Taron limped on the barren highway, glancing over his left shoulder every time he took five more steps. One...two... The concrete chafed against his foot, a scalding sensation sneaking into his skin. Heavy beads of sweat, three times the average size of a marble, rolled down his neck, tracing the curve of his spine. Five. He looked back, panting.
Tick-tock, chimes the clock. Tick-tock.
He shook his head, ignoring the voices. They had always been there, but they had gotten stronger in the last month, commenting his every decision.
Wind played with the dehydrated bushes along the road, their branches frozen like a dead body locked in rigor mortis.
Tick-tock, do not gawk. Tick-tock.
He ambled away, wiping the perspiration off his forehead. He licked his fingers desperate for any liquid to bless his raw throat. Salt and dust was all his taste buds savored. Better than nothing. Salt meant life. Life was good.
Tick-tock, tick-tock. Come on, hurry up, we’re bored.
Five. His foot smarted on the scalding concrete and he glanced behind him once more. Despite his exhaustion, he was certain his eyes were not playing tricks on him. He was already insane – it would be impossible to start seeing more things. Even so, the puddle of mud appeared to be following him.
A figure waited in the middle of the road, sunglasses refracting light into Taron’s eyes. He squinted and shielded his eyes with one hand, struggling to get his breathing under control.
Two high cheekbones protruded out of a white face, carved from the pristine marble of an ancient Greek temple. A trimmed beard resembled that of a Viking and his hair, a writhing mass of dark braids, stretched to the back of his head and held in a man bun, reminded Taron of the Afro-American teller in his native town; Michael used to dunk his hand into his brown jacket and extract a smattering of colorful candies, divvying them between a gaggle of boisterous kids.
The figure was a cultural mess, a kitsch who thought of itself as the hotshot of the art gallery. He had nothing on a Dubois or a Van Gogh.
Tick-tock, he could knock you to the ground. Tick-tock, he need only move a finger, and you would be history.
“Would you stop your yapping already? I made it in time” he grumbled, watching the man frown.
He might have heard you. Uh-oh.
A mischievous laugh, simulating that of a cartoon demon, filled his aching head. He squeezed his temples with his hands, groaning, but still he walked, the man in front getting bigger as Taron approached.
“Where’s your shoe?” a high-pitched voice inquired, shattering the violent view its owner was trying to project by using a scowl and his larger than average height. Kitsch.
“The giant mud puddle behind me demanded a sacrifice.”
Taron pointed behind him, but when he turned to look the puddle was gone, its non-presence betraying Taron’s insanity.
“They did tell me you were mad, but I took it as a practical joke” the scowl deepened, and two pale lips curled in disgust.
All Taron could do was rub his eyes, sigh, and shrug. He had resigned himself to his fate a long time ago; every new acquaintance he met treated him with so much distaste that after a while its effects had started to dim. He’d had many sleepless nights at the beginning, back when the voices had been a faint whisper, a fleeting promise of a life spent unshackled, and he tossed left and right on his creaky bed. It was amazing what a human could get used to.
You had us to help you.
“I know you don’t believe me, but there is a giant mud puddle following me and in it there’s this earth demon who has caught a taste for dirty trainers” he gestured to his shoes, aware of how decrepit they looked.
Cash had stopped flowing for quite a while, about the time when rumors started to speak of him going mad. Unearthing a mass grave could do that to a person.
“Did you bring it?”
Taron nodded, opening his jacket to reveal a stained cloth in which the legendary arrow rested, protected from the dust and litter which accompanied every major city.
“It was not easy to acquire this. I expect full payment, no more strings attached.” He extended the cloth and watched as the man unraveled it, removing his sunglasses to ponder the relic.
“You actually did it. You found the Arrow of Brahma.”
Grey eyes met his own, sparks of pure dazzlement and joy lighting the dry atmosphere, infusing it with new life. The arrow emitted a dull glow, and Taron could see how it trembled in his client’s hand, searching even then for its owner.
“The seventh avatar of Vishnu used this arrow to kill the demon king Ravana.” Awe filled the man’s voice as he made sure the relic wouldn’t prick his clothes or nick his skin.
If it made any direct contact with mortal flesh, it would obliterate the human altogether. A fate worse than death. When you died people remembered you. When you died you had a chance at rebirth. The Arrow of Brahma left no room for such mortal ideals.
“How did you do it?” something more than awe and disgust made its way on the man’s face. A flicker of...respect?
It was gone so fast Taron couldn’t make out if he was being tricked into a feeling of security, only so he would let his guard down to get murdered in cold blood. The Arrow was not the cheapest of relics – its mere location, in the heart of Srirangam, the largest temple of India, shielded by seven concentric walls, had been harder to enter than Fort Knox.
Thousands of people had flooded the temple day and night, making it impossible for him to squeeze between them and when he did various waiters clung onto him like stubborn seaweed, their words tinged with honey, inviting him to taste the food of the best restaurants nestled in the first three walls.
If he hadn’t been already mad when he went inside, he would have lost his mind on the way out. Probably the reason so many had failed to retrieve the Arrow of Brahma, clutched by a statuesque hand, it’s master none other than Lord Vishnu himself.
Or so he had heard from a priest draped in orange, in search of a companion he could drink with.
“Can I have the honor of knowing your name?” Taron inquired, one hand searching for his knife.
Its bone-hilt chafed at his back and he curled his fingers against it, hiding the relief which flooded him at its familiar presence.
He had to lean in to hear the man whisper and he hissed when his shoeless foot pressed hard against the scorching concrete, “Caesar.”
Roman it is, after all. Huh. His nose is not the standard roman nose, though.
Does it matter? he finally replied to the voices, grunting when they cackled.
We knew you couldn’t ignore us, they said, sarcasm dripping from their words, sizzling as it made contact with his mind, its venom making his head spin. Little human, so lost. Let us coddle you in our warm embrace, let us free you from this cursed world.
“Caesar, you say?” he frowned, ignoring the chanting of hundreds of dead people, now residing inside him. “A very unusual name. You don’t look like a Caesar.”
Caesar’s bland eyes stared at him from under his milk-white eyebrows. He had always interacted with odd folk who hated personal questions, but Caesar had been the cherry on top of the cake. He was so white it appeared as if some had dragged him out of Casper the Friendly ghost.
“You don’t look like a Taron either. What’s with the leg?”
“Quid pro quo.”
A trade. How quaint. Caesar tucked the arrow into his black coat and his hand drew out a wallet. He appeared to have lost interest in Taron’s leg, not wanting to give away personal information. Smart man.
Taron flinched and almost pulled his knife out – a dire mistake. Quite the scaredy-cat, aren’t you? Afraid of a wallet? A long arm extended a pasty card and he took it, golden letters glimmering under the light of the sun.
“What is this?”
“For future reference. You may be insane, but you’ve proven more useful than the rest of the clowns I’ve met. And there were many” the sunglasses had returned, casting long shadows on Caesar’s face and making the man seem even paler.
If on their first encounter Taron would have been told this man was James Bond he would not have been surprised. He’d have asked for an autograph and a picture.
“Give me a call, sometime. My boss is transferring the money as we speak. Check your bank account. I trust you will not be disappointed.”
The ground shook and Taron fell on his knees, crying out both in shock and in pain. A gaping hole had opened at Caesar’s feet and the man smiled as he tapped the right edge of the glasses in a last goodbye before he allowed himself to be swollen by the dark maw which closed diligently after him.
He shivered on the scorching road, angry blisters covering his calloused hands. He removed a shabby phone from his jacket, throwing his coat away, left with no use. It had been torture to keep it on his shoulders in such heat and he looked at it with greedy satisfaction as it lay crumpled on the highway.
When he checked his bank account he found Caesar had spoken true – he was now a wealthy man.
He had little time before Caesar’s boss, a man he’d never met, would find out that he had been sold a normal arrow and not the legendary Arrow of Brahma. He now had enough money to pull off an escape with style.
Well played. We did not believe you would make it.