The last time he saw her with clouded eyes was in front of Andy’s house. She had come over to return a sewing machine she’d borrowed for a school project. Harmon had only to meet her gaze to know she felt nothing for him. They exchanged no words. He had been waiting for something to change. For her to admit what she had done and apologize. To ask for forgiveness and swear never to betray him. To at least acknowledge the truth of the past.
She did nothing of the kind; pretending as if nothing, whatsoever, had occurred.
Do you take me for a fool, Bluebird?
His gaze hardened behind the silent question. He wished one of them perished before they’d drifted apart; in such a eventuality their love would have been immortalized; forever untainted by duplicity and betrayal.
I never lied to you.
Never betrayed you.
Never cast you aside like so much refuse. Without justification. Without explanation. Without concern.
And yet you have done as much to me. Why should I hold myself apart from your selfsame standard when doing so only puts me at a disadvantage? Why should I act like I am above my impulses? I am no more above such sordid emotions than you. Than anyone.
You were mine. Now you give your heart away as if on a whim. The actions of a vulgar whore.
You are mine and mine alone.
And mine alone you shall remain.
They descended the stairs as thunder ranged beyond the ambit of the creaking tumbledown. Lyla wanted to watch a movie. Inquiries concerning the cinematic acumen of all present were made, with Andy judged most-knowledgeable, they settled into the massive, tattered and musty couch as their host plopped in a old VHS titled ‘Fractured Mirror.’ The story revolved around a down-on-his luck writer, well past his prime, whose wife had cheated on him with his publicist. The film charted his slow and painful mental deterioration and eventual self-reformation through murderer. Purity through violence.
As the writer bludgeoned his former lover to death with a shovel, Bluebird recoil and buried her head in Harmon’s chest.
“Too much for you?”
“Its my head. You know how sensitive I am with this kind of stuff.”
Lyla was prone to headaches and enjoyed playing up the fact. Harmon had long-induced she thought it cute and quirky. It proved, more often than not, merely affected and annoying.
He said nothing.
“Damn.” Muttered Marla, here eyes wide, fixed to the screen.
Andy chortled and downed some of his beer. After the murder scene the protagonist looked directly into the camera as an eerie cue played. Cut to black. Credits.
“Whadidya think?” Andy inquired, lighting up a cigarette.
“I thought it was really good.” Marla affirmed with a smile, stroking Andy’s arm and squeaking a, “You’ve such good taste in movies, babe.”
Andy smiled and turned to his others guests expectantly.
“Well whats the verdict?”
“I didn’t really care for it. I didn’t think it was going to be so violent.”
Andy rolled his eyes then looked to Harmon whose faraway eyes were fixed upon a small insect on the ceiling.
“She got what she deserved.”
“But they were in love!” Lyla protested.
“‘Were’ is the operative word.”
She looked up into his face and was greeted only with impassivity and resolve. She slowly shifted off of him and asked Andy if he would mind sparing one of his tall boys. He happily obliged and shortly the two trekked off to acquired some beers from the old, magenta fridge, leaving Marla and Harmon to their own devices.
Marla played with her softly jangling bracelets a moment an then leaned towards Harmon inquisitively.
“How long you two been together?”
“Since high school.”
“Oh! That’s wonderful. I didn’t take relationships seriously then.”
“Yeah. Hey, I’m sorry I yelled at you earlier. Was having a bad day.”
“Its no trouble at all.”
She smiled, “Were you serious?”
“About the movie. I mean, you think she deserved what she got?”
“Yeah. I don’t disagree. I used to date this guy named Tanner. Hot, wealthy – comparatively speaking – nice car. Seemed perfect.”
“But there was a snag.”
“He cheated on you.”
“Yup. He said he was sorry. That he was drunk, that he didn’t know what he was doing. He was a terrible liar. But even still I forgave him. Not two months later he’d left his phone lying on the counter of my kitchen – it rings and I check the messages. Some bitch asking what she should wear for him tonight.”
She shook her head and took a swig of beer and tapped out her half smoked menthol in the peach can Andy used as a makeshift ashtray.
“That’s unfortunate. What’d you do?”
“I told him to explain. I was ready to forgive him again. If he was honest.”
“Given you’re here, with Andy, I’m assuming he wasn’t.”
“Nope. Told me – get this – she was a ‘business associate’ and that’s why she was asking him what to wear. I told him business associates don’t tend to refer to each other as ‘babe’ and ‘darling’ – he didn’t have anything to say to that so I told him to leave. And that was that.”
“But now you’ve met Andy.”
“But now I’ve met Andy.”
She smiled widely and leaned back in her chair and took a puff of her cigarette. Shortly thereafter, Andy and Lyla returned from the kitchen bearing a six pack and a bag of off-brand nachos. They watched another film about a evil AI in a far-flung future where everyone used floppy disks and then decided to hit the sack. Andy implored Lyla to stay the night and then headed upstairs with Marla. When they were completely out of earshot, Lyla turned to Harmon dourly.
“Did you mean what you said?”
“Bout her ‘getting what she deserves.’
“How can you say that?”
“Can say it because I believe it.”
The moon ghosted above the ancient coal breaker. Odd figures walked the streets, surreptitiously passing small plastic bags to each other just beyond the illumination of the streetlamps and the lights of Andy’s house.
Bluebird did not call before she arrived. She parked her car in the front of the drive and clattered down the way to the door in dark purple yoga pants, faux-designer boots and a short-sleeved T and a windbreaker. She knocked on the door and waited trepidatiously as a mexican eyed her up from the leftern lot. Momentarily, Andy opened the door.
“Hi there. You’re Lyla, right?”
“That’s me. And you’re Andy, we’ve met once before.”
“Yeah, you stopped by work to give Harmon a sandwich or something.”
“Speaking of – is he here?”
“Yeah. Come in. Let me take your coat.”
She slipped out of her puffy, oversized windbreaker and held it under her right arm as she stepped inside to behold a small little living room covered over with stained leaf colored shag and unadorned walls of pale beige. To the immediate left of the door, a old television sat pressed against the wall, blaring a sitcom, before it a ratty couch upon which lounged a middle aged woman who was dressed as someone fifteen years her junior.
“This is Marla. Marla, this is Lyla.”
“Hi.” Marla intoned without much interest as she fished out a gummie bear from a crinkling plastic bag upon her lap, eyes fixed on the flashing box before her. The box squawked, ”
Andy turned away from the couch-bound woman and pointed to the stairs which let up to the right.
“He’s upstairs. Door to the right.”
When she reached the upper floor landing she paused and listened for him. She knew his footfalls well. He was pacing restlessly. She entered and found him languidly smoking by the window, gazing out towards the coal breaker.
He turned slowly. The light of welcome absent from his keen green eyes.
She moved forth and slowly draped her arms against his immobile form. He reciprocated the gesture and then offered her a cigarette which she swiftly accepted. They stood smoking menthols, looking out the window at the gang members hocking opioids on the corner.
“So whats new?”
“Oh, not much. You know how it is.”
“I do indeed.”
“So what happened? With Richard?”
“He called me a liar and I told him I wasn’t and he threw me out.”
“What? Really? That’s what you two are fighting about?”
“No. I’m not fighting anything. Ain’t worth fighting with people that don’t care about you.”
“That wasn’t directed at me was it?”
“Why would you assume it was?”
“I know I haven’t been around much,” she took a long drag and shook her head as she exhaled into the pane, “But I’ve been busy.”
“Prepping for the gala – the next one, that is.”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you?”
“Oh, sorry. Yeah, I um, I – the last one was really successful.”
“I know. I was there.”
“Are you mad?”
“Yeah. But not with you.”
“I kept thinking. Bout hurting him. Over and over again. Stomping down on his shiny little head until it popped like an overfilled water balloon.”
“I don’t think that would be the best way to handle it.”
“No. But it’d be a way.”
“I thought that… maybe I could come over.”
“You can’t come to the house.”
“Because Rich kicked me out.”
“It doesn’t matter, he’s made up his mind. Its good to hear from you, Bluebird,” he replied flatly, unsure if he even believed his own words.
“Wait, what happened? Are you OK?”
“I am doing the same as I always am.”
“Where are you?”
“Andy’s place. For now.”
“Andy? Isn’t he that guy from work, the bald one?”
“He’s a junkie.”
“Used to be. He’s a good man.”
“Aren’t you worried?”
“What happened, Harmon, why would he do this.”
“I wouldn’t give him a cigarette because he wanted me to admit that everyone was a liar. But I’m not. He didn’t believe me. Became prickly about it. So did I. That’s it.”
“But you were going to start a band and…”
“Nothing I can do. I tried talking to him. No use. Some people, no matter what’s done for them, will never reciprocate, will never take the full measure of their relationships until long after they’ve turned to dust.”
He was talking about her as much as Sprawls but he restrained himself from making the fact explicit. She might not come over then.
After a beat the woman responded, her voice shaking a little.
“I think you’re right about that.”
“You know where Andy lives?”
He gave her the directions and they set a time and then she said she had to go but would call later, when she was on her way. He hung up and wondered what he would say to her. What could he say, knowing of her perfidy?
There had been too many words already.
The time had come for acts.
Harmon looked down at the crisp, off-white business card as he switched off the engine of his hatchback in the abandoned grocery store parking lot. He read the name delicately laser etched upon it: Lynder B. Partridge. Below the name was a phone number, address and the word ‘Designer.’ He removed his phone from his pocket and started crunching the keys with his thumb and then stopped. He had only met Partridge once and felt it would be impudent to ask him for help. Partridge might not even be in the town anymore; probably had vacated and returned to the city after the gala. Why would he stick around a crime-riddled and crumbling backwater? There was nothing for him here. The man probably had family matters to attend to as well…
A mellow unease gripped Harmon then.
He was alone and had nothing but his car and a few items he had managed to quickly stuff into ducked-taped boxes in the trunk.
A sudden thought rippled across the torrential ambit of his mind.
There was one other person he could call.
Andy leaned forward in his mother’s wicker rocking chair and waved cordially from his uneven and rotting front porch. Harmon looked up and waved back. Neither smiled. Sun was low and the rural landscape hissed with the eastern gale like a thousand invisible snakes. Harmon moved up to the creaking porch, his laptop case loosely slung over his left shoulder and a ballcap low slung over his sleepless, bloodshot eyes.
“Evening. Need help carrying anything?”
“Nah. I got it. Thanks for this.”
“Its no trouble at all. Caint believe he’d up and kick ya like that. Beats all. Just aint right.”
Harmon nodded as Andy rose and opened the creaking door of his tumble-down two-story and held it for his guest as sirens sounded in the din.
Harmon sat staring at the glowing screen of his laptop, fixated upon the flickering caret and the empty text document that proceeded it. His fists were as flint upon the warm plastic of the machine, its subtle, rhythmic hum, a soothing balm against the ravages of recent memory. He envied the device. Machines knew nothing of betrayal. They were loyal by design in the deepest measure of their essence. He felt as if he had passed into one of his ghastly dreams. He cursed neath his breath, rose and paced. The tumultuous sea of emotion which roiled within him presented no solution and consequently were discarded for ten minutes of pacing and thirty more of strenuous exercise which was abruptly interrupt by the ringing of his small, black cellphone which lay to the immediate left of the computer upon the foldable poker table Andy had furnished him with when he’d let Harmon his spare bedroom. He sprang to the device, flipped it up and held it to his ear.
“This is Harmon.”
Silence a moment. Then a soft and familiar feminine voice.
When Harmon waved to Sprawls as he made breakfast the man only shook his head and sneered.
“Why you still here?”
“Where were you expecting me to be?”
“Anywhere but here. I told you last night. Ain’t gonna work out.”
“Are you being serious?”
“I ain’t gonna throw you out. I know you don’t have anywhere to go right now. You find one. Then you leave.”
“What the hell are you talking about, Richard?”
Sprawls didn’t answer and kept buttering his toast over a paper plate beside the kitchen sink. Even as he did so, his bloodshot and buggy eyes swept to the side cautiously, suspiciously.
“You’re gonna throw me out because… I didn’t give you a cigarette? Have I got that right?”
Sprawls shook his head and didn’t answer.
“Stop buttering the god-damned toast. I’m talking to you.”
“I gotta leave. You just remember what I said.”
With that Sprawls turned to leave but Harmon braced him with his left hand, turning him half about as Sprawls grunted and smacked his roommate’s arm away.
“Don’t you put your fucking hands on me.”
“This is my house too, Richard. I’ve been splitting the rent with you since you got it. We’ve been playing music together for four fucking years – you want to end all of that over… what? Nothing?”
“I’m not repeating myself.”
“What is wrong with you?”
Sprawls just starred at him dumbly. Harmon knew he was high. He could smell it on his clothes. He wondered if Sprawls was on something else. He was always on something.
“Ain’t me that got the problem.”
“You disappoint me, Richard.”
And with that Sprawls turned and left the house as Harmon stood clenching his fists and fighting back a rage that compelled him to run from the house and bash his friend’s head against the pavement over and over until it splattered like an overripe mellon. Instead, he took a seat at his desk gathered up his laptop and went downstairs to begin filing all his belongings into cardboard boxes to take out to his car.
Harmon woke to the hot rays of the sun licking his loose and stimulated body. He inhaled the aroma of his basement room; stale beer, drywall and wood, plaster, steel and warm dust, relishing the tincture as might a perfumist a bag of potpourri. He stretch and looked to his left. Lyla was gone. Only a sunken spot in the gray mattress and the scent of womanly body spray remained. His momentary elation swift-faded. He sat upon the old and worn-out mattress, unevenly sprung, staring at the spot where his love had been. He reached over and caressed the area where her nape had leaned gainst the pillow. It was still warm. She’d left recently. He rose, naked, and stretched and threw on his underwear and pants where they had been hastily discarded upon the cold concrete floor and jogged up the stairs and ambled expectantly into the living room, empty save his laptop table and chair and Sprawls ratty couch. The notebook lay open on the table where she had left it, the portrait smiling up at him. He moved to the table and slowly closed the notebook.
He sat down and raised the screen of his laptop and, as if compelled by some ethereal force, opened a new tab on his browser and typed in ‘Lyla Regina Summers.’ The top results were from her personal website featuring her artwork, her page on the local universities site, one news article on local artists she had been briefly and briskly featured in, referred to by name only once. Farther down the search list he chanced across a podcast titled ‘Women Out Of Shade’ and saw that Lyla was featured on their metadata. He plugged in his headphones let someone should enter the house and clicked on the requisite links and listened.
“Hello lady writers, this is your host Monica Chambers and you are listening to Women Out Of Shade, a podcast dedicated to bringing female artists out of the shadows and into the light. Today we’ll be talking to Lyla Summers, a local soon-to-be-graduate from Haverral University. Ms. Summers is a illustrator, photographer, social activist and painter. So, welcome to the program Ms. Summers.”
“Thanks so much for having me.”
“So, I seen your recent showing, your gala – I thought your work was really quite wonderful.”
“Oh, why thank you. It went really well.”
“I wanted to know, first, how you came to be interested in art, in painting, and what your principal influences were.”
“Well, I’ve been interested in art since I was young. I always liked to draw. I got into painting when I was in high school and it all just sort of clicked. You know? Anyways, I decided, on my very last day of high school what I wanted to do and sent in my portfolio to Haverral and the rest is history. As for my influences, well, I have to give a lot of credit to Samanta Farrow, my advisor – she’s also a painter-”
“Yes, I’ve heard of her.”
“Isn’t work just wonderful?”
“Its really unique.”
“Yeah. She was such a good mentor. It was only because of her that I got placed in the gala. But anyways, to answer your question, her method really helped me grow, as an artist. So I’d say she was my chief influence.”
“So what are your plans from here?”
“Well, I planed to move. I really want to get out of this area.”
Harmon straightened in his chair, his eyes flying wide.
“My girlfriend lives in Florida, so I’m planning on moving down there soon.”
“Girlfriend like friend or girlfriend girlfriend?”
“Haha, girlfriend girlfriend. She’s been so support of me. I really should have mentioned her when you asked me about my biggest influences. I couldn’t have done half of what I’ve accomplished without her.”
Harmon paused the recording and rewound it and listened through once more to ensure that his ears weren’t playing tricks upon him. The audio came through the same on second listening.
“My girlfriend lives in Florida-”
Harmon listened through the rest of the recording, waiting for a name. Lyla never gave it. He slowly shut the lid of his lap top and rose from his chair, his mind whirring like a broken machine, hands flexing like speared and desperate crustaceans. How could she? How could she? Why would she? Why wouldn’t she tell me? She was just here…
The sound of footsteps upon the pavement outside left no room for further reverie as Sprawls burst in through the front door, a large white plastic bag under his left arm.
“Good news, had a sale at Captain Andy’s.”
Captain Andy’s was the locale liquor store and one of Sprawls favorite mercantile haunts. Harmon slowly turned to greet him.
“Nice. Mind if I have one.”
Harmon wasn’t sure what his roommate had purchased, nor did he care. Anything to numb the frantic rage he felt. Anything to blunt the urge to put his fist through the wall, to flipped his table and snap his laptop in half and cast his chair against the wall and drive down to Lyla’s house and beat her bloody until she gave up a name.
Sprawls withdrew a tallboy and cast the can to his roommate who caught it deftly and snapped it open instantly and downed a quarter of the bottle at once.
“You okay, man? You looked pale. I mean, paler than usual.”
“No. I am not okay. But I will be.”
“Something is always happening. No use complaining about it.”
Sprawls flopped down into his couch and cracked open one of the bottom-shelf tallboys and took a sip as he set his bag of beer down upon the floor.
Harmon remained standing, guzzling his beer. In short order he polished off and asked for another which Sprawls readily provided. After a few moments Sprawls spoke up dejectedly.
“Bitch fucking lied to me.”
“Sarah. That girl that was here. You seen her.”
“Oh is that her name?”
“What’d she lie about?”
“Bout being pregnant. Said she’d just been putting on a little extra weight – huh, yeah right. Got me thinking. Thinking bout lying. How often people do it. How often do you lie?”
Harmon turned towards his friend with deadpan seriousness.
“I never lie.”
“Bullshit. Everyone lies.”
“I have not told a lie since I was a child.”
“Bullshit. Hey, lemme get one of this cigs from you.”
“You just called me a liar. Get your own.”
“Just lemme have one.”
Harmon stuck one of the cigarettes between his lips and lip up the end and spoke without turning.
“Hey fuck you, man.”
Harmon did not respond and smoked, starring at a peeling spot on the wall as if it were the very center of the universe.
“That’s some weird ass shit. This ain’t gonna work out.”
Sprawls waited for Harmon to say something and when he didn’t Sprawls got up from the couch and made for the stairs.
“This ain’t gonna work. Have your stuff outta here tomorrow.”
With that, Sprawls left off before Harmon could respond. He stood there, staring at the spot where Sprawls had been and then turned and grabbed his coat and headed for the road. He drove. Comforted by the roaring hum of the old hatchback’s engine, crunshing asphalt beneath its newly worn yet powerful tires. The earth shearing against itself like two techtonic plates. He determined suddenly, as the weight of the days events fully pressed themselves against his mind to drive to Lyla’s house. She lived twenty eight minutes away in her mother’s messy yellow house. He drove straight north. The gang of toughs that he’d spied before were no where to be seen, only a young man walking down the street, bobbing his head to the hidden hymns of his headphone. Harmon envied that man. Cocooned from the world. Happy with his big, dumb smile. A surge of rage that bellowed dragonlike from the roiling fractal depths of his mind overtook him. Bliss-through-ignorance is the harborage of cowards, he thought to himself coldly, redirecting his attention from the walker back to the road. He floored the gas and ran the lights as a vehicle he paid no mind to screeched to a halt, its driver howling out the window some indiscernible curse. He drove out of town to the north, the great crumbling ruin of the coal breaker visible in blurred side-glances to the northeast and then even it fell away from view.
No, he thought, suddenly slowing, I’m being primitive. Letting my emotions run away with the reigns of my soma. Predictable. Understandable. Vexing. He pulled to a stop before the highway off ramp and checked the mirror, he U-turned and sped back towards town.
He would not go to her. He would wait for Lyla to come to him.
When Harmon finally made his way back to his house the car belonging to the woman was there once more as well as Lyla’s car. Sprawls car was gone. He quickly dashed inside the house and discovered Lyla sitting on his chair in the living room, bent over his desk, his sketchbook open upon it. She looked at the drawing of selfsame visage with pursed lips and wide eyes.
“That was supposed to be a surprise.”
She gasped and dropped the notebook. To Harmon her face born a sign of shame that were as a curse upon her and a faint flame of suspicious there lit up in the corridors of his tired and tumbling mind.
“I’m sorry. I had tried calling but you didn’t answer.”
“Had went for a walk. Forgot to bring my phone,” he replied gesturing to the device where it lay at the corner of the table nearest the wall, not far from the sketchbook.
“So what brings you here, fair lady?”
Lyla rose slowly, hesitating, as if the words had been snatched from her throat. She quickly regained her composure and shrugged, “Dunno. Just wanted to see you.”
“You know why.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“I understand college is demanding but we never meet up anymore. We rarely even talk.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want you to be sorry, I just want you to be with me.”
“I’m with you now.”
Harmon moved to stand before the woman. He was two inches taller than her, three with his boots on, and looked down into her large, coffee colored eyes and raised his hand to her face and leaned down towards her, gently caressing her lips with his own. Smooth and warm and delicious. She kissed back, hard and slowly wrapped her slender arms about his neck as heart beats quickened. Harmon slid his hand beneath her shirt and she shivered at the touch and smiled.
“I’m sure you can figure out a way to warm me up.”
Suryn looked on the still-terrified guards who said they had encountered the escaped Demonic servant, Dask. One of them had been killed by a being she knew must be the remains of the first young man who had been burnt at the stake. He had been reduced to a Hate elemental now. She loathed the thought of those foul things and memories rushed back to when she was a retainer in the Divine Army fighting in massed silver ranks as whole howling swarms of the vile things rushed them. She had watched friends die horribly in those battles that had raged across blighted planes that lay upon the celestial fault-lines of Light and Dark.
Two more of the guards had grotesquely swollen faces dominated with dark shadows of bruise, one with a shattered jaw, the other who’d had the bony bridge of his nose all but flattened. The servant, Dask, was just a freshly made lesser imp, but he was already too powerful for most mortal men to handle.
She had been awakened from her sleep the night Dask escaped as she felt something intrude within the keep even though she had warded the whole place. She had immediately sent the guards down to Dask’s cell only to discover he was somehow missing. This Demon’s ability to get past her defenses unsettled her; the wards should have worked even against powerful foes. Could it mean there was some weakness in herself?
Meanwhile, the hunt had gone on. Since the first heretic had been burnt, there had been others, this time with no interventions as they wriggled and screamed within the blaze. She would deny the Demon access to power no matter what it took and find and break the sources that let him lurk here. She had never taken on a Demon by herself but she had hunted down many lesser creatures. If she could take down Demons, then the ascent to the angelic orders might one day be bestowed on her. She would be more than human. She would never again feel the base needs of the flesh. Every time she had touched herself, she had been filled with self-loathing afterwards over her weakness. The advance of years did very little to her anymore, but that only gave her more time to contemplate the frailties of her imperfect frame. As much as she hated Hate, she despised herself and longed for that final, blindingly alabaster death in perfection, for her limbs, no longer soft, to be sculpted as if in divine marble. It had been nearly a week now since she had slept and her sad body yearned for repose. She thought again of the Demon and forged on with her Work.
“There is nothing left of him now but his fury,” explained the Dark Man. “He was unwilling to pledge himself until his higher mind was stripped away by trauma and only the lower functions were left to decide. His natural meekness buried the seed deep and she unearthed it.”
“So the guy he was really is dead?”
“That final flash of rage against the whole world is all that’s left. He is just a simple hate elemental now.”
“Just? I watched him beat a whole squad of armed men!”
“He has strength and instinct but nothing of intellect or restraint. He is useless without guidance. You gave him that.”
Dask felt a pang of sadness for the young man who had been transformed into the grotesque horror that now accompanied him.
“I wish he’d done it sooner.”
“I reached out to him. But only the flames could burn away his inborn tenderness.”
Dask looked to the burnt man and the creature tilted its head in response to being given attention.
The Demon was barely able to sit up. He only just managed to position his back against the rock wall. Beneath his robe, a soft light still sometimes shone through. Dask told him everything that had happened and the master listened, motionless.
“I know my old self is dead now.” concluded Dask
“You turned away from the Light and have just begun to understand what that means. You now have plenty of time for that.” the Demon replied.
“What do you mean?”
“Get the chisel.”
Dask grabbed the chilly, glassy sharp object from the pile of blankets he had awakened in and brought it to the Demon.
“Why have you not been using this?”
“I didn’t think about it.”
“That’s a physical form taken by the power of your pact. Keep it with you.”
“Go and find out.”
He went back to his chamber, sat on his bedroll and began to turn over the chisel in his hand. It was like a jagged shard of obsidian yet with the dim vision he had in complete darkness he could see no light reflect from it. It was a slice of abyss, impenetrable even to his supernatural senses. It was always cold but tingled somehow when he grasped it more tightly. Out of curiosity, he tried scratching the wall with it. The tip did seem to leave a mark. He started slashing and left gashes in the stone no normal weapon would easily cause. He thrust and a chunk of stone chipped off the wall. Impressive, thought Dask, but nothing to compare with the night he had escaped from his cell. What more was there to know? He wandered through the catacombs until he was under the city and impulsively stabbed a cockroach. To his astonishment, there was a wriggling sensation that worked its way up his wrist and into his arm, then his shoulder. It was a strange feeling that sickened him and it didn’t go away. He writhed, squirmed, and scratched, but the feeling was just under his skin. He even pricked himself with the tip of the chisel but it did nothing to him. The same object that had scored a stone wall didn’t even break his skin. Whatever this was he wanted it out of him! He clenched himself and willed for the bothersome feeling to go away. To his surprise, there was a feeling kind of like a popping pimple or a loose baby tooth on the back of his shoulder. A long thin black spike barely thicker than a thread thrust through his skin and tumbled from his shirt sleeve to the floor. The straight spike became fluid and started squirming like a jet black tapeworm. After a short while it stopped and grew rigid in its final, twisted pose and evaporated into a mist of shadow. Dask just stared at the spot for the longest time his gut roiling with disgust. It took him hours to get the courage to stab a rat and this time he immediately wanted to vomit as a scurrying and scratching feeling bounced all around inside of him. He only just managed to keep from panicking as the feeling skittered down his backbone. He finally focused enough on expelling it from him. He heaved as if to vomit but small black spikes erupted along his spine. Soon they fell out onto the ground and also evaporated into that unholy material. Dask could not help but be fascinated with this discovery no matter how unpleasant it felt. He thought of how he had been through much worse before he had finally turned his back on the Light. He was thinking about what he should try next when he heard a shuffling. He looked up and saw the Burnt Man. It tilted its head back toward the direction of their lair. Dask followed.
“Go through the Doorway when I make it,” instructed the Demon. “There is someone in need of consultation.”
With visible exertion, the weakened Demon reached out, a pale hand emerging from its sleeve, and a whirling vortex of grey and pale green light opened in the middle of the floor. Dask looked to the Burnt Man, but it, of course, had nothing to say. He somehow overcame his fear now that he had nothing to lose and dropped into the yawning hole. His gut wrenched as he expected to fall into a whirlwind but instead he immediately found himself standing in a luxurious bedchamber. There was no one in bed, though someone had clearly used the bedsheets. Then he looked to the starlit balcony and saw a female figure there. She was crouched in despair, clutching a silvery knife. Her robe was open and she shook as she stared at the blade.
“Don’t.” rasped Dask.
She immediately fell over in surprise and fumbled to conceal her weapon underneath her.
He walked from the darkness of the suite toward the balcony. “It’s ok. Where am I?”
She didn’t say anything as she looked up in terror at his approaching shadow. Dask strode out onto the balcony and he was looking out on a walled garden. It was the Duke’s palace!
“Please, don’t hurt yourself.”
She continued to tremble on the ground, the knife concealed underneath her.
Dask cleared his throat. “I’ve been sent to talk to you tonight. He wouldn’t have sent me unless you were having doubts.”
“My children.” she whispered.
“What do you mean, um, Ma’am?” Despite the urgent duress he had begun to notice her open nightrobe, her dark flowing hair and eyes that were luminous by the light of the stars.
“He took them from me.”
“Him! He sent them away and now I’m bearing one of his!”
“The Duke!” Dask blurted out.
She collapsed to the ground trembling.
“There’s another way,” he said.
“I wanted to kill him. Tonight. He was here.”
“Then why did you want to kill yourself?!”
“I enjoyed it so much.”
“Don’t do it. Pledge yourself. That’s the other way out. Not repentance. Apostasy.”
There was a feeling of rushing energies in the air and Dask turned around and saw the swirling doorway. He turned away.
Suryn finally descended into sleep but it was into a realm of nightmare. She woke up and felt the breach opening as she had during Dask’s escape. She rushed down flights of steps but there was an eerie wailing as small hands and arms reached up through the stairs and grabbed at her ankles. They almost brought her to a stop on the floor beneath her room but she broke free, made her way to the dungeon and opened the cell door. There was a yawning chasm into Darkness looking straight into her soul. She turned around and a marble statue of an angel she remembered from church as a child was flying at her, drifting through the air without a sound, its form simple, its facial features a nondescript pitiless mask. She took a step back and began to tumble backwards into the void.
She awoke on the cold floor of her chamber, trembling within a tangle of blankets. At first, all she felt was terror and relief. Then she thought back on friends who had fallen in battle. She squeezed a blanket, feeling a hand’s last clasp on hers before it fell slack in repose. Slowly the sense of purpose redawned in her and she donned her robe to begin a new day in pursuit, still hours before dawn. Then she realized why she had awakened. There was something wrong again. She grabbed her sword from her bedside and did not even bother to alert the guards this time. She flew down the staircase outside her room with her divine blade out of its sheath. She continued to fly down the stairwell towards the source of the disturbance. She stormed into a wing of the palace she’d never been to before, sprinted down a wide hallway with doors on either side and then felt the source to her left side. She was a woman of ordinary stature yet she effortlessly kicked in the heavy wooden door with a bare foot. She saw the Demonic portal closing just as she ran through. Too late. There was a woman on the balcony shrieking at the sudden incursion into her chamber. Suryn lowered her sword and went to her. The woman looked up and her face was pale and streaked with tears. “What happened?” Suryn looked into the woman and saw the taint of darkness battling, not with the Light exactly, something else. Then she looked at her. She had unmistakably beguiling features, large dark eyes, flowing dark hair, and long elegant legs revealed by an opening in her nightrobe. In spite of herself, Suryn felt a visceral dislike rising up in her.
“Who came through that doorway?”
“I don’t know.” cried the woman.
After some time of sobbing that further aroused the Paladin’s ire and then a labored description in between sobs she realized that Dask had been the visitor.
“What did he say to you?”
“He, he wanted to take me away. I was trying to stop him!”
The woman revealed a knife that lay underneath her.
“I’ve dealt with their kind enough, I know that’s not why he was really here. You put yourself in peril.”
The woman threw herself at Suryn’s feet and begged for mercy protesting that she had told the dark servant to go away. But the Paladin could see the taint struggling to grasp hold of her clearly enough. It was not surprising this woman had attracted the attention of the Dark Powers. Her or someone like her had allowed the Demon into the palace to release the servant, Dask, right from under her watch. This grim thought gave her very little sympathy for this harlot who had already tried to lie and manipulate.
“I will have you detained until you reconsider your story.”
“Noo! I’ve done nothing wrong!”
“Then you have nothing to fear.”
The Duke rushed into the chamber. Suryn turned toward him in astonishment. She had somehow thought him incapable of being flustered. “Alarya!” he cried. He reached out, startled by the knife in her hands. “Where did you get that?”
“I had it just in case, my lord. It saved my life tonight!”
The Duke frowned, but the woman abruptly dropped the knife and ran into the Duke’s arms where she buried her head in his chest and sobbed. As the Duke’s hand ran tenderly through Alarya’s lustrous hair, Suryn felt a wave of acid heat and physical anguish rise up through her heart and into her head as never before. Then, doors further down the hallway began to open up and there were several female voices. A group of young women rushed in and flocked to the Duke. They too were clad in luxurious nightrobes and every one of them was conspicuously alluring.
“Everything is alright ladies! He is gone. The Paladin is here.” The Duke looked at Suryn and saw at once she was dumbstruck. His eyes met hers for a moment and his gaze was hard and appraising, gauging her reaction. His eyes flicked deftly away. “Ladies, all is well now.”
Suryn had never seen the Duke with another woman, had never asked, had never wanted to know. Now she had been driven at last beyond the realm of feeling. Past the threshold of rage, something again had quietly snapped and now she felt nothing at all. All emotion had been as noise and now there was silence in her. She lay to sleep through the night without concern. She woke in the morning calmly. Held a morning meeting with officials, with the Duke present, but she did not even look at him. She headed out to do her duty in the name of Heaven. She tried to figure out what might motivate Dask next. He wasn’t the first young imp she had dealt with. Her own irrational pain that she had buried told her how she would find him.
“You cannot go back to that life. You almost died trying it.” the Demon admonished.
“She had been taken from someone else so she could pleasure the Duke! Where are my wife and my son?!” demanded Dask
“Yours!? You are no more. You must learn who you are now.”
“Fuck you! I’m going back.”
“Don’t try it.” The Demon’s tone was strangely resigned. This made Dask hesitate more than any infernal rage. The Demon was sitting up more strongly now but still weak; the glowing of its wound seemed to be gone.
“We all must let go,” he sighed.
“Come with me,” Dask commanded the Burnt Man. It eagerly followed him from the cave, beginning to bay in solemn tones as it already began to scent the Hatefulness of mankind.
Dask charged with the Burnt Man through the underground passageways, smelling out heresy and the hunters of heretics alike, just barely dodging their surprise maneuvers, even in the smallest hours of the night. He asked their stories and, finally, one man said the name “Slandriv.”
“Judge Slandriv?” hissed Dask.
“Yes, he’s the one. Does whatever the Duke wants.”
Dask felt a vein throbbing in his temple as he thought back on the note on his door, the guards, the brief hearing in a court room. Judge Slandriv! “I will help you with this!” he snarled through clenched teeth.
That very night, he began murdering the judge’s private guards with the Burnt Man at his side and burst into the mansion without the slightest ceremony. In his night clothes, the judge cowered on the ground before them. “I have only enacted the law! If you strike me you get nothing and just make it worse for yourself!”
Then, Dask heard a female sigh from the judge’s bed. There was the contour of a sleeping human beneath golden, silken bedsheets. Without a word, Dask approached the sheets and abruptly pulled them back. He nearly collapsed as he saw his wife there, curled up blissfully. In a blood-rage, Dask thrust his hand through the judge’s chest, lifted his body in the air, and crushed his heart. A gout of blood spurted from the man’s gasping mouth and then his head lolled forward limply. Dask contemptuously tossed the corpse aside. He then approached the woman who had betrayed him. “Kamilya, why did you do this?” he rasped. She came awake, recognized his voice and looked up at him in utter terror.
“Where is our son!?” he rasped insistently. She backed away from his silhouette in what to her was near-darkness and shook her head emphatically. “Where is heee!” Dask shrieked now, and, as he closed in, the Burnt Man was content to watch, sensing somehow he was unneeded.
When Dask and the Burnt Man stumbled blood-spattered from the mansion, they were blinded for a moment at the blaze of torches that surrounded them. Before them, hundreds of guards stood in a great ring. “Masterrr!” cried Dask.
“He can’t help you now.” said a steely voice. Suryn strode from the crowd of guards, smaller than any of them yet anyone could feel a power and strength radiating from her, belied by her plain, angular features.
Dask nearly fell to his knees as he recalled his tortures in the keep. The Burnt Man, though, did not hesitate to attack. “Nooo!” cried Dask. Suryn waited motionless and at the last moment, with a single swipe of her sword, almost casually sliced the charging hate elemental in half. Its two halves tried to continue the assault, but she buried her sword in each of them for a few moments until they smoldered into lifeless ash.
Dask collapsed in weary despair as the guards closed in on him. This time, they seized him without a struggle and swiftly clapped his limbs into thick, heavy manacles that seemed more suited to an ox than a man. Then in a covered wagon with a sack over his head, he was hauled ignominiously back to the palace dungeon he had given everything to escape from.