By Kate Krake
A Lack of Sleep Can Kill
[+ 11 -The Voice of Zarenak +]
Travis moved through the water. Arm over arm, legs in a furious propulsion behind him. Breath. Breath. Breath. His chest was a tight balloon ready to burst. His eyes stung from the chlorine. He had to keep moving, keep swimming, stay exhausted. It’s hard to think when you are exhausted. Hard to function. That was the point.
It was almost midnight. Twenty laps to go before he hit the nightly one hundred. The Guessing Municipal pool was typically deserted at this time, except Paulie, the old night attendant who was usually off napping somewhere and not paying a blind bit of notice to who was swimming. Travis liked it that way.
At the end of the last lap his muscles burned and he was looking forward to going home, curling up with a vial and passing out for as long as he could. He stroked his final stroke and clung to the edge of the pool breathing hard. It was a good feeling, pushed to the brink of himself, gasping for life. Complete exhaustion was the only time Travis could feel alive.
A sensation from behind told him that he was not alone. He knew who it was without turning around. Moncrieff always made the air prickle like that, but he also suspected he wasn’t the only one who knew Moncrieff was there.
“Of all the choices of nocturnal entertainment Guessing has to offer, you’ve taken up swimming?” Moncrieff said. He was standing at the edge of the pool, his hands in his pockets, looking down at Travis like he was watching a fish in the aquarium. Travis squinted at him through red eyes.
It had been a year, nearly exactly, since he had seen Moncrieff. He noticed that little had changed. Moncrieff was still rat like with that sharp nose and small eyes that couldn’t be described as anything but beady. The ridiculous moustache he’d once worn was now replaced by an equally ridiculous beard. The black suit he was wearing would probably have paid Travis’ rent for a few years and then some. Despite the fancy clothes, the hair combed just so, he still looked like shit, frayed around the edges in that way that people who partied too hard always were. Travis reasoned that he himself probably looked worse.
Travis hauled himself out of the water and didn’t care that he wet Moncrieff’s shining shoes.
“Why are you here?” he said.
“I’ve got money. Lots of it,” Moncrieff said. “It’s all yours if you want it.”
Travis walked towards the showers with Moncrieff at his heels. He had always been a lot bigger than his former friend, but with the broadness his nightly swimming had built into his shoulders and chest, Travis seemed to tower over the smaller man. He could have picked him up, tossed him into the pool like a toy and hope that he’d sink to the bottom.
“Come on, Trav. We need you. You’re wasting an opportunity to help people.”
“I don’t deal Zarenak anymore and you know better than to ask.”
“If it’s not people you want to help, why not yourself? You still living in that Remnants shit hole? With the cash that’s waiting for you, you can take your pick of any place in Amberley, or anywhere in the world. It’s all yours as soon as you want it. We’ve all moved on, Travis. Twelve whole months. We forgive and we forget.”
“I don’t want any money,” he said. “And I haven’t forgotten anything.” Travis pushed his face into his towel. Had Moncrieff been waiting for the year to pass before coming back? It was absolutely something he would do. A token twelve months, enough time to let the grief settle and then straight back into it. Hell, Moncrieff probably thought he was doing the right thing by Travis in letting him alone for as long as he did. Twelve months or twelve years, it wouldn’t matter. Travis was not going back to that life.
“Get out of here Moncrieff. I won’t tell you again.”
Moncrieff pouted his thin lips into a childish sulk. He fished a card out of his pocket and pushed it toward Travis. Travis took it despite himself. Edward Moncrieff. Solicitor. Prime Life.
“You’re working at Prime Life?” Travis spat the words.
“Unlike some people, I know when I’m been offered a once in a lifetime opportunity. A gig with a company like Prime Life is one of those opportunities. They came to me, mind you.”
Travis only blinked at Moncrieff. Prime Life was one of the biggest corporations in Guessing, with branches all over the world. The dealt in health products. Supplements, powders and pills, vitamins and nutrients and who knew what else they put into those little tablets and powders that people would swallow down, making them feel like they were in charge of their own bodies.
“Look. You know me, Travis. You know I’m here for a taste for myself, I’ll admit that. But Prime might have an opportunity to help you too.”
He felt the familiar surge of blood in his stomach that always came with the first rise whenever he got angry. He forced himself to take a slow breath and the swell passed.
“I’m going to call you, Travis. We’re going to work something out.” Moncrieff slunk out of the building and Travis was alone. Alone as he could be with the demon inside.
It was well after midnight when Travis returned to his apartment, drained and tired with niggles of fear and uncertainty gnawing at the back of his head like a hungry rodent. His home was a one room hole in a building just the edge of The Remnants. It might have been a nice complex decades ago, before the mould had set in and most of the foundations had rotted through. It was the only place he could afford, and even that was getting more difficult by the day.
He threw his swim bag into a corner and fell heavily onto his unmade bed. He reached into the top draw of his bedside table without looking and withdrew a small plastic box. He flipped the lid and took out a tiny glass vial that contained a clear liquid. The third last one. He would have to go shopping soon. For now though, he was happy he had enough for the rest of that night. He cracked the tip off the vial with his thumb and brought it to his lips. One, two, three drops fizzed over the tip of his tongue like a tiny drop of liquid electricity. The empty vial fell from his hand and Travis lay in the dark watching shadows shift and shiver in a freakish dance across his ceiling. He waited for the oblivion to drown him in that false sleep he had been relying on for what now seemed like forever. His phone shrieked in the dark. Travis woke with a bolt and answered the number he didn’t recognise.
“Fuck off, Moncrieff,” he mumbled and hung up. It rang again.
“Travis, it’s Noah,” said the voice on the other end of the line. What was this? Suddenly the two men he despised most in the world and swore never to see again unless they were dead were now crawling out of the woodwork, worming their way back into his life and he knew exactly what for.
“You can fuck off too,” Travis said.
“Wait, Trav. Don’t hang up. We need your help.”
“Like I told Moncrieff, I’m not dealing Zarenak.”
“There’s a big opportunity here. We’re not just talking about the trips we used to take. There’s a new system. Prime Life…”
“You and Moncrieff are working together at Prime Life?”
“It’s a great job, Travis. Remember when you used to want one of those?” Travis did. But that life was far beyond him now. Ironic, as it was the ambition to get somewhere exactly like where Moncrieff and Noah were now that had taken him down into the Remnants, as far from is old life and the future he was marching toward as a man could get.
“I’m not selling, I’m not dealing. I’m not letting it out. Ever again.”
“It’s only a matter of time before that choice isn’t yours,” Noah said.
“I’ll take that up with Zarenak should the matter ever arise,” he said. “Don’t call me again.” He hung up again and knew Noah wouldn’t call back, at least not that night.
Travis knew Noah was right but that was between him and the demon. He lay back down and debated whether or not to take another vial. How had Moncrieff known he was at the pool? How long had he been following him? Was it going to take another bloody death for them to leave him alone? He admitted, this weird sudden interest from Prime Life sparked a certain curiosity, but he knew where it would end if he followed it, if he let them or anyone else juice off him again and opened himself up to the demon’s mind.
He could not even be sure that anything would still work like it used to. Zarenak had been so quiet for the last six months, kept down by Travis’ exhausting physical rituals and the psychic nothingness the vials brought him nightly instead of sleep. He’d felt the beast stir a little more in the last weeks, but it was nothing. It was just that Shelley was on his mind a lot. He could not risk finding out if it would still do to them what it used to, not after what it did to her. That was the last time, he swore it every day.
Up All Night
They had been in their final year of Law; Travis, Moncrieff and Noah, three rich kids with grades to match their money. They were already being courted by the biggest firms and corporations in Guessing and beyond. Life was laid out, an easy ride if they could just get through this last exhausting year.
Moncrieff started it. Travis and Noah were sitting in the library where they had spent so many hours of the last four years pawing over tomes of torts, memorising statutes and statistics. They both wore dark puffy circles under their glassy eyes, each of them was burnt out, secretly fearing he didn’t have what it took to make it through this last round of exams, let alone make it out alive to the other side to actually start working. It was past ten and there was no hope of them getting out of there before midnight if at all that night.
Moncrieff came in, finding the friends at their usual carrel. He was smiling and buzzing with an intensity Travis hadn’t seen in any of them for months. His first thought was drugs, some kind of uppers to help him through the all night study session. Moncrieff scoffed at him when he hinted at the accusation.
“Drugs? What do you think I am, man?”
“Did he get laid?” Noah asked.
Moncrieff grinned impishly and took a seat next to Travis. “Better,” he said.
He told them about going into the grocer’s on Hemming Street in Downtown. It was one of those fancy organic places that put hemp seeds and kale into everything. He was in there asking the old lady who ran the place if there was any kind of herbal tonic, a pick-me-up he could use to help him deal with not sleeping for a week or so, to get that edge to stay awake, work a little bit longer into the night. She’d shown him some energy drinks, ginseng, guarana, that kind of stuff.
“And then she looked at me, really full on, like I thought she was about to hit on me or something,” Moncrieff said. He was always thinking any woman who looked at him even slightly askew was obviously trying to have sex with him, even elderly grocers. “And so she asks me how serious I was, and I obviously told her very. Do you guys know that place isn’t just a health food shop? It’s got this whole secret area downstairs filled with all kinds of that occult stuff.”
Travis’ mouth dried and his stomach started to tingle. Growing up in Guessing, even in the good parts of town, what few of those there were at least, you couldn’t help but hear stories. Magic stories. Horror stories. Moncrieff continued.
“So, she leads me downstairs into this weird room and she tells me to just stand there, taking deep breaths with my eyes closed. Oh, I should add that by now she’s already had me pay five hundred bucks up front.”
“Get on with it,” Travis said. “We don’t have all night.”
Moncrieff leaned back in the chair, his hands locked behind his head. “But that’s just the thing, Travis. I do have all night. And all day, and all tomorrow night, and then some.”
“Spill it, man. What are you talking about?” Noah asked.
Moncrieff stood up so fast it was if he’d been stung. “I’m not going to tell you,” he said, smiling like a mad man. “Come on boys, I’m going to show you.”
“I don’t have time to go off on some stupid game,” Travis said.
“But you will have time, lots of it, Travis. It’ll just take a couple of hours, I swear it. Trust me, you’ll thank me for it when you don’t need to sleep for the rest of the week.”
Travis had never been a person who could lose sleep easily. Without a solid seven hours at least, he was a mess. He couldn’t think, he couldn’t function. Moncrieff and Noah seemed to bounce back OK from these nocturnal study sessions their course forced them into more often than he liked, but the effort was beginning to wear on Travis. He’d go through gallons of black coffee, but that just ended up making him twitchy and too scattered to think properly. He had once tried speed—he knew there were more than a few students who made it through that way—but he’d spent the whole night running laps around the track fields and didn’t get any work done anyway. He had no reason to trust or to even believe Moncrieff, especially if there was magic involved.
How many nights and days since has Travis lay awake, cursing Moncrieff, cursing himself for following him Downtown that night. If only he’d just stayed in the library, if only he’d just put up with being tired for a little bit longer. A lack of sleep had never killed anyone.
Aspect of the Demon
It was called Aspect of the Demon, the witch explained.
“This one in particular is called the Rite of Zarenak,” she said. “He feeds on sleep.” Travis and Noah were standing in front of the old woman; Thel, she said her name was. She had taken their money, five hundred each, before even letting them through the door.
Noah looked just about as nervous as Travis felt. Moncrieff was standing to the side, casually flicking through a book on palm reading as he waited.
“Does it hurt?” Travis asked. Thel just shook her head as she laid out a selection of items on the low wooden table between them—a candle, a small bowl of what looked like salt, and a matching bowl filled with water. She instructed them to close their eyes.
Travis only felt what happened, heard the mumbling whispers of formless words as the witch worked her spell. He felt a rush of hot wind though they were on the basement level in a room without windows. All of the fear he had felt since Moncrieff first convinced him to give the spell a try, melted away like wax to a flame. When he had heard the word ‘demon’, his first thought was of some great, muscular thing with bare skin like black leather and the fires of hell in its eyes. He felt warm, cosy even, as if he were curled up in a soft bed on a cold morning, soothed by the pleasures of sleep and contentment. And then it shook him.
The warmth sank away into cold. Ice and blustering chills of frigid air blasting at him from the inside. It was like he had been laying in that soft bed and was then stripped, doused with freezing water so cold it burned his naked skin, shocking him into violent wakefulness. He gasped, almost screaming, and opened his eyes.
He wasn’t naked, he wasn’t wet. Noah was still next to him, wearing the same look of shock that suggested he had just experienced the same thing. Thel stood before them, her forehead beaded with perspiration, breathing hard. The candle had burned out. The salt and water had both been spilled.
“Quite something, am I right?” Moncrieff said.
He was right. Travis rubbed his eyes. It was like waking up from a long and restful sleep. His mind was as sharp as a diamond blade. Even his body felt light. Everything was effortless.
Travis returned to the library alone. Moncrieff and Noah had decided to stay Downtown and get a couple of drinks, saying they didn’t want to waste a feeling like this on studying and assignments. Travis felt the opposite. He’d never had so many thoughts. And not the useless blubbering waffle that came with a brain stoned flat on drugs or the formless jitters of a brain without sleep. He was thinking, actually thinking and remembering things he had forgotten he learned.
Over the following days, he finished his assignments and started on the next one ahead of schedule. He could not read fast enough, it was like there wasn’t enough information in the world to satisfy him. And he never felt tired. For five days, he worked solidly, barely looking up from his books and computer screen. And then it ended, a crushing fatigue hit him like a freight train he hadn’t seen coming. His body ached, his stomach burned with sick acid. His thoughts made no sense, his eyes stung with even the slightest light and he could barely keep his head upright, it felt so painfully heavy.
Travis went back to Thel with another five hundred dollars and a week after that he went back a third and last time to receive the Aspect of the Demon.
Fire From the Inside
“Zarenak likes you,” Thel said, setting up her table of magical paraphernalia like she had done on the first night Travis came to her. “He goes into you more easily than the others. Your sleep must be sweeter.” She smiled warmly. Travis liked her.
The ritual happened the same as the first two nights. Thel muttered her arcane spell and Travis stood before her, his eyes closed, riding the waves of his breath as the demon came to feed off his sleep. The same warm comfort enveloped him and then followed by the same shocking cold rush. Now that he was prepared for it, the cold was nothing as painful as the first time. He almost came to look forward to the exhilaration in the same way that people went swimming in the ocean in the dead of winter or plunged themselves into icy snow after a sauna.
The wakefulness hit him and he cried out an almost orgasmic groan. This was where the ritual usually ended. He would open his eyes and see Thel, breathless with the psychic effort. But once the cold passed, Travis could not move. Every muscle felt like it had been fused, his eyes welded shut. His body did not have the same weightless feeling as before and his insides were starting to warm. A spreading heat crept out of his heart and seeped through the rest of him until his skin boiled and he was sure he was somehow on fire from the inside out.
He could hear Thel calling his name. He felt her body close but her voice sounded like it was coming through a closed door. She was in a panic. “Travis? Can you hear me? Travis, I need you to open your eyes.”
He could not open his eyes. The heat grew, pressing on him and pulling at him, swelling his body. The pressure was unbearable. He tried to fight, drawing one struggled breath after another and then, a deep and soothing voice came to him and told Travis he was not in pain. Nothing hurt and he realised then that nothing had been hurting. The words came to him from inside his skull. They told him to relax his shoulders, to unclench his fists, uncurl his toes and release his jaw. He obeyed.
“Now open your eyes,” it said. Travis opened his eyes and saw Thel and the room through a fiery orange haze like he was looking through a veil of flame.
“Travis?” Thel said quietly. “Travis, are you alright? Say something.”
“What happened?” he said. His throat felt raw and blistered.
“I need to know that from you,” she said. Thel ushered him to a chair and ordered him to sit. She handed him a glass of water, but he just held it, his fingers gripped like an iron claw on the glass. “You were screaming. Did the Aspect take?”
“Screaming?” Travis did not remember screaming. A wretched, agonising howl, Thel said. He knew nothing of it.
“Are you OK?” she asked him again.
He was fine. He was more than fine. He was better than ever. As his mind cleared and the strange painless agony released his muscles and bones, he began to think with that crystalline clarity he’d come looking for. But it was more. He felt exhilarated. He felt powerful. He felt like he was standing on the edge of every thought that had ever been sparked since the beginning of time and every idea that would bring about the future, and that he was about to step into it. He felt the voice again.
“Come with me and take me with you,” it said from inside. It did not make sense but Travis knew what it meant and was ready to agree.
“Did you receive the Aspect?” Thel asked.
The Aspect of the Demon was the small part, the side effect of letting the beast feed of his sleep. Travis had not received the Aspect of the Demon. He had received the entire demon, it’s complete and raw form was inside him, fused to every cell and fibre.
“Thel,” he spoke slowly, deliberately. “I think I’ve been possessed.”
The Raw Essence of the Universe
“Possessed?” Thel said. Her voice was small and she stepped away from him in a tiny movement he was sure she wasn’t even aware she was making.
“Is that even possible?”
“I expect so,” she said. “You have called the demon, after all, given it access to the very raw essence of yourself. It’s like opening a door and asking a cat to stay sitting on the other side. It might stay and just look through, or it might decide to enter.”
Travis tried to supress a smirk. “Does this count as shoplifting?” he asked. Thel only looked at him, her eyes creased into something like pity. Travis didn’t like it.
“I will exorcise it for you,” she said. “I’ve never performed an exorcism before, but,” she swept her hand toward the wall lined with books. “Plenty have. It should not be hard to find instruction.”
“No,” Travis said. It was his own voice as well as the soundless voice inside of him that was refusing. Thel took a step toward him, the look of pity intensifying and joining with concern and, Travis saw, fear.
Thel stretched out her hand, slowly as if she were reaching out to pat a half wild animal. Which, Travis supposed, he now was. Her fingers touched his chest. At the first light touch, it wasn’t much, just a tingling that ran from the point where Thel’s fingers connected with him and then spread, radiating like an electric current out to his head, his own fingers and his feet. He saw Thel felt it too. She flattened her hand against his heart and the power gripped them both.
It was like being punched and fucked at the same time. Pain and ecstasy. Love and hate. The demon was feeding on Thel, drinking her energy and in return filling them both with a delirious ecstasy. It might have been seconds, it might have been hours, before Thel pulled away her hand, cradling it to her belly like she had been burned. She was gasping, almost doubled over.
Travis was breathing hard, blood thundered in his ears as his heart careened against his rib cage. He felt as though he were ten feet tall and growing more from the inside.
“What was that?” he said.
“Raw power,” Thel said eventually getting her breath under control. She straightened and smoothed her palms down the side of her long black skirt. “Travis, you need to exorcise this demon. All I know of Zarenak is from the Aspect rite. It’s just a fraction of the monster. Now it is whole and wholly within you, you can’t know what it’s capable of. You can’t know what it will have you do.”
“More,” said the demon. And Travis wanted it too.
“Touch me again, Thel,” he said. She shook her head.
“I know you felt what I felt, I know you want to feel it again,”
“No, Travis,” Thel said.
He saw, or maybe the demon saw for him, that he was right. Thel did want another taste of Zarenak and it looked like she wanted it almost as badly as Zarenak himself wanted to taste the witch again.
“More,” it said.
Thel stretched out her fingers but didn’t move toward him. She was within reach, he could grab her hand, force it against his chest, but he didn’t move.
“I won’t,” Thel said. She lowered her arm and closed her eyes. “Travis you must leave.”
Downtown never slept. As Travis walked along Hemming Street, he felt like he was floating. It was like he was looking at the city at night for the first time. Lights lit a false day, swimming across his eyes. Night was only there if you looked up and saw the dark strip of starless sky between the buildings. The people were different at this time, either hurrying away, eager to put the day behind them and end until tomorrow, or slower, lingering, those whose lives had just woken up as they entered the city for the night of fun and life. Travis walked between them. All it would take was one touch, just an outstretched arm, to grab a passer-by and pull them into Zarenak. In this street alone he could feed for an eternity. But Travis knew where he was going and who he wanted.
Moncrieff had an apartment on the edge of Amberley. Travis had never been there, but found the address easily with a quick search online.
Inside, it was exactly what Travis would have guessed Moncrieff’s house to look like. It was pristine and dark. Deep colours, black, brown, greys and there wasn’t a soft line in the place. Every surface was ordered, free from dust and clutter. It was like the whole place had come straight out of a packet. A scattering of text books on the Chesterfield betrayed the only sign of life.
“I haven’t seen you in ages, man. I didn’t think you ever left the library,” Moncrieff said. He stopped when he met Travis’ eyes. “You’ve juiced again, right?”
“Sort of,” Travis said. He pushed passed Moncrieff and sat on the sofa.
“What then? You find something different to fuel those book sessions you’ve been doing? You looked like you’ve never slept in your life.”
“And I might not need to sleep again, like ever.” Travis smiled.
“You holding out on me, Travis?” Moncrieff said. He was grinning like an eager and cheeky little boy about to be let in on a secret. “What have you got?”
“What haven’t I got?” He stood and grabbed Moncrieff’s hand. He wouldn’t do it without asking, the part of Travis that was still Travis demanded it. “You’ve got to want it though.”
“Yeah, I want it,” Moncrieff said.
Travis pulled Moncrieff’s hand onto his chest. It was like a magnet force. They both felt it run, an electrifying current of knowledge and energy and happiness and pain and ecstasy and torment and endless, ceaseless and all-consuming obliterating power. Moncrieff fell back, missing the sofa and landing, sprawled on the floor, shrieking with a high laughter that might have also been part terror.
And so it continued. Night after night. Travis and Moncrieff, and soon after Noah joining in, the three and the demon. If the other two were going to class, Travis never knew. School was nothing to him anymore. What was the point of books and exams and laws and litigations when he had the eyes of Zarenak showing him all the universes behind this one?
At some point, Travis moved out of his house and into the place near the Remnants. It was the money, his parents took it away when he stopped going to school, but Travis was only there watching it happen, like he was viewing it all from a very distant sideline. Moncrieff and Noah kept coming to him, swapping cash for an edge of the demon. Sometimes Thel would come to see him for a taste. She would come quickly and almost silently, leaving just as fast, ashamed.
Moncrieff and Noah talked something about graduating. Soon after they said something about new jobs. They started coming dressed in suits. It was all very small for Travis, their tiny steps through their useless jobs in their nothing lives, and none of it, not one detail about them meant anything. Until the night Moncrieff brought Shelley to him.
Break and Enter
Travis ran. With Moncrieff and Noah knowing where he spent most of his nights, the swimming pool had lost its sense of refuge. Running was just another path to exhaustion. There were few people on the streets of the Remnants at night, for good reason. Besides the typical urban cast of rapists, thieves and murderers, there were other things, the kinds of things you heard about in whispered rumours. Who was he not to believe any of these fantastical tales were true when Travis himself, and his demon within, were part of their reality?
The steady pulse of his feet on the pavement did little to slow his mind as he ran through the hot night. The phone call from Noah the previous night had him wondering. Moncrieff and Noah were obviously talking again. He wondered if Maryanne was in on it too. Was everyone back together, working against him for another taste of Zarenak?
After an hour his legs felt like soft rubber and his body burned in a different pain to what swimming laps brought. His lungs felt scorched and shredded and his blood boiled. It was new at least, a welcome distraction that might take his body to some void close to sleep a little sooner than usual, but he still preferred the pool. He turned back and ran towards home.
Breathless and dripping with sweat, Travis climbed the stairs to his apartment. He noticed the broken lock first, the wood splintered around it from where someone had forced it out. In this neighbourhood, robberies were as much a part of the scenery as the buildings and bums, but Travis knew straight away what this was and he didn’t have to guess who was behind it.
He pushed the door and it swung open freely. It was dark inside, and quiet. If they were still in there, they were hiding, waiting for him. He flicked on the single fluro light. The place was trashed, but only little more than the usual squalid state that he kept it. He checked the bathroom, the single closest. No one remained. There was nothing missing that he could see straight away. When you own hardly anything, it’s hard to be robbed. And then he saw the plastic case where he kept his vials, laying open on the bed. The two he had left last night were cracked and drained. So, he thought, if I won’t give them Zarenak, they’ll take the next best thing. He hurled the empty box against the wall.
“Where am I going to get more at this hour?” he yelled to his empty place. Could he wait until morning? He was dead tired but knew he would not be able to get that fake sleep, the only sleep he’d had since Zarenak took him, without chemical help. He couldn’t just lay there, awake and alert, especially not with this anger bubbling away inside. Stewing alone in the dark was a dangerous state for him to be in. He would have to go and see Thel. She wouldn’t mind being called on at two in the morning for a fix since it didn’t seem all that long ago that the witch was doing the same to him.
Travis knocked on the back door of Thel’s shop and paced anxious circles in the alley until he heard the locks move. Thel peered into the dark. Her long curls fell over her shoulders. She wore a faded towelling dressing gown and slippers with an uncharacteristic floral pattern. She looked like someone’s grandmother and without her usual slather of makeup, he thought she looked old, maybe sixty five or seventy. Of course, he knew she was a lot older still.
“Who’s there?” she whispered.
“Sorry it’s so late, Thel.” Travis said.
“Heavens, Travis. What do you want at this hour?”
“Can I come in?”
“No, I have guests staying. You want vials I assume.”
He nodded and hoped it came across as sheepish.
“You refilled less than a week ago; you shouldn’t be using so much.”
“I was robbed,” he said. “They took the lot.”
Thel’s face creased with the pity he was looking for. He didn’t mention that he only had two of the original twenty left. “Wait here,” she said.
“I don’t have any money. I thought we could do it on tick.”
Thel glowered and then stretched her frown into an exaggerated simper, “We could exchange, service for service?”
He hated that she’d asked, hated the hope in her voice and almost turned away there on the spot. “You know better than to ask me that, Thel. Please, I’m here for your help. You know I wouldn’t if it wasn’t so bad. Please?”
She sighed and closed the door. After what seemed like an age where he wondered if she was coming back, he heard the locks move again and she reappeared with ten vials.
“Pay me before the end of the month,” she said.
She reached her hand out toward him and he flinched, automatically taking a step backward to avoid contact. “It’s OK, Travis. I’m not trying to touch you,” she said. “Or him rather, I’m not trying to touch him. I’m so sorry for even asking. I don’t want that again, I swear it. Your aura is so dark, so jagged and fragmented. It’s hurting me just to look at you.”
“You should try it from the driver’s seat,” he said, trying to sound flippant. He wanted Thel to stop looking at him with that sad look. He had the drugs, he didn’t need her pity anymore.
“Can I do anything else for you?” she said.
“Not unless you’ve learned about some new exorcism ritual that you’ve been holding out on,” he said. There was an edge in his voice he hadn’t intended to show her and he felt guilty for it. Thel had done everything she could to help him. She did spell after spell, sought help from just about everyone in the occult side of Guessing and, she said, she never stopped looking for some way to help him. And of course, she kept him in vials, but he paid her for that.
The rest of the stuff though, that was her paying him. It was her fault, after all. She was the one that let Zarenak slip into him whole. She was the one controlling the reigns that were meant to be holding him back. He couldn’t count the number of times he had assured her that none of it was her fault, just as he couldn’t count the number of times he blamed her completely.
“You still think of Shelley don’t you, I see it on every part of you.”
“Every day,” he almost choked on his words. He hated when other people used her name. Especially Thel. She didn’t know her, never even met her. Shelley would still be alive if Thel…. Travis caught himself in the thought. There was no point. Accidents happen. Huge, bloody visceral accidents, life destroying accidents, demon summoning accidents. They happen all the time.
She reached out to touch him again and this time he didn’t move. He let her gnarled long fingers fall lightly onto his shoulder. Zarenak stirred. There was something in the witch’s touch. Any doubt he’d had if the trip would still work like it used to vanished. Zarenak wasn’t quelled, he was just waiting.
“Perhaps it will have to run its course,” she said. “Perhaps you will have to wait until he is finished with you, instead of the other way around.”
He turned around without saying goodbye and felt the witch watch him walk out of the alley.
It was just starting to rain. Big splodged drops splattered on his skin, ice cold against the heat in the air and the fire that burned relentlessly inside him. Every fire burned itself out eventually. Maybe Thel was right and this one would too. Travis walked back to his apartment without looking up once, his only comfort being a fresh supply of drugs to guarantee at least a few hours of thoughtless nothing for the rest of the night.
It was another night after another day and Travis felt almost tolerable as he finished a swim. He’d debated whether or not to go back to the pool but if Moncrieff and Noah were going to find him in his home, why should he deny himself his swim, the only chemical free calm he could manage. Why should he let them take that from him too?
He had what drug induced rest he could the previous night and had spent the day fixing a new set of dead bolts to his front door. It had felt good, almost normal, to be doing something, a hands on project that used tools and steel and wood.
After extra laps to make up for the time he missed, Travis pulled himself out of the water. He padded to the showers wiping the chlorine out of his eyes with his towel. He was spent, distracted by this rare and strange satisfied feeling and did not notice Moncrieff before he almost walked right into him.
“Thinking of taking up swimming?” Travis said, and moved to sidestep the smaller man standing in the doorway to the change rooms.
“Nah, all those laps, back and forth and back and forth. Seems mind numbingly boring if you ask me.”
“That’s the idea.”
Noah stepped out of from behind the doorway. Travis had not expected to see him but found that he was not in the least surprised. He was fatter than Travis remembered, with the waxy skin of a bloated corpse. He was stuffed into a suit that looked as about expensive as Moncrieff’s. His hands were behind his back. He grinned at Travis with a mouth of iridescent white teeth that were obviously chemically treated, probably from one of Prime’s many so called self-improvement products.
“Nice work you did on my place there, fellahs,” Travis said. “Breaking and entering, petty theft. I guess it’s a step up from corporate law.”
“That’s not the least of where we’re willing to go,” Moncrieff said. “But we’re offering you a deal, Trav. Prime, they have an option for you, to help you get your body back.”
Travis wasn’t interested in another failing hope, especially when it was coming from Moncrieff whose word was as good as the Devil’s.
“We’ll convince you one way or another to give it a shot,” Moncrieff said and nodded toward Noah.
Noah brought his arms to his front and revealed the twisted metal bar, he was still grinning with his blinding teeth and looked like a man gone mad.
“We’ve asked for your help nicely. Now we’re just going to have to take what never belonged to you anyway.” Moncrieff said.
Travis laughed. “You’re going to try and beat Zarenak out of me? Are you insane?”
“It might work, you don’t know. Why should you get all the fun, huh? Why do you get to keep it? I brought it to you in the first place, remember?”
“You’re welcome to it, I assure you.” Travis said. He almost laughed.
Noah swung with unexpected speed and caught the bar sharp across Travis’ brow. The pain screeched through his head and he felt the warm wetness of his own blood. Moncrieff moved and brought his knee into Travis’ groin. His bare feet scrambled to grip the wet tiles and he went down like an empty sack. He lay on the cold floor, wet and half naked, shielding his face with his arms against the blows, more scared of what might happen if he reacted to the beating than the pain it delivered. Time seemed to speed up and yet he felt as though he was laying there for hours willing himself to stay down, stay calm, stay quiet. Blow after blow, kick after torturous kick, he felt his ribs pop, his skin tear. Pain leached through him like molten lava. And finally they stopped. Travis rolled onto his back and gazed up at the men above him panting like excited dogs after the exertion of the fight. Noah was still grinning, his fat rippled with his small chuckles. Moncrieff wiped the sweat, and spatters of Travis’ blood from his face.
“Finished?” Travis spluttered. His mouth was a mess of blood and teeth, his tongue cut and swollen. Noah planted another kick into his already shattered side. The last ounce of strength went out of him.
“Perhaps this has convinced you I’m not kidding,” Moncrieff wheezed. “Next time I’ll kill you.” Moncrieff and Noah left, their shoes echoing through the cavernous tiled building.
“Next time, I might ask you to.” Travis said.
The Voice of Zarenak
Travis fumbled with his broken fingers and the newly installed locks, willing himself to keep calm, stay focussed. He fell into his apartment and collapsed onto his bed, not bothering to lock the doors behind him. In a mess of blood and pain he scrabbled for a vial, accidentally shattering the tiny glass tube trying to break off its tip. Keep calm. Stay focussed. The precious liquid mixed with his blood as it trickled down his fingers, and he licked at his hands hungrily until he felt his mind begin to soften just slightly. He lay back onto his bed, turned out his light and waited for the fullness of merciful oblivion. But it did not come. He cracked another vial. The physical pain from the beating was subsiding under the opiate. His body felt like a thick, wet pulp and yet his mind prickled and could not be silenced.
“It’s you isn’t it?” he said. “You’re still there. Awake.”
It had been a year since he had heard the demon speak. Zarenak’s voice sounded like fire and decay. It came to him internally, like a thought yet he felt it through his ears, echoing through his apartment.
“What do you want?”
“Life,” Zarenak said.
Travis tried to sit up but the drugs and his broken body would not let him. “Is that why they’ve come back? Did you call them or something?”
“I need them. They need me. You need me.”
“No,” Travis whispered hoarsely.
“You will bring them to me,” Zarenak said.
Travis twisted in his sheets as the ghoulish voice of the demon clouded his consciousness like a storm.
“I won’t let you kill again,” he choked.
Zarenak laughed. It sounded like crackling flames. The air pulsed. A tiny blue pinprick of light in the corner of the room caught Travis’ eye. He fixed on it and watched as it grew larger and brighter, a ghostly glow in the shape of a woman.
“Shelley.” Her name clotted on his tongue. The shape fluttered and brightened and Shelley stood before him, clear as the last day he had seen her alive.
“Hey, Baby,” she said. Her voice was like trickling, clear water. Cool, clean and soothing. Hot tears stung the cuts on his face.
“You’re not real,” he said to her. And then he screamed to the demon. “She’s not real!”
“She’s as real as I am,” Zarenak’s voice came again. “As real as what I did to her. Remember?”
Travis’ gaze did not flicker from the apparition of his dead lover. Her hands were held lightly across her perfect middle. She smiled sweetly at him, her face turned gently to one side so her honey curls fell gently across her cheek. She was wearing the dress he had given her for her birthday, though she’d picked it out of course. It was white, embroidered with tiny blue flowers and dragonflies. She loved dragonflies. She used to say they were the steeds of the fairies and she gave each one she saw a different name.
He reached out to her, knowing in one part of him that his hand would go straight through her but thinking that he would die if he did not at least try to touch her. She lifted her hands, those long slender fingers with creamy curves of nails, and reached out for him. Travis recoiled his hand in horror. Her perfect middle was a mess of red gore, just as the last time he saw her. Her smile faded and her face twisted into sadness.
“Sweetie? What’s wrong?”
“No!” Travis shrieked. And the spectre was gone and the room fell into darkness again.
“And you’ll see her every minute, just like that if you don’t give me what I want,” Zarenak said.
“I hear you’ve got the good stuff,” Shelley said.
They were the first words she had said to him the night Moncrieff brought her to Travis’ apartment for a taste of the demon. She was there with her sister, Maryanne, some kind of legal secretary from wherever it was Moncrieff had said he was working at the time. Maryanne was, like they all were in the beginning, looking for the edge, a sharpness she could take to work, to climb up another rung. She had told Travis all about it as they were preparing to share the demon, but he hadn’t really heard a thing. Shelley was different. She didn’t belong to their world, she was there looking for a vision, and the only edge she was interested in was the edge of reality where, she said, she just wanted a chance to chat with a demon.
After a single taste, Travis was hooked on her as much as she was on Zarenak, and the demon soon made his preference for her clear. With her, it felt like sex, it felt like love and it quickly became just that.
Soon they moved in together, forgot the rest of the world, just the three of them—him, her, and their pet demon. Retrospectively, Travis knew that was why Moncrieff had started to hate him so much, he’d got the demon and then he got the girl and Shelley only had eyes for Travis. And Zarenak.
The night it happened began like any other. It was Saturday. Moncrieff and Noah came around looking for a trip as usual. Shelley and Maryanne were already burned out, laying on the carpet watching patterns on the roof that only they could see. Travis sank back into the couch buzzing in the blissful content of the fresh juiced junkie. By midnight they were all equally wasted and Zarenak raged, the psychic energies of all five of them belted through them both like a brush fire.
“I want some more,” Shelley whispered in his ear.
“You’ve had heaps, just wait a while, baby,” he said. She pouted, her pink lips wet and shining. Who was he to resist her? He opened his shirt and she climbed on top of him. Her skin was like ice against the demon fire as she laid her hands on his chest and closed her eyes, ready for the rush.
Zarenak stirred in the way he only did when he was with Shelley. He seized her and she gasped in orgasmic rapture. Travis felt it too. He wanted her, to take her then and didn’t care who saw. He tore open her blouse and pulled her towards him kissing her, the heat of the demon feeling like it was about to burst through his skin. She kissed him back, their bodies pressed together, Zarenak moving between them like an electric current. It felt as though they were floating.
She tried to push away but he pulled her closer refusing to let her go. She pulled harder but he was lost, consumed, and all he knew was her skin and that he wanted to devour her. With one powerful shove she forced herself off him and then his world ended.
Zarenak burst from Travis like water through a thin film and grabbed hold of Shelley. She screamed and fell backwards onto the floor. The others scattered and Travis fell back screaming and reeling from the pain of the demon leaving him. There was a formless shape on her, a black mist, and she writhed beneath it, howling in torturous torment. Her chest was still bare and he saw blood. Everybody watched in muted stillness as the demon tore into her flesh. She wailed. And then a sickly stillness came over her bloodied body, half naked and shredded like tissue paper. The black mist wafted back over Travis and sunk into his skin. Nobody moved.
Sounds drifted up from the streets and brought Travis back into the present and the ghoulish reality of what he was responsible for crept quietly into his thoughts like a menace. Maryanne was huddled in the far corner of the room, her legs folded up to her chest and her head buried in her arms. She rocked back and forth, whispering to herself. Moncrieff and Noah were gone. Shelley lay before him her eyes white, her body ripped and bloodied, a dark crimson stain spreading on the rug beneath her. Travis put his head between his knees and vomited a thick yellow acid between his feet.
“Don’t make me remember!” Travis screamed, writhing on his bed, knotted in sheets that were now stained red. The memory of the night Shelley was killed played behind his eyes in perfect clarity as though he were living it all again.
“Stop!” he pleaded with Zarenak but the demon remained silent. The vials were wearing off. It didn’t seem like anything was actually broken, but he felt bruises and swelling all over his body. He wanted to take another dose but knew that it would only stop the pain of cuts, and that was the least of the anguish he was feeling.
The first morning light crept through his bedroom window. He lay, sweating and breathing hard, revulsion churning in his belly. He knew what had to be done if he were ever to survive.
He had expected Moncrieff to laugh, expected some smart-assed comment to mark his triumph. Moncrieff though slipped into a straightforward professional mode Travis hadn’t seen in him since they were studying together what seemed like a century before. Moncrieff told him to meet him in the foyer of the Prime Life building.
It was around 9 a.m. the beginning of another business day. Travis sat on a firm, fake leather couch that was all angles and tried to hide inside the hood of the sweater he didn’t need to be wearing in the warmth. People were looking at him. He felt their eyes like lasers as they filed through the office building on their way to work. A few among them, men and women wore the standard corporate uniform of dark suits and straight lines, though most were dressed in a neon rainbow of designer fitness gear sporting the Prime Life logo. Everyone looked energised, purposeful, vital. This would have been his life; offices, colleagues, dry cleaned suits, briefcases, meetings and giant cups of coffee to keep him awake throughout the whole ordeal and give him a delicious morning buzz. Travis suppressed a smirk at the irony.
A thin but well-muscled man sat behind the front desk, taking calls and directing visitors to the right floors. He hardly moved his eyes from Travis. He called over one of the huge security guards that manned the main doors like cyclopean statues and the pair exchanged whispers, continuously looking back to Travis. Why couldn’t Moncrieff have brought him in though some kind of back door, a service entrance or loading dock? He was produce, after all.
The guard, dressed in a uniform that didn’t look that far removed from SWAT gear, came toward Travis with slowly planted steps. Two pieces of metal flanked his trunk-like neck and Travis saw he also had Mech implants in his knuckles. Even without the mechanical embellishments, this guy looked like he could crush Travis like a gnat with only the tip of his finger. Unless of course Zarenak did the fighting for him.
“Can I help you, Sir?” the Mech said in a high voice, incongruent to his size and the menacing expression on his still human face.
“I’m waiting for a friend,” Travis said without looking up. “I have a meeting.”
“Sir, I don’t want to cause a scene in front of all these nice people who are just here to do their job,” he spoke softly in even tones he was probably trained in. “I’m going to ask you to leave and you’re going to move quietly, quickly and calmly out of the building. Are we understanding each other?”
“I know I look like shit, but I seriously do have a meeting, legitimately,” Travis said. He was getting edgy and the demon started to stir.
“Is that right? Then why isn’t your name on the register?”
“I haven’t told anyone my name,” Travis said and he felt the edge of Zarenak on his words.
“Stand down solider, he’s with me,” Moncrieff said appearing from behind the giant. Travis could not remember the last time, if there ever was a time, that he was relieved to see Moncrieff. The guard stepped back, looking Moncrieff up and down with clear distaste.
“Back to your post, GI Joe.” Moncrieff sneered. The guard did not move as Travis stood and followed Moncrieff to the wall of elevators on the far side of the foyer.
“Those Mechs, they think they’re god damn superheroes,” Moncrieff said, pushing the button for the lift. “That said, man. You do kind of look like The Unabomber. Would it have killed you to put on a clean shirt before you came here?”
Travis didn’t say anything.
They rode the elevator in silence to the forty second floor. Zarenak was awake, stirred up by the near confrontation with the guard and sitting like a prickle of electricity just beneath the surface. Travis wondered if he knew something was about to happen.
Moncrieff lead him to a plain beech coloured door and sharply knocked once, entering before anyone answered. They entered a waiting room. A row of chairs, the same kind of corporate couches from the foyer, and a stack of magazines. Laid back synthesizer music was being piped through unseen speakers and the room smelled vaguely of peppermint. The entire far wall was glass, completely spotless and practically invisible. The grey city spread out silently below them like a model in a planner’s office, and Travis’ legs suddenly felt too soft to hold him up. He turned his back to the view and focused on the firmness of the floor beneath his shoes.
Moncrieff picked up a phone on the otherwise empty desk and told whoever was on the other end that Travis was here.
“Sit tight, mate. They’ll be in for you soon.” Moncrieff reached out a hand to touch Travis’ chest and Travis stumbled back, falling against the window, that pane of glass that was the only thing that stopped him plummeting to a messy death. “Relax, Travis. I wasn’t trying to…” he stopped and smirked. “OK, who am I to lie to you? Yeah, I was trying to. But pretty soon, I guess I won’t have to. The Z won’t just be yours, will it? He’ll be there for anyone and everyone who can pay, just a capsule or a drink, I don’t know how they’re going to do it. Don’t care really. But it’s a good thing, you should be happy. Get that frown off your face. You get your demon out and a big wad of cash to go with it. We both do!”
Moncrieff left Travis alone in the room. His back was still against the glass, the only position in the room where he couldn’t see the drop to the city. He closed his eyes and willed his breath under the familiar meditative control. It wasn’t just Zarenak he was trying to calm.
He was happy, excited even. And relieved. If it worked, he could have a life again. He might go back to study and finish his degree, get a job in a building just like this one. Or he might travel, experience the world for himself and not just through the images the demon put through his mind that he used to think was knowledge. One day, when or if he was ever ready, he might fall in love again.
A door in a panel in the grey wall that Travis hadn’t even noticed was there opened and a short woman wearing green scrubs came into the room holding a clipboard. She had a shaved head and the greenest eyes he had ever seen.
“Good morning, Travis,” she said. She sounded like one of those serene robotic voices he’d seen in old sci-fi movies, soft and pleasant but completely neutral. “Are you ready to begin?”
Travis was ready to begin. He was ready to end this.
The shaved woman led Travis into a room, smaller than the first, which looked like an ordinary doctor’s office. She handed him a thin, papery gown like the ones they wear in hospitals and told him to change. She did not offer him any privacy and simply stood in front of him, reading her clipboard while he undressed.
“Please step on the scales, Travis,” she said. Travis obeyed and she recorded the measurement. He did not look at the readout but wondered briefly if he would weigh less once they took the demon out of him.
She directed him to sit at the small desk and connected a cuff to him arm to measure his blood pressure, again recoding the numbers on her board.
“Have you had any headaches?” she asked him, still without looking away from her notes.
“All the time,” he said.
“Do you drink alcohol?”
“And do you take any drugs, illicit, pharmaceutical or mystic?”
“And when was the last time you slept?”
Travis paused and tried to count the date exactly. “About nineteen months? Give or take a lifetime or two.”
She scribbled down his answers and hurried to fill a paper cup from a water jug on the table between them. She tore open a small sachet and tipped the powered contents into the drink, stirring with a flat wooden stick.
“Drink this, all of it,” she said and stood, still without looking at him. “The doctors will be in with you soon.”
The woman slipped out of the door at the opposite end of the room, leaving Travis alone with the lemony concoction. He sipped it slowly. It was thick and cold and didn’t taste bad, just artificial.
“I don’t like that,” came the voice.
“I think that’s the point,” Travis answered the demon out loud.
“It’s not going to work,” Zarenak said. “You can’t remove me medically. I’m not a cancer.”
“Maybe not literally. And who said anything about medically. I’ve got no idea what they’re going to do to me, to us behind that door.”
“You will regret this action,” the demon said.
“I’ll add it to the list,” Travis said and gulped down the rest of the potion.
There was fear in Zarenak’s voice. Travis couldn’t hear it, but he felt it in the same places he would feel his own fear. Magic rituals, exorcisms, ancient rites, these were all deeply trodden ground for the demon, he knew how to resist the pull of magic and psychic energies. Medicine and science was new and the demon was scared.
The door opened and another woman, also short with a shaved head, also wearing green scrubs stepped into the room. “We’re ready for you now, Travis. Please come this way.”
Travis felt like he was stepping onto a stage. A team of eyes that met him from the other side of the room, staring at him over the tops of surgical masks. Four, Travis presumed doctors, in blue scrubs, and four more green scrubbed, shaved head nurses. Blinding lights shone like a row of small suns. Everything was silver and spotless and a strange antiseptic smell clung to the air.
Two nurses helped him up on the table and he lay, arms outstretched like he was being crucified, his wrists and ankles secured to the bench with shining steel shackles. There was a row of machines and screens beside him, humming and blipping, measuring his body functions through the web of wires they stuck to different bits of him. On the other side of the bed, three Bunsen burners flickered long yellow flames. Was this the scientific equivalent of lighting ritual candles? Two nurses wheeled what looked like a huge flask made of opaque glass on the trolley to the top of the bed and fastened a wide flexible tube to his head.
“Good morning, Travis,” one of the blue clad doctors stepped close, looking down on him with kindly blue eyes that made him expect she was smiling though he couldn’t see her mouth. “We’re going to inject you with a drug now, OK. You’ll just feel a little scratching as the needle goes in and you might start to feel a bit sleepy. I think you might welcome that part, right? And then once that’s done, we’re going to give you a mask and we need you to take big deep breaths, can you do that?”
Travis didn’t answer. He felt everything the doctor said he would with the injection and a light swimming feeling running through his veins as he sucked down big gulping breaths from the gas mask they attached to his face. He also felt the demon tense. It was a good sign the beast was wary.
The flask on his head began to whir and Travis felt a slight pulsing through his scalp. Were they trying to suck the demon out of him? It was almost comical, he thought, but if it worked, he didn’t care. Another nurse injected another syringe into his arm. The room was slowly spinning around and around and waving up and down like it was riding a sea of undulating waves. Another injection and the flask sucked harder and faster. Travis felt his heart slow. It was an effort to breathe.
The pulsing on his head intensified and he felt as if the top of his skull was about to be pulled off. One more injection sent a stream of heat spreading through his veins. His eyeballs felt as though they were boiling. The demon screamed. A deafening shriek he wasn’t sure anyone else could hear. Travis’ back arched in a violent spasm and his own scream mingled with the cries of the demon and he couldn’t tell one voice from another.
And then he felt it. An airy lightness a release as if an enormous bank of pressurised steam was released. The pain vanished. His body softened.
“We’ve got it,” said one doctor. The team flew into action behind Travis’ head, he could not see what they were doing. Doctor’s barked orders and nurses scuttled. Travis was free, he felt whole and alone and empty, even beneath the cloud of drugs, his thoughts felt clear and he suddenly very much needed to take a nap.
“How do you feel, Travis?” The kindly doctor said. He tried to speak but his face wouldn’t cooperate against the paralysing drugs. He smiled with just the corners of his mouth. He wanted to laugh but that was a whole load of energy he didn’t have.
And then he heard it. A crack. It wasn’t the high tinkling sound of glass shattering. It was a dull, heavy snap, like wood splintering.
“The containment rite!” The doctor barked. The nurses and doctors moved together to form a circle around the bed and began to chant in wordless tones. Travis saw it first out of the corner of his eye, a black mist spreading from a place behind his head where he guessed the giant flask had broken. Slowly seeping like spilled ink, Zarenak was loose.
He could not move properly to see all of what was happening. The chanting intensified. The black mist swirled and darted around the perimeter of their circle, looking for a way in. Was the chant holding it back? It rolled on itself like a brewing thundercloud, growing darker, moving with more and more frantic energy. It boiled to the ceiling and spread before forming itself into a long taper. It flew, hard and fast, downward like a spear into the top of the kindly doctor’s head.
The chanting stopped. The doctors and nurses broke the circle and fell back, scrambling over their own feet while the doctor screamed, beating at the top of her head and clawing at her body, tearing off the surgical mask and ripping at her scrubs.
Travis knew what she was feeling. The scuttling itch like a million fire ants were eating away at the inside of her skin. A strange look, rapture and terror twisted her face while all anyone could do was watch.
No one moved. The machines were still whirring and beeping, hooked up to Travis’ body. The doctor was close to his bed. She was young, Travis noted. Too young, he would have thought, to be any kind of doctor. Too young to have her body taken over by a demon.
Her eyes that had been like pale sapphires just minutes before were now dark, chocolatey brown. It was the demon who was looking at him.
The doctor looked around the room as if the place was entirely knew to her. Travis felt a panic rise from his stomach. This was different. When the demon had been inside him, it had always been them together, Travis and Zarenak sharing an equal view. The way the doctor looked and moved in her body, it was like the demon had taken her completely, as if she was buried deep beneath him if she still remained in there at all. The doctor’s body moved closer to where Travis lay. The paralysis was subsiding but the shackles still made it impossible for him to move.
“Brother, what have you done?” the doctor said. It was Zarenak’s voice.
Her demon eyes closed and she placed a hand on Travis’ chest and smiled. She was beautiful, Travis thought. Cupid lips and soft skin he wanted to reach out and touch, to tell her that he was sorry. But he couldn’t. Her lips continued to stretch, past the point of a smile and into a weird grimace, her mouth widened and the beauty on that face was stretched, a grotesque demon’s smile. The corners of her lips began to bleed and her mouth stretched longer and wider until flesh began to separate.
“Help her!” Travis screeched. But no one moved.
Blood flowed, at first a trickle and then a torrent as her entire head split in half with a hollow wet sound like someone had just smashed a melon. The mist came like a tiny wisp, a licking tendril of smoke curling out of the place on top of the doctor’s neck where her had had once sat. The body crumpled into a slow fall as the demon released. The smoky black hovered above Travis. He knew what was coming.
It was slow, like a fog settling on a chill morning. Zarenak seeped back into him softly, calmly and without pain as if he were simply returning to his natural home.
“Better,” it said.
Tears rolled down Travis’ cheeks and the rest of him remained in perfect stillness.
A Matter of Strength
Travis’ head thumped with a dull throbbing ache. His body felt like shattered glass. The roof swirled above his bed like a tempestuous vortex as Zarenak raged. The beast was flying high on the doctor’s death but still furious that Travis had taken him there. And he was making Travis pay. He saw Shelley at the end of his bed, a perfect vision as clear as if his lover herself stood so sweetly before him. There was none of the usual sight of her Zarenak served up, her middle exploding as he has seen it done for real that night. This time he showed her with the doctor’s face and he saw her mouth split like a ghoulish piñata, again and again.
Amidst the hurt left over from the procedure and the torture Zarenak delivered every minute, Travis brewed his own agony. It was the ache of disappointment. The anguish of that one last chance, the hope that he had given into despite everything that it meant to involve Moncrieff, to actually go to him for help, and to have it fail.
Moncrieff was not to blame in this latest chapter, Travis knew on a level, but if he had just left him alone, ignored Zarenak calling him. If he had just let him to his nightly vigil of swimming and drifting through what little remained of his life, then maybe it would still be bearable, the demon still silent. The torment he had known then was nothing compared to this new suffering. And now someone else had died by his hand.
Before they had bundled him off home again, cast out like a used up, broken thing, they had made Travis sign a dozen papers he didn’t read. What was the point? He wasn’t going to sue; he himself had torn the woman apart. He wasn’t going to press them for any more help. There was no more help left to give.
Travis’ phone buzzed, lighting up beside him on the bed. It was a message from Moncrieff.
Heard da news. Bummer. We’ll catch up again soon. MayB party?
He fumbled his fingers to delete and then paused. Let the demon run its own course, Thel had suggested. Twice Zarenak had left him and twice he had returned. The first was in sex, the second was at the risk of death. On both times, the beast had torn through the body of a new host like they were tissue paper. As much as he made Travis’ suffer, why had Zarenak never hurt him like that? Why was he able to survive the demon’s form? Was it strength? He couldn’t be the only one strong enough to hold the beast, surely.
He texted Moncrieff back.
Can you come over? Now?
It was less than a minute before Moncrieff’s reply came.
“Ok” he whispered into himself, to the demon. “Ok, you win.”
Travis reasoned he had at least another few hours before Moncrieff showed up. With trembling fingers he dialled Maryanne’s number. He was surprised he still knew it, and more surprised that he found himself needing to talk to her so quickly and unexpectedly especially after so long. It rang for a long time and he almost hung up.
His heart leapt at the sound of her voice that was so like her sister’s.
“It’s Travis,” he said without saying hello.
There was silence.
“I didn’t expect it to be you.” Her voice was flat, emotionless.
“I didn’t expect to be calling,” he said.
“It’s really late. What do you want?” She sounded tired and he thought he was probably the last person in the world that she wanted let alone expected to hear from.
“I’m sorry,” he stammered. He was sorry he had called and sorry he had not realised what time it actually was, that people with real lives would have been in bed by then. There was a long silence.
“Travis, I told you. I wanted nothing to do with your bullshit, and I still mean it. Those days are behind me and every day I try to forget. I thought you felt the same.”
“I did, and I do.” He told her that Moncrieff and Noah were back, omitting the bloody beating they had delivered to him, the deal he’d struck with Prime Life, the doctor he’d killed.
“I’m letting it run its course,” he said.
“And what do you want from me then?”
He didn’t know.
“Get out of Guessing, Travis,” she said. “This place is poisonous.”
“I will,” he said and wondered if he meant it.
Getting out of town wasn’t a bad idea. He could go somewhere nice. North, to the coast perhaps. A tiny town that no one saw. He could have a garden and read. Swim in the ocean and not see or speak to anyone. It would be clean living.
“Can I see you?” he asked.
Maryanne hung up.
At a quarter past midnight, Travis opened his door to Moncrieff and Noah, who he did not expect to see but wasn’t really surprised.
“Glad you’ve seen the error of your ways,” Moncrieff sat on the couch, stretching his arms out behind his head. “Looks like you owe me twenty bucks, Noah.”
“I bet him twenty that we’d end up killing you before you let up the Aspect like the old days,” Noah explained. “Such a shame though. I thought we’d soon be just popping a little Prime pill for the taste. Maybe next time, eh Trav? Either way, I don’t know about you fellah’s but I’ve never been so happy to be about to get back on the wagon.”
“It’s off the wagon,” Moncrieff said.
Noah scratched his head. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, if you’re getting shitfaced, you’re going to be falling off anything. It’s off the wagon, I swear it.”
Travis tried to smile through his nerves. It was like he was watching some inane conversation between two of the three stooges. “Where do you want to do this?” he said.
“I don’t care,” Moncrieff said. “Just give it up.”
“Stand up,” Travis said. Moncrieff stood. Travis’ heart thundered and he felt the familiar demonic stirring. His mouth felt like dry sand. Don’t mess this up, he thought, and hoped Zarenak could hear him.
“Don’t you mess it up,” Zarenak replied. No one else heard the demon’s voice.
Travis unbuttoned his shirt and Moncrieff did the same. “You remember the drill,” he said.
“How could I forget?” Moncrieff grinned and placed his palms on Travis’ bare chest. Travis laid his hands onto the sides of Moncrieff’s head and let the demon through.
Moncrieff gasped at the first rush of power and pressed his hands harder into Travis’ body. His mind burned with a bright light and then he felt it again, what he swore he would never again feel. The swirling energy of the entire world was in his hands, every spark of every consciousness surged through him and for a second that felt like eons, he knew all there was to know.
Moncrieff fell backwards onto the couch sweating and breathing hard. An ecstatic smile tore across his face and for a fleeting second, Travis expected his head to split open.
“Yeah!” he cried. “Oh yeah! God! How I’ve missed that!”
Travis and Moncrieff were both wet through with sweat. Zarenak howled with pleasure through Travis’ every cell and he was loathe to admit he felt that same bliss, a burning ecstasy, the thrill, the pleasure that no sex in the world could come close to matching. Come on then, he thought for Zarenak to hear. Take them. Take them whole. Devour. He felt Zarenak’s laugh vibrate through his bones.
“More,” the demon growled.
Travis turned to Noah. “Your turn,” he said and heard the demon’s voice.
Noah licked his lips and they began the same ritual. Again Travis swelled with power and a sense that nothing he could do could ever be wrong. In this place there was no sadness, there was no anger, no fear, there was only him and Zarenak fused together at the soul and ready to devour the world.
And so the three men locked together into the small hours of night, feeding off the demon and in turn being fed upon. Wound like a tight spring, exhausted, forgetting everything, Travis eventually fell back onto the couch and tumbled into something close to unconsciousness, while Moncrieff and Noah lay scattered on the floor. Zarenak slept. The plan had failed, but Travis was not yet in the place to care.
Cuts to the Soul
Travis came to just after dawn. He was still on the couch wearing only his underwear. His mouth tasted like copper and his head pounded. It took some moments before his mind caught up with him. Moncrieff and Noah were gone. The demon was silent but he knew he was still there and awake.
“You bastard,” he said aloud. “We had a deal.”
“No we didn’t,” Zarenak said. “You had an idea that I never agreed to.”
“You let me…”
“You let yourself. And now you remember. The power. The rapture. I assure you that no man ever on earth has felt the power that is my gift to you. Why do you want to deny yourself the world, Travis? Why do you want to be like everyone else? Simple, mundane, dead while you still live. I can give you the world.”
“You’ve already taken the world from me.”
Travis’ head swam. The rapture, yes, the blissful power he remembered. He remembered also the fear, the loathing of himself and what he was with this thing inside him. He was a monster, a torment. But it was good, so good, better than anything. The pain of eternal sleeplessness had left his body. He felt like a wisp of cloud sailing high in a clear spring sky, riding on a gentle breeze.
Back and forth he paced the living room, the grey dawn creeping in behind the curtains. He scratched at his scalp and tore at his hair until his head bled and then flashed again into joyful serenity. Whose thoughts were these? Who had a grip on his mind? Was he a demon’s slave again? Did Zarenak have him this time like he had taken the doctor, whole?
“I can make you strong for as long as the world turns and longer.”
“Get out of me!” Travis screamed, beating futile blows into his own body.
Wired and wild, he felt incapable of normal thought. He willed himself to calm, took some breaths, and forced himself to think about why he’d brought the demon to the surface again, why he’d gone down into the depths in his place.
Zarenak needed strength, he’d all but just told him that himself. He had tried to offer the demon another strong vessel in either Moncrieff or Noah, but it was either they weren’t that strong after all or Zarenak simply refused. Travis needed weakness. He needed the beast to tear through him like he had done with Shelley and the doctor. Then it would be over.
He dashed into his tiny, seldom used kitchen and grabbed the first blade he saw. A small paring knife, one of the few cooking utensils he owned. He took the blade and slashed at his chest.
Zarenak’s laughter resonated through his skull. “Again with the surgery?”
Travis slashed again, a firmer pressure this time. Tiny rivers of blood trickled down his front. He cut again and again, shredding his body like paper, but it wasn’t enough. The knife was too small, barely enough to do anything but superficial damage. His legs trembled and he fell to the floor under the weight of his own demonic insanity.
“Haven’t we done this already? I’m not an organ to be removed, you can’t be rid of me so easily.”
Travis curled himself into a tight ball and sobbed, his blood staining the carpet around him as he had watched Shelley’s blood do so many months before.
“I am in you,” Zarenak continued. “Like you are in yourself, fused to your very existence. I am your spirit, Travis. I am your soul. Why punish yourself for that?”
Travis was passed out in that false shallow sleep he could only manage after juicing, lying in a pool of his own tears and blood. He woke with a soft hand shaking him gently by the shoulder. He sat up and rubbed his face, squinting against the bright light of day. The crimson smears on his skin brought the memory of what had happened earlier that morning. He tried to focus on the face before him. Shelley, said his first thought. Another one of Zarenak’s forced hallucinations. No.
“What’s going on here?” she asked. “You’re juicing the demon again?”
“Maryanne? What’s happening?”
“What have you done to yourself?” She helped him pull himself off the floor and he leaned heavily on her shoulder as she lowered him to the couch. She went into the kitchen and returned with a glass of water. Travis drank as though he was dying of thirst.
“What are you doing here?”
“I was worried about you,” she said, still standing in front of him. “After your call. Out of the blue like that. I thought you might have needed some help. And now I can see why. I didn’t want to come, but I knew I couldn’t not.”
Had Zarenak had called her to him?
“I can explain,” he said.
“I thought you were finished with all of this!” She was angry, and her shrill voice tapped painfully at his skull.
“It’s gotta run its course,” he muttered. “I’m getting weak and then it’ll be over.”
“What are you talking about? Why did you start this shit again?”
“I thought I could get it out again, I’ve gotta get it out, it’s in me so deep. My soul it says, in me can’t get it out, gotta run its course. I need to be weak and it will go.” He was rambling, trying to make sense of his own words as he was saying them.
Maryanne sat beside him and stroked his hair, sticky with blood and sweat. “Let’s get you cleaned up,” she said.
She helped him into the shower. The scalding water stung at his cuts but it felt warm and good. He stood mutely while Maryanne washed him down, dabbing the dried blood with a face cloth. There was nowhere that his body did not hurt with the new cuts, the old beating and the strains of everything Prime Life had put him through for nothing. She left him standing in the shower, the hot streams needling into his back.
Rummaging through the bathroom cabinet, Maryanne produced a stock of plasters and ointments Travis didn’t know he owned. She helped him into bed and worked silently at dressing his wounds. Travis smiled and felt almost loved. The sheets were clean, not the usual greasy filmed things he’d been sleeping in for months. It was all nice. It had been so long since anything near him was nice.
When she was done playing nurse, Maryanne stayed sitting on the bed, staring at nothing on the floor before her.
“I tried,” he said, some lucidity coming back. “I tried to end this every way there is. It’s too strong.”
“What about an exorcism?”
“Tried it. Tried everything. Tried magic, tried science, tried brute force and even reason. Zarenak will only leave when he wants, or when I’m dead.”
Fresh tears streamed down his stubbled cheeks. Maryanne leant over and kissed him on the forehead. “I can’t say I can help you,” she said. “But I’ll try.”
He felt her close, only a sheet between her and his naked body. She bent to kiss his forehead again and he moved to kiss her mouth. She moved out of the way.
“I’m not her,” she said.
“I know,” Travis whispered. He knew but he didn’t care if he had to pretend it, just for a little while at least. He reached and touched her cheek.
“It’s nice to feel someone, something so soft. There’s nothing soft left anymore.”
Maryanne held his hand to her cheek. “I didn’t know that I missed you until you called,” she said.
They looked at one another with a silence between them for the longest time before she finally moved, bending down and kissed him on the mouth. He kissed her back and Zarenak woke. With the stirring of the demon, or perhaps it was the kiss, Travis felt energised again. He pulled Maryanne closer and she responded to his touch. His hands, cut and bruised, moved to unzip her dress at the back. She stopped him.
“Don’t let him touch me,” she whispered.
“I swear it,” he said and knew he was lying with a promise he had no way of keeping.
He took off her dress and she stretched out next to him, her soft hands moving gently over his torn up body. Her touch, a real touch that wanted nothing from him but him and not the other, sent a tingle of delight across his skin. He moved on top of her and Zarenak seethed and boiled in his chest. His body moved separately to his thoughts, responding to Maryanne’s body with a different kind of devouring hunger. He could not remember the last time he had had sex without juicing. Zarenak pushed and Travis pushed back. He could have let him out on her. But not Maryanne.
“No!” he yelled. “You can’t have her!”
“Yes,” the demon growled.
Travis pushed himself off Maryanne. “I can’t, I’m sorry.”
She rolled over and kissed him again on the forehead. “You stopped him, didn’t you? You might be stronger than you think.”
She pulled on her dress and left Travis alone. He heard the front door close and he wept.
Looking for Ground
Travis had wanted Maryanne. He had wanted to feel the entirety of her softness, he had wanted to bury himself in her whole and rest in her tenderness.
He was jogging and aimless. His almost worn out sneakers thudding on the sidewalk, his body sore, barely able to keep up with the will that drove him on, pushing himself further and further, praying for weakness. He wanted Maryanne for himself, but he knew, he felt it, he wanted her for that other reason, the demon rush. This was not what running its course had meant to be. He was supposed to keep control. But Travis was slipping. With every breathless step, he felt it.
He had started his run this night turning random corners, taking an arbitrary route through the maze of the Remnants but as he had neared the wharves, he steered himself back toward Downtown and when he turned that last corner into the alleyway behind Thel’s shop, he knew he was likely headed there all along.
He knocked quietly and waited for her to answer, half hoping that she wouldn’t. It wasn’t long before Thel’s face peered at him through the cracked opening.
“Travis! What happened to you?”
He had done the best he could to clean himself up, but his face was still a tangle of cuts and bruises. He hadn’t shaved in he didn’t know how long and any rest he’d felt since the oblivion that came after juicing with Moncrieff and Noah was long dissolved.
“I met up with some old friends,” he said. “And some new ones.”
She reached a tender hand to his face. He winced and felt the demon stir at her touch. “I don’t have any more vials, if that’s what you’re after,” she sounded apologetic. He shook his head.
Not tonight. I need something new, a spell or something. For grounding.”
Thel stared, puzzled and a little scared.
“I’ve woken him up. He’s fed and ready for more.”
“No, Travis,” Thel said, gasping. “You’ve worked so hard this last year. You were in control.”
“I still am,” he said, though it felt like more than half a lie. “But not for long. It’s running its course. Just like you said.”
“Like I said? Travis, I don’t know how to deal with this thing? It was just a theory. Please don’t…”
“I’m not blaming you Thel, this is my idea. I just need your help. Something to keep me as me while he rides his last wave.”
“And how can you know it’s going to be his last?”
“Just another theory, I guess. Please, Thel. You must have something.”
“I can’t Travis. I won’t get involved in this plan. I won’t have blood on my hands.”
He was desperate and laid down the last thing he had to offer her. “I’ll let you juice.”
A taste of Zarenak was not something anyone easily forgot. “Service for service, that’s what you wanted before, right?”
After a long pause, she spoke. “I won’t deny I’m tempted. How can I be sure that it would not take me? That is your intent after all in letting Zarenak feed on your friends isn’t it, to get him to take them? Or kill yourself trying?”
Travis had no answer.
“It’s late, Travis,” she said. “I have people staying with me and I don’t want to get them involved in this. The Goddess knows they have their own problems without adding your demon to the mix. You have to go.”
Travis left without another word and walked back to his home, slowly, hoping it would take him a forever to get there. Just when he felt as though he was at his lowest, his most desperately lonely, his most wretched, there was always another rung further down on the ladder’s descent into hell.
A Free Ride
Travis walked through the night and Zarenak walked with him, silent but awake. He wondered how much weaker he could get. He was already scarcely upright, his bones and muscles barely held together, his skin only just hanging on. Was it the demon’s will alone that carried him forward? A Guessing summer storm brewed in the west. Black clouds clotted the grey city night sky and made it almost completely dark. Wind tunnelled through the streets and alleys, howling like a raging beast.
How long had he been walking for since leaving Thel? Minutes? Hours? As the first rain fell in cold needling drops, he stopped and looked about. He was almost in Chinatown, the complete opposite direction to where he lived. He cursed himself, furious at his own absent minded stupidity and turned around.
“Perhaps you’re not as in control as you thought?” Zarenak said.
“It’s easy, Brother, to take control of your life. To feel strong, commanding.”
“Shut up!” Travis yelled. “Shut up and leave me alone you miserable fucker.”
A homeless man rolled out from a thin grey blanket, huddled in a doorway against the coming storm. “What’d you call me?”
“Nothing,” Travis said. “I wasn’t talking to…”
“Take him,” Zarenak whispered in his mind. “Who cares about this one? He’s a bum. No one will miss him. Community service, cleaning up the streets. You’ll be doing Guessing a favour.”
“This is a free ride, Travis. Grab him. Let’s have a taste.”
Rain splattered his face. Travis looked left and right and could not remember the way he had been coming or going. Confusion wrapped around him and he fought the urge to cry and scream.
“Take him and this will be over,” Zarenak said. “You’ll be clear again.”
Travis glared at the man staring up at him from the pavement. He was filthy, his skin thick with grime. His bare feet hardened to grey leather, his toenails like cracked yellow talons. This could be it, he thought. If he takes this one, he might leave again. Just one taste, a spark is all I need, just a little bit. He might leave. Travis knelt down next to the man. The acrid stink of him made his eyes water. He had let Maryanne alone, saved her from him. This was just a balance and Zarenak was right, who cares what happens to this one, he’s nobody.
“What’s your game?” The man said. Travis could smell the reek of cheap booze stale on his breath.
“I’ve got something for you,” he whispered.
Travis lifted one hand and laid it on the side of the man’s head. With the other, he took his hand and pressed it to his own chest.
“Relax,” he said and opened his mind.
Zarenak tore through him, all raging heat and roaring wind. The man cried out a choked scream. Travis pressed his hand harder into his head until it felt as though his skull would give way beneath the pressure. The light took hold of his soul and for those precious seconds he understood everything.
Zarenak wormed out of him and into the other man who was flapping and gasping like a landed fish, a line of black demon mist connecting his body to Travis’. It had never happened like this before. Zarenak was out to kill.
The rain fell harder but Travis did not notice. There was only him and the white power, the black form, the buzzing sweetness that had him floating above the city, floating above the world. And then there was stillness and Travis was falling. He cried out and ripped his hands away from the man who lay dead on the concrete and the demon slipped back into him.
“That’s much better,” Zarenak said.
Travis tried to run home but exhaustion and pain would not let him move beyond a laboured lumber. He had killed a man. Intentionally. Left him dead in the streets. For what? Because Zarenak told him to. Because he wanted to. The ecstasy had left him quickly and sharply, left him feeling empty and hungry, scattered and desperate with grief. His mind swarmed like angry wasps and all he knew for sure is that he wanted to feel good again.
He and Zarenak trailed through streets he did not recognise. By the sounds from the wharves, he knew he was somewhere near the Remnants. It was not a good part of town to be lost and confused in at night, no matter who you were, but for all of his walking and searching Travis could not find is way home. Tumultuous confusion turned into bitter anger and then into blinding fury. He heard Zarenak’s whispers, inaudible words buzzing all around him, echoing off buildings. What is he saying? Rage surged in Travis and he felt himself slipping, like sliding down a muddy hill and tumbling and crashing into sharp rocks. There was pain and no matter how hard he tried he could not find anything to grab and slow his descent. Further and further, down through the twisted mire of thoughts he was not sure were even his, walking around and around on strange streets, searching for a home he could not remember. Zarenak was taking him deeper and there was nothing left for him to do but fall.
Travis came to under a tree in the park. He hadn’t slept, he couldn’t, but there was the lingering sense of bad dreams like an after taste in his mind. It was still dark, but dawn was close. He was wet through with rain. His skin felt numb, shrivelled and loose. He looked out with eyes that were not his own.
“I’m hungry” Zarenak said. And Travis began to walk in search of food for his demon. A lone female jogger ran along the edge of the park, Travis moved towards her.
“No,” Zarenak said. “I want the witch.”
Stuck somewhere beneath layers of murky black in his mind, Travis made his way to Thel’s under the demon’s thrall, unable or unwilling to resist.
He went to the front door of the grocer shop that passed as Thel’s main business above her store of occult wares. He was expecting to have to break the glass to enter, but the door was already ajar. He slipped in without a sound. Thel lay sprawled, face down, a pool of dark sticky red creeping across the tiles. Travis stared in confusion. Thel was dead. Had he killed her? No. Of the little he was certain about, he knew this darkness was nothing to do with him. Travis slipped out the door without disturbing anything.
Thel wasn’t the only witch in Guessing.
It was well into morning when Travis pushed open the door of the Chinatown healer’s store and entered the dingy room lined with jars and bags of leaves and roots of who knew what. He pushed his hands deep into his pockets and waited for someone to answer the chime of the counter bell.
“Gai not in,” the short old woman said. She appeared from behind a dusty shelf. She was dressed in black, and wore small gold wire spectacles on the end of her nose. She was almost bald save for a thin grey wisp of soft hair in the centre of her scalp. She peered at Travis over the top of her glasses.
“It’s not your husband’s services that I need, Mai,” Travis said. Mai padded across the floor to him and surveyed him with a steely gaze, not asking how he knew her name.
“Possessed,” she said.
“I cannot help you,” she said. “And I’m not sure it’s only the demon inside you I should fear.” She moved to turn and Travis grabbed her arm with Zarenak’s strength.
“No one can help me,” Travis said. “I’ve given up trying.”
“I won’t have this thing in my home. Be gone Demon!”
“No,” he whispered.
He stretched out his hands to the old woman and grabbed her by the neck. She choked a startled cry, her frail wrinkled fingers clawing at his hands.
“You might have helped me once,” Travis said. “Now it’s too late for both of us.”
“There is no you,” she cried through his strangling grip. “You are your demon.”
The Last Thing Left
The dead woman lay limp before him. Her body sprawled over the dusty boards of her shopfloor. Travis’ eyes fixed on the purple black marks that his own fingers had left on her throat.
“She was a good one,” Zarenak said. “An exotic tang, didn’t you think?”
“Fuck you,” Travis said and Zarenak laughed.
His head swam and he felt his body collapse. He sunk down beside the corpse he had made and wept. Juicing had once been enough. Now that death tasted so sweet, what would the next level be from there? From his position on his knees, Travis could see a low shelf behind the shop counter. The dark metal of a gun, probably a standard shop fixture in this town, caught his eye.
“There is only one thing left,” Travis said.
Zarenak continued laughing.
The vial cracked easily in his fingers and Travis let the silvery drops fall onto his tongue. He glided his hand over the cold pistol in his lap and let the drugs do their job. Hot tears melted down his unshaved cheeks. Maybe I should call Shelley, he thought, tell her, let her know. It was some time before he saw that Shelley and Maryanne were now fused in his head as the same person and the realisation made the tears fall all the easier. Zarenak was nervous again, he could feel the demon’s anxious quiver like a bass note in his bones. He cracked another vial.
His telephone buzzed. The caller ID read Moncrieff and he considered letting it ring out.
“Another taste?” Zarenak said from under the veil of Travis’ foggy thoughts.
“One last try,” he said. He answered the phone. “I was just thinking of you,” he told Moncrieff and was certain it had been the demon’s voice talking. If Moncrieff noticed any change, he didn’t let on and told Travis he would be there soon.
Travis hung up the phone and waited, still nursing the gun in his lap.
Moncrieff and Noah arrived within the hour.
“You look wired, man.” Moncrieff said. Travis said nothing.
“Long as it aint gonna stop us juicing.”
He began the process wordlessly. Zarenak was hungry and the high took him quickly to a pinnacle where the memory of what needed to be done seemed like an abstract thought.
It was still nothing like the thrill of death, that ultimate sleep, but the taste took the edge off.
Moncrieff and Noah were juiced and lounging on the floor. Moncrieff saw the gun first as Travis pressed the cold metal to his sweating temple.
“Travis! No!” Moncrieff lunged toward him and Noah came around to what was happening. Zarenak stirred, strong after his last meal. The demon howled as Moncrieff and Travis wrestled for the gun. Travis could feel Zarenak’s fear. A fear of their mutual death.
“Do something!” Moncrieff yelled. Noah leaped into the fray, scrambling for the weapon and Zarenak seized his chance. There was a crack like lightning. Noah screamed and for a blissful second Travis felt weightlessness as if he were floating among clouds and he knew he was free.
Noah fell backwards with the force of the beast, writhing on the carpet, sick with the agony of possession. His fingernails tore at his skin as he tried to scratch the demon out. Travis watched the wretched scene, the only thought he was conscious of was delight. It had finally worked.
“Do something!” Moncrieff yelled a second time. Travis shook his head. Noah’s demonic howls rang through the apartment and his body lay bent and twitching as Zarenak took over his spirit with the full voracity of his demonic lust.
“It’s killing him!” Moncrieff yelled. Travis knew it was true, that Noah was nowhere near strong enough. He had to get out, run before Zarenak found him again. He grabbed the gun and made for the door. Moncrieff dove at him and tackled him to the ground.
“No Way! No way is that thing going in me!” Moncrieff shrieked. Travis kicked and struggled under the man he had once called his friend. The gun was held firm in his hand as the two men wrestled. The third man writhed in the throes of the devil and inevitable death meters away.
Travis and Moncrieff’s fingers both encircled the pistol. A hot blast rang out from the chamber and time slowed to stopping. Noah choked on his final scream and everything fell silent.
The gun was burning. Travis rolled Moncrieff’s body off him and stood slowly as the demon seeped back through his skin and nestled down into his soul. He had glimpsed freedom; he felt it like a cool wind. And now he felt hot and sick and he needed to move.
With bare feet, Travis ran through the streets. Ran and ran more. Legs striding, arms pumping, oxygen burning in him like propane. His legs took him to Maryanne’s apartment and his mind was not sure if it agreed. Zarenak was silent.
“Dead,” he gasped when Maryanne opened the door. Through the chained gap he saw she was wearing a night gown and her hair ruffled from sleep he felt guilty for interrupting. “I killed them.”
She took him inside and he told her what happened.
“I can’t get rid of it, Shelley. I tried. Everything. I can’t even kill myself. It won’t let me. It owns me. There is no me anymore, Shelley.”
Streams of tears again trickled down his cheeks when he realised his mistake with her name.
“It’s ok,” she said, stroking his hair. “It’s ok. We’ll fix it. I’ll fix it.”
“You can’t! I can’t! Anyone who gets close will end up dead. I’ve killed people, Shelley. I’ve killed people to taste it because he made me. I didn’t kill Thel, I promise, but I would have. I was going there to do it. Thel’s dead. I didn’t kill her but I might as well have.”
A long, heavy silence rose between them. Finally Maryanne spoke. “There’s only one thing left for you Travis,”
“Suicide. I tried, I can’t. You have to do it for me. Kill me, Shelley, please kill me.”
“No. Get him out of Guessing, Travis. I told you before. This place evil. There’s too much here for him to feed on. Go somewhere quiet and small, some place up north, east, west, south, wherever. Some place small, some place empty. I’ll come find you soon. Just get out of Guessing before this place swallows you whole.”
“It already has.”
The early morning air was humid after another storm. Travis stood on the platform of the train station nursing a cardboard cup of sludgy instant coffee he had bought from the machine. A sports bag containing a few sets of clothes, a couple of novels, and an open ticket sat at his feet. The ticket said Holdston; a random town he picked from the map. As far as he knew there wasn’t anything there, just a beach and he liked it like that. It did not matter, any place would do for now. He had not packed any vials. He sipped his burnt brew.
Zarenak was silent. But he was scared. The gun had done it. What is scared can be controlled. He’d held him down before. He could do it again. It was all a matter of strength. And accepting that demon inside.
He wondered how long before someone found the bodies, if someone hadn’t already. Maryanne said she was going to take care of everything, but he forbade her. This was his mess to clean up; he would not have her embroiled any further than he had already suffered her to be. She said she would come and find him soon. The thought brought a small smile to his face, the first real smile he had felt in months. But he would make sure that she never saw him again. He owed her that.
He expected they would be coming for him soon, cops, Feds, whoever. He might have to change his name. It would not be the only thing he would change. But all of that he would figure out later.
For now, he just had to keep the demon down deep inside, keep moving and not look back.
Kate Krake has been in love with dark urban fantasy since before the genre existed. With a long established passion for the odd, the scary and the whimsical, Kate created Guessing as a place where she could explore lots of different weird avenues, strange streets and curious corners in a variety of fiction formats.
When she’s not wandering the streets of Guessing, Kate lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter, and two beagles.
Kate blogs about writing on and also writes about health and wellness for writers on . To find out more, visit
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Travis was just looking for an edge and then he fell right over it. Struggling with the demands of their studies, a group of students dabble with an occult solution to staying up all night. When the spell goes awry, Travis takes the demon into himself and glimpses unimaginable power. At a cost. Now he must battle to keep it there, keep it quiet, keep the world safe from the brewing darkness that has fused itself into his soul. But the demon doesn’t want to stay hidden. It wants a taste of life, a taste of death and Travis finds himself with little choice but to go along for the ride.