The ground hurt his feet, pebbles and sticks biting his bare soles with the sharp teeth of hungry rats. Dust coiled up his legs and settled into the tattered hems of his clothes. He took a breath and heard it echo in the silence.
He had no idea how long he had been standing there; all he knew was that he was here now, staring down a pathway of dead grass. Leafless trees loomed out of the dust on either side, lifting their dark boughs into an absence of sky. It was cold, or perhaps it was warm. There was a strange, heavy sensation in his chest. He coughed, and water spewed from his lungs. Soon he was on his knees in the dust, gagging as water surged from a never-ending spring deep, deep inside of him. He wanted to scream.
When it stopped, as it finally did, he forced himself to stand on legs that barely trusted themselves. The world threatened to tip, but he put one foot forward and began to walk down the path. Thought that were not quite memories filled his head. They were fragments, disjointed and brilliant, dancing through a void of years. He saw dark water everywhere and felt a desperate need to get back to the place he had left. The only trouble was: he had no idea where that place had been.
Soon he realized he was not alone on the path, and that it had gradually become a road. There were people on all sides. They were pale and ghostly, their feet never touching the ground. Some of them met his frightened gaze, and he wondered if he looked the same to them—transparent and surreal.
“Bonjour,” he called. His voice broke. “S’il vous plaît, m’aidez….”
A pale face looked into his with a mockery of concern, but he could not capture the phantom’s attention for long. He went from ghost to ghost, begging, pleading, but to no avail. They could not hear him. They were lost in their own journeys and had no time for his.
The trees began to vanish, replaced by tall lampposts. He ceased to bother the travelers and fell quietly into step. Passing with bowed head beneath the lampposts, he did not notice as the ghosts began to leave. One by one they rose into the air, their faces relaxing as faint tendrils of light kissed their chins and noses. A few of them smiled, more shut their eyes, and all of them vanished. When he looked up again, he was alone.
The last lamppost waited for him. Behind it was a white bridge and he thought he heard thunder on the other side. Everything was shrouded in a haze of dust, crackling with the crisp tension of lightning. He could not say why, but it felt as if this was where he had been meant to come. He had to cross the bridge.
One step onto its white stones and the thunder grew. Two steps and he heard whispers mingled in its roar. He dared not move again. “Qui est là?” he called. “Qui êtes-vous?”
Lightning split the air. He cried out and sank to his knees with his hands covering his head. He had a brief moment to think how wet and slimy his hair felt between his fingers before he noticed a pair of legs in front of him. They were muscular and dripping with black ooze. He raised his fearful eyes and found a man, war-like and ink-stained, glaring down at him.
“Je t’en prie,” he pleaded, his hands clasped in front of him. “Laisse-moi vivre!”
“I don’t understand you.” The man knelt beside him. His body stained the stones black. “Are you Alexandre?”
Alexandre nodded and the man’s dark eyes narrowed beneath a thin film of ink. “I am Grimwal. We heard you were coming,” he said. “We were told to stop you.”
He flinched away from the man’s scrutiny. Those eyes made him feel small and wrong—a tiny mistake that barely merited interest before it was erased. A slick hand reached out and touched his shoulder. “Why don’t you rest?” the man said. “You were never meant to do anything but die.”
“But I don’t want to,” Alexandre replied, finding words that matched the man’s. They were slow to come, but he remembered their syllables, just as he was beginning to remember something else. “I have to go back.”
“Why? There is nothing for you.”
“I will decide that.”
Grimwal chuckled and offered Alexandre a hand. “You will never forgive me if I let you pass this bridge. You will regret returning. You will wish you had gone to rest.”
Alexandre said nothing to this. He did not know this man, did not trust him. His brain nearly burst with the effort of remembering, but he could see the memories he needed lurking just out of reach. There was a stage, and a woman with a quill through her eye. “I need to rest,” he told the man. “I need to rest, and then I’m sure I will remember. I…I know what you are,” he added. “You’re from In-between.”
A thick clump of inky surprise wrinkled the man’s brow. “That’s right. You don’t belong to Sir Hugo, do you?”
The name stirred something, though it might only have been more water threatening to purge itself from his stomach. “I think so,” he replied. “I think that’s where I need to go. Back to him. I think he’s in trouble. Who told you not to allow me to cross?”
For a moment, the man did not answer him. He stood staring at Alexandre, the surprise slowly melting away. Then, at last, he sighed, “Death.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. It was the Elders who told us. They said they had been given instructions. They said that death itself did not want you to cross the bridge again. They sent me up here, out of In-between for the first time, to keep watch. And here you are. I should send you back. I should kill you. And yet…you belong to Sir Hugo. It makes no sense for the Elders to harm one of his own; he bought our service long ago.”
“Whoever told your elders to stop me,” Alexandre said, drawing conviction into his voice at last, “they lied. Whoever they are, they are no friend to us. They sought to deceive you. Have they succeed?” He held the man’s gaze, doing his best to banish all sense of fear, all the lingering signs that he was not yet fully himself. He was halfway between death and beyond, and part of him still pondered on that road, waiting to vanish into the grey light above. But there must have been just enough of him left, for at last the man shook his head.
“We will help you,” he said. “I will call whom I can and we will accompany you to Sir Hugo.”
Alexandre smiled for the first time since this new death. “You would leave your home? Leave In-between? That is unheard of, isn’t it? Those below the bridge are there to stay. I remember that.”
The man was already leading the way across, his broad shoulders melting into the mist. “If the Elders wished to keep me satisfied with In-between, they should never have let me leave it to watch for you.”