The monstrous claw snapped at empty air. A booming roar followed them as they shot upward.
"Hang on," Marion said. "This is the complicated part."
Ray looked up and saw the stone ceiling. "Too fast! We're going too fast!"
"Quiet," Frank said putting his hand on Ray's shoulder. "Trust her." He held his breath.
A tingling feeling swept over Ray and he nearly collapsed from fright as the globe passed harmlessly through the top of the tower into a clear night sky. Brad, Hodgkins and Frank all exhaled together. Marion was still concentrating, guiding the globe as it navigated the wind currents.
Ray laughed and looked down. "I don't believe it," he said.
Below stretched a forest that surrounded the castle, which was a sprawling complex of buildings and fortifications that must have been the size of ten square city-blocks. He recognized the little part of the castle that he'd entered a lifetime ago, when his wife had sent him in search of his dead grandparents. The rest of the buildings were too much to take in. He sat down, crossed his legs and covered his head with his hands.
"You okay?" Brad knelt down.
The globe continued its flight, circling the castle complex, slowing a little. Marion was peering down, looking for something.
"Imagining something like this is one thing," Ray said. "Reading about it is another, but living it, experiencing it is just too much. I don't know what to think."
"You were an old, old man when I met you," Ray said. "Now look at you. You're what? Maybe thirty-five? Hodgkins hasn't changed from the time I met him all those years ago. I know there's magic here, that there's magic in the universe. There has to be. I've just never been this close to it, I guess."
"Well," Brad said, "magic and science aren't all that far apart. They're really just different ways of describing things.
"And that's what humans do: describe things. We compartmentalize, define, limit what we see. We have to in order to understand," Brad said sitting down next to Ray, "but those things also limit what we can understand. Once we take a pure concept and wrap it in words that make sense to us, anything that falls outside of that description is hard to believe."
"I don't get it," Ray said. "I mean, I do, but I don't know what you're getting at."
"You'll have to wait to explain, dearest," Marion said. "We're ready to go." The globe began a slow descent
Brad, Ray, Frank and Hodgkins watched as they came down through the tops of trees into a clearing a hundred yards wide. Gently, they bumped into the ground and the green light of the globe faded away. Ray immediately sat down. Frank turned, scanning the edge of the little dell, looking for something. Hodgkins stood by, not watching as Marion and Brad embraced, kissing each other, whispering.
A flash of light and a sharp crack sounded across the soft grass from the far side of the clearing. The acrid smell of brimstone wafted to them. "He's here," Marion said looking over Brad's shoulder and pointing. "There."
The man that stumbled out of the woods was unremarkable: he had wavy brown hair, a goatee and wore faded black and white striped chef's pants with a stained white tee shirt. He coughed and saw the party ahead of him. "Marion!"
She pulled away from Brad and opened her arms to hug him as the chef ran over to her. "Oh my god," he said and held her tight. "I thought never to see ye again! How'd you get free?"
"Ray," Marion said and pointed. "He came and found me."
"And Bea? Strangiato?"
"Both dead," she said.
"Ah," he said. "Still, you're here, you're alive."
"I'm Brad," her husband said, sticking out his hand.
"Yeah, shit," Jimmy said. "Sorry, man." They shook hands. The two men locked eyes and sized each other up like two tomcats about to fight. Brad relaxed his grip, gave Jimmy a slight nod and a vague smile.
"This is Jimmy Cavanaugh," Marion said and introduced the others.
"I know Hodgkins," Jimmy said. He squinted at Frank. "And you're the new Seeker, eh? Got some big shoes to fill, man."
"You're not the first to tell me that," Frank said, shaking Jimmy's hand. The chef nodded.
"Ray," Jimmy said. "Thanks for gettin' her out of there. You don't know how much this means to the world, to the universe, really. You're a hero to a lot of people."
"I'm just a writer," Ray said. "I don't know what I did or why it was important."
Jimmy frowned, looked back at Marion. "He for real?"
"You'll figure it out, then," Jimmy said. "Being a writer and all." He smiled and clapped his hands.
"Well," he said. "We're not out of the woods yet. We still have to make it down Dean's pathway to the floating house." He saw the look on Ray's face. "Don't worry, man, it's not far and there's no danger between here and there. Just a little walking is all. We can't get there any other way."
The landscape shifted as they wound along the wide path that appeared before them. Everything seemed to be bent, but not unnaturally. Vines wound around and over rocks and through trees; scrub bushes were scattered across the lush green as though thrown from a gardener's hand without care, some ferns mixed with lots of trees, evergreens and deciduous of both familiar and strangely alien varieties, for good measure. There was a long-tailed bird with feathers of unearthly colors calling as they passed. Jimmy was right, it wasn't far, maybe a mile and a half.
"It's all like an album cover," Ray said, looking upward.
"There," Jimmy said, pointing ahead of them. "The floating house."
"Indeed," Frank said.
Hodgkins nodded. "I've heard of it, of course," he said, "but I've never seen it before. It's lovely."
Brad held Marion with one hand across her shoulders. She leaned in closer to him. "It's beautiful," she said then kissed him on the cheek.
"I've dreamed of this place," Brad said.
The house was tall, three stories, with high gabled windows on the top floor and a mostly flat roof peaked only enough to run off rainwater. There were two skylights they could see and a long deck around the second level, with supports extending to the bottom of the first level. Painted a kind of forest green, it hung in the air against all the laws of physics. It was surrounded by flora that included a couple of shade trees and a waterfall that ended in a pool just below the bottom of the house.
"This is impossible," Ray said. "It's like a magic version of a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Not quite Falling Water, but..."
"Come on," Jimmy said. "Let's get inside." He started walking up the little rise. When his left foot came up off the ground and was followed by his right, he stopped. "Stay close to me. If you reach out to your right, you can feel the rail that'll guide you up."
One after another, they all followed the chef up the invisible stairs, a strange ascension, until they walked through the front door of the floating house.
"Welcome," a voice said as the door shut behind Hodgkins, who was the last one in. Ray turned to meet their host and went pale.
"Erika," he said.
"Hello, Ray." She came across the parquet floor in bare feet, wearing a yellow sundress and looking like she did when Ray first met her.
He stumbled backward and Frank caught him. "I thought --- you were..."
"I've been here, waiting for you," she said. "Your grandparents say hello." Erika leaned in, kissed him on the cheek. She stood back then, her hair a halo of sunlight from behind. Her smile radiant and full, infectious, he couldn't help but smile back.
"Am I dead?"
A little laugh from her. "No," she said. "Not quite. Will you come to the library with me? The sitting room is through there, if the rest of you don't mind." She held out her hand to the left and when they'd gone through to the sunken room, she put her right hand out for Ray. He didn't hesitate, took it and they went into the library.
"There on the desk," she said. "You have to decide by the time you're done reading it. You don't get to ask any questions."
"What is it?" Ray held her hand a little tighter, looked worried.
"A proposal from the powers that be. I can't tell you anything else." She sat down across from the desk and watched him walk over and pick up the envelope.
Half an hour later, Erika and Ray, arm in arm, joined the others in the sitting room.
"You've decided to stay," Frank said. Sunlight streamed through the bay window with a spectacular view of the lush valley filled with strange trees cut by a thin river winding across its floor. It was a big room, full of heavy, overstuffed furniture.
Ray nodded. “I raised my kids to live a meaningful life and they don’t need me any more and I get to write all the time. Yeah, it seems a good deal to me.”
"You're staying with him?" He looked intently at Erika.
Frank was impassive, weighing the news. He turned to Marion and Brad. "And you?"
"I'm going back," Marion said. "Brahmen is still trying to dominate everything. I can't stay here."
"I'm going with her," Brad said. "I won't lose her again."
Frank shrugged, looked resigned.
The butler sat down. "I don't know. I can't go back."
The floating house was solid. The view through the bay window in the sitting room was the only indication that it wasn't connected to the ground outside. Jimmy came into the room with a small tray of sandwiches and set them on the sideboard. He took a triangle and bit into it.
"If you like, you're welcome to come with me," Frank said. “Honestly, I need some help t maintain the estate I’ve inherited.”
The shadows crept across the room as the sun swept along its path. The silence grew. The calls of exotic birds were barely audible from outside. Marion sipped her wine, Brad drained his glass and set it gently on a side table. His wife glared at him and he wiped up the little ring of water underneath it after he moved it to a coaster he took from the front drawer of the table. She patted his hand.
Frank set his glass back on the tray that Hodgkins had put back on the sideboard. "We all have our assignments," he said. "I should be getting back to mine."
"Hold on," Ray said, walking over to Frank. The writer was close to the Seeker and said in a low whisper, "Is this all real? Am I going to wake up back home in my own bed in a few minutes?"
"Why are you asking me?"
"This all started with you and me in a bar, having a drink," Ray said. "And --- well, I dream about Erika all the time since she died. I just don't want this to be a dream." He was concerned, looked over his shoulder at her, then Marion and Brad and Hodgkins.
"It's real, Ray Briscoe," Frank said and clapped a hand on the writer's shoulder. "I'll look forward to seeing you again." They clasped hands and nodded at each other. Frank turned and bowed to Marion.
"You know how to reach me," he said. Frank gave Brad a little salute then took a step toward the hall. Hodgkins stood up. "I'll see you all again, I'm sure."
The two left the room side by side and Ray heard Hodgkins speak. "You're starting to sound like him." There was a gentle closing sound as the front door shut.
"Sandwiches," Jimmy said. "In case anyone's hungry." Marion looked over the back of the settee at the chef and smiled.
"Thanks," she said. "Not right now." Jimmy shrugged.
Ray and Erika talked with Brad and Marion and Jimmy for hours. The view through the bay window showed that the floating house turned gently. When the full moon shone over the valley, the sandwiches had been eaten, a lot of wine and liquor had been drunk.
"There's a lady waitin' for me," Jimmy said. "I should be going."
"We have to go, too," Marion said. "It's time to get back." The women hugged everyone and the men shook hands with each other. Jimmy, Marion and Brad left through the front door.
Ray looked around. "This is what I get for staying on and doing this job?" He took Erika in his arms and kissed her. "I can live with this."
"We should go to bed," Erika said. "You've got to start first thing in the morning."
"I don't know what I should write," Ray said as they walked up the wide stairs.
"Start with when you and I met," Erika said, “and go from there.”
Thanks for reading! I'm grateful to those who've been here since the beginning and have stuck around for a little over thirteen months to see this through to its conclusion. Come back next Wednesday for writer's notes on the last three stories and the week after that for a kind of afterword about why I did this and how. Tell your friends won't you? There's LOTS more to come!
Click here for my Notes.
©2010 By Jason Arnett.
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