It doesn’t matter; one day, you’ll walk out too…we all walk out.
—common Crossways aphorism
I woke up looking at the dark blue of a late-morning sky because Boots owed me a favor and we’d settled up on the roof she uses to do business. Her long, long legs were still wrapped around me and I disentangled myself with regret. Another spread was just what my body had in mind this morning, but I didn’t want to end up owing her. I was certain enough she wouldn’t ask me to pay the same way. She murmured sleepily, curled into a ball on her bed of cushions, and did not wake, so I pulled a light covering over her to keep the sun off.
I stretched the kinks out of my arms, reaching all the way behind me and grasping the stump of my right wrist with my remaining hand. I squatted to limber my legs, straightened and walked to the edge of the roof’s waist-high wall to look around at my home, the last I’ll ever have.
Thieves, murderers, traitors. If you could be banished for it, Crossways is full of them. No kingdom would ever claim this town, but trade between them was secured only by this barren, desert way-station. Without us, you can’t get anywhere else.
I noticed more activity than usual. We’re not morning people. The few Crossfolk who meander the streets at this time of day usually do so with a furtive scuttling from shade to shade, eager to be done with whatever business they must attend to before the true heat of the day. Most middays, the streets would be all but empty, waiting for the cool of night to return to life. Now, however, there were knots of gathered citizens on every corner and movement between them was purposeful. I felt a grin surface; caravan coming. I had things to do before it arrived.
I slid down the hanger with its silky width twined around my waist, braking with my legs. Two roughs, Stitcher and Kite, were at the end of the alley in a puddle of shade, watching me silently as I landed. I nodded to them pleasantly enough, hefted the sash weight at the end of the hanger with my good hand and threw the free end back up and over the edge of the wall. No sense in Boots waking up to them. Stitcher just looked away, but Kite took the time to snarl a Daärdish obscenity at me.
I responded with a gesture in kind, turned around and nearly walked into Deathly Silence. I strangled my shriek and shied back. Who wouldn’t? He looks like a sand-mummified corpse with his withered face and claw-like hands. It’s seeing the tiny glittering eyes twitch, way back in their sockets, that gives him his only semblance of life, but the life is insectile. What I can never understand is how he manages to sneak up on anyone, smelling like he does. He was worked up today, undoubtedly from the stir about town, and his blackened lips were pulled back down in a grimace of frustration. “Shhhh—”
“Oh, go twist yourself! Shush someone else—” I had started around him, but he was suddenly in front of me again and, again, I flinched away. His hands were held high, though they were thankfully empty of anything sharp today. He looked like one of the fools seeking Hope in the foothills to the northeast, but I knew Silence wanted nothing from that side of town.
“The lady,” he moaned in his buzzing, raspy voice, “the lady beckons to you.”
“Not to me,” I said, slipping past him in the narrow alley, reluctant to touch him. “Why don’t you do us all a favor and walk out yourself?”
No sooner were the words out of my mouth than a thin, eerie scream floated down the wind. It rose and fell and I felt the blood drain out of my face like water into the sand. Deathly Silence had risen triumphantly from his infirm crouch, his beetle-eyes alight and locked on mine. “The lady beckons,” he whispered with bizarre dignity and grin-bared his long, jumbled teeth, “to you all.”
I ran for the southwest quarter.
I passed others shambling for the empty quarter, taking note of those who were going as fast as they could and those who were merely making a show of hurrying. Motherless fools. It could be one of them someday—would be, if Deathly Silence was right. I ran to help because I knew someday I would try to walk out again myself, and I wanted others to come and pull me back.
There was a crowd of twenty standing at the edge of the tumbled wall, gesturing, shouting and cursing. Some of them were edging forward, glancing out into the desert and then turning back quickly. Skinny was perched atop a pile of stones, ululating the alarm back toward the Inn. He left off when he saw me and pointed wildly out into the wastes. “It’s Creeper! He’s walking out!” His piping voice was shrill with surprise. The taut set of his legs made me sure he was about to jump down and try to—
“Stay up there!” I yelled as I reached the wall and swung myself over. I glanced up for a second—Creeper all right, and already a long way out. There was a flash of white beyond him and I put my head down and ran forward. The pulse in my ears had nothing to do with fatigue—Crossways makes you strong or kills you—I was terrified.
“We’ll never make it!” a voice shouted in my ear.I stumbled and almost fell, glancing back. Thiever was matching me step for step and now drew up next to me. She held her mouth in a tight line while she ran and her nostrils flared with her breathing
“Almost there,” said another voice. Sunshine, laughing easily even as he overtook us. I risked another look and saw that he was right. Distance is funny in the desert. We crossed the last of the hardpack and were onto the first little loose dunes. It felt like the sand fell out from under me at every step, dragging me back.
Then Sunshine had his hand on Creeper’s shoulder and in another ten fighting strides Thiever and I were there too, forming a wall between him and the emptiness beyond. Holding his arms, we braced our feet in the living sand and hauled back toward town. Did I mention distance is funny out there? It seemed a very long way back.
“Creeper?” Sunshine asked gently, obviously repeating the question. Sweat seemed to have oiled the long muscles of his arms and chest so that he gleamed bronze in the dune glare. “Can you hear me?”
For a second or two Creeper just strained against our hold, pale eyes locked and empty on the horizon. He’s such a little guy, but he managed to push us back a few steps.
Thiever spoke through gritted teeth. “Stop walking, you motherless—”
“Caravan coming, Creeper,” I said, trying to sound as calm as Sunshine. “You don’t want to miss it, do you?”
The strain of holding him eased. “…Lifter?”
“Yah…. Hello, Creeper.”
He met my eyes and shook his head in denial. “Caravan, huh?” Hollow, disbelieving, faintly scornful.
“It’s true.” Sunshine beamed at him. “You can see the dust plume from the east wall.”
There was a high wavering burr of sound, but I didn’t dare look away from him because he was nodding now, the faint Creeper-smile quirking his lips. Caravan.
“What are we doing out here?” Creeper said, a sleepwalker awakened.
Thiever spat. “Saving your miserable—”
We took two more steps before I realized something else was wrong. Thiever never cuts herself off. I turned to see that she had stopped and was looking out.
I gasped, tasted hot desert air and swore. “Twist me hard—”
Her eyes were as empty of rational thought as Creeper’s had been, and in the long, long second I watched her, her pointed tongue reached to touch her upper lip and slide. Then I glanced back—looked out, and saw the throat-locking sight of Sweet Death less than two shallow dunes from us. It tore at my eyes to look away, but even as Sunshine pushed Creeper toward Crossways, I snatched at Thiever’s arm, spinning her around. It was only then that the screech trailing at the edge of my awareness resolved itself into a wailing shriek coming from the town. Coming from Skinny.
“Run! … Madness…there! … Right there!”
Thiever and I looked helplessly toward the road leading south. Less than ten lengths from us was a hunched shape, human, but twisted as far out of true as one of the scrabbling thorn trees. Deadly Madness. Grinning.
♦ ♦ ♦
We call them Allegories.
According to Wanderspell, we make them ourselves, give them all the power they need. She says they’re nothing more than collective belief made physical. She was in a loquacious mood one night, and when Smudge had asked if there was a way to get rid of them, her witch’s laughter was like chiming silver.
“Of course,” she said, unheedingly cruel, “simply convince everyone in town that death and madness do not exist. Belief and thought are one—stop thinking.” She looked around at all of us with her gray-black eyes, searching us all in turn. “Why is Sweet Death beautiful? Why is Deadly Madness so persuasive? Why does Dwindling Hope fade away and disappear whenever one draws close?”
Wanderspell tapped her goblet and the Mistress of the Inn refilled it with the best wine. She raised it as if pledging. “All thinking beings are fascinated with death. Every one of us has the seeds of madness sown in our hearts and need the barest of arguments to let them grow. We know that in this place, though we search and search, hope is the hardest thing to grasp….”
I thought I saw the lamplight gleam in her eye, as if shining off a tear, but she laughed again before drinking and I decided I was wrong.
“Once, allegories were thought gods,” she said absently, to herself, “given worship and offerings that made them strong beyond measure.” Her far-wandering eyes returned to the Inn’s common room. I got the idea that she was sorry she’d said this much. “Now they are just echoes. Dangerous echoes.”
Creeper was there that night, and I remember him asking her why they couldn’t come into town, why they didn’t cross the roads.
We thought that Wanderspell was finished and would not answer, but she did.
“They have no need to.”
♦ ♦ ♦
A low, pleasant voice filled my ears. I can remember each and every word Deadly Madness said to me, how absolutely sane and rational he seemed, urging, wheedling, exhorting, explaining.
But thinking about it too much makes my head hurt and makes me wonder—how close was it? I know that I was convinced that the best thing in the world would be to sit down—or better yet, walk further out—when Creeper suddenly started singing.
“They’re almost here so drop your drawers! If y’pull down theirs, they’ll pull on yours—” His voice was cracked and tuneless—perfect for that one, a real shouter.
Thiever shrieked unfunny laughter and joined in. “And when they kneel down by your leg, they’ll teach you how t’ plead and beg!”
I felt the numb certainty of Deadly Madness’ words drop away like a snapped spiderweb, and Sunshine and I pitched in on the chorus:
I’ll get no sleep from dusk till dawn
The whore has taken all the bed
To drink, drink and lie down on
The floor to take another spread
Creeper shoved Thiever and Sunshine toward town, grimacing with fright and hilarity as I stumbled and he hauled me upright. We staggered back toward the walls, clutching at each other, supporting each other, dragging each other back onto the hardpan as the Crossfolk at the wall made the chain to haul us in. Arm in locked arm, they reached out for us, singing along and drowning out the insistent whispers of Madness.
Spread on table, twist on floor
Spread while able, then one more!
Howl to the moon and scream at the sun
Spread ten more and halfway done—
Someone—I don’t even know who—wrapped a big hand around the forearm above my missing hand and swung me up so that I took the top of the wall with my stomach and flipped over it with the breath driven out of me. Faces swam against the sky, looking down at me just before they dropped Thiever right onto my chest.
We’ll get no sleep from dusk till dawn
The whores have taken all the beds—
I slapped her ass hard and she rolled off me with a grin. Sunshine had kept his feet and now reached down to haul me to mine before I was quite ready. I coughed twice, then again and looked around for Creeper. Sunshine’s head made a slow circuit, his smile gone like a blown candleflame, his frame tensed.
The singing faltered and faded away.
“He is gone,” said Totem impassively, looking without trepidation, not at Sunshine but into the desert.
“After he saw you all would make it.” Skinny was leaking tears down his front, head down. “He just, he just turned around and went back out.”
Thiever and I looked out, but there was nothing to see but the undulation of the dunes beneath the shimmering heat-haze. No Madness. No Death. No Creeper.
“But—” Thiever looked as if she’d been knifed, staring in open-mouthed disbelief. “We had him.” Her eyes accused me, dared me to contradict her.
The crowd broke up, trickling back toward the other quarters. At other times, interrupted walks had ended in jubilant screams, defiant gesturing and rounds of drinks back at the Inn, but today was all discontented muttering and sullen disappointment. The muscles in Sunshine’s long jaw flexed and he spat suddenly on the ground, not a trace of humor or lightness about him. He scooped up Skinny, who was still weeping, and carried the boy toward the center of town. Totem nodded to me and walked further along the wall to the west, mounting guard against the possibility that Creeper might come back, but no longer as our friend.
Thiever and I stood alone for a while, looking out. She shrugged away from my touch and, faltering for a moment, knelt against the wall in weariness. She glared at me and insisted again, “We had him.”
I made a sound of agreement, but she was wrong. No matter what Creeper felt yesterday, or dreamed about last night, or wondered about this morning even as he walked into this corner of town, he was lost from the moment he looked out and saw Sweet Death standing between him and the horizon. The way she stands, she’s always water to a man parched with thirst. I saw it in Creeper’s thirsty eyes when we strained against him. Though Thiever would never admit it, I’d seen it on her face out there too. I know I felt the sudden tug in my loins every time I’d glanced sideways at her.
Wanderspell claims that thought begets belief—maybe if I live anywhere near to her age, I’ll think so too. But right now, I know a different truth. The allegories can’t be given form only by the suicides seeking destruction with their despair, their reasoning, and their plans. We don’t unknowingly wish Sweet Death into existence with our thoughts alone. Belief is more than just thoughts, it’s also emotions—the kind that sear and burn from the inside out.
We don’t wish for Death. That’s far too easy.
We fall, all of us. We fall in love.