.
“And these?” I held up my marked palms.
He stopped again. He scowled. He extended his hands to me, palms down, and I took them. After a moment, he turned his to check.
The marks hadn’t moved.
He scoffed at them like they were spoiled child and started again down the road. “It’s no matter. They will return in time. Goodbye!”
“This is ridiculous!” I strode after him. “Stop!”
He turned a corner and was gone.
I sighed and ran after him, but when I turned the same corner, he was gone. There was no one on the sidewalk but a few townsfolk going about their midday errands. I saw a small side street just ahead and ran to it, but the way was empty. A pair of old women on a distant stoop cackled to each other as they knit a heavy rug from opposite ends. At the corner, a man sat reading the paper and smoking a pipe in front of an auto yard fenced in leaning sheet metal. I asked in Hungarian if he had seen a young man pass. Judging by his scowl, he didn’t speak Hungarian, and I hacked through enough Romanian to get the point across. He shook his head.
The crows took to the air. I heard their discordant chorus as it rose above me, and I ducked under the eaves of a locked door. But it wasn’t necessary. They weren’t looking for me. They weren’t looking for anyone. They knew exactly where they were going. They flew in churning mass, like giant black boomerang, whirling toward the embankment park along the river.
He’d used magic to move himself somehow. They had sensed it.
I ran back to the corner. Weeds gathered along a wood-slat fence. Just past it, a short, round man in an aging sport coat removed an open-topped box from the trunk of a boxy Communist-era sedan. He had stopped on the road in front of a multi-family dwelling. A middle-aged woman and her daughter chatted with him excitedly from the front porch. It seemed they were happy to receive whatever he was carrying.
Cars honked down the road as three black SUVs passed me on the river road and gunned their engines.
The man with the boxes had walked up the steps, where he kissed the cheeks of the woman and disappeared inside with his treasure. The trunk of his squat sedan, which had once been yellow, was still open. The engine was sputtering. I looked down at the marks on my hands.
I got in, released the brake, and drove off. The vehicle had absolutely no amenities—part of the dash was missing, and the seat was nothing but stitched vinyl stretched over a frame—but it was built like a communist tank. I turned onto the river road as the owner came running onto the street behind me. The women were behind him. I accelerated through traffic, honking and swerving around the lazy cars. Agents of The Winter Bureau were arresting Etude in the narrow park. I slammed the pedal to the floor and the once-yellow sedan chugged: a little faster, a little faster. Luckily, the grade was with me, and I picked up enough speed to ram the rear corner of the middle SUV, forcing it to strike the one in front like a billiard ball. The lead vehicle struck a tree. The one I hit bounced off it and rolled down the embankment and into the river with a splash. All things considered, the force of the collision should’ve hurt me—at least caused a bruise. I had badly dented the hood of my tanklike sedan and dislodged some part of the internal mechanisms such that the timing belt squeaked on and off loudly. But I remained unhurt.
“Get in!” I yelled to Etude, who was on the ground, along with everyone else.
I hit the gas before he shut the door. In the side mirror, I caught one of the agents casting a spell. I don’t know if it worked. The other got to his feet and fired a gun that would’ve killed me if the trunk hadn’t been left open. The solid metal lid was still raised in front of the rear window. Several bullets impacted it and left large circular dents. Etude noticed the mahogany-haired woman in the side mirror. She had pulled out in the third SUV and was giving chase.
“Well . . .” I said, raising my voice over the loud, shimmying squeak of the engine, “we’re not going to get far in this.” It could barely pass 45 KPH.
I turned onto a narrow cobbled street and wove through an old neighborhood at speed. Our pursuer was right behind us, but on the narrow lane there was little she could do. When the way was blocked by an outdoor cafe, I turned sharply onto a main thoroughfare, where there were enough oncoming cars to keep the mahogany-haired woman from getting around us in the other lane. That would change, I knew, as soon as we reached the edge of the city, where the roads would no longer be medieval in width, but there was no other choice. If we turned and drove in circles through the old town, it would keep our immediate pursuer at bay, but it would also give her compatriots ample time to involve the police, or gather reinforcements. Or both.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
Apparently, I was getting the silent treatment.
“Oh, poor you,” I mocked. “You don’t trust me. Is that it?”
“There was a very adequate binding on the cafe,” he shouted over the engine. “For months now, I have come and gone—”
“So you said. But your face is plastered across every police station in the valley. Did you know that?” I had the WANTED notice folded in my pocket. I pulled it out and threw it at him.
He unfolded it and read in silence. He looked down at his bare palms.
Behind us, the mahogany-haired woman kept a close follow. A wood fence lined the road. She could easily swerve around and knock us into it. Her car had the power, whereas ours was sounding more and more like the little engine that could. But she wanted us alive, and there were cattle fields ahead.
“If you have any tricks left, now is the time.”
The moment the mahogany-haired woman had space in the oncoming lane, she gunned her engine and jerked around us—right into a massive buffalo. A heavy-uddered cow had stepped in front of the SUV and bellowed deeply as it was struck. The front of the SUV crumpled and flew apart as both went flying. I swerved off the road to avoid hitting them and rumbled down the embankment to the field. It was not very steep, but the boxy car was top-heavy and turned on its side and slid down the grass to the dirt. No serious damage was done, but we weren’t going anywhere.
I hit the steering wheel.
Etude opened his door, which was now the top of the car, and clambered out.
“Where are you going?”
“I cannot leave it to suffer.”
I crawled out after him, but by the time my shoes hit the dirt, he was already kneeling before the prone and bloody buffalo. It was still breathing, despite that most of its viscera were exposed. He stroked its neck and whispered with closed eyes as the mahogany-haired woman struggled noisily out of her upside-down vehicle, like a butterfly from its cocoon. I walked to her. When she stumbled free, I punched her hard in the nose, which made a very satisfying crack, and she fell back. I checked her for weapons. One revolver, full barrel. I checked the rounds. Standard-issue etched silver, very effective against creatures of the night. Some things hadn’t changed.
Sirens approached. Etude was still bent over the animal, which had finally expired. I turned back to the sideways car.
“We’re stuck,” I said.
“No.” He stood, grim.
“What do you mean?”
When I turned again to plead my case, I saw the other cows wandering toward it languidly. A pair of them pressed their heads to the roof and righted it with a nudge. It bounced on its tires and we got in as the angry herdsman ran at us from across the field. The car struggled to get going at first, but when it did, it resumed its high-pitched squeal, and we left the man in the dirt. We drove over the bumpy ground and pulled onto the road, where behind us the rest of the herd milled about the pavement, completely blocking the ingress from the town. The last black SUV, the one that had struck the tree, was stopped before a hoofed wall, along with a complement of police vehicles. The men got out and I waved out the window as we drove away.
“Are you hurt?” I asked him.
The left knee of his linen trousers was torn. I could see smears of blood. I don’t think it was from the crash. I think the agents had tackled him.
He glanced with a scowl to the symbols on my hands. “I will live.” He looked around us. “You are going the wrong way. This will not take us to the forest.”
“They may be watching the forest.”
“Such an effort would be useless. The area is too large.”
“Not if they discovered our rope path.”
We had left it half-buried in the leaves so we could return.
“One inch in ten thousand acres? Unlikely.”
“But not impossible,” I countered.
“We have no choice,” he growled. “We cannot make another path. The muskroot is in the cafe, along with all of our supplies. The nectar. My notes. All my work!”
I banked right and moved up a country lane that followed the course of a large stream. “I think it’s time you told me what this is all about, don’t you?”
The suggestion seemed to perturb him. “You asked not to know.”
“If people are trying to kill us, then I think we’re past the point of caring about what I do or don’t want.”
“It’s not a question of safety.”
He was quiet. He continued to sulk as we rose into the foothills. The road curved with the falling water and trees sprung up all around. Within a few miles, now under cover of a forest, we came up on a cart hauling hay. The driver sat at the front of what seemed an impossibly tall pile of the stuff as a pair of stocky horses, barely larger than donkeys, click-clacked laboriously. The man didn’t even look as our car passed making that awful racket. I looked again at the marks on my palms. The engine struggled with the slope and I shifted gears. At a slight bend, where the rising road was wider on the left, I pulled to a stop.
“What are you doing?”
“Get out,” I demanded.
He seemed shocked.
“Get out,” I repeated.
His jaw set. “Very well.”
He climbed out in a huff, and I began accelerating, faster and faster. I didn’t stop, even as the car began to shimmy dangerously. The deep stream fell across the rocks in a ravine about ten feet below the road. At the very next bend, I turned hard and drove straight over the side. The car hung in the air a moment before smashing hard into three feet of water under which was a field of boulders and gravel. Glass broke. Water poured into the car and drenched me. As expected, I suffered no serious injuries. I had been whipped hard, but I had been wearing my seatbelt.
The car settled in the water, tilting up and to one side. The movement caused a rock in the creek bed to shift and everything slid backward with a jolt. Water poured through the broken windshield. The shallow flow wasn’t more than a meter deep, but it could drown me if I were trapped in the seat. I fumbled with the belt as the stiff flow cascaded over my neck and chin, which I kept elevated to breathe. The water was freezing, and my hands shook as I tried to pull myself free.
I felt another hand on mine and pulled. Etude was under the water. The seatbelt came free and I pushed myself through the torrent and out the door. The vehicle rested at an odd angle, propped up by a round boulder. The back tires were still spinning slowly. Getting out proved to be more of a challenge than I expected. Both of us ended up falling more than once on our return to the shore, where we collapsed on a grassy embankment two meters below the road. He laid on his back and tried to catch his breath.
“Perhaps it’s time to be honest with each other,” I suggested.
“It would be a nice change.”
“The Winter Bureau seems to think you’re the most dangerous man in the world. Why? What are you after?”
He was smiling. He started to laugh. Deeply. Genuinely. He glanced to me and laughed louder.
I had to force back a smile. “What’s so funny?”
“Truly,” he said, “you are as unpredictable as you are aged.”
We sat up and looked down at the car, crumpled and tilted. The force of the water finally got the better of it, and it fell to its side with a splash. It was done.
“We needed to ditch it,” I said. “This way they’ll wonder what happened. They’ll have to check all the hospitals, in case we are injured.”
“Aye,” he nodded. Then he laughed again. It was giddy.
I glanced around at the tall pines of the forest. It was so peaceful. It reminded me of home.
“The Necronomicon,” he said.
A bird called plaintively from the branches.
“I seek the Necronomicon.”
He sat on the grass cross-legged and coughed. Every part of him was dripping. Same for me.
I was silent a long moment. “You lie,” I accused.
But it didn’t seem like he was lying.
“The book was destroyed,” I said. “After the war. I smuggled it out of The Handred Keep. I risked everything—”
“Exactly,” he interrupted. “Which is why you told me never to tell you the truth.”
“I . . .? Have we had this conversation before?”
“Yes,” he said, shaking his hands of water. “Several times.” He sighed. “And each time, it is the same. You ask how it could’ve endured, and I explain to you that it’s not a book.”
“If it’s not a book, then what is it?”
“Nebuchadnezzar transcribed what was whispered to him through the flames into a language of his own devising, which was why it was undecipherable.”
“I know that.”
“But he was a fool. It’s not the language that matters. That’s why the ancients spoke of the power of the Word—logos in the Greek. It’s why Master Newton was obsessed with Biblical numerology. He understood the patent truth: that’s simply how gods talk. They don’t make guttural noises, like animals. Divine language has a—a higher structure, something very difficult for us even to comprehend. You think the Nameless are so silly as to send across a code that could be broken simply by writing it backwards, or in a foreign tongue? They had to transmit it as a text because in Nebuchadnezzar’s time that was the height of our art. The only way anyone here could record information was by scribbling symbols on pages. If they had it to do over, today they might send a sequence of DNA for us to grow in a lab. Or machine code. But it was never the script that mattered. What mattered were the second-order glyphs embedded in the information itself. You see?”
His head and shoulders dropped in frustration. “I suspect they can rearrange themselves, and in so doing, they can also rearrange the text. It isn’t a book of spells and incantations, but it contains those things—many more than are displayed on its pages at any one time. The ancient ones knew the old king would try to trick them. He was nothing if not vain. So they made certain the book could be found. It is a well—or battery, if you prefer—from which endless darkness flows. It can be used to power spells, like the amulets of Zaragoza. When it sensed it was lost, it became a kind of antenna—a transmitter, calling out to seekers of the dark.
“The Necronomicon is all of those things and none of them. It is not anything so crude as a mechanism. It is closer to the emergent complexity of life than it is to a book or a machine. That is why it could never be copied. Many reproductions were made, but each was stillborn. For there is no one here who speaks the language of the gods.”
“Then why not send more?”
“The barter was for a text. A kingdom for a revelation. Nothing more. Theoretically . . . the glyphs could sustain a portal, if one could be opened, from which more like it could come across. However, if the seekers of the dark could achieve that, then there would be no need to send another matrix. They could simply summon the old ones themselves, or their armies.” He studied my face, dour as it was. “Now do you see? It is not a book. It is a spy, a master saboteur sent to destroy us. It has but one purpose: to return mankind to slavery. So tell me. Do you think that such a thing could be destroyed by beating on it with a hammer? Or shouting incantations at it?”
“No,” I said softly.
I was quiet a long time.
“Then why do you seek it?” I asked finally. “If it’s hidden, why not leave it alone?”
He closed his eyes. “Do not make me say. Not again.”
I felt the grass under my fingers. “Please. I must know.”
He touched his chest in the same place he had when he told me of his master and teacher.
“When the seed snapped,” he said, “my master was confused. Was I not the one whose coming was foretold? Was I not meant to serve my people in his stead? It was a conundrum. So he inquired of my future. While I writhed in pain, he retired from the village and ate of the sacred fungus, which turns death into life, and summoned the ancestors and asked for shades of the future. They—” He stopped. “They revealed a dark destiny. They said I would be responsible for loosing a great darkness upon the world. That it would fly free by my hand. And that all evil would fly with it.” He curled his legs into a sitting position. “That is why I must find it. To finally see it destroyed.”
“How? If even The Masters failed?”
He shook his head. “That was their folly. Only a saint can perform a miracle.” He got up slowly from the grass, still wet.
“A saint?” I scoffed. “I have walked this world for two centuries. I have met many strange and wondrous people. Not one of them was a saint.”
“Surely that is a sign, no? That the darkness is rising. For where have they all gone?”