DargonZine 30, Issue 1

Death Blooms Part 3

Sy 7, 1019 - Sy 9, 1019


This entry is part 3 of 2 in the series Death Blooms

Betrayed and crestfallen, I turn my vengeance to a broader scope. I have been prodded by vile fingers too often and too much. If I need to die to bring pain to Helena, Jayko, and all the rest, I’ll do so gladly. There isn’t a person in Makdiar who is free from the taint of evil. I’d cut it all out if I could. Iniquity will die, but it will suffer so very much before I let it.

 

***

 

Kalen shifted uncomfortably in the cheap chair seated before a desk he’d never seen before, thinking of the terror of the dark bells of this morning, of the blood. This temporary dwelling made him uneasy, as though he couldn’t trust the very shadows that grew from its corners; truthfully, every dark corner and deep crevice shrouded in shadow now put him on a razor’s edge. The weak rays from the descending sun did little to fill this new place with light or comfort. His and Ilona’s home was currently being cleaned of the blood that Jayko, a man with a demented sense of worship toward Saren, had covered it in.

Ilona was tucked away in a room at the back of the house, likely trying and failing to sleep, the horror of the morning plaguing her. She had told him of the shadows that had stolen her consciousness, a dark spell cast by Jayko that engulfed her. Kalen had found her covered in blood, not a single drop of it hers, and bound by rope, screaming through the gag stuffed in her mouth.

Aerimon, who currently sat on the other side of the desk before Kalen, had been mentioned by Jayko while he was still imprisoned. Once Kalen had freed Ilona of her bonds, he’d ordered the guards who had accompanied him to seek out Aerimon, sure that he would be a target as well. He was found unconscious in Helena’s home, runes carved into his cheeks, forehead, and hands.

Kalen gawked at them even now, unable to bring himself to speak although they had only just greeted each other a moment ago. The whole thing, Jayko and his cult, Aerimon’s lacerated face and hands, Ilona’s attack, all seemed so unreal. Things like this did not belong in Makdiar. Kalen would see justice done to the monsters responsible.

“Aerimon, you should wrap your face and hands. If people see that, it will scare them. They could panic even. The guards that found you were terrified. I had Cepero threaten them with a slew of misfortune if they so much as whispered a word of what they found.” Kalen kept his eyes trained on the cuts as he spoke.

“I won’t hide what Jayko and Helena did to me. I’m not taking time off from instructing either.”

Kalen thought that he had dealt with enough insanity to be mostly resistant to surprises. Yet he still couldn’t believe what Aerimon had just said. “You can’t let the Guard see that! They’ll lose it if they think not even you can defend yourself from Jayko.”

Regret immediately welled in Kalen as Aerimon shot him a deadly look. He was going to apologize when Aerimon seethed, “I can kill every single one of those fanatics. I was caught by surprise. The person I fell in love with did this to me, Kalen. Would you not be caught off guard if Ilona had suddenly helped Jayko enspell you?”

The anger in Aerimon’s voice was so obvious that Kalen expected him to smash his fists through the table.

“I’m sorry, Aerimon. I didn’t mean that. I know you could. I just don’t want the men to worry. They won’t like knowing that Jayko was able to get to you.”

“Jayko has pulled me into this, Kalen. I’m as much a part of it as you are. They won’t like it when I just don’t show up. I’ll show them my face and I’ll inspire them to train harder than ever before. What are you going to do? Are you going to hide away?”

Anger burned away Kalen’s better reason and he nearly reached across the table and gripped Aerimon’s collar, regardless of how badly that would certainly end for him. He needed to protect his family, and nothing was more important than that. “I am not hiding, Aerimon. My family needs me here for a while. I won’t be leaving Ilona’s side until I know she is safe.”

“That’s what Jayko wants, Kalen.” Aerimon leaned forward on the table, hissing when his carved up hands pressed against it. “He wants you to leave him alone, to stay behind this door so he always knows right where you are.”

“He doesn’t know where I am, Aerimon. And what about you? You’re going to do exactly what he wants. You’ll go look for him and he’ll lead you along. He left you alive, he carved you up with those symbols, no doubt something that has to do with Saren, and he planted Helena in your life. He’s planned this from the beginning. He wanted to get caught so he could get out and stir up Dargon. He wanted to get the duke involved. He wanted everything that has happened so far, to happen!”

“You don’t think he had someone watching your home last night and all this morning? Someone knows where you were moved to and now he does too. Even if he is just leading me along, I won’t just let him keep on with his plans without fighting back.”

“So you’ll go scour Dargon for him and his cult? Then what? Are you going to kill them all or will you do it right and bring them in?”

“I never said that, Kalen. We both know that he’ll come for me again. He’ll throw me something and I will go after him. I just need to act in a way that he won’t expect. He’s getting what he wants, Kalen. He wants you out of his way and me on his heels so he can lead me into a trap.”

“Then we’ll give him what he wants, Aerimon. I need this to stop. The duke needs it to stop. Dargon needs it to stop. Already they’ve done too much. Jayko’s responsible for six deaths in Dargon!” Kalen took a deep breath to steady himself lest he begin hollering. “I want you to act on whatever it is he gives you, then my men will follow you. You’ll be under our watch day and night until Jayko is caught and given to the duke.”

“And what if he fights back, Kalen?”

“Then we do our best to keep him alive but we don’t go easy. You kill him if you have to. The duke wants him though.”

“And Helena? She is mine, Kalen.”

“You can’t do it that way, Aerimon. She needs to be brought in, too. Who knows what else she’s done? She needs to be questioned and tried. There will be consequences for what she did to you.”

Aerimon was silent for a moment, merely staring at the table before him with anger written plainly in his gaze. He looked up to Kalen and said, “Fine. But I refuse to operate on a tight leash. These bastards deserve bad things. Your duke better give that to them. I’ll swing my sword when I need to, Kalen. We straight?”

Those boundaries were blurry, but they were at least there. Should Kalen have the intensity and passion that Aerimon possessed? Was that his problem and reason for his shortcomings? Was he simply not spirited enough about bringing about the end of the evil in Dargon?

No.

Aerimon wanted it to stop, but he obviously wanted vengeance against all the evil in Dargon, perhaps in all of Makdiar. Kalen wondered what had turned Aerimon into the man he had become. Was it really just the gang’s attack on him three months ago that had sculpted him into what he is?

Aerimon would be a great asset in this, though. He’d be a pivotal weapon in destroying the cult. He needed to be used but he needed some room to remain satisfied, otherwise he’d resort to operating outside the law. Kalen would have to keep a leash on the man without making it apparent he was doing so. He’d have to give up on staying by Ilona’s side, trusting her safety to his men. If all of that was necessary to capture or eliminate Jayko, then Kalen would do it.

“Agreed.”

 

***

 

Jayko lounged in the chair behind his desk staring across it at Helena, a score of candles casting her in shifting degrees of light. She sat quietly, both of them staring into each other’s eyes. It had been over a month since they had seen one another. This morning, they had kept their emotions in check as they worked on Aerimon. They had carved symbols sacred to Saren in his flesh, turning him into a walking icon for the god of suffering. He would certainly do the work of the God of Suffering, and it was obvious that he wanted to.

Once they’d finished and left Aerimon behind, Jayko had introduced his family to Helena, letting them know of her importance in his life. They swooned over her, some with obvious lust and others as though she was a lost mother or sister. Jayko socialized with his family for the remainder of the day, working at their loyalty with his fatherly, charismatic approach, despite his urges to be alone with Helena.

“You’ve grown our family quite a bit, Jayko,” Helena said, her delicate voice drifting between thin lips. “Before I disappeared with Aerimon, we were only four. Now, there’s a dozen people down those stairs who revere you and love Saren.”

Although Jayko had mulled over and reveled in his success several times, hearing Helena praise him caused pride to swell in him. He smiled, then said, “How long has it been since you’ve pleased Saren?”

“Besides Aerimon?”

“Yes. We didn’t do much to him anyway.”

“Since I became his lover.” She smiled in a playful way showing her sarcasm. A pang of jealousy still struck through Jayko as he thought of the things they had done.

“I’ve a present for you tonight then. Before that, though.”

Jayko suddenly stood and shoved the few papers and the journal off his desk. They fell to the floor and Helena’s eyes lit up with a smile. He walked around the desk and grabbed her head with both hands. He pulled her close and kissed her deeply. They writhed against each other, their passion sparking brighter as their flesh touched.

The time apart had been strenuous on Jayko as he was forced to think of her with Aerimon. It was comforting to know that they’d missed each other with equal measure.

Menes passed with them kissing and exploring each other’s body. Jayko moved his hand underneath her dress and ran it between her legs. She moaned and the wetness there caused him to need her more.

Jayko grabbed her thighs with both hands and lifted her onto the desk, her dress lifting up to her stomach, revealing her lower body completely. He stripped his pants off and thrust himself into her. Together, they moaned and trembled with pleasure.

Menes passed until Jayko noticed that Helena’s eyes had remained shut for far too long. He wondered if she was thinking of Aerimon. As soon as the though struck, sex lost its passion and jealous hate filled him. He reached out and grasped her neck with one hand. Her eyes fluttered open and she seemed as though she had been lost until now.

Jayko squeezed, thinking of crushing the adultery from her. Helena smiled at first and moaned through her choked airway. He squeezed even harder still and she winced. Weakly, she raised her hand as though to stop him. He released her then lunged forward to bite her neck. His teeth closed down hard on her flesh and he tasted the faint tinge of blood. He had to restrain himself from drawing too much, or ripping out her arteries.

His senses returned for a brief moment as he glimpsed Saren’s Guise, the mask of the God of Suffering, amidst the other items hanging on his wall. He released her completely, feigning as though he was finished.

Jayko pulled his pants back on and kept his back turned to Helena. Certainly, she would wonder about his odd behavior. Before she could speak, he said, “I’ve missed you terribly, Helena. Let’s go down to the cellar. There’s something for all of us waiting down there.”

He turned around and faced her, a smile on his face. She had stood up from the desk and fixed her mussed hair. She seemed as though she wouldn’t respond for a moment, simply staring at him suspiciously. Then she said, “Of course, my love. I hope you know how much I missed you and how often I thought of you.”

“Of course I do. Come now.”

Jayko put his arm around her shoulders and led her toward the door. He wanted to believe her, but a shred of him still suspected that she had found more pleasure in Aerimon than just in what they had reaped by deceiving him. The surprise he had for her was needed just as much for himself.

Together, they walked out of his room and down the winding staircase. The members of their family looked upon the two with admiration, greeting them enthusiastically. Jayko returned their joy with a grand smile, stopping at the base of the stairs to look out at them.

He spread his arms wide, his smile incessant. “What say you, my children? Are you happy in your home? Do you love one another? Do you love me?”

Eager agreement followed from all assembled.

“As do I. I have something for you. For all of you. Come, please. Follow Helena and me.”

With that, he turned and walked parallel to the staircase to a short hallway at the back of the foyer, certain that his family would be following close behind. A swift turn led them down yet another staircase to a final bend where a man stood before a thick door of iron.

“Athanasi, my son. Great work you and Oberon have done,” Jayko said to the smiling man.

“Thank you, Jayko. Enjoy the suffering.” Athanasi reached out with one tattooed arm and unlocked the door. In the other hand, he held out a case made of leather.

Jayko dipped his head in gratitude as he took the case, then the door swung open, and muffled screams blared out from within the room. Helena tensed, her hand suddenly gripping his with greater force.

The room of brick and stone within was lit poorly by a single sconce bearing a flaming torch. Against one wall was a rack with dozens of torturous things on it: whips, chains, curved knives, hammers, and several other implements whose purpose was less obvious but no less sinister. Perpendicular to that wall there stood two disheveled, dirt-covered men chained to the stone behind them by their ankles, wrists, and necks. Gags wrapped tightly around their heads, stuffing their mouths. Still, they attempted to scream for help, spittle dripping from the corner of their lips. Oberon stood near the rack of implements, hefting a hammer in one hand.

Jayko looked back and forth at each one, maintaining his smile all the while. The rest of his family filed in and he could feel their excitement bristling as a palpable aura. He turned to them and laid his eyes upon each in turn while Athanasi shut the door and locked them within.

“Tonight,” Jayko boomed over the strangled cries of their victims, “is about love, and togetherness. It is about bonding. About growing fonder of the person next to you … There is so much life in death, and you will all see it this very bell.”

Hungrily, his family watched as Jayko strode to the wall of devices and selected a thin blade that reflected the firelight as though it were sheathed in flame. He held the knife out to Helena and motioned her to his side with a toss of his head. She glided across the floor to him and delicately took the blade.

“Come,” Jayko urged the others, “join in the suffering together, my family.”

 

***

 

Aerimon studied the markings in his flesh, the single candle in his room of the Old Guard House casting barely enough glow for him to see by. The scabs and stitches wrapped and wound around his skin in obvious patterns, although they held no meaning for Aerimon. The Esoterics had considered them briefly without discovering any meaning to a single one.

Since Aban’s execution, Aerimon had studied enough about the gods to understand Saren’s natural role in the pantheon; Dargonites asked for understanding and perseverance when dealing with suffering. Jayko and his kind worshiped Saren in a perverted way.

The sudden craving to carve into the skin of evil men surged through him. However, he knew that a guard was stationed immediately outside his door, and that there would always be one with their eyes on him. He didn’t relish the idea of spearheading the cult without help, for they would surely be many, but he knew he wanted their pain to be great. The guard would capture or outright slay them, ending their torturous onslaught of Dargon’s victims painlessly. He needed to corner each one, and make them beg for death the way he’d done to Aban.

But how could he exact his proper revenge with the eyes of the Guard constantly on him? How would the cultists ever receive the punishment they deserved if he wasn’t the one to give it to them?

The flickering candlelight suddenly seemed to light up the shutters covering the window in his room. The portal was wide enough for him to slip through. It was late, not many people would be on the streets to see him, and perhaps any that might wouldn’t care. He stood from his cot and grabbed one of the many blades against his wall, strapped it to his waist, and walked to the shutters.

His hands worked at removing them from the window quietly and precisely. Then, he was struck by a realization. He had been thinking of the evil in Dargon as a single, obvious entity. As though it were a foul demon taller than the largest building and stretched out over Dargon for all to see and touch. In all actuality, it was a network of corrupted veins snaking through the living body of Dargon and even Makdiar as a whole.

Perhaps, if he prodded enough, the foul nectar within the veins would ooze out and reveal itself.

Aerimon continued working on the shutters until he was able to remove them from the window completely. He set them on his cot without so much as a rustle of his bedsheets then looked down at the ground. A distance three times as he was tall separated him from the ground. Obvious foot and handholds could be seen in the brick and stone wall. The street seemed barren of life, not just people; the wind was still tonight and not an animal could be seen nor heard prowling the corners.

Quietly, his focus centered on just one thing, Aerimon lifted himself to the sill and began scaling the wall. His urgency caused him to move quickly in the hope of avoiding any curious eyes and his athletic ability made his swift climb one without incident.

Soon as his feet touched the ground, he was marching along the streets eagerly, albeit without an inkling of where he was headed. Someone other than the guards would certainly be watching over him and would alert others. They’d try to capture him for their demented purpose, and he’d slay each one, slowly.

After menes of patrolling the streets, waiting for evil to present itself, Aerimon grew weary. He ached for wickedness to present itself, so he could eradicate it. To his chagrin, it remained hidden, wrapped up in the world, poisoning it.

Then, an idea came to him. He turned in the direction of Kalen’s temporary home and marched with vigor once more, barely quelling the urge to run. He came upon the area after only a few short menes but stayed several houses away. Cautiously, he walked the streets, scanning each alley and shadow he passed. Infrequently, a person would stroll past him, and each time Aerimon attempted to concoct a vile reason for their being out at night. Never could he convince himself that they truly were evil.

His sword seemed to vibrate in its sheath, his hand fidgeting with the hilt as a drunk might scour an empty bottle to keep their urges from overwhelming them. He’d stalked out into the night to eradicate something evil, and wouldn’t feel satisfied until he’d done so.

A tired man walked past him, wearing the outfit of a farmer and the same stink as well. Given the deep bells of night, no farmer had work to tend to until the morning. This man was a part of Jayko’s cult, keeping his eyes on Kalen and Ilona. Aerimon would rip his spine from his back.

The slow chase lasted only a few moments, however, as the man entered the Shattered Spear. Not once had he turned an eye on Aerimon as he followed him. Aerimon peeked through the window to the dive and watched the farmer take a seat at a table with a few other honest-looking folk, their skin darkened by the sun and arms corded with the muscle that came with such intensive labors day after day.

Disappointed, Aerimon turned from the window and stalked away. He kept his eyes flicking this way and that, seeking out the evil he knew must be here. Nochturon caught his attention and turned his gaze skyward. The blazing moon covered the streets in the shadows from the surrounding buildings and lit up the rooftops.

Aerimon grinned and continued his search, but with a different target. He found a two story building with ledges, molding, and uneven bricks. He cast one last look around and then began his climb. It wasn’t long until he pulled himself up onto the roof. He flattened himself against the ground and crawled to an edge.

Warily, he lifted his head up and peeked over the roof to see Kalen’s small home. All seemed still there, and not a single person walked the streets from where Aerimon looked.

Keeping his head as low as he could, Aerimon scanned the tops or the buildings around him. Empty roof after empty roof greeted him and he sighed. He stood and took in the city below with a higher vantage point.

A figure shifted to Aerimon’s left on a roof two buildings away. It had been hidden, wedged beneath the low wall surrounding the roof until now. Aerimon sprawled immediately and held his breath as if a single exhale would give him away.

There wouldn’t be time to torture this one, although he itched to do so. He’d have to kill them quick and clean; one stab, no sound. A scream would alert the guards likely stationed inside Kalen’s temporary dwelling and dozens more would eventually storm the streets, searching for the source. If he was quiet, he could destroy this one, then continue his hunt for more.

Aerimon slithered back to the side of the building on his stomach. He slipped his legs over the side and his descent. As soon as his feet hit the sill of the door, he leapt, hit the ground, and rolled backward before popping back up to his feet.

The rest happened in a blur. With such a strong will and righteous intention, Aerimon operated like a machine, his purpose being served without any sort of consideration. He darted to the target building and began his ascent.

Quietly, Aerimon pulled himself up the final leg of his climb and dropped into a crouch on the roof. The figure, lying on its stomach with its eyes trained on Kalen’s home, was completely unaware of his presence. He slid a knife from his boot, a blade as long as his hand.

Aerimon swiftly moved across the roof, staying on the balls of his feet. The toe of his boot suddenly struck the roof where it was unevenly made, and he pitched forward, forcing him to stomp his heel down to catch himself.

The figure whirled around, now lying on its back. She held a crossbow aimed directly at him. The twang of the weapon sounded and the bolt leapt at Aerimon. Burning pain lanced through his thigh as the bolt scored his flesh then slid free and clattered to the roof.

Aerimon fell to one knee, just an arm’s length from the woman. He reached out and grabbed her ankle then pulled with all his might, his vision red. She slid toward him, scrambling to get away and clear the long sword at her waist.

The pain in Aerimon’s leg seemed to vanish as he sprang forward. The woman suddenly opened her mouth wide in shock and screamed, “Aerimon!” The word devolved into a ragged cry halfway through that rang out across the night.

Steel split flesh, shattered bone, then plunged deep through her heart. Aerimon watched as the light of life left the woman’s eyes. He smiled as she expired, until he realized …

“Amara,” he whispered, his face pinching into a pained visage of what it should be as he scrutinized her, hoping he was wrong. His hope evaporated as quickly as it had come. He knew who’s eyes he stared into. He’d trained her just a sennight ago. This woman was a guard, obviously charged with keeping watch over Kalen’s home.

He staggered away from the body as though it had suddenly surged to its feet, his blade sliding free of its chest. The pain in his thigh coupled with the realization of what he’d just done caused his muscles to turn to water. His knees struck the roof hard, but he barely felt it. His mouth hung slack, but breath failed to reach his lungs. He was paralyzed.

A cry from below shocked Aerimon back to the present, flooding his body with strength once again. A tear escaped his eye as he rose. Someone had heard Amara’s scream. He turned and fled, lest the guards that were certainly on their way find him and discover what he’d done.

The journey back was arduous and Aerimon remained wary of running into any guards as his pants were stained with blood, jumping at shadows and the slightest hints of movement, a cold sweat soaking him. His thoughts, however, were stolen by his murder of good. He was convinced that he was now a part of the evil of Dargon, stuck in the veins that pumped poison into Makdiar.

The climb to his room was terribly painful. He was slowed by his injury but fear of being spotted made him continue quickly. Before him, was his room, the candle within snuffed out. Suddenly, he stopped.

Aerimon looked into his room but was ripped from reality by introspection. Shouldn’t he end his own life for the vileness he had done? He was so very passionate about the death of evil, and now he had a chance to remove more of it from the world. He should just let go, let himself fall and his life spill out onto the ground below.

One hand came free of the ledge. A gust of wind picked at him, caressing his body away from the wall, advocating his suicide. No pain affected him at this time. He felt utterly free and peaceful.

A holler stopped him, caused his fingers to clamp onto the ledge again. He looked down to see two men walking along the street, their eyes forward and unaware of his presence on the wall. He quickly pulled himself into the room, his previous thoughts forgotten for the moment.

He wondered if the pieces of tonight would be put together and if he’d be found out. Would someone stumble upon his injury and figure it out? He hoped that didn’t happen, for someone needed to make Jayko and his cult suffer until they all begged for death.

Aerimon needed to end them before the urge to end himself became too great. He needed to find an outlet for his hatred before it became too much for him to bear. Hurling his body through the open window to shatter on the stone below would certainly bring the release he needed. However, sinking his blade into Jayko and every member of his cult would be far more satisfying.

 

***

 

Jayko sat with Helena at his side, overlooking the Coldwell from a bench along the pier. People walked past them, oblivious to the murder and torture they had committed, unaware that Jayko would spill their blood in an instant if the whim affected him and he could escape. Today, luckily for them, wasn’t about his own immediate pleasures.

Helena reached out and stroked his arm, pulling his love and his eyes toward her. “What are you thinking about, Jayko?” As she spoke, her long, red wig swayed in the light breeze. The day was far from reaching its midpoint, the heat bearable at this time.

“You know that thing is obviously fake up close?”

Helena lightly ran her fingers through her fake hair. “Yes. It doesn’t need to do much other than fool someone at a distance. And even then, it is only in case I run across Aerimon.”

Although citizens moved behind them, Jayko was sure that they kept their voices low enough and were never in such close proximity as to give their conversation away. “About him … It is time to reel him in. Something happened yesterday, Helena. I’ve been so encapsulated by it ever since.”

Stars leapt from Helena’s eyes, begging him to continue, to divulge his fantastic secrets. “Well?” she said after he kept her waiting too long.

“I was wearing the Guise of Saren, contemplating my purpose and our direction as I do often. This time was different. I felt something, and heard things. Something screamed in my ears, Helena. It was Saren’s tormented voices. Messages came to me. The voices didn’t make words but I felt things and now I know what must be done.”

Jayko fell silent, letting Helena stew, her anticipation swelling to the point of bursting. She shifted restlessly then pleaded, “Jayko, don’t keep me in the dark, dammit!”

She was smiling as she shook his shoulder. It was so very enjoyable to be in her company at times, the thought bringing a pang of sadness that he quickly relinquished.

“Saren allowed me an epiphany. Aerimon is strong-willed and his purpose is obvious: to destroy evil. Well, we’ve discovered that he wants more than that, he wants terrible pain for the vile people of Makdiar. He’d never worship Saren the way we do.

“Our family is large but we are lacking still. Most of the others are simply angry men and women with a vendetta and no way to do anything about it. They want to know that someone will condone and assist them when it comes time for payback. Still, they aren’t like us. I’ve taken more lives here in Dargon than all of them combined. Aerimon has even killed more than our little family has. He is exactly like us. He’ll fight tooth and nail to keep from becoming one of us.”

Helena looked at him askance. “So what are you saying? That we just leave the family? Give up on them completely and then what?”

“At this rate, we will be found out and taken soon enough. It isn’t enough to just trust them; that will never be well-placed faith. We need to leave Dargon altogether, but with Aerimon, and a maybe a few of the others if they show they’re worthy.”

Helena scoffed, then said, “You can’t just take him, Jayko. If you leave him alive and capture him, he will find a way to kill you. He’s too good not to do it.”

Jealousy engulfed Jayko, but only for a moment. He banished his emotions, secure in the idea that surely no man was a better murderer than he. “That is not my plan. I’ve taken control of people plenty of times. The spell is just a temporary compulsion that forces them to adopt the wants of a torturer. Aerimon does not need any prodding to hurt, he just needs his aim adjusted. There’s a plague growing in me, Helena, and I’m going to spread it throughout all of Dargon.”

The horrified look on Helena’s face surprised Jayko. How could she be disgusted by anything he did? He had seen her and helped her remove every piece of a person until they were hardly recognizable as ever being a living thing. Perhaps he just needed to quit leading her along for the big surprise and just let it be known.

“After my vision, I created something that burrowed deep within me. It will absorb what I am, bringing me near to death. And then it will leave me. It will engulf Dargon in a mist of hate, turning its citizens against one another. And Aerimon will be at the epicenter of it all, absorbing the hatred just like all the others.”

“Why must we include Aerimon? I know he has contributed to our cause already and that he is a good asset, but he is dangerous, Jayko. You’ve no idea how much he wants us dead. Maybe we should just use it elsewhere.”

“I have to be alive when the plague leaves my body, otherwise both it and I will perish. I can’t hold it within much longer before it consumes me completely, but it still is not yet ready. Besides, Aerimon is nearly there. He just needs a little push. And once he’s tipped over the edge completely, I will have created Makdiar’s most fearsome monster.”

 

***

 

Since Kalen had awoken this day, he’d had a hellish day. The sounds of groaning had awoken him bells before daybreak, Ilona in obvious pain next to him. She was suffering from terrible cramps. In the darkness, he had left and banged on the door of the midwife he’d enlisted until her husband came to the door with a spear. He quickly rid himself of the weapon once he realized the captain of the guard was in his doorway.

The midwife had walked with him, grumbling the whole time. She checked on Ilona, being thorough as far as Kalen could tell although she was still quite disgruntled. “They’re early, but it is just normal cramping. Everything is fine. She’s still bearing a child. I’m going back home.”

After the angry woman left, Kalen wasn’t allowed the sweet comfort of sleep. He had massaged Ilona’s back, fixed her some hot tea, and rubbed her feet. It all helped but she still moaned against the pain in her stomach.

Kalen was content with just staying home today, taking care of his miserable wife. Cepero, however, interrupted that plan by unexpectedly showing up at his door.

“Captain, Amara was watching from atop the roof last night. Someone found her this morning.” The worry that creased Cepero’s face was enough to cause a pang of alarm to surge through Kalen. However, Ilona groaned loud enough for Cepero to hear her. He looked around Kalen’s shoulder and asked, “Is that Ilona?”

Kalen snapped then frowned at Cepero. “Sergeant, get back to Amara. Ilona is fine; just cramps.”

“Straight. Sorry, sir. She was murdered last night. A single blade thrust through her chest.”

Had his jawbone not been intact, his chin would have crashed down to the floor. How did Jayko’s cultists find her up there? Why would they go after the guards defending his home and then not go after him next? It didn’t make any sense. They wanted him, not the others.

Cepero said, “I’m sorry, Kalen.”

Kalen shook his head and mumbled, “It doesn’t make sense. Why would they do that? Just one stab: a quick death. No. No this doesn’t make any sense at all.”

“Perhaps they were coming for you next, but something else scared them off. Maybe they are just sending a message — that they’re coming. Perhaps it was only just to harm you further, sir.”

Although the reasoning was sound, a worm of doubt continued to wriggle in Kalen’s guts. He was exhausted, he knew, and likely not thinking straight, seeing as how he hadn’t considered what Cepero offered before now. There was simply an odd yearning to investigate Amara’s death further, to discover something hidden.

He wanted to climb the building that Amara had been stationed atop last night to find her sitting there behind a crossbow, alive and well. He knew that wouldn’t be the case, even if he couldn’t accept it yet.

Kalen suddenly realized that he was blaming himself for her death. That was the reason for his not seeing the reason behind it and not wanting to accept it; if she truly was dead, then he would be at fault for her death. “Cepero, does her family know?”

“Not yet, sir. Her body was only just taken back to a station. It’ll be prepared a little then we’ll inform the family.”

“She lived with her parents still, right?”

“Just her mother and sister. Her father died in the causeway collapse.”

The agony saturating his chest deepened, another spike sliding slowly into his torn and bleeding heart.

“I’m going to be the one to tell them.”

“Captain, that isn’t necessary. You have other things to do. We will have someone else take care of that part.”

“Do you know where she lived?”

“Straight. It’s not far from here …” Cepero trailed off, wincing.

“Take me.”

“Sir …”

“Now.”

Reluctantly, Cepero relented. He sighed, then turned and began leading Kalen away. The three guards waiting around outside tried to fall in with the pair but Kalen barked at them to go watch his home. They scurried away to their positions.

Now, Kalen was marching behind Cepero, preparing a speech that wouldn’t ever sound right. Nothing he could say would be sufficient to ease any kind of pain.

Your daughter, sister, died last night protecting me from murderers and torturers. She gave her life to ensure that mine wasn’t taken by a group of people unfit to live, let alone affect any other person on Makdiar. What matters is that I’m safe. She did her duty.

Why would any of that make a difference? The small family he was going to speak with was going to be cut down to just two. He wondered if this was a mistake.

“We’re here.” Cepero said.

Kalen snapped from his reverie, forgot his half-hearted speech. He hesitated for a moment, staring at the small home for a while. Finally, he strode forward and rapped his knuckles against the door.

Already, he was feeling the odd sensation of slipping free of his body, floating away toward the sky.

Clicks sounded as a lock was thrown and then the door opened inward, revealing an elderly woman in a dress and apron with a rag hanging from her shoulders. She came up short, the door swinging free of her weak grasp and her mouth stuck half open.

“Morning, ma’am.” Kalen inclined his head and managed a weak smile.

She was silent for a while, looking back and forth between Kalen and Cepero. Then she demanded, “What happened? Is Amara alright?”

Kalen was sure that he had come loose from the moors of his body. He took a deep breath in an attempt to reaffirm his focus and then saw Amara’s sister standing idly inside the home, eagerly awaiting his words. Keeping them in suspense was torturous in itself and he forced the words out despite the threat of collapse plaguing him.

“Last night, Amara was stationed to watch over my home.” The words flowed from him seemingly of their own accord. “I’m so sorry. She was murdered. I … There aren’t words …” He trailed off, feeling like a monster for sounding so monotone, lost for not having the words to express himself.

Amara’s mother turned and fled back inside as though she could escape the harsh reality Kalen presented her with, sobbing and then falling to the floor in a heap. She lay on her side, her hands wrapping her head and sliding along her face as she succumbed to hysteria. Kalen wanted to help her, but all he could do was stand with his mouth agape, his body paralyzed.

Cepero brushed past Kalen and draped himself over the woman, taking her hands in one of his and stroking her hair.

The other woman suddenly gained a burst of mobility as she stomped up to Kalen. He blinked in the face of her wet eyes and bared teeth. Tears fled down her cheeks as she growled, “Why can’t you do your damn job!? You can’t save a single person from a thing.” She sucked in a deep breath through clenched teeth, then screamed, “You’re worthless!”

She then turned and ran to her mother. She shoved Cepero away and they sobbed together, holding each other in a tight embrace. Both Cepero and Kalen stood there, in shock, watching the grief of a family of only two now.

Kalen suddenly felt the full weight of Amara’s death fall upon him. It blanketed him like a filthy, sticky sheet, clinging to his flesh then seeping into his soul. He needed to leave, to get away from this heart-wrenching scene before he lost himself to depression. His body refused to move, or perhaps he wasn’t controlling it right. Perhaps he was asking it to do things in a way that his body didn’t understand. Perhaps he had forgotten how his body and mind acted together.

Finally, after watching the family mourn for a moment, he rigidly turned and marched away. He felt awkward, walking as he did, certain he was actually watching everything happen from above himself. Surely, he didn’t control his own body. He was more assured of this when his knees suddenly failed him, first one then the other.

The street pummeled his knees but the pain abated immediately. Instead, he felt surreal emotional hurt. Why couldn’t he do his job? Duke Dargon had told him he needed to succeed, that failure was not an option. The people of Dargon believed in Kalen and put their safety in his hands. He’d let all of them down.

Tears swam in his eyes and he let them fall, unashamed of his public display of emotion, completely ashamed of his failures.

 

***

 

Aerimon was walking back to his apartment after having canceled training for the guards. Before he even went, he’d known there’d be no work for him this day; the death of a guard was enough to warrant that. Had he simply not gone, however, suspicions could have been raised. Going to the Old Guard House and having to feign ignorance at hearing the news of Amara’s passing pumped Aerimon’s heart with such self-hatred that he’d had to slide the back of his knuckles along the blade of his sword once he’d managed to get away from others, lest he take the weapon to his throat.

I’ll make your death worth it, he thought. I’ll kill every single person in that thrice-damned cult.

Blood seeped from the split flesh on the back of his knuckles. He was staring at the shimmering crimson even now as he strolled down an alley just a stone’s throw from the Old Guard House. A delicate voice whispered his name from above and he whipped his head skyward, dropping into a crouch in case he needed to burst to the side. Over the side of the roof, staring down upon Aerimon, was the face of a demon.

Quickly he realized the person standing atop the roof wore a mask, the same one Helena had donned the morning she’d carved symbols into his body.

How dare she be so bold? He would climb up to the roof and leap atop her and break her bones until she died for what she had done before, and for the clever confidence she displayed even now. She felt safe from him, he knew: as if he were a kitten, incapable of hurting her. Her smugness infuriated him to no end and not a shred of the love and affection he once felt for her remained to dull his bloodlust.

Before he could fulfill his desires, the mask slid away and revealed a man with tattoos spinning up his neck, arms, and down the exposed part of his chest between the V of his shirt. “If you want Jayko and Helena, follow me. You break into a run, I don’t take you. I’ll be on the other side of this building walking down the street by the time you come around. Oh, and I don’t want you breathing down my neck. Straight?”

The urge to clear his blade, leap, and cleave through the man’s ankles was almost too strong for Aerimon to keep in check. He took a calming breath, however, and centered his focus and hatred. He didn’t care if a hundred arrows were aimed his way when he walked into whatever dwelling his guide took him to. To be within their midst was all he craved, and the rest would surely follow. Today would end with him standing over her bloodied and tattered corpse, along with Jayko’s and as many of the other cultists as he could run his blade through.

Aerimon nodded to the vile creature. “Straight.”

 

***

 

Kalen’s heart thumped against his chest. He’d followed Aerimon all morning in the hope that he would be there to witness Jayko making contact with him and had just watched his interaction with the masked man. The latter slipped away from the edge of the roof and Aerimon rigidly began to make his way around the building. Quickly, he assumed a more natural posture, but Kalen was without doubt that he’d just run across one of Jayko’s cultists.

He took off like a bow shot, doubling back and sprinting a wide path that kept at least one block from both of the men, calculating where he would pick up their trail. After this morning, suffering from the pain of Amara’s death and her family’s loss, Kalen took to watching Aerimon himself. He knew they were going to reel him back in, and he was just in time. Amara’s death would prove to be worth something then. Her sacrifice had prodded him to do the job himself, and now, he’d be responsible for eradicating the vile creatures that were Jayko and his cult.

Citizens gawked at Kalen as he ran as fast as he could, worry crossing their faces as they recognized the captain of the guard and saw the frantic state he was in. While passing through a final intersection, he glimpsed Aerimon one last time as the latter disappeared behind a building wall on Murson Street. The Old Guard House loomed ahead, and he put his head down as he pounded toward it.

He got to the steps of the Old Guard House then bounded up them in two leaps. He slammed the doors open and hollered, “I need armed guards now! Anyone with a blade get your ass to me! We’re going after Jayko. Stay quiet and keep back a hundred paces from me unless we start turning down alleys. Don’t lose me but the gods help you, if you give us away I will beat you senseless. Move!”

Kalen ducked back out of the building intent on picking back up on Aerimon’s trail before he lost him. He vaulted out and onto the street and sprinted to the middle of the road just in time to see Aerimon turn an alley, a dozen armed and now bloodthirsty guards in his wake.

 

***

 

Not once did Aerimon’s heart slow its staccato beat. Nor did the blood pumping through him release anything but hatred into his body. He felt like a wolf whose cage had been opened after being starved and beaten for months. A morsel hung before him, but an entire meal would be his to claim if he could maintain his patience. Such was an almost impossible task.

He noticed when they passed the alley that hid the room where he had tortured the man, Aban. His urges began to win out against his patience; he used a thumb to begin sliding the blade at his hip from its sheath. He increased his pace, closing the distance between himself and the tattooed man.

His guide abruptly turned down an alley. Aerimon was still ten paces from the corner and stopped. He thought of the times he and Helena had spent together, of the false love she had shown him, how she had made him love her. The horrors Jayko had committed to others, and the certainty that he and Helena were lovers crossed his mind, reaffirming the focus of his hatred for them. He collected himself, certain that he was near Jayko and Helena as well. He’d exact revenge on both of them.

Aerimon turned the corner, his mind blank, his body ready to react to the slightest danger. They left the alley and moved back onto the street. He almost lost himself to rage again at the thought that he was leading him astray to toy with him. They rounded a final bend and Aerimon found him standing still, twenty paces away with his hand on an open door.

He went inside and the door remained open. Aerimon reached into his boot and pulled out a short, thin dagger. He held it with the blade running along his forearm and kept his arm close to his side. He stalked forward, wary of the rooftops and corners. The open threshold loomed like the yawning maw of a massive monster, eager to devour its prey. Aerimon slipped through it knowing full well that his chances of returning from this hell hole were slim.

The room inside was well lit, despite their being no windows. An abundance of torches and candles bathed the dozen people standing around in flickering light, casting hundreds of wavering shadows across the floor and walls. Helena stood among them. The sight of her caused a pit to open in his stomach, but he still moved forward to dismantle her.

Motion from the corner of his eye had Aerimon ducking. A wooden club sailed over his head and he pivoted toward his attacker. Aerimon used his dagger as an extension of his hand as he threw a punch that sailed over the man’s shoulder. The blade bit into flesh though, ate the man’s windpipe and devoured arteries. The man fell back, gasping and gurgling.

Aerimon spun back around to find a room inert. The assembled people looked at him with dumb half-smiles stuck to their faces. Jayko walked out from a room on the second floor and came to stand on the balcony with his hands resting on the railing. He was sweating, his eyes sunken with deep bags below them and his flesh pale. He seemed as though he’d fall over and die any moment.

Jayko smiled weakly then croaked, “Hello, Aerimon. I see you have come to join my family.”

Aerimon made to reply but then Jayko extended his hand and swirling shadows leapt from his palm, descending on him. He remembered those terrible things and knew that he couldn’t let them engulf him. No, he needed to keep from their grasp if he was to kill them. He dove forward and tried to roll beneath the shadows as they fell upon him.

 

***

 

Slowly, awareness returned. It was as if he was pressing his body through a space much too tight for him to fit through. After menes of struggling, the sides of the hole began to grow soft, and a thick fog fell upon him when he finally inched past it. He was free to move forward now, but the fog still clung to him, his body moving lazily. And then, in a rush, he came back to the world.

Aerimon lay on a floor, his cheek and hip sore from pressing against the wooden planks. He sat upright as if the floor had sprouted thorns. He was on his feet but the world rocked back and forth violently. His vision swam, showing blurred visions of several people, one sitting in a chair.

Stumbling, he found a wall and leaned against it, his eyes shut. A short time later, Aerimon remembered what had happened and where he was, the amnesia caused by his sleep dissipating. His eyes snapped open and his vision had cleared enough so that he could see Jayko sitting in a chair, Helena behind his right shoulder and two other men to his left.

None of them were armed, as far as he could tell. Jayko seemed afflicted by some disease, his flesh pasty and sagging, eyes sunken and yellow. He leapt forward, intent on strangling Jayko once he realized that his blade was missing.

Jayko hollered, “Wait! I’m not fighting you, Aerimon. Go ahead, do whatever you want.”

Aerimon stopped, just two bounds from Jayko, and followed his pointed finger to the case on the floor near the chair. He looked to the people standing behind Jayko, keeping his gaze fixed on Helena a little longer, hoping that she understood how much he wanted her in that chair too.

“First,” Aerimon growled as he burst forward.

As the man he leapt at pulled a short sword from behind his back, Aerimon pumped his knee up then lashed out with a front kick that caught his target in the chest and slammed him hard into the wall.

Jayko’s hand clamped down on Aerimon’s arm as he turned toward Helena, intent on shattering her thigh with a leg kick. “I’ll kill this entire city, Aerimon!” he boomed.

Aerimon stared daggers at Helena for a brief moment before turning to Jayko, relishing in the wheezing coughs and groans coming from the man he’d kicked, now slumped on the floor. He whirled on Jayko, rolling his arm in a short circle and reversing the position Jayko once held. His opposite hand shot up, collided with the back of Jayko’s, then forced down. A loud snap reverberated through the room and announced a clean break of Jayko’s wrist.

The madman cried out in surprise then sucked in a ragged breath.

“Don’t touch me, Jayko,” Aerimon seethed. As Jayko calmed himself, slowing his breathing and closing his eyes as Aerimon might while he meditated, Aerimon continued, “Now, what do you mean the entire city?”

“There’s a plague inside me,” Jayko groaned. He seemed upset with himself suddenly, spitting then shaking his head roughly. When he continued, he seemed completely calm, as though his hand wasn’t currently hanging limp before his chest. “Either I release it and it absorbs Dargon, filling the people it touches with an insatiable hatred. They’ll rip at each other. The farmers, fishermen, the Doravin, even the guards. They’re won’t be anything left of the town afterward.”

“Or?” Aerimon asked.

“Or you absorb it all yourself, Aerimon. It’s your choice.”

There it was, then — the price for his wrongdoing. Gerald’s death, Amara’s, Aban’s torture, all of it added up to this consequence. This was how he would repay Kalen, the Guard, the duke, and all of Dargon. All of Aerimon’s self-hate, doubt, and fear came to a head. He knew his answer before he even processed the full import of what would befall him. Jayko would hurt for what he had done, though.

Silently, he turned to the case.

 

***

 

Kalen stood behind the men and women of the Town Guard. The door to Jayko’s cult was before them. Kalen had just a mene ago seen Aerimon enter the building. He had then doubled back, meeting with his guardsmen and informing them of the situation. They were going into a home that was at least two stories, flat rooftops with the possibility of people on top, most-likely magic users inside. Each person had a crossbow in their hands.

Cepero and Tesky stood before the door, eager to bust it in; they’d checked the handle earlier to find it locked. Derik Pendan and nine others stood next to Kalen, at the ready; among them were Alan Jyphis, a sergeant, and Westerly, a skilled bowman. Kalen began whispering, “One, two, three …”

As Tesky lifted his leg, ready to kick the door in, Kalen stared in anticipation of the crash that would come from the splintering wood. The crack, however, came far too soon. Tesky’s foot was still a handspan from the door when a bolt slammed into his skull and crashed through it. Blood burst from the back of his head, the tip of the bolt following. Tesky staggered backward, falling.

Kalen screamed, “Get that door open!” Cepero slammed his foot into the door but it didn’t crack or give. Alan then kicked the door and it splintered. Westerly held a crossbow aimed at the rooftop and fired it when a woman’s head popped up. Her head jerked back and then she slipped from the roof and crashed down onto the street with the grace of a potato sack. Cepero gave the door another kick and it snapped open, the molding bursting.

Cepero fired his crossbow and charged in. A bolt came back out, sped past Cepero’s head, nearly clipped Alan’s shoulder, then ricocheted off a building wall. The other guards followed suit, rushing in and firing their weapons then pulling out swords. Kalen was the last to enter.

 

***

 

Aerimon had only just started when the noise began. A fight had ensued outside the room and downstairs. He heard the sounds of crossbows firing, men and women shrieking as they fought and died.

Helena slapped one of the two men in the room on the shoulder, saying, “Go help them. Don’t let anyone up here.”

As they hustled out of the room, Jayko smirked and said, “Looks like Athanasi brought extra friends. Go ahead, Aerimon.” Jayko’s eyes had taken on a slight red glow that was far from natural, adding a demonic aura to his diseased complexion. Aerimon ignored whatever maladies affected the madman and went about his work methodically.

The case was open and Aerimon was holding a pair of pliers. He tossed those into the case and came back with a small, sharp blade. He placed it along Jayko’s arm and forgot how to breathe, so enraptured by the thrill that filled him. He wanted to see the agony on this murderer’s face before he sacrificed himself. Nothing else but his pain should be a part of this moment.

He sliced, flesh split open, blood flowed, and Jayko winced. Immediately after, he smiled and his eyes looked as though they were burning with madness and life. Aerimon flicked his wrist and the blade caught Jayko’s cheek.

Helena started forward but then stopped when Jayko lifted his hand. “Don’t worry, my love. He could do far worse. Besides, this is what he needs to join our family.”

“I’ll never be a part of you!” Aerimon growled as he used the blade like a spike and drove it through Jayko’s hand, pinning it to the armrest of the chair. Jayko cried out for a moment but then his scream turned to a ragged laugh and he smiled up at Aerimon.

“You don’t have that choice any longer, Aerimon!” he hissed. “Time is running out, though. You need to hurry.” As he spoke, his skin began to roll as though something squirmed beneath it.

Then, the door burst open, and Aerimon realized that the racket outside had paused just moments before. Kalen stood in the doorway, a bloody sword gripped in a blood-covered fist.

Aerimon was stuck in place, unsure of whether he should tell Kalen what was truly happening. He believed the words Jayko had said and knew he didn’t have another choice if he was going to be able to live with himself. If he fled now, he’d likely get away, but at an enormous cost to Dargon, to Kalen.

Kalen stepped forward and asked, “Aerimon, what is happening here?”

Two other guards entered the room to stand behind Kalen and Aerimon could see several more still outside the room. Likely, even more were down the stairs, worrying with captives and dead people.

Aerimon turned and looked at Jayko. “I have to kill him, Kalen. I wanted him to hurt, to beg for death. That won’t happen, but I still need to kill him.”

“That isn’t how things are going to happen, Aerimon. We are taking him to the duke and he’ll be put to death, but that isn’t your job. Do you hear me, Jayko? All of your family are dead or in chains.”

Jayko smiled then said, “So take me in to the duke.” He seemed so very comfortable with his words although they meant his death.

“No!” Aerimon barked. “Kalen, dammit, there isn’t time to explain.” Jayko seemed to be losing conscious at this very moment. Surely he’d slip into the afterlife and whatever was within him would come flooding out over Dargon. “I’m sorry, for what I’ve done and the pain I’ve caused. I only ever wanted things to be right. I just lost sight of what was moral and what made me feel good. I see that now.”

“If you’ve done something wrong, we can find a way to fix that,” Kalen pleaded. “You don’t need to do this, Aerimon. There is a way out for you.”

“No. There isn’t.”

Aerimon suddenly gripped the spike impaling Jayko’s hand and wrenched it from the armrest. Jayko’s eyes fluttered open for a moment, showing pools of glowing red void of any other color, and he took a pained gasp. Aerimon slammed the spike down between his eyes, shattering his skull and ruining the brain matter beneath.

“Aerimon, stop!” Kalen cried far too late.

Helena screamed.

The guards rushed forward, Kalen at their lead.

Then, the room exploded in a violent flash of crimson.

Aerimon briefly glimpsed Jayko’s body erupt through the blinding light. The explosion suddenly turned inward on itself and shaped into a writhing column of black and red. The runes carved into Aerimon’s flesh flared with a heat that caused him to scream out in pain. Surely, his arms had been cleaved from his body and his cheekbones grinded away.

Darkness swallowed him and he opened his eyes to find that he was alone. The column that originated from Jayko’s destruction suddenly appeared, now a squirming creature of unholy light, dancing in anticipation like a snake might waver back and forth. It struck, and Aerimon’s mind swelled as another sentience pushed its way past and then stabbed into his own, merging the two together with horrendous force.

Colors splashed before him, bearing him away from the plane of nothingness and back to the room where he had watched Jayko die. He suddenly felt as though he took up too much space. He felt cumbersome, as though he was constantly squeezing through a passage far too tight for his body to fit through. He lifted his head, realizing he was on his hands and knees, and saw Jayko’s corpse in the chair, a hole in his head. His body, however, bore not a single mark of the infestation that was growing within him. He seemed nothing more than a normal corpse, and Aerimon knew that nothing he could say would make anyone believe what had truly happened.

Pain blasted him, painting the inside of his skull with thorns while his brain swelled and turned, torn to shreds. Once his senses returned from the realm of agony enough for him to comprehend his surroundings at least a little, he realized he was screaming. He jerked his head around to find the thing drilling into his skull and found that Kalen was standing over him, the captain’s hand resting on his shoulder.

Kalen reeled backward as Aerimon surged to his feet, a spike still in his hand. He brought it up over his head and nearly brought it down in an attempt to dig the pain out. He was stopped as he caught sight of Helena, standing awestruck. Immediately, he vaulted forward and put six holes in her body and one in her head. With each strike, the pain in his mind abated until finally, he was no longer screaming.

Her corpse fell to the floorboards and he whirled around, his mind still itching as though the agony threatened to return lest he continue putting holes in the people around him. Power flooded through him, and he nearly spoke alien words to a spell that would have leveled every man and woman in the room, but he resisted it, a fresh wave of pain searing his insides. The guards in the room seemed ready to turn and bolt at any moment. Kalen would certainly keep them from doing so, however, so he knew he needed to make his escape now.

Aerimon sprinted for the door and Kalen burst forward to intercept him. Aerimon managed to drop the spike gripped in his hand, but not before engaging in a wrestling match with his own mind to do so. A large part of him screamed that he needed to keep the spike and use it on the others. He was glad he’d dropped it, however, because Kalen swung his blade, aimed for Aerimon’s head. He slid beneath the sword, reaching out with one hand and catching Kalen’s boot to pull him off balance and send him stumbling into a handful of other guards.

As the others struggled to reach Aerimon, he sprang up and continued on his path. Several armed men and women stood outside the door he was running toward, their blades poised to strike. He screamed as he rushed forward, feigning devotion to his charge. He halted his sprint as he nearly came within their reach. Two blades cut down at him and came up short. He burst forward again, leaping into the air as he crossed the threshold of the door. He pulled his legs in, avoiding another sweeping blade and then kicked out at one woman as she made to stab at him. His heel collided with her chest and she stumbled backward to slam into the railing around the balcony. A twinge of relief washed over him when he hurt the woman, as though he’d suffered a burn on his finger then submerged it in ice water.

The pain wracking him had nearly been enough to debilitate him. Somehow, inflicting suffering on another eased his own. He wondered about that briefly in the small space of time he was allowed during his escape, and was immediately terrified at what that meant for the remainder of his life.

As he came down, he rolled, avoiding yet another sweeping blade and another that stabbed down into the floor just next to his ear. He sprang up, grabbed the railing of the stairs, and leapt again. This time, his hand on the railing kept him from jumping too far and he swung back toward the balcony. He let go as a blade crashed down into the railing.

Aerimon gripped the balcony for a moment, arresting his descent, but then let go and continued his fall. He hit the floor hard and rolled backward over one shoulder and to his feet. He spun and saw that one guard blocked the exit. He ran for it, slowing just a bit before coming to the guard. The guard eased up, expecting Aerimon to come up short and engage him, but Aerimon bolted forward and slammed his shoulder into the man’s stomach as he brought his sword up. The gasp of surprise and pain from the guard restored Aerimon’s vitality and he hated himself for enjoying the man’s pain so much.

Both men went down in a tangle of arms and legs in the street outside. Aerimon arched his back and bridged his hips upwards, throwing the man from him. He got to his feet and fled.

He didn’t know where he would run to, but his first instinct was back to Aubrite Keep. Immediately he quashed the idea; he wasn’t the same person, he was a stain upon the world, and to return to such an innocent place would defile it. He needed to find a void in the world where he could hide away from the light, a place to bring other predators and turn them to prey.

“Hello, Aerimon.” The disembodied voice that rang out sent a vibration through Aerimon’s spine. There was no mistaking the owner of that voice, either. Jayko was inside him now, as much a part of him as his own soul was. His sense of self was immediately perverted beyond repair. “I didn’t think you could resist me like you’ve done. You will break, though. And when you do, this world will tremble from what we do to it. We have so much power together. And we will show Makdiar the heights of true agony.”

As long as he lived, so too would that bastard. Laughter, loud enough to be thunder roaring from the heavens, rebounded within Aerimon’s head and he put every bit of his willpower toward drowning it out as he fled. His efforts, he immediately discovered, were completely in vain.

 

***

 

Kalen stood in his office with his arm posted against the wall, his head leaning heavily against his forearm. He worked his fingers through the air as though kneading dough, anxious for relief. The Guard had scoured the streets for bells, him among them, and had found nothing of Aerimon. If they didn’t do so soon, they likely never would.

“Godsdammit!” Kalen growled, his anger mounting. He leaned back and brought his fist up to slam it into a bookshelf to his side but stopped cold. Cepero stood in his open doorway, which he hadn’t even heard open in the first place.

Cepero shifted uncomfortably before asking, “Should I come back later, captain?”

Kalen slowly spun and placed his back against the bookshelf, shaking his head.

“The execution of those we captured is going to take place soon. Duke Dargon wants you there. I, for one, wouldn’t mind watching them hang.”

“Why?” Kalen asked plainly although he didn’t expect an answer to his vague question.

“Sir?”

“Why did they do all that? Why do we need to watch them die? Why should I give a damn about that?”

Cepero remained silent beneath Kalen’s misplaced ire.

“Cepero, I don’t want to see anyone die. I want to see a place where people stop doing that to one another! I know asking for that is a ridiculous notion, but I can’t help it. I just … How did Adrunian deal with all this when was captain of the guard and keep his life together?”

Before Cepero could offer an answer, Ilona slipped into Kalen’s office, feigning as though she hadn’t heard a thing although she must have. Cepero whirled around at the sound of her approach, tense. It was plain to see how this whole ordeal had affected everyone. He deflated at the sight of her and even managed a smile.

“You’re looking fantastic, Ilona,” he offered as he moved in to give her a quick hug.

“Yeah?” she replied as they embraced. “Well, I feel absolutely terrible.” Her smile begged to differ.

Cepero chuckled then said, “I’ll leave you two alone for a moment.”

As he ducked out of the office, Kalen called after him, “I’ll be there, Cepero.”

He hesitated in his stride for a moment, nodding at nothing, then continued on. Ilona closed the door behind him and turned to Kalen.

“I won’t even ask how you are,” she said. “I won’t try to imagine it. But I’m here.”

Kalen resisted the urge to embrace her momentarily, finding the words he meant to say to Cepero. “Ilona, I don’t care how they’re executed or who does it. I don’t have a personal vendetta against them all. There’s too many for that. Despite what they did, I don’t want to be a part of the retribution they receive, I just want to know they got what they deserved and that I did my job right. I just want Dargon to be safe for us, for you, and our child. Aerimon, he … He took everything to heart, and look where it brought him. I lost a friend, and he lost everything.”

“I’ll go with you, to the execution. And not because you need me to, but because I want to be with you. So don’t try to stop me.”

Kalen cracked a smile then shuffled over to her. He embraced her briefly, stroking her hair, then he dropped to his knees and wrapped his arms around her thighs, placing his head against her stomach.

“You’ve always done this job right, Kalen. You’re not like Aerimon in that way, and that difference is what sets you two apart so much. You have the same passion he does, but you have self-control. More so than any other person I know. You are exactly what this city needs, but only for as long as you want it to be.”

“I’ll always have something, and someone, to fight for. I’ll never become anything like Aerimon, for your sake, and his.” He nudged her stomach lightly with his forehead. She swatted his head lightly and he smiled. “Or her, of course.”

Kalen shut his eyes, thinking of the unending task before him to make this place a safe home for his family. He’d gladly take on that mountain of endless work for them, time and time again. His thoughts were swept away as Ilona ran her hands through his hair. For the moment, he merely existed, holding all the things he ever needed in his arms, and was at peace.

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