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The Holder of Democracy

November 8, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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In any city, in any country where free elections are routinely held, go to a place of voting during that city’s Election Day. Walk up to the voting stand and tell any election official “I seek the Holder of Democracy”. If the official laughs or looks bewildered, then you will be forcibly removed from the place of voting by any security personnel guarding the premises. The Holder does not deem you worthy enough to attempt his test and it would be best for you not to press your luck.

Should the official stand up and walk away, follow him or her. You will be lead to a door in the wall, far removed from the main polling area. It will look mundane in every way, but looks can be very deceiving. The official will tell you to enter. Should you wish to withdrawal from your quest, then this will be your last opportunity to leave. Make your intentions clear and get out.

If you choose to continue the trial, open the door. You will find a very miniscule room. Make sure to duck, for the ceiling is low and it would not do for you to injure yourself this early in the test. Once you’ve entered, shut the door and make sure it clicks. Don’t bother trying to open it after this point-you won’t like what you see. Now, walk across the room, where you will find a table, a chair and two pipes. One of the pipes comes in from the ceiling and opens up above the table while the second pipe opens up next to the chair and goes into the floor. Take the time to mentally prepare yourself; the test will not begin until you choose to take your seat.

As you sit down, you will feel a manacle clamp around both of your legs. The moment the manacle has clicked onto your leg, a single piece of paper will fall from the pipe. Pick it up and you will see that the paper is actually a ballot. There will be written text, mainly in an unknown and undecipherable letter system with superficial similarities to ancient Greek. However, to your excitement you will see that your name is clearly written on the top of the ballot. Make sure to note whether the ballot was a vote for you or your opponent. Once you’ve done this, deposit it in the pipe leading into the floor so it can be removed from the room. More and more ballots will come out of the pipe at a quicker and quicker pace. You will need to count the ballots as quickly as possible, but it can be done with a mundane, but strenuous, level of effort.

As you hold the second ballot, you will start to feel a strange sensation. At first, it will be a weak and easily dismissed idea. However, as the ballots start to rapidly fall from the pipe, this sensation will become stronger and stronger. Vivid images of disease, famine and poverty will start shooting across your mind. You will then see yourself sitting on a grand throne; with fields of wheat, people working and children playing, bustling trade, hospitals and every other measure of human prosperity in the background. You will think that you can become the person in the throne, the promoter of human well-being and the destroyer of misery and suffering.

If you’ve been counting correctly, you will see that you are gradually slipping in this vote, and that your opponent is getting a greater and greater percentage of the ballot. You will desire nothing more than to stop counting, and declare yourself the winner. After all, you can solve the problems of the world; who cares what the ballots say? You must resist these urges with every fiber of your being; it is this exact type of hubris that will one day bring the 538 Objects together.

The ballots coming out of the pipe will eventually start to level off and finally stop. If you actually continued to count the ballots, then you will have narrowed the gap considerably but will still have lost the election by a small number of votes. A deep sense of sadness will permeate throughout your heart and soul. You will still believe that you can save the world; all you need to do is fudge the numbers a bit. For the love of all that you hold holy, fight this sensation.

Soon, you will hear the door open and a man will enter. He will be wearing a suit and tie, with jelled-back hair and a slightly-unsettling smile plastered across his face. The man will demand that you tell him the results of the election. Immediately and truthfully tell him the number of ballots that were marked for you and for your opponent, no matter how much you want to lie.

One of three things will happen. If you do not answer in time or made an error while counting, then the manacles around your fleet will slowly ensnare your body and compress you until you have been thoroughly crushed. Consider yourself lucky, for the man will have no hard feelings about your honest mistake. The pain will be temporary and your soul will be free to leave.

If you cannot resist the temptation and falsely claim that you are the victor, then the man will jam you into the pipe leading into the ground. When you fall through, you will see that you are in a room exactly like the one you were forcibly removed from. You will have thirty seconds to make one of three choices. You could choose to sit down to take the test for eternity. However, please note that this time around, the ballots will be much hotter, sharper and jagged. Alternatively, you could do nothing. When thirty seconds have passed, you will feel a splitting pain in your chest as your soul is destroyed and you cease to exist. If, however, you are truly daring, you can take the third option: opening the door. As you step out, you will see a world that looks like a subverted vision of your kingly images. Where you once saw grain, you will see miles of cracked and dried up fields. Where you once saw prosperous businesses and hospitals, you will see boarded up and badly dilapidated buildings. Where you once saw people working and children playing will be dead and mangled bodies as far as the eye can see. Some of these were political dissidents, brave and just individuals who were murdered for resisting tyranny. Others were rivals for power, but most were simply innocents destroyed by the megalomania of their leader. Specifically, the demonesque figure clad solely in black that sits on a throne of skulls in the dead center of this macabre scene. This figure is you, or what would have eventually become of you had your attempts at election usurpation succeeded.

You believed that you could promote human prosperity by going against the election results, ignoring the will of the people and assuming total power. However, the only thing your decision promoted was despotism, corruption and murder. For your decisions, you will be forced to live for all of eternity in the hell of your own design.

However, if you respected the will of the majority and gave the man in the room the correct number of votes, then the manacles will shatter at your feet. As you start to stand, a final translucent gold ballot will fall from the upper pipe. Quickly grab it and hold onto it tightly. The man will then approach you and extend his hand. Firmly grasp it and pump it up, then down. The man will then start speaking. He will describe in vivid detail every democratic uprising, the destruction of every tyrant’s regime and the inherent pride of every election. It would be best for you to leave at this point; the man wants your vote and these campaign speeches have been known to drag on for eternity. Make your way to the door, open it (it will be safe to do so), walk out and shut it until you hear a click.

The gold ballot you took from the room is one of 538 Objects. It is perhaps the most precious of the Objects, but know that it is useless unless joined by its kin.

Credit: E.A.D

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Devil in the Details

October 31, 2016 at 12:00 PM
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Trevor looked at the sweaty, crumpled paper in his hand, reviewing the instructions yet again. Soon it would be too late to read over them, but until then every rehearsal could be the one that saved his life.

Four pale candles, he read, and then glanced over to the four candles sitting on the floor. He had arranged them in a perfect square, just as instructed. The line of crisp white chalk connected them, and he mentally marked the next item off the list.

His hand was shaking, making it harder to read the scrawled lines of pencil on the paper. With a deep breath, he looked away from the paper and out the window. There was a swell of nervous energy bubbling in his chest. He had prepared, he reminded himself. He had read and studied. He had memorized every line of text and done his research. Now was no time to have second thoughts or doubts.

“Remember, the entity will know your thoughts. If you enter with doubts, he will use these to his advantage.”

Trevor closed his eyes and smiled, trying his best to think confident and reassuring thoughts. What he needed to do, he realized, was find something else to think about. Every review of the instructions only deepened his anxiety, and it obviously wasn’t helping. It reminded him of cramming for final exams. He had always overdone it and worn himself out, so that he ultimately spent a week sick and dreading the impending tests. Now was not the time to weaken his mental or emotional defenses. It was, instead, the time to finally achieve something with his life.

Trevor walked away from his preparations, shoving the paper in his pocket and trying to prevent his mind from running over and over the instructions. They always hung on the final words.

If you successfully complete the ritual, he will grant you one request for whatever your heart desires. Choose wisely.”

As if he could dislodge the thoughts, he shook his head sharply and turned his attention to his surroundings. He was sitting in the front of an old chapel, the wooden pews cracked and listing in the shadows. What had once been lovely windows were now either caked with dust, webbed with cracks, or lying broken on the floor. The moon sprinkled silver light around the interior, light which somehow only made the shadows darker. He wondered briefly about those who had once gathered here bowing penitently and singing their hymns. But churches dried up when a town did, and it was nothing more than an artifact cast out.

“Find a place of religious significance. It may be a church, temple, synagogue, mosque, sanctuary, blessed space, or area of miraculous happenings. Any place where people come to demonstrate faith will suffice.”

Trevor smirked remembering the words. He had considered going to his hometown’s football stadium, because that was where he had witnessed the greatest religious fervor. But somehow he thought such secular praises were not what the ritual intended. He had lucked upon this place on one of his trips to and from university. It was off the beaten path, well removed from the rest of civilization. Soy bean fields were the nearest attraction, which meant he would be mostly free to conduct his activities in peace. Assuming, of course, local kids did not wander in, drawn by the same isolation and freedom that had brought him. Given the lack of beer bottles and vandalism, he assumed it was not a popular place for such activities.

His legs were shaking up and down, whether from excitement or anxiety he was not sure. He checked his watch, noting that it had slipped five minutes closer since his last inspection. It was now 11:50, which meant his waiting was almost over.

“It must be begun at precisely midnight. Too early or too late and you will have no results but feeling like a fool.”

He had set and reset his watch just to be certain it was exact. Now he just needed to rely on it. He had also selected this position because it was just close enough to hear the church bells from a couple of towns over. Come midnight, they would toll and assure him he was on time.

The wind kicked up outside, tossing a few stray leaves through the opening. The many holes in the roof howled pitifully and the rest of the building creaked with the gusts. It seemed almost as if the building was in its final days, waiting for nothing but a strong storm to destroy it once and for all.

Giving into his worries, Trevor pulled the paper from his pocket and reviewed the important parts again. He skimmed over the materials, certain he had everything he needed. Instead, he reviewed the cautions to ensure he did not make any deadly mistakes.

”First, never speak your name. Such a being will seek any way to gain power over you. Should this creature find any weakness, he will use it to possess you. This is akin to being split apart from the inside out, slowly and over several days. Most unfortunate souls are also forced to watch as they slaughter family, friends, and other victims.”

It was simple enough. No names. That was an easy pitfall to avoid.

“Next, do not answer his questions. They are intended to trick you. You must only say what you have been instructed and your request. If you engage in questions, he will trap you in his game. You will slowly waste away, caught forever in his web of lies.”

Trevor had always been taciturn, so he was not concerned. Remaining silent was his primary skill in life, and he looked forward to putting it to good use. He also could not help but wonder who in their right mind would try to best a demon in a duel of wits. It seemed like one of the oldest follies.

“Third, ensure all barriers are maintained for the duration of the ritual. He will be unable to touch or harm you physically while the barriers are active. Adhere to the guidelines for your own safety.”

Another easy warning to heed. Who would ignore the barriers? Why would they even be in the ritual if they were not vital to its safe and successful completion?

“Finally, believe nothing of what he says. He exists only to lie.”

Rereading the warnings made him feel safer. These were so obvious that he could not imagine anyone making such grievous errors. He certainly knew better. And if the direst warnings in the ritual were so clear to him, it seemed impossible that he might fail.

The clock hands spun closer, and he moved back to his prepared space. There were the four candles, a fifth, and black candle setting to the side. There was a silver bowl of blessed water, secured from his local cathedral some days before. Also, a lighter, a scrap of cotton cloth, and a steel knife. It was everything he needed.

Trevor knelt beside the chalk square, arranging and rearranging items for the most practical set up. He wanted everything in arms’ reach, but also in the order it would be needed. Which meant, he thought, the lighter, the bowl, the knife, the cloth, and finally the candle.

It was midnight, he saw. As soon as the thought crossed his mind, he heard the bells ringing. Right on time, he brought the lighter to the first of the four candles, slowly moving clockwise and lighting each in turn. They flickered and snapped in the breeze, but remained strong.

His hands were unsteady as he picked up the bowl and set it in front of him. With a deep breath, he gripped the knife in his hand and drew it smoothly across his palm, just like they did in the movies. Only it seemed to hurt worse than those actors let on.

“Let a few drops fall into the water, and then bandage yourself carefully. The scent of blood can attract other things you may not wish to deal with during the ritual.

Trevor followed the instructions to the letter, turning the water a cloudy red with his own blood before tightly wrapping his hand with the cloth. He knew the next steps by heart, moving through them almost robotically. Each step had been dutifully practiced—with the exception of cutting his own hand—many times in the bright light of day. Now, he lifted the bowl carefully with both hands, watching the way it rippled and changed. His blood diffused through the water, leaving darker and lighter patches that were quickly settling into the same pale shade.

“I summon you here with this dedication. Arrive.” With the last word, he tipped the water into the middle of the square. Unlike in the practice sessions, the water rolled and then stopped at the chalk outline, forming a tiny pool that defied the laws of gravity and surface tension. Trevor’s mouth hung open briefly, but he knew he had to continue.

The black candle was already in his hand, and he lit it despite the increasing wind. Gently, he placed it in the middle of the square, watching the tiny flame flicked on the surface of the water.

“I give you light to seek me,” he said, the words trembling from his lips. “Arrive.”

Barely were the words out of his mouth than the black candle began to sink below the surface of the water before disappearing completely. A dark, shadowy face emerged on the surface of the water, grinning widely. The face was hard to discern, but appeared dark and scaly, riddled with scars and fresh wounds that seemed to seep blood into the water around him. There were also many, many teeth. Trevor felt a cold pit of fear settle solidly in his stomach.

“Who summons me?” came the deep, gravelly voice. It came not from the thing’s moving lips, but from the air all around Trevor. The whole building seemed to vibrate with the voice.

No names, no questions, he reminded himself. Trevor’s mouth was dry thinking just how easy it would have been to make that mistake.

“You have been summoned, and I will instruct you. Speak your name.”

The church chuckled in time with the reflection in the water. He was smiling, showing even more teeth than Trevor thought could physically exist in the span of that face.

“Who are you to think you can command me, mortal?” came the bone aching words. They seemed to vibrate through Trevor’s body, as if he was being pulled apart by the reverberations alone.

“Speak your name,” he said again through gritted teeth.

The demon stretched, his arms stabbing through the surface of the water and entering this world. The water trickled off them, stumbling over protruding scales and nodules. Cruel claws shone in the candlelight, covered with water and a viscous red liquid that Trevor knew by sight. The smell of rot and decay followed quickly after, threatening to bring up Trevor’s meager dinner.

“I have summed you, and you will obey my commands. Remain within the summoning area.”

“Oh, shall I obey you and remain here?” asked the beast mockingly, planting one hand one either side of the puddle—outside the thin chalk lines. A deep, rolling chuckle emerged this time as he pulled himself slowly through the pool and into reality. The floorboards of the church appeared to buckle and steam wherever the claws pierced.

“He will try to intimidate you. Stay strong.”

“Remain within the summoning area. Speak your name.” Trevor tried to force all of his courage and confidence into his voice, but it only made the demon laugh all the louder, now standing at his full height.

The beast looked down on the pale boy before him. “You can call me Trevor,” came Trevor’s voice from his monstrous visage.

Trevor froze, his mouth agape and eyes wide. For an instant, the demon appeared almost sympathetic, but the façade cracked into merciless anticipation as the shadows flickered over his face. “You have meddled with something you do not even understand,” it said, voice again deep and roaring, but now mimicking the disappointed tone of a school teacher.

“I–I never told you my name. You can’t know my name,” Trevor stammered, his fear getting the better of him. His eyes flickered from the face to the arms to the rooted feet, never sure where to stay or linger. Everywhere he looked, there was impossibility.

“You think I need you to tell me your name?” Casually, the demon stretched, muscles and joints popping and cracking as if it had been millennia since he moved about. His eyes, dark with unholy light, fixed on Trevor with predatory amusement. He answered his own questions with a deep shake of his head, sending water sizzling across the sanctuary.

Trevor began scooting backward, whimpering with fear as the monster before him took one broad step forward. There was really nowhere to escape. The candles slowly snuffed themselves out, leaving only the moonlight to glint off those smiling teeth.

“But,” Trevor gasped as his hands scrambled along the floor for anything that might help, “but I followed all the instructions!”

The creature paused to survey the assembled implements and the chalk square. “Yes, you certainly did.” The building trembled with the force of the laugh.

From the cloying darkness, an arm shot forward. In the next breath, Trevor was off the ground. The demon slowly drew him close until their eyes were level.

“Who do you think wrote the ritual in the first place?”

“He exists only to lie.”

Credit: Katherine C

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Broken Rest

October 20, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Scorching heat; unrelenting dryness. I couldn’t feel anything else; couldn’t think about anything else. This wasn’t right. Even the sensation of heat was more of an observation than an actual feeling; I knew it was scorching without water to moisten the air, but I didn’t feel it so much as perceive it.

My eyes opened to reveal a confusing myriad of swirls and patterns. Everything was foggy and distorted. My sight lazily swept around me to take in a vast vision of brown swirling with blue, and stopped short when a stark whiteness disrupted the continuous two tone kaleidoscope. I tried focusing, with little luck.

I realized I was looking down at something. With that nugget of realization came more questions; ones that were starting to disturb me with my lack of answers. It was hard to form a coherent thought, but some part of me knew that what I was seeing wasn’t right.

The dryness all around me was the most disturbing sensation. I perceived a brittle heat all the way to my core. It seemed like I was made of dryness and lived within the heat, but again, a small part of my consciousness told me I shouldn’t feel that way. As soon as the thought entered my mind, it drifted away, and soon I found myself drifting back to……. to where?

I didn’t know, but I knew that wherever my mind wanted to take me was where I belonged. I relaxed myself and felt a deep, inky blackness begin to overtake me. I felt a great heaviness pull me gently into the dark void, and with relief I let go of any resistance to the tugging all around me. With one last bleary sweep of the unpleasant world around me, I let go.

Agonizing pain suddenly pierced me, like a thousand barbs catching me and yanking me down. With a silent scream, I felt myself plummet from the comforting blackness. I only had a brief chance to wildly look around to see that same damned brown and blue swirl, to recognize the terrible heat, before I was slammed into the white blur I couldn’t make sense of before.

As I searched around me for an explanation, my sight began to clear, and the kaleidoscope sharpened to a sandy earth and blue sky. My sight traveled from side to side, then downward. I realized that I was laying on hot sand, but it was not my body. Or rather, it was not a body, but a skeleton. I could see every bone, laid out perfectly. This brought me no comfort, only a sharpening of the terrible sensations of the sun on my bones and the hot sand filling my every crevice. My mental state began to go into a frenzied panic. I knew then, that I was dead, and I was being forced back into this lifeless, brittle frame.

Suddenly, my gaze darted to the left, catching a slight movement, and I noticed a figure that I hadn’t seen before. A tall, robed figure knelt by my skeleton, head bowed and silent. The robe was a rich, deep red, covering the figure entirely, except the hands which were dark, mangled, and so deeply lined it looked to be made of tree bark. The hood of the robe obscured any detail of the face beneath. The hands peeking out from the velvety folds were stretched out, gently grasping my left femur. Thick, yellow nails protruded from the bark like skin, long and curved. Seeing this robed figure shot a white hot needle of fear through me; I knew, somewhere deep inside, that this figure was responsible for causing me such pain, and for forcing me back to this world. I tried to fight against it, to reclaim my dark peace, but every time I willed myself to relax, to let go, those piercing barbs pulled me right back.

I writhed in agony for what seemed like hours, fighting the barbs and reaching with all my strength for that inky blackness, to no avail. Finally, exhausted and spent, I relented, accepting my fate. It seemed that acceptance was what the figure was waiting for; as soon as I gave up, the robed figure’s head lifted sharply to gaze at my skull. The face, thus revealed, was much like the figure’s hands; grotesquely lined and dark, with the most piercing blue eyes gazing into me. Those eyes……… they glowed.

After gazing at me for a few seconds, the figure nodded once, then released my bone from his grasp and stood. He turned around and spoke a few guttural syllables that made no sense to me, warped and muffled as they were. Almost immediately, another robed figure, this time clothed in light grey, approached my body, coming over a hill and dragging something in a large sack behind him. Whatever it was, it was alive; I could see the marks of struggle left in the sand as it slid by, and I could hear muffled noises coming forcefully from the mass. The robed man in grey came steadily closer, resting the sack at my feet.

He stooped down and opened the sack. A small man tumbled out, landing on his side, before desperately rolling away from the robed figures and attempting to gain footing in the slippery sand, trying with all his might to run away. The grey man easily caught the whimpering hostage by the ankle, dragging him forcefully back into place beside him. A few more grating syllables were spat out by the red robed figure, the obvious leader of the duo, and the shaking hostage was pulled upright.

Horrified, I watched as the man in grey produced a sharp dagger, beautifully made and covered in strange symbols. With a swift, sure motion, the man in grey swept the dagger across the small man’s throat, cutting off his scream and morphing it into a sickening gurgle. Blood began to spatter onto my bones, coating my feet and legs. The sand below me turned dark with the spreading puddle.

The small man was hoisted by the back of his neck to hover over me until the gurgling stopped, and the blood spurting out of his throat reduced to a trickle. Once he was fully drained, his body was unceremoniously tossed to the side, collapsing and rolling slightly away from me. One sightless eye, coated in sand, stared at me.

Shortly after tossing the dead man aside, both figures began speaking their sharp, throaty language in tandem, chanting in low, sure voices. I noticed that the man in grey also had piercing, powerful blue eyes, brought to my attention by the sudden, otherworldly glow that gradually grew brighter from both figures. The eerie glow emanating from them grew until all I could see of their faces was a bright, icy blue, consuming everything and projecting out towards my waiting body.

After watching them chant for a few moments, I began to feel the strangest sensation coming from my feet. My gaze swept downward and fixated on the transformation beginning to unfold. The dead man’s blood began to move up my skeletal form. Even the blood soaked in the sand below began to migrate up and over me. The blood traveled it’s slow path until it covered every inch. And I felt it all; actually felt the blood coating me, warm and thick.

Dread erased any sense in me and desperately urged me to run, or scream, or go back to being dead; do anything but watch what I was becoming. Once the blood coated me completely, the man in red threw back his hood, revealing spattered, coarse black hair along his scalp that fought for dominance against the dried, bark like skin. He threw back his head and began to emit a high pitched scream, starting softly, then escalating to an unbearable shriek that continued unabated, never stopping, even for him to draw breath. The man in grey stood unmoving, continuing the chant steadily, never breaking pace.

The blood on my bones began to condense and morph, shaping against me and growing thicker. With sick realization, I watched the transformation unfold. The morphing blood began to resemble muscle, then flesh, and finally I felt hair rooting into my new skin and grow outward. The pain from this transformation was sudden and unbearable. As my new body grew, my mind shriveled away from the immense sensations of nerve endings and stretched skin. I felt my gums form and a tongue grow slowly out from my throat to rest in my mouth. I found I could draw breath, and inhaled deeply to scream. No sound but a weak cough came from my throat. I suddenly felt thirsty, hungry, and hot. It was unbearable. I felt new muscles begin to jerk with my crazed urgings to run, to get away.

Once my transformation was complete, both figures stopped chanting and stared down at me expectantly. As they watched, I felt my body begin to move, tightening muscles to slowly bring my arms under myself until I could sit up, then unsteadily gain my footing to stand up straight. I swayed, remaining upright only through the automatic function of my new body. It seemed as though this body did not need my will to be controlled. Curious, I attempted to turn my head; nothing. I tried a few other motor functions, like lifting my foot and clenching my hand. Nothing I willed myself to do came to pass. A new panic began to settle inside of me. Why was I here, and why had I been given a body I couldn’t control?

As if hearing my inner monologue, the man in red spoke to me in his native tongue. Only this time, I understood.

“You, warrior of old, have been given life. I knew you as Dianon. You knew me as Lucin. You were the greatest slayer of my brothers; the day you fell from this world was the same day you led your men into a final battle against us. You were slain on the battlefield, but that did not stop your army from claiming….. victory.” A growl escaped him as he admitted the defeat. Flutters of memories danced through my mind at Lucin’s words, pictures of sand and blood. Lucin’s face, contorted in fury and leading a flagging army flashed quickly through my vision. He stepped closer to me, close enough to feel his breath on my skin and his dark energy vibrating all around me.

” A small group of my sand djinni have survived. ” Lucin’s mouth worked silently as he glared at me. Exhaling sharply, he continued. “After our defeat, we were banished from this land. Our land, and our-our home!” After his sudden outburst, he stopped and stood silently for a few moments, before stepping back and slowly unclenching his fists. I could see the hatred pouring from his gaze, directed at me.

Although I did not remember my former life, the more he spoke, the more I felt a sense of memories. Memories so deep, they almost didn’t break the surface of my mind. Almost. I knew for certain that my misgivings were correctly placed. If this robed monstrosity hated me so much, why go through this trouble to bring me back to life? It couldn’t be to congratulate me on my former victory.

After a moment to gather himself, Lucin spoke again, “We have lived on the edge of the world for hundreds of years now, barely living, forced to survive like rodents. I have dedicated much of that time to finding you, Dianon. It took me many years to find all of your bones, more to find the ritual needed to bring you fully back to life.” His gnarled hand traced slowly down my face, sliding unpleasantly over my skin and ending in a cruel grip on my shoulder. Softly, his head lowered, Lucin spoke to himself. “So much time… so much sacrifice.” His hand released and he stood back, arms wide spread as if to show me his prowess. ” But now, I have achieved this, the greatest testament to our power, and have raised you as flesh and blood once again!” As he finished his self congratulatory speech, the man in grey began to emit a coughing, throaty sound. After a few seconds, my mind recognized the pattern as… laughter? Lucin glanced at his companion, silencing him immediately, then resumed.

“My companion rejoices, old warrior. Xicora rejoices because of what you are now. Yes, you have been given life. However, it is not under your control anymore.” With that, he quickly mimed a symbol at me. Suddenly, my body lurched forward without my consent and began to walk towards him. Without speaking, the two djinni turned and began walking along the hot sand. I felt the heat scorching my bare feet, felt the sun beating down on my naked back. I felt the sand lodge in every crevice, and grit form in my dry mouth. But I couldn’t speak, couldn’t turn away. I couldn’t even slow down. Rage and panic engulfed me. What did they want with me? I knew next to nothing of my own memories, only what sparks Lucin’s tale had ignited. My mind was an almost empty cavern, useless to me now.

We walked along the endless sand for days, never stopping, never resting. It seemed my new body did not need basic nurturing, such as water or food. I didn’t need it, but I surely felt its absence. My throat burned constantly from the air. My entire body ached and burned from the physical strain of walking under a desert sun. Yet, I continued on, mindlessly following Lucin, the owner of my cursed body.

Thinking of his name soured my tongue and caused tiny sparks of memories laced with anger and steel to flit through my mind. I couldn’t grasp them long enough to fully remember who I was, but I could feel that Lucin and I were, in fact, enemies. I knew he did not lie about my reputation as a slayer of his kind; I could feel the urge to kill, to purge, this creature from the earth, even without knowing exactly why.

Eventually, through the endless wavy haze that surrounded me, I snapped from my distracted musings after detecting a dark mass up ahead. As we drew nearer, I could see that it was a mountain. A single mountain, of the darkest black I remember knowing, surrounded by sand on all sides. Approaching the foot of the mountain, Xicora stepped forward and touched the mountain’s base with a strangely shaped amulet hanging from within his robe. With a massive boom, the mountain’s base slowly ground its way open to reveal a giant cave.

The cave was sparsely lit with torches, but what I noticed first were the orbs floating deep within its black maw. As the orbs traveled closer, I realized with a sinking feeling that those orbs were twins of the terrible orbs belonging to my malicious travel companions. These must be the surviving brothers, then. Hundreds of those terrible eyes stared at me, all filled with hatred. Again, I wondered wildly what they had in store for me. Neither Xicora nor Lucin had spoken to me, or even acknowledged me, the entirety of our miserable walk.

Lucin turned to me from the great cavern and finally broke his silence. “Do you see, Dianon? Do you see what we have been reduced to? What was once a thriving race is now a straggling band of djinni that struggle to live from one day to the next. ” Describing their sad state, Lucin swept his arm across the opening, pointedly watching me the entire time. ” This is your doing; and so, it will be undone by you. Follow me and see what is in store. Hmmm. Not that you have a choice about it.” With that, the strange symbol was mimed once again, and like a puppet on strings I followed obediently behind Lucin’s walking form. The stares of the surviving djinni clan drew closer, close enough for me to see the same variation of bark like skin covering each robed figure, each wearing either a light grey or dark brown robe. Lucin wore the only red robe I could see. Xicora walked behind me, hissing occasionally if one of his brothers got too close. I assumed they wanted me unharmed, though that brought no comfort.

We walked down the length of the cave, eventually breaking off to go down a carved tunnel to the left. There were no markings or details that I could see; only an endless dark tunnel. Eventually, I began to see a bright light emanating from what I assumed to be our destination. My curiosity began to override my fear of the unknown as we approached the light. At least I would know what was planned for me, and would question their intention no more.

As we passed through the opening, my eyes quickly adjusted to the new light, and I swept my gaze across an enormous room deep within the mountain. What I saw caused my curiosity to drop like dead weight, replaced by a new, sharpened sense of dread. In every corner of the massive room, filled to the brim, were skeletons.

The skeletons stood upright, standing row upon row to the furthest reaches of the cave. Each skeleton gripped a short sword in one hand and a small, circular shield in the other. Each bony neck had a strange collar inscribed with the same symbols that I recognized from the dagger Xicora had used in the desert. Other than standing upright and gripping their equipment, there was no sound, no movement, to indicate that these skeletons were anything but lifeless monuments. Yet, I could sense a dark energy projecting from the crowd of bones; I knew they were standing upright from an unseen force. I knew they were alive, somehow. The collars must have enchanted the bones to imitate life, as the dagger with its strange symbols gave me mine.

Staring at the swords and shields, I felt a tugging in my mind, one of recognition. I knew these weapons. Concentrating hard on the thought, I suddenly realized the connection. Those skeletons belonged to the fallen men in my old army! I recognized the mighty lion embossed on the shield and the distinctive curve of the short sword that was unique to my people.

My fear escalated, as did my rage. What unholy abomination was Lucin playing with? Why had he raised my fallen companions, and why had he taken the time to fit me with new flesh instead of simply reanimating my bones? I could clearly see that this was within his power. Once again, as if perceiving my thoughts, Lucin turned to me and unveiled his intentions.

“Dianon, do you recognize these bones? These were your men, who fought and died with you.” Striding over to the first row of skeletons, Lucin roughly grasped a soldier’s head, shaking it slightly. “They do not know themselves; they have no thoughts. Their only objective is to obey me. You, however, are special. We needed your flesh to be revived, not just your skeleton.” Releasing his grip, Lucin gave me a malicious grin, then continued, “You see, before our banishment, we were herded to your prisons like lowly cattle. We watched as your funeral transpired. They erected a statue dedicated to you, their noble hero, standing tall and proud on a mountain of my fallen brothers.” His grin faded as he looked into my eyes. ” Dianon, I will never forget that sight, and soon, neither will you.”

Turning, Lucin slowly walked up towards the entrance to the tunnel, throwing his words over his shoulder, not bothering to acknowledge me. “Tomorrow, you will lead your army once again. You will march into your great city, where they regard you as some personal deity.” At this, Lucin threw back his head and barked a short, guttural laugh. “As if such a thing were possible! Tcha! Your people were always great fools, believing in nonsense and rejecting any clan that was so bold as to oppose their ignorant religion.” I could see the fury mounting once again, and Lucin’s words began to tremble. “That’s why….. you slaughtered us. Because we worshipped the earth and harnessed its power, instead of bowing to your stupid, p-pathetic, mythical gods!” Lucin took a deep breath, wiping spittle from his chin. Breaking his aloof posture, he turned back to face me, speaking slowly and deliberately.

“It doesn’t matter anymore. They will watch you march into their sacred city. They will beg for mercy as you murder every last one of your brothers and sisters. They will scream with agony as you burn them and their kingdom to the ground.” He sneered, lifting his hand to direct a yellowed nail at me. ” You will kill them. You will know what you have done, with every swing of your sword, but you will not stop. And the city will know it was their sacred hero that destroyed them.”

The rage swelled within me like a tidal wave, churning and fighting for release, but outwardly I remained as silent and calm as Lucin willed me to be. The small amounts my mind had been able to glean from the quicksilver memories, instilled within me a deep love and loyalty to my former people. We were called Adinines, that much I knew, and I had been our fiercest protector. It went against everything I felt to kill my people, but I couldn’t yet find a way to break Lucin’s hold over me. If I could remember our religion and the gods we served, I would have beseeched them, but I could not form their names from my ragged memory.

Lucin sent me another quick grin, full of twisted, sadistic joy, and turned to Xicora, who had been silently standing guard behind me, lest any of his brethren be overcome with rage and try to harm me.

“Let us go now, and prepare for our journey, Xicora. Our new commander will spend the night with his comrades.” Another quick symbol was made, different than Lucin’s usual “follow me” command, and my body was sent marching towards the stagnant skeletons, taking my rightful place as commander, front and center. As I settled in place, Lucin, Xicora, and the straggling brothers who had not yet dispersed, left the great room, making their way back through the carved tunnel. As I stood stoically, my body obediently awaiting its master’s next order, I began to concentrate on what memories I could. It was the only thing I had any power to do.

The next day arrived with Lucin’s return to the silent, oppressive room. Before commanding his undead army, I watched as he looked across the mass of makeshift soldiers. His skin did not seem to allow much elasticity for emotion, but I did detect a certain satisfaction, even excitement, coming from his demeanor. He raised his arms high and mimed an intricate sequence of symbols, much longer and more complicated than I’d seen him do before.

Suddenly, I heard creaking and popping all around me; a hideous orchestra of skeletons preparing to march into battle. I felt my muscles contract and pull, forcing me to perform a mocking salute to my captor, then smartly turning me to face the entrance of the tunnel. My feet began a steady tempo, marching me straight to the waiting Lucin, then halting me a few feet in front of him. Xicora stepped forward from the shadows of the tunnel, holding a gilded set of armor on one arm, and on the other, a short sword and slightly battered shield.

This was my old armor; I could feel the pull of recognition and pride as I gazed on the ensemble. The nostalgia I felt was heavily outshined by the panic and frustration that seemed to be constantly battering my thoughts. I could not, would not, kill my people. I had to find a way to stop Lucin.

Despite my inner protests, at a small mimed gesture from my captor, my arms rose to grasp the armor, placing and fitting it on my body with ease. It was armor fit for a commander; intricate patterns of ivy and roses bordered the chest piece, topped off with a ferocious lion’s head caught in mid roar embossed on the chest. The rest of the armor, while not nearly as intricate as the chest piece, still held an undeniable air of quality and beauty, lined simply with gold and made with fine leather. Even my sandals had tiny gold ivy leaves travelling up the cords, mimicking its living inspiration. Adinines wore no helmets; it was a religious gesture that I recognized as deference to our sun god, though the name of the god and the story behind the gesture eluded me.

After straightening and tightening the armor until the perfect fit was made, I reached out unwillingly to accept my old weapons. I felt the cool weight of the shield resting on my forearm, felt the depressingly reassuring grip on my sword. I was finally ready to march.

Lucin looked me over with approval, sarcastically complimenting my attire. “You look exactly like you did on the day of the great battle, Dianon. Your adoring people will have no trouble recognizing you at all. It will be wonderful to watch them welcome you home.” Chuckling softly to himself, he mimed a final string of symbols, turned, and began his journey through the tunnel.

My body followed without hesitation, and behind me I heard the clattering steps of my fallen comrades, once more marching with their leader into battle. We traveled through the dark tunnels, turning only once to walk the final pathway to the entrance of the mountain. We waited patiently for the cave’s mouth to open, courtesy once again of Xicora, who seemed to have an extra spring in his step today. Once the cave opened, I took the lead, marching firmly out into the scorching sun, my body’s compass assumingly headed for my beloved city, Marthona. I almost wished I did not remember such things; each additional memory caused me more pain. To defile my city, my people, was unthinkable.

Lucin, Xicora, and the remaining clan of djinni followed close behind their army, talking quietly amongst themselves, but never acknowledging me or the skeletons marching along obediently. Once again, as with my previous journey, we did not stop or rest. While I still did not seem to need any nourishment to continue living, the agony of thirst, hunger and constant heat was so acute that at times I nearly forgot about my predicament.

Weeks passed, and still we marched on. I tried with all my might to remember, to think of a way to stop this. While I accomplished small victories within my memories, they were insignificant to my problem, and too far spread for me to view them as any real progress. I remembered that I was in my 46th year the day I died, and I remember having no wife or kids. The life of a soldier, I suppose. I recalled small pictures of my old life, fast and fleeting, never solid enough for me to fully grasp. Smells, colors, the shape of temples and the taste of fruits were what I could take from my efforts. Not enough; not nearly enough.

One morning, as we marched dully and dutifully to our doom, I felt a sharpening in my mind. I searched with my eyes, straining to see, for I feared that we were nearing my beloved city. My heart sank as I caught glimpses of white shimmers and fluttering color; I knew this to be the very first sight of my city’s walls and our flag soaring proudly from the top of our garrison. I was running out of time and nowhere closer to figuring out how to stop this madness.

As we neared the city of Marthona, slowly watching the great white stone walls grow taller and more vibrant, my memories began to trickle in, slowly at first, then as a great tidal wave. My life, from my first memories to my last, came flooding back to me , filling my mind to the brim. I remembered growing up picking fresh grapes from our family vineyard. I remembered putting on my common soldier’s armor for the first time at my 15th year, and my first battle, when I discovered I had no fear of death. That was how I rose to be the commander of Marthona’s army; I did not fear, and I did not lose. I felt my soul swell with the knowledge of my old life, rejoicing in my precious memories. Lost as I was in nostalgia, I did not notice Lucin suddenly appearing beside me, considering me with his icy gaze.

When he finally spoke, I would have jumped if it were in my power to do so; I was so engrossed in my recollections, I don’t think I would have noticed walking into my city’s wall until I bumped against it. “So, you finally get to gaze upon your precious city, Dianon.” Lucin sneered, ” Take it in, cherish the sight, for after we are done, it will never regain its glory.” Finishing his dark speech, he walked ahead of me, fearless now that he had any army to protect him upon entering the city. I was once again, guiltily this time, drawn back to my predicament and the realization that I had little knowledge from my new memories to aide in preventing the destruction of my city.

We were nearing the opening of the garrison, the bridge lowered for travelers. With no warning, Marthona’s peaceful residents would not have enough time to raise the heavily fortified bridge before we invaded. Lucin and his clan had led us through a well known but disregarded blind spot on the landscape. The reflection from a metallic stone that littered our eastern desert hid most, if not all, movement. From a watcher’s perspective, any moving object would camouflage into the silver specked haze. It had been a constant thorn in my side when I lived before. It agitated me to have a bind spot, so when I became commander I issued regular mounted patrols in the area. Nothing was ever spotted in the twenty years of my commandment; perhaps that was why the watch was seemingly abandoned after my death. Marthona did not know many times of war; we were a clan of traders and farmers. It seemed that time had been lenient to my people in the years following my death, if our unknown invasion was any indication.

Onward we marched, closing in on the open gates with determined strides that I fought against. All my memories, my thoughts, did nothing to shed light on my city’s impending doom. I had no new knowledge on how to counteract this magic; from what Lucin had explained, this was apparently a ritual that took decades, if not centuries, for him to accomplish. This was magic that I had no previous knowledge against. Still, I fought, hoping against hope that somehow my will would overpower Lucin’s, and then I would be free to exact my revenge against him.

I remembered why we had eradicated the djinni. Dark energy, black magic, had slowly been traveling its way to our peaceful gates, with rumors of human sacrifice, pagan rituals, and an increasing number of displaced settlers who had been driven from their land by the djinni’s hand. Knowing that it was a matter of time before we became infected with their evil, I led the attacks against Lucin and his kind. I followed them as far as we could go, and then some. I killed every djinni I saw, without mercy or tolerance. On the day of the great battle, we had pursued the last of the djinni for months before they finally faltered enough for us to attack. I remember the satisfaction I felt at seeing the ragged remains of their clan. I felt certain that the absence of their kind, and the magic that came with it, would cleanse the earth and bring peace. I wished now, with all my being, that I had been successful in my mission.

As we approached the bridge, calls rang out in alarm, and I saw my former people begin to alert the city of our invasion. It was much too late; we crossed the bridge as the first distress horn sounded throughout the city. I was the first to cross the threshold into the town square, panic settling in my chest like a knife.

People scattered in fear as we approached, and they gazed upon my face. I saw recognition spark through them. Most of the running stopped, though soldiers still raced to their posts, glancing wildly over their shoulders to look at us. Women, children and men alike all gazed at me in wonder. Fear mingled with awe, and even joy, at my presence. A few children were even so bold as to take a few, unsure steps toward me, stretching tiny hands to tentatively brush against my shield. As they saw I was real, smiles began to form on their faces.

Unable to speak, unable to move, I stared wretchedly forward, as I had been commanded. “PLEASE”, I screamed inwardly,” please help me! Gods of our Sun, Gods of our Water, Gods of our Labor and Land, please aide me! I do not wish to cause the destruction of your subjects; my people! PLEASE HEAR ME!”

I heard no answer, I felt no divine intervention; I was forgotten and ignored by my gods. I willed myself with all I had to turn around and leave, to stop what I knew was coming, but it made no difference. Lucin, damn his soul, made his way past the stoic skeletons to stand beside me. I could see that people recognized the looks of the djinni of old, and horror began to appear on everyone’s face. They stared at me, betrayal and fear apparent, thinking that somehow, I had collaborated with Marthona’s greatest enemy. Their most cherished hero, the subject of songs and legends, and whose feet they knelt at yearly to offer their thanks for the protection from the very enemy now at their doorstep, had turned on them. Lucin gazed around with a fierce hunger in his evil blue eyes, and addressed the city with a booming voice.

“People of Marthona! Gaze now upon your doom. For he who was once your greatest hero, has become your destruction. Look now, at your fallen hero, and despair!” With a crazed, grating laugh, Lucin mimed a final command, and sealed my fate. My skeleton army followed me into our final battle; the clattering of their bones drowned out the city’s screams.

Screams still echoed in my mind, long after the last citizen of Marthona fell. It was a young boy, no older than sixteen, shaking and begging for forgiveness. As my heart shattered, I dealt the fatal blow, watching his head roll down the bloody cobblestone street, face frozen in terror. I had eradicated my beloved home and its people. The citizens thought they had done some injustice to my memory, and begged for mercy endlessly. I suffered no attacks to stop me through the first dozen people I slaughtered. They tried to fight us, eventually, but how can you kill what is already dead?

The skeleton army I led felt no pain, nor fear. They did not alter course or fall back. My body never faltered, and although I felt the pain of my people’s attempts to fight back against me, such as an arrow that remained embedded in my back, I could not halt the destruction I wrought. I hardly noticed where I walked or what commands Lucin directed at me now. My mind had broken; my will was no more. I had no thoughts, no sense in me but the echoes of screams and visions of death.

All I could hope for was the release of this prison. I had done what Lucin set out for me to do; surely they had no further need of me. I held on to the thought like a lifeline. My damned body marched throughout the city, methodically searching for hiding survivors. I found none; my former training had served Lucin well.

Finally, I was back to the entrance of the garrison, awaiting Lucin’s next move. Though I had no knowledge of this ritual or how he might release me back into death’s embrace, I assumed my skeleton brethren and I would be released here, leaving my corpse to rot again and the skeleton army to further bleach under the sun, or be returned to the black mountain if the ritual had to be conducted there. Wretchedly, I waited for Lucin and his clan to make their way back for further instruction.

Lucin slowly walked along the cobblestone street, looking around him with a sense of overjoyed disbelief. I knew he savored this moment, and hated him with all my soul. After an eternity of watching my sworn enemy bask in the destruction of my people, Lucin made his way to me, and spoke.

“Dianon, I thank you for the great service you have provided today. Truly, you have made this a wondrous day that my brother’s and I will not soon forget.” A sickening chuckle slid from between his grinning teeth. ” Such a pity that we will not have the same physical reminder of our victory that your city has held dear for so long.” Sighing happily, Lucin elbowed me arrogantly against my ribs. ” Didn’t do them much good though, eh?” Shaking his head with laughter, he made an effort to regain seriousness. He stepped away and began to lift his hands, saying “Now that we have been avenged, your purpose is done. You will go back to whence you came.”

Softly, Lucin spoke a new spell, and immediately I felt my soul begin to release. My body crumpled to the ground, and the vision of Lucin’s smug face faded slowly from my mind. I sighed in relief, waiting for the blackness to erase my existence and the memory of this awful curse. Peaceful darkness overtook me, and I began to sleep eternally once again.

No, no, NO! The familiar pull of barbs yanked me from my hard won peace. I didn’t need to guess who was responsible this time, but I frantically wondered what I was doing back. Why didn’t Lucin just leave me to rot?

My eyes opened once again, and I saw Xicora standing close to Lucin, watching my face with satisfaction as Lucin ended his string of symbols. A low, growling whisper came from the stoic face, holding Lucin’s attention. A small smile grew on Lucin’s face, causing panic to flutter through the tattered remains of my mind. What other task could they have for me now? All I wanted was the black void to erase my existence. I was so close to a peaceful end, with no memories to haunt me of this day. So close, yet I could see the intention fading from Lucin. I waited in agony for an explanation.

My misgivings were confirmed with Lucin’s next words. “Ahh, but my second in command protests, Dianon! Xicora believes that we may still have our monument to remember this day, and requests, no, insists, that this be so. Well, I cannot deny my brothers their victory; after all, your people claimed theirs, no?” Grinning fully now, Lucin raised his hands and mimed a series of symbols. Rather than feeling the release of death, my body turned smartly and made its way back into the center of town. I approached the monument Lucin spoke so lowly of, only now raising my eyes to look upon it. I had staunchly refused to look at it until now, not wanting to further cause myself pain of remembrance. I could see that Lucin’s description was accurate; there I stood, proud and heroic, standing tall with my right foot strategically placed on an unfortunate djinni’s head, apparently splitting the skull with my heel. The monument was quite large, depicting a small mountain of slaughtered djinni underfoot. All around the monument were the scattered remains of the most recent offerings, ripped and bloodied.

To my horror, I did not hesitate or stop at the monument’s base, but climbed quickly up the side of fallen djinni until I reached the top to stand beside myself. My body adjusted to mimic my statue, minus the raised heel. I panicked inwardly, with a sinking feeling of just what Lucin had planned. Looking down, I watched my skeleton army, once again hard at work. Only this time, they were dutifully picking up dead citizens and piling them on top of each other at the monument’s base.

Over and over, they stacked the bodies, reaching my feet and obscuring all depictions of the djinni. Finally, a skeleton carried one final body, an older man, to place directly by my feet. At this, I watched in mute disgust and self-loathing as my right foot raised high, then smashed forcefully into the dead man’s skull. The result was a sickening imitation of the gold plated hero next to me; my heel stopped just inside the skull, creating an accurate and terrible imitation of my former victory.

Lucin gazed up at me, a look of supreme satisfaction on his face. The look was reflected on each of his brothers’ own lined visage. They had all gathered to admire Xicora’s brilliant homage to their victory. He didn’t bother to speak to me again; we both knew my purpose up here. Lucin turned, and led his brothers through the town square. I watched helplessly as the last of them crossed the bridge into the desert, followed by my former skeleton companions.

This is where I stay; this is my curse. I remain, now and always, a man of flesh and blood. I need no food, no water, to sustain me. I watched and smelled the rotting of my people, screaming like a mad man for no ears but my own. The memories don’t leave. I live every day in the knowledge of who I once was and what I’ve done, and all I want is death. Lucin was true to his word; my city never regained its glory. No new settlers, no brave explorers, no life has ever crossed my path. I am alone and eternal in this hell.

I stopped counting the days long ago. All I know is time enough has passed to erase my city from this world. I watched the endless sand rise and cover the ruins of my city, coating me and my fallen people in gritty layers. I am forgotten and forsaken, alone in my misery.

Still, in the midst of my pain and Lucin’s victory, there is one thing he didn’t count on. The dark magic that keeps me alive and holds me in place is changing. I can feel the power coursing through me. My body is frozen, but my mind is not, and I have eternity to harness this magic and figure out how to use it to my advantage. The darkness, it grows in me, overriding my angst, even in my hopelessness. I feel…… powerful. I know if I can concentrate enough, the power will be mine to wield, and then, I will have my revenge. The thought alone fills me with new purpose and a fury that won’t be tamed. Lucin waited hundreds of years to accomplish his goal. I will wait as long as I have to as well.

For now, I remain. If you ever gather enough courage to face the cruel, unforgiving desert lands of this earth, and happen upon a lost city, covered in sand and forgotten by time, look for me. Release me. I’ll be waiting.

Credit: Allison, also credit requested for Katherine C and Calamity Crown, who volunteered as Beta readers and aided me with my story.

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The Last Step

October 3, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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What are you doing right now? Are you slumped on your couch mindlessly flipping through the TV channels? Are you tiredly scrolling through your Facebook feed for the fiftieth time today? Well shut that stuff down, and get off of your lazy bum because we’re going on an adventure.

What? It’s one in the morning? Yes, I’m quite aware, but these types of adventures can only happen so late at night. You see, this is the time when all the creatures that dare not be seen during the day can come out to play…with you. This is the time when the thick, velvet darkness of night will gladly wrap its fingers around you protectively…or the thing following behind you. Everything that hides from light can safely crawl out from their hiding spots so that they can find you…feed on your fear… This is the only time when you can see them up close…

Is it safe, you ask?

Just listen to my directions, and you’ll be fine. Listen to my words, and you can make a friend for life and live to tell the tale.

All right. Got your shoes on and jacket zipped up tight? Good. It’s time to head out.

You won’t have to walk for very long on this adventure. Why? Because the thing we’re going to visit doesn’t live very far from you. You’ve probably walked past its hideout many times during the day without noticing…but don’t worry. You’re not the only one. It lives on anonymity. You haven’t seen it, but it has seen you…hundreds of times. It knows your face by heart- from the deep colour of your eyes to that freckle you have on your cheek. But don’t worry- it’s this creature’s knowledge of you that will keep you alive…long enough for you to get away, that is.

Why? You sure ask a lot of questions. But I’ll tell you. This thing has lived alone for so long, crawling around in the suffocating dark, musty rooms underground. It moans and groans as it moves…those long, sharp nails screeching as they’re dragged across the cracked, concrete floors. Its wrinkled claws have been covered in blood so many times that the skin on its hands is no longer white, but a dark, dark red- so red it looks black.

It has no one, but that is for the best since its desire for company is sometimes overruled by its thirst for blood- your blood, really. Human blood.

Oh look, you’ve made it! Surprised? I can see the recognition on your face. Yes, this is the building just a few streets down from your home. The one that’s always in a state of “renovation”. But is it really? Have you ever seen anyone go in…or better yet…come out?

Ah, now you’re starting to remember. Whenever you walked by this building, did a feeling of unease start to creep over you? The sense that someone…or something was watching you? You probably sped up a little on your walk back home, ignoring the hairs that stood up on the back of your neck, or the small goose bumps that ran across your flesh as you convinced yourself that you were just in a hurry to get back to your couch and relax.

That’s what I thought. Well there’s no turning back now.

Slowly walk up to the front entrance. No, the door won’t be locked, and don’t ask why. Open the door and step into the lobby. Yes, I know it’s dark, but you’re going to have to deal with it. Like I said, nothing that lives in the dark will like any kind of light.

You should be able to see a large empty desk right in front of you. See it? Good. Now walk up to the desk and reach over the divider with your left arm. No- don’t try and peek over the divider…they won’t like it. Just reach and feel around. Your hand may brush some objects that feel…questionable. Ignore them. There are many things on that desk, but what you’re searching for is a key.

Do you feel it? The tiny, cold object with rigid edges? Perfect. Grab it.

Wait! Don’t pull your hand back yet- there’s still one more thing to grab if you want to walk out of this mostly intact. There should be something that feels like a small, glass bottle. Don’t ask what’s inside it- just get it.

Good. Now you can pull your hand back.

Make sure to put both the key and the bottle in the safety of your pocket before you move on. Now, there’s a specific door that you’re going to have to find in order to continue your adventure. Blink for a second and it’s easy to miss, but don’t worry- that’s why I’m here. Walk down the corridor adjacent to the lobby. It should be lined with various doors, but don’t try and open any of them. They’re all locked for a reason. What you can do, however, is count how many doors there are. Make sure to count in your head.

One.

Two.

Three…

Shh! Walk quieter! Your footsteps are echoing off of the marble floors too loudly. You can’t let it know that you’re here yet.

Four.

Five.

Six.

Okay, it looks like you’ve reached the end of the corridor. Now, how many doors did you count on your way here? Six, you say?

Wrong. Look again. No, don’t turn around completely…don’t even turn your head. Just look from the corner of your eye.

There. You see it? That little black door hiding right behind you? That’s the one.

What’s that? You feel unsure about this? Well there’s no point in turning back now. In fact…you can’t. You see, there’s only one way out of this building, and it’s through that little door. No, you can’t walk back through the corridor because whatever is hiding behind those other locked doors will only let you walk past them once. Not twice. If you try to…let’s just say that those doors can’t hold them back.

Are we on the same page now? Good.

Now slowly turn the handle on the door one hundred and eighty degrees exactly. No more, no less. Anything else will alert it of your presence.

Slowly…almost there, and…-perfect. You nearly let the handle slip, didn’t you? Wipe those sweaty palms on your pants before you get yourself killed on accident. Goodness.

Okay, now pull the door carefully and ease yourself through the opening. A musty odour will wash over you, so try to take shallow breaths if it gets too overwhelming. What’s the smell? I’m honestly not sure. I can only guess, but I think it’s best if you don’t hear about it.

Whoa! Be careful! There’s a steep flight of steps in front of you that leads down into a set of underground rooms. Yes, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to shut the door behind you and cut off any remaining light. The passageway is filled with the thickest darkness you are ever going to experience, but this only lasts for a bit.

Don’t worry, there’s nothing here in this part that will try and harm you…I think.

Enough of that…your only choice is to move forward so don’t second-guess yourself. Make sure to place your hand on the wall and feel your way as you walk down the steps. Some of them are slippery, so be sure to keep your balance.

Slippery with what, you say?

I’d like to say puddles of water. But I think we both know that it’s not water.

As you walk, make sure to count the number of steps you take. It will come in handy later on.

It is quite eerie to hear the soft sound of your sneakers scraping against the stone steps, yet not being able to see anything, isn’t is? Right now, your senses are working at their highest capacity- making up for your loss of sight. You can hear every raspy breath that shudders through your throat. You can feel every dip and crack in the cool brick that makes up the wall currently beneath your fingers. You can literally taste the air- it has a metallic tang mixed with the stench of rotting trash that makes you want to desperately gag…

What number are you on? Fifty-seven? Good. Keep counting. Don’t lose track of those steps.

Oh? What was that? You feel like something’s breathing on your neck? Warm, moist air brushing across your back?

That’s because there is.

No, don’t react. Don’t stop walking. Yes, I did say that nothing would harm you…I didn’t say that that there was nothing that couldn’t harm you. Just keep counting your steps- it will keep you sane. This thing will try to trip you up- to distract you from your task at hand.

But don’t pay attention to it. Pay attention to the numbers.

Yes, it will keep edging closer and closer to you until you- no! What are you doing? Don’t reach back! Don’t touch it, don’t-

You felt it, didn’t you?

You felt the slimy texture of decaying flesh on your fingertips. You felt the greasy strands of unkempt hair falling across your knuckles.

The mistake has been made- there’s nothing you can do except to keep moving on and to not react. Act like that touch was an accident and that you thought it was part of the wall. Because if you react…if you flinch in disgust or scream in horror, it will know. It will know that you know about it. And it doesn’t want anyone to know about it.

You’re not a very good listener, are you? In any case…

Finally! You’ve reached the end of the steps! Have you kept track of your number? Yes? Good.

Yes, it’s still there…I know you can sense it, but you’ve got to ignore it. Keep that number in your head and don’t forget it! It’s trying to make you forget by making you scared. Don’t let it succeed.

Now that you’re at the bottom of the steps, I need you to take ten strides forward to another door. Here’s the hard part. The thing that was following behind you on the way down? Well now it’s standing in front of you…right next to the door.

In order to get out of this passageway, you’re going to have to act like you can see. I know it will be difficult, but you’ve got to trust me. Reach your hand out and feel around for the knob. It shouldn’t be too far since you’re standing right in front of the door. If you accidentally touch the thing again, just keep moving your hand around in search for the knob.

Do. Not. React.

Ah! There it is! The cool, metal of the doorknob is finally in your grasp. Now take that key you got from the desk earlier, and insert it into the keyhole on the knob. Try not to scrape it on the metal too much, or it will know that you can’t see what you’re doing and it will take full advantage of that.

Good! You managed to fit the key into the lock! Now turn the knob fully and pull the door open quickly. No, there’s no trick to turning this doorknob this time. Once the door is open, just get through it and shut it as fast as possible so that thing can’t follow you.

Make sure to- wait, look out! Watch out for the step that drops into the room! You don’t want to trip on it and mess this whole thing up, especially not when you’re so close to freedom.

Phew! You made it. This is the last room you need to be in to get out of this building. Yes, the temperature has dropped quite drastically, hasn’t it? Pull your jacket around you a little tighter and suck it up, because you’re almost there!

It’s still very dark, I know, but there should be a faint light coming from the corner of the room- atop a small box. Can you see it?

Yes, it’s the glow of a dying candle. Why is there a candle down here? Well, to put it simply and honestly…it’s bait. Bait for you.

You see, this thing I told you about earlier has studied you for long enough to know that most humans are attracted to light. It sees how you stay out of the shadows at night and stick to the bright shine of the street lamps. Even its underdeveloped and uncivilized mind can put two and two together. After all, it’s got the mind of a hunter. And hunters know how to get their prey.

And right now, it’s watching you in this very room. You can’t see it or hear it because it knows how to hide. It’s perfected the art of hiding. Even that sixth sense that most people have that alerts them if something is watching them won’t work with this thing.

Carefully walk over to the light. Don’t make any sudden movements.

Pardon? Well, yes, I know I said it’s bait, but do it anyways. Once you’ve reached the candle, sit down next to it and stare at it. Don’t try and look at anything else, because you won’t see anything. The darkness is too thick to reveal anything.

I know you’re probably scared at this point. You can feel your heart beating rapidly- desperately trying to burst out of your chest with anxiety. Adrenaline is coursing through your veins at one hundred miles an hour, warming your muscles up and keeping your mind sharp. Your brain is ready to make the split second decision of fight or flight…

But no. Don’t pay attention to any of that. Just pay attention to one thing.

Remember that number from earlier? Good. Now take that bottle out from your pocket- yes, the one you got from the desk. Slowly unscrew the cap and place it on the floor next to you.

Dip your finger into the liquid in the bottle, and write that number on the box in the candlelight. Yes, I know it’s warm and sticky, but that should be the least of your worries right now.

What is the liquid, you ask? I think we both know the answer to that.

See, whatever happens now is going to decide your fate. If you write the correct number, the thing will let you go without interruption, and you will have earned a friend for life. Albeit, a friend who will still watch you from the shadows, yet it will never let any other monsters harm you as long as you keep it company from time to time… But write down the wrong number and…well…let’s just hope you get it right, because if not, there’s nothing I can do to help you.

Okay, have you written your number?

Good. Close the bottle, set it down next to the box, and wait. That’s right. You have to wait.

It’s currently crawling around the room to take a look at that number. In fact, it’s actually right next to you at the moment, studying the figure you jotted down. Quite disturbing, no? Even with the candlelight, you won’t be able to see it, and you definitely can’t hear it. But maybe…maybe if you try hard enough…you’ll be able to smell it.

Go on. Take a whiff.

There. You could smell it, couldn’t you? The faint stench of rotting meat and death in general?

Try even harder, and you’ll be able to feel it. Because you see, right now, it’s running the edge of it’s razor sharp nails right next to the skin of your throat. Oh, you thought those goose bumps on your neck were from the cold temperature of the room? No. It is because your body somehow knows that this thing is sitting next to you…that it is reaching out for you with its claws and-…

-Look! I believe it’s made a decision…and-

Oh.

Oh, I’m so sorry.

That’s not the right number.

Yes…you heard me right. You wrote down the wrong number…it was one off.

How, you ask?

Oh dear. I forgot to tell you to count the step you almost tripped on, didn’t I?

The last step?

My apologies. You really did seem like a very nice person…

But unfortunately, I can’t afford to lose this thing’s friendship.

After all, who else will protect me from the monsters?

Credit: Teddy Silva

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Barter

September 15, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Rating: 9.2/10 (264 votes cast)

Marjorie had been lingering outside the nondescript metal door for nearly two hours, appearing to study the door and the faded sign above it. The Deli, it read in dusty script. Her coat was wrapped as tightly around her as the fraying fabric allowed, but still the winter air dug through it. The cold was not enough, however, to drive her out of the elements and through the door. Once or twice she approached it, hand shaking as it neared the handle, only to draw back at the last second as if the handle were a snake.

It should have been easier to enter the door the longer she waited, but it seemed to only grow immeasurably more difficult. It did not help that in her entire time waiting no one had entered or left the building. Had someone sallied up, opened the door, and safely entered into a cloud of inviting warmth, it may have lured her in. Similarly, the safe exit of any sort of person would have given her the assurance that one could brave whatever lay beyond. But the road was empty, and the door sat unmoving.

A particularly sharp gust of wind whistled down the abandoned alley, tugging at her coat and sending her tangled hair into a maelstrom. Her eyes watered at the cold, and she inched closer to the wall, hoping it would afford some protection. It was silly, she chided herself, spending all this time out in the elements. This was what had to be done. She was out of options, and her only hope lay beyond that door.

Yet Marjorie wondered if perhaps it was better to be hopeless than pay whatever price this hope would cost.

The streetlight flickered on overhead. Soon it would be dark, and then she would have to make a decision or risk staying on the unsafe streets at night. Being here in the middle of the day was dangerous enough—she would not be caught outside after dark.

That was the final shove she needed to overcome her inertia. With sudden resolve, she gripped the door handle. It flew open in her hands almost reflexively, for which she was glad. The metal was bitterly cold, seeming almost to burn her with its chill. Had the door not stood open, she would have again released it and likely vanished back to her home.

Inside was a nondescript, concrete hallway. A lonely yellow light filled the inside, leading to another door. This door was made of a dark wood and had a heavy brass knocker affixed to the middle. Marjorie’s steps echoed in the concrete chamber, coming to a sudden stop when the metal door groaned to a loud close. The weak, evening light was now gone, leaving her alone with only the single bulb. She had not realized how comforting it was to have that little bit of the outside world with her. With the door closed, even the distant sounds of traffic were cut-off.

Panic wrapped its claws around her throat. She felt her chest tighten with its serpentine grip; her heart thundered against her ribs. In that moment, instincts took over and she reverted to her most primitive response. Flee.

The echoes of her steps were a maddening flurry around her as she sprinted the fifteen feet back to the metal door. Her hands scrambled for purchase on the handle, only to find nothing but smooth metal. No handle on this side. The thunder of thousands of years of evolution continued to push her towards flight, and her fingers clawed around the metal door frame, hoping to find some crevice to pry open the door. Only there was again nothing. In the dim light afforded by the bulb, she could not make out a single seam. It was almost as if the door had sealed as soon as she entered. Her breaths now came in ragged gasps that did little to help her or calm her. Instead, the world seemed to swim before her. A mocking door, concrete walls. It was almost as if the walls were inching closer, activated on some cruel timer to pin her here forever.

All that she could hear was the flood of blood pulsing through her veins, the rapid fluttering of her heart frantically trying to escape, and the jarring sound of air ripping from her lungs before being shoved back inside. The walls acted as an echo chamber, reflecting her own terrified symphony back at her.

Deep breaths, she reminded herself. Just like those nights spent in the closet, deep breaths. She had to slow herself down if she was going to survive this. Slowing her breathing to a measured pace was akin to stopping a car with no brakes. She felt her lungs fight against the control, trying to maintain their breakneck pace despite her insistence. Overtime, however, she won out. The breaths were shaky, but calm, and her heart took its cue to return to its typical state of frenzy. The walls returned to their assigned places and stopped their dizzying journey.

Carefully, Marjorie ran her hands along the wall where the door stood, confirming that there was no seam that she could grip. It was a well-constructed door; there was not even a glimmer of dying afternoon light slipping through the bottom. If she could not back out now, she must go forward.

The hallway was not long, but she felt like a member of a funeral procession as she somberly made her way towards the door. Up close, she could see twisting, abstract shapes carved all over the door. They meant nothing to her, but she felt her breaths begin to hiccup again in her chest. Deep breaths, she repeated her only mantra.

Her hand was shaking as she placed it on the brass knocker. Unlike the door handle, this one was pleasantly warm to the touch. Inviting, almost. With a groan of rusted metal, she lifted it and rapped it quickly against the door. One, two, three. The door began to swing smoothly on its hinges after the third knock, opening onto a room filled with the murmur of quieted voices and wisps of strange smelling smoke. She stepped gingerly inside, feeling immediately out of place.

There were tables and booths scattered around the room. Marjorie did her best not to make eye contact or even look at them, keeping her eyes trained to the worn wood floor. She heard a few snickers, saw a couple hands point her out from their shadowy seats. Even as the large frames filled her periphery, she walked steadfastly towards the counter at the far end of the room.

Everyone in the room recognized immediately how out of place she was. While they were each bedecked in protective charms and talismans—some hanging from their necks, others etched into the scar tissue of their bodies—all she had was the flimsy barrier of her coat, still pulled tight around her against the now suffocating heat of the small room. She waked gingerly across the creaking floorboards, barely daring to breathe. They grinned and watched.

Marjorie approached the counter and lifted her eyes to see the attendant slouched on a stool behind the domed glass structure. Halfway to his face, her eyes froze on the contents of the display case. She assumed the rotted lumps inside had once been some sort of meat, though they were now covered in flies and maggots. Pooled, congealed blood covered the bottom surface, even seeping out and down to the floor. She followed the trail to see the red-stained, warped wood along the floor boards. Mouth agape and eyes wide, she was certain she saw a few eyeballs and fingers mixed in amongst the decay, but she tried to put it out of her mind.

“Want to try a sample?” came the mocking, gravelly voice of the attendant as he pulled open the door to the case. Immediately, a wave of putrescence poured out and enveloped Marjorie. She did her best to escape it, stumbling backwards and tripping over a warped floorboard. There was a low chuckle from those gathered around her, growing more and more quickly into a round of bawdy laughter.

She gagged, her stomach trying to force up the breakfast and lunch she had not eaten. It burned her eyes, starting them watering again. Her stomach having only been successful in ejecting a small amount of water she had nervously sipped at outside, her lungs took to coughing. Anything to get that stench away from her and out of her body.

There was the sound of a lock snapping into place as the attendant continued to laugh. She studied him briefly from her place on the floor behind watery eyes. He was filthy, covered in a layer of grime that made it impossible to tell his age. A tangled mess of dirt and wispy hair sat atop his head, falling into his beady eyes as he rocked back and forth with laughter at her predicament. His hands—stained and caked with muck—gripped the counter as long, yellowed nails scraped across the glass in time to his chuckling.

Marjorie did her best to pull herself together, rising from the floor and straightening her clothes as if that would restore her dignity. The smell had faded, now only a slight whiff of decay rather than the malodorous assault. That or her nose could no longer register the scent having burned out that sense for good. She threw her head back, eyes meeting the dark, glassy eyes of the man behind the counter.

“I’m here to speak with the owner,” she said in what she hoped was a confident voice. It did not help that it trembled and broke as she spoke. But at her words, a begrudging silence spread through the room.

The attendant snorted, a thick mucusy sound. For a moment she was afraid he was preparing to spit on her. Instead, he jerked one dirty finger to a paper ticket dispenser. “Take a number, then.”

With that, the attention on her seemed to fade. The low, grumble of conversation returned and she heard chairs scraping across the wood as the denizen’s returned to their intrigue. She walked over and gripped the dusty piece of paper delicately, as if afraid it might crumble to dust in her fingers. Perhaps this was another trick. Instead, the machine groaned and dispensed with a tiny slip. Number 43. She looked around for some sign that told her where she was. She had not seen anyone enter or leave today, so perhaps the line was long. But there was no such indicator.

“Excuse me,” she cautiously questioned the attendant, “how do I know what number is up?”

One eye turned to face her, the other stared out over the bar. “Take a seat and you’ll be called.” His eye flicked back to whatever it was between the counter and door that so raptly held his attention.

Marjorie gingerly picked her way over to an unoccupied table, acutely aware that her back was exposed to whatever kind of people liked to congregate in a place like this. She was certain that she could feel each individual eye raking over her back, sense spider-like appendages trace up and down her spine. Her hands were balled into knots, resting bloodlessly on her lap.

The minutes trickled by, marked only by the rise and fall of bawdy laughter. Marjorie kept her eyes focused on the table in front of her, trying to pick out patterns and shapes in the wooden surface. Trying to keep her mind from wandering too far from the task at hand. Somehow she knew that she could snap if forced to take in the reality of where she was and what she was doing. Instead, she focused on the next step. Meeting the owner and making her request.

The crack of a metal mug slamming onto the wooden table brought her eyes up, open wide like an animal caught in a snare. A woman stood across from her, tall and broad-shouldered. She had one bright green eye that studied Marjorie up and down. In place of her other eyes was a nasty incision, weeping a slight bit of pus, that bulged with dark stitches. Without being invited, the woman settled into the seat across from Marjorie.

“Me oh my, you don’t belong here, pretty thing,” she said in a hushed tone. Her eye was hungry. Marjorie sat silent as the woman studied her with a slight smile on her dry, swollen lips. “No, you aren’t meant to be here at all. What brings a little bird like you into a place like this?”

Marjorie focused her eyes back on the table. There was nothing she could say here that would keep her safe, and she knew that. She just needed to meet with the owner and make her request.

“A quiet one. Not going to sing for Lucy, eh? Come now, tell me what you need and I can help you get out of this place.” Marjorie’s silence prevailed. “We both know this is not a safe place for the likes of you. I’ve got a soft-spot for women, knowing how hard it is to be among this rabble myself. Just let me help you, dearie.”

Almost unbidden, Marjorie’s eyes lifted from the table and met the woman’s unnatural green one. It was beautiful, truly, even if it was nested within a hideous face. The green reminded Marjorie of the view from her bedroom window as a child on Easter morning. There was a small tree that grew just outside that always seemed to be absolutely covered in new leafs that shone with that bright, spring green. That was the color of the eyes. And it shone and sparkled like sunlight reflecting off water.

“There now, I’m sure we can work something out. I just know I can help you with whatever you need.” Lucy’s voice was a soft singsong, not the harsh growl of a dedicated chain smoker like before. “I even make sure my prices are fair, especially for a fair young thing like yourself.” Marjorie felt a hand on her knee, gently stroking. “Them pretty eyes of yours—they look like they’ve seen a world of heartache, eh? I could take care of those for you. You’d like that, yes?”

Eye fixated, Marjorie felt her head begin to bob slightly. To not see the horrors she had in her time, well, that would be nice.

“I see you like the idea,” Lucy’s face cracked open into a wide grin. “I thought you might. I’m good as seeing what people really need from me. I just need you to say it. Say you’ll give me those awful eyes of yours, and I’ll make sure you never have to see something so terrible again.”

Marjorie’s mouth opened, the very words on her lips, when a strong hand settled onto her shoulder. It smelled of leather and blood and gripped her shoulder hard enough to break the trance.

“Not going to let you have all the fun, Ol’ Luce. It’s not every day we get something so lovely in this dingy place.”

Marjorie felt dizzy and confused, as if time were moving at double again its normal pace. Her mind was slow in catching up to what was happening—what had almost happened—leaving her feeling as if she were lagging behind the rest of the world. Now Lucy was standing, measuring up to a formidable height, with anger in that lone green eye.

“I’ll not have you meddling, Thomas. She and I were nearly to a deal.”

“A deal you tricked her into, no less. Where’s the fun in that? Just weave your little spell, and she’ll say whatever you want. You’ve gone soft, Luce. I need to make you work for it.” His voice was soft, but firm. It seemed to cut through the background din like a razor, until it was the only thing she could hear. As Marjorie’s mind caught up with what had just nearly happened, she felt her heart begin to race. And then there was the hand on her shoulder, the firm grip beginning to hurt with its intensity.

The man bent over her shoulder, smiling. A long, black beard tickled against the skin of her neck, and she could smell the whiskey on his breath. “I’m afraid we have not been introduced, and I’ve already gone and saved your life. It’s a bad habit, I admit. My name is Thomas.” He extended his other hand towards her, the one on her shoulder growing tighter as she refused to shake. “Oh, we must be polite in an uncivil place as this, yes? What’s your name?”

Marjorie whimpered at the pain in her shoulder but fixed her eyes back on the table. She had to talk to the owner. She had to make her request.

“Back off and let her be, Thomas. I saw her; I made the first move. There’ll be others for you,” barked Lucy’s voice.

“Yes, but you didn’t close on the sale, now did you?” His eyes flicked away from Marjorie for just a moment, fixing Lucy with a cold gaze before returning with more warmth to Marjorie’s face. “You’ll find I’m much more direct. No need for silly games.” The hand moved smoothly from her shoulder, along the back of her neck. Suddenly, his fingers were wrapped through her hair, yanking her head back and exposing her throat. She felt something cold and sharp there, and barely dare to breathe. His smiling face leaned over hers, “How many years would you give me to keep this pretty little neck of yours attached?”

Marjorie heard a short laugh to her right, saw a slender man standing to the side. He stood just within her periphery, far enough back that she could only make out the vague shape of him. “Thomas, do be careful. There is plenty of her to go around if we just act with a little tact. I bet you could make some even better deals if you thought this through.”

“Oh no, you aren’t going to trip me up with that again. You swindled me out of everything last time.”

“You are right, it was a bit of a dirty trick. But surely you and Luce could work out some sort of a deal. You don’t need her eyes after all.”

Marjorie noticed the shadow of Luce appeared to turn and nod towards the man to the side, and she heard a very soft chuckle from him.

Thomas’ hands gripped her hair even more tightly. “You’re just mad that I got to her first, and this time I’m cutting you out!”

“Well, fine, but I fear it’s not just me you’ll be fighting against, Tom. A lot of us would like a piece of her.”

Thomas leaned back down by her ear, his words coming in a whispered frenzy. “Well, dear, looks like they’ll be taking you piece by piece. What do you say then? Give Ol’ Thomas whatever years you’ve got left? At least they’ll go to some sort of use, yeah?”

Marjorie heard grumbling in the room, the sound of chairs scraping along the wood, and a chorus of various metals meeting metal. There was a new tension in the uncomfortably warm room, a weight that pressed down all around her.

“Come on, times ticking, do we have a deal? You look like an altruistic soul. Help me out.” Footsteps coming close, a few short barks of anger. The intensity increased in his voice and he shook her head sharply. “They’ll cut out your tongue soon, so you best tell me now!”

Marjorie felt tears falling down her cheeks, a steady stream now pouring from her eyes. She had to speak to the owner. She had to make her request. Only she was not so sure she’d even get that chance.

Someone grabbed Thomas and the knife nicked her, drawing a thin line of blood far less lethal than it could have been. Marjorie dove under the table, trying to evade the arms that grabbed at her. There was the smell of blood in the room, and all the inhabitants had been suitably whipped into a frenzy. She was the lone fish drifting amongst the sharks.

A mug struck her temple, thick hands gripped and tugged at her arms, leaving angry red bruises that began to darken almost instantly. The rough floor scraped along her knees and arms as she crawled, filling her skin with tiny needling splinters. As she scrambled, kicked, and bit at any appendage that came her way, she noticed the tempo of the fray beginning to increase. No longer was she the main prize, but the fighters had turned on one another, vying for the chance to claim this lovely reward. They knew, of course, that she had nowhere to run. Finally, she found a corner to hide in, burying her head in her arms and trying to drown out the sound of the chaos around here. She needed to speak to the owner.

After what felt like hours of combat, the sounds of an opening door cut through the din. A sudden silence filled the room, minus the groaning of the incapacitated, and Marjorie began to sob. This was it. A victor had been named, and she was now the trophy to be parceled as he or she saw fit. She could not even lift her eyes to see which of the horrors in the room she would be left with.

However, something else broke the silence. “Number 43?” asked the calm voice of a young girl. Marjorie dared to barely lift her head, seeing the tiny figure standing in a doorway that had not existed moments before.

“Number 43?”

She scrambled to her feet, holding aloft the ticket she had somehow held onto during the fray. None of the remaining combatants—the war had obviously not been won quite yet—dared to touch her as she walked forward, towards the child in the doorway. Still, she shuddered and spooked as they milled about in the shadows. The girl motioned into the bright rectangle cut into the formerly intact wall, and Marjorie walked forward.

The door closed behind her, a parlor trick she was now used to. It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust from the gloom of the waiting room to the warm light of this new area. It was a well-furnished office, completed with a large wooden desk and an assortment of alluring leather chairs. The scent of cedar mixed with the smell of the crackling fireplace in a way that reminded Marjorie of weekend trips to her grandad’s cabin. Silently, the young girl stepped against the wall behind Marjorie, next to what had been the doorway, but now was nothing more than another section of oak paneling.

The man behind the desk did not look up at first. He was busy tallying and writing in a thick ledger, seemingly uninterested in the bruised and bloody woman before him. After a few moments, he looked up with a friendly smile and closed the book firmly.

“Marjorie, pleasure to meet you finally. I see you got the traditional welcome from our guests? And not a one of them was able to make a deal with you! You must be made of some tough stuff.”

She nodded mutely, uncertain now of how to proceed. He simply smiled at her and gave her the time she needed to study him. His teeth were bright white—the only clean thing she had seen since entering the deli. His eyes were as dark as his teeth were white, but they appeared to be friendly. As he waited for her to speak, he knitted his fingers together in front of him, rolling his shoulder to straighten out the drape of his crisp suit coat. Every bit of him seemed to be polished and neat—a stark contrast to the room before.

“Are you the Devil?” she finally managed to squeak out, eyes wide.

He laughed, throwing his head back and letting the sound ripple around the room. It was a friendly, amused sound that put her at ease. “Oh no, nothing so boring as that.”

“But you can give people whatever they want.”

He composed himself, that same broad smile still on his face. “Well, of course I can. But there is much more to this world than your simple understanding of gods and devils. Don’t worry, Marjorie, this is no deal with the Devil. But do tell me, what is it you want?”

“I—I came here to—“ The words would not come. She had thought and thought about how she would tell her story, how she would describe the years of abuse, threats, and evil. She considered taking off her coat and showing him the pale yellow stains of old bruises, but they were now marred by fresh ones from the fray. She felt for the death certificate in her pocket, the name of her first son written on it. And now the words would not come.

He watched patiently, no hint of irritation at her pause. When she began to sob, he offered her the handkerchief from his front pocket.

“He told everyone I was drunk. That was how I fell down the stairs. That was why Mikey died.” The tears were coming more in earnest now, and she dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief. “They all looked at me like a terrible mother, that I would be drinking while pregnant. They blamed me—if I had been sober, I wouldn’t have fallen and Mikey would have at least had a chance. No one believed me.”

“I don’t bring people back from the dead, Marjorie. Even I don’t meddle in things like that,” his voice was soft, almost as if moved by her tearful story.

She took that moment to compose herself, sniffing and wiping away the tears. “I know. That’s not why I’m here. I want you to kill my husband.” The words were out, blunt and dirty, before she realized what she was saying. This was not how the discussion was supposed to have gone.

His face brightened. “Oh, is that all you need? Well, that should be a relatively easy matter”

“You don’t understand. He’s a monster. It won’t be easy to kill him, but you have to. You have to kill him, because he’s a very bad person.”

“Marjorie, I don’t care who he is. He could be Hitler or the Pope reincarnate. All I care about is that you want him dead. And I can make that happen, no matter how ‘monstrous’ he might be.” He reached over and pulled an ornate ink pen from his desk. “I will need some details, like his name, address, distinguishing physical features. Also, would you like proof of death?”

Marjorie’s stomach churned at the thought of what she was doing. It was the only way, though. He had to pay for his crimes, and no one else was willing to do it. “No, I won’t need that. Everyone says you follow through on your deals.”

“Word of mouth is certainly the best advertisement for services such as mine,” he smiled that disarming smile again.

“Um, well, his name is David Bergen and his address is 1394 Windhaven Rd, Apt 1722. It’s in Topeka.” He continued writing and nodding. “He’s about six foot tall, a big bulky guy. Blond hair, brown eyes. He has some sort of tribal tattoo on the back of his neck, one of a skull on his right bicep. Is that enough?”

“Oh, that’s lovely. A wonderful description. I’ll dispatch someone right away,” he said, nodding to the small girl. Marjorie heard the door swing open behind her, then close quietly. “But, now that your terms are set, let us discuss what I shall get in return. A few rules. I don’t trade in souls—it is simply too much of a hassle to deal with, and the return is rather poor. I also don’t accept first born children,” at this, he nodded his head towards the spot the girl had been moment before. “I’ve done it once, but I’ve found children are not particularly useful.” There was a sudden cruel glint to his smile, “Besides, someone has already taken yours.”

Marjorie was silent, her fingers worrying over the hem of her jacket as if that would provide some solace in this moment. Her heart was pounding again, and she wondered if perhaps she was going to suffocate here in this office. The scents and furnishing that had seemed so lavish now felt oppressive. “But I can give you anything else, right?”

He paused to consider her comments. “I reserve the right to refuse any substandard trade. I won’t, for instance, take your pocket lint.” He chuckled appreciatively at his own joke. “But I accept most fair trades.” His demeanor turned more serious, perhaps even taking on a sinister air. He leaned forward over the desk, shadows growing across his face as he did so. “Think carefully now about what you’ll give me for this. Whatever you decide, you will think it is something you would never want back no matter how long you live. But once it’s gone, you’ll find you cannot live without it. You’ll yearn for it. You’ll do anything to replace it. You’ll take it. But it will never be enough, will always be shrouded in the filth of something borrowed. So make a wise choice, but know there is no wisdom that will save you. What will you give me?”

She thought long and hard, but she had spent days thinking about it already. She was almost certain she had thought of something that in no way could harm her, no matter what. In fact, she reminded herself, it would be a relief. She would be strong and brave then, not the timid girl that had entered. “My pain,” she finally answered.

He smiled eagerly, a response that made her suddenly uncertain. “Oh, yes, we have a deal! Pain is one of my favorites. And don’t come back here saying I didn’t warn you.” With that he clamped her hand in his and shook once. Marjorie felt as his grip began as an excruciating vice, then dwindled until she could barely even notice it. The aches and pains of her various cuts and bruises also dimmed before disappearing altogether.

As promised, with it gone, she also felt that absence acutely. It was a kind of nostalgia now, a prickling sense of something missing and a longing to return. This wasn’t so bad, she thought. Uncomfortable, certainly, but it must have been the right choice.

He still smiled. “You think it’s going to be easy. But that’s just the first taste. Give it time.”

“But,” there was a crackle in her voice. Sacrificing pain did not remove fear. “I can take away others’ pain now, right?”

His eyes simmered with glee, as if her altruism was a delicious appetizer. “Of course, my dear. And you most certainly will. Again and again, you’ll valiantly step in and take every ache from their bodies, dry the tears from their eyes. And someday that won’t be enough. You’ll hunger for more. So you’ll give them a little pain, only to take it away. Until that isn’t enough either. I told you, it will never be enough. You can try to drown yourself in the pain and agony of millions and never be satisfied.” His grin finally split into a restrained laugh, and he quickly reassembled his face into a look of mild amusement. The excitement glimmered in his eyes.

Lost in his eyes, in the long future stretching before her, in the half-perceived glimpse of the monster she would become, Marjorie barely noticed as the room faded from around her. The last thing to disappear were his eyes, and she blinked. She felt dazed, as if waking from a dream, as she stood the sidewalk and in the light of early dawn. Impossibly, she was standing in front of a nondescript brick building on the other side of town.

“Remember,” she heard his voice on the breeze, “the Deli is always open. I’m guessing you’ll have a table all your own soon enough.”

Credit: Katherine C

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