Liz Colter has followed her heart through a wide variety of careers including farming with a team of draft horses, and working as a field paramedic, Outward Bound instructor, athletic trainer, and roller-skating waitress, among other curious choices. Her novels and short stories written under the name L. D. Colter explore contemporary and dark fantasy, and ones written as L. Deni Colter venture into epic fantasy realms. Her debut novel “A Borrowed Hell” was the winner of the 2018 Colorado Book Award for Science Fiction/Fantasy.
The following is an excerpt from “While Gods Sleep.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
2019 Colorado Book Awards winner for Science Fiction/Fantasy
Back at the beauty academy, Kairos locked the building and they all walked to the train station, the two behind still wearing their trench coats despite the rapidly warming day. Ty’s feet burned like hellfire on the walk; his clothes rubbed painfully at his newly colored skin and the wound above his collarbone. At the station, Kairos purchased tickets to Lake Marathon. He pointed Ty to an empty compartment for the two of them. His lackeys sat separately. Ty eased onto the bench seat, the tattoos on his lower back and thigh sending a jolt of fresh pain across his skin. The train began to move, and still Kairos hadn’t spoken.
Ty watched the poorer neighborhoods of the nation’s capital city slide by the window: cluttered streets, newsstands on the corners, trash piled up against the chain-link fence along the tracks, and people hunched against a cool, spring wind. Mount Lycabettus rose from the city like a wishful scale model of Mount Olimbos, which spread ten times its height and fifty peaks wider beyond sight to the northeast.
He leaned forward to look back at his city for what might be the last time. The Acropolis loomed over the town from its outcrop, its dead bones seeming fuller and whiter in the noonday sun, more imposing than he remembered. He hoped Nikos might go see his mother again today, and wondered what she would think of her son not coming to visit. The doctor had warned him that she remained in danger, that the advanced care and penicillin therapy might have come too late. She’d made it through those first questionable days, though. Perhaps she’d even be home by the time he returned. If he returned.
The urban outskirts condensed into the congestion of downtown, then back to outskirts before slowly opening onto suburbs, country farms, and finally, rolling hills of scrub. The train chugged on into the countryside before Ty broke the silence.
“So, are you going to tell me what it is I’m going to Erebus to fetch or am I just supposed to guess when I get there?”
“Someone there has a thing I need,” Kairos said. “Her name is Naia. The item is small, no longer than my hand.” He reached into an inside jacket pocket and produced a small piece of thick paper, which he handed to Ty. “That should be about life-sized,” he said.
The drawing was sophisticated and detailed. The rectangular object depicted a gryphon in profile, sitting on its haunches: the top, the head; the shaft, the folded wings over the body; the flared base, the taloned front feet. It appeared to be flat on both sides, about the thickness of a letter opener, and only an inch or two wide. The colors were the same as those patterning Ty’s body: red, gold, blue, and black. The gray edges that bordered the shiny colors gave the impression the item was made of painted metal.
“Are you going with me?” Ty asked.
“So how do I find this person? Is there a map or something? I mean, the less I wander around asking ‘Can you tell me where Naia is?’ the longer I’ll live, right?”
“There aren’t any maps of Erebus. It would be like trying to map the clouds. Erebus is… changeable.” Kairos picked at a pimple on the side of his nose. “I’ve given you what advantages I can,” he said, nodding his head in the direction of Ty’s newly tattooed body. “Beyond that, instinct will serve you there better than anything else.” He paused. “We’d better both hope you have good instincts.”
Not lately, Ty felt, but usually he did. Right now he felt like a man just waking up, struggling out of a vivid dream. “So what’s to stop me from turning around after you drop me off, hightailing it for someplace neither of us has ever heard of?” Ty wasn’t exactly playing his hand. He knew Kairos would have a contingency plan, and he might as well know what it was.
Kairos reached into his jacket pocket and pulled a length of black ribbon from the depths. It looked disturbingly familiar. Holding it in his lap, he tied a loose knot in the middle and slowly pulled on the two ends.
Ty gagged. Then he choked.
The tighter Kairos pulled, the less air Ty was able to suck in past a constriction that felt like fingers wrapped around his neck at the level of his scar. His hands clawed at his throat, as if he could tear away the pressure.
Kairos untied the knot. Ty slid from the bench to his knees, gasping like a beached fish. He remained that way long after he’d recovered, his composure slower to return than his breath. At last, he climbed awkwardly back onto his seat.
Kairos said nothing more and they spent the next hour in silence as the train trundled on, making fewer and fewer stops on the way to Lake Marathon, the last point on the line. When the train finally squealed to a stop, a couple of families with picnic baskets and blankets were all that exited with them. Kairos pointed to a bench outside the station and the two black-coated men sauntered over and took a seat. After Kairos’ little trick with the ribbon, Ty had to admit that they were a bit superfluous.
He followed Kairos down a rough boardwalk that led from the train station to the lake where the shallow waters were dotted with children screaming and squealing as they played, enjoying the rebirth of spring, the promise of warmer weather and water more than the actuality. The boardwalk terminated at a pier, and on either side of the pier were a dozen or more boats, mostly small crafts: wooden canoes, rowboats, a handful of dinghies with canvas sails neatly folded. A couple of larger sailboats bobbed at the far end.
Kairos unlocked the chain from one of the rowboats. The ladder down gave him no trouble, but the long step from the ladder to the boat looked to be a challenge for his short legs. Ty wouldn’t have minded seeing him go for a swim, and was disappointed when Kairos managed the gap with an awkward but practiced leap.
Ty didn’t care for deep water. His first death, by drowning, had been the summer he’d turned five, shortly after he’d been allowed to join the older boys playing at the quarry pond. On a day like any other, bored with the endless squirting games and diving for stones games and chicken fights, he’d decided to swim across the pond, despite the fact that he’d never learned to swim. He tiptoed along the underwater boulders that divided the shallow water from the deep. With the invincible faith of a child, he stepped off the rocks and dogpaddled just far enough to cramp up over a section of water as deep and black as a night sky. His legs sank like columns of stone.
Drowning hadn’t been the frantic, screaming thing people always seemed to imagine. It was a quiet death. He’d been unable to wave his arms because instinct kept them horizontal, pushing down on the water to lift himself up. He hadn’t yelled; unable to kick, his head was never above the surface long enough to both breathe in and yell out. Breathing trumped yelling.
He bobbed in silence a few feet from where his friends were playing for maybe a minute or two, frightened, but not yet terrified, his mouth intermittently at, and then below, the waterline. When he sank beneath the surface for the final time his drowning was still quiet, but that’s when it got ugly.
He saw the old gods while he was down there—after the panic, after the struggle and the inevitable burning lungful of water. They were in some dark enclosure that was everywhere or nowhere. He could still remember their faces, all lined up on biers, as if they too were dead: Morpheus, Hestia, Thanatos, Hypnos, Eros, Hemera and more, stretching back into the shadows. The room vibrated with quiescent power. He was a child in the company of gods, and dead or not, real or not, they had terrified him.
The next thing he’d seen had been the rough rock of a boulder. Nikos and another, older, boy had him face-down, pounding on his back and pumping his arms while his lungs vomited pond water and his heart began to beat once more.
Kairos took up the oars and Ty climbed into the boat. His memory of drowning haunted him more vividly than it had in years. Remembering the gods, the turbulence of power in that room, he wondered how he had ever pushed aside his faith. Maybe he’d just wanted to put distance between himself and the gods after twice being pulled into their presence. He stared out over the lake as if he could see Erebus in the distance.
Kairos backed the boat and rowed with strong, sure strokes well out across the lake. They passed boaters and fishermen, and still he kept rowing. The shore diminished.
Ty watched as little islands he didn’t remember seeing before appeared around a curve on the lake. “Mind telling me where we’re going now?” he asked Kairos.
“Erebus,” Kairos said. He’d been rowing about twenty minutes but didn’t seem winded from his exertions.
Ty didn’t know how to get there, but he felt pretty sure this wasn’t it. “I thought Erebus was down,” he said.
“We are going down.”
Ty stared at Kairos, but said nothing.
They passed a tiny island covered in a dozen or so pine trees, and a bank of fog met them on the other side. Somewhere ahead loomed the reservoir’s dam. Kairos rowed onward into the dense, gray mist. Perhaps five minutes inside the fog, the little man boated his oars. The rowboat rested on the water as it might on a cushion. Ty’s senses told him it wasn’t rocking with the waves or drifting in any direction, though the fog may have deceived him.
“You’ll have to go on your own from here,” Kairos said. “I can’t go any farther.”
Ty saw nothing but gray fog over gray water in all directions. “What do you mean?”
“Swim. That way.” Kairos thrust a stubby finger toward the bow.
“Beg pardon?” Ty said.
Ty’s friends had taught him to swim after he drowned, but it wasn’t something with which he’d ever been comfortable. Being dumped out of a boat in the middle of a lake was decidedly uncomfortable, especially coupled with the ambiguity of the directions.
“Swim,” Kairos repeated. “That way.”
“Not sure,” Kairos answered. “Distance is as variable as everything else in Erebus. Just head that direction. You’ll figure it out.”
Maybe there really was no Erebus. Maybe this was some inventive plan that Kairos had come up with to kill him. Plop him in the water, tie his little ribbon in a knot, and that would be the end of Ty Kleisos. He gripped the edges of the metal rowboat so hard it creased his palms. He tried to talk himself down, rationalizing that Kairos could’ve killed him a dozen ways easier than this.
Ty looked around for alternatives. He could dump the boat, club Kairos with an oar, steal the black ribbon, right the boat, row back to shore and try to evade the two flesh-eating men at the station. Ironically, he had to admit that swimming away from the boat seemed the better option; at least he’d get away from this wretched man and his thugs. Ultimately, now that Kairos and his men knew that Ty’s mother could be used for leverage, it made no difference what Ty did or didn’t want to do.
He removed his jacket, tie, socks, and shoes. The tie he left in the bottom of the boat. The socks and shoes he placed in the middle of the jacket, then spun it by the sleeves in an attempt to trap some air. He tied the arms tight around his waist, but knew that he’d be struggling before long with the weight of his wet clothes no matter what he did.
Still hoping this was a joke, he looked back at Kairos once more but the man sat waiting. Ty grabbed on to the gunwale and slipped over the side, taking no special care to keep the boat righted. In defiance of the laws of physics as he knew them, the boat and Kairos remained stable. Ty let go.