Grimdark Story Battle Royale 5, Match 2: From Sand and Ruin vs. Blaise

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FROM SAND AND RUIN

Yaris, your infidelity remains untold. I alone must burden the truth- that our pursuit into the sands were not for our preservation, but rather we may expire quietly.

 Accept my lament and instruct me as their Desert Father. By our covenant, the Qojar Trials shall spill half of our children’s Moein blood, and I will lead my remaining sons and daughters towards our destined eradication.

In this, we suffer for you and the world.

                                                -A prayer from the Third Desert Father

After a summer’s span of no rain, the clouds finally opened and indicated favor for this significant night. Yaris’s blessing spewed onto the crowd in unending waves of brisk, penetrating water. Thunder deafened the audience and blended with the striking of ritual drums. Thirsting sand drank in gluttony while dug up and liberated by the dance of the Moeins. At least she’d have the honor of dying in the rain. Rani blinked madly, attempting to shake the droplets clinging to her eyelashes.

Despite the downpour, she didn’t dare look away from the fighting arena. A splash jerked her attention to the other side and she finally caught sight of the two Potentials. Her eyes fluttered and she nearly missed the flash of an arm swinging and then a foot sweeping through the air. A bloated eye appeared midair and burst. The sporadic glimmering made it evident that one of the fighters was swiftly losing. Mud splattered and a soiled outline of a man materialized on the ground.

Her mother sniffed pointedly, “Nadir’s glinting all over the damn place.”

Rani’s stomach churned at her mother’s words. Her round was next. She ached for comfort in prayer but feared she’d reveal her treachery. Who was she to beg salvation from Yaris’s own deific plan?

She glanced over to her sister beside her. Though barely a year older, Amira’s stature already conveyed the Moein warrior their mother fawned over. She stood, impervious to the gale and rain, neither blinking or shivering. The Alasi cloth around her chest and waist absorbed her midnight skin but not rainwater. Those around them stared at the rare fabric with tightened eyes. Alasi material helped perfect Fading and had never been squandered on mere Potentials, another exception gifted to Amira.

Amira was a statue representation of everything Moeins were supposed to be, an unyielding force. Rani mimicked a drowned, overdressed rat in her drenched clothes.

Bones crunched and Nadir’s ruined body visualized.  His head had cracked open; his left eye socket bulged outward. His mouth gaped open and rich red spilled out. While on his knees, he held his head up to the crowd and shook his head side to side. He was then projected sideways by an unseen force. He crumpled onto the ground and didn’t move.

The victor oafishly blended back into view. A lean structure that flowed with muscle. The corner of his eyes crimped upwards while addressing the crowd, taking no further notice of the fallen opponent. Everyone shrieked for the victor, Kehan, son of the Third Desert Father.

 Two Moeins rushed forward to drag the fallen warrior away. Rani grew nauseous watching the body disappear past the crowd. His defeat in the Qojar Battles made him a Soied, an outcast. His name now unspeakable even by his own family. Not even death spared him from his fate.  His body would be dumped deep within the Sadejskyran Desert. Erased.

She fiddled with the star shaped stone on her necklace, the first she ever carved. She fancied herself a Sculptor- far from the fighter her mother and culture demanded. Hobbies were for the weak, her mother loved to say. Despite all her mother’s training, she never mastered the art of Moein combat. Every battle either showcased her inability to camouflage into a proper Fade or became a humiliating spectacle when she glinted like a child.

She’d never became a Moein. Only winning in the Qojar Battles granted that right. Entertaining no delusions, her upcoming battle would be her end.

The crowd’s chatter heightened, eager to see the next Potentials in action. They wanted more blood and her rival would grant their wish. Rani’s fighting lessons faded from memory. Her legs refused to move.

Her sister entered the clearing, her footsteps prancing on top of the mud. She headed directly towards Kehan. He kissed her forehead to the crowd’s applause.

“What are you waiting for?” Her mother hissed, elbowing her second child forward.

She stumbled onto the field. The circle of onlookers appeared to close in around her, gossiping about the shamed second child, an obvious waste of resources. Her eyes burned as she struggled to hold back tears. A quick glance to her hands proved that she was already glinting in and out, her fingers camouflaging with the muck without command. Amateur. She took her place at the opposite end from Amira.

“You’re going to win this, Rani!” Vaida said.

Rani recognized Vaida’s voice amongst the jabber. Her best friend’s encouragement sent goosebumps along her arms. She quickly searched for Vaida, hoping her friend’s thick and ringlet hair would stand out from the crowd. She failed.

She gazed up to her sister. Amira-the one who doesn’t Fade but disappears entirely, never a glint out of place. Heat surged within her throat and burned bitterly.

Amira had blinded herself with white ribbons, entrusting the natural pull of her enemy’s essence.

It was just like the new Amira to boast about her abilities. Her sister was not only going to kill her, she was going to turn their fight into a spectacle. 

Rani tried to recall who Amira imitated. Stories had filled their childhood about historic methods on how to enhance one’s ability. She remembered the figure. Now a reimagined Ysin the Blind stood in her enemy’s spot.

“Fucking showoff,” Rani hollered.

Amira’s lips slit upwards. Her blindfold emphasized her smirk.

Since Kehan was the latest victor and still standing, he would start this round. He stood between the two Potentials and began counting.

“One!”

Rani’s head spun. As if on cue, she started slipping and sloshing within the mud.

“Two!”

Her foot found a lodged rock. She steadied herself and raised her fists.

“Three!”

She refocused on Amira and her sister’s wide smile. This sinister being that would embarrass her in front of everyone.

“Four!”

She lunged into a sprint, nearly plowing Kehan over before he could shout the final count. She managed a spiral flip and Faded before she hit the ground. Her sister nowhere to be seen.

She had to make Amira bleed first. A brutish method but torn skin doesn’t Fade. Leaping forward, she struck blindly.

Pain crushed her throat as she jumped, Amira’s attack knocking her backwards onto the earth. 

Rani wrapped her arms around her head and tried to roll away but found herself completely submerged in sludge. She had to calm down, her life teetering on this single, fragile moment. She frantically tried to pull in any color, but only felt murk that clung to her. Weighed down and immobilized, the ground began digesting her. She couldn’t Fade.

“Hel-” she tried screaming but as soon as her mouth opened, muddy water came surging in. She inhaled muddy ooze and her lungs ignited.

 Pain exploded from the middle of her face and expanded along her cheeks. Amira continued stomping on her face. She tasted stone throughout her mouth and her nose gushed bloody snot. Everything blurred through darts of light and tears. She gave in to the Earth enclosing around her and waited for the end.

She opened her eyes to see Amira being lifted onto Kehan’s shoulders. The battle already over. This must have been the shortest fight in history. Rani thought about Fading into the mud but couldn’t even bring forth the effort. She deserved to be ridiculed.

“Get up, you fucking flop!” Her mother said.

Hands seized her hair and jerked her onto her feet. She flailed her arms to stop the assault, but her mom easily swatted her attempts away.

“Please!” Rani whimpered, her hair threatening to rip out from the violent treatment. She struggled to keep pace as she was forced past the gawkers and towards the unknown. Their march seemed to have no end and the celebratory cheers of Amira’s victory grew faint. “Mom, stop!” Being dazed and concussed, she could only endure.

Their journey came to a sudden halt and Rani bit the ground upon impact, sobbing between wheezes. This time she embraced the land, grateful that she could finally rest. “Please just stop.” Drool dribbled past her lips in slivers. Pounding echoed in her ears and she didn’t know whether it came from her heart or head. The little relief she had fled as she peered up and beheld the alien architecture in front of her.

Jets of serrated crystals penetrated from the earth in menacing spikes. The larger spikes formed a ring and blocked its contents from view. She worked with all varieties of rocks, but nothing compared to the monstrosity before her. The crystals defied nature by rotating different shades and hues. How did such a massive structure exist without her ever knowing?

“Can you feel its power?” Her mother said, her voice disturbingly soft.

There was no need to lie. The crystals’ colors extended past their physical form and invaded through her skin. It transformed into a hostile energy that swelled within her. She was a mockery, a pathetic imitation of the power before her. Still several feet away, her skin contracted in retaliation. The energy forced her to Fade.

“You haven’t felt anything yet.” With that warning, her mom grasped Rani’s arm and hauled her towards the horror.

They stopped in front of the barrier that concealed a bottomless abyss, filled with water and encased with crystals. Her heart swelled into her throat. Insanity reigned control, promising death by her mother’s hand. Rani clawed at her mother’s arm and dragged her heels into the ground.  

Her mother pulled her into an embrace.

A hug was the last thing Rani expected. They stood clutching each other in the sands. The rain had stopped, and the humidity produced an uncomfortable heat between them. They pressed their dirty cheeks against each other, their tears and grime mixing as one. Her mother patted her hair. Rani didn’t resist. It was safer within her mother’s arms than in her hands.

Her mother released a soft breath, “I tried my best. I did everything I could for you and Amira.”

“You did.”

Rani’s lie slipped past so easily. How long had she craved this? For her mother to simply hold her? She wanted to etch her mother’s words into her memory forever, but her mother lied just as effortlessly. Lies are too dangerous to remain with you.

Rani was too broken for confrontation. Her own emotions already battled each other, over-lapping, colliding. Frantic thoughts lost within a maze. She was a Soied. What will happen to her now?

“I will save you, Rani,” her mom promised.

Rani managed to gulp one last breath before her mom hurled her into the well.

A rush of freezing, biting water smacked her broken nose and constricted around. She flailed her limbs, the surface lost to her. Crystals blinded her from all directions. Their haze tormented her skin and coerced her to Fade with ever-changing patterns. Exhausted and enclosed in a prison of fluorescent colors, she sank.

“You need to breathe, Rani!” her mother screeched.

Rani foolishly shifted her focus from her opponent to her family along the sidelines. A younger Amira sat by her mother’s feet, born too ill to participate in the battles. Despite this indignity, Amira watched her with rapt attention. Rani thought she saw hope in her sister’s gaze. Though she was over fatigued, she had to continue. She had to improve so that she could protect her sister- to fight for them both. This was her purpose in life.

She never saw the next blow. She fumbled onto the floor, suffering defeat once again.

Rani’s eyes fluttered but her sister’s mirage lingered. She reached out and held Amira’s hand. All the suffering she experienced as the second child, and all this fighting had been endured for lies. Her childhood naivety taunted her now, fueled from years of being her only source of pride. She marveled on how strong her sister had suddenly become. Amira proved to be everything her parents needed this entire time.

How foolish to believe that her and Amira would both become Moeins when life only ever offered room for one.

Black wisps crept along the edges of her vision and danced a tale of death. She closed her eyes and allowed darkness to gently caress her, stealing her life away. You need to breath, her mom’s words echoed on repeat. She smiled, allowing some water to pass her lips. Nothing left for her but to drown. At last, she would finally accomplish what her mother demanded. Yaris would see her soon.

Water seeped into Rani’s mouth and jerked her awake. She gasped but not for air. She was still in the well, but her lungs no longer felt the need for oxygen. The crystals continued to project that weird energy. It bruised into her, violently providing nourishment. A sensation that contorted throughout her body, intensifying her muscles.

She glanced down at her body and saw nothing. Startled, she sucked in a mouthful of water before realizing her mistake. Her heart soared, even as she coughed the water out. She was completely camouflaged. For the first time in her life, she had perfected a Fade.

Sunlight seeped through the water’s surface, clouding the opening of the well. She stretched her arms up, straining to pull herself towards the light. Her legs kicked vigorously, but the water pressure suspended her in place. She eyed one of the longer crystals sticking out. The crystal was right there, just over a body length away. She concentrated all her weight into her left shoulder and lunged in the crystal’s direction, only moving a fingerbreadth closer.

She thrust her right shoulder in the same manner. She edged gradually. Each small pivot a victory that brought her closer to freedom. She extended her hand out and gripped the crystal, wincing as sharp edges sliced into her palm. Blood and torn skin spawned into view. Her perfect Fade ruined.

 Rows and rows of piercing crystals marked her passage way to the top. All of them sneered, taunting her with jagged teeth. There was no other way out.

She climbed.

By some foul craft, the water provided no buoyancy. Her arms throbbed from lifting her full weight and flared when crystals flayed skin. The crystals violated her, carving deep into her hands and stomach. They bit into her feet. Tattered flesh marked her progress. Her blood darkened the water and stained the crystals black.

That strange sensation steadily withdrew from her body as if the crystals were reclaiming it back. Black wisps seeped out with her blood, leaving her feeling hollow. Empty. She didn’t know what they were. Maybe they powered Fading? She focused her Fade to her heart and lungs, protecting them while she could.

She wouldn’t give up now. Instinct seized control and compelled her to ascend one crystal at a time. Crystals that swelled in size the farther up she went. The full strength of the two suns beamed down now, creating a fog of green opal. Her ears popped from receding water pressure.

Still, she climbed.

The well’s edge was within her grasp. Freedom that promised soft sand and unfiltered sunlight. She hesitated. She never dared to travel across Sadejskyran alone. She had no supplies. Nothing to carry water in. She was a Soied now and Soieds were destined to die.

She accepted her fate, but not passively. The stone on her necklace was sharp but she needed a real weapon to survive in Sadejskyran. She had to go back to the Moein Village. Her knives were there, as well as her water pouch. Yaris owed her a faith death.

She leaped at the edge and slammed against the wall, compacting between two barbed crystals. They pierced into her sides. They threatened to trap her. Her hands scrambled over the top of the well, searching for leverage. Sand embedded into her torn wounds and she screamed.

She heaved herself out, sucking in her first real breath of air.

She tumbled past the crystal barrier and fell. Sand dried to her, creating a crusty seal over her wounds. She started counting to ten, wanting only a brief moment to catch her breath. She lost count. A lukewarm breeze scurried along the desert. It wouldn’t be long before the first sun went down and invited Katayun dogs to begin their hunt. She had to reach the village before halflight.

Pressing her hands and feet firmly into the ground, she readied herself. She did not escape the well to be eaten alive. “I will make it.”

 She pushed off the ground and onto her feet. The desert stood vacant but crystals and footprints left in the sand. Remnants from her and her mother’s journey to the well. A sharp ache flared in her chest. This trail led straight back to the village and no effort had been made to conceal them. Her mother intended for her to die.

Each step she took shot darts of pain through her feet and up her legs. Halflight settled in, mocking her progress. Even with the departure of the first sun, her skin burned and peeled. Fading entirely was no longer possible. She raged. It was all her mother’s fault. Her mother had said “I’ll save you, Rani.” Ha.

Drumbeats echoed across the sands. That horrible deep sound of Qojar Battle drums. Rani quickened her pace and soon, clusters of mud buildings came into view. Her forbidden home.

She stalked along the row of mud buildings, cautiously eyeing the alleyways. She risked immediate death by walking on Moein soil, but she needed a proper weapon. Everyone should be at the Qojar battles right now. That gave her plenty of time to sneak into her home, gather supplies, and escape.

She stopped at a building with cratered walls. Walls that desperately needed a new plaster of mud. The sole building still left neglected by the previous storm. She recognized Vaida’s stitched blanket hanging from its window. Filth crusted its threads.

She yanked Vaida’s blanket from the window and clutched it to her chest. She imagined Vaida hugging her back. Why did Vaida leave her blanket like this? Rani shut her eyes but tears leaked out anyway. Vaida might have already fought her round. How could she have forgotten about her own friend’s battle?

Not caring who saw her, she peeked inside the window. Inside Vaida’s home didn’t look any better. Rain had created divots on the floor. Clothes were scattered everywhere. Apart from clothes, the room was empty. No sign of Vaida.

“I don’t see why we had to come back,” A man said. His voice carried from the entry point, but it didn’t belong to Vaida’s father. It was too young and brittle.

Rani ducked under the window and compressed her arms under her body. That voice was so familiar but his name escaped her. She crammed her ear to the wall, her pulse rushing.

Footsteps stomped inside Vaida’s room. A woman said, “Yaris bury you. Her round isn’t up yet! No one will be coming home until sunsdown.”

“And as I said, I changed my mind about the clothes,” the woman continued. “She won’t be needing them.”

 The man sniggered.

Rani’s nails dug into her palms, aggravating her wounds. She recognized Farid’s high pitch chuckle. The woman with him had to be Shirin. They used to pelt small sandbags at her and Vaida. How dare they fucking steal from Vaida now.

Walking on her toes, she crept around the side of Vaida’s home and peeked from the corner. Their voices were muffled from this angle. Pressing her back against the wall, she scooted her way towards the entrance. She should be fleeing in the opposite direction, but she couldn’t allow these Moein jackholes to getaway.

 “I wouldn’t mind seeing their fight,” Farid said. “It’s always fun to watch Amira destroy weak Potential ass.”

All the air in Rani’s lungs fled out at once. She stood locked to the wall, subjected to Farid’s taunts as he prattled on. Their fight just didn’t make sense. Amira already won Moein status. What reason would Amira have except for spite? Something malicious occurred for Amira to fight in the Qojar Battles again.

Fighting her urge to scream, Rani pressed her fists into her legs. For Amira’s second battle, Moeins would demand someone’s death. She couldn’t allow that bitch to kill her best friend.

 She was a Soied. Someone sacrificed for Moeins’ survival. If death was all that awaited her, she’d rather die trying to save Vaida. By interfering their fight, she could distract Amira and give Vaida the chance to run.

That strange energy from the well struck Rani again and crippled her to the ground. She clutched her chest, her heart pounding rapidly with the sensation. Her skin pulsated from the intoxicating force.  

She took this opportunity and Faded. Every part of her disappeared except for her wounds. How is this possible? The crystals were nowhere close.  Her scabs and burns shined clearly. This hindrance wouldn’t stop her. She felt powerful. Awakened.

She bounced to her feet and sprinted in the direction of the center plaza, towards the drumbeats. If Farid or Shirin noticed, she dared them to chase after her. She’d fight them too. She’d fight them all and win. She dashed down the alleyway, the Qojar drums growing louder.

She reached the crowd and elbowed her way through. Confused Moeins stumbled back from the floating fragments of scarred skin. She didn’t worry about them. All that mattered was reaching Amira and Vaida before it was too late. She shoved into the front row.

Vaida appeared first. She spun through the air, contorting her body in absurd angles and twists. Rani froze in awe, unsettled by her own ignorance of Vaida’s ability to fight.

Despite this, Vaida appeared inept against Amira’s skill. Her sister’s movements graced in flight, her feet never touching the ground. She whirled around her victim, coolly forcing Vaida to dodge interspersing kicks and punches. Their battle soon became a clinical demonstration on how to trifle with and exhaust opponents.

Why were they not Fading? Rani eyed a young boy across the arena. His eyes drooped as he faced the complete opposite direction of the battle. She recognized his expression from all her past experiences; he couldn’t sense their Fade.

 Rani sprinted ahead, shattering the line between observers and the arena. She hurtled towards her final moment without breaking stride. Interposing between the two fighters, she shoved her confused friend out of the way. She ripped her necklace from her throat, holding the stone as a knife, and turned to face Amira.

 Her sister jumped on her. She tried to push her but Amira’s legs choked around her throat. Unable to support both of their weight, she stumbled. She clawed her pendant across Amira’s back, blood smearing over them. The pendant slipped from her hands.

Rani’s legs folded and sent them both crashing down.

Amira spat and her face wrenched in fury. She sprang back onto her feet, but she staggered. She picked up the pendant from the ground and swung.

Rani batted Amira’s arm away. Something was wrong. That energy revitalized inside her again, this time without restraint. Her body started disintegrating into vivid light, releasing the energy onto the field. The transformation ignited her nerves. She forgot her entire purpose for battling Amira and knew only pain.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Amira cried.

Rani never heard a cry like that. She caught sight of Amira’s now visible and ruined body. The mutated light that came from her enfolded around Amira and burned flesh. Amira thrashed helplessly as her skin crisped and blistered.

Vaida abandoned her fight and ran after the rest of the crowd. No one wanted that light to touch them.

Rani’s body continued to dissolve. She tried warding the light away from her sister and stopped only when she no longer had arms. Yaris, renounce her soul. She couldn’t save them.

Amira quieted. She stood unmoving and allowed the light to swirl around her. Ruptured red eyes appeared through the shroud. She offered the pendant up. “I’m sorry.”

Rani understood. As long as she was alive, her body would continue to transform into this hostile light. Her sister offered her mercy. This was the only chance to save them both.

Rani didn’t block her sister’s final attack.

BLAISE

The problem with Elixir 99 is, one sip and you wake up in a pool filled with alligators.

You wake up wearing someone else’s underwear.

Luckily for me, the gators are all dead. Unlucky, leather underwear.

I’m half out of the pool and someone is yelling something about how that naked woman killed all the beautiful alligators.

Yeah, well, I’m willing to bet that woman was high as a damn dillywomp on a certain Elixir too.

And I mean, come on, I was in a pool filled with alligators for shit sake. What the hell else was I supposed to do? Ask for water snuggles?

Yup. Except for the impossibly tight leather underwear, I’m totally naked. I look around for my clothes. Nothing here but dead gators. Ugh. Okay, that’s it, I’m done with Elixir 99. Me waking up in weird places is getting worse. I mean, one of these times I’ll end up in shark infested waters, or a damn cobra pit. Or, hell, even on a different fuckin’ planet. Hard to tell with the Elixir. Then there’s the headaches. Like someone thumping on my melon with hard rubber hammers.

And there’s people staring in at me through large windows.

Well, how about that. I’m at the zoo.

“What the hell?” A guy’s voice echoes inside the enclosure, sending a sharp pain through my head.

I groan, close my eyes and press a finger too my lips. “Shh. You’ll wake’em up.”

The pain fades and I’m able to open my eyes again. My pistol rests on top of a gator’s lumpy head. I pick it up.

“Whoa…whoa, lady,” says the dude across the way. A zookeeper, I imagine. “Put the gun down. Cops are on the way.”

“Pshh,” I say and wave the gun. Little does he know, it’s empty, and not just any ordinary gun. This bitch kills unicorns for a living, damn it. “They never get here in time.” I chuckle…for no reason. Stupid Elixir got me all weird still.

I slog out of the blood tainted water of the shallow pool and walk to the zookeeper. He’s like twenty something. Short. Balding. Grossly white.

I point the gun at his pasty face. “Gimme your shirt, hun.”

“M-my shirt?”

I roll my eyes. Why do people have to be so stupid sometimes? Especially dudes.

“Uh, yeah,” I say. “You know, that scrap of cloth covering your no doubt doughy torso.”

“My—hey.”

I pull the stained, blue T-shirt off the guy and slip it on. Leather underwear is one thing but walking around the city topless is looking for more attention than I want at this point.

Besides, I gotta find Fae. She owes me money from the last job.

Apparently, I was good to drive last night because my car is parked right out front.

Two cop cars pass right by as I drive into Des Moines. AKA, Silver Wings.

The leather underwear, it rides up my ass.

Note to self: Stop at apartment and put on real clothes.

***

Every major city has its human appointed name, and its true name. Most humans, they don’t know the true names. Maybe they hear it whispered from time to time, but never make the connection.

Des Moines is really Silver Wings. Chicago, Fessledor. New York, Poison Apple Springs. Los Angeles…Grim Town.

Names given these locations since before humans were a breath in the air.

Silver Wings, it’s quite the happening place. Well, below human understanding anyway. Unless they are shown.

Like I was.

I park in front of an elderly Catholic church, walk around back and whisper, “Slethiar meckish.” Open door.

The grass rips a part as the ground spreads open wide. There’s a blue flash and then I’m looking a set of steps leading down into darkness. I spare a glance around to be sure no one is playing spy and descend the stairs.

Halfway, I say, “Clish meckish.” Close door.

Magic and its weird words. Fae taught me just enough to get by, really. Most of it I had to learn on my own. Kinda forced to, actually.

The ground swallows me and I continue down into the darkness.

Well, darkness to your average human. To me though…

“Illuminae Res.”

The dark dissipates, revealing a spiral, stone staircase going down. I tuck a stray strand of hair behind my ear, sigh and begin the boring ass slog down into Fae’s dimension.

***

At the bottom of the stairs, there’s this large, dark stained, wooden door with silver trim and hinges. The knob is the skull of some old troll that tried to trick Fae way back before any real human was born. I dunno. Fae doesn’t like to talk about it and I don’t ask.

Slouched, pale statues with large eyes and yawning mouths flank either side of the door. Long, ropey arms dangle at their sides, knuckles no more than an inch from the floor. Their eyes are the deepest obsidian, reflecting the emptiness within. Or something.

Rakes. Takers of children. Eaters of youth.

An icy chill shivers through me. I hate these things.

I step forward and they lift their heads.

Damn it. Fae was supposed to give them my scent. Ugh.

The one on my right straightens a bit, shifts a few inches away from the door. A hollow sigh floats through the stale air.

“Oh, for shit sake, really?” I ask the Rakes.

The one on the left slowly falls into a crouch. Ready to pounce. One on the right, it creeps forward.

“You guys know me. I’ve been down here, what…like a gazillion times in the last six years?”

They don’t move, but don’t allow me access either.

Sigh. “I really gotta say the words?”

Silence. Stillness.

“Great gods of chunky peanut butter, fine.” I draw in a deep breath and in a whistling tone, “Hasra monu slethiar meckish.”

The Rakes return to their slouching posts and a sharp click echoes through the cobble stone room.

As I open the door I shoot a glare at the Rake on the right. “Hope you fall down a well and Lassie doesn’t save you.”

Then I step over the threshold and shut the door behind me.

The first time I set foot in Slight of Way, Fae’s kingdom, I was pretty underwhelmed. The sixteen-year old me expected everything painted in pastel colors and shimmering with beads of dew or something. I expected a bright blue sky and beautiful creatures.

What I got was a gun barrel gray sky and dead things. What I got were broken buildings and the noxious stench of sulfur.

I’ve been pretty traumatized ever since.

Okay, not really. But I mean, I should’ve been.

One thing I’ve learned since all this began is everything we thought we knew is twisted into nightmare versions of themselves.

I guess it wasn’t always so. Slight of Way used to be gorgeous, according to Fae. Then…something happened. Some greater force leeched all the beauty out of the land. Your stereotypical interdimensional villain, I suppose. All I can do is shrug. I’ve never met the dude.

The door, it’s set in a slumped house on this side.

I step off the stoop and walk a crooked trail to a crumbling, stone street. Somewhere in the distance, something yowls. A long, sad sound. Like everything here. Sad.

Black smoke swirls across the street, sinks into the barren ground. Shadows with teeth. No other name for the things. Vile entities that feed on the essences of people.

I keep walking. All of the houses here, they’re all your stereotypical haunted house. All dark and gloomy, broken windows watching you like dead eyes. Slumped porches. Whatever walks in them walks alone. You get the picture.

I walk to a large castle-like structure dominating one end of the village. There’s no door. Not to the naked eyes, anyway. A spell to deter lesser creatures like elves and vampires. More like a combination lock to wizards and spell folk.

Me, I already know the combo.

One word, actually.

“Blaise.”

My name.

Fae designed it just for me. Bless its scabrous heart.

The door appears. I open it and step inside the castle that’s not really a castle but a retro style house. Complete with orange shag carpet, of course. Smells like peanut butter cookies. Fae is in the living room watching some dude on a black and white TV and muttering swear words. Fae isn’t really a guy or a woman, but both. And likes to change their appearance a lot.

Today Fae is a little girl. Maybe nine or ten. Dressed in a white summer dress, sitting cross-legged on a lime green couch. Fae notices me in the archway and then nods at the TV.

“Look at this idiot, will you? Trying to rob a bank using magic.” Fae shakes their head. “This is why demons need to just stay in their dimension. Dumb as a box of rocks in the dirt.”

“Well,” I say. “Glad to see you’re in a good mood today.”

Fae grunts, turns off the TV and pats a spot on the couch beside them. “Sit. We need to talk.”

I hesitate. “Look, if it’s about the alligators I’m sure they had it comin’.”

Fae shakes their head, black pigtails flapping. “Not that. Although I should dock you for such a stunt. This is something…more important than your behavior, I’m afraid.”

I sit on the couch. The soft sigh of air being pushed out of the cushion. Fae doesn’t say anything for a long moment. I glance away, look back. They’re just kinda staring off into space. Like I’m not even here.

“Um…so…I guess there’s something important going on?”

Fae blinks. Smiles. “Oh yes. I need you to kill Mr. Unicorn.”

“Uh, who?”

Fae turns the TV back on. The screen flickers, then settles on a frail, elderly body in a wheelchair. A torso shot. Ashen claws grip the armrests. The rise and fall of a narrow chest. Through the speakers, bubbly breathing. Like someone gargling a mouthful of water. There’s a whooshing noise and the breathing eases a bit.

I glance at Fae. She nods at the TV.

Now the camera pans out a bit and moves slowly up the torso. A long, horse-like face slips into view. Gray skin sags on the skull. A snot speckled oxygen mask clings to the horse’s muzzle. Milky eyes loll in doughy sockets. And protruding from just above the creature’s brow, a ghost-white horn twists outward to a sharp point.

“Looks like he’s about dead already,” I say.

“He is,” Fae says. “Almost. But it’ll not be a full death. He is the last of them and he’s lived thousands of years. And has died twice before this.”

“So he’s an immortal.”

Fae shakes their head. “Not quite.” They stand, walk to the TV and taps the twist of horn. “That is immortal.”

“The horn?”

“It gives him his power. It rebirths him after every death.”

I blink. “So…this horn is like godly?”

Fae laughs. When they finish, they say, “No.” Fae moves closer to me. “It is of one of the purest elements of magic ever to exist.”

“I thought unicorns were supposed to be, I dunno, good?”

“Over time,” Fae says. “Everything goes a little mad.”

“I get it, but…did you see that thing? And I mean, really, what did he even do that so was bad?”

Fae levels their gaze on me. “He eats women. Children too. But mostly women. And he is partly responsible for all that’s wrong in the world. He generates hate and slips it through the masses like a drug. His influences reach far.”

“Sorry I asked,” I say and stand. “So where can I find him?”

“Warehouse on Vermillion Drive called, Fable Manufacturing.”

I blink. “He’s been in the city all this time and this is the first you’ve mentioned him?”

Fae shakes their head and walks to the living room window, hands clasped behind their back. “He moves around a lot. Might not even be there when you arrive. But there’s another reason.”

“What?”

Fae’s narrow shoulders rise and fall in a heavy sigh. “Mr. Unicorn killed your family.”

It’s a like a wasp sting. A piercing pain that spreads and burns deep. My breath catches in my throat like a rusty fishhook.

“There’s a reason you have the abilities to understand magic and the realms. A reason for your power. Your mother was born in this world. This dimension. She was my brightest fairy. Daughter to my dearest friend. But you know all of that.”

I’m finally able to breathe and manage, “Sh-she had to go into the Earth realm to find something…and instead found my dad. They fell in love. Had me.”

“Yes,” Fae says. “Your father, he worked for one Mr. Unicorn’s factories fabricating Illaster wands. Of course no one knew they were creating wands. A spell was cast to make the wands appear as car parts.”

This part, I don’t really know. Fae hasn’t talked so much about my parents before.

“The day your father met your mother, though, her magic spread to him to, giving him sight. It happened gradually, though. Over sixteen years. The car parts he’d come to know were changing into slender, metal wands. He took his concern to the manager. The manager reported it to Mr. Unicorn. And…”

Fae doesn’t need to go on. I know what happened next. Mr. Unicorn killed my parents because my dad saw through the spell.

I step closer to Fae as they turn to me. “How do I kill him?”

***

Rage, it’s the fiery ball spinning in my chest. It wraps hot fingers around my throat, throttles. It’s the sharp thuds in my temples.

 I hurry across the city, boots scuffing sidewalks, ignoring the curious stares of people who have no idea what’s going on. No idea that this world is on the brink of collapse. Vile things flood in every day and, well, let’s just say I’m a busy woman.

These people I pass, they’re sheep. They eat, grow fat, see but don’t see. They do nothing, even when their minds are screaming at them that something fucked up is going on. Some recognize the true threats, then are labeled crazy and later forgotten. And that’s exactly how the evil things that stalk this world want it. They count on it. Leeches, every single one of them.

Vermillion Drive isn’t quite what I expected it to be. An off street in the Industrial Park of the city that boasts a couple plastics factories, machine shops, and a few warehouses.

What I expected were abandoned warehouse falling in on themselves. Maybe factories with rusty corrugated metal walls and dark, broken windows.

What I get is a living thing. Like a massive dragon. The air chokes on its steam and smoke. The ground rumbles with its pounding and pressing, and grinding.

Fable Manufacturing, it’s like the head of this massive industrial dragon.

Made of solid, red brick. Windows tinted so dark no passerby can see in, slathered in magic to keep people like me form seeing through the tint.

I slip behind a car and watch the place for a moment.

Three guards patrol the flat top of the building. Six guards the grounds and parking lot. There’s a guard booth placed at the entrance of the parking lot, guard taking money for tickets. All, as far as I can see, are armed. Cameras are everywhere.

The night my parents we killed skims across my mind’s eye. The buzzing noises that woke me up. How the hallway seemed to tilt this way and that as I stumbled toward my parents’ room. The way the air made the hair on my scalp prickle and turned my stomach into a greasy, green ball. I could barely breathe. I knew something was wrong even before I opened the door to my parents’ room. I felt it. Vibrated deep. Turned the marrow of my bones to proverbial jelly. Then I opened the door and a man stood on top of their bed swishing a metal wand back and forth and the blood sprayed the walls and…

I blink the memory away. Sorrow, hate and rage create a boiling stew within me.

I glare at the factory where Mr. Unicorn is supposed to be. Where my parents’ killer sits in a wheel chair, dying.

Note to self: Have a long talk with Fae about right and wrong.

I hide fully behind the car, some beat up rust bucket of unknown origins, and pull a pill bottle out from an inside pocket of my jacket. Shake out a glittery purple pill. I cap the bottle and shove it back into my jacket pocket. My very own, homemade glamour pill. Because, FUCK YOU potions.

Ugh. Okay. Here goes.

I choke down the pill, cursing myself for not at least stowing a flask of water in my jacket too. Thing tastes like spoiled milk.

Still, they might recognize my face here. Maybe. I am kind of a wanted woman. Killing all those bad creatures and whatnots.

Glamours, they kind of sting at first. Altering one’s face can’t be entirely painless, right? Good thing about these, though, is I can custom tailor them. I can have them make me look like anyone. Even a guy. These pills, though, I’ll be plain. Mousy hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. I like this glamour because it’s real. And people forget what’s real. The bland and non-flashy. They don’t give a shit.  Part of what’s wrong with the world today. Oh well. Works to my advantage.

I let the glamour set for a minute, then stand walk toward the guard booth.

The guard, he’s not fat. Kind of hot, actually. Big biceps. He has his hand on the butt of his gun when I lean in his window.

“Help you?”

“Um, yes. I wanted to fill out an application?”

The hand slips away from the gun. He smiles. “Oh yes. You’ll want to go around front to the offices. This is the employee entrance.”

“Oh!” I mock shock. “I’m so sorry. Thank you!” I begin moving away from the booth.

“Not a problem. Good luck, Miss.”

“Thank you. Bye.”

He shoots me the lamest excuse for a salute I’ve ever seen. All jelly fingers and limp wrist. I walk away, mousy little me, all the way around until I come to an outcropping made of intricately chiseled stone with large, glass doors.

Looks expensive.

I hate Mr. Unicorn even more now.

So this is where my dad worked? I guess I can see its appeal. Nice exterior typically means a good interior. Up to date equipment. Clean environment. Blah blah. But really? Fable Manufacturing? This Mr. Unicorn guy, he’s kind of a cocky douchenozzle.

Pisses me off all over again.

I take a few deep breaths to calm myself. Can’t get too stressed or the glamour will start to fade.

I step inside.

***

A large front desk dominates the lobby. All polished wood. Shiny. It curves in a lazy U shape. The woman at the desk is middle aged, but rocking sparkly pumpkin earrings and a cute pixie cut.

She looks up as I approach, smiles and says, “Hi. Welcome to Fable Manufacturing. How may I help you?”

I make a point to give her my dorkiest snort. “Hi. Um, well, I was wondering if you’re hiring? I’ve worked in factories all my life and—”

“Well of course we are, hun.” She hands me an application snugged on a clipboard. “Please fill that out and maybe Glenn might have to for an interview today.”

Today?” Fake all the shock and excitement.

“Oh yes. We’re looking to hire a lot of people this month, actually. So you made the right call stopping in.”

“Oh good! Thank you.” I take the application and sit down.

I fill in all the blanks with bogus information. Not like I really want a job here.

Flickering image of a monster slashing its metal wand, casting the Mutilli spell over and over. Images of blood splattering the walls, misting the air.

I swallow my pain and rage, sprinkle a bit of pixie dust on the papers, and hand the secretary my application.

“Well aren’t you a quick one,” says the woman with the kickass pumpkin earrings.

I shrug. “I really want this job.” Big smile.

The secretary smiles back and tells me to have a seat. That she’ll hand my application to Glenn right now.

She bustles off to an office on the left side of the desk.

I shrug and hurry down the hall along the right side.

She’s probably already forgotten me. Probably standing right outside Glenn’s office with my application in her hand, just blinking. Pixie dust is a great memory suppressor. Like Elixir 99 is the most gorgeous drug in the world that’s not really a drug but Fae’s favorite drink. Like her liquor of choice. For me it’s like a massive acid trip that lasts all night and I remember nothing. Tastes like strawberries too.

I pass by several offices, all with perfectly bland names like Peter Williams and Bob Johnson stamped in faux gold plate on doors. At the end of the hall there’s a steel door with a narrow window giving me a sliver view of inside the factory.

To the left, a stairway going up.

I keep the pouch of pixie dust in hand as I ascend the stairs to the second level. Halfway to the top I hear the clicky-clacks of many fingers tapping away on computer keyboards. I have now entered the Kingdom of Nerds. Not really, it’s just the engineering department. Says so on the sign at the top of the stairs.

The room is a maze of cubicles. A vast labyrinth of gray slats and computer screens. To the left is a larger office. Keith Tummel – Senior Engineer.

I sneak through this nerdy maze and make it to the other side unscathed, and unseen.

Mousy lady. Works every time. Sad, but true.

The room gives way immediately to another hallway. This one a bit longer and not as well lit. The floor is polished gray tile. The walls, a darker gray. Every few feet, a sixty-watt bulb blazed from the ceiling. And the more I walk, the further apart the lights are set, giving the hall a deeper gloom. The only sounds are the soles of my boots gently clomping on the tiles.

There are no offices on either side of this hall. Just…gray. Everything.

At the end of the hall is a small square window set high up. The left is a solid wall, the right, a flight of stairs going down.

I start toward the stairs, stop. I face the wall and grin. After a moment, the subtlest ripple passes over the surface.

Clever.

A glamour, although a very weak one. Whoever made must’ve been—

“Do you take me for a fool?” A loud bubbly breathing over a speaker set in the ceiling directly above me. I’d recognize that anywhere.

Mr. Unicorn.

Shit. I glance around, but so far the hall is empty. No guards.

A raspy cough, then, “Saw ya coming a mile away. Here to kill me, I suppose?”

Well, there goes the element of surprise. “Yep.”

A rough chuckle. “Too bad this day will end with your death instead.”

“Apparently you don’t know me.”

I hear them now. The guards. Heavy stomping up the stairs behind me. From the other end of the hallway, a couple dark silhouettes storming toward me.

“Your…glamour is wearing off,” Mr. Unicorn says.

“Happens,” I say.

Okay, enough of this shit.

I run at the wall, draw my gun and blast three rounds at it. The glamour dissipates, revealing a large, wooden door. I kick it open and rush into a room that reeks of iodine, rubbing alcohol, cigarettes and some serious body odor.

A meaty fist crashes into the wall beside me. The face of bulldog growls inches from mine. I shove the muzzle of my gun under its flabby chin and pull the trigger. Dog men. Nasty sons of bitches. Heads of dogs, bodies of men. Two guards file in through the door. I kick the first one, snapping the toe of my boot into his solar plexus. He drops, gasping for air. He second, I blow hole the size of a gold ball in his chest. The first guard, he’s on the floor, still trying to breathe. I shoot him in the head. Their glamours fade. More dog men.

So I don’t feel too bad for killing them.

Harsh coughing sounds from deeper in the room. Then, “Kill her!”

A huge, black mass detaches from the far wall and swoops toward me. I shoot it twice, but even the special bullets pass right through.

Pan’s shadow? How the shit did Mr. Unicorn get ahold of that?

It cuts through the air, barely missing my face with its long claws. I sidestep away, keeping the thing in constant sight.

The shadow was thought to be lost. After Pan’s death, it just…wandered off. Never to be seen again. Well, until now. I don’t even know what will kill it. Never fought a damn shadow before.

It smacks me across the face, hard enough to send me reeling deeper into the room. Now I hear the labored breathing of Mr. Unicorn. Pain flares through my head from the hit.

I toss illumini powder at the shadow. Tiny lights attack it. A high pitched squeal fills the room. Because, what can kill a shadow, ladies and gentlemen? Ding ding! Yep. Light.

The shadow flails, squealing. It spins and swooshes to the door, slamming through six guard along its way. Not killing them, but knocking them out.

Rough chuckling behind me.

I turn and there he is. The monster that killed my parents. The evil thing that preys on humanity. The douchenozzle. Mr. Unicorn.

He peels away the snot speckled oxygen mask and flaps his fat horsey lips. He’s dressed in a purple velvet suit.

Voice wheezy, he says, “Well aren’t…you somethin’.”

Casually, I eject the clip from my pistol, drop it into a side pocket of my jacket and slap in a different one. One filled with even more potent rounds.

How do you kill Mr. Unicorn?

Destroy the horn, of course.

I point the gun at him.

He blinks and bursts out in crackly laughter. Done, he says, “You…you went through all of that just to kill me?”

“You killed me parents.”

Mr. Unicorn, his long face droops, though his eyes grow stony. “I’ve killed many parents, dead heat.”

“Judy and Carl Sutter.”

It takes him a moment for my father’s name to sink in. “Sutter. Carl…oh, yes. I remember the lad.” Lips flap snot and drool everywhere in a quick laugh. “Only human in centuries to see beyond the illusions spells.”

My lips press together. My hand holding the gun begins to tremble. Rage slams through me with every breath. He’s acting like my dad was nothing. Like killing my family was just another day for Mr. Unicorn.

“A coward,” Mr. Unicorn says. “That’s what your father was. Didn’t want to take the new position I offered him. Threatened to expose my operation.” He shakes his head, limp, gray mane swishing. “What a mess, really.”

Tears squiggle down my face. “You killed them because my dad was scared?”

“Absolutely not.” Mr. Unicorn leaned forward a bit, grinning his toothy, horse grin. “I killed them for the hell of it.”

My finger pulls the trigger before I’m even fully aware of it. A green glob splats onto the base of Mr. Unicorn’s horn.

His eyes roll upward, then he releases a long, gargling breath. He grins at me again. “This isn’t a paintball fight, girly.”

“Good,” I say, backing away. “Because that’s not paint, motherfucker.”

Mr. Unicorn’s bloodshot eyes widen as the green stuff begins to smoke.

He has a second to suck in a rattling breath then…BOOM.

Mr. Unicorn’s entire head explodes into ribbons of gore and shards of skull. Bits of brain plop like globs of gelatin around me.

His body slumps in the chair, left foot twitching.

I find what’s left of the horn shattered and cracked on the floor. I scoop the remains into a silver lined bag and leave Fable Manufacturing.

Every step, sorrow lifts from my heart.

***

On the table are the remains of Mr. Unicorn’s horn.

Fae, in the guise of an old man, frowns at it with apparent distaste. They pick through the mess with their wand.

“So…” I venture after the silence get to be too long. “What now? It’s destroyed, right?”

Fae shakes their head. “No. It’s broken, but in time it will heal itself.”

“You told me the blast would destroy it.”

Fae nods. “As it should have. But as you can see…” They gesture at the remains. “It didn’t.”

“So what do we do?”

“Contain it. Hide it. No amount of magic or force will destroy this particular horn, unfortunately. I was wrong to assume the glaze would blow it up.”

I nod.

Fae draws me in for a hug. “You did just fine, Blaise.”

I nod again, eyes drifting to the broken twist of horn. Its pearliness shining under the kitchen lights.

About an hour later I sit in my apartment sipping on some Jack and listening to Metallica hammer and shred through one of their early albums. I hold up the only photo I have of my parents and sigh. Lift my glass of whiskey to them.

“Love you guys,” I say, and knock back the rest of the glass.

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