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A collection o short stories, poetry, and fictional snippets, covering an assortment of genres, from urban fantasy to horror and science fiction.
Blog Added: May 04, 2015 04:32:04 PM
Audience Rating: General Audience
Blog Platform: WordPress
Blog Country: United-States/Massachusetts   United-States/Massachusetts
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Stick ‘Em Up: What Goes Around Comes Around

Here it is…Part 3 of the three-part series. Read them all together and you’ll discover the predicament our protagonist has found himself in…

Here it is…Part 3 of the three-part series. Read them all together and you’ll discover the predicament our protagonist has found himself in…

What Goes Around Comes Around




Stick ‘Em Up: Early Bird Gets the Worm

This one is a continuation of the last Stick ‘Em Up entry–part two of a three-part series.

This one is a continuation of the last Stick ‘Em Up entry–part two of a three-part series.

Early Bird Gets the Worm




Stick ‘Em Up: That Which Lies Below

Happy Friday the 13th!  

Happy Friday the 13th!

 

That Which Lies Below






Alvin’s Eulogy

Last week, my grandfather, Alvin, passed away. The below text is the eulogy I wrote and read at his funeral. He was a special man. A great man. A man like no other. And I want to share my words not just with the friends and family who were present last weekend, but with everyone....

thumb_DSC_0295_1024Last week, my grandfather, Alvin, passed away. The below text is the eulogy I wrote and read at his funeral. He was a special man. A great man. A man like no other. And I want to share my words not just with the friends and family who were present last weekend, but with everyone.

***

I need to start this speech off with a disclaimer. Any good eulogy isn’t complete without including at least a few of the person’s better-known catch phrases. And, let’s be honest, here. You all know Alvin. Needless to say, this is going to be an R-rated speech. So, my apologies right off the bat. And, parents in the room with kids, get ready to earmuff.

For those of you who may not know who I am, I’m Bradley, Jim and Sharon’s son. And the man we’re here to celebrate today was my grandpa.

Alvin. I’m not quite sure why, but it seems as if the grandkids collectively called him by his first name more often than we called him grandpa. But it was never from a lack of love that we did so. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The name simply endeared us to him more. It pulled us closer. It signaled the unique relationship we all had with this very unique man.

Alvin. Without a doubt the feistiest, most fiery, foul-mouthed man I have ever met. A smoker. A drinker. A farmer. A fisherman. A traveler. A friend. But, above all else, a family man. You may never have guessed it from his rugged, gruff exterior. But beneath the façade, there was nothing but endless, unabashed love for those closest to him. My mom told me something once, long ago. Something I’ll never forget. She told me, growing up in that white, ranch-style house on Grandview Drive, it was a life full of love and happiness and laughter. A day never went by when her father didn’t tell her he loved her. Al and Reta, they were the “cool” parents—they made that house into a place where all their children’s friends wanted to hang out.

And the same was true for me, growing up. There was never a dull moment in the Mardis household, that’s for sure. And it’s true, Alvin was one badass dude—we weren’t ever ashamed to be caught hanging out with our grandpa. In fact, we were proud.

Spending time with him, he taught me so many things. How to fish. How to plant corn. How to play dice and Chinese checkers. He also never shied away from sharing with us (regardless of how young and innocent we may have been) a handful of his favorite rhymes. This included two-peckered Billy goats in pepper patches, and a dog named Jack taking a big shit on the railroad tracks, and old King Cole’s rubber asshole, just to name a few. It goes without saying that I’ll most certainly be passing on his wise words to my kids, when that day comes.

I may have grown up. I may have moved away. It may have gotten to the point where I only saw Alvin during the holidays. But that doesn’t mean he was any further from my heart than during those days when we’d be bouncing around in the back of his brown Ford while he hurtled down College Avenue going 20 miles over the speed limit.

Every single memory I have of him, it’s permanently singed into my brain. A man like Alvin, you could never forget a day spent with him, even if you tried.

Sitting next to him in front of the campfire at the campground in Decatur. Eating fried chicken with him at the Grand Hotel. Seeing him toil away in his garden, harvesting rhubarb and gooseberries for Grandma to make pies with. Sitting out on the back deck, watching him feed chipmunks from his mouth. Sneaking around to the side of the house so Tyler and I could toss tomatoes and water balloons at moving cars, with Grandpa close by, pretending not to notice. Watching that rubber Joe Cool cactus bounce from the rear view mirror as he drove us down the street to McDonalds. Laughing until our sides hurt as he danced around in his whitey tighties.

With his passing, a legacy has ended. Before long, I’m sure the house will be sold, placed into the hands of a stranger, and our time spent there, making memories, will be over. I’ll miss that house. But I’ll never miss the memories, because I’ll always have them with me. Tossing basketballs into barrels. Rolling around on the floor with Patches. Packing the whole family into the house on Christmas day. Playing hide and seek in the basement with all the lights off. Tossing jarts in the backyard. Tyler and I using the old phone with the rotary dial to prank call people. (Side note: There’s clearly a trend here of Tyler and I getting into plenty of trouble.)

But the best memory of all is probably the final memory I have of him. Last Christmas. A late night of dice followed by a morning filled with home-cooked bacon and eggs. I don’t what it was, but his bacon and eggs were unmatched. And I wanted to share that with Dana—a piece of my life, of my childhood, that to this day still resonates inside my head. It seems so small, so trivial, but in the end, these are the things we remember most. These are the things we hold closest to our hearts.

It would be impossible to forget these moments in time. It would be impossible to forget him. And that’s because he’s inside each and everyone one of us in this room—and in those who couldn’t be here with us today. He was the patriarch, and he instilled a piece of himself within all of us, whether he meant to or not. Traits we share with him. Habits we learned from him.

Inside my mom, Sharon, I see his goofiness. Inside my brother, Nick, I see the constant gardener. Inside Tyler, I see that mischievous twinkle in his eye. Inside Junior, his son, I saw his intelligence. Inside Dusty, I see a leader and a desire to be the best father he can be. Inside Sally, I see that feisty, smart-ass sass. Inside Debbie I see his smile and the way his face would light up. Inside Scott I see the fisherman and outdoorsman. Inside Grandma I saw the love he possessed for his family. For me (and he wouldn’t be too happy if he heard me saying this), I got his big ears…and I couldn’t be more grateful.

If I didn’t mention your name, please don’t think it was intentional. The names I listed are just a few of the many—we could spend all day and all night going through each person here, unveiling the impressions Alvin left on us.

After Grandma died, Grandpa seemed to mellow a bit. He got quieter, more subdued. Oftentimes at family events, he’d fall to the sidelines. It was so uncharacteristic of him—and it broke my heart. At first, I thought, with Grandma’s passing, that a piece of him had died and that we’d never get it back. But now, I see it differently. That fire…that gritty, spirited, ornery son of a bitch we all know and love…he was holding it in. Saving it. For her. For Reta. And now he can unleash that fire once more. Because he’s with her now. They’re together now—somewhere—looking down on us. And smiling.

thumb_IMG_6944_1024




The Empyrean Chronicles: Part VI

At long last, Part VI is complete! This segment took me WAY longer than expected. My intention was for this to be a short piece. As it turns out, it’s quite long (this tends to be an ongoing issue for me, haha). For readers, the excitement comes with each turning of the page, not knowing...

At long last, Part VI is complete! This segment took me WAY longer than expected. My intention was for this to be a short piece. As it turns out, it’s quite long (this tends to be an ongoing issue for me, haha). For readers, the excitement comes with each turning of the page, not knowing what comes next. For me, as a writer, the best part is when I’m able to surprise myself at what ends up coming next. Most times, I have a general outline of where I want to go, how I want to get from Point A to Point B. But HOW I get there, that oftentimes takes me by surprise. And, for me, that’s where the true joy of writing rests: watching the pieces fall together naturally but unexpectedly. It’s a truly beautiful thing.

This particular piece ended up being more of a character building story, more building up of one of my bigger villains in this vast epic I’m starting to piece together. Watching his story come alive…giving his reasons for why he becomes the scheming, vile character he’s destined to be…it’s amazing for me. I also envisioned Callum Allister as sort of steam punk, a thin, pallid man with an ambiguous sexuality that is obsessed with his image. A truly vain main with a penchant for the glamorous. But, as his back story came together, a tale naturally unfolded that gave him a reason for all this. That explained all of this. Something that was seemingly unintentional but perhaps was buried deep down in that brain of mine…somewhere.

I intentionally leave the boy’s identity a mystery until the very end. You’ll learn his first name but not his last. As I piece this epic together, my plan is to introduce this villain in the present/future time (but only by his last name), so when this “flashback” piece comes, you don’t know who this boy is until the very end, and when the reveal comes at the end, the pieces will all fall together. At least, that’s the plan.

Happy reading!

***

Paris

The Empyrean Chronicles: Part VI

YEAR: 4104 CE

France’s capital city was in ruins, a thousand fires steadily devouring the remains, painting the sky red, staining the clouds black. Even the Forces armées françaises had been no match for Xen as he swept westward across the globe, his scorched earth policy annihilating everything in his path.

The seventh arrondissement was a hot zone, a teeming cesspool of disease and infection that festered and broiled beneath the smoldering Parisian sky. There wasn’t much left of the neighborhood that once housed some of the world’s most iconic landmarks. Its world-class museums were heaps of rubble. Its breathtaking gardens were cinders and ashes. The Eiffel Tower was nothing but a fallen three-legged stump, its grandiose spire submerged beneath the dismal depths of the Seine. As a result of some bit of technology that was still not fully understood by the culprit’s adversaries, Xen had managed to flood hundreds of miles worth of French countryside, from Le Havre to Paris. When it happened, it was instantaneous. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky that day, but the French watched, shocked and horrified, as the Atlantic Ocean rose up, defying gravity, swelling larger and larger in mere minutes, until a crested wall of foaming saltwater towered far above the port city, and then it hit its tipping point, becoming so tall it could do nothing but come tumbling back down, drowning all signs of man in the blink of an eye. Those who survived to relay the tale likened it to a tsunami—but not quite. It was like a tidal wave, but sprouting vertically like a geyser along the coast rather than approaching from offshore. And it was nothing like a single wave that flowed and ebbed in a matter of moments—not even like a series of seismic waves that relentlessly pounded the coast for hours on end. No, this was a single, unending wave—several miles long—that unleashed its saline fury on northern France for two days without the merest notion of a respite.

When all was said and done, two third of Normandy was under water and the Seine was no longer the docile jewel of yore but a raging artery that had been sliced open by a dozen cuts of the knife, causing its blood to gush forth upon the skin of the land.

After the deluge came another wave. A roiling influx of sinister, legged drones, their limbs spewing incendiaries that set fire to anything left standing. Afterward, all that remained of Paris were tiny, shrinking pockets of life. Those who were lucky enough to survive flocked to “safe zones.” But these havens were more like bubbles, wavering and unstable. And sure enough, one by one, they were imploding as disease and internal strife consumed them. Only the strong—or very lucky—survived. Xen wasn’t stupid. He was a mastermind. He knew he hadn’t eliminated them all. But he had no need to feel threatened. They were leftovers—and if the spreading wildfires didn’t swallow them whole, then the dregs would. When a government falls, when authority ceases to exist, a vacuum remains. And while the rules of society may no longer apply, the rules of nature cannot be suppressed. Horror vacui—nature abhors a vacuum. The basest of human instincts shall rise. Even the model citizen shall succumb to these long-suppressed desires. They shall rise up, and fall upon one another. Filling the emptiness, filling the void with death and destruction.

The tongue of the Seine licked and slobbered over the feet of Les Invalides. Its glistening metallic dome had collapsed, but the courtyard remained, a weakening barrier that—for the time being, at least—repelled the surrounding inferno. Within, the cour d’honneur was anything but what its noble name implied. The cobbled square was teeming with men and women, clothed in nothing but rags. They clawed and snapped at one another like feral beasts, fighting to the death over the dwindling supply of food—stale bread crusts, pieces of leather, and even plump, squealing vermin. They prowled upon strangers—and loved ones—in the shadows of the columns, ready and willing to kill, either with rusted scraps of metal, frayed pieces of rope, and even their bare hands. They groped. They fucked. They raped.

Buried in the gloom of the stoa surrounding the courtyard, a hooded man sat hunched over a fire burning bright inside a rusted tin can. The ripples of his cloak hid the fact that he was curled up inside like a dying spider, his lanky appendages rattling against one another like a pair of battery-operated false teeth. Nearby, a group of tittering teens stabbed each other with dirtied syringes, the liquid filling their veins, silencing them at once. At the same time, a drunkard huffed and snorted like a pig as he stuck his hardened cock down the rusted barrel of a cannon. A few seconds later, after his screams echoed across the square, he toppled over, snoring atop the iron cylinder, his flaccid piece dangling free in the biting air of late autumn, the tip dripping its milky goo onto the stones below.

But he was oblivious to it all. He’d been here since before the invasion. Since before the Beginning of the End. He’d managed to stay alive as France’s last bastion of hope dwindled and shrank. And as it did, it became more and more unruly, until those who were holding the threads together, those who seemed to be leading the resistance, simply vanished into thin air. After that, all was lost. He could not believe this hotspot of disease and discord was one of the last holdouts against the teeming forces of Earth’s newest Emperor. He’d heard rumor that there were a handful of similar places, scattered across the world, but they were quickly shrinking and disappearing. No doubt they were degrading into the same cesspool Paris had become. A powerless speck. Nothing for the great and powerful Xen to fret much over. After all, it didn’t take a genius to realize that the survivors needn’t worry much about Xen coming back to finish the job—they were doing that easily enough themselves.

Instead, he chose to lose himself inside his own mind. Before long, he was unsure of what was real and what was fantasy. Since his departure from Gaelica, his sanity had already begun to unravel, but after the invasion, his downward spiral only intensified. His brain had become nothing but a tattered ball of yarn, at the mercy of a cat’s razor sharp claws. And who was the cat? God? God’s adversary? Some other being from inside the Core of All Things, whittling away the hours by toying with this man’s fate? And why should it matter, anyway? He was nothing. In the grand scheme of all existence, he was but a blip—and not even that. Why would those who held the strings care at all? It was a game to them, a means to replace their boredom with something real. For those immortal beings, apathy was the norm, and no matter how hard or how many times they tried to feel, in the end, they would fail.

When the game was done, when the great deluge had come and gone, after that the swarm of gnashing, robotic insects had disappeared to the west, he’d assumed all faculty had finally fled the confines of his being.

“Little Dove.” A whisper. He did not flinch. Why should he, anyway? It was nothing but another figment of his imagination. Just like everything else. None of this could possible be real. So why should a familiar sobriquet be any different?

“Little Dove.”

“Little Dove.” His amah’s words soothe him. He is small for his age…too small. Sickly his whole life. His parents, disgusted and embarrassed at his appearance, hide him from the world. They trap him inside their lavish estate, lock him away in the farthest, deepest wing with no one but his amah to care for him so they can shirk their own God-given parental responsibilities. The gilded doors and windows are locked and shuttered. He is all but forgotten so their own guilt won’t consume them.

His tiny frame is curled into the fetal position, so tiny, in fact, that her enormous body appears to swallow him whole as she swaddles him. His head is wedged between her two enormous breasts as she pets his snow-white hair with one plump hand, wiping away his tears with the other. Her hands are callused, but they are comforting to him nonetheless.

Quickly enough, the sobbing subsides. Her sari is drenched with his tears, the silk pressed against her brown skin, her giant nipples clearly outlined in the wet fabric. He looks up at her. Her eyes are the deep brown of chestnut and they mesmerize him. His are the color of blood, but she does not flinch. Instead, she smiles. Half her teeth are missing, the remaining are brown and rotting. But he does not flinch either. They are two of a kind. Her skin, wrinkled and weathered, is a sure sign of a lifetime of toil and hardship. His is lacking any pigment at all, smooth and free of any marks or moles—and yet it bruises at the slightest touch. But despite her fat, rough hands, she handles him as if he were china, with the greatest of care.

Today is just another day…another instance of isolation and rejection. His parents, in all their finery, make their obligatory weekly visitation, under the assumption that this will suffice in fulfilling what is expected of them. They exchange cold greetings, making it clear they have no desire to touch him. The father looks upon the boy with disgust, while the mother has dismay in her eyes. And between them, there is another child, the lad’s older sister, trembling behind the protection of her father’s legs, peering around his knees, unable to peel her gaze away from this creature that is her brother. Her eyes betray yearning, confusion, fear. She wants to approach, but dares not defy the example set by her parents. She is the paradigm of beauty. Everything he is not. Bronzed skin, rosy flushed cheeks, eyes the color of emeralds, curly, golden locks of hair that topple carelessly down her cheeks, framing her baby-doll face in a portrait of youth and perfection.

“Come, Emily,” her father beckons. His face is a cauldron of hate and austerity. “It is time.” He turns swiftly and drags the little girl out of the room. The mother makes the sign of the cross, bowing, almost as if in apology—but for what? For her husband’s behavior? Or for the life they have condemned their son to live? Or is it something else entirely? It does not matter, because she makes no attempt to rectify it. She bestows her blessing and then skitters out of the room. The amah says not a word, but she scowls and snarls at their backs until the door is shut and they are once again ensconced in darkness.

“Would you like me to tell you a story, Little Dove?” she asks. The boy swallows his final sobs—the sobs that were prompted by the quick appearance, and even quicker departure, of these people who were supposed to be his family—and looks up at her, watching her now with focused intensity.

“Far, far away, beyond the majestic peaks of the Himalayas, there is a place called Bharat,” she begins, and then adds with a wink, “It’s where I from, you know.” He smiles back, and almost laughs. Almost. But he does not.

“A great goddess presides over Bharat, the mighty and imposing southern peninsula of Eurasia, the Great Continent. She is of unparalleled beauty. Dangerous beauty. So dangerous, in fact, that she is renowned for leading men, women, and even other gods, to their doom. Her name is Mohini, and she is an enchantress. A femme fatale, as you would say in your language. But one tale in particular stands out above all the rest.”

She stops and peers down at the boy, a mischievous twinkle in both her dusky eyes. His look is more intent than ever, begging, pleading for her to go on.

“Since the very beginning of time, the forces of good and evil have battled one another, one seeking to vanquish the other, desperate to tip the scales in their favor. All of the good and all of the ills of this world are a direct result of this never-ending war—never shall we reach complete equilibrium. For if the gods themselves are compelled by greed and hate, why should man—molded in their likeness—fare any better?

“Once, very long ago, even before I was born—” (another wink) “—the devas (the gods) conjured up a master plan to deceive and then defeat the asuras (the demons), once and for all. With great cunning, the devas were able to trick the asuras into helping them. They confided that they knew where the Amrita was hidden—the fabled celestial nectar that, when granted a drop of the saccharine liquid, would give you immortal life—and that if the asuras helped them retrieve it, they would allow the bottle’s contents to be divided up equally amongst them all.

“United, they traveled very far…very far indeed. Way, way up into the sky, deep into the heavens, and they did not stop until they arrived at the Kshir Sagar, the vast and teeming ocean of milk—the Milky Way, as your scientists call it nowadays. They’d brought with them two things—a mountain, and a snake. But not just any snake. This was Vasuki, the king of all serpents. Vasuki was very long, long enough that the devas and asuras were able to wrap him around the mountain. The devas grabbed his tail, the asuras grabbed his head, and they began to pull Vasuki back and forth, back and forth, causing the mountain to spin, faster, and faster, and faster.

“The spinning and turning of the mountain caused the sprawling ocean of milk to bubble and froth, and they kept churning and churning until it was a veritable whirlpool, the greatest that has ever existed. Even those back on Earth could see that something magnificent was happening in the heavens—for the Kshir Sagar had become a shimmering, wavering strip as it cut its way through the nighttime sky.

“And, just as the devas had predicted, the chaotic motion made Vasuki quite sick, so sick, in fact, that his belly started convulsing, and he began hissing and retching until he spewed forth a great cloud of poison, right into the faces of the asuras.

“Right away, the asuras realized the devas had tricked them into holding Vasuki’s head, but it was too late. The asuras released their grip on the serpent king, stunned and sickened by his poison. Quickly, the devas took advantage of this moment and went to work, searching fervently for any sign of the Amrita. And it didn’t take long for one of them to find it—a glistening, jewel-encrusted bottle, filled with a syrupy liquid the color of gold—bobbing and floating amidst the ripples of milk. You see, since the beginning of time, it had been buried at the very bottom of the milky sea, and the great churning had sucked it up to the surface.

“The devas grabbed the bottle, but they had no time to drink the auric elixir, for the asuras, given that they were quite powerful, were able to recover quickly from the serpent’s poison. Right away, a great battle ensued between the devas and the asuras. From Earth, the sky was alight with great flashes of lightning and mighty peals of thunder, and the very ground trembled beneath the feet of mankind.

“Then, suddenly, she appeared. The one I have spoken of already. Mohini. And do you know what happened next, Little Dove? All at once, the fighting ceased. Her beauty was such that they quickly forgot what it was they were fighting over. God and demon, man and woman, they were stunned to silence, completely frozen. They yearned for her. They lusted for her. But each was too afraid to approach her and speak. Instead, they waited. They waited for her to make the first move, to speak the first word.

“She drifted between the two forces—those of the light, and those of the darkness—separating them without a touch, for her allure was enough to repel them back. Her movements were slow yet deliberate, effortless and graceful.

“She held out both her hands, cupping them together. The deva holding the Amrita, without the slightest hesitation, handed Mohini the bottle, placing it in her cushion-soft palms. She broke the waxen seal one of her bejeweled fingernails and, pulling free the stopper from the bottle’s deck, let it fall from her grasp, without a care in the world, into the still-churning soup beneath her bare feet.

“‘Let us all be at peace,’ she finally said, and her voice was sweeter than the sweetest songbird, and it echoed through the heavens like a crystal glass after it’s been tapped with a dinner knife. ‘I shall give each of you a taste. A single drop…but enough to impart upon you the gift you so fervently seek.’

“No one protested. They all agreed. Mohini served the devas first, and the asuras did not object because they were so deeply under her enchantment. After Mohini had served the last deva, she turned to the asuras, revealing that she had already emptied the entire bottle! Their anger at being tricked yet again was finally enough to break them of her spell. They reared up, furious at her treachery. They fled toward her, ready to devour her first, and then the devas.

“Suddenly, a dazzling light burst forth from where Mohini stood and both the asuras and the devas were thrown backward. When the bright light subsided, in her place stood none other than Vishnu, the Supreme Being, the god of gods. The asuras were rabid at being tricked for a third and final time. But more than that, they were scared. For no one was able to defy Vishnu—even if they tried. So, instead, the asuras turned and fled, disappearing into the great blackness of space.”

She looks down at her ward and flashed a gaping grin. “Did you like that story?” The boy nods, almost feverishly, a sure sign that the incident with his family and sister are all but forgotten…for now, at least.

“Did you know,” she continues, “that my name is Mohini as well?” The boy’s jaw slackens, his cherry-red lips squeezing into the shape of a lowercase ‘o.’ He is stunned by this revelation. He cannot believe that this woman, who is giving him all her attention, is named after a goddess…the greatest, most beautiful creature that has ever lived.

“That’s right, Little Dove. I am Mohini. Amah Mohini.”

“Momo?” And for the first time that day—perhaps that week—he speaks. She pauses for just a moment, a mischievous sparkle in both her eyes, and then a deep, booming roar erupts from the very depths of her bowels. Her bulging belly jolts the boy, and if it weren’t for her sturdy embrace, he would have fallen to the floor. She is laughing, not out of spite or condescension, but because she adores this boy she holds in her arms.

“Yes, Little Dove. I am Momo. I am your Momo.”

He smiles.

“And do you know what else, Little Dove? Did you know, Callum, my sweet, that in Gaelic, your name means ‘dove’?” the amah says. “Those nasty vermin may have christened you with the namesake in jest, but they do not see what I see. Your soul is pure and clean, as white as a dove’s plumage. Do you understand me?”

She cups the boy’s tiny head between the palms of both her hands. She hunches over until her chapped lips are mere millimeters from his own—thin and delicate, like a woman’s, and red, so red, like the blood vessels crowding his irises. “You are a blank slate, my Little Dove. The whitest of white. Like the devas I told you about. Do not listen to those monsters you call parents. They are like everyone else in this world. Wretched and foul. They are asuras in disguise. Outside these walls, my Little Dove, is nothing but corruption and misery. This world is a cesspool. And you must understand what this means. They are in need of a savior. They are in need of you. You can rise up and save this world. You can purge this globe of all its filth and begin anew. White and pure, just…like…you.”

She takes her bulging index finger—the nail curled and black, the point sharpened to a point—and presses it against his sternum. There is pain, and he tries to recoil, but she holds him in his grip and does not let him move. There will be a bruise, but he must never forget this moment. He must remember.

“You can do this, for all humanity. But you cannot succeed without me. I will give you the power. I will let you drink the Amrita. I will make you a deva…a god. Do you understand? Do you?” The boy nods, not in understanding but in desperation. She releases her grip and her toothy smile returns. “Very good. Very good, my Little Dove.” Her breath is warm and smells of cardamom. She continues to hold her lips near his for some time, breathing her sweet breath into his mouth, soothing him. And then suddenly they are touching, and for just a moment, her tongue darts out, like a salamander sticky and wet, and it’s inside his, but for just a moment, and then she pulls away and the moment has ended. There is a pain in his chest, but not from her finger. There is a yearning, a sudden and unexpected craving for that sticky wetness. He wants it again. He wants to linger on it until he is full in the stomach, and

“Go away,” he said aloud. His voice was even, passive. It was not unusual for him to respond to the many voices he heard in his head. They’d been there for as long as he could remember. The visions, though. They were more recent. A product of exile and warfare—the trauma exacerbating an illness he’d been battling his entire life.

“Little Dove,” the voice whispered again.

“I s-s-said, g-g-go away!” he hissed, his stutter suddenly returning. He jerked his head to the left and then to the right, as if the thick Hindu accent were tangible and the jarring movement would free his skull of the sound.

“Little Dove, no need to fret, I am right here.” He pounded his temple with the heel of his hand, clenching his eyelids shut and willing that the voice would leave him. It had been nearly thirteen years since he’d last heard that voice. Since someone had called him by that name. He loved that name. He hated that name. It was a reminder of the one woman who had showed him any semblance of love or guidance. It was a reminder of the family who had first shunned him and then finally abandoned him

“I’m not inside there, Little Dove,” the voice persisted. “I am here. I am right here.

Out of the shadows of the colonnade a squat, wide-set woman appeared. She was bundled from head to toe in a frayed, colorless wrapping. The only part of her exposed to the night was her face, dark and wrinkled like the skin of a prune. She looked to be a hundred years old or more, but her eyes…those shining, chestnut-colored eyes…transformed her visage into a symbol of youth. The man jerked back and almost fell from his seat, he was so unsettled by her impromptu appearance, but more so by what he saw in those eyes. They seemed to be lit by a bleached light from within, two neon bobbers bouncing in a lightless see, and attached to them was an invisible fishing line, and the hook had sunk its razor-sharp apex into the inner lining of his cheek and was pulling him in before he had even a single moment to react.

He shouldn’t have been caught off guard. When these apparitions appeared, he never showed the slightest bit of interest. Not even a flinch. He’d remain indifferent to their desperate appeals for his attention, and eventually they would dissolve into nothing. Recently, it was becoming increasingly difficult to tell what was real, and what was just his mind’s steady descent into insanity. But it didn’t matter. If they were just ghosts from his past, he paid them no heed. And if they were real, it never took very long for his silence would bore them and they’d move on, seeking their pleasure elsewhere.

But this one. This one was different. It was her. His Momo. Not until now had she chosen to show herself. Usually the only ones who showed up to torment him were those who had done everything in their power to avoid him as a child. His mother. His father. Even his sister. But never his Momo. Never her.

She inched closer and, on impulse, he lurched back, this time actually falling off the overturned crate he was using as a seat. She darted toward him—quick, too quick for her age—and offered him her hand. He swatted it away, dusting off his joints as he pulled himself back up to standing. Once, he fit perfectly into the warm embrace of her pudgy arms. Now, he towered above her, a lanky giant with a slight hunch. A sweet perfume drifted from her direction, a mixture of musty earth and cooking spices.

How odd, he said to himself. Smells don’t usually accompany my visions.

“No, they certainly do not,” she answered, taking one step toward him. He leaned back, away from her, and barred his teeth like a rabid dog.

“You’re n-n-not real,” he insisted. “You’re not really here. You can read my thoughts, which means you’re really j-j-just in here.” He jabbed at his temple with his index finger.

“Now, now, Little Dove. You know that isn’t true. I’ve always known your thoughts. I’ve always been privy to your deepest, darkest secrets. Even without you telling me. Because we’re connected. We always have been. Our destinies are forever intertwined. You were always a coy one. Always resistant to exposing your true self to the world. But who can blame you? You are a product of your upbringing. You are a product of this corrupt world where you are forced to live. But that is why you have me. That is why you’ve always had me. To help you become the man you are destined to become.”

“Vile woman,” he hissed. “Lies. You tell me l-l-lies. You have always told me lies. If I am d-d-destined to be some great man, then explain to me why I am here. Explain to me why my entire l-l-life I have been plagued by rejection and illness.”

“It is the path you must follow, Little Dove.” Suddenly she was inches from him and her fat, man-like hands were latched onto his forearms. He struggled to free himself, but with very little effort on her part, she held on. “It is the path that will transform you into greatness. And finally, after all these years, the moment we’ve been waiting for is just over the horizon. I’ve come. I’ve come to call you home.”

It was all too much for him. This woman was dead. He’d watched her die. She was nothing but an apparition, and he could no longer bear to listen to the words she was speaking. It was the same, steady stream of bullshit he’d listened to since he was old enough to understand the meaning of words—possibly even before that. He blamed her. Where he was at today was because of her. This was all her fault. Trapped—imprisoned—inside one of the world’s very last refuges. And it wouldn’t last much longer. Any day now, the walls of Les Invalides would come toppling down, and the flames that still burned outside would incinerate the filth that lurked within. He deserved this fate. She’d stolen everything from him—he would not let her take away this.

“G-g-get off me!” he screamed and mustering every bit of strength he had left, he broke free of her grasp and lunged at her, wrapping his cold, spindly fingers around her tree trunk of a neck. Her eyes bulged out of her skull, but still she laughed as he squeezed tighter and tighter and tighter.

“Shut up! Shut up, you filthy bitch!” Blood filled the whites of her eyes but still she laughed. “I’ll kill, whore. I’ll fucking k-k-kill you.” Spittle sprayed her skin, but she never stopped laughing, her tongue lolling outward, reaching for the bits of his saliva, desperate for a taste.

His effort was in vain. No matter how hard he tried, real or just another figment of his tortured mind, he would never be able to kill her. Instead, he flung her to the ground and landed a swift kick in her gut before collapsing back onto his crate, completely spent.

“You’re old, woman,” he gasped between breaths. “But you’re still tough as nails.” He peered at her on the ground. Yes, she was old. Ancient. But not any older than the last day he saw her. And that was years ago. Interesting, certainly. But not surprising. Could she have lived through the brutal death she was served? Could she really be here? And not have aged a day?

She did not respond. Finally, he’d shut her up. He watched as she climbed to her feet, easily, as if her joints were free of the pain that every man and woman should feel at her age. She crossed to the other side of the fire, warming her hands against the flames. And all the while, that grin never left her face.

“You’re n-n-not worth it,” he said.

“No?” she inquired, finally raising her chin to look up at him. Her head was cocked slightly to the side, and the curvature of her smile was enough to tell him that she knew he was full of shit. He watched her, in awe, as the flames lit up her eyes, and the blood drained out as if they were spinning backward in time. “That’s not what you used to say. You used to tell me you—”

“I l-l-love you, M-M-Momo,” he says. He is almost a teen now, on the brink of becoming a man. And yet, over the years, he has only grown more attached to her—and her to him. They lay together in an embrace along the length of a divan. The frame of the piece is gilded and the upholstery is stitched with a swirling collage of flowers and vines. Draped over them is a swath of the finest silk.

“I love you too, Little Dove,” she says, caressing his cheek with the backs of her fingers as she nestles closer to him, pulling him into her bulging bosom. Off to the side, a desk is littered with notebooks, filled with the boys unsteady penmanship; stacks of books, ranging from the basic (mathematics, history, geography) to the more obscure (mysticism, metaphysics, witchcraft); and a number of other unidentifiable (and also questionable) objects, stones contorted into inexplicable shapes, metallic stars that seemed to emit their own light when looked at from just the right angle, and many other objets d’art that simply cannot be explained in a few short words, but would rather fill several pages in an attempt to describe them and guess at their use.

Mohini had been charged not only with the boy’s care, but also with his schooling. His parents had made no attempt—or shown any interest, whatsoever—in providing the boy with a formal education. As such, his amah had taken it upon herself—voluntarily—to ensure the boy received the very best there was to offer.

Herself.

She took much liberty in subject matter, filling the boy’s malleable mind with all the knowledge that was inside her own. Most of each day was filled with rigorous studying and grueling lectures. It tired the boy—but it occupied him as well, distracting him from the pain of his isolation. Breaks were made for food, for an occasional repose (much like the one they were enjoying now), and, more infrequently, for the random visit paid to him by his sister. As the years passed, his parents ceased their weekly vigil, but Emily continued (certainly unbeknownst to the parents) several times a week. At first, they were quite pleasant. The girl’s youth, innocence, and naivety allowed her to disregard the unusual circumstances of her brother’s confinement. But as time wore on, her visits became less and less frequent. As the girl’s own mind blossomed, as the truths of the world seeped into the crevices of her brain, encounters with her brother became more awkward and troublesome. The rift between the two widened, love was replaced with pity, and the boy sunk deeper and deeper into his own mind, an oceanic void filled with a million different voices, each pulling him in a different direction.

“She is quite beautiful,” Mohini says to the boy after her most recent visit.

“Yes,” he replies, almost in a whisper.

“Does she do it for you?” The boy’s brow wrinkled into the shape of a V. Her bluntness often startled and confused him. “Does she do it for you?” Her words were harsher the second time, demanding understanding. Demanding a response.

“I…I…I…”

“No,” she said, cutting him off. Her tone was softer again though, and he relaxed in her arms. “No, I thought not.”

He may not have understood, but she did. She does not need words to learn what it is he desires. And so, with her arms around him now beneath the silken blanket, she does what she must. In order for him to realize the truth. Who is he and what he must become.

“Do you know, Little Dove,” she says, “I can transform my outer appearance. I can become whatever I want. I can become whatever you want.”

“R-r-r-really?”

“I call them my avatars. Like the Great Protector, Vishnu, I can embody the likeness of many different beings…humans and creatures alike. It has taken me many centuries to master—each avatar took much work to perfect—but it has become one of my most useful tools. And it is something I can teach you, Little Dove. It will take time, but the power can be yours, if you desire.”

He looks up at her, a faint smile curling the ends of his lips. The fact that she has just confessed to being centuries old does not shock him. Nor does the claim that she wields great and mystical powers. For him, the very word she utters, it is nothing but the truth. “Yes. I d-d-do.”

“Mohini, my namesake, was Vishnu’s only female avatar,” she says. “I was not born with her beauty, but I may posses it whenever I please. Understand me, Little Dove. Physical beauty is nothing. It is worthless. But unfortunately, we live in a superficial world that prizes it above all else. And, as such, we must harness its power to achieve our ultimate goal. To purge this world of all its filth. Do you understand? It’s how I got here. It’s how I came to see you. Do you think your parents would have hired a fat, ugly crone such as myself to tend to their child, regardless of how much they may despise you?”

Again, her bluntness wounds him. But she knows he cannot always be coddled. There are lessons to be learned. And she must make him understand. She must convince him that his path to greatness is only possible through her.

“No. No, they would not. In their eyes, I am a woman of great beauty. Despite his hatred for me, your father yearns for me. He thinks of me when he sticks his prick inside your mother. And she, she imagines my tongue caressing her velvety curtains just so can stay wet enough for your father to finish the deed. She prays for forgiveness each time, but it never stops her thoughts from straying every time he calls for her. Do you understand? Do you, Little Dove?”

“I…I think so,” he replies, and then pauses, letting his thoughts swirl around in his head. She waits for him. She waits for him to put it together. “I…I would like to be someone different.”

“No, Little Dove. You are who you are meant to be. Taking on another’s appearance, it is not changing who you are in here,” she says, tapping him on the sternum. “It is but a device to deceive others…to rise above them while they cower at your feet.”

“But I d-d-don’t care about that. All I w-w-want is for people to l-l-leave me alone.”

“No, Little Dove. That is not what you want. Come, sit up. I will show you what you want.”

A sari of the deepest maroon is wrapped around the amah’s robust frame. The cloth is hemmed with gold, and the entire costume shimmers against the bedroom lighting as she moves and shifts into position. She tugs at the fabric, hiking it up above her waist. The boy is horrified but cannot look away. What he sees shocks him. He knows it should not be there. She is a woman. But it is there, nonetheless. He is appalled but cannot look away. For some reason he cannot explain, he is enticed by it. He is drawn to it. She parts her meaty legs, beckoning him. He is terrified and cannot move. She reaches over and, ever so gently, guides his hand to this thing dangling between her legs. It is so small—no bigger than his own, the size of a child’s—but with his touch, it begins to move. To harden and grow.

Then, something else happens. Something quite unexpected. Deep within his gut, a feeling he cannot explain explodes within. He looks down and is horrified to see that his own tiny manhood has transformed as well. He is embarrassed and makes every effort to hide.

“No,” his amah soothes him. “Do not be ashamed. Embrace it. Embrace who you are.”

That day, the boy learns more in a few hours than he has learned in all the days of his life combined. He loses himself to a flood of new experiences and emotions. It is but a blip in his existence thus far, but for that moment in time, the voices vanish. His stutter is forgotten. Every inclination toward insecurity and timidity is pushed aside as he dives into a steaming ocean revelry and ecstasy. Mohini watches the boy, her eyes pressed into narrow slits, her lips curled into a sneering smile dripping with mischief and conceit. But he does not see it. He is lost in this new world that has been opened up to him.

Then, without warning, a climactic explosion of light and heat and gut-wrenching cramps consumes him. It is all over. He has been expelled from this new world. Locked out, with no way back in. Reality returns—too quickly, and he finds all the old sentiments washing back over him. He feels as if he is plummeting into a bottomless void. He hates himself—more than before—and is disgusted by this sticky wetness on his hand. The warmth he felt inside his own trousers is turning cold and making his skin itch.

“Little Dove,” his amah coos as she sidles back into her garment. For the first time—but certainly not the last—he hates that name. He hates everything about it. He hates the words. He hates the voice uttering the words. He hates the woman who speaks the words. He hates—

“I h-h-hate you,” he snapped at the woman standing on the other side of the flames, warming her hands. “I’ve always hated you.”

“No, Little Dove,” she replied. “Not always. You loved me dearly, once upon a time. But you certainly did grow to hate me. I did everything I could for you. But you were always your own worst enemy. I gave you all the tools you needed. But your stubbornness led you down a path I would have veered you away from, had the Fates allowed me to. But it was not to be. You were meant for another road, unbeknownst to me. You needed a bit more testing. But you are ready. It is time.”

“You keep s-s-s-saying that. But what does it mean? What is it t-t-time for?”

“You are thirty-two years old, Little Dove. It is time you took your rightful place as ruler of this world.”

He is nineteen years old. Close to a decade has passed since his first sexual encounter. On that day, everything changed for him. Since that moment, the boy has been following a path of decay and destruction. His amah has done everything to prevent it. The moment of awakening was meant to serve as a formal union between the two. And in a way, it has been. The act of perversion was the first, but it certainly has not the last. They have become regular occurrences, and over time, the acts committed have become increasingly more depraved. She is like a mother to him…but also something else. Something he is unwilling to confront during those periods of time when the ecstasy is not controlling his will. He loves her and he hates her at the same time. As he ages, as puberty propels his height well above his amah’s, when—from a physical point of view—their roles become reversed. Shyness washes away and is replaced with arrogance. He lashes out at her after each climax. He beats her and makes her bleed. But she relishes it and begs for more.

“Yes, yes,” she coos at him as the blood runs down her stubbly chin. “Very good, Little Dove. Harness your anger. You will need it, soon enough. You will need it to destroy every one of your enemies. It is the only way.”

He has come to abhor that name. Little Dove. And yet, a burst of warmth wells up in the pit of his stomach every time he hears it. Mohini expected resistance. She expected rebellion. In fact, she thought it necessary. She knows the boy must face trial and tribulation in order to become the man he needed to be. But what has ensued is, despite all her foresight and the magic she possesses, quite unlike anything she has anticipated.

She has done everything she could to shelter and contain him within that room. It was the one thing she and his parents agreed on. But it was not to be. As his timidity waned, his curiosity has gotten the best of him. He has begun sneaking away to wander the streets of Gaelica for hours—from the affluent heights to the dismal slums. He witnesses it all. And more than anything—more than all the teachings his Momo forced upon him—the world outside his shuttered room has the most impact upon his weak and malleable soul. She has done everything she could to prevent it—once she even used her sorcery to seal the doors and windows. But she was met with the greatest wrath she had yet seen, and she was forced to relent. She cannot prevent him from his sojourns without losing her control over him entirely.

It was a mixture of magic and seduction (albeit the two are not mutually exclusive) that first pulled him out of his slump. As time has progressed, as bravado has taken the forefront of all his emotions, his stutter has disappeared. But he is unwilling—perhaps unable—to recognize the role his Momo has played in that success. Instead, he began shrugging off his studies, tuning her out during the lectures, and finally, he has come to reject her in totality. He scoffs at her and dismisses her instantly. And, above all, he has completely renounced magic as nothing but a hoax. And despite their regular moments of intimacy—and the grotesque transformations that take place in that darkened room, beneath the silken sheets—he has proclaimed his ability to harness any trace of magic as an absolute improbability.

Instead, he has learned how to disguise himself in other ways. Instead of embracing who he is, he has become someone else entirely. He dyes his blanched hair the blackest black—so black that, against the light, glimmers of eggplant can be seen. He slathers his pigmentless skin with layers of makeup so that it cracks and crumbles like dried paint when he smiles and sneers. He shields his bloodshot irises with colored lenses—a new color every day, varying shades of blue and brown and green.

Nevertheless, no matter how hard he tries, he is still that same scared little boy underneath it all. It’s only during those rare moments when he is alone that he is able to shed the brittle husk. Only then does he let the agonizing memories return. And each one is a broken shard of glass, stabbing him, tearing his flesh, drawing blood. An absent, uncaring family. A childhood spent in isolation. Unnatural yet insuppressible cravings for puerile flesh. Years of self-loathing triggered by his own reflection in the mirror and his inability to resist the snares set by his own amah. But no, not inability. It is a weakness. He knows they are traps. He yearns for it. He knows it must be his, and yet everything in this world is telling him it must not be. He wants to believe his amah’s words. He wants to believe that nothing about this place is right, and that it is his duty to put things to right. But his mind is a warbling confusion of thoughts and colors and sounds and lights that he cannot make sense of. It is a violent whirlpool, like the Kshir Sagar—the teeming ocean of milk he learned about all those years ago.

But really, he is never truly alone. She has eyes on him, always. She makes him believe he’s allowed moments of peace, but during those moments, she’s watching him. She has eyes everywhere. When he reads a book, the words pierce his mind, and everything they see, she sees. When he looks into a mirror—or anywhere his reflection can be seen, for that matter—she’s on the other side. At night, when they sleep, his dreams are her dreams.

Each time, she is saddened and disheartened by what she discovers. She is losing him. She makes every attempt…she performs every bout of trickery she knows…but to no avail. And then it happens. The moment that will send him down the rabbit hole once and for all. She is too caught up in her own game…it has become too easy, too familiar. She has begun seeking pleasure in it as well. And, as a result, she does not foresee what happens next.

In one of those now-all-too-rare moments, his sister Emily appears. She does not make it past the threshold of the door before she is stopped in her tracks. Her face is contorted in an expression her brother has never seen on her. It is wrong. So wrong. It does not belong there. It does not fit with the delicate features of her face. She wants to turn and run, but she cannot. Instead, she is bound within the confines of the doorframe, as if by some invisible mystical force, compelled to stare upon the grotesque scene before her.

The old woman is naked. But there is something not right about her body. From the waist up, it is all woman. Round and meaty, bulging sagging tits, bronzed leathery skin. But below the waist is…something else entirely. At first, it appears sickly and shriveled. But no. It’s not quite that. The bottom half of her body looks as if it belongs to that of a young boy. A very young boy. She is writhing and moaning as the boy, her brother, is performing acts upon this lower half that are too lewd for the girl to wrap her mind around. She does not understand, but she knows it is wrong. It is a sin. Her brother is fully clothed—swaddled in a silken bathrobe, his insecurity and self-loathing still getting the best of him, even during these moments of complete release—and perhaps that is the only relief the girl feels in this situation.

Once her horror becomes so great that she is able to break the spell, her first inclination is not to run. Instead, she reaches for her neck, wrapping her pale, slender fingers around her throat. Her shirt is fully buttoned, the collar cinched so tight it’s a wonder she can breathe. Her parents’ conditioning has left her overly modest and ashamed of her body. The slightest show of skin is a travesty to her. She’s aware of the attention her looks garner her—she’s demure, but she’s certainly not stupid. And she despises it. Each man who has leered at her as if she were nothing more than a piece of red raw meat, each woman whose jealousy has caused her to sneer and snarl in her direction, she does not hate them, she cannot blame them. Instead, each time, a thin layer of her self worth evaporates away, leaving her smaller, and smaller, and smaller.

And this. This is simply more than she can possibly bear.

“Emily,” her brother gasps. He tears himself away from the woman and falls out of the bed. One moment he is savoring this thing that shares a bed with them. The next he is staring down upon it with disgust and hatred. He backs himself into the farthest corner, as if physical distance will separate him from the crime that has been exposed. “Emily, it’s n-n-not what you think.”

But she does not hear him. The revulsion has finally grown enough that it outweighs the shock, and she turns and runs.

“Emily!” he screams. “Emily, please come back!”

But she is gone. It is the last time she will set foot in this room. In fact, it is the very last time he will see her face. Or, rather, it is the last time he will look upon her face and see nothing but innocence and beauty. For the next time, many years later, when he watches Emily from the shadows, playing house with her husband and two children, what he’ll see will be something very, very different.

He knows now that it is all over. It is broken. It is the end. He has always wished—hoped—that the future would bring him and his sister closer together. But he knows it is impossible now. He blames his amah for tricking him, seducing him, letting him get caught in this vile act that he wanted no part of. He lashes out at her. He calls her every filthy slur he can think of. He throws her on the floor, kicking and punching her until she is bleeding and vomiting, until she barely able to breathe. He does not blame himself. He does not acknowledge that his own flaws and missteps have led him to this moment. He does not recognize that this voluntary descent into frivolity and corruption has prevented him from any chance of living of a normal life. Even before the curtains had been violently wrested from their place, his life had already diverted down a path that would never again converge with the one his sister was following. Adolescence has opened both their eyes to the harsh realities of their world, but within their own home and the larger world without. Before today, she had already begun to see her brother for who he really was. In fact, that is why she had chosen to pay him this visit on this very day, at this very time. In her mind, it was a final test. To discover if her inclinations were true. To determine whether or not there was even a morsel of hope for the hope boy. She wanted to save him. She prayed to her God that it wasn’t too late.

And by the grace of the Lord Almighty, she has received the answer she so desired.

Mohini is angered by the discovery as well. For she, too, knows that the end is now nigh. She relishes in abuse the boy rains down upon her as she steadily approaches unconsciousness. She deserves it. Every bit of it. And yet, she is also glad. She is pleased to see the girl’s purity and primness forever tainted by the gory scene she has been forced to witness. She has always hated her, despised her. Mohini believes the boy’s desperate yearning for her attention and love has been his ultimate demise. Despite all her tricks and witchery, Emily has bewitched him in her own way, a ruse more powerful than any sorcery Mohini could ever conjure herself. But she sees through it. The girl has never felt any real love for her brother. She felt it her moral duty to fix him. As if he were broken. And here she was today, coming to give her brother one last chance. An ultimatum. Her own flesh and blood. Either seek the light I hold in the palm of my hand or be forsaken forevermore. The hauteur of her parents has inevitably rubbed off on the girl. She is filled with a false generosity that is really nothing more than masked self-importance. Mohini knows. She read the truth in the girl’s eyes the moment she set foot in the room. There was no need to pry the folds of her brain. She is flat and transparent. There is nothing within her except an empty, colorless void. But the boy, for all his faults, there is more complexity within the depths of his being than Mohini has ever experience in another living soul. To this very day, she has yet to uncover all that hides inside her ward’s snow-white shell.

The boy flies over to the standing mirror in the carved mahogany frame and, upon seeing his reflection, attacks it, slamming a fist against the patina-marred glass. The surface shatters into a dozen pieces and all that is left is a wood backboard imprinted with a crimson ring. Blood pours from his knuckles and down his forearm. Glass crackles and snaps beneath his bare feet as he shouts bitch and cunt and slut and whore and he looks like a rabid feral beast as he snaps his jaw open and shut, projecting spittle with each slur he utters. Mohini is not quite sure who is the victim of this virulent outburst. Herself? His sister? Most likely, it’s both.

And suddenly, those memories, those intangible shards of glass that poked and prodded and sliced at his well-being, are very, very real. A fountain of red, red blood masks the blanched skin of his right forearm. A piece of the broken mirror is buried beneath his flesh, an inch, maybe more, and he pulls is, slowly, slowly, downward toward his elbow. Blood. There is so much blood. He falls to his knees and glass crunches against his bare knees. He is still clutching the jagged fragment, squeezing it, serrating and splitting the skin of his left palm.

Blackness.

He is in a fetal position, drowning in a pool of blood and glass.

Blackness.

His Momo is here now, cradling him, nestling his head in the pudgy nest of her meaty thighs.

Blackness.

Her hands are hovering above him, vibrating and flickering like a pair of hummingbird wings. The joints of her fingers are contorted into unnatural positions. She is speaking and her voice is deeper and grittier than what it once was. He does not recognize the words erupting from the basin of her throat. But they are sharp and jagged words. Perverse. Not of this world. A sharp pain bursts inside both his ears and then there is a warm wetness.

Blackness.

There is a stream of dried blood leading from both ear canals, down the sides of his face and neck. There is dried blood on both arms, but no open wound. In its place is a zigzagging scar, a lighting bolt of red scar tissue stretching from wrist to elbow.

“It’s okay, Little Dove,” she says in almost a whisper. Her voice is back to normal now, and she is petting his forehead as she speaks. “You are healed. It is over. It is done.”

“I…I…”

“Do not speak. Rest, Little Dove. Rest. No words are needed. I will never judge you. I see everything that you are. And I see only beauty.”

“I am a mistake,” the boy finally manages to say.

“You are who you are meant to be, and nothing else.”

She is saddened by this turn of events. Saddened by the boy’s weakness. Such greatness written in the stars for him, but his impotence has made it so that when he looks up into the nighttime sky, all he sees is a sheathe of leaden clouds.

Hours later, the two of them are banished from the house. The boy’s father oversees the procession with great fury as the mother cowers in fear in the background and the sister watches in silence with a smug, self-satisfied expression smeared across her docile face. They are exiled, never to return.

After that, it is a rapid and steady descent to the nadir of all his sufferings. An orphaned albino and his swarthy brownskin chaperone have no place in a country controlled by a sectarian elite that rules with impunity and scorns anything and anyone that does not conform to its racial hierarchy. Instead, they find shelter in one of Edinburgh’s many underground brothels.

A vast network of shadowy institutions thrives beneath the pontifical infrastructure of Gallica’s capital city. Edinburgh’s black underlining feeds off that which the theocracy strives to suppress. In fact, oftentimes the very men who rule with their dogmatic iron fists during the day, are the very ones finding sinful solace in the shadows of the night. And this is no less true in the cathouse where Mohini and her ward soon find themselves. The boy loses himself in the salacious delights offered in the maze of crooked hallways and broken doors, never silent, but filled with a never-ending vibration, a cacophony of voices, whispers, moans, and screaming. He becomes a favorite of the wayward monks, the most loyal patrons of this house of ill repute. He becomes a slave to them. For them. His consciousness is sucked into the eye of the maelstrom raging at the core of mind. His sense of identity is lost. He zigzags across the hallway, back and forth between rooms like a buzzing bee, a mindless drone bending to their will and whims. He is degraded, soiled, abused. But he does not resist. He does not complain. He does not even feel. When they shed their bleached flaxen robes and beckon him to come closer, he abides. Their bodies are like newborn rats, wrinkled and sagging and hairless.* They always smell sour, like antiseptic, their skin blotted with bleeding patches of rawness.

Mohini watches, but she no longer intervenes. The boy is too far gone now. Instead, she concentrates on her own ambitions, wielding her wiles and witchcraft to move quickly up the food chain of Edinburgh’s adumbral consortium.

But not quickly enough.

Gallica’s underworld is a living beast. An endlessly moving creature, slithering and shifting and changing its shape in response to the government’s brutal vendetta to cleanse and purify the city. Outposts never last more than a few weeks—a month or two, if lucky—before they’re weeded out by Cassian troops (who are nothing more than simple monks armed with cudgels and torches, primitive weapons no doubt, but paired with the brothers’ violent and venomous nature, they are a true force to be reckoned with). But that is exactly what they are. Weeds. Uproot one, two shall flourish in its place.

It is the year 4092. The boy has lived his life on this planet, a blip on the radar, for two decades now. The evening is a sweltering one, the sticky sort when the air is so heavy you feel you can barely move, barely breathe. The night is deathly silent, and the halls of their sex-filled home are quieter than usual. There are no visiting monks on this night, forsaking their mystical rituals and abstinent vows for the sultriness of sin. It should be an omen. But the two of them are too ensnared in their own self-woven webs that shield and blind them. The boy is naked and on all fours with a fleshly man pressing down on top of him, crushing him, his curdled flesh dripping down on both sides of the boy, his wet stringy hair wrapping around the boy’s face, clinging to his cheeks as the brute heaves his hot fetid breath onto the back of his neck. Mohini is standing above the brothel’s madam, straddling her cooling, deflating corpse, a dagger in her hand, the blade slicked with blood.

Neither hears the arrival of those that will seal their fate. One moment the street is vacant and muted. The next it is teeming with a mob of hooded monks, vibrating with round after round of monotone, synchronized chanting. A wave of clicks flutters down the street as door are quickly locked. Lights dim and vanish as windows are furtively shuttered. But these people, who live in perpetual fear, have nothing to be frightened of. Not tonight, at least. The masked throng shifts in unison toward a targeted destination. They are a pack of ebony stallions, their eyes burning with the flames of Hell, their gazes fixed with blinders as each charges forward toward a fixed point on the horizon.

They gravitate toward one building in particular. There is nothing special about this one place. It does not stand out above the rest. That is, if you discount the shady dealings taking place within. It is unclear how this one place has been singled out as a shelter for the enemy of the state. One of its former patrons, no doubt. But it does not matter. What does matter is that, on this particular Payni night, the Cassian regime has decided that no life shall be spared. No prisoners will be taken. Tonight, all those that transgress shall perish.

Like ants upon an anthill, the army overruns the building and within mere moments it is engulfed in a guttering inferno. As the flames consume and devour, they step back and watch, never once letting up their baleful incantations. Rather, with each verse, the flames grow, shifting from yellow to green to blue to violet. The screams within last only a few moments but the blistering blaze does not die out until the sun breaches the horizon, casting an eerie blood-red glow over the death scene. The monks do not move, their words do not cease until the building is a brittle shell of blackened brick. Only then do they make their way into the smoldering pit of ash to sift out any incriminating evidence that may remain.

And what they discover is quite unexpected.

In the very center of the skeletal remnants—as oblivious rays of sun filter and blink their way past what remains of the stone building—seated upon a heaping pile of ash in Lotus position is a woman. Her eyes are closed. Her head is bowed. She is naked and her skin, while blackened with soot, is free of blister or burn. As the monks approach, they realize that what they took for the woman’s bulging belly is really something else entirely. It is another human being. A boy, curled tightly in the fetal position, asleep—snoring, in fact—with the most peaceful look set across his ash-coated face.

The monks, unsure of how to proceed, form a circle around the woman and the boy. They do not move. They do not speak. Instead, they wait. Eventually, the woman lifts her chin from her cavernous bosom and opens her eyes. The whiteness—the cleanliness—of her sclerae startles those few monks standing directly in front of her. It pleases her to frighten these men whose very platform is terror and tumult. A smile cracks at both sides of her mouth and her eyes fill with a fiery vengeance that glows brighter the flames of a birthing phoenix. She sees what they do not. They do not have much time left in this world. Their end is nigh…

And then the spell is broken. The circle shifts and contracts, each monk a venom-dipped fang of Charybdis. They devour the woman and the boy. They are beaten and shackled—left teetering upon the very cusp of life and death.

“Death is near,” the man told her. “I’ve t-t-teetered on the brink of this world and the next almost my whole life. Since the day my…” He could barely say the word, but he forced himself to finish the thought. “Since my…sister caught us. I was ready then, but you wouldn’t let me go. You wouldn’t let me die. But I am ready n-n-now. I’ve been ready. And I won’t let you interfere. Not again.

“Do you mean this, Little Dove?” The woman reached out suddenly, and yanked the sleeve of his cloak upward, revealing a line of knotted skin stretching from his wrist to the inside of his elbow. The scar was tinted pink, the only part of his body exhibiting any sign of color.

The man barred his teeth and hissed at the woman. He jerked his arm free from her grasp and yanked the sleeve of his cloak back down over his arm. “How dare you…

“Do not feel ashamed,” she said, soothing him. “Every step, every action, led you here. It was required. It has given you the strength for what lies ahead.”

“You’re d-d-delusional. You’re nothing but a ghost. You’re dead. I watched you die.”

The woman let loose a bellowing single syllable that echoed across the courtyard. Her laughter made her eyes appear even whiter, two glimmering discs of light that should have consoled the man, but instead made him feel ill at ease. They looked—felt—unnatural against the shifting blacks and grays and reds that blanketed the Parisian skyline.

“Dead? Silly boy. You know I posses the powers of a goddess. You know I cannot perish.”

Callum looked at her, and suddenly his brain was filled with a dozen conflicting thoughts. He felt confused. Unsure of what to think, what to believe. This vision was so unlike all the others.

“Because I am here, Little Dove. I am real. What can I do to make you believe?” She paused for a moment before reaching for his arm again. This time she grabbed at his wrist—too quick for him to prevent her from doing so—and pulled his arm toward her, pressing the palm of his hand against her crotch, using her other hand to force his fingers around the hard, pulsating thing resting against her meaty thigh. He tried pulling away but she wouldn’t let him. It was warm and wet and it repulsed him. It forced bile up into his mouth, burning the back of his through. And yet…and yet…

“Yes…yes…” she cooed. “You remember, do you not? You remember the connection we once shared. You remember how real it was. How powerful. How rare.”

He wanted to remember. He let his hand rest on her thing for moment. He even tightened his grip a bit. But no…no! That thing hidden beneath her robe, it was not real. She was not real. And even if she were, he did not want her, or what she had to offer. As a child he’d gone after it only because he’d had nothing else to take. She’d conned him into lusting after something perverse. If it weren’t for her, he would have had a chance at a normal life. He would have—

“Oh, Little Dove,” she heaved a sigh and let go of his hand. “When will you embrace what the universe has handed you? Your skin…your desires…the outside and the inside…they are you. They are you.”

The man drew his hand back into his lap. He stared into the fire, the flames withering and cooling. He no longer possessed the strength to continue the battle against his own mind. He grew silent, hoping his apathy would silence the voices. His face grew sullen and sagged, and his wiry frame curled up even tighter inside his oversized coat. As the fire shrank and then puttered out completely, he fell deeper, back into the dank, moldy, lightless dungeon of his mind.

They are hidden inside the dank, moldy, lightless dungeon buried deep beneath the glittering opulence of Holyrood Palace. No iron bars are needed here. Instead, an archaic contraption made of pulleys and levers lowers them into a deep, narrow, rocky shaft. There are dozen of them bored into the earth beneath Holyrood, a cluster of subterranean chimneys looking more like a vacated hive of giant insectile creatures than it does a prison built by man.

And there they wait as the investigation unfolds, as bureaucratic grunts forage for their identities and further incriminations they can heave upon their shoulders. Not because they need justification for a death sentence that is already certain, but because the patriarchy has chosen them to be a shining example to the people of Gallica. Their sins must be grand—and their deaths must be gruesome. The spectacle must strike throughout the country, while transforming them into such despicable creatures that the resistance will not make them a martyr for their cause. And if sufficient truth cannot be uncovered, they will generate their own mound of filth and slander.

But in the end, deception is unnecessary. For these two, Mohini and her ward, the truth is enough to send waves of revulsion rippling across the country. The elite must do very little—nothing more than a whisper to set a spark upon the haystack—to ignite a revolt and cries for death surging across all classes.

Unlucky for them—or lucky, perhaps, it depends on how you look at it—their sojourn in Holyrood’s Basement (a euphemism coined by the people with irony as its main intent) is brief. In just a few days, they are ushered from the darkness and out into the glaring brightness of Holyrood’s sweeping atrium. The upper half of the circular arena is filled to the brim with jeering spectators as they are escorted to small, circular dais at the very center of the court. Everyone has come to witness the scripted scene that is about to play out. From the ruling elites to the penniless beggars, for this one day, the entire city is joined in a unified cause. Blood. Blood has brought them together.

The entire circumference of the atrium’s lower half is enshrined in a series of majestic columns. Sheets of lush, lime-green foliage topple from the stone railings above, casting wavering shadows over the looming pillars, wrapping verdant tendrils around their cylindrical bellies. Hieroglyphics are etched into the surface of each monolith, a patchwork of zigzags, circles, squares, animals, and human-like forms cast in a variety of poses.

Mohini and the boy stand there, silent and waiting. The podium shakes beneath their bare, blistered feet as the crowd roars and stamps the ground, urging, begging for the proceeding to begin. Athletics and all forms of entertainment were banned by the conservative rulers decades ago, and public shamings and executions had since become the closest the people of Gallica would ever get to pure, unadulterated pleasure (legally speaking, that is). The defendants are forced to stand against the fury of the crowd for far too long—intentional no doubt, for with each passing second, their ire and cries for justice swell to greater and greater heights.

Finally, after the soles of their feet are aching and numb to the searing hot stone of the dais, the trumpeting of a great horn silences the crowds. Mohini and the boy look up. A rectangular edifice separates the rowdy crowds at one end of the atrium. Its four walls are Carrera marble quarried from the famed pits of Apennine. Their perfectly polished surface and blue-white tint make them look like mirrors reflecting the sky on a cloudless spring morning. Each corner of the box is an obelisk of the same glittering stone, and each tapering pillar is topped with a carved vulture, its feathered chest extended and bloating, its razor-sharp beak open in a frozen scream. It is the leading symbol of their country, of their faith. A fearsome beast exuding the tenants of fearlessness, cleanliness, rejuvenation, renewal, transformation, rebirth.

The marble box shields and partitions off a small, select group of people, sullen, silent, and immaculately dressed. These are the chosen ones. Judges, jury, royalty. And there, front row center, donning his bleached robe and Hedjet crown, was the king of Gallica, Eamonn VI. Eamonn the Soothsayer. A man renowned across the world for his great mystical prowess. A man who had risen from the grip of utter destitution to become one of the most powerful men in the world. (This was certainly a matter of debate; for those under the Cassian sway, Eamonn was the most powerful man in the world, but even the naysayers could not deny the puissance and influence he wielded.)§

As if propelled by some great magnetic force, all eyes focus on the king. The rich worship him. The poor despise him. But none can deny his presence. His mien is one of love and strength. He is a man renowned for embracing humanity and all its flaws. He is regarded as one of the most brilliant men alive today. But those few who have had the opportunity to look into his eyes, they’ve managed a glimpse into another man entirely. And that’s all it ever is—a glimpse. Eamonn only lets a man see what he wants him to see. But it is enough. His irises, a blue so deep it’s almost black, are like two pinpricks, a pair of air holes exposing the black tumult that lies within. An ebony void much like the one that exists outside the bounds of our universe. One filled with venom and terror and inexplicable things that do nothing but devour. It is even said that, should he desire it, his look can drive a man to madness. A madness from which there is no return. It is no coincidence this man is one of the most powerful leaders in the world.

And so, whether for love or hate, they all stare, eager for a taste. But none shall have it, for his eyes are masked in a shadow cast by the sheath of bleached vulture feathers lining his conical crown. It is the only showy thing on his person, designed to be an emblem of purity and renewal, two core tenants of the Cassian faith.

Instead, it is the men to his left and right who shall guide the proceedings. Three on the left, three on the right. They are dressed in attire very similar to the king, minimalist and free of color, with the same tapered crown except theirs are made of simple felt and are free of any feathers. The young boy does not hear their words. The entire trial passes by quickly, nothing but a muffled, shifting blur of various shapes and colors and sounds. He does not hear the jury pronounce their sins—man of them true, many of them false, a laundry list of transgressions, each grosser than the previous, each followed by an even louder roar of hypocritical condemnation from the crowd. He does not hear the pronouncement of his surname, henceforth labeled as a curse upon those who share it. He does not see his family in the crowd. He does not see them sink into the seats as their own fate is sealed as well.

But Mohini, she hears and sees it all. She is keen to the game they are playing with their lives. Once the judges have silenced themselves, Eamonn stands and begins to speak. He is tall and slender, seemingly frail against the bagginess of his cloak, but what the billowing folds hide is a taut, sinewy figure that possibly denotes—despite the tenets of Cassianism—a man consumed by vanity and obsession. His voice is loud and deep and clear as crystal. Each word he pronounces is uttered with purpose, spoken with a refined lilt that soothes and enchants. He turns to the left, and then to the right, addressing his peers. Unanimously, they all raise their left hand. So it is decided. There will be no need for the king to place his own vote.

In a matter of minutes, the dais at the center of the arena is quickly deconstructed and two giant stakes are erected in its place (because, of course, their fate was determined well before the trial ever began). The boy, lost in a foggy cloud of bleakness, does not resist as he roped to one of the stakes. His body, a boneless mass of gelatin, sags against his restraints, burning and cutting into his skin. Mohini, however, puts up enough fight for the both of them. Despite his pathetic fall from grace, despite her failure as a mentor, she will fight for this boy until her very last breath is expelled—and beyond. For despite it all, she still believes he is the one.

“I still believe,” she said, knowing it was a sad, half-hearted attempt to pull the man from his stupor. “I still believe you are the one.” Callum didn’t budge, but remained fixated on a fire that no longer burned. She knew this mood. She’d experienced it time and again during his youth. She sighed and stood, thinking her epic return had been nothing but an epic failure when the man spoke.

“You certainly have me confused with someone else.” And so it goes. Looped back around to the very beginning of it all. As if their entire conversation had never taken place. And perhaps, for him, it hadn’t. Perhaps his mind was beyond repair. It was very likely he didn’t remember a word. After so many years in exile, shunned and torn away from everything he had known—despite how terrible it had all been—could any many recover from such tribulation?

“No…no, I am quite certain you are him. You are my boy. You are Callum, my Little Dove, the one who shall rise above all.”

He laughed, something he hadn’t done in years. It was raspy and stilted, but it was genuine laughter nonetheless. “Don’t you have someone else to pester with your senile babble?”

She sighed. “No…no, I suppose you are not the man I once knew.”

She stood and began shuffling off away from him. Then she stopped, half visible, half hidden in a shadow cast by a crumbling column. She spoke, her back still turned toward him. “Do you remember that story I told you once?” She paused, but only for a moment, leaving him not enough time to confirm how in tact his memory still was—not that he would have, even if she’d waited. “Do you remember? The one about the devas and the asuras? About their battle for the magical elixir? The Amrita? I have found it. The bottle, it had one last drop in it. And I swallowed, for safekeeping. For the one. All that is needed is a single drop. Taste it and the world would be at your fingertips. But no…no…it is meant for one of clear mind. Of purity. Of whiteness. And that…that is not you.”

Callum stared into the dying embers. A strange woman was standing next to him, speaking to him. But he did not recognize her. He figured if he ignored her—pretended she wasn’t there—she would go away. Finally, after some time, she moved off, hopefully to pester one of the other ruffians hiding out in Les Invalides. But his heart sank when she stopped. She started talking today, but all he heard were muffled, indecipherable sounds. He wouldn’t let himself process what she was saying. Just another crazy hag looking for a hit or a ride.

But then her words started to take shape. Something about what she was saying…it made sense. He looked up but she was moving again, deeper in the shadows.

“Wait!” the man shouted, jumping up from the crate. He lurched forward, reaching for an arm, a shoulder, anything he could grab to stop her. But his hand passed through her as she dissolved into a colorless, coiling cloud that looked like smoke and shadow, all at once.

This had happened before. His life these days was nothing but a barrage of ghosts who came back to haunt and torment. But her final words, something about them had pierced his brain like a newly sharpened dagger. It jolted him, sending a wave of electricity pulsating through his entire body. Suddenly, he was awake. He looked around him and saw the courtyard for the first time. He saw the filth and infestation and for the first time, he was repulsed by it. He saw the billowing plumes of smoke and flame outside the walls of the museum. They were close, licking and singing the top of the building, curling their tips over and inward, like the talons of a hawk, diving in for the kill. He knew it wouldn’t be long before this haven was nothing but a smoldering heap of ash, littered with a hundred burnt skeletons and stinking of burning hair and flesh.

And now, he cared. He felt the need to escape. To chase down those final words. To hold them close to his breast. To find the only woman who showed him true love. To taste the last drop of the Amrita. To pull himself out of this sad, pathetic life. To seize his destiny.

It was time. Time to live.

It was time. Time to die. As Mohini is lashed to the post, she begins chanting. It is but a whisper at first, inaudible to all but the monks heaping fagots at her feet. Steadily her voice increases, and before long, it is so loud—so loud, it surpasses the confines of possibility, as if her voice is exaggerated by some manmade device, but it is not—that the crowd, including the judges and jury in their safe little box, are immediately silenced. Her words are indecipherable, harsh and grating, syllables wrested from the bowels of the Void. The ground begins to tremble, and many feel a sharp pain and a wet warmth as eardrums burst and streams of blood gurgle down their cheeks. Like a pair of living, rabid beasts, pain and fear swoop out over the masses to consume them. They want to flee, but they cannot. They are not allowed.

Only one is immune to Mohini’s ranting and raving. Only one understands her words. Eamonn sits there, silent and still but for the subtle smile that appears at the corners of his mouth. He listens, amused—somewhat impressed, even—as she casts her curse upon those who have condemned her and the boy next to her who she considers her son, her lover, her everything.

She does not believe in the Seven Sins—a farce created by man to enslave other men. A construct devised by the fathers of Cassianism centuries ago to instill fear in those too stupid to see the truth. To make them feel weak. To make them crave a need to be controlled and dominated. Mohini believes in a much greater power. A truer power. But she will find one final pleasure in using their own dogma against them.

The father, whose sins are greed and wrath. His insatiable desire for a life gilded with glitter and titles, so great he was blind to the true blessings bestowed upon him. A drive so great and insurmountable it had led him down a path of uncontrollable fury, a path lined with demons who drove him to commit the greatest offenses, ones that drew blood—both emotionally and physically—upon those who surrounded him.

The mother, whose sins are lust and sloth. Her yearning to escape the abuses of her life had led her down a furtive road of ecstasy and carnal pleasure. She did not allow herself another way out. Her son—the monster she’d given birth to—was her punishment. A constant reminder of transgressions. And so she’d given in and accepted her fate. Her mind had become stagnant and inert, further dulled by the years of abuse, aware but unwilling to seek out an escape to another, better life.

The daughter, whose sins is pride. The original and deadliest of the Seven Sins. Her conviction that she is above all else. That her ascent to The One and the Core of All Things is preordained and that nothing and no one—including her family—should stand in her way.

Mohini’s words are beyond translation. But those she condemns understand well what she is saying. They understand her words are meant for them, and them alone. They understand there is more than one trial and conviction taking place today. They understand that their life as they know it has officially come to an end. It was they, they who have sowed the seeds that led to this moment. That led not only to Mohini’s and the boy’s public shaming and execution, but to their own as well. The years of torment behind the walls of their lavish life have inevitably prompted their decision to incriminate their own son and sibling.

Eamonn waits patiently, listening to the story of their lives unfold, allowing himself to be transported back in time, reliving every moment of the family’s tortured life. He will recall every second of it and will deal with them when the time comes. But right now, he must deal with the brown-skinned witch and her albino protégé. He raises his right arm, palm outward, in a slow and casual manner, and instantly the woman is silenced. The king is grinning now, having relished in the rare spectacle. It’s not every day he faces a challenge, and today, he is thankful for the provocation. He locks eyes with the woman, and although they are nearly twenty rods away from one another, it is as if they are standing so close the tips of their noses are touching. Like the vertical slits of a reptile’s eyes, his pupils split open, pulling Mohini inward, driving her into the blackness. Into the Void. For the first—and possibly the last—time in her life, she has met someone with greater power than her own.

“I see you woman,” he says, but his words don’t match the movement of his lips. He’s speaking to her and only to her.

“As the one preordained by the Lord Almighty,” he says aloud, addressing his fellow disciples, the crowd, the boy’s family, the accused.

“You played a good game.”

“Chosen by him, and him alone, to shepherd his flock.”

“You’ve quite impressed me. I’ve sensed your power for nearly two decades now, But I could never quite place my finger on you.”

“To protect it from the wolves of this world whose only desire is to feast upon the flesh of the innocent.”

“But I’ve got you now, haven’t I? the game is done. And it’s time for you to go.”

“I proclaim to the world today, we shall NO LONGER tolerate these fiends among us.”

“You’ve meddled with my plans for far too long now. I cannot have you interfering any longer.”

“As HIS chosen gatekeeper between the corporeal and the spiritual, I sentence these two…”

“Ta-ta, my dear. Be sure to tell that shapeshifting imposter you idolize so much that Eamonn the Soothsayer shall not be bested.”

“…to death.”

“Tell him…karma is dead.”

The spell of silence is broken and the crowd erupts into a thunderous roar that will not be quenched until the condemned are nothing but two piles of ash and blackened bone. The only silent ones are those inside the box and three others, forced to face the course of their own actions.

Two gaolers approach the pyres from the outskirts of the arena and each drops a lighted match on a pile of straw and sticks. They are slow to catch, but as soon as they do, the flames spread quickly, and within moments a roaring ring of fire blossoms at the feet of the fated. At first, it’s nothing but a tickle and Mohini must stifle a laugh. But it quickly swells upward, dissolving the hem of her dress and then melting the skin off the bones of her legs. But she does not scream. She does not cry. She will not give them the pleasure. She will not give him the pleasure. But no matter, because the boy next to her is wailing and sobbing enough for the both of them. He pleads for salvation, but his words quickly turn to blood-curdling screeching as the fire swallows him whole, a swirling pyramid of orange and yellow.

Eamonn smiles, impressed by its beauty. Such elegance. Such perfection. Nature never ceases to amaze him. He takes this moment as a reminder…a reminder of the power that lies within all. A reminder of the power that lies within him. A pyramid—a dominating symbol of Cassian lore, yet another representation of cleansing and rebirth—is right here before him now. And this one, made of pure fire, devouring, consuming, cleansing. Such poetry. Such puissance.

Mohini is silent and frozen in place. Her eyes are shut. The acrid stench of burning hair and flesh—her hair and flesh—fills her nostrils and coats her tongue. But she must not let it pull her away from what must be done. Inside her head, she is bringing forth the last ounce of magic she can conjure as her entire body is swallowed by the flames. But she is immune to the pain. She must be, she must not allow herself the torment or all is lost. If she can do this one last thing, there might still be a chance. Her world is dimming…dimming…just a little bit more time, that’s all she needs…and just maybe…

Next to her, the boy is nothing but a rippling inferno in humanoid shape. He writhes and screams against his restraints. As first, his world is yellow and orange and red. Fear transforms to anger, and if he were able to form words, he would pronounce a curse on every living soul in that arena. But he cannot. Instead, he roars and howls and, eventually, he even begins to laugh. An uncontrollable laugh. And the crowd responds, growing louder, angrier.

And then, it is black. And suddenly, the pain is gone. One moment it is there, the most unimaginable pain. The next, there is nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing to see. Nothing to smell or taste or hear. Nothing to feel. Nothing.

Black shifts to gray. Gray shifts to white. White shifts to blue. He is on his back, staring up at the sky. There isn’t a cloud to be seen. The sun is a shimmering globe of gold. The color of saffron. He sits up, his arms like two kickstands behind him. The grass beneath his palms is thick and soft and the blades force themselves up between his fingers. He looks around him. He seems to be near the end of a large, narrow field or park. He is surrounded by trees and winding pathways…kissing lovers and laughing children. He takes a deep breath. He smells something sweet. Chocolate. He is here. He is whole. He is alive, without a scratch on his entire body. Can this be true? Can this be real? Am I alive? Or am I dead? Is this heaven…or has she…has my Momo…?

Yes. Most certainly she has. She has rescued him. Flown him far away. Away from a world that was nothing but sadness and pain. Straight ahead of him, the Eiffel Tower rises like a bronzed god of war, thrusting its spear into the belly of the blue sky above.

He never once journeyed beyond the limits of Edinburgh. But, because most of his days were filled with nothing but reading, he knows exactly where he is. The Champ de Mars. He’s in Paris. The city of love. The city of life. The city of second chances.

Yes. He remembers what they did to him. As the initial shock begins to fade, anger wells upward, wrapping its cold fingers around his gut and around his throat. He clenches his fists, digging his fingernails into the cool soil and ripping up two clods of sod.

They will pay, he thinks to himself. “They will pay,” he says aloud. He will find his Momo. Certainly she must be here too, somewhere. And when he does…once they’re reunited…he will have his revenge. He knows he’s spent too much of his life resisting the words of his mentor. But no more. Now is the time. Never again will he forget who he is.

“You have forgotten who you are.” That is what his Momo had said before she disappeared. “Somewhere along the way, you lost yourself again. It took you too long to get there. But in the end, you made it. The fire, it ignited something within you. Something that I knew was inside you all along. But I was unable to bring it forth. Only you were able to do it. Anger. Passion. Destiny. But you let it slip through your fingers. You grew complacent in Paris. Why is it that, Little Dove? Because you couldn’t find me? Yes, I believe that must be the reason. But, don’t you see? You never needed me. You got there on your own. And now, you must find your way back. Find your fire, Little Dove. And never, ever let it extinguish itself. Never, until the day when you draw your last breath. Like the flames outside these walls, you must feed it continually. It must consume everything in its wake. Until there is nothing left. Until there is nothing left. Remember who you are. And remember that vow you swore as your enemies—as your family—burned you alive. It’s your turn now, Little Dove. It’s your turn to burn them.”

Yes. Yes, it was time. Time for vengeance. Time to purge all those who had wronged him. Time to erase the stain his family had smeared over the family name. It was time to rise up, to embrace who he was. To repair—no, not to repair. To build anew. To erect his own legacy.

But first, he needed her. She may have been right about most everything, but she was wrong about one thing: he did need her. He must have her by his side as his sage and counselor. And then…then, the world would learn to fear him.

And with that, the man stole away into the shadows, toward the north gate of the courtyard. He would let no ruffian stand in his way. If they did, he would snap their necks without hesitation. The fires outside burned greater than ever. But he would let no flame deter him. Not now. Not after his rebirth. He was a phoenix spreading his crimson wings in preparation for flight. At long last, he was going home.

“The people will fall to their knees to kiss and wash my feet,” he said, and smiled. Grinned. A grin ripe with cunning and haughtiness. “They will know me. They will know my name.” His stutter is gone, forgotten.

“They will know Callum Allister.”

Back in the cour d’honneur, a squat figure draped in an umber cloak watched the man flee. An oversized hood concealed whatever face lied within. But, almost certainly, this stranger was grinning too. A grin of equal cunning and haughtiness, but for very different reasons.

But, at that, we may only suppose.

*Cassian monks, when formally inducted into the ranks, are required to undergo laser surgery, permanently removing all hair from the body. As one of the many tenets of Cassianism, hair is believed to attract and collect dirt and as such is considered an impure, unnatural feature of the human body.

†Believing that physical dirt on the body is a sign of either sin transgressed or forthcoming, Cassian monks are obsessed with cleanliness and bathe multiple times a day (bathing every other hour is not uncommon). Potent cleaning agents, paired with aggressive cleaning techniques, often leave the skin raw and bleeding.

Most of the Western World follows the Cassian Calendar, a pseudo-hybrid of our world’s Egyptian and Gregorian calendars. As it currently stands, the months are: Khoiak, Tybi, Mekhir, Phamenoth, Pharmuthi, Pakhon, Payni, Epiph, Mesore, Thoth, Phaophi, and Athyr. Payni translates to July.

§The system through which Cassian monks recruit and train their disciples is strict and oftentimes brutal. Through a complex series of divinations, veteran monks select young boys (typically around the age of six; no females are allowed) who they deem are “destined” to serve a higher cause. Each chosen talibé is forced into poverty, overseen by a marabout, or mentor. The talibé is forced to beg for both his own livelihood and his marabout. Small coins, food scraps, and other goods are given to the marabout by the talibé in exchange for wisdom. What the marabout chooses to return to the talibé, be it mental or physical nourishment, is at the sole discretion of the marabout. The relationships are typically abusive, both physically and mentally. Marabouts are renowned for their excessive cruelty and the young boys are often found dead in the streets, either from malnourishment or apparent battery. (It is thought that only a small percentage of boys survive beyond a few months, but sufficient data to prove this theory is suspiciously absent.) This system is meant to teach resilience and humility, and to weed out those who are too weak and incapable of wielding the sorcery and secrets of the Cassian creed. Ironically, the talibé-marabout system was appropriated from Saracen culture between the fifth and sixth centuries during the Great Diaspora and before the sack of Alexandria at the beginning of the seventh century. The Egyptian capital of Alexandria was the seat of the Cassian Church until the city fell to the Saracens in 619 CE, at which time power was transferred to Edinburgh. Edinburgh, also officially referred to as the Holy See, was the governing body of both Gallica and the Cassian Church until the country was invaded by Xen in 4104 CE when both the Gallican government and the Cassian Church were toppled and ceased to exist.

||Eamonn would be the seventh and the one responsible for breaking an even vote, should it occur. As with many other cultures around the world, the Cassians considered the number seven a figure laden with mystical properties and symbolism. In fact, the origin of the Seven Sins is attributed to Evagrius Ponticus and his Desert Fathers (to which John Cassian belonged; Cassian is accredited with launching the tenets of Cassianism—including the concept of the Seven Sins—onto a global scale).

The pyramid is rife throughout Cassian culture and can be found in such things as artwork, architecture, etc. As with most symbolism in the faith, it is largely used to signify renewal, rebirth, etc. In fact, “pyr-“ is a combining form meaning “fire,” thus, “pyramid” is oftentimes thought to denote rebirth by fire. As flames and/or fire often take shape in a tapered form, it’s no doubt the tapered monuments were intentionally named as such due to their resemblance. A pyre (note the spelling), which is often constructed into a pyramid-like shape, is (for obvious reasons) a frequent choice for executions and sacrificial proceedings.




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