Saturday, June 09, 2007

Company Clown


“I’m busy.”

“Want to hear a joke?"


“Of course you do. Everyone loves jokes."

"Yours suck."

"Mine are unique."

"Yours are the only jokes I know that make me angry. Now get back to work."

"Why didn’t the chicken cross the road?"

" ..........................."

"Come on, your dyin’ to know!"

" .............................. .............. "

"Does that middle finger mean your curious?"

" .............................. ............................!"

"Because he was dead! That’s why he didn’t cross the street! Hah! Never thought of that, eh? God, that one cracks me up. Every time. All right, I gotta get back to work but first let me tell you about Georgie over there, God Damn that guy is a lazy ass, never does anything he doesn’t have to. Remember that report on shipping expenses that we were supposed to have done last Thursday? Well you know we didn’t get it in on time because he was too busy fuckin’ around on the computer instead of writing that thing out. God Damn, he’s puttin’ our department in serious trouble ‘cause of that kinda crap. That’s the kinda shit that I hate, sittin’ around screwing off when there’s shit to be done. The guy’s useless! I been here two months now and haven’t seen the guy do diddly, but I keep waitin’. And I’ll keep waitin’, because I got nothin’ but time, you know man? Like at my last job - wasn’t there long but....hey.....what’s that? Come on, what is that? Shit man, looks like a God damn pair of nun-chucks! Ah shit man, you gotta let me try those out! I love that kinda crap! Smackin’, crackin’, come on man, let 'em go for a day, I’ll have it back to you by mornin’, promise! No? You got to be kiddin’ me, man, those things are born to be used, not stuck in some drawer like that! You’re a beginner aren’t you? Never seen a pro use 'em? Oh you got to let me teach you how to use these things! Give ‘em up, just for a day, OK? Oh these things look wicked, fuckin’ heavy, too. I’ll tell you now I’m a master at this kind of shit, nun-chucks and shit, spent a lot of time with these right here...made some myself......All right man, thanks man, I’ll bring ‘em back in tomorrow. Christ, these things are heavy! Fuckin’ real shit, eh? Freakin’ weapon......"


Memo: One of our associates, Dirk Williams, has sustained serious injuries and will be unable to come back to work for a while. I expect that we will all pull together and get our reports in on time regardless. Cards and flowers can be sent to Pasadena Memorial Hospital, room 276.




"No problem.”

“Did you hear what happened?“

"Don’t need to. I’ve seen more people knock themselves out with nun-chucks than I can count. That’s why I keep them around. But go ahead, what’s the damage?”

“Broken nose, lost two front teeth, chipped a couple more. He’s got bruises all over him, guy kept it up until he knocked himself out cold. His land lady downstairs heard him hit the floor. Paramedics thought he’d been attacked by a bunch of thugs until they found the nun-chucks in the corner. Steve?”


"You’re a genius.”

“Not a genius, George, I just own nun-chucks and I know how to use them."

The Ghost of Foggy Peak - Part 1

If one could see through the fog to the sky above it, they would have only seen it painted thick with a brooding grayness, a low, dreary coat that blotted out the sun’s saving rays and the glorious sapphire blue that was the breath of God. But visions of blue were rare here, the ocean’s breath obscured it so often. The land, lost in heavy fog for weeks at a time, reviled the sea and her incessant battering, and though the waves had pounded at the walls since Poseidon was a babe, the rock held firm and grim in its stand. The ships that circled the cape, whether sloop or galleon, tightened their sails and swung wide of the graveyard hidden beneath the frothing tide. This place, where raging sea and stolid rock met, was where the Ghost of Foggy Peak sat, seated aloft within his foggy cocoon, listening to the voices riding upon the curling wisps of salty mist that drifted up and past the grasping crag that jut out beyond the cliffs.

He was a mystery to all, for the figure never descended from his place perched on the cliff. If one were at a particular place at the precise moment, the rolling fog might break and offer a glimpse through its drifting veils of him there, a distant figure unmoving among the rocky throne he gripped, facing the wide open sea. How long he had been there... no one could say. His house, as tall and shrouded in mystery as he, had been built and forgotten long before the town spread below it. Its tall spires, weathered wood, its round turrets sporting rusted wind vanes that whined with the battling winds were only seen or heard by the unlucky few, for the ominous sense that clung to the desolate winding road that led to his unlit house. The story would have ended there, the ghost and his house still a mystery, were it not for two young men shunned by society for the sins they bore.

Moses and Abraham, fourteen and fickle, rendered bored by the unchanging landscape and the unforgiving blanket of fog that hid so much of their surroundings from them, often sat teetering above the beach past the cove. They had carved out a cave from the soft, moist sandstone wall, filled it with all the things young boys cannot do without, and kept it warm by a fire eagerly built and fed by anything that would burn. It was where they spent much of their time, unless they had need to be in town, with its smell of sodden wood and the bitter smell of burning seaweed and gutted fish. Any fishing town would have had more to offer than this one. But few had more fish choking its shores, so its hardy people plied the harsh sea and prayed to their harsh God. Moses was long and lean, a bastard child with unruly black hair who was a testament to how cruel life could be. His father was rumored to be a sailor, possibly a pirate, but it mattered little in this age where children unclaimed were punished for the sins of their parents. His only guardian, Tyler the nightwatch, had been given the duty of raising him because everyone knew bastards grew up to be thieves and murderers, and a man as coarse and unforgiving as he was sure to save the town from a criminal blight. Moses used to follow him as he lit the street lanterns, staying several steps away so that none would see them together, for the nightwatch feared for his reputation being seen with the boy. But Moses was born with a quick mind and an passionate heart, and nights soon arrived when the nightwatch would turn a corner to find the flames already flickering inside their glass houses, a begrudging smile hidden under a heavy beard. It is said now the bastard did not become a thief of bread as much as he had become a thief of hearts. Still, he was a bastard son, with no last name, and never a family to call his own.

Abraham, his friend and confidant was the son of a preacher. His father was colder than the brass of the bell that called sinners to the church steeple, and the man felt he had license from God to pass judgement on those around him. He wielded the scepter unsparingly. His son Abraham had proven unworthy early, and through the switch he tried to temper the boy’s predilection for devil’s play, but there was not a branch stout enough that would direct the boy back toward the righteous path. His flaw? The boy was prone to humor and flights of fancy, always to be found telling stories and collecting tales. His father believed that if the stories were not of the bible, they were only the seductions of the devil. Too often the boy had put his gift of words to the pen, creating tall tales that outraged the God fearing. The boy lived in a world of fantasy, of creatures God would deny ever felt his hand. The courser folk wondered at his imagination and his memory for such things. His stories imbibed the weak and sinful with bursts of emotion, uncontrollable emotions, of laughter and pondering sorrow, of anger and startling fright. A child who could stoke the appetites and fire the desires ought to be knees down in service to the lord that made him. The boy had rejected the open arms of God. He would not deny himself, stop his tales of giants and unicorns, elves and their magic, he would not stop his propagating the lures of Satan. Abraham had tried to quiet his singing heart and questing mind, but he saw too much in the bird wheeling above him or the distant wails of the wild when night cloaked the world in darkness. The bible had answers, but he thought wisdom came in the questions one asked. His father disowned him out of shame. The loss crushed Abe, as it would any boy. He had tried to be the man his father wanted, but there was a better chance of a seagull untying a sailor’s knot than him being able to quiet his mind. He often envied Moses’ circumstance, freed from missing a father because he never had one. To have had and lost, it seemed a cruel play.

Moses empathized with Abe all he could, but the sins that separated them from polite society were alike only in their suffering. The fact that the two of them lived as outcasts spiriting meals from where they could found them willing companions. It is not so surprising then that they looked up at the lonely castle and the lonely figure that haunted it with something near kinship. All that kept them from venturing toward it were the stories they had heard growing up about the ghost that wandered alone within. Abraham knew them all, and told them with chilling effect. The old man of the sea, they called him. Mad, he was, driven senseless by drink or devilry, and those that had gone to see him never returned. He was but a ghost, others warned, hardly different fromthe fog that hid him, and none had ever gotten close enough to see more than the spectre at his seat. Still other’s said it was all an illusion, the house, the man; the fog played tricks on tempted minds, it was best to pray for clarity than wish for proof of the Lord’s damnation. So the town had willingly relegated the house and its haunts to legend or worse. The house on the cliff and the staid brown town below it stood aside each other willfully blind, but for the secrets that hung between them, beyond sight, disguised by dark misgivings.

“ I think I see ‘im. Yea, there he is.” offered Moses, from his cross-legged position, his squinting eyes peering over Abe’s right shoulder and deep into the fog. Abe quickly turned around to catch a glimpse but only saw blinding white passing before their cave mouth and on up the cliff side.

“ No you didn’t. I can’t see the hand in front of my face!” Abe answered, turning a skeptical face toward his friend.

“ It was only for a second, can’t blame you for missin’ ‘im.”

“ Let’s switch sides!”

“ I’m stayin’ right here, Danish.” That was Moses’ nick name for Abe. “ You been lookin’ your whole life, and you never seen ‘im. Don’t suppose that’s ever gonna happen’, so I’ll stay here and see what I can.”

“ I know what you’re doing, Red!” Abe answered. “ You wanna go up to that house but you’re too scared to do it!”

“ What? Your mad! Though I’ll say this, I already seen ‘im. But if that’s the only way your gonna... well, yea, go up there.” Red couldn’t hide the nervous wrinkle around his eyes as he stared off into the mist.

Abe read him easily and the fight lost all its spirit. He tossed a piece of rope in the small fire behind them, the black smoke rose from the flames direct to the low ceiling and headed for the yawning cave mouth. “ Well, what are we missin’ anyhow? It’s a ghost on a cliff, looking out into the sea.” He blinked a few times dramatically. “ OK, I think I got it. What do you wanna do now?”

“ Let’s walk the beach.”

“ Right.”

The two of them climbed nimbly down the face of the cliff, their hands and feet reaching flawlessly into every crevice carved for the purpose, until they made it to the path and from there, meandering along, they reached the beach and traced the reach of the tide with their footprints. The sun had risen four hours earlier, but the jealousy of winter held from them any of its golden rays, infusing the heavy fog that hovered close to the surging water with a moisture so heavy that their faces shined with a salted sheen. The kept their eyes scanning the shoreline, calling out sight of anything that might be worthy of claiming.

That was the first time Abe saw the old man of the sea. A gust off the ocean cleared out the veil of white and up above, far above, he saw a misty dark figure seated atop the cliff. It was tough to tell but it seemed the spectre’s head turned a bit toward Abe, as if he felt his eyes on him. Abe did not look away, though a shiver ran up his spine. The fog quickly snuffed out the sight, and Abe trained his eyes on Moses, now far ahead walking the shoreline. He ran after him.

“ I’m goin’ up there.” Abe said when he had caught up to Red.

“ Up there?” his friend answered with a finger pointed into the hidden world above them.

“ Yea, now. You comin’?”

“ Ah...yea, sure. Now?”

“ Now.”

“ Shouldn’t we tell somebody we’re goin’ up there? So they could come and get us if we’re trapped there?” answered Moses.

“ No one comin’ for us, Red.” Abe replied slowly. “ Just like no one came for him.”

The Modern Man - Part 1

In the year 2187 the earth is quiet. Humans are banned from its surface, blamed for the impending disasters assured by global warming. Instead life is lived in Vision Capsules, where the mind is linked to the Googleplane, a computer generated world that mimics the lost one.

It is a future where mankind has lost the ability to physically do anything for themselves, where artificial intelligence has created robots and computers that seduce the modern human into a self imposed immobility. Now they live in a world where they can do no more damage.

It is the year 2187.

And it's all in your mind.


“Mmm. I can see where the planet was, but it’s gone now.”

“ It’s not gone. Your in the wrong galaxy.”

Her eyes narrowed as she led her cursor across the screen, but it always confounded her, these names for galaxies - U - 487 - Green, T - 8832 - Red. You would think by the year 2187 someone would have thought of names for these places. “I’m done, brother. I’m going outside.”

“Sure. I’ll be here when you get back.”

She hit the icon and a world of green flooded her screen. Trickling water. Warm sun. It was always perfect out, that’s what the program was made for, instantly beautiful days appeared with the dilation of a pupil. In fact it was anything you wanted at the dilation of a pupil, and though her friends thought she was losing her mind, Kia was letting perfection piss her off. Something inside her had begun to unravel, even rebel at the life lived in a capsule and experienced through a mindlink to the Google earthplane.

Ordinarily she wouldn’t have noticed that there was anything amiss, never have felt the angst that scattered her concentration. Once a body was plugged into the Vision Capsule, The Maturation System program took care of that, regulating hormonal, chemical and sociological influences so that humans achieved what Science deemed ‘prime’ condition. A perfect world had been created. Kia yearned for imperfection.

Months ago, finding some time alone, she had released herself from her capsule. The air tasted odd and she could barely stand, she hadn’t used her body in years. Her legs were frail, and in frustration she wondered how free she could be if she could never unplug herself. Who would want to unplug, what’s the point? That was true. In a world where everything was done by robots or eyepoint, there was simply no need to lift a hand. Bodies withered while minds expanded. One could spend their whole lives in one room, yet see the wide world and have relationships through common intraworld channels or customized programs. No one hungered for the human touch, the sexual nature of mankind had been tamed by the State long ago using the Maturation System, in the name of population control and environmental preservation. The primal urge to copulate and reproduce had been stripped down to an ejaculatory chemical reaction, to be shared by ‘hooking up’ through the NetLink. All pleasures, regulated by the state for optimum mental health, were body chemical triggers that could be bought like a movie ticket and credited to your member account. Food. Drink. Entertainment. Sex. All sensations were just a dilated pupil choice away through the NetLink, since actually indulging in them was forbidden . Man was deemed a threat to the natural world around it, so planners had relegated it to a place where the balance was again controlled and humanity pacified.

There were no poor, no rich, no starvation and no obesity. That was because no one worked and no one got sick. No one married and no one divorced, few knew what another actually looked like because life in the Googleplane meant all you really were was a computer generated fixation, your likeness created for the Net. There were rare stories of people who rebelled against the laws and even learned to walk, but why? The State controlled everything so that all needs were met. Those who could not be satisfied or ‘crashed’ in the Googleplane were simply sent for Maturation System reinstallation, which wiped our most of your memory and reset all your hormonal levels until you functioned no better than a rat with a lobotomy. The human body was now fit into a custom capsule that hovered a few feet off the ground in sterile rooms assigned you by master planners in the urban model. Laying in a prone position, fed and monitored, the body had become the appendix of the modern human. Those in the Great Council considered it even degrading to speak of it, and that was generally the approach taken by all. The world was run by robotic runners programmed to serve mankind in its impotence. But mankind had earned it glorious impotence, been exorcized of its superstitions and its base instincts, the apex of human progress had been attained. There was no more need for imagination or self - revelation; the true philosophy had been discovered and it was naturally the law; if a thought or motivation was counterproductive to the aims of the state in its pursuit of the perfect being, it was frivolous and subsequently erased. There was no such thing as freedom, but who wanted it anyway?

Frivolous thoughts. Kia wondered at the word frivolous. Frivolity. Had she ever been that? Felt that? She searched the chemical banks but there was no trigger for it. Unplug yourself. The words broke through her wandering mind like a challenge. Her moment outside the capsule was no idle curiosity. She fingered the release button by her right hand, but resisted the temptation. Unplug Yourself. Those words she had first heard on the Darkplot, an offline commune she found one day when she was wandering the outer limits of the Googleplane , beyond the reach of the NetLink. Those that gathered there were wild and conspiratorial, speaking of things she could not understand but wanted to believe in. She hovered there stunned into silence until they invited her in. It was the fourth time she was there that she met Connor, and over the months he had honed her from a trained monkey spouting party lines to a cigarette smoking switchblade in denim. The influences there started to show in her Net Projection, her digital self she used to travel the Link, and she was warned by the group to tone it down or their little hole would be found out and they’d all be scattered. She listened to them, she had fallen hard for Connor and there was nowhere she wanted to be than with him. She felt for the first time, maybe, love. Real ‘cry your eyes out’ love, where two people could finish each others sentences or sit silent for hours just satisfied to be in each other’s company. Connor was a poet at heart and he found a thousand ways to tell he her he loved her. But he wouldn’t hook up with her. He said he wanted more than sharing a ecstacy trigger. Kia was confused. She had been hooking up since she was eight, the act had become meaningless to her, it was only sex. Now she was 16 and for the first time since she could remember it meant something to her and he didn’t want to. He told her he wanted to [I]make love[/I] to her. She had no idea what he meant. When she learned, it horrified her; the physical touching, the tasting, the feeling. The germs.

Connor told her to wait, it could not be rushed, and he was willing to wait for her. He talked of an experience that was more than physical. There was another world out there. Kia was frozen with doubt for weeks. Unplugging meant more than leaving the Net Link, or abandoning the Googleplane altogether. It meant leaving your Net Projection. Your projection started with a basic likeness of your physical form, but as you got older you learned how to manipulate it so it became a reflection of who you think you are. She had no idea what she really looked like, she hadn’t seen herself in years. Connor said he didn’t care what she looked like, but she knew better. Unplug yourself. Kia dug deep. Could she do it for love? Yes. But if she couldn’t stand on her own two feet none of it mattered. She pressed the release.

The capsule hissed open, tripping the sensor that gave her five minutes before the health officers were called. She brought her hands up slowly to lift off her screen, the intranet shield that was the window into her computer generated world. The contraption fought her clumsy fingers, until she found the tab and the reflectors that surrounded her eyes withdrew into the sleeves past her ears. She laid there quiet for a moment. She wiggled her toes and rubbed her eyes. The room was bright, white, windowless, empty. They had outlawed windows in 2096 when the World Government had called for stricter measures to address predicted calamities of global warming. All human influence on or interaction with the environment was strictly regulated and coldly enforced. So it was that no one had seen the world in nearly a hundred years. Rumors were that it was a barren wasteland despoiled by the capitalistic greed of primitive man. Kia hated the twentieth century for that.

She looked down her legs. There was barely enough muscle to fill out the silver pants she was wearing. “One Minute Thirty Seconds.” voiced the capsule timer. She leaned forward in her seat, her hands searching for grip at the sides. Her legs were stiff, fighting her for control. She rubbed her thighs to draw blood to them, and they began to tingled with life. As she reached for her toes the pendent that hung from her neck drifted out and dangled on its dark leather strap. It was a gift from her mother, a soft blinking portrait that pulsed bright in time with the recorded cadence of her late mother’s beating heart. Kia held it a moment to feel its warmth. Sliding forward she lifted herself from her form fitting seat and put a foot to the ground...then another. She balanced herself on her two feet until she could stand firm. “Two Minutes Thirty Seconds. Please Close Capsule Hatch.” The sterile voice inspired her to push off and she began marching around her capsule, gangly and unsure, her loose feet flapping under her, trying to keep up with her leaning body. She had taken an uncoordinated third turn around the capsule when she fell, hitting the hard floor like a two year old child crashing out of control to the pavement. Her pinky finger smashed into a cannister on her pod and the pain flashed through her arm. Pain. It was a distant memory brought to life. The shock of it nearly knocked her out. “Three Minute Thirty Seconds. Close Hatch Immediately. Environmental Contamination Imminent.” She had to get herself back inside her capsule, at five minutes the glass hatch would lower and lock closed. She rose to her knees and gripped the hovering seat, pulled herself up and walked gingerly to the front. “Four Minutes. Health Ministry Alerted.” She spun herself around and tried to slide herself in but her body wouldn’t comply, it felt like lugging sacks of sand over a wall. “Four Minute Thirty Seconds. Thirty Seconds Until Health Officers Are Dispatched.” The door began to lower, Kia scrambled to align herself before she was pinned down. As it latched closed her screens were drawn about her eyes and she found herself plunged into a world of red. She tried to jump back into the NetLink but nothing happened. Suddenly a code box appeared, soon filled by a scrutinizing face.

“Kia Morrison. Your capsule hatch was open for 4 minutes 39 seconds. Explain.

“I, I couldn’t breathe, I panicked.” she answered quickly.

“Vital monitors show no variation within the last 24 hours. Explain.”

Her mind raced, and arguing with a computer generated bureaucrat was always futile. She only had one choice. “I thought I crashed. I couldn’t get the system to reboot.”

“Recite infraction remedy 314, paragraph 4, line 4.”

“Any unauthorized exit from capsule risking environmental contamination will be punishable by 200 days Googleplane access denial and Maturation System Reinstall.” Kia quoted from memory.

“Kia Morrison, did you leave your capsule?”


“All computer systems are functioning correctly. You will await Health Officers being dispatched to diagnose mental dysfunction.” The hatch snapped tight as locks sprang to set position as ordered by the Health Ministry. NetLink access was suspended, her screens just showed a sedate scene of nature located somewhere in the Googleplane. Kia sat back. The officers were thugs but she could talk herself out of trouble, Connor had told her all about them. She was dead tired. Her heart was beating like the wings of a hummingbird. Tonight she would tell Connor her decision. She hoped that in a few weeks, after she gained her strength, they might meet. And see each other for the first time. The room light dimmed. Kia took a deep breath, her eyes closed slowly.

Under her pod blinked her pendant, a mother’s picture laying in a curled up pile of well worn leather cord on the hard floor.

First Excorcist - Chapter 1

As William pulled on his robe he tried to clear his mind of all destructive thoughts. His eyes closed, his hands tugged on the purple linen stohl that he draped over his shoulders, letting it fall easily down the front of his broad chest to his feet far below. His thoughts were interrupted by a loud thud that shook the house, followed by a desperate moaning that seemed to come from all directions. He took a deep breath, recognizing the stale odor of rot on the air. His ears picked up his name whispered on the foul current, a cacophony of voices clamoring in excitement and fear, a few tortured souls let out shrill calls of alarm. It reminded him of the bells tolling in the church towers, the discordant notes that carried far and wide for it’s adherents to acknowledge the call. It gave a new twist to the thought that one’s body is a temple. For who does the bell toll? It depends on whose ringing it.

He thought back to how his day had started. When he got the call from the bishop early this morning to fly to new York he had just enough time to gather his things and leave a note on the door of his classroom that his students were to memorize Hammurabi’s code over the next two days, he would be back Friday to test them. He could hear their cries for pity already. As a professor of archeology he had spent years studying and teaching about man and his demons. Personally, man and his susceptibility to evil was hardly a mystery, but the essence of evil was always a subject that interested him. It wasn’t just his abiding faith in God that drove his interests, it was the peculiar gifts he was born with that allowed him little choice of whether to be attracted to the study of evil. And while he was well known for his archeological discoveries, few knew that it was in putting these gifts to service for his church that sent him around the world more than any archeological digs. Being the Vatican’s First Exorcist was best kept a profession with few admirers.

It wasn’t until late afternoon that he slid into the back of a cab at the airport, and after repeating three times where he wanted to go, he just gave up on the driver understanding him through his Irish accent and handed him the paper with the address on it. As the cab wound its way toward its destination he went over what he had been told about this case. A Father Montgomery had taken ill just as he was finishing an exorcism on a 10 year old boy. He had told his assistants that they were just about done, it had taken almost 18 hours but they had finally reached the clash stage, they had thought they had it beat. Something had gone terribly wrong, Father Montgomery had been attacked by the possessor and either it or the stress of the fight killed him. Doctors said cardiac arrest. William said a quick prayer for him. People never realize that sometimes evil wins. But that was why he was here. For those who were possessed, in a broken ritual like this, he was their last chance.

The unspoken rule is that once a priest begins an exorcism, at nearly all cost he must finish it. If he fails to follow through on the ritual, if the demon should defeat him, not only is his life in danger, the dominance over the soul it has enslaved will take a deeper hold, and chances are incredibly slim that another exorcism will free the possessed. For this reason it is not uncommon for a priest who has been attacked and injured to such an extent that he cannot continue to come back weeks later and finish the exorcism. But Father Montgomery would not have that opportunity. He died almost instantly, apparently dead before he was thrown against the wall across the room. William had met him briefly years ago, the man had a reputation as a solid exorcist with years of experience. What could have happened that allowed the tables to be turned on him was a troubling mystery to William. The man was no beginner.

A subtle vibration moved through the house and broke him from his revelry. He took another deep breath, let it out slowly and left the room. As he passed the stairs leading up the boy’s room, the moaning that had droned on uninterrupted since he had walked into the house turned into a shriek, the rhythmic pounding quickened. He paused there a moment, feeling the anger move through the walls toward him, and then continued down the hall to talk to those who had assisted Father Montgomery. They were a shaken lot. Mr. Brown was the boy’s father. Mr. Hernandez was a family friend and a retired policeman. Father Andrew was Montgomery’s assistant from the local church. They all looked up at him as he came into the kitchen, nervously putting down their drinks on the kitchen table they sat around. They looked like they were clinging to the last shreds of hope, desperation cut deep lines into their faces. The young Father Andrew looked only slightly better, his deep faith being his only anchor. William nodded a greeting to Andrew and turned to the two other men. They both seemed to back into their chairs away from him as if preparing to flee, something about this priest rattled them near as much as the ungodly sounds that filled the house.

“ Mr. Brown, I am Father William Brannen, I have come to take back your little boy.” William’s deep voice defined conviction. The determination in his penetrating green eyes took hold of the father and the man felt hope return, he could not explain why. He just sat entranced by the eyes of this tall, black haired priest who spoke as if what he were saying could be nothing other than the truth. The tension in the small room seem to suddenly release, as if someone had opened a window.

“ You will take him back? “ the father asked.

“ With the Lord’s help, I will. I will not need you or Mr. Hernandez anymore today, Andrew and I will be fine. I ask only that you stay here and pray for him, though. He will need your prayers now more than ever.”

“ That I will, Father." the man's voice faltered, before starting again. " Before today I never knew what fear was. I never believed that the devil was real. I never believed that the .......” His voice fell away as his gaze went glassy with memories of what he had seen and felt the night before. Tears started to form under his bloodshot eyes, his face lost all color and expression.

William put a hand on his shoulder and gathered the man’s attention to him.
“ You must let those memories go. Overpower them with thoughts of love for your little one. Remember him as the healthy, strong son you would give your life for. It is those feelings of love that are his greatest defense. “ He looked over at Mr. Hernandez and nodded in his direction, spending a moment purposefully looking into his eyes to impress on him how important this was. Though men in law enforcement like him are witnesses to evil all of their careers, nothing could prepare someone for the experience during an exorcism. This one was changed forever. The man just nodded in return.

He turned to Andrew and motioned him to follow him from the room. He noticed the young man’s reluctance, as if he thought they were heading up to the room right then. He didn’t feel he was ready to return just yet.

“ Come, Andrew, let’s talk in the den.” William reassured him.

“ Yes, Father.” Andrew answered quickly, regaining his composure and swiping his bible off the table fell in behind William. More low moaning filled the home, a cry like a child brooding over a punishment that was imminent.

William stopped for a moment in the middle of the room and closed his eyes, whispering words in an unknown language. The sound suddenly ceased, the dead calm so thorough that it startled everyone. Just as startling were the screams that broke out after a few seconds of solitude, voices that seemed to come from the walls. “ We know you, priest! You cannot save him! The pig is ours!” Squealing and laughter mixed together before breaking down into a groveling moan that picked up where it had left off. William lifted his head, turned and faced Andrew.

“ I need you with me, Andrew, can you make it?” William started.

“ I think so.” the young man answered.

“ You must be more sure ‘an that, lad. Is this your first ritual?”

“ Yes, Father, it is. I thought I was ready for it, but it is far worse than I expected. It killed Father Montgomery, it threw him...”

“ That won’t happen again. The devil is a cunning beast, but it can only do to us what we let it. Remember that, and ignore all you hear. It is all lies. Never talk to it, or show it you are affected by what it says to you. Tell me, what was Father Montgomery saying before he was attacked?”

“ He was angry, they were arguing. Father demanded obedience, the demon laughed, it was always laughing. Father challenged him, and all hell broke loose.” Andrew answered, his voice quivering.

William knew then what had happened. The battle between man and demon during an exorcism was primarily a battle of wills. The man must always remember that he is just a servant of God, of Jesus Christ, that he himself is no match for a demon. The strategy is to invite the possessor to reveal itself, and then call on the power of God to compel it to leave. The wiles of the evil are powerful, and it’s only hope is to make the battle a personal one. Father Montgomery had been goaded into a taking on the demon himself. It had cost him his life.

William nodded that he understood, and then took the young man by the shoulders and stared intently into his eyes. Their eyes remained locked for what seemed like a long minute for Andrew, but in reality it was only a few seconds. He felt strength fill his heart again, his mind cleared and, in what seemed utterly natural, raised his arms to William’s shoulder and completed the embrace. “ Focus on what you must do, Andrew. Nothing else. Do not talk to it, listen to it, look at it. Ever. I must have the full attention of this host.” William counseled.

“ He’s all yours, Father.”

As they headed for the stairs the lights blinked throughout the house. The tall, broad shouldered priest reached down and picked up his leather bag, his tools for the trade he had been born for. As his foot hit the first step, the phones in the house rang, the television sparked to life and the screen flashed split second images of every channel it offered. By the top of the stairs the noise of appliances in the house was deafening, only topped by the growling that came from behind the door down the hall. None of it fazed William, it was all show for him, he had seen it many times. He looked one last time at Andrew and then reached for the door knob.

The Glass Sword - Chapter two

The walk up through the forests on the outskirts of Cimmeria was difficult. The trees grew so thick and the ground so treacherous that Conan and his young thief Grunelda led the horse by the rein for miles. Grunelda passed the time talking. Conan passed the time listening. He was not a man who spoke freely, but his eyes saw much of what the world missed. For all his suffering his reward was a body streaked in scars and a mind sharpened by danger. He tuned out the babbling below him, her chatter - to listen to the twigs snap and the leaves fall from the trees. They spent the nights sleeping under the stars, warmed by the fire. They traveled toward the village of Alar, answering a plea for help against the deadly terror that stalked it.

Conan, king of lands far beyond sight, had found the jeweled throne he earned robbed a man of his youth. Walking now at a brisk pace for miles had shaken the dust of age from his joints. His calves burned with exertion, his powerful legs driving through the brush to carve a trail for the horse and child following. The trail was overgrown and since lost to the people of the forest these days. As they crested a hill he waved a hand over his mouth, silencing the gossiping Grunelda. He reached the peak and looked out across the valley floor below, searching for the back road to Alar. He found it quickly, and as the sun set they finally reached flat earth and headed toward the path worn into the forest floor by a hundred thousand footsteps.

Conan had picked out a clearing through the trees for the night’s camp, but as he urged his mount from the path he suddenly stopped, his raised hand silencing both girl and horse. For a moment they remained cloaked in darkness, unmoving, unseen. The horse lowered his head as Conan swung his leg above it, slipping from the saddle without a sound, leaving Grunelda alone in the seat. He whispered a word to the black beast and the animal drifted a few steps into the tall brush before turning around deftly and scanning for danger. The king slipped away from them, lost to their their eyes and the failing moonlight that found the forest floor.

Conan smelled a predator. The forest was too silent, even the crickets that had started their mating calls at the drawing of night’s curtain grew silent. Conan stopped and searched the tree limbs above him for birds, he spied a white owl facing his way. He concentrated on the bird’s eyes. They were trained back on him, those flickering globes of the night hunter who saw all that traveled in the darkness. The eyes pivoted, releasing the king and landing fastened to a creature ahead. The owl locked in the site, but never moved. Conan lowered his head and moved quietly, swinging wide of the bird’s interest, until it’s face was on his left and behind him. That’s when he found what the owl was concentrating on.

The form waited in ambush, black and bulky and crouching perfectly still. Conan watched it, marveled at its strength at keeping such a position perfectly still for so long. Since it had its back to him, lost in the nightshade, he could not name it. So he waited as well. Another moment passed when he noticed the head move slowly. Conan gathered his strength. In one move he unsheathed his sword and stepped from the trees toward the shape, but found the shape moved near as quick and twice as intent on attacking the king! The royal sword hissed as he brought it over head and, two handed, swung the blade down hard enough to cleave the creature in two!

But his steel was met with steel, and the mystery that gripped that sword faded in and out of the shadows that hid them both from the sleeping gods above. Like two razor sharp musical instruments the swords cried out a ringing note as they ground against each other, tracing a wide arc as both fighters sought to disarm the other. Two quick exchanges exploded through the forest, the clashing steel unnerving the animals and birds who dared to hide near the practiced warriors. For a moment the two circled each other, having met their match, they sought to plan their next move. The form wore a cloak that hid his body, its hood shielding the face from prying eyes. Then the low whinney of a horse sounded from beyond the robed attacker.

“That would be a friend of mine.” Conan spoke. “Now you are outnumbered!” But behind the king was the scuffing of hooves, and the long breathe of a horse.

“And now it seems we are even once again.” answered the fighter in a low, raspy voice. “Before I kill you both I would know you first.”

“I am a hunter, for pelts. Agrod is my name. And you?” asked the king.

“I am as well a hunter. Pynor I am called.”

“You fight well for a hunter, Pynor.” answered Conan, realizing quickly the man was playing him for a fool.

“That is true, but then I have spent my life hunting men.” The two men collided once again, trading blows and dodging the whistling blade. The king sidestepped and brought his sword up from his feet, many times he had spliced a man in two with that move, but the sprite opponent met the sweep with one of his own, and as moments passed they breathed harder with every lunge and dodge. From the darkness behind them a voice broke through the gasping.

“Are you two tired yet?” asked Grunelda impatiently.

The king, though near breathless, found the wind to curse. He stood upright and guarded against the attack that now surely would come. The man in black laughed to himself. “It seems it is I that now hold the advantage!”

Conan grunted. “If your horse can wield an axe, then you may. Until then, it is you and I!” He watched the man widen his stance, his fingers kneading the leather bound hilt of his sword. Then he lowered it. His eyes were still locked on Conan, but the shoulders relaxed and he took a step back.

“Then I will spare the child if you will spare the horse.”

“Agreed. I would grant the same for you as well, since it was I that picked the fight!”

“I think the fight picked us!” came a good natured reply, and the voice now seemed far warmer than the menace it carried before. “I am Ekatus, of the tribe Monyor, beyond where the sun sets.”

“What happened to Pynor?”

“I heard the name in a town I was in during the new moon.” he answered non - chalantly. “And you, warrior? I hardly think you learned to fight like that hunting beaver.”

“He’s the king! Conan! Conan the Barbarian!” answered Grunelda, who seemed to take it as a great insult that the man could not tell from her king's rippling muscles and hulking shape that he was the greatest warrior of all ages. Conan shook his head.

“ I must find a way to shut her mouth.”

“There are some things even a king cannot do, and shutting a woman’s mouth is certainly one of them!” They laughed a moment before Ekatus dropped to his knee. “ I should have known it was you. I meant no dishonor in raising my sword against you, your highness.”

“Only I can dishonor myself, Ekatus, so you have nothing to apologize for.” Conan offered his hand, and the cloaked man took it. “We are looking to camp for the night. Will you join us? I would like to know the man who defies my sword.”

“Of course, King. I have a brace of rabbits on my horse. They are yours.”

“In my hall they call me king, in my forests I am Conan. Call me that. Little one, you can never again divulge who I am, or who you are. We must travel light, for there are times when a name is a burden. Do you understand?”

Grunelda nodded before saying “I have an idea. I’ll play the royalty and you play my servant.”

“And how would that be any different from yesterday, and the day before?”

Conan gathered wood and started a fire, and very soon, with spitted prey over the fire and mushrooms browning on the heated stones circled about, the men talked of the world around them. Conan studied the man’s features as the hood fell to his shoulders. His hair was black, long like the river winding at night. His pale skin shone under a bristling beard dark as his hair, covering a jaw set like marble stone. The lines around Ekatus’ eyes told more of laughter than of anger, though the man was expert with a blade, his demeanor lent more to friendship than hardship. He smiled easily. His dark eyes lingered on the flames, as if reading them.

Ekatus was in service to a chief only a few days north, the tribe of Monyor. “ I know that tribe.” Conan announced, but truthfully he could not tell Ekatus much more than that, for the name was lost among a hundred other squabbling tribes that lived in a strained peace under him. When Conan asked him why he had left his chief's side, the warrior shook his head in brooding.

“Evil has befallen him, and some foul creature has stolen something precious to him. Every man he has sent to barter with the thief has not returned, only their horses come back, trailing the clothing of the one they once carried. The village cannot afford to keep sending brave men to their deaths, so he sent me out to find the one who would come back alive. He claims that were I to find the warrior that I cannot defeat, in him lives hope.” Ekatus raised his eyes to his king. “You say you look for adventure? I can take you there.”

“No, wait!” interrupted Grunald. “We’re going some place where no one walks out alive? Why would we do a thing like that?”

“ Because it’s fun.” Conan answered, meeting Ekatus with a smirk. “Tell me more.”

“Someone, or something has taken from the chief something very precious to him. He could not know it would be the price for mining the caves of Sunderhol, but for his trespass he says a voice came to him one night a month ago declaring punishment for such a crime. For every full moon that passes without reward his daughter loses one of her senses. She has lost sight, smell, speech and touch. By the moon four days hence, she will lose her hearing, and will die shortly thereafter.”

“So pay back the gold!” Grunelda demanded.

“He says the voice will not take the gold back. It asks for something he cannot understand.”

Conan caught Ekatus’ eyes. “What did the voice say it wanted?

“It said ‘what is mine, brought to life, that is what you must give me.”

“Hmmm. It is a riddle. There is not much a sword can do to a riddle. But we will go and find the answer. We will follow you at first light.”

Ekatus nodded his appreciation, Grunelda rolled her eyes and the king of terrors pondered the mysteries that brought sorrow to his people. The three found soft ground and fell to sleep, awaiting the morning light and the warmth of adventure.

The Glass Sword - Chapter 1

The owl watches the man slip through the busy camp. A hooded man wide shouldered and of thick limbs, he moves casually and is little noticed by the warriors. The owl’s eyes, fashioned by the gods to glimpse the mouse hidden, catch now the flash of a hand or the languid sweep of an arm as the passing figure steals what it wishes. Iced rain begins to fall again, pelting soggy ground churned into mud by the heavy boots of Nordic men weighed down by war. The sound of sharpened swords and broad battle axes, fur lined armor and dented helms ring through the curses to the snake god Set made by scattering warriors. They gather belongings into sagging tents soiled with the scent of wet leather and festering wounds. The hooded one never breaks his stride, only finds his horse and lifts himself lightly onto its back. He turns her head toward the tree line and she responds eagerly. He does not look back.

He never looks back.

The moon had fallen by the time he reached the trees. The roiling black clouds raged at his insolence, his journey had been slow and silent but for the deafening roar of the rain. The canopy offered him some respite, so he weaved his horse through snow kissed pines at a run to make up time. Man and beast moved as one, dodging and leaping until he spotted a flash of golden light far off. He slowed down, picking his way carefully, so that after some time he was within arm’s reach unseen when a young hand raised the glowing gem to flash it once again.

“You’re using the gem of Aracella as a nightlight?” came a question from the man in the saddle. The boy's gasp could have been heard by the camp hours away. The gem dropped, blinking out, and he could hear the boy searching for it through in the leaves.

“It’s by your foot.”

“My boot?”

“Your other foot.”

“Oh! Great!” The boy rose from his knee with a satisfied grin on his face. Then he remembered where he was. “ King!” He pocketed the gem. “King! Yes, here I am! As you requested...”

“Requested? Praise Bel, I’ll think twice before I challenge you again, young one.” He dropped from his horse, shrugging off his damp cloak. Under the wet wrap was a solid man wrapped in wolf furs, the grey pelts thick and dry up to his full grey beard. His long black hair was greying as well, but it framed a weathered face with regal lines, where sky bright blue eyes hovered under a brow as hard as the mountain ridges that rose above them. “I’ll ask you again.” in a gruff voice. “ Your nightlight?”

“Aracella you say? That is a pretty name. Pretty gem, too. Doubt it’s the one.”

“How’d you get it?”

“Get what?”

“Aracella!” bellowed his king.

The boy was about to say something clever when he felt his king’s eyes bear down on him. His king had a brooding presence that could quiet a forest. In fact, the only thing either of them heard at that moment was the boy’s heart pounding.

“I found it by your throne.”

“Under my throne, sealed in a puzzled box, with my butt seated above it for hours on end?” the king accused.

“That is why I am happy to see you getting out, sire! Where are we going?”

The king only grimaced. The quick witted boy had come to the castle alone a year ago, alone and broken. His parents had been killed by raiders down south. The king would have never known of the stray the cooks had taken in were it not for the disappearing objects around the castle. For a king bound to his throne for years sorting out political spats and bruised pride, hunting down the culprit offered the first excitement in years. Once he caught him, the boy would not leave him. He instead stayed to serve as the little voice that chided royalty for their self imposed drudgery, and just to see the wiry, blonde haired sprite leap into the room was to be reminded how old one felt. So the king chose a plea from a distant village and set off to find adventure. The boy had seen the gleam in his eye the day before he planned to slip away, and traded his silence for a chance to go along. The king offered him the challenge that if he could meet him in the far off Nimar Forest by midnight, he'd let him come. The little thief had done the impossible. “Gunnald, you cannot be more than twelve yet you carry the audacity of a fattened princeling. And your eye for gems will set them ogling from the tip of a pike.”

“Sire, no danger will come to me, for I am stronger than ten men and quicker than all their wives. None can catch me!”

“None but one. By Crom, the day will come, and then we will see how strong you are.” They both smiled but for very different reasons. “You’ve come without a horse?”

"I could not take the one I was offered.”

“Wasn’t wearing a necklace, you mean. Then get up onto my horse, and I will tell you about that gem you stole from me.”

“Aracella? Never heard of it. Why's it so special?” the boy teased. Once aboard they set off north, hustling to make it to the glass caves before it got too cold.

“The stone has three qualities. The first you have discovered.”

“When it is out of its pouch, it lights up. Very useful.” Gunnald answered. “What else?”

“Let us wait and you will learn its properties in time.” They traveled through the trees and started the rocky incline that led to the caves. Gunnald sat behind his king, soon falling to sleep with his head resting on a broad back.

The cave mouth was darker than the night that hid them, but the king did not pause before leading Gunnald inside with his sword hilt loosened. They walked slowly, unsure of the ground below them and the utter darkness before them. The king stopped, his powerful arms flexing in concentration. A long, dry hiss erupted above them and Gunnald was thrown to the ground by his Lord; his royal sword unsheathed and singing as it cleaved the flesh flying around them. The cave exploded with the horrid shriek of carnivores tempted by the scent of meat, and but for their flapping wings the king would not have known where to swing his blade. The spraying blood raised a lust throughout the cave, until it was filled so densely with malice that every pass with the sword cut through scores of the screeching beasts. They began to attack his arms, legs; long fangs driven deep, yanking their furry heads as they attempted to tear chunks of muscle from him.

“The light! Aracella!” he yelled to Gunnald. The boy fumbled for the pouch as he fought off the wings around him. He pulled at the leather strap and held the gem high. The crisp light pierced the room like a ray of sunlight through a crack in the rock, stunning the black skinned bats that stabbed at them both. Gunnald screamed in shock at the sight of the creatures, with their reflective green eyes peering out from shrunken humanoid heads. The wings spread the height of a grown man, but the body was a shriveled form until it gorged on bloody flesh, then it drooped like a gut sack of water hung from a tree. The bats feared the light, and fled at the sight of it, but only seconds passed before their fear was overridden by their hunger, and they began to swarm. The shrill cry rose again, higher and higher, peaking in feverish gluttony.

“It’s not working!” Gunnald yelled, trying to make himself heard over the grunting of his king at bloody work. Now that Gunnald could see the slashing raptors he used his quickness to evade them, sending the lunging attackers smashing headlong into each other and the cave walls.

The king worked his way near Gunnald and called out to him. “The gem, use it to kill these things!”

“Here, take it!” Gunnald offered.

“No! You must do it! Point it and say this words: Erlik! Flame!” answered the muscled warrior, his beard drenched in the ruby blood trails of his streaking victims.

Gunnald held the gem out and started to speak, but a snarling beast attacked his hand, its talons slicing into his skin as its teeth gnawed at his fingers holding Aracella. His screams of agony attracted other winged predators and they careened off the walls to get to him. The pain erupted down his arm, and he felt himself being lifted off his feet by the winged feeding frenzy that was breaking out over his bloody hand above him.

“ Say it!” demanded the king, himself almost overwhelmed by whirring cloud of black wings and drooling fangs.

Gunnald knew that if he dropped Aracella the room would drop into darkness. They would be shredded into bite size pieces. He grit his teeth, found his feet, and standing strong he cried with all the strength he had left, “ERLIK! FLAME!”

The ball of frenzied meat eating bats clustered at his hand burst, pulverizing flesh into blood that sprayed onto everyone and everything around him. The king ducked quickly as another blast of flame coursed from Gunnald's outstretched arm over him, searing scores of black demons. Yelps and whines filled the cave as the flying rodents scrambled for the safety of the dark, but there was none, and very soon the ground was a quivering mass of dead and dying bloody mouthed bats.

“And there is it’s second quality!” the king announced, out of breath. “And it looks as if in it you have found your strength!”

“I have the strength of ten men!” Gunnald hollered, his heart racing with the power he held in his hand, and making as much of the moment as he could. The king burst out laughing, a good natured, belly shaking laughter.

“Of ten men indeed!”

“Sire, I must know, the third property of Aracella, what is it? If the second is so powerful, the third will make me a God!”

“No, not a God.” the blood spackled royalty answered. “Aracella is named for the queen it once adorned. She died fighting over the dead body of her king against the knives of Sygian priests of the black kingdom. When they cut her down, her rage and her heartbreak were trapped inside that gem. I killed a thousand men to hide that gem under my throne.”

Gunnald looked down upon the glowing stone in his hand. It burnt brightly and with a coldness that made his hand ache. “The third property?”

“It’s third that only a woman can unleash the powers of Aracella.” A chuckle escaped the king’s smiling face as he peered down at Gunnald, a face growing more red the longer he held in his mirth. He finally burst out in laughter, wiping a bloody hand across a tear stained face. “A year and I never knew! The boy that was really a girl! Amazing!”

Gunnald kept staring down at the glowing stone Aracella. “It’s true, I am a girl. But I am still as strong as ten men!”

“I believe you!”

“And I will go with you, my king Conan to Alar, to cut down the scourge that is ravaging that village!” Gunnald announced, casting a questioning glance toward him.

“I’ll never get my gem back if I say no, I predict. Then we will go, Conan the Barbarian and..." he looked down at her and raised an eyebrow.


"And Grunelda, queen of thieves, to Alar and we will slay this scourge.” Together they cleared the cave of the dead debris, he with his shield and her with Aracella. Conan gathered wood to warm the cave. He slept near the opening, his body a muscled wall of safety for any behind it. Grunelda wrapped her warmed cloak about her, laying exhausted, holding the gem Aracella with both hands.

With Her Last Breath

Roland stood on the outskirts of the town with his saddle draped over his shoulder, the heat of the sun baking his skin into leather. The Mexican desert had nearly killed him. The cluster of buildings he saw shimmering ahead looked thirstier than he was, but he hadn't seen man nor beast since...since before Betsy died. One foot in front of the other he stumbled onward until the town lost its illusions and the hope it promised from a distance.

He walked down the middle of the street that separated the decrepit buildings. The wind snapped loose shutters closed - or did it? A life hunting men had sharpened his senses but now, in his withered condition, putting a foot forward was all he was capable of. The world swooned and he suddenly felt the sun’s blistering heat on his face. Words. Someone tugged at his saddle but couldn’t wrest it from his cramped hands. Darkness. Silence.

He woke up in the same place, lying in the same position. The sun had given up long ago and now the night was cold. His saddle was gone. A sadness blossomed inside him, and the wind seemed to stoke it. Voices. Faint but firm. He rolled onto his side and was surprised to find he had no pain, his lips wet with the heavy moisture that hung in the air. He walked in to the crowded building nearest him. The sign read, 'The Drink.'

He pushed his way through the swinging doors into a room bursting with voices. The piano tinkled on in the background, playing a listless melody with neither a beginning or an ending, it only hopscotched it’s way between the babbling cacophony that battered the walls and Roland's senses. He began to make his way to the bar, weaving through a churning sea of chattering ravens. Such sheer volume should have born excitement, but there was none here, only the sound of countless thoughts spoken aloud. He reached the bar, leaning over the lacquered walnut bar top to get the attention of the bartender, but the man did not notice him. Roland waited, listening in on the conversations around him.

“Across the border they turn water into wine.” came a woman’s voice. He couldn’t see her face, only a dry profile crowned by a flowered hat. The flowers were long dead.

“It’s the devil’s blood!” Roland looked behind him to find the voice, and matched the cackling, hacking cough lost amongst the crowd for the accusation. “They're squeezing it from the vine.”

“Thirsty?” He spun around to find the bartender suddenly standing next to him, separated by the shined walnut partition. “You want a drink?”

“What town is this?” Roland asked instead, staring into dark, swirling eyes.

“I’ll tell you after I get you a drink - first work, then play!” came a thin stab at humor, but no one laughed.

“Alright. I’ll take a beer.”

“No beer. Only wine.”

“I hate wine.”

“What’s good for the priest is good for the sinner, eh?”

“Priests can have it, it’s never done much for me.”

“Some say it's a savior, in these hard and desperate times.” came a lazy reply, and the Roland felt a pang of thirst tickle his throat.

“Alright. Just one.”

The bartender had the glass before him and halfway filled before he finished talking. “That’s all you’ll need.”

The taste was bitter, and Roland winced as he swallowed but the wine dissolved before it ever reached the back of his throat. He noticed a few heads turn his way, as if they were seeing him for the first time. He nodded back to a man in worn chaps and a broad rimmed hat, but the fellow’s eyes just glazed over as if he was tracing a stray herd over yonder.

Roland took another sip. The wine met his lips and vanished, leaving only a hint of what it once was. His mind lightened and his troubles began to fade.

“I was trying to get to Texas.” he said to no one in particular. The memory vanished in his mind as the words left his lips. Eyes turned toward him. They saw him, but they didn’t stop talking. He then realized that everyone was talking, but they were conversing with no one. Desperate eyes searched him, their faces scarred with look of the compulsive lost to his obsessive nightmare. Roland's lips traced words silently as he felt his mind unraveling. The thoughts spoken around him slurred into merciless depravity and utter hopelessness. They were spilling out the horrors of the human heart. To hear such a thing was to lose your mind. He raised the glass to his lips. “To see it helps me to forget.” It promised him peace. “That we're just born to die.”

Something stopped him. He looked back over his shoulder at the fading smile of the bartender, then turned to see the crowd casually part for a child, no more than 10 years old. She stood in front of him for a moment, studying him. He knew her brown eyes but her flawless face made her a stranger to him. She warmed into a smile, saying only one word. “Betsy.”

The word unlocked a memory - and a spreading warmth. The memory surged through him, igniting indignation and a galling cry of danger. “Betsy!” His heart ran after the memory, grasping for the hope it offered. The world around him dissolved, and he found himself lying in a room, a small boy dribbling water into his mouth. “Betsy?”

“Must be quite a woman, sir.” The boy said with one tongue wagging in concentration as another stream of water missed Roland’s lips. “Been sayin’ her name for five days now.”

Then he remembered. He had lost her in the desert. He smiled with cracked lips and peered up at the boy. “Not a woman, boy. My horse. Betsy was my horse.” He closed his eyes and lay back his head. She had called him home.