Angry flies attacked the flickering light. The small bathroom reeked of decay. Offerings from the filthy and unclean coated the walls. Raine managed to keep himself there through sheer necessity. He had nowhere else to go.
As the hot water struck his face, crimson cascaded onto the white basin. His knuckles screamed in protest, the foul air doing nothing to help the steady burn. He wiped his hands on his tainted suit, but found his skin still stained. Surely he’d wiped away all trace of her, but more blood kept appearing.
He looked up, caught a glimpse of his haggard face. Blood speckled his pores, his shirt, though his vest appeared untouched. He didn’t dare hazard a look into his eyes. Their surface burned too bright — too alive — to belong to the man he saw before him.
By Oki, he’d killed her.
His stomach flipped and the alcohol he had earlier no longer belonged to him. Skull pounding, he fought tears back. He couldn’t lose it here.
Someone knew what had happened. Two men in fact.
Jaiden and Turrell.
He couldn’t forget them. They’d raped that girl. He’d tried to save her. He’d just lost control.
His resolve strengthened. He had to find them, stop them from spreading lies, tainting his good name.
From telling the truth.
He shook the bitter thought away. No, he had to make this right.
He scooped up dirty water, threw it on his face.
In the spinning emptiness behind his eyelids, he glimpsed something eager lurking on the periphery of his vision.
When he opened his eyes, it was waiting.
Teetering on the top of a stall, the phantom swayed like some winding pendulum. Its form unsubstantial, its edges blurred. Waves of darkness wafted off it like steam.
The light’s flickering drew out, pulsing with the infrequency of madness.
A crackling giggle rang out from behind Raine, slicing through the fabric of silence. With all the giddiness of a child, it waited for him to move. Raine’s eyes locked on the creature, unable to break free.
A grin spread across its face, revealing a swath of yellow, jagged teeth. The specter’s mouth moved, though silence persisted as it tried to form words.
It detached from its perch, its claws digging into the metal. Its back arched, stretched, thinned. As the phantom’s arms touched the concrete, they sank into the walls as if becoming a part of them. Inky circles that stood for eyes parted into white slits. The light intensified as it closed the distance.
It pulled up to his face, mere inches away. Foul enough to wither a man’s soul, the creature’s stench flooded Raine’s senses. A voice, thin and raspy, floated through the air.
The door rattled.
Recoiling from the burst of sound, Raine slipped against the pedestal. He righted himself, but found himself alone. A putrid odor hung in the chilled air.
The door shook again. The lock quivered as if it would give.
Heavy labored breathing reverberated on the other side. Horrible images of something otherworldly, dark and insatiable — eyes blinded, but hungering for flesh — filled his head.
The air thinned, calling to mind the tram station and the odd man.
Raine couldn’t move, could only stare as the door flexed, bent with each breath. The rasping doubled in intensity, leaking through the door.
Then it stopped.
His pounding heart filled his ears in the resounding silence, followed by the whine of true empty air. He waited for the sound to leap forth again. When it didn’t, he crossed to the door and unsnapped the lock. Breathing in sharply, he held it steady, then eased it open. He peered out at the oncoming dawn. The air of the barren streets offered no relief from the stench, but he sucked in a deep breath.
The door ripped out of his hand.
Raine jumped back, tripping over his own feet, slamming into the basin, but he caught himself. A wretched face looked in, cheeks hollow, eyes lifeless. Exhaustion emanated from it. With a voice as dry as sand and twice as biting, the specter uttered, “What’s taking so fucking long?” The man’s eyes widened, grew black as his mouth stretched — the smile of an ever deepening abyss.
Raine’s stomach fell. He rushed past the man, shoving the door from his grip, causing it to slam against the wall. The monster cried out in his wake. Air rushed in Raine’s ears, rising in a cacophony as twilight swallowed him whole.
Cale resented sacrificing his coffee to the sea. At this point, he’d do just about anything for a pick-me-up. He stood alone, across from the spot where the woman had died, abandoned by Terach as soon as they had disposed of her. He cursed his old friend, looking down at his clean hands, easily calling to mind the dark blood he’d only washed off half-an-hour ago. He eyed the faded bloodspots, certain they’d be noticed by the hundreds of people circling the area.
Part of him wondered if any of these merchants’ dock workers would’ve cared to know that someone had just been murdered not five feet from where they stood. Cale kept a vigilant watch, eyes shooting back and forth between the too-few-Officers tasked with patrolling the docks. There was one Officer for every forty men, and that was being generous. The mile long stretch of docks was completely filled with people, moving shipping containers, crates from boat to boat, storing them on the docks, even as labels for the major cities Canei, Acintya, Reaves, and Baqir were marked up by the inspectors, showing month after month of not picking up their shipments. Somewhere, someone had to have paid for these, but they just sat here, unclaimed, taking up space, creating the labyrinthine structure Cale regularly dealt with.
With exhaustion tapping away at his shoulder, Cale forced himself forward, through the throng of workers. Cale pushed past an inspector who muttered something, words lost amidst the shuffle. His clipboard was covered with waterlogged pages, creased forms, and torn ledgers. He looked as if he were about to break from the stress.
Cale searched for any children, but mostly he saw young to mid-teens apprenticing. Personally, Cale wouldn’t even let them in the area but he didn’t run things, as he was so often reminded. A dozen eased a metal crate across an open space in front of him. Its fresh label showed its destination as Shabatidan. Cale wondered how long it’d be before someone came and claimed it.
Normally, in the light, the labyrinth of crates would lose all its menace. In those fleeting moments, he’d have a hard time believing the dock’s history of a slaughterhouse for children. Disillusioned and on guard, he rubbed the scar on his left arm, just below the crook of his elbow, to remind himself of what the city had lost.
Cale crossed a pack of containers, noting the black markings underneath the Canei’s imprint. If the city didn’t grab its shipment tomorrow, the product would be confiscated, redistributed amongst politicians as punishment for using their oh-so-important docks as a store yard. He chuckled, knowing full well they’d extend it another week if pressed. Each mark denoted another week they’d left their product there and there it sat.
As Cale neared the edge of the docks, he caught a flash of red hair, enough to give him some feel of certainty. His stoic compatriot hadn’t moved a muscle, ever vigilant in his reading. Sometimes Cale wondered if Liam was even a guard, if the absent reader had just been here long enough for everyone to assume he was being paid. However, he was dressed in the shabby blues of his post. Although Liam rarely abandoned his post, sometimes he disappeared for days, searching for forgotten novels. Cale never saw the appeal.
Cale pushed past an apprentice carrying a load of metal. The youth pivoted, lost his footing. Loose chunks of his cargo struck the ground and bounced away.
Moving on instinct alone, Cale scooped up the errant bits. He straightened, a scowl plastered on his face. The novice approached slowly. “Sorry, sir.”
“It’s okay, just be more careful from now on.” Cale held the scraps out to him.
The teen nodded and accepted them with a disarming smile. Cale’s glower melted away, then a flash of twisted flesh, blood staining the dock, filled his vision. His jaw locked and he grunted, “Get on then.” The boy nodded, slipped back into the crowd. Cale tried to spot him within the countless others, but couldn’t. He pressed through to the guard station.
He slumped into a chair, cold and tired, but thankful for the reprieve from the chaos. Liam didn’t move an inch. Cale leaned forward, resting elbows on his knees. Despite his tiredness, he angled himself so he had the best vantage of the ships. He said in a low voice, “How’re you, Liam?”
“Could be better. This writer is mediocre at best.” He turned the book on its side, revealed a missing cover. Recognizing its absence, he shrugged and continued, “I had hoped for more, but you get what you pay for.” He looked saddened by this revelation. The emotion lasted a second before disinterest returned.
Cale stared at him, then, after a pause, asked, “How much did you pay for it?”
“Oh, just a couple hundred dollars.”
Cale swallowed hard. “That’s insane.” He eyed the torn book. He wasn’t a reader but he was sure he’d seen trash like that for a couple bucks at most.
Liam turned his head, unnatural as marble coming to life. “Yeah. I tried to get a cheap book. Should’ve realized it was garbage.”
Cale shook his head, too tired to correct this error in logic. “Did you see anyone pass by last night?”
“Other than you?”
“Other than me.”
“What did they look like?”
“Can’t really say. He was familiar though.” Liam’s voice dropped off. His eyes focused on the page.
“Did you know him?”
“No.” Liam’s responses stretched like taffy as his voice took on a dreamy quality. “Well, maybe.”
“What’s his name?”
Liam didn’t say anything. His hazel eyes darted across the page. Cale repeated himself, but received Liam’s statuesque silence.
Cale stood, lost in exhaustion and impatient. “Thanks bud.”
Passing out of the shack, he thought he heard Liam whisper a single word, “Theon.” When Cale turned, the reading man had not moved a muscle.