Epilogue: Some By Dint...
Ambros dropped in to the Country Fair site in the Alcatraz Quiet Line. He had his tent, salvaged from his camp in the Swamp, and a pack full of food and drink. He walked slowly along the muddy or flooded trails, until he found an elevated booth, with what must have been a sleeping room well above ground level. He climbed slowly up, shoving his tent before him and following, grimly.
He set up his camp, laid out his sleeping bag and made himself a meal. While eating it, he contemplated: “I’m here, I told everyone, to get away from things for a while. I need some alone time, and a bit of deep meditation. Bloody PTSD. Fucking Squids.” He thought about what he’d said to the Ant when he’d upbraided it: “…raped my brainstem.”
“Yeah. This is probably something like how a rape victim feels. Can’t get the feelings out of my mind, little things set me off. Always lookin’ around for a damn Gate to pop up. Lose track of what I’m saying.
“I was good as long as I was busy. Armored up, with weapons in hand…Now everything feels scattered; I feel like I’m flailing around, and I’ve certainly seen some personal failures lately.
“Time to assess my strengths and weaknesses, and by extension the strengths and weaknesses of my side in the War. Probably spend a deal of time crying my eyes out, as they say. We’re gonna start, though...with a little trip.”
He extracted the little lump of mushroom sporoid he’d carried around for years. ‘It’s marvelously potent stuff, a mind-blowingly powerful hallucinogen, but the effects last only a couple-three hours. Or a day and a night, if I take enough. I better do that.
“Been about ten years since I took a trip into my subconscious, and I could sure use some insight about now. Fungus, don’t fail me this time...”
With his pocketknife, he carved away a hunk of the stuff. He’d got it so long ago that he couldn’t recall the date, from a fellow named Steinetz, a mycologist of some renown. In the thirty-some years since, he’d tripped on tiny bits of it about eight times: ‘About eight? I should check my journals, once I’m home again.’
He rubbed the sliver between his fingers to break down the fibrous mass a bit, rolled it into a pill, and downed it with a drink from his canteen.
He crawled into the tent and then into the sleeping bag. He wrapped a silk scarf around his ankles, and put his hands in the patch pockets on his thighs, maneuvering the velcro partway closed, so he couldn’t pull his hands out without concentrated effort. He closed his eyes.
He waited for the stuff to take effect. He felt himself drifting, and slowly fell asleep.
He could not tell whether he woke or not. He could not ascertain whether his eyes stood open or stayed closed. He seemed to float, in a sea or atmosphere of red.
“Red,” he said. “all red...what th’...”
The red pulsated; in time with his pulse, he realized.
He recalled for a moment what he’d done—what he was doing—and calmed himself. The red faded to deepest black, and then he found himself wandering in a landscape that he could only describe as metaphorical. Each step he took spun the world around him, dizzying him and turning his steps one way and then the other. Objects appeared as symbols of others; some he got, others were entirely opaque.
In one place, fist sized ants and other bugs crawled over a statue of a man in armor. Dark red roses lay scattered on the ground in another place, so that he had to step carefully to avoid the thorns.
‘How did I wind up barefoot?’ he wondered.
The sky turned blacklight black, then purple, a color that hurt to look at.
A voice spoke to him in hisses and giggles, seeming to come directly from the sun, which was still black.
He saw a skull with weapons around it, the top of it trepanned, a stream of blood pouring in through that hole and out through the mouth and eyes.
His boots trampled on tiny glass eyeballs, crushing them. He wondered how he’d wound up booted.
He climbed a twisting path up to a ridge, and down again: “I can see things...nothing’s the right color!” His words turned him upside down; ocher fruits and brightly-colored soil passed before his eyes. His head ached fiercely for a moment, then his vision cleared.
He grunted, then frowned, and sat down. ‘This shit means something, I’m sure of it. Somewhere in the Multiverse, these things are important…’
‘Eyes are definitely closed now,’ he thought: ‘But I can still see stuff.’
He waited for...something else. He tried to remember what had happened during his previous experiments with the shroomoid, but that part of his brain wouldn’t function.
He heard footsteps; he opened his eyes, slowly.
A woman stood before him. He knew who she was, who she had to be: he’d seen the statues all over Athino. He said, in Rational Hellenic: “Magistri Eleni Vlapotrini Leontari Medusa. Pleased to meet you.”
She wore leather scale armor of many colors, like fall leaves and spring growth combined. She carried a longsword sheathed at her side and an Italian-style battleaxe over her shoulder. She smiled crookedly, a little sarcastic. She wore her hair in dreadlocks; she held a Corinthian style helm in her other arm.
He grinned back, letting the wry and knowing expression of the Sacred Band show through.
Her smile faded. Her eyes narrowed. She spoke to him.
He shook his head, and waved his palm in a circle beside his ear: “I can’t hear you.”
She set the helm and axe aside. He watched closely as she made a series of handsigns at him.
He moved his palms back and forth across one another, a Hellenic sign meaning ‘Say Again’.
She frowned, and repeated the signs more slowly: ‘Increase your labors...practice smarter...prepare yourself for the unexpected...especially that last.’
He put his left hand behind his ear, the sign for ‘I Hear You’, though of course he hadn’t.
She laughed, still silent, and turned to leave.
He rose and followed her, but soon lost her in the mists.
“At least stuff is the right color now...mostly gray in this fog.”
He slipped and sat down, hard.
“I smell smoke,” he said.
“That’s because you are sitting by my fire,” said a voice.
Ambros opened his eyes: “Gwaros. Aren’t you dead?”
“Maybe,” said the little man: “But you’re tripping, so you can see me.”
Ambros chuckled: “I’m tripping, so I see dead people?”
“What is death? Who is dead? Do you fear the gaping tomb?” Gwaros began to roll a cigarette, his expression amused.
“Some days, yes.” Ambros looked more closely at his companion: The size and cadaverous thinness were right, the reedy but controlled voice, the oversized aquiline nose and bushy brows, the bald patch that covered most of the top of the fellow’s skull, and the enormous mass of uncontrolled curly hair and beard that sprang from the rest of his head. “That’s all right. I think it’s you.”
“Who cares what you think?” asked the gnome, dismissively. He lit the cigarette with a splinter from the fire.
“Good answer. What’s your trouble, old man?”
“You wouldn’t be tripping on concentrated para-psilocybin if you didn’t have troubles.”
“...I know what it is,” said Gwaros, amused: “It’s irrelevant.”
“Fine. You are an annoying little...”
Gwaros rode right over him, beginning to sing. Somehow he had a harp in his hands, a small steel-stringed Irish harp. The notes penetrated Ambros’ skull, plucked with carved fingernails from the magical silver’d wires.
Each chorus ended with a couplet:
“Some in terror of the gaping tomb
some by dint, some by doom.”
He sat there, struck dumb, as colors flowed about them and the world re-sorted itself into some semblance of reality. ‘The reality I know in my waking life, at any rate.’
They sat in a clearing in the forest, the fire between them. Gwaros said: “You live in a very authentic way. You used to be able to act a part, when you were twenty, or even when you were thirty.”
Ambros nodded: “My affinity groups sort of bled that out of me. ‘Be yourself. Be your real self. Meditate. Find your reality.’ I learned to anchor myself in an imaginary reality, outside of the Spectacle, where money and all its distortions of society meant little or nothing.”
Gwaros nodded: “And that’s not a bad thing at all, most of the time. But it makes it hard for you to pretend.”
“To pretend what?”
“To pretend to be homeless, for instance.”
Ambros put his face in his hands: “Gah! Nobody fell for that disguise. Nobody who mattered.”
“It’s also difficult for you when you want—when you need—to pretend respect for people you think aren’t worthy of it.”
“Why should I?”
“Eddie Roth, for instance. Or Mayor Nichols. Chief Black.”
Ambros put his fist by his ear, the Commonwealth sign for silence.
Gwaros sat silent, while Ambros thought about it.
“Okay. Message received. I shouldn’t—I needn’t—be such a jerk.”
They sat silent a while longer. Ambros said: “I have no trouble telling a bare-faced lie. Nor any qualms about shading the truth, or telling only part of the story...”
Gwaros chuckled: “You are even passably good at the really artistic way to lie.”
“I remember you told me about that, way back in seventy-five.” Ambros grinned at the memory: “Tell the whole truth, but be really unconvincing. Let your questioner assume that you are lying. It’s brilliant.”
“It is,” said Gwaros: “Brilliant. It’s true, you have no trouble lying when you think the questioner is not entitled to the truth.”
Somehow they had come to be walking along through the forest. Ambros paused, thinking. He said: “If I’m to be successful as a spy, an operative, I may...I will have to get over my tendency to tell the truth when a person who needs the truth asks me...”
“That ain’t quite it,” said Gwaros, pointedly.
“What is, then?”
The little gnome waited for a long uncomfortable time, then said: “Well...what sort of lie are you gonna tell your daughter, when you come face-to-face with her in a reception hall at the UN? Or will you tell her the truth and let her think you’re lying…or that you’ve gone mad?”
“Shit,” said Ambros. “That’s gonna happen?”
“Odds are. The future is all probabilities. But odds are.”
Ambros frowned: “Will I remember this when I come down?”
“Probably not. Not exactly. You’ll be workin’ on it, though, in your dreams, in your meditations.”
They came to a hut at the base of a gigantic tree: “Where are we?” Ambros asked.
Gwaros chortled: “Here!”
“Where’s here? And why?
“Everybody’s gotta be somewhere, right?”
“Oh for…Where. Are. We?”
Gwaros’ face lit up, and he grinned ironically: “What do time and space mean to a man in my position?”
“Forget I asked.” Ambros grimaced.
“Can’t do that,” said Gwaros: “I can’t forget. Anything. But I’ll pretend you didn’t say it.”
Gwaros opened the door of the hut: “You are a long distance, in space and time, from anywhere that you ought by rights to be. I’m leaving you here with the Kallikantzari, for a little confessional therapy. When you are finished, you’ll have to walk out of here. Go that way.” Gwaros gestured.
Ambros looked and saw a path through trees, past a broken stump and some trailing vines.
He looked back, and Gwaros was gone.
When he ducked back out through the low doorway into a drizzly morning, he looked content.
In spite of the dim light, the flowers and fungi all around him glowed like Christmas lights. He could see very well, even through the mist.
He turned in the direction he was meant to take, and began: ‘Time for that long walk back to what might loosely be called “reality”, by the narrow-minded at least.’
He took the first step and then the next. Soon he was in deep forest, the light dim and green. Sunspots reached the forest floor in places, but they were few.
He walked for what seemed to him a long time. He followed a trail among the trees: trees he couldn’t name, bearing fruits he didn’t recognize.
He heard a voice from behind: “Carlo?”
Ambros turned: “Justin? Shit, man…”
They stepped together and embraced, old friends meeting after long missing one another.
Justin—Sir Grimbjorn von Jarlshaus in the SCA—pushed Ambros back to arm’s length and said: “Dude! What are you doing here? I heard you were dead, man.”
“That was a ruse. Carlo’s dead, for sure, but.” Ambros stopped suddenly: “What are you doing here, Grim?”
“I don’t know. Everyone’s gotta be…”
“…Yeah, somewhere, I know. Man…I am tripping. You shouldn’t be here, at all…” Somehow Ambros was sure of that, though how he knew…
“Oh shit,” he said. He fell to his knees, his tears beginning to flow. Once they started he couldn’t stop them. He bent forward, bowed down as if with a heavy weight.
“Oh, gods below, if I believed in you I’d curse your divine guts to hell and back, Oh shit…”
Justin knelt in front of him and lifted him to his knees: “Carlo, what’s wrong, man? You oughta be happy to see me, I sure am to see you.”
Ambros sat back: “I’m tripping, Grim. Shroomoid. So far I’ve met two dead people and a mythological being.”
Grim laughed: “I ain’t mythological, man. I mean, I was legendary for a few years there, when no one could hit me, y’know? I…”
“Justin: what are you doing here? Dressed in garb, with a sword and an axe, in a deep woods…in my hallucination?” Ambros’ tears still fell, but he’d stopped sobbing.
Grim shook his head: “I…I don’t know, man. I…”
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“The last thing!”
“Working a fire. We were out on a call. South side of Nashville…a bad one, three alarm…” He groaned: “I can’t remember any more.” He frowned: “You think I’m dead, dude?”
Ambros paused: “I’m afraid that’s exactly what I think. I sure as shrooms hope I’m wrong.”
“Is there any way to tell? For sure, I mean?”
“Not for certain sure. But…”
Ambros sighed: “One of the dead people I met was a woman who died in the early 14th century, our time. She had some advice for me. Then I ran into Gwaros. Remember him?”
“Oh yeah. That was one squirrely dude.”
“Yeah, you got that right. He had some advice for me.”
“He’s been dead for ten years…Oh.”
“Yeah.” Ambros frowned: “Then there was the mythological one. She had advice for me too, but made me think it up myself.”
“What are you getting at, dude?”
“Grim. Do you have anything you feel an overwhelming urge to tell me?”
A long silence ensued, as Grim screwed up his face and his beard bristled and he pondered hard: “Yes. There’s a guy in DC who really wants to kill you. He had plastic surgery so he’ll look different when you see him from the last time. Shut up! I ain’t done…
“Andrea is really messed up. She wishes she’d seen you before you died so she could say that she loved you and that she did a DNA thing and the lab told her that you really are her dad.
“...not done yet…” Grim was crying now: “I don’t even know how I know that shit. I just know it.
”Any way…I love you too, man. I wish I’d said that while I was…”
They embraced again: “I love you Justin, and I especially love you, Grim. I wish we could raise one more glass together.”
“Yeah. Think of me the next time you pound a shot of Irish, okay?”
“I’ll do that and better than that. I’ll find a bard to write your saga, so SCAdians will sing of you forever. I’ll make sure they include that last stand on the bridge at The War of Treeholt, too.”
Grim grinned then: “Hey, that’s cool. Um…I think I gotta go now…”
“I expect so. See ya ’round, if we’re lucky.”
Grim began to fade from sight and sound: “Hey, don’t be in a hurry, okay?”
Then he was gone.
Ambros laughed bitterly: “Four ghosts, like Scrooge. And when I wake up, it’ll all be a dream. Shit.”
He dried his tears and sighed: “Somehow I just know that there’s gonna be a final exam of some kind before I can get home from this trip. Oh well, no use procrastinating.”
The path trended up a bit and he climbed. Something bumped against his leg and he looked down: “My longsword. Uh-oh.”
He realized he was armored: iron chainmail, a coif and helm, greaves on his lower legs. He kept climbing, to the crest of the rise.
A big ant, the size of a large dog, sat in the path ahead of him. It hissed and leapt at him.
He swept the sword from its sheath, a long-practiced move, and cut at the thing as it came in range. The edge didn’t penetrate the thing’s carapace, but crushed the chitin near one leg, immobilizing that one. ‘It’s got five more…’
He took two quick steps back, drawing the sword over his shoulder into Alta Donna, and then leaned forward just as the ant jumped at him again.
He flipped the tip of the sword up and over his helm, driving the point directly into the monster’s left eye. The ant squealed and thrashed about, impaled. He pushed it away and chopped at its exposed mandibles, taking one off and getting another nasty shriek in return.
Its uninjured front leg swept around, blindingly quick, and battered the right side of his helm, knocking him over. He defended from where he lay, on his back, on the ground. He cried out as it loomed over him: “Get the other eye!”
He thrust, and got the desired result. The beast smacked him in the helm again; he blocked it somewhat, but felt the concussion of that blow like a grenade going off in his head. The ant stumbled away and fell, apparently dead though still twitching.
He tried to sit up but dizziness defeated him. He stared at the canopy of branches above him. He felt his consciousness fading, tried desperately to stay awake, and failed.
His eyes closed and he passed from the scene.
THE END OF BOOK TWO