Up. Down. Up. Down. The hoe is blunt, and the ground is hard. The boy's sweat is cold under the pale morning sun, his body shaking with effort, yet he's falling more and more behind the others. He stops to wipe his brow and is hit viciously from behind.
"Move faster! I don't want to do your share of the work!"
He doesn't dare turn. He just nods and swings the hoe again. Where is he? What's he doing there? Who is he? He can't remember.
Then he's in an endless warehouse, dusting and reshelving unlabeled boxes, from floor level to high above his head and back again. It stinks of chemicals. His eyes hurt, his lungs hurt; he stops to cough and a mocking voice sneers in his ear.
"You're not going to die from it! Go on, we don't have all day!"
He nods and stumbles on, balancing a stack of heavy boxes in his arms, trying to ignore the pain in his spine. What's the point? What's all this for?
At noon they're allowed in a painfully hot kitchen, but only to peel flaccid potatoes with blunt knives. There aren't enough knives to go around, and those who didn't get one are blamed for it. Who is this for? They're never allowed in the dining room proper, but as they're led away he sees faceless people in drab uniforms filing in.
In the evening, they shuffle construction materials around between two wooden shacks. The boy's arms quickly cover in scrapes and cuts, but there's no water. The setting sun sees him unloading shingles from a truck. His knees are wobbling, but he can't afford to drop one. It all goes on long into the night.
Anton woke up in the dark, surrounded by the sound of shallow breaths. He could barely see the sleepers as he tiptoed his way between beds and out in the hallway. He remembered everything now. Wherever he was, there had to be a way out.
But the only exit from the hallway was through the toilets. Which simply meant there had to be another door at the other end, he told himself as he hurried along a row of broken sinks. Paint was peeling off the walls where the mirrors should have been; the only windows were too small and too high up to be of any use. The urinals in the next room didn't work either, and the stalls were hideous holes threatening to suck him in. He tried not to look and creeped through the next doorway into the showers, and then into a long room of broken sinks which looked awfully familiar.
No... that couldn't be right. He retraced his steps, trying to get a feel for the building's layout. The place was intended to trap him, but as the Caretaker had taught him, messing with architecture like that made it inherently unstable. Sure enough, the doors behind him were in different positions now, and led into rooms with changed layouts. But one of the doorways hadn't been there before. Had he willed it into existence? Yes and no, his mentor would have said. It was a vicious circle -- or a virtuous one. Matter of perspective.
He emerged into a corridor with lush wood paneling, carpets on the floor and sound-proofed doors with golden plates affixed to them. He didn't dare open any of them, so he went along, past a corner and then another. There were curtains from place to place, which meant he couldn't see what lay ahead... but what lay ahead couldn't see him, either.
It seemed that he was running in circles by the time he heard voices. There were two people, speaking in hushed voices... and they were coming towards him. To the right, a niche in the thick walls contained one of the many identical doors. With few options, he reached out and cracked it open, with a deafening squeal of hinges.
The voices ahead cut off immediately, and Anton held his breath. But no sound came from inside the room. Steps were coming his way, and he passed through the inch-wide opening like a puff of smoke.
The light of dawn seeped in through bay windows, revealing an office cluttered with wooden desks and metallic file cabinets placed wherever there had been a little room. There wasn't as much as a calculator in sight, and he'd only seen that kind of telephone in a museum. He crossed the maze to look outside. The windows, locked and protected by steel grates, led onto a narrow balcony, beyond which he could only see the tops of tall pine trees. There were a couple of keys on the nearest desk, but they didn't fit. He took them anyway.
Another door was present as well, so he advanced room by room along the outer wall of the building, until he reached a corner. And still no exit was apparent. He took a door to the left, expecting another corridor.
Instead, it was a common bedroom, like the one he'd just left except bigger. He passed between sleeping boys and girls, some his age, some much younger; they stirred, but didn't wake up. Perhaps it was for the better. The bay windows here were secured in the familiar way, but this time there was solid ground beyond them.
And the keys worked for a change.
The sleepers began to wake up while he made the cranks turn and pulled open the grates. The noise was awful; there was no time to explain. He ran outside, followed by cries of "what are you doing?" and "we'll get punished!" and "not if we go with him". He could only guess how many were doing just that, from the sound of their steps, and he pushed ahead towards the treeline. He could see a town in the distance, down the mountain. Maybe he could make it. Maybe they could all make it.
He spun on his heels to urge the other escapees on, and saw the last few being grabbed by the orderlies streaming out of the building. That caused their friends to stop, and soon the run ground to a halt, apart from a few stragglers who were too far ahead already. Then a gangly old man in a black robe came out the door, the way a spider might crawl out of its crack in the wall. He seemed to suck the hope out of everyone.
"So much for your methods, Klaus," he called out.
"They worked but for a little detail, Papp," answered a voice from behind Anton. "Which I'm going to fix momentarily."
The boy didn't have time to react. He felt a painful jab in the ribs and the world suddenly felt very distant. "Run!" he yelled. "They can't stop all of you!" He had the satisfaction to see some escapees follow his advice before everything went dark again.
When he woke up anew, he was held upright against a wall, arms above his head. His eyes slowly focused on a large underground room with a grid of tall partitions in the middle. A single floodlight opposite from him was just enough to walk by. That is, if he could walk.
Anton looked up. His hands were tied to a meat hook, with a length of cord. Didn't they know he could fly? He tried to lift in the air, and had a moment of panic when that failed. But then it worked, and his hands easily came free. He stuffed the cord in his pocket and padded around the bare concrete walls. The floor was covered in little lumps of black gunk that stuck to his feet, and the partitions turned out to contain empty market stalls. Not that he expected the Afterlife to make much sense at this point.
The double doors were locked from outside, but the chain and padlock left enough wiggle room to put a finger through. Anton seeped into a wide corridor with columns and recesses at irregular intervals. He used them a couple of times to avoid burly workers pushing around carts, until he remembered to make himself unnoticeable. He could only do that while holding his breath, but it lasted while he went around a bend, then another.
There was a staircase, bathed in neon light that stung his eyes, and he ran up four flights of stairs before daylight filtering through translucent wall panels lured him into a corridor with varnished walls and beige paint on doors labeled only with numbers. It was too late to hide when he heard high heels clacking on the polished cement floor, but the woman just stared at him with blank eyes before shuffling listlessly along in her bland skirt suit, toting an armful of papers.
Several more clerks passed him by indifferently, while he took a turn along another corridor, and another, deeper into the building. Then, to his dismay, he reached a dead end.
The neon tubes were off here, the semiobscurity underscoring the deep silence, but several doors were half open. Instinct told him to follow the distant natural light, through a storage room, then a deserted office stinking of disinfectant, and a short narrow corridor lined with metallic shelves heavy with yellowing ring binders, where blew a chilling draft.
Anton burst into another office, this time well lit by large windows facing a street. A few clerks where working at their desks, and some of them looked up, so he dashed into the next room along the outer wall. This time the occupants did look at him, with hope and apprehension, and the boy realized it was a waiting room of some sort. Of the two doors in front of him, one had a shiny plate affixed, with tiny writing on it, and ample empty floor around. As for the other...
He raced out into a lobby, over a turnstile and out a revolving door, while furious shouts chased after him.
An angry wind was blowing along the street, picking up discarded wrappers only to throw them at the gray sky. There was no-one in sight, apart from the few people stumbling dazedly out of the huge building behind Anton, a Brutalist design that could have been anything from a hotel to a research institute. He didn't know where he was, but mountains covered the sky in one direction, while in the other he could hear the siren of a train. It was obvious which way to go.
He failed to notice the Reaper until almost bumping into him. The dark one looked bigger and meaner than usual, eyes glowing red under the hood while his duster billowed in the wind. For once he also carried a scythe, a huge one with polished handle and gleaming blade.
"Caretaker! Where have you been?"
"Looking for you. What's that you're wearing?"
Anton examined himself in surprise. These weren't his clothes! Straight olive pants and an itchy shirt in the same color, with epaulets and pockets on each breast... the New Order uniform.
He tore off his shirt in disgust, buttons popping every which way. Underneath he had a black tank top he didn't recognize either. The artwork on the front was burning him, but didn't stay put for him to see clearly.
"Never mind that. How did you find me?"
"Those children you helped escape pointed us this way." His mentor sounded proud.
"So they got away! ... Wait. Anne! Did you find her?"
"I'm right here." The girl patted Anton on the shoulder hard enough to make him stagger. She had a leather jacket on, along with steel-toed boots and a ring on each finger. Two steps away, Y. had a cape over her dress, and had also exchanged her purse for a scythe, except hers was slender and made of tightly coiled black vines. Her eyes, too, were glowing red under the veil.
"Wait, what about Mrs. Varga? And W.?"
"Later," said Y. "We have to get out of here."
But the street was no longer empty.
An entire company of New Order guards was in their way, headed by a man as colorful as they were monotonous. He was bald, with a bushy beard and wearing a kaftan. The gaze of his blue eyes was unsettling.
"Provost," spat the Caretaker. "Not hiding behind your lackeys today?"
"They're busy," answered the man arrogantly, "fixing what you broke."
"Don't you mean breaking what we fixed?" asked Anton. The man scared him, but he wasn't about to show it... or back down.
"Oh-ho-ho. Kid, you have real power. How'd you end up doing his dirty work?" Provost indicated the Caretaker with a disdainful flick of his chin.
"What. Do you mean."
"He never told you why he has it in for me?"
"I can see for myself! I can see what you're doing!"
"No. It's personal."
The wind picked up, small dust devils racing each other along the street, stinging Anton's eyes. To his left, the Caretaker was still like a statue. To his right, Anne was a taut spring, only held back by Y.'s calm hand.
"Well," he answered darkly, "you made it personal for me too." He pointed his finger at the discarded uniform shirt, right before it was blown away.
Provost's grin melted away. "Then fall together. Take them!" He motioned to his men, who advanced like one.
Then the two Reapers swung their scythes through the air, Y. pinning the guards in place with gusts of wind while the Caretaker peltered them with lightning bolts. They broke formation, and a few of them came directly at Anton. He shot his own weak lightning in return, and most of the attackers backed down. A couple kept advancing, though, snickering at the boy's efforts. It only made him more determined... and less efficient. A particularly burly guard came close enough to grab his arm.
Anne hit him in the face like a runaway train, and the man fell.
"Don't hurt them!" protested Anton as they all retreated to the other side of the street. "They're just brainwashed!"
"Well, they're trying to to hurt us," she pointed out.
More people were coming out of the massive building, hesitant at first but growing more daring by the minute. It drove Provost mad.
"Get them all back in!" he shouted. "Find anyone who got away!" He faced the Reapers again while his troops scattered. "Looks like I have to deal with you personally."
"You're one against four," Anton said drily.
A gate opened in the fence behind them and swallowed them whole.
"Ah, but you're on my turf," came the triumphant reply.
It was a packed earth courtyard, surrounded on three sides by brick walls in the unmistakable style of a Victorian factory building. Through the broken windows one could see all the way to the other side, where the towers of a concrete mixing station stood next to the misshapen skeleton of a new construction which dwarfed the one across the street.
"Behold!" roared Provost. "The future!"
The wind was growing stronger all the time, and the sky darker. The boy's voice could barely be heard anymore.
"What future? You're destroying the Afterlife!"
"Ungrateful brat! I'm giving the Afterlife a purpose!"
But Anton was already airborne, rushing towards his enemy with arms outstretched. They collided with a thunderclap, and Provost tumbled to the ground. A lightning bolt struck him from the sky, then another, while dark birds flew out of Y.'s cape, shrieking as they descended upon the prone man with beaks and talons.
Then Provost was on his feet again, laughing maniacally. He slammed his foot down, making the ground fall away under their feet. Anton thought for sure that Anne was going to fall, but she jumped and balanced her way across the holes, raising her arm to strike...
The man grabbed her wrist with ease and twisted her arm, then picked her up and threw her at Anton. It was all he could do to keep them both from plunging into the exposed abyss, from which ancient rusted machinery grinned up at them with toothless gears. The two Reapers ran past them, scythes raised, only to be engulfed in a firestorm when Provost opened his mouth as wide as his head and breathed flame. They rolled on the ground and stayed down while smoke filled the yard.
"Did you really think you could beat me?" bellowed the victor. "I've been dead before you were born!"
Then he gazed in horror at the black cloud rolling in from beyond the ruins, turning the day into night and making the air hard to breathe. A cloud with Mrs. Varga's face, lit from inside by flashes of light, which chided him with a booming voice.
Provost ran towards the gate, tripping on his own kaftan. But someone was there already. W. stood tall, dressed in a resplendent three-piece suit, with a gold chain adorning the double-breasted vest, a Homburg covering his head. An ebony cane completed the outfit, reinforced with steel rings and with the pommel shaped like a dragon head; its long, pointed beak could probably crack skulls.
Even the wind stopped when W. planted his cane in the ground.
"Titus L. Provost, in the name of the Ultimate Balance, you are under arrest for interfering in the affairs of the living, depriving the dead of their memories, and forcing your will on the Afterlife."
"And who's going to take me in," asked Provost in a low, dangerous tone, "you?"
But panic could be heard in his voice, and he backed down, then started towards the inside of the ruin. He never got there. Shadows were shambling out of the hollow arches, one after another, converging towards the center of the yard. Anton cringed, but they ignored him and Anne, then the Reapers, as they went straight for Provost. He roared again, this time in anger, enveloping the creatures in flame. But they kept coming obliviously, and his roar became pained as the wretched things grasped at him with skeletal hands burning with his own fire. He dragged his feet for a few more steps, then collapsed in a burning pile, while more shades added themselves to the pyre.
It was very dark, and it was raining, but they didn't dare move for fear of falling into the gaping holes. Time passed, and slowly the battlefield faded away. Only silence remained.
Val wandered the city for a while, pondering the news. A bazaar caught his eye, and he took a detour through it, emerging with a handful of cheap memory cards. He put them in his phone one by one, while nursing a lemonade in the farthest corner of an air-conditioned cafe. Another half an hour went by at the post office, while he carefully scribbled down addresses on an equal number of envelopes. All of them ended up in a random mailbox on his way to the train station.
That evening he sat in front of the TV and watched the scandal explode on all the major news channels. Paranormal "experts" were giving the most entertaining explanations of the mystical symbols on the affected buildings. None of them came close to the real historical information. The police, in turn, seemed to think that Provost's gang had been systematically intimidating the sellers. That was going to be hard to prove, but the damage was done. Besides, one could always hope.
He turned off the lights and looked out the window of his tiny rental studio. A patch of stars was visible through the gap between two mountain peaks. Down in the street, a solitary lamp post cast its faint orange glow on crooked wooden fences and old cars. Tomorrow he would have to brave the streets and maybe end up bleeding to death in a dirty alleyway. Like Anton had...
Val slept, and dreamed that he was walking in a park with Anton, who was introducing his new friends, but he couldn't see their faces or hear their names. So he settled for basking in the blinding sunlight with them. Maybe they didn't have all the time in the world, but they had an awful lot of it, and he wanted to use every moment.