Twenty to Life in the Lonesome October, by Evan Dicken

(Download the audio version of this story here, or click the play button below. Read by Vincent LaRosa. Story illustration by Leslie Herzfeld.)

Twenty to Life – illustration by Leslie Herzfeld – click to enlarge

The Nords had someone cornered on the landing. I could hear them roughing him up as I made my way to the prison library. Laughter echoed down the stairwell, twisted by the strange acoustics into the yips of wolves tussling over a fresh kill.

Despite my size I can be quiet as a cold front, but stealth would’ve been useless with so many of them crowding the stairs, so I didn’t bother.

“I thought trolls couldn’t come out in the day?” The lead Nord turned to face me, heavy, tattooed arms crossed in front of his chest. He was a head taller than the rest, with a thick slab of a face that looked heavy enough to crack granite. Ravens and lightning bolts peeked from under the long sleeves of his prison issue, hinting at the profane tapestry inked on his pale flesh. His head was shaved, but he wore a blonde beard, plaited with glass beads and tiny, rune etched stones. The name on his shirt read “Donar, T.”

Not wanting to antagonize him, I said nothing. The Nords were a new gang, one of the half-dozen who had transferred into C Block at the beginning of the month. Unlike the Aryans they’d displaced, they hadn’t shown any interest in running drugs or scrip. They did share the brotherhood’s love of easy violence, and while I wasn’t afraid, I didn’t want to give myself away, not with the full moon so close.

Donar regarded me from the top of the stairs. “I know you’re not gen pop.”

“I don’t want any trouble.”

“Then turn around.”

“Can’t.” I forced my cracked and blackened lips into an apologetic frown. “I’m the librarian, and this is the only way now that the yard is closed.”

The yard wasn’t exactly closed, just full of the type of people with whom I didn’t want to associate, people like the Nords. This year, the usual autumn gales had blown more than just leaves into Newgate prison. Strange things prowled the corridors–some human, some animal, and some I’d rather not consider.

They’d come for the door.

As little as a century ago the game would have been a heady mix from both sides, but millennia of having their best and brightest annihilated by sorcerous backlash had drained the opener’s talent pool down to the dregs. The outcome of the ceremony had become such a foregone conclusion that most of the old time closers didn’t even show up, leaving the field to really nasty ones, like the Nords.

“What’s your game, troll?” They were all watching me, eyes like cut gems in the harsh light of the fluorescent bulbs.

“No game, just want to get to work.”

“Have it your way. We’ll find out soon enough whose side you’re on.” Donar stepped aside to reveal the pathetic twist of a man who sprawled in the stairwell beyond. The Nords had beaten him pretty bad. One of his eyes was swelled shut, while the other bulged from an orbit that looked much too small to contain it. Around the spreading stain of new bruises his skin was a rubbery, greyish blue.

I had to step over the man to reach the next flight of stairs. He pawed at my leg as I passed, fingers leaving clammy stains on my prison blues. His lips worked as I passed, but all that emerged from the wreckage of his mouth was a labored croak. I wanted to help him, I really did, but if I offered so much as a friendly smile, the Nords would swarm me like flies on rotten meat. I’d had enough experience with mobs to know when I was overmatched.

“Make sure to shut the door behind you.” I could hear the sneer in Donar’s voice. The others laughed as if he’d doled out some great witticism.

I didn’t stick around to hear the punch line.

The Newgate Library was a forest of steel shelves crowded around battered, wooden reading tables etched with the overlapping scrawl of generations of inmates. It could have been any prison repository, if not for my “special collection.”

It had taken me years to find the books, and even longer to get them into the library, slipped in among donations and anonymous bequests. I’m hideous to behold, but over the phone, well, I sounded almost human.

To look at the Newgate book repository, no one would think that the works of Paracelsus, Crowley, Alhazred, and a score of others lurked in the shadowed recesses of the deep stacks. The world had forgotten about them, about me, but I hadn’t forgotten the world. No, I bided my time, studying, readying myself for–

“Von Junzt.” Anxiety tinged a raspy, feminine voice.

I jerked up from a dog-eared copy of Bruno’s Sigillus Sigillorum. The woman who stood before me was short, with a narrow head, flat nose, and long, stringy hair that overflowed the cowl of her bulky, purple robe.

“I’m sorry?” My stomach fluttered. This was the first time a woman had addressed me with anything but a scream. I’d seen other women in Newgate as of late, around the yard and in the halls. No one else seemed to notice, especially the guards. They went about their rounds like sleepwalkers, blinded by arcane fiat.

“Friedrich von Junzt. I was told you had a copy of Unaussprechlichen Kulten.”

My tongue was unresponsive as rubber, my stomach full of fluttering moths. “I-I’m afraid you may have been misinformed.”

The smell of mildew and spoiled fish intensified to an eye-watering miasma as a dozen robed figures shambled from behind the stacks. The woman shot a nervous glance at the group, swallowed, then turned back. “Please, I know you have a copy of Kulten.”

An image rose from the churning mists of my earliest memory, colored in the faded, bleeding sepia of an old photograph. It was of a man dressed much like this woman, standing in front of an enormous bonfire, arms outstretched as he spoke words so caustic they seemed to melt the very air.

There had been others around the blaze, shadowy shapes I couldn’t make out, their heads and bodies shifting like the tides. I remembered a brush of soft fur on my hands, the whisper of breath in a tiny body–a cat, perhaps.

I tried to dig deeper, but the memory was worn smooth by time, and it slipped from my grasp, replaced by a far more familiar image.

Breath whistled beneath my fingers as I squeezed and squeezed. Small hands beat against my chest, a terrified look in her eyes, in all of their eyes. I drowned in a sea of night dark rage, my heart laid bare by a father’s betrayal. Where the last memory was smooth, this one was cut glass, a thousand facets, each refracting the light of another, very different bonfire–a pyre, really–one that should have been mine.

“The book,” The woman said, snapping me from my bitter ruminations. Her jaw tightened in an expression of desperation verging on panic.

Indecision stilled my lips. The only thing that had kept me safe thus far was that the Nords didn’t know I was opener. I thought about what they had done to the man in the stairwell, what they would do if they caught this woman.

“Second shelf from the bottom.” I pointed at the rear wall, to a pool of languid shadow that never dispersed, no how many times I replaced the overhead bulbs.

The others swarmed away, sliding around each other like eels. The woman’s expression wavered between surprise and relief before settling into a tentative smile.

“Thank you. I thought we were alone.”

Such was the hot flush that seized me that I found myself unable to offer any reply beyond a foolish grin. I imagine it was a hideous sight, but the woman seemed amused rather than repulsed. Her laugh was the throaty gurgle of seawater beneath a pier.

Risk be damned, it felt good to help someone.

One of the others lifted a cracked, leather bound tome above his head with a triumphant croak. The woman’s eyes flicked to the group, then back to me, never blinking. Her smile fled, as did the warm flutter in my stomach.

“Priscilla. Come. Now,” the robed man rasped.

She flinched at the call.

“Wait,” I said, anything to keep her here. “You’ll have to sign the book out. There’s a one week return policy on–“

A sudden rustling drew my attention to the window. A large, black raven perched on the sill beyond the bars. It tilted its head to regard me with one glittering eye, then pushed off into the air with a hiss of feathers. I’d been found out.

Even worse, when I looked back for Priscilla, the library was empty.

The Nords were waiting back at my cell. Books lay scattered across the floor, spines broken and pages splayed like the wings of dead moths. My pillows and mattress had been eviscerated, their innards turning the cell into an abattoir of foam and feathers.

Four Nords grabbed my arms, sweaty hands hot on my flesh.

“Where is it?” Donar asked.

“Where is wh–?” My head snapped back as Donar’s hammer smashed into my face. There wasn’t much pain, but the blow loosened some of my teeth.

“I heard about your little meeting in the library. Told you we’d find out whose side you’re on.” He raised the claw hammer for another strike.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The words came out muffled by my split lip.

“The wand!” Flecks of spittle sprayed across my face. “Tell me where it is, troll, or by Ymir’s balls I’ll–“

A scream drowned out the rest of Donar’s words. One of the Nords reeled back from the toilet, his arm severed just below the elbow. He slumped against the wall, howls tapering off as shock set in. Two of the other Nords rushed him from the cell.

Donar squatted next to the toilet and ran a finger along the wards etched into the underside of the bowl. “Hermetic runes? What have you bound in here, troll? I wonder what you’re protecting?”

“Remove the wards and find out.”

He rose, his smile wide and predatory. “I don’t need to. What use is the wand if there’s no one left to wield it?”

Lights flashed behind my eyes as the hammer fell. The other Nords slashed at me with knives made from plastic spoons and sharpened bedsprings. I lurched around the cell, crisscrossing the walls with arcs of black blood. They didn’t stop until I was a corpse.

Fortunately, I’d started out that way.

I lay motionless until the last echoes of their voices faded to silence. My chest and stomach were a dark ruin, and it seemed to take an eternity just to roll over. I inched my way to the toilet, hands and feet slipping on a floor slick with my own blood.

“Hey?” The thing in the toilet spiraled a thread of compound eyes above the surface. “You still there?”

I groaned, feeling like I’d been submerged in wet concrete. If I didn’t get some juice soon, it was likely to be the end of me. I’m unnatural, not invincible.

“Before you die, do you think you could, y’know…” The toilet rang like a muffled gong.

I gave a wet snort. I’d summoned the thing to guard the wand, a purpose for which it was eminently suited. Donar believed me dead, but he didn’t seem to be the sort to leave loose ends. Sooner or later, he or another closer would be by with a banishment ritual and the wand would be theirs.

I hadn’t planned on removing it from the toilet until just before the ceremony, but plans change.

“I’ll release you, but–” I winced. My lungs felt like someone had smashed a bottle in them.

“Yes, yes. No killing you, and I have to give up the wand. Hell, I’ll even get you a loose wire or something.”

“Go…home…too.” I ground out between gasps.

“Fine. Straight back to Sarnath, you have my word.”

Things almost always lie, but I was running out of options. I scratched out the wards, reached for the handle, and flushed. Eye-studded tendrils crept over the lip of the bowl, larger and longer than the toilet could have possibly contained. They stretched up to the ceiling, tearing aside the wire mesh to smash the lights and rip down a bundle of bare wires.

The thing touched them to my neck. Energy trickled through me, not much, but enough to knit flesh and set bone. The surge set my body jittering and I felt consciousness begin to slip away. If any of the Nords came back, I would be as good as dead. I struggled to hold on, but the floor tilted up to meet me.

“Good luck.” Something hard pressed into my palm, my twitching hand closing reflexively around it. I managed a moan of thanks before the black spots completely devoured my vision.

I dreamed I was back on the ice, the soft glow of my pyre receding into the arctic gloom. The fear came again, as it always did. I’d meant to immolate myself after Victor’s death, but I was too afraid. For what if upon ending my life, I was cast not into oblivion but purgatory, there to float, listless and alone until the end of days?

I wandered the featureless white expanse of my dream until, at last, the blizzard receded. A city rose up around me, strange and ancient. I roamed among empty, cone-shaped towers and glyph covered vaults for what seemed like months, lost amidst mountains that rose to pierce the sky. A clear, bell-like chime cut through the ever present shriek of the wind. It called to me, pulling me down a fall of irregular, fluted stairs and into the caves beyond.

In the silent depths I saw a door of fire, a prison beyond time and space, filled with things that shattered definition. I saw a thousand fires on a thousand Autumn nights. I saw myself, newly formed and clumsy, staggering through a circle of firelight, while, just beyond the moment, great things waited, patient as only beings for whom time has no meaning could be.

Words assembled themselves from a chorus of wet gurgles and keening wails. Tongueless voices whispered to me of a time when the stars would be right and the door would come again, of a way to change a world that would not, could not see me for anything but a monster, a way to never be alone again.

It was all I’d ever wanted.

Light filled my dream and I realized I was no longer in the cave, but in Newgate once again, though as it was back when I first arrived. I stood before the tribunal, having confessed my crimes.

The magistrate’s eyes were as hard and cold as river rocks. I could see he wanted to watch me burn, but these were enlightened times.

“For the five lives you have stolen, I set your sentence at five lifetimes, non-concurrent, to be served in Newgate Reformatory. You will grow old and die in there, monster.”

In my dream, as in life, I smiled.

I woke to the soft patter of water on my cheek. My clothes were damp, and condensation beaded on the corpse-cold skin of my face. The air hung heavy with the scents of stale water, rust, and things that grew in dark places. Pale light limned the walls in soft hues as the full moon peeked like a nosy neighbor through the bars of the grate far overhead.

I tried to move but found I couldn’t. Whatever held me shifted as I struggled, rubbery coils tightening until my ribs creaked with the pressure.

“Relax.” A face bobbed in the clammy shadows–narrow, snub-nosed, a light curve of brow shading prominent eyes. The woman from the library. Priscilla.

“Where’s the wand?” I asked.

“I have it.”

“Could you let me go?”

“Yes, sorry.” My bonds uncoiled, revealing mottled skin studded with coin-sized suckers. I sat up as the tentacles slithered back under Priscilla’s robe. She handed the wand back to me.

I felt a flush creep up my neck. “Thank you for getting me out of there. Frankly, I didn’t expect to wake up at all.”

“Don’t mention it.” Priscilla gave a mournful smile, only slightly spoiled by a mouthful of serrated fangs. “I saw the Nords run by while I was trying to get out of Newgate.”

She swallowed, looked away.

“How long was I out?” I asked.

“All of the afternoon and most of the evening.”

“Where are we?”

“The old cisterns below the yard. No one comes here.”

I glanced around. “Where are your friends?”

“Dead, and they weren’t my friends.”

“So it’s just you and me?”

Priscilla frowned, nervous claws plucking at the hem of her robe.

“What?” I asked when the silence became unbearable.

“I’m not doing it.” The panicked look came into her eyes again. It stung me like an open wound. “All my life, the cult told me what to do, what to say, what to think. I thought, maybe, now that they’re gone…if I open the door, it’s going to start all over again. I’ll never be alone.”

“Alone is all I’ve ever been.” I spread my arms to show the lines of ragged stitching that wound across my desiccated flesh. “There’s no place in this world for a monster like me.”

“We make ourselves monsters. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

Priscilla touched my shoulder, the prick of her talons sending an electric shiver down my spine. She turned in one fluid motion, robes flapping as she dove into the blackness. There was a soft splash down below, then silence.

I sat down on the edge of the cistern, hands on my knees. I stared at the brackish water, a prickly swell of despair clawing its way up my throat, wishing, as I always did, that Victor hadn’t given me a heart.

Donar’s raven perched on the eastern watchtower, silhouetted against the moon like some child’s crude Halloween drawing, its gaze fixed on the roaring bonfire in the yard.

I crept along the wall to the library stairs, careful not to make a sound. The convocation looked more like a celebration than a sacred rite. Strange shapes cavorted around the blaze, their shadows stretched and distorted by flickering flames. I would join them soon enough, but first I had some spells to cast.

The door to the library was unlocked, just like I’d left it. I gathered up the spell books and spread them out on the worn tables.

It’s a well-known arcane principle that living flesh cannot be enchanted. Thus have sorcerers always been forced to rely on ritual artifacts to project their power upon the world. I’d once thought myself bound by the same strictures, but through trial and error, I discovered that sorcerous power could flow through me just as easily as galvanic energy. Apart from confirming my existential fears, learning that I was, in essence, an object, gave me a singular means to attempt an opening.

I thumbed through the crackling pages, my voice rising above the dry, insect buzz of the overhead lights. There were not many spells powerful enough to affect the outcome of the ritual, and I was going to need them all.

“I always knew trolls were hard to kill, but this is quite a surprise.” The voice came like lightning from a clear sky. Donar stepped from the shadows between two stacks, hammer held in one heavy hand.

“Your raven couldn’t have seen me over the fire. How did you know?” My lips buzzed with eldritch energy.

“I’ve got two.” He jerked his head as a bird glided from the back of the library to alight on a nearby shelf. No one bothered with familiars anymore. I hadn’t been expecting one, let alone a pair.

Donar’s laugh was the ominous creak of a dam about to burst. “Seems everyone’s full of surprises today.”

His hurled hammer glanced from my raised arm, trailing prismatic flecks of sorcerous power as my spells reacted with the weapon’s latent energy. Donar was right behind, reaching for me.

I hit Donar hard enough to pulverize concrete, but it barely slowed him.

We struggled, arms locked around each other. Strong as I was, I don’t think I would’ve been able to match him had my muscles not been imbued with mystical power. Although stitches popped from my shoulders, I didn’t yield. Donar’s smile slipped, but only for a moment.

He made a fist, grinning as the flesh of his arm curled back like old paper. Freed of their mortal sheath, Donar’s bones crackled in the dim light, bright and insubstantial. The hot, sharp smell of ozone filled the room as he plunged his hand into my chest, my flesh hissing like a pot on the boil.

Motes of electricity skittered along my synapses, swarming around and through me. Every muscle became a tensioned spring, wound so tight I feared the pressure would crush my bones to powder. Donar slipped from my trembling hands, laughing. It was all I could do to stand, shuddering, head thrown back as my teeth ground yellow and orange sparks into the air.

In a flash, I was back in the lab. Leather straps cut into my skin, the chemical reek of the vivifying fluids burning my nose. I remembered Victor as he gazed down at me, his smile brighter than the electricity that arced through the air.

It was the only time I’d ever seen my father happy.

Victor’s face flickered in the light, turning cold and dead. I turned away from his accusatory gaze. Although I hadn’t killed him, I’d caused his death more surely than had I wrapped my hands around his throat. Cries roiled in my mind, ghostly voices plucking at my guilt, my shame. In my single-minded pursuit of the door I had confirmed all my creator’s darkest fears. How many would die when the door opened? How many more would I kill?

I snapped back to the present, memories parting like clouds. Wind ruffled my hair and tugged at the hems of my prison issue. The unnatural gale tore books from their shelves and set them spinning around the room. I fell, battered to the ground by the storm of swirling paperbacks.

Donar stood in the middle of the maelstrom, arms raised to the sky. There was a rending crash as the roof of the library tore like so much wet cardboard. The moon, so bright just moments ago, was nothing more than a glimmer behind a curtain of angry clouds.

“I’ve killed giants with my bare hands. Think you’re a match for me, troll?” At Donar’s wave, a twisting vein of lightning streaked in through the open roof and I was hurled back. Shelves buckled under my weight, burying me in an avalanche of trade paperbacks.

Books ignited, pages curling like the legs of dying beetles. I tried to regain control of my limbs, movements jerky as a child’s wind-up toy. Streamers of putrid smoke curled in the wind as my skin began to blacken and char.

Donar advanced, illuminated flesh crawling like creepers over the incandescent framework of his skeleton. Fire burned bright and hungry all around me, shot through with tongues of green as my precious books joined the blaze.

It seemed I would get my pyre after all.

A shadow moved amongst the flames. Something slithered from the shadows. The flickering light cast Priscilla’s face in harsh relief as she slammed Donar’s hammer against the side of his head. There was a crack like thunder. He dropped to one knee, blood streaming into the hungry storm.

Donar tried to rise, but she hit him again, and again, heavy overhand blows that tore flesh from crackling bone. Priscilla’s outline writhed as tentacles poked through the holes in her tattered robes, wrapping around the handle to add their own boneless strength to her strikes.

Donar seemed to shrink in on himself, dissolving like salt in the rain as Priscilla pulverized his physical form. Lightning exploded from him, scything through the walls of the library and into the yard beyond. The floor shook as energy surged through layers of concrete and the room filled with sizzling brilliance.

In a flash, it was gone.

A shadow fell across me. At first I thought that I was dead, and it was Victor’s shade, come to gloat. Then I recognized the ragged robes, the ash smudged face. Priscilla stood before the growing fire, wand in hand.

“What will it be like, if the old ones return?”

It took me a moment to still my gnashing jaws. “I don’t really know. Different, I guess.”

“So, it could be worse?”

“Probably.” I offered a wan smile. “Thanks for saving me, again.”

She brushed a strand of hair behind her ear, then looked outside. The yard was visible through rents in the building’s wall. It was empty but for the fire, the revelers either dispersed or destroyed by the storm’s fury. I could make out just the briefest hint of something else in the flames, an echo waiting to become real.

My gaze shifted to the wand held in Priscilla’s delicate claws. Her expression hardened as she noticed what I was looking at, but she held it out to me.

I waved a hand. “Keep it.”

She tilted her head to regard me with one bulbous eye.

“I want to believe everything deserves a second chance. Well, almost everything.” I nodded at the strange shapes gathered in the darkness behind the door.

She sniffed. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Yes, lets.”

Her tentacles coiled around my shoulders, supporting me as we tottered between the piles of blazing books. A feeling of lightness grew in my chest as Priscilla’s fingers threaded through mine.

It was all I’d ever wanted.

The moon looked down on us as we limped from Newgate, the sky once again flat as a sheet of tempered glass. Wind whistled through holes in the shattered concrete. Edged with just the barest hint of Winter, it was the last whisper of a brisk October night — dark, cold, but certainly not lonesome. Not anymore.

Evan says: I first encountered A Night in the Lonesome October in junior high on a post-Nine Princes in Amber Zelazny binge. I never had a chance. It had such a huge influence on me that I started a family tradition of reading aloud it every October, one chapter per day. One of the things that always struck me about the book was how Zelazny cleverly avoids revealing the motivations of the openers (aside from the Preacher of course), which lead me to wonder what might compel someone who wasn’t a worshiper of the Elder Gods to become an opener. Twenty to Life was my attempt to answer that question.

By day Evan Dicken fights entropy for the Ohio Department of Commerce, by night he writes about the other side. His work has appeared in Stupefying Stories, Ray Gun Revival, and 10Flash Quarterly, and he has stories forthcoming from Chaosium, Tales of the Unanticipated, and Innsmouth Magazine. Find out more at www.evandicken.com .

Story illustration by Leslie Herzfeld.

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4 responses to “Twenty to Life in the Lonesome October, by Evan Dicken

  1. I downloaded this last week and didn’t get around to listening to it until today, and I’m sorry I waited this long! It was glorious! I don’t know what I liked most, the themes or the language you used. The turns of phrase and the concepts were very Zelaznian. I felt this paragraph: “It’s a well-known arcane principle that living flesh cannot be enchanted. Thus have sorcerers always been forced to rely on ritual artifacts to project their power upon the world. I’d once thought myself bound by the same strictures, but through trial and error, I discovered that sorcerous power could flow through me just as easily as galvanic energy. Apart from confirming my existential fears, learning that I was, in essence, an object, gave me a singular means to attempt an opening.” could have come from Zelany’s own pen.

    Also, I was hoping someone would write a story about an opener, and you executed it brilliantly. Great stuff!

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