I fade in and out of a silent, sprawling darkness. I fight off its attempts to ensnare my soul in its talons, carve it out of me, rip it apart. Sidney materializes, holds out her hand to me, calls out to me. Don’t go. Before I can take her hand, she dissolves into the void. My parents appear next and approach me with open arms, it’s okay, Maykal, we’re right here, but their apparitions vanish as well before I can embrace them. I don’t know how long it takes for me to come to. I recognize my room within the span of two breaths. The blue wallpaper interspersed with yellow specks, peeling movie posters, Arka bins, Olympus diploma, Bicap and S.P.A.C.E. Union flags. Afternoon light beams through the window as I sit up in bed, rub the sleep from my eyes, reflexively reach for my phone, but it’s not on the bedside table. The clock’s monitor is blank, so I don’t know the time. I throw off the blanket, swing my feet off the bed and plant them on the floor. I draw a deep breath, barbs of fear stinging my bones, and then I stand up and pad out of my bedroom, down the hallway to the living room, and I blink at the golden-red light cascading through the open window. Right away, I know something’s off, as if some supernatural force is overshadowing me. Then my gaze flicks to the prisms suspended from the ceiling, the trinkets spread over the table beneath the window, the gaming consoles, the paintings of Gollinger Park and the richly dressed genderless Starsapien. Cold fear caressing my stomach, I take two steps further into the room, notice my messenger bag on the sofa, then the picture frames on the shelf. Figures are moving inside the photos. Me, Sidney, Penelope.My heart thrashes around as I bolt for the front door, twist the handle, bang it open. Outside, I race down the hall to the elevator, slap my palm on the call button, step in. I almost press for the lobby, but then I see the additional button above the fifteenth floor; it’s marked with a winged spider. Only the width of a hair’s worth of space separates the tip of my forefinger from the lobby button. A column of apprehensive bugs crawl up my spine, but I swat them away from my heart long enough to raise my finger up to the spider and push it softly, reluctantly.When the elevator finishes its ascent a minute later and the door slides open, I look out not on the roof, not on Civit Lumin, but a grawtree forest glimmering under the spears of light plummeting through the canopy. This door needs to stay locked, I think to myself as my body moves out of the elevator, over blankets of grass and dirt and moss and fallen apples, toward a trail that weaves its way through the forest. A warm breeze swoops past me, ferrying along the heavy smell of rotting leaves and the rounded sweetness of grawtrees. An unending pattern of burbles and murmurs resonates from a river that I can see beyond the trees on my left. I know without going there that bushes of juicy berries thrive along its edge.At the sound of a clunk, I start and whirl around, but it’s just the door closing off the elevator. Without much conscious thought, I turn away, begin walking down the trail. A small voice is urging me to go back and I dismiss it, listen instead to the instinct that’s tugging me deeper into the woods, suffusing me with a tremendous yearning. The light never stops dancing over the grawtrees with their toothed leaves, velvety gray bark, lustrous violet apples. For what feels like the millionth time, I’m having this dream again, and it’s going to end the same way as before, but I keep moving forward to a door that needs to stay locked.I proceed along this path for a couple minutes before a dim rustle sounds behind me. I whip my head over my shoulder, spy a thin shadow creeping around the bend. Immediately, I jump into the grawtrees on the side, undergrowth glancing off my legs and hips. Concealed within the woods, I wait to see what’s coming . . .A short boy with an astonishingly overgrown head of furry brown hair, a blue messenger bag swinging from his shoulder. As he strolls past me, I catch a glint of joy in his gold-flecked hazel eyes. I wait a heartbeat before stepping out from the trees and following him to the end of the trail. At this point it widens out into a modestly sized clearing, the air awash in a faint haze of gold light. Sitting in the center of it is a glittering white gazebo, where Mom and Dad are sitting across from Gargant’s apprentice at a table laid out with a small bounty of delicious food. A brutal wave of edea pryn crashes over me. I open my mouth, I have to say something, warn my parents to stay away from her, but all that comes out is a small voice. “Mom? Dad?” It’s not from me, it’s from the boy who’s scampering to the gazebo, up the steps. I only see the back of his head as he stops to take in the scene, but I imagine puzzlement has indented a vertical ridge between his eyebrows. I imagine he’s wondering why my parents are sitting motionlessly, their eyes glassy, lips parted. I imagine he’s taking in Sibrilich in her shoulderless uniform, the light rippling strangely over her flawless gray skin and turning it almost as pale as her bun, a serene shimmer in her yellow eyes. I start approaching the gazebo while her eyes dart at the boy, as if realizing his presence for the first time. “Hi there,” she says with a friendly smile. “Pleasant morning, isn’t it?” “Who are you?” the boy asks, sounding more confused than scared. “I’m Sibrilich.” She pushes back her chair, easily moves off it, ambles a quarter of the way around the table, kneels in front of the boy so they’re both head-height. “I’m glad to meet you, Wyatt.” I freeze three paces away from the gazebo. A dull pain blooms in my chest and bleeds throughout my body. Fighting back a laugh, I watch the boy take a backward step, hold his hands behind his back and worry at the band twined from copper wires on his index finger. “What are you doing here?” the boy demands. I move around the gazebo to get a look at his expression—furrowed brow, mouth formed in a horizontal line, eyes dark with befuddlement and suspicion. He’s only twelve, but he could pass for eight; I don’t remember looking so youthful, and so short, at that age. “I was—” Sibrilich looks over her shoulder at their seemingly paralyzed forms, then turns back to the boy, her smile softening regretfully. “I had to resolve an issue with them.” The boy brushes past her to reach my parents on the side of the table facing me. A ribbon winds around my chest and clenches it unforgivingly when he says in a tight voice, “Guys? It’s me.”Dad keeps staring blankly into the distance, but Mom slowly blinks once, twice, then looks the boy in the eye. With a befuddled twist of her mouth, she says, “I’m sorry, have we met?”The boy’s heart shatters at the same moment as mine.“What—What did you do?” He turns to fix Sibrilich with a glare consisting of half accusation and half disbelief, as though he believes he’s the victim of a twisted prank of hers.Getting up from her kneel, she doesn’t answer his question. The boy swivels back to Mom, his face contorting in anguish. “It’s me. Your Maykal,” he whispers, putting out a trembling hand and resting it on her arm.She clearly isn’t herself. All she does is arch her eyebrows at him, then lift her shoulder in a half-hearted shrug, and pick up a fork and poke at the untouched pork dumplings on her plate.The boy isn’t able to elicit a lucid reaction from Dad, either. “Watch for the video connection,” he cautions to the air with a lazy smile, never regarding his son with the smallest glimpse. “It’ll cut out soon. Watch it, okay?” He chuckles listlessly, then his grin slides off and he resumes gawking at the surrounding forest.My jaw juts sideways, my eyes cut to Sibrilich. Fury scorches through my blood at the sight of her standing there with that sorrowful frown while my parents look on vacantly and pay no mind to the boy who produces a transparent pouch of berries from his bag, jiggles the indigo- and coral-colored fruits right under their noses with the futile hope that the aroma can revive them.“What did you do with them?” The boy’s glare could turn Sibrilich to stone.“Wyatt. Come here.”The self-possessed gentleness in her tone visibly drains away the boy’s distress. It also hushes the hatred howling inside me, briefly, but then something cold and murky gushes into my chest. I get queasy while the boy, rolling his ring off and on his finger, shuffles up to Sibrilich with an expression as devoid of feeling and comprehension as Mom and Dad’s. Sibrilich bends on a knee, lays her hands on his shoulders. “Your mother and father love you. Do you understand that? They love you more than life itself.” She sighs, eyes pinching at the corners. “I needed their help in an undertaking of mine. It would have involved you. Understandably, they didn’t want any harm to come your way, and I tried to help them realize how crucial your role would be—”“What do you need me to do?” the boy interjects, bright with desperation. “I can help you. Tell me what you want and then you can bring them back.”My heart falters when Sibrilich’s delicately beautiful features fold with grief. “I can’t. I wish I could, but . . . This may actually be for the best.” She’s quiet for a second, seeming to consider how much more she should confess. “You won’t understand. But you will, in time.”Despite my knowing what happens next, I’m nonetheless astonished when she locks the boy in a tight embrace. His eyebrows crawl up his forehead, his eyes widen, but he doesn’t tell her to get off him; he curls his arms around her, dips his chin onto her shoulder.And then she pulls back from the hug as suddenly as she went in for it, stands up, smooths out the wrinkles in her silver-accented uniform. I feel as if a million spiders are skittering over my back when she gazes down at the boy, a strange medley of emotions flickering through her eyes—shame, longing, determination, resignedness, maybe even a shred of hope. “No,” he urges, as if foreseeing what she’s going to do. “You can’t—” Light bends and warps around her, soaks into her form and fills it with such a brilliant glow that I have to lift my hand and shield my eyes. When the illumination dies away, I lower my hand, stars still swimming through my vision. She’s gone. It takes a minute for the boy to recover from his shock and attempt communication with his parents, to no avail. Then he fishes Mom’s phone from her pocket and dials emergency, sounding unnervingly brittle as he speaks with the operator on the other end. In the middle of the call—I don’t even know why I’m sticking around this long—a bug flutters just past my head and lands on a vase of white and violet lilacs in the center of the table. A spider with slate gray wings bearing deep yellow markings shaped like gaunt, almost skull-like faces. That’s the point when I race out of the gazebo, out of the clearing, into the trail and through the forest to the elevator, thank Metura it’s still here. I take it down to the seventh floor, rush across the hall, burst into the apartment, close the door, go down the entry hall, freeze on seeing Augen in the living room, comfortably spread out on a sofa as dark blue and overstuffed as its armchair companions. Her head spins round, delight shining in her non-patched eye. “Took a while up there,” she comments huskily, rising to her feet. Same elegant robes as before, the handle of her ax protruding up from behind her shoulder. Was it Belldon who left the fresh bruise on her cheek, a dark swelling that stands out against her olive-green skin? Speaking of which. “Where are they? Corbin, your sister . . .” I want to say her name, but it catches in my throat. “And Appleton? Alive and well.” A moment passes as I survey the furniture, the zumu-stone figurines and framed photos of me and my parents on the fireplace, the great view out the huge window on the far side of the spacious room of the Jem-7 neighborhood smoldering in the reds and purples of the suns dipping into the skyline. I’m in Bassow Block, the place that Sidney and I swung by during our inaugural visit to the Welkin. This is the first time I notice that the Gollinger Park painting is identical to the piece in Sidney’s apartment. A good friend of mine actually used to live in this building, she told me on our trip. Her lilting voice rings over and over in my ears. I recall the way she fidgeted with her pendant, the vivid anxiety in her amethyst eyes, like she was worried I might figure out the meaning behind her admission. “I lived here,” I hear myself say aloud, side-eying the kitchen on my left, recalling Sidney’s amazement at encountering unsifted sichupod milk. “Mm-hmm, with your loving folk,” Augen pipes up, sitting back down on the sofa’s armrest, her stringy hair falling across her temples. “Sweet old Ida and Merlin.”The mere mention of my parents ignites a flurry of sparks in me. I’m tempted to lunge at Augen and let her have it, but instead I glimpse the the hall on my right. I know I’d find my room and my parents’ room down there, I’d turn up the Durrell family album again. All those frozen memories.“Where are we?” I query. “Still in the Welkin. This is a little space I set up for you.” Augen gestures to the living room around us. “For the sake of reminiscence.”I glance at the farthest armchair where my messenger bag is placed. “I—I don’t understand.”The pob lord casually crosses her arms, a what’s-your-favorite-movie smile contorting her pocked visage. “I know your sob story. How Sibrilich needed some info from your parents, info that she ended up extracting from them, completely fucking with their heads.”My heart convulses in my chest like it’s keen to launch itself up my throat. Does she know Sibrilich? Have the two of them been conspiring together?“How you, the abandoned and forlorn twelve-year-old, got adopted by a friend of theirs. And mind you, she’d already been saddled with another little piece of hyena shit—a girl who lost her parents because of yours truly.” Sticky black bile slithers up the back of my throat, but I swallow it down while shards of memories flit past my mind’s eye. My refusal to let go of Mom and Dad’s warm, limp hands for the entirety of the ambulance ride from Gollinger Park to Galen Hospital. The throaty inflection of the doctor who informed me that he’s very sorry, but my parents have been rendered mentally unsound and need to be admitted to the psychiatric ward. The glint reflecting off the lenses of Penelope’s glasses when she picked me up, when I took her in a despairing hug, when she hesitated before wrapping her own arms around me. The smell of chocolate and fiery steel when Sidney wrapped me in an affectionate hug as soon as Penelope brought me into apartment 707 of Cloverleaf Vistas. Gods, they’ve been there for me for the past five years, even with all my shit. I’ve never moved past my bereavement. Never been thankful for the love and acceptance they showered onto me. Never made peace with the void that the absence of my family created in my heart. No, I subjected myself to wallowing in a swamp of angst and self-loathing. It didn’t take long to start shaping my world so my parents could return, so I could seal off the void and feign its nonexistence. It was effortless to accomplish, though it hurt Sidney and Penelope along the way. But what did I care? All I was concerned with was putting up my shields to protect myself. “I know,” I say, breathing slowly to counter the rapid pulsating on my ribcage, reaching a hand in my pocket to rub my Kasma between my fingers. “Bentley and Dellia. Their daughter was there to watch you kill them.” Briefly, I imagine myself sitting there with Sidney as she interrogated Runa and Obrin in Asulon. She put out hits on families. Not the kids, just the parents, Sidney said. She spared the kids so they could be scarred reminders of the horrors she can wreak. All the while, Augen’s smile looks so sane, so genuine, that it sends a chill up my spine. “You get off on it—the pain you inflict on people, the power it lets you exert over them,” I assert. I almost expect her to deny it, but she nods. “The world is ill with misery. You can’t blame me if I enjoy being the source of some of it.” Her grin twists, as if she’s hurting. She leans forward, places a hand on her knee. “At least you and Sidney had loving families. It wasn’t like that for me and Sílvena. You see, Papa loved drinking as much as he loved starting fights with construction workers on the sites he managed. They weren’t the only ones on the receiving end of his belligerence. He often kicked and punched and called Mama horrible names in front of me and Vena, until she slumped to the floor and was left writhing, often had to get medical help for a broken wrist or a dislocated shoulder. I wanted to stop him, but Vena had to hide me in the closet or under the bed. She always wanted to look after her baby sister. “But she was out with her friends the afternoon Papa jammed a hot poker into my eye. I think it was because I fetched a beer he asked for and I tripped and spilled it all over him. I was eleven.” Augen wrenches her face into a vicious grimace and she raises her hand to gingerly touch the frayed edge of her eyepatch. “I was thirteen when Papa took me up to Tode Point for some father-daughter time. You ever been there?” I shake my head no. “Too bad, it’s gorgeous. Right before we left, though, Papa got fed up with our pet agudlin because he’d been yipping too much, and strangled him to death. I watched him, and so did my sister and my mom, and we did nothing while he tossed the carcass in the garbage. I loved that stinky beast. I thought I’d feel sad shoving Papa into the canyon. But as I watched him take that fall, I felt—well, nothing. It had to be done. I knew that in my heart for a while.”I stare at her, horror and pity battling for dominance. “Your sister,” I manage after an uncertain moment.She narrows her eye at me. “What about her?”“Like you said, she looked after you. So she loved you. I bet she still does.”Her chortle is raspy and low with frustration. “Maybe she does. Or maybe she doesn’t. Frankly, I don’t care. We’re all diseased with hate, apathy, prejudice. Any talk about how much we value love, compassion, and benevolence is hypocritical. Look at Sornis. Look at how those cubs treated Enbo Alvis. It’s impossible to purge their filth, no matter how virtuous and benevolent we may be. But look who I’m talking to—the prick who wants to make the light a little brighter than it was before he was born, who can’t muster the courage to accept the self-inflicted unraveling of our world. You and Sibrilich are very much alike that way.” The sparks inside me grow into a furious flame. I glance past her at my bag on the armchair, wondering if it still holds Gargant’s mystery box. Then I ask what the connection is between Augen and Sibrilich, which appears to cause a smirk to creep into her solemn expression. “She saved my life once, if you can believe it.” The pob lord itches the skin near her eyepatch, makes a sound of amusement. “Oh, she’s a funny character.”A cruel light dancing in her eye, she gets off the sofa’s armrest and pulls herself up to her giant height. She reaches over her shoulder, unslings her ax from her back, squeezes the shaft to drop the silvery blades on their kla-klinking chains. “Come on, I gotta take you to Appleton so I can watch her sob over your corpse.” “I’d rather take you to her so I can watch her kick the ever-loving shit out of you.” Quick as a tigon, Augen whips her ax-blades over a span of six feet at me. My forcefield absorbs the hit, then I charge forward with a shield construct in front of me, barely missing her as she lunges to her right, rolling into the middle of the living room. She’s on her feet again and I shoot a glittering blue orb, but she twists her body out of the way and the projectile hits the wall next to the Gollinger Park painting. She sweeps her ax, having flicked the blades back onto the shaft, to bat away the shield I throw at her. Plying my light into a long-handled hammer with a pair of curved, blunt horns protruding from one end of the blocky head, I swing it at her shoulder, but she nimbly blocks it with her ax.We keep parrying each other’s strikes over the next few moments. She wards off all my attempts to hit her on her blind side, as if she’s spent a good deal of time fighting with only one good eye, and she insists on putting distance between us to give her space to let her ax blades fly. I’m fast enough so they never land on me, but it takes all my strength to sustain such a fast pace.And then one of the blades gets caught between the horns of my hammer. Instinctively, I pour out more of my light; the horns glow brighter, stretch and warp around the stout blade, swallow it in cerulean energy that proceeds to coil rapidly along the chain. Augen rushes to drop the shaft half a second before it and the second blade are engulfed in a brilliant blue coat. She watches with a wide eye and a scowl as her weapon writhes and flashes and shivers, clatters against the floor, and it’s gone once my light melts away.There’s a beat where she repeatedly clenches her hand as if struggling to grasp her phantom ax, then she remarks, “You don’t fool around.” She springs forward, a huge fist soaring at my face, but I dodge, then deliver a hook to her shoulder that’s powerful enough to make her stumble back a couple steps, grunting low. Before she can counterattack, I go in with a jab at her bruised cheek, causing the dark cloud to broaden beneath her skin. A kick at her knee that draws out a stifled grunt. A strong punch to her ribs, smacking the air from her lungs and out of her open mouth. She keeps staggering away from me and I try for another hit on her stomach, but my left fist doesn’t make contact before she clamps the wrist in her hand, reaches for my left elbow with her other hand like she’s going to snap my arm in half. Before that can happen, I open up my fist and fire an orb directly at her chest, propelling her through the air. She crashes her back on the dining table, which doesn’t break but emits a loud cracking noise. I run up to her in case she’s got more steam left, but she lies still on the tabletop, legs dangling off the edge, eyelids closed, robes rumpled.I inhale deep breaths, massage my wrist where a tingling ache lingers from her brutal grip. Theories on how to escape this place and rescue Sidney, Corbin, and Belldon clutter my head, but I push them aside, swivel and go back to the chair where my bag’s sitting. I throw open the flap, rummage through the contents until I lift out the wood box. I trace a finger over the park and the stars carved into the lid. As for the figures in said park, I pinch my eyebrows at them, brooding. I hadn’t paid much attention to their exquisitely detailed features, but now . . . The faces, the hair . . .I wedge my thumbnail under one of the two silver clasps. This time, it easily flips up with a muffled snap, and I repeat the action for the second clasp. I hesitate, recalling Gargant’s words when I asked him what this contains—I believe you already know the answer in your heart—because I might have to begrudgingly agree with him.My blood’s pulsing as I pull up the lid and peer at the radiant flower inside, flaming with gentle purples and ardent blues. A gift from Sidney while I was living here—not here, but the real Bassow Block, with my parents. Before they . . .I brush my fingers over the bulbous lusiere, its petals velvety against my skin. A storm of emotions rages within me, tugs on a memory of Sidney and me watching a meteor shower from the rooftop of Cloverleaf Vistas. I have to get back to her. I have to tell her how sorry I am for being so selfish—Something slams into my throat, wraps tight around my neck, presses my back into what I immediately register as Augen’s imposing body. The box slips from my hands, arcs onto my bag and bounces off, and the lusiere tumbles out and both items fall to the floor. I struggle to draw air while Augen’s thick arm is crushing my windpipe, black spots squirm over my eyes, my knees are buckling—“Shhhh,” Augen whispers. “Go to sleep now.” Her lips graze my ear and my innards thrash in revulsion. Almost everything in my world darkens and blurs, but the lusiere remains bright and clear.“If there really is a hell,” she hisses, “go find Sidney and give her my regards.”Cursed Cosmotic. Clenching my jaw, I build a dagger in one hand and stab it over my shoulder, hoping it lands in the approximate range of her good eye. It flings from my grip and there’s a guttural shout, one of surprise rather than hurt, and she releases me and I stagger into the chair and start to whirl on my feet—Pain erupts in the side of my head. I topple backward into the chair and Augen looms over me, her face a mask of ruthless resolution, tiny drops of blood welling from a string-thin cut on her right earlobe. A blue glint catches my eye; my knife is on the floor across the room.Before I can react, she seizes me by the forearm and jerks me off the armchair, almost ripping my arm out of its socket. She brings up her knee into my gut, then quickly swats me over the head with her fist. Painful stars bursting before my eyes, I lurch to the floor, sharp aches spreading through my body. My mendsense starts prickling, but then Augen, her eye alive with a murderous gleam, gets down on her knees, which she straddles on either side of my hips, and she forcefully pushes her palm into my breastbone, balls up her other hand and starts pummeling my face.Is this how it ends? I think as salty blood fills my mouth, as waves of pain ripple from my throbbing head and down my spine. A torch sputters in my chest, warmth strains to crawl through my veins. The tendrils of darkness are creeping out from the edges of my world—I want to see her again. That’s all I want.It takes a beat for me to register a pause in the assault. Needles are darting throughout my body, especially my head, trying to heal the damage as quickly as possible. As much as my eyes have swollen to the point where I’m peering through a pair of slits, I can make out Augen studying me with the frown of a school bully who’s extensively abused her victim to the point of boredom.“This has been fun, I’ll give you that,” she admits, examining her fist, which is covered in bruises and my blood. “Too bad it has to come to an end.”She moves to bracket my face in her hands, as if we’re lovers and she’s going to pull me up for a tender kiss. I try to spur on whatever amount of energy isn’t being devoted to treating my injuries, but it staggers and trips, there’s so little of it left. With a twist of my head, though, none of it will matter.Maybe I will see her in heaven, I think a split-second before a knife flies out of nowhere and digs into Augen’s face, a bloodred hilt jutting out from her right cheek. There’s something funny about witnessing her eye open wide and her rough features sag in befuddlement as if horns are curling up from my temples.When she topples off me and crumples to the floor beside my legs, I turn my head—a movement that drives a searing blade through my skull—and slide my gaze over the lusieres that have somehow sprouted across the apartment in a long trail that leads up to the entrance and I squint at the figure standing in the open doorway.“What’s up, grazboot?” Sidney greets, grinning fiendishly.
Published by Arthur Howell
I live in my hometown of Seattle, Washington, where I'm delving into the career of a science-fiction author. The first story I dedicated myself to writing was about a young girl with telekinetic abilities. I'm still fascinated with superheroes, especially the ones in the Marvel Universe; it’s a tie between Spider-Man and Iron Man as my favorite. Coldplay, Ingrid Michaelson, Imagine Dragons, Ellie Goulding, and The Killers are just a few of the artists you would find me listening to while writing. --- Twitter: arthur_ant18 --- Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/144101970-arthur-howell View all posts by Arthur Howell