This continues the main Hitherby storyline.
The grangler’s an old ghost. He’s a god of holding on.
His hands are claws, like this—like withered bone with leathery tendons holding it together, cold, damp, and very sure.
He’s the third god to approach Elm Hill in quite some time.
He’s the first that isn’t friendly.
Ahead of him, behind him, all around him dead birds are rising from their graves. They are tearing forth from the rotting earth. They are rising towards the sky.
That’s the sign of the grangler.
“I should never,” the grangler says, “have let her go.”
It is May 28, 2004.
On May 28 in history, an eclipse ended Kuras’ great-grandfather’s war. The Pope married James IV. Scotland and England signed their treaty of everlasting peace. The Chrysler building opened. Liril buried a god in a box—a dead and broken god—and hid it under Elm Hill. An earthquake killed Neftegorsk. Mount Cameroon erupted. People all over the world were born and died.
On May 28, 2004, a shadow lays across the sea; and because he is following that shadow, Truth Daniels is not lost.
It’s been four days since he’s found water. It’s been eight days since the last real bit of land. He’s got legs tight as knots.
He’s really thirsty.
But he’s not lost, because he’s following something, and you can’t be lost when you’re doing that.
“We are following the shadow on the sea,” says Deva.
“Yes,” Truth says.
“We have followed it for eight thirsty days,” says Deva.
“Yes,” says Truth ruefully.
“We should stop following this shadow,” says Deva. “It is not working well for us.”
“If we don’t suffer,” he says, “how will we grow?”
Deva considers that.
“Water weight,” he says.
The woman is on the deck now. She has her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun. She says, “I don’t want to be taller.”
“You could reach higher up in the rigging,” he points out. “Or, if there were a very low star—”
“When I was a little girl,” says the woman, “I wanted to be taller, but I didn’t want to suffer. Now I’m suffering but I’m as tall as I want to be.”
Her tone changes.
“Truth, where are we going?”
“I’m not lost,” says Truth, defensively.
“It’s hard to be lost when there’s a trail to follow.”
Truth frowns. She’s anticipated his next statement, so now he can’t make it.
“It’s like this,” he says. “I think we’re getting closer to a really horrible place.”
The woman raises an eyebrow. Truth can’t see this, but he knows her well enough to guess.
“With anthropophagy,” Truth clarifies.
“Ah,” says the woman.
So she goes and helps with the rigging, and Deva works the wheel.
She’s not the kind of woman who can just ignore the chance to go somewhere where people might get eaten.
A deadwind rises to fill their sails. It drives them eastwards, towards Elm Hill.
In the facility at Elm Hill, Liril screams.
Micah is bloody and battered. He looks just awful. Haggard, really. But he’s still alert enough to stagger in the direction of the scream.
Liril, Micah, and Tainted John arrived at Elm Hill three days ago.
They were ready to fight, then.
Micah, in particular, was feeling actively enthused, back then, about killing humans and gods until the facility at Elm Hill was nothing but an empty charnel house.
He stood outside the gates of the facility, practically shaking with weariness, and he said, “Okay. Do we get to do it now? Do we get to kill them now? Because this running thing? It’s hard.”
Liril looked at him and her lips were sealed tightly. She walked to the gate. She pushed it open.
The facility was dark.
Everywhere they went in it, it was dark.
And after a while, Liril said, “No.”
It was a plaintive noise.
“They’re all gone and I don’t know where,” she said. “So no killing.”
Then she made the tragic face that all little girls make, when they don’t get the chance to kill.
And three days passed in the darkness while Micah got wearier and the blood that he’d shed getting her there grew cold and gelatinous on his face and arms.
It felt cold and gelatinous even after he found water and washed it off.
His whole body has chills now. But there is still enough in him to run when he hears her scream.
He finds her in the basement in a little crawlspace cradling a dead bird.
There’s a discarded box nearby.
It looks really gross inside, like there’s been a bird buried in it for years.
So Micah figures that she found the box in the crawlspace, and took out the bird, and that’s why she screamed; but he can’t figure out why she’s holding it.
So he looks at the bird. He looks at Tainted John. Tainted John just grins.
“Huh?” says Micah, decisively.
Liril looks up at him.
“I buried it,” Liril says. “I declared the box a time capsule and I buried it. So that it would get younger and younger until it wasn’t dead any more. But I think I did not understand how time capsules worked.”
“Oh,” says Micah.
He looks at the bird again.
“I remember that,” he says. “Sort of.”
The bird is sticky and smelly but it’s really pretty amazing that it’s still around at all.
“The problem isn’t with you,” rasps Tainted John. “It’s with time.”
“Can I fix it?” he says.
He holds out his hands. Liril, gently, reluctantly, passes him the bird.
“What do I do?” Micah asks.
But Liril shakes her head. She crawls out. She stands up. She shakes her head again. She looks sad.
“No,” she says. “It’s okay. You don’t have to do anything.”
The bird has four wings and a really long tail. And maybe a bit more in the way of liver than it should.
It’s twitching, ever so slightly, in his hands.
Here is some of the geography that surrounds them.
To the south there is the road. It curves west and runs through a valley before connecting onto the interstate. That is the direction from which Tina will approach.
To the north and west there is a cliff.
There should not be a cliff. The Elm Hill facility is on level ground in the middle of the city; but there is a cliff, and beyond it the still white waters of the sea.
The ground falls away amidst the graves of children and the swaying elm, down a steep black rocky slope, into the sea.
And the facility at Elm Hill casts its shadow out across the waves.
“Birds,” says Deva.
He takes Truth’s hand and he points it towards the birds.
“Good,” he says.
There are birds. There are hundreds of them. They are flying out over the sea.
“They think we might have food,” says Truth.
“They’re dead,” says Deva.
He’s wrinkling his nose. Deva has a bad history with birds, and reanimated ghost birds that smell of ancient graves just aren’t his favorite kind.
“Oh,” says Truth. “Then they might think that we are food.”
“Heh,” says Deva.
The grangler lopes towards the facility at Elm Hill.
Melanie is not that far behind him. She’s discussing things with Vincent.
“It’s the logical place,” she says.
“We can’t stay at Central,” she says. “But the Elm Hill facility still has most of what we need.”
“No kids,” says Vincent.
“Yet,” says Melanie.
“I meant that as an injunction, not an observation.”
Melanie blinks. Then she laughs.
“Well,” she says. “Let’s start with a temporary operating headquarters and see where things go from there.”
“Death and ruin,” proposes the grangler.
“Nine days of death and ruin, then possibly some sort of delicious cereal,” the grangler says.
It is pleased. It has a fey feeling. It likes fey feelings.
“Git,” says Melanie.
So the grangler lopes off ahead, through the facility gates.
And behind them there are others; walking down the road from the various places where they parked their cars, and some are on two feet, some on four, and others ride the wind.
Down in the basement, in Micah’s hands, the bird-thing is stirring. Micah makes a horrified noise. He lets go of the bird. It’s still stinking. It’s still dead. But it’s stirring, rising, breathing, flying.
It’s whirling around the hall, still smelling of decay.
“Oh my God,” says Micah.
“Hi,” says Liril, to the bird, in a soft pleased voice.
But the bird does not hear her. It is whirling around. It is flying past them. It is flying up the stairs and away.
“What kind of god was it?” Micah asks.
“A growing god,” says Liril.
And it is gone.
The grangler is there when it emerges from the building’s broken door. The bird is raven-sized now, where it was sparrow-sized before. It barely squeezes through the gap in the door; and on the other side, the grangler is waiting. The grangler catches it in his clawed dead hands.
“You’re no good bird,” he says.
The four-winged bird chirps desultorily.
“You’re from someone I let go,” he says. “But no one’s here to make me let you go now.”
The bird twists and shudders in his grip.
The grangler looks behind him. Melanie is not too far away. So he skulks off. He skulks to the cliff. He skulks behind the trees, where he may curl around the bird that is his prize.
“I will eat you slowly,” he says.
The bird is larger now. It’s bucking and twisting in his hands. It has two spare wings to beat at his face with. But the grangler holds tight.
“Wake up,” he says, and certain other words, so that it can appreciate what he’s going to do.
And its mind stumbles back to it from the grave, and Liril’s growing god, killed more than a decade before, wakes to the eyes of an enemy.
And it cannot break free.
There is a ship, the Anna Maria, sailing distantly through the sea.
On it, Deva is frowning, and saying, “You can’t drink the water of a dead bird.”
But Truth is laughing at him, and saying, “Deva, even dead birds mean land and land means water.”
And on the land, above, the grangler is feeling a certain mild concern; because the bird is nearly his size now, and it has two wings for flight, and there is no one there to make him let it go.