Monster (The Other Side)

From the 2018 Christmas collection…

The 5:15 p.m. express train rumbles along the elevated track just outside the fourth floor of the empty building on the edge of the city’s west side.  The rhythmic clatter of the wheels shake glass panes in their casings before it’s passed, speeding away toward the Styrsfordshire Hill station. The building is just one of many in such close proximity to the track, the general opinion of developers twenty years back holding that as these were commercial and not residential structures, whether the trains passed by twenty times a day or not had no bearing.  Of course, even if they planned to occupy these buildings, their offices would have been on the topmost floors, not down here amongst the worker bees, so what did it matter if one could reach out and touch the tracks?

The figure seated at the large room’s only table cares very little for how close the building sits to the train or the greed of those who wrung every square inch of space from this neighborhood.  The passing trains are something to be noted distractedly and then disregarded immediately, irrelevant to the purpose for occupying a building that’s currently in between tenants. Still, evidenced by the wide table that was likely once used for conferences and is now used for something wholly different, and the cot set up nearby, this building provides what is needed to the only one currently within its walls.

Long hair falls in a night-black curtain to puddle on the table’s scratched surface when I shift to a half standing position to check the drying ink on one of the thin parchment scrolls unrolled across the table, the wayward strands pushed aside with little thought lent.  Gray eyes scan each of the markings, picking out the slightest flaw, the tiniest smudge that could lead to failure. Each scroll contains a variety of intricate lines and circles, carefully placed and connected to form the lattices and weaves of powerful battle spells. Each one has been personally crafted and honed over the years to inflict as much damage as quickly as possible.  No quarter given. No mercy offered. This is not a war in which anything but the hardest, most brutal strikes are permissible.

What the Angels began more than a decade ago when they ambushed a group of Bright and carted the survivors off to their labs, I will finish.  In their panicked aftermath, the Bright called a full Assembly, entreating their Dark brethren to join them, if not to act on what had been done, then to ensure none of them would be the next group on whom the Angels set their sights.  For a faction that spends the majority of their time away from Nova and down on Earth, the reasoning was sound. Joint strike forces were being considered, the first of their kind since the Valcaeran Wars, but predictably, squabbles arose and the entire venture threatened to collapse.  

I’m not sure who was more surprised when I stepped up to intervene: the other Selestarri or myself.  I’d only attended the full Assembly meetings because the leader of the group the Angels attacked was my former partner, the man I’d once loved, and my current best friend.  Aki was killed during the skirmish, murdered as he fought to protect the others, and his loss had left me heartbroken and enraged. Sitting in the back of the Assembly hall while the others flailed about and hurled insults at one another left me disgusted.  We knew some of our people had been killed. We knew others had been taken captive. And I knew for a certainty that at this rate, nothing would be done about it.

So I shocked them all and volunteered.  Others were promised as members of my strike force, but I declined, preferring to handle things my own way.  Instead I enlisted consultants: my brother’s best friend Innic, a master strategist and recent recruit to the Dark, Aly and Mijah, Zeph’s former lovers and representatives of the Bright, and my brother himself and his boyfriend, Jun.  Due to his complicated history with his own people and the risks to his safety, Jun’s involvement–and by extension, Zeph’s–is strictly indirect, but his insights have been invaluable.

Now, more than a decade later, only one Bright remains within their grasp and my revenge for the loss of the one I held dear is almost complete.  What had once been twelve is now so very few. Aki and two others, dead in the initial ambush. Nine taken as captives, with four dead in the labs, and four rescued by me.  Two of those four are dead by suicide and two others are permanent residents of the Eyrie’s Tower of Solace, their minds and bodies deeply fractured.

One last time, I’ll strike with intent to kill.  One last time, I’ll destroy any who stand in my way, human and Angel alike.  One last time, I’ll fall deep into the broken pieces of my heart and allow them to drown me.  In what other way could a war of revenge be conducted?

The scuffing of a shoe against the tiled floor of the hallway pulls my gaze from the scrolls, a lean figure appearing a moment later.  Runes flare to life around the room for the briefest of heartbeats, the security spells triggered by the new presence and then quickly falling dormant when the magic in his blood is recognized.  Dressed in a heavy leather bomber jacket and jeans, his thick, ash brown hair tousled from the autumn winds, the newcomer carries a paper bag that smells of the delicious array of potent spices used in Indian street food.  Setting the bag on the table, light sienna eyes scan the scrolls before he turns away and leans against the edge, offering a quiet smile.

Liias wasn’t part of my original group of consultants and wasn’t always so at ease, but the passage of enough years has allowed him to recognize that I’m not what the rumors say.  Well, not everything, at least. There’s more than a few kernels of truth to the stories, but what I’ve set out to do and what’s been accomplished has quelled them somewhat, even if most Selestarri in either faction would be loathe to say it aloud.  Not Liias, though, the Bright is open and kind, and once he’d spent enough time in my presence he apologized for his original assumptions.

“Let off your leash again?” I ask without looking up from the scrolls,.  The other man’s partner is unaware of our association. If she was, I’m certain she’d have already tracked me down for a reckoning.  Kecelia is highly placed within the Bright, part of the fundamentalist group that over the last handful of years has taken more and more control of the other faction’s assembly.  Her tolerance of the Dark in general is nonexistent, and any idea of cooperation between the factions is absurd to her. I’ve often wondered what she’d do if she learned of her partner’s involvement in what I do, although rather certainly unpleasant for Liias.  

The other Selestarri shrugs.  “She’s currently occupied elsewhere, so it’s a two for one special tonight: dinner and infor–” the word cuts off abruptly as I finally turn to face the Bright.  “Holy hell, Sashi, what happened?”

I forget for a moment that months have passed since I’ve seen Liias, our recent communications conducted through intermediaries.  “The Angels have learned. When I went in to free Garainia, they’d trapped the room with wards.” A dismissive gesture is tossed at the black stains that mar caramel skin, streaking from the left side toward the right starting at temple and running down to hip, a reminder of magic deflected, but still permanently seared into my appearance.  “The rest is just combat.” I lift the curtain of dark hair so he can see my neck and the pair of long, scarred wounds that run from shoulder to neck to cheek, courtesy of two rather overzealous–and now very dead–Angels. Honestly I’d fared better than Garainia, who was killed by a scalpel to the heart from a human lab worker just moments before I entered her cell.  

Ash brown bangs fall into sienna eyes as the Bright shakes his head.  “Shit,” he mutters, turning toward the paper bag and pulling out containers of Indian food.  Our people may be raised and trained for combat, but seeing the aftermath of it is something altogether different.  It’s generally assumed that if one faces battle and comes out on the other side, they’re fine, and if they don’t, they’re dead.  There’s little thought spared for those left with lasting reminders until it’s up close and personal and undeniable. Even then, these are only cosmetic damages, nothing that will make me hated and feared any worse by the rest of the Selestarri.  All things considered, Liias is taking things in stride, much better than my brother, who had several choice words for both me and the Angels I’ve sworn to fight.

Set on his task and wrapped in his own thoughts, the taller man opens the containers to reveal samosas, aloo tiki, kati roll, and several other dishes, each one smelling better than the last, and divides the meal between two plates.  Once finished he hands one to me and seats himself on the edge of the cot, long legs stretched out in front. “Between my information and Innic’s, we know he’s being held in the building just south of the central ring of the complex.”  He reaches into his coat and pulls out a flashdrive, setting it on the cot. “Innic marked it on the map and provided what’s known about shift changes for the humans and security patrols. Aly and Mijah have been tracking the human employees all week, so we believe the information to be as good as we’re likely to get as far as that’s concerned.  Have you heard from Zephyr?”

Pushing a bit of the aloo tiki through the accompanying chickpea gravy, I nod.  “Jun thinks the Angels won’t bother warding anything except the buildings they believe most important.  The perimeter security will be humans with daily check ins by some low ranking Angels. Also he thinks it unlikely that they’ll bother to ward anything that’s below ground, only what’s above, such as windows and doors.”  The Angels aren’t stupid, just arrogant. They believe their defenses too good for any of those seen as lesser in their eyes.

Liias seems to consider the information for a moment, brown eyes fixed on the tall windows with their view of the cement train trestle before he returns to eating his food.  “How is he?” The quiet question is asked after several minutes have passed. “Have you spoken to him?”

There is no doubt who the “he” the Bright refers to is.  In the business between us, there’s only one such person.  A person Liias once loved many years ago and who loved him in return, before the two of them amicably decided to break things off and pursue their respective partners instead.  The very person whose capture and imprisonment in an Angelic lab caused the brown-haired man to seek me out and offer his help. The person I’ve been trailing from lab complex to lab complex for the past year, always unable to pinpoint exactly where he’s being held so I can free him.  The last of the twelve Bright Selestarri Aki once led.

Pulling storm-shrouded eyes from the plate held in one hand, I meet the sienna gaze filled with such worry and concern that even my shitty interpersonal skills can recognize it.  In that moment, I hope that I succeed on this last strike so Liias can have the reunion with someone he cares about. A reunion that Aki’s death has ensured I will forever be denied.  “I have.” The reply finally slips free, and I place the nearly empty plate on the table beside the unfurled battle scrolls. “It’s easier now that I’m in the same section of the city.”

It had started by chance, my telepathic communications with Lan.  I was still gathering intel, still attempting to sort out which of the Bright was being held at the lab complex I was staking out.  I was ensnared by his desperation, his despair, his absolute heartbreak that so closely mirrored my own, and I reached out, not realizing until a few minutes in that he was the very person I sought.  Unfortunately, years of systematic experimentation and abuse by his captors had done it’s damage on both mind and spirit, leaving very little of the man I’d been told about by Liias and others of his faction. Tormented by the death of his partner and what he’d been subjected to, Lan couldn’t remember his name or even much about how he’d come to be in the lab. Some days he believed what precious little he could recall was only a story told to him by the Angels. Some days both me and his shattered memories are a complete figment of his imagination. Other days he swears it’s all real. Still other days he calls it madness.

I’ve done my best to help him through our conversations, providing what details of his life I can and promising that I’m on my way, swearing that I’ll free him from the lab. When his mood is the darkest and he’s drowning beneath the taunts and insults hurled at him by his captors, I tell him of myself, how our people view me as a monster, how sometimes, on the longest of the cold nights, I still believe that they’re right.  In a twisted way there’s a solace in it, in finding someone who at least on some level has suffered in the ways that you’ve suffered.

On and off for this past year, we’ve conversed whenever I’m close enough and he’s capable of it.  Sometimes months had passed while I was tracking down whichever new lab he’d been relocated to, months in which I worried I’d find him only to discover his mind shattered beyond the abilities to speak with me.  Each time, however, I’d found him waiting, sometimes only the barest sliver of the person he once was, and fragile at that, but not completely defeated. Each time, my relief was increased a hundredfold.

“Little has changed, I’m afraid.”  I sigh, raking a hand through pitch-black bangs.  “Like the others, we won’t truly be able to gauge his mental state until he’s safe and has had time to decompress.”  Lan has been damaged by the Angels, how severely still stands to be seen, but we all need to be prepared for the worst, that what they’ve done to the Bright is irreversible.  That not even the Tower of Solace will hold comfort for him. It may be that he’s too lost in the chaos of his mind. It may be that the only thing I can offer him is an easy, peaceful death.  If that’s the case, I’ll be the one who holds the blade. I’ll deliver the mercy he deserves after all he’s endured because I’m the only one who’s been with him through this past year, the only one who understands.

Setting his own empty plate aside, Liias straightens to his full height, a ghost of a smile flickering across full lips.  “We just have to hold out hope, then. Lan’s one of the strongest people I know. I have to believe he’ll be all right.” Nodding mostly to himself, the Bright scoops up the flashdrive and tosses it to me.  “Be careful, Sashi. My partner would kill me if she knew, but I’ve become somewhat fond of you, so don’t die, okay?”

With that, the brown-haired Selestarri takes his leave and the office building returns to silence.  Left alone, I refocus on the scrolls, searching once again for any imperfections in the writing that could cause the spell to fail.

Aki once told me that a person without scars is someone who hasn’t lived.  I know he meant well, attempting to make me feel better about the damage I carry, but all I could ever think was too many scars destroy.  Where they lie cannot be repaired or fused together or even patched over. A scar is permanent, a reminder of what has occurred and how it affected you.  Once enough pile up, the agony outweighs the value of being alive. I don’t know the weight of Lan’s scars or whether he can survive beneath them, but I intend to give him the chance to find out…

 

[Lan and Jun belong to Nezumi.  All other characters belong to me.]


At some point I managed not to post this last story from the Christmas 2018 collection.  It’s been a busy couple of months, mostly working on the Valentine’s Day 2019 story, which I’ll post next.

This story is the flip side to the Monster story Nezu wrote and gifted to me for Christmas back in 2017.  Lan’s pain and damage and the sliver of himself he managed to hold onto due to Sashi’s telepathic assistance were just too wonderfully written not to tell the story from Sashi’s point of view.  This is one of the hardest and coldest versions of Sashi I’ve written in all these years, someone who has lost so much and has fixated on revenge as a way to deal with his pain.  He is so driven to free Lan that he has not realized that Lan may just save him as well.

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