To travel to the otherworlds, the metaplanes of astral space, an initiate must first pass the trial of the Dweller on the Threshold. This mysterious entity may be a creature living on the narrow, misty border between the etheric plane and the dark depths of astral space or it may be nothing more than the living embodiment of the magician’s own subconscious fears and insecurities trying to sway the traveller from his course. In the end, it makes little difference which is the case. The Dweller always challenges the traveller at the Threshold of the metaplanes themselves. The Dweller seems to know every dark secret, every hidden thought, the magician has ever had, and it uses the knowledge to try and convince the questor to turn back and give up the journey. Passing the Dweller on the Threshold and the dark revelations it offers is very difficult for new initiates to conquer. Little do they know it is only the beginning. -from Otherworld Quest: Metaplanar Experiences, by Francis O’Rourke, ThD., UCLA Press, California Free State, 2054 I’m almost getting used to the idea of waking up in strange places from time to time. This time I wake in the depths of the underworld, one of the Lost Stations of the T system. It’s like the Market, but is a place I’ve never seen before and never want to see again. Once quite proud and elegant, the old art-deco platform and archways are now corroded by a century or more of dust and decay, the black and white tile floor cracked and discolored. I can smell the strong musty odors of rust, dust, and oil in the dimness of the place. There is a shuffling sound as I stir and open my eyes. I see shadowy forms moving in the dim light cast from the glowing lichens and mosses clinging to the dank tunnel walls, shedding a pale greenish light over everything. The dark shapes move closer to me with a shuffling movement and hoarse whispers in some guttural tongue. I cannot make out their words, only the rasping sounds of the voices. My vision begins to clear and I see white, sightless eyes staring back at me. I scramble to my feet, and crawl backward, away from the leering ghouls until my back presses against the cold wall, fuzzy with glowing moss. I tense my wrist, preparing to unsheath my arm-blade when another figure cuts through the knot of shadowy forms around me. It’s Crawley. He pushes aside some of the others with harsh words and threatening waves of his hook-hand. “Step aside, you maggots!” he says, his voice loud in the enclosed underground. The other ghouls scatter before him with grunts and whines of protest, more like animals than intelligent creatures. Crawley turns his blind eyes on me and smiles his predator’s smile. He levels a snub-nosed pistol at me from his good hand. “Get up,” he says, gesturing ahead of him with the gun. “Mama is waiting to see you.” I know of Mama, of course. Everyone who goes anywhere near the Catacombs knows about her, but very few people ever see her. The stories say she styles herself the ruler of the Boston underworld and that everything which happens in the Catacombs reaches her ears sooner or later. She is a power-broker and deal-maker, with contacts and connections forming a complex web of influence throughout the shadows. Her influence makes fixers like Milo look truly small-time. Mama is also reputed to be a hideous witch who calls upon dark powers and feasts on human and elven flesh to sustain herself. Maybe she is the source of the rumors Milo mentioned. Is Mama planning some kind of move to consolidate her power in the underworld and make good her claims of rulership? If so, what would she want with me? Influence over the Net walkers? I see no choice but to do as Crawley says, so I let him guide me from the station platform toward one of the dark side tunnels. When we reach the dark pit of the train tracks, the ghoul gestures with his gun. I look down into the trench and back at the ghoul, then jump down among the rusting rails, broken ties, and loose gravel. Crawley follows and prods me in the direction of another dark tunnel with the snub-nose of the pistol. The walls of the tunnel are decorated with strange totem figures made from broken parts of cars, trains, and machines mixed with fur, bone, and other refuse. The figures stare out from the walls with their broken headlight eyes and rusted chrome mouths like guardians who watch all who come and go from this place. These are the dark and secret totems of the city’s rusting underground and I silently pay respect to their dominion. Crawley tells me where to take a turn off to the left into yet another narrow tunnel. The tunnel looks too narrow to be part of the train system. Perhaps it is a siding or a maintenance tunnel, I can’t say for sure. The tunnel ends at a heavy steel door set into the wall. A wheel is set in the middle of the door to open it, like an old-fashioned airlock of some sort. Crawley steps up to it, keeping the gun trained on me, and I consider running. I might be able to bolt down the short tunnel and around the corner before the ghoul can get a shot off. I quickly dismiss the idea, however. Even if I could avoid being shot, I have no idea where I am in the underworld or how I can get out of the tunnels here. Crawley and his ghoul companions would hunt me down easily in the darkness, tracking as they do by scent and magic. Easier to go along and find out why Mama wants to see me while I learn more about my situation and what the old woman wants. I might be able to bring that knowledge back to the tribe with me, if I survive. Crawley raps sharply on the door with his hook, once, twice, three times. The sound echoes in the tunnel and, after the third rap, there is a squeak and the wheel on the door turns. The door swings outward, and a huge troll steps back from the doorway. Crawley gestures with his gun and I step through the door, followed by the ghoul. He almost runs into me as I stop short to look up at the massive troll standing on the other side of the door. Over three meters tall, his skin is like a rocky cliffside. He-at least I think it’s a he-is covered with lumpy deposits of bone on the surface of his skin, forming a kind of natural armor, as pale and white as the shell of some kind of underground beetle. His eyes are small and pink, staring out from under beetled brows topped with long and twisting horns that look formidably sharp at the ends. His body is squat and heavily muscled, and I’m certain he is easily capable of crushing me with one hand. “Keep moving, meat.” Crawley’s sharp comment pulls my attention away from the pale giant standing in front of me. “You don’t want to keep Mama waiting.” I turn away from the troll and begin walking down the brick-lined corridor, aware of Crawley and the troll falling into step behind me. The way is lit by flickering bulbs set into brackets in the wall-like torches. They cast a wan, yellow light over the hall, but brighter than the dim phosphorescence from outside. “Don’t speak to Mama unless you’re spoken to, if you value your hide, boy,” Crawley says in a loud whisper. He sneers. “And be sure to call her ‘grandmother.’ She likes that. If you call her anything else, she’s likely to have you flayed alive. Not that I would mind the entertainment… call it dinner theatre.” I shudder at the idea of what Crawley and his pack would consider entertaining, or dinner. The hall ends in a wine-dark curtain of velvet that is surprisingly clean and intact. I gently push it aside and step past it. Crawley follows, then the troll squeezes his bulk through the narrow doorway into a place like something from out of the distant past. The room is fairly large and lined in brick. Several tall, brick archways are filled with dark, flowing curtains much like the one we entered through.
Numerous candles set into candelabras and lanterns hang from the ceiling. Real candles, not electric bulbs like those in the hall. They shed a warm golden light in the room, which does little to chase away the chill and the dampness of the place. On the floor is a heavy Oriental rug stretching nearly from wall to wall. There are several pieces of furniture that would not have been out of place in the house of somebody’s grandmother: a red velvet settee, several overstuffed chairs, and a few small tables of dark wood and clawed feet. Bunches of fragrant herbs hang from racks along the wall, filling the room with a strong scent of musk and spice. On one of the small tables sits an antique record-player holding what looks like an actual vinyl record grinding out some slow and quiet classical music with a great number of violins and mournful cellos. I don’t recognize the piece. One of the curtains on the far side of the room is lifted to the side by a skeletal hand, and then Mama enters. She is small, probably no higher than my shoulder, and painfully thin. Her body is wrapped in a long, dark dress, and a dark-colored shawl covers her head and shoulders. Only her hands and face are visible and they are old and wrinkled. Her bony hands, pale and touched with dark splotches, clutch the ends of the shawl while her face is like a fairytale witch. It is long and pointed, with a sharp nose and chin. Her thin lips part to reveal sharp and yellowed teeth. Her eyes are small and dark beneath pale brows, not pale and lifeless like Crawley’s, but almost as cold, like lumps of coal. Wisps of brittle, white hair escape from her kerchief and she sweeps the room with her gaze. Despite her aura of great age, this crone is not feeble or senile. She moves with a wiry grace, like a huntress or a spider negotiating her web. Her dark eyes have a fierce intelligence and a gleam that seems to catch and reflect the glow of the candles. I feel her staring at me as if she were looking into the depths of my spirit to learn my every secret. “Well, well, well,” she says in a crooning voice, caressing each word and drawing it out. “What have we here?”
There is a slight accent to her speech that I cannot identify, like something from the Old World that cannot be overcome, even with years of speaking English fluently. She glides over toward me as if barely touching the ground and brushes my cheek with the caress of one bony hand. Her skin is dry and brittle like the many old, yellowed news-faxes scattered over the streets and alleys of the Rox. I fight down a shudder and stand perfectly still. “What is your name, boychik?” she asks. “I am called Babel.” I pause, then add, “Grandmother.” Mama’s lips purse and her sunken cheeks become even more hollow. Her mockery of an almost girlish pout is hideous. “What a polite boy. A lovely boy. Is that your only name, Babel?” “The only name I can give.” “Can give or will give?” she asks with a tone of menace. “Can give,” I reply. “That is the only name I have, the only one with any meaning for me now.” That is not entirely true. There is the street name, Rook, I once used. And I am still curious about my other name, the name I had from my life before the streets, before I found the Net-walkers and became a shaman. “Names have power,” Mama says, speaking as much to the shadows as to me. She turns her gaze from me and begins pacing slowly toward the phonograph. “Once all people kept a secret name that they shared with no one and another they told to the world. Discover a man’s secret name, and you held power over him. Do you believe that, boy?” She spins suddenly and fixes me with her dark gaze again. I nod. “Yes. Names have power. I have learned many secret names in the world of the Matrix. Passwords, systems, and codes.” The old crone waves her thin hand in a dismissive gesture, turning back to caress the ornate metal horn of the phonograph. “Smoke and shadows, mere child’s games with no touch of real Power.” She waves her hand, and a darkling sprite, formed from candle flame and shadow, leaps from one of the candelabras on the table nearby. It flutters into the air on burning wings and I feel a quick stab of jealousy at the sight of it. When the Sixth World began almost fifty years ago, the power of magic returned to the world. Some people suddenly gained the ability-the Talent it is called-to shape the magical forces flowing around the Earth, using them to cast spells and summon spirits. I know when I see the fire sprite leap from the candle flame at Mama’s command that the gift, the power of magic, is something I have always wanted. Dim memories stir inside me of dreams of becoming a powerful sorcerer; casting spells and binding spirits to my will. But then, isn’t that what I am now? I consider my apprenticeship and my initiation into the Netwalkers, all I have learned in the other-world of the Matrix, and draw myself up to face the old crone. “I have seen power in the electron world, grandmother. I have danced with spirits and fought soulless creatures as dark and cold as any demon. I have taken their secrets from them and put them to my own use. That is real.” The old hag smiles her hideous smile and looks at me, looks through me. With a flick of her wrist, the small sprite vanishes in a puff of flame and a small popping sound, making the room seem a bit darker and colder. “Is that so?” she says, like she is humoring a little child. “Do you believe you have touched real power, little machine-worker? Do you think you have danced with real spirits? Do you believe you know what it is to fight a true demon? Do you think you know power to equal the secrets of the Arts and Crafts of a humble old woman… Michael?” The sound of the name goes through me like a power surge, stiffening my muscles and making me gasp slightly as I look at the dark humor in those eyes. That name, that name has meaning for me. Somewhere in the back of my mind the thought blooms like a dark flower. She knows, she knows who I am. “What? What did you say?” I hear myself whisper. “You heard me, Michael. Why? Does that name have some meaning to you, to Babel the mighty technoshaman?
You said you had no other name. Do you, Michael? Is Babel the only name with meaning for you?” I hesitate and cannot seem to find my voice. I only hear the name repeating over and over in my head. Michael, Michael, Michael. I know it does have meaning to me. I know it is my other name. Mama is right. Knowing a man’s true name does give you power over him. I have to know what else she knows about me. No matter what she wants. “How do you know that name?” I ask, and Mama smiles at me like I am a schoolboy who has just asked a patently obvious question. “I know because it is my business to know,” she says. “I know a great many things, my boychik. I know all that goes on in my realm and many of the things that go on above. Knowledge is power, something you should know well. Didn’t your Papa Lo teach you the value of knowledge and secrets?” I nod somewhat dumbly. “You are quite valuable yourself, Michael. Word has reached my ears from many quarters of those who are interested in you.” I think immediately of the sorts of people who might want to know about me. Who could they be? Friends? Family? Enemies? Mama reads all of my thoughts and feelings as if I spoke aloud. “I do not fear the spirits you traffic with, little Babel, the spirits of the machine. Their power is limited and nothing compared to the ancient powers of magic. Still, they are not without power of their own and can still make some profit for me and my children here. That is why I have found it useful to deal with your tribe from time to time through others. Information is valuable, and I traffic in all things of value. Your corporate masters want you back, but they don’t yet know what I know. They don’t know where you are or what you have become. It is knowledge they will pay handsomely for, but not yet. In fact, you can be worth more to me than even that, you will be able to make your grandmother a tidy sum, yes indeed. But I do not wish you to be troubled, my boychik. You must rest and conserve your strength. You will need it in the times ahead.” Her dark eyes focus on me and I feel a deep lethargy pour down my body like the heavy, honeyed words she croons. “Yes, my boy, that’s the way, rest your tired eyes and sleep, sleep the sleep of the innocent, the sleep of the little lambs, sleep, sleep…” I do not hear the rest of Mama’s crooning song as I slip into a deep and dreamless blackness, wondering if I will awaken again to discover the truth of who I am.