Available May 11 from Back Roads Carnival Books:
Matt Spencer’s THE TRAIL OF THE BEAST, the exciting sequel to THE NIGHT AND THE LAND
A sixteen-year-old boy hiked towards the center of town, from the outskirts where his latest hitchhiked ride had dropped him off. Along the way, he thought about an eleven-year-old boy and a thirteen-year-old girl from five years ago. They’d huddled from the rain together, beneath the deep-set archway of an old stone tower on a hill in the woods.
The Bloody Tower, she’d called it. Somehow Brattleboro was the kind of small, rural Vermont town where a medieval watchtower looming above the trees on a high hill seemed normal.
While they sat up there together, he’d idly started plucking and casting pebbles. The girl saw him doing it, so she laughed and mimicked him. Then he remembered a superstitious game he used to play when he was much younger than that.
Pick a pebble, then look at a spot on the ground. On one side of that spot is whatever your heart most desires. On the other is everything else that might be now or what might be coming…everything the gods have other plans for. Flick your pebble at the earth spot and see which way it goes, and it’ll tell you the future.
Just the sort of goofy shit children make up. Then they grow up and tell themselves they’ve learned better, ’til it turns out they haven’t. By now, Sheldon rarely remembered being eleven years old, except whenever he thought of the tower. Then, without fail, he smelled the dust they’d kicked up on their walk uphill. He tasted the rain on the afternoon autumn air. There was a bare earth spot about six feet out from the archway, surrounded by gravel. The girl had sat to his left. He’d tried not to think of what lay the other way. When he tossed the pebble, it hit the left edge of the earth spot then bounced in the other direction.
Was that why this trip seemed like a good idea? Was he still that much of a stupid kid? He guessed he’d find out soon enough. Either way, it was the best explanation he could come up with right now.
He’d only survived his family’s murder because he’d beenupstairs sleeping off a head injury his dad had given him. He thought about that now and muttered, “Thanks, Dad.”
Three nights later, he’d followed the beast’s Familiar up another mountain. He still had no idea why he hadn’t been killed instantly. The point was, there was life in him yet, so he’d held onto it. Eventually, he’d willed himself up, lurching against the shriek of sundered guts and muscles moving around inside him, and made it to where there was help. He gave the people at the hospital the phone number of the nearest homestead. Another family from the Secret Police came to collect him. Naturally,they’d arrived fixed up with the proper documentation to prove he was theirs. After that, he didn’t see daylight for two years, either strapped to the examination tables, or locked in the small room after his innards were put back together, and the wound closed up.
All because I lived…just like Sally.
No one ever survived a wound like that, not from one of the beasts. Of course, the others had wanted to know what it meant, what he’d become, tainted as he was, by the beast’s blade. Just like Mom had wanted to know how Sally was changed when they first got her back, after the first time she ran away. So, while he healed in the cellars of the homestead, Sheldon Wildfire’s own people tried to figure him out.
Well, they obviously never managed it, any more than Mom had figured out Sally. Still, he sure figured out a thing or two during that time, as it turned out.
Now he passed a shady park area with a gazebo in the center. He was close to the middle of town now. A localized burning rumbled from his solar plexus, running through him in a sharp line that stopped just to the left of his spine. He felt it now because he was thinking about it—about the night on the mountain fighting the beast, about the beast’s blade where the burn now ran, about the two years he’d spent rehabilitating himself as best he could, whenever they left him alone in that dark, wet, rancid little room. He hadn’t been able to do much other than push-ups, crunches, and stretches in that room. For a long time, his gut didn’t let him do many of those. At least they were smart enough not to let him have a pull-up bar of any kind. His meals were barely enough to rebuild a functional body, let alone muscle and coordination. Still, somehow, in the final analysis, he’d made good on what he had to work with.
On the last day, they found out just how well he’d retained the war teachings of his grandparents. Two Secret Police agents always accompanied the scientist and the cleric. On that final day, he broke the scientist’s neck, right after gutting both agents with one of their own knives. The cleric he found cowering and sobbing, curled into a ball in a corner. The pious jerk had tried hiding in Sheldon’s own cell, a fact to which the shimmering bastard probably died oblivious.
Now Sheldon wished he could remember the escape in better detail. Not just because it would be a nicer memory than two years of torture, but because by all reasoning, he shouldn’t have been capable of it. It would be useful to know how you’d pulled something like that off. You could figure out everything you’d done right, or where you just got lucky, so you could improve on it next time.
In the end, he must have just given fewer fucks than them.
He looked out into the park at the gazebo. On a Saturday when he was eleven years old, he’d come here with the thirteen-year-old girl and her mother, after the mother had taken them to see a movie…the only time the boy had ever been to a movie theatre. They’d walked through the park for a while, then sat in the gazebo where the mother told stories and philosophy in her mud-thick voice, soothing him into pretending everything could stay that way.
He looked at the gazebo and its good memories, ’til the worst of the darkness receded. He walked on and met more of the town for the first time, all over again.
As he passed through Harmony Parking Lot, he tried not to look at the red brick building on his left. A high wooden fence now walled off the back stairway he’d once used to sneak out of there. On the adjacent sidewalk, a few high-school-aged hippie chicks sat smoking, watching a scraggly man, who was probably in his mid-twenties, play guitar. Sheldon almost stopped to listen. Instead, he headed up Elliot Street.
The sign in the window now read Kipling’s Irish Pub instead of Mike’s. There was a lot of green stained glass. Two corners of it seemed particularly interested in flashing the likeness of a stuffy, smug-eyed, balding gentleman lifting a pint.
Sheldon looked through the glass. After this last stretch, a drink sure would be nice. He dug out his falling-apart wallet and flipped through the wrinkly bills. There was a little less than two hundred dollars left. Finding quick work came easy to him, same as buying beer. Most of his jobs involved things no sane employer would trust a normal sixteen-year-old with. Not that Sheldon found work from many sane employers. The last under-the-table dirtbag had tried to stiff him, along with the rest of the guys. Considering how he’d helped sort that matter out, the others hadn’t objected to him skimming a little extra.
As Sheldon stepped inside, the attitude of his whole body altered. Two barflies sat at the counter to help feed his performance, without realizing it. He leaned on the bar and said, in the tone of someone well into their twenties, not even thinking about it, “Hey, I’ll have a Bud.”
Behind the bar, a well-preserved, full-figured, middle-aged woman looked him over. She saw—or at least felt the impression of—a man well past the legal drinking age. She set an icy mug in front of him and said in a husky voice, “Four dollars, hon.”
Sheldon almost sat at the bar, then he happened to glance back. What he saw almost shook him right out of the zone with which he created his illusion. In a nearby green-upholstered booth, a beast sat looking at him. This one wore all black and kept his long, gray-streaked ebony hair tied back. It was small-boned and limber-framed enough to be younger than Sheldon, yet it was clearly much older.
Sheldon thought fast, then realized the beast’s smile was conspiratorial. He blinked rapidly ’til he was sure he saw correctly. No, wait, it wasn’t a beast, but it was definitely a Schomite with some beast’s blood in there somewhere.
Sheldon thought, One of those United Deschembines, or whatever they’re called these days.
During his years confined to the cellar, he’d heard the scientist and the cleric talk about the United Deschembines. Schomites and Spirelights trying to overcome the old hatreds, trying to live side by side with each other, operating out of something like hippie communes scattered all over what was left of the American wilderness, not unlike the homesteads. These folks claimed to have divorced themselves from their coteries to create a new one between them. The movement hadn’t gotten far, because fighters of both races set to hunting and killing any members they found. The scientist and the cleric had speculated that Sally and her beast might be connected with them. That’s a good one. When Sheldon stopped hearing about the movement, he’d assumed it was stamped out.
He steeled his nerves and carried his beer to the booth. “Mind if I sit?” he said.
The Schomite—or whatever he was—sipped something hard, straight, on the rocks. Sheldon sniffed and recognized Tequila.
“Go right ahead,” said the Schomite. “I was hoping you would. I don’t like to sit at the bar when I can help it.”
“Fine with me. Probably better that way. My name’s Sheldon.”
“Okay, yeah,” said the Schomite, as if drawing some connection. “I’m Lou.” He didn’t shake hands. “That’s a cool trick. I’d heard about it, but they said you guys didn’t use it anymore.”
“On Jill over there, along with anyone else in here who’s noticed you.”
Sheldon shifted for a look at the bartender. That must be Jill, now busy setting beers in front of three dusty, sunburned toughs, none of whom noticed Sheldon or Lou.
“Even if she’s listening,” said Lou, “she won’t hear anything the spirit of this town doesn’t want her to. Neither will anyone else. Talk about whatever the hell you want.”
Up close, Sheldon saw for sure, Lou was one of the beasts all right, except…No, wait. Yeah, this man had been born a Crimbone, but that’s not what he was now. There was something familiar in his eyes. Sheldon tried to place it, but some part of his brain kept him from it. He hadn’t seen it in the eyes of other Schomites. Then again, he’d never sat down to look this closely at their eyes, nor seen one so relaxed.
He’s been altered…not like Sally and I were, not even close, but he’s not what he started out as, either. He hasn’t become anything that anyone becomes on the natural course.
“Okay,” Sheldon finally said. “So let’s get the obvious bullshit out of the way first. Are you here to try to kill me?”
“If I were, I’d have gotten around to it already.”
“Fair enough. Obviously, we’ve got a lot to talk about. Let’s start by ordering a pitcher. What do you like?”
“Get whatever you want. I know you have things to go do, so we can’t sit in here all night getting drunk, covering everything. You finish your drink, I’ll finish mine, then we’ll get that pitcher.”
“You recognized the trick I pulled—”
“Still pulling,” Lou corrected. “Don’t slip. Brattleboro lets you, but you need to keep up your end.”
“It doesn’t have anything to do with any spirit of the town,” said Sheldon. “I learned it from reading things my grandfather wrote down.”
“Oh. Right. That makes sense. Like I said, I’d heard about that kind of thing. Word goes, though, the Spirelights had stopped using it since before either you or me were born. You say it’s all you, that it doesn’t have anything to do with the land this town is built on, and how that land feels about you. The Spirelights stopped believing all that a long time ago. Before they were Spirelights, as such, matter of fact. Now you just claim it’s something the Crimbone made up, what you call their dark magic. Know what I think?”
Sheldon took a deep gulp of beer. “I guess you’re gonna tell me.”
“I think your Tribunals have always known what their ancestors led your people away from. They’re afraid of what you’d all find waiting if you found your way back to it. If you did, it wouldn’t be good for their hold on you. They realized on some level how close an aptitude like yours brings your spirit to the lands of this earth. That might’ve led you away from the sway of the gods. Can’t have that. So they made sure the Spirelight Secret Police stopped teaching it to their children.”
Sheldon knew he was no less an enemy of the SpirelightTribunals than Lou. It had been that way since the black blade had plowed through his midsection. If the eyes of Spirah had really followed its people to this world, they’d turned their gaze from Sheldon on that night. Yet he still felt the old racial impulse, to pull his own knife, dive across the table and slit Lou’s throat for such blasphemy. Instead, he drained his mug nearly dry. “Well, that’s an interesting theory. You about done with that Tequila?”
“Sure. You don’t mind picking up the tab, do you? I’m out of cash. Don’t worry, I’ll pay you back.”
When Sheldon got the pitcher, he wasn’t sure why Jill looked at him so weirdly when he asked for a fresh icy mug. He came back and filled Lou’s glass first.
“Thanks.” Lou sipped slowly, the way a man savors pleasure when he’s gone too long without it and doesn’t know when he’ll next get to savor anything.
“No problem.” Sheldon filled his own glass. “Look, what are you doing in this town?”
Lou shrugged. “I used to live around here.”
“I never left, exactly. I’ve realized I won’t be able to, not ’til I figure some things out and manage to do whatever I’m supposed to do here.”
“Sounds familiar,” Sheldon sighed. “Obviously the Schomites still control Vermont.”
“Vermont controls Vermont. You’re right, though, it still favors the Schomites. So why weren’t you scared to come back?”
“I was. I still had to.”
“Good man…except you don’t need to be as scared around here as most Spirelights, do you?”
“What gives you that idea?”
“You don’t have the Spirelight glow about you.”
Sheldon drew up sharply. That’s what the beasts called it, the divine essence that lived in all Spirelight people, the united soul of Spirah. Grandpa had always said it was a purity the demons possessing the Crimbone were drawn to destroy.
“Well,” Lou went on, “I ain’t saying there’s none of it left in you anywhere, but when you’re around Crimbone, they don’t notice it. It doesn’t set them off.”
“No.” It was true, and it had taken Sheldon the better part of a year after escaping to piece it together. Part of his alteration…the gods of Spirah had taken their uniting glow back from him. Since then, there hadn’t been much need to worry whose territory he was in. The Spirelights wanted to kill or recapture him, and most Crimbone still tried to kill him if they realized he was there, even if they were a little confused at first. No matter where you went, you might run into Earth-line people who wanted to kill you or fuck you up, for whatever reasons Earth-line people killed or fucked each other up. “I once got stabbed by a Crimbone, you know.”
“That’s strange, that you survived I mean. Why did he spare you?”
“He didn’t. He thought he’d killed me.”
Lou laughed. “Now that is a new one, even if he did think you were dead.”
“That he stopped at stabbing you, unless of course he had more than one of you at a time to deal with. Even then, you’re lucky he didn’t get back to you, just to rip your corpse to pieces, absorb whatever of your glow was still flickering.”
Sheldon shifted and drank more beer. “So, I bet you think it was the land we were on at the time that saved me somehow, right?”
“There’s not a doubt in my mind about it. You know, it’s the Earth-line people who divorced themselves from the lands of this world more than any other race here, and they’re the ones who convinced themselves the most that they’re running the show. They were here first, no less! That’s why it takes so little effort to keep them from noticing us, even keeping to all our old, wild ways as we do. It also helps, not getting sucked so deep into all that technology they think makes them masters of everything.”
Sheldon couldn’t help smiling, even if it was nothing but Schomite madness.
“You still don’t believe me. How else can you explain that we’re sitting here, having this conversation where anyone could hear if they started listening, but no one does?” Lou paused and saw that Sheldon couldn’t find an answer. “You know, they stayed close to the lands for a lot longer than most of them realize. Every year, their society gets more strictly regulated, and the Earth-line governments keep making more and more decisions for them, and all that slick little technology just tugs ’em deeper down that hole.
“Eventually, they’ll literally be part of a machine. Then they won’t have any more chance of spotting us or the crazy shit we get up to, any more than those beer taps know that Jill’s pumping them, or those cars and trucks going by outside know about the people driving or riding in them. Just look around at the other customers here! Here they are, in this nice, fun, friendly bar with good music playing, and half of them are zombied out on their little phones. You barely need your mind tricks to deflect their attention. I guess you know the stories from back when they were still settling this young nation?”
“Yeah.” Sheldon’s mouth twisted impatiently. “We learned all that at the homesteads growing up. The elders said we needed to understand how the Earth-line people understood history, so we could understand how they thought, so we could blend in.”
“Yeah, because you were scared of what the Earth-line society would do to you if they knew you were there.”
“No,” said Sheldon, keeping his cool, “it wasn’t that. It’s because—”
“Because your clerics assumed the gods of Spirah were still right there behind you. When the day came that you saved this world from the Schomites and our beast warriors the Crimbone, so the gods could come through, from their pantheon, and give you this world as your reward. Yeah, I know that version. It’s not too far off the mark, ’cept you were looking at it from the wrong direction.” Lou shook his head and chuckled.
“What was I saying? Oh right, the settling of the nation. Y’know, back in those days, they had law enforcement, but it wasn’t like they kept some fat, mean-eyed cop on every corner or cruising around looking tough, making sure everyone let the Boys in Blue settle their troubles for them. No, just miles of bare hills and forests and deserts for them to run around in, shooting each other over blood feuds that their own Scottish and Irish ancestors brought over on some boat. Sound familiar?”
“Sure, right, I see what you’re saying.” Sheldon took a few rapid glugs of beer, like it might wash away his impatience. “Except their conflicts aren’t nearly as old, or as fierce. Our feud’s stayed alive and well, longer than any of theirs have lasted. Ever watch the news, Lou? Y’know all those times the Earth-line nations seem a dick-twitch away from sending their big bombs flying at each other, so there’d be no one left on any smoking land mass to fight over ’em? Then that just somehow...doesn’t happen? You think that’s the Earth-liners actually being that good at settling their silly little differences? Think it means one spot of land has any say over what folks in another do? Bullshit! Obviously, you’ve got no idea how deeply the Spirelight Tribunals have worked themselves into governments all over the world.”
“You know how to argue a point. That’s a relief.”
“My point is, we’re the ones holding that leash.”
“Except we doesn’t exactly include you anymore, does it? Besides, if flexing that kind of muscle means so much, how come the Spirelights didn’t settle it a long time ago…unless there’s something even bigger flexing its muscles? Either way, to either side—in different languages of spirituality, religion, whatever you want to call it—the world we share keeps reminding us how we need that secrecy, along with the limits it places on our potential, as long as we keep up the fighting."
Lou poured the last of the pitcher into the mugs.
“This land lets us keep up the feuds because there’s something it has to gain from it, in the final build-up. I have no idea what, except that it’ll be in your lifetime.”
“So, do you expect to live to see it?” said Sheldon.
“That’s a good one!” Lou laughed again. “No, but whatever it is, it’s already building up. I wouldn’t be surprised if it has something to do with why you’re back in town. Probably why I’m here, too.”
“Who knows, Lou, maybe you’re onto something. Your beast teachers ever tell you how Spirelights find and hold a Spirelight-controlled area?”
Sheldon leaned back, nursed the last of his mug, and held Lou’s gaze with easy defiance. “They study maps of whatever landmass the gods have set us to get for them. It starts with building the homestead, always atop a broad summit that lines up on the landmass approximately with the location of the house of one of the gods, where it sits within the Spirah Pantheon. Once the homestead’s completed, they spread out from there—an inch or a mile at a time—taking control of the civilized infrastructure and redesigning it so it matches the anatomy—the circulatory system—of the god. So, the beasts can come ’round and call on your lands for help all you like, but the Spirah gods are the only spirits ruling those lands by then.”
“Huh.” Lou shrugged and nodded at the tabletop. “No, I didn’t know that.”
“You wouldn’t.” Sheldon held his fixed gaze ’til he caught Lou’s eyes again. “Only those of the Secret Police coterie do. Ever hear of Michelangelo? Big in the Earth-line Renaissance.”
“Michelangelo said about his art, I saw the angel in the marble, and I carved ’til I set him free. The great SpirelightPriest Kings of the Old World taught their agents how to see the Spirah gods in the lands. The agents will carve the lands ’til the gods are set free.”
“Not exactly in your best interest to look forward to that anymore, though, is it?”
“Who said I ever did?” Sheldon drained the last of his glass and stood up. “Anyway, man, it’s been…interesting talking to you. Right now, I’ve got places to be.”