For a long while, Aidan was nothing but a pile of bones lying inert in a rank-smelling bed of mud several yards below the white bridge. He began to realize that he was still in one piece, but it was a short-lived blessing; he was lost. Of course, he had never known where he was going in the first place, but there was something comforting about following a path, and something decidedly unnerving about being torn from it.
He could not sit up. The mud refused to part with him, no matter how hard he strained against its stubborn suction. His arms, legs, and ribcage were stuck fast. Mud oozed into his mouth and eyes, making him gag. He couldn’t taste it, but the sensation was horrible, and his mind filled in the rest of the experience.
Then, out of nowhere, there was a hand, strong and oozing with black pus. It grasped him and began to tug, lean muscles flexing with the effort of raising Aidan steadily from the quagmire. The pus was ink-like and worse than the mud.
The arm set him on his feet at last and let go. It returned to the side of a man only a little taller than Aidan, who was maybe three or four inches beyond “short.” He was draped in ragged moss green clothes that hung over his inky body like a second layer of skin. His eyes were just as dark, just as oozing; it was impossible to tell what he looked like under all the pus.
“Fate didn’t want you in Out-shift, I see,” the man said. His voice was like sandpaper.
“Who are you?” Aidan asked. All at once his speech was coming easily.
“Grimwal,” the stranger replied. “One who was not meant to cross.”
“Oh,” was all Aidan could manage. His voice was back, and he had no words. Why could he talk now and not before? Was it the blow to the head? Or perhaps because he was on this side of the bridge? At this point, he was ready to believe either one.
Grimwal smiled. His teeth were black as well, and pus ran between his gums. “It isn’t all bad here. A place to belong, for those who belong nowhere.”
“But I don’t-” Aidan began.
“You didn’t ascend from the road,” Grimwal pointed out. “You couldn’t cross the bridge. You have nowhere to belong except here: In-Between.”
“In-Between? In-Between what?”
Grimwal shrugged. “Life, death … this side, that.”
The headstone. The headstone had tried to tell him that he belonged back there, in the world where he had presumably lived, grown up, and died. Why hadn’t he listened? Why had he wandered off on his own like an idiot child? Aidan didn’t know if he had ever been a religious man, but he was beginning to wonder if In-Between meant purgatory, or if perhaps a mild level of hell. Either way, he didn’t want to be here.
Grimwal gave him a sympathetic look and snaked an inky arm around his shoulders, guiding him along through the muck. They were leaving the bridge farther and farther behind, and Aidan couldn’t help but glance back. It was just a vague shape high above in the canopy of dust, but it was there, ominous and still. What was missing was the desperate face with the silver eyes.
“I was going to cross,” he protested, “but there was a thing—”
“There always is,” said Grimwal with an understanding smile.
“Relax.” It was a threat, not a suggestion, and Aidan shut up.
As they walked down what was soon obviously less of a riverbed and more of a gigantic mud and moss-filled trench, a ramshackle village began to reveal itself. Here and there were hard mud and grass huts. Their doorways were filled with more ink-and-pus-people, all of whom watched Aidan and Grimwal pass by with filthy smiles.
“You see?” Grimwal said encouragingly. “You will belong here.”
He was led into one of the larger huts where a woman in a tattered brown apron was chopping something that looked like a very large, gnarled root. A tiny ink-baby slobbered contentedly on something hard and round. Aidan thought it might be a fruit or a nut, but when they stepped into the middle of the hut the baby looked up and beamed at Grimwal, brandishing a small human skull.
Grimwal bent and swung the baby high into the air, making it cackle giddily. For all that, it kept a good grip on the skull and promptly began sucking on it again once Grimwal stopped.
“This is my son,” Grimwal said, turning to Aidan to introduce them.
“What’s his name?” Aidan asked, trying his best to be polite.
“He doesn’t have one, of course. He’s a baby. What use would he have for a name? He’s dead; he’ll never grow up to be anyone.”
“Right, of course.” Aidan felt something sick twist inside of him and hoped it wasn’t another worm. He imagined the silver-eyed fiend pulling an infant from the bridge, tumbling its helpless, flailing body into the muck. Perhaps this was hell.
“I’m Yvonne,” the woman said. Her voice was just as scratchy as her husband’s. She wiped her hands on her apron before extending one of them to Aidan. He didn’t see the point of this; they were leaking black pus all over anyway. He was thankful to have no features to display his disgust as he shook hands with her.
Yvonne and Grimwal exchanged pleased glances. “You know who you are!” she said. “All that is left is for the Heads to mark you down in the book. There are plenty of empty huts, and if you are missing the family you once had, there are plenty of those, too.”
The baby waved the skull happily at Aidan over Grimwal’s shoulder.
“I…I don’t think I’ll be staying,” Aidan said. “I’m sorry, but—”
“You must be exhausted,” Yvonne said. He oozing gums squirted a thin stream of pus onto the floor as she took his arm. “The trip from In-Shift to In-Between is disorienting. You’ll be fine once you’ve rested a while.”
“No, thank you.” Aidan slid out of her grasp. A spare part of his brain that wasn’t doing anything wondered vaguely what she meant by In-Shift, but every other inch of his being was focused on getting out of this ink-pit as soon as possible.
“I don’t need to rest,” he maintained. “Thank you, but I’m not going to stay.” He turned and made for the doorway.
Grimwal was already there.
“Listen to us, Aidan,” he said, setting the baby down. “You’ll get used to being here. Where would you go, after all? You can’t walk down the road again, not once you’ve reached the final lamppost. You can’t go back to the bridge.”
The man was muscled like a hunter—impossible for Aidan to get past by force. Yvonne’s arms snaked around Aidan’s waist before he could even attempt. She lifted his skeleton easily and carried him the rest of the way to her husband, who took charge of him, wrapping one strong forearm around his neck and the other about his hip bones. The baby brought the tiny skull to his black lips again. “Buh-bye!” he mumbled around it in a voice ever-so-sweet, as Aidan was carried frightened and struggling from the hut.
(Look for Chapter Two next Thursday evening! Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @companyofsouls for updates and related content!)
–First half of Chapter One here: https://companyofsouls.com/2017/11/17/the-company-of-souls-chapter-one/