Justin stood at the front gate of the Cheltin place through the pouring rain, staring at the second window from the left, on the second floor. He felt the darkness from the window like it was a being reaching out to him, piercing him in the chest, straight through the heart. He let out a gasp as a shiver ran through his body. Justin looked down at the bottle of Gordon’s in his hand, just a quarter of his favorite gin remained. He threw his head back and downed it, then reached out for the gate. He stopped, fingers a few inches away from the cold steel, then took a quick step back and shook his head.
“Geeze, man. You’re gonna get yourself killed.” Even stray cats knew not to touch the gate separating the Cheltin mansion from the rest of Kirkwood. It was put up back when monsters could still slip into town without getting blown to bits by armed guards. A charge meant to shock, and possibly kill, a fiend would turn a human into dust in seconds. It was one of the few mansion defenses that Peter kept switched on, along with the watch-eyes that covered just about every inch of the property, inside and out of the high wall. Justin gave a little wave to where he thought an eye might be looking out at him from, one of the spots spaced out evenly around the wall where a brick was missing and no light of any sort entered, as if someone were in the control room in the basement of the mansion, watching, waiting for a signal to let him in.
Sighing, Justin walked along the wall towards the left of the house while the rain threatened to crush his umbrella. “The sky’s as sad as I am,” he mused. Lightening flashed and thunder boomed a few seconds later as if in agreement. Justin nodded and smirked. “It’s like how it always rains during funerals, almost like the mayor’s got a sick sense of humor and flicks a switch on the weather-controller to get everyone into the gloom. Hmm, could be I’m just in some story too. The rain always comes before something bad happens, right?” Justin looked around at the runny darkness about him.
From this side of the mansion’s wall there was only forest. Trees and overgrown bushes that pressed up against parts of the wall, leaned over it, like mother nature wanted to have a peek at what’s happening in the Cheltin mansion. Maybe she just wanted to tear the wall down and reclaim what was hers. Justin patted the weeping willow he’d used time and time again to bypass the front gate and surprise Peter, as if the security system wouldn’t notify him when someone entered the premises.
Justin’s heart ached at the thought of Peter. Had he turned his love away the last time he refused to move into the mansion? He slid the empty bottle into his belt along with his umbrella and climbed the tree, jumping slightly to get onto the ‘V’ made by the thick trunk splitting, going out in opposite directions in thick branches. Being tipsy didn’t hinder him in the least, as he scaled the thick branches then climbed down the vines on the other side of the wall, muscle memory leading the way.
The window was still dark, against Justin’s wishes for a glimmer of hope. Lightning flashed behind the mansion. Justin took a step back and grasped his chest. The large abode on the hill looked like a great fiend for a moment, the windows were like eyes across a scaly knotted body, the points jutting along the rooftop had been like spears, ready to impale him. Justin shook away the chill in his bones and walked on to the mansion, holding his umbrella tightly, as if it were a talisman against his deepest fears and could soothe away the ache in his chest.
With every flash of lightning and thunderous boom that filled the dreary sky, Justin’s sense of anxiety deepened. His heart beat wildly against his chest as he neared the vines that went down the wall of the mansion, beside Peter’s window, like a waterfall of branches and leaves. Looking up, he could see the curtains billowing within the open window. “Going up,” he said to himself, slipping the umbrella back into his belt loop. Gripping tightly onto the leafy vines, his hands aching from the strain, the fight against slipping away back to the ground, he ascended.
After a few slips and near drops, Justin made it to Peter’s window. He rolled into the room in a wet heap and tried to catch his breath in the cold darkness of the room while his body ached. He paid no mind to the red dampness growing at his hip, where his empty bottle had broken his fall. “Peter,” Justin said with a wide smile at the shadowy figure standing just out of reach of the hallway light coming in through the open bedroom door, “I came. I’m here. I’m sorry if I hurt you, but I really do love you, Peter. I love you, and I always will.”
Justin winced and raised his arm to shield his eyes from the sudden flash of light. As his eyes adjusted, he grew sullen at the sight of the blurred figure before him.
“Peter is gone,” the butler said before looking him over. “Come on, let’s get you dried off.”
“Lovely weather we’re having, eh bub?” The daemon swirled around in Kurai’s mind, like it was dancing with excitement. Kurai double-checked that the door was locked before stripping out of his wet clothes. He shivered as he crawled under the covers, watching the trees sway outside the window, lightning stretching across the sky. Kurai closed his eyes and curled up in a tight ball.
“Mom hated nights like this,” he thought. “This endless storm would have given her the heebee-geebees. Nothing but rolling darkness, thunderous booms, and flashed of light casting shadows on the wall.”
“She was a scaredy-cat,” the daemon skoffed. “The only thing she wasn’t afraid of was her own shadow.”
“She wasn’t afraid of me.” Kurai sniffled, rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “And she became a shield whenever the rest of the town shot dagger-eyes and spat venom at me.”
“Well, you were the only constant man in her life, boss. A growing little monster. She probably kept you, hoping you’d grow into a strong fiend, and pay back her kindness with your protection.”
Kurai shook his head, “mom just loved me, like every mother should love her child.”
“Said as if she was actually your mother,” the daemon chortled.
“There’s never been a reason to think otherwise…”
“You’ve got fiend blood in your veins. Not just any fiend’s blood either, from the way your mama put it. Children with blood mixed up like that, they aren’t human. They aren’t human children bound to human parents. They are monsters, their parents are whatever fiend was involved, and the darkness.”
“That’s bullshit. I’m one of the good guys, remember?”
“Oh, I remember how you clung to your innocence way back when, in your own actual time. You may be playing the good guy card again, but no one who saw you on that day saw you as anything more than a fiend! A great fiend! Big ol’ claws for the slashin’, teeth and tongue crying out to sink into flesh and be stained with blood. Of course, don’t forget the tentacles! Ooooh the tentacles.”
“I’m not gonna let that happen again,” Kurai sighed, “I won’t lose control.”
“Oh, come on boss, that wasn’t losing control, that was gaining it! You became big-boss! Whatever you want, bam, you’d take it, with the swipe of a talon, or whip of a dark tendril! Lost control. Haha, you’re funny, boy-oh.”
Kurai grumbled under his breath and shook his head, casting aside the visions of destruction, pretending it didn’t make his mouth water, remembering being...something else.
“You’re a real fiend. Have you ever heard a story about a half fiend, half human, becoming something like that before? You left a mark on the world, bucko. I’m sure there’s some book somewhere with a note of it. You know for sure the fiends haven’t forgotten, what with the Greater Fiends wanting to enlist ya.”
“If they really are out there, with the silly idea of taking over the world and subjugating all of humanity.”
“Oh, come on, you know I was messin’ with chya earlier, about them not really existing or whatever. That mummy-boy is still bad news though. Stringin’ us along the way he is. Might even be working with them or something… Haha, no, that’d be silly. He has lead us straight to some fiendly situations. I’m sure the big bad guys wouldn’t want that.”
“Yeah…” Kurai took a deep breath and pressed a hand to his chest. His heart didn’t feel right, like there was some sort of space there, a void instead of a bloody muscle. He whispered to himself, “if I were a great fiend, moving my pieces from the shadows towards my aims, where would I be?”
“Sky fortress,” the daemon said. “I’d wanna be way up high. Be able to see what’s going on down on earth. I’d have some generals too, fiends willing to do my bidding while I stay up there.”
“I’m afraid of heights,” Kurai smirked. “Maybe I’d have some tower or control center though, with electronic eyes scattered around so that I could see my plan in action, and send orders out to adjust my moves as needed.”
“What if you could haul yourself up into a mountain and stretch your tentacles out across the country?”
“Then I wouldn’t have to set up a plan a century in the making. I’d just do it. Maybe even present myself as a god.”
“Oh, Oh, like those fiends that like to hang around volcanoes, asking for sacrifices from nearby villages? Or all powerful burning tree? Haha, that’s good thinkin’, boss. I like that Idea. We should do it. What do ya say?”
“I think you’ve lost it, daemon.”
“I’ve lost it? I’m not the one talking to voices in his head!” The daemon laughed until it coughed and choked on its own laughter, as if the darkness within Kurai had a body of its own. Kurai turned away from the window, the bed springs creaked with his rolling. He stared drowsily at his long coat where it hung on the coat rack by the door, beside the rest of his clothes. The faded eye marking on the shoulder stared back at him, blank, like the dead.
For a moment he tensed up, thinking that he’d seen one of the three tentacles stretching down beneath the eye move, but that was impossible, with the coat off. He rubbed at his eyes.
“I’m losing it, ” Kurai grumbled.
“Is it! What is it!?”
“Don’t sing made up songs right now.”
“Made up’s better than gave up!”
“That...what are you talking about? What am I talking about?”
“You were just sayin’ how you need a good roll in the hay to get your head straight. Get those juices goin’, so then you can tap into the darkness of the cosmos and find the big baddies. Or at least some asshole close tk ’em, so you can knock ’em around and be all, ‘take me to your leader,’ and shit.”
“Said like I can call on the stars and they’d reply by shifting into an arrow to point the way,” Kurai scoffed.
“Hey, you’re a big bad fiendy! You embrace that part of you, and who knows what’s possible! You could grow into the big boss you were always meant to be, boss!”
“My fiend blood is only good for slaughter,” Kurai whispered. He closed his eyes and could see the people he’d grown up with. Classmates’ disembodied heads, eyes rolled back into their sockets. Arms and legs dangling from rooftops and on fence posts. Walls forever stained red after his rage had been unleashed.
“It still makes my mouth water,” he whispered. “Every demon I put down, every sick fuck I crush, it spurs up that hunger, deep inside. Back then, as I lost control, it didn’t feel like going mad, it felt like a great release, like chaotic freedom.”
“Don’t blame yourself for what you can’t ignore. Don’t blame yourself for wanting more and more and-”
Kurai sat up instantly at the sound of a knock at the door.
Justin hissed through the burn of alcohol Gabriela, butler of the Cheltin place, doused his hip with. “That’ll leave a nice scar,” she said, “unless I patch it up with the good stuff.”
“The good stuff?” Justin looked down at the gash and bit his lip. Looking at the flap of skin from where the bottle in his pocket sliced him open made the pain surge. “You have one of those Nano-Medic machines the Capitol’s supposed to have hiding in one of these dark rooms?”
“Well, the Cheltin’s are rich enough to have a medical bay in their home, so what do you think, little hombre?” She placed a hand on her hip and raised an eyebrow at him, a smile touching her lips.
“You’ve got a point there. Does it still work though?” Justin looked around. The room made him feel like he was in one of the pictures he’s seen of the medical bays from WW5, except that the room was smaller and the boxes and pill bottles that lined the cabinets were caked with dust.
“You’ve seen the man of the house in his birthday suit, you tell me,” she laughed. Justin’s cheeks reddened. Gabriela headed over to the desk with the least amount of dust on it, opened a drawer, then pulled out a computer-tower sized box with a groan. She carried it over to the medical bed Justin laid on and set it down beside him. “It’s an older model, that’s why it’s so damn heavy, but it gets the job done. Just hold still, alright?”
“Yeah,” Justin said, staring down at the thing beside the flap of skin at his hip. Gabriela tapped on the side of the box three times. The continuos surface hissed as a seam appeared and a slot popped out. The butler pulled some sort of highlighter out of it and drew a circle around Justin’s wound.
“Gotta direct it with this, but don’t worry, the marker washes off after a while.” She put the marker back, slid the slot shut, then proceeded to turn a knob and push buttons at the back of the box. There was a buzzing sound as the medical device roared to life. The front of the metal box opened up. An electronic eye stretched out and scanned Justin’s hip, before eight tiny hands popped out from around the housing of the ocular unit and began to poke and prod at the sliced skin. A blue light came off of the thin fingers as they touched skin, sewing the wound closed on a molecular level.
“I don’t even feel it,” Justin whispered in awe.
“The numbing agent wouldn’t be doing it’s job now if you could,” Gabriela stepped back and smiled.
“Where’s Peter?” Justin asked after watching the medical device do it’s work for a few seconds. Gabriela’s face paled. She turned away, as if she wanted to slink off into the shadows behind the shelving. “What? Tell me. I have to know. Was he...” Justin bit at his lip, thinking of the pale castle. He’d heard the stories, but they couldn’t be true. The Cheltin pact… Who would make a deal with the devil?
“The last time I saw him,” Gabriela sighed, pacing away from Justin, “was last night, before he headed off to his quarters. He was excited to paint the wildness of the storm. I think it was his way of keeping his mind off of… that place.” She held a hand to her chest, whispered, “just talking about it does something to you. We dance around it with our words, calling it that place, like it’s the devil. Down great evil that cannot be named. The mind puts two and two together though, no matter who mentions it.”
Justin nodded. He’d felt a shiver when she mentioned the castle, like a draft had washed through the room. With every word she spoke, the sense of foreboding grew within his chest and churned his stomach. “Thank goodness that’s just a ghost story, right?” Justin shot the butler a nervous grin, but her expression didn’t change.
“We don’t joke about that place,” she looked towards the door for the down of a couple of seconds, then back at Justin. “Besides, a traveling merchant knows better than most that not all ghost stories are tall tales made to make children fall in line. Not all the tales of monsters in the woods are like the yarns spun by religious leaders, words woven to guide a flock, steering the herd with fear and promises of salvation.” She shook her head and clutched at her collar, as if grasping for a sacred pendant, but there was no comfort there, just the fabric of her shirt.
“My parents were religious. They believed all things were possible through the power of their lord. They never went without a crucifix, believing the symbol of the holy would keep them from harm, and help save them from the horrors of the world.” Gabriela looked down at her palm before turning it towards Justin. There was a scar there, cross-like. “It didn’t help me, and nothing’s helped to get rid of the nightmares.”
“What nightmares,” Justin whispered the question, fear of what would come next strangling his voice. “What happened?”
“I saw it take his father,” Gabriela rasped, shivering with fright. “I was just a child then. I used to explore the grounds after everyone laid down to rest. That night, there was something awful in the air. It was more than a chill, more than a draft creeping into the walls of this old castle. I wanted to know what it was, even as my body yelled at me to go back to bed. I walked the halls, running faster and faster as the voice at the back of my head got louder. When I got to his bedroom, the door was open. My legs gave out from beneath me as I stepped into the doorway, and I instinctively squeezed the cross hanging around my neck as tight as I could, praying to God that he would stop the monster standing over the master’s bed.
“It had the shape of a man, but something was off. The creature’s pale skin almost shimmered where the moonlight touched it, like the thing wasn’t really there at all, like it was an illusion, come out from a nightmare. I’d have screamed if the presence of the fiend didn’t have me frozen in place. I could feel the blood drip down my arm from squeezing my cross so tightly, as the pale nightmare creature tossed the master over its shoulder and headed for the window. I remember it clear as day, as if it happened just a few moments ago. The image has been burned into my mind. I relive that moment every night. The fiend reached lit for the window frame but then hesitated before drawing its hand back. It turned its head slowly towards me. The thing, whatever it was, whatever it is, looked at me with madness in its eyes. It wasn’t like looking back at a person’s eyes, it was like something was behind those cold black pupils, staring out at me, laughing at my fear. It wasn’t until the fiend leapt out the window that I let go of the cross and took a breath.” Gabriela shivered. The color from her cheeks had gone with the tale.
Seconds passed, while the only sound between the two was that of the Nano-Medic’s low buzz. After a little over a minute, the healing device retracted its arms and eye. Justin looked down at the thing, as if just remembering that it was there at all. He looked his hip over. It looked like new. No rippling scarring from the flap of skin that was like a small flag flapping in the wind only a few minutes ago. He looked about the room, then slowly slid his pants leg up from mid-thigh, fastened it and his belt, then slowly got off the bed, testing his weight on his leg, checking to see if things felt the way they looked. He nodded, then looked to Gabriela.
“Thanks,” he said, then slowly averted his gaze from her paled visage, “I at least know where he is now.”
“You can’t be thinking of…” Gabriela shook her head then took a step in front of Justin. “You can’t. Whatever that monster is, his family made a deal with it long ago.”
“I don’t give a fuck,” Justin grumbled, clenching his fists, his beefy knuckles popping. “I can’t just let my man be tormented up in that castle. I have to have him.”
“We might not like it, but they made a pact, Justin. A blood bond.”
“I’ll sever it, with that fiend’s blood,” Justin took a step towards the door. Gabriela took another step in his way.
“You can’t take that monster out on your own. You’re just a merchant.”
“You think my pa didn’t teach me how to shoot as well as he’s taught me how to trade?”
“That thing’s different,” Gabriela scorned, clenching her fist. “No fiend that’d be killed by a random merchant would be living up in a castle like that, right in the midst of a city where the guards are armed to the teeth. You’re not a friend hunter.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Justin growled, “I’m gonna get Peter out of there, even if it kills me.” Justin stormed out of the room, practically pushing Gabriela to the floor as he went. “Just wait for me, Peter,” he whispered to himself in the empty hall, “I’ll get some supplied then head up there first thing in the morning to get you out of there.”