King in the Mountain 03

You can feel your heart rippling in your neck. Images flash through your mind’s eye: men in ringmail atop mighty destriers: rippling containers of barely-sheathed muscles. Pink-scarred faces that contorted with snarls. Axes, swords and spears whirling through the air.

Your left arm tingles where a spear caught you, thousands and thousands of years ago.

(Five years ago.)

Gormund’s teeth are knocking together as he wrings his hand around the length of his axe. He watches the horizon, implacable. You think you see shadows moving between the trees. As a bluster of air rattles through you, you understand you’re still a little damp. Sweat-slick and lake-slick and slippery. Vertigo opens wide, threatens to consume you.

You aren’t supposed to be here. Your muscles twinge with long-forgotten maneuvers. Newly-remembered exercises. Drills. But your body is soft and stupid.

You tense up, ready. You’re still not sure if you see anything. Perhaps just trees. Or perhaps something darker.

Gormund uncoils, wraps his hand around your wrist. “We have to move,” he tells you.

“Did you see anything?” you ask.

“Not yet. But the enemy is well-hidden. We’ll need to quicken our pace, King in the Mountain. We’ll have to get to Strathbury by sunrise.”

You follow, dumbly. You haven’t learned how to question things yet. Not in this world. Perhaps in the other. You’ll learn, though. You managed last time. You can do it again.

(You’re reasonably certain, leastways.)

The forest envelopes you, trees rising like the black spears of the army that surrounded you when the Great Evil captured you five years into your quest the last time around.

You can’t remember the name of the army. Just the flash of steal and the ash-coated spears that smeared onto the gloves of the warriors that surrounded you. Blood had dried on you and them, red-brown like lacquer.

(You’re getting distracted, you realize.)

You hardly notice that Gormund has stopped to set up camp. Your thoughts are a blur. Just aching feet and passing trees and shuffling through leaves. It feels like you’re on a treadmill.

(Or it would if you could’ve remembered what a treadmill was by that point.)

Gormund had wrapped you up in a cloak. Crickets were chirping and stars were blazing in the sky, never still, always streaking. You had forgotten about that part of the Realm.

Your remembrances filled the silence. Gormund didn’t seem to mind. He hummed to himself as he stoked broken twigs and branches. He struck flint and tinder. “Fire keeps the bugs away,” he explains to you. His cloak smells like timber. He smells like timber. “Keeps away the shamble-men, too.”

“Are there shamble-men hereabouts?” you ask. You don’t recall anything of shamble-men from you last time in the Realm.

“Not as yet,” he says. “I thought I saw them, but…” he lapses. “They appear suddenly. But they don’t like the light. We’ll be safe, so long as the fire burns.”

You ask what shamble-men are. You can only remember humans in the Realm. Witches and Warlocks, to be certain. But you can recall nothing of monsters.

The fire stokes in you memories of magic, elsewise. You feel aglow with the fire in your veins. Yes, they’ve sewn you up. Good as new, you know now. Good as new. Now all you need is your sword…

Gormund’s mustaches flutter as he exhales. “Best keep a watch tonight,” he explains. “Shamble-men aren’t friendly folk. They were once men, to be certain. A long, long time ago. Still look like them, from a distance. But when they open their mouths to speak…” another lapse. He hrms and haws for a bit. “I think they’re asking for help. But their voices are so crushed. So broken. Their necks are tangled and angled. Anything they say just sounds like crawing and croaking. They’re pale as the underbelly of whitefish, with the wrinkled skin of drowned men. And their teeth,” he tells you, “are pointed.” He leans forward, the bathing in the fire’s orange gloom. “The better to tear at flesh. They spare the little girls. Bring them back up north to Hultashia. For breeding. But the boys…”

He’s toying with you, you realize. Trying to stoke primal fear the way he stokes sparks every time he prods the fire. “They’d eat you, One-Eye. They’d eat you raw.”

“They’d blacken and burn as soon as touch me,” you say. But you aren’t sure you’ve kept the quiver from your voice.

“You’ve no sword. And don’t you think to burn them. You’ll have to trust me, One-Eye. It won’t work. Monsters as damp as they are, it’s like making a fire out of driftwood. They’d be on top of you before you can set them to sparking. Fire against a shamble-man is about as useful as nipples on a breastplate.”

“What does that mean?” you ask. You realize you’ve no idea where Hultashia is. Or where anywhere is. All the names have changed in the Realm. Before he can answer, you ask, “Actually…this is going to sound strange, but where are we? Where is Strathbury? Whose land is this?”

“Too small for any records if that’s what you’re asking. Nobody thought to mark us down on any imperial maps, leastways. We’re on the road between Vacher and Charville, for what it’s worth.”

“Do you have a King?”

“We’ve a Republic of Cecyan Lords.”

“Is that the name of this place. Cecy?”

“Aye,” Gormund says. He knits his brows together. “You have been gone awhile, haven’t you, One-Eye?”

You nod. “Not sure I was supposed to come back,” you mumble.

Gormund regards you seriously from across the fireplace. When he speaks, his voice is grating. Like he’s taken a drag of a cigarette.

(You know what those words convey. The action is foreign to you.)

“Well,” he says, “My daughter saw to it you did. Best get some sleep. I’ll watch for shamble-men. Keep the fire going and we’ll be fine. I’ll wake you in the morning.”

“You should let me take a watch,” you tell Gormund.

“You should do as I say, boy.” There’s a goading edge to his voice, barely sheathed. You don’t want to argue with him. Your head’s still spinning. You’re still tired. You still have so many questions that swirl through your mind as darkness plays across your vision and sleep takes you as you curl into Gormund’s timber-smelling cloak.

King in the Mountain 02

You know the story now, right? Surely you know where this is going.

You awaken, suckling in cold air. There’s a crackling that you think might be a fire. Is there fire in your veins again? Or is it outside of you? You certainly don’t feel as cold as when you were back in–in–that other place.

Christ, you’re already forgetting.

(Who’s Christ?)

But as the memories of your old life fade, shards of memory fit into place. Memories of this world.

Again: you know the story. You know what this world is capable of.

The man named Gormund is standing beside you, windburnt. His frayed hair is swaying. “God’s blood, but you’re heavy,” he says.

Your head is spinning. Your fingers are clawing at the stone foundation beneath you. You weren’t supposed to come back. “Who summoned me?” you ask, absently.You aren’t sure if you care.

“Nice to meet you, too, One Eye.”

“I’m sorry,” you tell Gormund. “I’m sorry. I just. I…” You clutch your head in your hands. You’re not supposed to be back here. “Who are you?”

Gormund barks a single laugh. “Straight down to business, then?” he says. “My daughter summoned you, One Eye. Her will is almost spent from the ordeal.” He spits, as if in show of his disdain. “You’d better be worth it.”

You remember the last time someone channeled  Higher Powers to bring you here. He had looked fine, laying on the stone slab. Unconscious, you thought. Until they examined his corpse. His insides had been a smoking ruin. You never learned his name. Others–more powerful folk–could have survived channeling the Higher Powers. (For a time). Not him.

“I wasn’t supposed to come back,” you tell him, dumbly. “This can’t be real.”

He slaps you. Leaves your cheek stinging and red. You reel back, precariously close to the mountain-ledge.

(You realize distantly, that it is named Mount Tharum).

Gormund catches you as you teeter on the ledge, pulls your forward. You can feel the bristle of his beard. Feel his hot, moist breath on your face. “Did that feel real?”

“I–”

“If I throw you off this mountain, will that be real?” His voice is hoarse and raspy.

“I don’t–”

“My daughter has channeled Higher Powers through her flesh and funneled them onto mortal earth. All to bring you here, King in the Mountain.” Your title drips like acid from his mouth. “You don’t get to tell me what is and isn’t real. Now harken to me: we are going to climb down this mountain, walk all the way to Strathbury and you will tell my daughter that you are sorry that the legends of your last life possessed her to do something so foolhardy as to summon a boy so stupid that his first act upon arrival is nearly drowning himself. Do you understand?”

You knock his hand away and shove past him to more solid footing. You lean against the wall. (You don’t have vertigo yet. This is a precautionary measure.) You focus on your breathing. Five seconds in, five seconds out.

The town’s name is not Strathbury. It’s Snothringham.

You wonder what else has changed.

“All right,” you tell him. “I understand.”

 

You know where things go from here, right? We’ve been over this before.

You travel down the Mount Tharum. There are thick clefts in the rock. A stairway, steep as a leaning ladder. Along the way down Gormund tells you that you should be evacuating Strathbury.

“Most like we’ll be dead in a few weeks,” he tells you, surprisingly casual. All while he leads you down the clefts in the stone. “Funneling the Higher Powers to this plane doesn’t go unnoticed.”

You remember the last time. Raiders had swarmed down from the north. Unchecked and virtually unchallenged. Snothringham had almost no defenses. It was a town outlying in the middle of nowhere.

It didn’t stand a chance.

This time will be different. You swear it by the God you’ve so nearly forgotten, and by the Higher Powers, too. Just to be safe.

You have a second chance, here. You’re going to make it right. You shouldn’t even be here. The least you can do is cycle through these motions while causing the least amount of damage possible.

You’re going to survive this. You’re going to build a life here all over again. You’re relapsing, but at least this time, you can taper through this the right way.

 

The wind has died down by the time your feet hit soft earth and dead leaves crunch beneath your feet.

“How far to Snoth–Strathbury,” you correct yourself. “How long?”

“As long as it takes,” Gormund tells you, as you crunch through the autumn waste. His axehead drags lazily through the clusters of dead leaves and grass.

You don’t bother to count the time it takes to get to Snothringham.

(Strathbury. It’s called Strathbury. You have to remember that.)

The world becomes walking. One step and then the next, following the command of Gormund’s back: keep moving or die. I permit no alternative.

You wonder if there will be as many raiders this time. You wonder if you can use the fire in your veins. Did the Higher Powers sew it back into you? You want to call it forth. But not in front of Gormund.

He’s angry enough as it is. Angry that his daughter summoned you. Showing him proof of your power mightn’t be the best idea. You don’t even know if you have this power, elsewise.

So you start to wonder what changed about Snothringham. Why would they change the name? How have they rebuilt? Who lives there now?

Bored, you examine the ground that drops precipitously mere feet from you in either direction. You walk along a file, sloping down into fields of dead, yellow grass girdled by aspens and poplars.  

You hardly notice when Gormund has stopped moving. You nearly plow into his back. He’s hefted his axe, holding it in both hands.

“Don’t. Move.”

Belatedly, you realize you do not have a sword. You freeze and follow Gormund’s eyes from one side of the file to the other. “Is there something down there?” you ask.

His knuckles are white and twitching around the axe-haft. “Might be,” he said. “It’s getting dark. Might be.”

You’d hardly noticed the bruise-colored clouds smothering the sky. “Is it raiders?” you ask. You wish again for your sword. Almost as much as you wish you could remember its name.

You think you can pull the fire out of your veins, if it comes to it.  You can remember your training, last time around. It took you months to learn how to control the Higher Powers’ magic. But eventually you wrestled it into your grasp.

You think you can do it again. Probably. Maybe.

(Time will tell, you suppose.)

King in the Mountain 01

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Higher Powers choose a young child from another world to save them from a ruthless despot. Maybe you step through a magical doorway. Or a closet. A portal.

The Higher Powers put fire and magic in your veins and send you off to stop the Great Evil.

You’ve always heard these stories. Filled with wondrous creatures. Talking animals. Dwarves. Orcs. But the one you live is different. It’s just humans.

You tell them about your old stories, though. You make friends on your quest to vanquish the Great Evil.

And you succeed, too! What are the odds? Maybe it costs you an eye. Or your hand. Or friends. But you do it. You save the world and peace and prosperity reign.  

Which means one thing: The Higher Powers don’t need you. You’re a warrior, and this is peacetime. And they certainly don’t need someone as powerful as you.

So they tear the fire and the magic out of your veins, they heal you up and restore your missing hand. Or eye.

(Not your friends, though. They keep those.)

Then they ship you back to your home world, like the whole thing never happened. You haven’t aged a day, and now you have sit still and learn and live in this body that’s too soft and too weak and too complete.

The shriek of chalk on the board reminds you of the Witch’s scream that one time. You’re startled by your own left hand. You can remember it turning to ash when you fought that sorcerer. And you’re always cold, now. Because they ripped the magic out of you and nothing can keep you warm.

Now imagine, a few years later:

You go back.

* * *

You don’t remember how you came to be in the cave. It is a beginning. But only inasmuch as dreams can begin.

The fire is inside you again, crackling and cackling. It feels good. Like a relapse.

“The King in Mountain,” they told you, “Is called upon during the Realm’s hour of greatest need.”

Nobody told you that this hour could happen twice.

You wonder if you’re dreaming. You’ve certainly done that before. But memories of your homeworld are muted, here. Like remembrances of childhood. Vague and textureless. Ambient.

The fire inside you makes your memories without magic into a smoky haze.

You’re starting to come to terms with your unbelief as you haul yourself off the slab of cold stone when a shock of freezing water engulfs you.

You wonder what proclamations they’ll make as you sink down, down down. The King in the Mountain can’t save the world this time, they’ll say. He rolled out of bed and drowned in a lake. You’re off to a great start. Great job.

You surface, then, sucking in a lungful of damp cave-air that makes your chest feel like fire.

Then a scratchy, thick hand seizes the back of your shirt and hoists you into the air, dumps you face first into a rowboat.

You’re sputtering and coughing and shivering and you can feel the stranger’s gaze on you. King in the Mountain, indeed. Not knowing what else to say, you tell the stranger: “The lake is new.” Your head is still on the floor of the rowboat. You can feel the boat rocking (or are you just dizzy?) “It wasn’t here last time. Did you just get that installed?”

The figure who saved you is a silhouette. You can only discern his black, beady eyes and thick beard. He’s wide and massive and grunts as he rows. You think you see the head of an axe resting next to his boots.

Your head is still spinning. You’re trying to figure out how you got back. Why you got back. Who brought you back? You wonder if you know this bearded gentleman. Was he here last time?

A list of half-remembered faces spins through your head like a slot machine as you try to match them up with their names.

You think distantly, What’s a slot machine? You realize how fast your memories are fading. (No, not fading. The smoke’s getting thicker. If you concentrate, you can see through it.)

“I’d recognize that purposeful emotional distance anywhere!” you say. You feel a twinge of guilt at how happy you are to see him. To be back. “Toric, is that you?”

“Who’s Toric?” The man asks. “My name is Gormund, King in the Mountain. I’ve been sent to retrieve you.” Three oarstrokes pass before he speaks again. “You’re smaller than we expected.”

“What are you talking about?” you ask. “Smaller? I was twelve last time! It’s been five years! That’s not how anything works!”

“Twelve?” Gormund echoes. “You sure about that?”

A hole grows in your stomach as you realize that you’re not quite sure how long you were here. Time passes like dreams in this place. It’s difficult to get a measure on it.

(Or maybe your thoughts are just clouded. Maybe they’ll clear up. Maybe.)

The boat skids against the rocks at the mouth of the cave. You see Gormund silhouetted against the early-morning light. He’s raising an eyebrow. “I’m going to ignore that you said you were twelve.” He steeples his fingers and rests his elbows on his knees, leaning forward. “Instead, let’s address the fact that you just said you’ve been gone for five years.”

“What about it?” you ask.

Gormund looks at you seriously. “Just how long do you think you’ve been gone, One-Eye?”

“One-Eye?” you echo.

That’s what you’re going to focus on?” He’s incredulous.

“What do you mean, One–” Shattered shards of memory stab into your brain. You remember a dagger. A rogue ambush. A red-glowing eyepatch snapped over an empty socket. Screaming.

You reach to steady yourself and flinch when your left hand touches the rim of the boat. You remember a wand pressing a hole in that palm, and the ashes that spread out from there.  

Oh.

Right.

That.

You check your face. Two eyes. Too complete.

Relieved, you crumple face-first sideways out of the boat.

The Vile Assembly – Part 2

You notice you’ve stepped closer to the two men. She can hear the perspiration slithering down Boss Azoc’s face; you’re not sure if it’s him or the rickety chair doing the squealing while he struggles against his bonds. You tremble. “Y-y-your Grace,” you say, “What’s going to happen to him?”

“I don’t expect his mind can handle it. Heh. Few could. But we’ll find out.” You two do not see the projection of light filtering through a rainbow of colors, dimmer and brighter, darker and lighter. Boss Azoc still struggles.

“But why are you doing this?” You ask.

“Do I detect a note a sympathy?” There is an angry edge to her father’s voice, barely sheathed. “For him?”

“I—”

Do I?

“I…no. No sympathy.”

“Good girl.”

You two hear Boss Azoc struggling and murmuring. Then all is quiet. You do not see the his irises color. You suspect this happens. You know the Symptoms of the Sight

You cannot see the orange gloom you’ve read that fires make. You cannot see the filtering sunlight whose warmth you feel. You cannot see the crow-feathered cloaks that itch on you and your Father.

Boss Azoc does.

First he whimpers.

Then he screams.

It is a loud and shuddering wail that you feels in her bones. You reach out for something—anything else to listen to. But all you can find is the net of birds taking wing from a tree, fleeing the sound that you are stuck with.

Azoc is thrashing while Boss Ivan laughs. You stands still, listening to the shrieks. The stomping of feet. You sniffs the air and scowls at the smell.

“The last ounce of courage is trickling down his leg,” you tells her father. “Isn’t this enough?”

You hear your Father following his nose toward you, stomping. You take two involuntary steps backward before he’s holding your hair close to her scalp. You does not move for fear of what he might do next.

“There can be no measure for mercy to monsters! That aside,” his grip on your hair loosens. “This can stop when he tells me who’s next in line to lead the Fangs.”

With a swirl of his cloak Boss Ivan crosses the room toward the screaming, thrashing, Azoc. He cannot see the color in his irises coming and going. He crouches next to him, and whispers: “Where do you billet yourselves. I know you operate out of Sandpiper Quarter. But where do you hide away?”

A muffled scream is his only response.

“You don’t want to disappoint my daughter, do you? Come now. We’re waiting.”

You tremble in the corner, reaching out for something else to focus on. But all you finds is a crazed Boss. Maybe two, you wonder. “No sympathy, you tell herself. “It’s only a monster. No sympathy, it’s only a monster. No sympathy, it’s only a monster. No sympathy, it’s only a monster. It’s only a monster. It’s only a monster…”

Your name is Isora. You’re the the daughter a gang Boss. Your cloak itches.

Today is your birthday.

Previously

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Special thanks to my patron on Patreon, Alicia Cameron

The Vile Assembly – Part 1

Your name is Isora. You are the daughter a gang Boss. And your cloak itches.

Your father holds your hand in his, walking you through a forest of steel that neither of them can see.

(You can’t remember it, either. You can’t remember much, anyway. You never have.)

To hear it told, they’re twisted, jagged metal spires whose purpose has long been forgotten. They are what remains of the Twenty First age, before the Great Detonations, long ago. The event that blinded the world.

As for the other senses:

You can hear leaves of rust peel away from the steel ruin in the soft breeze. She can smell their parchment-thin sheets as they sway through the air and settle on the ground. You can feel their the tremble of their ever-so-light impact as they hit the ground like a featherfall.

And you can feel the ink on the pages as I write this to you. I am your ink-and-parchment memory, Isora. You must rely on me. You must believe me.

Your father leads you through this terrain. He had awoken you shortly after the morning birds started singing. He had helped you get dressed and clasped the cloak of crow-feathers around your neck.

(You had wanted to tell him it was itchy at the time, but you’d decided against it. After all, you have to wear it.)

And you knew why. I’ve left you an index. A separate journal for names and faces you terminology you may have forgotten. Check it if you’d like to find out why you need it.

Your father leads you through Muninn Point, now. “I have a surprise for you,” he tells you, again and again. You don’t answer. You’ve never liked her father’s surprises.

(Never tell him that!)

You can hear someone breathing, far and away. You wipe the sweat from your brow and tells herself it’s just an early riser making ready for the day. “There are no monsters in Muninn Point, your father always tells you. “I do not tolerate monsters in my district.”

You do not understand why he calls the place his district. He’s told you before that the Crown itself appointed the House of Em to oversee it. He also tells you that you’ll understand why when you’re older.

Your Father stops in front of the doors to a basement you cannot see. You’ve been told that the structure above it has long since collapsed, though you cannot see that either. He rubs his thumb against your knuckles. “Do you remember my instructions, Isora?”

“Yes, Father—”

“Your Grace.”

“Your Grace.” You bow you head. “Yes, your Grace. I do. I mustn’t cover any of the four senses. No matter what happens. I must pay attention.”

“Very good.”

Ivan opens the door. Its hinges let out a bloody wail. His hand finds yours, and leads you down wooden steps that groan like you did when Ivan had roused you from sleep that morning.

The room smells musty, which doesn’t help your mood. You’ve already so few distractions from how itchy your cloak is. Now you can’t even smell anything without gagging. So instead, you listen to your father’s blade-sheath slap against his thigh as he walks.

“My Crows have brought me something remarkable today,” he tells you. “Consider this a rite of passage.”

You hear your father’s hand rattling on a doorknob, then something on the other side of the door. You wonders if it is a dying hog. It certainly sounds like it. You swallows thickly. “Your Grace. I’m afraid.”

You hear her father’s knees protest when he crouches, places his hands on your shoulders. “You’re twelve years old now, Isora. You’ve long since had your blood. You’re almost a woman grown.” His first two fingers draw a line down your face. They’re rough as leather and not comforting. “How fast you’ve grown. Soon you’ll be the Boss of my gang. And you must learn a Boss’s resolve.”

You hear a sound, and cannot decide if it is your Father’s joints sighing as he stands. Perhaps he merely adjusted his cloak.

(He did.)

With a sharp intake of breath, he swings the door open and leads you inside.

You two can feel the warmth of early-morning light filtering through the window. You can hear a fire in the hearth–built to keep the dying-hog-sounding creature from freezing. You can imagine the orange glow that bathes the room. You’ve read the stories. You know what fire supposedly looks like.

You cannot see that the creature is tied to a chair with a sack over its head or the projector Ivan has positioned on a table, facing the thing that’s making the unsettling sound. But you smell the cloth, hear the screams, smell the wooden chair, and the wooden table. And the rusty metal of the projector.

Ivan spreads his arms wide in a theatrical gesture that benefits only him the same way you might smile even if no one is looking.

(You imagine he does this, leastways).

“Welcome,” he says, “Azoc: Boss of the Fangs!”

“The Fangs of Sandpiper Quarter, where the monsters dwell,” you say. You’re not sure if it’s a question. You don’t know why you said it. You only know that you’ve heard it so much that you can’t not say it at the mention of Fangs.

“The very same,” Ivan tells you. You can hear the smile in his voice You hear how the volume of it changes as he faces away from you, toward the bound Fang Boss Azoc. Ivan sniffs audibly, follows his nose, hands outstretched until they find the obscured face of the masked thing, whispering against the cloth.

The unsettling screams turn to quick, frightened pants. Muffled breaths. For a moment, you thinks you’re the source of them.

“My lieutenants will be well rewarded for your capture,” Ivan says. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, Boss Azoc. Now what sort of monster are you?”

You hear the sack fwoosh off his head. Boss Azoc gasps as the gag is removed. “Boss Ivan,” he growls, “Your Murder of Crows ambushed me in my district! Release me, or you and your gang will suffer—” Azoc chokes on the gag as it’s stuffed back down his throat.

You can smell sweat on Boss Azoc. And blood. You hear your father’s fingers tracing his flesh. There’s a soft rustle.

“It’s got fur, Isora.”

(Hair.)

“What else is there?” you ask.

Boss Ivan feels his way around the edges of Azoc’s eyes, his mouth. “It’s marked itself with strange runes. Doubtless for the purposes of black arts. Dark magic.

(Or perhaps they are wrinkles.)

You hear the slick sound of her father’s fingers sliding through sweat, smell blood on them as they come away from the monster’s head.

“It’s got scales, too.”

(Scabs.)

“It’s like the Nailed God made a dozen creatures from clay and mashed them together in His divine fist. Oh, but to have the Sight now. To see the despair on your face, Boss Azoc.” Ivan pauses, tilts his head, stalks his way round the monster.

“Do you know of the Sight, Boss Azoc? When the perfect culmination of light and color allows us to see as are ancestors did? How many times have you had it? Surely the ailment has afflicted you at least once. And as much as I’d love to stick a blade in your gut…”

You hear your father loosen his blade in its scabbard.

“…I’ve thought of a better use for you.” He stalks over to the table, where the projector sits, waiting. “Imagine if someone could force the Sight on you. Imagine if they had something that filtered through light and color until it found the combination that could color your iris. I hear it’s a form of temporary insanity.”

You hears metal filing against wood as Boss Ivan drags the rough hooks on the back of Azoc’s chair into position. They are corded around the back of the chair, and filed into a point on the end. He inches them slowly forward, until he feels their sharp ends faintly prod his captor. Then he drags them back, touching Azoc’s face, then the hooks, making measurements, until assesses they are in line with his brow. He cannot move his face.

“Man was not meant to see the world in such a way,” Ivan continues. “That’s why the Nailed God sent down the Detonations. Imagine what it would do to a man’s mind if he had fits of insanity forced on him at the whim of his captor.” He seizes Boss Azoc’s face, jerks it toward him and whispers: “I’d advise you keep your eyes open. If you close them I’m going to nail them shut. If I don’t hear a scream, you see, I’ll shove those hooks through your eyes. I’ll know if you’re faking. I know how folk scream when they get the Sight.”

He stalks away from Azoc, toward his device. The way Boss Ivan touches the projector reminds you of the way he used to touch mother: gentle strokes, soft and affectionate.

He flicks it on, and the machine itself moans.

Then it whirs. Then it clanks. Like a trash bin tossed down a flight of stairs.

You do not see the beam of light as it is activated.

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