Chapter 24: Hunger

Chapter 24: Hunger

It was almost always hungry now. So he was almost always hungry too. The perfect onyx image he had fashioned into the floor had changed. It had grown.

It mutated with each feeding. For weeks just a voice inside his head helping and directing him, in the last two days it had become a constant gnawing presence reigning over his mind.

All the studying, scheming, secret-stealing, and planning by candlelight had led to the glorious moment when its eyes blazed for the first time. All the fear, all the hard work, the blood, the death, was worth it in that first moment they locked together. His mom would have been proud.

It was more than he could have imagined. Of course it was. How could any human conceive of the enormity of the gods? None could. Until now. 

The book had come to him months ago. It had been sent to him. He was meant to have it.

After years of dark deals, favors for secrets, and services in exchange for curiosities, he had found Jastro. The big merchant brought questionable things into Rockmoor from time to time, and questionable things were just what he was after.

One night they met in the back of their usual Watertown bar. Jastro had a smug look on his face as he wiped ale scum from his lips with the back of his hand. The fat bastard had clearly found something special and was looking to deal.

The following night on the docks, with nearly all he had of value loaded into a chest, he remembered saying desperately, “This had better be everything you say it is, Jastro, or…”

“Or what?” Jastro had chortled. “You’ll swim after me and spit water at my hull?”

The expressionless tattooed Islanders surrounding the fat man had turned with him to board the vessel. “Enjoy your new toy, I hope you’ll use it as well as I would,” Jastro called, still laughing, as he disappeared onto the deck.

The rough wooden crate had been heavy in his arms as he carried it slowly back to The Grotto. He had to stop and put it down many times to rest his arms and catch his breath. Finally he had stolen into the hidden door and his stairs beyond that led down into the bowels of the city. In dim candlelight, surrounded only by his darkest treasures, he pried open the lid and plunged his fingers into the cool, scintillating, silver-clear fabric of the cloak Jastro had promised would make him invisible. His heart raced.

Imagine what I can do, if no one can see me, he thought. 

The glistening fabric had fallen through his fingers like shimmering sheets of the purest water. Extracting the magnificent garment from the crate, he struggled to figure out how to put it on. On his feet, ears pounding with exhilaration, he could hardly wait to try out his new prize in The Grotto brothels.

Then something else in the crate caught his attention: a small black tattered book. In spite of his obsession with the cloak, he had stalled, intrigued by the surprising discovery. He bent and extracted it from the crate and sat briefly to peek inside the cover. It was not a large book, but he sat transfixed, immobile, dressed in his invisible cloak, for two full days. He got up only to light new candles when the old ones guttered. And when next he ventured above ground, he was a barely noticeable ripple in light, a ripple in search of a slab of onyx and two red rubies.

The pathway to the power of The Gaoler, he had since learned, was through suffering. Every acquisition and every preparation must bathe in the blood and tears of loss and pain. His task had been to fashion a demon likeness from materials collected and hewn by violence. Blood, the book demanded, spilled in anguish, was vital at every stage of invocation.

He had killed the shopkeeper for the precious stones.

It was an awkward and messy job, as he had never been good with a blade. Sneaking into the tidy Hillcrest shop late in the day, his cloak mimicking his surroundings like a chameleon, he had carefully perused the wooden boxes and shelves for the rubies and onyx he required. The book molded itself coolly to his skin through his breast pocket.

He was lousy at sneaking, and he made noises several times as he moved about the ancient shop. The old woman who owned the place, whose parents and parents’ parents had owned it before her, ignored the first of the mysterious sounds. But soon she became suspicious, and her suspicion turned into fear.

Her fear was delicious to him. She retrieved a dusty club, untouched for years behind a shelf, and began stalking around the shop. The worry and strain emanating from her pores was sucked up thirstily by the book’s pages and injected into him in the form of thrilling delight.

Onyx had been easy to find. The rubies were hidden in a more secure place, behind the purveyor’s massive, marble-topped desk. Between the floor creaking and the gems clinking, the wiry crone raced to the sound and swung her club wildly in the air. It connected with surprising force with the side of his head.

And that blow was the first time he tasted the peculiar indulgence of pleasure at his own pain. He recoiled, dropping the rubies, his ears ringing and his face bleeding beneath the cloak. It hurt so badly, yet he wanted more at the same time.

In spite of his relative youth and the advantage of his invisibility, murdering the old woman required a prolonged sweaty struggle at the end of which myriad stones littered the floor around toppled wooden displays. When the grisly task was complete, he located and recovered the dropped rubies and stole back out of the shop, slipping gracelessly in the dark pool of blood expanding across the worn floor.

The book demanded the onyx be chipped with bone and polished with blood and strips of hide. When he ran out of blood, he sometimes supplied his own to whet its voracious appetite. Delirious from pain, ecstasy, and blood loss, he carved and polished for hours upon hours until he could sense the likeness was complete. His hands were raw, his muscles ached, he had killed, he had suffered, and almost as soon as he sat back to admire his work, the hunger for more began to needle and prod.

At last the eyes began glowing and his masterpiece began to speak to him. It directed him through elaborate preparations, to steal books from The Emporium, to create the servant monster out of Jastro’s deckhand Mordimer, to recruit assistants to aid him in his ascension to glory. The rat-kind had come on their own. Finally, in recent days, The Gaoler’s effigy had begun to feed and grow.

The Atolians were all gone. The Gaoler had sucked them dry one by one, and the Islanders stoically pitched their desiccated remains into the sewer.

It engorged itself with each feeding, and its distended mass could no longer be covered by the rug. A slumped oily sack growing from the ground, the smooth onyx had given way to a wrinkly mound of moist jet-black flesh with two burning eyes above a sunken, toothless mouth.

His arms were a patchwork of angry red scars and oozing wounds. With the Atolians gone, all that was left was that pathetic deckhand’s family. But the tether he had placed on Mordimer’s mind was inextricably linked to his love for his family. They can’t die, until he finishes his damn job. The restriction was infuriating.

Hungry! The Gaoler screamed inside his head.

He dutifully reached for the black serpentine dagger he had used so many times before. No place remained on his arms. In desperation, his brain crushed by the insistence, he hoisted up his crimson robe and drew a short, deep line high on his left thigh.

Still holding the dripping blade, along with the heavy crimson folds of his robe, he stepped astride the shriveled horror on the ground and squatted to present his wound to the insatiable pursed lips. He was instantly rapt with unspeakable pain and magnificent ecstasy. It devoured his spirit as it drank of his blood, and the pleasure of sharing in the feeding was so great, he was unaware of his own tortured screams.

“Sir.” If the Islander was surprised to see him squatting prone over the demonic mass, he did not betray it on his angular decorated face. “We have a new prisoner. A female.”

The muted rhythmic scratching seemed so far away to X’andria as she replayed the horror of her childhood and stewed in the desperation of her predicament that it was awhile before she registered the sound.

When she finally did, she ventured a movement to investigate. First she brought her hands close to her side as if she might lift herself to a crawling position.

It didn’t hurt!

It was miraculous. Slowly she pushed herself up onto all fours. Still no pain.

And finally X’andria’s brilliant mind began whirring once more. She knew what had happened now. Illusory corporeal manifestation. Convince someone that something terrible is happening to them, and the mind and body will make it real. X’andria had not been burned, she had had the experience of being burned. And this knowledge made her a master over the illusion.

Crawling across the damp dirt floor toward the sound, she caught herself thinking, When I get out of here, I must learn how to do that.

She was at the stone wall now. The scratching continued.

“Hello?” she called, surprised at the strength of her own voice. “Is someone there?”

The scratching stopped abruptly.

“I’m X’andria, can you hear me?” She rapped on the stone with her knuckles. “Hello?”“Zarina,” a faint, forlorn voice replied. “I’m Zarina.”

READ CHAPTER 25

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