by Nathaniel Lee
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I kneel by the highway and touch the asphalt. It slides under my fingers like sun-warmed scales.
I am close.
"Tonight," I tell the demon. It says nothing. The demon is a headless dog - not decapitated;
simply headless - with unbroken brindled fur running from chest to back. It eats my nightmares
and keeps me on my path. It is useful. I would not keep it near me if it were not useful.
I keep walking, thumb extended for every passing car. There are not many of these, here in this
eddy of the Road, where the trees loom close overhead and threaten to choke it out completely.
Even fewer vehicles will stop for hitchhikers. I remember when things were not so, but I also
remember when the fastest vehicles available ran on oats and hay rather than refined petroleum
and fermented corn oil. I trust that the Road will provide; it wants this confrontation as badly as I
do, I am sure, but unless I reach a nexus by nightfall, the appointed time will pass and I will have
to begin the search once more.
A tractor-trailer groans and hisses as it brakes. It slides to a halt some distance ahead, tires
crunching on the gravel of the shoulder like an ogre chewing bones. I have killed ogres; it is
difficult, but not impossible. They are rarer in these times. I move forward cautiously, staff at
the ready. Truckers are often the Road's most loyal servants, and while I still believe the Road
wishes to meet me in battle, I dare not trust its good intentions too far. After all, I know what I
would do if I were that powerful and the Road were to put itself entirely within my grasp.
Inside the cab, brown eyes gaze out from beneath a thatch of oily hair. I flare my nostrils and
inhale, seeking the signs of the Road's influence. The scent is male; fat, unshaven, and
unwashed, but also free of the reptilian musk that marks those wholly suborned to the Road. The
man is bovine in both appearance and mental function, but what meager will he possesses is his
"Howdy," he says. I watch his expression light up as he takes in my dusky skin, my petite build.
I am road-worn, bearing a heavy pack and walking stick, but I am still desirable, particularly in
this time and place. Exotic, I think they call me. I use this when I must. Hopefully the hint and
the promise will satisfy for now; my benefactor is far from a delectable morsel, and I harbor no
wish to see him naked. "I'm Clancy," he goes on. "Where you headed, Miss . . .?"
I have no name. I traded it long ago, though I have forgotten what I received in exchange.
Perhaps the demon ate it.
"Call me Autumn," I say. The season is on my mind, given that I have been walking in it for
days. I dole out a judicious helping of smile, topping it with a brief downward cast of the eyes.
Men enjoy shyness; it lets them feel bold and aggressive. "I'll go as far as you can take me. Me
and my dog." I point to the demon. No one ever notices that it has no head, though no one ever
tries to pet it, either.
"Sure. C'mon in," Clancy says, his eyes passing over the demon without a blink.
"Thanks, mister! You're awful nice to stop for me. Most people just drive past."
"Can't be too careful these days, I suppose."
"Don't know what they think I'd manage to do to them." I allow a self-deprecating dimple to
appear in my cheek. "Where are you going?"
"I'm cross-country this week, all the way to the coast. Almost ready to stop for the night, though.
Probably once I hit 90 west again."
I perform some rapid mental calculations. "That will suffice." I forget myself, lose track of my
mask for a moment, and my voice comes out cold and flat. I adopt an eye-fluttering simper to
cover my lapse. Clancy's cow-brown eyes dart quickly over to me, then away again.
"Lonely road," he says as he puts the truck in gear. It growls to resentful life; it knows what it
carries, and it fears for its master, the Road. As it should. "Kind of an out-of-the-way place to be
He is not as stupid as he appears. How amusing. I decide to drop the pretense and see how he
reacts. "I am looking for the beginning."
"Beginning of what?"
He laughs. "Shouldn't you turn around, then? Home is where you started."
"No. Home is just another end. The Road is all ends and connections, tangled together. It's
growing new ones all the time. Eventually, there will be nothing left but the Road itself in
endless loops, neither end nor beginning, and none left to travel upon it. That is when the Road
will die. Unless someone stops it."
Clancy attempts to hide a smile, shakes his head slowly. He thinks I am crazy but harmless.
"You're going to save the road?"
"I'm going to kill it." I turn my eyes to meet his, speaking honestly for what feels like the first
time in centuries. And perhaps it is.
That stops him. "Pardon?"
I do not smile. "It took my brother from me, and I have hunted it ever since. You can't kill it at
the ends. I've tried. There are too many of them, and the ones you can see are already dead.
Necrotized tissue. I have to kill it where it lives, find the root and cauterize it. Burn it out. Then
we will all be free again, separate and safe. Then I will rest."
I watch him glance at my hands, then at my bag, fearful suddenly of weapons, remembering that
guns are the great equalizer, tiny woman or no. I make no threatening moves, and eventually he
relaxes again, though not fully. "Well, good luck with that, I suppose."
That ends the conversation. We travel in silence, Clancy and I and the demon, each of us busy
with our own thoughts. Clancy, I suspect, is reminding himself to never pick up hitchhikers
again, no matter how attractive.
I am thinking of my brother. His name, like mine, is gone, to the demon, or simply to the
passage of time. I cannot remember his face, but I remember enough. The light striking his hair
in the morning. His rough and competent hands as he led me through the woods to home. His
patience and his laughter. I remember enough, and I know my purpose. As for the demon, well,
who knows what a demon thinks about? It does not trouble anyone else with its musings, which
is a trait I have always appreciated.
The truck's cab smells of stale chips, diesel fuel, and old flatulence. The demon's bristly fur is
like a hot-water bottle against my left hand. The cold air blowing from the vents chills my right.
I feel a ghost of fear for myself, but I pluck it from my skin like a clinging spider-web and feed it
to the demon, which growls appreciatively.
Ahead, the sun is setting, and the beginning draws near.
When we arrive at the truck stop, the sun has touched the rim of the world, a swollen fruit just
ready to turn from ripeness to rot. Several highways converge here, layers of road meshing, an
exponential crossroads. Trucks line the parking lot, cabs dark and sleeper beds ready for the
night. The gas pumps are still relatively busy, but that will taper off as the evening progresses;
no one will want to linger in this place tonight, though they will be unable to explain why. There
is a restaurant, of sorts, a combination rest area, convenience store, and café. They have eggs and
meat, or at least egg-like substances and meat-based food products, as well as coffee black as tar.
The long, low building has glass windows, and light already spills out of them into the gathering
"Sorry I couldn't take you further," Clancy says, not sounding sorry at all. He turns off the
engine and pushes the brake in. The ratchets make a loud grinding sound. "This here is one of
my usual stops, though. Might be someone else could take you, if they're pushing on."
He does not offer to introduce me to anyone. He is frightened. That is acceptable.
"I appreciate your assistance," I say as I slide to the ground. The dusty, pebble-strewn parking lot
is cooler, now, as evening falls. I feel it through my thin soles. The demon drops silently down
beside me, and I retrieve my pack and my staff from the cab. The compass embedded in the
walking stick spins in a lazy circle; a nexus is here, a swirl of possibilities merging to form
something like a whirlpool of the spirit. This is the right place. I have much to accomplish
"Miss Autumn . . ."
I turn and wait politely. I am not yet frantic with haste, and Clancy has been a competent driver,
all things considered. I owe him courtesy, at least, for the trick I played on him.
He is standing on the ground beside the driver's door, peeping through the open cab at me. He
rubs his stubbly chin and tries to meet my gaze. "You . . . maybe you ought to have some food or
something? Seems like you could use a little help."
Brave little cow-man! He thinks I am insane, which to him means disabled and therefore
helpless. He wants to assist a weak woman in need, for all I make him nervous. I almost smile
to think of it.
"Go inside, driver. It will be dangerous here, tonight."
I leave him, then, and walk for the edge of the parking lot. I do not look at his expression, and
when I glance back, he is gone.
The edge of the asphalt bears the remnants of a fence, metal posts and wire. Beyond is scrub and
crabgrass, only the hardiest weeds surviving in the miasma of carbon monoxide, oil, and half-combusted fuel. Movement in the brush catches my eye: a tangle of garter snakes, writhing in a
nearly spherical knot. A mating ball, thoroughly out of place in this latter part of the year. At the
center will be a female or two, surrounded by frantic suitors hoping to pass their genes on. Or
perhaps a male exuding female pheromones; I recall reading that such faux-females attract even
more ardent attention than true ones. I smile at the snakes. It is a good omen.
A brief circuit around the parking lot gives me the remaining supplies I need. I set the orange
traffic cones in a rough circle, then draw the lines with yellow paint from my bag. A circle
containing a five-pointed star, with the cones at each crossing of the lines. I sprinkle powder
made of pulverized stones from each of the extant Roman roads at each of the four cardinal
directions, then light five orange road flares and place them at the points of the star. I kneel in
the center with my pack and my staff, meditating to focus my mind as I wait for the proper time.
The sky is clear, and the stars shine so brightly that I imagine I can hear them hissing as they
Somewhere behind me, a gaggle of slack-jawed men stares out the windows of the truck stop.
They are fools, perched on the back of a tiger and thinking themselves safe. I know they will not
thank me if I am successful this night. I do not do this for them.
The material world fades from my perceptions as midnight draws near. Gross physical assault
cannot kill a god, and that is what I seek to slay tonight. Thus, I travel in my protective circle to
the places Between, where memory and dream are no mere abstractions, where one can dance
between moments as though they were raindrops and stay dry as bone. There are no roads to this
place, no paths to follow. Here there be dragons, and demons, and the Road.
I feel it before I hear it, a tremor from beneath my knees. I stand, clutching my staff in both
hands; the compass on top begins to spin more rapidly, making an audible hum as it accelerates.
Then comes the rattling roar, an engine out of sync, a muffled rockslide, and the trembling of the
earth becomes more pronounced. I wonder briefly what Clancy and his fellow truckers see when
they look out to the parking lot. I wonder if they will perceive at all what I am about to do, or if
they see only a thin woman crouching alone in the dark. I realize I am distracting myself. I
snatch the thoughts, ball them up, and lob them to the demon. It catches them like a dog catching
a Frisbee and crunches them down in invisible jaws. I have never fully understood the demon's
physiology, but I know it functions, and that is enough for me.
In the distance, I see what looks like a black hill. It appears motionless at first, until it draws
close enough for me to perceive its terrifying speed. As it approaches, I see its undulating
motion, the blur of road stretching up to meet the hump rushing along the highway, like a wave
passing along a snapped whip.
It towers over me, size masking velocity. It is a black wall of asphalt reaching far above the roof
of the building when the whip-crack hits the end of the road.
The road surface tears free from the ground with the sound of a tooth being pulled, a crackling
felt in the back of the jaw. Stones become scales; dirt becomes flesh; paint becomes luminous
eyes. The Road sways sinuously before me, a black serpent of smoke and tar with orange-yellow
eyes and white, white fangs. Its body stretches away, the pattern of stripes fading back into
painted lines, the roundness of its back flattening and bifurcating again and again into mile after
mile of smooth, unbroken highway. It is everywhere, and everywhere is here.
You have called, the Road says in my mind, a whisper as loud as a shout. I rock back on my
heels but remain upright. And I have come. What would you have of me, small warrior?
"My brother," I say. "He left one day to find the beginning of all the roads, and you swallowed
him whole. I do not fear you. Though you come to me in a form as large as the world itself, I
will challenge you for possession of him."
The laughter of a serpent is an unpleasant sound, all the worse when it is trapped inside your
head and cannot dissipate like true sound. Everyone chooses the length of their road, Child of
Autumn, Child of the Fall. If I am large to you, it is no one's fault but your own. Tell me, then,
your brother's name, that I might call him forth.
"I . . . I do not know it. Not anymore." I falter, but grip my staff and remind myself of my
A puzzling response. A tongue as red as a fire-engine flicks out and back, forked a thousand
The snake nods its head over my shoulder, at the demon that sits patiently behind me, silent as
ever. That parasite you succor will devour you completely one day, and sooner rather than later.
"Lies!" I level the sharp, iron-shod foot of my staff at the monstrous snake. The compass spins
like a gyroscope, and I tense my muscles against its pull. "Return my brother to me, and I will
end this. Fail, and I will end you."
The serpent hisses, a billion raindrops sizzling onto summer-hot asphalt, a trillion cars rushing
through a tunnel. Autumn's-Child, do you know what you face? When the first animal followed
the trampled grass left by another, I was already there. When the first place was joined by a
second, I was already there. I am distance and time, the way and the path, and no one arrives
home safe save by me. Even now, I am growing. New trails, up and out, away and back home
again in long ellipticals. You cannot destroy me without destroying yourself and everything that
you know and love.
"So be it. Will you return my brother or no?"
There is a moment of blurred motion, too quick to follow, and I feel my staff knocked from my
hands. It clatters across the ground, coming to a rest perfectly upright, balanced on its tip and
spinning, spinning like a whirlwind. The only way to find the beginning of the road is to step off
of it, small warrior. Make a new end and find a new beginning, for they are always both and
neither. Your brother learned this where you have not. He stepped away and lived his life to its
own end long, long ago, and his children's children are old now.
The massive head lowers. In the glow of its eyes, I see slit-black pupils, and within them dotted
yellow lines that themselves contain more darkness, a tunnel leading eternally inward and down.
Its breath stinks of musk and oil. You cannot win this battle. Choose: will you find your end or
I reach into my backpack and draw out my maps, snapping them out like metal folding fans,
sharp and deadly. I do not speak; my battle cry comes from the very core of my being as I launch
myself at the hated beast. Its head rears back, exposing the soft dirt of the underbelly, and I
attack, cutting once, then again. The Road bleeds black.
Then the terrible fangs unfold. The strike comes faster than I can see. I block on instinct alone.
The impact is like being hit by a bus. I am flying, up and out, my maps falling limply from my
When I land, the ground tears at my skin, scraping it away in jagged chunks, leaving me no
protection. I do not scream.
The demon drinks my pain, crouching near me like a rat supping at a foul puddle in an alleyway.
I am momentarily filled with revulsion for the creature, but it drinks that away too, siphoning it
all until I am free to stand. The Road coils down, a cloverleaf of serpent, an ophidian
My staff hovers near to hand, boring a hole into the ground with its metal tip. I reach out and
grasp it, feel the smooth bore of the haft abrade the flesh of my palm. I smell my own meat
burning from the heat of friction, but I feel nothing. The Road watches, unblinking.
I grip my staff in both hands, like a lance, and I charge.
The Road rises up and dives to meet me, making no sound save the roaring wind of its passage.
There is a thunderclap and a pain so great that I cannot contain it, pain that outpours even the
demon's undying thirst. It overwhelms my defenses, and I remember no more.
When I awaken, I see the pale moon of Clancy's face peering down at me from far too close. He
does not resist when I thrust him away. I sit up, then pause as vertigo overwhelms me. My grip
on Clancy's shirt becomes an anchor, a pillar to support me.
"We saw you fall, Miss Autumn," he says. He holds his hands out to the side as if they are
repelled from him by static electricity. He does not know what to do with me, what will happen
to him if he touches me again. "You all right?"
The parking lot is covered in stones; rubble, now, rather than the pebbles from before. The
trucks are askew, and one has slipped its brakes and rolled into a lamppost. A window in the
building is cracked. An earthquake, they will guess. Some mysterious local phenomenon, not
felt even a mile away. My circle is broken. My tools are scattered. My staff, snapped in twain,
lies across my legs, which are torn and bruised. The demon sits on its haunches and watches me
without eyes, smiles at me without a mouth.
"I'm fine," I say. "I'll be fine."
"Do you want a doctor or something? I think we just had an earthquake." Clancy wants, truly
and honestly, to help, but he cannot. He does not understand, and he never will.
A small crowd of ugly and misshapen men is gathered nearby. They mumble inaudibly to each
"No. I've just got to keep going." I try to stand and am slightly surprised when I succeed. I feel
no joy at this minor victory. My tools are unusable; it will not be easy or simple to gather more.
Already I am tracing in my mind the routes I will have to follow, the deeds I will have to do to
regain what I have lost, and prepare to face the Road again. There are calculations to perform,
promises to keep and to break. I feel sadness welling up inside me, a spring of exhaustion that
drains rather than fills. Hot, bristly fur touches my calf, brushes painfully against my injuries.
The demon waits; it can take only what I give it.
"You sure?" says Clancy. "You could come in for a coffee, at least. I'll cover it. We're all
pretty shook up an' could use a break. Heh. Literally shook up, yeah?"
"Yes," I say, but not to him. I rest my hand on the demon's shoulder and feel my weakness
depart, leaving behind a small, hollow space that feels nothing at all. I limp to my fallen pack
and heave it onto my shoulders; my staff, my maps, my powders I leave where they lie.
The crowd parts before me, and I step back onto the endless ribbon of black road, back to my
journey, searching for another nexus on another October night. The asphalt is chill with the
coming of night, with impending winter. I see the bushes and grass sway in a breeze, tasting of
first snow and dry leaves.
The wind blows through my hair, and it makes a sound like the laughter of serpents.