July 18th, 2017
The fire lapsed around him, in swells and growths like tendrils, sporadic and gluttonous. He saw the fire grows and nodded to what he heard. His eyes, wide open as the giant surfs of red flames wrapped around him. Then he felt hot, though not from the fire that did not feel much of anything, but of something else growing inside him, like the tendrils or the waves, a rancor both lurking and ravenous in the weeds of his psyche.
There was a silence in the air, a musk of salt and burning hair. And game. A strange, intense flavor of game, of wild animal on the tip of his mouth.
Smoke shot out, he pushed his face away. It wrapped around his face. Alestor waved it away.
And from within that flame and its wild flailing, two lips opened wide, yawning almost.
“Hmm?” The voice said. Alestor’s shaky arms reached for pink salt sitting on the floor next to him. He looked around in his little library in that corner of the office where there were no windows, nothing but the glare of charcoal covered walls. He threw a pinch in.
“What do you want, Alestor?” The voice asked again. He gulped and put both hands on the floor.
“They’re getting unruly -”
“And they need a sign,” Alestor said, conscious of his tone. He needed to remain low, humble, simple.
“Is that it? Is this why you’ve summoned me. To do a bit of theatrics? Dance? A miracle or two?”
“I’ve summoned you for direction.” Alestor’s head rose. “And to remember a promise made.”
“Which?” The voice sounded amused, almost.
“The promise of bringing back my wife.” His voice broke. “And my child.”
Fire spat out. White ash collected in a small ring around the base, like growing rot.
“That’s up to you, isn’t it?”The voice screamed. The ash ring spread out, towards Alestor. Alestor dug his hand back into the leather pouch, back into the pink salt and flung it at the ash and fire. A hiss, a scream like a seething hiss, came off from that flame.
“When can I see my wife back?” Alestor asked.
“When the rapture is brought upon them all, you will stand with your beloved on the holy mountain. One of the few.”
“But when? How long do I wait? When and what and how? And how?!” He said.
“How?” The voice screeched and the fire rode up to the ceiling where the smog formed waves, crashing about like black regurgitations. “I’ve never taken you for a passive fool.” Sparks spilled and danced on the floor. “Every faith needs its servants, and servants need their Gods and Gods need their worship. A black sabbath requires the mass, the faith, and the sacrifice. You’ve known this. Something as grand as your desire requires an equally ridiculous penance. Life for life, a human hecatomb. A sacrifice.”
Alestor looked down, his head heavy with doubt. His eyes hurt, sweat fell from his chin. Sacrifice. Blood for blood. He wiped his brow with his sleeve and looked up.
“And the hunters?” Alestor sat on his knees. They dug into a loose plank and bled.
“They killed the last son you sent me. They’re here now and they come waving a black flag.”
“Hunters…Heart-eaters you mean?” The voice laughed.
“They’re Vicars, I’ve heard rumors about them before. But I thought…with how small a city this is…I thought they wouldn’t bother. But then, well. Then they killed it, the thing you sent me.”
“Oh… Oh, my. Vicars? Heart-eaters… I knew they’d be attracted eventually. But this soon? Damn church dogs, aren’t they? Pagans of a false God.” The voice hummed. “Hunters…”
Alestor faced the floor, his body prostate. And the voice, the fire, the demon or god, laughed into a small hysteria. Mumbling, amused. Hunters, Vicars.
Alestor rubbed his knees. He brought his hand up. Blood.
“What do we do?” He interrupted.
“Oh. Yes. Of course.” It said. “I might be able to help, at a cost. Are you sure you want it?”
His heart pounded, he clutched his chest.
“Do I have a choice?”
“Does anyone, really?” The demon said. “The illusion of choice was the greatest sin God ever committed to man. Terrible thing, isn’t it?”
Alestor’s bloody nails dug into his coat, past his white shirt and onto the skin, the bustling skin of his chest.
“Alestor,” The fire spat out. “Are you sure you want my help?”
“I already a killed a man.” He slammed his hand down. The word – killed- grew out of him, like a knife, clawing out of a womb. A birthing of something wrong. “It can’t be any worse, can it? What’s another death? Why would another man’s life matter more than mine? Why not kill him?”
His chest hurt.
“Good mode of thought! There may be hope for you yet.” The voice said. “What is the big deal, anyway? You killed a criminal scum. S***. Society’s understanding nature inhibits proper punishment and here you are to correct it all. What’s wrong with getting a little payment for your work? You might be owed, in fact, from all the things you’ve done. All the rapists and child molesters and murderers you’ve disposed of.”
The memories flooded him. Heavy memories, still recent enough to make it impossible to distance himself from. Memories still fresh, still vibrant with his color, with the awful accuracy of color.
“But I don’t think the souls of criminals, of rotten people, will be good enough for what you need. To feed and fuel the thing, I’d like to send you. Do you understand, Alestor?” The voice said. “I need something more. Something, say, high quality.”
“What do you mean by high quality?”
“The virginial blood of the innocent,” He could feel the sneer, the arrogant glee from those fiery lips across from him, within that ashy circle. Alestor swore he could feel his heart stop. “The price of a man is weighed by the merit of his soul. I need something rich, something good. Give me your best and I’ll give you my best, an equal exchange..” It said. There was silence. “Give me, say, a priest perhaps? An honest judge? A child, yes, a child could do. A young babe.”
He wanted to scream. The words bounced off the cavern of his skull, the gap left by his empty brain. For he could not think, there was nothing there now but the buzzing words and a rattling throb.
His hand fell and stiffened. The pink salt in his grip slipped out and drizzled onto the floor.
“Now you know my price. You do want your wife back, don’t you?” It said. “It’s not like you’re really ending someone anyway. Just killing, just sending them home, to me. I’d say you’d be helping them out, saving them from a miserable life in this dark world. Is there any other peaceful way for a human to go? While they’re still innocent. Before life has gotten its death grip on them? Before its ruined them? I’m sure they’d forgive you when they see paradise. When the burdens of life are cut and the shackles, thrown.”
Alestor was still. The flame began to die and he did not bother to fuel it, he let it recede. And it felt, as the fire died, that it had burned away a piece of himself. There was nothing left for him to hear. He walked back and stumbled against a book cabinet. The books fell to his feet, he held himself against the dark oak frame.
His legs went weak.
Then he heard a knock, the ravenous knock of his students, the hasty knock that demanded of him a certain composure. He breathed. He evened his hair that had split and run from him in opposite directions and collected all the bits of himself that seemed to escape or break off from his nervous wounds. He pressed his suit and shirt down, looking at the floor, looking for some sanity, some confidence, some goodness. And looking up, with a final exhalation of his held breath, he snapped into a straightened posture.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
With his face taken back to a dull, assertive expression, he walked to the door. The men were waiting outside and sweating.
“There. You saw it, didn’t you? From the glass window of the door.” Alestor told them. They were all lucid, drooling and heaving. The Mayor was the first to speak.
“Did you tell him what I wanted? The millions, the yacht. Did you tell him?” He was shaking Alestor.
“No, but he told me what he wanted.”
“Yes, we heard.” The police commissioner said. A gap for silence. “Children.”
They fell to quietness again and huddled together, their black coat covered shoulders forming a silhouette against the buzzing fluorescent light of the psychiatric office. Like the shadows and contours of four great mountains. Who would break it first? Who would be so selfish?
A gasp. Then there was a sound of parting lips, like suctions.
“I know some routes.” The Police Commissioner said. They all licked their lips, and one man’s courage led to the other, a boulder gaining stride down the slope.
“We’ve had an outbreak of orphans.” The Head Editor said.
“We’d have to do it after curfew, fewer suspects.” The Mayor said. “I can put that into motion.”
“Yes, yes, the right people at the right times. We can get half a dozen, honestly. Not too many, that’d be too suspicious. That’d suffice, right Father?” The commissioner said.
Alestor looked at them. He could read the words from their lips, but couldn’t understand them. Not at an intellectual level. They were just noise, phonetics, hot breaths from animals of what he perceived to be of a different species.
The Mayor, a pudgy man with his suit tearing at the seams. The Commissioner, tall and proud, thick-jawed. The Chief Editor, pious and desperate in his eyes. What strange people, Alestor thought, But am I any different?
They wanted this more than him. Or did they?
Of course. They had to be worst.
Murder of the benign, that was too large a price for Alestor. Wasn’t it?
He shook in place, thinking, cursing silently, the memories of his dead wife and son. That’s all it took, not wealth or power or knowledge or security. All it took was the promise of happiness. Some smoke and mirrors, a miracle or two. The voice of a Djinn, of a demon or god. And then they were all convinced.
He wondered, so briefly, as he backed away towards the wall, away from the leering shadowy people. He wondered if the voice he heard or the magic displayed was something to be rejoiced, or feared. Or even real.
“What do we do?” The lost lambs said in unity. And Alestor, frightened father, bearer of responsibility, took a deep breath. He tried to find a stop, an inhibition, a brake of morality that would make him shut up and stay silent. But he could think of nothing more he wanted. Nothing more, than the soft hand of his wife.
“Do what you need to do, then! You heard him.” He lashed out. The words seemed to hurt him himself, as Alestor scowled and retreated to his room.
The men heard it, heard it with wide grins.
“Alright then, we’ll get on it.” The commissioner said. There was no misinterpretation, no language barrier now. They were all of the same kind and form. And Alestor, in the midst of that office amongst those long couches and magazines and coffee tables, seemed to fly away, detached from the scene. Detached from himself.
“What have I done?” He asked to no one. He ran back to his room. Into the seat. He opened the drawer looking for an answer.He pulled the first thing he could find. A bag cocaine ripped from his twitchy pinch. It spilled like snow across his desk. He reached back inside, this time he felt the cold touch of a flash. His eyes shifted between each. He gave up, decided he’d have both and took turns. Sniffing, drinking, like a starved desert man amidst the oasis. Taking bountiful sips of the sweet waters. So Alestor did, bobbing his head between the lips of his flask or the face-shaped imprint of cocaine.
Depressed and awake at the same times, with his rapidly beating, mournful heart. A mind in dissonance.
Now he knew how Mrs. Breyer felt. Now he knew that he could not take back.