Baylo felt a hand stroke his cheek. He opened his eyes and saw a dark figure over him, tattered, dirty, and monstrous. Its hair, if one could even call it that, covered its entire face. He could smell the stench emanating from the thousand years of rot. Baylo began to whimper as his body shook.
Had he been right all along? Had his vision to create the gods been a calling from those very same gods?
He had thought he had made them from thin air, grandiose stories like when children play at being anything but what they truly are, but maybe it had truly been a gift from those very same gods. They had come down and placed those thoughts there for him and made him think that he was responsible when he was nothing but their pawn.
Tears rolled down the side of his head.
“Shhhhh,” he heard the Unbroken One say through the slits in her sewn lips.
He had been right, but any comfort from knowing they had revealed themselves to him before his death was swallowed by the fear he now felt. The fear of knowing he was dead and in her care now and he had achieved nothing. He belonged at the side of his Sovereign, of her son.
“Send me back,” he sobbed. He tried to sit up and felt the crater in the back of his head. “I need a warn him. He need a know!”
“It be ok me Prophet,” said the beast in a thick accent as she stroked his face, “ya be where ya belong, do?”
He stared at the Unbroken One with wide eyes as she repeated her words again. He reached out with his fingers, daring to push past her hair and touch her hideous face. She pulled back as his fingers brushed over her lips. There was no string holding them together. He ran his fingers over her cheeks, forehead, and eyes, causing the Unbroken One to flinch with each touch. There were no open gashes, no pussed over wounds, no maggots crawling in and out of her wrinkled and nearly melted skin, only dirt clumped over what was perfectly smooth, beautiful skin.
He pulled the hair back and saw Reeka’s mother, her eyes darting around as they tried to avoid his gaze, as her mind raced to find a way to release herself from his hold. Reeka sat next to them, watching, behind her, the Altar of the People.
“How long?” said Baylo, taking in his surroundings. He was relieved but also couldn’t help but feel disappointment. Completely knowing that he had been right, that there could be no doubt their purpose had been true.
Reeka’s mother shook her head. She looked back at Reeka. “I be only just come in.”
Reeka made no sign of telling them anything.
“Edo never tell me your name,” said Baylo.
The woman refused to meet his eyes still. He wondered if the little girl had lied, if Edo had been anything but kind to them. If so, he couldn’t figure out her reason to.
“Mariene,” she said softly.
“Mariene,” he repeated back to her. “If you going a be in my care, you need a speak certain word proper. Do?”
“Other men more,” he paused as he waited for the gods to bring him the right word, “fanatic, about makin’ sure rules kept. Reeka too. I no want any a you a be hit over word. Do? Whenever you feel like sayin’ me anythin’ you say my. Never forget, special when you say it afore Prophet, Truth, or Sovereign. My Prophet, My Truth, My Sovereign. Do?”
The woman nodded. Baylo turned his attention to Reeka and raised his eyebrows, earning a nod from her as well.
“Good,” he continued, “now up. I know what need a be done, and you need cleanin’. You smell somethin’ fierce.”
The Prophet rubbed the back of his head as he walked through the rows of commoners. He had awoken from visions before and felt ghostly pains but this was something worse. For days now he felt as if he had to rub the back of his head to make sure the hole was not real, to make sure the sponge inside was still being held in place and not slowly leaking out with each step.
There was a thrill at knowing he was in so much danger. It had been ages since he had walked alone through the streets of the commoners. His people, the very ones he had devoted his entire life to raising to a higher level. The last few days had shown him that, while they lived better now than they ever had, they were still barely above the uneducated savages of the Blood Woods. He wouldn’t be surprised if any one of them tried to take his life for nothing more than trying to prove themselves.
They wouldn’t, of course. Mostly because he doubted any of them would be able to recognize him without his Prophet’s robes, but also because even if they did, he was too loved by them. He was the connection between their realm and that of the gods. He was the voice of their living god, the man who would show them the way to perfection, the man who had helped them escape the cruelty of the past and brought them stability. Safety.
His own safety was no longer a concern. He had watched the troops leave the city and with it, their only chance of defending their great work, but that did not mean that Baylo would not try.
Every day before the Sovereign had departed with the troops, Baylo had sent the child to warn him. Baylo knew the Sovereign did not wish to see him, but Reeka was a gift, free to move around the Temple as she pleased. A child with no reason to make the walking god doubt her, and therefore unrestricted.
After the first couple of nights, the Prophet had begun to doubt the child himself. That sort of message would have warranted an audience at the very least, but nothing had come of it. Had he really spurned his best friend’s trust so much that it deserved that level of neglect? Had self preservation become so hard for the Great Sovereign to understand that he could no longer forgive his best friend for being human? As perverse as the living god may have become, Baylo refused to believe that he would throw away years of memories over a single mistake.
Refused to believe he had created that big of a deluded monster.
He had spent the past few days among the people, trying to listen, observe. There was no doubt in his mind that the invasion would come, he just didn’t know how or when. Even with no troops, the city could be protected from the walls they had built around it, which meant if an attack would come, it was likely already here.
He had a small guard still, enough to keep the peace, and he had used them to round up those men he did not feel belonged. He hated watching skin be peeled, bones crushed in ways they would never heal again, appendages slowly severed and burned so its once owners would not bleed out. It was cruel, and he was sure that many of the men he had ordered round up were innocent, but it was necessary.
If he could manage to dig out the infiltrators, maybe he could stop the attack, maybe he could save the city. Maybe he could earn back the trust of his Sovereign.
What was the sacrifice of a few if it meant the betterment of the future?
Baylo could feel eyes tracing his movements. He turned toward a trader’s stand and picked up a tiny clay statue, letting the corners of his vision scope the observer.
“Be pretty, do?” said the trader in front of him.
“What i-” Baylo caught himself and forced out the uneducated tongue they spoke. It made him feel unclean. “What it be?”
“Me Sovereign,” said the man proudly.
Baylo grit his teeth. Many years of being obligated to enforce rules, it was impossible to not focus on it. “Look nothin’ like ‘im.”
“You be right me cubrat. No man could ever get all him glory. He be a only.”
Baylo watched as the figure behind him began to move toward him. He gripped the small statue tight.
“This be only a mean a show ‘im ya devotion is all. Show me Great Prophet when he walk among us ya be a man who hold me Sovereign close, always. Gain favor, do?”
The Prophet turned before the figure could touch him and glared, daring whoever approached him to try anything. The figure flinched back as if afraid he would strike. It was a woman, the same who had desperately tried to touch him a few days past and he had invited to his chambers so he could teach her the ways of the gods. She was clean now, though. No more dirt covering her cheeks, no more peeling skin over her full lips. Her beauty was plain for the world to see, plain for him to see.
“Ya put that back,” growled the trader. “I make ya regret ever livin’ ya starak fuck!”
The woman stepped to the trader and said, “Ya know who ya be ta-”
Baylo placed his hand on her waist before the man reached across and yanked the statue from his other hand.
“Fuck outta here shit rats. A both a ya!”
Baylo continued to gaze into the woman’s eyes until her own attention left the trader and joined the Prophet’s.
“I say fuck off!” continued the trader.
The woman took Baylo’s hand and led him out of the market, through the alleys until they were no longer swarmed by the masses of commoners. She stopped and gazed at him in disbelief, her eyes darting back and forth from his, face close enough for him to feel her warm breath on him.
“I not be wrong,” she said softly, “I see ya few day ‘afore. Think I be crazy. Then I be see ya yesterday but ‘afore I can make sure, ya be gone. But I not be wrong, ya be here.”
She touched his face, running her fingers down his beard. “I clean meself, just in case I not be wrong and ya be here. Ya come for me, ya take me a the Temple, do?”
It amazed him how much power opened up doorways. By no means was he a good looking man. Before he had become the Great Prophet, no woman had ever looked twice at him, the attention had always been on the Sovereign. Now, though, all he had to do was exist and they would do anything for him.
“Why you not take my invitation?” he asked.
The woman looked confused. “I go, just as ya tell me but the guard tell me ya not be seein’ no one.” He found himself somewhat repulsed by her inability to speak properly, oddly aroused by the thought that he could find ways to make her…learn.
“I am here now,” said Baylo.
“Ya take me then? We go a the Temple?”
“In time,” he said, knowing that it was the one thing he did not have yet struggling to break free from her. “First, you show me where you live.”
There was much he could learn from this woman. She was a commoner, an uneducated peasant who lived among the rest of the rats in their city. If anyone would know anything, it would be her. If he went with her, he could see her home, her neighbors, her family. Take her in her own home and get her to squeal all of the information he needed. Make her speak her illiterate tongue as he showed her the way of someone truly grand, the way of the gods.
She seemed surprised, but surprise quickly turned to honor as she smiled and led him once more through the alleys.
“It not be far,” she said, but Baylo was no longer listening. His heart thumped within his chest as he watched her walking, her ragged sack of a garment barely able to cover her full figure. He knew he would learn everything there was to learn about her. From her. She would give him everything he wanted, whether she liked it or not. Her occasional glance back, though, let him know that she was the type that would willingly give everything for the gods.
She led him inside a tiny hovel smaller than his own room. There was straw layed down over the floor where her entire family slept together, a cloth atop it that barely covered it enough to make it itch less. On the opposite side of the room was a single pot with a pile of stones beneath it and next to it a large stained bowl that was used for anything but eating. It made him sick that people could live like this, they should be enlightened, each and every one of them. It must have shown on his face too.
“I know it not be what ya be used to my Prophet,” said the girl.
They had been given the means to live better, but they chose not to learn. He could only teach them one at a time.
Right now, he would start with her.
“Take your rags off, girl,” he said. She glanced out of the only window her tiny hovel had to offer. “I need a ask you questions, a make sure you loyal a the gods. Your rags hide the real truth.”
The girl glanced around again, nervous. Would she be one of those who liked to play at the loyal servant but would have nothing to offer once true servitude was asked of her?
“Off,” he said. She pulled the rags off over her head and he felt his fingers tremble, his groin ache, his breaths sucking air in like a bull after exertion. He would learn everything. He extended his hand out to her. “Come.”
The girl took his hand and he pulled her in close. He placed his hand over her waist and ran it down her bare skin, down her ass and legs. He could feel her legs trembling as bad as his fingers were and he felt the excitement of knowing they were both enjoying this equally.
“What you know about an attack?” he whispered in her ear as he ran his fingers over the inside of her legs. She shook her head and he felt a bout of anger course through him. He wrapped his other hand over her neck and squeezed. “Speak.”
“Nothin’,” she said, stretching her neck as she tried to squirm free. “I not be knowin’ nothin’ my Prophet, promise.”
He smelled her neck, a faint hint of body odor that she had not fully rid herself of when she had tried to clean for him. He planted his lips over her neck and ran his tongue over it.
“You not be knowin’ nothin’,” he mocked as he pulled her closer to him. “You seen anythin’ strange?”
“Me da say he be seein’ folk.”
He threw her down over the straw and ripped the rope over his pants off. “Keep talkin’ girl, keep your filthy lips movin’ so I can assess the work I need a take a the gods.”
“Wait,” she said, placing her hands on his chest as he spread her legs apart. “Wait, there be someth-.”
He snatched her hands away and snarled, “The Truth never wait.”
He shoved himself inside her and heard her gasp. He continued to thrust, the world around him disappearing. It was only the two of them now.
“Keep talkin’,” he growled, pulling her close.
“My Truth, please,” she whispered, “there be men who give me-.”
The door slammed open and a lean man with a massive scar down his face walked in. A sleeveless vest covered his chest. A yellow faction patch ran all the way down the left side of it. The same patch of the Faction his Sovereign was heading to attack.
Baylo’s first instinct was to scream for the guards and have the intruder beat but this wasn’t his temple. He shot back against the wall and glared at the man, making no attempt to cover himself up.
“Well, well, well,” said the scarred man. Baylo glanced at the girl who was scooting back, covering herself and refusing to look in his direction. “Was hopin’ a make it afore ya got yar pole wet but I guess it not be hurtin’ for ya a get it one last time.”
“You know who I-?” started Baylo as he tried to get up before the man produced a pistol and stopped him. “You not know what you doin’.”
“I be knowin’ very well,” said the scarred man. He knelt down in to be at Baylo’s eye level. “Me master ask me a bring him the ‘Great Prophet’, dead or livin’. I be sure he prefer ya livin’, he be talkin’ ‘bout usin’ ya gift, but I no interested in that. No. Ya owe me.”
“Ya promise ya not-,” said the girl before the pistol was pointed at her.
“Be happy with ya coin girl.”
Baylo spat onto the man’s face, who didn’t even flinch. The mucus slowly ran down his scar as Baylo said, “you touch me, the Eater done feast on you for the rest a days a come.”
The man smiled and used his free hand to wipe his face, taking the spittle and touching it to his tongue. “Taste like mine. Ya gods be meanin’ nothin’ a me ‘Prophet’, but ya know what do?” He pulled a small hatchet from behind him and spun it in his hand. “Me wee brat. Bet ya not even ‘member ‘im. Bet ya list a butchery be so long ya forget all. But maybe if I cut off ya eggs and feed ‘em a ya, just like ya do a me wee brat, ya start ‘memberin’. What ya think?”
“You have it wrong,” said Baylo, “I do only what my Sovereign ask of me. Any man who be made example be done so only because they lie. I uphold the truth.”
“He be a boy,” growled the man, touching the blade to Baylo’s testicles. “His voice still like wee girl. What lie he be sayin’ a deserve what ya do a ‘im? Ya left ‘im a drain of all life juice and I watched, every fuckin’ day, as them birds pick his body clean. Every, fuckin’, day.”
“He not deserve that,” said Baylo, gritting his teeth as he felt the blade tickle all around his groin. “My Sovereign cross lines, lines that should never be cross. But I change that, I-.”
“No, ‘Prophet’. Ya not pawn blame elsewhere, I done see what ya do. I done know who ya be, even if ya not want a see yaself.”
The man slowly dug the point of the hatchet into his sack. Baylo closed his eyes and cried out as he felt fire run down his legs. He felt warm blood soaking his legs and everything beneath him.
“He be a wee fuckin’-,” began to scream the scarred man before his voice was drowned in a loud explosion.
The Prophet opened his eyes and saw the half of the man’s face that had been scarred, completely split open before the body toppled to the ground. Outside the only window to the hovel stood Edo in commoner garbs, rifle raised. He stepped through the window and stood over the corpse.
Baylo looked at the girl who shook as she stared at the body. She was covered in the man’s blood and sponge and the Prophet his rage building. He couldn’t believe she would sell him out, her own Truth, her salvation. She deserved to have his hands around her fucking throat, choking the life from her as she tried to beg his forgiveness, as he watched the focus disappear from her eyes.
Her eyes met his and he pictured himself taking her to his chambers. Showing her what the gods would do to a traitor of her caliber.
“I not be knowi-,” she tried to say before a second shot blew her head against the wall.
Baylo stared at her in disbelief. She hadn’t deserved that. This was not the way. He could have forgiven her, he could have made her learn the way of the gods. The way of his truth.
“Guess ya be right,” said Edo calmly. “I be knowin’ when ya be in danger.”
“She not need a die,” said Baylo.
“Call it mercy,” said Edo, “We both be knowin’ she be gettin’ much worse come after.”
Edo flashed him the empty smile and stretched his hand out. The Prophet contemplated slapping the monster’s hand away but instead let the man help him to his feet. Edo turned to the window and looked out.
“There more a them?” asked Baylo.
“Aye, but not here.”
Edo shrugged. “Hidin’. Waitin’ for the signal.”
“Then it start?” asked Baylo.
“I not be hearin’ nothin’, but if they be showin’ they colors it won’t be long. Doubt the rifle did us any good. We may be able a reach the Temple ‘afore they do.” Edo glanced back and nodded toward the Prophets exposed genitals. “Ya gonna run like that?”
Baylo touched the blood that had run down his leg and realized that it wasn’t enough to have pooled under him the way the warm liquid had. He picked up his trousers and began to tie the rope around his waist.
“Why you come back?” said Baylo.
“I never leave.”
“I watch you.”
“Maybe I be havin’ visions too,” said Edo with his empty grin. “Reeka give me ya warnin’. I tell my Sovereign, so he ask me a stick ‘round, learn what I can from the people. Seem we be havin’ the same idea.”
“Good girl,” said the Prophet.
“Aye. Shame she be growin’ up ‘round men like us.”
I nothin’ like you, monster.
“Aye.” said Baylo as they made for the door.
Outside the hovel, the bodies of three men in the yellow Faction tunics lay sprawled out, bloodied. Baylo stepped over the one closest to the door, wondering how Edo could butcher men, even if they were far from good men, and stroll around as if nothing bogged his heart down.
Edo knelt next to one of the corpses and pulled a pistol free from their hand. He tossed it to Baylo and didn’t wait for him to keep walking through the alley. Baylo looked down at the man he had pulled the pistol from and saw an axe at his waist. A sense of deja-vu washed over him and he felt the need to pick it up.
“Seem some a them stories about ya be true,” said Edo as Baylo reached him.
“Same a you,” said the Prophet.
“Ya make sure Reeka and her ma not make it in them stories, doh?”
“I like women, but I not sick,” growled Baylo. Edo glanced back, his eyebrow raised. “I keep my promises. She my dostraya now.”
Edo stopped suddenly. He stared down the empty alley.
“What?” said Baylo. Edo lifted his hand. They stood there, silent, for what seemed like ages until Baylo began to hear the far away cries of dying men and women.
“Men be impatient,” said Edo. “Any excuse a start the killin’.”
The cries seemed to grow as they got closer. A shot was fired nearby and mobs began to scream as if competing for whom could pierce past the amplifying drone. The Prophet began to feel the urge to run, to move away and find safety, but Edo stood his ground, as if nothing could disturb his space.
A woman ran across the alley and tried desperately to open a door. Behind her, a man walked behind her and raised a pistol. Before he could fire, Edo had his rifle aimed and fired. The man dropped the pistol and clutched his side, turning to face Edo. Edo walked forward, cocking his rifle and firing again, hitting the man in the chest and causing him to step back before he slumped to his knees.
The woman stared at Edo as he passed by her. “Thank ya,” she said over the cries, causing Baylo to tense. He wouldn’t have been surprised if Edo had turned and shot her too, but Edo didn’t even seem to hear her.
It was good to have friends of all types, even monsters, and Baylo made sure to shuffle close behind the officer. He had to admire the cool, methodical nature of the monster under such distress.
He walked through the rest of the alley, shooting whomever he deemed a threat, never allowing anyone to get anywhere close to them. It was not obvious who was the enemy. Many of them were not wearing their Faction colors and Baylo was certain that Edo was mowing down many innocents as well, but he would not question the monster’s madness.
The Prophet’s hand was being forced.
These men had chosen to attack his city, his people. They had chosen to murder, not fight. They were the ones slaughtering the weak instead of trained men. Baylo was not a monster, he could not fight them himself.
“If we get a the Temple, we can take the tunnels,” said Baylo, “get us out a the city.”
Edo laughed and said, “No faith in the man a the gods.”
“We got no troops a protect the city. We live, group with our Sovereign when he return and retake it.”
“Ya see ‘em beatin’ us?”
“No, but I see our great city burn.”
Edo shot a man who ran at him shrieking. The bullet flung the shrieker from his feet and threw his head onto the sand. Edo turned and raised both hands into the air.
“Burnin’ now, no say?” he said. He threw the rifle down and withdrew two pistols. “Ya be in good hands cubrat. Trust, doh?”
Baylo hated not knowing. There was something he was not being told, a plan that had been hatched that he was part of but being kept blind from. A plan that was putting his holy life at risk.
A man with an empty smile had killed the Prophet. A man who had rescued him. A man who had helped him get to the Temple and expose Donyall.
The dog would need to be put down eventually, better it be done now than before the beast could bite him. He wasn’t far from the Temple anyway, he could make it on his own.
A bullet smashed into the wall next to the Prophet’s face. He ducked and watched as Edo fired his pistols from the direction it came from. Two men rushed out of a hovel, one of them slamming into Edo with full force and bringing him to the ground. The second one glared at Baylo as if daring him to move. The man began to rush him and Baylo raised his pistol, immediately squeezing both the trigger and his eyes closed. He felt the gun jerk in his hand and fall from his fingers.
He braced himself to feel the body of the man hit his frail old figure but when nothing happened he opened his eyes and watched the man clutching at his stomach as blood pumped from between his fingers and down his legs. He thought he had been aiming at his head, but the stomach would do. He wondered if the fucker was pissing himself as Baylo had earlier. He couldn’t be the only one.
He switched the axe into his right hand and curled his lip before bringing the sharp edge across the man’s neck. The skin split, each tendon in the man’s neck tearing as the axe blade kept coming down again until the man toppled over.
The Prophet turned around and saw Edo still wrestling with the first man. Edo looked back at him, his expression blank as he struggled to keep the man’s dagger from his neck. He picked up one of Edo’s pistols and aimed it down at them.
He could just wait. Let the man kill Edo as Baylo went on his way.
No need to wait to be bit.
But he needed to make sure it was actually done. Edo was a resourceful fucker. There was always the chance he would survive this and Baylo wasn’t one to take chances. He was the Truth for a reason.
He pulled the trigger and watched the blood, sponge, and skull desperately try to find a new home. Baylo’s fingers struggled to keep the gun in his hand.
“Awful close a me head,” said Edo as he pushed the man off of him and wiped his face, smearing the chunks of sponge over him. “Couldn’t ya done aim at his chest?”
He hadn’t even been aiming at the other man.
“Call it mercy,” mocked back Baylo. He tossed the pistol to Edo and held his hand out for the monster to grab it. Edo took his hand and as Baylo helped the man up, he heard a pop and felt a burning at his neck. He reeled backward, dropping to the ground.
Edo rolled over and began firing.
Baylo clutched at his neck, watching a group of men in yellow tunics making their way to them. He couldn’t count how many there were. Ten? Maybe more. His attention was too drawn to the blood that was seeping from the burning at his neck.
He tried to swallow but it felt nearly impossible, as if the fluids within his body were being repurposed into blood and there was no room to provide saliva.
“Get in the hovel!” screamed Edo over the gunfire.
The Prophet tried to scoot back but felt he had no strength in his legs. “I shot,” he managed to croak out. “I shot!” he said louder.
Edo glanced back. He fired two more rounds before crouching and taking the back of the Prophet’s collar and yanking him toward the hovel door the two men had attacked them from.
Baylo felt the burning at his neck intensify. He could no longer breathe and blood poured out, soaking his fingers and shirt. Soon he would have no more to flow through him. This wasn’t how he was supposed to go. He had seen the visions, he knew what was to come.
Edo slammed the door closed and propped the Prophet against the wall. Baylo blinked repeatedly, feeling his head spin, feeling a fog come over his eyes.
He looked at a woman that sat at the edge of the hovel, clutching a child tight to her bosom. He realized there was a whole group of people inside the hovel, watching the two of them in fear. He didn’t want to die in front of these commoners. He deserved better.
He deserved to die with his Sovereign.
Edo peeked out of the window before turning his attention to the Prophet.
“Move ya hand,” said Edo. Baylo tried to shake his head, clutch even harder, but the monster took his fingers and ripped them from his neck. He took one look at the wound and blinked before turning back to the huddled people.
It was all Baylo needed to know. It was worse than he had thought. The monster had no words to calm the Prophet, no words to help ease his suffering.
“Guns?” said Edo to the frightful watchers. A man closest to the monster shook his head. Edo popped his head out of the window and fired his pistol.
“How much time I have?” whispered Baylo.
“Ya die if ya not help me fight,” said Edo. “Them Faction boys come a take this city and first order be,” he stopped and fired out the window again before looking at the man. “Well, ya be old enough a know.”
“Edo,” tried Baylo again. “Please.”
“The shot lick ya,” said Edo. “Ya not dyin’.”
He popped his head out again and immediately ducked back as a bullet smashed into the wall next to him. He popped out again and fired.
Baylo looked down at his bloody fingers. There was a streak that ran down his palm, but nothing like what he had imagined. He began to feel foolish.
“How many of them there be?” said the man by the watchers.
“Enough a kill the lot a us,” said Edo, his empty grin stretching over his face. It was clear how uncomfortable it made everyone in the room. “Plus more.”
“Please sa’,” said the man, “this be me family. We no fighters.”
Edo’s grin disappeared, taking any remaining joy from the room with it, if there even was any left. “This be ya Prophet,” he said, pointing his pistol toward Baylo while his unblinking eyes stared through the man, “He be found dead in ya home, ya boys never get chance a be fighters, doh? Ya not have family no more.”
The watchers stared at the Prophet as if expecting him to say something. He let his eyes graze all of them before crawling toward them. He placed his bloody hand over the cheek of the woman holding the child and stared into her eyes.
“The Truth never forget,” he said. The woman stared back, fear bright in her eyes. Maybe she was scared of what the men outside the door would do to them if her husband and boys helped, or maybe she was more scared of what the man staring at her would do if they didn’t.
“Boys,” said the man, nodding at Baylo as he crawled toward Edo who continued to fire out of the window.
Three of the watchers, two nearly full grown men missing only the hair under their chins and the rigid lines of age that take over the round plump cheeks of the young, the third a child of no more than nine rains, crawled behind him. They were scrawny and awkward looking, even the father, and instilled no confidence in Baylo, but the Prophet would not complain. They may be able to buy the monster enough time.
“The Unbroken One will bless the lot a you,” said Baylo as he sat next to the woman and touched his stinging neck. “And if we live, so will her son.”
The three boys lifted a small trap door next to their place of eating and withdrew three axes and two daggers, dispersing them amongst themselves and their father.
“What ya be have us do?” said the father to Edo.
“I be out a bullet,” said Edo, letting his pistol drop to the floor. He pulled out a long sword from his waist. “Only thing left now is a fight.”
The man turned to his boys, placing his trembling hand over the one closest. He didn’t need to say anything, the look in his eyes as his attention rested over each let them know more than any words could. It made Baylo wonder how much different his life would have been like if his parents had actually loved him enough to keep from selling him for the next meal.
One look around the tiny, shit-filled hovel showed him the difference.
“Give up and we go easy on ya!” called out a rough voice from outside. “We not want more dead than need.”
“Deal!” yelled out Edo. “What ya be havin’ us do?”
“Any woman with ya?”
“Send ‘em out first,” said the rough voice, “then the fucker who shoot me boys. Then whoever else.”
“No,” whispered the father to Edo, “I no sendin’ me family out there a get defile.”
Edo stared at the man and pressed the flat of the sword to his lips. He turned his attention to Baylo and pointed his sword to the other end of the hovel. Baylo nodded and began to crawl toward it, the rest of the watchers following.
The distant screams and burns outside the window were thick as they sat waiting.
“This not end well a the lot a ya gabnu!” yelled out the rough voice.
“I be tryin’,” yelled out Edo, “my woman, she not be wantin’ a go out.”
“Maybe it help ha know we be havin’ ha no the matter.”
“I tell her but she still not listen. I send me dostrayas a ya, maybe she follow after.”
“We be givin’ ya five beat,” said the rough voice, “they not out by then, it not go easy.”
“Give me longa!” said Edo, “I get her a come ‘round.”
“TOOM!” yelled the rough voice.
Edo grinned his empty smile.
The woman with the child began to whimper.
Baylo looked at the boy that had taken up the axe for him and found him clutching his father’s arm instead. The father leaned against the wall, his eyes closed and to the ceiling.
He wondered if the man was praying. Maybe it was what Baylo should be doing. After all, he had created the gods they would pray to.
“They comin’ out!” screamed Edo. “They comin’ out!”
He unlocked the door and pushed it open slowly. It was almost painful how slow the door moved. When he reached the halfway mark, he slammed it shut and began to laugh hysterically.
“Ya fuckin’ dead!” yelled out the rough voice. “The lot a ya be fuckin’ dead!”
Every member of the family that housed the Prophet and his companion stared at Edo, unable to understand what the man had just done. They could not understand what a monster he truly was.
A flaming pot flew in through the open window and smashed against the wall, showering the straw of the beds with globs of flame. The woman next to Baylo screamed and tucked her legs up as if they would help protect the child in her arms from the growing heat.
Edo’s cackle continued as the fire began to spread and the screams of the men outside the hovel neared.
She was older than what Baylo liked, but the bare skin of her legs was still tight and called to him. Her frightened whimpers caused his heart to thud in excitement instead of the terror he should be experiencing from his impending doom. He placed his fingers on the inside of her leg and began stroking her skin.
“It a be ok, my dostraya,” he said to her. He felt her leg try to pull away but he squeezed tight. “The Unbroken One watch over us, she make sure we safe.”
A man appeared through the edge of the window. He raised a pistol at Edo who instinctively brought up his sword and severed the man’s wrist. The man screamed for a second before the blade was pushed through his throat and yanked back just as quickly. Bullets whizzed through the window and Edo slammed himself tight against the wall.
The moment the bullets stopped, a spiked club came down through the window and split the father’s head open. The three boys stared in horror as the club was yanked out and their father’s body dropped like a sack filled with stones.
“Ya fight youngin’,” screamed Edo, “Or the same fate be waitin for ya!”
Another man appeared at the edge of the window, his line of sight directly on the Prophet. Edo looked at Baylo, at the hand the Prophet had over the woman’s leg, before watching as the man at the window aimed a rifle directly at Baylo. He stood there, unmoving, until the youngest of the three boys stood and began to run toward his mother.
Edo watched as the boy got closer to him and as the child passed him, he shoved him. The boy tripped and as he fell, the rifle was fired. Baylo watched as the boy’s mouth opened and moments later, a second hole ripped through his neck. His body fell limp on the floor in front of his mother.
The woman shrieked and Baylo stared at Edo who’s gaze lingered on the boy’s body enough to let the Prophet know that it had not been the outcome the man had sought. The monster chucked his sword at the shooter and hit the shooter in the chest. He took the opportunity to pry the pistol free of the severed hand.
A large man threw himself through the window while a second one followed. The first one turned quickly and swung his bloodied club down over the oldest boy who barely put his axe up in time to hold off some of the force. The spikes dug into his cheek causing the boy to cry out as he tried his hardest to keep the man from using all his weight to sink them in further. His brother ignored the man above him and sunk his dagger into the big man’s knee.
Before the second man could bring his axe down on the younger brother, Edo fired the pistol into the man’s stomach. The older brother took the opportunity to pull the club free of the first man’s hand and swing his axe into the side of the man’s head. Edo turned and fired at the next man trying to climb through the window. The man’s torso dropped over the window entrance and the man behind him was forced to drag his body out before anyone could step through.
Edo took the opportunity to kick the one clutching his stomach into the fire before turning back to the window and aiming at the next man pushing his way through. When his gun didn’t fire, Edo threw the pistol at the man’s head and picked up one of the dead father’s axes.
Smoke began to fill up the room, along with the scent of sulfur and fat as the flames ate at the man’s flesh and hair. Pretty soon, the smoke would force them out of the room.
Edo seemed to pay it no mind. He continued to fight back the attackers at the window like a rabid dog protecting his meal. Baylo had no idea how many men waited for them outside, but he knew eventually they would have to find out.
The Prophet began to cough as the smoke forced his throat closed. He was no longer a young man, his lungs were not as healthy as they had once been. He used the woman to help him to his knees and began to crawl toward the door.
“Don’t do it,” screamed Edo as he hacked at the window. The Prophet raised his bloody hands and fumbled with the door latch. “Don’t fuckin’ do it!”
Before Baylo could unhook the latch, he felt a blow to the side of his head. His eyesight blurred and everything around him spun. Baylo raised his head again and tried to reach for the latch that seemed to be unable to stay in place.
“I say leave it!”
Edo’s foot came down over his head again and Baylo felt everything go dark.
He could still hear everything around him. The screams, the sobs, the growls, the cursing. He was in a haze, one which he had no control in. His eyesight, along with his consciousness, coming in and out.
A barrage of gunfire blitzed through all other noise. He felt his back scraping against something rough. His lungs opened and he felt himself cough repeatedly until bile pushed its way out. He heard men speaking but no matter how hard he tried to focus, the words were gibberish.
Not much different from the uncultured garbage most men surrounding him spoke.
He felt his body be lifted and an immense pressure be repeatedly pushed into his stomach. Footsteps. He could hear the repetitive thudding of footsteps, which meant that the pressure was someone’s shoulder pushing into his stomach each time they took a step. Bile escaped him again and he heard the man curse.
“Edo,” mumbled Baylo.
Someone replied back but Baylo was unable to make out the words.
He opened his eyes a slit, enough to see the bile down the man’s back as they trekked through the alleys of his beautiful warring city, but the green light forced his eyes closed again.
He heard fighting and then felt himself jumbled faster and faster. A door opened and the men spoke gibberish again but were cut short by Baylo’s retching. He wasn’t sure if anything came out this time but the burn still spread through his throat.
He heard the sound of scraping, something heavy. A sound he had heard many times when they had built the Temple of the Gods. He forced his eyes open again, this time relieved that there was no blinding light to sting them closed and instead a darkness that he had to let his eyes adjust to. A faint torchlight barely illuminated the moving feet of men.
He was being carried through a tight tunnel, large enough to fit maybe two very small men standing shoulder to shoulder. He felt bad for whoever was having to carry him. Baylo had grown plump in his old age, which meant it would have to be someone with enough strength to lift a fat man. He couldn’t imagine fitting through this tunnel to be an easy task.
“Where Edo?” mumbled the Prophet.
“Quiet,” echoed Edo’s voice.
“I. Am the Truth,” croaked out the Prophet, struggling to catch enough breath to get his next words out. “I talk. When I li-”
“We talk when we safe.”
Baylo tried to grit his teeth but his jaw and temple ached. It made the transgression sound like a damn good suggestion. They could talk later, when they were safe. For now, he could rest his eyes.
It wasn’t long until he felt something warm push into his cheek. He heard chatter around him that grew louder to the point that his head began to throb. He bunched up his face before opening his eyes and found Reeka watching him. She pulled her hand back from his face.
“He be woke,” she said, not bothering to check if anyone had heard.
It was disconcerting how she watched him, wide, unbroken, and unblinking. It was how he had learned from his Sovereign to watch subjects that he needed to capture into his flock. People were scared by it, yet were unable to resist its pull.
It was also the way that monsters observed their prey.
“Ya faith come back yet Prophet?” said the monster as he bent next to her.
“I have you killed for strikin’ your Truth,” hissed Baylo.
“Ya be dead if I not do it.”
“I am-!” Baylo started.
“Alive,” said the calm yet powerful voice he had not heard in too long. “You are alive Baylo.”
Baylo heard the footsteps over the stone as they approached behind Reeka. He saw the man appear over her head, tall and built like a bulka, his long hair pulled back enough to keep it from his face. Not even the scars over his brows and cheeks, nor the small wrinkles that had begun to show on his face, distracted from how handsome he was. If anything, they added to it, and he wore them proud for the world to see.
His Sovereign was nothing short of godly.
The Prophet’s blood should have boiled when he saw the Sovereign. He should have wanted to scream at him, spit in his face, demand to know how he could treat his closest friend with such disdain. He should have wanted to kill his Sovereign, but all he felt was joy.
He watched his friend gently place a hand over Reeka’s shoulder as she made to stand up and he yearned to be touched himself like that as well. The man’s eyes locked on to his and Baylo felt himself instantly sucked into the vortex.
“My Sovereign,” said Baylo.
“Our city is safe acouse of you,” said the Sovereign in his perfectly educated tongue, with his perfectly formed smile.
Baylo could still hear warring from outside of where they were but he would not question his great Sovereign. If he said the city was safe, he knew it to be true.
“I think you not listen,” said Baylo, “I think you-”
“You lie to me my Prophet. You cause much death acouse of what you do afore,” said the Sovereign, taking a knee.
Baylo felt his stomach sink. They had not spoken about the incident since it had come to pass and the Prophet had begun to think it would be left behind. Had hoped it would be left unpunished.
“I sorry,” said Baylo. “I sorry.”
“I know,” said the Sovereign, reaching out and touching Baylo’s cheek. “I forgive you.”
Edo felt a warmth wash over him, but he knew it could not be over.
The god nudged Reeka who immediately moved aside. He took Baylo’s hands and lifted him onto his feet as if he weighed nothing.
Baylo realized they were inside the throne room. A group of Collective soldiers stood by the double doors.
“Edo,” said the god, “I thank you for keepin’ my brat alive.”
“It be me honor, my Sovereign,” said Edo, bowing.
“Finish cleanin’ the city. If Jahul is here, make sure a bring him a me.”
Edo nodded and turned, motioning for the soldiers to follow. They turned after him and exited the double doors, one of them with a massive streak of bile down his back.
“Reeka,” said the Sovereign, drawing the little girl’s attention from Edo onto him. He smiled and nodded to her, causing her to exit the room as well. He turned his gaze to Baylo. “Come.”
The Sovereign helped Baylo walk down the stone room and up the steps. The echo of their footsteps reminded the Prophet of how alone they were, of how vulnerable he was. He loved his friend, trusted him wholeheartedly, but he also knew what the man was capable of.
“I sorry,” repeated the Prophet.
“It I who should be sorry,” said the Sovereign. They reached the stone chair they had built for him and Baylo made toward the smaller one next to it, but he was held in place. The god held his hand out toward the big stone chair. “Please.”
Baylo knew better than to refuse his friend.
He dropped himself onto the Sovereign’s throne and instantly felt the weight of his pains sink him further into it. The stone was a nightmare on his ass. His own seat had been cushioned after the first day he had sat on it for the entire day listening to beggars plead for handouts, all of the people who came to them were beggars in the eyes of Baylo, but the Sovereign had insisted to keep his own bare. A god did not need cushions or riches to make himself feel comfortable in his own space. They had made him a god, and comfort followed the gods wherever they showed themselves.
“You built this,” said the Sovereign. He stretched his arms out and looked around the room. “All a it. This great Temple, the Altar a the People, everything past these walls, this great city. Acause a you, we have proven a the people that there is more a our lives than just livin’. You have show the people that this place we call a parais, truly is.”
“I do nothin’ but follow your dream,” said Baylo.
The Sovereign turned to him and smiled. A blend of joy and terror shot through the Prophet.
“My dream,” laughed the god. “This is far from my dream. You turn my dream into reality long ago, Baylo. This. This is more than I ever expect. All I ever wanted a do is prove that people could work agether a make somethin’ beautiful, somethin’ worth truly fightin’ for. I wanted a bring life a a city, I wanted a bring unity a a city. You make it possible a bring life a all parais!
Your trust in me make this possible, your loyalty, your love. They the reason we continue buildin’ somethin’ unimaginable. You took my dream and adopt it as your own. You take the hard choices and make them even when I know they eat at you like the beasts you detest. You stay true a me and continue a guide me, even when you know I make mistakes a my own. You always put our dream afore yourself.”
The Sovereign knelt down in front of Baylo.
“So tell me my brat,” continued the Sovereign, “what would you do if your only friend in the world, the only man you ever consider an equal, did somethin’ that went against everythin’ the two a you stood for?”
Baylo tore his eyes away from his Sovereign.
“I overlook so many a the bad that fill you.” said the Sovereign. “I know you able a bring more good a this world than the shit that you force upon others. You know I would never have hurt you. I carry you with me until the day you die, even if you not able a tell me our future. You know this. So why?”
The Prophets body trembled. His eyes darted around, refusing to find focus on something, refusing to allow the words to sink further into his shame.
“Because I weak!” yelled Baylo. “Because I see how you love that woman and I feel alone. I feel you leave me, leave everythin’ we work for. I feel betrayed at how you lose eyes on our future and the more I think the less power I have. You think if you leave, people follow me? I be nothin’ without you.
Everythin’ inside me tell me that my brat never give up on me, but my head,” Baylo tapped his temple where he had been kicked, instantly regretting it, “my head tell me that you were somethin’ afore you came a me. I was nothin’ but a rat.”
The god smiled and took the back of Baylo’s neck in his hand. He closed his eyes and touched his forehead to Baylo’s, holding it there until the Prophet closed his own eyes.
“I love you little brat,” said the Sovereign. He pulled his head away and glared through Baylo. “You will not betray me again. Doh?”
“Doh,” said the Prophet.
“I glad that settled.” The Sovereign stood. “It not feel right for much time now, which bring me a a point I need your help with.”
“Anythin’,” said Baylo as he felt his chest puff with power.
“I will take care a him.”
“I wish there was another way.”
“Maybe there is,” said Baylo, “I know for a long time now we not able a trust him, but I hope he come around. The gift is in him, somewhere. Dormant.Let me try a bring somethin’ good outta it.”
“The law and its punishments have always been yours, even if I not always approve,” said the Sovereign.
This time, it was Baylo who smiled.
“Wake up,” said the Prophet.
He sat on a chair within the Temple, except this time, there was no massive crowd listening to him preach. Only Reeka, Mariene, and a large sack that hung down from the ceiling.
He nodded to Mariene who reluctantly slapped the bottom of the sack. A groan came from within as the creature stirred.
“Wake up!” called the Prophet, nodding toward Mariene again. She slapped the sack and the creature within shook back.
“I be up!” came Donyall’s muffled voice within the sack.
He motioned to Mariene who took a dagger and cut the sack open. Donyall hung naked by his feet, his rope at his hands tied to the one at his feet rendering him useless.
“What is this?” said Donyall, his eyes frantically darting around the giant chamber. “What ya be doin?”
“I live my life with a lot of shoulds,” said Baylo, “You know the word, yes? Well, this one a the things I should have done the moment you brought a me.”
“Ya be fuckin’ sick!” Donyall hocked up the mucous in his throat and spat it toward Baylo. The Prophet smiled as he looked down at the spit close to his feet. “Ya think ya bettah than all the people around ya, play the holy man with no crime. Act like ya be the savior a the common man, like if all the bad that follow ya come from them people around ya. Let me guess, ya already thinkin’ a a way a say this be the doin’ of our great Sovereign.”
“Fuck ya!” yelled Donyall. “Me da dead. Ya think just acause ya kill ‘im and start callin’ yaself me da it make it so? Me da was a good man. Ya be the real monstah.”
Baylo slammed his chair and stood. He pointed his finger at Donyall as he stormed toward him.
“Your da spoil wee ones!” screamed Baylo. He took Donyall’s face in his hand and squeezed his cheeks together. “The Unbroken One save you from his clutch by bringin’ me a you afore he could try it on you!”
Donyall began to laugh, his face distorting into a bunched mess.
“Ya be so sick ya actually believe them stories ya tell everyone,” forced out Donyall through pursed lips. “We all see who ya be, Prophet. Even our great Sovereign, but the gods chose ya, so we done all dealt with it.”
Baylo slapped Donyall’s face with so much force that blood began to slither down from the man’s face, his stinging palm fueling his rage.
“You think I like doin’ this?” said Baylo, “you think I want this child a have a watch me kill my own son?”
“I done love ya once,” said Donyall, “Ya take care a me, protect me, and I believe in ya. I trust ya.”
“I still love you.”
“But ya always start like that. Took me long a accept the horrah a what ya be. Ya don’t want it, ya need it. Ya be the worst kind a monstah. All them visions and ya can’t even see what ya are.”
“I am the Truth! I save ya, I save all these people. I make everythin’ around you possible.”
“Nothin’ be true about ya.”
Baylo felt his hand come down over the man’s face again. He grit his teeth and turned around to see the girl watching the floor. This was not what he had intended. He had wanted to speak to his son one last time, to make him realize that he took no pleasure in what he was going to have to do. He had wanted his son to admit his mistake and apologize so that Baylo could apologize for his own actions before his hand was forced. He wanted the child to see that hard decisions needed to be made, but they were not made lightly.
Donyall had always known how to get a rise out of him.
“I sorry,” said Donyall softly. “I not wish a fight with you, only tell you that I wish things turn different.”
“I wish things be different too,” said Donyall. “I wish I be left with me ma and da so I waste away afore I ever be brought a ya. Least then the gods not make me watch the sufferin’ ya bring all me brats.”
“You not make this easy.”
“Ya make me life, and all them people around us, a livin’ nightmare. I done hope when ya lost ya visions that I could make our great Sovereign see ya error, but ya torture him worse than all the rest.”
“You grow too big for your own good,” Baylo reached out to Mariene who reluctantly placed a knife in his hand. “But someone else come, who take your place. Reeka?”
Baylo held his stinging hand out to the girl. She looked up but did not take his hand.
“Come my dostraya,” said Baylo.
“Ya don’t have a do nothin’ he tells ya,” said Donyall. “Remember that. He be just a man.”
Baylo laughed. “You say it yourself. The gods choose me.”
“Ya be worse than them carrier ya hate so. I not know why the gods pick such a vile creature a represent them, but they must have they reasons. The Unbroken One will never let you ina great hall.”
Baylo laughed hysterically. He took the girl’s hand and pulled her toward him, causing Mariene to tense. He placed the knife in her hand, never ceasing to laugh.
“Of all the thing you think you learn, you miss the one most clear,” said Baylo. He took his son’s face and leaned into his ear, whispering, “I am the gods.”
He leaned away and poked a finger into Donyall’s side as he looked down at Reeka. The girl tried to look away but he took her hand and stared through her.
“Ya be a monstah, nothin’ more.” said Donyall. “It be ok, girl. I join me loved ones soon.”
“Do it. Pierce the creature and take its place,” said the Prophet, feeling his chest rising with excitement.
He led the girl’s hand under his finger and forced the point inside. Donyall grimaced and Reeka tried to pull her hand back but the Prophet yanked her forward and dug the blade in further. Blood quickly pushed past the blade and rushed down the man’s body.
Baylo heard Mariene step forward and he glared back, daring her to come closer. He led the girl’s hand down, slicing the flesh open further.
Donyall began to gasp and the girl sobbed. Baylo let the girl join her mother who clutched her tight, covering her eyes. Baylo snarled as he removed the blade and allowed the blood to pump out of his son, to stream down his body and fill the man’s mouth and nose before it pooled over the floor.
“I thought it would be hard,” said Baylo. “I thought it would be too obvious. That people were too smart a be fooled by words, but I was wrong.”
He placed his fingers inside the gash and dug through it as the man cried out.
“People are fools. They given every opportunity a strive ahead and acome more, a learn the truth about the world, but they not care. The truth mean nothin’ a them. All they want is a have someone a tell them what a do and give em somethin’ a believe in.”
Baylo gripped what he believed to be the kidney and slipped the blade within the cut. He pulled the organ as much as he could and began to dig the blade through it, slicing back and forth as his son cried out in agony.
“You not die yet, my son,” continued Baylo. He ripped out the organ and knelt down so he could hold it in front of the man’s face. “I give you plenty rot fruit a make sure a that.”
He took a deep breath of the kidney before sinking his teeth into it, ripping a large piece off and closing his eyes so he could savor every chew. He could feel his fingers shaking with excitement, his entire body filling with satisfaction. He swallowed and opened his mouth to let his tongue run over his lips.
He would make sure nothing was wasted.
“I imagined the gods, imagined their stories, everything about them. I made them and brought them a the people and they swallow them without thought.” Baylo leaned in again and whispered in Donyall’s ear. “You see, my son? I am the gods.”
He took another bite of the organ. “You not see your loved ones. No. You suffer, here, now. You suffer for the lies you tell. You suffer for riskin’ everythin’ my Sovereign and me work a build! You suffer first, and then you die. You die in my arms, but you not be wasted. No. You make me eat them vile birds, and you bring back my visions too. So now, we consume you like the vile creature you are, and you show us the way a the future.”
Baylo turned to his daughter and her mother. “My dostraya, come.”
Mariene looked up, a horrified look on her face.
It’s good to keep monsters close and there was one man who understood that all too well. Neither of them had begun as a sham, but one of them had always been a monster.