By Paul Jessup
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Even from back here, I felt the heat rising. Calling to me. Burning the fine hairs on my arm to a crisp. I saw the northern tower fall, crumbling, burning. “We’re trouble, through and through.”
Galik opened his eyes. “You’re trouble. Brother, you’re trouble. Me? I’m good as gold. Kind-hearted.”
Galik was good as gold, but only when he was Galik. When he was Mercer, he was different. Shadow-souled. I didn’t mention that, though. Galik didn’t know about Mercer. “Yeah, I guess so, me brother. Still, your kindness is a fault of its own and it’s brought us our own fair share of troubles.”
I watched him tremble at the words. Watched the words bite into him, tear into him. I felt the city fire grow, expand, try and devour us. Ash fluttered to the ground like grey snow, staining my skin. Another explosion, another crumbling tower. Galik stood, his body vibrating. He was two heads taller than me, twice as wide. His hands clenched as fists, shaking. “You take that back. Take your words back. Shove them back, back in your mouth. Shove them into your throat, back into your devil’s stomach; let them die there, where those words belong.”
Mercer was there, under his skin. I felt it. It was like a growing shadow, like a hand over my heart, fingers drifting over exposed ventricles. One wrong word and Mercer would squeeze. “Calm down, Gerik, meant nothing at all. Meaningless words. Like butterflies on my tongue.”
He sat down, hard. His eyes still clenched. His body still pulled in on itself. Like his heart was this immense gravitational weight, and it was sucking in his bones and skin. “Kindness. Kindness. It’s not my fault, not my fault at all.”
I nodded. Touched his shoulder. “Of course it’s not. Right? You were just trying to help out.”
Screams in the city. Someone was crying. I wondered how long it would take before the whole city burned and everyone inside was dead. There was no way out. We’d made sure of that when we’d left, me and Mercer. When we’d set the last fires on the doors.
Had to keep them in. Had to make sure nothing got out. Not after we’d opened the shadow box. Not after Mercer had decided that the citizens weren’t worth it, at all. They’d become infected. They were all tainted. Food for a dead god.
Gerik was crying now. His head hung low. His body shaking in sobs. I sat down next to him, put my arm around him. “Come on, come on. How could you have known? You were just trying to make her happy. You were just trying to help her out, right?”
I almost jumped. Felt the shadow under his skin move, dance. Like it was in his blood, in his bones. Mercer, touching me. Letting me know any moment he could snap, come out and kill me, too. Did he know I was tainted? He had to know. I carried the mark on my palm. The dead god would be coming to eat me, soon. No amount of fire would free me from this fate.
He looked back up at me, his eyes red. “Tell me something nice,” he said, rubbing his big meaty hands on his face. “Tell me something happy. Give me a happy memory. One were I did something kind and nothing bad happened, and I made the world a better place. Please? Could you do that for me?”
I sighed. Another tower, boom. More flames. More screams. I thought I heard someone crying out for help. I wanted to run back in. I wanted to run and help them. I wanted to pull them all from the burning flames, but I knew I could not. If I did it, then Mercer would come out. And Mercer would kill me.
Mercer knew what was best.
“Sure,” I said to Galik. “I can tell you a story like that.”
And I did. I told him a story of the sea, of a time when we were young and running down the beaches. And our parents were there, fishing in the long boats. Their bare backs blazing in the sun. And the surf rolled in and out and in and out. And I told him of the time he rescued that drowning girl, and of the time he tried to kill the sun with a spear and got the biggest fish in the world, instead.
And I told him how we ate it. Ate it for months. And he smiled. Smiled against my arms. I could almost smell the sea. So strong and poignant was that memory. And I felt him lean against me, smiling. We were in that memory then. In that memory. So deep we didn’t even hear the thunder of the dead god, the cries of the devoured. Or the last of the flames licking our faces.
Bio: Paul Jessup is a critically acclaimed writer of fantastical fiction. He’s been published in many magazines, both offline and on, with two books published in 2009 (short novel, Open Your Eyes and the short story collection Glass Coffin Girls) and a third to come out in 2010 (the illustrated book Werewolves). You can check out his crazy stuff at http://pauljessup.com.