Rhea worked for the biggest polluter on the planet. Despite her appreciating this and not oblivious to the world jeopardy to which she contributed, its leader, owner, and patriarch, Peter Harper, was the one who signed her checks. When she cashed each one, she rationalized that the world would be no safer were she to resign in protest. The perspective of her replaceability comforted her.
Day in and day out, two cubicle mates punched in and punched out, twice, work segments separated by a one hour abeyance at the behest of lunchtime hunger. In the corporate cafeteria, she and Penny enjoyed the privacy afforded by a half-wall that was an architectural mistake; it hid their favorite table from all the gossippy patrons.
Penny wore her daily lunchtime look of disapproval, because Rhea again was eating too fast. But then, thin people could do that. Rhea already had completely soiled her napkin and reached for Penny's when she sensed someone staring at her. It was none other than Peter Harper himself, creator and owner of Ensley-Mix, Inc.
From over their short wall Harper struck his usual cliché—a pose—of his commanding vantage over the masses.
He was the discoverer of the miracle chemical, Ensley, that changed the world. The multibillionaire—the Überman himself—peered at the gauche Rhea who now tried to swallow not only an overambitious mouthful in one gulp, but her head, too, and with it, the rest of her humiliated body.
Penny sat frozen, her eyes darting from Harper to Rhea repeatedly. It would have been no more startling had the President of the United States strolled up to them. Peter Harper, the god of commerce, stamp-signer of paychecks of thousands, and with all his power, was god to them, also. Forcing onward every speck of food that had been in her mouth, Rhea dared to speak only when she felt every last calorie was well past the first set of sphincters somewhere.
“You’re Mr. Harper,” she announced needlessly to him, her nervousness evident in her tremulous voice. Penny peaked over the half wall to see the entire cafeteria mesmerized by this man’s presence.
“It’s really not fair that you know who I am, but that I do not know who you are,” Harper said, his mannerism twinkly, betraying the fact that of course he knew who she was. Was this a come-on, Rhea wondered in disbelief?
“You sign my check,” Rhea offered nervously and stupidly, her mind a blank for witty coyness which she so desperately wished for at this very moment. Penny recovered the fumble, and she did it for her team.
“I’m Penny Stenton,” she proclaimed, holding out her hand.
Harper turned his gaze to Penny, as if in distraction, almost as if in irritation. He focused intensely on her and his expression hardened. After an uncomfortable and protracted moment, she blinked first. His expression softened, but not in a friendly way. She couldn’t read it, but decided to withdraw her hand.
“I know who you are,” he answered Penny dryly. “I sign your check as well.” And this put to rest any notion on anyone’s part that he might be interested in anyone else but Rhea, whom he now regarded again with a look that baited her for an introduction. Rhea looked at Penny, then back at Harper.
“Rhea,” she said, “Rhea Rosalea Rainey.”
“How lovely,” he said, appraising the name with a fluttering of his eyelids. This temporary blindness afforded Rhea the opportunity to shoot Penny a perplexed look. Penny wished she could have answered the question in that look, but she was still somewhat unsettled by her own brush-off. He was to be forgiven, of course, because he was one of the world’s great human beings, and Penny stared at him expecting orders. She noted that he was exquisitely dressed. The continental double-breasted dark blue suit was silk. His tie had the smallest knot in it. It was so tiny and tight, Penny observed, that it couldn’t possibly be untied. Yes, she concluded, a man like Peter Harper never wears the same tie twice. His couture hung well on a person who could pilot past those who invoked the hardened expression Penny had just suffered.
Rhea observed nothing. She was so stunned that she wouldn’t be able to recall anything about the man later, even had he been on fire.
“Well, Miss Rainey,” Harper said, mischievously accenting the Miss, “I like to travel from center to center from time to time, and it is my custom to choose from the, ah, how do I put this, from the ‘non-executives’ a person to show me around, to give me the inside scoop...” He trailed off. “...give me the dirt on this place.”
“Where shall we all start?” Penny asked hopefully, trying once again to worm her way in. Peter Harper merely looked at her with total lack of amusement on his face. The mogul in him reared its ugly head as he spoke.
“We...are not going to start anywhere. You...are going to go back to your cubicle; the computers are up there, and so should you be.”
Penny snapped up immediately, an obedient movement; it was a continuum that followed through from a pivot away from her chair into a striding off without looking back.
“Bye, Rhea,” were her only trailing last words, launched into her own forward direction which, if Rhea had not been ignoring them, would have been hard to hear anyway.
“Rhea Rosalea Rainey,” he said to Rhea, the music of her name and the charm of his voice complementing each other. “Trochaic, isn’t it?” he asked, more to himself. “Like what is so common in children’s rhymes.”
“English,” she responded. “Except for the Rosalea. That’s Italian.”
“It sings to all languages,” he said with a flattering admiration. Rhea blushed. “Please,” he now said with a slightly more business-like tone, “meet me for a private lunch in the CEO’s conference room at noon. And please, take off the rest of the morning until then.”
And with that plus a smile he removed himself from the architectural mistake. This left Rhea Rosalea Rainey alone in the solitude that the little round table, protected from the come-ons of “the little people.” Their eyes, en masse, tried in the hardest of ways to see through the half-wall to the focus of Peter Harper’s attention.
Rhea felt that her one-to-one with Harper was a denial of Penny before the cock crowed. Was she wrong not to have begged Penny in when it was clear she was not invited? She had fielded her position brainlessly star-struck, solo by default, being the right person at the right time. But had she handled it clumsily by not hooking Penny for the ride on her coattails? And coattails for what? Career brownie points? Her rational mind told her she had no reason to feel the rat, but the rat nevertheless she felt. And within this indictment she arose to slither back to her cubicle to assess any damage done to the relationship she had with her friend.
Penny, on the other hand, had felt no such betrayal. She sat at her squeaky, wheeled chair at her terminal, entering the volumes, weights, and other parameters that certified the cash flow for the company. She entered the data via format-by-rote while thinking about the recent episode on another level altogether.
What a break! she thought. She admitted that it would have been better had she been the one, or had she been even included, but still this was a break of unprecedented proportions. And it was a perfectly natural sequence of events: she was always the also-ran when compared to Rhea. Socially, the attention without exception always went to Rhea. Penny always figured she got more than would be her fair share were she alone. She always fared better with Rhea there, just from the spillover. And even though she was gay, she liked the attention that anyone would like.
And she certainly could be patient for whatever spill-over might come this time.
Thinking it through, being the best friend of the one selected by Peter Harper was the second best career-enhancer she could expect—that is, if he just happened to befriend Rhea on his bureaucratic mission, and he just happened to think so much of her that he would not limit his liaison to business only, and he just happened to feel that any friend of Rhea was a friend of his, worthy of the most expedient of promotions. Rhea was the logical choice because Rhea liked men. Her Pollyannaish daydream went on until she heard the muffled painstaking footsteps on the blue carpet.
Rhea approached cautiously. Penny sensed her guilt and was determined to take advantage of it just for the fun of it. “Hey, thanks a lot,” she told her friend. Rhea slinked into the cubicle with all of the phantom pain that a missing tail between the legs induced. “Come on in, join the party,” Penny continued. “We’re having chopped liver. I’m the main course.”
“Penelope?” Rhea crooned, cajoling forgiveness.
“No problem, my so-called friend,” Penny snapped, firing away at her keyboard.
“Penelope?” Rhea repeated, forming the widest of smiles she could flash into her friend’s peripheral vision.
Penny lost. She suddenly jumped at her friend and hugged her vigorously.
“This is so great,” she said, squeezing her tighter. “So great, so fabulous.” And they both started jumping in place with each other, shrieking in their excitement like two cheerleaders who had just made it past the cut. Soon the unwelcome head of Dwayne Cody peered around the opening of the cubicle to investigate, as was the responsibility of his job. His tenor voice tried its best to take charge.
“Girls, girls, tone down. This is a business.” He was his usual repressive self, his sparse eyebrows wrinkling together in disapproval. It was his usual expression, and it was just another thing about him that made both Penny and Rhea hate him. He didn’t let up. “Mr. Harper himself is coming in from Atlanta this week to check out this center. I make out the report, and if you want to figure favorably then you’d better shape up.” He had a magazine rolled up in his right hand, and he tapped his thigh with it emphatically as he spoke.
“Well, we just happen to know Peter Harper’s here already,” Penny said in a tone she had always wanted to use with Mr. Cody.
“Yea, sport,” Rhea added, “and I think I’ll just take a lunch with him to report on you, O.K.?” Mr. Cody suddenly laughed out loud in a forced way, an outburst of mocking disbelief. A little spit flew and hit Penny. She rubbed her cheek vigorously. Dwayne composed himself for effect and spoke firmly.
“Not only is there more of a chance of you going bowling with the Pope than there is of taking a lunch," he emphasized with air quotes, "with a man who is the planet’s industrial icon, but you should fear that you’re in big trouble right here and now—in-danger-of-losing-your-job trouble.” He smirked a victor’s smirk.
“Well, you can laugh if you want, Coody,” Rhea said nonchalantly, breezing past him on her way out of the cubicle.
“It’s Cody and where do you think you’re going!” he shouted at her. His voice cracked under the strain. “Get back to your terminal!” Rhea stopped abruptly, visibly irritated with this torment. She turned slowly back around to address her supervisor.
“If I’m going to do lunch with Peter,” she boasted, dropping names, first names at that, “then I had better freshen up.”
“First of all, your self-destructive joke had better stop right now,” he warned her. “Secondly, if making yourself presentable is your goal, you had better take a sabbatical.” He was pert and spoke with invulnerability as he stared her down. “A lengthy sabbatical.” And with that Rhea did something she had never done before in her life. Cody was unprepared and didn’t avoid her fist, and he recoiled in pain and astonishment. He clutched his nose with both hands struggling to muffle the pain. The prairie dogs of the whole floor popped above the dividers, then snapped back unseen.
“You...struck me? What? Is it that time of the month for you?” he seethed. Penny bristled. “You’re fired!” he said to Rhea sternly and hatefully through his fingers. “Unless, of course, lunch turns this around for you. Collect your things.” He snapped around and stormed off.
“Time of the month?” Penny asked angrily for all of the women of the world. “You don’t know,” Penny said to her hero, “how I’d love to do what you just did to him.”
“I heard that!” he shouted from over several cubicle walls.
“What did I do? Shit on me, Penny. God, this lunch thing better not be an hallucination,” Rhea said with a strained expression, visibly subduing herself to over-compensate for her assault.
“It isn’t an hallucination, Miss Right,” Penny encouraged her. “But you better figure out a way to cram that foot of yours into his glass slipper, or you’ll have to remove it from your mouth.”
“This isn’t a date, you know; it’s business. Just what are you expecting, anyway?”
“One shot, Rhea,” Penny warned, raising her fist to present an upright thumb.
“Well, if lunch doesn’t make this Cody thing the most unimportant concern this company has ever had, I think I’ll be walking out of there with that foot firmly swallowed. But I promise you this—I will leave with him knowing I’m normal and worth keeping. I’m not worried that I can’t get a word in edgewise to clear me.”
“Rhea, he wants the dirt. You’re good at that. I don’t know how he was able to perceive that—”
“Hey, it’s me, after all,” Rhea interrupted.
“Well, he did pick you, and the dirt in this company is in good hands.”
“Wish me luck.”
“At ya, Rhea.”
“Thanks,” Rhea said back and smiled at her friend. She looked at her watch. “It’s a little after ten. I’m going to run down to KwikKlips and get them to do me up. I think I’ve got time.”
“It’s daytime, Rhea; fluorescent lights. Easy on the make-up. Harper’s got class, O.K.?”
“I’ll hit you, too, Penny—I swear,” Rhea warned her, still facing her as she drifted backwards. “It wouldn’t hurt for you to use a little make-up yourself, Earth-Mother.”
Rhea looked good from the front; when she snapped around, she also looked good from the back. Penny admired the female form in her. But then she sighed. She was daydraming rags-to-riches success stories for Rhea until Cody re-entered. Her eyes slowly refocused on the real world and on a real problem. Cody stood in front of her, his arms folded.
“Do you have anything to say?” He had a wad of toilet paper shoved up his left nostril that looked ridiculous.
“No, sir,” she answered. Not yet, she thought. She tried not to regard his stuffed nostril.
“You had better watch your step, too, Miss Stenton,” he told her, as if he were doing her a favor. Penny stifled her laughter when a wisp of toilet paper shot out of his nose when he spoke, only to rock back and forth on an invisible seesaw of air as it fell. He quickly replaced it with a new, pristine wad of toilet paper he fished from his pocket.
Watch my step? she thought. I’m going to watch the step of my foot up your ass. She masked her thinking through a conciliatory expression, knowing she would most likely laugh before showing any anger. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t keep from looking at his plugged nose, which forced him to keep lowering his head to re-establish line of sight with her eyes. Finally an impish metaphor won out and a comment with a life of its own rolled out of her mouth before she knew it.
“What?” she said, pointing at his nose and the bloody smear below his plugged nostril, “Is it that time of the month for you, too?” Her conciliatory expression had collapsed into one of indignation, and she wore it for all her gender.
Rhea’s own expression, moments later, was one of ecstasy which the beautician incorrectly assumed was due to the massaging of her wet scalp. Her hair was short and slightly darker than auburn. Being as short as it was, it was easy to have it done by lunch.
“Don’t cut anything,” Rhea directed the obese woman, Francesca, who had done her hair dozens of times before. She turned herself around in the swivel chair. “Just style it like this.” She handed Francesca the picture she had cut out of a magazine which she was keeping in her purse for times like this. It wasn’t that this was to be a new look for her; she just wanted Francesca to do her hair right yet again, just like the way she had been doing it since the day she had chopped it all off seven months earlier.
“This again?” Francesca asked. “Rhea, try something different. You like different. Let’s have some fun, O.K.?”
“Not today. Just do it this way and get me going. I’m meeting a VIP for lunch.”
“Oh, really? Who?”
“Only Peter Harper, that’s who,” Rhea beamed.
“So who’s Peter Harper, anyway?”
“Oh, just this multi-multi-balillionaire who’s really cute and wants me to have lunch with him and just gossip and then I hope dinner and then dates and then rendezvouses and then his first child and then his third child when I marry him a second time after partying away my fortune from the pre-nup agreement on the first marriage that ended in divorce, that’s who.”
“Then I guess you want make-up, too,” Francesca offered.
“Yes, ma’am. I do. And I’d like that done perfectly, if you would.”
“That will be extra,” Francesca laughed.
“Our accountants will take lunch,” Rhea responded. She was getting quite used to the idea of taking lunch here and there, as desired.
In the CEO foyer and reception area, Peter Harper swung open the giant brass door and entered to find Rhea already there. She stood up as if awaiting her directions. She felt so stupid just standing there with him, but she didn’t know what to do next, so just standing was the plan until something better cropped up. How many people got to go through that brass door? she wondered. Thos anteroom served as an air lock that opened for the very few into the pressure flux of the inner sanctum.
“Rhea,” he offered, opening the door through which he had entered. His left arm gently aimed its outstretched palm in the direction of a hallway beyond it. She graciously accepted his invitation past him into this hallway. She walked down its beautifully paneled path, extending a finger along the wood at times, to feel it.
“Sequoiadendron giganteum,” he announced. “Giant Sequoia. A secret gift from Robert Redford.”
“Who?” she asked. He didn’t answer.
From his voice, she knew he was right behind her, and she knew she was looking good from behind in her short black skirt. Soon, however, the rearview scrutiny she sensed eroded her self-esteem, perverting into a self-conscious anxiety. She wondered just how long this hall was. In a moment, unable to tell how far behind her he was, she slowed her stride and turned her head around toward him.
He was only an inch away!
She jumped with a little gasp, and he chuckled at her surprise.
“Keep going, Rhea,” he warmly and charmingly instructed her, so she turned her head back and continued her pace as before, feeling studied as before. Certainly this hall was so long, she thought, that it must jut out the side of the building. He was obviously feeling much more comfortable than she, and she laughed when she caught herself thinking that he was walking around up here like he owned the place. The very sweep of this hall was symbolic of his strength and authority, and he smoothly graced its length as they walked; and if the effortless disregard for Penny was Rhea’s foreplay to power, then this hallway was her tunnel of love.
“Now stop,” he said abruptly.
They were in a part of the hall whose walls had shed their sequoia for granite. Art deco sconces appointed the area. The heavy brass motif was back, and golden metal planters with inset, hand-painted tiles held impeccably radiant plants. She leaned down to smell the fragrance of the large bloom.
“Oh,” she recoiled. The unpleasant bouquet was unexpected.
“Rafflesia Flower,” he pointed out. It’s from Indonesia. The malodorous fragrance is easily offset by the fact that it is the world’s most endangered plant. And we have a pair of them. Secret gifts from the Sierra Club. Enjoy, but don’t tell anyone.”
The porcelain-appointed pots bookended another brass door, very similar to the massive entrance door from before, and although reduced proportionately to a standard size, it still presented the same formidable impression.
Mr. Harper reached across her waist to turn the central brass doorknob, and as he did, this heavy threshold was easily open to them as hinges obeyed with silent and effortless rotation. His movement allowed his forearm to caress her belly as he grasped the knob, causing her to draw in her abdominal muscles involuntarily. Now he retracted his arm and urged her silently into the room.
Some conference room, Rhea thought as she entered. There were real oil paintings on the walls that by their frames alone she just knew they were by famous people. A large, immaculate salt water aquarium displayed a group of seahorses. Rhea walked over to the tank.
“The Knysna seahorse,” Harper boasted. “The most endangered seahorse in the world. From Africa. A gift from the Cousteau Society.”
“A secret gift, I suppose?” Rhea asked.
“Yes,” Harper answered. Rhea turned back around toward him.
“So I shouldn’t tell anybody, right?” she teased. He smiled.
A rectangular conference table—of brass, of course, with three brass pedestals of support—was the center of the room. Inlaid in the brass frame-like design of the table surface was a solid black marble slab that had white and green veins. The table, she figured, was probably large enough for about ten people. It was set for dinner, but with eight less people than it could handle. The two dwarfed place settings were next to each other, one at what was the head, the other to its right.
He gallantly pulled out the chair for her to sit upon, which she did, and he perfectly allowed for the perfect slide of it under her, with her, so as to have her at just the right position one would like for eating over a plate. He then attended to himself with the same fluid elegance. He was the one at the head of the table, a presumption that went without saying.
Strangely enough, her nervousness had given way to a spectator's anticipation. She couldn’t believe she was a common tool in this company and that she was eating with the very man who ruled over it. So she was somewhat interested, in this spectator sort of way, in what would happen next. Slowly, she felt poise descend upon her, and her nervousness waned, which made her feel like she was on his level. He apparently sensed this too, for he, now for the first time, appeared a little nervous.
On a server whose black marble matched their table sat a small wooden box. It was a symmetrical cube of some unknown wood, for it was coated in a thick, highly glossy black paint. She guessed it was probably a secret gift from someone.
“What’s in the black box?” she asked him innocently.
“Leave the box alone!” he blurted nervously.
“I wasn’t going to handle it. I was just curious.” Harper, realizing how abrupt he had been, toned down.
“It’s something very important that I need.”
“Like corporate strategies or secrets?”
“Yes. Something like that.”
“Why is it here, then, if I can’t touch it.”
“It rarely leaves my sight,” he answered. “You ask a lot of questions.” This was a burp in her poise, a faltering in her feeling of being on his level, and she cast her eyes downward. Once again, he caught himself. “It’s so important, it goes everywhere I go.”
“It’s not the formula for Coke, is it?” she asked, raising her eyes to his, resealing the rent in her poise, laughing. He paused, then shared the laugh, but he was faking.
“Better than the formula for Coke,” he answered with a tone of finality that officially and irretrievably closed the subject. He lifted a bottle of red wine that was in an iceless silver bucket. “And so is this.” It was already open at the ready and she noticed a slight shake in his hands as he poured her a glass.
“I own the vineyard,” he said to her in a debonair manner that was antithesis to his hand tremors. He likewise poured himself a glass, the slight shaking continuing.
“Thank you,” Rhea said to him as she reached for her glass to drink.
“No wait,” he spoke, “a toast.” And as he reached for his glass to catch up with her lifting of her own, he clumsily toppled it in her direction, the unforgiving red wine flooding her way.
So perfectly had she and her chair been tucked into the table that there was no escape, as her silk blouse, her favorite silk blouse, the white one which had been on layaway for three months, clashed with the splash that attacked her. Clumsiness upon clumsiness compounded the damage as his napkin smeared the stain’s borders.
Since she was with the god, however, she laughed it off as nothing really, and laughed again when he reached for the matching cooler with the white wine, offering the explanation that white wine removes red wine. And she also suffered this surprise splash with mirthful aplomb, for this, too, was nothing really.
The fiasco continued until he ran out of corrective overtures. Her continued nonplussed charade had withstood the entire onslaught with a passing grade.
“I am so sorry, my dear,” he apologized, his tone once again being that of the industrial giant that he was.
Send me the bill would be nice, Rhea thought through the charmed smile she sported, and she was content to sport it all afternoon long if she had to.
She had to.
Some anonymous server, the kind from the best of restaurants that you’re not supposed to notice, served the appetizer. Peter Harper signaled to her and he picked up his smaller fork.
“Grace?” she asked glibly.
“You’re at the head of the table. Are you going to say Grace?” He chuckled away the suggestion. She had invited the prayer with a tone that made it impossible to know that she was teasing. She was a teaser, but it didn’t matter.
“And give thanks to whom?” he said, smiling, gazing intently at her. “No, I’m not.”
An uncomfortable silence ended when he returned to his fork and began without her. She smiled back and reached for her own fork. She remembered her mouthful from the cafeteria, determined to keep the food out of sight when she spoke.
She needn’t have worried.
Peter Harper was an animated conversationalist while he spoke, spitting pieces of Oysters Rockefeller dressing as he spoke, these very minute specks which she hardly noticed, so she tried to make it seem. His slice of tomato slid off of his fork at salad, plopping into his plate, droplets arcing her way, adding a touch of dressing to her blouse. The lemon, of course, was squeezed right into her eye instead of onto his fish at the entree.
And Rhea, for the life of her, could not figure how he managed to drop the whole fish onto the carpet between their shoes, seeing the incident out of the corner of her eye. She wondered if she was being pranked on some reality show. She pretended not to notice, but this whole scene was becoming surreal. He forced her to notice, staring at his empty plate with a refusal to remedy the situation.
“Here,” she offered, “let me get that for you.” But she was too slow. The unheard, unseen attendant had already scooped it up, rolling it with a napkin, and then unwrapped it back onto his plate. Harper glared at him as he did.
“Get out,” he told the attendant sternly. He seemed to be inspecting the fish, but then lifted his eyes to Rhea.
“Do you mind?” he asked her, then resumed staring uncomfortably at his dinner, now sitting once again on his plate after its retrieval from the floor.
“Do I mind what?” she asked back, having no idea what he was getting at.
“Would you mind switching plates?”
“Excuse me?” Rhea asked in disbelief.
“Would you mind switching plates with me? You haven’t touched yours, so I don’t mind eating yours.”
“But you mind eating yours now that it has fallen on the floor.”
“Exactly,” he said. “You see, I have this thing with dirt and germs and the like. I would suppose it’s a rich man’s neurosis,” he chuckled again. She complied, privately suffering the indignity. This had better get me some alimony in the future, she thought, distancing her skeptical self from her enthusiastic self.
They spent the entire time having her try on dinner. There was no talk of business. No dirt at all was bantered. The only conversation that came close was when he sensed that she was upset at how he had treated Penny, which surprised her as an uncommon and un-Harper-like sensitivity.
“It’s obvious you’re a creature of harmony. Say the word, Miss Rainey,” he offered, “and I’ll get your friend to come, in your place, and dismiss you.” His tender smile soothed despite the message that came with it. But this had put an end to shop talk. The rest of the lunch revolved around catastrophes that occurred at each course, some of which he noticed, some he did not. All of them, she wore.
So she couldn’t figure why the lunch. With her. Therefore, maybe he’s a letch, the god on the prowl at the easy pickings that were his drones. But that was OK, she thought, if it were for truly meeting and wanting to get to know unassuming women as a refreshing change of pace. After all, there was letching and then there was letching. It was a shot for her, certainly, so she could allow herself to be letched upon by a billionaire. And if she were explored and then not selected to favor his romantic life, it was still the shot.
Hmm, she thought, how is this not like prostitution?
What she didn’t want was to be used as a spare tire. She didn’t want to be a pro temps whore while he dallied at this, one of his many centers. She didn’t mind him letching after her affection, for that can always lead to appreciating her affection. Yes, she thought, she’d take her best shot at a romance, but not as a masturbation machine. Then she realized she wouldn’t know the difference until after it was over. When one considers a rapport with billionaires, she decided, there are worse things to do than giving him the benefit of the doubt. She had done this with a politician once and had lost. Politicians were now on her pariah list. She would be willing to put billionaires on the list as well, should today make such a blanket condemnation necessary.
After dessert, they retired, at his suggestion, to a soft blue leather sofa at an end of this very large room. The inconspicuous servant made sure that the wine followed them. Red for spilling, white for the solvent. They passed the buffet which held the little black box. Rhea was tempted to slide her finger along it as she passed, but resisted.
“Now, my dear,” he spoke softly, reaching to hold her hand.
Here it comes, she realized, either a letch after my body, or a suitor after my soul.
“Tell me what I can do to make this company more personable to its employees.”
He really was being the prudent mogul for his enterprise! She was so blown away by the letchlessness that she sighed dreamily. He appeared to find great beauty in her reverie, which she felt was a positive attractant, and she fantasized her lips gravitating toward his in a path of least resistance.
“Tell me what I can do to make this company more personable to its employees,” he repeated in a gentle, close whisper, as she made herself, his employee, more personable immediately. Just who had cozied up to whom on the sofa was a moot point and to her utter astonishment, fantasy led to reality as one thing led to another, and ultimately they provided for themselves dessert that was much more rewarding than, but not as messy as, the exquisite caramel cup custard, some of which sat on the tie-dye silk blouse which had come to lay on the floor before the sofa. So expert was the technique of each of them, that each felt the other had been lured dreamily into the situation.
It was all over very quickly. Rhea hid her surprise. They lay collapsed on the sofa, cologne and perfume spoiling the delicate animal hide—a secret gift, perhaps. Just when she expected it was time for him to speak, perhaps to invite her to Sun Valley or Monte Carlo, he spoke as predicted.
“Could you please lift up, Rhea,” he requested.
“Oh, sure, why? Am I hurting your arm?”
“No,” he answered. “I’d like you to get back to work.”
Rhea laughed at his joke. Certainly a joke.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said teasingly, “I know the boss.”
“Well then did you know the boss fires people without the slightest of hesitation.”
Now she was not so sure. She suddenly felt ashamed; she suddenly felt very naked with him. What was previously intimate now had ushered in exposure and helplessness. She was on top of him and she reflexly arched up above him to look into his face. She involuntarily crossed arms to cover her chest, some spinal reflex that attempted to make her feel safe. She reached down to grasp the condom, to hold it tight against him for his withdrawal, but he grabbed her hand and moved it away. He slipped out of her.
Without any type of signal she could notice, the unseen, unheard waiter came in with a small covered silver dish sitting on an open palm. The waiter unhinged the silver tray’s cover open, allowing Harper to discard the condom. The lid fell closed with a dainty clink and just as quickly and quietly the waiter was again unseen. She was defenseless against this unwelcome audience that came and went so quickly.
“You’re kidding, aren’t you, about the firing?” she asked with the type of nervous smile that, while displaying worry, also invited the undoing of any awkward feelings with the simplest of replies. A simple of-course-I-am-silly or gotcha-didn’t-I would do. But his expression became suddenly cold and business-like. She remembered how he had looked at Penny. With nothing but naked people in the room, all had suddenly become asexual.
“I could have your severance check ready in an hour,” he said, lifting himself up, and her with him, almost as if he were shaking her off like some dirt and germs and the like that had gotten onto his own clothing. Like a piece of fish sullied with carpet fibers.
She dressed quickly and was up and ready to walk in no time, and he did or said nothing to deter her. She gave him one last look to redeem the situation, but he passed by avoiding eye contact. Then again, he was Peter Harper, extremely rich tycoon of the age. He just lay there on his sofa, his forefront knee appropriately drawn up so as to block any vision of his sex organs. He had the black box in his hand. The servant must have slipped it to him. Harper opened the box a crack and was inspecting and shuffling some cards that it held.
And so Rhea Rosalea Rainey departed. She left the man who had managed to soil her as well as soil what she was wearing with every course of the meal. Like the silk of her blouse, she knew she could never rid herself of the soiling of this day; her fabric was too delicate, too precious to withstand such squalor.
She took the elevator back to her floor, her cubicle, and walked toward her friend. She stopped and looked down at her blouse that presented the culinary review for anyone who cared to read it. She considered turning around and leaving instead. For an instant she thought she might go to Human Resources, file a statement, resign, and then take the elevator down to the street so as to leave this place forever.
But she had a better idea. A man like Peter Harper deserved so much more.
Arden Goes Home (Excerpt)
I slowly entered the house. It’d been years since I'd made it past the threshold. Just get mum's journals, and get out. Through the porch door I could make out George standing in the kitchen, his head low and his back perpetually hunched over, as he leaned slightly against the countertop.
“Dad?” I whispered.
His head rose and he turned to look at me, but the grimace on his face was unrecognizable. Beaten down by age or guilt, this was not the menace I left behind years ago.
“How are you, George?” I asked. His eyes fluttered at the informal introduction, as he staggered to the brandy in the corner.
“It’s nearly three in the afternoon, Dad.” I left an emphasis on Dad. He ignored me as he poured the last of the warm Aqua Vitae into his clearly overused glass, atop a single useless stone.
“Four years gone by and no hello? Maybe a hug? A fucking lingering look of sentiment?” I exhaled. I took notice of an old photo strewn across the chair in the veranda while I waited for his response. Posed proudly in front of a lush garden stood Mum, Dad, Nigel, and Marcus at the old homestead.
I ran my fingers along the frail cardboard blanketing the Buddy Guy album Nigel had saved all summer for, transfixed on the thick film of grime coating every surface. I must have made a face at the stale air and the stench of sweat densely clogging my nostrils, or maybe the mere silence enraged him. Regardless, the calm had passed and I was no longer in the eye of the storm.
This was George’s way, it was all or nothing with him. His chalky face cracked as he spoke and the flakes of skin mingled in the air with his words. A dreadfully long wait to finish an argument I’d walked away from four years prior.
Crimson red engulfed his clenched jaw, so tight his upper teeth cut into his lower lip, he spewed blood along with the venomous words that came out of his mouth, “It doesn’t make any fucking sense, it never has. You were a warning! We would have stopped, she would have lived! You don’t get to take her place, you ungrateful little dyke!” Sobbing into his glass by this point, he begged, “Oh god, why?!”
I’d had this conversation too many times to entertain a response, he wasn’t looking for one anyway. Rather, I made my way towards the stairs, shuffling through the contrasting memories of Christmas mornings spent waiting on the stairs. The journals, get them, get out. Nearing the base of the staircase, his sobs grew closer, they were almost guttural behind me.
“Arden I swear to god, get back here!” I glossed over the slew of derogatory phrases littering his words, but the shrill rise of intonation kicks in my fight or flight and I bolt up the first few steps. The rest of this encounter is almost a blur. I can still feel his lanky fingers wrapped around my ankle and the skin as it tore open across my forehead. My face had slammed into the edge of the step when he pulled me down. My hand immersed in the blood, I attempted to drag myself to freedom. It took all my strength to pry loose his grip.
Is he fuelled by hatred? My God.
At that thought, he slipped onto his stomach and I took my chance. Clamoring my way to the top of the stairs, I took one fleeting moment to gauge my choices, but our faces were only inches apart as I turned around. There was no time to decide between making a run for the bedroom where I knew they were, or back down the stairs before my hands were trapped in his grip.
“You can’t take them, Arden, you just can’t..” The desperation in his voice caused me to waver. “Please, you have everything, everyone, please leave me the one fragment of her I have left.”
Piercing silence rang through my ears. Did he just say I had everything? Had this piece of shit truly not realized all he had done to commit to his own demise? How dare he? He could have had everything. He had the choice, to have Cole and Holly in his life, to strengthen our family after we lost her. WE lost her. I lost her. He tore us apart. My anger restored, but my arms were still restrained so I spit in his blistering face.
I was seething. “This was all you! This was your ignorance, you sad excuse for a man! My entire life I’ve tried to help you see, I did all mom had left behind and more to save you, to save us! All you had to do was choose us. That was it, George. All you had to do was see outside of yourself. We all lost mom, you lost Camilla and you had no choice in that matter, I know. But you had choices, Dad. You chose this, this loneliness, and I refuse to lose myself in the process of choosing you.” I stated.
He let my hands go and I quickly retrieved the journals from the first bedroom. On my way back down the stairs, George took my wrist in his hand and whimpered, “Arden…”
"Let go of me, George..” Quiet fear filled the space between us. “Let me go.”
untitled 300 and who cares
i can’t remember when the world was sober.
i guess maybe i was born too late.
too early for rehabilitation.
in an era in between inebriation and withdrawals.
a system where the hangover is constant and vicious.
it bites at my heels.
it jabs at my temples.
it hardens my heart.
because we consume to ease the pain.
work and drink.
work and smoke.
work and work and work and work.
and maybe there’s a better way to cope.
but it seems intangible.
a grasp away from a reality.
that is too good to be true.
i forget the last time the world was sober.
maybe hidden in between paragraphs.
that eclipse decades.
or a time that never came to pass.
a place where doctors don’t only take phone calls that come from high rises
and the streets are not bleeding from pharmacy overdoses
no i don’t remember the last time the world was sober.
we didn’t choose this,
we simply exist within a world that requires us to put bandaids on our broken bones in any way we can afford to.
so choose your vice.
let it burn your tongue or your liver or your wrist or your everlasting soul.
watch beneath eyelids from pupils rolled back in ecstasy,
how the world shakes beneath you.
maybe it finally feels bearable for a time.
and don’t ask me to make sense of it.
cause fuck if i know the last time the world was sober
My Blue-Eyed Angel
There are no amount of words that could voice my sorrow
Nothing could bring you back to me
Nothing can bring us back together
You’re gone and now there’s nothing left for me in this world
Why did you leave me alone?
God, why did you steal away my only love in this world?
God, why can’t you bring her back to me?
God, why was I holding her as she took her last breath?
You stole away my only happiness
You stole away my angel
... My joy...
She held me at my lowest points
She loved me at my darkest points
God, why couldn’t you have taken someone else?
God, why did it have to be her of all of the people in the world ?
You saw as I held her limp corpse
You sat there watching as I sobbed over her body
You saw as I had to watch them take my beautiful blue-eyed angel away in a body bag
You saw as the culprit stabbed her six times
You saw everything and did nothing to save her
You knew how much I loved her
You did nothing to save my love
You can’t really exist since you sat and watched her beautiful blue eyes go dark as the life drained from them
YOU DON’T EXIST
You let him take the only thing that made me believe that you existed
You let him take her away from me
Why did I have to work so late?
Why couldn’t I have just stayed home and maybe she would still be alive
I was saved when she was safe
When my darling died, so did the God she believed in
Beat it geezer you know the score.” Richard let out a defeated sigh. Yes he did know the score. There was no bartering with a broker. No credits, no Xfactor. He’d know before he made his way to the “spot” early this morning he would be walking home empty handed. Getting Xfactor on the black market was getting more difficult. The spot was one of the few places to get Xfactor without leaving the city limits. Even then you would have to arrive as early as 4am and wait anywhere from 1 to 4 hours. Furthermore the broker would only be around between 5 or 10 minutes selling X to the frantic consumers before he’d disappear quick as a cat only to return the following day. There were other forgotten corners of the city where x brokers materialized to sell x to eager streamers but being well past his prime and out of the loop with whatever new locations were “frigged” with the young people these days, Richard would likely have no more luck finding them than the police. Although the thought frightened him more than he could say Richard knew if the spot ever got hott then his streaming days were over.
Richard allowed himself to be pushed back to the edge of the group by the flood of other streamers. All were younger. Mostly men and women ranging between 16-40 years old though, Richard was sure one kid that brushed past him couldn’t be more than 12. Richard watched enviously as the other streamers, those with enough credits, spent freely loading up on enough x to last the next few weeks, or days, or hours… Richard knew there were cold streamers amidst the group. (People who spent more time streaming than in the real world.) Some of these cold streamers would spend days in a comatose state binging on x, until their supply was used up resupply and repeat. This subgroup barely gave themselves enough physical attention to stay alive and often appeared shrunken, pale, sickly, and hollowed. The term cold streamers originated from the fact that these individuals often resembled walking corpses.
Six seven minutes then it was over so quick, so smooth, so long as you had the credits you could get your fix. The small crowd dispersed in mere moments, and the spot would once again become a humdrum location in the large bustling city. Richard picked a direction and started walking. The spot was only 15min away from his apartment complex, one of the reasons for his relocation. He would end up their eventually no matter which direction he choose. It was 7:15am the city was just starting to stir. Just a prelude to the buzz and rush that would consume the city for most of the daylight hour and persist long into the night. In an environment such as this one it was easy to fade away into the background. This in fact was Richards’s reality.
Richard, age 68 going on 69, was no more noticeable than a misspelled word in a dictionary. He could disappear for months and no one would notice. Technically he had been experiencing this for the past several years which confirmed his suspicion. No one cared. Richard had lived in this city almost 24 years and he had not a single friend. His wife Gretchen passed away from illness 12 years ago. His family never visited or even called. Not his eldest son Robb or his younger son Andrew. He was never close to his own siblings even when they were younger. His older brother died 4 years ago and last he spoke to his younger sister was at the funeral. Family, extended family, friends, of these Richard had none. At least no one who cared enough to visit him once in a while, call him on a holiday or send a card, picture, or holotone to show they knew, or cared that he was still breathing. He was a ghost, a shadow, and for all practical purposes he was already dead.
There was just one exception, and that was Elisa.
Elisa was Richards’s oldest granddaughter who was 23 now but they’d been close since she was a child. “I want Grandpa! Grandpaaaaaa!” she would often wail when she thought her parents were being unfair. At least that was what he was told by Andrew. She remembered how she used to squeal with excitement when her parents brought her to stay with him when they went out. He remembered how he swelled with joy on the days they spent together. As she got older her interest in spending time with her Grandpa did not fade. Often she made weekly visits and they would spend the entire day together, just the two of them. Gretchen used to joke “don’t go stealing my husband” or “If I was a couple of years younger then it would be a fair competition for your Grandpa’s attention!” This was all in good spirits of coarse. Gretchen loved Elisa almost as much as Richard did. It was Elisa who got him through when Gretchen passed away. She visited him every day for nearly 6 months before her parents finally put a stop to it. Even so she would call and even write letters though they only lived 20 min apart. “But we’re pen pals!” She would argue fiercely to her parents when they pointed this out. The two remained close even through Elisa’s high school and college days but all too soon the inevitable happened. She got married.
His name was Noah. He remembered the elation when she first talked to him about Noah. “I can’t wait for you to meet him.” She gushed. Richard listened fighting desperately to conceal the feelings of dread. 20 is too young he thought, too young to get married. Despite his silent objections 11 months later, he was giving Elisa away at her wedding. That was the last time he saw her. Her new husband was fortunate enough to land a high paying job on the other side of the world. After the honeymoon they relocated and that was that. Richard despised Noah. He was smart, honest, hardworking, handsome, funny, and well-mannered, but he committed an unforgivable crime. He stole his granddaughter.
With nothing and no one left to comfort him Richard turned to Xfactor, the highly controversial substance seen all over the evening news at the time.
Xfactor did the trick like nothing else ever could. With Xfactor, Richard was no longer lonely, no longer unimportant. He experienced the sensation of being loved, wanted, appreciated, and necessary to every bit the same level as when his wife was alive and his Granddaughter much younger. The wonders of Xfactor allowed the user to experience a person’s memories. People could relive any experience imaginable and the experience was so potent it was like actually being there. Users of Xfactor described the sessions as being able to experience everything the original memory holder felt while also being vaguely aware of your own feelings. This state of double awareness was a gate way to levels of experiences that non streamers could only imagine. Twice the joy, twice the excitement, twice the ecstasy, twice the intrigue, success, twice the fear, heartbreak and pain, (for those who were into those types of experience.)
For Richard it was family memories he craved. Birthdays, weddings, family dinners, family game nights, family reunions, and the like. He couldn’t remember ever feeling like such an essential part of a family, but he could now. Through the memories he streamed he knew exactly how it felt and then some when incorporating the feelings of being a cared for husband and a well-loved grandfather which Xfactor rekindled. The wonders of Xfactor were still largely enigmatic as were longer term side effects for both users and providers but what did it matter? Streamers get experience, providers get credits. Supply and demand.
“Credits where can I get more credits” Richard mumbled to himself, hurrying towards his apartment for no apparent reason. There were no credits there. He knew this. Richard was forced to retire 3 years ago. When his granddaughter started seeing Noah and significantly less of him he became so depressed and detached from his work that he lost his job. With no motivation to pursue another occupation, Richard decided it best to just retire. He’d been working all his life and with nobody to support but himself he easily had enough credits to live comfortable for the rest of his life. That is of coarse, if you did not calculate his X usage.
Xfactor was expensive. It became obvious from the start that Richards monthly retirement credits would not be enough to satisfy his growing X addiction. So he began dipping into his savings. Just a little at first, then more. The more Xfactor he got the faster he used it and the more the cravings grew.
He kept telling himself. “I’ll ration it this time. One a week is enough to get me by”. Then, “well that was much too difficult I was being stingy but every other day is plenty”. Then, “two a day should be more than enough. There’s no reason I should need more than that”. Now it was all he could do to make what started out as a sufficient month supply of Xfactor last more than a few days. When the savings ran out he began pawning his valuables. It had gone much the same way. He would set limits then break them. Set more boundaries then cross them. “No matter how bad things get I’ll never sell this.” He would say. Then he’d sell it. “If I ever seriously consider pawning this then I know I need to cut back” then he’d pawn it. 2 month prior he sold the last of Gretchen’s jewelry. And hours of sobbing and arguing with himself did not prevent him from pawning his wedding ring last month. That’s why Richard knew without a shadow of a doubt heir was nothing left in his apartment to sell. If there had been anything else he would have held on to his ring. He told himself as much before he sold it.
He arrived at his apartment complex ascended the steps to the 2nd floor and proceed down the lengthy hallway to 28D. Richard had been operating on auto pilot since departing from the spot this morning and was only fully aware that he arrived back at his apartment when the door locked behind him. He stood there numbly looking hazily around his barren apartment. “Richard you fool” he said to himself. He walked across the room and sank into his musty old recliner. Throw up yellow was how Gretchen always described it. It was every bit as worthless as she always complained. It was among the unsellable objects left in the apartment. Head in his hands Richard tried to process what happened over the past week that lead him here.
He’d been stupid, so stupid and shortsighted. It was his birthday in 2 days and 3 days after is what would have been he and Gretchen’s 41st anniversary. This was always the hardest time to deal. His two wonderful girls would always make it the most memorable week of the year. Now that was all in the past. As a counter measure to this time that brought so much pain Richard planned on spending the better part of that week drowning in a stream of X. But he blew it. He knew that if he got the Xfactor too soon he would be unable to make it last, but he’d been almost 2 weeks without streaming before he finally made the plan to sell his wedding ring that had been almost too much to bear. When he got back with the precious Xfactor he had already decided he would use one or two just to take the edge off.
He started off with a beautiful memory of a father holding his new born son for the first time, tears streaming down his face. Then he streamed a long and touching memory of a couple celebrating their 53rd anniversary surrounded by their large loving family. Then it was Christmas, then a father daughter hiking trip, then a day at the lake, then a proposal, then Christmas again. Richard was reaching for his 11th X capsule before he managed to stop himself. And now here he was, barely two weeks later looking at facing the burden of crushing depression without a single stream X to help dull the pain.
Richard sat there alone going over the situation over and over in his head. Only vaguely aware of the passage of time, he suddenly got to his feet so quickly he almost startled himself. “I need to get my hands on more X, period.” He decided. “But how?” he asked himself out loud. “Any way possible” a voice in his mind said. And Richard knew then and there he would obey. Sometimes he scared himself when it came to Xfactor. When precious X was concerned he found himself behaving in ways he never would have imagined. It happened often. And before he fully grasped what he was doing his hand was resting on the apartment’s front door. I’ll borrow the credits he thought I’ll talk to that boy he’ll understand. He’s like me, no he’s much worse. I’ll promise him double the credits next month. That will give me plenty of time to think of some way to gather more credits. He stood there a few moments building himself up for what he was about to do.
(That boy) was Richards’s neighbor who lived across from him in apartment 27D. Richard didn’t know much about him, in fact he wasn’t certain he had even gotten his name. He lived there before Richard arrived about a year and a half ago. He was young mid to late 20s and was undoubtedly a cold streamer. He had the gaunt unkempt look about him. And he certainly didn’t have a job. He would spend days at a time in his apartment and would be seen hurrying down the hall back to his apartment after a short while. Richard was almost certain he’d seen him at the spot once or twice though admittedly it was difficult to be sure in all the confusion. But his confirmation came several months ago.
Richard was returning home when he saw the young man struggling to open his apartment door. He was burdened with several bags he refused to put down. When he fumbled his keys he made an attempt to grab for them but instead tipped one of his bags spilling no less than 10 xcapsules on the floor. Richard who had reached him by this point was just stooping down to help him when he shouted NOO! Hugging his bags with one hand his neighbor scrambled across the floor quickly reclaiming his spilled contents.
Richard was too shocked to be annoyed about having bent down for nothing because from where he stood, he could see that at least one of the young man’s bags was filled nearly to overflowing with Xfactor. Richard didn’t know how he could have possibly paid for all that X nor did he know why he chose to transport it in such a precarious way. What he did know is that this was certainly more X than he had ever seen in one place and that was without even assuming there was more in his other bags. When the man returned to his feet he resumed his fight with the door even then refusing to let go of even a single bag. Now that Richard was standing next to him it was clear to see why he was having so much trouble with the door. He was shaking so violently Richard could almost feel the vibrations through the floor. His gaunt face was dripping with what seemed like an unnatural amount of sweat but his mouth was set with determination, his eyes seeing only the door. Richard gently slide his hand on top of the younger mans and carefully guided the key into the lock. Richard stepped back as the young man unlocked his apartment door and walked into the threshold. Once inside he turned back. “Thank you” he murmured keeping his eyes on the bags instead of addressing Richard directly, then he gently shut the door. Richard remembered feeling genuine concern for this young man. If I ever get that far gone there might be no coming back, he warned himself.
Without allowing any more time to debate himself Richard threw the door open walked up to 27D and knocked. When no one answered he began knocking louder. There was still no answer. “He’s not here” said the voice in his head “this was a bad idea Just go home and think of something else.” Instead Richard found himself calling out loud. “Hello! Is anyone there? It’s Richard, the man from 28D. We’ve spoken before remember? Could you open the door please?” Still no answer. Then he was pounding on the door. “Hey I know you’re there, I just need to talk to you for a minute that’s all!” Still there was no response. Richard kicked the door angrily, and regretted it a second later when pain shot up from his leg. Choking back a cry of pain Richard knelt down to attend his foot. “When did I get so irrational?” he asked himself through clenched teeth. This was indeed a terrible idea. He decided. “I need to collect myself and come up with a real plan.” Using the door handle for leverage Richard began pulling himself up… and the door knob turned. When he managed to get to his feet he saw he’d pushed the door open a few inches. It was done completely by mistake. Richard stared dumbly at the blackness of the apartment through the slightly open door. Then, before he could stop himself he pushed in open and went inside.
It was dark. The shadows of many objects cluttering the room were only visible thanks to the light coming from the hallway. “Hello?” Richard called into the dark apartment. “It’s Richard from 28D. I just came to…” his voice trailed off. There was no response. Richard flicked on the lights and gaped in amazement. The room wasn’t teaming with clutter as he originally thought. Instead it was filled with all sorts of fancy new luxuries. A large plasma sheen T.V. was embedded in the wall. Large fancy speakers were posted in the corners of the room. Heavy expensive looking curtains hung from the windows, blocking whatever natural light would have entered the room. A large pillow foam couch was resting neatly against the wall. There was a shelf filled with expensive looking gadgets and toys some of which Richard did not recognize. And sitting right in the middle of the room was a luxury recliner with an X helm resting on one arm. On the floor looked like a number of used X capsules. Resting on the floor next to the recliner was what looked like an old fashion paper grocery bag, the same type his neighbor had been carrying the day Richard helped him. This was the opposite of Richards’s apartment in every way. Richard closed the door behind him. All this time he had the idea that this young man was struggling but a quick look inside told him his neighbor was better off than most people in this apartment complex.
Well he’s not a broker. Richard thought to himself. Brokers don’t stream. That was basic. He wasn’t employed so how could he possibly afford all this stuff and still binge on X seven days a week? A criminal? Or rich parents perhaps. Probably the later. Except for X smuggling, crime in the city was pretty low. Besides this young man didn’t seem the type to Richard, not to mention he was a cold streamer so it wasn’t likely he would be able to set aside enough time for criminal activities. Crime? Richard thought to himself. “Isn’t breaking and entering a crime?” But instead of leaving Richard ventured deeper into the apartment moving towards the Xfactor but pausing to examine the contents of the apartment.
Things felt so surreal quite unlike streaming. It was more like a dream. Richard didn’t feel scared or anxious though he knew he ought to be. He could get in serious trouble if he was caught here and yet he felt strangely calm. He touched one of the shelves. A thin layer of dust clung to his finger when he removed it. He reached the fancy glass coffee table in front of the plasma sheen T.V. it was dusty as well. In fact everything in the apartment seemed to be unused except for the recliner and of course the Xfactor products. Richard carefully knelt down and picked up one of the capsules on the floor. No flash. Naturally it’d been used already otherwise the capsule would respond to his touch with blue light. He returned it to the floor and was about to stand when he caught a glimpse of something curious. He paused… then he saw it again. An orange flash. It came from one of the capsules lying on the floor. He couldn’t have seen it right but then it flashed again orange, plain as day. That wasn’t right.
X capsules had two colors blue and red. Before being used the capsules would lie dormant until touched at which time it would respond by flashing blue light every 4 or 5 seconds signaling it was ready for use. In between flashes there would be a brief description of the memory, such as [daddy daughter dance]. After being used the capsule light would glow red continuously for 1 or 2 hours and afterwards remain off for good. That was it. Blue flash ready to use, red glow shutting down permanently. But this capsule was not only displaying an incorrect color it was flashing without being touched. “Defective” Richard thought dismissively though he’d never heard of Xfactor malfunctioning before. “He probably used it and it is shutting down or it never worked at all”. Never the less Richard found himself reaching for the capsule. The moment his hand touched it, it flashed blue. Richard was so surprised he recoiled as if he’d been jolted by static. The capsule once more resumed flashing its incoherent orange light. More curious than ever then, he reached out once more and picked up the strange capsule. It began flashing blue. Richard brought it close to his face hoping to read a description, but the memory section remained blank between flashes. Richard stared at it for a few seconds then placed it on the table next to the luxury recliner. He moved on to the bag. The sight of its content set his heart hammering as it ought have been. It was filled with Xfactor.
Please be active he pleaded silently stooping once more to reach the contents of the bag. All the capsules brushed by his fingers began to glow blue. His heart was beating faster. “I’ll just take a few he said deliriously. Just a handful”. He won’t miss them. “Even a cold streamer would take weeks to go through all this”. “And I’ll pay him back anyway he added” as he picked up a capsule to read, right after… he stopped short. [Fun at the Strip Club] He picked up another. [Jannies Halloween Party] and another [Totally Wasted] and another. [Sex with Reena Tyreas] No nooo! he moaned in all of these X capsules there has to be at least a few decent ones. [1st high] [Ben at Beerfest] [Spring break with April and Brittney] [The Ultimate Beach Party] [The Girl at the Bar] then he lost count rummaging through the bag till he was literally tossing out the bad ones, which was apparently all of them.
Richard became more and more frustrated and desperate by the capsule barely recognizing what he was reading but knowing he didn’t want it. [Sex] No. [Party] No. [Drugs] No. then Richards fingers were hitting the bottom of the bag.
“No!” he flung the empty bag across the room. It landed unimpressively in a heap. The strength left from Richards legs he sank down to the floor sitting amongst the Xfactor that was now littering the living room floor. “So that’s it then”. he though numbly. But no, it was not. He came here for credits not Xfactor. Anyone of these fancy pieces of technology would earn him some nice credits. He rose wearily to his feet. Then his heart stopped when he heard a loud slam seemingly coming from inside the house. Richard was paralyzed he couldn’t breathe. “I’m done” was all he could think “I’ve gone too far and now I’m done”. “Run you fool”! He screamed at himself. Then Richard was at the door and his senses returned to him. There was no one else here. The slam came from 25D like it did almost every single morning around 9:30. It sounded much closer now because it was coming from next door instead of across the hall. Even with the realization, the prospect of seriously being caught had forced Richard out of his craving delirium. I’ve got to get out of here. He decided. But first...
He hurried across the room to retrieve the empty bag getting down on his hands and knees once more he hurriedly began scooping xcapsules off the floor and returning them to the bag. He got almost all of them when he remembered there were some on the floor already. That’s good enough Richard decided. I was never here. He took one last look to confirm he did the best he could to return things to how they’d been when he entered. That’s when the curious flashing xcapsule returned to his attention. There it was just sitting on the table glowing orange where he left it. “That’s supposed to be on the floor.” Richard reminded himself. He picked it up. Instantly it began flashing blue. Richard brought it to his face staring. Still no description. He hesitated a moment, then pocketed the capsule. It was on the floor with the other discarded capsules, Richard reasoned. He won’t miss it. With that Richard left his neighbor’s apartment and closed the door quietly behind him. He walked across to his own apartment and slipped back inside.
Once the door was securely locked, he slid wearily into his own old and musty yellow recliner.
Sitting here back in his armchair he could barely believe the last few minuets actually happened. Like it matters he thought bitterly. “Nothing’s changed”. “I can’t believe I took such a big gamble and the only thing I have to show for it is a bad xcapsule”. But he didn’t really believe that did he? Why bother taking it if he didn’t secretly hope, that maybe just maybe there was a chance… he pulled the capsule from his pocket. It flashed blue signaling it was ready to use. Richard stared at it wondering. Then he got up and retrieved his xhelm from his bedroom. “There’s no point in putting it off.” he decided. “I’ll know in a minute if it’s worthless or not” he returned to his chair inserted the mystery capsule into the receiver then slipped the helm over his head. Richards’s heart was hammering. There was something on this xcapsule he could feel it now. Even if it wasn’t exactly what he wanted just the thought that he was mere moments away from streaming was enough to excite everything in his being. Taking in a deep breath Richard hit play.
Richard clawed the helm off of his head tumbled out of his chair and wretched. On his hands and knees he remained gasping to catch his breath, thick red saliva dripping from his chin. That wasn’t real, it wasn’t real. He repeated manically. It couldn’t be. What would that mean? He struggled to stand his legs, were shacking so badly it was almost all he could manage. How long had he been streaming? He looked at his clock 12:59. It had been roughly three hours, but Richard was so disoriented, someone could have told him it had been 3 minutes or 3 days and he would except it without question.
Deep breaths deep breaths, he chanted trying desperately to regain his self-control. Was that really a memory? If not then what the heck was it? Not a counterfeit surely. A streamer could tell and, nothing about what he’d just experienced seemed staged. With a trembling hand he reached for the helm still on his chair and plucked the xcapsule from the hold. As soon as it was removed from the slot it began to flash blue once more. Gaa! Richard cried dropping the thing like he’d been bit. It fell to the floor barely missing the red wet mess Richard left on the floor. It lay there flashing its ominous orange light. Richard felt like he was about to be sick again. He hunched over, hands on his knees, fighting the nausea. He managed to keep down the rest of his morning cranberry juice and in a few moments, it passed.
Richard stood up. The vile capsule was winking orange up at him. Richard backed away from the capsule. “I need to get out of here”. “But where” Richard was at the door. “Do I want to go? If what I just saw was real…” Waves of fear and dread washed over him. “I know too” much he thought dumbly’. “People with this kind of information don’t live long and what am I? “Just a worthless old man”. He had no friends to confide in, no one he could go to for help. “there’s not a soul in the world who cares about me he thought bitterly.”
But perhaps… that could be a strength. Maybe I’m so far off the charts no one is watching. Maybe I can slip through the cracks like I always have. I won’t speak out, I won’t tell a soul... “But Elisa!” his thoughts flew to his beloved granddaughter. She has to know. But if I tell her she’ll be as dead as I am. Richard staggered to his bed room and sat down on his old and lumpy bed. “What should I do?” He stared wistfully at the holotone on his night stand one of the only useful remaining items in his house. He never could part with it. The holotone was his icon of hope. He would stare at it for hours hoping Elisa would call one day like she used to, then they’d talk and laugh and pretend to dance like they use to. When he looked at the holotone he could almost see Elisa’s translucent figure standing with arms outstretched for a virtual hug saying how much she missed her grandpa since they last spoke.
Richards’s eyes were brimming with tears. I can’t, he said, tears spilling over. Even if I leave a message when she doesn’t answer, if they come for me they’ll check my contacts”. The best way I can keep her safe is to keep the years of silence unbroken. “But the memory, he sobbed into his hands. How long would she really be safe”…? No! Richard stood up angrily. I won’t sit here like some tired old man. If I’m going to die, I’m going to do something that will protect my Elisa even if it costs me my life. My life is nothing. I’ve been living dead for years anyway.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Richard froze his short lived determination replaced by paralyzing fear. Someone was pounding on his front door. Boom! Boom! Boom! The knocking came again. And there was no doubt in Richards mind then. In the past 3 years, he had never received a holotone message, a call or a letter that wasn’t related to bills, and it had been even longer since anyone had knocked on his door. That’s why he knew it was related to the Xfactor. They had come for him, to collect the information he never should have received. Each knock on the door was a gun shot and Richard knew he was dead.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
“You gonna do it?” I don’t bother raising my head I know who it is, or should I say what? It’s not like it matters anyway, no matter what I call them they always come without fail.
“Man she’s seriously taking a long time, I genuinely don’t know why we bother...” The second voice, all too familiar. Like twins they come in pairs, bringing destruction in their wake. Switching on and off terrorizing me like i’m their 9 to 5 and they’re gunning for employee of the month.
“Neither do i...” The words left my mouth before i realized it and the moment the click of a tongue hit my ears i could tell i had agitated the beast.
“Oh? If you’re cocky enough to snap back at me why don’t you stop holding that razor againt your wrist and slit it already?” They’re presence was always overwhelming and unappreciated so no matter what i say they’ll only belittle me for it. It’s best to just be quiet and ignore them until they pass. Is what I tell myself but, the more they point out my flaws the more i try to defend myself and the more im shot down for it. They always win and i hate it no matter how hard i fight, no matter how much my friends tell me they care, no matter how watched i am; it never seems to be enough.
I know they won’t stop till i’m dead, you know their names whether you want to or not, they’ve been carved into your brain and for some your heart. I am so tired of this endless cycle, this fear powered machine that has been in a place of power for far to long. As i slowly move the razor away from my wrist despite the fading sounds of protest a sense of relief washes over me as i lean back. By the time the razor hits the floor all of the noise that my poisionus mind had created seemingly vanished.
It felt good to throw a wrench in the cogs of a well oiled machine and i plan to do it even more as the future days come. Will things only get harder from here most definatly but how will i deal with it? Only time will tell.
Jazzy (Warning this is from erotica library.)
After slamming the front door of the brownstone, that she loved to escape another ridiculous argument, she marched down the perfectly lit street. Not knowing where she headed didn’t matter. Getting out of there did. Muttering to herself in her mind she vowed it was over and she was going to do something about leaving. After a block or two, she thought she could really use a drink.
Where the hell am I? Damn, dumbass you outa pay attention.
Ahh, there it was her favorite bar. It was what she imagined a speakeasy would have been. The hotel it was in was one of the most subdued yet well-appointed boutique hotels around.
She pulled the large brass bar across the smoky glass door and stepped inside. The cool air brushed her hair back from her face gently and embraced her in a way she’d like a man to. Standing just inside the door, she paused and looked around, getting her bearings.
Some subtle jazz music filled the dimly lit space. The glasses and bottles on the mirrored wall of the bar sparkled and seemed to call to her to come and sit and partake. There were several seats at the bar and some of the bar tables. She decided the bar was the worst choice because it would make it clear she was alone. She chose a table along the wall of windows that looked out over the outdoor seating and lush atrium.
Her phone had been buzzing in her purse since she’d left, but she refused to get it out.
The cool leather seat felt terrific on her back. She’d gotten slightly warm in her angry walk, and her cotton button-down felt a bit damp in spots. Her loose trendy ripped jeans were perfect for this sort of place. Kicking off her sandals, she pulled her feet up and sat cross-legged in the stool.
As she listened to the music wafting through the space she ordered her favorite cocktail from the busty sweetly young waitress. Yes, a Tanqueray martini, dirty and dry with two olives would be delicious right now. Sitting comfortably and trying not to think about anything, in particular, she finally looked at the trio playing the music. The keyboard player was looking her way, but she didn’t assume it was at her. As she looked back, she saw the corner of his mouth turn up ever so slightly. She held his gaze, attempting to prove herself wrong. He didn’t look away, but instead ever so slightly dipped his head in acknowledgment. She tried to do the look around to see if it is sent to you or the beautiful sexy woman behind you scan without anyone noticing. Re-thinking that she held his gaze. What did she have to lose?
Oh, but then it all changed.
Shit, they are taking a break now? What the fuck was I thinking looking back like that? Being bold and daring…
She decided this was her queue to go to pee. Surely, she could avoid him if she was gone for a minute. She put the cocktail napkin over her drink and scooted off her stool to the ladies’ room. Looking in the mirror, she picked herself apart, to be sure it wasn’t her that he was looking over. Apply some more lip color she went back to her seat. The seat was cool, and it calmed her again as her heart was pounding her temples.
Still refusing to reach for her phone she rolled her head back and closed her eyes. Trying to relax and enjoy the atmosphere, she went into a meditative state. When she opened her eyes, she was startled to see a small intricate plate of cheese and bread. Not realizing she was hungry, she found her mouth-watering. Looking around but not knowing where she or what she was looking for she decided to partake. After her first taste and her eyes rolling back in her head, he appeared across the small table from her. She opened her eyes when she heard him speak.
“So, I guess I made a good choice. You look like you like that,” he said.
Startled again, she said, “Why yes. Yes, you did. How did you know?”
“You looked like a woman who likes what I like, so I was convinced you’d like this snack plate and I was right.”
“You’re spot on. I don’t know how you got it from a glance, but you did,” I replied.
“There is something about you. If that isn’t being too forward. I didn’t have a doubt. I knew I could choose to satisfy you, and it would be the right choice. You need to be satisfied, don’t you?”
She didn’t even know how to reply. YES! That is what she wanted to say. She wished to grab the front of his shirt and pull him up against her. Kissing him was all she could think focus on for some reason. Maybe it was the martini, which was almost gone. Perhaps it was his pure sexiness. His dreadlocks and ebony skin all made her more curious to know more about him.
He said that he had to go back to his keyboard for the next set. He asked if she’d be staying. She said she would. As he went to his position, another martini showed up. Again he dipped his brow to her and she to him.
Listening through the set, she stayed proud she hadn’t looked at her phone. The music played and soothed her, and she watched him stroke the keys. She imagined him stroking her the same way.
The set completed; he came straight to her. He extended his hand and introduced himself.
“Hi, I’m Aaron. And you are?”
“Hi Aaron, I’m Bridget. How are? Oh, and thank you so much for the snack and drink. Your group is great. I loved the music.”
“Well, thank you, and you’re welcome. It’s wonderful to meet you, Bridget. Do you have any plans now? I don’t, and I’d love to spend some time with you.”
Thinking twice about going home, she said, “No, I don’t. I’d like the same.”
He paid her tab, and he asked if she’d trust him to take her to his place upstairs. He lived above the bar. She decided since he was well known there, it would be safe.
Climbing the wooden stairs, she listened to creaks and groans as their weight taxed them. Once inside, he showed her to the sofa and excused himself. She sat and attempted to slow her breathing. His place was bohemian and welcoming. She felt at home enough to take those sandals off again and curl into the corner of the comfy furniture. He came back wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Smiling down at her, he offered to make her some breakfast. Realizing how hungry she was, she welcomed the offer. He popped some champagne and pulled out eggs and bacon and bread and started to cook. They sipped the cold bubbly and talked with ease. Sitting at the counter, they ate the simple but delicious breakfast. They chatted and laughed easily. Then she felt his hand on her thigh. She knew she was more than tipsy, and that this more than an attraction. He took their plates to the sink. Standing next to her stool, he turned it, so she faced him. Reaching down, he tilted her chin up toward him, and he looked at her as if he’d known her forever. When his lips touched hers, there was a fire that nothing could stop.
They were both breathing quickly and touching and caressing one another like they’d never been touched before.
She stood up, and they were in full embrace. She felt weak in her knees and giddy at the same time. Kissing and trying to catch their breath they paused and laughed. Then he lifted her to put her arms around his neck. She naturally wrapped her legs around him and could feel his excitement pressing against her in just the right place.
With his strength and finesse, he laid her down gently on the sofa. Then reaching up, she tugged on his shorts to set free what she imagined she’d felt there in the embrace. When the shorts moved down, it fell out, and she was wowed! Her mouth started to water. Her pussy started to quiver. Then he leaned down and straddled her.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
“Oh my god, yes I do,” she replied.
Hovering just above her lips he dipped it in and out. Just getting the tip nice and wet and making her beg with her eyes. Pulling it away, he leaned over and gave her a long wet kiss that made her positively soaked. Standing, he removed her jeans and then top and then her panties. He took them in his hand and spread the damp crotch wide and buried his nose in it, breathing in deeply. He wanted to smell all her sweet musky scent and suddenly entertained the idea of keeping them. All that was left was her bra. He was relieved it wasn’t complicated. Just a soft bra he could pull over her head. When he did, the weight of her heavy round tits fell silently and beautifully there for him to touch.
He reached down and scooped each and lifted them to his mouth. While running his tongue around the nipples, he reached down and felt how wet she was. He was surprised to be touching hair, though. So many girls these days were shaved clean that he didn’t expect to feel the soft down of her pussy hair. It turned him on. He was hard and wanted her right then, but she had other plans.
Sitting up, she brought him to her mouth, and though it was a struggle, she took him. Gagging a couple of times, she settled in and let him hold the back of her head and thrust into her mouth. She licked the length of it when he pulled it out, and he moaned.
“Damn baby,” was all he could manage.
The next move took her by surprise when he grabbed her hips and pulled her down onto her back again and kneeled in front of her. He inhaled her perfect scent. Now dying to taste her and drink it all in, if he could make that happen, he worked her pussy expertly from the inside too while licking her clit firmly and with conviction. She could not be quiet. She whined and moaned and writhed under his mouth. The quicker he worked his fingers, the faster she reacted. She could feel it coming. She hadn’t warned him how much it could be but also knew that once it started, she was incapable of holding it back.
Talk about flood gates! Shit, I wish I’d told him to watch out.
As she got closer, she instinctively raised her hips. She was tightly up against his mouth, and then he pulled back and thrust his fingers in and out quickly, building the urgency for her to let go and let it flow.
She screamed, “Oh fuck Aaron! Holy fucking shit.” Knowing what he wanted, he withdrew his fingers, and she pulled her head forward to ride it out, and it showered him. His face was dripping and hair glistening. At first, she just stared at him in disbelief. Was he going to back away across the floor or want more? His grin told her all.
He laughed and said, “That was incredible. Could we do it again?”
She, in turn, chuckled and sat up, leaned forward, and held his face in her hands. She put her forehead up against his and said, “God, I hope so.”
They kissed and cuddled and talked. Then he was hard again, and she wanted all of him. From the cuddle on their sides, he felt her make sure she was still wet, and the slick was still very much there. He slipped his dick in and parted her lips to give her all of him. He went slow. She was feeling the length and width of it all. It no sooner filled her, and then she was moaning again. The sense of urgency was there, and she knew she’d be flowing hard all over him in seconds. He reached around and held her tit and squeezed it. Lifting her top leg, he pushed it in even harder and with conviction and purpose. Reaching back, she felt his flat hard abs and the fine layer of sweat that had popped up. He was hitting her so hard the couch creaked and scooted some on the floor. She was bracing herself from the front so he could go as hard as he wanted. Without coming out, he moved around to be on top of her and put her legs up against his chest. He kissed her feet and looked down at her. With the next deep penetration, they both called out, “Oh fuck” and then started to laugh. He kept at it and then while she rubbed her clit, they came together. The release was mind-blowing, and doing it together made it monumental.
He dropped off to her side and lay his arm under her head, and they both panted. He got up to get some water, and she heard her damn phone again. She decided she needed to at least look at it as it was very late.
Reaching in, she retrieved the phone. In disbelief, she had her husband’s phone.
How did I pick up his phone? Well, that’s just great.
When she tilted it, she could see all the banner messages across its face. He’d never gotten the upgrade, so this phone only needed a passcode. She could put it in, but the notifications told her all she needed to know. Someone had been messaging him every few minutes. Her name was Leslie, and she could fucking have him. She had Aaron.
Under The Lights (republish Challenge)
*This has not been edited for publication*
RJ just stood there. His mouth had dropped; his legs were shaking; his
heart was hammering inside of him like a carpenter. He had never been
on the other side of the ropes before. He had never had anyone else
strap on his gloves. The same question kept blocking his focus. It
rattled inside his brain and stole his attention completely. The question
was, “do I belong here.” The bell rang with a stinging sound that
echoed throughout the hall.
He never even heard it though. Everything swirled around him, as he
stumbled and fell against the outside of the ring.
“ Hey RJ, your up.”
Eight weeks before, RJ had once again signed up for the Florida 14-16
Dou martial arts season. He only signed up because his best friend
Thompson Banks needed a partner to qualify. The deal was that
Thompson would start the first four of eight rounds and win the fight
before RJ ever had to take his turn. This was really not that
improbable, because Thompson was by far the greatest fighter that the
league had ever seen. He was the reason they started buffing up on their
protective head gear. The year before this had been easy, Thompson
had made his way through the season almost untouched and won the
championship in the second round. Everything should have been the
same this year, but something was different. Travis Field, that is what
was different. He hadn’t taken many belongings to Florida, but he
brought plenty of trouble. He was the only fighter anybody in town had
ever seen that could go toe to toe with Thompson and last four rounds.
Travis had his little brother as a partner, and he was almost just as
good. Jackson had been fighting all his life. When the final fight, the
league championship came around, Thompson needed to win, and fast!
Unfortunately, that just didn’t happen, The first round had dragged on
and Thompson had taken a beating. The second round was better, but
Thompson still lost points. In the third round, Thompson had hung on
for dear life, and had tied his opponent in that round, but he was still
down an overwhelming amount of points. In the fourth round, the old
champion made an incredible comeback. It was a sellout worthy
performance. The crowd had gone wild as he tore the new kid to
pieces. It wasn’t enough though; right before the knockout blow, the
bell sounded. Thompson was forced out of the ring despite his constant
begging for another round. Now everything rested on RJ’s shoulders,
which were already sagging from fear and weakness. It is true, RJ had
wanted to be a fighter all of his life. He had trained hard. His heart
burned for this moment, but when it finally came, the lights burned
hotter. He stepped out into the ring, and watched the arrogant younger
brother strut around the ring. He was clearly begging for attention.
This was the moment of victory that he had always wanted, but did
victory want him?
RJ never even knew what hit him. He never even noticed that the fight
was going on before he found himself kissing the canvas. His head
swam as he fought to get up. He knew every second he was down
meant more points for his opponent. Jackson came in hard and
delivered a combo to his rib cage and then his face. RJ crumpled again.
The smaller boy was still in shock as he climbed to his feet. Jackson got
lazy and took a wild and obvious pull back swing for RJ’s head.
It was a miracle for RJ that the shot was evaded> The two competitors
circled each other. Jackson faked a low kick and stung Rj on the nose,
but the kid didn’t go down this time. Rj took his first swing at Jackson
Jackson had followed up and drilled Rj on the face after blocking a
weak swing. The boy had stumbled back into the ropes and fallen. Now
RJ was upset. He raced to the middle of the ring and swung a wild and
random group of punches. Th flurry lasted about five seconds and
ended with RJ flopping on the ground holding his rips tightly and
gasping for air. The first round continued in this fashion and ended
with RJ having only landed one punch, and Jackson scoring 8 jabs, 6
hooks, and one cross.
“Are you ok man?”
“umm, I guess I’m alright”
“It’s okay, you can make up for the loss after some rest.”
“Sure, you can take him. Stay on your toes more, and don’t wind up before you swing. Just let one fly quickly before he knows it’s coming.”
“No problem RJ; I believe in you. We can still win”
After RJ had his two minute break, he climbed over the ropes again and
entered the ring. He still wished he could just go home. He knew He
wouldn’t win. He also knew that Thompson didn’t really think he
would win either. The referee started off the second round of the
second round, the fighters met in the middle. Jackson toyed with RJ
and waited for a response.
“ what’s the matter? You scared to fight? Just stay on the floor a little
while and you can go home without a scratch.”
RJ remained quiet, but delivered a combo to Jacksons face. Jackson
blushed a ripe red color and swung a low kick for RJ’s knees. Before he
knew what had happened, Rj was diving backwards uncontrollably.
RJ got up again. This time it didn’t take quite as long. Jackson danced
around him and faked a jab, but took a shot at RJ’s knees again. It
worked, and once again RJ was forced to have a little conference with
“I would ask you if that hurt, but I’m sure your used to it by now”
jeered the confident opponent. Again, RJ made no reply. Jackson
became bored and threw a whirlwind of punches from every angle until
his heart was bolting out of his chest and he was exhausted. An evil
smile crept across his face as he saw the smaller boy tripping backwards
and falling into the ropes. RJ had protected himself from most of the
swings, but had taken one or two powerful hits. The rest of the second
half was not incredible for the underdog. He took his fair share of this
and left the ring panting like a wild dog.
“How’d I do Thompson?”
“Not bad; you landed three hooks, and four jabs. He landed fives along with two kicks. You still made up for all of the floor time though.”
“That’s a lot of the point scoring.”
“I know, but you’re getting better. Try to anticipate his hits. Watch him take in a breath and move out of the way before he even swings”
RJ nodded solemnly.
RJ was ready now. his fear was gone. He had a passion now, and he was
willing to sacrifice anything to win. He had hung on two rounds and
was confident he could take the win back. For the first time he actually
felt like he wanted to be here. It was no longer a bad dream.
With eyes flashing and heart pounding, RJ stepped out onto the canvas.
Jackson smiled and walked to the center.
“ Just two more hits left buddy. I hit you, and you hit the floor. It won’t take much longer. Don’t worry”
“ I guess we’ll have to see about that” replied RJ, who was comfortable
enough to talk back now. He was not impressed with his opponents
choice of words at all. The ref started off the fight, and both boys
started with a wild volley. Jackson swung hard and fast, but RJ was
dodging and blocking almost everything. RJ leapt to the right to get out
of the flurry and then started breaking on Jacksons weak rib cage.
Another violent attack broke out. This time RJ was doing most of the
offense. Jackson struggled to block and evade the oncoming slaughter.
RJ rained down hits on him like a true veteran. His heart was in the
fight now, not just his arms. The sneaky fighter jumped backward and
stuck RJ in the shin as he advanced on him with a jump-skip. RJ let out
a helpless, pain-filled yelp, as he hit the canvas. The crowd stopped
everything and looked on with fearful silence. Everyone waited for RJ.
His leg had been hit hard right in the funny bone. He could still feel the
vibrations pricking inside his leg. Slowly, RJ crawled to his knees. The
boy let out a painful sigh as the tension died down. The count was at
seven. He had three seconds to get up; RJ lifted one foot, and jerked
himself up all of the sudden with new found strength. The crowd
roared with approval for the underdog who had endured everything so
far. RJ’s eyes blazed with pain as he looked on the awe filled youngster.
Jackson thought he had won. HE never expected that last second push.
RJ smiled now, and gave his opponent a wink. Jackson was started and
gave a confused second look at the boy. He didn’t have long to look
though; RJ landed hook on Jackson strong enough to knock a
mouthpiece out. The bully staggered backwards and then wheeled
forward, as he tried to gain back some momentum. Jackson swung an
uppercut, but RJ dodged and knocked him down. Jackson leapt back
up; his face was flushed with embarrassment. The two boys engaged in
another slobber-knocking volley. Both boys swung with all their might,
and heart. They dodged, they blocked, the doffed each others
arms. They kicked and scratched and jumped and shoved.
They battled on and on, in a heated close quarter shootout. Sweat was
flying off of their backs. Saliva was spilling out of their mouths.
Finally, after what seemed like an hour, RJ came out on top.
He stood over Jacksons limp body for a moment, and scanned the
crowd for the first time. Applause erupted from the building, and
everyone jumped to their feet and cheered for the underdog, who had
persevered through the beating. The moment was cut short though.
Jackson was saved by the bell. RJ’s shoulders slumped and his mouth
dropped as he saw Jackson being pulled out of the ring. The bully
would have another shot. The last round was coming up, and the competitors would have a whole five minutes to rest up and get ready.
This would ruin RJ’s advantage of hitting Jackson while he was still
shocked and fragile. RJ took a trip to get a bottle of water from the
vending machine, his mouth was bleeding and he wanted to get away
from the noise so he could clear his mind. He slipped the doller into the
machine and pressed the number. RJ leaned against the wall and closed
his eyes for a second. Everything became quiet. He was all alone,
dwelling in the silence of his mind. There was no noise except the
constant humming of the machine.
“ I finally did it. I entered my first fight, and I could be the one to win
the championship” He smiled to himself as he thought of wearing the
plastic belt around his waist. It may have been a cheesy prize, but
anything with the word “ champion” on it was enough for him.
Then he stiffened, and his smile vanished.
“Stay focused RJ. You still have to survive another round. Get your
head in the game. It’s Showtime.” He stepped away from the wall and
turned towards the machine where his neglected bottle of water was
waiting, but something stopped him cold. Jackson was right in front of
him. The cocky expression had apparently migrated, and the boy looked serious now.
“Hey RJ, how are you feeling”
RJ bent down to grab his water but he felt an arm grab his.
“Look, I know I’ve been a bit of a bully, but I really need to talk to you”
“Well what is it, we don’t have much time so hurry up”
“Look RJ, there’s no reason for us to go out there and kill each other”
“Jackson, what is this about?”
Jackson paused, and answered slowly.
“Not everybody has a life like you RJ”
“What on earth do you mean”
“ I have noticed from school that your parents have a “ proud of you
no matter what” philosophy. Well my dad isn’t exactly like that. If I lose
this match to a little guy like you, It won’t be pretty. I’m begging you,
please hold back. I can’t afford to lose. It would ruined my fathers
views of me. It could ruin everything.”
“Yeah right, you just know you’re beat, so you beg me to ease off when
I’m just hitting my stride”
“Look RJ, please I need you. It’s not what it looks like. I’m serious.”
RJ became very proud, and very angry at the same time. He pushed
Jackson aside and strolled down the hall with his water.
“No promises, Jackson. Except the one I’ll make to the School
newspaper giving them a first dibs on the story you just gave me”
RJ laughed out loud as he strutted into the main building and took his
spot outside the ring. The crowd went barbarically wild at the
appearance of their hero. RJ smiled and played it up as he stepped into
the ring. Jackson appeared on the other side. He slowly trudged into the
ring with knees low and head tilted. Confidently, RJ skip-walked to the
center to hear the refs closing remarks.
“you’ve kept in clean so far. Let’s keep this last round clean as well.
No matter who wins, I want you both to know that you’ve put on a
spectacular performance tonight. Now go to your corners and let’s get
it on.” The two fighters took their positions and waited eagerly.
“You got this RJ, show em what you’re made of.”
RJ and Jackson squared up in the middle. RJ weaved back and forth
testing his opponent. He let loose a lighting jab that buzzed Jackson in
the jawbone. Jackson swung a desperate stroke but RJ ducked, and
plowed into him hard. Jackson stepped back, and regained his balance.
RJ shook his head violently and scolded himself for charging into his
opponent instead of punching him. He had become a greater fool than
Jackson. Carefully, the two battlers stalked back to the center to meet
each other. Jackson dropped a few hits on RJ that made him angry.
His rage fueled his punches, and he drove Jackson back to the other
side of the ring. He thrashed Jackson against the wall. Stroke after
stroke he took apart Jacksons tired defense. The bully watched as
Jackson crumpled onto the ground. The arrogant youngster turned to
the crowd. He was clearly seeking attention. It didn’t happen.
Everyone had suddenly become aware of how much hurt Jackson was
going through, as he lay there completely limp. Even RJ’s family was
shaking their heads. His father was the most disappointed.
“This is getting to his head, I’m throwing in the towel”
“Can you do that when he’s winning? Asked his curious but agreeing wife.
“ I think so” RJ’s father got up and jogged over to the ring.
The crowds boos fell to whispers as Jackson struggled to his feet.
It was far from over. Jackson hung on tightly. The two boys flashed in
the middle Jackson’s legs were shaking as he danced with RJ and tried
to find an opportunity to make a connection. A long shootout
commenced. The boys struggled for the upper hand. RJ landed a hard
right hand on Jacksons cheek and stumbled backwards
uncontrollably. Jackson hit the floor hard, and didn’t move.
Everything was silent. Everything was still. Everything was over, or was
“ GET UP JACK! GET UP AND FACE HIM! GET YOUR FACE OFF THE GROUND! MY SON ISN’T A COWARD”
RJ swiveled his head towards the stands. He could see a large man
screaming at Jackson. His mind was racing in all different directions. He
suddenly realized just how true Jackson’s pleading had been. He could
here the whole crowd cheering for Jackson to get up, and he suddenly
realized that he was no longer the underdog. He was the bully.
It was time to make a choice.
“ I can’t blow this win. Augh, I can’t keep doing this though. I’m killing
him whether I know it or not”
Jackson was climbing to his feet. He had barely beaten the buzzer.
RJ looked over at Jackson. He smiled and gave Jackson a wink, but this time it wasn’t the same.
“You can’t stop him. He’s about to win. This is the final fight of the season.”
“This win is going to his head. It’s not healthy for him”
RJ’s dad looked towards the ring where Thompson had pointed.
Jackson was covering RJ up with hits. A leg sweep dropped RJ to the
ground with a plop. The crowd screamed like a house of madmen.
RJ was still, completely still. The noise quieted slowly as everyone
watched in suspense. The referee was making his count.
,TEN! THAT’S IT, WE HAVE A WINNER”
The ref grabbed Jacksons hand and raised it high into the air.
The stands exploded with applause.
It felt like the entire earth was shaking. The entire earth was moving
from the buzz of a hundred fight loving fans, who were ready to blow
the roof off. RJ climbed back to his feet. He turned slowly and
something caught his eye. It was his mother, sitting in the stands. She
was looking towards heaven with damp closed eyes. He wondered if she
knew what had happened. He plodded over to the ropes and climbed
over them leisurely. He hugged his dad tightly.
“I’m so proud of you son. Win or lose, that was a great fight. You hung in there”
RJ’s dad wanted a quick word with the victor, so he slipped away for a
minute. RJ turned slowly to see his friend.
With mouth still gaping, there was Thompson standing just
outside the ring.
“You had him. What happened out there?”
“Oh, I guess he must have done something that caught me off guard”
Replied RJ with just a hint of an ironic smile.
This is where the story ends, but only where the questions begin, so I will ask you one thought before you’re departing. Did RJ make the right choice?
*This story is based on the Reedsy.com Prompt “Write a humorous story about the descendant of someone remembered for an insignificant act.”
My name is Blaze. OK, my real name is Blake Hilson, but my pen name is Blaze, because it sounds awesome. I have written for the local newspaper as an entertainment journalist for the past ten years, but my passion is for poetry. This passion comes from my late father Adam. My father wrote a poem that was published in the poetry anthology “An Ocean So Blue,” which came from the organization Talented Poets. Before my father passed away, he gave me his copy of “An Ocean So Blue,” and it is one of my most prized possessions. He told me that he had intially mailed his poem to Talented Poets for their contest, and although his poem didn’t win the grand prize, it got as far as the semi-finals. They told him that his poem was brilliant, and they wanted to publish it in their anthology of only the best poetry they receive. For $80 they offered to send a copy of the anthology to him as a keepsake, and he happily obliged. I have had the anthology in my possession for the past twenty years. Here is his poem that was published:
A Really Bad Poem
By Adam Hilson
This poem is very dumb.
Reading it won’t be any fun.
It sounds like it was written by a bum.
It will probably be thrown on the floor.
After all, the metaphors are a total bore!
This poem is very bad.
It is not at all rad.
It will never become a fad.
Because it is just PLAIN BAD!!!
This poem is very lame.
It will never help my rise to fame.
I am a horrible poet.
And yes, I do know it!
My poem is as sour as a lime.
None of these lines even rhyme!
As I revisited my father’s work, I smiled at the chills I felt from his pure poetry. Talented Poets were still around, and it was my turn to add to our family legacy. I love being an entertainment journalist, but I have wanted to be a published poet since my dad’s success. Fortunately, it was easier than ever to enter the contest from Talented Poets. My dad had to type out his poem on a word processor and mail it in, but all I had to do was submit my poem on their website. It was time to see if I had what it took to win the contest and get published in a future Talented Poets anthology. I submitted a poem that I worked hard on, and felt a lot of pride for. Here it is if you would like to read it:
I was walking down the street.
Walking on my feet.
When I fell into a purple hole.
I landed on a floor that was real cold.
I saw some little green guys.
They looked at me with red eyes.
Then they started dancing to a song.
A techno dance song, that they danced along.
I started to dance along with it too.
I became a real dancing fool.
These green guys know how to party.
Boring in the sewers, hardly!
Unfortunately, now I must go.
But there’s something I want you to know.
Next time you’re bored, with nothing to do.
Join these green guys in the sewers, they’re really cool!!!
I was quite nervous, but the time had come. My father inspired me to write, and I have definitely found great success with a well loved entertainment column. But I really wanted to follow in his footsteps and become a poet. I clicked submit, and I reviewed the confirmation screen that my poem was received and would be reviewed for the contest. And now the waiting game began. I decided to call it a night for now....
I didn’t have to wait very long. About a week later I had an email in my Inbox from Talented Poets. This is what it said:
We have reviewed your poem “Funky Beat,” and we were blown away by your amazing artistry. We would like to extend our congratulations on being accepted into our poetry contest as a semi-finalist! Your beautiful poem has the potential to win the Grand Prize of $500,000. We also are in the process of publishing our latest anthology of only the best poetry, and this beautiful keepsake just won’t be complete without your incredible poem gracing its pages. For a small fee of $150 we can include your inspiring work, and send you a copy for your enjoyment. We also have additional products that your poem would be well suited for. Please click the link below to visit our online store.
Thank you for sharing your work with us. We are deeply touched by your talent, and we look forward to collaborating with your genius.
Elated, I clicked the link and placed an order for the upcoming anthology, “Fields of Ferns.” I did it. I was going to be a published poet. Just like my father. I looked in the online store to see what else Talented Poets offered. They had many more things that could be done with my poem, options that I don’t believe were available when my father’s poem was published so long ago. My poem could be printed on a keychain. I could get a hoodie or a T-Shirt with my poem on it. I could have my poem read and recorded by a professional voice actor on an MP3 file. I could order a beach ball with my poem on it (might be nice for the summer). I could have my poem engraved on a dog food bowl (why not? Animals love poetry too). A dishware set with my poem engraved on it was also an option (could be nice for dinner parties). Many more options were available, and I couldn’t wait to consider all of them.
“Good morning Blake!” My coworker Tom greeted. Tom wrote an advice column for the newspaper. “That’s an ummmmm, interesting hat!”
“Thanks buddy!” I responded enthusiastically. “Fields of Ferns” wasn’t set to publish for a while, but some of the other items from Talented Poets had arrived. One of the things I had ordered was a baseball cap with my poem printed on it.
“Those socks are something too.” Tom said. I was wearing shorts with my socks pulled up to my knees. I don’t normally go for that look, but I had also ordered socks with my poem printed on them.
“Aren’t they awesome?” I asked excitedly. I was about to fill my personalized coffee cup that had my poem printed on it, when Tom asked me a question that would open up a conversation about my proud achievement.
“So, what’s with all the personalized things you have today? And is that poem printed on your sneakers too?”
“Yes!” I exclaimed. “Remember when I told you about how my father was a published poet?”
“Yeah, I finally remembered after the first 50 times you told me.”
“Well, I entered the contest my dad had entered before, and my poem is a semi-finalist! They are also publishing it in an anthology, and I was able to get it printed on all these personalized things! I have even more personalized things at home!”
“Well, congrats man.” Tom said as enthusiastically as he could muster (I think he needs some coffee. I should have ordered him one of the mugs too). “Your enthusiasm is great, but you might want to be cautious. I am pretty sure this contest and their book are from a vanity publisher.”
“Vanity publisher? What do you mean?”
“Well, they are probably only interested in publishing poems based on the money they receive, not the poems themselves.” Tom replied. “I mean, you are wearing socks with your poem on them. How many publishers do that? I bet any poem entered would be a semi-finalist.”
At this point I felt offended. “Are you saying you don’t think my poem is semi-final worthy? Talented Poets think I have talent!” I then pulled up the email from Talented Poets on my phone to show Tom, while trying not to cover up my poem printed on my custom phone case.
“Your poem is.... fine.” Tom said cautiously. “You are a great writer Blake, and you have done amazing work here at the paper over the past ten years. I’m just saying, you could probably send this organization anything, and they will butter you up to get your money. And it worked, as you are sporting socks with your poem on them.”
“Whatever!” I responded heatedly. “I will send a completely ludicrous poem to them, and I guarantee it will go nowhere in their contest!” I stormed away from Tom, with a plan in mind to prove him wrong....
I was ashamed of what I was about to do, but I had to prove that Talented Poets praised my poem for its merit, not my money. This was also about my father’s legacy as well, since this all began with his published poem through them. I created a new email and used an alias in order to separate my decoy poem from my true work. I read the submission I was about to send once more before sending it to the contest. At the very least, my real poem should win against this one:
I could send anything to Talented Poets
And they would say I’m an artist.
They don’t appreciate true poetry.
They only appreciate true money.
But I’m a vain poet, and I might know it.
So here’s my poem.
Is it semi-finalist worthy?
Maybe if I drop money on it it will be.
Would they put this poem on a baseball cap?
Sure, if I send enough money.
So let’s do this.
VAIN! VAIN! VAIN!
MONEY! MONEY! MONEY!
TALENTED POETS SUCK!
WORST COMPANY EVER!
It made me sick writing these words about Talented Poets, but there is no way they would endorse a poem like this. Now as long as I don’t hear back from Talented Poets, then Tom could eat his words....
“You were right Tom. Talented Poets really is a vanity publisher.”
“Sorry Blake,” Tom said sympathetically. “But if you don’t mind me asking, now that you know this, why did you buy that hat?”
I blushed as I remembered that I was now the “proud” owner of a baseball cap with my decoy poem “Vain Poet” printed on it. “I had to test it out and see if they would really go as far as publishing this poem and putting it on merch. And they did. I will be receiving a copy of “Fields of Ferns” with the poem “Vain Poet” in it. And this poem is also a semi-finalist. And Talented Poets told me they loved this poem and that I have incredible talent. Did you want to hear the spoken word recording of the poem I purchased?”
“I think I’ll pass. But they aren’t wrong in one aspect.” Tom responded. “You definitely have incredible talent. Just look at how well your entertainment column has been received by our readers.”
“Yeah....” I replied, still feeling blue. “I just hate that my dad’s legacy was being published by a vanity publisher, which anyone could have done by throwing money at them.”
“I know for a fact that your dad left a far bigger legacy than that.” Tom gently rebuked. “Yes, his claim to fame was being published by a vanity publisher. But you enjoy his poem, don’t you? You enjoy the anthology it appeared in, right?”
“Yeah, I really do.” I said with a smile. “The poem summed up my dad’s goofy sense of humor, and that is something I will always treasure.”
“Exactly.” said Tom. “And your father’s legacy goes beyond his poem. He wrote something that inspired you, and thanks to that inspiration you are also a writer, a writer whom people look forward to reading in our paper every day. Your father’s poem had lasting effects that are continuing. You should be proud of him, just like he would be proud of you.”
I was deeply touched by Tom’s words. He was right. It doesn’t matter that my dad’s poem only got published by Talented Poets. He inspired me, and thanks to that I am able to make people happy every day with my writing. My father started a legacy that continues on.
“I really appreciate that Tom. You are so wise, maybe you should write an advice column!”
Tom laughed. “Maybe you’re right.”
So I’m not entering any more Talented Poets contests or buying merchandise with my writing printed on them. But I am still writing my entertainment column. I am still working on writing poetry too. I bought a nice journal and wrote my father’s poem in it. I am filling the journal with my own poems too. Maybe some day I will try and get them published, but even if I don’t, I will still pass them on to the next generation for inspiration. So for what it’s worth, thanks for the start Talented Poets. And thank you for everything dad. You will always be my hero.
Originally posted around 9/10/2020 - I believe this was my first Prose post (I’m still a newbie).
Decided for me, my “Ignoring evil” piece could be a jumping off point.
He stepped out of the carriage and looked up at the sky with annoyance. The rain was coming down in torrents. He turned back to it, but the moment his feet had hit the pavement, it was away.
He glared up at it. “OI! Back down here! Now!”
The carriage shuddered to a halt and descended. “How many times do you need to be told?” He yanked the door open and grabbed his hat off the seat. “Make sure I’ve got everything before you leave! For Pell’s sake! When are they going to come up with a more intelligent animation spell?”
He jammed his hat on and stalked to the stone steps of the main municipal building, looking up at the statues on either side. On one side, Pell, the god of retribution. Raven perched on his left hand, chains held in the other. On the other side, his wife, Cassoa, the goddess of Justice looking sternly down on the people below.
He remembered the awe he’d held for them the first time he’d been here. Now, they only conjured a sense of gloom. Another day, another ducket and in this rain, he couldn’t even loiter outside.
He trudged up the steps with a sigh, shoved his way through the revolving doors and, removing his hat, made his way to the reception desk, reaching into his pocket as he did so.
He pulled the cigar out of it and let out an even deeper sigh. “Shit! That’s all I need.”
It was sodden, utterly useless.
“Owdo, Sarge. So”
“Why is it raining, Ban? Did they all go out on a bloody bender again last night up in weather?”
“It isn’t meant to be, I know that much. They’re freaking out a bit up there, to tell you the truth.”
“Why? It has to be their doing, doesn’t it? Did they know I’d be in today? Is that it? A little retaliation for that bet I won last week?”
“Seriously, they’re in a panic up there. There’ve been five reserves called up in the past hour. They can’t get rid of it. You’d better get up to enforcement. Major kerfuffle.”
“Oh gods, what now?”
“I only know something huge happened somewhere. This rain may be a part of it. They never tell me anything.”
“That’s all I need, I suppose I’d”
“Before you go though...” Ban waved his hand over the sodden cigar. “You’ll probably need that before too long.”
Within seconds, the cigar was dry. It even resumed it’s previous shape, not the droopy sodden mess it had been.
Sergeant Moril smiled. He held the cigar under his nose, inhaled deeply and sighed. “Thank you. I wish I could do that.”
“We all have our talents, sarge.”
He nodded and glanced at the newspaper on the desk. His finger twitched, then took a clockwise circular motion as he continued to look at it. In his minds eye, pages flipped, then the paper was gone and another took its place. A few more page flips and… There…
“Two-twenty, Farron Field, Crazy little diamond, fifty to one.”
“Is that a sure thing?”
“Nothing’s a sure thing in this game, my friend. Until the start, everything’s in flux. I’d give it five-to-one rather than fifty, though.”
“Why they didn’t assign you to the augers, I’ll never know.”
“I’m more useful to them out in the field. I never could get to grips with anything beyond a few days and I’m no prophet. Probability’s the best I can manage. Besides, my other… party tricks are more valuable.”
“Thanks for that, anyway. You’d better get up there.”
“Don’t tell your bookie you talked to me, they’ll axe the odds… and don’t bet your rent.”
Ban chuckled. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“I’ll see you later. Tell me how the wager went.”
Ban nodded as the sergeant walked to the nearest cubicle. He stepped inside and closed the door.
A Judder, the cabinet shot up and he was on his way.
The municipal building of Camoria was the largest of its kind in the four continents, taking enough space in its own right to count as a city. Every function a nation requited was housed within it. Commerce, tax, weather control. His destination, the headquarters of the imperial peace department. Some of the more die-hard employees even lived within the complex, rarely setting foot outside and the only way to get from one department to another, short of walking the corridors and climbing countless stairs for half a day was to use the transport cubicles.
Another few jolts as it changed direction and it came to a halt.
He opened the door to reveal the ever familiar clamour of the office. It was a huge open plan affair, desks as far as the eye could see in three directions. The babble of overlapping voices, the scratch of pen on paper, a few more distinct voices raised in anger as suspects, arms manacled to their sides were led to the cells.
He nodded at a few fellow officers as he passed, laid his hat on his desk and continued on to the far wall. To the chief’s office.
He froze and turned. “Oh, what is it, Varon?”
“All I know is, he’s been yelling for you for the past hour. Don’t you ever answer your disk?”
“Not when I’m off the clock, no. I keep it inactive. I thought I told you that!”
Varon grinned in anticipation as he pointed. “Well, I’d get in there if I were you.”
“And just where did you think I was going before you stopped me?” A roll of the eyes, he continued.
He paused and took a deep breath before opening the door.
“Meril, where the hell have you been? I’ve been calling you since six!”
He slid inside and closed the door. “And now, it’s seven fifty. I start at eight. What’s the problem, anyway?”
“I’d prefer to stand, sir.”
“I said, sit!”
He rushed over and slumped into the chair. “Well? What’s so urgent?”
“Simple. The shit’s hit the fan this morning. I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your attention that it’s raining?”
“How could it? I had to run through it to get in here.”
“It’s caused flooding in maintenance, the southern half of the city’s ankle deep and”
“Sir, what’s that got to do with us?”
“I’m getting to that. We’ve also lost contact with Talyin’s Forge.”
The sarge looked at him and shrugged. “Never heard of it.”
“I’m not surprised, but you know we have operatives in every town and city in the empire. Talyin’s Forge is a small town on the east coast.”
“Again, I don’t see what this has to do with me. I’d never heard of the place until just now.”
“Why wasn’t your disk active?”
“I nullify it when I’m off duty. Why shouldn’t I? My time is mine to do with as I please. I’m paid for my duty cycle and nothing more.”
“Well, that changes now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m sending you there. I believe your gifts are perfect for this operation. Find out what happened to our operative. Find out what’s going on in that town. If it’s serious enough, we’ll send in the troops to suppress any insurgents, but in order to do that… Well, that’s your job. Find out.”
“But… The east coast? That’s barely on the edge of the stone’s influence! I’d be lucky to be able to produce even a spark there! As for my other talents...”
The sarge retrieved his cigar, bit the end off and flipped his thumb as if mimicking a lighter. A flame appeared, he lit it and blew his thumb out.
The chief glared and leaned forward. “You might lack the ability to access such a weak magical essence, true. So I’m assigning you a partner.”
“What do you mean? I’ve always worked alo”
“I’m assigning you a partner and you have no say in th”
“But if I can’t do anything, he won’t be able to either!”
His jaw dropped in surprise and the cigar fell from his mouth. He retrieved it before returning his attention to the chief. “What do you mean, she?”
“And yes, she will. She’s far more attuned to the essence than any human can be. She can also act as a boost for you. She can provide you with the magic you require should you need it.”
Meril groaned. “You’re partnering me with one of them?”
“I don’t know what your problem is. The last war was well over two hundred years ago. They’re allies now. Have been since the treaty of bones in ten thirty-two.”
“But we’ve all heard the stories.”
“We both benefited from that treaty. Humans and Saurians realised that together, we’re stronger. You’ll need her.”
“Why can’t you just send her then, if she’s so capable!?”
“Because she can’t do what you can, of course. Her power’s much more… physical in nature. She can act as your bodyguard as well as your backup power supply.”
“But it’ll take weeks to get there. Even if we did take a carriage she wouldn’t have enough oomph to keep it afloat. It’d conk out before we got half way! I don’t want to crash and burn in the middle of the Yamati desert!”
“Just as well you’re not going that way, then, isn’t it? You’ll be in Talyin’s Forge by midday.”
“Midday?” Meril yelped. “Translocation?”
“But that… It’ll take every skilled spacer in the whole city to punch through that far!”
“I know, but it’s the only way.”
“Why is it the only way? Clearly there’s still enough magic out there to communicate, so why not send in one of your other agents. You said yourself there’s one in every town.”
“Because, my dear sergeant, the nearest town is over one week away on horseback. They live simple lives out there. With so little in the way of magic the only power they tend to be able to harness is when they slaughter an animal for food.”
“Oh god, it gets better and better. Blood magic, now?”
“I know it’s repulsive to your cosmopolitan sensibilities, but out there, use what you can is the rule to live by and if they’re going to be eating the animal anyway, why not use it to aid the community in other ways, first? You’ll be a long way from home.” He slid a folder across the desk. “Requisition forms. Get to stores. You need a change of clothing, survival pack, enhanced communication disk and recording crystals among other things. Document everything.”
Meril took the folder and examined the contents. “What’s wrong with that I’m wearing?”
“You’ll blend in. Fairly simple concept, don’t you think?”
“Right.” He took a long draw from his cigar and blew into his boss’s face. “I’ll blend in with a bloody velociraptor by my side.”
The chief wrinkled his nose but restrained himself. His eyes betrayed his displeasure. “You’d be surprised. The last report we received stated there were five living there. And they were accepted. Even valued.”
“If they have five of them, why in all the hells do they need blood magic?”
“Use what you can. Waste nothing, remember. They’re not miracle workers. Even with all five combined they couldn’t animate a bloody plough, let alone enhance the fertility of their fields or purify their water. Blood magic might be primitive but it has potency.”
“But no subtlety. OK. What about my pay?”
“Obviously, you’ll get overtime for your entire mission. We can send you there. We will not be able to retrieve you. Oh, and you’ll be provided with coin. Obviously no credit sticks there. How would you redeem them?”
The sergeant slumped so much into his seat it looked like he was deflating. “No retrieval? I hope you’re providing me with maps, at least. It’ll take months to skirt the desert, to get back here.”
“There is another alternative. It depends on the seriousness of the situation. You may be able to charter a ship. We won’t know until you get there.”
“I still don’t see how anything out there can cause it to rain here.”
“Yes. Well, that’s another reason for you to go. We lost contact with Renn at oh four hundred this morning. Around about eleven hundred there. It started raining at oh four thirty. There has to be a link. Find out what it is.”
“It could just be a coincidence?”
“That seems highly unlikely, don’t you think? The shapers up on six have been trying to banish this weather since it started and so far, they’ve been unsuccessful. They have no idea what’s causing it or why it’s so resistant to their efforts.”
He sighed and stood. “Yes, sir. I suppose I’d better get down to stores, then. When will I meet this… thing.”
“She’s a sentient being far more capable with magic than you are. None of that. She’d just as worthy of personal pronouns as you are. Considering their history, moreso. She’d not a bloody thing.”
“Well, what do I call her then? She’s certainly not a woman!”
“I’m sure you’ll be able to agree on a name for her when you speak.”
“You don’t even know it?”
“I can’t speak their language and you know how hopeless translators are with names. Just, don’t choose anything insulting. She will not appreciate that. And look on the bright side for once.”
“Bright side? What bloody bright side? I’ve just been informed on zero notice that I’ll be spending the next six months, at least, either sleeping in a ditch or the next two, seasick!”
“Yes, but you always complain you never get out of the city. That you’re sick of dragging in lowlifes who’s only crime is stealing for the fun of it or getting into brawls at the local. You’ve got yourself a little variety in your life for once. A little excitement. A chance to get some fresh air.”
“Well, thank you for the positive insight. I’m sure I’ll treasure it.” He turned and stalked to the door. “I just hope this fresh air stuff isn’t habit-forming.”
“Oh, one last thing.”
“A little common sense. No overt or wasteful magic.” The chief flipped his thumb. “None of that. They’re a superstitious people. They still tell tales of witches and warlocks and if you’re accused of that, you’re likely to spend the next month hanging upside down bleeding for them. If you kill any animals for food, use blood magic then. It’ll be seen as unusual if you let it go to waste. Blend in. Be careful in other words.”
“What the hell? They still use that form of execution? But it’s barbaric!”
“Waste nothing. How better to maximise their magic availability. It’s only when they have a steady supply they can perform more useful, as you said, subtle tasks with it. Like curing disease and healing injuries. They’re not a cruel people. They don’t make their animals suffer that fate but murderers, people they believe are working with devils… People out to cause them harm...”
“Yeah, yeah. I get it.” He wrenched open the door, yelled back “Thank you so much, sir!” and slammed it behind him before barging back through the desks, puffing on his cigar as he went.
He slapped the folder down on the desk with a grimace. “Got some things to book out.”
The man opened the folder and his eyes widened. “Oh, you’re the lucky bugger, are you?”
“Lucky? Get stuffed.”
“So, you’re not getting a months long paid leave, then? You can do whatever you like once you’ve done your job and that’ll be unlikely to take more than a day!”
“I get to spend months sleeping rough, you mean.”
“You won’t be on the road the whole time. Every village has an inn.”
“With no modern conveniences. No luxuries. Not even able to use what few spells I know unless I kill some critter to eat beforehand. Unless no-one’s looking and I can drain a little from a bloody lizard, I’ll be powerless. No better than a bloody ape.”
“I would’ve given my left arm to go on that assignment! A chance to see the world or a major part of it. Gods, you’re a miserable bastard. Have you always been like this?”
“Oh, no. I was springing around with all the joy in the world, looking forward to my exciting thrill filled life in law enforcement. Then I entered puberty!”
“Oh well, maybe you’ll see the positive in it once you get there. Hope you do anyway. It’ll be you making your experience unpleasant, not the experience itself. I often go trekking outside the city. Bet you’ve been too lazy to do even that.” He flipped through the remainder of the folder and nodded. “Strip.”
“It’s only a five-letter word. Even you can understand that. Everything off. And I mean everything. Put it in this crate, I’ll lock it away until you return.”
The sarge gulped. “Everything?”
“Right down to your underwear and socks. Yes. We’re giving you new clothing that fits in. Nothing from here goes there apart from that fleshy lump, your partner and a few finely crafted little magical trinkets designed to look innocuous out there. Now, strip!”
Muttering under his breath, he unbuttoned his tunic and shrugged it off. The shirt, tie and vest followed.
The man prodded his forearm. On it, an intricate series in interwoven lines.
“It’s a tattoo. So what?”
The quartermaster sighed. “Arm on the desk.”
Merin shrugged and obeyed. “Why, though?”
“My little talent, sergeant, and the reason I was assigned this position...” A wave of the hand over his arm was all it took. The tattoo vanished.
“OI! That cost me twenty duckets and that was twenty years ago! It’ll cost ten times that now, not to mention it hurt like hell to get it!”
“It’s still there, Moril. I just transformed the inks. They’re transparent and colourless. I can reverse it too. It’s too conspicuous. Anything that screams strange or unusual out there could get you killed.” He glanced at the sarge’s hand. “What does that ring do?”
“It’s clear it does something, so hand it over.”
The sarge sighed and twiddled his fingers over the gem mount. An image appeared. A man, woman and two children.
“And they are?”
“My mum, dad, sister and me.”
“A little sentimental for you, isn’t it?”
“Considering they’re all dead, now? No!”
“Hand it over. I’m sure you’ll survive without seeing them for a little while.”
“I suppose you’ll be wanting my teeth, too!?” He twisted it on his finger and wrenched it off, slamming it on the desk.
“Anything magical about them?”
“Of course not!”
“You’d be surprised what people do these days.” he glanced over the desk and nodded at Moril’s bottom half. “And the rest.”
A minute later, he was naked. Every thread of clothing, every possession, packed away in the crate. The quartermaster closed the lid, added a padlock and took it into the back room. He returned with two more crates and handed Moril a small metal ball.
“And this is?”
“Stick it in your ear.”
He shrugged and did so. The moment it entered his ear canal, its texture changed. It felt softer as he prodded it in. He looked at the quartermaster in alarm as he felt it moving in there.
“Now I suggest you grip this desk, hard, because it’d going to”
Pain lanced through his ear. It burned. It felt like a needle had penetrated his skull. His knees buckled and his hand shot to his head as he howled in agony. He crawled back to his feet and glared but as quickly as the pain had struck, it faded to nothing.
“hurt.” The man chuckled. “Sorry about that, but”
“What the fuck was that?”
“Your new communicator. The pain you experienced? It burned away your eardrum and replaced it. It also sent a barbed spike deep into the bone in order to make it permanent before healing all the damage it caused. You can speak, we will hear.. There’s no way for it to be removed. No way for you to nullify it. We can call you at any time. You’re on the clock 22/8, every minute of every day while you’re out there.”
“Now, wait a minute! I never agreed to that!”
“None of them ever do, but it’s required for undercover agents. That’s what you are now. Don’t worry, we won’t be listening in all the time, but we will know if you’re alive or dead and we have a call sign you can use to alert us if you’re in serious need of backup. Everything will be recorded though. A Perfect evidence gathering device wouldn’t you say? Everything you hear, we hear.”
“And when I get back?”
“We’ll stop listening when you’re not on duty. You will not be able to avoid a call from the chief with the excuse you’re on your own time though.”
“I thought you said it’d be like a bloody holiday for me once the job was done!”
“You’ll be expected to check in once a day unless something… untoward happens and you need to do it earlier. If you do run into trouble, report in any time you like. Other than that, you’re free and clear. This is a safety measure. This is why we were so alarmed by the loss of communication with Renn. The communicator should send out an alert when it detects the death of its host. It didn’t and we haven’t been able to hear anything from him for well over four hours. Not a peep and we’ve been calling him since five.”
“So now the chief could whisper sweet nothings into my ear any time he likes and there’s no way to even stop it? Wonderful. Fucking wonderful. My life just gets shittier and shittier.”
“Oh stop complaining, it’s for your own good. Now get dressed! Top crate first.”
He reached in and pulled out the first garment… He looked, turned around in his hand and held it against himself. “You expect me to… what is this?”
“That, my dear fellow is what counts as underpants out there.”
“But they’re huge! A man twice my girth could fit in them!”
“Yes, but they do have a draw string. Much wider size range. They can’t afford made-to-measure there if they’re buying complete garments. Most rely on their wives to make them.”
He pulled them up, tightened the string and looked down at himself in dismay. The legs extended all the way down to his knees. “Talk about passion killers.”
“For city dwellers, for people here, maybe. Get used to loose fitting clothing. It’s more practical, it’s harder wearing and some would even argue more comfortable. Comfort and utilitarianism are much more important to field workers than fashion.”
He took a sharp intake of breath and reached into the crate again. The next thing to emerge looked like a sock. A bright red, very long wollen sock with a couple of strips of cloth sewn to the top.
“Hose. Tie the top off to the drawstring of your underpants to hold them up and tuck the underpant legs into them.”
“Why bright red? I thought you didn’t want me to stand out. I thought the peasantry wore drab brown everything?”
Five hundred years ago, that may have been true. Fashion and a little prosperity right now means they prefer bright colours.”
“So they’re well off, now? Thought it was a hard life.”
“Hard work, hard play. They do have a few more pennies to rub together than back in the feudal days. Taxes are much more regulated. No more robber barons bleeding them for all they’re worth.”
“Why, though? Hardly practical is it?”
“I think they’re taking a page from the animal kingdom. Especially birds. Males often wear brighter plumage. They do have peacocks, don’t you know. Everyone’s seen a bullfinch. The women still favour browns, blacks and greys. Quite the reverse of here.”
He pulled out the other hose, put it on and then pulled out the next item.
“And now a blue bag with arms and a head hole.”
“Linen under tunic. In hot weather, that’s enough. Extremely hot weather and they’ll work the fields just wearing your bottom half.”
“And if it gets cold?”
“Put that on and get the next two items.”
He nodded and did so. It went down to his knees. The sleeves were the right length at least.“God, it’s hardly flattering, is it? I look like a sack of potatoes.”
“That’s because you’re not wearing your belt yet.”
“Right. That goes on next?”
“As I said, hot weather, yes. Put the over tunic on for now though. Next thing in the box.”
This one was a deep green, thick, heavy wool. It too almost reached his knees. It was a little shorter than the undertunic, leaving a stripe of blue visible.
Next came the belt. On it, a pouch on one side and a scabbard on the other.
“Yes. You do remember your training?”
“It was only ceremonial. I never kept up with it. I’ll be as rusty as shit.”
“Can’t be helped. Just, be careful and don’t pick any fights. You’ll be fine. I should warn you though, you may be expected to.”
He fastened the belt around his waste as the man reached in and held up a pair of boots. “Don’t worry, they’re your size.”
“Fine! Fine.” He stuffed his feet into them and… “Um… No laces?”
“Leather cord down the side there.”
He rolled his eyes as he fastened them. “At least they’re comfortable. How are they for walking?”
“It’s what they do there. Very few can afford a horse. They’ll protect your tootsies. Anyway, to finish off your normal clothing,” the man pulled out the last two items. “One cloak, ankle length, doubles quite nicely as a secondary blanket. Pull it around yourself for protection if it rains, hood up, obviously. And hat.”
The cloak was a deep green, matching the outer tunic. The hat was a bright blue cloth affair. It was more a misshapen bag than a hat.
He put those on too and looked down at himself.
“A mirror’s over there if you want a better look.”
Moril wandered over to it. He studied himself.
“So how does it feel?”
“Apart from weird, y’ mean? Actually, not that bad.”
“Good. The cloak is quite waterproof. That’s your normal travelling wear. There is more however.”
“Oh, nonono. Take the cloak and outer tunic off. The second crate’s where the fun begins.”
First to come out of that wasn’t what Moril expected. They were thick, padded trousers… No, not trousers. There was no crotch. Just legs attached to a belt. They were covered in brown and black stains. Next out, a padded jacket in a similar condition and a padded cap.
“Rightfully so. Brand new would stand out. We allowed them to gather some rust stains.”
He sighed in relief. “Rust. I thought it was”
“It’s rust. We wanted them to appear well worn after all, because what goes on over them...” Out of the crate came some leg armour, full steel plate legs with articulated knee caps, a chain mail shirt, vambraces for the lower arms and a helmet. All the armour had rust splotches and the odd dent and scratch.
“And you expect me to avoid trouble? Wearing armour?”
“What better protection? What better excuse to travel? Sell sword. Mercenary. Want an excuse not to fight? Simple. You’re not being paid, so, you don’t fight. You’re on your way to your next job. Now, legs on. The metal ones have leather straps that attach to the tops of the trousers. Keeps your knees aligned with the joints. Once you’ve got the chain mail on, belt it and pull a few inches through.”
“Takes the weight off your shoulders. Your belt bears most of the weight. You have a second belt for the mail. Put your tunic back on for the final bit.”
The final bit? A breast and back plate. With those on too, he returned to the mirror.
“Good Pell in heaven… I actually look good in it.”
“Finally getting into the spirit. Good. Oh, a little advice with regard to your outfit.”
“If it does get too hot, strip down to tunic and hose but wear it whenever possible when you’re on foot.”
“Carrying that lot will be a struggle. Wearing it, the weight’s evenly distributed. You might not even feel it once you’re used to it. That lot strapped on your back…” he shook his head. “Try to wait until you’ve got a horse. You should be able to buy one at Talyin’s Forge. You can strap your armour to the back of your saddle.”
He nodded at the wisdom of those words. He’d felt the weight of the chain mail as he was putting it on. “So what else have you got for me?”
“Ah yes.” He went into the back again and returned with yet another crate. “Equipment.” He opened it and began to place the contents on the desk. “Water skins, two of, Knapsack, wear it under your cloak. It contains two weeks of field rations. You’ll need to supplement those with food you’ve gathered, bought or hunted. The bottom straps of the pack are for this.” Next on the desk was a tightly bound roll of cloth. “Bed roll and spare clothing. I take it you know how to make a shelter?”
“Of course. All part of basic training. Never thought I’d ever get to use it though.”
“By the time you get back, you might be teaching the recruits. You may even like the outdoor life by then. The sack also contains cooking gear in the side pockets along with cutlery and cooking pan, mug, first aid, snares and fire lighting equipment.”
“You can never have enough of this when you’re out in the wilds.” He placed a coil of rope on the desk. “A thousand uses, if you’re imaginative enough. It’s silk, so it’s strong and light. Much better than hemp and there’s a hell of a lot more of it for the weight. And finally…”
A quiver containing twelve arrows and a short bow joined the collection.
“You did mention magical trinkets?”
“Yes, yes. I’m getting to those. The mundane stuff’s just as important. Get it all squared away before we continue.”
“S’pose.” He shrugged and began, attaching the water skins and quiver to his belt, strapping the bed roll, rope and bow to the sack and finally trying to put the sack on. It was too tight, so he loosened the shoulder straps before managing it.
The quartermaster rolled his eyes and continued. He took something from below his desk. “This...”
“Well, a sell sword’s not much use without a sword.”
“Not just any sword.”
“What’s special about it? Does it glow in the dark, perhaps? Burst into flame when I command it?”
“We want you inconspicuous, remember? Yes, it has a small enchantment but nothing visible and nothing permanent, either. You can place a small charge of power into it and it’ll become much sharper and more resilient as long as that charge holds. It should last about ten minutes a shot. More than enough for the odd skirmish.”
“And the next?”
He placed a sheathed dagger on the desk. “Not for fighting, but I suppose in dire straits it could be used for such. This does have a permanent enchantment. Place it in water for a few seconds and it’ll purify it. Saves you the trouble of casting a spell. Use it to gut and clean a rabbit or other animal and it’ll do the same. Make the meat safer to eat. Protect you from food poisoning if you under-cook it.”
Moril sighed. “I hadn’t thought of that. Last thing I want is to be knocked off my feet by a bout of dysentery. Especially if I might not have the power to rid myself of it before it gets bad.”
“Or worse. One added benefit. If you’re bitten by an insect, place the flat of the blade on the bite. It’ll prevent infection. There are some nasty diseases out there for those who’ve not been exposed before.”
He gulped. “Wasting sickness?” He unhitched his belt and threaded the sheath onto it before doing the belt up again..
“That’s one of the bad ones, yes, but there are others. Of course, you could, if you suspect you’re coming down with something, cast a purification spell… You… do know that one?”
“Who doesn’t? Basic training, again, but lack of power…”
“I know, but with a boost from your partner, it should be enough but be discrete about it. Now for your final item. Probably the most useful for you, too.”
“And that is?”
He reached down and slammed a quarterstaff on the desk. “This. And before you say anything, it will aid you if you’re walking and it’ll always be at hand if you’re jumped and don’t have time to unsheathe your sword.”
“It’s a magical walking aid? How does that work?”
“No, it’s a mundane walking aid. The magic’s hidden within. A recording device.”
“But you said everything I hear’s going to be recorded here anyway.”
“It is. That’s not what it records. It records impressions. Or in your case, what you see when you use your… talent.”
“Bloody hell! Really? I thought stuff like this was… It’d take me months to afford something like this!”
“Yes, it is rather a specialised enchantment. The crystal’s embedded in the staff. It can also play back the images so you can show your partner what you saw. That could prove useful.”
“Indeed it could. Good gods, what do you think’s happening there? This mission must be costing the department a fortune!”
“The point is, we don’t know. We have no idea and that scares them upstairs. The rain only added to the urgency, speaking of which...” He tossed another coin pouch.
Moril caught it and shrugged.
“Larger denomination. Twenty gold crowns. That’ll be more than enough to buy a horse and should be enough to charter a ship. Do not splash it about. The money in the pouch you already have should keep you fed for a month. If you need to change a crown, go to a mercantile guildhall. Otherwise… Try to earn as you travel. That’s for emergencies.”
“And if I do spend it all? It’s not going to be docked from my wages, is it?”
“That all depends on how you spend it. Chuck it away gambling, then yes, it most certainly will. Spent on something you need, no. Anything you have left when you get back, you return to us.”
“And this is everything?”
The man flipped through the folder again, ticking things off as he went. “Yeees… Yes, that’s everything. You’d better get up to transport.”
“Right then… I suppose I’ll see you in a few months.”
Moril opened the door.
“Oh, one last thing.”
“If you run into any mercenary bands and they’re travelling in the same direction, try to join them.”
“But they’re nothing but ruffians!”
“All the more reason. Strength in numbers. A lone sell sword might be seen as an easy target by some. A band of them…”
“Yeah, I get the idea.”
“They might be on the rough end of the spectrum, but some of them are good men. Even if they are only in it for the money, they’re still putting their lives on the line.”
“But most of them don’t give a damn who hires them as long as they’re paid.”
“True. Try to join them anyway. You never know, they could prove useful if you befriend them. A sell sword as a friend is very valuable. I hear there’s a loyalty they hold for each other that goes beyond money.”
“Wouldn’t I need to join them in the fight for me to gain that kind of respect?”
“Quite possibly. Still worth considering, though, wouldn’t you think?”
Moril groaned. “I suppose so. Thanks so much for your pearls of wisdom. I’ll think about it.”
He closed the door behind him and headed for the nearest cubicle.
At the very centre of the municipal building, at its highest point, sat a room like no other. It had a large domed roof made of the clearest glass it was possible to produce. Rumours abounded as to its original purpose. Some said the emperor himself would walk around the dome observing the city, others said it was used to observe the stars, to learn the mysteries of the universe. Whatever it was, it was lost to history. Even the augers couldn’t determine its original purpose.
Now? Now it was used by the spacers. It wasn’t used often. Most of their time was spend as nothing but glorified postmen for the wealthy and impatient. Rather than wait a few days or weeks for delivery, why bother when you could have something appear in your great hall within the hour?
This place though… This was used to send people. Normally only three were required for such a feat. This time, thirty men in hooded cowls, ornate mystical symbols embroidered into their raiments, lined the dome.
In the centre of the floor, engraved in gold and other precious metals, a geometric shape twisted as you looked at it.
Moril had never liked this place. It always made his skin crawl and his eyes cross when he looked at that thing on the floor, but clearly, to these… these benders of space… Obviously, whatever it meant, it meant a lot to them. He often wondered if they could even perform without it or something similar.
At the far edge of the design stood what he presumed to be his new partner.
She was six feet tall with arms far too short to be of much use for anything he could think of. It was an odd combination. Her snout and head were scaly and green with a crest of five feathers running down the back of her head, but below that she was covered in dull brown feathers from neck to toe… He took a deep breath and approached. “I understand you’re going to be joining me on this… venture?”
Her mouth opened to reveal dozens of needle sharp teeth and what could only be described as birdsong emerged. She warbled and twittered for a few seconds and closed her mouth.
“I’m sorry, I”
“Ah, so you’re the human. I will call you sergeant. I also share that rank so you will call me five feathers. Your vocal chords are incapable of saying my real name.”
He leaned a little closer, looking for where the voice was coming from.
Her slitted pupils widened and she tweeted and twittered again.
“Ah, you obviously have not mixed with my kind. I wear a harness.” she brushed aside the feathers on her chest to reveal an intricate talisman with chains that wrapped around her back both over her shoulders and under her arms. Another series of chirps. “This acts as my translator, but personal names…”
“Is it OK if I call you feathers? Five feathers seems a bit of a mouthful.”
“I suppose that may be acceptable, though it may become confusing should we encounter more of my kind. I am told five reside in the town we are destined for.”
“I’m sure we can come up with better names for each other when we get acquainted.”
“Acceptable. I sense discomfort in this arrangement?”
Moril sighed. “I’m not used to having a partner and as you said, I’ve never mixed with your kind before.”
“I understand. And you’ve heard stories of some of the atrocities committed during the war?”
“We are bound by the treaty of bones in ways you cannot imagine, sergeant. If even one of us were to break that oath, all would suffer, but if it will ease your discomfort…”
She began to trace something in the air with her finger and where the finger moved, a trail of pail green light followed. It was an incredibly complex design when it was completed.
Again, she chirped and twittered. “I pledge that I will, for as long as we are bound together as partners, protect you with all my power. Furthermore, I will harm no human unless said human bears either of us ill will. Should this promise be broken, my death will be the result. It would be appreciated if you would make a similar pledge.”
“What… I’ve never seen anything like that. What is it?”
“A spell of binding. When our hands touch in the centre of the design, both will be bound by the promise and the result should it be broken will be death to the breaker.”
“Is this really necessary?”
“I believe it is. I sense your distrust.”
He looked around as if trapped. His mouth dry, he swallowed a couple of times. He closed his eyes in prayer to Pell. “I pledge that I will, for as long as we are bound together as partners, protect you with all my strength. Furthermore, I will harm no saurian unless said saurian bears either of us ill will. Should this…” he gulped. “Should this promise be broken, my death will…” he took a deep breath and rushed the final words before he lost his nerve. “Mydeathwillbetheresult!”
“Good. Place your hand on mine.”
His eyes widened as their palms met. Her fingers ended in claws, but… Her hand was warm. He hadn’t expected that.
The design began to rotate and shrink. In the blink of an eye, it collapsed with a flash.
He let out a yelp and yanked his hand back, looking at it. The symbol that had been in the air flashed on his palm and was gone.
“I apologise. I did not intend to cause you pain. Such an oath is a standard in business practice between saurians. We never experience such a sensation when we make a promise between ourselves.”
“You… you make death oaths based on business?”
“Of course. A binding transaction should be just that. Binding.”
“But… But what if something goes wrong? A warehouse fire? A lost ship?”
“Neither will break such an oath willingly. If the oath is broken through no fault of either party, such as a ship lost in a storm at sea, the oath is null and void. Intent is the true power behind the oath. It is my wish that our relationship will grow in the knowing, beyond the need for such an oath.”
“So, it can be ended?”
“No. The oath that binds us, does so until the conditions are met. Until our partnership ends. It is my hope by then that friendship will replace the need for it.”
The corners of his mouth twitched. His normal frown vanished, to be replaced by a smile. “I’m sorry. You’re not what I expected.”
“I understand sergeant. We each have our prejudices. Just as your kind see us as cold hearted monsters, our kind see yours as hot blooded, angry and violent. We each have a lot to learn about the other.”
He nodded and extended his hand. “This is how we make an agreement. No magic involved though.”
“I know your customs.” She took his hand and shook it. “I have worked with many humans over the years.”
“Well, I must say, you look the part, at least.” The chief walked down the stairs to join them. “I take it you have everything you need?”
“Everything you decided I needed, yes, sir.”
“Then it’s time we sent you on your way.”
“What about her? She’s not got anything!”
“I require nothing, sergeant. I am quite capable of surviving in the wild indefinitely with no need for equipment.”
“Even so far from the stone?”
“Yes. We are well adapted to life without civilisation. Many of us prefer it.”
He shuddered. “Rather you than me. I like my home comforts.”
The chief sighed. “You have all the time in the world to acquaint yourselves. I came to give you your emergency call sign, to bid you farewell and I don’t have all day. ”
“And this call sign is?”
“What’s a bannerman?”
“An ancient standard bearer. When armies relied more on sword than magic, the men had to know where their leaders were and it isn’t a word that crops up in general conversation very often. Not unless you’re discussing military history, anyway.”
“And as that was never one of my interests… OK. Bannerman it is then. Where are you sending us? If we appear out of thin air in front of someone, I might very well spend the next month, as you said, hanging upside”
“I wouldn’t worry about that. We have the exact coordinates of Renn’s house. He has a room set aside just for such a situation. One shielded from any windows so none will witness your appearance.”
“Alright then. Let’s get it over with. The sooner I’m there, the sooner I can start making my way back.”
The chief nodded and pointed at one of the men on the edge of the dome.
The robed figure nodded and jogged down the steps. “Everyone not going and not involved in this ritual, step away from the Alkrist.” He glanced at the chief when he didn’t move. “Step away from the design!”
“Oh, well, why didn’t you say? I’m not familiar with your technical terms.”
“Please, just… Shoo!”
“Very well. Oh, before you go, take this.” The chief handed Moril a leather pouch.
“And this is?”
“It contains imperial survey maps of the town and the surrounding area and a large scale one of the continent, should you need to travel by land. It doesn’t cover everything but it should get you to the next nearest town. There, you can buy a map for the next leg of your journey. There’s a cartographer in every major town in the empire.”
“Thanks for remembering.”
The chief nodded, returned to the steps and turned to observe.
The moment he was gone, a chant began. At first, it was quite a pleasant sound but as it continued, each man lining the dome took on a different tone, a different register, chanting different words. What had been a harmonised and beautiful music quickly became a discordant babble.
The lead spacer knelt in the centre of the floor, closed his eyes and placed his hands together in front of himself as if in prayer.
The volume increased and the echoes around the room interacted with the cacophony to make it even worse.
A piercing white light appeared between the spacer’s hands, as, slowly, he extended them, drawing out the light to form a ring. As his arms extended the circle did too. A bright ring of light surrounding a circle of grey semitransparent emptiness, the spacer still visible on the other side of it.
When his arms reached their full extension, his eyes snapped open. “Go! I can’t hold it for long.”
Moril looked at the circle in dismay. “I’ve translocated before. I could see the destination. Why can’t I see anything?”
“We have the correct coordinates!” The spacer’s voice cracked with the strain. “I don’t know why you can’t see it, but go! Now!”
Moril prodded the void with his staff, then shoved three feet of it through before moving it around.
Beads of sweat formed on the spacer’s brow. “It opens into air, not rock! Please, stop pissing about or I’ll lose it.”
Moril closed his eyes, took a deep breath and stepped through.
He sensed the change immediately. His feet crunched on something. It felt like broken glass. A cool breeze brushed his cheek and then the smell hit him so hard, it made his eyes water. Burnt earth combined with the smell you get before a thunderstorm only much more powerful.
His eyes snapped open and he span in horror at the scene, just in time to see Feathers emerge and the portal wink out of existence. “Wait! Oh for all the gods, wait! Where the hell have you sent us?”
As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but scorched earth. No, not quite. In the distance, green hills and woodland. He returned his attention to his surroundings. In places the heat had even turned the soil to glass. No sign of any buildings… No, wait… That outcrop… It had a regularity to it. He ran over to examine it more closely. It was a wall, or what was left of it. The rocks that it had been built from were melted, fused to one another from an incredible heat.
He turned to Feathers. “Have you ever seen anything like this before?”
She shook her head and twittered agitatedly, but nothing emerged from her translator. The crest on her head sprang erect. She tweeted something else but again, nothing.
“Bannerman! You got it wrong, you pillocks! There’s no town here!”
He waited a minute, but there was no reply.
“What in all that’s holy is going on? I was told I’d have unbroken contact. Why isn’t your harness working?”
She did her best to shrug and he appreciated the gesture. At least he could understand that.
“Right then. First, let’s at least assume we’re in a location close to Talyin’s Forge.” He knelt, opened the pouch and pulled out the map of the town, laying it on the ground. She wandered over to observe.
“Now… North… Which way is north.” He closed his eyes and his brow furrowed in concentration before muttering “Sod all. I can’t even do that. Even a five year old can do that.”
She nudged him and pointed. The sun was almost touching the horizon.
He sprang to his feet in shock. “So now they’re sending people back in time, too? What the”
She shook her head and pointed at the map.
He took a deep breath. “Keep it together. Find out where we are. Find out where we need to be. Thanks… So, that’s west.” He turned north and knelt before the map again, aligning it appropriately. “That hill over there… It could be that one,” he prodded the map, “but how far… Dammit, I…” He took a deep breath, stood, held his arm out in front of him, extended his finger and side stepped a few yards, before sidestepping back. “About, two miles.”
Her pupils widened. She shrugged again.
“That? Oh, a little trick we picked up during basic. Think they call it parallax. Distant objects appear to move more slowly than close by ones. Good way to estimate distance.” He knelt by the map again, patted himself down and swore. “Idiot! He didn’t even give me a bloody pencil!”
He scrabbled about on the ground until his hand closed on a piece of charcoal. “This’ll have to do.”
Careful to measure the distance on the map with his thumb, he drew a circle around the hill. His brow furrowed. “This… It can’t be!”
He sprang to his feet and scanned the surrounding countryside again, glancing down at the map. “That copse of trees… That ruin on the hill… Oh Pell, no! Feathers… This is Talyin’s Forge! We’ve got to go. We’ve got to find somewhere we can setup camp for the night and I am not doing that here. The place sets my teeth on edge.”
He gathered up the map and started to walk. He didn’t care in which direction. She joined him by his side at first, but as they continued, she increased her pace, chirping and warbling as she went.
After walking for nearly half a mile, he saw it. A line, a boundary. On one side, destruction, on the other, grass, shrubs, trees, but the ones nearest to the line weren’t untouched. They appeared to be severed, truncated. Anything that had crossed that line was gone.
At the sight of it, Feathers burst into a sprint as if desperate to feel the grass beneath her feet and a second after crossing…
“Cannot be. It is impossible,” she froze, her gaze snapped up to the sky. “Oh, by the seven heavens, no! Sergeant. Hold!”
He froze in his tracks just before crossing out of the devastation. “What… Your translator! It’s working again! Why did you tell me to stop?”
“I did not sense it. Not until I was here. There is absolutely no magic in that area. None. In fact, I think there’s something else and it gets worse.”
“But… Why did you”
“I assume as my translator failed, your communicator failed too, judging by your words on arrival? Correct?”
“What happens when you die, sergeant?”
“No-one knows for sure. We’ve never spoken to anyone who has, but the temples state that our souls enter purgatory to be judged.”
“Look up, sergeant. Above what was once the town.”
He craned his neck and… “It’s not dark yet. Is that a planet? It seems too bright to be a star.”
“Have you ever heard stories of people close to death who were revived? About their experiences?”
“Yes… Yes, they spoke of a tunnel with a light at the end. Sometimes a voice calling, come into the light.”
“The gate isn’t closed. It still awaits their crossing.”
“The… I’m sorry, but…”
“We detected it thousands of years ago. For us, it is the briefest of flickers. Utterly unnoticeable, but our scholars developed spells and equipment that could detect the crossing of souls. The opening and closing of the gate to the otherworld. They couldn’t perform this task during the death of an individual because it happens far too quickly, but during major catastrophes, during battles, then, they could detect it. It closes the moment the souls have crossed. If it is still open, it means none have crossed. It awaits them.”
He stared at her in horror. “None of them? But this town looked big enough to house over a thousand people!”
“I am sorry, sergeant. That is why I asked you to remain. There is more.”
“More? What could be worse than this? Than that!?” He pointed up.
“How was it accomplished, sergeant? Even standing on the stone itself, such a feat would take the blood of a thousand sheep, to supplement the power requirements. It is impossible using any magical knowledge I have encountered and the area is imbued with something counter to magic. Something that nullifies it.”
“I agree… That is impossible.”
“In practice, I would have said before today, that was true, but you are a witness to the results. How familiar are you with thaumo-dynamics?”
“About the magical research conducted in the high energy laboratories?”
“I think I see something in the newspaper once in a while about the odd… discovery. Why?”
“Their purpose is to discover the fundamentals of the universe. The structure of matter. The energies and forces that bind it.”
“You know of the elements?”
“Air, earth, f”
She held up her hand. “Those are a magical shorthand, nothing more. In ancient times, your people believed everything was comprised of combinations of those four things. I mean the true elements. Iron, gold, copper…”
“Oh those. What about them?”
“Do you know of atoms?”
“Do you know how an atom is constructed?”
“An atom’s an atom isn’t it?”
“No. There is an inner structure to the atom. Smaller particles and within those particles, there are even smaller ones. All discovered by shooting atoms at each other at incredible speeds, but during those experiments they discovered a new form of matter. An opposite of matter, if you will.”
“What does that do?”
“Should a particle of this material meet a normal particle of matter, they would annihilate each other releasing a large amount of energy.”
“And you think that’s what happened here? Someone dropped this… opposite stuff in the middle of the town?”
She shook her head. “There has been an… idea. Mathematics used to calculate these reactions hinted at it. An opposite of magic, identical in every way apart from this… oppositeness. It could even be wielded in the same way, but if it were to meet normal magic, positive magic, again…”
“If such an event were to occur closer to the stone or within the stone itself, it could crack the world in twain. Out here, no boom, but it appears such negative magic has been used.”
“Where the hell did whoever it was that did this, get it?”
“Until this moment, it wasn’t even worthy of the term conjecture, sergeant. That is why I requested you halt while still on that side of the terminating line. You may wish to couch your words in a more… gentle manner so as not to induce panic when you report. I imagine when you join me on this side, your communicator will resume its normal function.”
“Oh, I’m not going to be gentle, Feathers. I’m going to tell it exactly like it is. The idea of them running around like headless chickens is very appealing.”
He stepped onto the grass.
The chief’s voice sounded in his ear the moment both feet were on the ground. “is minute! I repeat, for all the gods, answer me, dammit. Report in this minute!”
“I’m here, sir.”
“Why didn’t you respond when I called you? I’ve been trying for the past hour!”
“Oh, believe me, sir. I tried the moment I crossed over. My communicator failed. Feathers’ translator failed too, until we were well away from our drop off point.”
“Failed? What could cause it to fail? That’s impossible!”
“If you want to see impossible, chief, come here. Then you’ll see what impossible is.”
“What does that mean?”
Moril sighed. “First, tell those oafs in transport that… Wait… Did you say you’ve been trying to contact me for an hour?”
“The moment I returned to my office, yes.”
“But, I… I thought they’d screwed up, sir. I left at noon.”
“The sun’s setting.”
The chief sighed. “You really are a” he paused. “I told you during your briefing. It was eleven hundred hours when we lost contact there. Here, it was oh four hundred!”
“I… I’m not sure I”
“Moril, you’re an idiot! You never studied in school and”
“And as a result, I got a job in law enforcement. Why is the sun setting?”
“You’re over seven thousand miles away, to the east, idiot. The sun rises in the east. It sets in the west. Now, what happens to time?”
“I… don’t get you, sir.”
“The sun rises earlier the further you travel east and later the further you travel west. You’re seven hours ahead of us. For you, the sun is at its zenith when it’s only five in the morning here! Gods, you’re an idiot, sometimes. Now report!”
“And there I was thinking they’d screwed up and sent me back in time, or something.”
“Well they didn’t, what the hell is going on there?”
“I can only assume Renn’s dead, sir. Every single person in the town is dead, from what we can gather so far. If any managed to flee, they haven’t returned, so, we don’t know.”
“There’s nothing here, sir. The place is incinerated. It’s a burnt out wasteland within half a mile of the town, sir and it’s worse even than that.”
“Who did this? What caused it? And what do you mean, it’s worse?”
“You may need to consult with the saurian scholars, sir. About all of it. Feathers suggests some form of negative magic is involved. There’s a hard line. I’ve not walked the perimeter but I suspect it may be a circle. Inside, no magic. Nothing works. Outside, everything’s normal and the line that separates the two… The heat must’ve been intense sir, enough to turn soil into glass and melt rocks, but there are trees and bushes here cut in half. Nothing on this side was touched by the flame.”
“That’s impossible. I know, sir. But it happened. There’s something more.”
“And that is?”
“Something else for the saurian scholars, sir. They know how a soul crosses to the afterlife. They’ve witnessed it. None of the souls here crossed over, sir, according to Feathers, at least. The gate they travel through to get there. It’s still open, waiting for them. It’s like a star in the sky, sir. A bright one, right over the centre of what’s left of the town.”
“But that… That’s horrific! Can’t you use your talent to”
“I said, sir. Nothing… works… in… there… It’s getting dark, we need to set up camp for the night. I’ll try something on the perimeter line in the morning. I agree we need to find out what happened, and the only thing I can think of is a quick rewind to find out when. Maybe I can see into the village before it happened, but if none of the townspeople witnessed anything unusual, I’m at a loss. I just don’t know.”
“Very well. Get some sleep. Do not report in until at least thirteen hundred, your time. You’re not the only one who needs sleep after what happened today.”
He lay there. He tossed. He turned. It took hours for sleep to finally claim him. As far as he was concerned, he’d gone to bed at one in the afternoon, not eight at night and that left him disoriented, confused.
He awoke to see Feathers standing over him, watching him. By the height of the sun, it must be getting close to noon.
He groaned and stretched. “What happened?”
“I understand, sergeant. It is a difficult transition, instant transportation to such a distant time zone. I decided to let you sleep. You will accustom yourself to the local clock soon, do not worry.”
He tried to get up, but the weight of his armour prevented him. He rolled over and crawled to his knees before using his staff as a support to stand. “I knew this armour was heavy, but”
“It is permissible to remove it when you sleep, sergeant.”
“I know. But you know what? It wasn’t uncomfortable. I may sleep in it from now on, it saves the effort of getting into it each morning.”
“You will need to at least change your clothing eventually, you do understand that?”
“I know. I know. But that can wait at least another day or two. When we find a pond or river, then I’ll change, after bathing. Time for breakfast.” he glanced at the fire he’d started before bedding down and sighed. “First, I need to restart that, to cook.”
“Our people observed yours as you grew into what you are today. It always perplexed us, the need for fire and burnt flesh.”
He shrugged. “It’s safer, less chance of disease. It tastes better for us and I understand it’s a hell of a lot easier to digest. Those are the only reasons I need.”
He hadn’t used all the wood from the previous night, so at least there was no need to gather more. He built his fire and glanced at the saurian. “I don’t suppose you could…”
“I would feel better if you reserved my services in that respect for a genuine need, sergeant. Not laziness.”
“Fine! You’re not working on the friendship part of this, yet, then.”
“I believe I am. Self reliance is an important trait. Relying on another when there are alternatives… You will thank me before this is over.”
“You are welcome.”
“I know what you meant, sergeant. My people are not bereft of humour.”
For the next half an hour, he muttered, he cursed, he almost gave up but eventually, he managed to produce a flame and placed it in the heart of his fire. Another ten minutes later and it was blazing merrily. He set the pan on the fire for the water to boil and dug into his rations, emptying one pack into it, before reading the label.
“Chicken stew, should be acceptable, I suppose. Do you want to give it a try?”
“Our tastes differ significantly. We find your cooking revolting. I have already hunted and eaten my breakfast. I will not require further sustenance for several days.”
“Really? You only eat”
“We only eat when it is required to maintain our strength. Yes.”
“So do we.”
“You may believe that, but, I do not. I have seen many fat humans.”
He grunted. “There’s no arguing with that.”
* * *
“This time, I do need you. No-one can do this without magic, lazy or otherwise.”
“What is it you intend to do?”
“I can see things. Past, possible future up to a couple of days forward or back. The past is set in stone so, what I see happened. The future’s a different matter.”
“Simple. It isn’t written yet.”
“I believe our augurs may disagree with you, sergeant.”
“They’re fine with prophecies. Huge events years into the future. They’re hopeless with the little things.”
He sighed. “I bet I’d have a far better chance of predicting the winner of the ten-fifty horse race in Klatch, tomorrow.”
“You use your ability to cheat?”
“Not for myself and my predictions are far from accurate. They’re just better than the odds the bookmakers give. I don’t just use it for that. I can see what people intend, sometimes prevent a crime before it happens by putting the fear of Pell into them.”
“That is a much more worthy use of your gift.”
“And in my profession, bloody useful too. See a crime after it was committed or prevent one by seeing what someone intends to do.” He shrugged. “It’s also the reason I was sent here.”
Her hand rested on his shoulder and immediately, he felt in increase, a new vitality.
A twitch of the finger, he closed his eyes and started spinning it, this time in an anticlockwise direction.
The void was back, exactly as it had appeared from the portal. It blocked his vision, but he continued and, after a few minutes of rewinding, just over a day’s worth in fact, the greyness withdrew. It shrank and as it did so, it appeared to suck all the water off the ground and into the air. Onto itself. Then it was gone and the town stood, as it had been. A vibrant market town with people dashing from building to building to avoid the rain.
The quartermaster had been right. All the men were dressed in a similar way he was now and many wore even brighter colours than him.
“Got it. I see the town. I’ll just rewind a little more. Then, maybe we can get some insight into what happened. I’ll be as quick as I can, but it might take a while. I have an entire town to search through for some hint of anything unusual.”
“I believe I can sustain you. Please, continue.”
Many of the houses were empty. It was well into the working day, after all. Others just contained a lone woman, performing household chores. Some also had children but each time he sensed the void, he froze, rewound and continued with another building.
Then he reached the smithy. At first, nothing unusual. Just an extremely well built man hammering away at a piece of red hot iron. Occasionally, he’d plunge it into the fire and pump on the bellows for a few minutes.
A boy ran in, drenched. He looked like a drowned rat.
The blacksmith looked up from the his work with annoyance.
“Have you brought that bag of coke, Brin?”
“Sorry, sir. I… I was… There’s a man… in the street.”
“A man? So what?”
“The rain’s not touching him!”
Moril froze. “Got you, you little bastard… Right… Now it might become more stressful.”
“Why? What have you seen?”
“I’ll show you later. I’m going to try to see through the boy’s eyes as I rewind. I’ll also start recording.” He concentrated on his staff for a moment before continuing. “Slowly… Slowly...”
The point of view of his vision shifted. It was odd, seeing something from a lower perspective. It was even odder, seeing the world in reverse from a boy running backwards. He sped up the rewind as the boy ran backwards down the street, froze at the sight of a black cloaked figure. He was right. The figure was dry. He continued to rewind so he could see the full events in the right direction.
“Now, let’s see what this is all about.”
His finger switched direction.
“Scuse me, sir?”
“What is it, boy?”
“Boss sent me for a bag of coke. For the forge.”
“You have your money?”
“Hand it over, then!”
The boy slapped a copper coin onto the counter and the coal merchant dropped a sack on the counter in exchange.
“Don’t strain yourself lad. Fifty pounds, that sack.”
The boy shifted the sack to the edge of the counter and inched it onto his shoulder. He staggered under the weight of it.
“Keep that up lad, and when you’re a bit bigger, I might have a job for you.”
The boy giggled. “Thank you, sir.” He staggered out of the warehouse.
It was clearly too heavy for him. He meandered down the street narrowly avoiding bumping into a few people before he froze. There he was. The black cloaked stranger and seeing it in a normal direction, Moril noticed some details the lad had missed.
It wasn’t just that the rain didn’t touch him. As he walked, he left dessicated plants in his wake.
“That’s a new one! Right, the lad’s spotted him. I’m going to follow. Leave the lad behind.”
The moment he returned to his own sight, the man vanished beneath a dome of the same greyness that had cloaked the entire town. This time, it was only a dome of about twelve feet in diameter and this time, it continued to move at walking pace.
Moril followed for another half a mile when, without warning, the dome vanished.
The man turned towards the town and reached for the heavens while muttering something under his breath. It was too faint to determine the incantation, but… Moril shrugged. “Maybe Feathers has better hearing.”
“My hearing is more acute than a human’s. What have you discovered?”
“Patience. We’re not done yet.”
The stranger continued his utterances for another few minutes before his arms slammed down to his sides. At the same time, from the centre of the village, a dome erupted out of it, expelling every drop of water in the town as it did so, sending it showering down around them, but again, he couldn’t see through the dome.
The man stood, observing something. Maybe he could see through it?
Moril glanced up as smoke began to billow out of the top of the dome.
Her tweeting was showing signs of strain. “How much longer?”
“That depends what happens next.”
For the next hour, the man just stood, then, he stepped across the threshold into the void.
Moril ended the vision. “I lost him. He stepped back across into the town. How long will it take you to recover? We need to find out where he emerged. It could be anywhere along the perimeter.”
’I trust it will not take as long next time?”
“It shouldn’t. We just need to find out what direction he took. Find out what he did after he left the town.”
“I should be able to sustain a shorter use of your magic in an hour, sergeant.”
“If we move away, we may only need to perform a few short bursts. The further we are from this line, the more of it we’ll see.”
“Agreed.” Now what did you witness?”
“Ah yes.” Moril concentrated on the staff and the events played out. When the man began his muttering, he glanced at Feathers. “Can you hear that?”
“Yes. I can hear it, but, I cannot understand. It is not a language I have heard before.”
“Oh well, worth a try, I suppose.”
“I require rest.” She lay on the grass and closed her eyes.
“Please. Do not disturb me. It will only delay my recovery.”
He lay beside her with his hands behind his head, looking at the clouds scudding overhead.
He snapped awake to a voice.
“Sergeant Moril.” It was the chief. “Answer the question!”
He groaned, rolled over, forced himself to his feet and wandered a hundred yards away from her so as not to disturb her.
Remembering what she’d said about acute hearing, he lowered his voice as well.
“What question, sir?”
“Sleeping on the job?”
“I suppose I may have dozed off. It took several hours searching the village before it happened, sir. I witnessed the event but it has drained Feathers. She needed a rest, so I lay beside her. That was the question? Sleeping on the job?”
“You witnessed it?”
“As much as possible, sir. A man walked through the village. The smith’s lackey saw him and ran to his boss shouting about a man the rain didn’t touch. I followed that man. I wasn’t just the rain, either. Every plant within ten feet of him withered as he passed.”
“What the… But… But even here…”
“I know. I saw him bring a dome into being, sir. Just as he repelled water when he walked though, it did too. It expelled every drop of water from the town. I can only assume that’s when the fires started. It kept the heat in, but let the smoke out. I think it must have allowed air to rush in too, to feed the flames. Blast furnace, sir. He turned the entire town into a blast furnace and removed any means to extinguish the flames.”
“And the people?”
“Just as we couldn’t see the destination through the portal, I couldn’t see through his shield… dome… thing, sir. I headhopped when I found the boy in the smithy. Using his eyes, I could see. When I followed the man with my own sight, all I could see was the dome over him. It’s the same with the town. Even now, without a dome, I can’t see anything beyond the boundary when using my talent.”
“We have to stop him! Where is he? Which direction did he go?”
“That’s our next task, sir. Find out where he left the town. I lost him after he’d done it. He went back in.”
“Very well, report when you have something more concrete.”
“Of course, sir.”
It only took five ten minute bursts to witness the figure’s exit from the town by moving around the perimeter, half a mile from it.
They rushed over to the location as quickly as they could.
Moril sighed. “Right then, let’s see if we can get any clue as to what he went back in for.”
He rewound again and froze when the figure walked backwards into it, reversing his power to watch the event in real-time.
The figure held something in his fist. He paused on exit, pulled back his hood and then tugged a chain around his neck. Dangling from it, an amulet with ornate designs and what looked like six empty settings for the placement of gems.
He wasn’t what Moril expected in the least. He was young, fair-haired with a sadness in his eyes.
He sighed and opened his hand, rolled the contents between his fingers and held it up, to study it.
It was a gemstone, a perfect sphere and within it, its colours changed and shifted. Moril stepped forward to look at it more closely and what he saw turned his stomach. He gagged in horror.
A face drifted across the face of the gem. A face showing a torment it was impossible to imagine. The face of someone engulfed in flame.
He stepped back in shock and the man looked him square in the eye.
“You can’t stop me. I won’t allow it. I hope…” he sighed. “No. Even if you seek out what I left for you in the centre of the town, even then, you won’t stop your pursuit. I know that. I… I’m...” He paused and shook his head before pressing the gem into one of the mounts on the amulet, turned and strode off to the north, pulling his hood back up as he did so. He looked back, raised his hand, twisted it in a vicious manner and Moril collapsed to his knees as pain shot through his skull, his vision ended.
“Sergeant! Are you well?”
He gasped for breath for a few seconds before crawling back to his feet. “I don’t know how he did it, but he knew. He held up a gem, almost as if he wanted me to see it. He spoke to me. He…” He shuddered.
“He ended my vision. That’s never happened to me before. You have to see this.”
He concentrated on the staff and an image sprang forth. The events played out exactly as he’d witnessed them and at the sight of the gem, she hissed. “Abomination! This atrocity must end! It is forbidden!”
“What? I saw a...” he gulped. “I saw a face, Feathers. Does that mean what I think it means?”
He froze the playback. “I’m sorry… But… What?”
“You are familiar with blood magic?”
“Of course. Use the ebbing life-force of a dying creature to power a spell. I find the whole idea of it disgusting but I suppose some might see it as a mercy, normally, unless it’s one of those convicted murderers the chief talked about where they bleed them for a month.”
“Soul magic… I… I can not even…” She shuddered.
“Are you suggesting that the entire town’s in that gem? Locked away? Unable to reach the afterlife? To be used as nothing but a bloody… A bloody power source?”
“Captain, our race has not always been at peace with itself. When the stone’s power was discovered, many wars were fought to gain its possession and some of our kind were just as greedy and power hungry as the worst of your race, now. Soul magic has been forbidden for many thousands of years. Even the knowledge of its use was wiped from our history. The knowledge of what it was though, was used as a warning. Even our nursery rhymes sometimes speak of it, to scare the hatchlings into submission. It is a powerful magic. A magic even the stone itself would be challenged to surpass with so many souls at his command.”
“But… If it’s been erased, how could he… He’s not even saurian… How can he know?”
“I do not know, but this… This is… I apologise, sergeant. I have never witnessed such evil. The souls trapped within are still suffering from the flames that consumed their mortal shells. They are in torment. An agony that will only end if they gain release from the gem.”
The chief’s voice replied immediately. “”What? What is it? Getting yourself into trouble already?”
“No, sir. Everyone’s in trouble. Not just me. I had to get your attention quickly.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“What the hell have you got me into, sir? Every time we learn something new, it gets worse!”
“Worse? It was bad enough already!”
“We found his exit point, sir. Got up close and personal with him, so to speak. I know why he did what he did to the town, sir. He had a gem in his hand.”
“Wait… Just wait one minute. Are you trying to tell me, that this… This monster incinerated an entire town just to gain one single precious stone?”
“I hadn’t finished, sir. He spoke to me. He even showed me his face!”
“Why haven’t you apprehended him?”
“Oh for… Because he’s got a day’s head start on us. More than a day! He knew. I don’t know how, but he knew. He looked me square in the eye before saying he couldn’t allow me to stop him. But the gem, sir. It was… I’m sorry, but… Even Feathers is terrified by what we witnessed.”
“What about the gem! For all the gods…”
“It contains the souls of the townsfolk, sir. Every last one of them! He pressed it into a mount on an amulet he wore, sir. Feathers calls it soul magic. Something that’s been outlawed and even erased from the saurian record for thousands of years, it’s so nasty. And they’re still in the same agony they were when they died. When they burned.”
The chief sputtered… “What? I…”
“That’s still not the worst of it, sir.”
“Please don’t tell me it can get worse than this. I order you not to”
“Sir, there were five more mounts on that amulet and feathers says the power of that single gem alone could match the stone itself! There. I said it. I don’t see why we should be the only ones terrified out of our minds!”
The chief groaned. It was a very long one. So long, Moril thought his lungs might come out of his mouth if he kept it up much longer.
“You said he spoke to you.”
“Yes, sir. He said he couldn’t allow me to stop him, but he knew I’d continue to pursue him. He pulled his hood back, sir. He held the gem up right in front of me. There was something about him, sir. I think it might be our only hope.”
“What? What about him?”
“There was a sadness in his eyes. A hesitancy in his speech. I think he almost apologised for what he’d done. Maybe he’s being forced to do this by someone… Or something. He also said he’d left something in the centre of the town, sir. He’d left it for me to find.”
“And why in all the hells do you think this gives us a glimmer of hope?”
“I’ve met a few psychopaths in my time, sir. They don’t give a damn who they hurt as long as they get what they want. I genuinely think he’s sorry for what he’s done. For what he might do in the future. I think he might want to be stopped, sir. Why else would he show me his face? Show me the gem?”
The chief sounded exhausted. “What direction did he go?”
“That’s something at least. That may buy you some time. Travel south. Go to Port Arron.”
“But sir, I said, he’s heading north!”
“And at walking pace, you’ll be unlikely to catch up with him! It is ten days by horse to the nearest town in that direction. At least twenty on foot. It’ll take you ten days to get to port Port Arron if you hurry up about it. You may be able to take ship to Northholme. You might even be able to head him off. To beat him there.”
“Yes, sir. We need to find out about him though, don’t we? If we want to stop him, we need to find out how. I know with the power he wields, I wouldn’t stand a chance against him, even if I was backed up by the entire saurian army.”
“Can you describe him?”
“I could, but I don’t know how accurate your sketch artist would be and I can’t correct him as he goes, sir. Is there any way for me to send the contents of this crystal to you? Over this communication link?”
“Not that I’m aware of. I’ll consult with the maker and get back to you on that. Alright, what did you have in mind?”
“Continue to backtrack, sir. Find out where he came from and hope he didn’t travel for more than two days.”
“Three days is all I can manage, sir. I thought you knew that. It’s normally enough.”
“Let’s just hope he came in from the south, then, shall we? Go on then. Do it your way, you’re there and I’ve just about lost the will to live at this point. But find out what this thing he left for you is first. If you’re right about him wanting to be stopped, it could prove to be vital.”
Moril nodded. “Or it could be a trap. Yes, sir. I’ll go and look now.”
“And I’ll alert every agent east of the Yamati desert. Give me his description. Even without a sketch they should know what to look out for.”
“Yes, sir. Sandy hair, fair skin, blue eyes, he was clean shaven, but that may change. Five foot ten, slim build. About twenty-five to thirty-five years old and wearing black, sir. Black everything, not just his cloak.”
“Well, at least that should stand out, out there.”
“Unless he changes clothes, sir.”
“True, in fact, that is the most obvious course of action right now. Still, we have something to look for at least. I’ll send a garrison of imperial infantry to Northholme. The spacers are going to love me.”
“They may find it easier, sir. Sending them there. I did say there was this negative magic stuff getting in the way.”
“Good point. Report back when you find what he left.”
Using the map, it didn’t take long to find the centre of town and as everything in it was black, the… gift stood out a mile.
Moril rushed over to retrieve it. A crystal, pale yellow in colour. He closed his hand around it and concentrated. “For all that’s holy… I’ve got to stop doing that. We have what we came for.” He opened his pouch and placed the crystal carefully into it.
Feathers nodded and began to walk back the way they came when she froze, she span on the spot, he crest shooting up. She began to search for something too.
“What? What is it?”
She turned, pointed at her ear and continued.
“You want me to keep…” he dropped to a whisper. “Sorry.” He followed.
Curled into a ball, shaking, black from head to toe from the charred remains of his home, his face a rictus of terror, lay a boy. He couldn’t have been more than eight years old.
“Shit!” Moril ran over to him and gathered up the child. “Let’s get out of here. I know the street the bastard walked down, so it should be easy to trace him when we leave.”
* * *
Moril lay the boy on the grass. “I may need you again in a minute, Feathers.”
“What do you intend?”
“Nothing draining, just a physical checkup.”
The moment he felt her hand, felt the energy flow into him, he closed his eyes and whispered the spell. He nodded. “Physically, he’s fine. A little dehydrated, a drink’ll fix that but I don’t know any spells that can… well… find out what’s going on up here.” He tapped his temple.
“It was my belief that you had that ability?”
“You did say you saw through the boy’s eyes.”
“Ah. Well, that’s all I can do. I don’t hear their thoughts, I just sense what they sense. Sight, sound, smell… Is there anything you can do? I think it’s pretty obvious why he’s in this state but is there any way to snap him out of it?”
“The best I can do for now, sergeant, is help him to sleep and possibly make the dreams he will have pleasant. That may aid him. Where the mind is concerned, the last thing you should do is snap anything. Raise him, so I can reach, sergeant.”
He nodded and gathered the boy in his arms again as she rested her hand on the lad’s brow.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “His mind is broken. Not beyond repair but it will take time to mend.”
“Are you picking anything up?”
“Yes. It does confirm that he was outside the town when it occurred. There is just one repeated phrase. It was like the sun.”
Moril sighed, his head sagged. “The poor git, oh gods. He must’ve seen them burn. Every person he knew, poof, gone, up in smoke. No wonder he’s got that grimace.”
“I will do what I can.”
The change was immediate. The boy relaxed. His lips closed over his teeth. There was even the hint of a smile.
“Thank you.” He lay the boy down again. “And now, this. He removed the crystal and looked at it, closely for the first time. He blinked, closed his eyes and muttered. His eyes snapped open in shock. “Is that even possible? I”
“Is what possible?”
“I noted the state it was in. It’s got a lot of flaws, even a crack almost the whole way through it. It’s ancient. One hundred thousand years old, at least.”
“Can you get a more accurate age?”
He closed his eyes again. It… No… There… He sighed. “One hundred thousand, five hundred… That’s the best I can manage. I can’t pinpoint the exact decade using that spell. Maybe nearer the stone, but not here. I can sense it does still hold a recording though.”
“It is a saurian crystal, that much is obvious. Created during the time of the wars for the stone, when soul magic was at its height.”
“They did that?” he pointed at the town. “Regularly?”
“No, sergeant. Not even during the wars would our kind be so barbaric. The souls were taken individually or in small numbers during combat and released after use. After the battle had been won or lost.”
He sighed and nodded.
“Can it be replayed?”
“I’m almost afraid to. This thing’s so old, even the attempt might shatter it. I’ll ask the chief, he has the resources to find out if there’s a way to safely view it. Bannerman.”
“Yes? You have what he left?”
“We do, sir. It’s a crystal, but it’s ancient. Too fragile to view safely. I contacted you to seek advice. Is there a way to… I don’t know, fortify something so old. Strengthen it, so it can be viewed without causing its destruction?”
“Crystals have been known to last thousands of years. Just how old is it?”
“Over a hundred thousand, sir. Feathers says from a time when their people warred for possession of the stone. A time when they did indulge in this soul magic thing.”
“I’ll get onto our crystallographers. Ask their advice. I’ll get back to you.”
“Thank you, sir.” He sensed the connection drop. “I suppose we’d better see where he came in then.”
The usual rewind, the expected results. What made things even better? The stranger did come in from the south.
* * *
The road was a well travelled thoroughfare that, according to the map, didn’t have many branches and those that did exist only went off at right angles to enter farms. The very occasional village was over a day away.
As a result, there was no need to backtrack the stranger constantly. AT every branch, they paused. Moril performed his trick until he saw that black robed figure and they continued on their way.
They didn’t continue for long. All the time lost searching for him had added up and before they knew it, the sun was beginning to set.
This time, he did build a shelter. He had more to care for than his own comfort this time. He had a traumatised boy too, so, while he built a makeshift shelter from branches, undergrowth and forest moss, Feathers went out to hunt, this time, for him.
Using the last embers of life-force from the wild pig she returned with for him, he muttered a spell and waved his hand over himself and the boy.
The ash, grime and sweat vanished from both of them in an instant.
“A cleansing spell, sergeant? Wasn’t that a little wasteful?”
“We don’t have time to strip and take a bath, Feathers, and the boy was filthy without replacement clothing. You said yourself I’d need to change before long. Now, I’ve bought us more time before that’s necessary.”
He’d just lit the fire and put the wild pin on a spit suspended above it on two forked branches. It wouldn’t be cooked tonight, but by morning, it should be enough to live off for a week at least. He dug into his ration pack again.
“How far have you got?”
“Only a couple of miles, sir. We’re setting up camp for the night. I do have one more mouth to feed so it’s more important now.”
“One more mouth?”
“Boy? What boy?”
“Oh, sorry, everything’s getting too much for me. I thought I mentioned him and even if I didn’t, you hear everything I do. We found him in the ruins, sir. He needs to be cared for.”
“Yes, sir. This will slow us down, sir. I have the extra weight to carry.”
“Can’t he walk?”
“Physically, he’s fine but he’s unresponsive. Even Feathers can’t get anything more than “It was like the sun” out of him. She says his mind is broken. He saw it, sir. He saw them burn.“
“This is important! I didn’t hire you as a babysitter!”
“And just what would you have me do, sir? Leave him there to die? He’s eight years old. Even if he was capable of acting under his own volition he couldn’t survive for long! If we hadn’t found him he would’ve been dead in two days from thirst, sir!”
“Well, I suggest, not that anything I say seems to have any impact on your actions, that you dump him at the first farm you encounter.”
“In his state? He might never come out of it without help. No. Sir. Feathers might be able to heal him, but that’ll take time. He’s staying with us until he’s capable of telling us if he had any family outside Talyin’s Forge. Then, I might consider delivering him to them. If they’re on the way. Sir.”
Another groan emerged from the chief.
“I’d be careful with that, sir. You’ll do yourself an injury if you do it for too long. The last one broke the world record.”
“What did you expect? Anyway, the reason I contacted you is because, after a little research, they came back with a suggestion for your crystal.”
“If it’s too fragile to play back, copy its contents to a newer one. It doesn’t have to undergo the stresses involved in actual display. Just a transfer of information.”
“I don’t even know how they’re made. I’ve never even tried to record on one that hadn’t been designed to just turn on and off. How do you do that?”
Feathers let out a series of chirps. “Worry not, sergeant. I can perform that task. Hand me the crystal and the staff.”
He nodded and handed them to her.
She closed her eyes, let out a series of warbles and cheeps, something her harness didn’t even attempt to translate, and handed them back to him. “It is done.”
“Right then. As you’re on the link, you might as well listen in too. I’ll play it now.”
The image that sprang up was one of a huge circular cavern. In full view of whatever or whoever had made this recording, stood a saurian and hundreds more lined the outside wall.
The saurian began to chirp and tweet just as Feathers did but this time, there was no translation forthcoming.
Moril paused the playback. “I can’t understand him!”
“Her, sergeant. Even in those dark days, male saurians held no position of importance beyond the raising of hatchlings. It is an archaic dialect, but I believe my translator can accommodate.” She placed her hand on her chest and closed her eyes. “I have adjusted it. You may continue.”
Moril nodded and restarted the recording.
This time, Feathers’ translator performed its task. It even produced a different, deeper voice.
“I speak to the future. I speak to the clever apes with little hair. I imagine you will have a name for yourselves by the time you see this, but at this time, that is all you are.
You will rise. You will gain knowledge, wisdom and power and when you reach a maturity that compares to our own, know this.
Our race has existed for millions of years. Ever we do not know exactly how long, but we, with the grace of our augers, do know our history.
In a past time so distant it is unimaginable, even to us, there were many that could be considered saurians in all shapes and sizes. A race that flew, a race larger than a whale that swam the oceans and great mountain beasts larger than anything you can imagine. For millions of years, these beasts ruled the world but most were just that. Beasts.
One race among them was a social predator however, and as they worked together, they learned to communicate. As they learned to communicate, they learned to think. To plan. To build.
We are that race.
Then, the cataclysm came. A mountain fell from the sky. Where it came from, we have no knowledge but the result of its impact brought forth an era of darkness and chaos that lasted two hundred, thousand years. Very few survived and those that did, fewer survived unchanged.
The flying ones adapted by a reduction in size and an increase in feathers. We now call them birds.
Of the land and sea based saurians, only we survived. We used our minds, something the other races lacked. We also learned what the rock that brought about this catastrophe could do. We learned to manipulate its energies.
We call it the stone. It is the source of the most powerful magic ever encountered. There were others and still are, but the stone made those redundant. Those who wish to gain control of it, however, do still use those lesser magics.
Hear me, hairless ones, for a prophesy has been foretold and I tell it to you now.
In a time of plenty
When ape and saurian work together.
A great darkness will befall the lands.
But seven will arise at the points of the seven fold star.
And one of the seven will arise before the rest.
And he will bring them together at the appointed place.
And they will banish the darkness forever.
But both ape and saurian alike will oppose them in ignorance.
And should ignorance defeat the seven.
Should the seven fail,
A new cataclysm will end all life forever.
Take heed, future ones. Take heed. Our whole world depends on it.”
“Wonderful. So now we’ve got a world ending prophesy to deal with too. Just fucking wonderful. You don’t think this… cataclysm is the dark robed bastard, do you?” Moril groaned. “Please don’t tell me I’m the bloody chosen one.”
“Moril, you’re being ridiculous! How could you of all people”
It was Feathers’ turn to butt in. “Chief. It may well be the case. Prophesies are notoriously vague and cryptic. They do this to inform but not force. Events usually have to play out without interference. This… Monster has gained access to a power that can rival the stone. Why did he target this town? It is possible the first of those six should have been collected from there. We have a survivor. We may end up with five more.”
“If he’s targetting these… Places on the points of a star, though… It said seven and there were six mounts on that amulet.”
“Yes, sergeant. If you are the first, clearly, he has missed his opportunity to do to you what he did to the town. Thwarting this prophesy could bring about the end of everything and preventing you from gathering these other five seems to be a good way to do it. I do not understand his motivation.”
Moril shrugged. “Grief, perhaps? It can do some very destructive things to a person. Make them lash out. An “If I can’t have her, no-one deserves to live” type mentality? Possible?”
“I have witnessed several impossibilities recently, sergeant. No matter how unlikely it may be, nothing should be discounted now.”
Following the trail the next day proved extremely easy. There was no need to strain Feathers’ reserves, just a quick check every time they reached an intersection and they were few and far between.
Another camp, another sleep, Moril knelt by the boy again, doing his best to feed him, when the boy stirred, snapped awake and let out a yelp of fright.
“Calm down, boy. You’re safe with me.”
“Where am I? Who are you? I want to…” His eyes widened and tears began to flow and the cries were soon to follow.
Moril was about to grab him when he looked down at himself. He shrugged off his cloak, unstrapped his breastplate and swept the boy up into a hug.
He stroked his head. “You’re fine, lad. You’re safe. Let it all out. Everything you saw, let it out.”
The cries turned to wails. Those continued for a while before the boy began to tire and they were reduced with gasping sobs again. Slowly, he calmed down, tears still streaming down his face as he looked up into Moril’s eyes.
“I saw… I…”
“I know, lad. I know. I was there afterwards. I know what happened and I can guess the horrors you saw. If you want to talk about it, it might help.”
The boy shuddered. “I… I can’t…”
“I’ll be here when you’re ready, lad, if you ever are. I’ll take care of you.”
The boy sniffled, sucking in a long trail of snot that had begun to form as he did so. “Who are you?”
“The name’s Moril. I’m a sell sword. A mercenary.”
“You fight? For money?”
He nodded. “I was on my way to your town to collect my pay. One of your merchants wanted a delivery guarded. It appears I was lucky. If I’d arrived one day earlier, I may have been there when it happened. How did you escape it?”
“My ma…” he sobbed again at the realisation. “They’re dead, aren’t they?”
He nodded. “I’m sorry. What about your ma?”
“She sent me to the woods to pick mushrooms for the stew. I… I was only gone for an hour, then I saw the smoke. I ran, but I couldn’t… I tried. I tried. But something…”
Moril nodded, tears beginning to bead in his eyes, too.
“Why couldn’t I get to them?”
“Magic, lad. A terrible magic.”
“But my pa said”
“That magic’s not real?”
The boy nodded.
“Trust me, it’s real. But it’s not all bad. There are places to the west where people fly across their city in carriages, where injuries can be healed in an instant, you could talk to people from a thousand miles away. I’ve been there. I even picked up a few tricks myself. Even your town performed the odd feat of it.”
“They did. It was useful magic though, not harmful. You know what happens when an animal’s prepared for the butcher’s shop?”
“But that’s just something we do. My pa said it’s tra… trad…”
The boy nodded.
“It’s not something to be taken lightly, lad. Magic’s powerful and you’ve seen what can happen if it’s misused. It takes a lot of learning to be able to handle it safely. They likely would’ve told you the truth when you got a bit older. The magic they wield when they slaughter an animal has many uses. It can purify your water, fertilise your fields, even guarantee a baby’s born safely.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “I… Thought it was just stories.”
Moril smiled. “No. Well, not all of them. Until yesterday, I would’ve dismissed the stories of warlocks and witches as just something to scare naughty children.” He shuddered. “Now I’m not so sure. There’s nothing special about them, though. They’re still people. Just… Bad people. Enough of this talk of magic though. What’s your name, lad?”
“Well, Kalyn, we found you in the ruins over a day after if happened. Bet that means you’re starving?”
“Good. Because it’s time for breakfast. Now, I don’t want you to scream. I don’t want any fear. Look behind you.”
Kalyn did just that, but he didn’t scream. He smiled. “Scaly!”
“That’s what she’s called. She left the town too?”
“Sorry Kalyn. This is Feathers. We arrived together.”
The tears returned. “But I liked Scaly. She told me stories.”
Feathers twittered and her translator spoke as usual. “I do apologise, boy, but, I know five of my kind were in the town. I even knew two of them quite well. I am not Scaly. What name did scaly use when speaking to you?”
“I…” He sniffled. “She called all the kids little one. I didn’t like that, but I liked her stories.”
“Then I shall allow you to choose a name by which I can call you. You understand that I cannot use your human name, just as I cannot use his. To me, he is simply sergeant. My translator cannot produce human names, they are not a part of the common language, but simply nonsense words with no context.”
Moril shrugged. “I… wouldn’t go that far. There is a history behind some of them. What might have been a word in ancient times has become twisted and changed over time. Moril, I think comes from old Klatchian, medrill, meaning boar. I suppose back in the day it might have referred to a man who hunted them.”
“And you would prefer to referred to as boar? I understand your synonyms, sergeant. Bore, dreary, tiresome…”
Moril chuckled. “No, no. Sergeant will do. I was just making a point. I do understand why your translators find it difficult though. Some parents choose to warp the names even more just to make their children appear more unique.”
She nodded. “I will give you time, boy. Choose wisely.”
Moril handed the lad his canteen. “Now eat up. Pork, freshly killed and cooked overnight.”
While Kalyn tucked in, Moril got out his dagger and attacked the carcass, cutting more slices and folding them in the wrappings of his used provisions before putting them in his pack for later. Then he cut off one of a legs and sat beside the boy.
Kalyn looked up at him as htey ate, mumbling with his mouth full.
“Could you teach me?”
“Magic? No, it takes”
“No, not magic. Could you teach me to fight? If I find the warlock who did that, I’m going to kill him.”
“Kalyn, listen to me. Vengeance is never a good reason to fight. It’s a damned good way to ruin your life.”
“Because it becomes a driving force. An obsession. The only thing a person thinks about. People have been known to spend half their lives fixated on taking revenge against someone and when they finally succeed, they’re not satisfied. Some lose the will to live because there’s nothing more to live for. They take to the bottle and drink themselves to death. Others find they need the violence in their lives, they die in a bar fight or some lost cause. It’s an empty feeling, vengeance.”
“But you’re a sell sword!”
“Yes, and the best way to survive as a sell sword is to avoid the fight whenever possible. Use your brain, lad. It’s just as effective to scare your enemies or otherwise convince them to give up as it is to fight them. A mercenary who runs in, waving his sword at every opportunity won’t be a mercenary for very long. He’ll just be crow food.”
”Then there’s the other side of it.”
“OK, you spend ten years chasing down the man who killed your town, only to find he died a year ago. You’ll feel cheated. Robbed of it. Again, nothing more to live for and this time, you didn’t even have the satisfaction of the kill. There’s also the very likely possibility that if you did meet him, he‘d kill you. You saw what he did to the town. Do you think you could even get close to him? With that power?”
The boy gulped, the blood draining from his face. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Good. I will teach you to fight. But only to defend yourself. But not yet.”
“I’m always too young. They never let me do any”
Moril held his up hand. “Not because of your age. Because right now, we don’t have the time. We’re tracking the warlock who did that, but we’re not following him to his next destination. We’re finding out where he came from and I know he came into your town from the south. That’s where we’re heading.”
“What’s the point?”
“What he did to your town… Even close to the stone, the source of magic in the west, such a feat would be impossible. He used a power unheard of before and we need to find out how he learned to do that. It’s the only way to defeat him. Learn about him. Find out why he did it and how. If we know that, there might be a chance to stop him.” He tapped his temple again. “As I said, lad… Use your brain. It’s the most valuable asset a person has.”
Kalyn sighed and returned his attention to his breakfast.
Moril walked a few yards away and beckoned to Feathers. He lowered his voice.
“He seems find now. It can’t be that easy can it?”
“I will check him again soon, sergeant. Do not worry. I fear he may withdraw again when the nightmares begin. You may need to be on hand to comfort him on a regular basis.”
“I thought you could keep the nightmares at bay.”
“I can, for a short time. Too long though, and I will impede his mind’s recovery. I will harm the boy, and if that happens, I will die. I cannot afford the risk. Two more nights of peaceful sleep is all I can guarantee him.”
“What do you mean, die?”
“To knowingly cause a human harm. A human who means no harm to me? Remember our oath sergeant.”
“But… Oh by all the hells!”
“If I was ignorant to the problems the boy may face, it would not be a problem. The harm must be intentional, but I do know. I had not anticipated this when I made the vow.”
“And the nightmares are necessary?”
“Absolutely. The mind must work its way through the trauma. It must heal in its own time. Holding back the nightmares will bury the trauma. It will harm in ways even I cannot predict.”
He nodded and returned to find Kalyn had finished. “Still hungry, lad?”
“Thought you might be.” With a deft swipe of the blade, he cut another leg off and handed it to the boy. “You can eat it as we walk. We’ve got to pack up and go.”
* * *
For the rest of the day, they walked. As they continued, the country ahead became hillier. There were fewer farms and the landscape became much more wooded. They paused every few miles and Moril, with the aid of Feathers, continued his search and nodded each time the black figure was seen, and again, they continued.
It was nearly the end of the day and Moril could sense the limit to his power approaching when the figure failed to appear as expected.
“What is it, sergeant?”
“We’ve lost him. We’ll have to turn back. Find out where he turned off the road.”
Kalyn froze in his tracks. “Lost who?”
“Oh, I think you can guess.”
“But I thought you said he went into the town from this direction. Where did he go after that?”
“We’re tracking where he came from. Remember when I said I picked up a few tricks when I was out west?”
“You’re magicking… Now? But I didn’t see anything.”
“You wouldn’t.” Moril smiled. “It all happens,” he tapped his forehead, “up here. I can see where he went, but he didn’t get this far. That means he turned off before here. He must have entered the forest.”
They’d retraced their steps for two miles before he spotted him, ducking backwards into the woods.
“Lad, I need you to guide me now. I have to concentrate and I do that best with my eyes closed. I’ll tell you where we need to go, but, try to avoid anything that may trip me. Woods are prone to change, even over a few days.”
“But I don’t know how.”
“Just tell me when we’re about to reach an obstacle. A log, a low branch, a bramble shoot, stuff like that. I may well see it, but if it’s new, you’ll guide me over, under or around it. It’s simple.”
And that’s how they went. Kalyn pointed out the odd obstruction, most of them, he saw.
“There’s a branch in front of you.”
“Must be a recent fall. It wasn’t there three days ago. Is it possible to climb over or should we go around it?”
“Take my hand and guide me.”
Kalyn did just that, careful to avoid trapping them in the foliage. “Step now. About a foot up then forward.”
“Thank you, lad.”
This went on for another half an hour before something changed. It began to grow misty, a thick fog seemed to be setting in.
“It’s getting harder to see, Kalyn. I can just see him ahead, but”
“It do not believe it is a freak weather condition, sergeant.” Feathers warbled. “I sense it too. The magic in the area is weakening.”
“Weakening? Oh fot Pell’s sake, not more of that… that negative magic stuff?”
“I fear so, and as we progress, it appe… be… ting stron…”
“Feathers? I think you’re losing your translator again.”
“I know, se… but… oes indi… are get… ser.”
Moril cancelled his sight. “We can’t continue that way. We’ll have to return to good old fashioned tracking. We know where he went, which direction. We just need to continue.”
“How do you track someone from days ago, sir?”
“It depends on the time of year, lad. Now, in the woods, late summer. There.” he pointed at a boot print in the soft forest loam,“ follow them. “If he hits harder ground, it’ll be more difficult. Then, the trick is to find broken twigs both on the ground, if stepped on, or on the branches, if brushed passt. I’m just glad it’s not autumn.”
“I like the autumn. I like diving into piles of leaves. I always got yelled at but it was worth it.”
“Yes, but the leaves are the problem. Same with snow. They cover the tracks.”
Kalyn smiled and nodded.
Following the tracks was easy and before long they came to a cave mouth. A large slab of rock lay on the ground in front of it.
Moril knelt before it and looked up at the cave mouth, scratching his head. “It almost looks like it was shaped to fit.”
Feathers gave out a single chirp.
“It was? To conceal it?”
“Well he found it. Any idea how?”
“You’ve seen something like this before?”
“Right then. Kalyn, search fom some dry twigs, lots of them.”
“Why do you want sticks?”
“Torch. We need light to see in there.”
While the lad went in search of smaller bits of wood, Moril scoured the forest floor for a sturdy fallen branch. Finding one that looked suitable, he put it between two trees and kicked it with all his might. It split with a satisfying crunch. It was still in one piece, so he took out his dagger to cut the rest of the way through, nodding in satisfaction when he was done.
He held it aloft. A two foot length of wood, then he dug into his rations.
The lad returned with an armful and Moril smiled. “Bring them over here, lad. One good thing about pork. It’d a very fatty meat. Watch.”
Grabbing a bundle of sticks, he smeared the meat all over them. Cooled, the fat had congealed on the outside and now, that fat was going to provide the main fuel for the torch. He bound the twigs to the branch dry end down and using his fire lighting kit, lit it.
He chuckled. “I’m getting better at that.”
Feathers chirped and warbled.
“I think I can guess. OK. OK. You were right. Happy now?”
Her pupils narrowed and she nodded and gave one single chirp.
“Let’s get in there.” He ducked into the entrance.
It was a narrow entry that led to a narrower passageway but before long it opened into a cave there was certainly room to swing a cat in.
His boots crunched on something and he lowered the torch to the floor. Scattered across it were hundreds of crystal shards. He swung the torch around. The wall was lined with holes, many of them filled with the fragments of shattered crystal. In the centre of the cave stood a stone construction topped with the remains of what appeared to have been a glass sphere. Now it was just a bowl, a container for the shards of it that had collapsed in on itself.
There was a fireplace, laid with fresh wood in the corner. He walked over and plunged the torch into its heart. The light it provided was far better than that provided by the torch once it got going.
Above the fireplace, carved into the rock was a design. A seven pointed star. Moril unhitched his knapsack, cut a length of rope and studied the shape. Taking the length of rope, he measured each line of it. They criss-crossed the middle. It looked a little like one of those pentagrams they’d used in primitive times before magic was fully understood, though with seven rather than five points.
All lines were equal.
“Well, that might help. If the star those towns rest on follow the same pattern as this, at least. Something to report.”
He turned to find Feathers, crest erect in surprise turning on the spot.
“Let me guess. You’ve seen something like this, too?”
A single chirp.
Next in was Kalyn. He wandered around the place with a confused look. “What is it, sir? What are all these things on the floor?”
“When people with magic want to store things, they store them in crystals. Books, images, events… They can all go into one. Some of them can be very entertaining. Something tells me, these were far from that.”
“Like that one?” The boy pointed at a small indent in the wall and within it, a perfect, blue crystal, untouched by whatever had shattered the rest.
“Just like that one. Thank you Kalyn. I might’ve missed that. It could be important.”
Moril knelt to retrieve it and glanced at the saurian. “Do you think you can learn anything more here?”
She chirped twice, shook her head and pointed at the exit.
“Agreed. The place makes me uncomfortable too. I think we’ve found what we were looking for. Could well be we’ve explained how the bastard learned how to do what he did too. Let’s get as far away from here as possible.”
Moril sat on a log by the road, closed his eyes and concentrated. “I’m surprised I can even do this without your aid, Feathers. It’s new. Made one year ago and the recording was completed five days ago. Can you tell me what that place actually was, now?”
“It is very frustrating, being unable to use my translator, sergeant. It was a saurian archive. It is unusual for them to be hidden like that, but not unknown. It is possible it was intended for use by the first of the seven. If that is you, he has clearly prevented it.”
“And he’s learned a lot from it himself.” Moril sighed. “Let’s see what he has to say for himself. Lad, you may want to pay attention to this. It’s clear it was made by the man who destroyed your town.”
“Why? What’s going to happen?”
Moril smiled, concentrated on the crystal and the image sprang up between them.
He wasn’t wearing black in this image. In fact, he was dressed more brightly than Moril. Yellow hose, bright red tunic, bright blue cloak. Tears streamed down his face before he began. He stood in the chamber surrounded by intact crystals. Every hole in the wall held one. They varied in colour even more than his clothing did, from the yellow they’d seen to the deepest blues, greens, reds and pinks.
Moril gasped. “It’s beautiful. How can something so beautiful cause so much destruction?”
With an extra long sniffle, the man spoke.
“I don’t know if you’ll ever see this. I almost hope you don’t. Ma, pa, this is where I’ve been for the last five years. This is where I’ve lived. I had to. The voices wouldn’t let me alone until I got here and started to learn.” he burst into tears again. It took another minute before he gritted his teeth, took a deep breath and forced himself to stop. “Forget about me. Forget I was ever born. You had one son. Let Bodin be your legacy. I might’ve been called Wallin but I don’t deserve a name anymore. I’m going to do things ma, I’m going to…” He took a deep breath. “Horrible things. Things you couldn’t imagine a person could do, but I have to. I have no choice. I’m nothing now. I have no name. I have no history. I only have a purpose.” He looked up at the ceiling, fear filling his eyes. “It’s getting closer, ma. Nemesis is getting closer. It’s close enough now for me to do this.”
He held up his hand towards the ceiling and closed his eyes. He began to mutter again in that strange language he’d used when bringing the dome into being.
When he brought his hand down again, it held a ball of light. He stepped backwards into the doorway, opened his hand and the ball exploded into the cave. Every crystal shattered in an instant. Some even exploded out of their holes. The glass orb cracked and fell into itself.
“Now, no-one can learn what I learned. Goodbye ma. Goodbye pa. Do them good, Bodin. You’re an only child now. Forget about me.”
He swept his hand across himself and the bright colours of his clothing vanished in an instant. Now, he was dressed in the black they were familiar with.
Moril froze the image and pointed at the sphere. “What is that thing?”
“An ancient design, sergeant. It was used as a teaching device. In those days, it was clear there was no need for translators. Your people were barely capable of grunts back then. My people used it to directly implant information into the mind. A very fast form of teaching, but it had its flaws.”
“What kind of flaws?”
“It could overload the brain if too much information was transferred at once. It could cause insanity. Delusions, persecution complex, paranoia. Even false memories. Such devices have not been used for a long time.”
“That thing drove him insane? That’s why he’s doing this?”
“It is possible he believes he has a greater purpose. Something that justifies his disgusting actions. He clearly understands just how bad what he is doing is. There is something else, of course.”
“Well, obviously, such a teaching device was designed for the saurian mind. Not a human one. That would only compound the problem.”
“And the voices? The ones he claims led him there? The ones that wouldn’t let him be until he found the place?”
“I do not know. I can only assume, and that is no good for anyone.”
“Assume away, please. Even if you’re wrong it’s better than keeping it to yourself.”
“I can only assume the voices were a result of an overload. Something he may think he remembers but does not. Voices were one of the symptoms that led to paranoia. All that information, all that tuition entering your mind too quickly. All those lectures on the intricacies of magic. Is it any wonder he heard voices? He may have merely displaced them in time to explain how he found the cave. He may not even remember the actual events that led to its discovery.”
“I just wish he’d given us some clue as to how he did that! I couldn’t do that even close to the stone. Where did he get the power?”
“That, I do not know and that is worrying. It is possible that this… Nemesis, what ever it is, is the source of it. Clearly, he fears it.”
“Unlikely. Though such beings exist, they are reluctant to interact too much with our world and they abide by the laws of magic. None I have ever encountered have exhibited this… This negative magic he controls.”
“But if it was a creature from a more distant realm? Something… I don’t even know how to put it into words.”
“That would be extremely worrying. That could even be this cataclysm the prophesy warns of. A being of negative magic attempting to find a way to cross into our realm. It could indeed be an end to all life. I do not understand why such a being would want to enter our world. It would mean its own destruction.”
Moril shrugged. “Maybe it’s just as insane as he is.”
He glanced down at the boy. Kalyn’s face twisted, contorted as if trying to show every emotion under the sun all at once. One second anger, hatred, then sorrow and confusion. He clearly didn’t know how to react to such a vision.
“I… He killed my family. My entire town! But he looks so sad. I’m… It’s… I… I don’t understand.”
“I know. It’s confusing to all of us. I’m going to do something now. You may think it strange, but, remember when I said the people in the west could talk to each other thousands of miles away?”
“I can too. But you won’t be able to hear it. Feathers? I take it by the fact your could, you’ve got one?” he prodded his ear.
“Yes, sergeant. I received mine quite some time ago.”
“Please, tell me you have some good news for once.”
“I wouldn’t say good. Some of it could be very bad in fact but that’s just guesswork. We have his name, sir.”
“By Pell and all his spawn, how?”
“I suggest you search the imperial archives. Search for someone of his name who disappeared about five years ago, though, we don’t know how reliable he is. Feathers believes him to be insane. Driven into such a state by using a device that implants knowledge directly into the mind, sir. We found his lair, if you can call it that. It used to be a saurian archive but he destroyed it just before leaving. He did leave behind a crystal though. I’ll play it for you now.”
Moril replayed the recording.
“So, a man called Wallin with a brother called Bodin. That’s not a lot to go on, you understand that?”
“Add in the knowledge that clearly, he disappeared. He must have spent quite some time in that cave before destroying it. He can do things none of us can. It must have taken some time. Maybe even if his five years wasn’t accurate, it could be a good indicator.”
“And as his parents undoubtedly reported him missing, we should have a record of it. Understood. I’ll get some of your colleagues to perform the search. It’s about time I put them to something more useful than pickpockets.”
Moril chuckled. “Thank you, sir.”
“You seem to be in higher spirits than normal, Moril.”
“I do, sir?”
“You do, yes. You’re beginning to enjoy this, aren’t you?”
“I…” he glanced around. “I don’t…” He hadn’t even considered it. He closed his eyes which allowed him time to examine his feelings more closely. He smiled. “Bloody hell. I am an all. I…”
“You’ve got something to get your teeth into for the first time in years. Something that even your talent can’t solve with the flick of a finger. That’s what I think anyway.”
“I suppose you could be right, sir.”
“What was the bad news?”
“Nemesis, sir. You might want to consult with the saurians about that, too. We have no idea who or what it is, but we’ve seen what he could do with its power. If it is a being, and it’s made of this negative magic… stuff… Feathers believes its arrival in this world could destroy everything. Including itself.”
“And there you go again. When you get back, remind me to buy myself a punishment collar.”
Moril chuckled. “A what, sir?”
“Don’t play the innocent with me. I know you know what they are. You’ve confiscated enough of them.”
“Why would you want one?”
“Simple. I’ll have it attuned to one simple phrase. If I ever say what was the bad news ever again, after it’s fitted, it’ll give me a shock I’ll never forget. I suggest you get on your way. You may still be able to beat him to Northholme if you hurry up about it.”
“Yes, sir. Did your garrison make it there?”
“They did, and it was easier for the spacers, just as you suggested.”
“Send on one piece of advice from me, sir.”
“And that is?”
“Ban them from the town. No leave. No tavern time. Nothing. If he does get there and brings forth another dome, you could lose half your men.”
“Oh bloody hells! Yes, that’s a damned good thought. I’ll pass on the message to their commanders.”
“Oh, and, sir. There was a star carved into the wall of that cave. Seven pointed, similar in design to the old pentagram. I measured each line, They were equal. We just don’t know the star’s scale or orientation yet. If he does attack another town, it could indicate that scale.”
“And with it, it could help locate the other… That’s a bloody good idea, too! Gods forbid he succeeds but if he does… Duly noted, thank you. Now jump to it sergeant, you have a ship to catch.”
“Yes, sir.” Moril stood and walked. “We’d better get a move on. Come on lad.”
“Who was that you were talking to?”
“Someone with a little bit of influence. When I am out west, I have another job. I’m a peace officer. That was my boss.”
“What’s a peace officer?”
“Pretty much just as the name describes, lad. Our job’s law enforcement. We arrest thieves and thugs, lock them up and take them to court. There, they get a fair trial and if found guilty, they get locked up for a lot longer or whipped. Depends on the seriousness of the crime. Murderers tend to get the worst of it. Executed. How did things work in your town?”
“If someone points the finger, yells, “OI, you stole my pig!” they usually spent time with me and my friends chucking rotten tomatoes at them in the stocks.”
“That’s all it took? An accusation?”
“I dunno. I only cared about the rotten tomato part. It’s fun.”
“I imagine it was more complicated than that. Your town would’ve been a very unpleasant place to live if it was that simple.”
“OK… Someone points at you and said you stole their pig. You didn’t do it. You were out collecting mushrooms when the theft occurred… What happens?”
Kalyn gulped. “I… I don’t know?”
“There’s a word, lad. Justice. It’s important. People should only be punished if they’re guilty of the crime they’re accused of and it’s very easy to make mistakes. That’s why they’re brought before the court. All the witnesses have a chance to speak. Both for and against the accused. If the evidence weights heavily in the favour of a guilty verdict, then he gets punished. I imagine it was similar in your town.”
“And these… peace officers?”
“We keep the peace. When a crime’s committed in a city, there might not even be any witnesses. Then we really have something to get our teeth into. We investigate the crime. With my little trick, I can usually see the person commit it, but if he’s concealing his identity and he manages to escape somehow, it can still take time to find the culprit.”
“Sounds more interesting than sell sword.”
“Can be. But I found it too easy. The chief was right. I am enjoying this. I do have something that a twitch of my finger won’t solve this time. When you can rewind time and watch the crime occur, there’s no challenge to it. It gets bloody boring very quickly. That was my life back there. Fifteen years, bored shitless. No wonder I was in a bad mood most of the time.”
“So, you’re not really a sell sword here. You’re still doing your job, aren’t you?”
“If anyone asks, lad, I’m a sell sword. When I arrived at that town last week, I was a sell sword. It’s only after what happened to it, I’ve resumed my duties as peace officer. This is too important to ignore. We’ll get him, don’t you worry and speaking to my boss, we have the whole power of the empire on our side.”
“Thank you, sir.” Kalyn grinned. He looked around and the grin vanished. “Shouldn’t we be making camp, sir? It’s getting dark.”
“Not this time, lad. According to my map, there should be a village a couple of miles down the road. Where there’s a village, there’s an inn, and where there’s an inn, there a nice, warm bed for the night.”