Andy gasped in horror mingled with fascination and then stared at Mr. Saturday who no longer appeared as a shadow. In this place, Mr. Saturday was a tall, handsome man with skin as dark and smooth as anthracite. He was wearing an old-fashioned formal suit with tails and a top hat. And a pair of dark glasses. His smile was the same. He tipped his hat at Andy and said to the old man, “No need to scare the young fella right off. You coulda called it the Crossroads or somesuch.”
The old man raised an eyebrow, “Indeed? And fill his head with half-truths and nonsense? It seems that you have done quite enough in that regard.”
“I got no other choice.”
“You know the rules!” snapped the old man.
“Excuse me,” said Andy, “What are you talking about? Am I dead?”
The old man glared at Mr. Saturday, then said to Andy not unkindly, “Indeed, no. You still live. But your companion has guided you across the barrier of life to the place where the Dead and the Unreal reside. You may not return the way you came, and you will not pass through this place unchanged,” the old man cleared his throat, “the rules say that you are to know the risks before you enter, but it appears that your friend has been something less than forthcoming with certain information.”
Mr.Saturday smiled apologetically, “Technic’lly we ain’t yet in the World of the Dead. This place,” he gestured at the tunnel, “Is more like a foyer or an entry-hall. So technic’lly I ain’t broken any rules yet, just bent them.”
The old man glowered, “Yes. But you bend them so often that they never regain their original shape. You know that you should have told him everything before calling on me!”
“Wasn’t exactly the time for a nice conversation with a child about the Thin Places with the Dread Hunters after his head!” Mr Saturday roared.
The old man looked at Andy with concern and said softly, “I see. Perhaps your breach of etiquette is forgivable. In this case.”
Andy asked, “What do you mean by risks? I want to go home! What if those people hurt my mom or—"
“Not a problem,” Mr. Saturday said smoothly, “It’s you they’re after. They ain’t gonna so much as pose an impolite question to your momma. They got rules too. And they ain’t as fond of bending ‘em as I am. I bought us a little time. With luck and some persuasion, we might be able to stop ‘em before they ‘cause any more trouble than leavin’ a cold body on your momma’s kitchen tiles.”
“I believe the boy asked about the risks,” the old man said pointedly to Mr. Saturday.
“If you’re so damn stuck on the rules why don’t you tell him,” snarled Mr. Saturday.
“Very well.” The old man pulled a small book out of his jacket and began to read in a dry monotone voice, “Beware Mortal that darest enter this Realm! Thou canst not depend on thy mind or strength of arms an thou be most puissant or most sage, thy purity of heart be thy only saviour. Eat not or drink not while thou travellest or thou shalt leave not. Thou canst not pass through this realm unchanged, and if thou fearest change, depart and flee. Thou must die in part so that thou mayst live, and this Realm ever takes its tithe.”
“What does that mean?” Andy cried.
Mr. Saturday said, “What it means is, do exactly as I say when I say and don’t ask too many questions.”
The old man sighed, “It also means that you will remain connected to the World of the Dead, and a tenth of you shall remain here. For the rest of your life you will be on the border of both worlds.”
“I don’t know if I want—“ Andy began.
Mr. Saturday pursed his lips, “The boy got the Sight and can conjure. He’s already at the border, a little extra won’t hurt. ‘Sides, if the Dread Hunters get to him, he’ll end up all the way in this undiscovered country without an easy way back."
“Easy!” the old man shouted.
“You got a better idea?” Mr. Satuday challenged.
The old man’s shoulders slumped and he looked weary, “No. This is perhaps the best way. But one so young should not have to take it.”
Mr. Saturday shrugged, “Come on Andy, we got sights to see.”
Andy smiled at the old man, offered his hand and said, “It was nice to meet you, sir. I’m sorry but I don’t think we were introduced?”
The old man shook Andy’s hand and said, “You can call me Papa Legba.”
Papa Legba smiled indulgently and said, “Oh, I know. I’ve known about you for a long while.”
Andy looked puzzled, “I don’t think we’ve met before. I don’t think I’d forget you.”
“Come on Andy,” Mr. Saturday said, “You ain’t dead yet, so you ain’t got forever to sit around chatting. We got work to do.”
Andy hurried after him down the tunnel. Every few feet a torch provided flickering light and shadows danced against the blue slate walls. Mr. Saturday’s stride was easy and assured, and Andy nearly had to run to keep pace with him. They reached a bend in the tunnel and Mr. Saturday stopped and felt between the irregular slabs of slate, muttering, “Somewhere ‘round here. Ah, yes.”
There was a teeth-jarring sound of stone scraping on stone and a massive block rolled away to reveal an opening. From Andy’s vantage point, the new doorway opened out to an endless blue-black night sky with brilliant stars of all colors wheeling in the darkness. Mr. Saturday beckoned for Andy to follow and jumped down from the doorway. Andy hesitated for a moment, then closed his eyes and ran forward through the opening. There was a moment’s panic as he fell, then discomfort as he smacked solidly into the ground. Andy rubbed his skinned knee, then looked around. He and Mr. Saturday were standing on a narrow, winding cobblestone road that snaked through the brilliant, starry sky. Andy peered cautiously over the side of the road; there was only sky beneath him. The doorway to the tunnel hovered in the air behind them incongruously. There was no stone structure that it appeared to be a part of, only more of the endless sky beyond. Mr. Saturday waved a hand and Andy heard the scraping sound again and the doorway that led them to the sky-road vanished.
Mr. Saturday smiled broadly and bowed theatrically, his coat-tails fluttering behind him. He winked at Andy and said, “Offic’lly this time, welcome to the World of the Dead. “
Mr. Saturday snapped his fingers and an ebony cane floated up from beneath the sky-road. The cane was finely worked and had a silver skull the size of a fist as its handle. Sapphires twinkled from the shaded depths of the skull’s eye sockets.
Andy asked, “Where did that come from?”
Mr. Saturday smiled with false humility, “Well, Andy m’boy, in this place I’m afraid I’m a person of some small importance. Like a mayor of haunts you might say, and this is my badge of office.”
“Mayor of ghosts? You have a city?”
“There’s near as many cities here as dead people. Some of ‘em are more important than others, of course. The one we’re goin’ to isn’t near the most important of ‘em, but it’s a good place to fill our ears with whispers and sift through the lies. An’ it he’ps us mightily that Ol’ Mr. Saturday is owed a good number of favors there.”
“Are you the mayor of this city?” Andy asked.
Mr. Saturday chuckled, “That little pissant one griffon backwater? Mr. Saturday the mayor of THAT? Nossir. Like to die again of the insult to my honor if they gathered up the raw nerve to even ask me.”
Andy shook his head in confusion. Mr. Saturday grinned and said, “Now, let’s get to steppin’ if we’re going to reach Dustville by Shadowtide.
They walked along the sky road without talking. Mr. Saturday whistled a jaunty, syncopated tune while leading an imaginary orchestra with his cane, while Andy trailed behind staring at the strange place he found himself in. As the moved further along the meandering cobblestone road, trees began to appear at its shoulder in random intervals. The trees were leafless and white as bone. Their branches splayed upward like disfigured fingers, and their roots reminded Andy of a nest of snakes he had seen on a nature program, entwined and huddled together for warmth. There was no soil, the trees hung in the sky much like the road they walked upon. Gossamer strands of thread as fine as spider’s silk stretched between the branches, catching the starlight and making random patterns. Andy saw no spiders.
As they walked further, the trees became a more frequent sight until they found themselves in a small wood. Mr. Saturday twirled his cane in the air with the finesse of a band major. Andy said, “Those trees give me the creeps.”
“Those ain’t ‘xactly trees,” Mr. Saturday said ominously. “’Sides you think the Dead can build a house an’ furniture out of pine and oak?”
“What are they then?” asked Andy.
Mr. Saturday chuckled. “Best not to ask.”
By now the canopy of white branches above them and the wriggling roots below them were so thick that Andy had difficulty seeing the enormous night sky. The cobblestone road had broadened significantly. Ahead of them was an oblong bulge in the road that resembled nothing more than a traffic circle. At the circle’s center was a battered and ancient stone pillar supporting a statue of an Angel. The Angel’s nose was missing and one of its wings had a crack running through it. Mr. Saturday rummaged in the lapel pocket of his jacket for a moment and produced a tarnished silver pendulum. He swung it in lazy circles. He furrowed his brow in concentration briefly before walking over to the base of the pillow and knocking on the Angel’s left foot three times with his cane.
A high pitched, nasal voice cried out suspiciously, “Who’s there! Name yourself or suffer the consequences!”
Mr. Saturday said, “I name myself as the Baron. An’ if you wanna talk consequence, I can remind you a few you might suffer if you keep me waitin’ in this damn wood, fool!”
There was a sniffling protest, “I’m just trying to do my job!”
The base of the pillar swung open, revealing a small, misshapen hunchback holding a dark lantern at the top of a staircase that spiraled downward. Mr. Saturday’s eyes blazed with displeasure, “I ain’t never forgotten a slight. And you best believe I’ll be rememberin’ this one.”
The hunchback cowered and said, “Please sir, I didn’t know it was you. I would have never—"
Mr. Saturday picked up the hunchback by his collar with his free hand and brought him up to eye level, “You can’t never know who’s knockin’, so you treat beggars as if they was kings, not kings as if they was beggars.”
The hunchback wailed as if Mr. Saturday struck him. Mr. Saturday dropped him to the ground with a sound of disgust, “Lead us into your city.”
“Sir, your young charge has not identif—"
Mr. Saturday clenched his teeth and the hunchback cringed. Andy quickly stepped between them and said, “My name is Andy, sir. Mr. Saturday’s my friend.”
The hunchback’s eyes widened in sudden surprise and he said, “But he’s—"
“Yes,” Mr. Saturday said curtly.
“This way, noble sirs,” the hunchback said, and shuffled down the spiral staircase. Mr Saturday followed closely behind, his cane clanking loudly on each step as he descended. Andy clutched the railing and carefully picked his way down the slippery, tightly winding wrought iron steps.
The walls were damp and streaked with lichens. They remained as narrow as the hollow pillar the entrance to the staircase was housed in on the long way down, and Andy shuddered as his hand accidentally brushed against the irregular mottled patches of fungus that grew on the walls. At last they came to the bottom. There were foul-smelling clumps of sawdust on the earthen floor and a low, narrow arch that led outwards. The hunchback made an after you gesture towards the arch and Mr. Saturday ducked through. Andy followed and found himself in a cramped vestibule full of figures of fantastic beings carved out of wood and stone and ivory. Some were creatures as unremarkable as horses, while other depicted griffons, dragons, chimeras and stranger creatures that never appeared in anyone’s mythology.
The hunchback stood by a massive wooden door at the far end of the room and said officiously, “If it pleases sir to rest from his travels here for a moment, I shall go and arrange for him to receive a proper welcome from His Excellenc—"
“It pleases Sir to get on with his business," Mr. Saturday said, brushing past the hunchback, “An’ you can tell His Excellency of dust I said that.”
Mr. Saturday flung open the door and flooded the vestibule with a brilliant tangerine light. Andy blinked and shielded his eyes. After they adjusted, he could see a broad sandstone boulevard that seemed to be part of a bustling town beyond. Crooked houses of stone, wood or wattle and daub stood next to elegant marble edifices and squat concrete buildings. Fragrant, colorful flowers blossomed between cracks in the street, seemingly immune to being crushed beneath the feet of the people who milled about busily. The people were of all races and colors and wore clothing in strange and senseless varieties. Andy saw a man who wore the jacket and tie of a business suit over a chain mail haubergion. He had a kilt with a tropical print tied neatly around his waist. A woman with a green and orange Mohawk wore what appeared to be a sari and falconry gloves. The sky above them was the color of orange sherbet. Luminous, candy-colored clouds hung overhead.
Andy craned his neck trying to take in all the sights of the strange little town. Street vendors hawked wares from carts and wagons, and a trio of buskers was singing sad love songs on a nearby corner. One of them played an electric guitar, another had a banjo and the other was playing on an antique lyre made out of a tortoise’s shell. The smell of baking pastries wafted through the air. Andy’s stomach growled; it seemed like a small eternity had passed since dinner.
Mr. Saturday scowled, “Can’t say Dustville’s much improved. Absence don’t always make the heart fonder.”
“But it’s so pretty,” Andy said.
Mr. Saturday laughed, “Rainbows on soap scum, Andy. Rainbows on soap scum.”
Mr. Saturday pointed his cane at a grand mansion up the street, “See that house? That’s where we’re goin’. Remember what Ol’Legba tol’ you. Then remember what I tol’ you.”
A nut-brown, bent over old woman in a graying wedding gown of tattered tulle and ruined lace blocked their path and proffered a bow of strange smelling weeds, “Balderflowers for the fine gentleman!”
The pungent flowers and the woman’s own peculiar scent overwhelmed Andy and he drew back, covering his nose in reflex. Mr. Saturday tipped his top hat to the toothless old woman and danced to the side. She paced them as they strolled towards the mansion. Mr. Saturday said smoothly, “Your blossoms are lovely as you are m’dear. But I’m afraid the young gentleman and I have pressin’ business that does not require a lure for a Lum-Phoenix.”
“Ah, but the sir does not know the other powers of the Balderflower!” she insisted, “For less than a Mortix, I could show you how to conjure dragons, stop time and regain the semblance of youth all with the power of this humble weed.”
“Indeed? And I’m quite afraid the young sir and I will miss out on this opportunity for education, despite your powers of persuasion.”
They had arrived at the mansion. Mr.Saturday swung open the gate and continued, “For it appears we have reached our destination.”
The old woman spat on the ground, “The house of that old sinner? If you want to lie down in filth, then I’ll have no more with you!”
Mr. Saturday pulled the woman’s hand towards him and kissed the back of her palm. She snatched it away with a jerk, “The devil take you!”
Mr. Saturday raised an eyebrow, “I think Ol’ Scratch is quite busy enough without having me at his door.”
She said something unintelligible in response, then scurried away to get lost among the other colorful and noisy citizens who thronged the streets. With Andy in tow, Mr. Saturday strode up the Mansion’s front walk, past ornate fountains with whose patinaed cherubim spat out streams of cool water, elegant marble nymphs who cavorted merrily under flowery arbors and immaculately groomed hedges to rap on the front door with his cane. After a few moments a lovely young woman in a loose, flowing red silk gown pulled the door open and smiled at the two of them. Mr. Saturday doffed his hat and bowed deeply at the waist, and cleared his throat.
“You have no need of introductions, “the woman said. Her voice was high and clear, with an accent that Andy could not place. She turned to smile at Andy. She had dimples.
“You and your guest are quite welcome in this house, Lord Mayor. My employer is most anxious to see you. Please follow me.”
The women turned on her heel and led them into the cool air of the house past the front parlors through a long gallery where finely worked tapestries covered nearly every inch of the high, marble walls. They walked up an enormous curving staircase and reached a landing where twin suits of armor stood sentinel before a peaked doorway. She pulled a key out from the bosom of her dress and inserted it into a lock in the massive ironwood door. It turned with a click. She placed her palm flat on the surface of the door and pushed. The door swung back on its hinges. The woman gestured at the hallway beyond, “At the end of this corridor you will find the Master in his private study. He awaits your arrival.”
Mr. Saturday smiled ingratiatingly, “Your assistance is much appreciated.”
Andy said, “Thank you ma’am.”
The woman leaned over and kissed Andy on the cheek, then briskly walked the way she came. Mr. Saturday leaned over close to Andy and whispered, “Remember what Legba said.”
Andy nodded, “And I remember what you said.”
“That’s m’boy,” Mr. Saturday ruffled Andy’s hair playfully.
At the end of the corridor was a red velvet curtain threaded through with cloth of gold. It parted as they reached it. The room they entered was an exercise in opulence. The floor was covered in carpets with intricately worked patterns. The wallpaper was emerald and cream striped silk brocade. Peacock feathers sprouted in dense profusion from porcelain vases atop gilded ivory tables. A table of ormolu and gold was piled high with fruits, nuts, cold roasted game birds and candied violets. In the center of it all was a tall, lanky man resting on a couch, half-buried beneath plump, overstuffed cushions. The man had a long, beaky nose, thin lips and a receding hairline. His expression of hauteur and his luxurious surroundings lent him an air of nobility. The man beckoned languidly to Mr. Saturday and Andy to come closer.
Mr. Saturday said, “Been a long time, ain’t it, Charlie.”
The man smiled thinly and without humor, “Too long, Lord Mayor.”
“Aww, no need to stand on formality, old friends like us.”
“Yes, old friends need not be formal, Lord Mayor. And you will do me the favor of introducing your young companion, yes?”
“Andy, this is Lord Charles, who styles himself Prince of Dustville. Lord Charles, this is Andrew who styles himself Andy.”
“Pleased to meet you sir,” said Andy, “How do you do?”
Lord Charles sat upright and peered closely at Andy. He smiled liplessly and said, “Charming.”
He reached for a tray of fruit. Several strawberries fell to the floor. There was something spider-like about his long limbs and languid motions that made Andy shudder. Lord Charles picked up a grape and popped it into his mouth. He closed his eyes while he chewed, pantomiming unfathomable delights. Andy’s stomach growled again.
Lord Charles regarded Andy carefully and then said slyly, “How rude of me! You must be famished after your journey. Care for a bite?”
He thrust the tray forward towards Andy, who almost took a strawberry without thinking when he felt Mr. Saturday’s restraining hand on his shoulder. Andy gave his friend a puzzled look and Mr. Saturday mouthed the word, “Legba.”
Andy said, “Thank you sir, but I’ve eaten already.”
Lord Charles licked the corners of his mouth and said, “Now dear boy, do not hesitate to indulge yourself. Bourgeois politeness has no place here. Can you not see what marvelous delights I have in store for you?”
Lord Charles turned away and pulled a silver lid off a tray of pastries. He took a croissant from the tray and cracked it in half. Steam wafted from the flaky middle. The warm, buttery fragrance nearly overwhelmed Andy and he sucked in a tight, sharp breath. Lord Charles held out half of the croissant and gave Andy a hungry, eager look. The boy took the pastry in his hand and had it halfway to his mouth when Mr. Saturday said, “He’s right. You gotta see what he’s offerin’ you.”
On the word “see”, Andy felt a sharp pain behind his eyes. He shut them tightly and whimpered in surprise. He felt briefly as if he were plunged in very cold water. When Andy opened his eyes, the whole world had changed. Lord Charles was a grotesque and dessicated corpse with shriveled parchment-like skin whose thick black tongue was avidly licking his cracked, waxy yellow lips. What was once a hand with long, elegant fingers was a grasping claw with thick, twisted talons. His sunken eyes glared balefully from the hideous ruins of a face. He was lying in a pile of filthy, stained and ancient linens whose frayed edges trailed threads that waved slowly in the drafty air like the tendrils of some sea creature. The light was now green and bilious and full of dancing dust motes. Dust too lay heavily on the furniture in thick, sticky layers. What was once a sumptuous feast was now a revolting heap of refuse, full of corruption and rot. Andy glanced down at his hand and saw that the half-croissant that he had nearly devoured was a misshapen colony of molds. He dropped it to the warped and gnarled wooden floor with a shout of disgust.
Lord Charles looked over at Mr. Saturday and cackled madly, “So, your boy can overcome my glamour. Impressive. Very impressive. Too bad I can’t keep him,” he ran a possessive finger down Andy’s cheek. Andy repressed a shudder of terror.
Mr. Saturday glowered at Lord Charles, “Hardly hospit’ble, Chuck. The living ain’t allowed to eat here and leave. T’keep that from happenin’, I had to remove the scales from the boy’s eyes. He don’t deserve that difficulty yet.”
“You can’t blame me for wanting to keep him,” Lord Charles clicked his gray, misshapen teeth together, “So pretty, so vibrant. And the rules say I am allowed to offer temptation.”
“What’s allowed and what’s right ain’t never been the same thing, Chuck.”
“And are you here to lecture me on rightness, Lord Mayor?” Lord Charles replied. The look of hatred he gave Mr. Saturday belied the mild tone of his voice.
“Why does everyone discuss me like I’m not here!” shouted Andy, clenching his fists together.
“Ah, youthful outrage,” condescended Lord Charles, “a lovely boy such as you must become accustomed to being a valued commodity.”
“He ain’t—“ Mr. Saturday began, then looked at Andy apologetically, “You ain’t a commodity, Andy. You’re a good boy. We shouldn’t have never come here, wouldn’t if there was a better choice. But you got to trust me. There’s things you’d be better off not knowin’”
“Aren’t I old enough to decide that for myself? You’ve gone on and on about me growing up and being tougher, and now you decide I should stay a child. If you can’t make up your mind, let me for once.”
Lord Charles chuckled, “Ah such fire. I do wish you had eaten that croissant. Taming you would have been such a delight.”
Mr. Saturday ignored Lord Charles and said to Andy quietly, “Don’t look like there’s much choice. From now on you’re gonna see things as they are, not as they wanna be, and I don’t doubt that’s gonna make some things harder. I jes wanted to he’p you as much as I could before the real bad times come.”
Impulsively, Andy closed the distance between them and hugged Mr. Saturday, pressing his face tight against his guardian’s chest.
“Thank you,” he murmured. Mr. Saturday patted Andy’s back before releasing him.
“Heartwarming,” said Lord Charles as grabbed a putrescent rat from the table of refuse behind him and popped it into his mouth. He slurped and gibbered joyfully as foul juices ran from the corner of his mouth.
Mr. Saturday smiled humorously and cracked his cane against the floor, “Now, what we come for, my young partner and I, is information. Charlie, you got it, and I want it. Let’s talk turkey.”
As the two of them walked out of the decaying manor into the town street, Andy noticed that the town itself was also transformed. The warm tangerine light was gone, instead the sky was a noxious yellow-green with black and purple storm clouds hovering at the edges. The buildings were all structurally unsound shanties that swayed and creaked in the hot, gritty wind. Dust swirled everywere, it covered Mr. Saturday’s black coat and blew in Andy’s eyes.
Andy said, “I don’t think I liked the way he laughed when he told us where the manitou was.”
“Didn’t quite care for it myself, Andy. Course, I know a bit more why he was laughing.”
“He’s on an island in a river. Is it that bad?”
“Ain’t no ordinary river. Ain’t even no ordinary river in the World of the Dead like Styx or Lethe. It’s the Shadow River. And we got to find some ship crazy enough to book us passage on it.”
“Is that hard?”
Mr. Saturday pursed his lips together, “Ain’t hard if we go to the right place. Fact, there’s a little outfit at the mouth of the Shadow River that’ll take us upstream in high style. It’s jes that, for me, the right place is the wrong place.”
Andy asked, “Why’s that?”
Mr. Saturday laughed loudly, “’Cause where we gotta go is no other place than my old hometown."