Malcolm's world is turned upside-down in a surreal act of poetic justice.
Malcolm rolled a coin across his knuckles. He held it on the knuckle of his pinky. One. He rolled it back to his index. Two. It was all one smooth motion. Three. From index to middle to ring to pink. Four. All in a fraction of a second. It was as smooth and seamless as the sky on a sunny day. Five. The curve of the fingers' path. The sleek motion that delivered the coin from one knuckle to the knuckle on the complete opposite side. The light glistening off the tiny piece of metal, only for a split second, as it flipped from one digit to the next. It was hypnotic. Fourteen.
"Pardon me," said a servant as he squeezed past Malcolm in the long corridor. Malcolm paid him no mind. He was too focused on the tiny silver circle gliding back and forth across his fingers. Twenty-three.
It was such a gorgeous motion. So fast and so smooth. There was no doubting that the coin had to go across all of the fingers, but it was never seen there. Only the start and the end ever registered with the brain. It was too perfect of a motion for the eyes to catch. And that was part of what made it so wonderful. That he was making the beautiful action with his own hands. Through his own dexterity. He was an artist, and greatest of all. To Hell with Da Vinci, Malcolm's coin was infinityfold better than the Mona Lisa. Forty.
He walked down the hall, staring at his coin. He was entranced. Forty-two, forty-three, forty-four, forty-five.
He stopped. It had not quite been a minute. For the past three days he had been timing himself on his pocket watch to see how many times he could roll it back and forth in one minute. Every time, it seemed, he got a little bit faster. And he was making good time. Or at least, he had been.
"Malcolm, happy to see you," said King James, smiling broadly from inside of the room he had just passed.
"And I you," Malcolm greeted as he stepped across the threshold. He had become so taken in by the coin that he had almost forgotten why he had come up here to begin with. "What is it you wanted to see me about, sir?"
King James shook his head from side to side. "It's always business with you. I have not seen hide nor hair of you since we executed Gavriil two weeks ago. How have you been?"
"Fine," said Malcolm, smiling. "And you?"
"I love the new look," said King James. "It is still quite odd, but definitely an improvement on your old attire."
Malcolm looked down at himself. He had significantly changed his look about a week before, courtesy of all of Gavriil's money. As much as he loved money, even he had to treat himself once in a while. He had shaved off his tiny almost-beard completely and cut his hair down to less than an inch long. All of the curls falling from his head had looked like ash during the process of the cutting. But now it was nice and short. Much shorter than anyone else's in London, but he was a magician. He did have to stand out, after all.
That was his excuse for any non-conformist style of dress that he chose to wear. And the King happily accepted it. But today, and for the past few days, his outfit had mutated from his usual out-of-the-ordinary into something more traditional. He was still dressed completely in black, but his loose, ankle-length trousers had been traded in for black velvet breeches that stopped just below the knee and became black stockings. His usual black leather boots were gone. His feet instead rested in pointy formal buckle shoes that were too uncomfortable to walk in, but he tolerated because they were expensive.
His long, black coat was still there. But the buttons and the jewelry had been replaced. The silver had been professionally removed and new polished gold had gone in its place. He wore only gold now. His rings, his necklace, and even the buckles on his shoes and belt were solid gold. It all made him look more professional. More upscale. Overall better. And that was what he was. Better.
"Thank you, sir," said Malcolm.
"Have you learned any new tricks?" asked King James. "You have been out performing every day. Surely you must have come up with something fresh."
"I'm working on something," said Malcolm. That was not a lie. He was formulating something in his head. One thing Gavriil had done was make him think. And he was thinking, all right. He had not put any ideas to use yet, but he was almost ready to.
But most of his time had been spent doing what he already knew. He had gone out and walked the streets for hours every day doing magic for people. He had almost forgotten how much he loved the art. It was great to be back on top. He was never going to take his status for granted again. Going out, doing tricks, and showing people just how much better than them he really was.
"I've just relearned how much I love magic," said Malcolm. "Ever since Gavriil. He was evil, sir. Nobody saw what I saw. His witchcraft made me realize just how important real illusion really is."
King James smiled. "Glad to hear it. What exactly did you see, anyway?"
Malcolm hardened his face quickly. "Your majesty, please don't ask me that question." He made his voice serious. It was his greatest illusion in a long time and he loved it. He had the King hanging on a thread. He never told King James exactly what he had seen, only given off the vibe that it was gruesome and evil. Hell, maybe. Maybe the face of Satan himself. He didn't know. King James didn't either. And that was all the better.
King James cleared his throat. "Anyway, the reason I sent my messenger to get you. I just got word from our friend Lord David of Ireland. Do you remember him?"
Malcolm nodded. "Yes."
"How about Dario, the magician who performed here a few weeks ago?"
"Yes," said Malcolm. He remembered Dario very well. He had been quite easy to manipulate. He had dealt with spectators harder to wrap around his finger than Dario was.
"Poor Dario," said King James. "It seems that he was having financial difficulties. I never would have thought it, but he was on the same level as our peasants. He could not handle it."
King James lowered his eyes and shook his head from side to side. "The ultimate shame, I'm afraid. He took his own life by lacerating his wrists."
"Oh my," said Malcolm, raising his eyebrows and trying to look like he cared. He didn't. It was just one less peasant he had to deal with.
"It's a shame," said King James. "He was an excellent performer. You must shocked at the news. He was one of your peers."
"I met him after his last show," said Malcolm. "He was a very friendly man. A little on the timid side, but generous. I'm sorry to hear that he's gone."
That entire statement was a bluff. He was glad Dario was dead. He was not even a very good magician. The loss of his life would do nothing but amplify Malcolm's own career. The loss of the mediocre embellished the abilities of the elite. And that was what he was. Malcolm was the elite. And beyond magic there was not much of a loss. He was young, he didn't have anything to live up to yet. It wasn't like he was that important. He did not even have very much money.
"But anyway, Malcolm," said King James. "Dario will undoubtedly be recognized, but Lord David has a more immediate problem that I was hoping you could assist with."
Malcolm nodded. "I'll do my best."
"Dario was supposed to entertain at a small social gathering at Lord David's keep. Would you be so kind as to replace him?"
Malcolm smiled meekly and began to grope his pocket full of coins. "I would be happy to."
Happy was an understatement. He was thrilled to. He would have been a much better performer than Dario, anyway. But it was the financial motivation that got him. David, a Lord of Ireland, and his company. Some of the wealthiest men in the world. He would not be working for penny change now. Not by a long shot.
King James smiled at Malcolm and touched his shoulder. "That's my boy. Do you need me to get you accommodations?"
"If you don't mind, sir," said Malcolm in faux-modesty.
Malcolm did not need the King's money. He was so rich that he could probably rent an entire inn and half of the surrounding buildings. But if somebody else was going to pay, let them. He had not gone without income since Gavriil died. There was money to be made even in "free" street performances. If he got people amazed enough with his big tricks, he might be able to do a couple more, for a penny. Watch a coin disappear and never return. From his pocket. From one of the more wealthy people, he had even managed a full crown in return for one of his "secrets." And by secret, he meant a lie that sounded plausible but was in fact completely not true. He was so worked up over that financial victory that he used the money on a prostitute.
And if none of those things worked, there was always good old fashioned pickpocketing.
"Malcolm, I am ecstatic to hear that you are going to help," said King James with a huge grin. "I will send word to David. Do you know what you are going to perform."
"I have a new trick that I'm working on," said Malcolm. "Maybe I'll make them my test audience."
It was the only thing he had said that was not a lie. Not a complete lie, anyway. It was not exactly a new trick, but he was adapting it to himself. Gavriil had been a genius when he was alive.
"How's the food?" asked Lord David as he clapped Malcolm on the back.
"Splendid!" Malcolm blurted out jovially. He lifted his mug off of the table and let the last drops of rum fall onto his tongue.
"I knew you were coming, so I ordered a good old Irish dish. They all thought we should have something fancy, but I thought, 'no, Malcolm's coming from England, we gotta show him how we do it here in Ireland! It's corned beef and cabbage for us!'" David smiled brightly.
"It's excellent," said Malcolm.
He was impressed, all right. Impressed with how much these Irish folk could drink. David and most of the people around him were already buzzed and it was only the entree of the dinner. Malcolm himself had only a pint. He tried not to overindulge. He wanted circumstances to be ideal for his performance, and they were already shaping up that way. The richest men of Ireland, relaxed and loose and drunk, while Malcolm himself was happy enough to fit in but sober enough to perform. It was the perfect opportunity to get rich. If he felt like it, he'd buy himself some expensive wine later.
"David," said one of the other Irishmen sitting with them. He was a large, plump man with a face the color of a young piglet and a beard the color of crow. "I have a pub story."
The man's speech was a little slurred from the alcohol. Malcolm leaned forward to listen. It was a good chance to start up a performance and get into money making mode.
"I was at the pub the other day with Sean and some buddies," said the man. Malcolm had no idea who Sean was, but everyone else seemed to know him well. "Sean was walking around and this guy bumps into him and spills his beer. The guy goes, 'sorry.' Sean goes, 'It's okay, just buy me another beer.' The guy goes, 'I ain't buyin' you shit!' So Sean punched him square in the jaw!"
The Irishmen laughed their deep belly laughs. Malcolm chuckled, not at the story, but at their comical manner.
"I have a pub story," said Malcolm. He reached into his robe and pulled out a fresh deck of cards. It was his chance. "In London there's a pub that I go to a lot called the Six-Fifty-Four Club. I like to head there and gamble on my nights off." He started shuffling the cards in plain view of everyone. He exaggerated the motions to make sure that everyone there saw that he was shuffling the cards. "One night I saw a tenant from the palace named Sam who just kept coming and going, so the next time I saw him I asked him what was going on that night."
He looked around. Everyone had taken interest. They were listening casually in the same way they had listened to that other man's story. They had also taken notice of the cards. That was good. Time to start getting some money.
"Apparently, when King James was having a party, four guys dressed really nice came in. I mean they were dressed fabulously, almost like they were kings themselves."
He dealt the four kings face up from the top of the deck.
"They said to Sam, 'Sam, we could use some nice ladies to socialize with.' So Sam walked the four blocks down the street-" he held the deck out and did four one-handed cuts to represent the walking "-to the Six-Fifty-Four Club-" he dealt three more cards, a six, a five, and four, face up onto the table "-and came back with four girls."
The Irishmen were smiling and looking at each other. They had acknowledged that it was a magic trick and not an actual story. Malcolm dealt four cards face down onto the table.
"Sam comes back and he says to the guys, 'I got you four girls. Two brunettes-'" Malcolm turned over the Queen of Spades and the Queen of Clubs "'-and two red-heads.'" He reached down and turned over the other two, the red queens.
He continued telling his story and dealing the cards. After a while the kings wanted to play poker, so Sam went back to the Six-Fifty-Four Club and got four guys named Jack to come and play. When they were done, they needed change, so Sam went back to the club and got some change. The guys asked where Sam was going, so he told them all about the Six-Fifty-Four Club and the great gambling that took place there. It was a nice, casual story with humor here and there. And every time Malcolm mentioned a number or an event, the right card was right there on top, regardless of how many times he shuffled or cut the deck.
"And the guys ask Sam, 'well, did he win?' And Sam goes, 'no! The other guy, Malcolm the magician, he had a straight flush!'" Malcolm laid down the last five cards in his hand, the two thru six of spades.
The Irishmen threw their heads back and laughed. Malcolm smiled. He had amused them. That was good. It was good to keep them loose before he pulled them into something bigger and more involved. Something worth a little bit of gold.
"An excellent trick!" said David with a little more emphasis than was necessary. He hit Malcolm on the back. He must have been getting drunk, because the hit was with a little more force than really necessary. But that was okay.
"Thank you," said Malcolm.
"Show us another one!"
"Yeah, we want to see more!"
"Come on, Malcolm!"
Malcolm grinned widely. That was what he wanted. People to be excited about his performance. The more enthusiastic they were, the easier it would be to get inside of them and manipulate them how he wanted. He stood up from the table and pushed his chair in. Now that all attention was on him, it was time to change the atmosphere.
"I'm glad you enjoyed the trick, but the art of magic is not all fun and games," said Malcolm. He changed his tone from a happy friend to matter-of-fact, almost school teacher voice. "There are some much more serious subjects involved in it."
He started to pace back and forth. He was slow. He raised his leg and let it hang in the air before stepping down onto the hard floor with an audible tap. He loved the new shoes. His old boots never would have made such a sound. It was another color on his pallet of tactics to paint a picture of intimidation. He stayed silent for a moment to let it sink into their heads.
"One such topic is a grave one indeed," he said. He changed his voice again. It was low and a tad bit hushed. He needed to be serious now. Dead serious. "The conjuring of spirits."
It was game time for him. The trick was Gavriil's, but Gavriil was dead now. It was time for Malcolm to take over. To put it to good use. He had thought about it for a while, adjusting it and working the kinks out for himself. It wasn't stealing. You could not steal from a dead man. But even if you could, Malcolm wouldn't have cared. Silver was harder than skin, gold was thicker than blood.
The Irishmen looked around at each other. Their expressions mimicked Malcolm's tone. He was serious, and now they were, too. His voice cast a spell over them. It melted away the alcohol in their blood and disintegrated their tipsiness. Malcolm wanted to reach into his pocket and pull out a coin and roll it across his knuckles, but he resisted. There was something else in him now. The same evil that lived deep inside of him, surfacing and starting to take control of him. His own id, that which drove his lust for money and power.
"There is a spirit in here tonight that has come to talk to me. The spirit of a young girl." Malcolm closed his eyes slowly and tilted his head toward the ceiling. It was a bullshit look of deep thought and meditation. "Her name is Chelsea. Does anyone here know a young girl named Chelsea?"
"I do!" shouted David. The color was draining from his face. The happy, cheerful look that had been on him all night had taken a holiday. He looked shocked and scared and horrified, all at the same time. His eyes were wide with awe.
"What a shame," said Malcolm. "She died young?"
"Yes," said David, lowering his gaze to the floor. "She was only five years old."
"And the two of you were close?" asked Malcolm. Yes, they were. He knew they were. He did not have the crowd that Gavriil had when he did the trick. Malcolm could not start off with the hot and cold thing with a room full of (drunk) Irish aristocrats. He had to ease into it. Malcolm had learned of the deal with Chelsea a few days before from King James.
"Aye," said David, sounding a little down in the dumps. It was a noticeable difference from the bubbling manner he possessed only minutes before. "She was my favorite niece."
"She wants me to tell you that she loves you."
David smiled and looked up at Malcolm. Malcolm raised his eyebrows and gave David a smirk. The room fell silent. The air had thickened. Malcolm had just brought them all across some kind of barrier which they had never known about before. He had spoken to the dead.
He was in control.
"The spirits are all around us," said Malcolm. He walked slowly around the table, letting the tap-tap-tap of his shoes echo through the tension. "They watch us. They walk with us. They sleep with us. They whisper to us."
Malcolm's hand crept toward his pocket out of his control. It worked its way in and began touch the coins he had stored there.
"There is one whispering to me now," he continued. "It is saying a name. It is saying..."
Malcolm opened his eyes. What was that? It shocked him out of his expression of concentration. The Irishmen were looking at him expectantly. They were almost drunk, maybe one of them had whispered his name to get a laugh. But then again, they were all too buzzed to be able to keep such straight faces. Perhaps he imagined it. It could have been the wind or some other noise which had somehow taken the shape of his name the way shadows of trees take the shapes of monsters at night. It was nothing.
"What is it saying?" asked Lord David.
Malcolm closed his eyes slowly and resumed his look of deep thought. "A name."
"What name?" asked another one of the spectators.
"The name is-"
His eyes popped open. There was no mistaking it that time. It was plain as day. He had heard his name whispered to him. The men at the table stared at him. They were tense and nervous. If one of them had said it, they were all damn good actors.
"Is one of you trying to play a trick on me?" asked Malcolm. He was trying not to sound out of the ordinary, but his voice broke. There was something fishy and he didn't like it. It was a cruel prank. And it was also interfering with his money making.
"No," said Lord David. He looked around at the other men. "None of us did anything."
The men nodded. Malcolm eyed them up and down. They were telling the truth. None of them had said a thing. None of them had moved a muscle. They were all waiting for him to reveal the words of the spirit.
A shiver ran down Malcolm's spine. His body jerked once. What exactly had that been, then? Was somebody else there? That couldn't be, the men at the table would have said something in the unlikely event that Malcolm did not see the person himself. He could feel goosebumps rising on his cheeks. He imagined it. It was the only way. After he thought he heard his name called the first time, his overactive imagination made the second word. It was the only explanation. It was all in his head.
"Mister Malcolm, are you okay?" asked David. "You look really pale."
Malcolm stared at him. He sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He felt a little dizzy and his stomach turned over once. He opened his mouth to speak but no words came out. He felt like something had crawled up from the pit of his gut and was blocking any words from coming out of his throat. The other men looked around at each other. He was pale. Malcolm knew he was pale. He could feel the blood running out of his face. His must look like the ghost he told them he was talking to.
He swallowed hard but his mouth and throat were too dry. It was like real magic: one second he was fine, and faster than the snap of fingers, he was sick and scared and his mouth was drier than chalk. The moment of silence had gone on for too long now. The men began to whisper to each other. Malcolm stared. He had to do something. He could not look like a fool. If anything, maybe this would help his act and make him more convincing. But for now, he had to do something.
"I need some fresh air," said Malcolm. He pried himself from his position and walked hastily toward the door. He did not run, but he got out fast and left without another word. Not a second glance, nothing. The instant the words were out of his mouth, he was heading toward the door.
The cool, crisp evening air hit him like a hurricane wind. He closed his eyes and sucked it deep into his body. It stung his dry throat, but it felt good. It felt like relief. He was outside. The pressure was off. He could think again.
He walked slowly down the cobblestone street under the dusk sky. The roads were clear. All of the people had retired to their homes for supper. Malcolm was alone on the street. But this alone felt different. He was alone, but not quite alone. The stillness of true solitude on a cool summer night was not there. But there was nothing different. What Malcolm felt was his own paranoia. Paranoia from the whispers he had hallucinated inside.
Malcolm walked toward the fountain in the center of town. He needed to splash cool water on his face. He needed a minute to calm down before returning to his performance. But at least he left them thinking about something. Out here it was easier to think. He was probably drunk. That was where the sounds came from. He was too tipsy to think straight. But on the other hand, he had only had one mugful of rum. No bother. There was probably something else in it. These people were Irish, after all.
Malcolm stopped at the side of the fountain and leaned over the small pool. He had to formulate some kind of story for the men inside. The spirit had whispered to him a secret which was so terrifying that it made him sick. But they would want to know the secret. The spirit had whispered a name that Malcolm himself knew. But they would still want to know the name. And besides, it would cut the drama short and not play it to its full potential.
He cupped some water into his hands and threw it onto his face. It was cold. It was refreshing. Malcolm opened his mouth and licked some of the moisture off of his lips. He felt almost ridiculous now. That a grown man educated and trained to know the difference between illusion and witchcraft could be scared out of a building by a simple noise was outlandish. He hadn't heard a thing. It was his imagination. He did not know what brought on such a random event but he knew that the event itself was all in his head. It was nothing. Nothing at all, just like the face in the water.
The face in the water.
Malcolm's eyes came slowly into focus. He peered down at the water, at the spot that should have been his reflection, and gasped. It was a reflection, but it was definitely not his refection.
It was a body. A dead body, naked and sheer white. The skin was swollen and wrinkled. The pale flesh around the eyes had grown to the point where the orifices themselves were completely covered. It was large and puffy. The body had been left in water long enough to get pruny, and then ten times longer. Malcolm himself had never seen such an occurrence, but he had heard from King James while discussing witchcraft.
It was a year before Malcolm was appointed to his position that they tried a man for sorcery and threw him in a lake. It was the classic test. If he floated, he was a witch. If he sank, he was normal. Of course the man sank, but they never got him out. When the body finally washed up on shore it looked like this. White and shapeless, as though somebody had torn off the flesh and replace with sponge.
Tiny flakes of skin floated around inside of the pool. It reminded Malcolm of tadpoles. It floated around, enjoying its merry self, completely unaware of the disgust it caused all that saw it. The water itself was turning a putrid yellow. It was like a halo to the grisly image. A glow of glorious decay.
The lips opened. The large, swollen, wrinkled lips which could hardly be considered lips anymore opened.
The mouth spoke. "Malcolm."
"Ah!" Malcolm threw himself backward onto the street. It was real but it wasn't real but it was real but it wasn't but what the Hell was it??? His body was racing. His heart was beating so fast that it might not even have been beating at all. His veins flared with adrenaline. Fight or flight, fight or flight. He could hear his pulse pounding in his ears like an enormous bass drum. His lungs inflated and deflated so fast that air was coming in and going out at the same time.
For an entire second his mind was blank before a million thoughts rushed into it at once. Was? What? How? Huh? It was impossible. There was no explanation for it. He saw his reflection in the fountain turn into the image of a decaying body and it spoke to him. That was what he thought happened. But it was impossible. There was no way something like that could happen. It was impossible. It was damn impossible. His mind had played a trick on him with the whispering of his name, but this trick was too cruel. It was a gruesome sight, one that he would not wish on his worst enemy. A dead body. White and wrinkled and puffy from being left abandoned in the water for days.
It was impossible.
He pushed himself to his feet. His legs quaked and wobbled like they were made of jelly. For a brief second Malcolm thought he knew what it was like to be old. He shivered violently. He was going crazy. He had to be.
He froze where he stood. His mind went blank again and plunged him into a half second of vertigo. It was his name again. But it came from elsewhere. Not a whisper in his ear. Not a moan from a dead body in a fountain. It was all around him. He heard it shouted from every direction. He did not look. He did not dare look. He was too terrified of what mirage his subconscious decided to torment him with this time.
He closed his eyes. It was nothing. There was nothing there. He repeated it inside of his head. Nothing nothing nothing. Hallucinating, mirage, imagination, going nuts. They were comfort words. Comfort words which he shouted inside of his brain to block out the sounds around him. His name being yelled aloud from every direction. Footsteps. Some fast, some slow, some heavy, some even metallic sounding. Scraping and dragging sounds. Moaning and screaming and his name. It was the rum. It had to be the rum.
He opened his eyes.
They were there. More of them. More dead bodies just like the one in the fountain. At least, some of them were bodies. And they looked dead. But they moved. They moved and walked and spoke. His name. They spoke his name.
The things-zombies?-crept closer to Malcolm from all sides. They were only meters away. An entire horde of creatures that in his wildest nightmare Malcolm never would have seen. In a matter of minutes his night had gone from a money-making performance to a literal Hell on Earth. His body was on the verge of self destructing from the overdrive of the vital functions. And he was surrounded by walking, talking dead bodies.
Most of them were bodies. Or at least resembled bodies, or had been bodies at one time or another. Few were actual complete bodies. Most were covered from head to foot in thick red blood. Some hobbled toward him with no arms. Others crawled because they had no legs. A couple had only half of a head, their skulls apparently smashed inward from some kind of heavy blow. Pink liquid brain oozed down the sides of the faces. Some had no head at all.
It was Hell. It was literal Hell. When there was no more room in Hell, the dead would walk on Earth. And so they did, here, before Malcolm's very eyes. Zombies with rotting flesh the color of red and brown and black. Flesh that had decayed down to the bone.
Two of them were tall. Abnormally tall and skinny. They moved slowly and awkwardly. They did not walk. Their legs slithered in a surreal manner and dragged the torsos behind them. They were almost completely limp, as though under the skin they had been pulled apart at the joints. There was even a box. A walking casket or sorts, made of old, black, rotting wood. Two naked legs stuck out from the bottom. Blood trickled down them from the holes in the underside of the box. There was no body. Just a box with legs.
"No!" Malcolm screamed. It was a scream of absolute horror, a scream he had heard only once before: when Gavriil was burning on the stake.
He turned and ran. He ran as fast as he could. The sounds stopped. His eyes shifted into tunnel vision. He ran. He ran as though the entire world was ending behind him and he needed to escape it.
This isn't real, he thought to himself. This is a dream. It's only a dream. Now wake up, Malcolm. Wake up. Wake up, damnit. WAKE UP!!
Still he ran. He sprinted with all of the energy he had. Down the street, away from those hideous things. He did not wake up. He was trapped inside of the nightmare world that had somehow forged itself inside of Malcolm's consciousness. It was a nightmare world, after all. It had to be. Malcolm had to be dreaming. It was the only way. There was no possible explanation. There was no way that those things could possibly be real.
The inn came into view. The End of the Rainbow, the best inn in town, which still wasn't very good. But Malcolm had chosen it to accommodate him for his stay in Ireland. He made a beeline for the front door. He wanted to get inside. He wanted to throw himself onto the bed and fall asleep. If only he could do that. He would wake up back in the castle in London, happy and healthy because none of this had ever happened. It was all a dream. He would wake up fine, or at the most, hungover.
He threw open the front doors of the inn and rushed across the lobby without looking back. He stormed up the first flight of stairs. He stormed up the second and ran off onto the third floor. He raced down the hallway, all the while reaching into his pocket for his room key. He stopped in front of the door and pulled the key out. His heart pounded. Sweat poured down his face. He jammed the key into the lock and rotated it until he heard the click. It was a click of relief. It was a click of life.
He stepped inside and slammed the door shut with all of his might. The locking mechanism latched loudly. It was the greatest sound Malcolm had heard all day. All week. In his entire life. It was assurance. He was safe now. The creatures were safely shut out on the other side of the door. Real or a dream, it didn't matter, they were outside and he was inside. He was safe. He was happy. He was
Not alone. He was not alone. A man sat on the end of his bed rolling a coin back and forth on his knuckles the way Malcolm loved to do. He was about average height with a head completely shaven so that the light from the lamp glistened off of it. He wore brown robes similar to the ones that monks wore. Malcolm knew the man. He knew the man because he himself had condemned him to death by telling King James that the man was a witch.
He rolled coin from one side of his hand to the next. From the first digit to the last digit. It was smooth, but it was not fast. Malcolm could do better. But he did not care at the moment.
"I can't do it as well as you can," said Gavriil, watching himself move the coin back and forth. "You don't need to worry about killing me for that, too."
"Gavriil," Malcolm gasped out of disbelief. Just one more impossibility. The man was dead. Malcolm had seen it with his own eyes. And yet here he was, sitting two meters in front of him.
"What is going on?" asked Malcolm. The words barely escaped his mouth. There was no word to describe the mixture of thoughts and emotions inside of Malcolm. "What are those things?"
"They're dead," said Gavriil. He released the coin and let it drop into his palm. He set it gently on the table beside the bed. Malcolm watched him unblinking. Gavriil was not disfigured, but he was still dead, and still just as much of a monster as the things that had chased him. "Just like you."
Malcolm's lower lip trembled. "I'm not dead."
Gavriil raised his gaze to Malcolm. "Yet."
Malcolm's eyes widened. A shiver washed over his entire body and he felt a tear running down his cheek. He was terrified. He was no longer the brooding, manipulative magician that he had always been. He was helpless and scared. Dead scared. He felt like he had been stabbed in the stomach and his heart ripped from his chest at the same time. He was not going to die. He couldn't die.
"Gavriil, please," said Malcolm. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
"Please?" said Gavriil. "I should have thought of that. If I had said please, Malcolm, would you have spared me?"
His robe combusted. It was an effect like one Malcolm himself might have used in a magic trick. Without warning a fold at the base of Gavriil's robe sparked and burst into flame. Malcolm's eyes darted toward the small orange glow, but Gavriil ignored it. It spread swiftly, wrapping around Gavriil and climbing up his robe.
"Those people out there," Gavriil continued, "are people just like me. They are damned. Not by God, but by humankind."
The fire burned away Gavriil's robe and attached itself to his legs beneath. It spread alarmingly fast. But Malcolm noticed something else. It was on Gavriil, but nowhere else. The sheets on the bed remained completely undamaged. It burned Gavriil, but only Gavriil.
"Those people were killed because people thought they were witches," said Gavriil. "And now they are forced to relive their death again and again and again, just like me!"
He shouted as the blazing inferno engulfed his arm. There was no pain in his voice. There only a hint of anger as well. His shout sounded more like triumph. Like a knight as he brought an enemy to justice.
He was reliving his own death. All of the creatures outside were, too. It made sense now. The headless had met the guillotine in their lives. The two tall people were undoubtedly victims of the dreaded stretcher. The body in the fountain looked like it had been left in a lake because it had been. It was probably the same man that King James told Malcolm about. And the walking box was not a box at all, but an iron maiden.
Gavriil stood up from the bed. The smell of burning flesh filled the room as the fire crawled over his head. The skin shriveled. The first layer broke and dissolved into thin black string, revealing tender pink flesh underneath. His arms and legs were almost completely gone, cooked to a state of bitter black. Ashes broke free from his body and dissolved into the air around him. It was a brilliant image. He burned, but he burned in victory. Gavriil was the undead flag of vengeance for all of those wronged in life.
"They want you, Malcolm," said Gavriil. A lump of burning black fell from his cheek and burst on the floor into a fine powder.
Malcolm threw his head back and bawled. The confirmation of his own death was worse than the act itself. Hot tears streamed down his face and his chin. A loud sound halfway between fear and torture escaped from somewhere deep inside of Malcolm's diaphragm. He could not die. He could not let those things take him. He would not let those things take him. If there was no escaping death, he would do it his way.
"No," Malcolm pleaded to the charred skeleton that had been Gavriil only moments before. The final strings of tissue melted off of the bone.
"It's too late."
The door behind him banged.
Malcolm ran. It was all that he could think to do. Run. Run the fear and pain out of him. Run away from the monsters behind him. There was nowhere to run to, but he ran. There was another hard knock against the door. He dashed with all of his might and all of his being toward the window in his room, three stories above the street, and jumped.
He didn't feel the glass as it gave way against him. He didn't feel the shards as they sliced into his epidermis. He felt nothing. He simply watched the ground below him come closer to his face. The lines in the street came clearer. The cobblestones made themselves known.
Malcolm smacked into the ground. His head bounced off the street and settled down in a pool of blood. His vision fogged as a cloud of pain invaded his skull. It was a terrible ache, but he made no motion to do anything about it. The pain wouldn't last long, anyway. His blood was pouring out onto the street. The world around him was swimming in a sea of wavy lines and double vision. Up and down, down and up, he was too dizzy to know the difference. But he didn't really care what the difference was. It would all be over soon. No more demons, no more money, no more magic, no more anything. In a matter of seconds he would be gone from the world forever.
"How the mighty have fallen," said a voice from beside him. He could not see who it was. The world had blended into itself until there was nothing left and Malcolm was blind. But the voice sounded familiar. It was not Gavriil's voice. It was young. It was Dario. Dario, the young magician who had committed suicide because of money trouble. Money trouble that Malcolm himself had probably contributed to when he blackmailed the poor kid after his performance in London.
"Don't worry, Malcolm, you'll rise again," said Dario. He rested his hand on Malcolm's forehead. Malcolm laid motionless. The throbbing pain in his skull had disappeared. His eyesight was completely gone. His entire body had gone numb. Even his thoughts were fading into nothing. It was death, dark death sucking the last of his mortal being out of him. All that remained was Dario's hand on his forehead. Everything else was gone, and that would be too, soon enough.
"Someday, Malcolm, we'll all rise."