Completing the Assignment

I had been here before as the waking years have passed. Several times. And each time I have been here, the formerly stately home and grand expanse of yards surrounding it had fallen further and further into decay. This used to be a grand mansion with many wings. Now only the central section of the building remains standing, and even that is a hollow shell of what it used to be as everything wood has either been salvaged, burned, or decayed.

There is a spirit here. Cantankerous. Unwelcoming. Spiteful. When I first dreamt of this place, he chased me away threatening to inflict all sorts of waking world abuse on me. At that first encounter, I didn’t know how much he was bluffing and how necessary it was for me to counter him. I fled an intact fortress and was chased through the trees by the echoes of his mocking laughter.

At my second encounter, I knew the limits of his abilities and after walking around (and around) the mansion, I stood at the open threshold of the front door. He was not able to chase me away this time. But he did prevent me from entering. I was able to see then that the building’s decay was starting from the inside. Floors had already begun to collapse as the physical connections they represented faded and were forgotten.

At my third encounter, I did not recognize the building. The non-native trees had succumbed to local pests and were decomposing even before they had fallen. Grasses had conquered the stone path leading up to the broken door. Weeds raced to hide the shattered debris that remained of fallen walls and roof tiles.

As I walked around the building, another section collapsed exposing bedroom furniture. The outside air touched inside secrets and the furniture quickly evaporated into collapsing dust that further dissolved into nothingness as it flowed out of the cavity. The process reminded me of the draining of a boil. Unpleasant. Stinky. But necessary if any healing is to begin.

That time I was able to enter the building. It was larger inside than it was without and the majority of the intact rooms were under ground level. As I searched for the spirit I came across a door in the floor of a side room, leading to a below ground area. It smelled of blood and rust in ways that I should not have personal memory of. Heeding the danger, I turned and made my way back to the main door.

He was blocking the exit, dressed in a particular uniform from an era that is simultaneously long over and still ongoing. He mocked me even further then, pointing out that his strong Christian faith was protecting him from a devouring demonaic like myself. I ignored his insults as obvious bait and studied his clothing, looking for anything that would tell more about when he was and why he was here than why he was trying so damn hard to stay.

He stopped taunting me and asked me why I was there. I pointed out that he was dead and I was sent to escort him to the Boneyard. Well, I didn’t tell him that was the destination in those words, but all he had to know was that it was time for him to move on to whatever followed next for him.

He refused. Said that he was the last bastion of a long line of unconquerable men. Said that as long as he remained in place, the family seat would not be unmade. Said a lot of things that I have found the dead will say when they refuse to face that they are no longer living.

I didn’t do what I should have done. Instead I walked through him to his surprise and anger and left the rotting building. What I should have recognized then is that he was fading. The mansion, the grounds, his clothing, were all extensions of himself and his memory. Without any connection to the life that he had, this was all rotting in place as he attempted to continue on in the light of the myth of his glory. A myth that dimmed each time it was recited to the darkness. I left him to devour himself.

It has been three years in the waking world since I was last here. The brickwork of the front facade spanning two floors and some of the walls surrounding the foyer and what was the room above the foyer are all that remains of the mansion that once held over thirty rooms. The wood floors and paneling have been ripped out. Tool marks are clear in some places. Native plants obscure what is silently decaying into the brick red soil.

What is left of the building is covered with a bright orange mold. If I stand still, I can hear the fungus infiltrating the standing remains. It sounds like distant static, not uncomfortable, but enough to remind me that the rules are different here.

I passed through the foyer to enter what would have been the front of the building from the inside. Nothing new came, so I turned around to look through the doorless threshold.

The floor I had just walked on was gone. A set of stairs extended from the open door into an exposed below ground chamber. A table that had once stood in the middle of the foyer had fallen through the rotted floor into the chamber, where it had crushed some smaller display tables and chairs. On the other side of the wreckage was the spirit.

He still wore the uniform, but it was faded and threadbare on his starving frame. He had grown a beard since I last saw him but it was plucked in some places and chewed on in others. He looked up at me, wincing at the light that came with me. He looked around and began to despair as the exposure began to burn away what few secrets he had been able to bury with himself.

I knew more about the era he was from. Knew more about what he represented. Knew that if the tables were turned, he would indulge in causing me as much anguish and harm as possible. Knew that if the tables were turned, he would do nothing to help me. And I knew, that this was precisely the way I wanted to treat him.

But I can’t be that cruel.

I crouched in the doorway, careful to keep my balance and not fall over into the pit below me.

“You don’t have to stay, you know. This is a really shitty afterlife, you know. While I can’t take you to where I first offered, I can at least get you out of here so you won’t, like, dissolve into the abstract echo of a scream before losing yourself entirely.”

He pulled his eyes away from a dissolving collection of medals and ribbons. “And how can I trust you? What makes you different from the animals I’ve already gutted? How do I know that you aren’t offering to pull me from safety into a devil’s mouth?”

I knew what he meant and tried to get up to walk away. My legs remained bent. “How many Travelers have been this way? How many of them came back? You’re my assignment whether I like it or not, and I’m not going to come back a fifth time. If I have to snatch your ass and put you in a jar, I will. But you still have some humanity left in you, and I can’t be so cruel as to not give that humanity some type of respect while you can still understand it.”

I pointed at what was remaining of the underground room and the unrecognizable things that were slowly decomposing into dust around him. “This, was never real. This was gone the moment your heart quit working. Your pride made a right fine monument to itself, but you are not a perpetual motion machine. Bury yourself in a new grave if that makes you feel better, but it won’t be long before you become prey to something. Maybe to a sorcerer. Maybe to something worse. Maybe it’s time to go. Maybe you’ll have to trust a mulatto to take you where those you had faith in, wouldn’t.”

He looked at me in anger for a moment, before casting his eyes down to the piles of settling dust that became his only companion in the crumbling room. “And where would you take me?”

“No place other than where you’re to be. Not taking you home, that’s for damn sure.”

He laughed and I saw a spark of light in his eyes for a moment. He reached up to stroke what was left of his beard and pulled a chunk of hair off of his chin. He stared at the decomposing hair in his hand. “Okay. I will not be carried like bought goods. Give me your hand so I can climb out of here.”

I knew that touching him would mean carrying his spirit in my body and I was not about to volunteer for a deworming session again even if it was in the Boneyard. “Hang on. I have something better.”

Well, I thought I had something better. I was going to draw his spirit into a particular crystal of mine that came to mind, but when I reached in my satchel to retrieve it, I remembered in whose care that piece of quartz physically was. There would be no carrying of that crystal here.

Frantically, I reviewed my personal inventory of physical stones. I had several other quartz stones that were suitable for the carrying of spirits, but they either had already been purposed for certain uses or I did not want to risk him making a permanent home in a stone that wasn’t quite prepared or suitable for this work.

I kept coming back to the first quartz shard I thought of initially. And the entity holding that shard wanted nothing to do with the now contrite spirit in front of me. So I kept looking in my satchel and mentally reviewing all the stone I have until I remembered the ugly ass shewstone that I thought would be of use for summoning a different spirit altogether.

A representation of that stone appeared with ease in the satchel. Still ugly. Still hard to hold well. Still suitable for the carrying of a spirit.

“Okay. Here.” I held the awkward chunk of rutilated quartz out for him to touch.

“You’re kidding me. What the hell is that?” Anger brought color back to his face but it did not last. No sooner had the emotion enlivened him was he wheezing and appearing as if he would faint at any moment.

“Your ride, good sir. Don’t tell me you really thought I was going to carry you in my body? Oh, hell naw! It will be my own death before I forget the lessons that dealing with Roger taught me. This has been made suitable for the entry and viewing of spirits, and this is how I am going to carry you out of here to where you go next.”

He drew himself together and appeared to gain thirty pounds. “And if I refuse to depart on your terms?”

I pulled the stone to my chest. “My good sir, I almost hope you do. While I have a lot of doubt about some things in my life, being a Courier and a Raven is not one of them. You are my assignment, and it can be said that I have delayed matters excessively already. So, either you come willingly with me to whatever comes next, or I snatch your ass and drag you to whatever comes next, but either way, you’re going to whatever comes next.”

I held the stone out towards him again. The awkward stone turns to fit comfortably against my fingers and begins to glow with an inner light that dances along the internal strands of rutile.

He tries to puff his chest out in defiance. As he struggles to do so, one wall of his underground retreat collapses. Black mud, smelling of sewers and consequences, invaded the area. He shrinks away from the mass as it expands by devouring what dust was remaining on the floor.

“Okay. I’ll go with you.” He moves quicker than I expected and reaches a hand out to take the uneven chunk of quartz. Upon touching it, his body becomes a light that is pulled into the stone. The stone brightens then dims even as it becomes quite heavy in my grip.

As I stand and back away from the threshold, what remained of the mansion falls down and collapses into the black mud waiting in the below ground cavity. The edges of the known grounds waver as the spirit’s last memory folds in on itself.

I close my eyes and put my hands in my pockets as I prepare to literally step through worlds. The rutilated quartz is in my left hand as I place my left hand in my left pocket. My right hand is empty as I place my right hand in my right pocket. But as I close my right hand to be more comfortable, I close it around a set of keys.

I know where I have to go.

I take a step. The ground dissolves under my feet. Even as I start to fall, I take another step in faith.

The concrete holds me securely as I come to a stop.

“It has been a while since you have graced the City, Weaver.”

I don’t need to open my eyes to know that the Envoy is standing behind me. I certainly don’t need to open my eyes to know that he is very annoyed with me. Again.

“What delight do you bring with you, this time?” Oh, he’s very fucking annoyed with me. But it has been years since I was here and I behaved last time.

I keep my left hand in my pocket and raise my right hand to hold the keys in plain sight as I turn around to face him. “My dear Envoy, you know damn well I do my best to stay away from here, or in the very least, to stay in your good graces when I can’t.” He hasn’t changed a nanosecond since I last saw him. The collection of battlemages behind him are wearing house insignia that I’ve never seen before. I weighed the merits of relying on my unearned reputation to keep me out of trouble and decided to keep things strictly business.

I shook the keys to get everyone’s attention. “I’m here on business, Sir. Sending someone out on a proper farewell. While I thank you for the reception, once I’m done in Koshari’s building, I’ll be taking my leave from within.”

The Envoy looked at my left pocket. “Anyone I know? Anyone I should remember?”

I tucked the keys in my right pocket. “Not anymore. He’s spoken for. Unless you want to speak with the Boneyard Ravens about the matter, I should get to my work. If you’ll excuse me…”

I did not wait for the Envoy to answer. I knew he wanted me to settle down in the City. I knew he wanted me to give up lucid dreaming and Traveling and my exploration of self outside of the context of what the City could offer me. It’s a regular argument over who gets to define what my humanity is to me. He offers a salve for my doubts. I recognize that salve as an addictive anesthetic.

I unlocked the doors to Koshari’s building and stepped inside without escort. The lobby was just as I remembered it, gaudy as hell. Funny how I remember so much about what happened here like it was an hour ago.

Entering the elevator, I finally take my left hand out of my pocket, still holding the rutilated quartz. I hold it to a quartz tile mounted above the floor buttons. The tile flashes, the buttons dim, the elevator doors close, and the elevator itself rises.

When the elevator comes to a stop, I have no idea how many floors I have passed through. The doors open and I step through onto a gravel path. Old trees with thick canopies hide the sun and the sky while the sounds of a social event pull at me from down the path. As I start walking away from the elevator, the rutilated quartz vibrates in my grip for a moment.

The spirit, now looking in his early thirties again and in a clean uniform, is resting a hand on my shoulder. “Do you know where we are? I know where we are! My mother would have socials in the trees near the house!” He moved quickly down the path and I had to run to keep up. As I ran, I saw shapes in the trees beside us. They looked like young women in fashionable gowns running to keep up with us until I saw them out of the corner of my eyes. Then they looked like dog-headed youths in ripped cloth, waiting for the moment to turn on us or to turn on each other.

A cheer announced his arrival as menfolk stood to greet him and womenfolk fanned themselves in the unmoving humid block of air around us. I saw people dressed in fashions from the idealized war of his day to forgotten cast offs of indifferent empires. It took me a moment to realize I was looking at his ancestors, recent and not so recent. Looking around, I did not see the running youths that followed us to the clearing.

He was initially glad to see them. They congratulated him for having his own personal servant to accompany him and immediately fell into recounting their favorite episodes with their own personal servants. He tried to correct them, but they were too busy reliving their tales to listen to him.

“Tell me, girl, is this heaven or hell?” He looked around the trees surrounding the soiree. “I thought this was heaven at first because I recognized family members who had passed before me, but now that I listen to them, these are not stories to be told before God.”

“What is heaven or hell to one such as me? I will tell you what I know. This is your resting place for the next stage of your journey. Is it the heaven of your beliefs? No, but it is a place for you to reconnect with your past. Is it the hell of your beliefs? No, but if you want it to be so, then it will be so. But it is guarded.” I pointed to one of the dog-headed youths half hiding behind a tree. “You will not be permitted to leave back to the world of the living.”

He had looked where I had pointed just fast enough to see one of the guardians flicker away and stared in the space now left unoccupied. “What does that mean?”

“That means I hope your descendants have an interest in helping you further. This is the limit of my assistance, bringing you to your ancestral court. It will take someone else to provide you the healing you need.”

He didn’t reply, but he wasn’t angry. “Well, I’m better here than where I was. That much is clear already. Thank you. Allow me to walk you back to the doors.”

He and I started to leave the assembly. The moment his feet left the assembly grounds, the dog-headed youths were snapping at his legs. He scrambled to return to the assembly. The youths sniffed at my legs and hands but left me alone.

“It would seem, dear lass, that my boundaries have been redrawn and that I have no choice but to accept them. Forgive me that I can not be a gentleman to you as you depart.”

Behind him, his ancestral court beckoned him to walk away from me and join them in a rousing game involving cards and alcohol. He ignored them and remained focused on me.

“You are forgiven. I knew that would happen. There is still work that needs to be done before you can move on. But that work is more likely to happen here than it would have back there. As we part, likely never to meet again, I pray that you may find healing. May your descendants remember and lift you.”

The members of his ancestral court that were within earshot of us threw derision at me. They were perfect, just as they are and didn’t need to reconsider any life decisions or consequences to their actions. But as the spirit nodded and walked away from me to join the court, he did so with a somber step.

The dog-headed youths sniffed aggressively at me and I got the nonverbal warning. Silently, I turned around and walked back the path towards the elevator sitting silently in the woods.

The doors opened for me and I entered. As the doors closed behind me, so did the dream.