He heard his name spoken in whispers. His family name, the one he did not like to be called. Did not like to be reminded of. It was spoken in a thin, curling strand that swirled through his thoughts, from one end of his mind to the other, picking up and sifting between memories, like a brisk stream of water that eroded the sand through which it flowed. It woke him in the night. It stopped him in mid-sentence when he was talking to his class. It blasted across his mind and threw him into empty fugues to which he lost hours. Dawes.
He emerged from one of those on the highway. He had started up his car and pulled out of the parking lot of the high school at which he taught. Then he remembered nothing, and now he was on a blue back road off the interstate, and he had come three hundred and seventy miles and it was four o’clock in the morning. The thought of driving in that state put a ball of lead in his chest that blew away any fatigue he might have felt. But he must have managed to drive safely, and even filled his tank amidst the cloud of Dawes. He pulled over into the shoulder and shut the car off. The road was empty. Before he turned the headlights back on there was no light whatsoever. The moon must have been behind the trees, or else new. He never thought to pay attention to it anymore.
He was so far from home, and he was supposed to be at school in two and a half hours. That was not going to be possible. He thought about sending emails out, calling in sick. At the moment, he could not focus his mind enough to remember which names those emails should go to. He pulled back out onto the road to look for the next exit.
Very soon after, he slammed on his brakes. There was someone in the road, in the middle of the highway, a pale yellow-silver body in the brights. They didn’t move when Dawes, rattled, hunched behind the wheel for what seemed a long time and watched them. He didn’t move when they came to the passenger-side window.
She let herself in. He didn’t notice anything about her face except that it was framed by the hood of a thick, fringed coat.
She said: Dawes. With his ears, he heard her voice, a normal voice. Deeper inside, he heard the voice that was not hers, the same one that had been assaulting him. She pointed forward, and he drove.
The sun was not up when he reached the airfield. A private one, maybe belonging to the woman in the coat with the voice. There was a plane waiting. A mechanic by it, eyes dull. Dawes stopped the car and the woman led him out. Soon he was seated, dazed, aboard a private jet at whose destination he could not guess.
The jet had to refuel three times. Each time, the woman came out from the cockpit and stood in front of him, facing away: blocking him from trying to leave. He would not have. His head felt swollen from hours of inactivity, his body tense and locked up from confinement. All he did was listen to the voices outside when the door was open, in languages he didn’t recognize.
The fourth time the plane descended, no one came out to stand between Dawes and the door. He stayed where he was and looked around for a long time, and decided eventually that he was supposed to disembark. Outside it was blindingly light out, and bitingly cold. He could not see anything, hear or feel anything for several seconds, until he realized he was looking at snow, hearing high winds, feeling wintery air.
He had been let off on an airstrip that was only a thread of concrete on a flat stretch of mountain. Almost invisible from any distance and impossible to land on without preternatural skill, he was sure. The stairs retracted as soon as he was the ground, and he was alone in the mountains. Those rolled at inconceivable scale around him. He felt like a speck of dust caught at the swell of a choppy ocean.
Then there was someone there, a dark smudge against the endless white. They said: Dawes.
Why did you leave us
You have been gone for so long
– and he did not experience the next several hours. When he was in control of his faculties again, he was high on the mountain. He had a pack and a coat and his face bristled with snow caught in a day or more of beard growth. He knew he had been led, but now he was alone again. And, dimly, he could see his destination.
He did not know how long it took him, he suffered more fugues along the way, but he trudged his way down a long slope, up another pass, and to the peak of a lower but no less challenging mountain. In all that time he saw no life, and eventually even the wind died. The air was still, dead, and silent when he stood before the gate of what he could only call a palace. The voice, or voices, the ones that said Dawes, were there, they spoke, but he did not know what they said.
The old, thick gate was heavy but swung without being forced. With no wind, no snow drifted in onto the stone floor beyond it. Dawes’s boots tracked the only moisture into the strangely desiccated building. The clouds from his breath dissipated quickly every time he exhaled, steam unable to survive here.
He found the great hall. He did not know how he found it, but he felt no need to question it. His masters were there, his old masters. Their nineteen bodies, twisted skulls fused together into a ring, gaped at the ceiling where they lay on their backs, as they had for centuries beyond count. Mummified jaws long ago fallen open, nineteen eyes sunken and lifeless in shared, malformed sockets.
It was a joy to Dawes to know there was still life in their mind, the one they had forged between them, the one that sustained them long after bodily death. He would have wept if his own body could spare the fluid. He did not remember why he had left them, so many lifetimes ago. But he was home now. He stepped gingerly between two of their shoulders, into the ring formed by their heads, and knelt to take his rightful place.