"Pazuzu - Emergence" sample

© 2009 by Matthew Sawyer
All rights reserved


1 Thicket

O
nce Dil Cortras had returned to Saint Erasmus, he immediately wanted more money. Hen encouraged his older brother; anything to stop him from disappearing again. Hen hoped cash wasn't the only reason his brother had come back. When Dil was funded, he might just vanish again. The younger Cortras wasn't worried about his share of the cash, he only wished his big brother took him along.

The recent run of luck the Cortras brothers enjoyed had made Dil feverish; the brothers have never had so much money. For instance, this past week in the Cap was the first time they didn't even need to worry about where they would stay the night after next. The older Cortras took advantage of freedom he had never known. At least, that is how Hen rationalized his brother's erratic talk and unexplained disappearance – that and the booze.

Plenty of money and abundant wine changed Dil, and Hen wished his brother’s adventures wouldn’t exclude him. He hated to think they were close, as in family, only out of necessity. The thought broke his heart. The wine would soon be gone, so, Hen felt some hope.

The lack of ration tickets took care of that problem. An edict from the Church forbid the purchase of alcohol without tickets. Hen blamed the previous tenant for his brother's current problem with alcohol. The dead priest had hoarded tickets and cash. Although, the hoard had paid the Cortras brothers with a jackpot when they found the stash.

The dead priest, the ex-custodian of the Saint Erasmus parish, was now far beyond wanting back any money or liquor. Nothing from the cache belonged to the new priest - Benedict Ishkott - either. He was an impostor, a sun-burned stranger the Cortras brothers had rescued from the desert.

Dil and Hen shared their loot with Ben because his ruse allowed them all to squat in the church also called Saint Erasmus. Ben had assumed the identity of the replacement for the church after the Cortras brothers found that priest in the desert, too. The original Benedict Ishkott had died on the road to Capital. The Ape, to which the priest was addicted, had obviously burst his heart and killed the overweight man.

Once Dil sobered, Hen believed everything would return to normal. The Cortras brothers and Ben would go their separate ways – after Ben cashed the checks found in the church and they divided the loot three ways.

Hen also blamed himself when Dil left without a word to either him or Ben. He knew he pestered his older brother, at times. On this occasion, Hen had probably pushed Dil too far when he threw too much fear at him. Hen was usually readily optimistic, but Saint Erasmus cast bad omens. He wanted to leave the moment everyone found the puddle of blood, feathers and eight-legged flies before the dais in the nave.

Dil remained adamant with his desire to stay at the church and he didn't need his little brother's harassment. If Dil wanted to stay here, Hen would not complain. The younger Cortras kept his sour reservations to himself. He held onto faith that everything would work out fine, despite his instinct.

Technically, none of the trespassers had need to leave the church. When Dil returned last night, relief so overpowered Hen, his worries dropped away. It didn't matter where the Cortras brothers found themselves. Hen felt happy to have Dil back, safe and sound.

He wanted to tell his brother more about his friend, Davey. Last night, Dil said getting to know the neighbors in the Saint Erasmus parish was not a good idea, but the boy was harmless, and a good kid. Hen regretted he spent yesterday fretting, when he and Davey could have seen more of the Cap. The boy did say a park was close to where his mother worked. Davey wanted to take his new friend, but dread firmly rooted the younger Cortras to the immediate vicinity and Dil's abandoned pickup truck.

The farthest Hen ventured was around the block and to the truck. Now that his concerns for his brother were quelled, he felt he needed to make up the lost day to Davey. His only real problem was splitting time between the boy and older brother.

Dil never appreciated sitting under the sun on a lazy day, let alone enjoying something like a picnic at a park. With Dil, life always had to be hard. Expecting him to show any joy at all seemed unrealistic. That is why Dil Cortras needed a younger brother like Hen - they balanced each other.

The brothers sat together in the kitchen when pretend-Ben came downstairs. The constant grumble of traffic and distant blare of irate car horns were absent this morning. Earlier, as Ben picked the least wrinkled combination of clothes out of an inherited suitcase from the real Ishkott, he looked through the curving lattice of his upstairs bedroom window. Parked cars filled the long street, here in the slum of the Cap.

On previous mornings, the parking spots on street outside had emptied. Every day of the past week, Ben noted a constant stream of passing vehicles until curfew. Today, no one bustled to his or her work day. The quiet disturbed him. He actually heard chirping sparrows and ruder interruptions from crows.

The birds stayed out of sight, but not far. On all other mornings, the sputter and snarl of much larger, metal beasts overwhelmed the birdsong. Despite feeling uneasy, Ben tried his best to enjoy the peace today. The silence subdued him like his work - when he sawed iron bars from windows in the nave.

He first lingered upstairs until he heard the brothers shuffling in the kitchen. Regrettably, he needed to attend whatever Dil had in store for them today. At least, Ben hoped Dil made plans, not the voice that had followed from the desert.

Coming downstairs, he knew Dil Cortras inhabited himself. Ben recognized the curses thrown at Hen. Dil sounded hung over. Ben assumed the sour mood lunged at the nearest, helpless victim.

When he reached the foot of the stairs, the observation occurred to him that he wasn't very thirsty. He had spent days, since coming from the Shur, trying to quench raging thirst. The torture seemed marginally better each day, but the need didn't allow him to focus long on anything else. Today, he dressed and walked downstairs before thinking about water.

More relevant, Ben wanted only a meager glass, instead of opening his throat and swallowing one hard gulp after another. He briefly felt thankful, but didn't dwell on the miracle, in case the thought brought back the thirst. He had experienced another significant development upon waking and remembered where he had come from and where he was going. As far as his name, Ben believed he had always been Benedict Ishkott. Uncanny coincidence had given the dead priest in the desert the same name.

Upon opening his eyes, Ben feared he awoke in the wrong place. He swore he had lain in a dusty cot atop a sleeping bag last night. The hutch in which he had lain to sleep, sheltered from the elements of the desert, was pitch black. This morning, he lay in a big, unmade bed. The first thing he noticed were the bars on the windows. Panic seized him when he initially thought he woke in prison. He couldn't recall when and where the military had detained him, but then recognized the curving bars appeared too ornate. Art deco was not a feature in Chosen prisons.

Prisons themselves were more rare. Cells in facilities with plumbing, electricity and even air conditioning were built for drunk or indolent Chosen. Bare detention camps in the waste of the Shur served everyone else. Ben turned his head. Diffuse light spread across a large furnished bedroom - as ambient as the disorientation scrambling his rational thoughts. He immediately wanted to break out of the confinement of the long bedroom, crowded with scored and antique furnishings. A moment later, he remembered what had happened, and not only the events of the past few days.

The Capital was indeed his destination. Ben had obviously reached it. The luck of the Cortras brothers had taken him precisely where he was meant to go. The day before he had set out from his camp in the desert, Ben had packed a canvas sack with a couple sets of clothes, both light and dark.

Cash, fake ID cards, and a full canteen had also gone into the sack. Those items now lay somewhere between the middle of the Shur and a sunken shack outside Gomorrah. Ben didn’t remember if his shelter was actually a shack. He remembered the place was small and enclosed; a single room. The doorway was the only opening, and above a step. Dug partly underground, the hole stayed cooler, longer, during the day. Thick, mud brick walls preserved coolness and captured humidity.

Ben knew he had stayed in the hole only long enough to meet someone and then resume his trip to Capital. That meeting had taken place. After that, he was lost. Huge gaps in his memory persisted. Although, he remembered instructions to wait within the Wall surrounding Capital. He didn't recall the original plan to get past the Wall, but that had been his instruction.

Ben's “feeling” he had come to Saint Erasmus for a reason seemed only partially true. He now felt he needed to stay at the church.  Yet his feelings were at odds with unclear instructions to report elsewhere once inside the Cap. That location was still unknown.

Other questions remained. Ben wondered if someone would come for him or if he needed to seek his contact. Whichever the case, he had the impression time enough existed to remember more. He had arrived at Capital early. His appointment, for lack of actually knowing what he was meant to do, was days away.

If Ben knew names of those he was supposed to meet, all his memory might flood back to him. A deep suspicion suggested real names were never provided. Whatever title or name adopted, it was an aliases to be forgotten. Ben succeeded in that respect, although unintentionally.

Ben believed a just and ignoble cause had brought him to Capital. He answered a calling not delivered by the voice from the desert. When Ben had packed his lost sack, he knew the necessity of his undefined mission, and yet could not recall details.

His partial amnesia didn't really matter. He saw emptiness on many levels, from the wastes of the Shur, to the barrens of the heavens. His mind had emptied of memory and thought. He wondered what fount now slowly filled his head again. If his mind poured out and now refilled, where were these recovered memories hidden?

Obligation born of illusion persisted, but Ben knew duty as nothing more than shadow. He floated in a vacuum of apathy. He still clung to discovering the circumstances of his current moment in time. In the end, that was not important either, but the puzzle gnawed and disturbed peaceful nothingness.

Ben stood in the kitchen doorway, watching the Cortras brothers. He debated telling them he had come to Capital on some dreadful, mysterious mission, but something had happened to wipe his memory, before meeting the brothers on the desert road. Instinct warned Ben the Cortras brothers and his probable contact should never meet. The danger was uncertain, but taking chances never seemed prudent. Ben then wondered if he cared to warn them at all.

Some piece of him felt concern for their safety. The Cortras brothers had saved his life and now shared his path. They owed each other nothing, but Ben was indeed grateful. The feeling refused to fit in the design of great void.

What place nothingness served in the absence of any god confused Ben. He, the Cortras brothers and all mankind may only be temporal animals, but that did not imply meaningless. For the moment, Ben’s personal meaning was to regain his recent past and preserve his selfish serenity.

Dil's head hung from his shoulders like an overly ripe grape, ready to drop from the vine. He plodded heavily from the sink in the kitchen and collapsed at the table. He squeezed his eyes shut against morning light and blindly reached for an unopened bottle of Yowling Cat. His slow movement expressed stiffness exacted from sleeping on a hard pew.

He groaned leaning forward. Before his fingers touched the neck of the bottle, Dil jumped back to his feet, the aching forgotten in urgency. He hopped back to the sink and got sick. The retching and slosh of whatever he ate greeted Ben.

Hen scraped stuck remnants from a pot into the garbage can. His brother’s bout of vomiting apparently didn't disturb him. The predictable absurdity of the Cortras brothers strangely comforted Ben. Hen wished him good morning with a wide smile of tiny teeth.

“We just had breakfast. Dil said he was hungry,” Hen explained and stared at Ben. The momentary silence and expression unsettled both men. The younger Cortras looked surprised. “Well, I guess it means your face is getting better.”

“What?” Ben asked. He had not seen a mirror before coming downstairs and now lifted his hand to his cheek. Something soft and fleshy rolled beneath his fingers. The thing felt like an oily worm. Ben plucked it off and examined flesh. A pale flake of skin curled into a tube. Seeing the coiled flake made his face itch. Ben scratched his cheek and more skin peeled away.

Most of the dead flesh came off in small flakes, but one large, flat piece covered the palm of his hand. Ben shook it off. His dead skin fell to the floor while he tugged edges he could feel peeled from his face.

“I’d let that come off by itself,” Hen suggested. He watched Ben claw at his face and felt compelled to stop scraping the pot entirely. Between Ben’s monstrous appearance and Dil's noisy illness, Hen was thankful he had eaten already. “It’ll heal faster if you stop peeling it off.”

Ben gazed at his hands. They still appeared larger than they once were. The swelling had resided, but the skin had grown thicker. The color had darkened to a throbbing shade of maroon. Other than the physical changes, his hands were intact.

Hoping his face would heal without scars, Ben followed the suggestion and resisted scratching. The tickling sensation existed only in his head, but fighting the impulse challenged him. He wasn't quite prepared to inspect his visage, but judging by Hen’s reaction, he must be a startling sight.

Once Dil convinced himself heaving was unproductive, he ran water in the sink and turned around. He grunted at Ben, the most pleasant salutation he could manage. Ben no longer wanted the glass of water.

The image of Dil bent over and heaving kept him from the sink, but they took seats at the table together. Dil eyed the bottle of wine and dismissed the cough medicine with a sigh of resignation. Hen put the scraped pot on the stove and joined them. A few seconds passed while each man reflected on previous preoccupations. Ben bluntly asked his most obvious question.

“Are both of you staying?”

The question stunned both Dil and Hen. The brothers had skirted around this question the entire morning, before Ben joined them downstairs. The only way to avoid the rolling boulder now entailed only a dash from the room.

Ben hoped his question didn't sound as if he directed the brothers to make other plans. Eviction was not his goal. The topic simply needed resolution.

The expression on Dil's face grew opaque beyond open-mouthed shock. He either felt dismayed the question had resurfaced once he had silenced Hen or Dil now confronted his own reservations about the arrangement at Saint Erasmus.

Whichever the case, the older Cortras answered slowly. Ben already knew what the voice would have said, and the reply would have come without delay. Dil spoke with staggered hesitance.

“This is the best I’ve ever life.”

The expression sounded solemn. Dil held his voice low, as if juggling an impulse to make a confession. “That goes for Hen, too.”

Hen’s brow wrinkled. He plainly did not know what his older brother would say. Any affirmation had to be rationed with stinginess.

“You don’t understand how bad things are. Most times, it takes everything I got, just to keep us going.” Dil waved his hand between himself and Hen. “Then there's that damned, stupid kid. I have to tell ya’… I was ready to give it up.”

“What are you talking about, Dil?” Hen asked alarmed. He slid his chair back and perched on its edge. The back legs lifted into the air. “Is this about Gomorrah? Did something else happen there?”

“Nah,” Dil answered with discord. “What happened in Gomorrah is just a part of it, the last part. I didn’t know how far we’d get, Hen. You know Batheirre looks for us. He would’ve caught us, too. Coming here changed that.”

“Batheirre is looking for you?” Ben asked. His theory the Cortras brothers fled from someone or something now became fact. The connection the brothers shared to the crime lord in Gomorrah made Ben curious. If someone like him looked for Cortras brothers, whatever his own future posed them little additional danger.

“Yeah,” Hen said. “It was an accident. His nephew smashed our truck. That’s how it got messed up.”

Ben suspected the truck wasn't in the best shape before the accident. Hen's admission explained the foolhardy scheme the brothers had proposed to get into Capital. The city was the closest and safest place they could hide. Getting past the Wall was difficult, but not impossible.

Ben remembered he was to arrive by way of the sea. Details now easily returned. Little sparks during his conversation with Dil and Hen became spotlights in the dark. He was supposed to travel in a truck hauling fertilizer to docks north of Gomorrah. He and the cargo were then to be smuggled into the dockyards inside Capital. Heathen sympathizers in the Cap anticipated the shipment to arrive at the end of a workday, just before dockhands went home.

Inspection waited until morning. By then, Ben will have vanished with the fertilizer. Sympathizers at the docks would have pried him from his crate in the middle of the night. Ben then relied on his own resources and the fertilizer went onto its destination.

Beyond that point, anything more of the cargo didn't interest Ben. He only needed to reach an undisclosed contact. Events failed to play out according to plans. Something had happened in the Shur he still couldn't recall.

When Ben had joined the Cortras brothers, they had just acquired fuel to reach the encampment outside Capital. Ben adopted the disguise of a dead priest to allow them all access to the Cap. Without him, the brothers would have trapped themselves outside the Wall, hiding in the shantytown, waiting for someone to collect bounties on their heads.

A reward for information leading to the discovery of the Cortras brothers guaranteed no shortage of snitches. Moral costs were of no concern, as long as the devil paid cash, or maybe in the case of the Batheirre family, Ape and other drugs.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” Dil said. “Maybe ’cuz we're in this together. I mean, you dressed up like a priest. You gotta be in a rough spot, too.”

Ben withheld information about himself. Every bit of memory gave him more control of his situation. Nobody would be allowed to share his strength. No one need be concerned with his welfare or business any longer.

“Well, you know how you said we came here to do great things?” Dil asked Ben.

“No, you said that,” Ben corrected.

“No, I didn’t, did I?” Dil looked to his younger brother for an impartial witness. Hen nodded.

“You had a dream,” Ben said. “You said you dreamed you were promised something for coming to Saint Erasmus.”

Dil’s eyes glazed over as if he daydreamed. Ben thought the voice may have drifted back to possess the older Cortras brother.

“Is that true, Dil?” Hen asked. “What were you promised?”

Dil came back to them.

“Yeah, I guess I did say that. It doesn’t matter, it was just a dream, and I was talking crazy.”

“What was the dream about?” Hen persisted.

“Drop it, Hen,” Dil commanded. His voice lost its low, confessional tone and inflated to a loud bark. The sharp contrast felt like a slap. Hen’s chair clanged back down on all four of its metal legs.

Dil waited for the echo in the kitchen to settle. “I guess what you want to hear is that we’re going to stay. I don’t think Hen has a problem with that anymore, now that he's found a friend.”

“You mean Davey?” Hen tried to sound disinterested, and his shrill voice betrayed him. He immediately realized his failure. “Yeah, I guess that’s right. Just don’t leave again like you did, Dil. You scared me bad.”

“Don’t worry about that. Blood is blood. That’s for sure.”

“Good,” Hen said. “You know, Dil, I can take care of both of us. If you had enough, just let me know.”

“We’re done talking about that, Hen.” Dil barked with hands balled into fists. His eyes flashed like a cornered animal. “Forget about what I said. Forget the dream, too. How about we talk about something else? We still got stuff to do, right? Well, let’s do it.”

“All right,” Hen said. “What are we doing?”

“Fix that door.” Dil threw his thumb over his shoulder, pointing at the back door hung off its hinges. “And the check. Remember? Now that Ben is awake, we can get our money.”

“You want to do that now?” Ben asked.

“Why not? We ain’t doing nothing but talking about crap that doesn’t make any difference. I’ll get the truck. You got the keys, Hen?”

“Uh-huh. You want me to go with you guys?” Hen asked. He jumped up and dug into his pockets for the truck keys.

“Nah. Me and Ben can take care of this. Don’t worry. I’m not gonna be gone more than a couple hours. Ben will drag me back if I start to wander. I’ll get the truck and bring it around. Ben, you can wait here with Hen.”

Ben agreed with a nod and throat-clearing grunt.

“Nobody comes in here, Hen, not today,” Dil said to his brother.

He took the keys and rushed out the back door, away from discussions about leaving Saint Erasmus and doubting he should have said anything at all. He could only now ignore the fact. In time, he might deny the conversation ever occurred.

Dil never let his younger brother hear his complaints about the hardship of life. He made a mistake today. His admission made him sound weak, and feeling out-of-control made him angry and fearful.

If Hen knew, he might try to take care of his older brother. In that case, and in no time, the Cortras brothers would find themselves in a predicament Dil could not pull them out of, and right now was a dangerous time for Hen to play as their keeper.

Their problems no longer revolved around hunting for cash-paying jobs, petty thefts, and eluding lazy patrols. Saint Erasmus in the Cap was the biggest dodge the Cortras brothers had ever attempted. They had looted a dead priest and gave the man’s identity to a stranger. They were unauthorized, UnChosen migrants in the Promised Land of the Chosen.

Desperation drove the brothers. So far, despair had worked. Everything played-out for the best, but how long could their luck continue? Any run of luck for the Cortras brothers typically died young. Fortunately, they paid very little for all they took. But, if they were caught, even a small retribution, comparable to their atrocities, was beyond what they could afford.

Consequences of the accident in Gomorrah had already turned their bitter lives to poison. The Cap provided room to relax. Yet, looking back, Dil realized the risk to come through the Wall was too great. If a detainment camp itself failed to kill the Cortras brothers, undoubtedly, prisoners inside will collect bounties offered by the Batheirre family.

The bounty may include rumors of big rewards, extraction from a camp. Even if possible, reward became irresistible. Every prisoner would chance the prize. Dil knew the influence of the Batheirre family. He had witnessed an example. A voice had whispered over his left shoulder, telling him where to go and where to look. Judah Batheirre had found someone to extend his reach into the Cap. Dil saw the man. The voice had led him to the killer.

At first, the voice sounded like Ben’s, but stronger. In the beginning, Dil thought Ben spoke to him, filling him with ambition. Ben may actually have talked to Dil that day they shoveled feathers and other less wholesome things from the nave of Saint Erasmus, but the voice came back when Ben wasn't around. Its sound changed the moment Dil realized he was alone. The voice became his own, but again, stronger. It captured the certainty Dil hoped he conveyed to Hen when he declared final decisions.

Dil recognized his strange compulsion to listen and still surrendered. He only trusted himself, but now wanted to be told what to do. He needed a confident and rational voice, and here it was, even if ethereal and downright spooky.

Dil knew Ben heard the voice too, just looking at him. Ben cocked his head to the left as if waiting for an answer to a question that never left his lips. Just thinking questions allowed either man to speak to the voice.

Dil didn't tell Ben they shared a secret. The voice never advised Dil against speaking to him about their common acquaintance, but the connection seemed fragile. Bringing their secret into the open might chase the voice away, and he didn't want that to happen. So, he alluded to interactions with the voice through vague remarks. Dil had said the promise came in a dream, which was not entirely untrue - the voice also haunted dreams.

Ben himself would not admit they both knew about the voice. An unspoken band of silence bound him and Dil. Ben’s band wound tighter, because doubt made him struggle. He only needed to let go and allow the voice to tell him what to do. Surrender was still possible.

There were parts of acceptance Dil did not like. He woke up far away, outside the safety of the Saint Erasmus. He wore new clothes that made him look like a Chosen priest. His old clothes were gone and so was all his money.

He didn't remember shopping. The last thing he recalled was when he brought back the hacksaw for Ben. After that, lack of coherency convinced Dil he had gone sleepwalking. Scant memories floated back as if they came from dreams.

The voice encouraged him to drink too much. It wouldn't let him stop, even when Dil knew he had enough and would become sick. The voice sounded thrilled, as if indulged in an orgy of sensations that wracked Dil’s body. Pleasure and pain were the same to the voice. It savored exhaustion, drunkenness, sleep and a gorged stomach as if fond reminiscences. Dil served as the vehicle. In exchange, the voice showed Dil what he needed to see.

Dil had seen the man sent to kill him and Hen. The man also saw him, although Dil couldn't say where the encounter took place. The voice had arranged the meeting and Dil was transported instantly. The voice told Dil to finish his bottle of wine. The older Cortras was about to be introduced to someone, because an impression must be made. Dil did as told.

When the last swallow of Yowling Cat wine ignited the pit of gasoline in his belly, Dil dropped back. He fought to stop his fall, gripping transparent edges of thin air where a black vacuum began. His fingers passed through the intangible cliff.

He curled his head and limbs forward from a prone free fall. Just as he pulled himself together, the sucking emptiness spit him out. The forceful expulsion made Dil dizzy and nauseous. He tried to will his eyes open only to find he had never closed them. His eyes were dry and stared at a new scene slowly twisting into view.

A small room formed beyond an open doorway. As Dil looked inside, he realized the image of a door only expressed his expectations. Once he freed himself of the notion, he saw through the outside walls of the building itself.

Only the room existed. Dil knew a vacuum opened behind him. If he turned and looked, he risked getting pulled back in. To go into nothingness meant willingly never coming back. Whatever gateway Dil had come through, was a path he could not navigate alone. He needed the voice to guide him home. And the voice was silent, but he knew it waited. Dil also knew he came as only a witness.

A big naked man stood in the room. Despite the man being unclothed, Dil was filled with fear. The lack of clothing made the man even more intimidating. Dil saw brutal strength in the man's bare forearms. The limbs were worked to serve a specific, malicious purpose.

Every straining muscle and tendon that shaped the man's skin spoke of a cannibal’s hunger. The man had built his form for quick action. Like a predacious fish, he struck on impulse, snapping up smaller prey unawares. Dil felt like small prey.

The man stood a full head taller than the older Cortras brother. His hands opened and closed, resembling biting mouths. If those tooth-like fingers caught Dil, there would be no escape. The only hope was never to be spotted, but instinct chimed too late.

The man’s eyes locked on him as soon as Dil interpreted the image he saw. Dil felt ferocious rage bear down on him. The voice at once revealed the threat and exposed him. He worried the voice had led him into a vicious trap, used and now permanently discarded. Dil tried to turn. He rather live in the oblivion of the void than be digested in the belly of the monster before him.

The voice held Dil in place. Air pressed against the older Cortras as if he was fitted into a stone mold. The voice had delivered Dil as a sacrifice.

He felt something in the palm of his hand, which he mistook for the neck of the empty bottle. Somehow it had traveled with him. If Dil could force his arm to move, he might fend off inevitable doom. But, no matter how much he struggled, he remained frozen.

The texture of the bottle felt different in his locked hand. The smooth and slippery glass had changed. His grip became solid. Nothing could slide from his hand easily. He felt the hold on his body slacken and was about to look at his hand when his attention was seized with shock.

A wide swath of blood streamed from the side of the nude man’s neck. It robed the man's upper body before traveling down his legs, like inverted tree branches. The man dabbed at the flow, looking for the source. The shifted focus of the bleeding man then released Dil.

The vision instantly vanished, replaced with motion sickness. Dil stood alone, under the sinking sun of late afternoon. With no money and a frightful premonition, he saw no option but to return to Saint Erasmus. He felt fine with the plan. He never wanted to venture from safety in the beginning. After vomiting, Dil made his way back home.

By the time he returned, he saw no need to discuss his experience with his brother or Ben. The story could not sound sane, no matter how Dil described the spectral meeting. Instead, he stood on guard. He watched for the man in the vision, this killer whom Dil knew Batheirre had contracted.

There seemed no other explanation for the vision. The voice revealed the man who had answered the crime lord’s summons. The voice showed Dil the power of the threat. The older Cortras now knew the form the threat will take. Before doom arrived, he had better prepare to fight. Hungry death was coming soon.

When Dil went to fetch the truck, Ben took the opportunity to confer with Hen. Dil seemed back to his determined self and Hen would best know. A balance of his optimism against Ben's ignorance and doubt provided the truest measure.

“What do think is happening with your brother?” Ben asked him. “Is he all right?”

“I think so,” Hen replied. His lack of confidence indicated an honest answer. “This is the most normal I’ve seen him since we got here. Maybe he had to blow off some steam. What do you think?”

“I think he might do something drastic,” Ben warned. He had seen men in Dil’s condition before. He didn't remember where, but he had.

Dil looked tortured and open to suggestion. The older Cortras had already lost part of himself to the voice. Ben wondered if the voice had meant the fate for him when he wandered the desert. Failing to find a soft mind, the voice jumped to someone easier to persuade or fit another purpose. Ben did not understand the nature of this sentient virus. All he knew is it weakened a person’s will.

“You better look out for yourself,” Ben added for Hen's benefit.

“Why?”

Ben shrugged. He offered the whole of his advice, taken as interpreted. Hen knew best how to deal with his brother. Even if the younger Cortras had no idea, Hen will do as his heart compelled him, even if the decision was bad. Nothing Ben said would change impulse. Saying more seemed pointless.

“Let me out the front,” Ben said. He wanted to take another look at the progress completed yesterday. The hard work of sawing bars from the windows had better be worthwhile.

Ben also surmised a priest coming and going through the breezeways of Saint Erasmus would attract curiosity. Someone in the neighborhood was bound to use the question as an excuse to make introductions. Dil was right. Tamara and her son should be the only people they know. Even then, the Stoughnts should not be encouraged to visit.



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