Jeremy L by tyndale

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									Prologue

        There is not much that I can still remember other than that strange light. Most of what I have

been able to reconstruct as a memory of that day has been based upon what others have told me that

I had done. Mix that with what I think would seem natural for me to have done, and I suppose that is

as close to a complete memory as I will ever come.

        I vaguely remember going to the dentist‟s office with my grandmother that morning.

Personally, I didn‟t want to sit and wait for her to finish getting her teeth cleaned, so instead I

walked over to the toy store on the opposite side of the street. I remember crossing the street, and I

think I recall going into the store, however how much of this is true memory and how much is

reconstructed by my mind I cannot really say.

        I guess it should be important for you to know that I had a bicycle, and that it had become

one of my most loyal friends over the years past. I had come to know that bicycle so well that I was

able to ride it for miles without ever having to even think of touching the handlebars. I would glide

effortlessly through the city streets under that summer sun on an almost daily basis. Mom and Dad

always thought that it would be the death of me, however they were never ones to deny their

youngest son his dearest passion.

        Springtime is usually a really bad season for me, and if I‟m not mistaken that spring in

particular had been hard on me. I recall sitting in my bedroom window looking out on a world that

was most unmistakably in the dawn of summer and knowing that I would never be able to leave the

confines of my own room. I cursed my runny nose and bloodshot eyes that would be my own

torment until the pollen count would finally begin to come back down. Just from the date I can be

fairly sure that spring was likely finally coming to its end, and I can imagine that I would have been

chomping at the bit to get out and be free. I finally had nothing to keep me from riding across the

city on my cherished bicycle as I had dreamed throughout the long winter.



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        The line between dream and reality seems so obscure when you are pushed right to the edge.

In my mind it is almost as if a thick fog has clogged the world from that morning on, and only a few

dream-like elements still persist throughout the darkness.

        I have been told that around three in the afternoon I left home on my bicycle and was headed

west bound toward a grocery story that was near my house. My grandmother left home on some sort

of an errand and drove past me as I was coming down the steep hill off of the foothill that I lived on.

        I have driven down this hill on my bicycle thousands of times, and I know that the same

exhilaration that fills me every time I fly like a rocket down its slopes must have filled my soul that

day as well. It is almost like being able to fly, traveling that fast without a massive car surrounding

you, just a lone man in flight. It‟s a better feeling than flying on an airplane, or driving in a sports

car, because it is just you, a single man, soaring like an eagle across the face of the earth.

        My grandma says that she saw me leave the ground in her rear view window.

        I‟ve been told that it was nobody‟s fault when that Ford came rushing out of a parking lot

and struck me in the side, rocketing me twenty feet in the air like a rag doll thrown by a bull. People

have told me many things about the accident, almost enough to make them into a memory.

        All I really remember is the shadow that engulfed me like a silent wave. If darkness could

shine, that is what consumed me….




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Book I



1.

         ...Jeremy awoke to the sound of his own screams echoing from the smooth cement walls

around him. A thin blanket that was soiled by countless nights worth of use lay knotted underneath

Jeremy‟s ribs as he slowly pulled his weight off of a mildew infested mattress. A cold breeze wafted

through the wooden door that opened to the world outside of his cell. From somewhere outside of the

room, Jeremy could make out the sound of a young child crying, however it was muffled almost as

if it were somewhere far removed from where he sat.

         “Where am I?” Jeremy muttered under his breath as he tried to regain his bearings on the

world. Fragments of the dream that still held his mind began to slowly shatter around him. The

terror of the darkness that was about to engulf him began to fade once more into the walls of his

room.

         The cell had been all that Jeremy had known for as long as he could remember. It was like

his own tiny sanctuary here from everything outside. There were no windows in the walls of the cell;

just a single hatch in the door let light in from the outside. Time seemed to have no meaning here in

the cell, having become a beast that was long since tamed and left to sleep.

         As Jeremy stood in the middle of his musty room, the door began to slowly drift open.

         “What is this?” Jeremy muttered to himself as he touched the door handle. The lock seemed

to have mildewed away from the wood of the door and come loose, allowing the door to open on its

own regard. Fearing that any moment someone would come ready to punish him for opening the

door to his room, Jeremy peeked around the corner of the wooden mass. Granite walls and floors

lined the sides of a corridor that stretched away from the room, illuminated only by a scarce supply




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of candles every few feet and tiny windows that dotted the left wall. The fetid smell of refuse filled

the air as its vile stench seeped out of the neighboring rooms.

        The bones in Jeremy‟s back creaked in complaint as he straightened to his full height,

something he had not been able to do in quite some time thanks to the cramped quarters he had been

living in.

        “No where to go but forward,” Jeremy muttered under his breath as he slowly began to walk

down the hallway.

        The polished stone floors sang with the sound of his footsteps as Jeremy plodded further

along their expanse. Small patches of mildew and mold had grown in the corners of the hallway

where the floor met walls in mossy stretches. The hallway felt almost eternal as Jeremy walked

farther down its expanse, which slowly seemed to twist along the way. After walking for nearly a

half hour down the hallway, Jeremy turned to look back toward his room, wondering what trouble

he could be in if he was found wandering the halls.

        No matter which way he turned, the hallway seemed to stretch on almost eternally, marked

only by the occasional windows and the clumps of moss and mildew that hunched in the cracks and

corners of the structure.

        Frustrated and tired, Jeremy sat down in the filth of the hallway to watch the shadows dart

their way across the floor of the hallway. The shadows almost seemed to dance with each other,

twisting and moving with the rhythm of the flickering candle flames that made them..

        “You got out,” a raspy voice like a knife cutting through cotton whispered from the door

across the way.

        “I guess,” Jeremy muttered as he shook his head slowly. “A lot of good that it did me. Where

are we anyway?”

        “You don‟t know?”



                                                   4
       Jeremy shook his head, “No idea. I woke up from some nightmare, and everything seems

kind of blurry. I know that I have been here for a while, but I cannot remember simple things…”

       There was a rustling sound from deep within the opposing cell. “Then perhaps this is a new

beginning for you. Welcome to Gotica.”

       “Gotica?”

       A bitter rasping sound that sounded like a cross between a laugh and a hiss rasped out from

the jail cell. “You sound like you‟ve never heard of it before. Maybe you should look out of that

window.”

       As quickly as it had been said, a single ray of light graced Jeremy‟s forehead. The light was

blinding in its blue purity, and Jeremy had to cover his eyes to save himself from being blinded.

       “There is the world. Look at it now.”

       From beyond the rusted surface of the bars in that spanned the height of the window, Jeremy

watched a world expand before him. Stone work flowed across the countryside much like a river,

punctuated by patches of wilted grass that stared angrily at the unforgiving summer sky. Thick

black clouds that spread like a velveteen disease across the heavens striated the sky. The ground

itself was devoid of life, lacking any form of plants or vegetation to punctuate its surface. What was

present, however, was a series of stone columns and arches that stretched forth from the earth at

seemingly random madcap angles.

       “Is this real?” Jeremy murmured in fascination.

       The raspy voice echoed from behind him, “What is real anyway? What do you think could

be real?”

       “I had a dream where I was on my bike, a car came speeding out and hit me, and then there

was darkness.”

       “So the question is,” the voice continued, “which was the dream and which was reality?”



                                                  5
        Jeremy shook his head, “Now you are talking in riddles.”

        “I always have been. You merely thought you had figured out the previous ones.” The voice

paused as if almost expecting an answer. When none came, another small caustic chuckled drifted

out of the room. “Tell me,” the voice continued, “which do you think is more plausible: You had a

horrid nightmare in which you were hit by a speeding car and then woke up in a magical world

where cars like that don‟t exist, or that the car was real, and all this is a dream? Then again while

we‟re musing all the strange possibilities, maybe you‟re like Dante‟s pilgrim, the car was real, and

now you are trapped somewhere between heaven and hell.”

        Jeremy ran his hand along the stone wall at his side, letting his fingers pick up the subtle

details within the stone and its overgrowth. “What difference would it make, if it feels real and solid

enough?”

        “The real question is, if this is a dream, do you really want to wake up? If this is a dream

and you know it, you can bend it to let you have anything you want.” The voice murmured behind

him, “You should go and see the world, see what it has to offer you.”

        “What about you?” Jeremy asked.

        The voice chuckled quietly, “It‟s kind of you to ask, however unlike many of us, this is my

home down here. I belong here. Get going now, golden boy.”

        Somewhere down the hallway, perhaps a mere twenty feet from where Jeremy stood staring

out of the barred window, stairways led out of the darkness into the world above. Jeremy couldn‟t

quite recall them being there before, however at the same time couldn‟t deny their presence, let alone

their convenience.

        “So much for this place,” Jeremy muttered as he began to ascend the staircase.

        The staircase wound slightly as it climbed through what appeared to be a single stone shaft

that rose ever upward from the tunnel that had been Jeremy‟s prison mere moments before. The



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smooth stone walls were punctuated once in a while by a small window that would reveal the world

outside. From any one of those windows, Jeremy would see the ground seemingly miles below, and

yet would also see massive ridges and vaulted pieces of stonework that jutted like bridges out and

away from his and many other towers. The stairs however, were constant, and still continued

onward.

        Time was beginning to blur for Jeremy as he climbed that staircase out of the darkness on his

slow and constant rise. He could feel his muscles begin to ache as he pushed them onward, however

could find no real landmark to tell him how far he had gone. Each time that Jeremy thought that he

must have been coming to a summit, he would find only a small landing and then the stairs would

continue on again. Eternity seemed to stretch on both before and behind him.

        “Sixty-seven,” Jeremy muttered as he paused to catch his breath on the summit of a small

landing. He stretched his back, which had begun to slump some fifteen landings ago, and was

greeted by a reproachful crack by his spine. “That‟s not a good sound for you to make,” Jeremy

muttered, “and no rest in sight.” The effect of the stairs‟ eternal assent was frankly dizzying. From

his vantage point on the staircase, the thought of abandoning the stairs and just letting himself fall to

earth was an appealing one to Jeremy, who was finding himself progressively more willing to debate

the existence of ground below. The idea of falling to eternity made Jeremy laugh, wondering what it

would be like to feel the wind whipping through his hair as his clothes compressed themselves to the

contours of his body as he rushed ever downward. The ecstasy of an eternal fall seemed so much

more appealing than continuing to climb to the wooden roof that was ten feet above his head. Jeremy

smiled darkly as he began to slowly step closer to the edge of the landing.

        Suddenly, realization hit.

        “A roof ten feet up?” Jeremy glanced at the ceiling of the tower, which stood mocking him

above a doorframe that rested on the landing immediately behind Jeremy‟s back.



                                                    7
          “Either I am going insane, or the rest of the world is.”

          Jeremy turned away from the alluring drop to infinity at the center of the stairwell, and

pushed open the oak door.

          A burst of cold air flooded through the doorway that smelled lightly of incense and untended

dust. The rich musk felt like the finest of perfumes within Jeremy‟s nose compared to the rot and

decay that had been in the cells down below. The smell of his prison faded in the back of Jeremy‟s

mind as he breathed deeply, and he soon forgot that he had ever felt the darkness within his nostrils

at all.

          His nose was not the only thing to be rewarded with a feast at the opening of the door. A

flood of color pulsed through the doorway in an almost blinding deluge as Jeremy tenaciously

stepped through into the room before him. The light poured through the multi-faceted scene of a lone

man fishing on a river, his net extended in mid through. The cut glass reflected and bent the light in

such a skillful manner, that for a brief moment Jeremy dreamed that he actually saw moving ripples

within the water itself. This window was joined by many others which cast a sea of colors across row

after row of oiled oak benches that filled what now appeared to be a cathedral. Jeremy marveled at

the huge vaulted ceilings that seemed to defy gravity itself with their massive stone arches, and

almost felt as if he could see the hand of some god in the structure of this place.

          The light from the chapel windows poured in over the upturned face of a stone angel that

stood in the center of the room. Her arms were outstretched to her sides, almost as if she herself had

been crucified, and Jeremy imagined for a heartbeat that he could hear her call out in pain. The

angel‟s wings were beaten and broken, almost as if they had once not been forged of hard stone and

had been broken like the wings of a dove in a hurricane.

          Sixteen candles sat unlit at the foot of the angel, as if the prayerful had placed them there and

then sadly forgotten their supplications.



                                                     8
        Smiling to himself, Jeremy walked across the chapel floor, reveling in the feel of polished

marble beneath his bare feet. Behind a sea of pews, a single candle burned brightly at the back of the

chapel, and it seemed to call from its distant vantage.

        The chapel was silent as Jeremy crossed to the burning flame, save the sound of his own feet

clicking on the stone floors.

        The candle didn‟t appear to serve any purpose stuck in its own wax to the armrest of the

farthest pew back. Where the candle was sitting the light from the windows could not touch, and it

seemed like a single lonely light in a sea of darkness. Jeremy cautiously broke the candle from its

waxy resting place, all the while telling himself that he had to be sure to replace it once he was

finished.

        Jeremy purposefully strode across the chapel and lit the first of the nest of candles at the

angel‟s feet, and then proceeded to light each and every candle that stood there waiting for a flame to

brighten their surface.

        “These have to be the dreams of somebody,” Jeremy muttered. He glanced up at the face of

the angel, standing there in her immaculate glory, and couldn‟t help but feel pity for her in her

silenced beauty.

        “She‟s dying, you know.” A voice rang out from the back of the hall as Jeremy stared at the

angelic statue. “Some people thought that she was already dead, and that was why things turned out

the way they did.”

        Jeremy turned in time to see the speaker emerge from the shadows of the chapel. He was an

older man, of an average build, whose dark hair was streaked along the temples by the slightest

shade of gray. He was by no means an old man, and the coloration of his hair merely lent a degree of

refinement to his visage. The newcomer was wearing a long black coat over the top of his soft cotton

shirt that revealed a sliver of a strong chest beneath his neck.



                                                    9
        “I can‟t believe that she is dead, because if she were dead I honestly doubt that I would still

be here either.” The man emerged from the shadows, and watched Jeremy appraisingly with his

greenish blue eyes. “That doesn‟t mean that she isn‟t in pain.

        “It is a dark time for Gotica,” the stranger continued, “things are not as they should be. The

blind see, the deaf hear, and darkness is rising over all of us.”

        “Who are you?” Jeremy asked, “You seem almost familiar.”

        “I am known as Duty. I've been wandering without a home for some time now. I don‟t really

recall where home should be, I only know that I have been wandering.” Duty motioned to the angel,

as she stood frozen on the top of the pedestal. “I also know that I am somehow linked to her,

although I cannot tell you exactly why.”

        “Are we the only people left in this God-forsaken place?”

        Duty shook his head mournfully, “I know this is going to seem strange, but there are a lot

more people in the world now than ever before.”

        “More people? This place seems completely vacant.”

        Duty smiled, “I suppose perhaps it could seem that way, of course you are new as well.”

Duty chuckled under his breath; “before we go any further we should find the others. Follow me.”

        Without further comment, Duty turned away from the statue of the angel and began to walk

through the pews out of the chapel. Jeremy had little desire to stay anywhere by himself, despite the

small comfort that proximity to the angel had given him. He found himself torn by the desire to stay

close to the angel, and yet the terror of being alone in this place was beginning to set in. Grudgingly,

he followed after Duty who smiled quietly upon hearing the footfalls behind him.

        “I had a feeling you would be one of us.” Duty commented with a slightly more cheerful

tone as he pushed the great doors at the far side of the chapel open. A thick ray of light sliced

through the dusty air of the chapel in a flood of luminescence, playing intricate shadows across the



                                                    10
features of Duty‟s face. In this light the thin streaks of gray hair that dotted along his temples seemed

to shine and glimmer with a perfectly ethereal glow. The stone floor of the chapel quickly gave way

to earth, which was dotted with dried chunks of grass. A few stray rocks and boulders had taken root

in the hillside outside of the chapel, which seemed to descend on all sides.

        The skies of Gotica resembled a psychedelic zebra with their massive white clouds slashed

with stripes of black and blue. Glorious stone mountains bordered in the distance, never once giving

way to a horizon. As Jeremy turned slowly on the hillside he felt as if he was staring into the depths

of some mad impressionist painting. It was as if the volume of colors had been increased somehow,

so that the world was more full and intense than he had ever before imagined it.

        The chapel was a conundrum, looming behind him with its massive turrets and vaulted

ceilings. Jeremy hadn't noticed when he was inside the chapel the low state of repair that the building

apparently was in, however now that he was outside he saw that the great stonework was pitted and

worn as if by years of ill care. Sections of the walls were already beginning to tumble, and yet the

decay seemed to be working its way from the outer edges of the chapel in toward the inner sanctum.

The outlying walls were those in the lowest state of repair, followed by the inner walls and spires,

with the actual face of the church still appearing somewhat serviceable.

        An old man was sitting on one of the rocks that dotted the parched landscape between the

chapel and the low outer wall. He had a great stoop to his shoulders, and were he not seated he

would have towered two full heads higher than Jeremy. The old man‟s hair was as black as the soot

that he tapped out of his wooden pipe as he smiled from behind a pair of wire rimmed glasses at

Jeremy.

        “I can imagine you didn‟t expect to see me here, young man.”

        Jeremy‟s eyes widened in amazement. “Is it really you?” he murmured under his breath.




                                                   11
        The old man smiled as he pulled himself up from the stone to his full height. He towered

above both Duty and Jeremy, however in his heart Jeremy knew that there was no reason to fear this

giant of a man. In three strides he covered the distance of what would have taken Jeremy ten, and

within an instant had him in a firm embrace.

        “It‟s been years, my boy. Far too long.” The old man‟s words carried with it the faint odor of

the pipe, whose scent tickled the inside of Jeremy‟s nose. For love of this man it had become the only

form of tobacco that Jeremy had ever learned to tolerate.

        “Well at least you know somebody, old man.” A chiding voice called out from the vicinity

of the wall. Jeremy freed himself of the man's embrace only enough to glance in the direction of the

wall and see a sprightly young man sitting there watching him with a look of supreme derision on

his face.

        “Be quiet, Jester.” Duty muttered from behind Jeremy's back.

        “Am I the only one that thinks it‟s strange that this old man turns up, and know one knows

who he is?”

        Jeremy turned on the Jester. “I've known him for over ten years.”

        “Yeah, but do we know you?” Jester quipped. In response to his own question he screamed

“No!” and then proceeded to laugh himself into hysterics.

        “Don‟t mind the fool,” the old man muttered. “He‟s always like that.” The Jester shot a

derisive sneer at the old man, and then proceeded to occupy his time by staring at some bauble that

he was twiddling with his hands.

        “Time for some introductions,” Duty continued. “Me, you've already met, and that clown

sitting on the wall is Jester.” Jester stretched forth his hand in a half-hearted gesture that could be

construed as a salutation or an obscenity depending on who was involved. Jeremy thought it seemed




                                                    12
like an obscenity, however deigned not to say anything and risk aggravating him further. “The old

man...” Duty continued.

         “Is named Lee.” Jeremy finished the phrase in a single breath. “You could say he's a mentor

of mine.”

         “Funny,” Duty smiled to himself, “he hadn't told us a name for him yet. Jester calls him „The

Genius‟, and I think he means it to be a joke, however every once in a while I think the name

applies.”

         “Call me anything,” the old man smiled warmly, “I haven‟t really used a name for a long

time.”

         “He really is a genius,” Jester quipped, “now we can just call him „the crotchety old fart with

no name‟.” Jester began to howl with laughter at his own witticism to the point that he nearly

managed to topple himself from the top of the old stone wall upon which he was perched. He

regained his balance as if it were mainly for show‟s sake, letting the peals of laughter ripple through

his body like tremors during an earthquake.

         “We should get out of here,” Duty muttered, shaking his head at the howling Jester.




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2.

        “I was beginning to worry,” the old man muttered to Duty as they walked along the highland

trail away from the chapel. “For the brief time I‟ve known you, you‟ve never spent quite so much

time with the angel.”

        Duty shrugged and nodded in the direction of Jeremy, who they both assumed was outside of

earshot. “He was there, and I had to be sure that he wasn‟t another side of the darkness.”

        “You‟re always too cautious,” Jester rebuked from the opposite side of them. He had made a

point of religiously keeping himself as far away from Jeremy as possible while the group was

traveling. “Of course, with a face like that I don‟t think it was wise to trust him anyway.”

        The old man ignored him and queried, “How was the angel?”

        Duty‟s face had grown pale at the thought of the great angel statue. “She is still in great

pain, even the stone that she is entombed in cannot hide that. I fear that things will get worse long

before they get better.”

        “What are you talking about?” Jeremy asked. “That angel that was back there in the

church? She was a beautiful statue, but to hear the two of you talk one would think she was a

goddess.”

        It was now the old man‟s turn to reply. “I suppose you could say that she is, in a certain

point of view. We all have our desires, our compulsions that make us who we are. Gotica is like that

too. But the angel, she was something different altogether. I couldn‟t honestly say that she was our

leader to speak plainly, however she definitely had the power to unite those of us who were like

minded to certain causes.”

        Duty nodded his assent, “There really is only one God here, however we don‟t ever see or

hear from him. Mostly we just live our lives, and the world pushes us from one place to the next.

Sometimes fate is kind to one of us, sometimes another.”



                                                   14
        Jester started to laugh derisively. “He‟s still bitter because he used to be the strongest out of

all of us, and seems to have fallen from grace.”

        Duty quietly shook his head. “The Jester loves to prod me about that, but it doesn‟t really

matter. Sometimes fate chooses one of us to lead at the side of the angel, and sometimes it tells us the

time has come to move on. There really is nothing to be bitter about.”

        Jeremy couldn‟t help but to ask the obvious question, “So who leads now?”

        “I suppose that is what scares me,” Duty responded sadly. “That is why I always return to

the chapel just to see what may be happening near her. There hasn‟t been another chosen since I‟ve

fallen, and I‟m beginning to fear that there won‟t be another.”

        “Does there have to be someone in charge with the angel?” Jeremy asked, “I mean, what

would happen if nobody was there?”

        “Well,” this time the old man was the one to respond to Jeremy‟s question, “the angel as you

saw is not exactly in a strong position right now. Like we were saying before, nobody is quite sure,

however it appears as if she is dying. Without anyone by her side to help support her, the angel will

weaken faster and faster until finally she will die.”

        “Without the angel to provide light to Gotica, the darkness will begin to consume the land. It

will spread like a cancer across the face of creation consuming anything that it finds before it.” Duty

explained. “Someone needs to fill the position of champion, however I don‟t think it is me

anymore.”

        “Who was the champion before you?” Jeremy asked.

        “She was a sweet one, almost like a living version of the angel herself. A little girl with

lightly curled brown hair and eyes as blue as the morning sky. We called her Innocence, and life in

Gotica was a joy when she was our champion.” Duty‟s eyes began to mist as he spoke of the girl. “I

was barely founded at that time, in the days where I really wasn‟t sure who I was. There is a time for



                                                   15
all of us when we are at the beginning of our roads where we really can‟t say who we are. The only

thing that I really knew was that Innocence loved me. We used to dance together in these fields near

the chapel. Imagine that, me dancing with a girl that couldn‟t have been more than a quarter of my

own age. Sometimes life plays some fascinating tricks on us.”

       At this point Jester piped up; “Not long ago Innocence announced to us that she was going to

disappear, something like going into retirement, only different. A new leader was going to be chosen,

even though none of us really knew who.”

       Duty nodded grimly, “And the burden fell upon me.”

       “Innocence was never as much of a pain as you are. I still miss her.”

       “When I need your opinion,” Duty responded without dignifying Jester by looking at him, “I

will ask. Until then, I would request that you keep your comments to a minimum. Particularly if we

are speaking of something as near perfect as Innocence.”

       “She was indeed that,” Jester nodded. For the first time since Jeremy had met the clown-like

young man, Jester seemed to be sad.

       “Regretfully,” the old man responded from his end of the conversation, “I never had the

chance to meet the girl. Most of what I have heard is merely tales of wonder from my counterparts.”

       The three walked on in an uncomfortable silence, as if the old man‟s comment was enough

to close the discussion of things that were now passed. There were times when Jeremy could swear

that Jester was about to make some kind of derisive comment, however bit his tongue quickly before

anything could escape his lips. Such restraint was uncommon for the sprightly young man, and

Jeremy could sense a state of near reverence from throughout the party.

       The road upon which they were traveling seemed to continue north from the chapel, while

far in the west the sun was beginning to flirt with the edges of the mountain range. The party

continued northward, almost as if they all feared to comment on the dying light, and instead trudged



                                                 16
their way forward with a bleak determination. The muscles in Jeremy‟s legs were beginning to

stiffen from so much time walking within a single day, which shocked him slightly as he considered

himself to be a fairly strong man when it came to traveling on foot. Duty however, was seemingly

unstoppable, and he continued at his steady rate of travel as if mile after mile would never take its

toll on his legs and feet. The old man who Jester had derisively referred to as “the Genius” that bore

such a strong resemblance to someone Jeremy thought he knew, was having a much harder time of

the travel. Every once in a while the old man would reach in his pocket and fumble with the soft

wood of his old pipe, as if wishing that for just one brief moment he could stop and find some place

to sit back to enjoy a couple of puffs.

        Finally as the sun had escaped the world to the point of being half obscured by the

westernmost mountain range, Jeremy mustered the courage to query as to their destination.

        “I guess you could say that we are going to our home away from home,” Duty responded

gravely.

        “What do you mean „home away from home?‟”

        “You see,” Duty responded, “at one time we lived close to the chapel, that way we could be

near the angel when she needed us. However you have seen the state that the chapel is in now, and

that should have been the most well defended place in Gotica. Somehow it has fallen apart, and the

angel is dying, so we had to move on.”

        “But you still go back,” Jeremy observed.

        “The angel could have never gone with us,” Duty responded sadly. “She has her place…”

        Duty stopped mid sentence and gestured to the rest of the party that they should keep quiet.

He slowly moved his hand under the lapel of his coat, and produced a long machete that Jeremy

would never have guessed was actually hidden there.




                                                  17
        The old man was nervously looking around, and Jeremy noticed him take a deep breath of

the air. “I taste autumn leaves,” he muttered to himself. Duty turned to give the old man a sharp

look.

        “Duty,” the old man continued unabashed, “look at where we are, halfway between the

chapel and the citadel, we are loosing our light. This is the ultimate tactical location for an attack,

and it smells like rages.”

        “Great,” Jester piped up, “I didn‟t want to come in the first place. „Go to the chapel with

Duty and the Genius,‟ everyone tells me, and now I‟m going to get killed for it?” Jester quickly

rounded on Jeremy, “Please tell me you are a warlord who just happens to be hiding in that tiny

body of yours.”

        A sound much like that of gale force winds rushing through the trees screamed out of the

distance where Duty was watching. For a brief moment Jeremy believed that he saw space fold

before him as the shadows of the surrounding area leapt into the air. The darkness moved with an

icy speed that resembled lightning strikes.

        The dark forms avoided Duty and his machete that sliced through the air in methodical arcs.

Instead they turned in the air and swept across to the backside of the party.

        “Run, boy!” the old man called out as he turned on his heels to escape the shadows. Jeremy

saw that Jester had already managed to put a respectable distance between himself and the

remainder of the party. Jeremy turned and began to run in the direction of the church again when

suddenly one of the shadows swept down from the heavens before him.

        A pair of hands reached from the depths within the nightmare creature, and held Jeremy

bound with his feet needlessly thrashing in the air. He was held with the ground a tantalizing inch

from the bottom of his toes, and he almost felt that if the demon could loose it‟s grip for a single

instant he would be able to escape.



                                                   18
        “No!” Jeremy heard Duty scream behind him as a second of the shadow beings swept in

behind him and clutched his head in its icy grasp. Somewhere in the distance behind him, Jeremy

could hear Duty‟s running footsteps as the creature‟s vice like grip tightened on the back of his

skull. The creatures began to seem to meld together at the seams, encasing Jeremy in an impregnable

cocoon of darkness. Jeremy watched the shadow expand along his arms, compressing around his

flesh and covering him in an inky cloak. The shadow covered all of his extremities by the time that

Duty managed to reach him, and Jeremy watched the terror grow on the older man‟s face.

        Had Jeremy been able to see behind himself, he would have been startled to see the head of

the shadow that held him had converted itself into a deep black hood. This cowl had risen behind

Jeremy‟s back like a tsunami, preparing itself to crash down upon him at any given moment. Jeremy

would have wanted to scream with all his might had he been able to see what was coming for him,

however with the way that the darkness had bound him he could only stare blankly forward into

Duty‟s terrified eyes.

        The shadow crushed into Jeremy‟s head, immersing him in searing pain as the inky

blackness tainted his eyes and corrupted his flesh. The darkness wove itself into a mask before him,

through which Jeremy saw the world as if through a blood red veil.

        “What is happening to me?” Jeremy managed to gasp before the shadow erupted into a

whirlwind of darkness. Through the blood-tainted veil, Jeremy could see that the whirlwind was

really only a part of his mind, however still felt the wind buffet him within the darkness. He could

not see his hands or his feet, but could feel the wind tear at him as if it were trying to quarter him.

        With a mad rush, Jeremy saw the ground suddenly lurch forward to meet him as he fell. The

earth seemed to part around him, and he was entirely immersed in darkness.




                                                   19
3.

        “This one is strong,” a rasping voice tore its way from the recesses of Jeremy‟s throat as he

hung lifeless in mid air.

        “We should have been able to finish him by now,” a second voice responded. “We‟ve never

been able to feed this long on one.”

        Both voices began to laugh horribly at the prospect of consuming Jeremy, and his vocal

chords ached with having been split between the two of them. The voices were a terrifying

cacophony of sounds, one of them each taking a turn at half of the register of Jeremy‟s voice. The

first voice laughed with a dull rumble from the very bottom of Jeremy‟s throat, while the second

voice was an almost shrill timbre.

        “Rages, you will release him.” A third voice commanded from outside of Jeremy‟s body.

        “You want him, Pillager?” the deep voice chided, “we‟ll be more than happy to relinquish

the husk to you.”

        “Our master wishes him alive.”

        At the mention of a master, the darkness visibly flinched from the inside of Jeremy‟s body.

He felt the matter covering his eyes grow thinner and thinner as the veil slowly was rent before him.

Jeremy‟s vision faded from a dull black to a deep crimson, which in turn dissolved into a taint upon

his vision. Within a moment he was able to move his head slightly, and was stunned to find that his

body had somehow stretched. What looked like Jeremy‟s oil covered arm was reaching out to the

side and had a vice like grip upon a column that was a good ten feet away. Jeremy was suspended in

mid air by the great arms of darkness that stretched from his body, with his feet a fair distance off the

ground.

        Suddenly a face that resembled a cross between a man and a bear trap appeared before him.

The lower half of this fearsome beast‟s face was covered by a thick metal jaw that was tipped with



                                                   20
two brutal spikes at the front. The jaw was rusted and mottled with dried stains that looked almost

like clotted blood in the flickering twilight of Jeremy‟s prison. A pair of thick leathery wings beat

behind the creature‟s shoulders, suspending it in the air before Jeremy‟s eyes. The creature‟s feet

ended in three sharp toes which were tipped with brutal spikes that resembled those used to hold

train rails to the ties.

         “He looks pathetic,” Jeremy recognized the third voice that he had heard in the darkness

come from somewhere outside of his own throat. “I don‟t see what the fuss is about.”

         “Then leave him to us, Pillager.” The voices that had once been inside Jeremy‟s throat were

now elsewhere, and sounded more like the wind blowing through the trees than they had previously.

         “Release him.”

         At the moment‟s command, the Rages snapped away from Jeremy‟s body, and he found

himself falling an almost interminable distance to the hard stone ground below. Jeremy crumpled

into a heap upon the ground, sure that every bone in his body must have snapped on impact. The

Rages loomed over him now, twin beasts halfway between shadows and monsters. They gazed at

him hungrily with their blood red eyes, circling slowly. Jeremy couldn‟t tell where the Rages ended

and their shadows began, as if they had somehow extruded themselves from the darkness they cast

on the floor.

         One of the massive clawed feet of the Pillager heavily crashed home on the stone floor

directly in front of Jeremy‟s eyes. It was almost an effort of will to force himself to look up at the

rest of the fearsome beast that was connected to the foot. The Pillager loomed perhaps a full eight

feet, a veritable mountain towering over Jeremy‟s crumpled form. Revulsion crept across Jeremy‟s

skin as he realized that the Pillager was reaching out for him. The Pillager grabbed him by the nape

of his neck in an impossibly tight grip and lifted the young man into the air.




                                                   21
        Gazing into the face of the pillager was almost maddening, looking at the strange

amalgamation of technologies that no man would ever dare to fit together. The Pillager‟s face was

like some dark vision from a madman‟s nightmare, looming like the shadow incarnate over Jeremy.

A pair of eyes that looked to have been hewn from rubies glared out from within the pitted surface of

a pale face that almost resembled a skull. Screws jutted out of the top of the Pillager‟s skull as if the

creature had only been half made, an image equally complimented by the series of hoses and

electrical lines that jutted from the Pillager‟s spine and wrapped around the surface of his neck and

shoulders. Jeremy felt his will crumple within the Pillager‟s grasp as he gazed into those ruby eyes

that burned with a silenced fury.

        Jeremy started as the Pillager‟s wings suddenly spread like an explosion behind him, raising

the pair into the air. The Pillager kept his tight grip on Jeremy‟s neck as if he was carrying around a

rag doll. The Rages watched the Pillager rise out of their reach with the prey they had sought so

desperately in his grasp. Although glad to be away from the Rages and their horribly icy touch,

Jeremy couldn‟t help but think that the oblivion of being consumed by them might yet be preferable

to what the Pillager would undoubtedly have in store for him.

        The Pillager suddenly dropped from the sky as if he had instantly been detached from his

own wings. The wind screamed within Jeremy‟s ears so loudly that he could not hear his own cries

as the ground holding the Rages sped past him. The Pillager crashed downward silently, watching

with a fixed determination a destination that Jeremy couldn‟t see.

        It was almost as if the Rages had been standing on the lip of a tunnel that bored into the

earth, crashing farther and farther into the core of the world. For a brief moment Jeremy found

himself wondering if he would find himself emerging in China within the next few seconds. Shortly

thereafter his terror-stricken mind laughed amusedly at the concept, trying to decide where he had

heard of a place called “China” anyway.



                                                   22
        And still Jeremy and the Pillager fell faster and faster into the depths of the tunnel.

        Every once in a while, Jeremy fancied that he saw different levels where the pair could have

stopped, some of them lit by candle light or torches, others by neon signs that flashed advertisements

of gambling, liquor, and excitement with their garish orange glow. The walls of the tunnel shifted

from one material to another as if they could never quite decide on a single form of mass as well as a

motif. At one moment Jeremy would find himself surrounded by icy cold marble, and at other

moments this would be replaced by hard steel. For a brief few seconds, Jeremy thought that he saw

the walls were made of polished oak.

        Only one thing was constant about the walls in the tunnel. They were coming closer and

closer together with every second that Jeremy and the Pillager fell.

        The Pillager flexed his left wing ever so slightly, sending the pair spiraling in their decent

and forcing yet another haggard scream from Jeremy‟s already worn vocal cords. As the world spun

around him, Jeremy saw a stone buttress suddenly appear where the two of them had once been

falling. A single column that was planted in the center of the tunnel supported it.

        Windows now parted the darkness of the stone tunnel, and cast strange glowing beams

across the dusty air of the tunnel. They would pass Jeremy and the Pillager in their mad rush upward

in the time it would take Jeremy‟s heart to beat once.

        When Jeremy looked to the tunnel again, stone had turned to fabric and was merely a few

inches from the sides of the Pillager‟s body. The fabric suddenly went limp, as if the hand that had

been pulling it taut had suddenly decided to let go of its end. The soft cloth brushed teasingly against

Jeremy‟s nose and face with an almost tempting caress, when suddenly the Pillager opened his wings

yet again and released the nape of Jeremy‟s neck.

        The fabric parted and Jeremy found himself crashing into a concrete floor.

        The Pillager landed gracefully behind him without making a sound.



                                                   23
        Jeremy marveled at the strangeness of the sound of the Pillager‟s wings wrapping themselves

around his body once again. For some strange reason Jeremy found that he desperately wanted to see

the Pillager‟s face once again, perhaps so that he could remember what his killer exactly looked like.

        It was a startling realization to discover that Jeremy couldn‟t move his arms, legs, feet, or

even his own neck. His face buried in the cement of the floor, Jeremy discovered that it was a force

of will to simply blink his eyes.

        “The Rages were consuming him,” the Pillager‟s voice boomed from above Jeremy‟s

crumpled body.

        “You saved him from being consumed by the Rages, and then shattered every bone in his

body?” a strangely kind voice chided the Pillager much like a father would scold his son after an act

of mischief.

        The Pillager growled quietly in response.

        Jeremy heard the tapping sound of a pair of fine shoes on the stone surface, followed by the

comforting murmuring of the first voice. “Have no fear, my friend. You will still be the first among

all of my followers.”

        The sound of the Pillager‟s wings spreading again reached Jeremy‟s ears as he lay crumpled

on the floor, staring at well-polished pair of expensive shoes. The sound of the beating wings grew

more and more quiet, as Jeremy assumed the Pillager was gaining more distance from him.

        “Silly child being,” the voice echoed. Suddenly, the face of a man in his late twenties pressed

down into the small area of the room that was still in Jeremy‟s view. He had strikingly blonde hair,

and flashed Jeremy a smile that would have broken the hearts of thousands of women. “I suppose I

need to fix you now too.”

        The face disappeared from Jeremy‟s view, but he could hear the sound of the man situating

himself behind him.



                                                    24
         Searing pain met the sound of crunching bones as the stranger forced the disparate bones of

Jeremy‟s spine back into a single cohesive column. The man spoke calmly and collectedly as he

placed each of Jeremy‟s bones back into place, as if this were not the first time he had to perform the

favor.

         “You know, this is really quite embarrassing,” the stranger said jokingly amidst a

particularly painful spasm from Jeremy‟s back muscles. “I tell him to bring someone to speak with

me, and to be really careful with them to make sure that the Rages don‟t do something rash. That is

a mess in and of itself. People get so offended when the Rages consume a living soul. It really isn‟t

my fault that they can‟t seem to learn to exercise self control.”

         This time Jeremy felt pain rush into his body from his shoulder as the stranger struck his

right shoulder, forcing the bone back into its joint. Jeremy shuddered against the pain, and the

stranger stepped away from him. Jeremy looked up to find the stranger standing before him offering

a hand up. Jeremy took it, and with a few halting attempts was soon standing upon his own two feet

again.

         “I‟m sorry about that, the Pillager can be rough with people at times, I will have to teach

him some manners sooner or later,” Jeremy turned to find a man who appeared to be in his mid

twenties was addressing him. He was wearing a dark suit that was perfectly tailored to match his

thin frame, which was flared to an almost perfect double-breasted cut in the front. He wore a dark

crimson tie that was tucked neatly into a perfectly pressed white collar. The man himself was not

much larger than Jeremy, and had an easy smile that endeared him almost immediately. His blonde

hair was perfectly trimmed into a respectable short cut that made him resemble a young but

immensely successful executive. The stranger noticed that Jeremy had been admiring the suit, and

smiled to himself.




                                                   25
          “It‟s a Demonis. Do you like it?” He smiled with a rapier grin as he lifted his briefcase from

the floor and dusted off the top. “The Rages and the Pillager can really be a hassle, they have

absolutely no education,” the handsome businessman smiled, “the uncouth louts think they can treat

everyone so shamefully.”

          “They seem to respect you rather well,” Jeremy observed.

          The businessman merely smiled again, “You could say that with time they learned what

their boundaries were. That‟s the way that it goes sometimes in the education of the lower class. You

can‟t really teach them to change their ways, but you can teach them that there are consequences for

mistreating certain members of society.”

          The stranger opened a door that was behind Jeremy, and motioned to him to follow. Jeremy

was almost blinded by the sunlight that came streaming through the doorframe, which was amplified

a thousand times by an interminable stretch of desert sand. The dunes rose and fell into the horizon

with a stunning predictability, crashing and tumbling over themselves with complete regularity on

their interminable course. The stranger stepped through the door, and Jeremy followed him into the

desert.

          Had Jeremy looked behind him, he would have seen that the door was suspended in mid air,

and that the room in which he had been thrust by the Pillager never really did exist. He would have

noticed the stunning reflections like light on morning dew as the door dissolved from the thin air.

Jeremy would have marveled at seeing his point of origin disappear behind him like so many of his

childhood dreams had he only turned around. Instead he followed unwaveringly into the desert, and

never once looked back.

          “You know, sometimes I ask myself why I like this place so much, and I never really can

find an answer,” the Businessman casually explained. “The place is uncomfortable, rugged, and

really ill kept, and yet I find it so strangely endearing.”



                                                    26
       Jeremy nodded in silence. He wondered to himself how the Businessman managed to

maintain his voice with such a silky-smooth quality while breathing hot air that had grown thick and

matted with dust. The desert sand was soft and yielding under his footsteps, however tended to

engulf Jeremy‟s shoes with each and every step that he tried to keep himself alongside the

Businessman.

       “Now trade here isn‟t really all that good. There are small commodities to be had, but those

interests are for an emotional value and nothing more. There is so much more in a solid business

venture than just having the right feeling at the right time. You‟ve got to know which buttons you

have to push when, so that you can fry the biggest fish in the sea without ever having to pull him out

of the water.”

       Jeremy shrugged ignorantly. “What do you mean?”

       “Take for instance if I wanted to get into the market for technological futures.” The

Businessman explained coyly, “I could invest in a single idea or product, say a piece of software for

some computer that has a thirty-five percent penetration into the common market. Say out of those

thirty-five percent only half of the computer‟s users actually purchase my product, which is already

more than I can really hope for. I only get about seventeen percent of the market under my

company‟s domination. However if I can invent the computer, and manage to be the first if not only

one to do so, then I‟ll have one hundred percent of the market. I will control the whole thing.”

       The Businessman was fired up with the kind of emotion and pleasure that betrayed how

much he enjoyed what he did. Jeremy found the fact that the man was able to focus on a train of

thought under the unbearable heat of the mid-day sun was remarkable in and of itself. Jeremy

discovered that his own thoughts were wavering all too quickly and he was soon loosing his own

capacity to focus on the Businessman‟s words.




                                                  27
        “You know, my boy, you look like you‟re thirsty,” the Businessman observed casually.

Jeremy found his throat was full with dry dust, and had to forcibly struggle to maintain enough

flexibility in his vocal chords so as to be able to utter a single simple sound. His voice felt like it was

being created by rubbing two pieces of abrasive paper together and listening for the slightest noise.

The Businessman watched in thoughtful silence as Jeremy sought the strength to force his voice to

push its way through the stifling air that enwrapped him like a heavy blanket.

        “We are in a desert. The whole place is thirsty.”

        The Businessman threw his head to the sky in laughter, a warm husky sound that filled

Jeremy like an infectious liquor. The more Jeremy was around the Businessman, the more he

realized that this man simply was one of those few individuals who could attract any single person

he wanted. He was a singular example of an endearing nature that pulled Jeremy to his side without

argument from the other‟s own consciousness.

        “You really are quite a remarkable fellow, Jeremy my boy,” the Businessman laughed, “to

be able to keep your sense of humor intact in this unbearable heat. That is a feat that I haven‟t seen

in many people for a very long time.”

        Jeremy couldn‟t quite remember when he had told the Businessman his name, however for

some reason couldn‟t find fault in the man for having remembered it.

        “What if I told you that Gotica is nothing more than an extension of the people that inhabit

it. If that were the truth, you could take these stones,” the Businessman handed Jeremy three

smoothly polished sand stones that were sitting on the summit of the dune upon which they were

standing, “and you could easily turn them into glasses filled with the coldest water.”

Jeremy stared at the stones in his hand disbelievingly. They seemed so plain, made out of the same

ruddy off white sand that had seemed to fill the world to its breaking point. The stones did indeed

seem cool to the touch, however that effect simply could have been caused by the fact that it was



                                                    28
indeed their underbellies that were in contact with the surface of Jeremy‟s hand, and not the portion

that had been exposed to the light. As Jeremy looked at the stones, he mused that sand stone must be

formed by a miniscule presence of water in the sand that would lend cohesion to the material. This

must have been the water the Businessman spoke of.

       “You‟re thinking too hard,” the Businessman chided him with a mildly frustrated tone. “If

you are really who I believe you are, you should be able to simply wish for cups of water, and these

stones would stop being stones.”

       Jeremy looked at the stones for one last longing moment, and then dropped them back onto

the desert floor. “They are stones because they are stones, and I am not the man to be changing them

into something they are not.”

       “Why?” the Businessman asked.

       Jeremy shrugged in response, “Because I can‟t do something like that. Its not like I‟m God

to be wandering around changing rocks into things whenever I feel like it.”

       The Businessman began to stalk away from Jeremy in a frustrated rage, and Jeremy

nonchalantly began to walk into the distance where he believed he saw the blue outlines of

mountains on the horizon. Before Jeremy had taken ten steps he realized that he was once again

walking at the Businessman‟s side.

       The pair walked in silence for a long while, the Businessman still visibly frustrated by

Jeremy‟s choice of not changing the stones into water as he said he could. It was almost as if

Jeremy‟s lack of willingness to change the stones from what they were into something they were not

had been a personal offence to the Businessman. He walked with his hands thrust firmly into the

front pockets of his suit pants, and noticeably slouched as he walked much like a petulant child. As

the pair of them walked Jeremy realized that the great dunes of sand were becoming less and less




                                                  29
frequent as the distant mountains increased in hue, detail, and size until they were almost surrounded

by the mountainous apron.

          Almost as if a light had been ignited in his head, the Businessman suddenly became his

normal bright self, speaking freely and cheerfully to Jeremy again as they walked.

          “You know, I still don‟t really understand you. You keep denying yourself everything that

you know is good for you. I mean, you crave water, so I tell you to go and change those worthless

sand stones into some water so that you won‟t be thirsty anymore, and you simply refuse to listen to

me.”

          “I‟m sorry,” Jeremy replied, “but I just couldn‟t.”

          “Oh, don‟t worry about it,” the Businessman replied, “I guess I shouldn‟t be surprised that

you would have a little lack of faith in me, since this is the first time we have really met face to face.

Don‟t worry about me, I‟m not angry with you.”

          Jeremy smiled at the Businessman, who in turn smiled back at him. The Businessman really

was a singular individual to see out in this rugged wilderness, wearing his beautifully tailored suit

that still managed to keep from being marred by the desert sands and overbearing heat. The

Businessman‟s shoes still shone with a radiant polish that bespoke hours of meticulous work by a

cobbler, rather than an afternoon of tromping through a desert and the subsequent mountain trails

that lay beyond.

          “You understand,” the Businessman explained, “that these things that I am telling you are

for your own good. They are going to make your life easier. So just trust me.” His smile shone in the

afternoon light like that of a firstborn angel, radiant in the golden light that his own face bathed him

within.

          The trail that Jeremy and the Businessman were walking upon had risen regularly from the

desert floor, parallel to one of the alluvial fins that jutted of the side of the mountain range like a



                                                    30
loose rib. This trail had risen slowly and steadily until it reached a summit where the trail fell

abruptly to the floor of a steep canyon on their right, and a mountain formed a solid granite wall on

their left.

          “I simply wish you could understand the kind of control you have over this world,” the

Businessman paused in the middle of the trail to look at Jeremy appraisingly. “Most of us are here

because something within the world needs us, there is some sort of void that needs to be filled by all

of us.”

          Jeremy shrugged as he listened, feeling rather sheepish that the Businessman was managing

to talk his way around him so deftly.

          “Take for instance, this cliff,” the Businessman continued. “In all logical, rational thinking

you know that if you were to throw yourself from this cliff you would die by the time your body

stopped moving down below. However, if you were one of us, the world would adapt so as to not let

you die, because it needs you.”

          Jeremy laughed and shook his head, “Sorry, it‟s nothing personal, but I don‟t think I could

tempt fate like that. I‟d sure hate to see what would happen when you were wrong.”

          The Businessman smiled with a cold grin, “Yes, wouldn‟t that be a tragedy?” He turned

abruptly back to the trail, and continued to walk along the winding path as it made it‟s ascent

through the mountains. Jeremy could not help but feel a slight tinge of vertigo at this altitude,

particularly with the stomach twisting drop mere inches from the side of the trail. It seemed to extend

for miles now, with every step that he took adding another twenty or thirty feet to the depth of the

fall.

          “Impressive location,” Jeremy muttered.

          “You haven‟t seen anything yet, my boy.” The Businessman smiled knowingly, “You just

wait until we reach the summit.”



                                                    31
        The climb seemed to raise them higher and higher over the landscape, with the world

veritable miles before. It was as if someone had crumpled a section of the world‟s map, and the one

place where everything jutted out was the top of this mountain. The air at times seemed thin in

Jeremy‟s lungs, and he noticed that the foliage was getting less dense the further that they walked.

        “Would you like me to tell you a story while we walk?” the Businessman queried.

        Jeremy nodded his assent, all the while wondering how the Businessman was managing to

walk this far without having some shortness of breath.

        “It is a tale of a carpenter who had two sons,” the Businessman began. “The eldest had been

taught in his trade and profession since he was born. I guess you could say that the same was true for

both of his sons, although the younger was at the detriment of only having lived less time. The two

sons were both becoming skilled carpenters in their own right while they were yet children. They did

work that, while still no where near the caliber of their father, was finer than that produced by any

other tradesman in the land.

        “Now, because my tale focuses on these two boys, do not think that the carpenter did not

have other children as well. He was a father of a full house, and all of his children he taught in his

trade. They were all becoming strong carpenters in their own right, but none of them could match

the skill of the two oldest sons.

        “A time came when the two oldest sons were reaching the prime of their craft, that the king

requested a special work by the family. The carpenter, wanting to showcase the talents of his

children, decided to leave the task in the hands of one of his two oldest sons. The younger of the two

sons was mindful of the responsibility that the creation would take, and wanted the work to proceed

perfectly. He was prepared to take the brunt of the load and perform the work himself in order to be

sure that things turned out perfectly.




                                                   32
        “The eldest son had another idea in mind. He wanted to allow his siblings work on the

project, and would commission each of them with their own tiny piece of the final production. It

would be left to them to choose how their piece of the work would be created. Working like this

would have been madness, a disgrace to the names of the two oldest sons. The work would be far

from perfect, such as the king demanded.

        “The younger of the two sons, no matter how hard he tried, couldn‟t convince the eldest to

change his mind, and of course, being the oldest and arguably his father‟s favorite, ultimately the

direction of the project was given to him. The younger brother still maintained enough pride in

himself to know that he couldn‟t be associated with a flawed piece of madcap individualism.

Knowing that he could no longer stay with the family, the younger son left the household of his

father with as many of his siblings that would join him. Together they started in their own trade, and

have never set foot in their home ever since.”

        A stunned silence filled Jeremy as he listened to the Businessman‟s tale.

        “I ask you this,” the Businessman concluded. “Was the younger son wrong for wanting

perfection and honor to his and the family‟s name?”

        There was nothing Jeremy could do but walk in silence. They had been climbing steadily up

the mountain, and were now only a few scant feet from the summit. The Businessman scrambled up

the last few stones, and turned to offer Jeremy his hand to help him up the last tiny stretch to the top

of the mountain.

        A world unlike any that Jeremy had ever seen stretched out before them like the stitching on

a great blanket. Ridge after ridge of great mountains coursed before them, their tops obscured

slightly by the clouds that dotted their summits. Cities were built along the tops of some of the

mountains, with small villages nestled within their canyons. It seemed as if this vista could continue

on forever with a kind of clarity that was almost unnerving. In the lowest of the valleys, small



                                                   33
pockets of dense fog had filled in the corners of the world where the morning sun‟s light had yet to

strike, scaring the wispy masses away.

       “It‟s a lovely world, isn‟t it?” the Businessman commented in an almost reverential voice.

       “Yes,” Jeremy responded as he let his eyes drift from mountains to valleys, lakes to cities,

and heaven to earth. It was as if time and space had shifted so that everything that ever was and

could be was spread out before him. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear the voices of children

playing as if they were hundreds of miles away, and he could smell smoke rising off of a fire that

had been kindled in one of the many distant villages.

       “You know,” the Businessman continued, “if you would just listen to me and do as I say, all

this world could be yours.”

       “What?”

       The Businessman smiled, “I know all the tricks, the secrets, all the things that would be

necessary to make this yours. You could rule it any way you dreamed of. You just have to follow

me.”

       Suddenly Jeremy felt very small, and he realized that there was something about the

Businessman that he could no longer bring himself to trust. It was as if there were a miniscule taint,

like oil on the surface of water, that had distorted the Businessman and revealed him to be far less

appealing than Jeremy had once believed. Almost tumbling over the madcap stones that made the

summit of the peak, Jeremy stepped slowly backwards from the Businessman.

       “Where are you going to go?” the Businessman asked. “From here I can see you anywhere

in the world. It isn‟t like you can hide from me.”

       “No.”

       A sharp smile like the edge of a razor pursed on the Businessman‟s lips. “Think about it,

Jeremy. You could have whatever you wanted. Women would adore you, men would respect you. If



                                                     34
you wanted they could all fear you. You would be their rising sun, and their moon to guide them by

night. Honor and glory would be yours, and you can‟t tell me that you wouldn‟t enjoy it.”

       Jeremy turned away from the Businessman, and began to walk down the trail that led away

from the mountain summit and into the world before him.

       “You and your damned nobility,” the Businessman screamed in rage. “You were just like

that when you stood by our brother as I left.” Jeremy continued walking, spurred slightly by the

apparent rage in the Businessman‟s voice.

       “If I can not have you,” the Businessman screamed, “I will tear you apart!”




                                                 35
4.

       How long Jeremy had walked in the forest beneath that mountain pass, he could not say. He

also couldn‟t understand what had motivated him to so desperately need to escape the Businessman

and his continual offers of wisdom and guidance. Jeremy was proud of himself in a strange way for

having managed to only walk for as long as he believed the Businessman had him in eyeshot,

however once he was sure that it was safe, Jeremy had run. He knew that running down mountain

trails was a treacherous endeavor and the tiny voice of logic that had grown so fond of screaming in

terror when Jeremy did things like this was raising a singular racket. All the same, Jeremy could not

escape the urge to run and escape the peak and the Businessman as fast as he could.

       By the time that Jeremy‟s breath was coming in fleeting raspy gasps, he had descended

beneath the timber line once again, and the terrain of the mountains was once again being dotted

with stunted trees. They hunched along the surface of the mountain like rows of inscrutable midgets,

and sighed mournfully as Jeremy ran past as quickly as his two legs could carry him. The trees were

a small comfort in his flight from the Businessman, as they offered little to no coverage from above.

Indeed, the stunted trees were barely taller than Jeremy himself was, and he felt that the

Businessman‟s piercing gaze was still pointed like a dagger toward the back of his neck. It wasn‟t

until the trail twisted to the right and quickly descended behind a large stone and over the edge of the

saddle that Jeremy finally began to find a small degree of comfort in his distance from the peak.

        As Jeremy walked he noticed that clouds were beginning to gather above the peak in dark

masses that filled the sky. Jeremy turned once when he was a fair distance away from the cliffs that

bordered on the peak, half expecting to see the Businessman still standing there, somehow amplified

to be larger than life. Instead the peak was empty so far as Jeremy could see, devoid of all forms of

inhabitants upon its rocky summit.




                                                  36
        By the time Jeremy began to enter the true forest that filled the mountains below the peak,

the clouds had grown so thick as to blot out the sun itself. Jeremy walked along in the shade of the

clouds, watching the parched trees around him as they stood in silence.

        Rain began to fall.

        Jeremy turned his head skyward to watch drop after drop fall in their tumbling course. The

entire world seemed to come alive as the rain fell over it. Trees seemed to stretch forth their branches

to catch the rain upon their parched leaves. Dust fell from the surface of the forest in a ruddy river as

the rain washed the world clean. Plants shifted colors in a mere moment from being a dull, parched

brown to a vibrant green.

        Jeremy‟s gray cotton shirt was soaked completely, clinging to every curve of his chest like a

fond lover. His hair was saturated to the point that it could no longer contain the water that still fell

from the sky in waves, and instead let it tumble over his shoulders like a waterfall. Laughter bubbled

up through Jeremy‟s throat as he shook his head much like a dog would, sending a spray of water

across the world from his brow.

        The laughter seemed to echo through the forest, reflect and bend across the surface of the

trees, and shift into the voice of a woman. The sound resembled that of chimes being struck by this

torrential rain storm as it joined Jeremy in his sheer pleasure. The new voice did not startle Jeremy,

it seemed almost as if it had always been there, somewhere buried within the depths of his own mind

where he just couldn‟t reach it. Only this was true of the laughter, it brought Jeremy joy.

        For a brief moment Jeremy thought that he saw the silhouette of a young woman standing

there in the forest. She turned and gazed at Jeremy with impossibly large brown eyes as he stood

there laughing in the forest. Unlike most of the women that Jeremy had known, the rain could not

tarnish her beauty. The blush that graced her cheeks seemed to have been painted by the hand of

God Himself, and then set in stone so that it could never be removed.



                                                    37
        As quickly as she had appeared, the girl was gone.

        It was almost as if she had never been there, for when Jeremy looked a second time in her

direction, there was nothing but the forest looking back at him.

        “I must be loosing my mind,” Jeremy muttered. “First I get someone like that Businessman

angry with me, and now I am seeing things out here in the middle of the woods.”

        Miniscule droplets of rain cascaded off of Jeremy‟s brow as he shook his head in disbelief at

his on naivete, as he grudgingly forced himself to descend deeper through the forest on the mountain

slopes. The rain continued behind him, washing the forest into a bright resilience as Jeremy walked

along its slopes. The forest seemed to unfold before Jeremy‟s eyes as he delved deeper and deeper

into its depths. The woods had taken upon themselves a new form of life, stretching into a newfound

resiliency with each passing step.

        Time seemed to slowly freeze as Jeremy wandered through the depths of the forest. The

crashing rain fell in a chorus that soothed his soul as it washed the dust and grime from the surface

of the forest itself. Small puddles of what would appear to be murky water were forming upon the

earth, bearing the dust of ages that was slowly being washed away. The trail that cut through the

forest itself seemed to be rendered into a dream-like state, winding slowly and gracefully from point

to point.

        Amidst the falling rain, the light of fireflies began to trace its way through the evening sky.

They glowed in minuscule streaks that flashed into existence for mere moments and then faded into

the darkness once again.

        The madcap descent Jeremy had made from the peak was beginning to take its toll upon him

by the time that he reached the great stone that bordered upon a vast lake. The peak where he had

stood with the Businessman had now faded into the recesses of the past, becoming tiny by an

extreme trick of perspective.



                                                   38
        Jeremy had to stifle a scream as he fell headlong over an old man who was seated under the

lee of the great stone. He was hunched in rags that were tattered and splayed with mud and rain. His

long hair was matted into what resembled braids, stretched and made long by the water that soaked

them. The seated man looked at Jeremy appraisingly, and then motioned to him that he should sit

besides him.

        Once Jeremy had taken a seat in the small shelter from the rain that the stone offered him, he

noticed that the stranger was holding a tablet of paper. The paper was moistened in spots by the rain,

however he had been attempting to keep it covered by a small flap of waterproofed canvas that

covered the tablet.

        Smiling knowingly, the stranger pulled a pen from the breast of his long dirty jacket and

proceeded to write upon the tablet, “You should be more careful. I almost heard you coming.” The

stranger let a strange and muffled laugh escape his lips as he wrote his simple reprimand.

        “Are you deaf?” Jeremy asked.

        The deaf man grabbed Jeremy‟s face, and forced him to look into his eyes as he spoke. The

stranger‟s pleading eyes begged that he repeat what he had just said.

        “Are you deaf?”

        The deaf man nodded vigorously, a child-like grin splayed across his silent lips. As if this

moment of brief communication had lit a fire beneath him, the deaf man turned to his tablet and

wrote in a scribbled, hurried hand, “I don‟t know where I am. One moment I was minding my own

business at my place upon the tower, and the next moment I was here.”

        Jeremy turned and looked the deaf man in the eyes once again. “Why haven‟t you tried to

find this tower again if you are lost?”

        In a hurried mass, the phrase, “I‟m not sure where to begin looking, and the view from here

is rather nice anyway.”



                                                  39
        “How long have you been here?” Jeremy asked.

        “I have seen a few sunrises and sunsets from underneath this rock,” the man wrote,

“However I really haven‟t been counting. Too wrapped up in the moment I suppose.”

        “I have to ask,” Jeremy was stunned as the deaf man read his lips like the text within a book,

“Have you seen anyone else while you have been here in these woods?”

        The deaf man shrugged and shook his head.

        “I suppose that makes sense, I must have been loosing my mind. Everything seems so

jumbled since I lost track of Duty and the others.”

        The deaf man‟s eyes lit up with an expectant glow. His hands visibly shook as he inscribed

the words, “You know Duty? He is my friend.”

        A warm smile filled Jeremy‟s lips and coincided with a new warmth in his heart. “Yes, I

know them. I was with them before the creatures came and drove us apart.”

        “Creatures?” the deaf man scribbled on his pad.

        “Yes, horrible black ones that smell of autumn leaves. They tried to wrap themselves around

me, and when they had me in their grasp, the entire world began to turn dark.”

        “Rages.” The deaf man wrote as he nodded knowingly. “It is a wonder that you survived.”

        Jeremy smiled, “I wonder if I did. Things have been strange ever since. There was another

creature, some gigantic monster with wings like an oversized bat.”

        The stranger wrote on the tablet, “I‟ve seen those, nightmarish creatures that they are.”

        Jeremy nodded, “and now I am stuck here wandering through this forest like some kind of

lost child, seeing faces in the rain that don‟t exist, and slowly loosing my mind.”

        The stranger smiled and wrote in his tablet, “Don‟t worry about it. Duty and the others will

be able to explain everything.”

        Jeremy shook his head, “I don‟t even know where to find them.”



                                                  40
       “That is easy,” the deaf man wrote, “we‟ll just have to get to the city. That means you are

going with me to the same place, so we‟re both lost together.”

       The deaf man gathered his things, and was ready to move out from beneath his rock within a

heartbeat. Jeremy was stunned by the singular will of this man, how he was so quick to move once

he had decided to, despite not knowing where the destination lay. Despite the fact that

communication between them was so difficult, not to mention that it came in ways that Jeremy

hadn‟t experienced before, he couldn‟t help but be drawn to the deaf man and his quiet ways.

       The two of them walked together down the slope of the mountains. Jeremy found himself

feeling extremely awkward, not being able to have a conversation with the deaf man while they

traveled. His companion, however, was quite pleased to merely watch the surroundings. He seemed

on the point of rapture watching the forest move as they passed it by.




                                                  41
5.

        By the time night fell, Jeremy heard the sound of voices calling not far from where he and

the deaf man walked. The voice that called loudest was distinctly that of Duty, followed by a firm

but less enthusiastic old man, with the Jester trudging along in the rear. With only a few minutes, the

two groups managed to discover each other‟s location.

        Duty beamed at the sight of Jeremy and the deaf man. “We feared the worst when we saw

the Rages overtake you,” Duty explained. “Nobody has ever managed to withstand them, much less

escape them.”

        “So of course our friend here just had to get on his high horse and demand that we set out to

search for you, even though we all knew that you were as good as dead.” Jester added with disgust

at having been wandering for what he would later describe as an eternity. “Not that I‟m not glad to

see you, shorty.”

        Duty‟s attention then shifted from Jeremy to the deaf man who walked near him. He

embraced him warmly, and watched the deaf man‟s eyes trace his lips as he said, “I didn‟t expect to

see you here, Vision.”

        A deep warm smile graced Vision‟s lips as he pulled out his tablet and inscribed, “I suppose

this means that I finally get to come home.” As if to punctuate the remark, Vision drew a tiny

caricature of a frown next to his comment, a gesture which earned him a wry look from Duty.

        “It‟s been too long, old friend,” Duty grinned at Vision as he shook his head in awestruck

joy.

        After a few minutes of warm greetings all around, it was decided that it would be for the best

to attempt to return to the city as quickly as possible. Jester was full of complaints at the prospect of

beginning the long walk back to the city in the middle of the night, however Duty insisted that it was

important to return home as quickly as possible. The old man agreed, and Jeremy couldn‟t have



                                                   42
been more willing himself. The prospect of spending time in a real city with walls around him and

roofs above his head seemed more appealing than anything Jeremy had yet dreamed of.

       The road that lead to the great city of which Duty so often spoke was a small one that

paralleled the foothills of a great mountain range northward. Duty led the way emphatically, while

the rest of the party slowly drifted through the nighttime behind him. Jester tended to crash through

the brush and bushes that bordered along the sides of the trail like some sort of drunken bull.

Perhaps the only one of them to travel with any kind of grace was Vision, who seemed to be able to

see things as they approached in the darkness that nobody else would even dream had been there.

       Jeremy‟s mind wandered aimlessly through the world as he slowly walked with the group

through the night air. The skies were clear of all clouds, and were sprinkled with stars much like

glitter on the top of someone‟s birthday cake. As Jeremy walked, he wondered about the storm that

had risen and then disappeared behind them as they had encountered Duty, the Jester, and the old

man. More than anything, Jeremy‟s thoughts were captured by the girl that he had seen laughing in

the forest. She chased his mind through the recesses of his heart like some kind of skilled hunter,

pushing him from one corner to of his existence to another, all the while haunting him with those

impossibly large brown eyes.

       Jeremy‟s feet caught on the edge of an exposed root as his mind burned an echo of those eyes

into his soul. They had watched him so carefully, as if recording every last inch of him, the way that

he stood and moved, memorizing every line and curve of his face in the scant moment that their

owner had let them watch him. Those eyes had caressed each curve that formed his cheeks, and

graced fondly over the premature wrinkles that had marred Jeremy‟s forehead. Even now, long after

they were gone and the prospect of the touch was over, Jeremy could still feel the weight of her gaze

as she had memorized every nuance of his being. It was a stunning sensation that brought chills to

his body as a stone skittered away underneath Jeremy‟s left foot.



                                                  43
         No matter how long Jeremy worked to try and straighten out what he was feeling in his

mind, he could not bring himself to focus long enough to be able to begin to comprehend the

emotions that he was feeling. It was as if someone had cast him into a labyrinth of strange unbidden

emotions, and then neglected to lend him a map or a way to make heads or tails of his location. The

darkness that filled Jeremy‟s soul was an incredible one, a darkness of utter confusion as he

attempted to find some reason to the madness that was his own emotions. A branch flipped

uncontrolled as Jeremy walked lost in his thoughts, almost knocking him to the ground.

         The sensations of falling rain still seemed to echo on the edges of Jeremy‟s battered skin, as

if it to had engraved itself into his being much like the face of the girl from the forest. Jeremy cursed

the strange tingling sensation that coursed through the extremities of his body as he stumbled yet

again on a loose piece of earth in the middle of the trail. Jester snickered somewhere behind him, and

for a brief moment the words “clumsy oaf,” trembled on the brink of registering with Jeremy‟s

conscious mind.

         “Duty, are there people out there that you don‟t know as of yet?” Jeremy asked, his mind

obviously distracted as he stumbled for the fifth time in the past two minutes on the trail.

         “I would like to think that I have encountered everyone that lives within Gotica, but there

are some things that I have heard of that I still cannot explain.”

         “Like what?” Jeremy asked.

         The old man smiled, “Boy, this is an interesting subject for you to bring up. Are you

referring to the Businessman?” The old man shook his head kindly. “I‟m afraid that we have all at

one point or another become aquatinted with him.”

         Jeremy shrugged as he slowly walked upon his way. “Actually, I was thinking of someone

else.”

         “Who then?” the Jester piped up, after what had seemed to be a half hour of sullen silence.



                                                   44
        “While I was wandering in the forest, before I met Vision, something strange happened when

it started to rain….”

        “It was raining?” Duty asked.

        “Yes,” Jeremy replied, “is that important?”

        “Indeed it is,” this time it was the old man to respond. “It has been years since I have seen it

rain in Gotica.”

        “Rain in Gotica, film at eleven,” Jester muttered derisively from his corner of the

conversation.

        “When the rain started, I was there sort of taking it all in, when I thought that I saw a girl

watching me in the rain.”

        Duty stopped dead in his tracks.

        “What did she look like, can you describe her to me?”

        Jeremy shrugged, “She was about my height, dark hair, a face that looked almost like it were

cast from a sculpture.”

        “She wasn‟t a child?” Duty asked.

        “No, she was evidently my age, if not older.”

        Jester laughed again, “You still think that your little girl is going to come back to us, eh?”

        Duty rounded on the Jester, “I will warn you only once, knave.”

        “Oh, don‟t get all testy on me, but think about it for a second. If Innocence were going to

come back to us, wouldn‟t she have already come back by now?” Jester smiled as he watched the

hope that had graced Duty‟s face pale and slowly die into a depressed acceptance of the facts. “She

loved you more than any of us, and she never even met him,” Jester punctuated his remark by

gesturing cruelly in the direction of Jeremy. “So wouldn‟t it stand to reason that if she were to return

to us that she would have come to you first, Duty?”



                                                   45
        The only response Duty could manage to muster was that of hurt silence. He walked

unblinking again into the night, as the old man drew back within the group to put his arm around

Jeremy‟s shoulder.

        “I didn‟t mean to hurt him,” Jeremy watched Duty‟s form as he seemed to shrink into the

shadows of the night.

        “You need to understand something, my boy.” The old man replied warmly, “We talk about

Innocence as if she were a child, however she was here when both Duty and I came into being. I was

weak back then, and could barely keep myself on my feet half of the time. Duty was like that too,

only he was never weak, not even in the beginning. Innocence loved him very much as well. The two

of them used to dance in the fields near the city, and they would spend hour after hour talking.”

        “What happened to her?” Jeremy asked.

        “A day came when another woman appeared in the city, this one was a beguiler of the

darkest of natures. She and innocence fought in the midst of the city, and finally Innocence won,

however she was badly wounded by the conflict. Innocence believed that she was no longer capable

of leading us and defending the angel, and so she decided that it would be best to leave someone to

care for us and lead us in her stead. She chose Duty out of all of us, and he grudgingly accepted, as

is his way.

        “Not long after that,” the old man continued, “Innocence left the city walls, and we never

saw her again. It broke Duty‟s heart, and he chased after her, trying to find her wherever she may be.

I think that Duty always feared that the Rages had managed to find her and subvert her. That was

part of the reason that he forced us to find you. I believe that Duty still thinks that if he looks hard

enough for the things that are lost, he might be able to find Innocence again, and bring her back to

us.”

        “What do you think happened to her?” Jeremy asked.



                                                    46
        “I think she is still out there somewhere. The world would be a dark and lonely place if there

wasn‟t some aspect of Innocence out there to bring a tiny amount of purity into our lives.”

        “Maybe,” Jeremy mused, “it was her that I saw.”

        “Duty would hope so,” the old man replied, “however I doubt that would be the case,

however wonderful it might be. People don‟t age here, no matter how much strength and experience

they have. I‟ve always been old, Duty has always been a mere fraction of my age, and I think we

would all pay good money to see the Jester grow up, but we know that would never happen.”

        The Jester stuck his tongue out at the old man upon hearing the defamation that had been

levied against his name.

        “You said yourself that she was a grown woman. That means that it couldn‟t have been

Innocence.”

        “Who could it have been, then?”

        “There are many people,” the old man replied, “however I have heard stories of one that is

not from this place. A woman who is more of a fragment and a reflection than an actual one of us.

I‟m told that she can appear in from time to time, and that some of us have seen her. Granted me

telling you this doesn‟t mean that I either believe in her existence, or disbelieve it. I am merely

telling you the things that other people have told me.”

        Jeremy and the old man talked further about the possibility of someone new out there within

the depths of the forests of Gotica, however their conversation was cut short as the sun began to rise

behind them.

        The light of the morning sun reflected off of the mountains, revealing for the first time that

somehow they had come upon a gigantic range that was made largely from a bright red colored

stone. The morning sunlight washed this stone with its brilliance, and spread the ruddy hues across

the foothills, painting the entire world with an entirely new tint. The red light rendered the old man‟s



                                                   47
pale skin the color a soft pink rose, and Jeremy found himself bound to merely watching the

shadows as they played across all of their faces.

        “This is the canyon,” Duty responded coldly. He had seemed despondent and frigid ever

since Jester‟s chiding about Innocence, as if any remembrance of the missing girl was painful to his

soul.

        The canyon walls that stood before them appeared to glow as the light struck the ruddy stone

that appeared as if it had been painted by the juice of countless berries, burning underneath the light

of the rising sun. Slight amounts of brush and verdancy dotted the sides of the canyon, however the

only true constant was the brilliant red stone.

        “It is unlike anything I‟ve ever seen,” Jeremy murmured awestruck.

        “You still have to see the city,” Duty smiled. “Close your eyes, try and clear your head, and

then look again.”

        Bemused by the simplicity of the suggestion, Jeremy quietly closed his eyes as he had been

instructed. One by one he forced himself to suppress all the other thoughts that had been drifting

through his head. The task of relaxing enough to not be haunted by some of the images of the past

couple of days was a grandiose one, however within a few moments Jeremy found himself finally

discovering peace.

        “Now you can see,” Duty‟s soft voice echoed within the soft bubble of emptiness that

Jeremy had created around himself.

        It was as if the mountains themselves moved before Jeremy‟s eyes as they slowly opened.

The canyon spread herself majestically, as if welcoming Jeremy and the rest in a regal embrace. The

canyon walls did not seem to move, it was more as if the light itself that was reflected off of their

surface began to twist and bend, making crooked lines straight and straight lines crooked.




                                                    48
          Above all of this, the city sat at the highest summit of the canyon, sprawled across the

mountain tops like a king seated upon his throne. Towers seemed to grow out of the same red stone

that supported them, connecting the cliffs into a great wall that surrounded the edge of the city.

Within those city walls occasionally Jeremy could see light rippling on the surface, as if someone

had yet to extinguish some of the torches that had been left through the night. Great columns

bordered the tops of the buildings immediately behind and around the city walls, usually with what

appeared to be carved statues standing between their stone surfaces.

          Above the majority of the city was a great dome, that seemed to stretch over a mile or more.

This dome shone in the morning sunlight with a brilliant ruddy glow that revealed it was made from

the same red stone from these mountains. The dome appeared to be almost perfectly smooth, with a

small pinnacle perched at the highest point of the dome. A great tower loomed behind the city,

enwrapped in scaffolding as if it were still under construction.

          Vision was exited. He scribbled furiously in the notebook, “I can see my place,” and was

hopping around the group intent on satisfying himself that everyone knew exactly what it was that

he saw.

          “Well, let‟s go,” Jeremy said excitedly. Within a heartbeat he was bolting up the trail and

into the depths of the canyon. The trail itself was small, and tended to weave underneath his feet like

some kind of serpent, forcing Jeremy to pick a route that would cut off of the trail at times. Before

he realized what was happening, Jeremy found that he was falling backwards, having lost his footing

on the slippery red stone that formed the surface of the trail.

          Duty was already behind him to catch him. “You need to be more careful,” he murmured in

Jeremy‟s ears as he slowly set him upright again. The touch of Duty‟s arms around Jeremy‟s

shoulders was comforting, and the embrace that saved him from tumbling backwards to the foot of

the trail was a warm, muscular one.



                                                    49
        “Thank you, Duty.” Jeremy shook his head in amazement that he had been so foolish as to

try to run up a trail quite as twisted as this one. Chiding himself for his own childish nature, Jeremy

began to slowly walk up the side of the trail, which was proving to be much less unruly when

traveled at a reasonable pace. Indeed, the trail seemed to slowly widen beneath Jeremy‟s feet, the

winding and twisting of its surface becoming less unwieldy with each passing step. The city seemed

to call Jeremy from above, and he could feel its pull on his heart even though he could not see it well

now that he was actually upon the trail. It was as if Jeremy had become a compass, and was being

pulled to magnetic north as he traveled. No matter which way he turned, his heart still yearned to be

at the city without having to follow the twists and turns of this infernal trail.

        As the trail had widened, the terrain around it had become less hospitable. The trail itself

was carved into the edge of a great cliff, bordering along the side of its surface like a ribbon across a

person‟s face. There were stones jutting out of the side of the cliff that still had need of being cleared

away, forcing Jeremy and the rest of the group to twist around them on exposed angles. All the

while, the trail separated itself from the canyon floor, turning mere inches into miles.

        After an excruciatingly long climb, Jeremy and the rest of the group found themselves

standing at a small bend in the trail that had been bordered by a wall mortared out of various red

stones. From this vantage point they could see the city across the canyon rim, it seemed so

tantalizingly close that Jeremy almost felt as if he could reach out and touch it. The city was no

longer miles above them, it was perhaps a few hundred feet, and from this point its sheer size was all

the more impressive.

        “How much farther is it to the city walls?” Jeremy asked, awestruck by the view.

        “We are at the city walls, believe it or not. Turn around and look above you.”




                                                    50
        The cliff behind the small overlook where the small group of men stood rose a hundred feet

behind them, and then suddenly the natural rock became smooth and polished. Further up, the rock

became perfectly rounded into an arc that rose into the surface of a great tower.

        “We are as good as there,” Duty smiled happily at the prospect of having returned home at

long last.



6.

        Before they could make their final assent into the city proper, the trail took Jeremy, Duty,

the old man, Vision, and the constantly complaining Jester back into a side canyon of the mountain

pass. The canyon was a tight one, and was littered with the same kind of impossibly smooth stone

that became buildings a few hundred feet above the party‟s heads. Occasionally, bridges would

extend from rooftop to rooftop over the canyon in which they walked, also having been formed out

of the same impossibly red stone that made up the remainder of the canyon. From within the depths

of the city walls, Jeremy fancied that he could hear the sound of children playing at times,

accompanied by the chatter of bakers as they worked upon their wares. Music was in the air, drifting

from place to place with the sounds of sitars, violins, and guitars. For the first time since he had

escaped from his tiny holding cell what seemed like ages ago, Jeremy felt like he had found a place

within Gotica that was really and truly alive. The trail in this canyon slowly bent around in an arc as

it turned back in the shape of a half circle to the main canyon once again. It was still a constant rise,

with each step coming an agonizing inch closer to the wondrous city walls that lay just a tantalizing

few feet from their reach.

        “It isn‟t far now to the city proper,” Duty murmured to Jeremy as they continued upon the

slow rise to the canyon. The older man had noticed Jeremy‟s fascination with the city that was above




                                                   51
their heads, and had seen the desiring glances that filled Jeremy‟s eyes as he so desperately hungered

to be there. “Once we round this final bend, we can ascend to the entry point.”

         A chain had been anchored in the center of the trail, which Jeremy took into his hands as he

walked, following Duty‟s lead. The chain led them around a corner of the canyon wall, and

suddenly Jeremy found himself walking along a spine of stone with thousands of feet of empty space

beneath him.

         “Well, that is impressive,” Jeremy breathlessly murmured as he observed the drop from

above.

         “I believe „terrifying‟ is more the word that you are groping for,” Jester mused from the

background. His voice sounded pinched, as if he were on the brink of throwing up.

         Jeremy clutched the chain closely to his body, taking comfort in that single solid piece that

would keep him safe from the drop that he knew would shatter him beyond repair. The world

seemed as if it snapped in and out of focus at will as Jeremy slowly worked his way across the knife

edge of stone. There was nothing to hold him up, nothing to border the sides of the trail and offer

some small form of security. They were completely exposed, standing on a knife edge to the world,

trying to follow the chain to its eventual summit.

         The knife edge extended for perhaps a hundred yards before opening into a large butte that

rose like a column out of the canyon floor. It was bordered on all sides with the same deep red cliffs

that formed the remainder of the canyon, and had for its only connection to the remainder the single

alluvial fin upon which Jeremy and the rest were walking. Beyond the surface of the butte stood the

main walls to the city, which loomed in the background of the canyon wall like an expectant face

awaiting visitors. There was a great gate in the midst of the walls, and from that gate was a bridge

that could be extended to the butte itself.




                                                     52
        A grateful sigh escaped Jeremy‟s lips as he stumbled his way off of the fin of land, and onto

the surface of the butte. The area that the butte provided for the five man to stand upon was not a

large one, however was much more comfortable than the fin had been. Jeremy was finding that with

the more time that he spent in the tops of these mountains, the less desirous he was to find himself

perched upon the tops of one of these infernal trails ever again. He had grown tired of finding

himself exposed on the faces of cliffs, looking down at his eminent death each and every time that he

looked down to inspect the ground beneath his feet.

        “Speak and you will be heard,” a voice boomed from the gate‟s proper.

        Duty stepped forward from the group and addressed the unseen speaker for the city, “It is

me, Duty. I have returned from communing with the angel with Jester and the old man.”

        “Who are those who come with you?” the voice from the gate inquired.

        “I bring with me a young man named Jeremy whom I met at the foot of the angel, and the

one that is called Vision. He seeks to return to his place within the city.”

        “Very well,” the voice responded.

        There was a low rumbling sound from within the city walls as the massive machinery slowly

lowered the great bridge to the butte upon which the party was perched. It took a full two minutes

for the bridge to finally come to its resting point against the butte allowing a safe crossing to within

the city walls.

        “Now what?” Jeremy murmured under his breath as the bridge touched the butte before him.

        “We go in,” Duty nodded quietly.

        The bridge itself was an amalgamation of wood and steel, its great massive beams being

supported and linked by gigantic steel joints that were held together by spikes the size of Jeremy‟s

hands. The wood creaked slightly under the weight of the party, and yet was still refreshingly solid

underneath Jeremy‟s feet. There was a slight give to its surface, however the bridge did not betray



                                                   53
any of the strange slickness that had been so commonplace with the stone trail that had carried them

to this point. Jeremy still was edgy about letting his entire body weight rest on the surface of the

bridge, despite the complete and utter lack of hesitation in Duty as the older man stepped across.

None of the rest of the group seemed at all phased by the sheer concept of crossing a hundred foot

long wooden bridge that was suspended over a thousand feet off of the ground. It was the complete

lack of regard for their own lives that made Jeremy all the more uncomfortable about the bridge

itself.

          “Are you coming or not?” Jester sneered from halfway across the bridge.

          “I‟m coming,” Jeremy nodded as he forced a gulp of air down his throat and closed his eyes.

The bridge made no sounds as the weight of Jeremy‟s left foot settled upon its surface. Slowly and

tentatively, as if to maintain the solid stone form of the butte within arm‟s reach, Jeremy let the rest

of his body weight come down on the surface of the bridge. Still, there was no complaint from the

wooden surface.

          The first steps were halting ones, inch after painful inch, each motion haunted by the

overriding understanding that the bridge would collapse within the next second or two. With every

solitary step, Jeremy was sure that he approached ever closer to his own inevitable death there on the

middle of the bridge. Slowly, as Jeremy began to realize that the city was now closer than the butte

that he had left behind, his pace began to accelerate. His confidence grew in the surface of the

bridge, and he found himself becoming able to walk freely upon its surface. The last four steps

before the city walls almost resembled a jig, as Jeremy skipped and hopped his way into the city

proper.

          “Welcome home gentlemen,” Duty smiled magnanimously as he pronounced the welcome to

the remainder of the party.




                                                    54
        The city itself was a marvel to behold, and had Jeremy known what it would be like to walk

upon one of its streets, he never would have dreamed about anything else. The stone columns that he

had seen from the canyon floor were everywhere, dotting the surface streets like sentinels. These

columns supported elevated awnings and rooftops that were stretched across the city streets,

providing shade from the hot summer sun that burned in the skies overhead. Amidst all of this stood

the great dome, which encircled what appeared to be miles of terrain. The walls of the city had

grown into the sides of buildings, which in turn finally came to peak near the surface of the dome,

which stretched to the highest point in the center of the city. Somewhere on a peak behind the dome,

stood the tower and the scaffold, stretching into the sky to such incredible heights that would make

one believe it could reach heaven.

        The city was teeming with life. Children ran through the streets playing with silk streamers

of brilliant colors that spread their wings behind them like painted dragons flying through the air.

The children danced and twisted on their madcap dashes, pursued by their silken dragons every

which way. Never in his life had Jeremy seen such colors of reds, greens, and blues as those that

streamed like tails behind the frolicking children. Adults wandered the streets of the city as well, all

of them constantly talking with each other about the business of the day, and the things that they had

done and seen. Bakers had fine arrays of bread out for sale, the smell of their product filling the

streets and tempting customers from miles around.

        As Jeremy followed Duty through the city streets, he watched the faces of the people as they

went from place to place around the city. They seemed familiar to him in some strange way, as if he

had wandered among these city streets sometime before in his life. Their faces bordered on

recollection almost as if they were distorted by a misted mirror, the reflections rendering entirely

new faces. The city seemed much like a dream to Jeremy, the places simply too bright to believe,

and yet too solid to disbelieve. The end result of such a madcap collection of feelings and emotions



                                                   55
left Jeremy staring at the world around him as if his eyes had opened for the first time since his own

birth.

         Amidst all of the commotion of the city, Jeremy happened to notice a solitary man that was

standing in the midst of the crowds. He spoke to no one, and the commotion seemed to part around

him like water around a stone. This dark man simply stood and watched, his eyes fixed upon the

world around him with a strange sort of glow. He observed everything, much like Jeremy was doing,

only the emotion that dwelled behind his eyes was not one of awe such as that which Jeremy found

in his spirit. This strange new man seemed to watch with a hint of regret on his gaze, drifting from

joyful faces moving from place to place in their own little lives. He was always forgotten, always left

to his own devices. In the single instant that Jeremy‟s gaze met that of this stranger, the young man

felt his heart break. Jeremy couldn‟t understand the things that seeing this solitary man had brought

into his heart. He felt pity and sorrow, however couldn‟t deny that there was a tinge of fear behind

the beating of his heart.

         This stranger only stood, his dark eyes sharp and almost closed like those of a bird of prey.

He was not an unattractive man, however he kept himself completely isolated from the rest of the

world. He said nothing, and his face was an emotionless mask of complete indifference and abandon.

His features were sharpened by a small beard that covered the point of his chin, and seemed to

darken all of his features. His clothing was almost completely black, from his pants to his shirt and

the soft velvet vest that he wore slightly unbuttoned.

         As Jeremy watched this man survey the city in his morose silence, a rush of children swept

around him. The children ran with their great silken dragons splayed out behind them like rainbows

after a summer storm. As the flood of color washed over Jeremy like the surf washing over the fine

sand of a beach, the man seemed to fade into the folds of the children‟s fabric. Jeremy looked around




                                                   56
the city street anxiously, sure that the stranger could not have gone far, for he could still feel the

other man‟s gaze on the back of his neck no matter which way Jeremy turned.

        “You look like you‟ve just seen a ghost,” Jester muttered with a wide grin on his face. “Who

was it, your evil twin?”

        Jeremy shook his head, “You wouldn‟t understand, Jester.” The Jester shrugged

indifferently, the expression on his face clearly demonstrating that he couldn‟t care less if he

understood or not.

        “I know you are tired,” Duty turned to the two of them, “however we can‟t stop to relax

until we get Vision to his place on the tower.”

        “Lets just get this over with as quickly as possible, shall we?” Jester snidely remarked. He

looked almost as if he expected some sort of rebuke from Duty, however none came. Jeremy could

see behind Duty‟s eyes that the older man was also tired from their adventures of the past few days.

        “If we go through the center of the dome, past the orchestra, we should be able to reach the

Vision Place much more quickly.”

        Jeremy‟s mouth hung open in stunned silence, “There is an orchestra here?”

        “It is the pride of the city,” this time it was the old man who responded. “There is also a

rather fine choir, and they have been known to sing with the orchestra on occasion.”

        “Sometimes we even dance beneath the dome,” Jester smiled. “That is my personal favorite

part of life in the city. The women come all arrayed in their finest gowns, and believe me, there are

some fine things to be seen in this city.”

        As they walked toward the center of the dome, Jeremy found that the streets began to

intersect and cross a series of channels that cut through the center of the city. As he watched, Jeremy

noticed that these channels were dry, however deep as if they had at one time been filled with water

deeper than the height of a man. These channels were now dry, and traced their way through the



                                                    57
streets like gashes in the middle of the city. As far as Jeremy could tell, the channels were connected

to the roofs of the various buildings and coverings of the city through an intricate system of pipes

and edges that would allow the water to cascade into the channels.

         “They are called „the roads of rain‟. The entire city is designed so that when it rains all of the

water that falls is collected into these pathways so that they can be traversed by boat.” Duty had

noticed Jeremy‟s avid interest in the structure of the trenches, as well as their interconnection to the

architecture of the inner city. “It‟s been a long time since rain has fallen over the city, and the roads

of rain have been empty for some time.”

         “They must have been beautiful,” Jeremy murmured reverentially.

         “They still are,” the old man smiled as he placed his hand on Jeremy‟s shoulder. “You will

learn that the world can‟t go forever without allowing a little bit of rain to fall.”

         Duty smiled warmly at the pair of them as they talked. “You also have to understand that

there still is water in the city, it just doesn‟t about enough for all the roads of rain to be opened. At

the bottom side of the channels there is still the lake around the vision place, and that is as full as

ever.”

         It was as if the city were alive, sprawled across the world in a series of arcs and circles that

radiated out from the center, entwined in some parts by the stone roads while at other times crossed

by the emptied roads of rain. Each of these routes intersected each other in a network of bridges and

tunnels that seemed to intertwine like the threads of a fine lace. The buildings stood like an

amalgamation of thousands of different architectural styles, each distinctive and original to such an

extent that it could not be identified with another. Yet somehow the city seemed to have a singular

vision, as if it had been erected by a single madman with a hurricane of tastes.

         As they walked, Jeremy noticed that it seemed as if the city was slowly descending from the

front gates near the cliffs as he neared the crux of the great dome. The dome itself rose higher and



                                                    58
higher the closer that they came to it, however the ground seemed to always sink slightly lower with

every bend in the road. It was one of these many bends that suddenly revealed to Jeremy that they

now had descended a hundred feet beneath the foundation of the dome, and that they were now

crossing along the bottom of a small canyon. This canyon ended at a lake that filled its bottom like

water in the bottom of a small dish. The lake itself snaked along the bottom of the canyon growing

ever wider and robust with each bend around the foothills that held it there. At the point that was

immediately before Jeremy as they descended to the docks, the lake seemed to be no more than a

mile across, scarcely wider than a large river. Farther down, however, the lake grew wider and

wider, until it had become so vast at the edge of the canyon that Jeremy could only see the other side

of the lake through the mist as a form of dark mountains. Along the border of the lake, the city

stretched, sometimes daring to reach out into the depths of the lake itself on bridges and floating

foundations.

        The dock at the lake was made out of an aged oak that seemed to have been there since time

began. It was covered in moss at all of its foundations, yet was comfortingly stable much like the

bridge that had led them into the main gates of the city. There were a few boats moored at the side of

the dock, and Duty put himself immediately to negotiating passage to the opposite side with one of

the boat masters. As he spoke to the other man, Jeremy noticed a solitary form seated on the edge of

the dock who was scribbling like a madman in a small pad of paper.

        This lone man had on the dock near him two or three bottles of fine wine, and a single goblet

of clear liquid that sat next to the bottles. Strewn around him on the surface of the dock were page

after page of blank paper, some of which bore line after line of text, while others merely had

scrawled a single word, or perhaps a doodle in the corner. The young man was somewhat

disheveled, his long hair pulled into a matted tail behind his head. He hadn't‟ shaved in days, and a

small growth of a beard was beginning to show on his cheeks and his chin. He wore a pair of wire



                                                  59
rimmed glasses that seemed to age him by a few years that he really didn‟t deserve. This young

man‟s hands were tainted with the black ink that he had been writing with for some time, as if the

ink from his pen had penetrated his pours and now was working its way into becoming part of his

blood supply.

        “Sit down,” the young man whispered over his shoulder. “There is no point in you merely

standing there staring at me when you could always talk to me.”

        “Thank you,” Jeremy replied as he cleared himself a space from the papers that had been

previously accompanying the young writer.

        “Feel free to have a drink if you want to,” the writer motioned to his goblet that was sitting

between his own body and Jeremy‟s. Fearing offending the stranger, Jeremy reached down to the

goblet, and picked it up. He sniffed the clear liquid cautiously before letting it touch his lips, almost

expecting to find the bitter stench of alcohol lingering on the edges of the goblet. Instead, Jeremy

was surprised to smell nothing at all. He raised the goblet to his lips, and closing his eyes with a

silent prayer for protection in his heart, drank the smallest sip of the liquid.

        The strange pure flavor of rainwater filled Jeremy‟s mouth and rushed into his belly like a

cold wave. The refreshment was such that upon tasting it for just one moment Jeremy craved it more

and more. The desire for more of the liquid burned within him, and Jeremy found himself greedily

draining the young man‟s goblet.

        “That is a first,” the young writer smiled at Jeremy as he finished off the rest of the goblet.

“Most people see me sitting here on the dock, and they assume that I am a drunkard. They would

never consider drinking from my goblet, after all, who knows what kind of foulness a young lunatic

like me would put in my own body.” The writer then smiled and motioned to the bottles that were

sitting next to Jeremy. “Could you pass me a bottle of wine?”




                                                    60
        Jeremy picked up the bottle and passed it over to the young writer who smiled widely at the

bottle. He reached with his bare hand and cautiously plucked the cork from the bottle‟s neck. A

small spray of wine drifted from the neck of the bottle, spraying into the air above the bottle itself.

        “That is why I never wear white shirts down here anymore.” The writer pulled at the wine

colored fabric of his own clothing and laughed quietly as he drained the bottle out into the lake

beneath him. The wine seemed to disappear into the surface of the lake upon contact, dissolving and

diluting until such point as it would never be discovered there again.

        “I‟m glad you saved me some for the bottle,” the young writer reached for the goblet which

was still half full of rain water although Jeremy was sure that he had drained the entire thing. The

young writer poured the rainwater into the bottle and shook the bottle violently once or twice until

he had satisfied himself that the bottle would be sufficiently clean.

        “I like the smell of the wine, that is why I use these bottles.” The young writer explained, “it

has an absolutely lovely bouquet, even though the stuff will kill you if you drink too much of it.

Personally, I won‟t have anything to do with the stuff so much as drinking is concerned.” The writer

placed the bottle and its cork carefully at his side upon the dock, and turned to his paper once more.

        “The strangest thing has happened, my love.” The writer murmured to himself as he wrote

upon the sheet of paper before him. “I‟ve met a man today who is here at my docks with me as I

write this. He wasn‟t afraid of me, and even drank from my goblet. I think I like this man, although

no number of friends that I may find here could ever replace you. However, we must do as we must

do; both you and I have come to know that all too well, beloved.”

        The writer glanced up at Jeremy and smiled once again, before continuing with his letter

once again.

        “I fear that I may have to cut this note short for the evening as my new found friend is

beginning to appear rather confused and there will not be much time for me to talk. He has the



                                                   61
jabbermouth and the serious man with him that I told you about these weeks past. The serious man

is a good one, but I do wish the prior would find someway to convince his lips to be silent once in a

while. They look as if they are trying to gain passage to the other side of the lake, just like everyone

else. That means that soon my friend will be gone, and I will devote my attentions to you once again.

Please try to understand that I find a friend here at the docks only once in a while, and I am reluctant

to let any opportunity for someone to talk to pass. You know that I would prefer to talk to you,

however you are so far away, my love. It makes things difficult.”

        The writer smiled at Jeremy once more, and said, “I know, I sound like a sentimental fool,

however this is the kind of affect she has upon me. I‟ll finish this quickly.” The young writer quickly

scrawled a few last words onto the paper which he did not repeat for the ears of anyone that was

nearby, and then rolled the letter into a shape not much unlike a cigar. “Would you be willing to

help me?” the young writer asked.

        Jeremy nodded as the writer stuffed the letter into the bottle and stood up from his seated

position on the edge of the dock. He handed Jeremy the wine bottle and bade him throw it into the

lake.

        “Just throw it out as far as you can,” the young writer explained. “I trust that the wind will

take it to her with as much speed and loyalty as it has done every single one of my letters.”

        “You must love her very much,” Jeremy observed.

        “More than life itself,” the writer replied, “that is why I am always writing her like this, day

in and day out from the beginning of my life.”

        “How do you know that she receives your letters, or how do you know where she is?”

Jeremy asked.




                                                   62
        “To be honest,” the young writer smiled a wicked grin, “I‟m not even sure if she exists. All I

know is that I love her and that I still send the letters to her day after day after day. May I ask you a

question?”

        “Suit yourself,” Jeremy nodded.

        “Am I insane?”

        Jeremy paused for a moment in reflection at the words of the young writer. There were so

many explanations for the things that a man might feel, and what the writer had explained to Jeremy

most certainly was not normal. There would be people in the world who would have laughed at the

young man, or called him a hopeless fool. However, the writer had not asked them for their

assessment of his sanity. He had asked Jeremy.

        “No more so than I,” Jeremy responded as he tossed the bottle into the depths of the lake

with as much force as his arms could muster. The bottle sailed through the air in a beautiful arc

before landing in the lake and bobbing along the surface toward the mouth of the lake, away from

both the docks and the dome.

        Jeremy and the young writer watched the bottle travel its way along the lake surface. It

bobbed lightly upon the water, much like a boat that were made by a child. They watched the bottle

travel away until the frailties of their own eyes began to deceive them. Soon the bottle was

indistinguishable from the waves of the lake.

        “We have our way across,” Duty approached Jeremy from behind. “We should be going

now.”

        “Been having fun talking with the Lunatic?” Jester‟s reproachful voice was no more than

two steps behind that of Duty. Soon he was in the foreground once again, as seemed to have become

tradition in the last couple of days. Jester slapped his hand upon the writer‟s shoulder and smiled his

sickeningly innocent smile. “Granted, Lunatics and Lovers are two members of the same breed.”



                                                   63
Jester made a mocking push at the back of the writer, as if he intended to launch the younger man

headlong into the depths of the lake. Jeremy rounded on him as quickly as he could and shoved him

back toward the boat.

        “Don‟t you ever tire of behaving like such an ass?” Jeremy‟s voice was graced with the icy

tone of daggers that completely disarmed Jester with but a few words. Jester stumbled backwards,

his shock this time was no longer feigned. Duty smiled coldly to himself as he helped Jeremy into

the boat that they had commissioned to get them to the dome. Jester never seemed to regain his

balance, and instead sank as a sullen mass into the back of the boat.

        The waves of the lake gently shifted the boat upon their backs as the party moved slowly

away from the dock where they had been moored. Jeremy watched the writer as he sat back down in

his place, took a sip from his goblet of rain water, and rolled the tip of his pen between his ink

blackened fingers once again. He raised his pen to Jeremy in a salutation as the boat moved across

the width of the lake, and Jeremy responded with his palm outstretched.



7.

        The crossing of the lake was uneventful almost to the point of being boring. The lake had

been wider than was to be expected, however there was really nothing to do but watch the dome rise

in the distance like some sort of representation of the morning sun. They had all sat in the boat in

silence, each of the members of the group absorbed in their own thoughts. Jeremy was thinking hard

about the writer that he had left behind on the docks of the lake, wondering how it was that the

young man could have been so irrational, and yet the things he was doing made so much sense. Duty

was a fixture of pure intent, his hazel eyes obviously seeing the tower that lay beyond the dome more

than he saw the dome itself. He watched the horizon expectantly, as if he believed that at any minute

the tower would appear before them like a beacon in the sky. The deaf man that was known as



                                                   64
Vision had long since given up on watching the horizon and searching for the tower, and instead was

amusing himself by watching the antics of some small children on the coast of the beach. Jeremy

was stunned by the perception of the old man, as the children looked like nothing more than specks

in the distance to him. The old man was asleep in his chair in the boat, snoring quietly through the

congestion that had filled his nose. Jester was still sitting in the far back of the boat, in the depths of

a sullen silence. At times Jeremy could still feel a bit of the hurt for the young man, however he still

felt little remorse for having set him in his place at least this once.

        The water in the lake was perfectly clear, and it seemed to shine almost like a mirror that

had been cast with ripples through its surface. At times Jeremy fancied that he should have been able

to see fish swimming along the bottom of the lake, but the more he gazed at the rocks that were

passing by beneath them, the less likely such chances began to seem. It was in one of these reveries

of watching the bottom of the lake that Jeremy was startled by the boat jarring itself against the

surface of yet another dock, as the boat master threw the lines to one of the dock hands. They were

tied off in a heartbeat, and had disembarked the boat even faster. Duty made a point of paying the

boat master a few pieces of silver for the crossing across the lake, and then led them up the winding

road toward the dome.

        The city seemed slightly different on this side than the outskirts had been. If it had seemed to

Jeremy that the outskirts of the city were lively, they had nothing to compare to the depths of the city

itself. People bustled every which way as if they were going to market, despite appearing to be

dressed for a high ball. There was an easy grace to all of their faces, and they all smiled openly

amongst themselves and the newcomers who had just disembarked the boat. The joy of the people

seemed to grow stronger and stronger the closer to the dome that they came.

        The dome itself was an anomaly. It stretched higher and farther than Jeremy would ever

have dared to imagine even having seen it from a distance as he had. The roof of the dome was



                                                     65
carved with small figures, as if it had been assembled out of a range of smaller domes in order to

form the larger. The red stone from which the dome seemed to have been hewn glowed slightly in

the daylight, almost as if its ruddy shine was a response to the white light of the sun that beat down

upon it. From within the depths of the dome, Jeremy imagined that he heard the sound of music.

        He was not the only one that had noticed the musicians that were filling the air with

thousands of tunes as sweet as chocolate mingled with their own individual timbres. The sound of

the music that came floating out of the depths of the dome seemed to revitalize all of those who were

traveling with Jeremy, particularly the Jester. He had snapped out of his sullen silence and was now

on the brink of running up the road himself just to get to the dome faster.

        The deaf man slowed his pace slightly so that Jeremy could come along side him. Somehow

he managed to produce his pad of paper and write legibly despite still being walking.

        “I‟ve been told,” the man wrote, “that if I could ever have heard the music that is played in

this place that I would have given my vision to hear it only once.”

        Jeremy wasn‟t sure what he could say. Instead he just put his arm around the deaf man‟s

shoulders and gave him a reassuring squeeze. The truth was that the music was of the finest things

that Jeremy had ever heard before in his life. He knew that he would never be able to sacrifice his

hearing, just because he would always hope to hear something akin to this music once again. The

music grew louder as they reached the dome, with each rising step the music became more pure and

sweet. By the time that Duty and the rest of the group had gotten close enough to touch the surface

of the dome, the emotions within Jeremy had grown to the point of consuming him. He felt as if he

were watching a singularly beautiful sunset, feeling his heart break at the knowledge that he would

never see it again.




                                                  66
        The dome was interspersed with large gate houses that stood at even intervals along its

length a breadth. It was one of these gates that Duty opened before Jeremy and the rest of the group

letting the wonders from within the dome wash over them like a tidal wave.

        At the center of the dome, formed into a half circle, sat a full orchestra. Row after row of

strings were arrayed to the left of a small dais in the center of the room, while the brilliant surfaces

of row after row of horns flashed to the right. There were instruments the likes of which Jeremy had

never dared dream of before, each of them kept in a state of ultimate repair.

        The dome was also filled with people, gentlemen who were dressed in fine suits, and ladies

who were arrayed in more gowns of different colors than would make a rainbow sufficiently jealous.

Young children danced in the middle of the hall, turning giddily to the sound of the music of the

orchestra. The commotion within the dome was great, however still maintained a certain level of an

educated respect for the musicians who were playing in the center of the room.

        At the center of the dais stood a perfectly black grand piano. The luster of the piano was one

of such perfect blackness that it seemed to shine under the soft lights that seemed to radiate through

windows around the edges of the dome. Candles flickered in chandeliers far above their heads, with

others returning the light from fixtures that stood in the midst of the crowd. All of this light played

and danced hypnotically on the perfectly black surface of that great piano. Jeremy found that he

could look at nothing else as he slowly walked down toward the center of the dome, Duty and the

rest of the group following him.

        “She is beautiful, isn‟t she?” Duty murmured quietly as he followed Jeremy‟s gaze to the

piano. Jeremy said nothing in return, but merely continued to walk toward the piano in a

mesmerized state. He watched with a singular fascination as the light played along that perfectly

black vellum surface, casting tiny reflections in the midst of utter darkness. It was as if darkness

could shine, and that darkness was beginning to consume Jeremy‟s soul as he drew ever closer to it.



                                                   67
        The orchestra had grown silent as Jeremy walked through their midst toward the center of

the dais, an almost reverential hush echoing across the surface of the strings. It was as if the entire

world was snapping to attention as Jeremy walked closer to the piano. Proximity to the instrument

seemed to be like a force that could bind heaven and earth if only given a little bit of time.

        The keys were perfectly polished, and shone with a glean that spoke of never having been

soiled by the oils of another man‟s fingertips. They sparkled with a perfect ivory glean in the

candlelight that filled the interior of the dome. Jeremy drew himself next to the piano, and

tenaciously let his right hand strike a single ivory bar in the center of the keyboard.

        A note as rich and pure as the most refined creams rose out of the piano, pouring itself across

the dome. It bubbled and churned amidst the stringed instruments and their players, dancing much

like the children that seemed to fill the city. The tone was of a magical type that warmed the soul

with its slight caress; tickling with its singular candor as it drifted away once again.

        Smiling to himself, Jeremy pulled the bench away from the piano, and sat down. A

reverential gasp seemed to rise from the crowded dome, as he reached for the now used key and

struck it again.

        The note rang like a bell, this time spurring the remainder of the orchestra to life, as the

cellos reached for and grasped the same tone. The two sounds danced in the air like new found

lovers, twisting and bending within each other‟s arms with a kind of passion and perfection that

brought tears to Jeremy‟s eyes.

        Before those last two notes could die, music was falling like rain within the dome. Jeremy‟s

hands seemed to blur as they stroked and caressed their way across the keyboard with a kind of

elegant proficiency that left even him breathless at the sight. His muscles flexed and bent almost of

their own accord, as if some other force had taken control of the reigns and was pushing them to new

undreamed heights. The orchestra sat in an awed silence for a few moments as the deluge of sounds



                                                   68
and expressions swept over them. One by one the orchestra seemed to gain a feel for where the music

was going, almost as if they began to let go of their own inhibitions and allow the current to sweep

them to wherever they may go. The strings ascended to new heights, scaling walls of volume and

pitch that were before insurmountable. The brass flared to life time after time with amazing leaps

into the heart of the music. They danced with the rest of the players like a young lion, prancing and

passing amongst the crowd with its in-born pride shining like an emblem.

        Had Jeremy been able to extract his rapt focus from the piano for a mere moment, he would

have seen that the world was watching in stunned silence. He would have seen the faces of his

friends and acquaintances painted with shock, while others still would be riddled with masks of

envy. He would have seen that for a few brief moments tears filled the eyes of women who loved

him and knew they could never have him. Had Jeremy only turned to look, he would have known

that all the world would have been his had he just remained seated at the piano.

        Instead, Jeremy maintained his focus and played on. The music bent and twisted a thousand

times before melding itself into a new beast once again. Each time the face of the tune would change,

and yet still remain all the more attractive from the time before. Peoples hearts broke at the sound of

this music, and then when they felt ready to abandon all their defenses against it, the music merely

turned all the more beautiful.

        With a deep breath, Jeremy let his two throbbing hands fall to his sides as he sat slumped at

the piano, his strength completely drained from his small body. The tendons in his arms blazed with

wildfire, screaming of the exertion that they had just put forth in the carving of such an audible

masterpiece. Jeremy felt his spirit recline and bask within the pain, glorying in the exhaustion that

came with a single moment of unbridled expression. He did not notice for a while the sweat that had

beaded upon his forehead and now ran like tiny rivers down the sides of Jeremy‟s face.

        In the moment that the music drew silent, the rest of the world suddenly reappeared.



                                                  69
        “That was incredible,” Duty murmured under his breath as he placed a trembling hand upon

Jeremy‟s shoulder.

        “I could have done better,” Jester snorted from slightly further behind.

        Duty rounded upon the Jester in a heartbeat. “Do we need to go somewhere and talk about

this?” Without waiting for a response, Duty placed a firm hold upon one of Jester‟s ears and

proceeded to haul him away from the dais.

        The old man watched them go, laughing to himself with a wry wisdom. He slowly expanded

the joints within his arthritic body and managed to seat himself onto the piano bench next to Jeremy.

        “You do realize that nobody has ever played her before,” the old man smiled.

        “I could tell,” Jeremy smiled innocently. “She never would have sung like that had she ever

been abused.”

        The old man smiled again, “There is a difference between having been used and having been

abused.”

        “That depends,” Jeremy nodded. “Have you ever seen what some people define as

„appropriate use?‟”

        The old man laughed at this, “and what will you do with her now?”

        A moments thought graced across Jeremy‟s mind before he stood and reached across the top

of the piano for the support that held its lid from the surface. With an almost religious grace, Jeremy

closed the top of the piano down, covering the last little trembling sounds that were emitted by the

highest of the piano strings. Satisfied with having covered the strings, Jeremy then turned and closed

the lid over the piano keys as well.

        “I will protect her,” Jeremy smiled to the old man who only nodded in response. Turning his

attention back to the piano Jeremy paused for a moment and then kissed the top edge of the piano,

voicing a silent “thank you”.



                                                  70
        The old man put his arm upon Jeremy‟s shoulder as the two of them walked away from the

dais. The orchestra merely watched as they left, desire for a remaining performance that would never

come burning upon their lips.

        “You play wonderfully,” the old man murmured in a demure congratulations, “however you

should know that there were a few off notes that I discovered in your creation. It soured some very

beautiful stitches.”

        Jeremy shook his head, “I‟m sorry, but don‟t worry. I‟ll get better at it the more that I do it.”

        “Don‟t be too hard on yourself,” the old man responded. “Not all of God‟s creations are

perfect, you know. In fact some of the finer ones are far from it.” As if to punctuate the remark, the

old man tapped the side of his pipe with his finger, a wicked smile flaring upon his face.



8.

        The rest of the group stood waiting for Jeremy and the old man just outside of the dome.

Duty seemed understanding, while Jester was livid with rage at having been made to wait so long for

the “prodigal pianist” and the “elderly lunatic”.

        “We could have gotten Vision back to his place, and been back here for wine, women, and

fun for the rest of the evening by now.” Jester complained almost incessantly as if he was unsure that

Jeremy and the old man would easily enough decipher his disdain for them.

        Duty and Vision, on the other hand, were much more gracious. Vision himself had left the

dome rather quickly, however that was not much to Jeremy‟s surprise as it seemed that the sight of

musicians proved as a harsh reminder of the one thing Vision still lacked. Both men seemed anxious

to get to wherever it was that they needed to go, and Jeremy felt somewhat guilty for having been an

obstacle in reaching that goal.




                                                    71
        The city on this side of the dome seemed much less developed than the other sides which the

group had traveled through. The streets were almost empty, and the facades of houses and buildings

stood almost lifeless from side to side. There was a neat order to this side of the town, as compared

to the eccentric congestion that had filled the other side. Although the calm seemed quite restful,

Jeremy could not help but think that he would eventually learn to miss the hustle and bustle of the

opposite side of the city.

        Above the center of this side of the city stood the towering form of the vision place, which

looked much like a spear thrust from the side of the world. The vision place towered above them all,

stretching into the sky until its top seemed to catch on the passing clouds as they drifted by. A

scaffolding had been erected around the center pillar, and seemed to circle endlessly around it before

reaching the ultimate peak.

        Vision was obviously exited at the site of the summit. He seemed to resemble a child on

Christmas morning, watching the sky around the tower as if every answer to each question he had

ever had were waiting for him at the summit.

        At the bottom of the tower, the scaffolding seemed to come unhinged, and then stretched out

across the top of the city until it finally reached street level not more than twenty feet from where

they stood.

        Vision was obviously exited to begin the climb into the scaffolding, and Duty was ready to

follow him to wherever he need to go. Steeling himself with resolve, Jeremy began to climb the

catwalk. He watched from the side banisters as the world began to slowly fall away. At first it was a

simple thing, the buildings shifting ever so slightly so that their roofs become the ground. They

walked along the rooftops for a short while, letting the summer sun beat down upon their backs as

they crossed to the foot of the tower. Beneath the scaffolding Jeremy could see the world moving

back and forth, people bustling through the streets, children playing in their rooms, parents hard at



                                                   72
work at the things they always did. The entire world seemed to be upon display in miniature just

beneath Jeremy‟s feet as he walked along the rooftops in the scaffolding.

        There was an abrupt turn that signaled the beginning of the clockwise spiral up the main

body of the vision place. The wooden floor of the scaffolding began to slowly slope upward, gently

pushing Jeremy and the rest of the party skyward as they circled the tower. Birds played in the air

nearby, seemingly surprised to see people rising to such altitudes to visit. They swooped and flew

through the extremities of the scaffolding, quickly dodging the matrix of supports and beams that

held the great wooden structure together. There was an air of anticipation that was so thick it was

almost tangible, particularly around Vision who was beginning to resemble a pilgrim coming home

from some far off land.

        “What is this thing for,” Jeremy asked as they ascended ever higher.

        “From the top of the tower, Vision can see everything in the world, and perhaps a few things

that aren‟t in the world as well,” the old man explained.

        Jester barked laughter from the back of the group. “You‟re lucky if old Vision here could

see the ground from the top of this thing.” Vision noticeably bristled at Jester‟s comment, which was

in and of itself an amazing feat considering he hadn‟t been looking to read the other man‟s lips. It

was as if Vision had a knack for sensing when he was being ribbed, and didn‟t need to hear the

comment to know of its sting.

        The climb into the tower seemed to go slowly from there. The altitude slowly sapped away

what remaining strength the men had, forcing them to breathe heavily in order to keep themselves

moving. It was as if their lungs had become starved for oxygen and burned lustfully at every gasping

breath that they could derive. Jester finally fell silent in his incessant prodding of the rest of his

traveling companions. They too were drained by the climb, staggering slightly as they walked

around the tower again and again.



                                                     73
          It was almost as if the vision place ascended forever into the sky, with no intention of

stopping until it broke through the heavens and rivaled the stars themselves in altitude. Jeremy

watched the ground pull itself farther and farther away until the birds themselves dared fly no

higher. The clouds that dotted the sky-scape were closer now than he had ever imagined in his young

life, almost looking like wads of cotton that were just barely outside of his reach.

          Sweat had long since coated Jeremy‟s brow and resolved itself into a salty film that covered

his entire body like a dusting upon the face of the world. Unthinkingly, he placed step after faltering

step, plodding ever higher around the infernal scaffolding, without ever looking higher for fear of

loosing what small amounts of strength remained at the sight of the rest of the climb. Without seeing,

Jeremy didn‟t notice when he turned from the scaffolding a final time and crossed into the center of

the vision place, which now rose in a single column of stone that could not have been more than ten

feet across. A ladder had been placed against the side of the stone column, allowing for a single man

to climb. Unthinkingly Jeremy began to climb the ladder to the final summit.

          Somewhere a few steps behind, Duty wanted to cry out and stop Jeremy in his assent,

however could not find the strength to yell.

          Jeremy was pleased to find that his hands were stronger than he had expected, and that his

arms were quite able in helping him ascend the final few feet to the top of the ladder. His body ached

with having to breathe air that was so thin, and almost felt as if it were starved from lack of anything

to fill it. The sensation of finally struggling over the top rung of the ladder and onto the stone

platform at the top of the vision place was one of such ecstasy his body could no longer contain

itself.

          Light seemed to part through the clouds as Jeremy stood there on the summit of the vision

place, lighting him much like a fire would light a beacon on a mountainside. Jeremy felt himself

shine to the world, and for a brief moment he knew that all of Gotica would have had its eyes upon



                                                    74
him. The light filled his soul to the extremities, threatening to overfill and pour out in a mad gush

across the world that was splayed beneath Jeremy‟s feet. The light was so richly brilliant that it was

impossible to escape, even when it started to burn inside Jeremy.

        He could feel it tearing at him like a torch in the middle of his stomach, twisting and

writhing like a live serpent that burned its way through the interior of Jeremy‟s young body. A

tangible withering began to crush Jeremy‟s bones into an ash that could be rendered completely dust

with a single breath. He was twisted and shattered by the light that burned his skin and eyes alike.

For a brief moment, Jeremy stood in agony and watched the sun shining in its majestic fury above

the world, before he found himself falling from the vision place past the ladder and onto his back in

the middle of the scaffolding once more.

        Above Jeremy‟s head, he could see nothing save the burning rage of the sun, shining in the

middle of the sky, radiant in all of its glory. The sun burned its way into Jeremy‟s eyes as he lay

there, feeling the life drift out of his body. Jeremy watched the sun as darkness consumed him.




                                                  75
76
...For a brief moment I remember that the shadows parted and I thought I saw the sun.

        He was distant at first, almost like a far off streetlight as seen through the fog. As I drew

closer to the light that shone from his surface, my eyes were near blinded by the raging inferno

before me. I remember trying to cover my eyes with my hands when some unseen force pulled them

back to my sides as if to restrain me. The sun watched me in my weakness with a mocking sneer

pursed on his lips. With an icy coldness he chuckled to himself over my state.

        “You are going to die, you know.”

        “What?”

        “There is nothing you can do about it, you are doomed. You have been from the start.”

        “What are you talking about?”

        “You. Pathetic, aren‟t you. Hardly a man and yet you aren‟t going to live long enough to

finish you life.”

        “Shut up.”

        The sun began to burn brighter in my eyes as he laughed.

        “Never going to fall in love.”

        “Shut up.”

        “Oh, did I hit a sore spot? That‟s right, you have. But what good did it do you?”

        “Damn you.”

        “They never loved you,” the sun punctuated every word with his icy laughter.

        “You son of a....”

        “No need to be cross. I mean, who would have loved you anyway?”

        I remember trying to shake my fist at him and feeling a scream well up in my throat.

        “You always were pathetic, the weak one.”

        “Bastard.”



                                                   77
        The flames were burning brighter than ever, yet as I tried to look away some unseen force

pushed my head upright again and again.

        “You like the fire? A greater one yet awaits you, man child.”

        As my own screams penetrated the silence, the shadows swept over me in a wash of blessed

darkness....




                                                 78
Book II


1.

        Sunlight beat through the lids of Jeremy‟s eye like daggers as he stared at the sky above the

tower. A dull throbbing pain coursed through his head, screaming with pulse after deafening pulse of

an almost neurotic, incessant pain. His body was immobilized, his limbs stiffly splayed out to his

sides on the hard wooden floor of the Vision Place. The muscles in Jeremy‟s arms and legs twitched

involuntarily as he lay there in the sunlight, trying to regain control of his own body. His throat was

jammed full of what felt almost like wax, restricting his lungs and forcing his voice into a non-

existent state of weakness. Jeremy wanted more than anything to be able to force his body to become

his once more did, however still lingered on the edge of connection and loss.

        Instead of moving, Jeremy stared unblinkingly into the mid-day sun much like a sacrificial

lamb mute upon an altar. The sun burned the retinas of his eyes, but there was nothing that Jeremy

could do to save himself from the pain.

        A shadow swept across the sunlight with a singular fluidity, casting a deep shadow across

Jeremy‟s face. The irises of his eyes were unable to find the strength to open wide enough to allow

the features of the face that hovered above him to snap into focus. It was as if Jeremy‟s eyes were

merely a charred ruin of what they once were, unable to tolerate any shift in light from a dull gray.

        “We need to get him out of here,” Duty‟s voice seemed to echo from some place far and

detached from the rest of the world. Jeremy found himself wondering if what he heard was truly his

friend‟s voice, or merely a creation of his own imagination. The thought that he might be hearing a

construct of his own mind made Jeremy shudder with terror, a gesture that still managed to loose

itself in transit to the rest of his body.

        Isolation within a burnt mind is a singular absolute, and Jeremy discovered the unnerving

peace that came with being utterly alone and disconnected from the rest of the world.


                                                  79
        “I should be afraid,” Jeremy thought to himself as he felt a pair of arms gather him like

shards from a broken pot. The tell-tale breeze of the world shifting around Jeremy‟s inert body

warned him that he was being moved, however there was nothing he could do about it. Jeremy

laughed within his own mind at the prospect of having become a rag doll that had been embedded

with a soul only long enough for him to know that he was about to be placed upon a child‟s shelf to

gather dust.

        “Do you know what happened to him?” Duty‟s voice became clearer and less echoed within

the recesses of Jeremy‟s mind as time progressed. In response Jeremy thought that he heard the

sound of a pen being scratched across the surface of a piece of paper. The sound was strangely

soothing despite its almost abrasive nature. After the scratching sound had come to its end, there was

a long almost appraising silence, as Duty seemed to contemplate something unseen.

        “I see,” Duty responded to the scratching sounds. “It was merely too much for him to take at

once.” Jeremy felt the pair of arms that had him held clutch him even tighter to his bearer‟s chest.

“I‟ll take him back to the city.” The sound of the words vibrated from the ribs of Jeremy‟s bearer,

creating a tentative tremor within his cradle of arms.

        “What could be happening to me,” Jeremy mused his mind filled with remembrances of the

sun talking to him. Jeremy‟s arms stung with echoes of the wounds that he had born within the

context of his dream, and he still found himself expecting to feel the giddy abandon that comes with

the extreme loss of blood. All the while, the world seemed to get darker as Jeremy was moved

farther and farther from the place where he dreamed about the nightmare sun. Laughter still seemed

to follow him as he was carried away from the Vision Place. It was as if some ghoulish demon had

decided to follow Jeremy as he was carried down the winding scaffolds to the ground once again,

laughing the entire way.




                                                  80
        Jeremy‟s own mind was crying bitter tears from the wounds that it still believed had been

inflicted upon it as he was carried back down the scaffolds. Time seemed to stand still as he moved

farther and farther from the summit, replaced only with searing pain and relentless agony. It was as

if some unseen demon had taken a great axe and severed a section of Jeremy‟s soul away from him,

leaving him helpless within the confines of his own body. Linear time ceased to exist for Jeremy, all

that existed was pain. There was no need for past, and no real reason for future anymore. All that

remained was pain, burning, and isolation trapped here within his own mind.

        The world seemed to fade from a blinding white to a dull black, as Jeremy‟s mind screamed

its way into the abyss.

        Sunlight was pouring through the window next to Jeremy‟s bed rendering Duty‟s face an

intense wash of oranges and reds. The light heightened and highlighted each wrinkle in the older

man‟s face, providing a stark contrast upon which Jeremy could focus as he slowly came back to

life.

        “I‟m glad to see that you are awake. I was afraid I had lost you,” Duty remarked as he

applied a cold wet compress to the surface of Jeremy‟s forehead. You were not able to take the

vision yourself, and standing in the vision place almost burnt you to a crisp.”

        Jeremy tried to speak, but his throat was still a raspy mass that could only produce syllables

similar to the sound of sandpaper being rubbed against metal.

        “You really should relax,” Duty chided. “My sister and I will care for you for now, until you

get back upon your feet.”

        A woman who appeared to be of comparable age to Duty wandered into the room. She was

of small stature, something that was amplified by the noticeable limp that she had in her right leg.

Her hair was a mass of soft curls that framed her already angelic face much like a halo. She very




                                                  81
gracefully crossed he room to the side of Jeremy‟s bed and then plopped down on the foot if it,

looking him squarely in the eyes.

        “You‟re finally awake. I‟d ask you how you feel, but with the kind of burning you‟ve had I

imagine you can‟t talk.”

        Jeremy managed to nod slightly with his eyes before she continued, “What happened to you

is a lot like when you take a damp sponge and leave it in the sun on a hot day. Sooner or later it will

dry up from the outside in. Too much vision dried your insides up, and it was slowly working its

way outside.” She smiled quickly before Jeremy could find it within himself to worry about his own

state. “Mostly its just like dehydration. You just need to get lots of fluids into you.”

        She opened a bottle of dark liquid and took a deep long draught of it. “Ahh, it burns so

good.” Smiling, she placed the bottle upon Jeremy‟s lips and let the sweet cold liquid flow down the

back of his throat. The sensation of drinking was an incredible one, it burned like a dull fire, and yet

was so wondrously cold. The blessed fluidity of the experience filled Jeremy‟s extremities, and he

could feel the liquid coursing into his veins again like a new found life.

        “Duty,” Jeremy addressed his friend yet found that the effort expended most of the strength

that he had left. “What happened to me?”

        “You ascended the vision place, and you weren‟t ready for it. The power of it all overcame

you and you were burned out. We had to get you out of there as soon as we could after you fell from

the top, so we left Vision to take care of the place, and brought you back down here.”

        “Vision is up there alone?” Jeremy asked.

        “Yes, he is.” Duty replied, “It is his place. He has been up there for as long as I can

remember, with the exception of that short period where he wasn‟t there and the blind man was, but

we just fixed that.”    Somewhere next to the bed he was resting in, the woman lit a large fat candle

that seemed to smell of a strange heady cream. The scent filled Jeremy‟s nostrils, and flowed into his



                                                   82
body much like the refreshment that she had brought him. As these sensations caressed the corners of

Jeremy‟s sun battered soul, he found himself drifting off to sleep once again.

        “I brought you something bucko,” said a distinctive voice that seemed almost garish as it

forced it‟s way into Jeremy‟s slumber.

        “Why cant you just let me die in peace?” Jeremy muttered coldly.

        “Duty!” Jester screamed, seemingly forgetting that he was a mere few inches from Jeremy‟s

face and ears. Duty burst into the room in a heartbeat, sweat beading upon his face almost

resembling panic.

        “What have you done, Jester?” Duty asked nervously as he surveyed the room, mortified to

see the Jester straddling Jeremy‟s prone body on the bed.

        Jester proceeded to leap from the bed, point triumphantly to Jeremy as he lay there inert, and

bowed magnanimously before saying, “I made him talk.”

        Jester turned back to look at Jeremy once again on the bed. A huge smile crept across his

face, and he leapt back to the bed once again, cradling Jeremy‟s head in his arms.

        “I missed you, kid.” Jester was on the brink of mock tears by this point, “that doesn‟t mean

you still aren‟t ugly, but I missed you all the same.”

        Jeremy smiled a toothy grin from within Jester‟s loving embrace at Duty who was glowering

at the opposite side of the room.

        “Duty,” Jeremy asked, “can I ask you a favor?” Jeremy punctuated the question with a

wink.

        “Anything my boy,” Duty responded, answering Jeremy‟s signal with a wink of his own.

        “Could you throw this twit off of a cliff or something?”

        A wide smile graced Duty‟s lips as he cracked the muscles and joints in his upper back. He

walked across the room slowly, a deadly grin pursed on his lips as he grabbed Jester by the nape of



                                                   83
his neck, hauling him completely from the surface of the bed. Jester hung in Duty‟s grip like a rag

doll, which was a sight to see considering both men were of almost equal stature.

        “It would be a pleasure.” Duty chuckled.

        Terror was beginning to show itself upon Jester‟s features. “Wow, Jeremy, that‟s really

funny. You got me there.”

        Duty rounded the room and began to walk toward the front door. With every passing step

toward the door, Jester‟s features began to twist into an even greater expression of fear.

        “You really pulled one over on old Jester, now tell the goon to let me go.”

        Duty reached the front door and pulled it open. Jester by this point was as pale as a sheet,

and his body was trembling within Duty‟s grasp with pure and unadulterated fear.

        “Jeremy,” Jester wailed, “You know how he gets when he gives his word to something! He‟s

going to actually do it, you know that don‟t you?”

        “I‟m going to miss you,” Jeremy murmured from his bed.

        Jester‟s cries became muffled as the door slammed shut behind the pair. Jeremy could hear

the muffled sound of screams through the wooden walls of the house as they passed through the front

room of the building, and around the front walls.

        “I don‟t think I‟ve ever seen Duty happier, or the Jester more terrified for that matter.” The

old man was sitting in a chair near the corner of the room. He had been there so perfectly quietly in

the shadows of the room that Jeremy wouldn‟t have noticed him had he not seen him sitting there.

        “You have a way with us,” the old man commented as he reached in his pocket and pulled

out his wooden pipe. “Do you mind if I?”

        Jeremy smiled, “You really should quit, old friend.” The old man‟s eyes seemed to droop

shamefully to linger upon the pipe that was in his hands. “However I don‟t mind.” Jeremy added

quickly.



                                                    84
          “I remember you telling me it was a filthy habit,” the old man smiled and shook his head as

he walked across the room to sit on the side of the bed. His eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep,

although he never would have been one to admit it.

          “You know full well that I‟ve learned to live with your pipe, old friend.”

          The older man laughed quietly at this, “Duty would kill me if he found out I was smoking in

here.”

          Jeremy laughed warmly, “I won‟t let him. You saw for yourself how I can pull Duty‟s

strings when I have to.”

          Forcing all of the energy he had left within him into the center of his spine, Jeremy managed

to begrudgingly sit up well enough that he could embrace the old man. “I‟ve missed you all these

years.”

          “So have I, my boy. So have I.”

          Jeremy looked long and hard into the old man‟s tired eyes. “You look like you are wound

tighter than the mainspring in a clock. Do what you have to do to relax.”

          The old man knew exactly to what Jeremy was referring. With still a slight degree of

embarrassment he reached into his pocket and produced his tobacco pouch. With a measured

precision he slowly let the fine tobacco pour into the cup of his pipe. The herb let off a thick pungent

odor even before it had been lit. A warm smile graced Jeremy‟s lips as he watched the old man reach

into his pocket and produce what appeared to be the same worn box of matches that he remembered

from his childhood. The old man extracted a match with his left hand, and raised it tentatively to the

side of the box. Flames leapt from the tip of the match as the old man gracefully drug it across the

side of the box, and then in the same motion let it drift across the top of his pipe.

          A sweet smelling tendril of smoke rose out of the pipe as the old man raised it to his lips. The

smoke from this pipe was one that Jeremy had come to know all to well in his childhood. The smell



                                                    85
always seemed to ease his spirit and make him feel at rest, even in the most difficult of situations.

The old man smiled gratefully at Jeremy as he placed the pipe in his mouth, and took a single full-

bodied puff. The smoke which he exhaled drifted around the old man‟s head much like a halo as he

quietly watched Jeremy with his warm compassionate eyes.

        “Your pipe is the only one that I have ever been able to tolerate, old friend.” Jeremy

murmured from the bed.

        “You are only saying that to save an old man‟s feelings, but I appreciate it all the same.”

        For a long while there was nothing said, nor was there really any need to say it. The two

simply sat and mused over each other in the manner of any teacher and student who had been

separated for a long time. They had come to know and trust each other in some life that was now

close to forgotten, and felt as if they could to some modest degree still trace the road map of their

kindred spirits to an ultimate destination.

        “I remember you from before, even though I can‟t exactly say where,” Jeremy mused. “It‟s

almost like we met in some strange dream a long time ago.”

        The old man smiled and nodded slightly, “I‟ll explain everything to you soon, but I don‟t

think that you are quite ready yet.”

        Without warning Duty burst into the room in a frenzy. The old man stood quickly from the

side of Jeremy‟s bed, and fumbled with his pipe, visibly embarrassed to have been caught smoking

while at Jeremy‟s side. Duty didn‟t look twice at the pipe however, and said nothing about the thin

velum of smoke that hung over the surface of the room.

        “There is something extremely wrong at the bridge. The darkness is beginning to creep over

once again.”




                                                   86
        “Very well. Let‟s see what is going on,” he turned back to the bed once again, and looked

longingly at Jeremy who was already beginning to struggle his way upright again. “You need to

rest, my boy. Stay here, and we will talk after I get back.”

        “I‟m coming with you.” Jeremy said resolutely as he began to pull his shoes back onto his

feet.

        “Look, you can barely force yourself to sit up.”

        Jeremy glowered at Duty, “Look, I know that you are trying to protect me, but I can‟t spend

the rest of time laying in this bed waiting for something inside me to knit. Broken or not, I‟m coming

with you.”



2.

        The going was slow once Jeremy got onto his feet, as he found that after a block or so of

walking his body began to tire and give away its strength to walk. Jeremy‟s heart ached to think that

he was slowing Duty from whatever it was that the older man needed to do, however Duty himself

was kind and quiet, merely waiting patiently while Jeremy re-gathered his strength. At times, Duty

would lend his shoulder to Jeremy, who would in turn prop himself upon it to use the older man like

a crutch along their way. As they walked, the city grew more and more quiet, as if from one end of it

the life had begun to disappear, much like water flowing out of a drain. There were no children on

this side of the city, and Jeremy was shocked to discover that the stone buildings of the city itself

were beginning to appear unkempt, as if from centuries of neglect. The fact that he had walked these

streets and seen them teeming with life just a mere day before made the contrast all the more

punctuated. The gardens that had once filled small areas between the streets and the walkways were

now corrupted with weeds, rendered a dull and distorted brown where vibrant color once was.




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        “Duty, what is happening here,” Jeremy could not keep the amazement from his voice at

encountering a section of the city that seemed as ill-kept as this one. Up until this point, he had felt

that the inhabitants of the city had seemed perhaps a little over zealous in their pride of the city. Now

it seemed like it was falling apart, almost as if the people had ceased caring a long time ago.

        “This is what we call „the darkness,‟” Duty responded. “It is something that appeared in

Gotica not too long ago, that seems to change the world whenever it becomes powerful enough. It

makes the people stop caring, and the world begins to fall apart. Things like the Rages and the

Pillager thrive within the darkness. It makes them stronger.”

        Not far up the street, Jeremy could see a young child standing alone. He watched the street

that was perpendicular to the one that Jeremy, the old man and Duty were walking on intently,

however could not seem to stop his own cries. A look of sheer horror had branded itself onto the

child‟s face, however it was as if his eyes were bound by something he could not control, and as

much as he tried he could not look away. Duty tried to call to the child, however the boy did not

hear his voice, nor acknowledged their presence even once they were standing next to him. Only

after a pair of seconds did Jeremy let his attention drift from the child to what the child was seeing.

        In the middle of the street, a lone man was struggling against the massive forms of three

Rages. They swooped around him like obscenely oversized bats, twisting in the air barely outside of

his reach. Every once in a while, one of the Rages would dart in closer and in an instant the man

would be bleeding. The beasts did their work with such grace that one would think that they were

merely unstitching a doll rather than a man. The way the Rages darted around him with their

sickening grace made it almost look as if they were playing with the man as he struggled for his last

moments of life. The man, on the other hand, struggled more desperately against the Rages, sweat

and terror mixing upon his brow into a concoction of noxious proportions.




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          Suddenly the Rages enwrapped him between the three of them, and it seemed as if the battle

was ended. The man‟s body spasmed brutally for a moment, as if his spine had been snapped from

some kind of interior force, and then lay still. The darkness that was the Rages crept over his face

like an oily veil, filling in his eyes and his mouth. Satisfied with their work, the Rages pulled away

from him.

          The man‟s body lay inert on the ground for only a second before it began to arise again. It

was now blackened and tattered to such a point that it resembled half of a man and half of something

that had been left to hang and grown moth-eaten over the years. It stank of the smell of autumn

leaves and the nastily sweet stench of things slightly rotten. Indeed, there was nothing to distinguish

between what once was a man, and what now was yet another of the Rages.

          It now became obvious what the man had been defending. Not more than ten feet farther

down the street, a two year old girl sat in a beautiful crimson dress. She watched with frozen eyes as

four Rages rose from the ground before her to their full towering height. With an almost deliberate

slowness, the Rages closed in on her. They watched the little girl with the mute silence of ravenous

wolves.

          “We have to stop them,” Duty cursed under his breath. Bearing his teeth, Duty wrenched his

machete free from its sheath, and ran headlong for the Rages. He attacked quickly at the smaller of

the Rages, a tattered beast that stood on the right side of the street. It turned to look at Duty with

almost a disregarding glance before finally raising its arm to deflect what should have been a killing

blow.

          And then, the Rage simply wasn‟t there. Duty‟s blade slashed a clean course through empty

air.




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        An oily black fist landed itself upon the side of Duty‟s face, sending him soaring into the air

like a rag doll thrown by a bull. The machete arched through the air and landed useless in the gutter,

far away from where Duty lay defenseless.

        Shaking his head, the old man began to run to retrieve the machete in hope of not leaving

Duty completely defenseless against the Rages.

        Jeremy, on the other hand, could not forget that the Rages had not managed to consume him

before. He watched as the three picked up the little girl into their arms. They presented her to the

fourth that had once been her father in what almost appeared to be an obscene cradle. The fourth

Rage loomed hungrily over her like a vulture would over carrion, its body quivering with

expectation as to the flavor.

        “Release her, and you can have me.” Jeremy whispered a mere foot from the Rage‟s back. “I

won‟t fight you.”

        Lowering his head in a sign of submission, Jeremy embraced the Rages. He pulled them into

his arms and felt the oily taint rush over his body. Jeremy‟s head passed through the shoulder of the

Rage that stood immediately before him, and he felt for a second the slight resistance of the little

girl‟s father scream from within the beast. Jeremy pulled his arms ever closer, the Rages folding

within his embrace and becoming one once again. The little girl watched with wide eyes from within

her cradle as Jeremy‟s hands revealed themselves from within the Rages. The slick oil of the Rages

seemed to drip from every surface of Jeremy‟s body. It stank with corruption and death, polluting his

skin with the odor of one already dead.

        “Hold on to me. Jeremy whispered into the little girl‟s ear.

        The corruption that enwrapped them seemed to burn as it fell like dripping oil over the top of

Jeremy‟s skin. The Rages seemed to loose cohesion, their bodies melting into something they could

no longer direct. Moment after passing moment, they grew weaker and weaker until four became



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three. Still Jeremy held them. Three began to twist and bend, and then they were only two. Still

Jeremy held them within his embrace.

        The pair almost seemed to scream in agony before finally releasing the child as they melded

back into one. The strength having fled its body, one final Rage crumpled to the ground before

Jeremy, who now held the little girl tightly against his chest. She was crying profusely now, her

child‟s tears streaming down her cheeks and lighting upon the soft fabric that made up Jeremy‟s

shirt. Jeremy held her and sang to himself quietly as her sobbing began to finally subside into an

almost delirious slumber.

        “Duty!” a voice called out from one of the other streets. The other man had struggled

himself to his feet and since re-armed himself with his machete, only to find Jeremy and the little girl

already in the embrace of the Rages. He stood now watching the two of them as Jeremy held the

infant girl in his arms. At their feet the oily surface of the last Rage was receding as well, revealing

the sleeping body of the children‟s father.

        “Duty,” a young man called again as he dashed around the corner. He immediately drew

himself up at the side of the man, and blurted out, “Three Rages managed to make it across the

bridge this morning.”

        “I know,” Duty responded. “We just saw them right here.”

        “Well,” the young man asked, “Where did they go?”

        Duty motioned to Jeremy and the little girl. “I don‟t know how, but they managed to destroy

them, or something along that regard.”

        The young man‟s eyes widened, “a little guy like that managed to destroy three Rages?”

Although he was obviously younger than Jeremy, the young messenger was at least a full head taller

than him and of a much more solid build. “He must be one hell of a fighter,” the young messenger

marveled before dashing away again.



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        “I guess you could say that he has a technique I‟ve never seen before.”

        Duty watched Jeremy with a bewildered silence as Jeremy helped the older man that had

succumbed to the Rages to his feet. He was disoriented and unsure of what could be happening in

the world around him. His children ran in circles around him, chronicling his noble battle against the

fearsome Rages, and how he had saved Jeremy and the rest of the people from utter destruction. He

smiled at his children and turned slowly to walk into his small house again. It seemed from where

Duty was standing that the world had somehow managed to become a little less tarnished in this

small corner of the city.

        “What was he talking about?” Jeremy asked as he returned to Duty‟s side. “He was talking

about a bridge and the Rages coming into the city from there. What does it mean?”

        Duty sadly shook his head, “there is an edge to the city that connects it to another side of

Gotica. Imagine a part of the world that is less ordered than where we live here. Things on that side

of the bridge don‟t have to live by the same basic rules that make our lives continue in their endless

round. The sun on that side of the bridge, doesn't always have to set in the west, for example.

Perhaps at times what goes up will not come down. There are parts of Gotica that aren‟t governed by

traditional laws and predictability. They wait on the opposite side of the bridge.”

        Jeremy shook his head, “You make it sound like it is a world of dreams, but in your voice

you sound afraid of it.”

        “Things have been odd around here for a while now. Its true that an absence of order is not

always a bad thing, in fact a little bit of random creation can be absolutely beautiful. I will be the

first to admit that. What you have to remember is that Gotica is a broken world right now, and

things are not as they should be.

        “Someday you should be able to remember this for yourself, however not long ago

something horrible happened to the world. There are people who believe that God died on that day,



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because the world changed in such an extreme. Oceans dried up, mountains disappeared in a breath,

entire cities were laid waste, and nobody could ever explain why. These things just happened. It was

during this time that the angel was hurt, and most of us were scattered. The city ended up empty, and

still is far from being filled again. There are those of us who came back quickly, almost like we were

drawn here. There were others who disappeared and never returned. For a long time we thought

Vision was one of them, until finally he reappeared with you. The point is that things that used to be

in place weren‟t there anymore, and some of the things that had been safely bound by myself and

others a long time ago became free once again. There are things out there in Gotica that really

shouldn‟t be there. They roam the world as free as the day, and they are able to manipulate the

course of events once again. We‟ve managed to protect the city thus far, however they are on the

other side of the bridge and are getting stronger day by day.”

          Duty shook his head in frustration. “I shouldn‟t be the one to tell you all of this. You are

going to have to see it for yourself.”

          It was as if that being said had decided Duty‟s mind in the course of action that had to be

taken. He immediately turned in the direction from which the messenger had come, and began to

walk quickly through the city streets. It was all Jeremy and the old man could do to keep up with

him as Duty wound his way through alleyways and side streets, connecting through the city like a

dart through a maze.

          The city seemed to become darker and darker the closer they came to the bridge. Vegetation

grew dry and autumnal, as compared to the summer-like abundance of plants that had filled the city

streets and squares on the opposite side of town. The streets were filled with dust and grime, almost

as if the people had pushed it into the corners and left it to accumulate. Dried leaves blew across the

roads of the city, resembling scraps of brown parchment that were being tussled on the autumn

breeze.



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        Suddenly Duty turned to look at Jeremy. “If you are ready, the bridge is just around this

corner.”



3.

        A sea of shadows greeted Jeremy the moment he rounded the corner of a small stucco arch.

It was as if the world had been torn in some obscene fray, leaving a rift of inky blackness to fill the

place where the rest of the world should have been. City streets simply ended in darkness rather than

extending into another block. There was nothing in the darkness, no sign of light, no tell tale

markings of an opposite side shining in the darkness. There was only blackness, and the streets that

came to touch against the edges of that blackness and then disappeared.

        All of the roads save one ended at the side of the darkness. This one, however extended like

some kind of perverse joke into the darkness. Compared to the sea of darkness that this bridge

contrived to cross, it looked more like a ribbon from a child‟s hair than a stone edifice.

        The bridge was, in fact, hewn from the same kind of granite cobblestones that the roads of

the city were all made of. It glimmered slightly in the light of midday that shone from one side of the

precipice. There was no light upon the bridge once it extended past the edge of the ground. The sky

was rent just as uniformly as the ground beneath it, making the void truly just that. It was a

profound darkness that could consume a man‟s soul if he should stand and watch for long enough.

        Cold winds whipped through the air in explosions of frigid force that cut through any

amount of clothing and chilled directly in the bones. Jeremy shuddered against the cold, and fancied

for a brief moment that he saw Duty do the same. The old man had stayed as far away from the edge

of the world as he could, and was watching the two of them from within the depths of the arch. The

sun seemed to play upon his shoulders in such a way that made the entire world behind him seem

warm and inviting while anything that was even remotely near the void was cold and awful.



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        “It isn‟t a pretty thing,” Duty commented quietly. “Granted, it hasn‟t always been this dark

and tainted, most of that came with the madness that filled the world.” He watched the void with an

expressionless face, studying its depths with a face that looked to be carved from stone. His eyes

seemed to have grown a few shades more icy as they had taken in the void. “This thing infects you,

just like it infects the rest of the world. You stare to long and it becomes a part of you.”

        Jeremy watched in awe, “Does it ever end?”

        “Somewhere on the opposite side, I imagine that the bridge needs to touch ground upon

something. It couldn‟t just go on forever.” Duty shook his head at the bridge as it expanded into the

darkness. “Of course, if it did, that might not surprise me too much. Don‟t spread it around, but this

place scares me more than any other in Gotica.”

        “Why?” Jeremy asked.

        “Who knows what is out there? Staring into this thing is like looking into the mouth of

madness. You don‟t know if there is peace and happiness, or doom and destruction. Maybe there is

both, or maybe they are the same thing. There is always that possibility.”

        Jeremy resolved himself not to look away from the void as he stood there on the precipice of

the bridge. It was almost as if the darkness were watching him, shining as it was in its monumental

vastness. There was a smug self-composure to the darkness that was singular and overpowering in

nature as it sat in its inscrutable glory. Wind seemed to stop one it reached the void, whipping

around Jeremy and Duty where they stood before rushing away to some new destination once again.

        “Sooner or later, I am going to have to cross that bridge.”

        “What?” Jeremy asked. “Into that thing?”

        “The darkness cannot be allowed to overtake the city, and so long as nobody crosses to fight

it, the darkness will always be a threat to us.” Duty watched the void with stoic resolve, almost as if




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he had already seen his own demise within the depths of the shadow. “One of us will have to cross

and discover where the taint is coming from. Once we learn that, we can fight the thing, or stop it.”

         A voice called out from behind them back in the city street, seeming to remind Duty of a

world that existed far away from the void. He turned reluctantly from the bridge in the darkness,

while Jeremy still remained transfixed. While Jeremy waited for his companion to return, he found

himself watching the bridge and musing to himself about the strangeness of it all. He wondered that

it could not be too difficult to climb onto the first few steps of the bridge, nor would it be so

impossibly hard to have to cross the bridge itself. The walk would have been a nice one, as Jeremy

fancied in his mind that the bridge did not rise to terribly much from the ground upon which it was

founded. Indeed, it would be a simple thing to cross the bridge and see what was waiting outside in

the darkness rather than standing there on the shoreline like a child watching ships at sea.

         Before Jeremy could stop to think about what the remainder of his body was doing, he had

already crossed the threshold of the bridge. A few quick steps had carried him twenty feet off of the

edge, and before Jeremy even began to think about turning to look back at the world behind him, he

was already far from reach. By the time Duty noticed what had transpired, it was too late, and

Jeremy was far enough from the edge of the world that Duty‟s barking voice could barely be heard.

Jeremy watched in a transfixed daze from the middle of the bridge, as Duty started to run for him,

obviously intending to stop the younger man from crossing the bridge or falling into the abyss

below.

         The stone that the bridge was made out of seemed to crumble like soot before Duty, forcing

the other man to stop short on the edge of the bridge rather than running into its center. Fissures

opened within the stonework, snaking their way across the ribbon like some kind of creature. Jeremy

watched as the world seemed to crumble around him, tumbling slowly away. The sound of a bridge

cracking reached Jeremy‟s ears from behind where he stood, and he soon realized that the bridge



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was collapsing at all sides. For a brief moment, Jeremy hung suspended in space, watching Duty as

he stood in absolute shock on the edge of the world. A giddy sense of weightlessness filled Jeremy‟s

head, as his feet slowly began to descend through what once had been solid stone. It was as if the

bridge had been rendered of talc, and was only waiting a moment‟s breath to test its true frailty.

        Duty seemed frozen in time, a mask of horror cast upon his normally handsome features as

he watched Jeremy slowly begin to plummet into the void. It almost seemed laughable to look at the

little man standing on the edge of his little world in the midst of such a sea of blackness. Time and

space seemed to have folded like a wet blanket around the world, leaving Duty at the center of a

pathetically tiny pool of light. Jeremy watched as that pool of light slowly ascended above his head,

making it seem as if Duty and the city itself had taken flight and were slowly beginning to soar to

new undreamed of heights.

        “When you are ready to come back to us, follow the setting sun.” Duty called to Jeremy as

he drifted out of sight. It was as if the loss of a direct line of sight to the other man caused time to

accelerate back to its customary rate. In a heartbeat, the world rushed past Jeremy, leaving him

plummeting in the middle of a pool of darkness. Wind tussled through Jeremy‟s hair and robbed his

lungs of breath as he fell endlessly downward into a sea of darkness.

        The feeling of icy water touching his skin was enough to force a final gasp from Jeremy‟s

lips before he plunged like a rocket beneath the murky surface of what seemed an interminable lake

of night. The water was frigid to the touch and the cold gnawed hungrily at his brain as he struggled

to discover the surface. Frantically he spun in the water like a corkscrew searching for something to

drive itself into.

        “If I panic, I‟m going to die,” a distant voice warned from the back of Jeremy‟s head. The

voice seemed to have a calming effect on the rest of him as he struggled for a way to survive.

Desperate for some means of escape, Jeremy let a tiny portion of his own breath escape from his lips.



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Two tiny bubbles rippled past his nose and fell away from him. Steeling himself with resolve,

Jeremy followed the bubbles on their course.

        Jeremy‟s ribs were beginning to burn from within his chest, as if someone had ignited a fire

within his belly. The pain of the burning was almost unbearable as the vacuum within his lungs

expanded hungrily. The muscles in Jeremy‟s arms screamed angrily against the exertion that was

being demanded of them, and were quickly flagging within the cold.

        Still the bubbles drifted farther away, as the distant voice in Jeremy‟s mind wondered how he

had ever fallen so far. His body delirious with pain, Jeremy forced himself to swim forward, stroke

by desperate stroke. Jeremy‟s ribs ached with a shuddering desire to shatter under the pressure of the

water that was pounding upon them. Jeremy felt his facial features retract backwards, almost as if

the void in his chest was pulling the rest of him inward.

        Sand and water mixed as one of Jeremy‟s desperate strokes cut through what seemed to be

an ocean bed. Seconds later Jeremy‟s head collided with the bottom of this black sea.

        The voice that hid within the back end of Jeremy‟s mind was screaming.

        Jeremy turned in the water and felt the sandy ocean bed flirt with his back. The silence of

this ocean was immaculate, and Jeremy found a strange sort of intoxication in the absolute absence

of sound.

        “There‟s oxygen in water,” the voice in the back of Jeremy‟s head croaked desperately

between laughter and screams. “I can breathe this stuff if I really have to.”

        Logic, education, and common sense denied the truth of this statement, however the searing

pain of the void within his chest made a compelling argument to the virtues of taking one little

breath. Jeremy knew that he didn‟t have enough air in his lungs to make it to the surface by now,

and wondered if the surface was even there, or if he had somehow magically been thrust into the




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middle of the only spherical ocean. The urge to laugh and scream with the voice in the back of his

head was almost unbearable, and if Jeremy joined in he would never know it.

        Jeremy shrugged with indifference and threw his gambit to the whirlwind. Closing his eyes

in concentration, Jeremy parted his lips, flexed his diaphragm, and felt the cold water rush down his

throat and into his lungs. The water seemed to extinguish the fire that had been burning inside him.

The pressure from outside began to slowly equalize as Jeremy greedily forced the remaining spent

air from his lungs and let the refreshing cold fill him. The voice in the back of his head was singing

quietly now, some sort of lullaby that would have been appropriate for a child.

                                   “Hush little child, don‟t you cry,

                                 It won‟t hurt too bad when you die.

                                If you should vanish beneath the sea,

                                    It won‟t matter a thing to me.

                             It‟s just like sleeping when you don‟t wake,

                              The monsters won‟t find you in this lake,

                                 If for some reason you want to live,

                                   I‟ll have a rebuttal here to give.”

        “This stuff isn‟t so bad,” Jeremy mused to himself and watched his arm rise before his vision

in a muted silence. It seemed slower than it used to be before, like something along his nervous

system had decided it was time for a holiday. “The trick is to keep breathing.”

        Jeremy was tired, and felt his eyes giving out on him. Darkness was beginning to creep over

his pupils.

        The silence that filled Jeremy‟s ears suddenly discovered a companion in his vision, and the

absence of stimulation began to rock Jeremy to sleep like a newborn baby. The cold of the water

began to fade away into something forgotten as Jeremy‟s nervous system began to freeze from the



                                                   99
outside in. The voice that had laughed hysterically in the recesses of Jeremy‟s mind began to grow

quiet and groggy, as if he had been given some wonderful drug.

        Feeling and sensation seemed to vanish into the darkness of the water as Jeremy lay there

watching the void with his own dying eyes. He could feel nothing within the water, even the bitter

cold that had once pricked Jeremy‟s skin like the edges of thousands of tiny needles now had given

itself to a much more restful state. There was no sound there in the middle of the water, just silence

within the middle of the darkness. Even the sound of Jeremy‟s own heart beating seemed to have

been driven so far away that it would never plague his ears again. Jeremy found the urge to laugh at

the wondrous silence, however found that for some strange reason he couldn‟t make his vocal chords

resonate with the water that he was pushing across them. That made things seem funnier still,

however even moving the muscles in his face far enough to smile proved to be a difficult task for

Jeremy in his current state.

        The sound of another body approaching in the water never reached Jeremy‟s dying ears. He

could never have felt the pair of surprisingly strong arms that grabbed him and pulled him to the

surface of the lake. The soft caress of a soaked silk dress passed over dead skin that would never

remember the tactile contact. It was only a question of seconds before his head was above water,

almost as if he had drowned within less than five feet of water. Jeremy‟s savior hauled him out of the

water, and dropped him on the beach a mere ten feet from the ocean surf.

        The first thing Jeremy could remember after watching the darkness creep into his vision

under the water was the feeling of a pair of lips pressed against his. Those lips trembled with nervous

trepidation, despite being as soft and sweet as a freshly plucked peach in mid August. Jeremy‟s

lungs ached as she forced the air out of her body and into his. Somewhere under the desperation that

he felt, under the surface of that single kiss that was forcing him back to life, it was almost as if an




                                                   100
unexpressed passion was crying out. Yet another blast of air filled his lungs, and Jeremy felt as if his

chest was about to explode, but still he was held transfixed by his savior‟s kiss.

        Jeremy‟s body spasmed, and he felt his lungs rebel against the water that filled them. His

muscles twitched with a hidden strength that thrust his body upside down. Within moments three

oceans worth of water rushed from Jeremy‟s gaping mouth as his lungs came screaming back to life.

Jeremy‟s heart raced as the water rushed free, being replaced by air that seemed sweeter than any he

had ever tasted before in his life. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Jeremy fancied that he smelled

the scent of orange blossoms on the air, a flavor that danced upon his lips and lingered like the

tingling sensations of morning dew on a flower petal.

        By the time Jeremy had regained his strength long enough to bring himself to his feet and

look around the world once again, he was alone upon the beach. The ocean that lapped at his heels

behind him seemed to be one that was filled with ink, its thick black waters churning to the surface

and brushing along the sand with an almost sickening taint. Jeremy found an incredible desire to

remove himself from the black waters of that ocean as quickly as possible, and struggled his way

mainland with every ounce of strength he could muster.

        For a few scant seconds it seemed to Jeremy that his consciousness would attempt to leave

him once again as he stared up at the midday sun, however he found that for some reason he was

entirely against the idea of falling asleep with the summer sun watching over him. His mind had

come to equate the sun with the Businessman, and he found that both options now were becoming

less and less appealing.

        The longer he lay on the beach staring at the sky and wondering if he was about to lapse into

unconsciousness again, the more Jeremy found that he wanted to be up and moving. The last

conversation he had with Duty had been about a darkness that had taken control of this side of

Gotica, and Jeremy could not help but feel that it was the least he could do to investigate what could



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be the cause so long as he was here. Cursing his difficult birth into the opposite side of the world,

Jeremy forced his legs to solidify long enough to support his fledgling weight, and began walking

away from the sea.



4.

        The sun that was shining in the afternoon sky could still not bring the world any semblance

of brightness or any shred of hope. The ground had become bare, as if the soil had abandoned the

grasses that once had grown here to be parched by the elements and stripped by the wind. What once

would have appeared to be mighty trees were now withered and gnarled like old men whose spines

had lost the strength to support their dying frames. The wind in the air groaned with a plaintive sigh

as it slowly crawled across the landscape. As Jeremy watched, the world seemed to fall apart into an

exercise of nature without strength or meaning. Clouds of dust rose in the air as if the ghosts of the

world were attempting to escape from the confines of their own body.

        “What a pleasant day to be alive,” Jeremy muttered to himself as he walked along the edge

of the ridge. He had found a short rise that had traveled inland from which he was able to watch a

greater amount of the landscape while he walked. The sight had proved to be less than heartening.

Jeremy found that with each moment it seemed as if the world cared for itself less. Every step that he

took brought him deeper and deeper into the clutches of a kind of suicidal nature that corrupted the

world around him and made it resemble a tattered remnant of naturalism. The garish light of the sun

seemed all the more harsh as it beat down upon the withered surface of the world, twisting the few

standing things into even deeper stretches of pain.

        Seeing the world like this almost had an equally draining effect on Jeremy as he walked

through it. He found that his own spirits seemed to crash at the site of the world. Hoping for some




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sort of respite, Jeremy searched his own head for stories and memories that he could latch his mind

to in hope of maintaining some sort of forward inertia.

       As he walked along the rise, Jeremy found himself thinking about the old man that he had

called Lee. There were times that he thought he had to have been mistaken in his identification of the

old man, however Jeremy couldn‟t deny the uncanny resemblance that he bore to the face that

resided within his memory. He remembered the ashes that had drifted from the front of that pipe,

adding their own unique fragrance to the air as music mixed with them. He remembered watching

the old man‟s face as he had played yet another strangely inspired rendition of someone else‟s work

on a piano.

       Within a heartbeat, Jeremy‟s mind finally made the connection between the piano and the

old man. It was as if someone had placed a fuse within his mind once again, bringing life and light to

parts of Jeremy‟s mind that had been closed off to him. He remembered long afternoons that were

spent in front of an old piano, breathing the heady musk of that pipe. The air would almost always

be colored with the light of a setting sun streaking through the stained glass windows that

punctuated the west walls of the chapel he learned to play in. Sometimes the podium where the two

would sit and work for hours on music would be littered with countless flowers that had been placed

by well-meaning people days before. The one constant that always seemed to connect these

memories within Jeremy‟s mind was the old man and his soft understated smile that always

responded to his pupil‟s successes.

       It seemed dully ironic to Jeremy as he walked that the one moment that he would remember

fully who the old man really was would be the one time that they were removed by half the

circumference of the world. Jeremy laughed quietly to himself as he strolled past a gnarled oak tree

that appeared to have been twisted into knots by some superhuman hand and then formed back into

shape by some weaker design.



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        The ridge way led straight into the foothills of a deeper range of mountains, one that was

punctuated by profusely dense forests that squatted at their feet like children around the apron of

their mother. The mountains had shifted their hue from the translucent purple that usually connoted

great distance to a striking detail that revealed the vast contours of their shape. Great stones jutted

from the surface of the mountains between patches of verdant brush that painted the hillsides with

almost strident gradations of green. In areas that were more of a hillside, Jeremy could see parched

fields of brownish green grasses that once would have borne flowers stretching across the foothills.

The canyons, on the other hand, were snarled with thick forests of half dead trees that entwined like

the arms of corpses in some obscene communal grave.

        In the back of his head the sight of the forests and the mad rush that they seemed to make to

smash themselves deep within the canyon walls triggered another memory for Jeremy. This time, it

was more of a feeling than an actual series of events, a sensation that crept over his body and took

control of his extremities with an icy grip. As he stood on the precipice of the ridge, watching the

world as it stood within its places, Jeremy knew that he was alone. This was by no means a new

sensation, indeed it was one that he had come to know so well that it stung his soul to recognize it

once again. There was a part of him that had grown crusted and embittered through year after year

of being alone. The darkness of being shunned by every disparate element of what the remainder of

the world would classify as normal had crept through his spirit and wilted him like a flower next to

winter‟s breath.

        Here, even more than any other place in the world, Jeremy knew the feeling of isolation. It

was something that he faced within the sight of the remainder of the world, almost as if time and

space had shifted to echo the recesses of his own soul.

        From within the depths of those mountains, Jeremy could have sworn that he saw the

darkness rising. It was not a shadow in the purest sense of the word, but seemed more of a loss of



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will and desire. It was as if the world were slowly shifting to a point where it would no longer care

anymore, just throwing the cards to the wind rather than even attempting to place them where one

will. Things seemed to bend and wither within pools and stretches, reaching out from a source

somewhere yet unseen within the heart of the mountains. Steeling himself for what may be coming,

Jeremy forced himself to walk deeper into the forests and face whatever may be coming.



5.

        As Jeremy neared the outskirts of the forest, he noticed a network of scaffolding that had

been erected within the branches of the trees. It seemed to cross beneath with a great deck that had

been erected underneath, creating a network of solid wooden paths that were suspended above the

ground. The trees intertwined their branches above the floor of the deck, creating a makeshift roof

that would shield whatever it covered from the sun if not from the other elements. The top branches

of the canopy were by this point rather parched by the incessant sunlight, however the ones

underneath were still thick and green.

        “You‟re a handsome devil,” a husky female voice whispered from somewhere within the

maze of thatched walls. Vines had overgrown the wooden walls, and had woven themselves in and

out of the boards into a mass of verdancy. It almost seemed as if the structure itself were alive, with

its madcap walls stretching like a maze throughout the forest. The trees above had woven themselves

into a leafy canopy, covering the thatched walls below. A few leaves had fallen onto the false

wooden floor that had been erected a few feet off from the ground.

        “Is there someone in there?” Jeremy called out. He strained to listen, but the only response

that he could make out sounded like a giggle carried by the wind. The air amidst these trees seemed

almost playful as it roamed freely throughout the trees, winding into impossible shapes all the way.




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        Jeremy murmured to himself that there was no danger here, however somehow his own voice

sounded somewhat shallow in his ears. Steeling himself against all forms of fear, Jeremy forced

himself to take a tentative step onto the wooden surface that was before him. The wood had a

comfortingly solid feel to it under his feet, and Jeremy smiled confidently to himself.

        A hand playfully brushed along the back of Jeremy‟s neck. He spun in his place to find that

the only thing behind him was a single tree that stood innocently ten paces behind him.

        “I must be loosing my mind,” Jeremy muttered to himself. Cursing the wind that was

playing tricks on his already tired mind, Jeremy turned to the maze of vine infested walls. They

seemed to branch at madcap angles, circling around a raised center. Jeremy followed the twisted

paths that they showed him for what seemed to be an hour, each turn on the raised wooden floor

raising itself ever higher, and yet he still found another turn waiting for him further on. The walls,

although still very natural and very alive, had the unnerving ability to look very much the same as

all those that he had seen before.

        “This place couldn‟t have been this big,” Jeremy mused to himself. He remembered having

been able to see around to the other side of the maze in the grove, and would certainly have noticed

if it had extended this high. He felt the slight euphoria of having climbed more than a few hundred

feet in this spiral of a concourse. “This is insane,” Jeremy muttered in disgust as he turned away

from the elevated concourse and prepared to descend back to the ground once again.

        “Leaving so soon?” the same husky voice murmured from behind him.

        Although instincts served him to be startled, Jeremy found himself turning to meet the gaze

of she who had addressed him with a feeling of intoxication. She sat on top of a small table that had

been placed at the very summit of the maze of decks and vine twisted walls. For a brief second, it

seemed to Jeremy as if he was being addressed by a vision rather than another person. Her skin was




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an almost porcelain white that was in stark contrast to her long auburn hair. She smiled innocently

with her sea blue eyes, as Jeremy found his feet plodding ever closer.

        The woman smiled expectantly as she watched Jeremy draw nearer, and moved along the

table slowly as if to clear a space for him. She was wearing a blue sweater matched perfectly the

color of her eyes that fell from her shoulders in a cascade and was tied around her waist. Had Jeremy

been able to notice, he would have seen that the thin cotton blouse she wore was only a fraction of an

inch from becoming indecent, and even more close to transparent. All he could see however, were

her eyes.

        She bit her lower lip as Jeremy drew near the table, her perfectly white teeth gently pulling

the surface of that almost glowing red surface.

        “I‟m yours if you want me.”

        The feeling of a thin line of thread enwrapped itself around Jeremy, pulling him ever closer

to her. With every passing step, and each passing moment, the thread was joined by another and

another as Jeremy felt his attention bind itself to her. She smiled innocently, her teeth still pressed

against the surface of her ruby lips, with each motion pulling him ever closer. A tangible feeling of

intoxication filled Jeremy‟s blood as she primly placed both of her arms around his neck.

        Somewhere behind where she sat, Jeremy saw the maze open before him, presenting an exit

from the rows of walls. He smiled as he saw it appear there where he hadn‟t seen it before, and

wondered what good it would do him as he could find no legitimate reason to leave.

        Those ruby lips trembled a mere inch from consuming Jeremy completely in a single breath.

They seemed to shimmer like the rainbow hues cast by oil on the surface of a pool of water, tainted

and yet beautiful.




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        “You do want me,” she murmured and her breath became a deep scented breeze tickling the

surface of Jeremy‟s cheek. “I want you to have me.” She stretched herself before him much like a

merchant would display his wares.

        The sound of a child crying reached Jeremy‟s ears from somewhere behind his captor. His

mind suddenly began to snap back into focus, as if he had been slipped some drug that had worn off

before its intended time.

        Standing near the exit of the labyrinth was a young girl who appeared to be no more than

twelve years old. She was crying bitterly. Jeremy pulled himself away from the woman, who seemed

determined to maintain his bond.

        “I won‟t wait for you like this,” the woman muttered coldly.

        Unheeding, Jeremy stooped before the little girl, who promptly threw her arms around his

neck and sobbed into his shoulder.

        “I knew you would come, but I can‟t let you be hers.” She whispered in Jeremy‟s ear

between false sobs. “Run away from here as fast as you can.” A tone of dread in the little girl‟s voice

rang true in Jeremy‟s ears, and before he could take a moment to look back upon what could have

been his love, Jeremy was running through the exit of the maze.

        As Jeremy pounded away from the maze that had filled the woods, he heard his seductress

ask, “What have you done, you little demon? I wanted that one.”

        “He is not for you, Desire.” The child‟s voice responded calmly. “He is not for either of us.”

        Jeremy wanted desperately to stop and listen to the rest of the conversation, which was

becoming far too distant to hear clearly, however had no intention of stopping or returning to face

Desire‟s temptations again.

        Without reason or knowing where to go, Jeremy ran from the forest maze, delving deeper

into the mountains. The world seemed to bend behind him as he moved away from the forest glen



                                                 108
where he had met the young woman. His mind bent with it, refocusing myopically back to the forest

and the things that Jeremy was leaving behind. A large part of him longed to turn around and return

to the forest, to ignore the chiding of the little girl and enwrap himself around what could be his love

once again.

        At the same time, Jeremy felt fear in his heart and soul, a fear that made him run even faster

away from the forest glen and its inhabitant. A large part of him screamed that he should be running

even faster, moving in such a way that the forces of darkness that had nearly overtaken him could

never reach him again. With these emotions conflicting within him and yet spurring him onward,

Jeremy ran along the bank of the river that traced its way around the canyon‟s floor. The walls that

were formed by the mountains seemed to pull themselves in around him, casting a great shadow

across the sky and shading Jeremy from the sun that lay slightly to the north. Great and massive

peaks seemed to tower all around him, staring down at Jeremy as he ran deeper into the mountains

like towering giants staring at some malformed child that had been cast into the middle of the street.

        A twisted branch entangled itself around Jeremy‟s feet, forcing him to come crashing to the

ground in the middle of a puddle of thick rancid mud. The water that formed the inky mass was

tainted with the dried forms of leaves that floated upon its surface like corpses on the top of a funeral

pyre. The sweet stench of decay filled the air around the puddle, tainting Jeremy and the world

around him with its touch that spread like a film of oil across the canyon floor.

        “Are you going to just sit there in that pool of foulness all day?” a child‟s voice asked from

somewhere behind where Jeremy was seated in the murky water. “It can‟t be good for you.”

        He turned to recognize the young girl as she stood spotless in her tiny velvet dress. Her face

seemed different now that it was not racked with false tears. It almost shone with a mischievous light

that seemed wondrously proud of her latest accomplishment. Forcing himself back to his feet,

Jeremy struggled to stand before her and began to turn to walk back in the direction he had come.



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        “I would really suggest that you avoid going back that direction for the next little while.” It

wasn‟t until the little girl had made mention of it that Jeremy realized he had been fully prepared to

return back to the forest glen and into his mysterious lover‟s arms once again. It was as if his body

had decided to react to decision his mind had not yet made, already being pulled once again by some

invisible leash that the woman had managed to tie to him. All Jeremy wanted was to be free of the

filth and corruption that was matted upon his body like some sort of obscene taint and return himself

to his lover once again. Another part of him regarded the idea of returning to the forest as a taint

even more foul than the one he was forced to bear seated in the pool of decay.

        “My sister is pretty angry that I didn‟t let her hang onto you. Its funny, usually she is so

picky, she doesn‟t go for just anyone you know. I guess she must see something in you that I don‟t.”

As if to punctuate the statement, the little girl stood on the tips of her toes and stared into the backs

of Jeremy‟s eyeballs. She appraised his gaze much like a jeweler would appraise a stone, weighing it

in her head and attempting to decide if it had any worth.

        Apparently, the little girl did not see much of anything of interest, because she abruptly

turned herself around and proceeded to walk away while muttering, “I don‟t see anything at all.”

        “What are you talking about?” Jeremy called after her, forcing himself back to his feet so

that he could run after her.

        “Desire,” the little girl spat at him over her shoulder. “You know, the painted floozy that

you were prepared to spill your own guts out onto the floor back in the forest for?”

        Jeremy blushed, however wasn‟t sure if it was more for the harsh treatment that the woman

in the forest was receiving, or for the completely accurate portrayal of his own emotions. The little

girl saw the blush and capitalized upon it, teasing him even further with cracks about men who

could exercise the self control of a toad.




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        Suddenly the little girl rounded upon Jeremy in a fury almost screaming, “Look, you need to

understand that Desire doesn‟t chase after just anyone. There isn‟t a challenge in that. Of course, it

didn‟t look like you were exactly putting up that much of a fight either, however there must be

something about you remotely more special than your average person or else she wouldn‟t have

bothered.”

        “What do you mean?” was all that Jeremy could manage to bark in response.

        “What is the point of seducing the weak and powerless when you can go after the powerful?

Desire watches for the men who could go out there and shake the heavens, and then she takes them.

Nothing else will do. I guess you could say that she is picky.”

        Jeremy shook his head, “Well, she must have been mistaken about me. I‟m just me.”

        The little girl came back and looked at his face one more time, almost as if the old jeweler

was back and this time saw something in the stone she was about to throw away. “There must be

something inside there that you and I aren‟t seeing. The question is, what?”

        “I don‟t know what you are talking about Corrie.”

        “What did you call me?”

        Jeremy shook his head and spoke matter-of-factly, “I called you Corrie.” It was almost as if

something playful awakened inside of him that had been forgotten for the past little while. “Or

would you prefer that I call you knucklehead?”

        She smiled at him, “Given the options, I‟ll stick with Corrie.”

        “So what were you saying about your sister?”

        “Look, I know this is kind of hard for you, so I‟ll use small words.”

        “Thank you,” Jeremy replied curtly.

        Corrie nodded, “It‟s a pleasure. My sister back there wanted to turn you into one of her

hormone laden meat puppets so that she could sit around all day and make you twitch. Personally I



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would much rather take you out somewhere and kick some sense into you for once, but I can‟t do

that either. You aren‟t for either of us.”

        “What are you talking about? Not for either of who?”

        “Desire or me,” Corrie responded. “When it comes down to it you can‟t stay with either of

us. There is something else, or somewhere else that is waiting for you to be. Either of us would get in

the way.”

        Jeremy smiled and nodded slowly.

        “You aren‟t understanding a word that I am saying, are you?”

        “Not a thing,” Jeremy confessed.

        “That‟s alright. I‟m a prodigy. I can‟t expect grown-ups to keep up with me all the time,”

Corrie responded. For a split second Jeremy thought that he saw her stick her tongue out at him from

within the corner of his eye. By the time that Jeremy turned his head to look completely at the little

girl, her face was a veil of innocence once again. It was as if she were completely incapable of

committing such a disrespect to another individual. At the same time, however, Jeremy could not

help but believe in what he had seen out of the corners of his own eye. It took real effort to suppress

a laugh in the bottom of his throat as he realized that this little girl was so much more than what she

seemed.

        “Maybe you can explain something to me, Corrie.” Jeremy turned the subject upon her once

again. “Can you explain to me why things are like this?”

        “What do you mean? You don‟t like things this way?” she replied curtly with a smile that

seemed innocent as a serpent entwined around the arms of a newborn child.

        “Everything looks like it is dying. Not all at once, mind you, but it looks like everything has

just gone and given up. Like it isn‟t fighting to survive anymore. Its like the whole world is….”




                                                  112
          “Dying,” Corrie finished his thought before Jeremy could voice it himself. “That is what we

call the darkness. It is spreading across Gotica in a cloud of despair that is choking the life from the

world.”

          “What could cause it?”

          Corrie merely shrugged, “It beats me, but if I had to guess, I would say that something really

has gotten under God‟s skin. The world might not have given up yet, but I think He may have.”

Corrie shook her head sadly as she looked around herself at the destruction and decay that was now

filling the world. “It all has to come from somewhere. Something like this couldn‟t just happen on

accident. I don‟t believe in accidents.”

          “What do you think we should do?” Jeremy asked.

          “We need to find a man that I know. He‟s one of those people who knows his way around

this side of Gotica better than anyone else in the world.”



6.

          When Corrie had told him that they were going to find help, Jeremy had let himself be lulled

into the idea that they were going to find some fantastical hero to guide them through the darkest

reaches of the mountains. In the back of his mind he imagined a character who would be strongly

built and strikingly handsome. This would be a man who would tower over the rest of the world and

laugh in the face of danger and hardships. Frankly, Jeremy was exited at the prospect of finding such

an individual to guide him and Corrie through the depths of the mountains.

          It was this sense of anticipation that drove him to walk faster and faster through the forest,

following the trail at such a pace that Corrie was hard pressed to keep up. She seldom complained

about the taller man‟s pace, however at times was forced to ask him to stop or slow for a little while

just so that she could recuperate her breath.



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        “You know,” Corrie muttered, “it isn‟t my fault that my legs are shorter than yours. I have

to work twice as hard just to keep up with you.”

        Jeremy laughed warmly, “That‟s funny, I usually have the same complaint for other people

as well.” He shook his head in amazement at the little girl. She had a thin layer of sweat beaded on

her face, obviously from the exertion of trying to keep up with him. “I‟m sorry that I did that to you,

Corrie. I‟ll try to keep myself under control.”

        “I appreciate that.” A warm smile graced Corrie‟s lips as she looked up at Jeremy. “There

aren‟t many people who are that understanding about me. Sometimes I think the adults that are

around here can be more childish than I am.”

        “That happens,” Jeremy nodded emphatically. “We get so worried about all of our things

that we tend to forget what is important.”

        Corrie smiled at him, suppressing a giggle. “You know,” she observed, “for an adult, you

seem to understand things fairly clearly.”

        They walked at a much more reserved pace from that point on, taking time to rest whenever

Corrie might need it. It afforded Jeremy more time to take in the landscape, which was in truth a

marvelous sight to behold despite the corruption that was covering it in its tainted grasp. They were

traveling in the middle of what appeared to be a wide canyon. It was almost as if the great range of

mountains that Jeremy had seen bordering the forest when he stepped into Desire‟s lair had only

been an alluvial fin that was jutting out from the edge of a much greater range. It hadn‟t taken long

for them to cross this fin and begin to descend through the canyon into a wide valley. There was a

river that began close to the summit of the canyon that accompanied them along their way, bending

and twisting along the canyon floor as the slope slowly became more gradual and the walls of the

canyon itself sloped farther and farther away. Now that the mountains were becoming more

removed, the forest was taking its strength in the flatter areas. It was here that the taint was



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becoming more pronounced, the husks of what should have been great trees twisted and burned

underneath the incessant summer sun. It seemed like the world was drying up, giving out its final

lease on survival and abandoning itself to the decay that was spreading like wildfire.

        Still there were things that were springing to life in the world. Tufts of moss and wild grasses

retained their normal hue, keeping a desperate hold on the last bits of life that they could contain.

Had Jeremy taken the time to look behind him rather than being so focused upon where he was

going, he would have noticed that these parts of the forest somehow managed to seem healthier after

he and Corrie had passed them by. Occasionally, he would have seen blossoms flourishing dimly in

the recesses of the trees, as if they were struggling once again for what life had been escaping them.

        As they walked onward, Corrie stared into the depths of the darkness, tears sneaking into the

corners of her eyes as she watched the world reduced to a state of decay. She was a marvel in herself,

such a tiny, perfect child that she almost appeared to be a doll rather than a living person. It was as if

she were clean of each and every imperfection that tainted the rest of humanity. There was no

darkness in her sea blue eyes, only a resilient sparkle that seemed to bring life to the things it

touched. It was almost as if she had never known what it meant to be dirty, and yet she lived in the

depths of the most foul. Corrie seemed to glide through the world where Jeremy would stumble,

passing through mud and decay without a single blot upon her countenance. Jeremy, on the other

hand, was becoming ragged and stained from the thorns that pulled at the edges of his clothes and

the mud that caked his shoes and pants.

        “You won‟t be able to get that off for a while, so there is no use obsessing over it,” a deep

male voice boomed from slightly down river. Jeremy had been so focused upon the mud and filth

that had caked itself upon him that he had not noticed that he and Corrie were no longer alone. The

voice that addressed him belonged to another young man of nearly the same height as Jeremy. He

too was slightly dirtied by the filth and decay of the world, small blots of the stuff covered his pant



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legs, and his boots were fully covered in thick gray mud. This new young man was much thinner

than Jeremy, and almost looked emaciated in comparison. His face was gaunt, hollowed out by time

and distance away from the rest of the civilized world. Around his thin body was wrapped a small

bag that hung loosely at his right hip, suspended by a thick woven cord that stretched over the top of

his shoulder.

        “That is what you get for traveling with my angel,” the stranger smiled at Corrie and picked

her up, spinning her slightly in his arms. “She gets worn out really quick, as is understandable

considering how hard she has to work to keep up with us old folks.” He placed Corrie gently on the

ground again, and she seemed to touch the earth with a kind of grace that was singular only to her.

“One of these days you are going to teach me how you remain so completely spotless, love.” He self

consciously examined the bottom of his own pant legs and his boots, “as you can see, I could use all

the help I could get.”

        “You look fine, Absolution.” Corrie smiled innocently at him. “Besides, with as much time

that you spend out here in the middle of it all, it only makes sense that you would pick up a little bit

of the taint on you.”

        Absolution smiled at Jeremy, visibly pleased to see another person who was having the same

kind of challenges with the muck and decay. “You know,” he said, “it is going to take a small

miracle to get that off of your clothing. You might as well abandon yourself to destroying what you

have and just getting rid of it when you are done. By all means, that does not mean that you should

be running through the forest naked when you finally get tired of being dirty.”

        Jeremy and Corrie both laughed loudly at Absolution‟s joke. The laughter seemed to fill

their spirits, giving them something to hold onto against the oppressive decay that was filling the

world and infecting their own hearts.

        “I have to ask you, my love, did you see my twin out there while you were traveling?”



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        Corrie responded, “Sorry, but there was no sign of him. I almost wonder if he is out there at

all anymore, its been a while since I have seen his brand of sadness.”

        Absolution noted the confusion that graced Jeremy‟s features, and proceeded to explain. “I

came into the world with a twin brother named Isolation. In many ways were are very much alike,

he and I, while there are yet some ways that we are very different. In the beginning, Isolation used to

haunt places like this with pleasure, filling the forests with his own kind of emotions. I can‟t say that

I disliked him for it, after all, he is my brother, however his darkness was a darkness all the same.”

        With disdain painted upon his face, Absolution gestured to the muck and grime that filled

the forest floor and threatened to clog the river with its foulness. “Isolation never would have created

something like this, however. He had a kind of respect for the world around him, mostly his disdain

was for the rest of the people that he would meet. He really disliked people, hence the name.

Isolation would always have preferred to remain in the forest, and would have filled it with his own

special kind of darkness. Isolation would never have done anything like this to make the forest turn

against itself and begin to fall apart. That isn‟t like him at all.”

        “Absolution has been looking for his brother a long time,” Corrie explained. “Isolation

disappeared not long after the breaking, when everything turned onto its own head. We aren‟t quite

sure where he could have gone, but we are still trying to find him. Absolution has been searching the

forests, trying to find the reason that his brother has disappeared.”

        Jeremy shook his head, “You sound like you would get along rather well with Duty.”

        “You know Duty?” Absolution asked. “He‟s a good man, however far to serious about

everything. He lets the rest of the worlds problems weigh him down a little too much, to the point

that he blames himself for everything. I, on the other hand, prefer a freer state however I still reserve

the right to be concerned about the well being of family.”




                                                    117
        “I brought you to Absolution because of what he has found while he was searching for his

brother,” Corrie explained. “We think that he has found where the darkness is coming from.”

        Absolution shook his head, “You don‟t really intend to go there?”

        “Duty told me that when one of us got over here, we had to look for the heart of the

darkness. It would be the only way that we could protect the city on the other side of the bridge.”

        Absolution laughed, “There goes Duty with another one of his little quests. I‟ll bet he

intended to place himself in this mad crusade, and then through some ill twist of fate you ended up

having to go in his place.”

        “Something like that,” Jeremy responded. “He was getting ready to come when I decided to

cross the bridge. It collapsed while I was halfway across, and Duty ended up stuck back at the city

with no way of getting here.”

        “That‟s Duty. He always convinces the rest of the world to believe in his noble ideals so that

they will make themselves a part of it. I‟ll say this for the man, he makes things happen more often

than anyone else in Gotica. I‟ll bet right now he is organizing a massive effort to rebuild the bridge

and then cross over here to search for you. Half of the city must be following him right now

believing in the holy cause of coming to find and rescue you from the deziens of the other side of the

bridge. People who you have never even met are probably working their fingers to the bone trying to

reach you now, all because Duty inspired them to do it.”

        “You sound almost like you are a little jealous of him.”

        “I‟m a free man,” Absolution responded. “I‟ve paid the prices for my own crimes, and made

my peace with the powers that be. Now the only thing that remains for me is to live my life and

continue where I am at. Don‟t mistake me, however, in what I feel for Duty. I respect that man more

than anyone I have ever encountered in my life.”

        Jeremy smiled slightly, “So will you help me reach the center of this thing?”



                                                  118
        “The heart of the shadows lies in a tower in the depths of the mountain range to our east. I

can get you to the tower, but I‟m not sure what we could even do to change things once we get there.

I feel like if I take you I would be taking sheep to the slaughterhouse. Nobody really knows what is

in that tower, but it is something strong enough that it is making God give up on the world and let us

all fall apart. It is radiating a force that is so purely dark that nothing can survive. This is something

more pure and twisted than I have ever seen in my life, and considering who I have for family, that is

saying something.”

        Jeremy gazed sadly at the mountains that loomed on the western horizon like some kind of

obscene sentinels. “So you won‟t take us there.”

        “Don‟t get all morose and depressed now,” Absolution replied. “Just because I said that I

wasn‟t going to like taking you into the heart of darkness doesn‟t mean that I‟m not going to do it.

You obviously believe that there is something that you can do there that will change the way things

are happening in our world. Either Duty has puffed you up to the point that you are filled with all

kinds of false hope, or else there really is something that you can do to stop this thing. At any rate, if

I believed you were able to change things, and that by taking you into the pits of hell I could help do

it, then trust me I would make myself a part of it. I wouldn‟t be happy with the idea of putting you in

that kind of a situation, particularly in that kind of a place, however I would do my part to get you

there all the same.”



7.

        The world seemed to fade around them as they traveled into the heart of the mountains, as if

the darkness that had overcome the forces of nature was expounding in its own profound glory.

Vegetation that was alive and verdant seemed to grow less and less common, becoming the

exception in lieu of the norm. As they traveled, Absolution kept his gaze fixed upon the ridges that



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were rising around them. It seemed almost as if the higher ground was still maintaining some of its

hold on the natural forces, as their slopes were still green with rag tag grasses that dotted the

foothills.

        Thorns and briars dotted the bottom of the shallow canyons in which they walked, and

Jeremy found his clothing constantly snagging on the edges of razor sharp implements that were

growing out of the sides of the world. He struggled in the mud that caked the earth to keep his

footing solid, all the while trying to keep him from the jagged teeth of the briars that seemed so

anxious to dig into his flesh.

        “Why can‟t we walk on the tops of the hills?” Jeremy asked. “It seems like the going would

be much easier up there.”

        Absolution grimly shook his head, “I‟m sorry, you are right, it would be easier to travel up

there, however we would be exposed to anyone who saw us. Perhaps I should say that we would be

exposed to view of anything that lay on those foothills. At least down here we have cover.”

Absolution shook his head. “There are much worse things here within the darkness than mud and

thorns.”

        As they walked farther along the bottom of the canyon, Jeremy began to question the

accuracy of that statement. The mud had grown thicker, and was beginning to excrete the distinctive

odor of decay and that Jeremy had before noted, only to a much powerful level. It was as if the

grime and filth that had become the world was becoming more pronounced with each individual step

that they took. The thorns and briars began to thicken, winding themselves around the burnt out

husks of formerly grandiose trees. The vines of thorns seemed to weave themselves into some

perverse kind of thatched walls, barring all kinds of passage and tearing into clothing and flesh with

the same kind of harsh glee that Jeremy had experienced up until this point.

        “This is getting worse,” Absolution murmured.



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       “I‟m glad I‟m not the only one to notice that,” came a bitter retort from Jeremy.

       Corrie tightly squeezed Jeremy‟s hand and explained, “what he means is that things have

gotten worse since he last came here.” She turned to Absolution quickly to verify the truthfulness of

her statement. “Am I right?”

       “Yes you are,” Absolution shook his head in slight frustration. “When I came by here last

time, this was completely passable. It wasn‟t pretty mind you, but it was at least passable. This

canyon would have led us straight to the tower at the heart of it all. Now we are going to have to

resort to taking to the high ground.”

       Jeremy was grateful to be leaving the canyon with its grime and sharp briars, however could

immediately see the danger of the ridges once he set foot upon him. From the top of the ridge that

they climbed upon, he could see for miles. The world seemed to be splayed out underneath his feet,

and it was no small mystery to discover that the world could see him in return so long as he stood

upon this piece of turf. Absolution appeared nervous, constantly watching the world around him, as

if expecting an attack from any side. Corrie, on the other hand was confidant and relaxed, merely

pleased to be out of the grime and filth from down below. Jeremy thought in the back of his head

that it was remarkably ironic that she was still unblemished by the foulness that they had been

trudging through.

       “We need to get going, we‟ve got a long way to go and I don‟t want to spend too much time

here on the ridge.”

       They started walking as quickly as they could up the slight ascent to the top of the ridge. The

turf was gentle and yielding compared to the thorns and briars that had barred their travel for so long

while they had been in the canyon. Still, Jeremy could not shake the feeling of nervousness that was

laying at the back of his head, laughing slightly as they walked.




                                                 121
        As they walked they passed the ruin of a stone wall that had apparently crumbled not long

ago, and was now dusted lightly with autumn leaves. It seemed so odd to see autumn leaves when it

was still mid summer. On one of the neighboring ridges, Jeremy could see what appeared to be the

ruin of a small citadel, its glorious walls having crumbled into nothingness, leaving only a tattered

husk to stand hunched upon the edge of a mountain. Behind that broken form, the mountains rose

indeed, stretching higher and higher as if the world had been snapped like a brittle plate. The

daunting gray faces of the mountains stared stoically at Jeremy and the rest as they walked,

watching in immutable silence as they traveled along the ridge line. Still, Jeremy was sure that he

felt something else watching them as well.

        From somewhere behind them, Jeremy could hear a scream rising from within the citadel. It

was not the sound of a human voice, but instead tore through the air with the ferocity of lions. Still,

that was not enough of an image to do the sound justice. It caused Jeremy‟s heart to flutter as its fury

and rage crashed upon him with a tidal force.

        “Oh no,” Absolution muttered. “This is just what I feared.”

        “What is it?”

        “If you value your life in any way shape or form, run.” That having been said, Absolution

flew from where he was standing in a run that would have put most Olympians to shame. Seeing

such desperate terror from the man that supposedly knew his way around this side of the world better

than anyone alive was more than enough to convince Jeremy of the eminent danger. He scooped

Corrie onto his shoulders and began to run after Absolution, still unsure as to what it was that could

be rising out of those citadels behind him.

        The scream came again, this time sounding distinctively different, as if it had risen above

them rather than coming from the citadel itself. It had moved quickly, obviously negotiating an

incredible amount of distance in a matter of seconds. Jeremy forced his legs to move faster, feeling



                                                  122
that any minute he might find himself falling faint to the ground. Still, his heart raced, pumping fresh

strength into his muscles and giving him all that was needed to allow him to continue onward. He

pushed himself farther and farther, outstripping anything that he would have ever believed himself

capable of, however was numb to any thought save that of the scream that was coming from behind

him.

        From her vantage point, Corrie could now see what was happening. She twisted on Jeremy‟s

shoulders, watching behind them as he ran. It was not long before her screams joined the guttural

ones that were coming from so far behind them. She beat Jeremy‟s shoulders in desperation, begging

him through her screams and tears that he somehow run faster. Always Jeremy felt like he was

already beyond the brink, however somehow her terror spurred him constantly.

        From behind him, Jeremy heard the sound of what could have been moth‟s wings amplified

a thousand fold. They beat against the air, sending strong gusts of wind through the top of the ridge

line. The long grasses that covered the ridge flailed in the air in a wild fury, tussled and beaten by

the fierce breeze that was assaulting them in waves.

        Before Jeremy could think, the world around him seemed to erupted into flames. He jumped

from where he stood only instants before a second wave of white hot fury came crashing into the

ground, splintering into tiny fragments of fire. The smell of charred earth and burnt grass filled the

air, clogging Jeremy‟s nostrils and making it hard to breathe. Still, he ran onward.

        “Hurry?” Absolution screamed. “We have to make it to those trees!”

        Upon the top of the ridge, perhaps a hundred yards away lay a thin string of trees that

resembled odd spokes on the edge of a wheel, dotting their way along the top of the hillside until

they reached the descent into a valley far below. Holding his breath slightly, Jeremy ran for the trees

as quickly as he could, terrified by the fact that Corrie was no longer screaming, nor sobbing. She

merely lay upon his shoulders like a dead weight.



                                                  123
        The sound of a hurricane of butterflies came once again, raising the air behind Jeremy as he

ran. Trying to keep himself moving constantly toward the forest, Jeremy turned slightly to see what

it was that was creating the wind that licked his heels mingled with hot fire. What he beheld nearly

had the visual force to be able to knock his heart into a standstill.

        Diving through the air in a fit of fury came the massive form of what appeared to be a

gigantic iguana. It‟s scales covered it thickly, almost as if they were hewn into a metallic mail. The

beast stretched its claws out before it, razor sharp blades punctuating each of its elongated fingers.

The creature‟s mouth hung open in a hungry maw, screaming in fury as it dove faster and faster

toward Jeremy and Corrie.

        Jeremy‟s feet twisted around themselves and he found himself crashing hard to the ground,

the gigantic beast rushing through the air above him mere inches from where he and Corrie lay. The

monstrous claws clashed against the ground a few feet away, however were not able to make a firm

enough grip to be able to stop the beast. Screaming in fury, it took flight again, inscribing a long arc

in the air so as to give itself time to accelerate once again. Jeremy quickly drew himself back onto

his feet, and pulled Corrie back over his shoulder. She was a dead weight now, barely breathing as

he draped her over his right shoulder as gently yet quickly as he could. Within a few seconds,

Jeremy was running once again, this time into the face of the charging leviathan.

        Once again the ground around Jeremy exploded into flames as they tore through the air from

the leviathan‟s blasted lips. The beast spat its flaming rage again and again, sending fiery explosive

masses crashing to the earth all around where Jeremy and Corrie ran for their lives. Tiny rocks and

dust were thrown by each of the impacts, heated to a searing white heat like little independent

pinpricks of fire. They burned through the legs of Jeremy‟s pants and the sleeves of his shirt, finally

coming against his skin and searing the flesh that lay waiting underneath. Still, he ran on to the

woods that were growing in size and perspective at a maddeningly slow rate.



                                                   124
        Frustrated by the failure of its fiery melee, the beast screamed in rage and began to charge at

Jeremy and Corrie once again, this time determined to catch its prey. Its wings beat a headwind with

the force of a small gale, forcing Jeremy to duck ever so slightly to keep himself pushing forward

into the torment. For a brief moment, he thought he felt Corrie shudder against the wind that

heralded the coming of the beast. In a second, the shudder turned to sobbing as Corrie was jolted

awake once again.

        “Corrie,” Jeremy murmured, “I‟m not going to make it to the forest. I want you to do

something for me.”

        Between a pair of sobs, Corrie made a non-committal assent.

        “I‟m going to put you down in a second, but I am going to have to be quick about it. I want

you to start running for those trees. Don‟t look back at me.”

        The leviathan was now a wave of crushing power, flying like a wedge through the air,

rushing onward with an unstoppable force. Its lips parted in a mock smile, revealing teeth that were

formed sharp like razors.

        “Are you ready Corrie?”

        The leviathan reared its head back and extended its claws before its rushing body.

        “Run!” Jeremy screamed as he threw Corrie away from him. She touched the ground and

froze for a moment until her senses came back to her. Within an instant, she was on her feet and

rushing to the forest with all of her might.

        Confused by the separation, the leviathan had no time to refocus and attempt to capture

Corrie. Instead it was forced to accept the larger portion of its prey. With a roar of mingled

frustration and glory, the beast dug its razor sharp claws into Jeremy‟s shoulder, hauling him from

his feet and into the air like a dog carrying a rag in its teeth. White hot pain erupted within Jeremy‟s

shoulder as the claws dug through muscle and flesh, finally clashing and binding against the surface



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of his bones. Hung on the edge of the beast‟s meat hook like claws, Jeremy found himself soaring

higher and higher into the air. He rose away from the ground, the exaltation of flying being numbed

by the reasonable expectation that he had now met his death commingled with the searing pain of his

shoulder. Somewhere far below, he could see that Corrie had made it to the edge of the forest, and

was now darting into the midst of the trees as quickly as she could.

        The beast was furious. Jeremy could feel the anger flexing through every inch of the

creature‟s body, tensing and throbbing in its muscles and moving the claws that held him in its grip.

They flexed and moved, tearing deeper and deeper into his flesh, widening the wound from

appearing like random knife stabs to a mass of shredded pulp. Jeremy could feel the monster turn in

the air once again, preparing to make yet another pass at the remainder of his group. The creature

was frustrated by the forest, however had no intention of letting it deprive him of the rest of his prey.

This monster, Jeremy knew, was a hunter.

        The motion of falling through space could not have been quite so fast and furious as the

sensation of being in the grip of the leviathan in strike. The beast moved through the air with a

perfect deadly grace that stopped the heart of those that were on the ground. The issue of making

such a flight caught in the claw of such a creature made the effect a thousand times more difficult to

stomach. While they had seemed maddeningly distant and sparse before, the trees now seemed to be

approaching with a sickeningly fast speed, and now were so dense that Jeremy questioned if it would

ever be possible for the creature to pass through them.

        Jeremy never had time to concern himself about the size of the creature, because it was

already into the depths of the woods before the question of size had begun to cross his mind.

Branches whipped at the two of them as they rushed through the forest like a mad boar darting this

way and that with a kind of terrifying grace.




                                                  126
        Although the creature had a stunning grace when it came to the navigation of its own body,

it failed to account for the presence of Jeremy dangling from one of its claws. He slowed it down so

that its turns were no where near as quick as they could have been, dragging upon the beast like a

bag of ballast. Finally, the creature failed to make one of its turns so completely that the arm which

held Jeremy in its grip collided headlong into the thick trunk of a tree. The creature‟s grip slackened

over a few seconds, and soon lost hold of the mass of shreds that had once been Jeremy‟s right

shoulder. Suddenly, the young man was alone without anything to hold him from the ground once

again. Gratefully, he tumbled the six feet to the ground and collapsed in a heap at the base of the

tree.



8.

        “I thought we had lost you,” Corrie‟s voice was an echo of panic as she embraced Jeremy

heartily where he lay. He had regained consciousness only seconds before, and found his vision

fading in and out of focus on a seemingly random basis.

        “You are lucky to be alive. Not many people can be caught by one of those critters and get

away alive,” Absolution remarked.

        Jeremy forced himself to sit upright. Aside from continuing pain in his shoulder, he was

actually feeling remarkably well. There was a makeshift mass of bandages entwined around his right

shoulder, hiding now what would have been a horrifying wound.

        “We bound you up the best we could,” Absolution explained, “I‟m afraid we didn‟t have all

that much to use.”

        Upon second examination, Jeremy realized that among the rags wrapped around his

shoulders were pieces of Absolution‟s shirt and the velvet dress that Corrie wore. Smiling to himself,

Jeremy fingered the soft fabric lightly.



                                                 127
          “I didn‟t want to use her dress. It‟s far to fine to be torn apart as poorly as we did,”

Absolution shook his head sadly, “but she insisted.”

          “Of course I insisted. I‟m not going to sit here in this mass of fabric and watch him bleed to

death for lack of a piece of clean cloth to bind his wounds with.” Corrie sounded almost offended

that there were those who would have preferred to defend the sanctity of her dress rather than the life

of another.

          “Thank you,” Jeremy smiled. “Both of you.”

          Absolution smiled somewhat abashedly back at him, and then quickly made a bid to change

the subject. “I have good news and bad news. We are at the heart of the darkness.”

          Jeremy sat bolt upright and fought his way to his feet.

          Absolution must have carried him some of the way to get them off of the ridge. They had

descended from the small stand of trees down into a valley that was filled with black roses. They

were so thick along the ground that they appeared like a pool of inky blackness that had been spilled

upon the face of the world. Every once in a while a small breeze would pass over the surface of the

valley, tussling the masses of darkness that covered it. A small trail seemed to have remained

uncovered by the black roses, and led directly to a lone tower that waited silently in the center of the

fields.

          “That is where it is coming from.”

          The tower stood alone on the horizon of Gotica, framed in imperfect symmetry by the

grandiose mountains that rose to meet its walls. It could have been beautiful once, however its

formerly white walls had been tarnished to a dull and rusted gray by an eternal weathering. The sea

of roses, their blossoms as dark as the abyss, stretched out from the tower in all directions like a

cancer spreading throughout the land.




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         Somewhere behind the mountains, the dull roar of thunder could be heard. Corrie shuddered

at the sound, and pulled herself closer to Jeremy once again.

         “Its going to rain soon,” Absolution commented.

         “I hate the rain. There are bad things coming when it rains.” Corrie murmured timidly. “I

need to get to somewhere safe.”

         “We can take care of you,” Absolution attempted to reassure her.

         “No, I can‟t be out here in the rain. I can‟t be in a place like this when it rains.” She

squeezed Jeremy‟s hand even more tightly. “Please, I‟m scared.”

         Jeremy smiled to her. “Don‟t worry Corrie. We‟ll be inside the tower soon, and then you

won‟t have to be out in the rain.”

         “Are you crazy?” she erupted. “Do you think that the fact that I am going to be in the middle

of the heart of the shadow is really going to help me not be afraid?”

         Jeremy hung his head. “I know.” He paused for a few moments to think about alternatives

before suggesting, “Absolution will take you someplace safe. I‟ll go into the tower myself.”

         “You really must be crazy,” Absolution chided, “that sounds like something only Duty

would suggest.”

         “It‟s the only way. I have to go into the tower, and you have to take care of her.”

         Absolution growled, “I don‟t like this.”

         “Just get her to someplace safe and away from the storm. I‟ll find you when this is all done

with.”

         The thunder was growing increasingly closer, singing its tumultuous hymn as it neared.

         “Get going, I‟ll be fine.” With that being said, Jeremy turned his back on Absolution and

Corrie and began to walk to the tower. He did not want to leave them. In fact, he would have given

anything to be able to turn away from the tower and go find a safe dry place with them to wait until



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the storm passed. Something inside him simply wouldn‟t let Jeremy turn away from the tower and

find some place where he could be comfortable and happy.

        “Me and my damned nobility,” Jeremy muttered to himself as he neared the tower.

        There was a single small staircase that wrapped around the outside edge of the tower,

ascending slowly until it finally reached a door that was halfway to the top of the building. Jeremy

climbed the stairs slowly, watching the world turn around him, the clouds pulling themselves around

him as he took step after faltering step.

        The door was ajar, and Jeremy pushed it slowly open. Upon stepping inside Jeremy had to

wait a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the darkness inside of the tower. Shadows were thick

here, and the lack of windows created a cast of darkness that was singular to the building. The room

itself was bare, with a single wooden staircase wrapping around the outside edge of the tower,

ascending once again into the ceiling where it reached another wooden floor. Jeremy thought for a

second that he heard the sound of someone sobbing coming from up above.

        Resolving himself against fear, Jeremy ascended the wooden stairs, stepping higher and

higher into the rafters of the tower. The wood creaked softly beneath his feet, making due complaint

after so many years of disuse. There was a thick layer of dust upon the surface of the stairs,

betraying how much time there really had been since someone had ascended them.

        Still, Jeremy knew that someone was up there.

        The light at the top of the stairs was brighter, as pieces of the roof of the tower had become

broken, allowing the light to come pouring through sharp edged shafts. There were a few windows,

allowing a view of the valley around them. Jeremy didn‟t care to look, knowing that all he would

see would be the mass of black roses that were spreading through the world like a disease. There

was only one thing that held Jeremy‟s focus like a vice.




                                                  130
        A violin sat discarded on the floor, bathed in a shaft of light almost like that expected over

some insane altar. Dust and mildew covered the instrument in a heavy casing, entwined with eons of

uselessness. Rats had chewed at the once fine strings which were now split into madcap masses at

the ends of the instrument. Termites were slowly digging through the soft wood of the violin, and a

gaping hole yawned menacingly at Jeremy next to the its neck. As Jeremy looked at the instrument,

he could hear the air tickling the strings, which seemed to echo through that gaping hole in the

shoulder like the violin‟s own dying whisper.

        “Why did you leave me, Jer?” a voice that seemed strangely familiar echoed from the

shadows in the room. “When I needed you most, you left me.”

        Jeremy shook his head mournfully, “There was nothing that I could do.” He had to struggle

with all of his might to keep the rush of tears that were fighting to break free under control. With a

sheer effort of will Jeremy forced himself to look at her, and she was even more finely angelic and

perfect than even he remembered.

        Glass-like rays of light sliced through the dust of the room to play shadows on her face. The

blue light rendered her perfectly porcelain skin into a soft tone of blue like that of the sky on a

newborn morning. Her blonde hair that once would have waved in the breeze like a sea of gold now

lay tarnished in ratted curls pressed against her skin. She was clothed in ashen rags that appeared to

be of such material as would have once been fine silks for a queen‟s array.

        A thin layer of dust seemed to have coated those once ruby lips as they parted with a single

phrase of accusation, “I loved you.”

        Tears filled Jeremy‟s eyes as he whispered in response, “I know, but there is nothing I could

do.”

        She smiled bitterly, as if the statement pleased her and yet was still not enough to atone for

some long forgotten sin. “It all fell apart after you left, even my violin couldn‟t sing after that.



                                                   131
        “She loved to sing with you. It was almost as if she would come to life in my hands

whenever we played your music. Once you were gone, there was no reason to touch her anymore. It

was almost as if once you had left me, the part of me that you had given life to died once again.”

        Jeremy smiled weakly, “I had loved playing with you.”

        “There wasn‟t much reason after that. You were gone and there was no reason for me to

even try to hold on to what you had inspired in me.”

        Jeremy shook his head, “You were in pain, there was nothing I could do.”

        “Couldn‟t you try?” her voice trembled on the brink of misery at the utterance of the phrase.

“Couldn‟t you hold on for just a bit longer?”

        “I was loosing my mind. You told me to go.”

        She shook her head and looked away, “you said you loved me.”

        Jeremy nodded, “and I do, but you are dead now, and nothing I can say or do will ever be

able to change that.”

        She was slowly fading, and yet as Jeremy watched her slowly disappear, it was almost as if

she had never been there to begin with.

        “Do you even remember my name?” her voice rang out almost like an echo, so quiet that it

was almost drowned out by the beating of Jeremy‟s own heart.

        “I‟ll always remember that, and the way you made me feel whenever we were together. Over

a hundred and two eternities could pass and I would still remember.”

        Her smile was almost all that remained, “I could stay with you, you know.”

        Jeremy chuckled and shook his head, “No, you can‟t. You‟re already in heaven, my love.

You...were never here.”

        There was a pattering sound on the roof, one that was unmistakable to Jeremy‟s keen ear,

and yet was almost silent at first. It was soon joined by it‟s brethren, and began a chorus of crashes



                                                  132
as rain tumbled from the sky and slid down the top of the tower like children on a slippery slide.

Outside of the tower, the black roses that stretched for miles began to shed their pigment in a deluge

of color that was absorbed into the earth from whence it came like soot from a fire. The roses

stretched and flexed under the crashing rain as their vibrant hues of red, pink, and yellow were freed

from their inky prison. Snow white roses dotted the landscape like sprinkles on a birthday cake for

miles around the tower.

        The walls of the tower itself began to twist and flex as well under the falling rain, as if the

water itself had inspired a new level of life out of the old stone and timbers. The stonework began to

shine like newly polished marble, and places once tarnished with a midnight black were once again

as pure as ivory.

        “Not bad, isn‟t it?”

        Jeremy was so enthralled by the beauty of the valley before him that he didn‟t bother to turn

around and see who it was that addressed him.

        “Did I do that?”

        A laughter that shined with a music more profound than that of Mozart rang out behind him.

“You did that, and will do so much more.”

        “I failed her, you know.”

        The voice rang with that musical laughter once again, “she didn‟t seem too unhappy to go,

and she was killing you.”

        Jeremy tried to turn to see who it was that was speaking to him, yet found that he was unable

to move, or to see.

        “Have we met?”

        Laughter echoed from behind him with a sound more truly musical than anything Jeremy

had ever heard in his life. “We‟ve encountered each other before. You let me kiss you once on the



                                                   133
side of the sea.” The voice laughed harder after that, “Well, I have to confess, you never really let

me, I just kissed you because I wanted to. You can‟t say that you didn‟t enjoy it.”

        “I‟ll give you that much.” Jeremy responded, “Who are you?”

        A smell much like the sunrise after a strong spring storm drifted through the air and tickled

Jeremy‟s nose as the voice responded, “I am a woman who will love you even more than she did.”

        Jeremy‟s body ached a physical pain with the desire to turn and see her eyes, albeit only

once. His soul yearned for a chance to drown within her for the rest of all eternity.

        “I don‟t even know your name.”

        The clouds of fog began to sweep into his vision and envelop him into the shadows once

again as the voice resonated from the distance, “You can call me Hope.”




                                                  134
135
          ...The clouds never quite receded from my mind this time, but I remember hearing a voice. It

didn‟t sound quite like what I was looking for, but I do remember that it was a good voice.

          “Can you tell me the number, Jeremy?”

          “What number?”

          The voice was starting to sound scared, although I knew she was trying to hide it. “Do you

even remember my name?”

          “Hope,” I murmured, not even sure what I was saying anymore.

          I couldn‟t move. My hands and arms felt as though they were restrained, although I couldn‟t

see well enough to tell if they were tied down or by what force I had been immobilized.

          “What happened to me?”

          “You were hit by a car, Jeremy.” That voice sounded like mom, although somehow I

couldn‟t help but feel like those weren‟t her hands clasped in mine. It was almost like I was

detached.

          “Was it a nice car?”

          “It was an average sedan.”

          “Jeremy,” it was the first voice addressing me again, “I want you to do something for me. I

want you to learn my telephone number.”

          The clouds closed on my mind and I slowly tumbled into darkness as the voice haunted me,

“Can you tell me the number I just told you, Jeremy?”

          What number?

          “Can you even remember my name?”

          It seems strange when you have one of those days where the clouds of darkness can talk to

you....




                                                  136
Book 3



1.

                “When you are ready to come back to us, follow the setting sun.” Duty‟s last words

that had been screamed to him as the bridge collapsed beneath Jeremy‟s feet echoed in his mind.

Although he remembered standing at the top of the tower that had once housed Regret, he was now

already far west following the setting sun. Hope must have left during the time that Jeremy was

unconscious on the tower floor, leaving him to travel alone back to the bridge between worlds.

Jeremy didn‟t know why, however somehow he knew that the bridge would be there again, despite

vividly recalling what it felt like when the stone had buckled and snapped beneath his feet.

         Somewhere west of the fields of roses that surrounded the ivory tower, there was a river that

Jeremy encountered that wound it‟s way into the horizon. The world opened around that world, the

mountains and foothills fanning out into the shape of a crescent. The farther Jeremy followed the

river the more he felt the world was opening before him. Along the banks of the river stretched a

grove of trees that seemed to be in a perpetual state of spring. The branches of the trees were

bursting with concourses of red, white, blue, and purple flowers which fell like a snowstorm

whenever the wind tussled the landscape.

         Jeremy couldn‟t say how long he had been walking, nor how long he had heard the sound of

a child‟s voice singing by the side of that river. The melodic sound had approached him so subtly

that he never really felt that it had ever began. It seemed as if the timbre of that voice had been

alongside him ever since he had awakened from the nightmare.

         Jeremy didn‟t understand why he was having these dreams of pain, confusion, and darkness.

He had come to dread the moments that he would find his body giving in to the sudden desire to

sleep, because he knew that each time he should succumb to such feelings that the nightmares would


                                                  137
have them in their grip once again. Jeremy had always believed that dreams couldn‟t hurt you,

however somehow these ones did. He could still remember the sharp sting of prodding hands on

open wounds, and for a moment the sensation of blood weeping from his side, shoulder, hands, and

face was enough to make him inspect his own body warily.

        The soft sound of singing carried Jeremy step by step as he followed the river westward into

the dying light of evening. He would have been hard pressed to remember any words that might have

accompanied that mythic tune, however still the song filled him to his extremities and gave his tired

body a new source of strength. The wind flipped its fingers through Jeremy‟s hair as it danced

playfully by to the rhythm of the song.

        For a brief moment as Jeremy walked the evening sun peeked through the branches of the

trees that had made their home along the banks of the river. The light filled his eyes with a warm

golden glow and cast a glittering hue across the surface of the blossoms falling from above. As

Jeremy blinked against the glory of the falling sun, he shaded his eyesight against the brilliant light

with his bare hands.

        “You look kind of silly doing that,” a voice like that of a music box murmured happily from

the side of the river. “You should really come over here in the shade before you blind yourself.”

        Jeremy felt his way over to the side of the river in his blinded state, and gratefully dropped

down onto a surprisingly comfortable patch of clover. The irises in his eyes began to slowly widen

once again creating the startling effect of making the little girl seated next to him seem to appear

from the depths of the sun itself. She was wearing a deep green dress of the softest velvet that was

spread gracefully across the embankment. The little girl‟s dark brown hair tumbled in soft curls

around her shoulders around a tiny face that looked almost as if it had been molded in an attempt to

show perfection. She appraised Jeremy quietly with a pair of eyes as blue as the deepest seas.




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         “I didn‟t think that I would see you again so soon,” Corrie commented with a voice that

seemed almost musical in Jeremy‟s ears. “I have to admit, Regret had a powerful hold upon the

world. I didn‟t think that you stood much of a chance at taking anything back from her at all.” She

looked around at the riverbed, making quite a show of it as if she were appreciating her

surroundings for the first time in her young life. “Things did manage to turn out rather nicely, didn‟t

they?”

         “They could have been a lot worse,” Jeremy responded. He slowly began to realize just how

comfortable and safe he felt while sitting on the edge of this patch of clover. Relaxing slightly, he

stretched back and let himself recline upon his elbows. “What happened to you after I lost you near

the tower?”

         Corrie shook her head, “I ran into my sister,” she commented blithely. “You remember her,

she was the older girl from the terrace.”

         Jeremy blushed at the memory as his seductress flashed through the depths of his mind.

         “Oh, you do remember,” Corrie smiled innocently. “Oh, she wasn‟t happy with me for

taking you away from her. She gets awfully territorial at times. It‟s really quite disgusting.”

         “Well,” Jeremy responded, “I think I am going to do my best to stay away from her for the

next little while.” This comment seemed to illicit sheer joy from Corrie, whose face lit like the sun

when it first blushes over the mountains in the morning.

         “I‟m glad,” was all that she said, although Jeremy could read in her eyes that she meant

much more than just that. “What are you going to do now?”

         “I imagine that Duty is rather worried about me. It wasn‟t exactly pretty when I left the city

and the bridge fell.”

         “It fell?” Corrie asked in sheer horror.




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        “Yes,” Jeremy continued, “and I fell into the void. Did you know that there is an ocean as

black as night down there?” Corrie shook her head, to which Jeremy continued on his narrative. “I

was starting to drown out there in the blackness, when all of a sudden a woman came and saved me.

I ran into her in the tower, but never got around to thanking her for saving me from the darkness.”

        “What was her name?” Corrie asked.

        “Hope.”

        She smiled at that. “I‟ve met her once or twice. She would be good for you. In fact, I think

she would be better with you than any other person in Gotica especially my sister.”

        Jeremy sat for a moment, lost in his own thoughts as he attempted to make sense out of what

Corrie had just said. She had an infuriating gift for saying things to him that seemed so simple on the

surface, and yet implied so much if he actually let himself think about them. That was Corrie‟s way.

She was a pool of silent water, however one that if you dove into it, you would find it was

impossibly deep.

        “So I take it you are going to go back to the city,” Corrie observed.

        “I suppose so,” Jeremy responded. “Why don‟t you come with me?”

        “I would like that,” Corrie stood and began to brush the blossoms out of the folds of her

dress. “It‟s been a long time since I‟ve seen the city, but you have to understand that things are going

to be different once we get back there. Things aren‟t going to be the same between us anymore.”

        “What do you mean?” Jeremy asked.

        Corrie smiled at him as she took his hand, “Exactly what I said. Things are going to be

different once I go back to the city. Nothing will be like it has been. I just thought that I should warn

you about it before I miss my chance.” Jeremy stood in a stunned silence at what the little girl had

just told him. She pulled intently on his hand, urging him to continue walking with her. “Come on,”




                                                  140
she prodded, “the bridge back to the city isn‟t that far from here. If we walk quickly we could get

back before the sun sets tonight.”

        “Corrie,” Jeremy responded bluntly, “I don‟t know how to break this to you, but the bridge

fell down while I was crossing over here. I almost drowned in the void, remember?”

        Corrie simply shook her head and laughed, “Silly, the bridge didn‟t fall down. It just seemed

to decide to not be as stable as it should have been until things changed at the tower with Regret.

Now that everything is coming back to normal, everything should be just like it has always been.”

She turned and looked into Jeremy‟s eyes, smiling at the perplexed glaze that now covered his

pupils. Smiling she took his hand once again and gave it a tiny squeeze.

        “Try not to think about it too hard. It will all be fine in the end.”



2.

        As sure as the day was long, Corrie was right about the bridge. It stood anchored upon the

grassy shoreline of the world as solidly as any structure ever could have been. The bridge was like a

perfect ribbon, extending over a deep canyon with a lake that reflected the world much like a

gigantic mirror of the world resting below. The bridge looked like an ivory ribbon, extending

through the air with a kind of singular grace that betrayed that the bridge could never have been a

work of ordinary stone. For fleeting seconds Jeremy fancied that he could see the city waiting for

them on the opposite side of the great canyon, its formidable walls rising out of the side of the

canyon just as they had the first time he had seen them from below. The closer that they came to the

bridge, the more nervous Corrie seemed to become. With each passing step that brought them inch

by painful inch nearer to the bridge proper, Corrie seemed to revert farther and farther back into the

child that she appeared to be.




                                                   141
        “You don‟t have to come along with me if you don‟t want to,” it was the least that Jeremy

could do to make a feeble attempt at being comforting to the young girl. “I would understand if you

would rather stay here. The city isn‟t for everyone, you know.”

        Corrie shook her head, “I know, but I lived there once before. It shouldn‟t be this difficult to

go back.”

        “Then why are you so nervous? You look like you are staring your own death in your face.”

        “I guess some people could say that the moment you know that the white horse is coming, is

the moment that you begin to watch for him.” For a brief second Jeremy thought that he could see a

small tear forming in the corner of the young girl‟s eye. Finally, she pulled herself together with

visible effort, and murmured, “let‟s go.”

        The bridge was smooth, yet not to the point of being slippery, and stretched beautifully

across the deep canyon back to the city. As they walked along the perfect symmetry of the bridge,

Jeremy found himself musing about the methods of its construction. He knew full well that the

bridge had collapsed beneath him, and that it must have been rebuilt, yet at the same time he could

not manage to see how the bridge managed to come to be. It was almost as if this were the same

bridge that had ever been there, still stretching in exactly the same way that it had always stretched

since the beginning of time. Jeremy could see no signs of repair or reconstruction in the shape of the

bridge, and in fact found himself thinking that it looked as if the bridge had never fallen apart, nor

been touched once again by the hands of artisans.

        From the sides of the city, Jeremy could swear that he saw what appeared to be the shape of

new bridges being built, they were also expanding out across the gorge, only still were incomplete

and relied much more heavily on support from the canyon walls and bed. The city was obviously

alive, people watching the bridge expectantly through the haze of the remaining daylight, straining

their eyes to see the first people to come across from the other side. As Jeremy and Corrie walked,



                                                  142
the little girl became more nervous, her hand trembling in Jeremy‟s grip almost like a leaf being

blown by the winds of winter. She was still firm faced, and did not betray an ounce of the fear that

was obviously abounding within her heart. The city grew slowly larger on the horizon until finally it

stood before them, tall and majestic in its architectural glory.

        A throng of people waited at the foot of the bridge as Jeremy and Corrie made their final

steps before entering into the city. They were fascinated to see the first two people to come back

from the opposite side since the bridge had been connected once again, and their joy upon seeing the

two of them almost managed to hide the plague scars that pocked their faces. A light rain of confetti

fell from the top floors of the houses that bordered upon the street, crashing down upon the pair in a

jubilant homecoming. As they walked away from the bridge and down the street, the crowd slowly

parted so as to allow Jeremy and Corrie room to pass.

        Waiting at the top of the street stood Duty, his face grave and pale at the sight of the people

gathered in the street. He brightened quickly however at the sight of Jeremy as he walked hand in

hand with the little girl. It was almost at a dead run that Duty reached the two of them. He quickly

embraced Jeremy in a long tearful reunion.

        “I was almost beginning to doubt that you would come back to us. It had been so long.”

Duty shook his head in shock. “Then all of a sudden the void became light, and we knew that there

was hope once again. I didn‟t think that it was you.”

        “Funny that you should mention that, but I met her while I was traveling on the other side.

It‟s a shame we lost touch, I would have loved to have brought her back to the city.”

        “Who?” Duty asked.

        “Hope. She was there for a few minutes right before I lost myself again almost like when we

were at the vision place.”




                                                  143
        “You still aren‟t healthy?” Duty asked with visible concern on his face. “My sister will have

my hide if she finds out I let you go wandering into the world while you were still ill from the

burning you got at the vision place.”

        It was then that Duty allowed himself to pause long enough to realize who was standing at

Jeremy‟s side with his hands tightly clasped in hers.

        “Innocence?”

        Corrie smiled at him with a light that seemed like the twinkling of stars in her eyes. “Hi,

Duty.” Almost timidly, she released Jeremy‟s hand and watched Duty appraisingly as she allowed

herself to inch slightly closer. After a few moments and having convinced herself that he was the

genuine article, Corrie‟s face erupted with a wide smile and she embraced him in a hearty hug.

        “I‟ve missed you, little girl.” Duty murmured as he slowly turned her in the air. “I‟ve missed

you dreadfully.”

        “Corrie, you know him?” Jeremy asked when the pair paused in their reverie for a moment.

        “Of course she knows me,” Duty responded. “She is Innocence. She was the one that led us

before I started to meddle in things that were beyond my control.”

        Innocence elbowed Duty in the ribs, “Oh, I‟m sure you are doing just fine for an old man.”

She turned to Jeremy and appraised him with her sparkling blue eyes, almost as if she were trying to

see if there would be disappointment on his face. “I tried to tell you, I really did. I‟m not this Corrie

that you are always talking about. I never have been. I‟m just me, and I knew that I would have to

go back to being just that once we reached the city.”

        Jeremy could not help but feel confusion and slight despair at the discovery of an innocent

deception.




                                                   144
         “I didn‟t mean to hurt you,” Innocence continued. “You seemed to take so much comfort in

thinking that I was someone from your past instead of who I am that I couldn‟t bear to rob you of

those dreams. Besides, I rather liked the name „Corrie‟. You could still call me that if you wish.”

         She reasoned with the logic of a ten-year-old. So far as Innocence could be sure, things were

still black and white, and there should never be pain caused by good intentions. She was one who

would be willing to forgive at the drop of a hat, and it seemed as if she was disappointed if others

could not do the same. Although it was difficult for him, Jeremy swallowed his pride long enough to

smile at her and offer his hand once again.

         “You are who you are, even if you say that you aren‟t.”

         It seemed as if Innocence found Jeremy‟s response suitably cryptic to be appropriate for a

great game, and yet forgiving enough to not need to cause worry about hurt feelings. She smiled

widely at him and took his hand in her left and Duty‟s hand in her right. With a deep breath,

Innocence inflated herself as if she were trying to make her bearing seem more like that of an adult

woman. She arched her back ever so slightly, a motion which seemed almost silly when portrayed by

her tiny frame.

         “Well, now that I‟ve got two suitors to accompany me, we had better get ourselves to the

ball.”

         The three of them walked through the city streets, talking about the things that had

transpired while Jeremy had been adventuring on the opposite side of the world. Duty explained that

soon after the bridge had fallen that a strange disease had began to infest the city, striking seemingly

at random yet spreading like wildfire through the city‟s residents. People who were infected by the

disease had been forced into quarantine for fear of infecting more of the city‟s inhabitants, however

the disease seemed to flow like water throughout the city, and would still spread despite efforts to

hem it up.



                                                  145
        “I realize that there must have been something major that corrected itself for the void to have

disappeared like it has, however we are mired in problems on this side of the world. People are

beginning to die from this sickness, having to face the final hours of their lives alone and burning

with fevers and chills that are beyond belief. I‟ve never seen anything quite like it.” Duty hung his

head sadly, “the worst part of the entire situation, is that I am sure there is nothing I can do to stop

this madness anymore.”

        Innocence squeezed his hand slightly, casting an understanding smile in his direction.

        “Sooner or later you are going to have to learn to let go of it Duty,” Innocence murmured

quietly to him. “You can‟t carry the world on your shoulders forever. I know you would like to, but

if you do, it is going to break you sooner or later. Its just a matter of time.”

        Duty smiled at her with a heartbroken gaze frozen upon his eyelids. “I‟ve needed you so

badly these last few years, Innocence. You always manage to make me see things more clearly than

I can alone.”

        “I guess that is why I had to come back to you,” Innocence grinned.

        “You two look tired,” Duty observed, “we should get you to someplace where you can rest

for a little while from your journey on the other side of the bridge.”



3.

        For the second time in the past few days that he could remember, Jeremy found himself

laying in a bed in the home of Duty‟s sister. Once again, she was cooing over him and Innocence,

always looking over their shoulders and making sure that those things which would make them most

comfortable were happening on a regular basis. She talked to Jeremy as if he were an old friend that

she had known for the majority of his life, instead of just another invalid that she had taken in not a

week past.



                                                   146
        Apparently things had been busy in the time that Jeremy had been traveling on the opposite

side of the bridge. His hostess explained to him that there had been a mysterious outbreak of some

plague disease that had begun taking the lives of the people who lived there in the city. She

recounted the horrors of living within the city once the disease began to become prevalent. Duty

apparently had done the best that he could to contain the disease and protect the remainder of the

city, however his sister was still greatly disappointed with the results he had obtained. She pointed to

the countless hordes of people who were isolated and abandoned within the city walls, and

questioned if their responsibility to protect the remainder of the populace outweighed their

responsibility to be charitable with the sick.

        Duty bore his sister‟s protests with a calm resolve, and Jeremy could tell by the sad look on

his eyes that although he detested the measures that had been taken, Duty believed he had done the

right thing. Now that his mind was set, nothing could sway the man from his current course of

action. Not even the constant haranguing that he was receiving from his younger sister could change

his mind and focus now. Jeremy still admired Duty for his inflexibility once he discovered what he

believed to be right. Jeremy often had chided himself for being too easily swayed from the course,

and wished that some day he could become more steadfast like the older man.

        Although he was still desirous to sit and converse with the other two, Jeremy could not help

but deny that his body was worn and tired. The gaping wound that covered his shoulder had been

treated as best it could, however it still sapped his strength like a bore in the middle of a tree. Jeremy

found himself becoming more and more tired as time went on, until finally he had no remaining

recourse save retiring to an early rest.

        Once again, Jeremy found himself laying in that old comfortable bed that he had slept in

only a few days past. He was once again staring at the same wooden ceiling with the same network




                                                   147
of support beams that were holding up the same stucco roof. A great sense of familiarity wafted over

him as he drifted into the edges of sleep.

        Jeremy couldn‟t be sure if it was mist or smoke that filled the air around him. It shifted and

moved like clouds over the sea, drifting and turning with a kind of perfect symmetry that he could

watch for hours. All around him there was darkness, save the burning of a few white candles that

had been scattered around the ground. They glowed under the veil of smoke, giving a silky orange

luster to the room around them. Seated cross legged in the center of the room was an old woman,

who seemed to be busy studying a wilted rose that sat in a vase before her. Although he looked as

hard as he could, Jeremy could find nothing of interest in the rose. It merely was another wilted

flower, once brilliantly red, that had now been turned into something dark and twisted, the petals

only a hairs breath from falling to the earth.

        “It looks just like it is close to dead,” the old woman murmured to him. “You would think

that it would finally give up its grip and fall apart. Maybe it will.”

        “What?” Jeremy asked.

        “You were wondering what I found so interesting about the rose, and so I told you.” She

looked up at him now, a smile flickering on her eyes, amplified by the effect of the candle light.

“Just because I am old and like staring at roses does not mean that I am lacking in manners. Quite

the opposite really, otherwise I would have been reading your mind and face like a novel from the

moment that you set foot in here.”

        Try as he might, Jeremy could not remember coming into the room at all. He could

remember nothing from before the candles, and yet he was not alarmed by this absence of memory.

        “You are going to have to get used to having some holes in your mind. You are going to

have a lot of them in the near future.”

        “What do you mean?”



                                                   148
        The old woman chuckled, “Sometimes you don‟t get to remember everything you do. You

will learn about that soon enough.” She watched Jeremy under the candlelight, once again

appraising him much like Innocence had done while he had been sitting in the mud. “There is so

much that you do not understand anymore, and I just don‟t have time to teach you hardly anything.”

Slowly, she reached forward and plucked the rose from its vase. She moved purposefully and

cautiously, trying to insure that she would not damage the rose further with any harsh treatment on

her account. She placed the flower in Jeremy‟s hands.

        “Now, I want you to close your eyes. There is something I need to show you.”

        Although he still felt skeptical about the act, Jeremy closed his eyes. The darkness of the

room became complete for him as he found himself sinking deeper and deeper into the pool of

midnight that waited underneath his eyelids. The thick musk of incense burned within his nose,

tickling his body with its savor.

        “Now, as you are sitting there, I want you to picture yourself, only this time you are a little

different from the rest of the world. This time you are beautiful. You are the most beautiful thing

that has ever graced the face of the earth. You aren‟t innocent however. You have thorns and spines

that will repel those who attempt to become too close to you. I want you to see yourself in your

mind. I want you to see yourself being the rose.

        “You are tired right now. You are feeling like you want to fall apart at any given moment. It

wouldn‟t take much to make you abandon this mortal coil. Maybe just a little something to push

you in the right direction. We aren‟t going to do that today, because there are still things that you

have to do, my little rose. I want you to pull yourself up. I know it is difficult, but I want you to

wake up and stretch yourself once again.” There was a certain warmth to the old woman‟s voice that

was almost hypnotic, lulling Jeremy into a state of deeper and deeper obedience. “That is good, my

little rose. You are doing fine.



                                                   149
        “Now, there is one last thing I need you to do. I want you to reach inside your heart and push

away the things that are making you hurt. I know there are things within you that you don‟t like. I

think we are all like that. I want you to find those things and push them away from you for just a

second. I want you to be pure and unadulterated for a little while. I want you to chase away all of

this darkness for a while so that you can feel like you can just sit there and shine here in the

darkness. I know you can feel the darkness, and I know that you don‟t like it. I know that you feel

like you could die if you have to face this darkness any longer. Don‟t fear. You will not die from too

much exposure to the darkness. Roses are strong in the shade. I want you to reach inside and feel

your own light for now. I want you to shine, and that shining will give you the strength to hold on.

        “Speaking of holding on, I think you should let go of the rose now, Jeremy. After all, you are

still you. You are not a rose, are you?”

        Jeremy opened his eyes as his right hand released the rose. The thorns of the flower had

implanted themselves into his palm as he had held it in his grip, and small holes had been punctured

in his skin. There were tiny droplets of blood falling from the thorns of the rose, cascading in a tiny

rush from the thorns to the floor beneath them. The flower itself had not only gained a new found

life, but it had changed from dark crimson to pure white. The blossom was wide and radiant, almost

as if it shone with its one light. The cut rose had grown also, and was now beginning to show signs

of forcing out a few new blossoms through other branches that were coming off of the main stalk.

        “It‟s beautiful,” Jeremy was awestruck by the purity and strength of the once wilted rose that

had been in his hand. “It is unlike anything I‟ve ever seen.”

        “You should see yourself,” the old woman smiled at him. Suddenly the expression on her

face changed. “You had better get out of here. The dark one is coming.”

        Before Jeremy could look from the rose to the old woman once again, it was as if the world

had shifted. He now found himself sitting in a wide hallway, the rose in his hand having planted



                                                  150
itself into a seam between two tiles. It was growing into a full bush now, blossoms budding on the

ends of branches and stalks with a beautiful resiliency. For some reason there was a dull mist in the

hallway, holding tightly to the floor and corners, latching onto any object that it could touch in order

to rise for a moment or two before descending once again to hug the bottom of the floor. Jeremy sat

watching the rose, still trying to decipher the puzzle of a red dying rose that became white and full of

life once again.

        The sound of heavy footsteps behind him jolted Jeremy out of his musings and returned him

to the harsh realm of reality into which he was bound. The footfalls echoed throughout the hallway,

much like the sound of something larger than they ever could be. Each step was punctuated by the

squeaking of a well oiled sole on the tile floors. A sudden need to not meet the owner of those shoes

overtook Jeremy, and he struggled to his feet in time to dash around a side corridor. This second

hallway was somewhat sloped, and descended downward at a gentle rate. Dodging around a second

corner, Jeremy turned to watch with trepidation the hallway where he had been kneeling with the

rose bush.

        Within a few moments, a tall man in a brilliant suit came to stand mere inches away from the

rose. He stood over it with an almost mocking posture, shaking his head to himself as he inspected

the flower.

        “A white rose. Do you have any idea how long it has been since I‟ve seen one of your kind

in Gotica?” the man said. He raised his head slightly, and for a brief second Jeremy recognized the

features of the businessman. They were distorted somehow, as if the roguish handsome features that

had distinguished him so well had faded and twisted to the point of becoming purely menacing. His

face seemed dark and angular, drawn to a fierce point at his chin rather than softly crafted and

handsome like Jeremy had once perceived.




                                                  151
        The suit that he was wearing had changed from the last time that Jeremy had seen the

businessman as well. While before it had been a reserved black suit, this time it was a brilliant

crimson. The suit perfectly matched the man‟s tie, which was bright enough to seem like it burned

with its own flames. The businessman turned and looked toward the corridor into which Jeremy had

fled, and the young man thought that for a brief moment he must have been seen. Jeremy ducked

back to safety in a scant second, and turned to run down the hallway as quickly as he could without

being heard.

        The hallway slowly began to open up as Jeremy ran past the first of many parked cars. The

hallway was filled with dust and rubble, pieces of trash blowing across the way and collecting in

every odd corner that they could find.

        Jeremy sensed the sound of the footsteps once again, they were terribly close this time, and

he had only a scant second in which he could duck behind one of the parked cars and hide.

        “I know that you are nearby,” the voice of the businessman boomed from the hallway,

echoing across the sides of the street and bouncing off of the cars. It was not long before he came

into view, from where Jeremy crouched gaping at him behind one of the parked cars. “Interesting

choice of a venue. What could it be that you are trying to tell me, boy?”

        Suddenly the businessman smiled, turned his head slightly, and then looked directly at

Jeremy. “You are in the city. It isn‟t a bad place. I already have some friends and acquaintances

there. But don‟t worry. I‟ll find you soon enough.”

        The world seemed to dissolve around the face of the businessman, the fire and fury burning

within his eyes flashing through the room and threatening to leap forth and consume Jeremy‟s soul.

        “I warned you that I would destroy you, little one. I always keep my promises.”



4.



                                                 152
        In a sudden jolt, Jeremy was awake and upright in his bed, the thin sheet he had been

wrapped in was soaked with sweat and entwined around his legs in a knot. The sound of his own

heart beating pulsed in his ears like the overpowering beat of a bass drum, pulsing over and over and

over. His lungs were torn with the sensation of having been filled with water again, and for a few

brief moments Jeremy was forced to stifle the urgent desire to throw up again. As his breathing and

the madcap beating of his heart began to normalize, Jeremy realized that the rest of the world had

gone silent save the gentle tapping of the rain that was crashing onto the roof above him.

        It was almost surprising to hear the quiet that filled the air like an oppressive blanket the

despite the incessant drum of the rain. It had been a constant downpour for the hours in which

Jeremy had rested, and had given no signs of letting up. Now the clouds floated in the sky, brooding

over the world below, however now the clouds merely let a trifling of droplets fall to earth almost as

if they were now beginning to feel the futility of their own efforts. Another sound soon replaced that

of the falling rain in Jeremy‟s mind. It was one almost like if a hundred people had all began to

whisper at once. The sound was as if they were indeed afraid to be heard, and yet at the same time

felt that they must say something. All of this came from the city square that was just outside of the

comforts of the house, and it called Jeremy like a magnet would draw a compass.

        “What could be going on?” Jeremy queried to himself as he reluctantly withdrew himself

from his sweat-soaked bedding. The tangled mass fell back onto the surface of the bed with a dull

thud that seemed to echo throughout the tiny room which Jeremy now inhabited. The sound of the

whispering grew louder as Jeremy reluctantly pulled his shoes over his feet again, and stretched his

arms skyward to pull a soft cotton shirt over his head. Shaking himself back awake, Jeremy forced

himself to take the first tentative steps into the front of the room, and then let his shoulder press

against the door.




                                                   153
        By the time the door was open, all of the sound outside in the courtyard had died to a

reverential hush. Jeremy‟s eyes were flooded by what he saw before him in the middle of the square.

        On the front edge of the fountain that stood in the center of the crossroads lay the crumpled

body of a young girl. She lay there at the foot of a watery statue that had been made to resemble the

angel herself. Pure white water sparkled in the afternoon light as it spilled from the angel‟s

outstretched hands, mingling into a pool of deepest crimson at her feet. The water in the fountain had

been tainted by the child‟s blood, which spread like a dark cloud across the foot of the fountain.

Rain drops crashed like meteors into that pool of blood and water, sending tiny ripples that coursed

with the magnitude and force of a tidal wave. From where Jeremy was standing he could see that

none of the onlookers in the crowd were prepared to go to the child‟s side, yet he was already

running from the time he first saw her crumpled shape. A wide wound had been opened in the young

girl‟s throat, one which crossed beneath her chin like some kind of obscene smile. It rushed like a

river of thick warm blood. Never before in his life had Jeremy ever seen so much blood. It was as if

the smile was extracting every last ounce of what was inside her and spreading it across the world

like some kind of ghastly veil.

        It wasn‟t until he was beginning to gather her into his arms that Jeremy realized who the girl

was, lying there in her beautiful green dress.

        “Corrie,” Jeremy whispered as he felt her blood rush over his body, making his hands

slippery and wet as he tried to hold on to her. Jeremy fumbled with the grotesque wound that marred

her unblemished throat, as if through mere intent he could keep her life from draining out of that

wound with his bare hands.

        The sound of screams tore through the air behind Jeremy, as Duty approached at a run from

behind him. Within a frozen heartbeat, Duty was kneeling beside him, as if he had collapsed and




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would never stand again. Duty‟s body shook with convulsive weeping as he looked at that porcelain

face that had become soiled with its own blood.

        “Innocence,” Duty murmured as he wept, “not you.”

        Her open eyes were glazed, almost to the point of looking like glass as Innocence‟s face

stared blindly into the heavens above. Those eyes seemed to say so much with their empty pointless

gaze. Jeremy could not bear to look upon her, and turned in time to see tears falling like rain from

Duty‟s cheeks. The salty droplets fell as if time would stand still for them, crashing into pools of

blood that had gathered and stained Duty much like it had Jeremy and the fountain behind them.

        “She wanted to keep us apart,” a voice called out from across the square. Jeremy raised his

mournful gaze from Innocence‟s broken body to find a familiar woman standing at the courtyard

looking at him with her icy blue gaze. Desire‟s ruby lips glistened with a hue all too similar to that

of the blood that stained her hands and the long curved knife that she carried. She still wore the same

white blouse, that was almost too revealing and too transparent to be considered decent, however it

was also now stained with the child‟s blood.

        “What have you done?” Jeremy‟s voice was a low growl that barely escaped his throat with

more volume than a whisper. In the silence that had enveloped the world, nothing more was needed.

        “She wanted to keep us apart,” came a sickeningly innocent reply, particularly from Desire‟s

lips. “I want you for my own, Jeremy. Can‟t you understand what it feels like to have someone you

want snatched out from under you?” She had been walking slowly across the square, and now was

no farther than an arm‟s length from him. Desire‟s ocean blue eyes had grown large and engulfing,

as if her sea had expanded around Jeremy‟s soul. She ran her right hand over her chest where her

heart should have been, pressing the wet fabric of her blouse against her breast as if attempting to

expose what he could have. “Admit it,” she spoke huskily, “your heart beats for me.”




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        The pain of the death of Innocence began to dull in the recesses of Jeremy‟s mind. Visions of

her blood filling the fountain at the feet of the angel began to slowly disappear. All that existed was

this woman, and the way she had made Jeremy feel that she wanted him as desperately as he. As

Jeremy grew closer to her still, he could fill his blood begin to boil within his veins as a deep and

passionate blush flooded his cheeks.

        “I am yours,” Desire lustfully revealed, “and you are mine.”

        Jeremy reached to touch her, and watched in horror as his blood stained hand froze inches

from her porcelain cheek. The blush that had risen beneath Jeremy‟s skin suddenly turned to a stark

paleness as the blood rushed away from him completely. It was as if the canvas of her illusions had

been rent to pieces by the sight of the blood on his hands. Fury filled Jeremy‟s eyes, making them

shine in the setting sun like twin stars.

        The clouds above Jeremy‟s head parted, as if some unseen hand had twisted them with a

gigantic fork. They were sent spiraling in thousands of directions with Jeremy at their center,

twisting into individual storms and disturbances.

        “I do not belong to you,” Jeremy screamed. “I will never belong to you!”

        The wind flew across the city walls, and flooded the town with a tidal wave of sheer power.

Dust and debris that was carried by the wind rendered it impossible for anyone to maintain their eyes

open as the storm rushed through. The wind whipped at all of those who were standing in the

courtyard, and threatened to begin destroying the buildings of the city themselves. Small pieces of

ceramic roofing came loose and went flying through the air, crashing into the street below.

        As quickly as the wind had appeared, it was gone.

        By the time that anyone was able to look again, a statue stood where Desire once had been.

A scream that had been birthed in Desire‟s throat was now frozen mere inches from escaping her

stone, unfeeling lips. Where her once soft and yielding flesh had once been, solid stone now greeted



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the world and all of those who would touch her. Her beauty was still intact, but it was as dead as the

stone that it had been hewn out of.

       “This can‟t be,” Jeremy heard a voice murmur from somewhere in the crowd behind him.

Turning in fear, rage, and frustration, Jeremy ran back into the house where he had been staying off

of the square. Duty was soon coming in behind him.



5.

       “Who are you?” Duty‟s question was as much an accusation as it was a query. He had

thrown the door shut behind him, keeping an enraged Jester fuming outside. A commotion was

rising outside the tiny wooden structure as people gathered to gape at Innocence laying dashed in a

pool of her own blood. They would be marveling at the statue that had once been Desire as well,

some would be transfixed by her beauty, others would see past that and see the shadow that lurked

underneath her surface. All would be stunned by the stone, which still seemed slightly soft to the

touch and crafted in such a way that save for coloration looked truly alive.

       “She‟s dead, Duty. She died and there was nothing I could do about it.”

       Duty‟s movement was as quick as an enraged viper as he crossed the room and struck

Jeremy across the face. Jeremy turned in a fury, however found himself trapped as Duty held him by

the shoulders. Both men locked the other in their enraged gaze, Jeremy with his brown eyes that

looked almost black, and Duty with his icy stare that seemed to quiver between green and blue.

       “You of all people should know that I loved her,” the edge faded from Duty‟s voice as he

murmured his confession. Within the corners of those hazel eyes the iridescent glow of oncoming

tears sparkled under the fading light within the room. “But we have to face that she‟s gone.” Duty

straightened himself, “What I am asking you is, who are you?”

       Jeremy lowered his head shamefully under Duty‟s gaze. “I‟m just me.”



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        Duty chuckled under his breath; “Everyone in Gotica embodies something. Sooner or later

we all have to accept that fact. Some of us never really aspire to or accept who we are, and we

merely are who we are. Take the old man, for instance. I think much to the Jester‟s chagrin that he

really is the Genius. He can grasp things that make my head spin, that I could never hope to

understand. If you ask the old man, he will never tell you that he is the Genius, but he will say that

he hasn‟t taken a name for himself. He seemed to like it when you called him „Lee‟, but even that

name didn‟t stick for very long.”

        “I don‟t know,” Jeremy responded, “I don‟t feel like I embody anything. I just am.”

        “You are not one of us,” Duty concluded, “and you most certainly are not like either the

angel or the businessman.” Duty‟s eyes widened, as he looked Jeremy over. “You know, it‟s funny.

I always thought you would be taller.”

        “I get that a lot, but what are you talking about?”

        Duty smiled with a sage-like grin. “We all saw what happened out there, how when

Innocence was killed you rounded on Desire. We all saw how the heavens parted when you turned

even if you did not. You hated Desire, and wanted to be rid of her, however you are somehow

allured to her still. You could not destroy her, but you could render her into a more harmless state.”

        “What are you talking about, Duty?”

        Duty‟s response came mingled with laughter. “Anyone can see it besides you. You are

God.”

        Jeremy laughed bitterly, “small comfort. Now every time I feel like shaking my fist at

heaven for the things that happen, I‟ll know that it is my own damn fault.”

        Duty shook his head, “People are going to know who you are now. After what happened

here today, I don‟t think there is any way we can do anything to hide it.”




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        “There is something I need to tell you, Duty.” Jeremy continued after a nod from his friend,

“Last night while I was asleep, I saw the businessman in my dreams. He was a little bit different

than I remember him, however I saw him all the same. He said that he knew that I was in the city,

and that he was going to come to look for me.”

        “Just what we need,” Duty growled. “The city is already mired in one of the darkest times in

its history and now the master of all the darkness is getting ready to come and pay us a visit. That is

just what we need.”

        Jeremy and Duty stepped out of the door of the house and back into the throng. The people

tended to linger away from the pair, a mixture of reverence and fear mingled upon their faces.

Innocence‟s crumpled body still lay on the border of the fountain, the rain water beginning to wash

streaks across her face. The pool of her blood that stained the ground and fountain where she lay was

diluting in the water, however was also increasing in size as it spread across the face of the city. The

stain seemed less powerful now, however it stretched like a hand across the face of Gotica, claiming

inch after inch in its slow battle to acquire dominance.

        “Why doesn‟t anyone do anything for her?” Jeremy asked.

        Duty shook his head, “Nobody has ever died here before, and most certainly has never been

killed here. This is something new and unseen to the people of this city. They have no way to

understand what needs to be done.”

        “Do you know?”

        A grim smile graced Duty‟s lips, and had Jeremy been able to distinguish them from the

falling rain, he would have noticed tears falling from Duty‟s eyes as he said, “We should find a

place where she can rest.”

        “You are who you say you are.” Jeremy replied as he knelt besides Innocence and lifted her

into his arms. She seemed terribly light now as compared to how Jeremy remembered her when he



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had lifted her into his arms and carried her on other occasions. She had been full of life then, and that

life had given her tiny frame an increased sense of mass. Now, the little girl was hardly more than an

empty husk, as if that which had been Innocence had already fled, leaving this shell behind. By the

time Jeremy was standing at his full height again, Duty was right by his side. The older man gently

placed his scarred hands upon the little girl‟s face, and with a single fluid motion closed her cold

blue eyes.

        The two of them walked together out of the courtyard, and the crowds parted before them

without a single gesture or glance. Jeremy never once questioned if they were parting for him, or for

Innocence. She was all that could ever occupy his mind. Somewhere in the back of Jeremy‟s mind, a

tiny voice of guilt began to explode. It reminded him with every step that he was God here, and that

all it would take is his decision and Innocence would be alive once again. The voice chided him for

letting her die, repeating again and again that it was his fault that she would never breathe again. He

should have been able to stop it from happening. The voice reminded Jeremy about how he had

managed to turn desire into a cold stone statue with a single enraged thought, and wondered how a

god could have that much power and still not stop a child from being murdered a few feet from

where he lay.

        Duty walked in silence. Never once did he even begin to gesture at Jeremy in an accusatory

way. He merely watched the path, and at times glanced into Innocence‟s face, as if half expecting

her to awaken once again laughing and smiling. There were times when Duty appeared to be

thinking that any minute she would announce that this was all just some kind of fun game, and then

things would return to usual.

        “She‟s not coming back, you know.” Jeremy could not bring himself to look at the other

man as he spoke.

        “I know.”



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        “You are probably wondering if I don‟t care. After all, I am God. I should be able to bring

her back if I really wanted to.”

        Duty shook his head once again, “Listen, I know who you are, and I know what you think

you are capable of. You have to understand, this is not your fault.”

        Jeremy rounded upon Duty in a fury, “What do you mean this is not my fault? You‟ve seen

what I can do! I am the master of the creation in this place! I could unwrite you in a single instant if

I decided to do it! The tides shift because of me, the winds blow through the sky because of me!”

        Duty somehow managed to remain calm. “Do you honestly believe that you control Gotica?

Do you honestly believe that you are the one making these things happen?”

        Jeremy stared blankly at Duty.

        “Tell me you made the bridge crumble beneath your feet,” Duty continued. “Tell me that

you spread the darkness like a cancer throughout Gotica, and that you then wielded the knife that

cut her throat.” Duty shook his head at Jeremy, “You aren‟t in control. That is why these things are

happening.

        “Up until this point, you had been the faceless God. Nobody had ever seen you, nobody had

ever spoken to you. It was always assumed that you just stayed at the helm, making things happen

according to your whim. Yes, sometimes bad things happened, but also sometimes good things

happened. People never died. Especially not like Innocence.

        “I believe you have been knocked from your throne. You are out of your place at the helm,

and I believe that the businessman has placed someone else there in your absence. It is probably

someone that he can manipulate, someone that he can control. The point is, that his will is becoming

manifest inside Gotica because you are not at the helm anymore. You are here.”

        They walked onward in silence until they reached a tiny grove at the edge of a small river. It

was not a place much unlike where Jeremy had met with Innocence after his journey into the heart



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of darkness. Without a word, they chose a spot in behind the lee of a great oak tree. There, they left

Innocence‟s crumpled remains, on top of a small patch of clover. Jeremy knelt beside the lee of the

tree and closed his eyes for a moment.

        As Duty watched, the clover and roots of the tree wrapped themselves around Innocence

almost as if they were making themselves into a cradle for a newborn child. They blanketed her,

covering the child‟s body with a warm and living quilt. The weaving took only seconds, and soon

thereafter it appeared only to be a small distortion in the tree, one which nature had reclaimed and

made into a tiny hill.

        The rain stopped long enough to allow a few rays of light to pass through the dense clouds

above. They bounced through the leaves of the oak tree, and skittered across the waves of the river

in an almost magical dance. Jeremy watched as the wind tickled the tops of the clover sending them

bowing and swaying like suitors at court. Somewhere, some dandelions bore their seed into the air,

allowing them to drift on the currents of the breeze like ballerinas in the sky. They hung suspended,

twisting in the air with a grace that was all their own.

        “Innocence would have loved this place,” Duty smiled as they turned and began to walk

back into the heart of the city. Once again, they walked in silence for a few moments as they traveled

back toward where the expectant throng would be waiting to see the man who changed the world at

will.

        “What are we going to do, Duty? The businessman said that he was going to come here to

the city to look for me. I know the way he is sometimes, and it wouldn‟t surprise me if he brings a

legion to war with him.”

        “It‟s a tough decision. We are a peaceful people by large. Not only that, but we have been

weakened by this disease that has infested the city. I don‟t think there would be much hope for any

kind of resistance, even if we tried to organize something.”



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        “I could stand against him for a while,” Jeremy replied. “I could try and unmake his lackeys

as they attack us, but that could only last for so long. It takes time to erase something, especially

something as dark as the Rages.”

        Duty smiled coldly, “You will be surprised how well defended this city really is. It‟s always

been this way, at least so long as I‟ve been able to remember it. I guess that is just how God made

it.” Duty blanched white mere seconds after he had made that statement. “You did make it that way,

didn‟t you?”

        Jeremy shook his head, “to be honest, I really don‟t remember. For some reason I don‟t

remember much of anything about Gotica before I actually woke up here beneath the chapel. I see

faces that seem familiar, and people that I think I should know, however in the end they react to me

as if I were a total stranger. It is almost as if I am trying to see something in Gotica that really isn‟t

what it is. I‟m talking myself into a corner here, aren‟t I?”

        “It‟s alright,” Duty replied. “I know exactly what it feels like to be confused, especially

about something like this.”

        They talked the entire way back to the city, musing about what eventualities could protect

the inhabitants of the city. They spoke of striking at the businessman first, routing the Rages and

everything else that would follow him before they could ever be ready to lay siege upon the city.

Duty could not fathom why Jeremy could not simply will that the Rages would not exist, and then

bring an end to the war before it could even happen. Try as he might, Jeremy found it quite difficult

to explain why he couldn‟t simply make something cease to exist within the world. Duty saw within

Jeremy a fountain of unending power, both to protect and also to destroy, while ignoring the

weaknesses that haunted Jeremy with every step back into the center of the city.




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        A great crowd had assembled near the fountain, they were looking at the statue of Desire,

almost expectantly as if any minute they believed she would revert back to her natural state. None

dared to approach the statue except for a single familiar man.

        “Its good to see you again, Absolution.”

        Absolution turned and smiled at the sound of Jeremy‟s voice. “Jeremy my boy, how are

you? Things on the other side of the bridge changed not a few minutes after you went into the heart

of darkness. It was almost like somebody just decided to turn the lights on and poof! Suddenly the

whole world seemed awfully inhabitable, and even all that foulness that was all over the place began

to seep away. Its so wonderful not having to plug one‟s nose when wandering around the forest.

Anyway, I heard that Innocence decided to come back across the bridge with you, oh did she tell you

who she really was? I know that you liked calling her “Corrie” but she was really getting kind of

torn up about it with a major identity crisis type thing. She didn‟t want to upset you, but at the same

time you can‟t be something you are not. Am I right? So anyway, I decided that if the girl could

have come across to the city, there is no good reason I couldn‟t come as well, so I came. I imagine

she is around here somewhere. By the way, that is a nice statue of her sister. A very striking likeness.

She‟s a dangerous woman you know, I sure hope she didn‟t spend too much time with the man that

carved this thing, otherwise he has about as much willpower left to him as your average lump of

mold. She tends to do that to people, you know, wilt them to the point that they have no real

conscious thought other than wanting to be with her all the time. Oh well, lust is like that. So where

is Innocence?”

        “She‟s gone, Absolution.” Jeremy replied once the flood of speech from the other man had

abated. “Desire, her sister, killed her here in the city square not an hour ago.”

        Absolution trembled with rage, “Just wait until I get my hands on her.”




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           “Go right ahead,” Jeremy replied. “That is her standing behind you. She is paying the price

for what she has done.”

           Absolution turned with shock toward the statue once again, realizing that not moments ago

he had been standing in front of the statue openly appreciating the fine curve of her body. “Do you

think she is aware of what is going on?”

           “I don‟t know,” Jeremy replied. “I‟ve never been turned to stone before.”

           “How did this happen?”

           Jeremy turned away from the square and walked back into the house he was staying in. The

crowd half attempted to follow him into the house, however remained outside out of both fear and

respect.

           “God was really angry with her.”

           Absolution shook his head, “The faceless God did this?”

           “He isn‟t so faceless after all,” Duty replied, gesturing slightly to Jeremy‟s retreating back as

he stepped across the threshold of the house. It took a few moments for the depth and breadth of the

comment to settle within Absolution‟s mind, before he let out a startled yelp and followed Duty and

Jeremy back into the house.

           He found Jeremy seated upon the bed, shaking his head angrily as he began to untie the laces

on his shirt. Duty raised a quizzical eyebrow, however said nothing as Jeremy proceeded to strip the

clean white shirt from his body. Jeremy tossed the shirt onto the end of the bed, revealing to the

chagrin of those present that his body and forearms were now tainted with plague sores. They were

in their first stages, having been rent open like new wounds, and had not yet begun to fester with

infection. It would be a matter of days before the boils would begin to appear within the depths of

the open sores, giving rise to an infection that would finally settle within the recesses of Jeremy‟s




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brain, distorting his perception and leaving him in a state of dementia for the final few moments of

his life.

            “How can it be?” Duty murmured in awe. “How is it that you can be infected with this same

thing as the rest of us?”

            “I‟m here in your world, Duty, and it would seem that I am bound by some of the same

rules.” Jeremy let a bitter laugh drift out of his lungs, it was a dry raspy sound that almost resembled

what could have happened if he had become completely dehydrated. “I guess it was about time that

the watchmaker became the watch.”

            Absolution watched in revulsion, obviously repelled by the wounds that were covering

Jeremy‟s body. “What is going to happen to him?”

            “Obviously, he has to be quarantined to avoid spreading the infection to the remainder of the

city. He will have to stay here in this house, until the infection ends.”

            “Or until I die,” Jeremy appended to Duty‟s thought.

            “Yes,” the other man responded, “until you die.” Turning back to Absolution he continued,

“the infection will start out in the sores, becoming more and more compounded as time passes. Soon

it will begin to itch uncontrollably, and then that itch will gradually become pain. We will do what

we can to keep it from becoming unbearable, however that will be a moot point after time. The

infection will enter into the insides of his body, and slowly work its way through until it reaches his

mind. He will then die here, babbling like an idiot. All he will be able to think about is how

incredibly alone he feels in his final moments.”

            “Alone,” Absolution murmured. “Did you say „alone‟?”

            “Yes,” Duty replied, “everyone who is infected with the disease finally ends up terrified of

being alone, however their dementia increases to the point that they can no longer believe that

anyone is near them. It is as if they loose all contact with the remainder of the world.”



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        Absolution began to laugh. “Gentlemen, I believe that you have now met my brother.”



6.

        Absolution left the house in an exited frenzy, prepared to turn the entire city inside out in

search for his long missing twin. He was now sure that the plague was not really a disease at all,

however was more a sign of the presence of his sibling within the city walls. It was odd to see

Absolution so animated about finding the cause of the disease, not necessarily because he aimed to

cure it nor to destroy it, but because he was exited to have found his sibling after so long. After some

considerable effort, Jeremy managed to replace his shirt, thus covering the plague sores from view.

Even Duty could not complain about their current course of action, believing that there was more

chance of containing the disease if they were able to put a stop to its source rather than imprisoning

each individual who was unlucky enough to become infected with it.

        Duty and Absolution were still quite at odds, and it was evident to anyone who saw the two

men. Absolution made a constant effort to chide Duty for being to serious, making joke after joke

about how Duty was nearly impossible to live with. There was one point where Absolution actually

had gone so far as to state that he didn‟t know how the Jester managed to put up with Duty as well

as he did, and that drew a furious growl from the other man. Still, despite their bickering, they could

not dissuade themselves from their common goal.

        Jeremy found that his strength was flagging as he attempted to follow Duty and Absolution

through the city streets. Much to both of their chagrin, the men were beginning to realize that they

were going to have to rely upon each other in order to be able to bring an end to the disease that held

the city in its murderous grip. Duty knew the city as if it were the back of his own hand, and could

navigate his way through the city streets with the skill of a child in his own house. Absolution on the

other hand, had the advantage of familiarity with his twin brothers haunts and habits, and could



                                                  167
seemingly sense where to expect his sibling to be. Each time that they would follow Absolution‟s

instincts they would find more plague victims, each time in varying states of decay. The people of

the city did not recognize Absolution, yet they still seemed quite familiar with him, as if there was

something about him that seemed normal and expected.

        Duty was becoming desperate as the day progressed. He watched Jeremy from the corner of

his eye and continually noted the rate of decay in his friend‟s strength. Jeremy was swiftly

approaching the end of his own meager abilities, and both he and Duty knew it. Once again spotting

a lonely old man sitting on the corner of an empty alleyway, Absolution sped off, sure that this

would be the instant that would reveal to them his brother‟s whereabouts. Once again, their efforts

were fruitless.

        “This is getting us nowhere, and he is dying.” Duty punctuated his complaint with a broad

gesture at Jeremy who was trying to hold himself up by leaning against the wall of a nearby

building. “We‟re running out of time.”

        “I‟m doing the best that I can,” Absolution responded. “It only makes sense that Isolation

would be somewhere off away from the rest of the world, some place where he could comfortably be

completely alone.”

        “Maybe we are looking in the wrong place,” Jeremy murmured from his resting place

against the wall. “Duty, where is the most crowded place in the city.”

        “It would have to be the dome. People are always there, why?”

        Jeremy shook his head, “it is a crowded place. That is where I feel the most alone and

isolated.”

        Absolution shook his head and chuckled. “What you are forgetting here is that Isolation is

my brother. I know him.”




                                                  168
        Duty turned and laughed dryly while nodding to Jeremy, “and what you are forgetting, my

friend, is that it is his world. I don‟t know why you can‟t see it, but it might not be such a bad idea to

trust the god for a while.”

        They weren‟t far from the dome, it was a mere twenty minute walk across the city. Jeremy

was loosing his strength at a steady pace, and needed to stop for rest almost constantly. The sores

that adorned his arms and chest were becoming more pronounced, eating away at him like some

kind of parasite. He was wilting, and anyone who looked at him could see it, despite the fact that

Jeremy kept his plague sores well hidden.

        Although the disease had taken its toll, the dome was still a hub of activity amidst the dying

city. The orchestra had been struck coldly by the disease, having been reduced in its numbers to a

scant half of what it had formerly been. Small clusters of people wandered through the dome,

gathering into tiny groups and talking with hushed voices. It was almost as if they were afraid that

should they behave too conspicuously that the disease might take notice of them. It was only a

matter of seconds before Absolution picked out a single young man who looked strangely familiar

wandering through the dome. He passed from group to group, lingering on the edge of all the

conversations like a butterfly that graced the top edges of a flower for an instant or two. He would

then move on to the next group, and repeat the process of listening and yet not truly existing.

        “That is my brother,” Absolution gestured. He and Duty then proceeded to cross the dome as

quickly as they could, grabbing Isolation by the arms. They pulled him back to where Jeremy stood

waiting.

        Isolation was indeed his brother‟s twin. Seeing him was almost like seeing a dark reflection

of Absolution, one that had been tainted with an oily surface and changed into something

remarkably new. His hair was an ill kept mass of inky black curls that matted atop his head in a




                                                  169
thick nest. He watched Jeremy with cold black eyes as he approached, trying to estimate the extent

of the dying man‟s strength.

        “I can‟t have you doing this to the city, Isolation. I can‟t have you letting people within these

walls twist into a depressive plague-ridden mass.”

        Isolation sneered at Jeremy, “The master told me that he and the new god would protect me

from all of you if I merely did my part. There is nothing you can do to harm me.”

        “The master?” Duty asked.

        Isolation smiled, “He wears a dark suit, and the burning roams within him. You will meet

the master soon enough.”

        “I already have met your master,” Jeremy replied coldly. “He means to destroy me, however

despite all of his best efforts I am still here. I have been wounded and infected by your diseases, but I

am still standing. Believe me when I tell you, the rightful God of Gotica still is here.”

        For the first time since he had met Jeremy, there was fear gracing the lines of Isolation‟s

face. “What will you do to me?”

        “I will do you a kindness.” Jeremy took Isolation‟s hand in his left, and placed it upon his

twin brother‟s breast. “I will set you free.”

        A blaze that seemed like wildfire flickered underneath Isolation‟s skin, as he began to fade

into a twilight. What had been Isolation became a small flutter of fireflies, twirling about in the air

in their mad dance. They tumbled toward the earth, being consumed in a burst to finally charge

madly into the depths of Absolution. Jeremy watched with a look of both sadness and awe as he

watched the two men merge into one.

        Absolution, on the other hand, was not so entirely pleased at the consumption of his brother.

Jeremy could tell as he raised his eyes to meet the other‟s gaze that Absolution was no longer free.

The pain of being alone without the capacity to change it began to burn within Absolution‟s breast.



                                                  170
          “Who am I?” Absolution murmured sadly.

          Jeremy smiled back at him, “It‟s simple. You are part of me now.”

          For a brief moment Jeremy looked into his own eyes, reflected in what had once been the

twins.

          By the time Duty braved to look once again, Jeremy was standing alone in the alcove

leading out of the dome.

          As they stepped out of the doorways to the dome once again, Jeremy turned to Duty and

asked, “Where is the old man? I need to talk to him.”

          Duty shook his head, “I haven‟t seen him in a few days now, not since we first came back to

the city and went to the vision place.” After a moment‟s thought, Duty gestured to a figure in the

shadows. “Perhaps he would know.”

          Jeremy and Duty walked into the shadow as quickly as they could, only to find a familiar

man lurking in the shadows.

          “There is something I need to ask you, Jester.” Duty was short of temper, perhaps a lingering

side effect of the confusion he found himself in upon having watched a being be unwritten. “We

need to find the old man that Jeremy was so close to. Do you know where he is?”

          “The Genius?” Jester asked, “I think he finally blew a fuse what with all the excitement

we‟ve been having the last few days. He just sits on the top of the dome like a chicken on top of a

really big egg.”

          “You would do yourself a favor if you could respect the old man once in a while,” Duty

chided.

          “Respect him?” Jester was outraged. “The Genius is insane! Babbling about darkness and

hardships when the faceless god has finally decided to claim a face and be with us.” He poked




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Jeremy in the ribs for good measure, as if to prove that the young man really did exist in the flesh.

“Not that you couldn‟t have chosen a more attractive face,” the Jester added playfully.

        Jeremy shook his head under Jester‟s teasing, and quietly murmured, “Perhaps I should go

up there and see what is wrong.”

        “I will go with you,” Duty added. “This is something I would like to understand as well.”

        “Why do you revere him so?” Jester laughed. “He‟s just an insane old man, babbling about

his dreams and nightmares just like the weather.”

        Duty frowned darkly and lifted himself onto the lower edge of the dome. Before Jeremy

could reach to begin to pull himself up, Duty had already turned and offered him his hand. Jeremy

clutched it gratefully and was consequently hauled onto the edge of the dome.

        The dome had been built out of a strong stone that was common to the desert, and tended to

be extremely light thanks to it‟s composition of sands and ruddy materials. It almost had a ruddy

orange glow to its surface, and sparkled slightly with tiny quartz crystals that were embedded in the

material. The dome stretched forward like a gigantic wave, crossing over what was close to a

circular mile in the center of the city.

        The climb to the center of the dome was a steady assent, and Jeremy was forced to stop mid

climb more than once to regain his breath before continuing on. The old man never noticed that they

approached, his gaze permanently fixed upon the skies above.

        “I was wondering how long it would take before you would finally get curious enough to

come up here. Sometimes I wonder what I see in you, boy.” The old man chided Jeremy slightly as

he stared at the clouds above their heads. His small smile betrayed that the old man already knew the

answer to his own rhetorical question, however he still stared at the heavens above.




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        Jeremy followed the old man‟s gaze to the stars that were twinkling slightly against the light

of the city. They were shining like lights of a far away city, behind pale gray masses of clouds that

crossed the skies in various circular striations.

        “Do you see how the clouds are forming?” the old man asked.

        Duty nodded quietly, “they are bending in circles.”

        The old man smiled at duty this time, “You would be wise to listen to this one, Jeremy. He

sees things that the others do not.”

        A plaintive scream tore through the air from a few hundred yards down the slope of the

dome. Jeremy turned to see the Jester slowly struggling his way up the dome to meet them. He acted

as if his heart were to give out at any minute, and was complaining loudly at every step. Duty shook

his head and muttered under his breath about the foolishness of children, and the three stood in

silence watching the Jester approach.

        Upon arrival, Jester took one appraising at the three men standing at the top of the dome,

straightened his back, and passed out before them.

        “Good,” the old man muttered, “You remembered to bring the fool with you.”

        Duty shrugged bitterly and turned away from Jester, who had proceeded to pop one of his

eyes open to see how his performance was being received. Disappointed at the indifferent reaction

that his captive audience had given him, Jester quickly rounded on Jeremy.

        “You‟re god. Why couldn‟t you just fly us up here?” Jester wheezed as he drew himself to

stand once again between Jeremy and Duty. Apparently, some of his performance was no longer a

show.

        “Something is coming, the likes of which we haven‟t seen,” the old man muttered under his

breath as he watched the skies quietly.




                                                    173
         “There he goes again,” Jester cursed, “always the same old stories of doom and gloom.” To

punctuate his comments, Jester raised his voice into a high pitched squeal, “Oh, a dark time is

coming that will destroy Gotica, many people will die and it will become really difficult to get good

quality cheese.”

         “Either you will be silent,” Duty growled under his breath, “or I will silence you.”

         The Jester plopped down onto the dome and wrapped his arms around his legs. His bottom

lip stuck out from his mouth in an extremely familiar pout that Jeremy had come to know all to well

during the past time they had spent together.

         “As we were saying,” the old man continued trepidatiously as if expecting Jester to interrupt

at any minute. “The clouds are forming in circles. Have you noticed anything else interesting about

them?”

         Jeremy watched the clouds for a moment, allowing his gaze to caress the skyline. The

circular clouds seemed to stretch along huge tentacles from the horizon. One of them passed directly

over the city, while another passed what looked to be twenty miles south, and another one bordered

on the north.

         “They are all in lines,” Jeremy observed timidly.

         “Exactly,” the old man smiled enthusiastically. Are the lines straight, or are they bending.

         As Jeremy looked a second time he realized that indeed the lines were bending in the shape

of an arc over the skyline. They seemed to bend in the exact same manner as the edges of the cloud

circles had twisted themselves.

         “They are arcs,” Jeremy responded.

         The old man smiled, and directed the company‟s attention to a small drawing tablet he was

carrying with him.




                                                  174
        “Allow me to show you something.” On the tablet was inscribed the overall pattern of one of

the small circular clouds from the skies above.

        “We see these little spirals spinning off of the edge of what appear to be great lines of clouds,

that also are twisting off toward the horizon.”

        Jeremy nodded his assent as the old man continued.

        “I have counted the passing of seventeen of these lines above us, and they seem to move in a

radial fashion. From south to north, always vanishing back into the east once again.”

        “What could it mean?” Duty asked.

        “These clouds,” the old man responded, “are like the hairs of a bigger beast. I believe we

have a hurricane coming.”

        “Don‟t you mean a tornado, old fool?” Jester jibed.

        “Tell me, my more intelligent students, what is the difference between a tornado and a

hurricane?”

        Jeremy thought for a second before responding, “A hurricane can only form over water.”

        The old man shook his head, but still smiled at Jeremy‟s attempt. “You are correct, but that

is not the point that I need to illustrate here. What else can you tell me, and don‟t try to be so

scientific.”

        Jeremy stood in mute silence until Duty finally replied, “size.”

        The old man smiled and laughed bitterly, “exactly. That is the main problem here. Imagine

if you would that some people refer to a tornado as the „Finger of God.‟ An average hurricane might

be something along the lines of His entire two fists.”

        Jester looked quizzically at Jeremy‟s hands, teasing him as he attempted to listen to the old

man‟s prognosis.




                                                   175
        “This hurricane that is coming is still miles away, but it is bigger than anything I‟ve ever

imagined. I think we are going to see God‟s sledgehammer this time.”

        Duty turned to look at Jeremy appraisingly, “are you doing this?”

        “No, this has nothing to do with me, and I don‟t know why, but somehow I doubt that the

businessman would be having his puppet produce something like this either.”

        “What would stop him?” Jester asked.

        “It‟s simple,” Jeremy replied. “The businessman is hoping to be able to claim Gotica for his

own. He tried to take me in the beginning, probably because he thought that if he could take control

of me he could have the world as well. There is something to be said to having a god that would be

willing to bow to you. In a nutshell, you can dominate the world without a war for it. The

businessman wants Gotica, and he wants all of it. I sincerely doubt that he would tear the entire

place apart simply to get me out of the picture.”

        “Perhaps,” the Genius added, “I could offer another explanation. Let us imagine for a

moment that there is an individual who has complete control of the world, much like a potter at his

wheel. Now, if you were to take the potter away from his wheel, I imagine that he would still to

some degree be able to perform his craft. If you seat someone else at the wheel, they too might be

able to perform some of the potter‟s craft. It could be the same with our friend here. Someone else is

sitting at the wheel, and hence has acquired some of the strength and power that would be reserved

for God. Meanwhile, the true God is here, and he has retained some of his hold upon the control of

the world, however the two are in conflict. Jeremy unmakes something, and the man at the helm can

simply place it back into being. Jeremy creates something, and the man at the helm can change that

creation or make it into nothingness once again. It creates a conflict. Soon, the two forces of deity

begin to clash, one of them creating the same things that the other one is destroying and soon you




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end up with a paradox. The world begins to revolt completely and will unmake itself despite what

the gods do.

        The old man shook his head, “In the end, I suppose there can only be one almighty.”



7.

        Two days later, the hurricane struck at the heart of the city. The people were dashed before

the wind like a deck of playing cards, folding and twisting in a mass of chaos. Jeremy watched in

revulsion from the center of it all, waiting for the time to come when the reality storm would finally

tear the city apart at the seams, and rend it all into shreds. Duty still stood by him, despite the chaos

that had seemingly engulfed the world. Everywhere the screams of people trying to avoid the

catastrophic winds could be heard. There had been an order issued once they were sure that the

storm was truly coming that everyone should be inside shelter as low to the ground as possible,

however as in all things there had been stragglers who were now paying the price for their

procrastination. Jeremy watched with tearful eyes through a tiny slit in the window that had been left

by the boards that had been placed there.

        What was worse, somewhere in the midst of all the winds lurked the Rages. They ran

screaming through the streets like wraiths, carried by the winds to an unnerving pace. They seemed

to be able to navigate through the chaos with an uncanny grace, using the twisting winds of the

hurricane as an extra push to their wings. The Rages would strike at anyone who flagged beneath

the storm, lending an edge of danger to the storm itself.

        At first, fending the hurricane off had been a simple task, and Jeremy had managed to keep

the storm away from the city by sheer force of will. However, with time his will had faltered and lost

strength, until finally the storm began to overtake the city piece by piece. Now, the most that Jeremy

could maintain was a trembling hold upon the city block that contained the house where he, Duty,



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Jester, and the remainder of their close friends huddled together and watched. The hurricane

whipped around the outside of the building with increasing fury, pulling the top tiles off of buildings

and beginning the massive work of reducing the mighty city to rubble. Jeremy‟s eyes watered with

unshed tears each time he saw the buildings begin to crumble, to such a point that he thought the

break in the storm was a mere illusion created by his obscured vision.

        The break, however, was drawing closer.

        Standing at the center of what appeared to be a wonderfully specific eye of the storm was a

throng of people. There were forms of all shapes and sizes, including grown men and ragged

children, teenagers with their still awkwardly built bodies, and women of every size and stature.

There were also things that lurked within that crowd that were unrecognizable. Beasts of every kind

of hue and disposition, including one that Jeremy knew all to well. Above the remainder of the

group, pulsing upon its velvet wings was the misshapen form of the Pillager. It watched Jeremy

particularly through the window with its cold devious eyes, as if the beast hungered to feast upon his

soul.

        At the center of it all stood a well groomed young man in a nicely pressed suit. His hair had

been combed to perfection and he was a shining example of pure elegance. As he walked, the

remainder of the throng followed, and as they walked, the break in the hurricane traced their path.

They neared the building, and finally stopped just outside the door.

        The sharp knocks came from the doorway. Jeremy turned from the window, and hopped

down from where he had sat curled up on his bed.

        “Where do you think you are going?” Duty asked sharply. He had seen the form of the

crowd that had gathered outside of the door, and was not pleased in the least.

        “Don‟t worry about me, old friend.” Jeremy replied with a smile on his face. “This will all

work out in the end.”



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          “What are you doing?” Jester asked with muffled awe. His jovial spirit seemed to have been

finally dampened by witnessing the destruction of the city.

          Jeremy walked from the bedchamber across the front room and to the door, which he opened.

The businessman stood at the other side of the door, smiling widely at the younger man.

          “It‟s good to see you again,” he spoke with a slick tone that seemed almost serpent like in

candor.

          “I will not fight the storm any longer.” Finally releasing his hold upon what remaining

strength he still had, Jeremy let the winds pass over the remainder of the world. Focusing his mind

into himself again, Jeremy relinquished the hold that he had gained upon the natural forces of

Gotica. The wind proceeded to rip across the top of the city block, and then in a heartbeat was gone.

“There can‟t be two almighty masters.”

          Jeremy tried as hard as he could not to notice the startled gasps that rose out of the depths of

the house as he allowed himself to be taken by the businessman and his followers. Duty screamed in

rage from within the depths of the house as Jeremy was led away through the city streets toward the

center of town. Somehow, Jeremy knew that Duty would be wanting to wage a mass rescue effort at

that very moment, however hoped that Duty would see more responsibility in the protection of the

masses rather than in making a desperate attempt to save a single man. The businessman for once

had nothing to say to Jeremy as they walked into the center of the city. People were beginning to

gather once again, however for some reason Jeremy saw something different in their eyes. It was as

if they were darkened reflections of their former selves, shadows of their own beings. They watched

with hollow dispassion as Jeremy was led through the city streets to whatever the businessman had

waiting for him.

          “How did you enjoy the plague?” the businessman asked almost casually as they rounded a

corner.



                                                    179
        “It was an interesting experience. Your idea, I take it?”

        The businessman laughed, “Not really. The boy had a talent, and all I really had to do was

make sure that he was in the right place at the right time. It was a simple task, really.” The

businessman then shook his head, “in fact, he did such fine work that I‟ve wanted to reward him,

however I heard that you got your hands upon him. What did you do?”

        “I reunited him with his twin and set them free.”

        The businessman laughed once again. “Oh, that is nice. Little Isolation finally found peace

and freedom at last. It brings a tear to my eye.” The businessman punctuated his remark with a

brusque gagging sound.

        “You know,” he continued without breaking stride, “I still wouldn‟t mind it if you were to

change your mind about taking my side of the bargain. I could still make it worth your while, and

you wouldn‟t have to go through what is coming up. This next little chapter of your life is going to

be quite unsettling.”

        “I‟m sorry, Luce.” Jeremy replied, “However I just can‟t except your offer. You know how

it goes.”

        “Yes I do. I know about you and your damnable nobility all too well.” The businessman

then smiled at Jeremy with an icy coldness that seemed more natural upon his face. “You know, in a

matter of minutes, you will beg me for a chance to reconsider.”

        Jeremy hadn‟t realized that while they had been talking they had reached a great square,

where the statue of Desire had been raised like some kind of profane altar. At the foot of the statue

had been erected some kind of odd table that appeared to have been made by joining odd sawhorses.

Standing next to the oddly constructed table was a single man who kept his face hidden within the

depths of a deep cowl. All Jeremy could see were his lips, and they were devoid of all expression.




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        “I would like you to meet one of my newer associates. He is known as the Masochist.” As if

to punctuate the businessman‟s introduction, the man in the cowl removed his robe, revealing a body

that was covered in deep scars. There were etchings carved into his flesh that revealed wounds so

deep that for moments Jeremy thought that he could see the man‟s muscles pull taught beneath. Pins

pierced the backs of his knuckles, and bordered the veins tracing the length of his forearms. “He has

a singular understanding of pain. I think you will enjoy your time together.”

        Jeremy was borne by unseen hands and carried to the foot of the table. He was bound and the

hands and legs, forced to stare into the sky at the face of the statue that had been placed at his head.

For a brief instant Jeremy fancied that the eyes of the statue had somehow turned downward, and

that Desire was watching him in his moments of pain. The Masochist returned into view, carrying

with him a sickle, the blade of which had been sharpened to the point of gleaming like a razor. He

ran the blade across the sleeves and chest of Jeremy‟s shirt, parting the fabric beneath his touch and

revealing Jeremy‟s bare skin to the light of day. The plague sores that had broken Jeremy‟s body

were fading, and at this point they had become almost natural once again.

        A crowd was beginning to gather around the altar that the businessman and his lackeys had

constructed within the city square. The crowd was formed of more of these strangely twisted

inhabitants of the city, they seemed to look upon Jeremy without the compassion that he would have

normally expected from their eyes. This time, they stared at the young man with revulsion and

hatred, a lust for his blood spewing forth in a stream of profanities from their lips.

        “Those plague sores look painful,” the businessman instructed from Jeremy‟s right hand

side. “Remove them.”

        The Masochist turned to his table of implements, and produced a small thin knife. Jeremy‟s

body tensed involuntarily as he felt the surface of the blade slide effortlessly beneath his breast. A

searing tear began to widen between flesh and muscle, as the blade cut around Jeremy‟s right breast.



                                                   181
It seemed as if the Masochist were trying to cut off a piece of extremely dry ham, sawing through the

muscle and tissue with a slow methodical pace. Jeremy‟s face convulsed and twisted with sheer pain

as he felt the surface of his skin and the muscle beneath grudgingly part company.

        “You missed a piece right there,” the businessman observed. Obviously frustrated by a

critical review of his work, the Masochist ripped at the piece of skin and muscle in his hand, tearing

the remainder of the muscle and tissue away from Jeremy‟s body. The snap came in an instant, and

Jeremy felt warm droplets of his own blood splatter against his face.

        There was time for Jeremy to take in three breaths before a pair of hands returned to work

upon his breast, this time gently massaging salt crystals into the wound. The sting was unbearable,

and Jeremy‟s screams rose into the afternoon air like the sound of thunder on a parting storm. He

screamed until his voice could no longer muster a flow of air, and yet the pain still continued.

        The businessman‟s face materialized in Jeremy‟s field of vision once again. “You know,” he

said, “you could still heal yourself from this wound. I know it hurt like hell, but you could get over

it. Skin grows back, even if you are missing a big hunk like this.” Before Jeremy could turn away,

the businessman showed him a strip of flesh that was more than six inches in diameter from any

point. Still, Jeremy managed to maintain silence. He would not beg for mercy, and he would not beg

for release.

        “You look an awful lot like me,” the businessman continued. “I guess it is just that old

family resemblance.” He then turned to address the Masochist. “Let‟s change that.”

        Once again the knives returned, this time butchering Jeremy‟s face as if it were carving a

turkey. He felt the blades penetrate his eyebrows, carving through the dense hair and rending the

flesh to shreds. Jeremy bit his lip beneath the pain to the point that blood began to flow backwards

into his mouth, filling him with its salty thickness.




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        The blades then shifted, carving Jeremy‟s nose, pulling the cartilage away from the bone,

until it finally hung loose from his face on a single flap of skin. The Masochist was thorough, and

then shifted his work to destroying Jeremy‟s lips and chin, making the destruction of Jeremy‟s face

almost complete.

        Upon completion of his face, Jeremy‟s head was forced to the side so that he could watch as

his hands were torn to shreds. The Masochist first stripped the flesh off of Jeremy‟s knuckles, and

then turned to the wrists. Here he was careful to expose muscle but avoided the veins that could put

an end to Jeremy‟s life with skillful craft. The pain began to increase with a dull throb that pulsed

next to Jeremy‟s heart. It was almost deafening, his heart screaming in agony with thud after

incessant thud. Slowly and gracefully, Jeremy found himself loosing his grip, his eyes beginning to

unfocus, as he watched his mutilated hands.

        Somewhere in the depths of the blur that was Jeremy‟s eyesight, he fancied that he saw a

woman in a white dress. She lingered in the distance for a moment, shifting through the crowd that

cheered with jubilant glee each time a hiss of pain escaped through Jeremy‟s lips. As the pain

increased, she grew closer, until finally she was close enough to his face that Jeremy thought if he

stretched he could almost have touched her.

        “I‟m sorry to see you like this,” Hope murmured to Jeremy as tears filled the corners of her

eyes. “Don‟t try to speak. It will all be finished soon, and they would just take pleasure in thinking

that they have finally driven you insane. After all, that is what he,” she gestured to the businessman,

“has wanted all along. To break you. They didn‟t count on you being as strong a bear as you really

are.”

        Somewhere behind her, the businessman issued another order to the Masochist in his

devilishly sweet voice. Had Jeremy been able to see, he would have been startled at the size of the

blade that was produced, however all he could see was Hope.



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        The Masochist placed the blade just beneath Jeremy‟s ribs, holding it ready to thrust into his

side.

        “I want to see him bleed,” the businessman sneered.

        The blade pierced Jeremy‟s side, sending his life blood rushing across the world like a river.

Jeremy felt himself becoming weaker and weaker, as his life began to tumble from the wound. For a

brief moment he looked to himself and saw a tattered remnant of a man.

        “You don‟t get it, do you?” Hope asked. “They can only hurt you if you let them.”

        As quickly as she had said these words, Hope was gone.

        “No!” Jeremy screamed. Fury and indignation began to run through his veins in place of the

blood that he had lost on the altar. “I am still the God of this place!”

        The wound in Jeremy‟s side was the first to close, mending across his flesh to the point that it

appeared to the lay eye that the event never could have happened. His hands became strong once

again, and his misshapen face began to slowly grow back into place. The businessman watched in

horror as Jeremy suddenly became the man he had once been, as if untouched by the torture of the

afternoon.

        Of all people, the Jester was at Jeremy‟s side within a heartbeat. Duty was nearby as well,

and the two of them worked frantically to unbind Jeremy‟s hands and feet. The businessman and

Masochist reached for Duty to stop him, however they were too late as Jeremy was already

unbound.

        “Get him out of here!” Duty screamed to Jester as he was overtaken not only by the

businessman and the crowd. Jester was already fast on his way, running out the nearest alleyway

that he could find. Jeremy was quick to follow, not wanting to spend another instant bound to that

profane altar. The two of them sped around the corners of the streets as quickly as they could,




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however the sound of the crowd began to approach as if they were flooding over the city faster than

Jeremy and the Jester could run.

        For a brief second they ran through a small alleyway, which placed them on another side

street that led to the main gates.

        “I think we are going to make it,” Jester quipped.

        Suddenly, a small child with the same shadow eyes as the rest of the crowd began to scream

in terror that the two bad men were there. The crowd responded in an instant, and came flooding

through every alley and side street they could find.

        “Thank you so much,” Jester retorted as he and Jeremy ran once again out of the street and

across the way. Their route twisted and turned, however each time they would approach the main

gates again, something would happen to foil their progress, finally Jester and Jeremy found

themselves standing atop one of the far towers from the overlook.

        The world stretched thousands of feet beneath them, at the base of the cruel cliffs that

defended the city. Jester‟s face blanched as he watched the world below him, and then turned to

watch the mob and its villainous leader approaching on the other side.

        “No where to go,” Jester muttered.

        “Yes there is.”

        Jeremy took Jester‟s hand before the other man could have time to think about what was

happening, and dove off the side of the tower. The world began to speed upward, the tower

disappearing and becoming a stone cliff. Jeremy watched in dispassionate silence as the rocks

beneath the cliffs began to come faster and faster. Jester screamed in terror as he watched what

would have been their deaths approach with the pace of a speeding train.




                                                 185
        Jeremy closed his eyes as the stone canyon floor came within mere feet of their bodies, and

suddenly the rocks were rent. They passed through into utter blackness, the world fading and

shattering around them to the point that there was nothing remaining.



8.

        Only brief moments after the darkness had filled their eyes, Jeremy and Jester found

themselves landing upon the smoothly polished floors of the chapel. Dust still lingered upon the tops

of the pews, betraying that there still had been no other presence in the building since Jeremy had left

with Duty what seemed like ages before. At the top of the aisle in the center of it all stood the great

statue of the angel, her arms outstretched still in that incredibly wide embrace. Jester struggled to his

feet when he realized where it was that the fall had taken him, and looked around the room with a

look of sheer panic splayed across his face. Jeremy on the other hand, felt entirely at peace here.

        While Jeremy approached the statue in the middle of the chapel, Jester murmured something

about respect and back pedaled his way toward the chapel doors as quickly as he could. Somewhere

in the remote recesses of his mind, Jeremy heard the doors open and shut, yet the fact that he was

once again alone with the angel seemed to be far from his mind. It seemed like ages had passed since

he had stood here in the chapel looking at that statue. Jeremy smiled thinking about how childish it

must have seemed as he attempted to re-light the candles at the statue‟s feet once again.

        “I had a feeling you would come back here again. You always did have that annoying habit

of trying to hold on to the things that never really could help you.”

        Jeremy turned where he stood to find the businessman standing behind him, impeccable in

his perfectly tailored   suit.

        “Have you ever noticed how much she looks just like a marionette? Kind of an interesting

metaphor for the whole thing, if I may say so myself.”



                                                  186
        “What are you doing here?” Jeremy asked somewhat bitterly.

        “I just came here to talk with you,” the businessman smiled magnanimously. “We never

seem to talk anymore.”

        Jeremy shook his head and laughed softly to himself. “After all the things that you‟ve put me

through, after all the things that you have done to the people of this world, you are complaining that

we never talk anymore?”

        “Well, yeah, little brother.” The businessman shook his head and playfully sat down on the

arm rest of a pew that was behind him. “You know, it would have been a lot easier for the both of us

if you hadn‟t been so confrontational that day we were talking on the mountain. I really could have

made your life here a lot more easy if you would have just listened to me.”

        “You would have made me your slave,” Jeremy icily growled at the businessman.

        “Slave?” The businessman chuckled, “listen my boy, it is all a matter of perspective. I can

understand that you might feel like I am being a little bit controlling by telling you what to do,

however when it comes down to it, you are going to have a good time in the end. I‟ll see to that. You

can have women, power, everything you could ever want. I will show you how to get it. Or you

could follow the angel.” To punctuate his own sarcasm, the businessman splayed his arms out in a

mockery of her posture. “Given that option you are a slave to boundaries and limits, much like poor

Duty is a slave to always having to do what he feels is necessary, even when it doesn‟t really involve

him. When it comes down to it, you are a slave to your own damnable nobility. I could free you

from that.”

        Jeremy shook his head, “you aren‟t interested in freeing me from anything. You said so

yourself, that you were going to do everything you could to destroy me. The thing that I wonder

about is that I am still here.”




                                                  187
        “Oh,” the businessman replied, “I really didn‟t have to do much to bring that about. You did

most of that on your own. I just had to sit back and watch.”

        “What are you talking about?”

        “Have you seen the mess that things are in right now? The city is in ruin, you are beaten and

bleeding, innocent people are dying all over the place, including Innocence. Oh, I forgot, you never

excepted her for what she was. What was it you called her again?”

        “Corrie.”

        The businessman smiled widely, “interesting choice of names for her. I‟m sure I could have

thought of something much more creative, however in the end you always did have a limited grasp

on things.”

        “What is your point?”

        The businessman smiled even wider, “Gotica is being torn apart, and yet you are still foolish

enough to come here, look me in the eyes, and tell me that I have failed in doing what I promised I

would do. You have such a limited understanding of the things that are going on around you. It

almost embarrasses me to call you family.” The businessman turned his head slightly, and nodded at

something behind Jeremy.

        For a brief second Jeremy could hear the sound of leaves being tussled upon the wind. It was

a feral husky sound that seemed to melt into existence behind Jeremy and then swept with an icy

quickness across the room. It seemed to swell and fade with a pulse behind Jeremy, almost

mesmerizing him with its constant rhythm.

        The businessman smiled, “Why don‟t you have your fun with him now, my Pillager?”

        Within a heartbeat, Jeremy was thrust from where he was standing to the earth by a blow

that landed upon the side of his skull with the collective force of twenty sledge hammers. His mind

reeled as he crashed through the pews of the chapel, skittering across the polished stone floor as if he



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were a mere piece of litter being pushed by the breeze. The Pillager flexed its mighty velveteen

wings in pleasure, sweeping a vast scoop of air across the room with the kind of force to capture all

the strength left within Jeremy‟s lungs.

        Before Jeremy could move again, the Pillager was upon him, drowning him in the deep

musk of sweat and destruction that lingered upon the creature‟s skin like a mask of blood. The

Pillager noted quickly how Jeremy favored his damaged shoulder, and was ready to exploit it and

the pain that it would cause him. There was an almost sense of incessant glee to the Pillagers actions

as it prodded the joints in Jeremy‟s right shoulder again and again, manipulating the bones with its

mighty hands. Growing tired of its new found game, the Pillager forced Jeremy into the wall of the

chapel, completely knocking the wind out of his lungs and almost driving the young man

unconscious.

        The businessman was at Jeremy‟s side in a heartbeat, while he lingered trapped in the vice

like grip of the Pillager. He smiled broadly as he looked Jeremy over, inspecting the pain that his

minion had caused him.

        “Can I tell you a little secret?” the businessman smiled thickly at Jeremy as he hung

suspended in the Pillager‟s grip. “You are Gotica. This world is nothing more than a reflection of

your own mind. You‟ve come here to pass the time as your body lies dying in a hospital. You say I

haven‟t managed to tear you apart? Look around you. This world is almost shattered, and in the end

you are the person who shattered it. Isn‟t it deliciously ironic?” As an afterthought, the businessman

added, “you really should have bowed to me when you had the chance.” The businessman tapped

the Pillager on the shoulder. “You can kill him now.”

        The Pillager‟s eyes seemed to glow with anticipation underneath the grotesque surface of the

metal mask that distorted what could perhaps have been human features into beastly proportions.




                                                 189
The dull rasp of the Pillager‟s breathing filled Jeremy‟s ears, as it seemed to quiver with excitement

and the prospect of finally tearing the young man limb from limb.

         Desperation lent Jeremy a new found strength as the Pillager pulled its mighty fist back,

obviously prepared to crush Jeremy‟s head into the side of the wall. He flexed his body at the last

moment, causing his feet and legs to seize upward into the Pillager‟s chest. With only a narrow

second, Jeremy moved his head before the crushing blow could grind him into a pulp. The Pillager‟s

fist clashed violently against the stone walls of the chapel, as the beast screamed in fury at having

lost its target.

         Desperate to escape the grasp of the Pillager once again, Jeremy scampered across the stone

floor of the chapel. The Pillager leapt into the air, and came crashing down mere inches from

Jeremy‟s head. Turning where he lay, Jeremy dodged to the side and continued on his way, only to

face yet another massive tackle from the winged beast. Scrambling with desperation, Jeremy pulled

himself onto the base of the dais, struggling to pull his body away from the grasp of the Pillager,

however discovering that he had no place to turn to. The candles that littered the bottom of the altar

broke underneath the weight of his body as he pulled himself closer and closer to the angel.

         The Pillager roared with a sense of utter finality as it pulled its massive body back for a final

strike. It hung suspended in the air for a split second, before redirecting its mass into a rushing wave

that came crashing down upon Jeremy where he lay. As the Pillager roared forward in its strike,

Jeremy could have thought that he saw one of the arms of the angel statue move into the beast‟s

path. The Pillager collided dead on with the hand of the angel, sending it reeling and falling until it

landed face first upon the stone edge of the angel‟s platform. The impact shattered the grotesque

metal mask that covered the Pillager‟s face with a resounding crack.

         “Well what do you know,” the businessman was standing above Jeremy again, and he

reached out and ran his fingers across the arm of the angel. “She actually did something for once.”



                                                   190
        Jeremy struggled to free himself from the massive body of the Pillager, and as he was

pushing managed to get the body to roll off of his legs so that he could begin to stand once again. It

was then that his eyes locked upon the face that was underneath the mask of the Pillager. A pair of

dark brown eyes stared blindly from within the Pillager‟s face, with a small scar running beneath the

brow of the right one. His face was somewhat gaunt, but not to the point of being sickly, and from

beneath the top of what now resembled more of a helmet than a creatures head, Jeremy could see a

sprig of ashen blonde hair.

        “Can‟t you fathom it?” the businessman asked mockingly. “It is you. Everything in Gotica is

only a reflection of you. Including my servants. The Rages, the Pillager, Desire, Isolation, they are

all just little pieces of you. They are the things that you are ashamed of, and the things you fear.

They are the things that make you not able to stare at your own eyes when you look in the mirror at

night. You are pathetic. Here you were, so high and mighty because you thought you could wage a

war against yourself and win it. In the end, the only thing you were destroying was your own mind.”

        Jeremy stood from where the Pillager lay, however the businessman continued chiding him.

        “You realize that all of the things that I told you to do, you have done. You made it rain

when you were thirsty, just because you wanted to. You threw yourself from the top of those city

cliffs, just like I had told you to in the first place. You have done everything that I have told you to

do, except for one crucial thing. Bow to me.”

        Jeremy watched the businessman coldly from where he stood. “No, Luce.”

        “I can make this all stop. I can make the war end; I can give the world life again. I could

show you how to reweave Gotica into our image and make it into a world created for your pleasure.

No more pain. I could promise you that.”

        Jeremy shook his head, “No Luce. Gotica is mine to do with as I please. I can make and

unmake things as I choose. Don‟t tempt me to unmake you as well.”



                                                   191
        “You can‟t you fool, so don‟t threaten me. I‟m not part of this world. I guess you could say

that I am here visiting just because I wanted to see you fall apart. You and your damned nobility.

I‟m here because I wanted to watch you suffer and pay for the crimes you and our father committed

against me, little brother.”

        “Luce, you had better leave.”

        The businessman was a mass of rage. “Give me one good reason that I should go.”

        “I am unmaking Gotica.”

        The moment those words had passed the edge of Jeremy‟s lips, the world seemed to begin to

seize up. The ground split across the world, breaking like brittle china that had been thrown against

the wall. Sections of the world faded away as if they had been penned with some kind of vanishing

ink. It was almost as if the creative force that had made this place come into being had changed its

mind, and now the world was fading into nothingness. A blackness rose across the world, consuming

everything into a perfect state of non-existence. Time seemed to fold, rippling in the world around it

until it too finally collapsed, leaving nothing to fill the void where it had once been. The city was

gone before Jeremy could think about at, and the walls to the chapel had collapsed into nothingness.

The skies that had opened up above his head as the chapel roof faded and disappeared were perfectly

black, without stars or sunlight.

        Had Jeremy turned to look, he would have noticed that the businessman had truly ran away

in the time it took the last few pieces of land to fade away.



9.

        A great oak wheel stood at the center of the darkness, the brass joints in the middle of the

wheel were rusted tight with what appeared to be years without use. Dust covered the spokes of the

helm wheel, and a thin lace of cobwebs had spread itself across the wheel‟s face.



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        A small child sat leaning against the face of the wheel. An ill-kept mass of thick brown hair

whipped around his head like the mane on a tiny lion. His body was small and lean, and he seemed

intent on staring at some unimaginable detail in the distance of the wheel.

        “Hello?” Jeremy called to the boy.

        The child turned his head to look back at Jeremy with a sad resign. A deep black pool dotted

the center of his left eye as it haltingly attempted to twitch into the upper left corner of its socket. A

monstrous eye patch pathetically covered the child‟s right eye with a pathetic mockery of a skin

tone. Thick plastic glasses rested on the bridge of his nose; narrowly hiding the open sores that they

had themselves opened in a child‟s tender skin.

        “I don‟t like it here,” the child murmured to Jeremy. “People want you to do things all of the

time. Why don‟t they just leave me alone?”

        “It‟s like that sometimes,” Jeremy responded. “That is the hard part about being in charge.

Everybody looks to you.”

        “People call me „The Dreamer‟ because I dream things; good things, bad things, all kind of

things. I see the dreams, but I‟m not much good for anything else.” The dreamer smiled. “I can tell

stories, though. Would you like me to tell you a story?”

        Jeremy nodded his assent.

        “Not long ago, I had a dream about a boy who in his mind was a man. He never told anyone

about it, but whenever he would hear his voice, in his head, he would hear a deep bass voice like his

dad‟s. He never told anybody about it, but the voice liked to talk. The boy didn‟t tell anybody about

the voice except for his friend Dave, who smiled but thought he was crazy or lying. So the boy never

told anyone about the voice, and he never, never told anyone that the voice had friends.

        “One day I dreamed that the boy had an accident and almost died.”

        Jeremy nodded, “Funny, I dreamed about something like that too.”



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        The dreamer continued, “that was when the man-voice that was inside the boy‟s head got

hurt really bad. He couldn‟t protect the boy anymore from the other voices. You see, there were

good voices and bad voices inside the boy‟s head, and some of the bad voices wanted the boy to do

horrible things like hurting people, stealing things, and eating potatoes. One of the bad voices tried

to kill the boy, and everything got turned upside down.

        “That‟s how I became God, but I don‟t like being God. Everybody wants you to do things

all the time, and all I‟m really good at is dreaming. It would be nice to just be the dreamer again, if I

could make things every once in a while.”

        “What would you make?” Jeremy asked.

        “Things that I dream about,” the dreamer responded. “Like little machines that could make

me fly, or purple butterflies, or water that flows upstream, or people who want to hear my stories.”

        Jeremy smiled at him. “You don‟t have to stay here at the wheel, you know. There are

people who would love to hear your stories back where I just came from.”

        “Really?” the little boy asked.

        Jeremy smiled broadly. “They would love to meet you. Why don‟t you go and see?”

        Laughter bubbled upward within the little boy. For a moment, Jeremy thought that he could

see a tiny tear forming in the corner of the eye that was not blotted out by that hideous patch. He

murmured a quick thank you as he turned and ran away from the helm, fading into the darkness that

was around them.

        Jeremy in turn took his place standing before the wheel. He noticed the smooth polish on the

oak that formed it.

        It was beautiful.

        Had Jeremy turned to look, he would have seen his dreams unfolding behind him.

Somewhere in the middle of the city, Duty was exiting his fellow citizens into another noble



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adventure. Jester was, of course, complaining. Genius, on the other hand, had discovered a new

hobby that was taught to him by the Lover. The two of them now sat at the end of the dock, and took

turns writing furiously in that endless river of paper. The orchestra played on, however the piano

remained silent. She waited for her lover to return; knowing full well that she would be for none

other.

         And somewhere in the forests and back corners of Gotica, if Jeremy could have closed his

eyes and focused his soul only slightly, he would have seen Innocence plucking purple flowers from

beside a tiny river.



10.

         “Hello, my love.”

         Jeremy closed his eyes and let the sensation of the wind in his hair guide him. Hope‟s arm

was real and solid around his shoulder, and the small shape that Jeremy knew was her palm on his

back felt as perfectly fit as the fingers that were intertwined with his. Jeremy could feel her breath as

it caressed his closed eyelids like the silken folds of her dress against his bare feet. Jeremy breathed

deeply and hungrily, trying desperately to fill his lungs with every last ounce of her scent as he

slowly opened his eyes. As tears of joy began to form on his cheeks, Jeremy drowned himself within

the deep brown depths of Hope‟s eyes. As his soul drifted within the profound mass of her gaze,

Jeremy felt his feet move slowly beneath him.

         Somewhere on the edges of creation and time, Jeremy and Hope danced.

         All of Gotica watched in reverent silence.

         “I could remake this world a thousand times in your image,” Jeremy murmured almost to

himself as they turned slowly beneath the evening sky.




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        Hope laughed a musical almost embarrassed laugh that betrayed a slight tinge of pleasure at

the offer.

        “Gotica is yours,” Hope replied, “I couldn‟t ask you to write me into this.”

        “I love you,” Jeremy felt her left-hand tremble as he confessed beneath that painted sky.

        Her eyes seemed to sparkle in the moonlight as Hope replied, “but you need to live, my

darling.”

        Hope‟s chest trembled slightly as she pulled Jeremy to her, betraying the tears that had

struggled their way to the surface.

        “You have to wake up some time.”

        Jeremy shook his head in denial, as if for a moment his unwillingness could change what he

knew was the truth.

        Jeremy couldn‟t see through the tears that had filled his eyes, but he could feel Hope‟s lips as

they pressed against his forehead.

        “Time to wake up, my love.”

        Jeremy regretfully looked away from her, and placed his hand upon the helm.




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Epilogue



          ...The darkness parted from before my mind to reveal the deep blue wallpaper of one of the

rooms of the house. I was laying wrapped in a thin sheet on the sofa bed that sat adjacent to the

second story window. It was from this window that I had watched the world turn from spring into

summer seemingly moments before. I heard a sound of people stirring somewhere towards my feet,

yet was alarmed to find that I lacked the strength to sit upright and see who might have been there.

          Suddenly, my dad sat bolt upright from beneath the foot of my bed from his improvised

resting spot on the floor. He shook my mother by the shoulder and murmured quietly, “He‟s

awake.”

          Mom was awake in a heartbeat and was soon at my side on the bed. With my hand clutched

in hers she explained to me that I had been a rather serious car accident and hadn‟t been lucid for the

last couple of days. It all came pouring out like a river, tales of times where I couldn‟t remember

anything from one moment to the next. I nodded in amazement at their tale and merely smiled to

myself.

          “That‟s nice,” I murmured, or at least it was something to that effect as I suddenly felt the

urge to sleep again sweep over me. I remember turning my head despite excruciating pain to look at

my right shoulder which had been ripped open in a wound that cut through flesh and muscle. This of

course was covered by a thick layer of gauze, but I discovered what it was soon enough. Sometime

that day I was shown my face in a mirror, and was amazed to see gaping wounds where eyebrows,

nose, lips, and chin had once been.




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        This was the beginning of my painful weeks of healing that returned flesh to wounds,

leaving scars where death had once touched me.

        I have not since revisited Gotica, yet it still looms in the shadows of my dreams, waiting to

consume me once more. At times I come close, and the nightmares grip me so tightly that weeks can

pass before I will be able to sleep soundly again. I hate the dreams, and the only solace I find from

their terrors is in this old keyboard; in recording their details for the rest of humanity. People say that

it is a gift, that this is creativity, or the touch of genius. I would trade it all gladly, just to be able to

sleep soundly again.




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