Authors: Benjamin Kane Ethridge
Banch put a hand on her hip. “That’s the best way to be up.”
“Thank you,” Jared said to Eun Sun, and put his sweat pants over his arm. “Say hello to Bae for us.”
“Dinner… tonight?” she asked.
Eun Sun nodded with a sly smile and saw them to the door. She noticed the puddle on the carpet and studied it in confusion.
“Jared neun mulgogi geuleus eul heul lyeoss-eo,” said Banch. Joesonghabnida, geuneun seotuleun.”
Jared spilled your fish bowl. Sorry, he’s such an oaf.
Banch and Eun Sun burst out laughing and Jared watched them both, sensing the joke revolved around him. They left into the hall, and Banch already missed this home. She would have loved to play cards with Jared and Bae at their dinner table and try a large bowl of Eun Sun’s beef soup.
Banch put Eun Sun’s and Bae’s deaths out of her mind, even though she knew the events well. Thinking in the moment always did her heart so much better.
We wouldn’t lose our prize. The Silent Kings’ promise will be fulfilled to our number. We’ve kept the light and dark from converging and we’ve suffered for it. So it was our due to release the last century from our trembling, scabbed hands onto another. It was our reprieve. It was our right. Sometimes, it was the only reason we believed for our existence, even more than sorting shadows and sunbursts for the glory and health of all the dimensions. After the day was done and we laid on the cold stone floor of the fortress at the elemental hinge, covered in our blood and filth, we dreamed about the next Gift who will release the woe of our lot.
We hated this banshee for taking that away, especially since it is something she would never understand, for whatever reason, out of selfishness or cruelty. She was decidedly both, and craftier than we cared to deal with at the moment. Somehow she had played a move ahead of us again. The scent of the Gift was gone or so faint, it remained undetected now. This was undoubtedly her doing. For all the trouble we went through to acquire the scent, and wasting one of our three grants to claim those lives, she’d suddenly made all that meaningless. How we’d have loved to pull that golden voice box from her neck and share bites while she stared at us, aspirating, hemorrhaging. Relying on fantasy didn’t get us any closer to the Gift however.
“Bring out the scroll,” we growled.
The Seventh reached into a pocket in his gore-covered slacks and lifted out the dripping sanguine document. He unrolled it with a jerk, spattering blood over the faces of the Second and the Eighth. The blood remained there on their faces in fresh streamers, a history in red. We lived through blood: the scarlet, the pink, the brown, and the blackest of rot.
“Where does Jared die?” we asked.
The Seventh read for a moment and grunted. The new information spread through all of our minds. The Gift would expire at his place of work, an office building a mile or so from here. To the north, with a short turn on Styx Street.
We broke off, a pack of muscular frenzy and need. Some humans in running clothes watched us from across the street. From their dull eyes and gaping mouths it was clear they’d never seen or even thought about anything like us. But that was not such a surprise. A mite cannot lift its ugly head to the sky and understand the approach of a world-ending meteor. It is not fair to ask something like that of nothinglings.
Our pace became a trot, which became a sprint. The air dried some of the blood on our bare backs and in our tangled, ratty hair. New blood would replace it soon. A relished certainty.
Several of our number quit the sidewalk for the street, the connection with this world becoming stronger and less biting to the bones. It was a sensation that our entire number sensed, so all ten followed suit. Yes. The connection was better. We felt stronger and more aware of this place, and the pain of not having complete residence was but a slight tingle in our soles.
We arrived at the office building that was luckily only a single story structure, making this stop much easier. WESTCOAST DATA EXCELLENCE. The double doors slid open without manual operation. We filed into the lobby and stood before a reception desk. A small Japanese fountain bubbled near the wall with a lonesome bamboo shaft poking through the pebbles. Beyond the lobby area, a sea of cubicles stretched to the outer reaches of the building, a blue-gray morass.
! What?” A curly haired woman in a blue pantsuit rounded the desk, a cell phone clutched in her hand. She stood away from them, terrified and watching the blood pitter-patter on the floor. “Leave here at once. I’m calling the police.”
“Give us Jared Kare’s address,” we demanded. “Then we will leave your building.”
Her eyes widened, stricken by our communal voice.
She retreated further into the hall and glanced at her phone. The Sixth moved to her and caught her wrist.
“The police,” she said with a yelp.
“We don’t care about your blue-coated strongmen and their metal. We bear the fabric of time and its billion fibers tearing across our exposed hearts, flayed open to welcome the falling acid from the universe’s teeth. Now…” we told her. The Sixth tightened his grip and the phone tumbled from her hand and clattered on the beige tile floor. “Give us the address.”
The woman gulped and sealed her eyes shut.
“Rose!” called a bald man, standing stock still at the side of the desk.
“Bill…” she whispered, opening her eyes partway.
“Jared Kare, his address,” we insisted. “Or we will fill her womb with enough darkness to bring a litter of devil dogs.”
The Sixth forced Rose to the wall, ran his hand down his bare stomach until it reached the buckle in his right suspender. He unfastened it and his pants slid sideways, revealing the side of one of his bloodstained buttocks.
“No,” cried Bill. “I can get his personnel file. Just don’t hurt her.”
“Hurry,” we whispered. The Sixth nudged his seeping scarlet lips against Rose’s cheek as he said this with us and the movement left a violent flower of color on her.
Bill almost slipped as he tore away to a file cabinet down the hall. He crashed into the water cooler and it gurgled loudly.
The Sixth grabbed Rose under her knee and hefted up her leg. He brought his hips closer to her and softly nipped at her pale neck. We watched with fascination, enjoying the shared excitement and need surging at the two bodies.
“Here! Jared’s stuff.” Bill waved a paper overhead and charged back to us, his loafers clapping on the tile. “It’s here, please let her go. I’ll… I’ll give this to you.”
The Fourth intercepted him, swiped the page away, and pushed him into the desk so hard he took a seat on top of it.
The Fourth read the Human Resources profile and it filled all of our minds. We’d memorized this city before leaving the fortress, so we knew this particular residence was a few miles east.
“And now we leave—”
But noticed one of our number had remained silent. One of our voices had gone missing.
“Sixth?” we hissed.
The Sixth pressed the woman Rose harder into the wall and made a framed motivational poster SUCCESS go sideways at the fierce motion.
“There is no time to lose,” we said. “She is not the Gift. Remember our purpose.”
With a quivering gasp, the Sixth pushed down his pants to pull free his sex. His left suspender fell askew over his dense deltoid muscle.
“Sixth!” we warned. “You have forgotten us.”
“It’s a matter of moments, comrades!” he rasped.
That was it. He wasn’t within us. He had broken away, become separate, no longer within the Assembly.
The Tenth caught him at the back of his neck.
“Oh!” He laughed out at first and then screamed, realizing where his brain had derailed from us. “I beg mercy! Please! I just wanted someone while here. We shall all feel it. Let me have this.”
“There is no
,” we told him.
The Tenth hoisted him off the ground.
“MERCY!” he shrieked.
With the loss of connection from the floor, the Sixth’s skull caught fire and his skin peeled back like a wind tossed tarp. The exposed skull radiated white amid the flames. The skin shredded and the ends caught with hot embers like thousands of funeral incense sticks. They glowed hotter, slipped down, and surged with red electricity and black smoke. The Sixth’s body exploded into spinning silver particles that expanded and pulled inward, into nothing.
There was only silence then. But it was momentary.
With a tremendous ripping sound, a wash of red stretched over the wall. The new Sixth emerged from the corridor shadow. The male body that appeared was larger, with African skin, though no less bloody than the Sixth before him. His gore-oiled handlebar mustache and untamed afro looked reminiscent of the Third Precocious Age, but this one’s past was no matter.
We were him.
He was us.
For as long as he could ever dream to be.
* * *
The banshee’s scent was stronger coming from another apartment, not the apartment of our Gift, but instead lingering at a stranger’s threshold. There was also a dangerous smell, one that bled through all dimensions at once. It would make us lose connection not only here, but everywhere. Sea water.
It was obvious the Gift and the banshee had been in this other apartment as well, and stayed longer for some reason. We wagered the purpose for their stay in the stranger’s apartment would ultimately reveal their location. If it didn’t, we had little choice otherwise than to investigate.
We would use caution here with the scent of sea water so near. It was nothing to play loosely around. The First and Third took axes from a corridor shadow and went brutally at the door, trading off whacks. Shouts surfaced from the other side, growing louder as large hunks of wood splintered and ripped away.
We consider the smell. It was somewhere low, possibly in the floor, in the worn brown carpet. It’s not seen and there isn’t much, but the risk of stepping into it would be too high.
“Grab the hooks,” we said.
The Fifth cleared the remainder of hanging wood debris. In the apartment a Korean couple hunkered in a corner. Both looked to a hallway, their foolhardy escape plan.
The First pulled a grappling hook from another corridor shadow. We had little time to admire its weight and smell the old death on its steel, and so we hurried to the doorway.
The man screamed an order to the woman, possibly his wife. She protested in their language and shook her head like a stubborn child. He grumbled something and cast his eyes back on us, his bewilderment as to why we hadn’t entered the apartment all too clear. We caught the muddled scent of the Gift on one of them.
The Seventh leaned inside, taking the grappling hook from the Ninth. It made us anxious, how exposed we were to the hidden sea water. This might have been a trap set by the banshee.
. We could only use disciplined caution.
The hook, gleaming, heavy, hypnotic black on black, iron, steel, metal, hated love, we all agreed was and would always be our favorite tool. So many uses. So many beautiful memories. The Seventh cast it out. The married couple tried to run but misjudged the hook’s path—it struck the floor just ahead of the man—the Seventh yanked it and swept the man off his feet, catching just below the right knee.
“Bae!” the woman wailed.
The Seventh ripped the man across the room, sending him through a TV tray set up with a bowl of soup. The bowl scattered and broth and noodles rained down on the man as he kicked and clawed at the carpet for purchase. The man wasn’t even near us and we could already understand he wasn’t the one possessing the smell. It was the woman.
But this was still good.
The Seventh caught the man by his ankle and pulled him into the air, careful not to drag him through the sea water at the threshold. Upside down, Bae yelled to his wife, but she screeched back at him. The Seventh dropped him into the hallway. He flopped there a moment before we pulled him to his feet and slammed him into the side wall.
The First leaned into the apartment, his lips and ours peeling into a senseless grin. He motioned for the woman to come forward. She started to move and Bae reprimanded her—cut off almost at once with the Seventh squeezing his throat between powerful fingers coiled in crusted blood.
“Bae,” the woman sobbed, and hurried to the doorway. The Seventh eased his grip and the sound that escaped the man was amusingly melodramatic. We tittered and closed in around the threshold.
The First snatched the woman’s hand and pulled it to his nose. The scent there filled all of our nostrils. We detected a similar smell in the room. A laundry basket near the couch. A pile of folded clothes were stacked there, newly laundered but still possessing the smell, if an earthier version. The banshee must have blended out Jared’s natural scent and further muddled it with an attracting color. How very cunning of the bitchwhore.
This would take more study.
The First sniffed again, his nose, our noses, going rubbery, and nostrils all flaring with volcanic red intensity.
The man’s foot snapped up and his work boot slammed into the First’s face. We all flinched, pulled rudely from our analysis. Our hands simultaneously touched our stinging jaws and we tasted murder, enjoyable pieces of pink and red on our tongues.
The Tenth pulled a machete from a slanting corridor shadow and we chuckled at our own breathless excitement.
The First huffed in more of the odor. It was complex but even getting some distinguishing marker would provide a general location in the city. The muddling had been well executed.
The Seventh brought the gasping man forward, while we toyed with his wife’s body.
“Money!” Bae said. “And let her go from here. Money—”
The Tenth stuck the point of the machete at the man’s lower right eyelid.
“In my bedroom. Money. Yours. Please!”
The blade gently creased the skin in a vermillion stroke. The woman’s face was locked in a micro-expression, on the verge of screaming. We mimicked her cowardice, the deliciously stupid expression rolling across our ten faces in a cascade. In the next moment we were laughing so hard we almost lost ourselves again. The First had stopped his sniffing. The Tenth carelessly dragged the machete down and neatly split Bae’s mechanic jumpsuit, his hairless, pale chest bursting into view.