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A Gateway


Forgotten gods fill the layers of heaven. Quiescent, subordinate, long ago superceded. Waiting. And every so often, reminded of their own existence.

* * *

Nineteen Years Before Now 

She is nine years old, with tears streaming down her face and the intermittent hiccough of a sob jerking her chest. Dressed in the ragged cut-offs and worn T-shirt that have been the choice of a generation of children, she does not wait to hear the rest of her mother's words. She races out of the house, the screen door banging hollowly in her wake, and runs across the soft spring grass of the yard to duck between the first and second strands of the electric fence, feeling the swift zing of electricity run above and below her.

The old hound follows at his leisure, but follow he does, as stubborn in this as ever in following a trail—even though it takes him a moment to rise and his movement is stiff when he does. His tail waves in gentle arcs as he detours to slip between gate and post rather than duck the fence wire. The day is barely warm enough for the shorts that hang on the girl's lanky frame, but he is already panting.

She stops to wait for him. Of course. And one hand slips inside her back pocket to feel the stiff folded square of paper only recently purloined from her father's magazine. On it is a photo of a sculpture, a simplistically elegant hound—not a treeing hound like her lifelong companion, but a gaze hound, couchant, with a long neck and pointed nose, and a gaze hound's insignificant ears.

He catches up with her, pleased with himself, and lifts his head to look up at her with a hound smile through his panting. Unlike the statue, his ears are long and heavy and the softest things she ever has or ever will feel. But she doesn't care about the differences between her companion and the Lydney Hound. She's not particularly concerned about all the details in the accompanying article that are beyond her ability to digest—cold anthropological facts that even her father doesn't read. She's seen him turning the pages with dirt-encrusted fingers, skipping from one bright glossy photo to another and getting glimpses of places that don't yet pull her own attention away from this small farm. That's all he wants, the glimpses, and when he's had enough he puts the magazine beside his lounge chair and ambles off to see if he can fix whatever mechanical thing has gone wrong now.

This is how she finds the Lydney Hound, and—later, sneaking the magazine into her bedroom—reads about the oddly named god called Mars Nodens who favors hounds, who likes dogs of all sorts. Who has an ancient shrine from olden days so olden she can't even begin to imagine the scope of it and again . . . doesn't care.

What she cares about is that his shrine was a healing shrine. That he favors dogs, that the shrine, even after all this time, is littered with representations of them. And that the right-side pasture has some of the other things she's been able to make sense of in that article—the wide, cold creek that runs deep in all but the driest months, a hill rising on one side of it to hold not only the area's biggest oak, but a tiny spring as well. The tiniest of springs, really, a damp spot that the ground downhill reabsorbs practically before the water has a chance to join the creek, but a spring nonetheless.

She wonders briefly if her own God, her assigned God, will thunderously disapprove of her intent.

But then, He's had His chance, hasn't He? Hasn't she said her prayers to Him, over and over? And did it stop her mother from saying those words about her cherished old hound, only moments ago? Or her brother from making fun of the dog's aged movement?

She smears the drying tears from her cheeks and runs her hand down the dog's soft ear. Maybe Mars Nodens will listen. He is not likely to have heard a more heartfelt prayer—now or then.

* * *

Four Years Before Now 

They come in the middle of the night, breaking fences in a final night of tearing up pastures with the knobby tires on their growling ATVs. Drunk, getting drunker, they spin doughnuts in the wet spring turf, spitting out chunks of sod in their wake. Picking pastures without stock because they somehow have sense enough to know that damaging or losing stock will take them over the line from wild young men to criminals.

But they are mighty wild.

They pick a spot up against a creek too deep to cross, heeding a darkened house in the distance. A young woman lives there, they know, but has been gone this summer, working several jobs as if the extra income will somehow be enough to keep her father alive. She is an odd girl with amazingly long hair, the one who has an uncanny way with dogs and an unsettling way of looking through a man as though he's not even there and it wouldn't matter if he were. But she is not home, and her pastures belong to them.

They settle in for a time to swallow the beer they've brought, shaking the cans, popping the tops to soak themselves and the hillside beneath the spreading oak. They don't notice that they trample the grave markings of the old hound who lived longer than anyone had ever thought possible. They don't notice the sudden stillness of the night around them, or that even as they drink, they often glance over their shoulders, looking for that which they feel but cannot see.

Not a benign feeling, for in this place of power they have not thought to call upon things benign. Instead they call upon aggression, building the strength and ego of the one who will shortly present himself for army basic training. They call upon braggadocio, chest-thumping stories of prowess, and dark promises of manly revenge for those who have recently wronged them. They spill beer from can and bladder, and when they find the struggling remains of a rabbit they roared over in their ATV frenzy, they spill blood.

And then they go home, leaving the debris of the night behind them and never suspecting what they have awakened.

At least, not right away.

* * *


It begins.


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