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Keith Edward English, Wordsmith

Professional site for all Keith's writing adventures, misadventures, and generally whatever the hell he feels like blathering on about.

Month

January 2016

Pre-orders for Thoughts of Steel

From now until 2/10, you can reserve your Kindle copy on Amazon here. They won’t ever run out, mind you, so you don’t need to rush over there and snag it now… However, I may force Arlukent Seerden, the cheerful, all-knowing, badass old wizard from TOS, to riddle your body with a spell that will cause you to grow feet from your ears unless you purchase it NOW!

If you’re wary of purchasing because you think it might be absolute shit, then worry not! It is indeed a good book worthy of your dough. Don’t believe me? Find out for yourself by reading these:

Prologue

A Glimpse of Hell

Phalax Breaks out of Jail

Remember as well, the origin story for Vesik, one of the antagonists in TOS is also available on my website for FREE!

Phalax Breaks out of Jail

If you are even remotely interested in Thoughts of Steel, me in general, or fiction anything, you’ll want to get in here. It’s such a teaser too that it’ll surely piss you the off… in a good way.

***

In the past month or so—he had begun to lose track of time—Phalax had awoken nearly every day to the sound of screaming, thrashing men, or a knock on his door signaling the arrival of a meal or his wife. One particular day, the former shook him from his sleep. He paid no attention to the racket, even when he heard steel ring out through the hallways, and just tried to fall back asleep. This noise was especially loud and prolonged, as if a band of marauders had invaded the prison and the guards were in the process of fighting off the lot of them.

Daily trips from the cell and out into the daylight kept Phalax sane and also allowed him a mental map of the layout of the facility. He imagined crazed men running through the corridors or beating down the only exit to the outside, a large set of double doors with steel bands across each.

With a renewed curiosity, Phalax got to his feet and pressed himself up against the door. Men screamed, steel clattered, and thuds pounded the walls. What caught Phalax’s attention was that the screams weren’t only screams of agony and anger but also screams of terror. The place is under attack, he thought. And then, all at once, he knew what was attacking.

The tome he had asked Felicia to bring him sat in a corner of his cell. By the wan daylight that streaked through the small, barred window up the back wall of cell, Phalax had read through the entire book in the past month. He had spent a considerable amount of time reading through the section about summoning. In these passages, Phalax discovered that the author of the book claimed to have access to another realm where infernal creatures resided. From this, he could pull demons forth onto Zepzier. The author then discovered that there were many other realms and that each was tied together. Most interesting was that one of the barriers between realms had frayed.

Phalax reached his hands to the eye slit in the cell door and tried sliding the smooth panel out of the way. After several unsuccessful attempts, the metal finally slid to the right. He stood at an angle and looked down the hall as far as the small hole would allow.

The end of the hallway was hidden from view but Phalax could hear something big pounding in his direction, accompanied by a series of terror-stricken screams. Finally, a soldier clad in full plate mail awkwardly and slowly ran into Phalax’s limited cone of vision. The soldier was the source of the terrified wails but not the cause of the pounding footsteps.

Phalax watched the man go for as long as was physically possible then turned his head back toward where the knight had come from, only to witness a mass of flesh fly past the small opening. Whatever it was, its skin looked crimson, and Phalax had to keep himself from jumping back at the sight. Phalax could then only rely on sound to keep track of what was going on, for the soldier, and whatever chased him, had moved past his field of vision. New screams of terror came from the soldier, and then a roar drowned out all other sounds and shook cell doors.

The roar ceased and the screams were replaced by a gurgling noise. Then, he heard a gut-wrenching, sucking sound, and images flooded his mind. Fear threatened to claim him but before he could panic, a huge blast came from behind him and showered him with pelting rocks that cut and bruised his unarmored back.

Phalax turned to see a small hole, near the back-right corner of his cell, through which light spilled. He also realized that the cell that housed the inmate to his right had been the target of the explosion. Phalax could tell that the entire back wall of that cell had been pulverized. The man screamed and pleaded as something sprang into the cell, visible only as a blur when it passed by the man-sized hole in Phalax’s cell. An ear-splitting scream caused such terror to take hold of Phalax that his knees buckled. Then, as suddenly as it was issued, the scream ceased and a splash of liquid could be heard.

Following the creature’s appearance was another blast of flame that tore through the wall of the cell that held its door, and blew the whole structure to smithereens. Another opening was made in the upper-right corner of Phalax’s cell; that time, the debris cut and smashed his face. Between the two breaches to Phalax’s cell, the wall that once separated him from whatever was coming into the prison was just big enough to conceal his body. Creatures sprang forward, straight through the cell and into the prison. Phalax could just barely make out dark skin and glittering fangs and claws as the entities sped past.

Better if he was hiding, he thought, rather than in plain sight. He somersaulted forward and ended his roll by springing to his feet and pressing his back up against the wall that was just barely wide enough to hide his body. The roll hurt him; the debris littering the floor tore into his back and opened fresh cuts.

Phalax uttered a hiss through gritted teeth, quietly cursing the injuries, and listened as something big proceeded through the opening fairly quickly. It seemed to stop short of continuing from the cell into the main prison. It let out a deafening screech that had Phalax covering his ears. Finally, it leapt through the opening and crashed into the hall.

Phalax didn’t relish the idea of trying to escape only to be confronted by some nightmarish horror, but also didn’t want to sit and wait for such a being to discover and slaughter him.

Finally, after waiting a couple of breaths and hearing no more of the beings coming through the portal they had blasted open, Phalax stuck his head out of the small hole on his right. He didn’t see any creatures stalking toward the prison and decided to slip through the small hole and make a run for his house.

As he maneuvered and climbed through the small opening, he noticed that the outer wall of the cell to the right of the one he now climbed into was completely destroyed. As he was leaving the jail and stepping into the glorious fall sunlight, his eyes fell upon the remains of the inmate. His torso and face had been ripped to shreds and he was mostly buried in stone from the wreckage of the wall.

Incapable of looking away from the dead man, Phalax backpedaled until he tripped and fell out of the prison and onto grass. Terrified at having seen the dead man so horribly mangled, he rolled onto his stomach and pressed his forehead into the cool earth. Sobs wracked his body and tears began to well in his eyes. He couldn’t stop, though; he couldn’t give in to the more fragile side of his humanity. He thought of his family and that was enough to dispel his fright and get him back to his feet.

With wet, sullen eyes, Phalax beheld a field of yellow-green abound with white trees whose leaves were yellow, red, and every color in between, covering and falling from the branches. He would have smiled at the beauty of the day on any other day. The sunlight and fresh, cool air felt so serene and pure to him that Phalax feared he might actually forget to keep moving. He’d been in the prison for what felt like so long…He ripped himself from the moment and sprinted along the prison wall, which was perforated with holes similar to the one that he had just escaped from.

Phalax made his way to the front of the prison without incident to behold a sight that struck sheer hopelessness into his soul. He leaned against the wall of the prison and stared out at the scene, trying to make some sense out of the chaos. There were creatures not of this world— demons, he knew, like the one that had attacked him, but bigger. Dozens of them ripped through guards, soldiers, prisoners, and civilians without hesitation. The defenders barely held their ground let alone struck back with any visible success; they were too disorganized. Many people and animals lay dead on the ground. One such corpse was sitting atop his steed, trotting around the killing field without control.

Although every fiber of his being screamed that he should go elsewhere, anywhere other than there, he had a plan. Phalax defied the paralysis his mind had set upon his body. He forced his joints to shake free of the cement that held them fast and prepared himself to plunge into the pandemonium.

Phalax paid no heed to the surrounding danger and the promise death and sprinted for the horse carrying the corpse. The horse was in the middle of a congregation of people near the edge of a line of trees, occasionally trampling people to the ground and dooming them to be slain by three demons harrying the bunch. Phalax sped past a demon, within inches of brushing against the five-foot tall, black-skinned creature. The demon had a mess of mangled, gray hair that fell around two short horns sprouting from its forehead and long, lanky arms that draped past its knees and ended in dagger-long talons that ripped the people to shreds.

Phalax had to shove past a hysterical woman to reach the steed. Without warning, the horse quickly turned and kicked. Phalax twisted out of the way but the woman clinging to him was pulled right into the path of the horse’s kick. Her head was smashed and she was lost beneath the mass of the frantic crowd. Phalax quickly spun to the horse’s side and ripped the corpse’s feet from the stirrups, then yanked the dead rider from the horse’s back. Following the stallion as it commenced another quick turn, Phalax bent low, picked up an abandoned halberd with a broken handle, then leapt up onto the horse’s back and kicked his feet into its flanks.

At first the horse’s only response was a quick buck, but then, once its two front legs landed, it took off and trampled a demon caught off guard by the charge. Phalax urged the horse down the path from the prison to the courthouse and witnessed the same abominations in front of the courthouse, only this massacre saw far fewer defenders and more civilian casualties than did the prison. Phalax cursed himself but he had to make it to his house, which was on the northwest side of the city, and he was currently on the northeast. So he sped past the dying people he had once sworn to protect with his life, only offering glances of regret and sorrow instead of the protective might of his lawful arm.

Phalax traversed the city roads with little resistance and hoped that by some act of the gods, the infernal creatures hadn’t made their way awfully far through the city yet. At one point a demon did orient on him. Covered in green scales that shined like armor in the sun and resting on all-fours, it resembled a canine with two rows of bony spikes lining either side of its back. Even though Phalax steered his mount away from the demon, it still leapt the six-foot gap to intercept them. Before the demon was within striking distance, its jaw popped open and revealed long fangs. The demon could’ve swallowed the horse’s head if it had caught hold of it. At the last possible moment, Phalax swung the halberd and cleaved the demon’s top jaw from its skull and sent it staggering and thrashing to the earth.

Without looking back, Phalax raced through the streets all the way to his house where he could see small packs of demons lurking around buildings and slaying people inside and outside their homes. Phalax jumped from his mount before the horse had even stopped moving and landed in a sprint that carried him straight up his steps and into his house. The interior smelled like brimstone, and although Phalax didn’t see any of the abominations, he knew that they were, and might still be, somewhere within.

Splintered wood along the walls pointed him down the main hallway. He heard his wife scream and something savage took hold of his body. Without a thought, he sprinted to the back room and burst through the open doorway.

The Big Finale (Monolithic Ch. 13, 14, & 15)

Vesik meets someone. Abilities are tested with deadly efficiency. The guys level with each other. Fal ends up on the wrong side of torture. All ends well … Vesik changes.

13

 

Several months passed and the tribulations of becoming a Sentry were coming to a close. In just several hours the graduation ceremony would take place, and of course Vesik would be the best man to graduate from his class.

His abilities had manifested in magnificent ways and his sense of self-confidence had grown rapidly. He wasn’t without a sense of self-awareness though and could see his attitude as arrogant at times. However, that realization did nothing to stem his cocky attitude when he displayed it for he knew that he had ample reason to hold himself so high; he could do things that men only dreamed of. He wondered if the fabled wizards had possessed such power, although nothing solid actually proved their existence.

Vesik was forced to go through the same mock scenario he had utterly failed at before and of course Bors made sure to be the general coordinating that one. Bors called for the situation to commence and Vesik told the man playing villain to stop and drop to the floor.

This scenario was supposed to go one of two ways: either the man acting as the villain was supposed to lunge for the helpless civilian or rush the would-be Sentry. This time however, the man actually dropped the blade and fell on his face, trembling. An evil sort of anger flooded Bors but so did another emotion, awe and fear at not understanding what had just transpired. Vesik felt the man’s fear dripping off him. Subconsciously, he now read the rhythm of beating hearts and determined a person’s feelings. Bors’ threw off pulses of red light rapidly as it thrummed against his chest much faster than normal.

Similar events made Vesik a wonder, but also a pariah. He could tell that people were scared of him. He would have to fix that when he became a Sentry if he was to get a woman to carry his child.

The hours passed and Vesik walked through the procession of old generals of the Watch, crushing their hands with his grip. He came to Bors and the man almost whimpered as the bones in his hand came terribly close to crunching. Vesik accepted his diploma and rushed over to his family. Although he knew that he no longer needed his family, not even for their love, he still cherished them.

His father looked at his son with disbelieving eyes, whether because his son had become a Sentry or because he seemed so different now, not even Vesik could decipher. His mother cast away all doubt and hugged her son with nothing but love and pride.

The three had dinner together and Vesik departed to his new barracks that he would be sharing with three others. As he left, Vesik couldn’t help but notice the lines etched into his father’s face that now seemed even deeper than before. He felt a pang of sadness at leaving his family to be forced to work themselves until they were laid into a grave but he clung to the words his father once told him. He decided that he would return once he obtained the power he sought and use it to afford his parents carefree and luxurious last few years.

Almost every night Vesik prowled through taverns looking for a woman to bed and marry. He got plenty of the former but because of that same fact, he could not trust those women with his child. Vesik was torn in two by this. His new-found abilities made it a simple feat to charm a woman into a bed, but he needed more than that. He needed a woman that would want him and want his child.

After another day patrolling the streets of Cavia and apprehending multiple criminals himself, Vesik found his way to another tavern, one that he rarely found himself attracted to. This particular tavern was defined by its ill reputation. Its name was the Tankard Half Full. It was a haven for whores to do their business and addicts to openly inhale and inject illegal drugs.

Oddly enough, the barkeep made sure to keep himself looking much out of place in the shoddy environment, with his neatly trimmed and styled mustache and an ornate green vest buttoned over a finely woven cotton shirt with a neat collar. This man paid the right people to keep his establishment drawing in the scum of Cavia and profited a good deal from it.

Vesik glided over to the bar and ordered a drink, an exotic and definitely expensive one with flavored juices mixed in with the top-of-the-shelf alcohol. The drink was more about taste than effect but the young man wasn’t here to indulge in a night of carefree drunkenness.

The barkeep quickly responded with the price of the drink while he stared nonchalantly into a glass he was cleaning with a rag. His tone insisted that he was expecting Vesik to fully disagree with the price and instead ask for a different drink. Coins clattered onto the table and the barkeeper seemed paralyzed once his eyes met and counted them out.

His smile was tucked away behind his large mustache but noticeable nonetheless. The air of indifference drained from the man quickly and he proffered a genuine look of friendliness towards Vesik. The coins disappeared and the barkeep said through his smiling mouth, “Been thinking of axing the drink altogether. It’s been so long since last I’ve made one of them that the product was beginning to go bad.”

The man seemed to mentally berate himself as a frustrated look claimed his features. He covered with, “Of course, all the juices are new and completely fine. My knowledge of the drink hasn’t wavered either, friend. Erm, be just a moment.” This last piece he said as he rummaged through cupboards so swiftly that Vesik thought the man could open one with the items he sought and pass right over them.

Vesik nodded although he knew the man wouldn’t see him then turned back to survey the crowd. Pitiful, he thought. He now remembered why he didn’t stray to this tavern. It seemed as though half the denizens here were so doped up that they were either already sleeping, or on the borders of unconsciousness. He watched as several of these people were robbed, and without the slightest thought to stealth as they were furiously rubbed down and patted. The drug-induced stupor made sure that resistance would be pathetic or nonexistent.

Serving girls made rare appearances and seemed all too eager to get back to the shelter of the kitchen. The hired muscle seemed content to play their roles more as statues than anything else as they kept their eyes averted from most of the activity taking place. Music would have been pointless, and the barkeeper must have figured as much, due to the immense ruckus.

Vesik turned back to the bar, on the verge of taking his order back and walking out the door when the short man slammed a tall glass down and began pouring colorful liquids from several bottles. “Shaken or stirred, my good fellow?”

“Whichever you prefer.”

The barkeeper nodded at that then, after adding a scant amount of clear liquid to the drink, poured the concoction into a shaker then poured it back once he had jiggled it in his hand several times. He looked at the drink, then up at Vesik as if his drink was being judged by some expert. “Ah, what the hell.” He picked up the bottle of alcohol and poured a drip more into it, seeming immensely proud of what he must have thought was an act of great generosity.

Vesik thanked the man then took the clear-blue drink to, by some miracle, the only empty table in the place and sipped it before he sat down. The liquid tumbled down his throat beautifully, kissing those taste buds that registered sweetness with an affection akin to two long lost lovers. A slight burn let him know that the alcohol in the drink wasn’t completely masked.

His lips puckered at the sweetness of the drink then he looked over his shoulder at the barkeep who had been gauging his reaction and nodded, his lips curling into a smile of satisfaction. The barkeeper smiled back then moved on to some other task.

Vesik waited in his seat with an appraising eye for a few minutes before a serving wench approached him. Wench might have been the wrong term for this one, he thought. Crisp, blue eyes stared out beneath stray strands of hair that had wiggled loose of the bond holding the rest of her auburn hair up in a ponytail. Below those orbs extended a small and perfectly straight nose. Full lips dominated the area beneath that and Vesik saw within them, a huge, world-encompassing smile just waiting to be freed from the bonds of an oppressive environment.

Regardless of what he saw, pure indifference and even a hint of annoyance emanated from her. She was going to ask him one question, and depending on the outcome, either briskly turn and leave, or ask at most two, maybe three more.

“Food?” was all she said.

Vesik wasn’t hungry but an answer of ‘no’ would send her walking out of his life. He feigned interest as he asked, “What is it you have?”

“Mutton and stew. Stew has mutton in it also, so mostly just mutton.” This conversational outburst was a huge leap for this girl compared to what she replied with earlier. Vesik’s charm was already working on her.

Vesik smiled at that and the girl blushed for a moment.

“Hmm.” Vesik insincerely pondered. “I’ll have to pass miss …”

“Oh. Um. Suemaira.”

“Beautiful name if ever I’ve heard one. It suits you well.” And truly it did. A slender almost ghostly-white neck led, tantalizingly down to a perky body with slight curves, enough to suggest an ample amount of femininity.

Suemaira smiled but remained quiet. Vesik believed that she was trying to keep herself from taking any interest in him. He liked to think she wasn’t winning that battle.

He said, “I’m going to be quite blunt with you. I’d rather enjoy it if you’d agree to accompany me for the evening tomorrow. Somewhere more classy, so to say.”

Vesik decided not to lend his words any magical sway as he had learned he was able to now. Instead he decided to rely on his smooth words; he had become quite comfortable with situations such as these lately.

“Oh. Um.” That apprehensiveness again. “I normally don’t date people who come in here. I’d rather not be here myself.”

“And I share the same notion. I’m an undercover spy though, for the King. Just making sure nothing too outlandish is transpiring behind these walls.” He winked to lend his story an aura of playfulness and it seemed to take effect just as well as any magic would have as Suemaira seemed to slide into a comfortable place.

“Yeah, um, I work during the day tomorrow so that should be fine.”

“Okay, wonderful.” Vesik stood as he spoke. “What time should I be here to meet you?”

 

***

 

Sleep brought nothing but revitalization now. The dreams, if that ever was what they were, ceased to whisk Vesik away to an alternate reality. Fits of anxiety plagued the young man as they did now. The plan he was set on required at least a year of patience, an almost impossible feat if ever there was one, Vesik thought.

His thoughts quickly shifted to those with an attitude more positive. He turned his mind’s eye outward and surveyed the world around him instead of the one being constructed in his head. He walked the same path as yesterday toward the tavern Suemaira was to be leaving in just a few minutes.

The door to the tavern burst outward as Vesik moved to shove it open. Without consciously thinking about it, Vesik flung himself backward with supernatural speed and fixed his eyes on those beautiful blues.

She looked flustered so Vesik skipped a greeting and said, “Everything okay, Suemaira?”

She seemed frozen with her hand still holding the door open for a moment before blinking rapidly and saying, “Oh, yes. I just make sure to get out of this place as quick as I can, before my boss tries to keep me longer or one of the men inside get a chance to try anything. Let’s walk.”

Without waiting for a reply, Suemaira took off and Vesik took long strides to get by her side. “You don’t seem to particularly like this line of work.”

“I hate it, to be blunt. But it’s a job.”

“Hmm. There are plenty more than this. Why not find another?”

She said her next words with practiced confidence, “Well, it’s only temporary. I’m a student at the college. I needed some money to pay some of my debts and keep from starving. I heard about some openings here before knowing the reputation of the place, Simon had us go in through the back so we didn’t get a look at what the work would be like. He said he would have offered me the job before I even went through the interview. Looks, he said. Besides, I get a lot of work here. It may not be what I want, but it keeps me in school until I find something better.”

“Well I definitely understand where he’s coming from.” He flashed a toothy smile at her. “And you as well. I was in a line of work that I wasn’t quite fond of.”

“What, if you don’t mind my asking?” She showed genuine curiosity, not the bullshit small talk people were forced to indulge in when they were unfamiliar to one another and had nothing else to do.

“I was a clerk for a senior officer of the Watch.” She looked at him with an odd face. It read, well what’s wrong with that? Vesik countered with, “I trained to be a Sentry but screwed it up the first time and the man I worked for loved seeing me flounder. The job was infuriating. I quickly outgrew it and needed to do something else.”

“And now?”

“I’m a Sentry.” Vesik smiled big as he looked forward and felt Suemaira’s eyes on him.

“Wow, I’m surprised that you didn’t try cracking some skulls yesterday.”

“Your boss, Simon, he’s paid the right people the right amounts. I try anything and no amount of me doing right by anyone or anything will protect me. Plus, I was off duty.”

Suemaira lightly giggled and Vesik enjoyed the cute noises emanating from her. She seemed to be a sweet woman but also strong enough to withstand the hardships life threw at her. Vesik found himself quite fond of Suemaira although he barely knew her.

A group of passerby seemed to notice her laughing as they eyed her hungrily. Their appearance gave the impression that they were headed to the tavern Suemaira had just left.

Vesik hoped that they would be content to just look, partly. The empowered part of him hoped they would try something so he could tear through them.

A screwy looking man towards the back of the small group had his eyes full and the rest of him was getting jealous. He said, “The wench at the tavern right? The Tankard Half Full? Ah, honey, don’t be skippin’ out so soon.”

The group had stopped and were waiting for Suemaira’s reply. She brushed by them without a word in a manner that told Vesik she was accustomed to encounters such as these.

A burly man slapped the scrawny one on the shoulder with force enough to almost knock his compatriot to his knees. “She ain’t got eyes for ya. Looks like the pretty one’ll be enjoyin’ what’s between her legs tonight. C’mon, there’s more whores in the tavern.”

Suemaira was completely content with letting the comments slide away from her memory and continuing on but Vesik was not. Not now.

He turned and said to their backs, “Apologize to the lady.”

Suemaira stopped, stunned, then slowly turned and fixed him with a gaze that pleaded, “Why?

Vesik fell into the mindset he usually adopted when coming upon a heated situation while working. He counted the men. He ran through several scenarios in the blink of an eye, all ended with him standing amidst four broken bodies clinging to life by threads. Before coming into his new power, Vesik would have instead been looking for a way out.

The big man turned around with a huge smile splitting his face. “What was that now, chap?”

“I said, apologize to the lady. Both of you.” He flipped a hand at the screwy man.

The big guy said, “Esh, ya gonna say you’re sorry and make nice?”

“Cut my dick off before I do that.”

Vesik said, “I’ve got a knife.”

The burly man snickered. “That makes up the lot of us, boy. Only ours are probably bigger.”

The scrawny man reached into his coat and Vesik exploded into action. Vesik was no master of the martial arts but he knew how to throw a right cross. His speed and strength being augmented by his newfound abilities ensured that the punch caught the man flush and took him out of the fight. His jaw crunched and he crumpled into the dirt.

A knife flashed past Vesik as he sidestepped the stab, then ducked a swipe aimed at his head. The burly man was dead on when he had said his last bit. The knives leaping at Vesik were about as long as his forearm, about the longest blades that could be concealed beneath a coat without nullifying the whole concealed part.

Vesik didn’t want to pull a knife on these men though, too much paperwork and interviewing would be involved. He just wanted to bust some skulls then take Suemaira out for a lovely evening.

The big man had yet to add anything to the scuffle. He was moving around his two companions who had their backs to the wall of a building. Vesik danced to his left so that the group was before him in a curvy line. The man nearest him was going to wait for Vesik to make a move or for his friends to circle around him.

Vesik decided on the former. He rushed forward and his enemy pulled his arm back to slash at Vesik’s chest but he didn’t anticipate how quickly Vesik would move in at him. Vesik snapped his arm out and caught his opponent’s forearm with his own. He balled his right fist and sent it sailing up the man’s chest and into the underside of his jaw. Again, the strike lacked technical proficiency but the strength was abundant. A series of cracks sounded.

The man’s head snapped back and he was lifted off his feet to crash down into the dirt. The two remaining moved around his prone form but kept their distance until they had Vesik against the wall.

They both began to cautiously approach Vesik on their toes, closing the distance between each other to afford Vesik as little wiggle room as possible.

Vesik decided that it would be best if he didn’t allow that. The ground against the building walls here was dirt, unlike the cobbled stone that Vesik’s two attackers advanced towards him on. He bent low and snatched a handful of the loose earth then flung it at the man to his left.

The man’s hands batted at the air to block the dirt from finding his eyes but Vesik did not wait to see whether or not he had actually blinded the man. He stepped towards the big man to his right and made to twist to the side as his enemy cocked his arm back for a viscous stab.

Only the stab didn’t come.

It was a feint and Vesik was already lifting his foot off the ground to kick the man in the knee when he realized that he’d been duped. Vesik’s side was ripped open by the big man’s slash but his shin found his mark.

The man’s knee buckled and he fell to the ground.

Vesik clutched at his side and his hand came away stained in blood. The thug on the ground clutched his knee with quivering hands and slightly whimpered at the dislocated joint.

The last of Vesik’s enemies saw the blood dripping off him and a foolhardy sense of courage overwhelmed him. His strike was so blatant that even had Vesik not had any combat training he would have seen it coming.

The overhand chop, really a ridiculous strike to attempt with a blade not even as long as a short sword, whizzed past Vesik as he sidestepped and again, his shin found its target.

He was lifted off the ground and squealed as Vesik’s shin travelled up the distance between the middle of his legs and collided with his groin.

Vesik looked around at the destruction he had wrought. The first man he’d taken out was just barely waking from his unconsciousness and the other who he had hit with his fist was still out. The burly man cursed the condition of his knee and the man who had crushed it. The last thug openly sobbed as his trembling hands groped his testicles in a vain attempt at relief from the terrible pain afflicting him.

Suemaira tugged at Vesik’s sleeve and he turned to look into her eyes. Those eyes couldn’t have belonged to the same cute girl he’d met yesterday. Anger burst from those pools of blue so obviously that fire may as well spewed from them. Vesik felt a pang of sorrow and believed that he had completely pissed on any chance of getting anywhere with Suemaira.

No smooth words would roll off his lips to ease her so he only stared into her eyes. Vesik was glad when she broke her gaze away to look at his side. Vesik lifted his arm to allow her to see the wound and she hissed.

“Bad?” he asked her, relieved that she hadn’t ran off already.

“Yes. Goes in about a full knuckle length at the deepest point. Nothing serious is hit though. Still, we need to get you stitched up.”

Vesik sensed that she was only being so nice because he was hurt and that she would verbally assault him later. He noticed that the world around him seemed awfully quiet, besides the groans from the men he had beaten, and surveyed the area to see many dozens of people staring at the scene in utter silence.

The sound of feet scuffling drew his attention to his right and he strained to see what was making the commotion behind the crowd. With just a thought the bodies in his line of sight became incorporeal, ghostly shells with bright red lights beating in their chests. The sensation was enough to cause Vesik to feel intoxicated by power but he didn’t allow the feeling to overwhelm him.

Through the crowd he saw several shells moving, the outline of leather armor protecting the pulsing, red light. Two were small and the other large. Shit, he thought.

His vision returned to normal as Fal, Alitor, and Koe broke through the line of people and laid their eyes on the scene. Fal stopped his stride and gaped at what was before him, finding pieces to the scene and collecting them into a coherent picture.

Suddenly he turned to the crowd and shouted, “Get out of here or I’ll take the lot of you in for interfering with official Watch business!”

Most of the crowd began shuffling away but a few stragglers grouped together and apparently thought Fal’s words had no meaning to them. Alitor began striding towards them with a purpose written plainly on his face and they scattered. He turned back with a smile and the group approached Vesik and Suemaira.

Fal stopped next to Vesik and surveyed the writhing thugs. Vesik felt odd staring at Fal so he turned his head to look also. The two men stared as if admiring a painting which caused some hidden meaning to prance around their hearts and minds but would not allow itself to be caught and known.

Finally, Fal said, “How are you, friend?”

Vesik didn’t miss a beat as he said, “Good, great actually. And you guys?”

“Ah, you know. The daily bullshit. So what happened here? Your lady friend here save your ass or something?”

“Nope. All me this time.”

Now Fal did turn to regard Vesik. “You? Four armed men and you?” Fal’s look betrayed all of the extreme disbelief his tone suggested. He sighed, then said, “It’s been too long, friend. We need to have a drink again. Later though. We’ll take care of things here and you go to a station and have a med fix you up.”

“Thanks, guys. Alitor, Koe, was good seeing you.”

Koe said, “Likewise,” although he showed his discomfort well.

Alitor nodded.

With that Vesik and Suemaira walked away.

Vesik noticed as Fal, Alitor, and Koe exchanged glances, although Koe never kept Fal’s gaze for long. Their faces all read the same thing. “That’s not the man we know.

 

14

 

The events of the night before played through Vesik’s head constantly. Even when he attempted to put all his concentration towards a single task, his efforts were made futile within moments as his date with Suemaira invaded his mind.

After getting his wound stitched closed, they had resumed their date, although Vesik did have to endure a tongue-lashing that lasted a few minutes. Suemaira had become accustomed to behavior akin to what the four men had done last night and was content to ignore their remarks and glances. She also feared that she might lose her job at the tavern. Vesik felt a true pang of regret and apologized as he knew he should.

Last night had been much different than any other night before. Vesik and Suemaira had a wonderful evening together but it had ended at her door. They ate dinner together and walked around the classier part of Cavia, through green courtyards and between lovely statues. They even indulged in a liberal amount of wine with their dinner and yet when Vesik asked to come in, she had refused, which of course made Vesik happier than if she would have agreed.

Exuberance had claimed Vesik when he decided that he’d finally found the woman he needed, the one he wanted. He could save a world with their love then use his power to help his own. He could be whatever he wanted to be after the bargain he’d made was complete.

Maybe that’s why he didn’t outright deny Koe’s request when he asked him to meet at a bar with Fal and Alitor. Perhaps he just no longer took such issue with the terrible deeds of the men. Power did, in every scenario, only come with some kind of sacrifice.

He felt them before he saw them, their souls a subtle presence at his back. A hand patted his shoulder and he quickly turned around, feigning surprise. Koe was there, with a smile on his face that betrayed his nervousness. Next came Fal, a hearty laugh leading his arrival. Vesik twisted the other way in his seat to look upon him. Fal grinned ear to ear then bowed. Alitor was behind Fal, standing inert.

“Gentlemen, come sit with me.”

They accepted Vesik’s offer, Koe sitting to his left and Fal and Alitor to his right. The barkeeper quickly appeared and everyone ordered ale, even Vesik who had a mug half full before him still.

It was too natural a thing for Vesik to read the functions of the three men’s hearts. He had discerned that all three of them were excited by the quick beat of that red light in their chests. He now looked at them with normal sight and could only tell that Koe was nervous as he failed to conceal the feeling.

Fal said, “Vesik, you alright after yesterday?”

“Yeah, just some stitches. It hurts but nothing to lay me up. How have you all been? It’s been a few months since I’ve seen any of you.” Vesik turned and winked at Koe, making him clearly uncomfortable as he dropped his eyes.

Fal’s voice turned him back around, “We’ve been good actually. We haven’t been promoted yet but we’ve received pay increases.”

“Oh, yeah! I heard about you guys helping the Watch catch an entire gang. And to think they had moved into the Vine’s Thorn to work their pull operation from there.”

Fal nodded but was uncharacteristically silent in the face of praise.

“Guys, I told Vesik what we did.” Koe’s sudden outburst surprised Vesik enough that he choked on the ale sliding down his throat.

Whatever had caused Koe to finally tell was an enigma to Vesik. He could still tell that it affected him now though. Vesik turned to see Fal leaning over the bar to get his scornful gaze upon the black man. Alitor stared at them indifferently, as if he had known the whole time.

Fal finally growled, “What the fuck, Koe? You haven’t told us that in the four months since! Why wouldn’t you think that should be shared with us?”

Alitor huffed. He thought the answer was apparent. Koe must have taken issue with it for he turned with blazing eyes and said, “What we did was wrong. Alitor, don’t act like you have me pegged. You might think I’m weak for what I did but I’m strong for actually being a human. You two are my brothers and that’s the only reason why I’m still with you guys. You made me do things that will haunt me forever and have ever since that night. You didn’t see what I saw. I hated both of you for a while. But when I got some sense into both of you that night, I knew that you were both still good people that had just fucked up.”

Vesik nodded then said, “He’s right, Fal. Both of you made him do something he never should have done. I was ready to write all three of you off, but people screw up. I haven’t seen any of you since then and that’s been by choice. But Koe wouldn’t be here now if you two hadn’t acted straight since then. Keep doing what’s right. Maybe think of how important life is and how it shouldn’t be taken so quickly.”

“I’ve talked to them enough, Vesik. They’re good men, and they’re my brothers. But it’s about you today.” Koe’s words turned Vesik around, confounded yet again by the black man. “What’s going on with you?”

“What are you talking about?”

Fal said, “Not even Alitor could have taken down all those guys by himself, Vesik. And he came out the womb knowing how to crack skulls. That wound in your side wasn’t just a scratch. It’d have put any man down. You fought right through it like it wasn’t there, and now you look damn skippy to me.”

Alitor added, “You’ve changed so much in the time we’ve known you, Vesik. And I don’t think anyone else has pointed a thing out to you. Four months training as a Sentry doesn’t turn you from what you used to be into what you are now. We knew who you were before.”

It was true that Vesik’s side had been slashed open deeply. Thankfully, the others didn’t know about his hand. He had broken it during the fight as well. Only, the bones had snapped back together and mended within hours. The deep cut on his side was sealed shut and new pink flesh had grown there.

“Guys, I just got lucky is all. Yeah, I am different. I’m no longer some weak, victim at the mercy of any thug or Bors or anything. So what, I have a spine now. You’re going to bring it up like something is wrong with me?”

“That’s not it and you know it, Vesik. I remember how much work I thought you’d need to ever be a Sentry. And I heard of how easily you passed this time. Actually I heard that things happened that should not ever have happened.”

Could he tell them? Could Vesik share his time in the dream world, the man atop the monolith, the terrible fate that was sure to befall that wondrous place, the fact that he’d have to impregnate a woman then give up his daughter to the man? Would they believe him at all?

“Please, believe me, nothing is wrong. And you’re right, odd things may have been happening, or it may look that way, but it’s all coincidence. Why don’t we just say that we’ve all changed a bit?”

Fal said, “Well that certainly is the truth. Life is tough and this world can look like one terrible place, but it’ll be a whole lot easier and better even if we just keep our heads up and stick to what’s right. That goes for all of us, yeah?”

Vesik watched everyone nod, even Alitor. Then they all looked at him. Why did they need his consent? He wasn’t doing anything wrong. What he was going to do was give up his child to save an entire planet. Where was the wrong in that? But, just to smooth the tension building, Vesik nodded and raised his mug. They all clacked their drinks together and took a gulp of ale.

Fal sighed then said, “Well, now that all the mushy shit is over. Vesik, you messed those guys up, man. The Watch must have done good with you this time.”

Koe said, “We couldn’t find the club you used on them. Stick it up your ass before you left? You know that’d be illegal.”

They all shared a laugh.

Fal slapped the countertop with both palms then said, “I need to piss. You ladies wait here and order me another ale, Vesik. I’m sure you owe me for something I did for you at some point.” He winked and Vesik realized that he felt good. He’d spent so much of his time searching for the right woman, obsessing about the power of the monolith and what he’d been given so far, and proving to everyone that he could become a Sentry that he’d forgotten about the joy of camaraderie.

Vesik raised his arm and ordered a round of ale for him and his friends, then sat back to drink and laugh with them.

 

***

 

Rancid clouds of smoke engulfed Fal then spit him out as he moved through the tavern and out the door. He turned down an alley and tried to hold his breath against the smell of piss and shit. He thought of the irony of adding to that dank smell despite his resentment for it as he relieved himself. Several sets of footsteps sounded from behind Fal and he turned. An arm wrapped his neck and the figure choking him was at his back. Two more men were in front of Fal, avoiding the stream of urine still coming from him but still managing to grasp his hands and hold them still.

Fal gagged as he fought but soon a pressure began to build in his head. He struggled against unconsciousness, forbidding it to encompass him. But soon, blackness began to creep in until it finally swallowed him whole.

 

***

 

Fal awoke as hands were groping him. He immediately began to flail his arms and legs against the probing hands but was held firmly. Men grunted and one growled at the others to keep him still. Fal realized then that a blindfold wrapped his eyes.

“Get off me, you whoresons. Why don’t one of you spineless whips let me go and fight me on my feet?”

“Henkel, why would I go and do that now? I have you right where you belong.”

Time did nothing to create uncertainty about the bearer of that voice. His identity was quickly given away, although Fal wasn’t sure if he wanted it hidden anyway. Besides, only one person would call him Henkel.

Fal was silent as ropes bound his legs and arms to a chair. He pulled against his bonds to find that they were tight and the chair strong enough not to break.

Suddenly, a vision came to Fal. He saw a blonde man, Sarah, and three other men and two women that he didn’t know. Fal realized that the blindfold had been removed and that the blonde man was real, as was Sarah. Sarah nodded, then said, “That’s him.”

The blonde man said, “Good. You can go. I’ll be seeing you around, Sarah.”

Fal looked at her with a pang of regret and hurt. He never should have believed that what they had was anything different than a whore’s relationship with a client. She locked eyes with Fal for a moment, blinked, then turned and walked away, leaving through a door in the back wall. The blonde man locked the door after she left and then placed a thick wooden beam across it.

“Ya know, you were right; what you did to me wasn’t so bad, it all grew back.” The blonde man held his hand up to show fingers with short nails growing on them. Then he pulled back the sleeve of his other arm to show a large scar of pink flesh. “What you didn’t do to me but what still happened, was much worse. We were never actually introduced. My name is Paytus, and I now know that you are Fal. Henkel told me all about you. He didn’t ask a single question when I sought information about you.”

Paytus walked slowly to the side of Fal as he spoke, never losing eye contact. Fal hoped that he could prod the man into a longwinded conversation that would buy him time. He hoped that he just needed enough time for Koe, Alitor, and Vesik to find him.

“What I’ve realized is that everything in this city is a gang. The Watch tried to take out mine, came pretty godsdamn close, but enough of us survived and now look where I am. The Watch itself is a gang. You idiots sell each other out for gold, you go behind each others’ backs, piss on the laws you’re supposed to protect. Politicians do the same fucking thing. King Elbert does whatever the hell he wants. And you did this to me so that you could get your bag of gold.

“Fal, I’m going to say this once.” Paytus had walked behind Fal but he quickly pivoted around and was nose to nose with him. Fal saw yellow teeth, a porous nose, and pockmarked cheeks and smelled the sour stench of stale ale, pipe weed, and rot. “You shouldn’t have left me alive. You should have stuck me and sat there to watch me die. The things I’m going to take from you will not grow back. You won’t be okay after today. Just like I wasn’t okay after what happened to me. Did your black friend tell you how he found me? I bet he did. Let’s start with this.”

Sweat poured down Fal’s temples and his heart slammed against his chest, surely breaking his bones. “What do you want to know? Just talk, Paytus. Just keep talking.” Fal was normally calm under stressful situations, but even he heard the tension in his voice. The look in Paytus’ eyes was too unsettling. He was dead set on this path. He was going to hurt Fal in ways he didn’t want to think about, and the intensity in his eyes showed it.

Paytus shook his head and smiled. Fal gulped and suddenly felt something cold on his finger. His eyes shot down to look upon a cigar cutter held in Paytus’s hand and now circling his pinky finger of his left hand. He began to struggle but his hand was bound tightly to the armrest of the chair. Also, the cutter made moving too much painful as Paytus pushed the blade down slightly.

“Stop moving or this won’t be clean. Also, it might break. Then we move on to more creative tortures.”

Fal stopped moving but his breath still escaped from him like a bellows. His whole body shook and he looked into Paytus’ eyes. That’s when the pain came. Paytus only smiled as he slammed the cutter shut, cutting through flesh, sinew and muscle cleanly. Fal screamed and thrashed and Paytus laughed aloud. He then caught Fal’s flailing hand in a fierce grip and Fal hollered at him. Screaming at him to stop. But he knew that Paytus wouldn’t stop, not until Fal was mutilated and dead.

 

***

 

“He’s been gone for at least ten minutes.” Koe scanned the bar as he spoke. “This just isn’t like him. He would have at least come back in to down the ale you bought him, Vesik. Even if he was going off with a whore. What should we do?”

Vesik found himself genuinely concerned for Fal, although before today he didn’t much care for either of the three men. But he felt as if they had just mended and with that came a strong bond, even if it would turn out temporary.

The walls became incorporeal and every living thing began pulsing with red light in their chest. Vesik bypassed those in the bar and looked outside of it. He couldn’t see many souls out there. And those he did see moved as if walking down the street, the outline of their bodies not resembling Fal. He was gone.

“We need to go look for him. Who knows what could have happened,” said Vesik.

Alitor said, “Could have been picked up by someone. Maybe someone had a vendetta against him.” The way Alitor said this and the look he gave Koe was enough to suggest that it was the blonde man they’d let live. Vesik wasn’t allowed to ever forget about that, Koe’s terror from his actions had been too apparent to not place a stain on Vesik’s very memory.

Koe bristled then said, “Let’s remember what we just talked about, Alitor. Come on.”

Vesik left a gold coin on the counter that the barkeeper saw and snatched immediately, calling at them to come back some other night. The trio found their way onto the street and Vesik noticed as his companions thumbed the hilts of their swords. Vesik began questioning people they passed, asking if they’d seen a man of Fal’s stature and eastern descent. Not a single positive answer came his way for five minutes.

Vesik was searching through the walls of buildings for signs of life when Koe said, “How do we know we’re going the right way? He could have been taken anywhere. Godsdammit!”

Surprisingly, Alitor placed a hand on Koe’s shoulder and said, “It’ll be alright.”

Perhaps Alitor had the time to think about his words and felt remorse for them. Koe was distraught, mulling over the possibility that his mercy had killed his brother. Vesik glanced at his face and saw his pain.

A woman came walking down the street, wiping tears from her eyes. Vesik didn’t need to look into her body to tell her disturbed state. He asked her, “Miss, have you seen a man slightly shorter than I and little stockier. He is from the east with short, pointed hair.”

Something showed on her face as she stopped crying for a moment and looked hopeful even. But then she shook her head and said, “No. I don’t know who you’re talking about.” She made to brush past but Vesik stepped back and got in front of her.

“Please, we’re his friends. We’re trying to find him. His name is Fal.”

Koe raised a finger to her and said, “You, you’re Sarah, aren’t you?”

The woman stopped moving and slowly turned around. She suddenly began sobbing anew. “Paytus is going to hurt him so bad. He’ll kill him too.”

Alitor gripped her shoulders and said, “Where, woman? We need to find him. Tell us where.”

“They’ll come after me next. I can’t help you. I’m so sorry.”

Sarah pulled away from Alitor’s grip but Vesik said, “Take us to Fal!”

She suddenly stopped, turned, then began jogging back where she had come from. Vesik said, “Come on,” and took off after her. Koe and Alitor threw him odd looks then followed suit. Just several minutes passed before Sarah stopped and then put her hand on a door to a building at the end of an alley. She suddenly snapped free of the compulsion Vesik had put her under and then stumbled backwards.

Through the door and walls, Vesik saw several throbbing, red lights. One was beating so terribly fast that Vesik thought the owner of that body must be in the throes of some terrible attack, tearing itself apart from the inside. And he was certain that was Fal. At the very least, he could take solace in the fact that he was still alive for now.

All three men had steel in their hands, Vesik with a long sword, Koe with two curved daggers, and Alitor with a two handed grip on his falchion. Alitor tried the door quietly but it was locked. He stepped back and said, “We need to do this right. We won’t do any good to anyone if we just run in there and die.”

Vesik saw that Koe was on the verge of losing it. He growled and tears swam at the corners of his eyes. He was angry and didn’t want to waste any time while his brother was dying on the other side of the door.

“Stay here. Don’t come in until a few seconds pass.” Without waiting for a reply, Vesik turned and slammed his foot into the door. The wood splintered and exploded, an enormously loud crack sounded as a beam on the other side of the door shattered. Vesik stood in the door for a moment and that’s all it took for two bolts to slam into his chest and sink into his flesh.

Prowling towards Vesik, was four attackers. One other was reloading a crossbow. He growled and ripped the bolts out of his chest. The wounds still bled badly and Vesik knew they wouldn’t close for some time. He was about to dart forward when he heard Fal’s screaming voice.

A broken man with a tear and blood smeared face sat tied to a chair. Blood streamed from Fal’s left hand, barren of all fingers. The mutilated hand terrified Vesik but he quickly staunched his fear with anger. One of the thugs was on him while another came at his side.

Vesik moved in faster than his enemy anticipated and tore his blade down the man’s chest. The blade cut through bone and organs as if through water. Ripping and cracking noises came from the man’s ruined torso and he yelped then collapsed.

The woman to Vesik’s side lunged and stabbed at his ribs. He stepped to the side, trapped the woman’s outstretched arm between his side and arm, then slammed the top of his head into her face. Bones shattered and she collapsed, a corpse with a ruined brain.

Vesik screamed as a sharp pain lanced through his chest. He tried to turn around but the blade sticking in him was held by the man at his back. He roared and twisted hard, ripping the blade from the grip of his attacker. The man now before him stared at Vesik in disbelief.

Vesik’s vision was blurry and his legs and arms felt weak for a moment. He bellowed again, willing strength to fill his body. His senses came back quickly and his strength returned, intensified beyond anything ever before.

Without seeing the threat, Vesik felt a man rushing at his side. He leaned back as a blade flashed before his face and arced down to the floorboards. A blade still sticking out of his back, Vesik kicked the back of the man’s knee. The thug’s leg snapped and he slammed down on the back of his neck. Before he could even let out a scream, Vesik stomped down on his throat, crushing it.

The thug that had stabbed him was inert, obviously scared beyond movement. A twang sounded and Vesik threw himself backwards with supernatural speed. A bolt sped past the area his head had just occupied. Vesik turned to see a woman with an empty crossbow.

Koe and Alitor had come in and were on her then. Vesik realized that they must have seen his work and were stalled. But now, they were moving quickly. Alitor bashed the woman in the temple with the flat of his blade, putting her down. Koe squared off with the blonde man, standing behind Fal’s semiconscious body.

Motion to Vesik’s side caught his attention and he turned to see the thug who’d stabbed him running. He was trying to get passed Vesik and out the door. Vesik skipped towards the man, closing the distance between them, lifted his lead leg high, then thrust it at the thug. His heel slammed into the man’s shoulder and launched him sideways into the wall.

The man writhed on the ground, gripping his shattered shoulder. Vesik turned as he heard a man scream, “Alright. Alright. I’m done. I’m putting my blade down.”

The blonde man lowered his sword but Koe kept menacing the man with those curved blades. Vesik walked over to them as Alitor began helping Fal from the chair.

Koe’s eyes blazed with anger and he gritted his teeth. He said, “I gave you a new chance. You made the wrong choice.” Koe leapt forward and drove one of his blades into the man’s stomach and the other into his neck. Koe growled into the wide expression of the dying man. The thug died on Koe’s blades then slipped off of them.

Alitor said, “Vesik, no more bullshit. We need help now.”

Both Vesik and Koe turned around and moved to Fal. His fingers were all chopped off at the first knuckle, leaving a stump instead of a hand. The blood around his mouth didn’t seem to have come from any cuts. Fal’s eyes alternated between squinting and drooping halfway open. Suddenly, a loud burp came from Fal and he vomited. Within the puke, was a fingertip.

Vesik felt himself begin to gag but then a sharp pain shot through his back. He reached back and found the blade still sticking from him. Alitor and Koe followed his hand to behold the blade. They both seemed to forget about Fal.

Alitor said, “Vesik, that’s a fucking sword in your back.”

“Yeah. Koe, just pull it out.” The black man looked at Vesik as if he were insane. “Yeah, I am different. We can talk about it later. Just get it out of my back.”

Koe slowly dropped his blades and gripped the hilt of the sword in his back. He took too long to pull and Vesik said, “Do it!” Koe pulled and the blade slid out, searing pain erupting across his back. He hissed but knew that he’d heal.

Vesik turned to see a rapier, three inches of the tip covered in his own blood, held in Koe’s hand. “Nothing too bad I think. I don’t feel like it hit anything vital. But godsdamn does it hurt. Let’s see what we can do for Fal. Alitor, what all has been done to him?”

Alitor looked away from the spectacle that was Vesik and regarded Fal. A woman’s quivering voice came from their backs, “Fal. Oh, gods, is he alive?”

The trio turned to see Sarah slowly moving her way towards them all. Koe moved to intercept her. Vesik was sure that she would have bolted once his compulsion over her had worn. What care would a whore have for Fal?

Alitor’s voice pulled Vesik back around, “It looks like they had just gotten started. It’s just the fingers. Can you fix them, Vesik?”

The yearning to fix Fal was there, but Vesik was so unsure of his abilities. He’d never tried to heal anyone, not even himself. His power just seemed to mend his wounds of its own accord.

“Do we have his fingers?”

Alitor shook his head. “We have three … and a half. Don’t worry about trying to put him back together, Vesik. Just try to stop the bleeding. He’s been like this for at least ten minutes.”

Vesik nodded his head grimly. He reached out and clasped Fal’s ruined hand, eliciting a string of gibbering words from Fal. As Vesik tried to channel his power into mending the open wounds, Fal began to wake up. He twitched and his eyes fluttered until he locked eyes with Alitor. Then, he sighed from the pain in his hand and tried to pull it away, only the ropes still held it fast.

Fal said, “What are you doing? What’s happening?”

Before anyone could respond, Fal saw his hand and heaved. A torrent of vomit spewed from Fal and pieces of fingers were in it. He began to cough and shake.

Vesik turned to look at Alitor and instead looked past the bald man to Koe and Sarah. Koe felt guilty and showed it in the tears that fell from his eyes. Sarah’s face was slack, seemingly void of life as she stared at the broken man.

Power flooded through Vesik, a presence in his gut and chest that told him he was capable of extraordinary things. The power that came from the monolith and through him fled into Fal’s hand. Fal hissed but when Vesik removed his hands, his wounds were closed and sealed by new flesh. Fal gasped then looked up to Vesik with admiration and wonder.

“I’ll explain it all later. You need to rest. You lost a lot of blood.”

Fal looked confused but Alitor said, “No, I think he’s okay, Vesik. He must have passed out from choking on the uh …”

Torment seemed to grip Fal as he looked away and clenched his teeth. He said, “Did they all come out?”

Alitor began cutting Fal’s bonds as he said, “No. We’re still missing the thumb.”

The rope wrapping Fal’s wrist gave way and he brought his hand up before his face. The fingerless thing looked so ugly in Vesik’s eyes; he wondered how disgusting it must look to Fal. Tears swam down Fal’s cheeks and he tried to move the fingers that were no longer there, the tendons that would have been connected to them shifting beneath his skin.

Through his tears, Fal said, “It doesn’t hurt at all. But gods is it not right. It looks so wrong. What am I ever going to use this for? I’m crippled, I’ll always be a damn freak.” The room was silent until the man who Vesik had kicked against the wall stirred and whimpered. Fal’s head snapped around like a cat’s and he suddenly seemed to realize he was free of his bonds. He stood up with ample strength, stomping on the pieces of his fingers.

Fal strode across the room, brushing past Vesik, Alitor, Koe, and Sarah without shooting them a single glance. He scooped a blade from the floor with his good hand and continued on. The man saw him coming and began to scream.

With a shout, Fal fell on the man, posting the palm of his mutilated hand on the floor for support. He stabbed downwards and his blade sank into the man’s shoulder. He wasn’t able to hold himself up on his fingerless hand and he fell on the man who began to struggle and twist.

Fal lifted up then dropped his skull down on the man’s nose, shattering it. He then arched back and grabbed the hilt of the blade and twisted it back and forth, shredding flesh and muscle into a large hole. His victim screeched and fought against Fal as best he could.

A fist caught Fal’s chin but it seemed to only fuel his anger as he dropped an elbow onto the man’s chest. He grunted loud with the strike then began dropping them over and over again, each time his grunt becoming louder and higher in pitch. Finally, he lifted himself up onto his knees, pulled the blade from the barely conscious man, then stabbed it downwards into his chest. Fal continued on several more times until he was screaming and sobbing each time he struck. His strength then seemed to suddenly drain from him as he stopped stabbing and just sobbed atop the dead man.

Sarah broke away from Koe and went to place her hands on his back. Fal leaned into her chest and she cradled his blood-splattered head with tender care, crying with him.

After a minute, Alitor said, “We need to leave. Someone will be coming.”

Vesik nodded but didn’t move.

Koe squeezed Vesik’s shoulder then said, “Are you okay? You shouldn’t be standing right now, Vesik.”

“I shouldn’t be able to do a lot of things. Let’s just leave, I’ll explain it all to everyone later. Fal isn’t alright though. We need to do what we can for him.”

 

15

 

Ten months had come and gone. Vesik was going to be the daddy of a child capable of saving an entire world at any time now. He wasn’t sure why he craved his daughter’s birth more: because of his need for power, or the idea of saving his dream world.

Just days after impregnating Suemaira, Vesik’s powers had waned. He knew he still retained some of it, but he wasn’t the immortal being he had felt like he had been before. Regaining that power was important enough to make him give up anything in his life if it was required.

The night that Fal had lost his fingers, Vesik had divulged everything to them. They had sat in silence for most of it, until the end where Fal cracked jokes, failing to hide his internal pain, and Alitor did his best to connect the dream world to religion. But with the proof he’d shown them, no one disbelieved him. They were intrigued more than anything else and likely joyous that Vesik was their friend. Fal and Alitor would certainly look at Vesik as an asset. And Vesik was alright with that. That’s just the way they were.

Fal was able to continue working as a Sentry although with some difficulty. However, explaining the missing fingers and the immediate healing would have been impossible. Fal had disappeared with Sarah for three months then came back, feigning as if he’d been taken by a merchant and his entourage after finding a store of illegal items aboard his caravan. He, of course, had a heroic story to explain his escape and return back to his beloved city.

Henkel hadn’t told an important person other than Paytus about Fal. Alitor had discovered that Henkel hadn’t ever put the pieces to the puzzle together. He still didn’t know that Fal had used his name to cover his own ass. Both Alitor and Koe decided not to speak to Henkel about the matter further.

Currently, Vesik held the hand of his wife while watching a crackling fire. He worried constantly over the outcome of his child’s birth and that he hadn’t had any contact with the man atop the monolith. Now was no different.

Suemaira’s voice broke him from his pondering, “Vesik, I’m feeling tired. Can we go to bed?”

“Already, hun? It’s barely night.”

“I’m just feeling very tired and a little queasy. Please?”

“Of course.” Vesik threw the blanket off of them and then helped her sit up.

Suemaira was sitting up when she suddenly said, “Stop!” Vesik ceased moving her and listened as her water broke.

“Oh shit. Sorry. I’m sorry, Suemaira, I didn’t mean that. It’s happening? Our baby is coming?”

“Yes.” Suemaira began breathing deeply, whether from what the midwife had told her to do or because of her own panic. “Go get the midwife, Vesik.”

“Okay. I’ll send Nerid over. He said that he’d help if we needed it. You’ll be alright until I get back?”

“Unless you take too long. Please, Vesik, go.”

Vesik kissed his wife’s head, helped her stand, then put her on the bed. He then turned and bolted from their two bedroom home they’d moved into just months ago.

 

***

 

Vesik sat in awe and fear as his wife pushed for the final time and their daughter began crying in the arms of the midwife. She cleaned the babe then handed her, swaddled in a bloody blanket, to Vesik. He looked down on his daughter and could do nothing other than smile. Her small eyes opened for a brief moment and Vesik saw red and silver. The smile was wiped from him and he was terrified of the baby he held for a moment. But then her eyes flashed open once more and what stared back at him was white, blue and black.

“What is it, Vesik?”

“A girl. She’s our daughter.” Suddenly, Vesik felt the bonds that were tying him to his daughter fray and snap. He’d have to relinquish her eventually and had already been warned about becoming attached to her. He gingerly gave her to Suemaira who nestled the babe against her chest and cooed lightly.

“What should we call her, Vesik?”

Blinking away his troubling thoughts, Vesik said, “I don’t know yet, Suemaira. Let’s talk about that another time. Just rest.”

 

***

 

Several weeks passed before Suemaira was well enough to move around without difficulty. She had asked Vesik to name their daughter over and over until he finally relented. He felt as though it shouldn’t be his right to do so given what would inevitably come to pass.

Morning shafts of light streaked through the open shutters of their window, warming his cheeks as he crossed them. He was getting ready for a day of work as he moved through their small home. Some odd feeling compelled him to hold Suemaira in a tight grip before he left, to kiss her deeply and passionately as he had done when they had first confessed their love.

Vesik then moved to his sleeping daughter, and leaned down into her crib to look at her. He whispered, “I love you, Rilaena. Sleep well, babe.” He planted a light kiss on her forehead and smiled as she remained deep in sleep. He looked at his wife one more time, then stepped out of his doorway.

A vast wind pulled at Vesik, pushing him several steps forwards and ripping at his leather armor. The man from the monolith stood before him in a clearing of tall grass. Rolling plains extended in all directions and the heat of the atmosphere was not how Cavia should have felt.

The man’s face was showing, his styled hair shining in the sun and his pointed beard whipping in the wind. “You’ve done it, Vesik. Now it is your turn to receive your gift from me.”

Fire and ice suddenly exploded under Vesik’s skin, rampaging through his veins and organs. He screamed and floundered, rolling amidst the long grass whipping in the wind. Terrible things filled his mind, knowledge of how the world truly worked and of what had already happened to his wife and child. He began pounding his fists against the ground as his blood roiled as if trying to escape through his skin.

In horror, Vesik watched as his skin turned black and talons grew from his hands. He felt himself dying then being reborn. His normal sight began to spin and twist in a nauseating maelstrom until it finally snapped back, only he could no longer see things as they should be, only their outlines and the red lights of those living things.

Vesik screamed until his voice became a harrowing roar. The sound was nothing ever heard before by Vesik. The skin on his back split and he felt the odd sensation of things leaping from his skin. It felt as though some being hidden within him had decided to rip his flesh open and spring from his back. But then he could control the protrusions and soon saw tentacles wavering before him in his altered vision.

Recognition came with more pain as his muscles and bones expanded, tearing and snapping to reform.

And just as it had begun, it suddenly stopped, as did the pain. Vesik looked to the man before him, seeing an immense red light within the man’s chest that beat furiously. He knew that he was the thing that he had seen in the monolith and wanted to weep. He knew that his daughter had been whisked away just as he had been when he had walked out of his house. He knew that his wife was alone and forsaken.

The man said, “You have your power, Vesik. You’re different now though, and this is how it should be. Your daughter will survive without you or your wife, I will make sure of this.”

Vesik felt amazing power flowing through him. He reached out and willed the man’s bones to snap and explode. Although it should have worked, the man only sneered. “That won’t work with me, Vesik. I still need you. You must enslave this entire world for me and do to it what I ask of you. You’ll never be accepted here again in that form. You must force them to obey you, and you can with the power you now have.”

Speaking was more like thinking for Vesik now as he wasn’t sure if his mouth moved. He said, “What have you done to me? You’ve made me into a monster!”

“I’ve filled you with the power you’ve always wanted. You’re upset and you won’t be useful for some time. I know what you want for Zepzier and you can have it, but you are my pawn now. Create a place for yourself within another dimension. Look down upon your world until you need it so much that nothing will keep you from coming back to it. Only then, will you be able to complete the ritual and come back to be ruler of it all.”

Vesik was quiet as his sadness and fear ruled him. He thought of his friends, parents, wife, and child. He despaired at the horrid nature of his new form. He looked around and saw only a place without life, a place without beauty. Not even the red light beating before him showed beauty and he knew that his existence would forever lack substance as he’d lost his eyes for love.

Vesik found himself capable of probing alternate places, pockets of extra existence that sat in every space in the universe. The knowledge of the ritual he needed to complete filled him and he despaired yet again. Zepzier’s plains could no longer harbor Vesik, the entire world seemed repulsed by him. He wanted to turn back time so badly, to stop himself from becoming this monster. But he couldn’t.

The grim truth of Vesik’s predicament surfaced and he knew there was only one option. He couldn’t try to come back to his old life ever again. But he could live amongst his people again, but only if he completed the ritual.

Vesik felt as though he was suffocating as he stood on the world he loved, knowing that it hated him with its entirety. He opened a space in another dimension and with a thought, created a living environment for him to retire to. A pit of cold grew in Vesik as he left Zepzier and was whisked away, remorse his only companion and his return his only reason for existing.

 

TO BE CONTINUED …

A Late Christmas Present: Monolithic (Ch. 11 & 12)

Vesik reaches the top and is given the chance to save a world. Fal bluffs. Alitor gets drunk and naked. The boys torture. Someone does drugs. Koe slaps some sense into the others. Consequences and their effects.

11

 

Withdrawals afflicted Vesik. He felt as though he were a pull addict who had just stopped using the narcotic. He’d seen what the drug did to people if they went too long without it; their eyes becoming bloodshot and rattling in their heads, their bodies shaking and twitching, craving the feeling of just one more hit. He almost couldn’t make it to work in the mornings after having dreamless sleeps.

His current predicament made the news he heard from Bors’ office less intriguing than it should have been. The raid on Yorik’s place on Black Street turned out to be a flop. No one was there when they rolled through.

Vesik would question Fal until his throat was too dry to make sound, but he would do that later. His thoughts fluttered away and his mind was encapsulated by the last three dreamless nights.

The events of that horrifying morning replayed in his mind over and over.

Suddenly Bors’ door to his office slammed shut and Vesik spun his head around to catch his boss’s gaze. “Vesik! What the hell is this?” Bors pointed a stubby finger to a splotch of black ink on a document that covered a word.

“A drop of ink, sir. I must have spilled it.”

Bors suddenly crumpled the piece of paper into a ball and threw it at Vesik’s chest. “You’re wasting ink and paper and, most importantly, my godsdamn time! Write it all out again and I better be able to read it.”

Vesik stooped low, swiped the crumpled paper from the floor, then nodded to his boss. Bors spun back towards his door but stopped when Vesik spoke to his back.

“Sir. I was wondering what day exactly the next training would begin? To become a Sentry.”

Bors slowly turned back to him and regarded him with a cool look. “Why?”

“Because I’m trying again. That’s what I want to be, sir. I’ll do much better this time, I know it.” Vesik could feel the heat of Bors’ anger coming from him. The usual cold anxiety was absent, however, confidence abounding in him unlike it had before encountering the monolith.

“No you won’t. I’m not sure if I like the idea of getting a different clerk, Vesik. We’ve grown … accustomed to each other, have we not?”

Vesik stared at the man with a look that prompted Bors to choose his words carefully. “I won’t give you a choice.” Even with the absence of the monolith’s presence lately Vesik still felt its influence. “I’ll do so damn well that they’ll have to pass me … sir.”

Bors smiled, “You wanna waste our time again, go right ahead. I’ll sure get a kick out of it. Four days from now. Bright and early. Meaning that you’ll have to play catch-up on your work after training and on your off days.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Bors grumbled about Vesik shoving his gratitude somewhere it really had no business being and stomped back into his office. Bors’ motivation for keeping Vesik down was simple and transparent to him. Bors liked that he could control and demean Vesik to his liking. He felt as though he had Vesik broken, and he wanted to keep it that way. Vesik wouldn’t have it much longer though, he wouldn’t need to.

Becoming a Sentry meant much more to Vesik than a higher pay. In fact, he was fine with the money he made now, but dominating this challenge was important to him. Vesik had staked a lot on becoming a Sentry. If he could do it, then he would have proved Bors wrong, all the men and women who saw him freeze up that day wrong, and even his father wrong.

Obstacles usually proved damn efficient at cowing Vesik. But that was before he had begun believing in the power of the monolith, before he had come to love and worship it. Despite the fear of the creature that he had encountered, the monolith was still confidence inspiring and worth believing in. Its influence would let him become a Sentry, thus proving that he could conquer his goals when he wanted, and then shape newer, higher goals. Nothing would stop him from proving himself.

 

***

 

He was there, in the monolith. Joy and excitement claimed Vesik and he wanted nothing more than to simply sit and enjoy this wondrous dream world. But then he remembered his goal to reach the top of the monolith.

Vesik floated at the point where he had made the choice to turn down the side corridor and take a peek at the mirror. His gaze flicked at the hallway and he dismissed the very notion of its existence and floated down the tunnel.

The oval tunnel was littered with those small orbs of light that cast a soft glow down Vesik’s path. He could see that the tunnel was long, miles perhaps. A thought occurred to him; how could the tunnel be so long without it leading to the other side?

The realization followed immediately after. Laws of reality didn’t have to apply here; the tunnel led directly upwards, towards the top of the monolith. Moving through the thing would take an indiscernible amount of time, hours, or days even. Vesik remembered the darkening sky and the red sheen that infected it. Time was a factor now.

Vesik thought of moving through the tunnel and suddenly his vision blurred. His world coalesced and he was still in the tunnel. He realized that he had jumped a great distance in just a moment’s time, like he had done so before. He tried it again.

Wind assailed him, but didn’t threaten to move him. It was just a realization of a kind. Vesik likened the feeling to standing behind a wall of rock while strong gusts beat against it, only he was now the wall.

The sky stretched above him in all directions. Vesik tore his gaze from the glorious blue and black sky and looked to the ground. The same grey, smooth stone that made up the outside of the great pillar was beneath him. He was standing atop the monolith, he realized.

Vesik drank in the area around him with awe. The edges were so far away that Vesik couldn’t see the ground at all. Just the sky meeting the dusky stone.

He was here but now was at a loss for what to do. That mattered not though.

A silent bolt of lightning leapt from the cloudless sky and danced along the ground yards from Vesik. A figure emerged from the soundless maelstrom and strode towards Vesik. Joy and trepidation warred within him.

The bolt retracted back to the sky with as much noise as its arrival. A sound did emerge to caress Vesik senses though. A soft drone preceded the figure’s voice, “Setbacks and stumbles detail your journey here. Much in the way your life is composed.”

Vesik determined the being to be a man from his voice although a white robe covered his entire person and a cowl shrouded his face in shadow.

Vesik suddenly felt the freedom to speak. “Yes.” His voice was meek and childish compared to the man before him.

A soft purr, then, “This is not the method of living you would choose. Not the method I would have for you either. I should explain. This place is another world separate from yours but linked nonetheless. They all are. Certain threats force their hand upon some of these, and this is one of them. I should show you.”

Vesik looked away from the man and suddenly he noticed he was on the edge of the monolith, overlooking the world below. Breath caught in his throat as he glimpsed the earthen spine he had traversed to reach the monolith, hazy due to the immense distance that separated the two.

His gaze walked the spine back to where he had begun this dream at then continued onward. The world around him matched the terrain he had come to be familiar with. Swirls of clouds populated the ground and spires pierced through it, nothing as large as the monolith though.

This world was a visage of wonderment and awe. But off in the distance, terror.

The world burned. Set aflame by some unseen source but engulfing everything it touched. It seemed as though this planet or realm was half a burning star on one side. The horizon burned and was colored orange as the ground beneath was charred and black. Sinister was the only word to describe it justly.

Vesik forced his gaze back to the figure before him and awaited an explanation.

“An evil force burns my world and I am powerless to stop it. It sits beyond the inferno, a place I cannot go. You can be our savior, just as I can be of use to you.”

“What can you do for me?”

“I can give you power beyond anything you’ve imagined. The power to kill, to create, to control. You dream of obtaining the power of the monolith, well you needn’t do so any longer. You may become an extension of the great monolith. It is a conduit of power and I can turn you into the receiver of that power.”

Vesik almost immediately agreed but halted himself. He instead said, “What is it you want from me? To stop this for you?”

“Yes but indirectly. I will give you a serum, something that you must inject yourself with and then impregnate a woman within days of injecting the serum. The child will be mine soon after she is birthed. The child will be capable of stopping this and preserving my planet.”

“Why me? What makes me right for such a task?”

“You love life, Vesik. You adore the living things in your world and I know you would never want an entire planet to be destroyed, especially if there was something you could have done to stop it. I never would have wagered the life of my world against a man I didn’t think capable of fulfilling this task. You, Vesik, were born for this.”

All those times his father had commented on this gift rang clear in Vesik’s head. Vesik’s ability to feel joy in life, even when he was secluded from others by his own awkwardness, had been noticed by a being of another world entirely.

Vesik thought of the complexity of this request and tried to weigh the sense of ethical responsibility with his want for power. But couldn’t he satisfy both? It was certainly apparent within him how much he craved the power to conquer his obstacles and reach his goals. The monolith had inspired something in him that demanded he achieve something of high importance in life. Giving away his child to an unknown man was questionable, to put it lightly. But in the end, that one small life would save this entire, glorious world. If it had been his own life he’d have to sacrifice for the sake of an entire world, he liked to think that he wouldn’t hesitate to make that sacrifice. Denying this man’s request would be wrong.

“Agreed.”

Vesik felt the man smile within the shadow that hid his face. “Good to hear. When you awake you will find the serum clutched in your hand. I should be clear that the power of the monolith is only yours if you keep your part of the bargain. This entails several elements.

“The serum will be in a needle ready to be injected. You must inject half into each of your testicles. Be forewarned, it will be expelled from your body several days after injected if you do not use it. This means that you mustn’t inject the serum until you are sure that consummation is near. Soon after the child is born, I will find her and procure her.

“I should advise you of several things. Do not become attached to the woman you impregnate or the baby. Regardless of the good you are doing, this will be difficult for you. Also, you will feel the effects of my side of the agreement before you are endowed with the full amount of power. Use it wisely and without gaining suspicion. You will receive all of the power as soon as the child is given to me.”

Vesik committed the instructions to his memory as if his life depended upon it – in a sense it actually did. “Okay. Will I ever get to see my daughter again?”

“I’d like to think so, Vesik. That depends on how things play out though.”

“Good. We should shake on it. Cement the deal.”

A gloved hand extended from the cuff of the robe and floated before Vesik. He didn’t understand how he was supposed to shake the man’s hand since he was under the impression that he was not with his body.

But the man before him waited and Vesik knew that he must be in his physical body. He thought about extending his hand and sure enough he did. Only his hand was alien to him.

The two hands met and squeezed, Vesik’s wrapped in dark, glistening skin. Giant veins ran the course of it. Vesik stared in horror at the otherworldly hand that apparently belonged to him. He was certain that he saw a wavering appendage, the same color as the hand he possessed, in his peripheral vision.

The figure chuckled low and Vesik looked up into his face. The cowl had fallen back and the man before him had dark brown, styled hair and a full goatee. His eyes were crazed and he laughed wickedly.

 

***

 

Vesik awoke and immediately sprang off his bed and onto his feet. He was breathing heavy, hyperventilating almost. For several moments it was all he could do to keep sporadically inhaling and exhaling while still on his feet.

Fear cowed him from investigating his hand immediately. Curiosity won out though as his eyes slowly dropped to the limb dangling at his side. The relief that flooded through him was almost enough to completely calm his breathing.

He stared at his own hand, perfectly pale and weak. He wondered if the skin he possessed while in the dream world held any meaning for him in this world. Would he become that thing? Or was that simply the form he took while in the dream world for some reason? Perhaps it was the manifestation of his want for power.

His current thoughts were ripped from him though as he noticed the vial resting between his palm and fingers. His hand twisted around and brought the small container in front of his face.

A thick, silver substance sat in the vial and red liquid swam through the silver. The glass vial was held in a metal frame that had a needle at one end and a pusher at the other. The vial was no bigger than the tip of Vesik’s thumb and the needle even shorter.

After examining the odd instrument for some time, Vesik walked to a desk and deposited it into a drawer after covering it with a pile of undergarments.

Soft footsteps sounded outside his room and he looked up expecting someone to open his door, not at all an uncommon occurrence since he resided in the station and was called upon to carry out certain tasks often. A peculiar thing happened though.

The walls around him seemed to become less real. Very scantly, Vesik could see through the walls themselves and on the other side, someone walked down the hallway outside his room, a faint pulse of red light emanating from the figure’s chest in sync with the beat of a heart.

Vesik breathed, “Amazing” as the walls regained their complete form. If pull was said to be so addictive as to make a first-timer a user for the rest of their life, then this experience was even more intoxicating and addictive than even that.

A woman now, is all Vesik thought.

 

12

 

The darkness of night had claimed the skies, hiding the bilious clouds Koe knew were up there. He marched to the abandoned warehouse, Fal at his side. Koe had tried several times to staunch the trepidation building in him, each attempt a failure.

Fal said, “That’s it.” His pointing finger aimed at a short building that seemed a poor excuse for a warehouse. Koe wasn’t sure how much inventory could have been stored there, but it didn’t seem like much.

The duo moved towards it, Koe keeping his eyes open and shifting around as he looked for anyone spying on them. Fal opened the door and Koe entered into the dark place. He looked around, expecting not to see anyone, although he knew someone was here.

The darkness hid the warehouse but Koe and Fal began lighting candles then lit two torches and stuck them in iron sconces fixed to wooden beams. Several Short walls created a series of storage spaces, looking much like stables. Stacks of crates lay within a few of them, their tops off and the insides obviously empty. Koe had to keep himself from snooping around behind them.

With the room well-lit, all that was left to do was to play a part. Koe said, “Henkel, I told you this place was abandoned. Why the hell did you drag me out here?”

“For this.” Koe turned and found Fal suddenly holding a dagger. The pommel streaked for his temple and hit him. Koe fell to the ground and closed his eyes.

 

***

 

Paytus stood with Devanni to his left and Roark to his right. Each had steel at their hip and looked forward at Henkel and his captive, a thin black man restrained by ropes. One rope looped around his head and between his teeth, causing the black man to breathe heavily. His eyes shifted back and forth often, showing rage and fear.

Paytus swept the blonde locks from his forehead then said, “Henkel, you certainly are worth the money so far. This is the man who’s been giving us up?”

Henkel nodded and said, “The very one. I’m giving him to you out of a show of faith. I want this to turn into a partnership between us.”

“That’s something I’m going to have to clear with Yorik first.” Of course he never would. Henkel was an idiot. He had come at the gang too straightforward. There wasn’t anything else that Henkel could leverage, especially since they he had just proven that spies in the Watch were fickle. Henkel wanted to take the previous role of the captured man as their spy in the Watch, but Yorik had decided that they were done taking those kinds of risks for a while. Instead, Henkel was going to die here tonight.

“Well, I do hope that he decides to take my offer. He’s all yours.”

Paytus relished moments such as these, when he had accomplished something that had gone so smoothly. He lived for the times when he lied to someone’s face, outthought them, then slit their throat. This is what made him worth so much to his bosses.

Suddenly, a loud racket came from behind Paytus. He spun around as crates fell and splintered to behold a large, bald man, completely naked and with a glass bottle in his hand. The man began blathering as he swayed and fell. Suddenly he roared, “Get out of my home!” He stood back up and wobbled until he fell into a beam.

Paytus, Devanni, and Roark all pulled blades out. Paytus turned and looked over his shoulder to see Henkel standing there, still as a board with a wide mouth and the captive still bound and stuck on the ground. “What is this, Henkel? You better not try fucking me!”

Henkel hollered back, “Me? How do I know this isn’t your bullshit? Stop pointing fingers and take a look. This is a drunk, homeless man. If I wanted to screw you over, I’d do a better job than this.”

Paytus nodded then turned back to the drunk man. His fellows hadn’t turned their eyes from the man. “Devanni, kill that bastard.”

“Gladly.” Paytus watched as Devanni moved to dispatch the pest. The drunkard stared at his oncoming death as if he was trying with all his ability to see what was in front of him. Devanni was two steps from the man when a huge smile split his face. Devanni lunged forward, bringing his dagger down at the man’s chest.

The drunk man suddenly stepped to the side and the blade sliced only the air. He said, “Fooled ya,” and smashed the bottle into Devanni’s chin. The bottle didn’t shatter though and a loud crack came from Devanni’s jaw. Devanni stumbled backwards but the man snatched his wrist and kept him from falling. He then dropped the bottle, stepped to Devanni’s side, and hooked his other arm under and around Devanni’s arm. Suddenly, he forced Devanni to slam his own blade into his side several times over.

Roark suddenly cried out and Paytus turned to see Henkel stabbing him over and over in the side of the neck. His spastic cries became gurgles and yelps as blood seeped from his gaping neck and open mouth.

Paytus twisted his head around to see the black man completely free of his bonds and swinging a wickedly curved blade for him. Steel sliced into Paytus’ wrist and he screamed, dropping his blade as the searing pain made his hand useless. Suddenly, the black man was beneath Paytus, his head to one side and his arms wrapping his legs. The black man grunted loud and hoisted Paytus into the air.

A swift, terrifying moment came and went as Paytus was suddenly dipped to his side. He came down on the hard floor with his head in the lead. The impact dazed him and he could think only of the pain.

 

***

 

Fal pried his blade from the dead man’s neck, placing a boot on his temple for leverage. He felt sick for a moment but turned his eyes away from the corpse. He just needed to forget about this man he’d killed, about the wrong he’d done. He just needed to remember that this man was evil.

Koe had a knee planted on the blonde man’s stomach while he tied rope around his wrists. Fal could tell that Koe was troubled by the way he looked up for the briefest of moments, caught his gaze, then quickly looked away.

Alitor stood over the unconscious man, his manhood shamelessly dangling between his legs. Fal said, “Al, get some clothes on, yeah?”

A smile turned the corner of Alitor’s lips up and he said, “Sure thing, Fal. Business time.” The big man dropped his cement-filled bottle, letting it clunk down hard on the floor, then walked to where he had stumbled from.

Fal relieved Koe and sat the blonde man up. His eyes were open and he was shifting his gaze between the two men standing over him. “Hey, Al.” Fal stared at the blonde man as he spoke.

Alitor’s voice came from the other side of the warehouse, “Yeah?”

“Bring me the tools, if you don’t mind?”

“Certainly.”

Fal then turned his words on his captive. “You won’t like what happens here tonight. I would normally give you a chance to get out of this easy, but that won’t work well enough. Koe, gag him.”

The blonde man struggled but Fal gripped his neck and squeezed until his eyes became heavy. He let go when the man was on the verge of blackness and then Koe took the time to wrap a length of rope around his head, stuffing it between the man’s teeth. He slightly struggled but Koe quickly had the rope tight around his head.

Alitor ended up at his side and dropped a large leather wallet onto the floor next to Fal. The blonde man’s eyes widened in fear and became plastered to the leather. Fal flipped it open to behold several tools. He picked a set of pliers and a cigar cutter. None of the tools were made for torture, but that’s how Fal saw them now as he looked at the arranged instruments.

He played with the cutters as he said, “Ya know, these aren’t made for this kind of work. They’ll probably break and then you’ll end up with these metal slivers in your skin. But these,” he picked up the pliers, “won’t break. I can pull and poke as much as I want. So, in the spirit of saving the best for last, let’s save the cutters for later.”

Fal put them down and was pleased with the look of fear in his captive’s eyes. The man actually shook his head back and forth ceaselessly as if doing so would stop Fal. Although Fal felt good about his control over this man, it was only because he could use it to end this quickly and without too much torture. This wasn’t going to end well for the blonde man, but Fal at least prayed that it’d be over soon. He didn’t relish this type of work, but he certainly acted as if he did.

Koe shifted to stand behind the blonde man and looked Fal in the eye. It looked as though the black man was taking the side of the captive. Fal could read his gaze easily though, he was warning Fal against going too far, and showing his distaste for Fal’s mode.

Fal nodded to his friend, but needed to commit to his role. He reached out and seized the man’s hand. “These will grow back. But after they’re gone nothing else I take will. You better think about what’s best for you.” The man began to struggle and Fal said, “Alitor stop his moving around, please.”

“Gladly.” The big man lunged forward and took the man’s hand in a crushing grip. The man’s hand shook from the force of the squeeze or the fear running through him, or both. Fal took the pliers in one hand, drove them into the man’s fingertip, pinched, then pulled. A sound as if wet paper had suddenly ripped came from the man’s fingernail as it was pulled from his flesh. He thrashed and whimpered, screamed against the ropes in his mouth, kicked his feet as tears fell down his cheeks.

Fal went about the bloody business until the entire hand was void of fingernails. Then, he let the man sit and sob for a minute. Alitor had released the man’s arm, then went to Koe and lead him away from the scene. Alitor spoke with the black man for a moment, out of earshot of Fal, then put a hand on the back of Koe’s neck before returning to Fal’s side.

“See what he says now, Fal.”

Hate had seemed to come quickly to the blonde man’s eyes when this had begun, now there seemed only to be pain. Fal nodded then untied the rope. The man breathed heavily, stuttering as he did so, then looked at Fal and said, “Fuck you, you godsdamned whoreson. You’ve ruined my hand.”

“I didn’t ruin anything. They’ll grow back. After this though … Now, I want some information. Where is the new location for the pull operation?” As Fal spoke, he exchanged the bloody pliers for the cutters.

“What are you going to do after I tell you? You’ll just let me go? You expect me to believe that after what you’ve done? This may be hell but if I’m dying tonight, you’re not getting a damn thing from me.”

“You’re upset. I understand that. But if you talk and you do so without trying to screw us over, you’ll make it out of here alive.” Fal was lying. He was going to spill this man’s life onto the floor the moment he became useless.

Koe suddenly said, “You’ll be okay. Just give him his answers and you’ll live. He won’t have to hurt you anymore if you just talk.” Fal realized that Koe would make things complicated. His sense of right wanted this man to make it away from this warehouse alive. He’d already seen so much done in cold blood.

The captive nodded slowly then said, “Your word may be shit, but I want to live. The new spot is halfway across town from the old. It’s a tavern called the Vine’s Thorn.”

Alitor clapped his hands together. “I know where that is. And I don’t think he’s lying. I couldn’t tell that he wasn’t saying the truth anyway. How am I going to confirm it?”

The man stared at his fingers and winced. “Walk up to the barkeeper and ask him for a pull of his finest ale. Whatever he says next, you respond with the words, ‘all froth’. Then ask for the smallest loaf he has to go with it. He’ll bring you a small loaf of bread with a hollow center. Inside will be a small bag of uncooked pull. You’ll need to pay him whatever he asks you for. Right then and there. But I’m sure you have the money to cover whatever he charges, don’t you, Henkel?”

Alitor said, “We all do. I’ll go. On foot it’s a half hour walk. I’ll jog it. If I’m not back here before an hour is up, start cutting things off.”

With that, the big man winked at the captive, then turned and hustled out of the warehouse.

 

***

 

The night air had gone cold, prompting Alitor with even more of a reason to run. He jogged and thought of how the plan he’d crafted had unfolded without a single hitch. He thought it’d go wrong somewhere and there was still room for error.

Fal had done all Alitor had asked of him without qualms. Koe always took convincing, but his hesitance always helped keep Alitor’s head straight.

Inflicting pain on others wasn’t something Alitor enjoyed. However, gaining advantages and utilizing them for personal gain was. What’s a few broken fingers or slit throats in the grand scheme of things anyway? The world suffered much worse men than Alitor and his two friends. They were just keeping themselves a few steps ahead of the rest because they had the stones to do what needed doing.

It wasn’t long before Alitor reached the Vine’s Thorn. He was huffing and beads of sweat coated his bald head. He leaned against the wall outside, catching his breath before entering. A rowdy duo came spilling through the doors, noticing Alitor immediately. Both were obviously drunk and such became more apparent when one man swung around and put up his fists in a mockery of a fighting stance.

Laughing, the two men cajoled each other as if Alitor was suddenly invisible. Then, the man who had faked squaring off with Alitor said, “This man! Always working out at the oddest times. Look at it, the stars are all out and there he goes, running around town. Crazy!”

Alitor grinned, took one final deep breath, then went inside the Vine’s Thorn. He suddenly thought that he’d walked into the wrong tavern. But then he saw Ethran and recognized him as the barkeeper who ran this place. However, the atmosphere was all wrong. The normally higher class people that would sit and drink and act only fairly wild seemed to be hiding. Perhaps Alitor couldn’t see them because of the throng of rowdy people blocking his vision.

Roguish men and women hollered this way and that, threw mugs at one another, smoked pipes, and did whatever the hell else they wanted. Alitor’s entrance warranted some caustic looks from the nearest people. They didn’t quite return to their previous state as they kept their eyes on him as he weaved through the party.

Ethran hustled back and forth, filling mugs, directing his other barkeepers, and conversing with people. Alitor couldn’t find a seat but squeezed between two women. He turned his back to the pretty one and the mannish one gave him an odd look. She scooted away from him a bit then went back to her cup. Alitor pounded the bar and hollered for Ethran. The man grudgingly made his way over to Al and turned one ear to him.

“I’d like a pull of your finest ale.”

Ethran, with absolutely no enthusiasm, replied, “How was it last time?”

“All froth. Oh, and the smallest loaf of bread you have to go with it.”

“A single gold.”

Without any complaints, Alitor pulled the coin from a purse and slapped it on the bar before Ethran. The man took it and whispered in the ear of the barkeeper to his right who then left his station behind the counter.

Alitor noticed the woman next to him turn and regard him. She openly studied him and Alitor knew she was a part of the gang. She was trying to figure out who he was. She hopped off her stool and Alitor said, “You don’t mind me taking your seat, do you?”

The woman turned and said, “It’s all yours.”

“Unless you wouldn’t mind me sharing it with you as well?” Alitor patted his thigh and the woman snorted. She turned and stalked off.

Several minutes passed before a small loaf of bread was put before him. The block felt like it could have been used in constructing a building. Sure enough, Alitor noticed a seam where the loaf had been cut then sealed back together. Alitor thanked the barkeeper then turned and left.

The night had gotten even colder and he cursed himself for not bringing a cloak. Running immediately would have been a poor choice for if someone saw him, they’d certainly think his behavior out of sorts. Alitor had gotten just a few steps away from the door when it opened up and out spilled several gangsters.

The woman he had spoken to at the bar was with them. She said, “I ain’t never seen you before. Who are you and how do you know about what we do?”

Alitor looked at the other man and woman accompanying her. He could take them, but then he would have given too much away. He needed to talk himself out of this one.

“You expect to know every new customer before they come in? I really hope you aren’t this difficult with everyone.”

“I am exactly how I choose to be. When are you going to use that?” The woman nodded towards the loaf.

“Tonight. When I damn well feel like it.”

“What’s a better time then now?”

“It isn’t cooked.”

“I have a pan and there’s a fire inside. Come in and use it with us.”

“My needle is back at my room.”

“Where are you staying?”

“Serpent’s Eye.”

“Well, I have a needle too.”

“I don’t share needles.”

“It’s okay. I got clean blood. Ain’t nothing to worry over.”

“That’s a rule I don’t break. Besides, how do you know my blood is clean?”

“Why would you come and buy some without bringing your needle? I know you’re craving it, everybody who buys it needs it right then. You ain’t adding up in my head right.”

“I left it in my room on purpose. I’d rather not miss out on my time with my whore. Perhaps you’d like to get involved with us tonight? I’ll make every moment worth your time, dear.”

“I bet you would. It’s as simple as this: come in, take a good hit, then I’ll let you go. Otherwise, you’re gonna make me feel uncomfortable. And don’t worry, I’ll get you a new needle.”

Of course they’d have needles, they ran an operation out of the tavern. They’d have everything someone needed to get high. Alitor had thought that there’d be a snag somewhere, and he’d hit one. “As long as you let me keep the needle.”

“Sure. It’ll be a show of my trust. Come on now.”

Alitor followed her back in, and then over to a table with a few other people near a blazing hearth. She pulled out a tin pan that was stained black from fire. Alitor put his loaf on the table and the woman split it open. Inside was a small fold of parchment with a white substance within.

The men and women around the table sneered as the substance, much like dry clay, was scooped from the parchment and placed on the pan. The next few minutes blurred together as Alitor took a needle that indeed looked completely knew, filled it with the small amount of now clear liquid, and injected it into his arm. He remembered the woman kissing his cheek and asking what room number he was staying at in the Serpent’s Eye. He wasn’t sure if he had responded or not. However, he did find a moment of clarity as he was walking the streets.

He suddenly felt a pang of fear because he wasn’t sure where he was or how long he’d been walking. He was confused by how everything since taking the drug was a blur of events. He remembered his task immediately and took a minute to figure out where he was. He had been walking back to the warehouse and thanked the gods that his drug-induced stupor had brought him the right way.

The effects of the drug were far from over but Alitor had heard that it operated this way, alternating between working its magic and dulling for hours on end. He hoped that what he had taken was small enough to wear off soon. Alitor found that he was holding his loaf in his hand and that the needle was in his pocket. Panic seized him as he thought of a future addicted to the drug. He threw the needle then began jogging back to the warehouse.

During his run and with his clear mind, Alitor thought of how the gang had infiltrated the tavern. He hadn’t seen the operation itself but he imagined the Vine’s Thorn had a large cellar where inventory was once kept. Now, it must be littered with thugs, tables, and equipment used to make the drug.

Alitor suddenly believed he was running through sludge. Then he was falling backwards, he knew he was even though the buildings kept falling behind him. He realized the drug was effecting him again and ran harder, somewhat dispelling the odd sensation.

The warehouse came into view, but the doors were blacker than night and seemed to undulate as if they were cavernous mouths to some creature’s gullet. Alitor banished the fear building in him, telling himself that it was only a hallucination brought on from the pull. He burst into the warehouse.

Fal and Koe jumped and pulled blades from their belts. Alitor arrested his sprint and looked at his friends with wide eyes. “What?” asked Fal.

Alitor shrugged then said, “Nothing. But the Vine’s Thorn is the place. Guys, come here. I need to speak with you.”

Both men looked oddly at Alitor but walked over to him nonetheless.

“How’s our blonde friend? Is he missing anything else?”

Fal said, “Nope. You were there and back quickly, Alitor. But you seem off. What happened?”

“I’m high. I’m really godsdamn high. I had to inject myself with some of the pull I got from the tavern. They wouldn’t let me go until I did it. It’s really screwing with me but I’m okay. I don’t think I had that much.”

Koe shook his head and said, “You better not get addicted to that shit. No big deal though. It’s all just a part of the plan right?”

Alitor understood the man’s meaning. He was upset that the plan had to involve so much shady activity and evil doing.

Fal said, “Al, we’ll deal with you later. We need to figure out what we’re doing with this guy.” Alitor followed Fal’s hooked thumb to see the blonde man still bound and gagged. He was calm though. “I only see one logical way.”

Grudgingly, Alitor agreed, knowing that Koe would throw a fit over it.

He was proved correct when Koe slammed his fist into Fal’s stomach then backhanded Alitor. Neither strike was meant to hurt, just to get a point across. “No! That’s your fucking problem, you both think logically. Alitor, you come up with good plans that end well for us but hurt everyone else. Fal, you fall head over heels for them and don’t actually use anything other than your head. You think what Alitor wants you to think and that’s how our plans go. Snap the fuck out of it! Use something other than your brains. That’s a person!” Koe pointed at the bound man.

Alitor heard the sense in Koe’s words. He realized he was guilty of forsaking his emotions and shutting up his consciousness. He was able to think up things that worked, that were logical. But he suddenly realized that he was ready to kill a man that could otherwise be saved if given just a little thought. The logical thing was the easy thing with the least amount of risk.

Alitor pondered Koe’s words and their current predicament. Fal said, “Koe, we’re sorry. We’ll think of a different way.”

Through the stupor, Alitor lit upon an idea. He raised his hand, wiping sweat from his forehead. “Let’s tie him up and leave him here. Tomorrow, the Watch will roll through and clear out the Vine’s Thorn. After that, we let him go. He won’t go to whatever of the gang is left. He won’t go to the Watch. He’ll probably get the hell out of town. We just need to make sure we hide him well and that he can’t talk.

The haze from the pull seemed to be steadily disappearing from Alitor. He looked to the blonde man who was nodding fervently. Koe reached out and squeezed Alitor’s shoulder. “Thank you.”

 

***

 

Before Koe, sat a terrible man. He was a gangster with long blonde hair. He had likely hurt others before. Perhaps he was a man with a murderous mind and possessing of hands that had wrung the necks of innocent people. But Koe still cried when he looked at him.

The smell coming from the man at first repulsed Koe, but now it hurt him, knowing that he had lived in such squalor for nearly a day. Infection clung to fingers without nails and cuts that had gone untreated. Blood shot eyes stared with shame at Koe, trying to appear human although they now seemed so far from that. The gangster’s pants were pulled down, his rear a mess of shit and blood.

Someone had chanced upon him and had taken his bound form for their own sick pleasure.

Koe peered at the man in horror through teary eyes. He held a wet cloth that he had brought with him in one hand and alcohol in the other, the latter to cleanse the man’s wounds. He slowly began creeping forward.

A bolt of cold shot through Koe and rooted him as the man violently shook his head and screamed. Koe could make out the words, “Don’t touch me!”

Koe swallowed the lump in his throat, blinked the tears from his eyes. He laid the cloth and alcohol down at his feet, then slowly moved forward again. The blonde man was still as he watched Koe approach.

Nothing could be done to fix this man, to fix Koe’s soul. He’d been a part of this travesty, this monstrous thing that should have never happened. The gold in his purse wasn’t enough to pay for this, no amount was.

Only a miracle had kept this man from being killed by whoever had attacked him, Koe thought as he stared into those broken eyes. He slowly pulled a knife from his belt and bent low. Before setting to work, Koe looked at the man, tried to apologize with his gaze. The eyes staring back at him would forever be burned into his mind, imprinted on his memory until he died.

Koe cut the rope at his hands, then at his feet, then the length that ran from the back of his head and to his arms. The ropes came loose but the man didn’t spring up. He stared at Koe, not even bothering to take the rope from his mouth. Koe understood.

Without a single word, although he wanted to apologize, Koe turned and left the small building, knowing that no words would help.

The street outside was empty. Night was coming and not many people ventured here anyway. Not much was down this street besides outdated buildings and a large amount of the homeless population.

Koe turned and began walking, but not towards his barracks, and honestly not anywhere in particular. He just never wanted to see that man again. How could he ever accept what he’d done? How could that man ever recover from what had been done to him?

Sounds of night carried over the buildings: burning oil lamps, carriages intent on getting home, the final cries of playing boys and girls, and the calls of men and women heading to dives and restaurants. Koe tried to focus on all of that, on the nearest flaming lamp, on the low moon still vying for dominance over the scant light in the sky. But he couldn’t.

He thought of the irreversible damage he’d caused, of the decisions of his friends and how he had played a spineless pawn, of those soul-shattered eyes. He needed to talk with someone, but he had no friends other than Koe and Alitor. But, there was another man. He could try to find Vesik. He knew where Vesik worked and perhaps he was only just now getting off. Koe didn’t dare turn around, fearful of coming into contact with that man again, but made a large circle around several blocks until he was heading in the correct direction.

Just an hour ago, the Watch had confirmed that the raid had been successful. Fal, Koe, and Alitor were not assigned to actually be a part of the raid but instead sat with several officers, explaining their findings. The Watch was thorough, ensuring that the trio had come upon the information by dumb luck as they said. He knew that he’d have to defend himself when the Watch came back to question them further. Someone in the gang would have heard of Fal’s, or Henkel’s as they believed, involvement in them moving shop.

Fal had left to go find Sarah, his alibi, while Alitor remained in the barracks ready to cover his friends. Koe had immediately left to let the gangster free of his bonds. Only, he was now the one with a chained soul. He wondered if he’d be able to cover for his friends and himself with such a terrible weight upon him.

The college fell away to Koe’s left then he was walking through the doors of the station Vesik worked at. He knew where Bors’ office was and walked a hall to get there. Vesik sat there, his head down and a pen in his hand as he scribbled on a piece of paper. Koe could just see his eyes and they looked bloodshot. He thought of the gangster and nearly teared up.

Vesik whipped his head around once Koe had taken two steps down the hallway. He stared at Koe oddly, scrutinizing his body as if it were a peculiar thing. Koe felt uncomfortable but waved nonetheless. Vesik eventually cracked a weak smile and waved back. He went back to scribbling notes.

Vesik finished whatever he was writing then put the pen down and stood up to embrace Koe. “Hey, Koe. How are you?”

“Fine. And you?”

“Stuck behind this desk too often. I’m trying to get ahead on work so I don’t have to spend so much time here. I begin training for the Watch again tomorrow.”

“That’s awesome, man. You’ll kick ass this time.”

“Yeah, I certainly feel better about it. So what’s going on?”

Koe was surprised that Vesik had discerned that he was tense so quickly.

“I need to talk. But not in here. When are you off?”

“I can leave now. Let me just put some things away and we’ll go. Did something happen to Fal or Alitor?”

“Not really. I’ll explain it all outside.”

Vesik nodded then turned to his desk. After a minute, they were outside.

Koe suddenly didn’t want to talk, but he realized that he was simply nervous, he needed to get this out. They walked in silence for a moment until they had crossed a street to a grassy area with benches and trimmed hedges. Vesik took a seat on a bench and Koe leaned against a grey statue of a lion.

“Alright. So something happened. I don’t think I’ll be okay unless I talk to someone about it but I need you to try to keep calm. Please, don’t let the guys know I told you this and please don’t run to the Watch about it.”

Vesik looked at Koe oddly then said, “Koe, you’re the Watch. What the hell could have happened?”

Koe sighed, feeling like he was one piss poor excuse for a Sentry. “You remember when you gave us that information about that gang?”

“The one that got taken down today, yeah.”

“Well, they never should have gotten away from that first raid.”

“What do you mean, Koe?” Vesik spoke with zeal. Koe believed that Vesik knew exactly what Koe was saying, he just wanted to hear the words from Koe’s mouth.

“We sold that information to them. They got away the first time because of us.”

“What? Why the hell would you do that? You’re a Sentry, Koe.”

“Look, it wasn’t my idea. Alitor and Fal saw it as an opportunity. They came up with a plan to sell the information for gold then figure out their new location and sell them out to the Watch. I went along with it but it didn’t go the way I thought it would.”

“Let’s forget for a moment that what you did was illegal. What went wrong, Koe?”

Hot shame burned in Koe, made him feel small and weak beneath Vesik’s gaze. “Well, we had to figure out their new location without giving ourselves away. We staged a trap and when it sprung, we did a lot more damage than I thought we would.” Koe didn’t want to go any further. He wanted Vesik to yell and scream at him, then tell him that he would be okay. But Vesik waited in silence.

“Fal, killed one of them. Al killed one of them. And then we tortured the information from the third guy. He is alive but when I let him go today, he wasn’t okay. Someone else had found him tied up and had … used him for their own pleasure. It was … terrible, Vesik. I can’t get the look of his eyes out of my head.” Tears swam across Koe’s eyes them dived downwards, sliding down his cheeks.

Vesik stood and looked down on Koe, showing how upset he was. “How the fuck could you have done that? You killed people for your own godsdamn gain!”

Although Koe knew he deserved the verbal punishment and more than that, he was suddenly very conscious of the volume of Vesik’s voice. “Vesik, keep it down, please! You can’t just scream that shit.”

Vesik apparently didn’t hear Koe as he hollered, “Who knows what they had done, if they deserved what you did to them. You sure as hell didn’t. You went and took their lives into your own hands, Koe. You stole from them something that will never ever be given back, and you didn’t know if it was right. You’re a Sentry dammit!”

Something in Koe snapped and he didn’t care that he was evil. “Shut the fuck up, Vesik! Who are you, huh? Have you never fucked up before? I came to you because I need help! All that shit is already in my head. I think about it every second. Yeah, I fucked up, but why wouldn’t you try to help me at all?”

Vesik deflated a little bit but still said, “Because you killed people who didn’t need to die, Koe. Life is special and the most important thing we have. You took that without caring what –.”

“I cared. I care now! Why do you think I needed to come to you? I need help, Vesik.”

Both men stared at one another, Koe not knowing how Vesik would respond. Finally, after each had just breathed in silence until they inhaled and exhaled normally, Vesik said, “Koe, everyone screws up. But just know that I’ll never be okay with what you and the guys did. You’ll never be okay with it. So what do you want to hear from me? What do I need to say to wash my hands of you?”

Koe wanted to sit down, actually felt as though he couldn’t keep himself up on his feet for much longer. “Vesik, I’m sorry. I don’t know what I need, just someone to talk me through how I feel.”

“You know what, Koe, I’d give my fucking life to save people. And I’m not even a Sentry. You are and you took the lives of others instead of trying to save.”

“No, Vesik, I saved that guy. Look, this wasn’t right and I know that. But see our side. Fal saw a chance and took it. No one was supposed to get hurt, and we only wanted some coin, the same as everyone else.”

“Yeah, well, you went about it one fucked up way. Most people just get jobs and work. You know what, Koe, I don’t think you had any ill intent. But the others, I’m not so sure. Here it is: you aren’t the worst, but you sure as hell aren’t the best. Get away from them as soon as you can. I blame you, but not so much as them.”

Vesik looked ready to leave for good, his thin, haggard face stoic. Koe knew that this hadn’t gone right. “We aren’t bad people, Vesik. We screwed up but we aren’t bad. I know that you don’t want anything more to do with us. Just keep this between us, please. I swear to you and all the gods above that we won’t do this kind of stuff again. We’ll stay straight. It’ll be a real let down if we never get to go out as friends again, Vesik. But thank you for talking to me.”

Koe pushed himself off the statue and stood there before Vesik. Koe had given up the worst pieces of himself to Vesik and now he was being judged. He hoped that someone other than his two friends would tell him that what he had done was forgivable.

Vesik slowly said, “Koe, just leave it be for now. I won’t go tell anyone. But I don’t want to hear from you again. I can see how it would have been easy for the others to rationalize what you’ve done. Yeah, they were bad guys, but it isn’t your right to judge them. People screw up, Koe. Doesn’t make it okay though.”

“I know. I’m not giving up on Fal and Alitor. They need me even if they don’t know it. Goodnight, Vesik. And good luck with your training.”

A LATE Christmas Present: Monolithic (Ch. 8, 9, & 10)

Fal makes love then seals a deal. Vesik enters the monolith then finds a monster. The boys go drinking.

8

 

After Fal, Koe, and Alitor escorted Vesik to his apartment, they headed towards their barracks.

Silence had fallen over the group and Koe wondered why his normally talkative friend had shut up. He felt uneasy for quite a while and was about to speak when Fal finally resumed his normal character and said, “I think we got something to play around with here, gentlemen. Al?”

The big man smiled a devious grin and said, “Right you are.”

Fal’s eyes fell on Koe and he wanted to look away. “What? Fal, why are you staring at me?”

“Well, what about you? The Black Street case. Come now, Koe. We talked about maybe going over the Watch about a few things; this could be a good opportunity to do that.”

“I thought you guys meant taking long breaks and overplaying an injury here and there for time off, shit like that. What are you two getting at?”

Al smirked and looked away, giving Koe the feeling that the big man thought he was fussing over nothing. Fal said, “Well nothing solid yet. Why not just entertain us, Koe? We’ll spitball and go from there.”

Although Koe didn’t want to hear a single word more on the subject, he obliged. It felt as though they were messing with forces beyond their understanding just by talking about this. Dark shadows clinging to Cavia’s corners, alleys, and doorways held prying eyes that absorbed the intent of the three men and damned them to a terrible fate for it. Koe looked around warily as they moved.

Fal turned back to Al, then said, “Anything in that shiny dome?”

Al was slow to respond as he pondered his scheme. He was thorough in presenting a plan whenever he did, Koe knew.

The big man said, “Yeah. But let’s talk about it in a more private place. And, if my idea is going to work out, we need Henkel with us tonight.”

Fal looked askance at the big man and said, “Who?”

Koe replied, “Our fourth bunk mate. You sure he’s at the barracks?”

As Fal remembered who the man was, Al said, “Not completely but I’m betting he is. That kid doesn’t go out much at all. Every time we get back there he’s asleep. And we know he works the same shifts we do, we share a room.”

Fal asked, “Henkel won’t do anything with us. He doesn’t do anything other than work, shit, and sleep.”

A devious smile crept across Al’s face as he said, “That’s exactly what I’m betting on, the latter I mean. He’ll need money for tonight. And he’ll go out, we’ll convince him to. Tonight, we go the Serpent’s Eye to gamble some money away.”

Now it was Koe’s turn to look oddly at Alitor. He knew that the whole gambling operation was run by the gang. Why would they go there to actually gamble? But then Al had always been good at creating schemes that worked out. A cold pit of trepidation opened in Koe’s stomach and the foolhardy grins of his two friends did nothing to shrink it.

 

***

 

Wooden chips squished beneath Fal’s foot, so soaked through with ale, liquor and vomit as they were. He folded his hand then looked down at the spongy chunks of wood, pressed on a few with his toe. Then, he looked back up to the scarred, water-marked table and the thick cards sliding, and sometimes snagging, on the table. The hand was over, Henkel, sitting to his left, had just lost two silvers, enough coin to buy a hearty dinner and ample amount of wine. Henkel cursed and looked into the small box sitting in his lap.

Fal hoped he wouldn’t leave just yet; he needed Henkel at his side as he dug a hole through his own money then racked up some debt. Henkel shut the box, more copper and silver gleaming in his hand. Fal smirked, turned his head subtly and sighed, caught Koe’s gaze as the man rolled dice, then looked back. He nudged Henkel then said, “Alright, come one now, Henkel. Let’s quit screwing around and make some money, eh?”

Henkel nodded but looked at the dealer’s hands intently. Fal himself thought he’d seen some card switching once before, but he didn’t bring any attention to it.

Pipe smoke suddenly accosted Fal but he didn’t mind too much. It was a little rude to blow smoke into one’s face but he’d be smoking a pipe in this environment if not for the need for a clear mind. He turned to see a man to his right holding a pipe and showing a smile missing a few teeth. A thick mustache crept down over his upper lip and a bushy beard grew from his chin and cheeks. His deep eyes smiled more than his lips. The man said, “Feeling a stroke of luck, are we?”

Fal determined that this man worked for the gang. There was probably one of these fellows at each table and each game to ensure that any foul play was caught. “I am. I feel the gods smiling on me today. Just you watch.” Fal winked then turned back to the table.

In unison, the men and women at the table tossed in two coppers and the dealer began casting cards to the players. The short, thin man had a long sleeve black shirt on and failed to smile the entire time. Two cards ended before Fal and he flipped them over. Two thieves. The other players winced at his hand but he wanted to throw his hands up in joy.

The only way to beat the dealer was by him drawing two wizards. Anything else, a single sailor, king or queen, would kill his thieves. Fal disregarded the hands around him, even when Henkel slammed the table with a palm in joy. Fal had no interest in what the other man had drawn. The dealer called for each person to bet, one at a time. It came to Fal and he slapped down ten silvers. The man with the pipe let out a low whistle and then chuckled to himself, obviously enjoying Fal’s idiocy.

The dealer looked just as hard at Fal and he knew he needed to look serious. He stared back for a moment, then looked at the man’s still hands. It was pivotal that he act like winning this hand was his goal, not that it was throwing money away.

Slowly, the dealer flipped over a card. A wizard. Fal leaned back and wiped his forehead, feigning relief. The group had a mix of reactions, Henkel grinning as his one thief killed the wizard. Now his king was poised to win without complication, unless a queen came up.

Another round of betting ensued and Fal opened his purse. Within, was just two silvers and five coppers. He dumped it all onto the table, warranting looks of disbelief, even from the stoic dealer. Henkel threw in another silver. The dealer looked around slowly, taking in the large amount of money sitting on the table.

Everyone stopped breathing as the dealer took a card from the top of a deck and flipped it over. A king looked up at the table and noise erupted from the players. Fal groaned and rubbed his hands down his face. Henkel stood from his seat and threw his hands up, hollering in joy. The dealer took money from those who lost, paid those who won, and still ended up in better standing from the hand.

Fal knew what he had to do now. A throng of men sat at a table against the back wall on a raised platform. The table had a thick base and Fal couldn’t see behind it but believed at least some store of money was back there. He told Henkel to keep his seat open, scooped up a wide-brimmed archer’s hat from the floor and donned it, then walked over to the table. The men saw him approaching, stopped conversing, put their drinks down, and gestured for him to sit down. He took his chair and said, “You guys mind lending some money to a poor man?” Fal made sure to keep his head down as he spoke, the brim of the hat running just above the head of the person he spoke with.

One of them said, “Sure. Here, give us your name.” The man pulled out a piece of paper and Fal said, “Henkel Arbhast.”

“How much, Henkel?”

“Twenty silvers.”

The man put the pencil down and looked up into Fal’s eyes. “Twenty? You sure you want that kind of debt?”

“Completely.”

“Done.” The man scribbled more on the small note, stashed it in a pocket, then turned in his seat and bent low. Fal heard clicks as the man undoubtedly unlocked a chest. Five at a time, the man slapped silver down onto the table. Fal waited for all twenty to sit there, then he scooped them up and stashed them into the small leather bag at his hip.

Fal tipped his head to the men then said, “I’ll have this repaid tonight. My luck is sure to turn around. Thank you.”

The men at the table simply nodded and Fal turned and headed back to his seat.

Fal had a role to play now, he needed to seem like he believed his luck had turned, but not throw his money away. He needed to fold when he knew he had terrible hands, bet only when his chances of winning looked promising. And he did just that.

After an hour, Fal was cleaned out again, and Henkel had lost enough coin to try leaving twice before. Keeping Henkel at the table until he ran out of money was important though, so Fal had griped each time the man tried to leave. The last few hands, Henkel merely watched and the dealer threatened to kick him out of the Serpent’s Eye unless he planned on playing. Fal started betting a bit more aggressively to get rid of his money. Fal couldn’t be sure, but he believed that Henkel ended up out ten silvers from the night’s gambling.

Although distraught, Henkel thanked Fal for the night out, then left. Fal shook his hand, then looked over his shoulder to see Koe seated at the small bar in the corner of the Serpent’s Eye. Koe left his empty glass and walked out.

Fal made his way back to the men at the table. He took a seat and stuttered before saying, “I lost it all.”

The man who had given him the silver earlier smirked then said, “No worries, Henkel. You’re good for it right? I can count on you coming back in no more than ten days from now with twenty-five silvers right?”

Fal was quiet for a moment. He slowly moved his head back and forth as he pretended to think. Finally, he said, “I’d like a room please. Do you think you could give me a room tonight?”

The man sat back and looked to his partners. They shared a wary glance and several nodded. The man looked back to Fal then said, “You think you can pay for it?”

Now it was time for Fal to sound confident. He needed to show these men that he knew what he was getting himself into so they knew he wanted to make a deal. “Yes. And a whore.”

“You must have some valuable assets to cover all that.”

“I do. Worth twice as much as I owe now, I’d say.” Fal spoke with confidence, he truly felt confident, but he needed to show some amount of nervousness. He did not smile once, he wouldn’t hold the gaze of the man before him, and shut his eyes for a brief moment after speaking.

A man from the corner of the table said, “Room and whore comes to twenty-five silvers.” A key suddenly tumbled across the table and landed in front of Fal. He turned to see the man at the corner of the table sneering at him. “Room six.”

Fal swiped the key from the table and made a quick exit. He found a set of stairs near the bar and followed them up to a thin hallway. He passed rooms with small painted numbers on them until he found room six. He used the key and went into the dark room. A single candle could be seen on a small table and it was unlit, he’d leave it that way to keep the room dark. Open shutters let moonlight into the tiny room, providing enough light for Fal to maneuver past the small table and to the bed.

As Fal moved deeper into the room, the smell of pipe smoke and sweat exited his nostrils. Instead, he began to smell the musty odor of the water-rotted wood, the stale blankets and rough rug used as a pillow, a hint of sex as if the room had just recently been used by two lovers, and finally the crisp night air, staunching the others. Fal sat on the bed, immediately feeling disgusted by the greasy feel of the blankets, and waited.

Not much time passed before a soft knock came at his door. The door swung inward and a woman stepped in. From the light spilling in from the hallway, Fal saw thick lines of makeup above her eyes and deep red lips. A thin dress with beads sown into the bodice wrapped her curvy frame and a shawl fell from her shoulders. She shut the door and glided across the room to Fal, all in silence.

Fal took her hand and kissed the back of it, noticing as he leaned close to her that her strong perfume masked all the other odors of the room. “What’s your name, gorgeous?”

Those red lips turned up in a smile. “Sarah. And who might you be, kind sir?”

“My name is Fal.” He kissed her hand again but noticed as she pulled it away slightly. He let it go and she stepped back. “They told you my name was Henkel. Well, it isn’t. Listen, I need your help. I’m going to give these guys some information that will get me into some gold. I need you to simply provide an alibi for me when it comes down to it. The Watch will look into this and they might figure me out. All I need you to do is tell them you and I were out all night. You do that and I’ll give you forty silver.”

Despite the lack of light, Fal saw as Sarah’s eyes widened in surprise. She didn’t know the whole story and that’s how Fal wanted. She only needed to know enough. After she heard what information he gave to the gang, she’d never suspect that he was the one who would eventually sell them out. After this was all over, Fal would be sitting pretty in the money with his friends and then he’d be a savior to the Watch.

Sarah was quiet for too long, thinking too much. Fal said, “Sarah, it’s simple. And you may not even need to help me. Either way, I’ll pay you a quarter in two days and the rest after it’s all said and done. I just need the Watch to think I was elsewhere tonight. To the people here though, my name is Henkel, just to cover my own ass.”

A slight grin slid across Sarah’s face and Fal wanted to laugh. His plan was working so well. He just hoped that Koe and Alitor were taking care of Henkel at the station. Sarah said, “Let’s shake on it, Fal.”

Her thin hand reached forward and Fal took it. He then pulled her close to him. She gasped but smiled once she ended up straddling him. Fal breathed in her sweet scent and then ran his hands up and down her ribs and back, caressing the top of her butt as he did so. Sarah began writhing against him, pressing her pelvis down onto his lap.

Fal reached up and grasped her neck with two hands then pulled her lips down to his. He’d never before cemented a deal like this, but he knew he’d enjoy it. Something in the way Sarah moved against Fal and kissed him made him believe they had a connection, even if only on a physical level. Fal smiled as she leaned away and reached down for his belt.

 

***

 

After arrangements had been made for a meeting place in two days, Sarah left Fal to wait in the room. It wasn’t long until a rough knock came at his door. Fal said, “Come in.”

The door swung open and in came three men. Fal didn’t recognize any of them and figured it was good that these men hadn’t seen him before. If they tried to identify him later, they’d be going off of a man they only saw in a dark room.

“Henkel, what have you got for us?” one man, a mop of blonde hair spilling from his head and thick chops riding his cheeks, said. The other two men stood to the side of the blonde man, each holding a club in a hand. They’d use them if needed, but it was plain to see that they didn’t intend to. They believed that Fal had the information to cover his debts.

“First, what I’m going to tell you is expensive. In fact, it’s worth your entire operation here, the pull game you guys have going, everything you do in Cavia. Twenty gold is my price.”

The blonde man smiled wide, hiding the shock he must have felt from the steep price. “That’s ten times more than your debt. Let’s hear it, then we’ll price it.”

“No. I’m telling you what it’s worth. That isn’t negotiable. And, I’m not going to give you everything until you pay me what I’m asking. I’ll give you what you need to save your collective asses this time, but that’s it. The rest won’t cost any more than what I’ve already asked.”

The club-wielding men seemed annoyed at Fal’s bravado. They shuffled, slapped the club against their thighs, and adopted menacing smiles.

The blonde man said, “That certainly is expensive information. Five gold.”

“Twenty. And you keep pulling my dick around and I’ll walk out right now.”

“Henkel, you try to leave, and you’ll never walk again.”

“Don’t think you three would take me without a fight. I’m going to say this once more, try to listen this time. What I have to tell you, will only come out of me if I’m paid. Unless you hear what I have to say, you’re all done with. If I don’t make it back to where I need to be tonight, word goes out about where and when to hit you guys. Now that you listened, what are you going to do? Agree to pay me what I ask, or face the odds, which are stacked very highly against you?”

“You can’t tell me what it’s worth without me knowing what it is. But, shit that would put us away for good is serious. I can tell you that we’ll pay heavily for something good. So, what do you have to tell us?”

“The Watch knows where you operate your pull game from. Tomorrow, they’re going to tear through that place and take all of you with it. So, you have the rest of tonight to pack up and get the hell out. Twenty gold if you don’t mind.”

The blonde man looked at Fal’s hand and smirked. “That’s it? That’s all you have and it’s worth twenty gold. You’ll get ten, only because I’m feeling generous.”

“That isn’t everything. See, this information will keep you guys going for a while, but not for much longer. We know how to track you now, and unless I tell you how we’re doing it, you’ve only put a stitch in a wound that’s much bigger. That is, unless you think you want to roll the dice and try to figure it out yourself before we find out where you’ve moved to. You don’t have much time left though, and even sitting here bitching at me is going to take you more time than you should spare.”

“You said ‘we’. That makes you a Sentry. If everything you’re saying is truth, then the gold is yours. But, if you’re trying to screw us, remember, we know who you are and what you do. We’ll find you, even if it’s only one of us that makes it out. You’ll spend your last few moments in extreme agony. We’ll do everything we can to tear you down, Henkel. Understand me?”

Fal felt the sincerity in the man’s voice and knew that he’d keep his promise if he could. But Alitor’s plan was devised well, it’d get him out unscathed. He had always put a lot of trust in the big man and never before had that trust been misplaced or betrayed.

“Give me my gold. We have a deal.”

The blonde man said, “Tomorrow, after the Watch comes through and we make it out, meet me across the street from here. A tailor’s shop is there. Go behind that through the alley. You’ll find me and a bag of twenty gold.”

Fal shook his head. “I’ll find you with a bag of ten gold. I want ten now.”

It was as if the man expected Fal to take this route. He didn’t argue, but merely said, “Fine.”

The blonde man thrust his hand out and Fal looked at it. He smirked as he said, “I hope you didn’t hear me earlier and get any ideas. You may be cute but you ain’t got the rack of the other girl.”

Fal snickered as the man lowered his hand and looked at him askance. Fal said, “You lead the way to the money. Henkel’s going to turn his luck around starting with that gold.”

 

9

 

The monolith towered before Vesik and he wallowed in the pleasure of the sight before him. It rejuvenated his body and stimulated his soul in a way exclusive to these moments.

The godly pillar was much larger now. Vesik soon realized that the stone column actually hadn’t grown but that the distance he had previously seen it from had been halved. His vision sunk and he saw the spine of rock below his feet. The sight was almost nauseating as he knew that it was impossible to balance on such a surface.

Vesik extricated these thoughts from his mind for he dreaded causing the monolith to fracture again.

The dark sky had crept even lower now, as if it followed Vesik’s progress. Vesik’s vision was allowed to stare upwards only so much and he now noticed the dark sky being invaded by a scant crimson.

Vesik immediately hated the foreign sky as it was making quicker progress to the monolith than he was. He made to growl but his body did not comply.

Vesik knew that something was at his back and began feeling a burning sensation as he stayed inert. He thought himself forward and sure enough, the spectacular world around him fell away as he glided forward. The heat at his back dissipated.

The monolith loomed ever larger and ate up more of the sky as Vesik moved towards it with supernatural speed. He either floated or was comprised of an incorporeal form that defied physical law; he could not decide which was true.

The sky brightened as Vesik moved towards the stone pillar. He was outrunning the darkening sky and the crimson sheen creeping over the shining stars.

His world went blank for a brief moment then suddenly Vesik stood before the monolith, his vision inches from coming into contact with the smooth stone surface. He made to exhale in amazement but again nothing happened.

This sight was breathtaking to Vesik already and he knew that once his sight strafed to the side, he’d be stricken with such wonderment as no man had ever known before. He turned, so slowly it could have taken a day back on Zepzier, and his vision finally drank in the point where the monolith curved.

Pleasure wrapped Vesik and coddled him. He stood within arm’s reach of a god. His knees would have buckled had they been allowed to. He guessed that the pillar stretched for half a mile in each direction.

The top of the monolith was so high up that Vesik could not bend his view enough to see it. His view dropped back so that he stared back at the point on the pillar that he had first viewed.

Vesik felt as though he needed to keep going forward but didn’t understand how to with the godly pillar in his path. His wants weren’t enough this time though. Nothing happened and Vesik began fretting over the progress of the darkening sky.

Two human hands entered his view to either side. He was unsure if they were his but they were definitely moving forward. The hands levitated before the monolith for what seemed like eternity but what could have been seconds.

Slowly, they crept forth and once they made contact with the immaculate stone, Vesik’s vision blurred and wind surged past him.

His view coalesced and his world had darkened. He thought of the sky and almost panicked but once he recognized where he was, he faltered in awe.

Vesik was inside the monolith. Before him was a twisting tunnel that led to depths beyond his sight. The walls mimicked the smooth outer wall of the monolith.

Not another moment passed before he started down the tunnel. Strange orbs of light no bigger than a man’s fist and sometimes smaller than the tip of a finger and every size in between, floated in the air and lit the tunnel with a soft glow.

Several times the tunnel changed direction, sometimes pointing straight up, but never did it lose its polished shape, an oval with a flat top and bottom.

Vesik rounded a bend and emerged into a large room. The walls of the room were carved to portray intricate patterns and awe-inspiring abstractness. Statues were set to either side of a walkway made of the same stuff as the glowing orbs. The statues cast a soft, bluish glow upon the walls of the room also.

Each sculpture was a depiction of some being, most of them alien to anything Vesik had ever seen before. Some sprouted horns and long teeth while others had feathered wings or were so different as to be indescribable.

Vesik felt as though these sculptures meant little to him and so did not linger here long. He passed them all and exited the room through an opening then came to a halt.

To his right, was another hallway while the tunnel continued before him. He felt like he had a choice now. Neither route seemed more right compared to the other but he immediately felt the presence at his back indicate that it wanted him to continue walking straight.

Vesik decided not to obey it.

He floated down the corridor and came to a bend. He would have to turn left, and suddenly knew that doing so was of grave importance. He felt as though something terrible lay around the bend but couldn’t bring himself to stow his curiosity.

Doubt assailed him and wrestled with his original decision. If he didn’t do this though, then he would constantly berate himself for not. It would be the one stone he had left unturned.

Curiosity gripped his being and shoved him down the last few feet and turned him.

The tunnel ended here, but Vesik had yet to gain a full view of the dead-end. His peripheral vision caught a glimpse of a mirror-like surface. His vision flicked over to finally behold a vision of what he was here. Of what was behind him …

 

***

 

Waking up wasn’t the right way to explain it. Grogginess didn’t cling to him, nor did he feel rested. It was as if one moment he was looking towards a mirror and the next he was staring up at a dim ceiling.

Only one emotion emanated from him though: frustration.

Vesik swung his legs off his bed while a torrent of curse words spilled from between lips that sounded foreign to him. Never did he speak like he was doing now and this realization caused him to stop in mid-sentence.

He was up early again, he could tell by the scant bluish light that crept through the shutters on the one window to a courtyard in his room.

Since dropping out of college Vesik had found extra time to work. The next trials to become a Sentry had yet to begin so Vesik found himself working most of his days away. A framed mirror as tall as him was now posted to a wall near a corner opposite his bed.

The tired and frustrated young man moved to the mirror to get a glimpse of himself before he shuffled off to waste his time before going to work. He was standing in a spot exactly opposite the mirror and began making his way over to it.

One last step and he stood in front of the ornate piece of glass, close enough that he could touch his reflection. Of course that would only be true if he was staring at himself.

Black skin pulled tight against a muscular frame. Tentacles, glistening with intensity in light that was nonexistent, wavered. And a face … no the absence of a face. Oh gods! The obscene horror of the vision had Vesik biting back bile.

Vesik was terrified beyond his knowledge of the word, but the sight before him demanded that he stick his gaze upon it. His brain responded just as well as his body at this moment. He felt simple beneath the eyeless gaze of the creature.

It did not move much, but to slightly twitch every so often so quick the movement was a blur of color. Quickly the seizures worsened, and the being was ultimately spastically jerking. Then it calmed, serenity annexed the creatures body.

It seemed to exhale in relief as small holes opened on the being’s torso. Vesik watched with a heart that had seemed to have stopped beating minutes ago and his jaw slowly worked to make a sound of disbelief and horror.

Something pale extricated itself from the creature’s body, from the mirror itself, in a slow but constant manner. The ten small holes became two large ones.

Hands. They were hands and they seemed familiar to Vesik. The same hands he had seen in the dream. Now forearms, again looking so familiar, and less than a foot from touching him. Then shoulders until …

Black hair … then a forehead … eyebrows … finally an eye, just a single eye was all it took to break Vesik from his stupor. His eye. He stared deep into his own eye for what must have been only a fraction of a second.

The fingers brushed his night shirt as he flung his body backwards and flailed on the ground. He madly wriggled until the back of his head slammed into a short wooden chest.

He met his eyes in the mirror … and felt liberation. The scene in the mirror copied the one he was portraying this very moment.

Minutes of ragged breathing passed before Vesik could calm himself enough to peel his back off the wooden chest. He slowly walked to the mirror and gawked at himself. He searched the corners of the reflection for something that didn’t fit. Nothing was apparent.

Vesik flopped onto his bed to run through the events that had just taken place. A sickening possibility revealed itself to him.

He felt apart from his body when he was stuck in his dream world. What if that’s because I’m not in my own body when I’m there, he thought. Vesik spoke aloud, “Could it be that I’m actually stuck inside that … that thing?”

The scene he had just witnessed seemed to confirm that if not make it at least plausible.

Vesik stood at a mental crossroads as he tried to determine whether or not his nightly trips would yield a positive result. The monolith he almost worshipped was a beacon of power, stability, and confidence; a symbol of hope … or so he had come to believe.

But now doubt assailed him about the integrity of the godly pillar of stone. Vesik had come to accept that it was something from another world, a link maybe, like a meeting place between two realities. The creature he had seen was definitely alien to this world and Vesik harbored the notion that the other world he was coming into contact with was the native home to it.

Too many questions remained unanswered at this time; he would have to find the pieces to the puzzle, then decide what picture to make with them all. A task more difficult than he fully comprehended now but he did know this; he would have to go back. He had to make it to the top of the monolith, regardless of what transpired throughout.

 

10

 

“The fuck did I tell ya, huh?” Fal laughed and smacked Koe’s back.

Koe made a show of mocking him but couldn’t help but smile. Fal had just returned from meeting with the blonde man. He’d received the rest of his payment and then given the man another promise. A bag of ten more gold lay on a table in their room. Fal couldn’t help but poor the heavy, shimmering coins from the bag and onto the table. He then grabbed the bag from yesterday and poured that too.

Fal snatched two gold from the pile and said, “Let’s give Sarah two gold instead of the silver. She’ll like us a bit more and be more willing to go along with the plan. Yeah?”

Alitor looked at Fal oddly. Truly, Fal was not one to throw his coin to anyone, not even his friends. He felt himself redden and said, “Also, it’d even us out. Come on, guys.”

Koe said, “We can easily go out and spend those two gold between the three of us on drinks, nice meals, whores, and then a few more whores. Two or three each!”

“Well this one’s worth it, dammit.” Even Fal was surprised at the intensity of his voice.

Alitor seemed as though he wasn’t though as he threw his chin up and frowned at Fal. “You like this woman. She gave you the night of your life and now you think there’s some kind of connection between you two. Fal, I bet you right after she left the room she went and fucked some other sop with a bit of coin.”

Although the big man’s words stung and caused Fal to feel a shred of anger, he let them slide. He was probably right. Still, Sarah deserved this if she proved useful. “Come on, guys. You don’t believe I’d fall for a whore, right? It’s me. Fal. I wouldn’t fall for anyone. But still, let’s give her the gold. What if these two pieces keep our balls from the guillotine? Just trust me. We’ve followed your plans since the absolute beginning, big guy. Give me some wiggle room here, yeah?”

Both men shrugged and Fal felt better. He’d have to spend some time understanding why he felt the way he did about Sarah later. Sure, he’d laid with women of her occupation before, but she was just different. Something felt unusual between them that night. He hoped that she hadn’t continued selling her body that night. He should have kept some money to pay her so she wouldn’t have to work again for a few days. But he’d give her two pieces of gold tomorrow, and maybe spend some of his own fortune on her.

Alitor broke Fal from his reverie, saying, “So what exactly did you tell the blonde gangster?”

“Exactly what you wanted me to. I’ll have the rat who’s giving him away wrapped up in a neat little package in two days. We’ll meet at the abandoned building on Arc, between Mesh and Half. He bought it. I know when he buys something and besides, he paid me the gold right?”

Koe said, “So they’re expecting some Sentry. No details, right?”

“Exactly right. The meeting was short and sweet. Now let’s divvy out the gold.”

Fal made three piles of eight, leaving the two pieces for Sarah separate. He looked at the gold, felt an addiction begin to fill him. Koe was needed at this moment, to assuage the evil thoughts from Fal’s head. As each man took their even cut, Fal said, “This is why I love that brain of yours, Al. Come here, lemme kiss it.” Fal reached for Alitor’s dome with both hands and puckered his lips. Alitor swatted his hands away with a laugh on his tongue.

Koe didn’t miss a beat as he said, “This is not going to become habit, right?”

Fal looked to Alitor, who dipped his head, looked at the gold, then looked back up and shrugged. Fal said, “Koe, don’t worry about that. We have two months’ pay sitting in front of each of us. If we need to pull a stunt again, it won’t be for a while.”

Koe responded, “Just remember that this shit ain’t always so easy to pull. This isn’t even over right now. Let’s just get out of this one the way we came in. But for the rest of this, let’s be straight in our aim. We let these gangsters get away for our gold. Now, we need to put these fucks down. Yeah?”

“Exactly! Koe, you’re spot on. Anything else would be unethical.”

Both Alitor and Koe shot Fal an odd look when he said that.

Fal said, “What? I care about ethics.”

Alitor replied, “Do you even know what that word means?”

“It’s a type of pie …” Alitor stared at Fal as if he was an attraction at a sideshow. Fal showed innocent ignorance, but only for a moment before saying, “I’m fooling! Of course I know what that word means, you assholes! Gods, I’m not stupid. We wouldn’t have gotten this far if I was.”

Koe said, “Well with Al’s brain here, we could both be walking vegetables and still rule half the world.”

Alitor said, “Only half?”

Fal said, “Well hell, man, with me and Koe being the geniuses we are and you being a mastermind, we’re still pretty low on the ladder. Half the world is a compliment compared to what we’ve accomplished so far, even with us not being vegetables.”

“I know. You two are just slowing me down.”

Koe shook his head and laughed softly. “Well we have our plan. In two days, we get the drop on their new location and we spill it to the Watch. Now, you ladies want to sit here and have tea together, be my guest. I’m going to a bar to get plastered.”

Fal pursed his lips in a show of hurt although he felt relieved that the black man was lighthearted enough to joke, and said, “Can’t us ladies come with you and have tea there? What, are you embarrassed of us, Koe?”

Koe snickered as the three of them left the room they all shared with another. Their other roommate, Henkel, was locked up for starting a drunken brawl with another Sentry then pulling a weapon on him. Of course, the brilliance of this ruse lied with Alitor. Henkel would remain detained for several days as punishment.

Koe broke the silence, “Who’s playing which part in two days?”

Alitor said, “Wait until we’re alone to keep talking about this, Koe. We’ll talk later when we aren’t walking through the station or out in public. Let’s just find a place to drink until the women look good enough to pay the asking price.”

Fal said, “Hell I’ll pay it sober.”

The three chuckled and Koe said, “Hey should we get Vesik?”

“Nah. Kid’s been acting strange, ya know. Like he’s got some master secret hidden up his fucking sleeve.”

Alitor draped an arm bursting with muscle over each mans’ shoulders and said, “Too much thinking about matters that are not of import this moment. Just shut up and let’s go drink.”

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