Friday, November 19, 2010

The Middledark Passage By Dale Carothers

The other guys at the lake called him the Goatfish. At eighty-three, David was grey and gnarled like a goat, but he swam like a fish. He wished that he was at the lake right now, instead of struggling down the hall, hoping to get to the bathroom before it was too late.

Pain stopped him. The eight laps he’d swum back and forth across the lake yesterday was his new record, but it’d been too much. His legs started shaking so he stopped and planted a hand on the wall near a portrait of his late wife, Mae.

A department store portrait of his granddaughter Sophie and her two girls hung on the wall near Mae’s portrait. Sophie’s husband Tony wasn’t in the picture. It’d been taken after their separation. Tony didn’t know how to control his temper, so he took it out on Sophie. The beatings went on for about a year before Sophie left.

Just before Thanksgiving last year, David had bought a heavy, marble-headed cane. He’d wanted to give Tony one good rap on the head with it, but Tony hadn’t shown up. David wouldn’t have hit him anyway and was glad that he hadn’t ruined Mae’s last Thanksgiving.

When he got to the bathroom he flipped the light switch. As the light filled the room David felt a sliding in his head and saw a color that he hadn’t experienced since he was a boy.

Once, when he was seven, he’d awoken at the exact moment between darkness and daylight. The world had been overlaid in a deep blue, just bright enough to see every detail, but dark enough to cancel out every other color. He’d always called it the Middledark. He’d felt that same sliding in his head all those years ago and had heard a faint call, like a friend trying to get his attention from across a crowded park. He’d opened his curtain to see a faint tunnel, swirling with the images of strange worlds, just outside his window. It’d scared him so he’d let the curtain fall and everything had gone back to normal. Disappointed by his cowardice, David had tried to find the Middledark again several times over the next few years. He’d set alarms, stayed up all night, but he’d never found the Middledark again. He wondered if he’d missed his chance to be the hero from one of those fantasy stories; the ones he’d read as a boy. Eventually he’d given up.

The urgent need to pee drew him back to the real world.

He stepped up to the toilet but only a trickle dripped out. David shook his head at his member. “You brought me all the way in here for that?” He waited for more, but when nothing came he flushed.

When he flicked off the light he felt the Middledark again. David laughed. This wasn’t right. He was just tired from swimming yesterday and his imagination was running away with him. He was too old for this.

But maybe being too old was the right reason. He didn’t know how much time he had left, so if not now, when?

David shut the bathroom door, rolled up a towel, blocked the crack at the bottom and flicked the light switch on and off until he felt the sliding in his head again.

The Middledark pushed slowly into his mind with each flick of the switch. Deep blue light oozed over his skin, bringing with it a tickling numbness, much like an arm that had fallen asleep.

The sliding in David’s head stopped with a faint, stabilizing pulse of energy. Everything in the room had turned blue. David let go of the light switch. Now that he was in the Middledark, he didn’t want to risk sending himself home.

His body vibrated. It felt light and springy, like gravity had loosened its grip. Some of the pain in his legs was gone, not all of it, but enough to make him feel better.

The curtains hanging on the window above the toilet ruffled and a cold wind blew in along the floor. David didn’t remember leaving the window open. He hated even having a window in the bathroom, it was breach of privacy, so Mae had let him pick the heaviest, darkest curtains he could find.

David bounced--like an astronaut on the surface of the moon--to the window and parted the curtains. The glass was gone, and beyond it lay that same tunnel he’d seen when he was a boy. Images swirled within: a forest glade, exotic birds in flight, glittering underwater cities and burning trees crawling with salamanders.

David floated up into the air and then the corridor drew him in like a gentle whirlpool. He felt sick. The whirling images and the weightlessness toyed with his equilibrium.

He heard the call again, just like the one he’d heard as a child, but this time it was louder and it drew his attention to one of the images. As he floated toward the image, it grew bigger, like an expanding television screen showing a gilded houseboat floating along a wide river. Wind blew in from the image, bringing with it the fresh scents of water and a humid jungle tang. Then the wind reversed and David fell into the image flailing. His stomach felt like it was going to come out through his throat.

David landed on the deck and his knees buckled, so he grabbed the rail that bordered the walkway to steady himself. Gold paint flaked off under his hand and dropped into the gently rippling wake below.

A chilly wind blew across David’s legs and he shivered. What in the hell was going on? Was he dreaming? He didn’t think so. The Middledark passage hadn’t seemed real, but the river and the houseboat did. David stomped on the worn walkway to test its solidity and something stabbed into his foot. He dropped to the deck and ran his hand across the bottom of his foot. When his fingers brushed the tiny wooden sliver, pain shot up his leg. He scraped at it with a fingernail until it came out.

He had his answer. This world was real.

Faded red paint colored the walls of the houseboat and a studded spire stood in the center of the roof, a ring of smaller spires circling it. Along the shore to David’s right rose mountains wearing wigs made of clouds. On the left, wispy trees grew wild in a city with architecture that reminded David of Thailand or India. Spiral obelisks capped the buildings and ran in rows along the tops of walls. Nature had reclaimed the derelict city. There were no signs of habitation.

He gripped the rail and made his way from the rearmost section of the aft deck to the starboard side of the boat. Square bas-relief panels lined the wall, depicting figures clad in ornate saris and striking stylized poses. They wielded weapons forged in impossible shapes.

David came to a set of doors and slid them apart. The air within smelled stale and musty.

A voice from the darkness jingled like the tune of a music box. “Vango, rouse yourself. We must entertain our guest.”

“Yes Ilia, a moment, a moment,” Vango replied, his voice muted.

Shafts of light illuminated the dust floating in the room as Ilia opened the windows. Regal statues sat in thrones in front of each of the windows, casting their shadows on the floor. David guessed that the statues within mirrored the bas-reliefs outside.

“Welcome,” Ilia said, bowing. Her body cracked and popped like dry leather stretched over antique wood. She was a lanky six-foot tall mannequin made of dark grained wood and clothed in a ragged multi-colored dress. The high slits of her skirt revealed shapely wooden thighs. A high narrow headdress in the shape of a grasshopper’s abdomen festooned with pearls sat atop her head. Ilia unwound the blade-tipped bands wrapped about her arms and let them fall to the floor. “The dance will begin when Vango is ready.”

An eight-foot wide turtle shell lay on the floor. David expected a turtle head to come out of the hole but instead another mannequin, Vango, crawled out. He stood and flipped the shell over. He wrapped a blue sash around his waist and tied each end to the shell, securing himself to it. Vango stretched the strings of the instrument across the open bottom of the shell, threaded them through holes in the side and attached them to a row of hooks that ran across his belly. Vango hammered out a few notes and bent them by turning his torso.

Vango looked at Ilia, who nodded, and then Vango started a slow rhythm.

Ilia followed the beat by rattling the pearls of her headdress with bird-like twitches of her head. She stuck her arms out and bent them at the elbows, pointing down at the floor, waving her fingers to the time of the music.

Ilia gripped the bands hanging from her arms and spun in place. David stepped back, fearful that the blades tied to the ends of the bands would come too close to his face. Ilia shot a blade at the ceiling and it stuck. She kneeled, increasing the tension and thrust the other blade into the floor. The force yanked Ilia upwards, but before she could hit the ceiling the lower band tightened and drew her back down.

Vango played his shell faster and faster. The song grew more intricate with each passing second, as Ilia was pulled from floor to ceiling and wall to wall, until finally the music stopped and Ilia fell to the floor at David’s feet, bowing.

David clapped vigorously and cheered.

“Thank you for coming,” Ilia said. “It’s been so long since I’ve done the Dance of Salutation, that I feared I’d forgotten it.”

“No, thank you,” David said. “It was beautiful.” A clattering sounded and he turned to see Vango crawling back into his shell. “And thanks to you, sir.”

Vango didn’t reply.

“Please excuse Vango,” said a voice that came from behind David. “He was created to play, not to talk.”

David turned and searched the room for a third marionette but didn’t see one, only statues. “Hello?”

“You are being addressed by a Warden of Joy,” Ilia said. “Come with me and I’ll present you.” Ilia pulled David by the elbow to one of the statues and had him kneel before it. David looked up into the statue’s face.

“I am Bahowat, last of the Wardens of Joy.” Dust fell from his blackened lips and his deep-set eyes crackled when they opened. Bahowat’s mummified skin was as brown as rye bread. He wore a tarnished, golden half-disk crown on his head and jeweled rings on his desiccated fingers. A thin sword rested in his lap. He was clad in diaphanous, disintegrating, layers of yellow and green robes. His feet were shriveled and bare.

Before David could flee in terror from the gaudy zombie, Bahowat stabbed him. His belly grew warm and the sensation intensified until David couldn’t resist the laughter that erupted from his mouth.

Bahowat then drew his sword out of David’s gut.

David clutched his stomach. “You stabbed me.” He stuck a finger through the hole in shirt. There was no wound, no blood and no pain. “What the hell?”

“Some swords are made to hurt, but mine was made to heal. A thrust of my blade will bring only joy.” A hint of life blossomed in Bahowat’s face and David’s joy faded a little. “That strike did us both some good. Thank you…?” Bahowat dried eyebrows arched upward.


“Thank you, David, for the happiness, short lived as it will be.”

“Why short lived? Can’t you stab someone else?” David couldn’t believe he’d asked such a stupid question.

“There is no one left but the demons that obliterated our joy and the thief who stole the Gate of Euphoria.”

“I’m sorry,” David said. “But I don’t understand.”

“It is I who should be sorry. My call drew you here, through the in-between place, and the ways of our world are new to you.”

“So it was your voice that I heard calling to me.”

“I called out to whoever could hear me. We need to seal the Godhead again.”

“What’s the Godhead?”

“Ilia,” Bahowat said. “Bring our guest some wine and food and I will tell him the story.”

She bowed to the Warden. “The food rotted away years ago and the wine has long since turned to vinegar.”

“Please bring him something to sit on then.”

Ilia left, the pearls of her headdress rattling, and came back with a stool carved from a single piece of jade in the shape of a rising wave.

“Thank you Ilia,” David said. She bowed in reply.

“Vango, if you please?” Bahowat asked.

Vango crawled out, assembled the string drum and played a soothing song with a bow that he’d pulled from his belt.

“This river flows from the font of Chagyushen’s Godhead,” Bahowat said. “Our people came and built gilded cities along the river. We knew every joy that there was to know. But, years after he’d gone to sleep, Chagyushen’s dreams turned to nightmares. Instead of the fruits and flowers came demons of Anger and Sorrow. We Wardens of Joy.” He waved a desiccated arm at the other Wardens seated along the walls. “Rose up to defend our cities, but soon Chagyushen’s nightmares grew worse and we were overmatched. We tried to wake him, but to no avail. I forged the gate of Euphoria to filter the waters of the font, and the demons slowed to a trickle, and then stopped. We knew happiness again and soon we grew comfortable. Years later the Gate disappeared and the demons came again. We Wardens gathered on this boat and made for the Godhead. Demons poured from the font like pus from a weeping wound. Battles raged and many fell, thousands of demons died at the edge of my sword, but we never made it to the Godhead, so we retreated to the cities to hide our people from the demons.”

At the end of Bahowat’s story Vango stopped the song, disassembled his string drum and crawled inside.

“How did you hide them?” David asked.

“Did you see the spires?”


“Many of my fellow Wardens used the last of their power to build the spires to house the souls of the survivors, and now I’m the last of my kind.”

David looked out the window. “Why aren’t there any demons here?”

“With no people to feed on, the demons shrivel and die before they can get this far down the river.”

“What happened to the Gate?”

“We don’t know.”

Suddenly the boat lurched. David toppled off of his stool and skidded into the back wall, but managed to roll aside in time to avoid the heavy jade stool that tumbled after him. The Wardens didn’t move; their seats were attached to the floor with brass pins, but Vango wasn’t so lucky. Shell and all, he crashed into the back wall with a hollow thump. Ilia began sliding, but launched her blades into the ceiling to stop her descent.

Fetid air crept into the boat. David’s stomach lurched and he puked in the corner.

“David, are you alright?” Bahowat asked.

David wiped vomit from his chin with his t-shirt. “I think so.”

“David, take my sword,” Bahowat said. “I know that smell. We may be in danger.”

“I don’t know how to use it.”

“Learn quickly.” The Warden’s hand cracked open, the sword hit the floor and slid down the incline.

David stuck out his hand, but before the sword could reach him a crocodile lurched through the doorway and caught the sword in its mouth.

The crocodile spit the sword out and it clanged to the floor. “The legendary sword skills of the Wardens of Joy have been exaggerated.”

“I mean you no offense,” Bahowat said. “But I must ask why you have come?”

“My mother seeks an audience with the remaining Wardens of Joy.”

“Then you mean us no harm?”

“You have my mother’s vow.”

“Thank you,” Bahowat said. “Ilia, introductions please.”

“Allow me to introduce our guest,” Ilia said to the crocodile. “This is David from across the worlds.”

The crocodile raised its snout, exposing its pale green throat in a gesture of trust.

David managed a feeble wave.

“And this,” Ilia motioned toward the crocodile, “is Omab, first daughter to the Great Mother Crocodile Kuyoa.”

As if on cue, a deep roar shook the boat. David backed up until he stood next to Bahowat’s chair.

“Vango,” Bahowat said. “Open the doors.”

Vango yanked a lever and released the doors; which fell open due to the canted angle of the boat. The entire rear wall opened to reveal the head of a giant crocodile resting on the aft deck.

Kuyoa was the size of a school bus, with a gaping maw big enough to bite the boat in half. “Greetings, Warden of Joy,” she said in a voice like an earthquake.

Tears came to David’s eyes, and he wet himself. A primal fear hearkening back to his deepest racial memory paralyzed him. Fight or flight didn’t apply. It would be like trying to battle a mountain or outrun a storm. Though, David’s fear melted away as the tip of Bahowat’s sword emerged from his belly.

“Ilia,” Bahowat said. “Please bring me Aivo’s shield.” He pointed to the Warden sitting across the boat. Ilia crossed the room and came back with the shield. It still shone as bright as it did the day that it was made. “Set it there so I can see Kuyoa in its reflection…turn it to the right…a little more…perfect. Now, Kuyoa, how may I be of service to you?”

“It is my fault that the demons came back,” Kuyoa said.

A dry crackling was followed by rattling and then what looked like two dried brown sausages hit the side of David’s foot. Bahowat raised his hand and looked at it. He’d clenched his fist so tightly that two of his fingers had broken off. Ilia stooped to collect them.

“In my life,” Bahowat said. “I have felt happiness, and in recent years despair, but this is the first time that I have felt anger. What did you do?”

Kuyoa opened her cavernous mouth and David took a few steps back. The sword suppressed his fear but it couldn’t stifle his sense of self preservation. The sun shone past lines of teeth the size of railroad spikes and glinted off of a golden gate deep within her throat.

“Why?” Bahowat asked.

“Years ago, I swam to the Godhead, peeked through the Gate and watched the demons fight to get through. Their meaty muscles twitched as they pried at the Gate. Their struggles tempted me like the lure of fat, wounded oxen on the shore of the river. The hunger took control, and I bit at the Gate until I freed it. But the pressure of the demons surging through the font forced the Gate down my throat and I couldn’t shake it loose. I’ve been hiding at the bottom of the river until now. The guilt has become too much to bear.” Kuyoa turned her head and closed her eyes. “And with the Gate in my gullet I can only swallow tiny fish. The hunger is more than I can stand. Please help me get it out.”

“Your hunger destroyed the world,” Bahowat said. “It killed people in the thousands. Look to the shores and see the ruin you caused.”

David followed Kuyoa’s gaze to the bank of the river. Cities lay in ruin, overrun with foliage. A tear, like huge drop of salty rain, splashed on David shoulder. Another tear formed in Kuyoa’s eye, but David dodged it and it spattered near his feet, wetting his shins.

“I need your help,” Kuyoa said. “My daughters won’t pull the grate from my throat. They know my hunger too well. What we need is the gripping hands of a man.”

“How did you know that I was here?” David asked.

“Omab swam by and saw you on the deck.” Kuyoa focused a gargantuan eye on David. “I need you to climb into my mouth and get the Gate out.”


“I promise not to eat you.”

“I wonder if you will be able to resist eating me after I free the Gate.”

“Man flesh doesn’t tempt me anymore, my guilt is too strong. And besides, I’ll need to save room in my belly for demons as we battle our way to the Godhead.”

David stepped back. He looked from Kuyoa to Ilia and then to Bahowat. “We?”

“We need your help, David,” Bahowat said. “I cannot move from this chair. Neither Vango nor Ilia have the strength to even lift the Gate.”

“Look at me. I’m a feeble old man, not a hero.”

“We need to help Kuyoa atone for her crime,” Bahowat said. “As the remaining Warden of Joy, it is my duty to bring the happiness back to the world.”

David shook his head and waved his hands, dismissing their request.

Bahowat beckoned David over and gripped his shoulder. “If you do this for us, I will use my power to grant you a favor.”

David remembered the picture of his granddaughter Sophie and her two girls. Then the picture changed, Sophie’s face darkened with bruises, her lip split and bleeding, her daughters crying. Sophie’s ex-husband Tony had to die.

“What do you want David?”

He was too embarrassed to give Bahowat his answer. “Can I tell you afterwards?”

“If that is your custom,” Bahowat said.

“Yes…that’s the way of my people.” He felt guilty lying to Bahowat, but he didn’t know how to ask a Warden of Joy to kill someone. “I accept.”

Bahowat’s face crinkled and dust fell from his cheeks. “Thank you, David. You’ll earn a hero’s gift if we succeed.”

“I hope I prove myself worthy of that gift.” David knew that he was no hero. Heroes wouldn’t ask to have someone killed, no matter how good the cause. He needed to change the subject, to get his mind off of killing Tony, so he asked. “How does the boat move? I haven’t seen oars or an engine.”

“We Wardens of Joy used to move it with our magic. Now that I am the only one left, and nearly dead, the boat merely holds its place in the current.”

“My daughters and I will help you,” Kuyoa said, sliding back into the water and causing the boat to list back and forth. The water suddenly turned to a boiling froth and a noise like a volcano erupting underwater sounded as Kuyoa called her daughters.

Kuyoa came back and set her mighty jaws on the aft deck again. “While we wait, could you pull the Gate out of my throat?” she asked David.

David sobbed when Kuyoa opened her mouth. He wanted to tell Bahowat that the deal was off, but then he reminded himself that he was doing this for Sophie.

He stepped inside. Some parts of her mouth were squishy, and some were rough. Everything reeked of dead fish and was coated in slime. As David made his way deeper into her throat the light grew dim. “Please open your mouth wider. I need more light.”

David let himself believe that if her mouth was open all the way he’d have more time to escape if she decided to eat him.

David had expected the Gate to be covered in muck, but it glittered in the sunlight. The tip of Bahowat’s sword chinked into the Gate when David gripped it, sending a tingle up his spine.

David took a deep breath, took hold of the upper right corner of the gate, planted his foot in the wet membrane of her throat and pulled. Bloody saliva and ruined flesh rained down on David. Kuyoa bucked and roared, so David screamed and let go. He imagined being mashed against the gate by Kuyoa’s tongue as she tried to swallow him. He wished that he’s worn sandals. He didn’t like the feel of the stippled roughness of her taste buds under his feet and hoped that she didn’t like the flavor of his skin.

Bahowat reassured him, from his safe place outside her mouth, that she would keep her promise.

David moved the Gate corner by corner and inch by inch, Kuyoa bucking with each pull. Soon he felt the hot sun on his back. He gave one final tug and tripped backwards over Kuyoa’s teeth onto the deck. The Gate fell on him and Bahowat’s sword hilt hit him in the back as the blade popped even further out of his abdomen.

Kuyoa reared back and thrashed into the water, roaring. A deluge of water washed her blood and flesh from the deck.

“Ilia please help me,” David said, struggling under the Gate on the deck. He knew that the sword couldn’t kill him but that didn’t mean that it was comfortable to lie on it. She lifted a corner of the Gate and David crawled out.

David examined the Gate. He’d expected a jewel encrusted thing covered in holy scripture, but it was just a plain golden lattice. “I guess I thought that it’d be fancier.”

“Happiness is a simple thing,” Bahowat said.

Water splashed David’s heels as Kuyoa bobbed to the surface.

Each corner of the Gate had a loop. “We’re going to need some really big nails.” David said.

“I pried the gate away from the Godhead with my teeth,” Kuyoa said. “And now they will hold it in place for eternity.” She raked her upper jaw against her lower one, and spilled teeth onto the deck. “Choose four, David, and use them to secure the Gate.”

David found four teeth that fit into the loops and shoved them into his pockets.


Kuyoa pushed the boat to shore at one of the cities and they foraged for rope. Most of the rope was old and rotten, but they found enough to implement their plan. David made fourteen loops of rope and tied half of them to the port side and half of them to the starboard side, spacing them fifteen feet apart. Kuyoa’s fourteen daughters would pull the boat using the loops and Kuyoa would push the boat from behind with her snout.

When David was done, Kuyoa and her daughters hauled the boat back out onto the river and pulled for the Godhead. Feathers of white wake sprayed off of the prow and the old boat groaned against the speed that it hadn’t felt for years.

Ilia and Vango armed themselves with Warden weapons; Ilia found a long light spear made from a ray of the sun, and Vango, a hammer made of cloud.

Bahowat offered David his sword.

“I can’t take it,” David said. “I’m no hero.”

“Look at me,” Bahowat said. “What use will a sword be to me?”

David shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t even know how to use a sword.”

“Don’t worry, David, Ilia has helped me prepared a bit a magic. Wear these over your fingers.”

Bahowat handed David what looked like two pieces of thin beef jerky. David realized that they were the skins of the fingers that Bahowat had lost when he’d clenched his angry fist.

“Are you sure this will work?” David asked.

“You said that you are not a hero and that you do not know how to wield a sword. My body still holds a trace of my former power. If you wear a part of it, some of that power will be passed to you.”

David’s hands quivered as he slipped Bahowat’s finger skins on. They were so delicate, so disgusting. Seeing the aged, brown fingernails in the places normally occupied by his own sickened him. He flexed his fingers, hoping that the desiccated flesh wouldn’t tear. “They feel loose. I’m afraid they’ll slip off during the battle.”

“Use these rings to keep them on.” Bahowat held up his hand. Two silver rings sat in his palm.

David took the rings and slid them into place. He shook his had to make sure that the finger skins were secure, but then stopped when he realized what he was doing. What if one went skittering along the deck into the water? How did one apologize for something like that?

As they traveled up the river towards the Godhead, Kuyoa’s daughters would give a signal roar and Kuyoa would leave the boat behind and quickly swallow any demon that came near before David could join the fight. He decided that he was more grateful than disappointed.

The Godhead grew bigger as they drew with each passing day. They approached the top of Chagyushen’s head. His hair was carved into canyons of stone, leading upward to the rising curve of his fore head, and above, the peak of his gargantuan nose, pointed toward the heavens. Somewhere, down below the waterline, was the font from which both the river and the demons flowed.

On the twenty-second day of their journey, while David sat eating a fish that Vango had caught for him, the final signal roar sounded.

David swallowed the last bite of fish, wiped his hands on his trunks, sprinted to the front of the boat-- the teeth rattling in one pocket and the stone thumping against his thigh in the other, and opened the doors. The sounds of battle washed over him: crocodile roars, churning water and wailing demons.

Kuyoa hadn’t let any demons near the boat, but the swarms grew thicker as her daughters dragged the boat closer the Godhead, and she had an increasingly hard time keeping them at bay.

The majesty of the Godhead drew David’s eyes up, and away from the battle, and at that moment he vowed to go to church every Sunday for the rest of his life, if he survived. Chagyushen wasn’t the Christian God, but he was proof enough of the divine for David to renew his faith.

“Remember,” Bahowat called to David. “You will need to venture deep into the water to find the font.”

“I’m ready,” David said, looking back over his shoulder.

“Thank you, David.”

“No. Thank you. I know that the Middledark is real, because you called to me across it. My childhood dream has become a reality. I just wish I was young enough to appreciate it.” Though if he thought about it, he knew he’d never trade his life with Mae for a life of adventure in this fantasy world. “Don’t forget, I’ve still got a favor coming.”

“Tell me now. You may not survive.”

“I’ll only accept it if I’m successful,” David said. “Hold onto the favor for me, would you?”

“I will. Good luck.”

Ilia helped David shut the doors.

“Go back inside and help Vango guard the Wardens,” David said.

“I’m staying out here.”

“I can’t protect you. Go!”

Ilia rapped the butt of her spear on the deck. “I serve the Wardens, not you, and Bahowat asked me to protect you. It is more important for you to replace the Gate than it is for the Wardens to survive.”

“Fine,” David said. He pushed the Gate to the edge of the deck, stood on it and drew his sword. The sun shone warm on his back and cold the metal of the Gate cooled his feet. For a moment he wondered how silly he looked. An old man in swimming trunks--his skin hanging loose and wrinkled, wielding a sword, with one pocket full of giant crocodile teeth and the other hanging heavy with the stone that he planned to use as a hammer.

Ilia took her place next to him with her spear pointed into the fray.

Kuyoa’s daughters pulled the boat ever closer to the Godhead. Kuyoa herself swam laps around the boat, sucking demons into her gaping maw. Her distended belly writhed with the struggling shapes of demons.

The prow edged into the frothy waters of the battle and David’s heartbeat raced. All of the heroic fantasies that he’d had over the last several days disappeared. Suddenly water splashed his feet.

“Sorrow demons to your right,” Ilia screamed.

Ochre globs with toothless mouths oozed onto the deck. They wept like old women lamenting at a funeral. David spattered the demon with a blow and it fizzled away in sweet-smelling smoke.

As Kuyoa made a pass between the boat and the Godhead, the swish of her massive tail washed a cluster of her daughters and hulking red-skinned Anger demons onto the deck. David dodged backwards off of the Gate. Ilia jumped in front of him and thrust her spear into a demon. It turned black and exploded.

David stepped into the melee, feeling the power flow from Bahowat’s finger skins, and hewed the arm off of an Anger demon. The sulfurous explosion blinded him momentarily. While he wiped at his eyes with a free hand, a wave of depression washed over him. He blinked away the stinging smoke and looked down to see a Sorrow demon creeping across his foot. He stabbed though the demon and into his foot, and as the demon fizzled away, so did his sorrow. David wrenched the sword out and stood ready for the next attack.

“Come, David,” said Omab, eldest of Kuyoa’s daughters. They were finally near enough to the Godhead for David to execute the plan. Chagyushen’s stone hair gave its surface the look of a mountainside carved by hundreds of narrow, fast-flowing streams. “Into the water!”

“I can’t,” David said. “Too many Anger demons.”

“Duck!” Ilia commanded. David complied. Ilia twirled in place with her spear. A circle of Anger demons burst into smoke, leaving David with enough space to push the Gate into the water.

David dropped his sword and levered the Gate up into a standing position. A crash sounded behind him, and he turned to see Anger demons, pursued by crocodiles, rushing into the Wardens’ chamber.

Ilia charged in after them.

David leaned into the Gate and let it pull him into the water. He clung to the Gate as it careened past the surface of the Godhead. His breath bubbled up along his inflated cheeks.

Omab and one of her sisters steered the Gate with their snouts, while yet another sister protected David’s back. The Gate shielded him in the front.

A torrent of demons streamed out of a brightly lit hole several fathoms below, turning the water into a confusion of rising bubbles and demons. David, however, kept his eyes on the glowing font, trusting Kuyoa’s daughters to protect him.

When they neared the font David hooked his elbows through the gaps in the gate and clasped his forearms. He jolted against the bars when Omab and her sister slammed the gate into place, but managed to keep his grip.

David’s body went numb with despair as gelatinous Sorrow demons coated his body like lethargic jellyfish, sapping his energy. Soon Anger demons swarmed around him, biting and scratching at his back and shoulders, tearing some of the Sorrow demons to shreds and boosting his energy with anger. A red cloud of David’s blood darkened the water and he hoped that he didn’t bleed to death before he completed his task. Omab and her sisters tore into the demons, earning David a few seconds of respite. He unzipped his pockets, fished a tooth out, pulled out the rock and lined a tooth up with the top corner loop. There was still a hole where the original nail had held the Gate in place. David hoped that he’d picked teeth thick enough to fit firmly into the holes. He slammed the first tooth into place and then the second. With the top of the Gate secure he floated to the lower right corner and knocked that tooth into place.

An Anger demon suddenly flattened David against the Godhead and he sucked in a mouthful of water, but managed to spit it out before it choked him. David’s lungs burned, and he closed his eyes. This is the end, David thought, but at least I died trying. The water around him darkened with a new cloud of blood. He looked back to see one of Kuyoa’s daughters sinking into the deep. Omab attacked the demons with the renewed ferocity of revenge. David took advantage of the distraction and drove the final tooth into place.

David lost his ability to hold his breath and sucked in a mouthful of water. It was cold and had the coppery taste of blood. He panicked for a moment, but soon a mass of Sorrow demons pasted themselves all over his body and he lost his ability to care. He dropped the rock and went slack, descending into the deep. He didn’t have the strength to swim back to the surface. He thought about Mae. And about how he’d be with her soon.


David opened his eyes and looked up at Bahowat’s face. His flesh had filled out and he’d taken on a youthful cast, but there were worry lines around his eyes and mouth, and he was still missing two fingers. His clothing had changed from disintegrating rags into colorful, flowing robes. His half-disk golden headdress shone like the Gate of Euphoria.

Bright lights glowed from within the boat as the other Wardens stirred.

“Thank you David,” Bahowat said. “And now I must do something for you. Name your favor.”

“Where are Ilia and Vango?” David asked. “What happened to Kuyoa and her daughters? Tell her that I saw one of them die.”

“Ilia fought bravely, and is being repaired as we speak. Vango shielded me with his string-drum.” Bahowat closed his eyes and cried the first tear of his life. “There is no need to tell Kuyoa that one of her daughters fell. Omab is the Great Mother Crocodile now.” Bahowat stepped aside, revealing Omab. One of her eyes was ruined, giving her an extra degree of menace, but David found comfort in her face, because she had saved him.

“How did she die?” David asked.

“Her hunger saved us, but killed her. She finally ate her fill, but she couldn’t survive all of the Sorrow and Anger that she swallowed.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” David said to Omab.

Omab tipped up her snout, showing her throat, in a gesture of trust and respect. “Thank you David. I promise not to make the same mistake that my mother did. Her teeth, driven into the rock of the Godhead, will remind me.”

“Why can’t I move?” David asked.

“We scraped several layers of Sorrow demons from your skin,” Bahowat answered. “Underneath we found the wounds inflicted by the Anger demons. Like Kuyoa, you will not survive with so much Sorrow and Anger in your body.” Bahowat leaned in close. “Your death is near, David. What will you have me do?”

“Please help my granddaughter Sophie make choices that will make her and her daughters happy.”

“This wasn’t your first idea,” Bahowat said.

David winced with guilt. “I almost asked you to murder someone. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

“That is good.” Bahowat shook his head. “I cannot send death into your world. I am a Warden of Joy and my powers do not work that way. I can grant you your favor, but I will need something from you.”

David laughed. Spasms of pain shot up his back. Bahowat hadn’t mentioned that before. “What do you need?”

Bahowat drew his sword. “I need to take your life spark and give it to your granddaughter.”

David’s eyes widened. “After all I did for you, you’re going to kill me?”

“I need power from your world to make the magic work.”

David remembered Sophie’s bruised face. He’d gladly trade his remaining years for Sophie’s happiness. “Do it.”

Bahowat slid his word into David’s heart and extracted David’s life spark.

As he died, David smiled and thought of Mae.

Ilia took Bahowat’s finger skins and rings from David and offered them to Bahowat.

“No,” Bahowat said. “I need you to take them.” He turned. “And I need you, Vango, to carry David’s body home.”


Sophie shook as another wave of sobbing overwhelmed her.

As the gravesite elevator lowered Grandpa David’s casket into the hole, she squeezed her daughters tight. Wendy wriggled out of her grip, and Abigail sniffled. Sophie couldn’t help thinking about Tony. She scanned the crowd, but didn’t see him. Even after all of the bad times, after all of the beatings, she still looked to him support.

When she started crying again, it was about Tony. What had he always been so jealous, so suspicious? She’d never given him any reason to doubt her. She remembered the last time he came after her, on the day she left him, his hand tightening into a fist. She closed her eyes and tensed in fear, though he wasn’t even there.

Suddenly, Sophie felt a gentle poke in her lower back. She sat up straight and her belly grew warm. She had a vision of Grandpa David smiling and she laughed so loud that several members of her family shot her scolding looks. She realized at that moment that she didn’t need Tony anymore. She didn’t need his approval to feel good about herself, and she vowed to make sure that her daughters grew up with the strong sense of self that filled her at that moment. She hugged her daughters gently and smiled.

A thin, black clad woman with a tall hat and veil stood up from behind Sophie and left the funeral.

Ilia sheathed Bahowat’s sword, ducked behind a gravestone and slipped into the Middledark.

The End

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