I start at the beginning. Or at least, the beginning I’m willing to share with an outsider such as myself.
“You’ve seen the Mountain Door,” I say. “Or I assume you have. Can’t see how you could have missed it, considering your capabilities. Surprised it didn’t drive you mad the first night you spent in the Lodge.”
“It almost did,” I say back to myself. I’m getting used to this being in two minds at once. Looking at him and looking back at myself, who is me. We’re both me. And him. Tahki. The Sad Man.
“You killed our finest hunter that night,” I say. “Without even leaving your bed. I was furious.” Burst of anger at that. Anger, and something else.
“You were impressed, too.” A twitch. A slight raise of the eyebrow. I didn’t expect myself to be able to read that deep.
“Yes,” I say. “Impressed. You killed a Nukpana warrior in a dream. Quite a feat. But we were talking about the Door in the Mountain.”
“Right. What about it?”
“The Door is not new, Agent. It was there before the killings started. Before the snakes. Before the white man.”
“Before the Alo?”
“No. No, not before the Alo. But it is ancient, and I have dealt with the problems of the thing many times.”
“Problems you caused?”
“Not me alone. Me, and Heyoka, and the rest. So many lifetimes ago. We were young and cocky. Thought we could rule this world, open doors, come and go as we pleased. We were wrong, and we’ve been paying ever since.” I shake my head and
Alexandra awakens, stiff and cold, to an insistent tapping on her right hand. She groans. A cold wind blows across her chest. Is she–? She opens her eyes. She is! She’s naked! Naked in a car! She’s naked in a car and freezing and there’s a bird pecking at her hand. She moves to shoo it away, then pauses. Not a bird. A man. A tiny man, with the face of a bird.
She stares at him.
He stares back at her.
He tilts his head quickly, quizzically, stares harder. His black eyes are bottomless and profound. She feels herself falling into them, sinking into their birdy depths, down down ever down, deeper and deeper, so quiet and dark and peaceful and…
With a hiss, she draws back, up and out. Out of the void, away from the peace and the dark and into–
She awakens with a start, stiff and cold and naked in a car. Right. Right. That’s no good. She’s got to get some clothes. Got to get home. She– It’s the Jaguar. It’s her car. And if it’s her car, that means…
She pops the trunk and leaps out of the driver’s seat, gooseflesh rising all up and down her as the wind kicks back up. But… Yes! Jeans and a sweater, left from that last ski trip with Chris.
No! Can’t think of him now. Can’t spare the energy. Clothes first, then home. Put the top up. Put the top up, it’s freezing. Only a crazy person would drive around the lake with the top down in this weather. Naked. Only a crazy person…
Not now. Now, put the top up. Get in. Turn the key. Get the hell out. Worry about the crazy person later. She puts the Jaguar into gear and pulls away from Lake Mammedaty, and as she does, she feels a tug. Some part of her, something inside, seems anchored to the lake. She could stop, she realizes. Stop and jump in the water, reel that… whatever-it-is. That… part …back into herself. But she’d have to dive deep, she knows. Down to the bottom. A door. There’s a door in the bottom of the lake. That’s what’s tugging on her. She’s caught in it, and… And all she’d have to do is jump in, swim down, and find peace.
But it’s freezing. The only peace she’d find in that water would be the peace of the grave. So she presses down on the accelerator, speeds up. And as she does it, she feels that anchored part slide wetly out of her, pulling up from the base of her spine and out. She doesn’t miss it, she tells herself. Whatever it was, she doesn’t miss it. Then she starts to cry
and I’m talking, but I suddenly realize I don’t know what I’m saying.
“I’m sorry. I was somewhere else. You were saying… what? You were saying that the door is old?”
“Yes. And it opens into a place even older. We… the council… we opened it long ago, hoping to… Hoping to use it. But we were fools. New here. We didn’t understand the way of things. We did nothing but open the Gray World to shadows and reflections, the whims of the Mirror Worlds. Those are forces none can control. And so the Door opens and closes as it will. Sometimes things come through it. They do damage. And so we stay here, standing vigil. And dealing with them as best we can.”
“Not doing such a good job this time, are you?”
“Hmph. Better than last time. At least we’re keeping him on the Mountain.”
“And how are you doing that? Human sacrifice?”
“In part. This creature… The Brute, I think you’re calling him… He’s very powerful.”
“Who is he?”
I gesture helplessly, impatient. “Who can say? There are as many Ahtunowhiho as there are sins. And each of them has as many names as there are languages that hold them in contempt. He could be a… wayward Hound of Cernunnos… a servant of Baal… an unusually brutal aspect of Kurupi…”
“My researchers think he may be a creature called Tommy Rawhead.”
“It’s possible, it’s possible. In fiercer times than these, the Rawhead was sometimes summoned to punish unfaithful wives. Which… Yes. Yes, that may be so. After he refused to take the virgin, I went with a married woman, to see if—”
“How can you discuss this so callously? You’ve left your own people out for slaughter!”
I laugh. It’s an unpleasant sensation. “I do this because I am Tahki.”
“Tahki. That means…” I pause, probe deep. “The Cold One?”
I smile at that. “Not cold enough, I’m afraid. My duties… weigh on me.”
“They don’t seem to weigh very much right now.”
“We all have our roles to play. I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last.” I pause, considering the magnitude of what I’m about to say. “You might make a fine Tahki.”
“I already have a Mountain Name, thanks.”
“Ah, yes. I’ve heard. Yanaba, they call you. It’s a fine thing, to be honored by the spirit warriors of the Alo. Our Rangers are hard men to impress. But you’re used to having more than one name, aren’t you?”
My turn to pause. “I suppose I am.”
“Then let me make you an offer.”
I open my mouth to refuse, and
Hototo slips his phone back into his pocket. “Wakiza’s dispatching paramedics to Pallaton’s position on the Mountain now, Pappy. What’d Patton say?”
Cheveyo rubs his eyes. Looks tired. “He says he’ll get somebody to Melmoth House soon as he can. They’re stretched thin. Appears there’s been some bad business west side of the Mountain overnight. A lot of bad business. Told them they shouldn’t have built down there. The Wambli Waste stretches out further than they know.” He sighs. “Maybe it’s just as well. I’d like to be able to catch the old lady out in a lie before Patton gets there. Might make it easier for him.”
Hototo nods. He’s not sure how easy any interaction with the Melmoths is going to be for anybody, at this point. Bad times are coming. He can feel it. The spirits are already singing it. But he keeps his mouth shut. Cheveyo doesn’t like spirit talk. Annoys him. Well, he’d better get used to it. Gonna be Spirit Times again, soon. He hums a little spirit song at the thought, feels the Mountain answer. Yep. Spirit Times.
“What’s the Mountain tell you?” Cheveyo asks him.
Hototo raises an eyebrow. “Thought you didn’t put much stock in what the Mountain says.”
“I’m a realist, not an idiot. What’s it say?”
Hototo pauses, hums again to buy himself some time. Sees a car coming. “It says we got company.”
Cheveyo straightens up. “That look like a Jaguar to you?”
“Don’t know, Pappy. Never really seen one.”
“Me, neither. Definitely sporty, though. This time of morning, it’s got to be her. Alright. Let’s give her the usual. I’m the Friendly Injun, you’re the Angry Giant.”
Hototo rolls his eyes. “Aw, c’mon. Can’t I be the Friendly Injun? I’m way friendlier than you.”
“Curse of the big man. You gotta be the scary one. Besides… You hate white people. It wouldn’t play right.”
“I do NOT hate white people! I just…”
“Hate what they represent?”
“Making my point for me. Anyway, shut up. She’s here.”
Hototo draws himself up to his full height. Scowls. Hopes he makes their roadblock look like more than two Indians with their truck pulled across the road. Just as well Cheveyo’s doing the talking. Hard to pretend with this one. The Snakes just set him off. So he crosses his arms and stands back as Alexandra Melmoth rolls to a stop about five feet away.
She looks a lot less scary than the last time he saw her. Less scaly, too. Car looks like it’s seen some action, though. Damage to the front bumper. Like it hit something. A small deer, maybe.
Cheveyo approaches the car. “Morning, Miss Melmoth! Sorry to waylay you this morning, but we had some trouble on the Mountain last night.”
“Trouble? I’m not–”
“Of course not. We’re just here to talk to anyone coming down off the mountain this morning. We’d like to know if you saw anything unusual.”
“I’m… I don’t think I did. I… I just went out to get some peace, you know? Down by the lake? And… And, I don’t know. I guess I just fell asleep.”
“Pardon me for saying so, Miss, but considering what you’ve been through by that lake recently, I must admit that I’m a little dubious as to how peaceful that place could be to you.”
“Well, it was. It– I thought about… about Chris. And all the… good times we…”
“Yes. Yes, I’m sure. But… Thing is… We have reports. Reports of you… being on the Mountain last night. At the scene of the trouble, as it were.”
She looks up at him through tears. “What? You– What?”
“Reports, miss. We have reports that you were on-site for the trouble. I’m going to have to ask you to step out of the car, please. We’re going to need to talk to you back at headquarters.”
“But– No. No, I was at the lake. The lake. And before that… Before… Oh, god.”
Cheveyo reaches over gently and opens the driver’s door. “Step out of the car, please, miss.”
She does, and
I shake Tahki’s hand.
“A truce, then,” he says with a smile. “A truce, and a new alliance.” He leads me out of the Liar’s Path, onto the ledge and into the light. “A new dawn.”
I blink at the sun, in a daze. Head pounding. Mind whirling. The Nukpana carry Denise out beside me, a bandage on her head. She breathes easy. She’s beautiful. She’s safe. We’re all safe.
But, dear god, what have I done?