Ari’s Nightmare

I figure it’s time to bring you in on Ari’s background. Most of her backstory you’ll get in Book One of the Houses of Thanah series, The House of the Black Dog. And yes, I know it starts with a cliché line – that was our first writing prompt from my local writing group. We couldn’t not use it!

So here’s the story of how it all began…

* * *

1 Lightning struck tree 4 by Unobtrusivetroll10

It was a dark and stormy night. It was inevitable, she thought; the phrase had to pop up some time. A cliché, maybe, but true enough right now. First of the feeder bands for Hurricane Frances, it had come up behind her like—well, like a hurricane. God, was her brain going to keep on doing this? Yeah. Anything to keep her mind off the real issue.

Lightning struck a tree off to the side of the road; lit the world up around her like daylight and deafened her with the crack and instant boom of thunder. The concussion hit her ears and her chest simultaneously, no time to open her mouth to lessen the impact. She jerked in reaction and the motorcycle swerved wildly, its responsiveness a handicap in the driving rain. She corrected automatically, keeping the rubber side down the way her Dad had taught her.

She knew it was crazy, doing this. Crazy enough riding a motorcycle in a driving rainstorm; crazier still when there was not only rain but lightning—but in a hurricane, for God’s sake! She knew she’d hear all about it from Dad when she got home. Hers was the only vehicle on the road, tallest thing around till you got off into the fields. Can you say target?

But she had to get home. Had to. When Dad called and told her Mom had had a heart attack, she’d said, “I’ll be there,” tossed her phone on the bed and started to pack. Come hell or high water, she’d be there, just like they’d always been there for her. She grabbed her backpack, stuffed in some clothes and the case with her laptop, and was out the door.

It wasn’t all that far from UF in Gainesville to the Ocala forest; about 80 miles. An hour or so, two at most in bad weather, and this was sure-hell bad enough. She was already soaked to the skin, and her laptop would’ve been useless trash except for the waterproof case Mom and Dad had given her when she went off to college. Her clothes would need to go in the dryer, backpack and all, when she got in. Her copper hair slithered out of her hoodie and whipped in her face, and she raised a hand to tuck it back.

Not too much longer, now. There was the Silver Springs exit, lit up by another flash of lightning. Further away than the last strike, thank God. She took the exit ramp down, the cycle hitting every puddle and throwing up a rooster tail behind her. She pulled out slowly onto SR 40; there wasn’t any traffic at this late hour, but with the weather this bad it didn’t pay to be stupid.

The road went through Silver Springs, then wound around through a number of small towns. At one point she looked down at her gas gauge and blinked in dismay. When had it hit empty? There was a little mom-and-pop gas station on the outskirts of Mill Dam, and thank God it was still open. She pulled in under the roof over the gas pumps and turned off the cycle. The downpour thundered on the metal roof, drowning out any sound, and the lights turned the rain coming off the roof into a dancing silver curtain. She could barely see the store’s lights through the deluge.

She set the motorcycle up on its stand and dug through her pockets, looking for her phone. Would Dad have left the hospital yet? Was Mom okay? The phone was nowhere to be found. She started to reach for her backpack, and then had a flash of memory—the phone hitting the blanket on her bed. Shoot fire, she’d left the darn thing back in Gainesville. Well, she’d just have to do without. She’d hit home first, then decide which way to jump. If Dad wasn’t home, she could always call him from the trailer. She dug through her backpack for her wallet and pulled it out.

A car pulled in behind her. She glanced back at it; a sweet red Camaro, nice. She shifted the cycle up on its wheels to move it forward, giving the other vehicle plenty of room to reach the pumps without the driver getting wet. She pulled her credit card out of her wallet and swiped it through the reader, then put the wallet back in the backpack. God, she was tired. Worried.

Scared.

She hoped Mom would be alright. She couldn’t shake the bad feeling that had just come over her. What would they do if Mom—she refused to complete the thought. Instead, she put her hands on the small of her back and stretched, then twisted from side to side, easing her back from the tense ride. Behind her the driver got out of the Camaro and fiddled with his gas cap. She pulled her hood back and shook out her hair, then ran her fingers through to loosen the worst of the tangles. She heard the Camaro’s driver give a sharp intake of breath and looked over at him curiously. He was nondescript: medium height, medium brown hair, nothing to make him stand out except for his intent stare. She nodded at him with an uncertain smile and went back to filling her gas tank.

“Excuse me.” She turned and looked at him again, and saw that he had come closer. He had one hand out to her, a questioning gesture. “Do you know this area well?”

“Pretty well,” she said. “I’ve lived here all my life.”

“Oh, good.” He stepped forward again, and gestured. “I’m lost—at least, I think I’m lost. Can I get to Daytona from here?”

“Oh, sure,” she said and smiled again, then turned to point. Behind her she heard the scuff of a shoe, and then his arm came hard around her waist. His other hand rose and pressed something against her nose and mouth. She struggled, but his arms pinned her against him, and she suddenly felt dizzy, faint. Her knees went weak, and she started to fall. He turned his head into her damp curls and inhaled deeply.

You have such pretty hair.”

* * *

Welcome to Thanah

…AND if I’m going to do this, I should probably give you at least some idea of who Ari Dillon is. So here’s something that will give you a bit about her character. 

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Month 2, day 35 – 75 days on Thanah

the House of the Black Dog: the halls

It was late afternoon, a few days later, in the back halls on the way to the dining hall. Ari heard them coming before she saw them; the scramble of running feet, the growl of angry young voices. She missed the first one skidding around the corner, a boy of about ten that she recognized from her newcomers group. She flung an arm out and caught the next one, the leader, another boy about two years older. He swung at her, startled; she caught his wrist in her other hand, then shook him once to get his attention. The rest of his pack came around the corner and skidded to a stop, shocked and uncertain.

Ari turned her head to look after the first boy, and whistled shrilly. He slowed and half turned, then stopped. “Come on back here,” she said. The boy whose arm she held tried to jerk out of her grasp, but she tightened her grip. “Come on,” she said, and headed for a bench against the wall. “I’m not going to hurt you, and I’m not going to get you in trouble. I just want you all to stand still long enough to answer a couple of questions. Think you can do that?”

The first boy stood off from the others, ready to run again if it looked necessary, but he jerked his head in a nod. The one she held looked sullen, but finally nodded also.

“Will you stay here if I let you go, or do I have to hold onto you?” He looked at her warily, but gave her a second nod. “I’ll take that to mean you’ll stay.” Ari let go of his arm and he stepped smartly back out of reach but stayed there. She smiled at him, then turned to the younger boy. “Gary, isn’t it?” At his nod, she went on. “Why were you running?”

“They were chasin’ me, they want to beat me up!”

She turned to the second boy. “What’s your name?” The boy avoided her glance. “Come on, I’m not going to bite you. It’s just a name. Mine’s Ari.”

“I know who you are.” His voice was sullen, his words dark with meaning.

“Oh, now, that sounds like someone’s been saying bad things about me.”

The boy’s chin jerked up in response, defiance in every line of his body. “You have a mean lover. He beats you up. It makes our House look bad!”

Ari sat back, at a total loss as to what to say. After a long moment she just shook her head. “It’s not a lover.”

“Then who is he? Why do you let him beat you?” The boy edged a little closer, curious.

She looked him in the eye, unhappy about the turn of the conversation but refusing to lie. “I can’t tell you that. But I have my reasons.”

“But he beats you!”

“And beating someone is bad?” Gods, a way back to the original subject and off of her, good.

“Well—” the boy looked confused. “Of course.” He looked around at his friends, looking for support. They shrugged and nodded.

“What were you going to do when you caught Gary, then?” The boy looked shocked for a moment, then uneasily took a step back from her. She nodded slowly. “Why?”

“Well, he’s—he’s not from here.”

“Neither am I. Would you want to beat me up, too?”

“Is that why your lover beats you? Because you’re not from here?”

Ari looked down for a moment, a shiver running through her. “No,” she said quietly. “That’s not why. And he’s not my lover. That would imply I had a choice.” She stopped, startled at her slip. “Let me ask you something.” The boy nodded, frowning, thinking about what she had said. “You know how we got here, right? The Gatherer’s ship?” The boy nodded again, his pack of friends echoing the motion. “You know they just took us, right? They didn’t ask if we wanted to come, they just took us. Took us away from our homes, from our friends, from our families. One minute we’re at home, and the next we woke up here.”

“That—that’s not true.” The boy’s eyes were wide and full of doubt.

She looked at him. “In everything you’ve heard about me, did you ever hear anyone say I lied?”

The boy gave her a defiant glare. “Drona says you’re a liar.”

Ari acknowledged that with a slow nod. “Governor Drona and I have some issues. I have no control over what he believes of me, but what he believes isn’t true. Does anyone else say that?”

His eyes narrowed, thinking that through. “No-o…”

“That’s because I don’t. Not to anyone. Not ever.” Ari turned to the younger boy. “Gary, did anyone ask your folks if they wanted to come here? Did anyone ask you?” He shook his head, his eyes too wide and his face too white. She turned to the other boys. “Does he look happy to be here?” They looked over at him, seeing his expression, and they looked back at her, slowly shaking their heads. Gently, she added, “He’s lost everything he’s ever known. Everyone he’s ever cared about. Just like all the rest of us newcomers. D’you think it’s helping, you saying he doesn’t belong?” She gestured at Gary. “Look at him! He knows he doesn’t belong here. Yet. But he’s here, now. He’s stuck here, he can’t go home again, not for years and years. Maybe never. Don’t you think he’d rather make friends, try to make a new home?”

As one, the group turned back and stared at him for a long moment. Abruptly the older boy walked over to Gary and stuck out his hand. “Hi,” he said, “I’m Pallas. Welcome to Thanah.”

Ari watched as the group crowded around Gary. Children were amazing, she thought. Honest. Refreshing. Cruel without a moment’s thought, open and generous the next.

The kicker came as the pack of boys were leaving. Pallas turned back from where Gary was chattering away to the other boys. “You should leave him, if he beats you,” he said in matter-of-fact tones. “There’s plenty of better lovers right here in the House. Like my big brother, Aeso. You should meet him.” He turned away as Ari’s jaw dropped.

* * *

 

Shadow into Light

A little more on Danny Ryder…

Month 6, day 1 – 201 days on Thanah

the House of the Black Dog: the balcony above the herb garden

Danny Ryder was in a hole. In a hole, and he knew it, because he’d dug it himself and climbed right in, eyes wide open. Dug himself a goddamn grave, closed his eyes to everything around himself and climbed right in. Christ, how could anyone be so stupid? That guy in his dream had been right: he’d had the perfect opportunity to make a change, to make it different, to make it better, and he’d gone right back to the same old, headed right back to run with the same kind of dogs who’d pissed on him before and made him the loser he always was.

Shit, goddammit—not true. He’d made himself the loser by choosing them.

Now he saw something he’d never thought to see, wanted something he’d never known existed, and he’d cut himself off from it by his own actions.

He stood in the shadows of the balcony as he had for the last few days, looking down on the garden below, watching the woman who sat alone under the old olive tree. The afternoon sun lit her copper hair like a halo, but her face was in shadow. There was just enough light reflecting back from the fountain for him to see her expression, and it was so stark and alone that he wondered how she could survive that way—and for a fleeting moment he wondered if his face looked like that. Something in his chest tightened, a sharp pain that settled in like a knot that wouldn’t go away, and his face twisted in utter disgust. What the fuck was he thinking?

He started to turn away when the woman moved, turned her face up to the sun, and he saw the glitter of tears on her cheeks, lines that took fire in the last of the sunlight.

He fell, and was lost.

* * *

What Is She Doing?

This one was originally posted in November on my other site. I’m playing Catch-Up, can’t you tell? Another one about Deimo.

I figured it was time to post another snippet from my magnum opus, House of the Black Dog. Can you tell that, even though Ari Dillon is my protagonist, Deimo Agisiou is my favorite character? 

* * * 

Month 3, Day 32 – 112 days on Thanah ~ House Kel Arain, the atrium

The Master was agitated, that was evident. Deimo could hear him prowling back and forth in the atrium; a wonder in itself, when as a rule he could appear from anywhere and no-one hear him coming. Prowling, and muttering—never a good sign. Deimo would be on his guard now every moment until well after his Master was in for the night; one never knew what might set him off when he was like this, it could so easily turn ugly…

“Deimo!” His Master’s voice crackled with vexation, and Deimo moved quickly to respond, presenting himself in the atrium. It didn’t look good; Khamasur’s hair was in disarray, as though he had thrust his fingers through it and tugged every which way, and his robe hung askew.

“Master?”

“What is she doing?” Even his Master’s voice was off; a rasping growl where normally it was smooth and urbane, showing nothing save what he chose to put there. “I don’t know what she’s doing!”

“Who, Master?” Deimo asked, quietly cautious—though he had a fair idea.

Khamasur spun on him, half into a fighter’s crouch, and Deimo was hard put not to flinch at the sudden savagery. “That—that—woman, that laika, that—red-headed witch!” Khamasur spat, fighting to get the words out, enraged because they wouldn’t come. “That—Ari! Ari Dillon!” Khamasur visibly relaxed, having finally trapped the elusive words, and some of Deimo’s tension eased as well. Sometimes, when his Master fought with words like that, his anger went to rage and beyond; this time it seemed he’d fought and won, and was content. Deimo relaxed more as Khamasur looked at him, and he saw his Master’s eyes were clearing again, the irises rimmed with smoky gray and the pupils normal. “Why are you here?”

Deimo bowed, careful and precise. “I thought I heard you call for me, Master.”

Khamasur stared at him for a long moment, eyes glittering; his body remembering rage while his mind had already forgotten it. When he spoke, his voice was flat and mistrustful; even, perhaps, a little doubtful… “I called you.” He still breathed harshly, nostrils and lips tight and face gone to sharp planes and angles. Abruptly he turned and flung away across the atrium, shrugging his robes straight as he went. At the desk he snatched up his wine cup, took the pitcher and splashed some inside, and then took it down in one long swallow, his motions still sharp with agitation. He filled the cup again and set the pitcher down with a hard thump; froze for a tense instant, then picked it up and set it down again with precisely moderated care. “What is she doing?” he asked again, his words sharp-edged as glass. He turned in place as he spoke, eyes narrowed and fixed on Deimo’s, making it a demand for his response.

Deimo chose his words with care. “Master, you know I haven’t the breadth of knowledge you do. I couldn’t speculate, and I wouldn’t dare advise you.” He shook his head, watching his Master’s eyes. “I can only speak from my own experience.”

Khamasur gestured with his wine cup. “Go on.”

“You will have taken steps to verify what the woman has told you.” Deimo’s tone made it clear it was not a question, and Khamasur’s cold expression confirmed it. Again he gestured for Deimo to continue. The Armsman gave a half shrug, and went on diffidently. “If what the woman told you is confirmed, but the results are still not what you expect, then there must be something missing, something we don’t know, that is affecting the outcome.”

“Something she’s not telling me…” Khamasur’s voice was dark with suspicion, and his eyes began to pale. He stalked slowly across the atrium, pacing, and Deimo could see he was working his way up again to a real rage, a rage that could spell trouble for the House now, or for Ari Dillon later. He had to head it off.

“It’s possible…” he murmured, his tone thoughtful, and Khamasur rounded on him.

What’s possible?”

“It may not necessarily be a deliberate omission, Master. It may be something the woman doesn’t know herself.” Deimo raised his head and met Khamasur’s eyes, face impassive. ‘Gods bless, steer him away from her, make him think it through!’ He could no more stop Khamasur in his wrath than a karoukha, but sometimes a diversion… “If she only has limited access to his business affairs, then there will be aspects that are not available to her—and thus not to you.” Once again, the half shrug. “Perhaps the question should not be, ‘What is she doing,’ but ‘What is he?’”

Khamasur stopped pacing, arrested, his agile mind racing. Deimo waited; passive, calm. Abruptly, Khamasur swept into motion, going back to his desk and seating himself. “You may be right,” he said, and Deimo drew a cautious breath. Khamasur’s words were cool and precise once more, his movements smooth and controlled. “A different perspective is always valuable. I may have been looking at it too closely; I shall have to look at all the Black Dog’s actions, not only those she’s told me of.” His voice went pensive as he bent his head and scribbled notes on his com. “See if something suggests itself…” He flicked his fingers, not looking up, and Deimo bowed and left the atrium.

* * *

Deimo felt a shiver deep inside as he again took up his post in the side hall. His Master was back on balance, calm and thinking again, but for how long? Such respites were often chancy at best. And who knew where he would take the suggestion Deimo had offered?

It came back to the woman, Ari Dillon. The offer his Master had made her a day ago—that was a shock. What had he intended? An alliance, a liaison, even a marriage? How could he think she would accept such a thing, after what had gone before?

If his Master thought it was a way to control her, he had no idea what he was doing. Deimo took a breath; blew it out. There was a truth. His Master was desperate to control her, to—to have her—and he was going about it all wrong. She would never be his. Never.

The woman was stronger than Khamasur knew; if nothing else, the fact that she kept coming back should have told him that. To deliberately choose to come back to his hands, to the abuse and the degradation he put her through, to protect a child not even of her House? That spoke a strength of will and purpose the equal of his Master’s—something Khamasur might possibly recognize in another, but would never understand.

Deimo shook his head, thinking. He had to admire the woman’s strength—her will, her character, and yes, physically as well. His Master was wrong about her, though. The scars he’d seen on her body were not from fights; no fight put such regular scars on someone’s arms. They were not defensive scars, either; those were deliberately inflicted. Someone had held her arms, and cut, and cut, and cut. Nor had she flinched or pulled away—the scars were not ragged or tailed off; they were drawcuts, equally deep and evenly spaced. The other scars, as well. Bite marks, burns… all deliberate. No, those were not from fights, they were torture. Someone had held her, done those things to her, where she could not fight back.

Once again, Deimo shook his head, lips pressed thin. Almost he asked himself what kind of person could do such a thing—but he already knew the answer. Knew it, because he lived with it every day of his life…

The last scar he recognized as well; a surgical scar on her abdomen, straight and deliberate, bracketed on either side with small scars from sutures. That was where she had been neutered. He wondered if that had come before or after the others, but he’d wager it was after. What had she been through? Another wager—that whatever it was, it was that which had given her the strength to endure all this.

To what end, though?

The question his Master had posed was key—what was she doing? Not for the first time, Deimo considered this. It was more than just to protect the girl, Shanyse; of that he was certain. But what other goal motivated her, he hadn’t a clue. There was something about her, though. Something that crawled under the skin and gripped hard, something that made him want to—what? To help? To protect her? To fight for her? He had too much to protect already, and even if he dared, what could he do?

She’d gotten under the Master’s skin in a big way as well; he would never let her go. Whatever scheme he was pursuing now, he wouldn’t turn her loose when it was over, that was not in the stars. He would make use of her until he had what he wanted, and when her usefulness was at an end he would break her, body, mind, and spirit, until she was no use to anyone, not even herself.

He had seen it before. Watched it happen just as helplessly then as now, and he felt something inside him die just a little more each time he had to bring her back.

The stylus in his hand snapped with the sound of dry bones breaking, and he stared down at the pieces with hopeless eyes.

* * *

The White Madness

This was posted over on my other site in March of last year. I hadn’t really set this one up then, but it had to go somewhere.

This is in answer to  flash challenge from a really cool guy, Chuck Wendig. You should go see his blog at terribleminds.com. I do warn you, though, he is definitely NSFW. And so is this challenge. It’s in response to a new app called Clean Reader. I won’t go into it here – check out Chuck’s blog entry titled “Fuck You, Clean Reader: Authorial Consent Matters.” The link is just below. ‘Nuff said.

The challenge is this, and I quote: “So, given all the hullaballoo with Clean Reader (“read books, not profanity”) this week, I thought a flash fiction challenge in pure defiance had some meaning. Thus: I want you to be inspired by that debacle. I want you to write filthily. Or write about filth. Sex, profanity, perversion. Fiction or meta-fiction. Any genre.”

My entry is a cut from my current WIP (Work In Progress). It’s current time, but set on another world. Sometime soon I’ll fill you all in on that. Just now, though, here’s the excerpt. It’s about people who’ve broken the rules, and those who have to deal with the aftermath. It runs somewhat over the 2000 words Chuck asked for, but hey, breaking rules, yeh? Only one cuss word. Said innocently, too. It’s the rest that hurts…

* * *

It was one of the times Deimo most feared; what he called the white madness, when his Master’s eyes were pale as ice and there was nothing human inside. A time when there was nothing Deimo could do to prevent or protect, but only stand and listen, sick and shaking and grieving inside but ultimately and utterly—helpless.

Sometimes, if he was there and could recognize the signs soon enough, he could head off the rage. Could dull its edge by offering his own body for the beating, let his Master spend the madness in the ring by putting up a real fight. Save a life by hazarding his own, where he at least had a chance to survive by his own skills.

But other times…

It had happened before. He had tried, gods knew, he had tried to save the girl, to put himself in between her and his Master, to no avail. She was already dying, and it was weeks before all his own injuries healed.

The worst of it was that his Master remembered what happened. Oh, not what he had done to the girl, no. But that Deimo had tried to prevent him—that, he remembered. The next day Khamasur had called him to the atrium and struck him down with one savage blow that left him dazed and bleeding on the floor, and stood over him with glittering eyes. And told him what would happen to his family if ever again Deimo stood between him and his intent.

Now it was happening again. Deimo had been out of the House, gone to the Citadel to meet with the Security Chiefs of the other Houses for a conference. When he returned, the watch commander told him that the Master was in such a rage as he had never seen, and when Deimo went to the atrium he found the man who had stood guard in his place sick and shaking and cowering in the hall.

What he found in the atrium was pure horror.

Deimo had the halls cleared from the atrium to the Master’s chambers, and threatened dire consequence if anyone so much as stepped into the short hall before he gave permission. He ordered the guard away from the Master’s suite, so no-one would see him covered in blood. Then he took charge of Khamasur, walking slowly with him all the long way through the House as he staggered like a drunkard from the exhaustion of his fit.

In Khamasur’s chambers Deimo stripped off his Master’s bloody clothes, drew a bath and bathed him, and put him to bed. He cleaned up the room and disposed of the bloody robes, then went back down to the atrium.

What Khamasur had done to the girl was brutal. Her body looked as though it had been savaged by animals: beaten and broken, the flesh torn and bloody. He stripped off what remained of her clothes and washed the blood from her body, then wrapped her in a sheet. Then he cleaned the atrium, washing down the tiles and columns until they were once again pristine white.

When he was done he took the body out of the House, carrying the dead girl in his arms and laying her gently across the seat of the car. He drove through the deserted streets down to the Agora and laid her in the shadows on the path nearest the House of Apollo Akestor, where she was sure to be found by the guards of the City Watch. Then he drove back to his House, sick and sad and weary.

But the worst was still to come.

The last time a madness like this had come on him, Khamasur had slept through the night and far into the next day. This time he woke again, not long after Deimo had left the House on his sad errand. Khamasur’s appetites had woken with him, and, finding no guard at his door, he commed his Governor, Panourgo. The Governor sent his runner, Oso, for wine and a tray of meats and cheeses, while he himself went to the women’s dorm. He woke the hall, chose a woman, and brought her to Khamasur, ignoring her protests and her weeping.

When Deimo returned the Watch commander met him at the door, telling him what the door guard had heard when he took over at shift change.

Deimo ran.

He found the door guard waiting in the hall, as far away from the Master’s door as he could get and still stand his post. Deimo took his report, then sent the guard away, telling the man that he himself would look in on the Master and stand guard until the next shift change.

And then he went inside.

It was a scene of carnage. Blood was everywhere: on the floor, on the walls and pillars, on the hangings. Khamasur lay naked in the middle of the room in a welter of gore, and Deimo went to him first. For all the blood on his body, only a small amount of it was his; cuts and abrasions on his hands from the blows he had given, and a long shallow cut on his arm that looked as if it came from a knife.

Deimo heard a soft sound, and looking up he saw the runner boy, Oso, on the balcony, cowering hard against the balustrade. He was shivering in shock, staring with his gaze fixed on Khamasur.

Deimo rose and came forward, then stepped between the boy and his Master to block his view, crouching down a few feet away. The boy was spattered with blood; on his clothes, on his face, and in his pale hair. “Oso,” Deimo said softly. “Oso.” He reached out his hand and the boy cringed, but his eyes lost the fixed stare and tracked to Deimo. “Oso, are you alright? Are you hurt?” Deimo kept his voice soft, soothing. The boy shook his head.

He looked back at the boy, and gestured back to the horrific scene. “Did you see what happened here?” Oso nodded. Very gently Deimo asked him, “Can you tell me?” The boy nodded again, and Deimo shifted, settled down on one knee.

“Master called Panourgo,” the boy said, his voice faint but clear. “Master wanted a girl, wanted wine, and meat, and cheese. Panourgo sent me to fetch wine, and meat, and cheese for Master, told me to bring it here. I brought it here.”

Deimo nodded encouragement, reassuring the boy that he understood. It would take time to get the full story, he knew; the boy had to tell it in his own way, and with the life he had to live and the horror of what he had seen tonight… It would take time.

“Master took the wine, Master didn’t want the meat and cheese. He wanted the girl. Wanted her to drink wine with him. The girl was afraid of Master. She didn’t want wine. She wanted to go, go back to her room, go back to bed. Master hit the girl, hit her. The girl fell down, and Master fucked the girl, hard, hard.” Deimo winced at how casually the boy said it, knowing it was the only word he knew for the act. For what had so often been done to him. Gods, the life he led in this House… “She cried. She cried, and she screamed, and Master hit her.

“Master wanted more wine. He got up and put more wine in his cup and drank it. The girl got up, too. She wanted cheese and meat. She went to the plate with the cheese and meat, and she took the knife to cut the cheese and meat. But then she ran, she ran to Master and cut him with the knife. Master threw away the cup with the wine. He took the knife from the girl and hit her with the knife. Hit her. Hit her. Hit her…” The boy’s voice trailed off, and he looked again at Khamasur on the floor. “There was blood when he hit her. When he hit her with the knife. She screamed when he hit her with the knife, and then she didn’t scream any more. She fell down. Master kept hitting her with the knife.” The boy stopped, and just crouched there, shivering.

Deimo looked around the room, looking for the body that was the source of all the blood, but saw nothing, no-one. He looked back at the boy. “Oso,” he asked, gesturing around them again. “Where is she?”

The boy shifted his gaze back to Deimo, staring at him with stricken eyes. Slowly, very slowly, the boy turned his head to look over his shoulder—through the balusters at his back, out to the sea.

Gods bless…” Deimo breathed. Very slowly he stood, trying not to frighten the boy any further. He moved away and went to the railing a few feet from the boy, looked over and down. There on the rocks, hundreds of feet below, he could see the body. Broken and still, white robes swirling on the incoming tide.

The boy spoke again; still quiet, still matter-of-fact. “Master got up, and he looked at her. He looked at her a long time. Then he hit her with his foot, and he looked at her again. Then he bent down, and he picked up the girl, and he carried her here where we watch the sun. He held her up, made her be standing here. And then he made her fly. She flew. She had white wings, and she flew down, down, down to the sea.” There was something strange in his voice when he said it, almost a yearning.

Deimo stared down at the girl’s body, and his heart ached in his chest. There was no way to get down there, no way to reach her. But the tide would take her, and the sea would give her peace.

He turned to the boy. “Oso, will you do something for me? For me, and for the Master?” The boy nodded. “Go into the bathing room and draw a bath. You can wash yourself, too. Here,” he said. He took off the dark gray tunic of his uniform, then took off the soft linen one he wore underneath. “If you give me your tunic when you take it off, I will have it cleaned and give it back to you. You can wear this one to go home.” He shrugged. “It’s big, but it’s clean.” He started to reach out to hand it to Oso, but the boy cringed back, so he folded it instead and set it aside where the boy could get it. Then he backed away.

He left the suite of rooms and went down the hall; found the cleaning supplies and brought them back with him. The boy was gone and so was the tunic, but he could hear water running in the bathing room. He settled down to cleaning the room, but when the boy came back out Deimo went and picked Khamasur up in his arms. He carried his Master into the bathing room and washed him clean once more, dried him off, and put him to bed again.

When he came back out, the boy was gone.

Deimo pulled out his com and called Altheo, the House Physician, and told him to come up to Khamasur’s rooms—and told him to bring a galánas device. There was a moment of silence, and then the Physician said one word. “Bad?” he asked.

“The worst.” Deimo’s voice was tight and hard, the words almost choking him.

“I’ll be there.”

Deimo put the com away and kept washing.

* * *

He was still cleaning when Altheo arrived. He let the Physician in and stood aside, and Altheo stopped dead in the hall, staring around him. “What happened here?” he asked, appalled.

“Khamasur,” Deimo answered, curt and succinct. “Two women are dead. One down in the atrium, one here.” He didn’t look at Altheo when he said it; couldn’t look him in the eyes. “I took the one down to the Agora. Just like last time.” His words were bitter. “At least she’ll get a decent burial.” He knelt down, went back to scrubbing the floor.

“And the other?” Altheo’s voice was faint. Deimo gestured to the balcony.

Altheo went to the rail, looked over. “Great Kheiron’s bow…” When he turned back, his face was sick. “And Khamasur?”

Deimo gestured to the bedroom. “Sleeping it off.”

“Is he hurt?”

“Abrasions on his hands, and a scratch from a knife.” He looked up at the Physician, his face gone suddenly bitter. “If you could put him out for—” He cut himself off sharply, but both of them knew the word he hadn’t said. Forever… “For the night. Until tomorrow. Until night.”

Altheo nodded. “Give us all some time to breathe.” He headed off to the bedroom.

Deimo looked up again. “Altheo—” The Physician looked back at him. “Oso was here, the whole time. He saw it all.”

“Oh, gods…” Altheo stood there for a moment, then shook his head and continued on. He came out a few minutes later, putting the galánas device back in its case. He watched Deimo for a few moments. “Deimo, are you—?”

“Fine.” The word was more a grunt than anything.

“Deimo.”

I said I’m fine.” It hung there between them for a long moment. “I’m sorry, Altheo. But what do you want me to say? That I’m appalled? I am. That I’m angry? I am. That I’m hurting, that I’m devastated about both those girls, that I wish we could just…” He cut off his words, sat back on his heels and looked up at the other man. “I’m all those things and a hundred more, and what good does it do to say them?” He took a breath that was half a sob and threw down the rag he’d been using. “What good does any of it do? We’re here. We can’t leave, we have too many ties and too many responsibilities, and just like that poor boy Oso we’ll be here until we’re broken or we die, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Nothing, until we die, or he dies, or the world ends.” He looked away, picked up the rag, and started scrubbing again.

“This has to stop.”

“Let me know when you find a way,” Deimo said bitterly. “Until then there’s no use talking.”

“This has to stop. You can’t keep doing this.”

Deimo surged to his feet, and the Physician backed away hurriedly. “Then who, Altheo?” His words were savage, bitten off with an anger that had no recourse. “Should I have told Oso to do it? He would have, you know. He does what he’s told, it’s the only way he can be safe. It’s the only part of his life he can control. And we’re just like him, you know that, don’t you? It’s the only way we can survive here, keeping our heads down and doing what we’re told. The only way we can be safe. Except we can’t. Because there’s that…” He swung his arm, indicating the room around them, the bedroom beyond, and the balcony where a young girl’s life ended and he didn’t even know who she was. He wouldn’t know, until someone in the House reported her missing, and then what did he tell her family? His face shivered; too many emotions to show clearly, and then it went to stone. Cold. Hard. Expressionless. “Go back to your rooms, Altheo. You’ve done what you came to do. I have to finish.”

Altheo nodded, acknowledging what Deimo had said, and what he couldn’t say. He looked around again, then walked away. But he laid a hand on Deimo’s shoulder as he passed, silent commiseration. And then Deimo was alone.

* * *

Off the Grid and Lost – Danny Ryder

I figure it’s time you meet someone else on Thanah – one of the Gathered, Danny Ryder. He starts out as a bad boy – an ex-con, one with a desperate need to belong to something, a gang, whatever. So long as they’ll have his back, he’ll have theirs. But things don’t work out the way he planned… and he realizes there’s someone he wants to protect.

Month 5, day 26 – 186 days on Thanah

somewhere in the House

Nobody seemed to know where Ryder was lately, not his bad-ass homeboys, nor the Ouroi. He showed up for his work shift every day, looking rougher than usual but doing his job with a dogged focus. Just sort of keeping his head down, like he was thinking hard while doing something else. Shift done, he’d ghost over to the dining hall and eat—and then disappear off the House radar. Since in general no-one was much interested in looking for him, no-one much missed him either. His pack could care less—Roach was still pissed at him over the stupid kid, and the others found it safer to follow Roach’s lead rather than risk crossing him anyway. Still, even Roach wondered every once in a while where Ryder’d got to, in an annoyed, sort of missing-having-a-whipping-boy kind of way.

Where he was, was lost. Something—or someone—had poked him in a place he’d thought long dead, and now he was trying to figure out if this was a good thing or a bad thing. It had been a very long time since he’d thought about anyone but himself, and now he couldn’t seem to think about anyone else but her.

He didn’t really know why yet, hadn’t figured it out, but ever since he’d talked to the redhead in the back hall she’d been sort of there in the back of his mind. How she’d given him his space, coming on him like that. How she’d listened, really listened, to what he’d said; had seemed to believe him. How she’d caught on so quick that he had to cover himself, caught the ball and didn’t fumble. There was something to her that stuck in his mind like a sandbur and wouldn’t let go.

There was something going on with her, too, something big, something that when he thought about it set his teeth on edge like biting into a piece of tinfoil. She didn’t dress or act like a skank or a ho, but there was still the rumor in the House that she had some guy outside, real rough trade. But it didn’t fit with what he saw of her, and he couldn’t figure how anyone else could believe that. So something was going down, and she was deep in the middle of it.

Jimmy Spitz, a young kid he’d met in the House that was also from Brooklyn, he worked in the gym and he said she was in there like three-four hours every day, working out like a crazy person with some guy Arvanis and that security guy, Sinclair. Said they were teaching her all sorts of stuff he’d never seen before—not just karate stuff but wrestling and boxing and like that.

He’d learned she went out every two weeks with the Keeper, Kanti, but then Kanti came back alone every time and the redhead came back hours later all beat to shit and looking like she’d been run over flat by a garbage truck. Now maybe the word was true and she had some rough trade going—but those hours in the gym said something else to Ryder. That kind of drive said obsession to him, that there was something so big in her mind that was worth taking that kind of punishment.

He remembered back to that day in the dining hall when she’d laid the smackdown on him. She’d been beat all to shit like they said, and looked like she’d been through six kinds of hell. She’d hit him like a piledriver, looking crazy, freakin’ like she was on drugs. Now he was thinking it was something else—something worse, something sick. He knew a girl who’d been gang-raped, back home. She’d had that same look in her eyes, got the same freak on if somebody touched her when she didn’t see it coming. He’d heard she’d walked off a subway platform in front of an inbound.

The redhead, though—she was taking it the other way, fighting it, trying to make herself stronger, strong enough to take whoever was doing—whatever—to her.

The only thing he couldn’t figure out was why. There had to be a reason why someone would go out on purpose to take that kind of shit, and keep going back.

Maybe if he could figure out why, he could get her out of his skull and get back to his damn life.

* * *