“So... Francis... Are you sure you’re okay,” Beatrice asked. For the fifth time since he arrived –maybe fifth. It might have been more at that point, racking up with his loss streak. He remembered winning, once upon a time. Long, long ago, in a galaxy far and away from the Hell he was in now.
“Yeah. I’m fine,” he said. Again. And, just like the times before, it was falsetto. He stood at the table, scooping up his cards to shuffle again. But it was a slow process, as he could not bend to get them. He did not dare to bend. Meanwhile, Desiree sat beside, tittering away, adding injury to his extensive list of them. She wafted her cards like a fan, still twenty health above Beatrice with a much more imposing board state. “Are you?”
“Don’t worry, Francis. I’ll be gentle with her.”
“Shouldn’t that be my line?” Desiree said, leaning towards the harpy. “It’s your turn, Bea. If you don’t win right now, I’m going to swing in for the w... oh fuck you!”
“To be fair, that was the kindest card I could have played.”
“Uncounterable damage. I should have been paying attention to how much mana you were ramping. Goddammit... Ready for the next round?”
“Sure,” Francis mumbled, his hands shaking as he shuffled- groaning as his cards hit the floor. “Des, could you?”
“It’s no big... Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine. Spiritually, at least.”
They played only a few more hands before Desiree needed to call it. She didn’t win any of them, but made sure it was a split between Francis and Beatrice. It was almost amusing how much she focused one person down and ignore the other, but it became predictive. To Francis, at least. He wasn’t sure if Beatrice caught on, but how she tried to make deals with a target hellbent on her demise told him either she was in on the long con or too busy looking at all the money in the lamia’s deck. There wasn’t a single card that wasn’t foiled or had special art, kept pristine (and flat) in three sleeves. The first was a form-fitted clear lining, then placed in a basic clear and, finally, put in a thick, silver shell. It didn’t even make her deck look any bigger, showing her attention to detail in all aspects.
If only Francis had a mind to focus on what she was playing.
Instead, he was too busy trying to stay upright, trying to stay... alive. Every step up the stairs to the entrance was Hell, a worse Hell than the one coming down. He couldn’t even muster the strength (or will) to jump over the railing. His body was broken, his spirit crushed, and his head decimated. Both of them.
“Heading out?” Wes said, his game beeping and screaming.
“For the best,” he mumbled, and braced as he shoved against the door.
And felt something warm slither down his thigh.
Shit, he thought, but kept pushing. That warmth gave him a bit of zeal, the strength to make it through and to the next set of stairs- and there, at last, that warmth pattered on the concrete, painting it red. At least it wasn’t inside the store.
It didn’t give him much comfort, but at least some as he continued to climb and rain upon the slabs. He needed to be careful, though, so as not to ruin his muumuu. Pants were out of the equation; there was no way he could even lift his feet high enough to slip them under let alone pull them up, so his muumuu, Ezra’s gift to him, was once again his salvation.
As fortune would have it, he made it to his door. Before he even went in, he pulled off the muumuu to save it, showing the rows of fresh burns that ran through his body. They were the most gruesome and charred where the iron was pressed in, marking him as a coward, all made from chain that ran down to the screw in his rear.
He took a deep breath- regretting it as that hot chain dug in harder. He held it, though, proved to be its master, and let it go as he gave the knob a slow, agonizing turn. Nicole finished it for him, though, opening it, and looked him over, shaking her head.
“Have ya learned yer lesson?” She said. He mumbled his answer. Not good enough. She reached between his legs and twisted that screw, pushing it further inside as the chains dug harder. “Well?”
“Y-yes! Yes. I l-learned,” he muttered, tears blotting his vision as he felt the sharp prick inside continue its assault. More blood pattered around it, dousing her hand in it. “I’m sorry. I... so damn sorry.”
“Hmm... Ah don’t really believe ye... but it will suffice. For now.”
She tittered, and turned that screw the other way. Slowly, ever so slowly but surely those spiral bands carved their way back out of his rear. The chains bound to his flesh gave way, the meat under hissing and steaming as they clattered to the ground. The last link, though, wrapped about the base of his rod, was the only one to remain taut until the screw plopped out, clanging on the concrete. It was longer than his thigh and almost as thick at the base, with the tip tapered to the finest points. And the reddest part of it.
As it fell, the final row of chain went with it, and the middle of that chain slipped off his member, showing a black band at the base, smoking. Nicole pulled out a pair of pliers from her breast pocket (literally) and worked them in between the charred member and that iron band, pulling it up enough for it to simply glide off his rod and clatter with the rest of the metal below.
“Next time ahl permanently attach them,” she remarked, and gripped his hand. “Let’s get you in the shower. The sooner that flesh is peeled off the better ye’ll heal. Ya want to look good for yer date, don’t you? Who is it with this week?”
“C-Cass,” he said, allowing himself to be lead to the bathroom. More than anything he just wanted to sleep, but he could hold on. Just for a bit longer.
“That’s nice. Ah like the little bird. Her father a sweetheart as well. Ah had the pleasure of meeting him, ya know? Eve needed to talk shop the other week, and ah tagged along. He has big plans for Vereor Nox. Wants to make it accommodating to normal people, as well, so he’s making ways to keep the himan populace and the humans from crossing too m- Sorry, laddie. What did you say?”
“Cass. For an hour. Then Bridget.”
She scoffed, slapping his rear, and every star imaginable burst into his gaze. Of all parts of his body that suffered, his ass carried the most burden. And not just the screw. All the chains lined up along every crease and fold, and she had carved and spanked the flesh before that. If there was any part he was in mourning for, it was his ass... and the water rushing down it didn’t help much.
“How could ye do that to the poor lass?” She exclaimed, smacking it again- and that time he did cry out. “Ya see? That’s the sort of sounds you should be making. This behavior of yours is unacceptable. It’s disgusting. Dis. Gust. Ting!”
She slapped with each one, forcing him against the wall. He should have simply went to bed, but he could only imagine how worse a punishment she would have given him. As it stood, the blows were helping the water work away the char. He looked down, down at the drain, and saw red and black make their way down it, the soothing waters chewing away the bark that had settled. She stopped a moment and had him turn around, letting it wash down his front, instead. It turned out she wasn’t hitting him only for the pleasure of it... she was getting pleasure, but it was more a purpose of that loofah.
The goblin sighed as she hammered his front with it, beating the burns and scars into submission as they washed down the drain, revealing fresh hide under, turning red under his strikes.
“Ah really do advise against any of the witches, Francis,” she stated. “They are cursed beings, not meant to last long nor be happy in this world once they awaken to their powers. Ya will never have a good life with her, laddie.”
“S... so? N... no... not looking... settle down-”
“But that one is. If it were Lola or Tanya, ah would say have yer fun... but Bridget has something they don’t: Hope. Lola will eventually be an alleyway hole to fill and Tanya will burn out her heart. Bridget? Her looks will fade. She believes if she can find someone who can love her before then, she will be okay... Ahm telling you laddie, for yer sake, but her magic has a secondary price. Eve’s been trying to patch it out for over half a decade, but, no matter how hard she tries, it won’t go away. It is ingrained into her very essence.”
“W... what is th-”
“Cancer. Every time she Uses, it creates a new cluster of cancer cells. Even her first time Using sends her body down a predetermined path... Ahm not telling you to dump her to the curb, but at least know and understand what yer trying to get into.” She sighed and stepped back, letting him stand tall. The water trickled to a stop, gurgling in the pipes as he toweled off, clear of all but the scars on his rump and the band on his rod. Those were already fading, though, and would most likely be gone after a much needed and deserved n- “Francis.”
“Eve wanted me to ask ya... Did you want to have Thanksgiving with her? It’s still a month away, but she wanted an answer in advance.”
“Shit. It’s already that close- Christmas is already that close! Goddammit... and I still don’t have a job- because I can’t- because of THAT... She wanted to know if I would have Thanksgiving with her?”
“Aye. Her, Cain, Adam, Lilith, Johnny, and, of course, yours truly.”
“Adam, huh... I have yet to meet him.”
“Ah, he’s a big softy. After he got out of the hospital and Eve debriefed him on the events at Vereor Nox, he asked about you.”
“Eve painted ye in a bad light. Don’t worry.”
“Oh thank God. I was afraid I would have to impress him... what did he say?”
“He laughed and can’t wait to meet his ‘adopted spitfire’.”
“Nothing’s stopping him from coming to see me... Aside, you know, work. Who needs that to make a living, though... Yeah. I’ll spend Thanksgiving with them.”
“Good! Good... Oh, and Eve wondered if you were going to have a plus one-”
“That I don’t know yet. We’ll play it by ear...”
Cassidy hummed, playing on her phone as Bridget sung to the song on her stereo, living Francis sitting there unsure of what to really do. He had on the polo shirt Bridget chose for him, one of his hands trapped by hers on the gear, while he wasn’t sure where they were going. They left north of Paradise, heading towards Robinson and that nasal atrocity of a town... but took the first exit off. He never saw this area, but it assured him it was Pennsylvania instead of West Virginia. As if that gave him comfort.
They reached a four-way, and turned right, heading into the dusk towards a back road into the country side of his home state. It wasn’t as mountainous as West Virginia, a far smoother trip across rolling hills and down its gentle curves. The car roared away, going forty miles over the speed limit, all the while being controlled with one hand. They passed “hidden” roads leading to small households in the middle of that B.F.E. Until they came to a three-way.
“I can’t remember, Cass dear,” Bridget said. “Left or right?”
“Um,” she uttered, drawing it out as Francis heard her feathers flutter in the back. “I don’t... Let me step out a moment.”
Bridget hit the button for the doors, and the harpy climbed out. Her shadow fell upon the car as she took to the skies, rising high and looking around... before drifting back down. She shut the door as she sighed and plopped.
“Right. It’s still a few miles away.” She whined- and wrapped her arms around Francis from behind. “Why couldn’t your wings have been fully grown? This is so boring.”
“Not all of us are blessed with flight,” Bridget stated, squeezing Francis’s hand. Hard. She pressed the car into continuing its path, barreling to the next stop where she hanged a left. No need to question that time.
There might have been a small patch of trees that blocked sight from that three-way stop, but, after gunning the engine and rocketing fifty miles beyond, there was no mistaking the Crane estate. Its walls blended in so well in the dark, melding with the tree line, but, clear of it now, there was no mistaking that dark brick. It stood thirty-feet high, with “torches” dotting its side every ten yards or so –which, given the speed they were going, looked as if the wall was on fire. Even then, it was at least five miles away, with a small box thrust into the road along that path, allowing two sets of bright titanium fencing.
Bridget coddled the car to a stop before the first step, the bumper just grazing them- and Francis’s hair stood on end, feeling the slightest tingle pass through the car. The others didn’t seem to notice, though, so he didn’t mention it. Bridget rolled down her window as a man in one of the finer rent-a-cop attires approached, leaving his tiny cube attached to the box.
“Evening,” he said. “Name?”
“It’s me, Van,” Cassidy said from the back.
“Oh! Miss Crane.” He looked passed Bridget to Francis. Still in the harpy’s clutches. “Then I take it you must be Frank-”
“Francis,” he corrected.
“Right, right. Sorry. Well, let me buzz you in. Mister Crane is waiting in his den. I’ll give the call to Isaac to let you in and guide you.”
He returned to the cube in the box and, after a moment, the buzzing stopped. The titanium gates parted, letting the car into the box, but the other set of gates didn’t open until the pair behind shut. The road changed after that; gone were the smoothed dirt with some concrete and, instead, were of fine marble. The car seemed to lavish that polished surface, humming louder than the two girls prior as it plodded along the last mile. The manor was set in the middle of the estate, with a green house off to the southeast. The southwest was taken up by a large pond, with several chairs and grill pits set up around it. There was a fountain built before the entry into the black-stone manor, portraying a man reaching for the heavens while a woman rested by his feet, playing a small harp, water rising from both ends of it and the man’s hand, and was covered in so many gemstones that, even as night overtook day, it gleamed so vibrantly.
There was one road that lead around the building, but it was blocked off by a tall man in a white suit. He held up his hand as Bridget approached and gestured for her to drive around the fountain. She did, and he followed along, resting his hand on top of the vehicle until, right before the fourteen steps to the grand porch, he knocked on the top of it. The car grumbled as Bridget pulled the keys out, and patted Francis’s hand one last time before letting go.
“I’ll be waiting here, darling,” she said. “Have fun.”
Francis nodded- and held back his wince as Cassidy clawed at his chest. She tried to squeeze it out, but relented as the tall man opened her door, stepping out. He then opened Francis’s, and looked up as he stood.
“Hello there,” Francis said. “Not often I meet one almost as tall as me.”
“Indeed,” the man said, his voice far... far deeper than the drachen’s. He gestured to the stairs, already stepping up on it. “Come.”
Francis would have, but was stalled as Cassidy wrapped around his arm. He rolled his eyes, but waited until she gave the first step, and soon he was whisked off up the steps and through the glass double doors at the top. They had deep blue fabric over them, complementing the burnt orange walls inside. The black stone gave way to rich redwood, clonking away under the white man’s feet as he lead him through the staircases and into the door in between. The entry opened up then, becoming a perfect circle, with seven other doors marring it. He took the second from the right, it lead the pair down a hallway with a slight decline where, at the end, there were three doors.
The man opened the left, and ushered them into what Francis would have classified as a classy man-cave. The walls were lined with thick tomes, four levels to each, save for the one beside the door. There a massive flat screen rested, with various video game consoles set under it. Around that were the games... which, even at a glance, Francis could see was more than meets the eye. There were switches, corresponding with the wooden leafs that jutted out, and each one was marked for a different console. There were thirty, but only twenty were marked, forgotten as something clattered before him. At the back of the room was a desk, and before that desk were a series of rotating chairs... and a couch. Behind the desk, though, was a tall, winged chair with a small fridge off to its left, with a dainty, elegant red cloth placed on top and piled with various liquors and glasses.
But, again, ignored as Francis saw what laid on the table: a polished rifle.
“Ah. There you two are,” the man in the winged chair said, wiping his hands clean on a gray rag. It seemed so out of place in general, but even moreso in that guy’s hands. He had the look of a banker or a lawyer, with the shrewdness in his features to match. He wore a dark blue suit with a stone gray shirt, no tie in sight, but Francis caught glimpses of the studs in his cuffs, bright, peerless diamonds. The man smiled at Francis, and offered his hand, beckoning him closer with it as well. “It’s finally a pleasure to meet you, Francis.”
He shook it, but scoffed. “I would say the same if you didn’t do the whole gun cliché.”
“Eh? Oh! No, this wasn’t for you.” He chortled, and picked it up, looking down the barrel as he aimed it at the bookshelf. “I’m finally off a week so I was getting my guns ready.”
“Going hunting, dad?” Cassidy said. “I thought you said we would hang out.”
“We will, dear. We will... but I’ve been wanting some fresh deer. What about, Francis? When was the last time you had a nice hunk of venison?”
“That is a good question,” he said. “I think... God... It must have been close to twelve years. Drew loved deer meat, but getting it in the middle of a city was always a pain. He’d like to cook it long enough to get the outside browned then cut it up and serve it in a stew. Shit was amazing.”
“Venison stew? That sounds delightful. Personally, I love to throw it in a smoker for a few months and savor some of the richest jerky you will ever taste.” He sighed- and pulled up nine other guns behind the desk. “I just got the last one cleaned. Would you care to join me at the range to get them sighted in?”
“I don’t mind, but Francis can’t stay long,” Cassidy said, gripping his arm tight. “He has plans with Professor Deckard.”
“Oh. A shame... Well, it shouldn’t take long. Francis, have you ever shot a gun?”
“Once or twice. Can’t say I’m too comfortable with them.”
“That’s a good thing, then. Though you lived on the street, you managed to do so through more peaceful methods... Cass, honey, can you run these out back. I’d like a word with Francis.”
“Yes, dad,” she grumbled, and let his arm go. She gathered up all ten rifles with ease, as if it were habit, and left the room. Leaving the two of them alone.
Mister Crane sighed, leaning back in his chair, watching his daughter leave.
“She’s a sweet girl,” he stated... and his smile faded, looking at Francis. “I must admit, I am not the biggest fan of you dating her.”
“Kind of figured. Again, the whole gun thing-”
“I must state, once again, that wasn’t for you... You have ANY idea how hard it is for me to find time to go hunting? I live a busy life. With many children... Her mother and I have been together twenty years. We started out as pen pals. Literal letters... Years have gone by, and we have had a dozen children.”
“Yeah. Her mom loves me. A bit too much... She’s not due back until Wednesday, so I’m using as much of my time as I can. Those guns? Not meant for you... but they will be if you harm my daughter.”
“She is the middle child, and the only one to have stayed around. All the others flew the coop as soon as they could, finding love in the arms of men in both my and my wife’s businesses. They found success... but Cass? She wants to be more than arm candy. She has a brain... though not much sense.”
“Well, she is dating me, so-”
“Again. It isn’t about you... Not wholly... I looked into your past, Francis. I paid a good bit of money. Want to know what I found out?”
“Yes, actually. It’s been forever since I even thought about it, so a refresher would be greatly appreciated.”
Mister Crane chortled, and leaned forward on his desk.
“What I found... was that you are a good man.”
“... Sorry, what?”
“You throw on a tough face. You try to act like a monster, but, in truth, you are a victim of your circumstances. You killed a woman who had you at knifepoint and demanded you raped her, and that’s the worst of your crimes. Everything else? Tied back to those that used you. You were a scared little boy just trying to survive, and did what was necessary... Other than that, you complied to everyone. You made their lives easier... and, in a way, better... The most interesting of witnesses I talked to, Persephone Lockhart -ah, that rang a bell- she said you were so... gentle. She actually felt bad for using drugs, but kept buying for your sake... Once you were gone, she ratted out the entirety and is now in a drug rehab program... For all intents and purposes, you are a good man, Francis. That’s why I don’t have a problem with you dating my daughter.”
He unfurled his hands, sighed, and stood-
Only for the breath to freeze in Francis’s throat as a blade rested by his throat. He didn’t even notice its copper handle by the chair, but now he could see the long, thick, curved blade, glistening with the soft light of the den.
“The guns weren’t for you, but this is,” he stated, pulling it back and holding it up. “A talwar. Made from Damascus-processed metal with copper finishes from a noted bladesmith in the Middle East. I had it made when I made my first billion, a reminder of the path I needed to cut, the foundation from foundations... I have trained with swordsman the world over and can take on even the most rabid of loup garou... I have faith in you, Francis. Your background check shown you were a good man... don’t hurt my baby girl.”
“Again, understandable,” he said, and watched as he sheathed the sword into the chair again. The door opened behind and Cassidy returned, filling the gap in Francis’s arm.
“They’re set. Oliver set up the targets,” she said.
“Very good,” Mister Crane said, smiling once more. “Well then, Francis. Are you ready for your first bonding experience with your father-in-law?”
“I’m only joking, dear... At least right now-”
He chortled, but the glint in his eye told Francis what it actually meant. He wasn’t forcing him to stay with her, but, if he were to break up, do so sooner rather than later... He could respect that. Then again, there wasn’t a single part of that meeting he couldn’t respect. No wonder Cassidy looked up to him; even Francis was finding it hard not to. Even though he was almost two feet shorter.