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art by Jonathan Westbrook

A Wizard of the Roads

Therese Arkenberg is a student at Carroll University in Wisconsin, though she studies only in the most extreme circumstances, and many of her works are penned in the classroom. On the rare instances where she puts down her pen, she bikes the trails in her area, reads a book from work (the local library), or attempts yet again to organize her desk and her collection of stuffed animals. She has fiction published or forthcoming from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Crossed Genres, Semaphore Magazine, and the anthologies All About Eve, Things We Are Not, Warrior Wisewoman 3, and Sword and Sorceress XXIV. Several of her short stories are also available at AnthologyBuilder.com.

He was more and more a wizard each day now. He even had a staff, tall as he was, that he had found where the tracks wound through the trees a few days back. The pale wood had strange symbols in it, like the magic wand he found in his backyard once Before. Dad had said the symbols weren't carved, just the chewed tracks of bark beetles, but that was because Dad hadn't believed in magic.
The wizard knew it was real.
The road was falling apart, too bumpy to walk on anymore, so he'd taken the railroad tracks instead. On and on they went, without the curves of the blacktop, and the telephone poles marched alongside them. The wires hanging from the poles were empty, and so were the wires leading to the dark lights in the towns, or to the TVs and fridges and stuff in people's homes. He felt their emptiness. Empty, empty, empty.
Maybe that was why all the people were gone.
He didn't mind. He liked being alone, playing by himself. He was a little hungry, but lots of people had left their doors open, or if they hadn't, there were always windows that could be opened with rocks. He always knew when houses had cupboards full of food, just like he knew the wires were empty.
Because he was a wizard.
He walked along the train tracks, swinging his wand, and fat ravens gathered on the empty wires to watch him.
Jenna had never spent a night outdoors until the world ended. She still wasn't used to it, and her inexperience showed.
Unfortunate but ready example: the tent she pitched the night before had collapsed just as Aaron and Becca enjoyed some private time inside. From their looks, neither of them had forgiven her for it yet, and neither had Royce. Royce wasn't in the collapsing tent, but he'd come out of his own to help uncover Aaron and Becca from the ruins. He was too stoic for Jenna to imagine the exertion bothering him much; he was probably unhappy with her because it was the leader's job to be unhappy with incompetence.
She really was sorry.
"Why can't we just sleep in houses?" she asked. "It's not as if enough of them aren't abandoned."
Because she was trailing behind the main group she hadn't expected any of them to hear her, but Royce looked over his shoulder and said, "There are things in houses."
He had ears like a hawk, or maybe that guy from Poe who heard the telltale heart. Part of why he was the leader.
"Right," Jenna said, regretting the burst of combined ill temper and wishful thinking that had prompted the question. "I know. Sorry."
He turned back--hadn't missed a step on the uneven railroad ties even while glaring at her--and kept walking.
Then they left her in peace, which was really the kindest thing under the circumstances. Shame was the most efficient punishment, but like baking soda on a stain it should be left to soak in on its own before scrubbing. She didn't doubt Royce, or maybe Gloria, would get at her with a scrub brush soon enough.
God, if He was still in the office and not using up His sick days during the end of the world, continued to work as mysteriously as He always did. Because she was trailing behind, Jenna saw the boy first as he climbed up the rocky embankment to the tracks, and because she was numb with persisting embarrassment, she didn't yelp or run towards him or any of the myriad things that would have frightened him away.
She did stop walking, and by his leader's sixth sense Royce realized that and also stopped; then Gloria, Aaron, Jimmy, and Becca were all standing there on the tracks, staring at the kid.
He, for his part, had eyes only for Jenna. Big blue eyes, or maybe green. His white face was covered in a red spider web of scratches and the backs of his hands were no better. He looked a little tall for his age, Jenna thought--and then she realized she couldn't tell his age. He was older than seven, and younger than thirteen; his ash blond hair was long in a way that made him look more mature, and he held a long, thick stick in his hand like a toy.
"Hi," Jenna said, very softly. Even then she was afraid she might frighten him off.
"Hi." He blinked. She realized it was the first time she had seen him do that, after staring for a good twenty seconds.
"I'm Jenna," she said. "Who're you? Where're you from?"
"I'm Will." She saw his hand tighten on the stick. "I'm a wizard."
She grinned, she couldn't help it. "That's pretty cool. Can you cast any spells?"
He shook his head shyly. "I haven't learned any yet."
"Then how do you know you're a wizard?" That was Jimmy, trying to play along, but not really understanding the game. Will's face closed off.
"I just know," he said, and Jenna knew that was the end of this topic.
"Hey, Will," Royce said. He bent over so his six-foot-three didn't tower so much. "I'm Royce. Do you have a family around, or anybody?"
"Not anymore." And that was the end of that topic. He was still looking at Jenna.
"We have to take him with us," she said.
"Of course," Royce said, so naturally that she was embarrassed at her earnestness. Of course Royce, natural-born shepherd, wasn't going to leave a kid alone out here.
He cocked his head a little, and she wondered if the new angle made him look any friendlier to Will. "You wanna come with us?"
Will looked them over soberly, from tall shepherd Royce to meaty matron Gloria to skinny Jimmy and lovestruck Aaron and Becca. Then her: awkward, trying-to-be-friendly Jenna.
"Okay," he said. "I can take my wand, right?"
Royce looked at the stick. "Sure."
And so Will the wizard joined them, wand and all.
The night, as usual, was hell.
Nobody made Jenna pitch a tent that evening; after last night, she doubted they would let her even if she volunteered. Instead she helped Gloria cook, and kept an eye on Will, who seemed strangely fascinated with the blue flames of the kerosene stove. He never actually reached out to touch them, but it always seemed like he was going to. Jenna was prepared to jump and grab him if he did.
Because she looked after him all evening, the habit just naturally spread to the night. Royce, Jimmy, and Aaron took him out to do natural business before bed, but they rolled a spare sleep sack for Will in her tent. She didn't mind. Will was a well-behaved kid, kind of cute if a little odd, and she was glad to do something useful.
She kept awake until she heard Will's breathing deepen into something too soft and childish to be snoring, and then the day caught up with her and she nodded off. According to the glowing face of her watch, it was about two hours later when she awoke to the sounds.
There're things in houses, Royce had said. Fact was, there were things almost everywhere. It was, of course, marginally better to not be stuck in a three-bedroom colonial with one, but sleeping outside was no guarantee of safety and she wished to heaven people would stop pretending it was.
The glow from the face of the watch glinted off pale eyes. Jenna almost screamed until she realized they were Will's.
His head was bent, ears all but quivering as they picked up that rustle, scrape, scrape from outside. "What is it?" he whispered.
"I don't know," Jenna said, then wondered if that was the best thing to tell a kid.
Chittering. She had only heard the chittering a few times before, being lucky enough not to have encountered these sorts of things very often. But tonight wasn't her lucky night. The sound worked outwards from the center of her head, ripping through her eardrums and crawling up the canals, out and dripping from the lobes onto the skin of her neck, escaping down her spine on many pattering feet. She shivered and couldn't stop shivering, as if her animal mind thought she might shake it off.
"They're things," Will said. He meant something very specific by the word.
"Yes," Jenna said. "At least... I think so."
He cocked his head, as if to listen better to the sounds outside. As if he wanted to listen better.
"Those things," he said. "Are they why... everything's empty?"
Empty? What could the kid mean by that? "I don't know," she said. "Maybe."
"The wires are empty. The ones between the telephone poles. There should be something in them, but there's not. And there are wires in the ground and they're also empty."
"Oh," she said. "Yeah. They're supposed to hold electricity." Simplistic answer, as she didn't know the workings of those wires well enough to explain them. But empty, that described them well enough now.
The chittering of the things outside seemed to be forcing its way into her, worming inside many private places, invading... and she didn't want to think of what it would do in there. She held back whimpers and curses only for Will's sake.
He patted her hand, a gesture that was oddly reassuring. "They won't get us in here."
"You sure about that?" She smiled to lessen the sting of the question, itself a lessened-sting version of, How in hell would you know?
He nodded, very seriously. She wondered again how old he was. That kind of gravity struck her as the province of toddlers, but he was way too big for that. His smooth skin was a soft blue in the watch's glow.
He turned and she heard something brush over their sleeping bags. A scream froze in her throat--she was losing count of the times since the end of the world when she was too scared to scream properly--and died away when she saw Will was just pulling his stick closer. His wand, that was.
"You okay?" she asked.
"I'm fine," he said. "Are you?"
Jenna blinked. "Yeah. Thanks for asking."
"Thanks for asking me, too." And he rolled up in his sleeping bag, wand held close like an uncuddly doll.
Sometime during their conversation the sounds from the things had stopped. In Jenna's experience that hadn't signified anything bad like them preparing to pounce, so she closed her eyes and managed to relax. Sleep came in time.
In the morning, she couldn't remember if she had heard Will's almost-childish snores before dropping off. She felt guilty, because it seemed important, though she couldn't say why.
"Did you hear them last night?" Jimmy asked. "All over... It felt--sounded, I guess--like they were all over."
"I've never heard them so close," Becca said. She held breakfast, a stale roll scavenged from a bakery they'd passed a few days before, in one hand and Aaron's biceps in the other.
Sure you have, Jenna thought. They just never interrupted you with Lover Boy before. She wished she could find the thought funny, but she didn't.
Royce shrugged, and Gloria sniffed dismissively. It was their way of handling things they couldn't fix. Shrug it away and continue herding your flock.
"Where are we going?" Will asked as they dismantled tents and packed up supplies.
"Anywhere," Royce said cheerfully. "Anywhere at all, so long as it's on the road." They'd turned onto one where it crossed the railroad tracks the day before. It had looked more promising--threading through open, sunny farmland and coming out of the forest that had enclosed them.
"Why the road?"
"It's something to follow," Jenna said. "Just something to move along."
He didn't ask why they needed to move in the first place. Smart kid, he probably hadn't stayed anywhere for longer than two nights since the world ended. Maybe he had learned from his family, whatever happened to them.
Stay too long in any one place, and things caught up with you.
She tied Will's mess kit into his blanket and knotted it over the end of his staff--his wand. She thought he would enjoy having a gunnysack.
He took it with a smile, and waited until he seemed to think she wasn't looking to pull the blanket from the staff. After that he carried it like a brief case in his free hand.
The road was crumbling everywhere, but this patch was better than some they'd gone over. Royce's flock would make good time, if such things mattered. They would have been in high spirits if it weren't for the visitors the night before.
"Can you read my wand?" Will asked her after several hours of walking. He held the staff up to her eyes.
Sure enough, there were letter-like things on it; no words she recognized, though, nothing she could stretch enough even to pretend. One curling line looked almost like the Pound sign, but crossed by a snakelike diagonal. "No," she said. "I'm sorry."
Will shrugged. "I guess I'll learn one day. Mom always told me I'd learn the alphabet, and I did. She said it was because she read to me. Maybe I'll find someone to read the wizard marks to me?"
"Maybe," Jenna said, because he asked the question in a tone that had to be answered. And, try as she might to think rationally--it always surprised her how hard that was, these days--she couldn't entirely convince herself it was impossible. That Will couldn't be a wizard. That the marks on his staff were random shapes in wood, and could never be translated. That there wasn't any hope after all.
The storm blew up with a suddenness storms had never blown up with in the old days. Clouds descended, not so much from the north or west as from directly overhead, and they were onyx black despite the light that still shone from the southern sky. The rain was oily and heavy. Will stuck out his tongue to catch drops, then quickly pulled it back in.
Jenna saw the shape ahead, and because she was feeling optimistic that day, or at least less hopeless than usual, she drew Royce's attention to it.
"Barn," he said, following her pointing finger, and sounding a little disappointed, as if she should know better.
"The doors might be open," she said. "Or at least unlocked. We could hang out until the rain stopped."
He stared at her and said, deliberately, "You want us to go inside?"
A drop of rain crawled down her arm. She held it before his eyes, letting him see its scintillating rainbow surface. What might have decided him in the end, though, was the smell. As the rain-stuff soaked into their clothes it released an odor like drowned and rotting cotton.
They turned their steps towards the barn, and when they reached it after a small eternity they went inside without further hesitation.
The smell was worse.
--different from the rain, but stronger, and more terrible because it was too familiar. The oily rotten-cloth odor was alien, but in the time since the end of the world, Jenna had become sadly acquainted with the stench of rotting meat.
They hung clustered in the rafters like bats. What looked like leather wings, half-unfurled, might have been arms with flayed skin spread, or rib cages cracked open, or maybe legs that... she wasn't sure what might make legs look like that. The shadows were too deep for her to see properly.
Royce was tugging her arm. Instinct, well-developed after only a day, made her reach out for Will. She grabbed his shoulder and pulled him close. Becca, who had just reached the doorway when everyone ahead of her stopped and stared, let out a scream. An entirely unnecessary one, in Jenna's opinion. They got the point.
"Come on out," Royce said. "Everybody. Now." Jenna felt, more than saw, the look he gave her.
There are things in most houses.
"Yeah," she said. "You told me so."
They sheltered beneath the rafters of the barn, a compromise between standing out in the rotten rain and sharing space with corpses. Just enough rain to perfume their clothes and skin, while nobody could forget the corpses were just barn boards away.
Will crouched beside Jenna, watching the rainbow drops splash before his feet, staff rolling over and over in his hands.
"Are they--close?" Gloria asked.
"Who knows?" Royce sounded uncharacteristically irritated. No--irritation wasn't unusual for him, but that edge to his voice was. He sounded uncharacteristically scared.
Will still peered out at the rain. "The houses make then angry," he said, in the tone of Newton discovering gravity. "So do the wires. That's why everything's empty."
How much had he seen inside the barn?
"We should get going," Jimmy said.
Jenna began to nod, but-- "What about the rain?"
"We can stand it," Royce said.
She took Will's hand just as Gloria took her own. Royce, Jimmy, Aaron, and Becca joined them, and the long chain started for the road. Their clothes were soaked and stinking, and breath started coming in sour, painful gasps, but nobody suggested slowing down. Especially not when, after a half-hour or so, Royce looked over his shoulder and saw something that made him lengthen his strides.
Will still held his staff in his free hand. He didn't have the blanket with his mess kit. Unthinking, Jenna glanced back, and then she understood Royce's reaction.
It followed a quarter-mile behind them. Most of it was the dark gray-black of storm clouds, but there were bits--too oddly shaped to be claws, too oddly placed to be teeth--that gleamed starkly bone-white. They rattled together and faintly, over the sounds of weather and footsteps and her own pulse, Jenna heard chittering.
"Just keep going," Gloria said calmly. Jenna was certain she hadn't looked back, hadn't seen. But perhaps she was right; what else could they do?
They broke into a run. Ran through the stinking, greasy rain, ran until their breath ran out, ran until Royce looked back and began to slow down. Even then they had to follow his gaze, reassuring themselves. Jenna's left eye was weeping because she'd got a drop of rain in it. Her hand still gripped Will's, although she couldn't feel it.
"It's getting dark," Will said. He didn't sound frightened.
Royce nodded. "We need to find somewhere to rest. Where we can keep watch, and close it off if we have to. But outside."
"Right," Jenna said. She opened both eyes, blinking glossy tears, and started looking.
This was flat land. There was nowhere to wall off, nothing to make walls with. Just empty cornfields, still bearing stubble, with drainage ditches between them and the crumbling road. A few skinny trees formed ineffective windbreaks.
Will pulled his hand from Jenna's and pointed. "There."
"Where?" She squinted past his fingertip. Two sides of a triangle were formed by a deep muddy ditch and a wall of thick evergreens. They could close off the third side using tent canvas, fallen logs. Clear as cloudless day, easy as store-bought pie.
"It'll work," Royce sighed. Gloria placed a motherly hand on his arm.
They set up a wall of half-pitched tents braced against fallen tree limbs. No roofs, no point in trying to keep the rain off now. Everyone was already so soaked that further drops just skittered off them.
Royce sat on an overstuffed backpack and raised a hand to his head, but stopped himself before supporting one with the other. "They've never chased us before. Why now?" The shepherd had lost his curved staff, or perhaps his slingshot.
Jenna shrugged. "Are they territorial all of a sudden? Wanted the barn for themselves?"
"They don't like houses," Will murmured.
Jenna rubbed his shoulder. Overhead, ravens flew from branch to branch in the evergreen windbreak. Their rattling calls echoed off the trees, the tent canvas, the low sky.
Will looked down at his staff, tracing its weird shapes--like carvings, but nobody would ever carve something so random, so meaningless--with a dirty fingernail.
Jimmy looked over the ditch. "Could they jump--"
"I don't know," Royce growled.
Jenna surprised herself by saying crisply, "Do we have any tents left to wall it off?"
"Not worth worrying about then, is it?" From the corner of her eye she saw Gloria nod approvingly.
The sun set in a sky still dirty with storm clouds which didn't dissipate as fast as they blew up, as if they enjoyed hanging around. Becca passed around protein bars, but nobody wanted to eat. Even Will only chewed his absently, eyes following the crows in the windbreak, fingertips tracing patterns on the staff.
Even before it grew dark the sounds came. Chittering crept under the skin. Low, weird howls raised flesh. And something else, that Jenna had never heard before: a thunder thrumming lower than sound, coming from deep inside everywhere. It felt as if someone were pounding the earth, as if the world were hollow like a drum. Empty.
Another sound. Will humming.
The ravens had gone still and silent.
Royce shifted. "It's never been like this before," he muttered.
Then a sharp thunk... thunk echoed from beside Jenna. She turned on the light in her watch, and in its eerie blue glow she saw Will pounding his staff--his wand--against the ground.
"Stop that," Royce said.
"Yeah, Will... " She reached for him, and just then her watch light went out. She felt Will's hand slap sharply against her own.
"No," he said. And then he went back to humming. And the thump-thunk of the stick. No other human noises. Plenty of inhuman ones. Hot blood pounded in her head until she wondered if her eardrums would burst, if she'd hemorrhage from their canals at the awful sounds.
"Really, kid," Jimmy said. "Knock it off."
The chittering came closer. Unless it only wormed deeper inside her--
The pounding, pounding from the empty Earth.
The world had ended like this. Something like this. She remembered every light going out, screens switching off--she remembered the music player going dead in her hands and ears. And in the silence, before she even took the useless earbuds out, the chittering began.
She learned that you couldn't stay in houses. She ran. For long days, even weeks, she hid because she could trust no one. And then nobody was around, it seemed the earth was empty--of people, at least. Until she met Royce and Gloria's flock.
She remembered until she wanted to crawl out of her head from remembering.
Was that horrible pounding making her remember? Unlikely. She couldn't imagine that the great--whatever it was making that sound--existed on the same level as her puny brainwaves.
She heard it and she knew that God wasn't out to lunch, He was dead--in a way that wasn't like the old cliché at all. Nor was it profound. It was a little sad. And it was scary--scary like a childhood nightmare.
Not only God, but something deeper, something even more essential, was lost. Something far more important than electricity. Dead wires and dead religion, the hollow earth was pounding like a drum in an awful funeral rite for them all.
She listened to Will's humming and wondered if she was going mad.
Dead truth. She latched on to the thought, not knowing where it came from, not caring that it carried the echoes of the hollow pounding, as if somehow it had intersected with the remains of her mind after all. Truth was dead, and without it even lies had no place to stand on.
"What's happening?" she asked, wondering if she'd asked it before. The words sounded familiar.
"I don't know!" Royce shouted to her. "I never knew! Nobody here knows, so stop asking! And shut that kid up!"
Will, still humming, still pounding his staff.
"Will, honey--"
This was crazy. But then, the whole world was crazy. It made her feel better knowing she wasn't alone. She reached out for Will, but he evaded her. The strange music went on.
"It wasn't like this before," Royce said. The sound of his voice was moving; he stood up. "Not before he came here. This is something new."
The humming faltered. Something chittered close to Jenna's heart, clacking together talons and teeth.
She pressed her watch button, but the light didn't go on. Of course not. It hadn't gone on for weeks... Except it had, when Will arrived. She wondered if it kept time again, too.
Stumbling, grunts, a soft cry in the dark.
"I can't see," she said. "Goddamn it, I can't see!"
And then she could.
In the pale glow of her resurrected watch, she saw Royce dive for Will. The boy slipped away, still humming, still drumming the earth with his staff when he could.
"Leave him alone, Royce!"
"I can't," he gasped. "You know I can't. He's--He's..."
The light of her watch faltered as Will's tune changed.
"He's not calling them," she said. "It was the barn--we made them angry, we trespassed--it's not him. Can't you see, he's keeping them back?"
Royce went still. The hollow world pounded beneath, above, around them.
"He's a wizard." She knew it was true, the same way she knew truth was dead. How both things could be possible at once she couldn't comprehend. But when Will had stopped humming, she'd hearted the chittering come closer, just as now it began to fade.
"I want to kept everyone safe," Royce said.
Will's humming and Earth-drumming became frantic.
"Leave him be," Jenna said.
Royce stepped away, his footsteps like discordant drumbeats.
A little later, a voice, her own voice, joined in Will's humming. The tune wasn't hard to follow.
Then Gloria echoed them, and then Jimmy, Rebecca, Aaron. And finally Royce.
The chittering died away. It crept back from her heart. It sulked back into the night.
The pounding continued, drumming on the empty world, for a long time. She never knew how long; in time she stopped noticing it, like an unwashed body forgets its own smell. If the very odor of your body changed, you'd realize... at first. When dawn came, she couldn't hear the pounding anymore.
She helped Royce take down the canvas wall. He worked slowly, subdued. His face in the dawn light looked gray.
"I don't think it's going to be like that every night," she said.
"I know." His eyes went to Will, who slept in the middle of the camp, body curled around his wizard's staff. "I just..." He shoved a hand through his hair. "What does it mean? What's happening?"
"Things are changing," she said. "I'm not sure why, or how."
"Machines don't work anymore," Gloria said as she packed away disassembled tents. "We can't stay in houses. And boys call themselves wizards, and... What are they making of us?"
Jenna looked down at Will. Or what are we making ourselves? "I don't know."
With the last of the canvas peeled down, she took a protein bar from her backpack and ate. Between bites, she looked at the clear sky above the sunrise and said, "Something new."
They followed roads that crumbled beneath their feet, concrete weathered to rubble beneath strange rain and the pounding of alien rhythms. They walked through an empty world, empty as the lungs are between each breath. A child led them. At his side he swung a long staff, with strange markings, not carved by human hands. His steps were careful, and his eyes were clear.
Slender ravens sat on the empty wires and watched them.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 23rd, 2012
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