by BD Mitchell
A man meets his inner demon and the unthinkable happens. (a Michael Reeve wizard story)
Henry burst through the door and slammed it in his wake, causing the whole house to rattle.
“Is... is he gone?” he panted. “Did he follow...?”
No, replied his brain. No, he is gone. You are safe now, yes.
Henry doubled over and wheezed into his knees. He hadn’t run like that since high school. Maybe not even then.
“He was trying to kill me!” Henry yelped out loud. “Why? Why would anyone want to kill me?”
He was insane, clearly. You heard him gibbering about being a wizard....
“No, not that guy. The other one. The one with the blue hat and the radio.”
Of course, yes, said the smooth voice in his mind. No, he did not follow you. He cannot follow you. He saw... reason, yes.
Henry staggered across the living room, trying to fill in the blanks of his memory. It was difficult, like trying to wade through tar. Occasionally a random image would bubble to the surface, but these didn’t make much sense. There was a brick wall, a lit candle, a drop of ketchup, a mirror with an expensive-looking gold frame, a rusted dumpster, a pen covered in red ink, a drainpipe, a splash of red paint, a dark-red shirt, a red wine stain....
Red – why was there so much red?
He didn’t know why, but something about the red brought the heat to Henry’s cheeks. The bottom dropped out of his stomach – he felt like he was falling.
You need to remain calm, yes, Henry’s head hummed. Everything will be okay, yes.
“Am I going crazy?” Henry demanded. “What the hell happened tonight?”
Another vision leached to the surface of his memory. There was a woman. A beautiful woman with blue eyes. A beautiful woman with blue eyes bursting with terror.
“Erin! Where’s Erin?”
He remembered it was a special occasion. His wife was promoted recently and they were celebrating. It had been far too impromptu to secure the poshest restaurant in town, but the nearest B-list bistro was still fancier fare than they were used to. There were orchids and candles and a giant gilt-framed mirror.
It was hard for Henry to concentrate – the effort exhausted him. His head was full of cobwebs, clinging to his thoughts and shrouding his vision.
“... where... where’s Erin?”
It is okay, purred the voice in his mind. She is safe. You are safe. Everything is okay, yes.
But what of the red? Henry remembered the red, and it bothered him. It gnawed at him. It taunted him as it danced in front of his eyes. Even through the fog of his memory, it looked an awful lot like...
Everything seemed to whir into place. A drop of blood, a pen covered in blood, a splash of blood, a blood-soaked shirt, a blood stain. There was red everywhere, and it was the red of blood.
The dam had broken and the memories flooded back. He could see Erin laughing over a plate of salmon something-or-other. There was a narrow alleyway lined with tidy brickwork. Henry could see a man in a clean white shirt. The man wore a green lanyard around his neck and carried a clipboard.
Henry had a pen in his hand. It was covered in red. So was clipboard-man – his shirt was no longer white, but a deep and glistening crimson.
There was another man – a man dressed as a security guard. He was shouting something. Erin was there. She stood between Henry and the guard, arms stretched wide. She seemed to be shouting, too, but Henry couldn’t see her face from behind. She was flung aside, and now the security guard was wearing the red.
And the memories evaporated like breath on a mirror. Henry stumbled backwards, nearly collapsing over the coffee table. He clutched at his skull as fingers of smoke poured back into his mind.
Then he saw the red again, only it wasn’t in his head.
He whirled back and seized the candy dish, sending peppermints clattering to the floor. In the polished metal surface, Henry could see a pair of wild eyes staring out at him. He flung the dish over his shoulder and lurched back into the foyer. The eyes were there too, mad and glaring and lined by great splotches of carmine. Streaked and spattered, the insane man in the mirror was smothered with the red. Far worse was the way the man stared at Henry with Henry’s own eyes.
Worse still was the Red Man speaking with Henry’s own mouth.
“You are panicking,” the Red Man asserted. “You should not be panicking, no.”
“I... the... the...!” The few words that came to mind snagged on Henrys tongue.
“You were in the right, yes. There is nothing to worry about, no.”
“But... but all the....”
“Be still, yes,” the Red Man hissed. “Everything will be–”
“Am I interrupting?”
There was another man now. He had somehow appeared over the Red Man’s shoulder. His face was stern and his gray eyes were intent, but at least he wasn’t covered in red.
Henry spun so fast he nearly fell.
“Whoa there!” said the newcomer. “Watch your step. Let’s not make a bad day worse.”
Henry grabbed a side table to steady himself.
“You!” he yelped. “I know you! You’re the... the...”
“The is right. My name is Michael Alastair Reeve, and I’m the wizard. At your service! And I must say, you take talking to yourself to a whole new level.”
Henry tried to reply, but someone else was using his voice.
“You are not welcome here, wizard, no!” the Red Man spat. “You should leave, yes!”
“Yeah, I’m not talking to you. Cognosce mei potentiam, senties mei ignem, asine!”
The darkness in Henry’s mind fled like smoke before a fan. The edges of his vision sharpened and the fire in his cheeks relented. He could think again.
“What... what did you do?” Henry gasped.
Michael shrugged. “Loosely translated, I told him to mind his own beeswax. For some reason it works better in Latin. It’s only temporary, of course, but I think we’ll have a better chat without him.”
“But who is him? I mean, who he is? I mean... what the hell’s going on?”
“More to the point, how do you feel?”
“I’m talking to myself in the mirror and I’m covered in blood! How d’you think I feel?”
Now that his mind was his own again, the memories sprang back. Every image of rage and violence returned in full high-definition splendor, plus a few new scenes that had been buried with far greater resolve.
In the mad assault on the security guard, Henry had thrown Erin to the side. She stumbled on her heels and fell. She landed at the exact wrong angle on an outstretched drainpipe. Even through his apoplectic rage, Henry could tell she wasn’t getting back up.
“No....” He sank to the floor, staring far beyond the stoic wallpaper. “She’s... she’s... isn’t she?”
“She is. I’m sorry.”
Something cold and sharp latched onto Henry’s stomach and squeezed. Air turned to ice in his lungs. The smoke in his brain was still keeping its distance, but a white mist had moved in instead. Three words kept echoing in his skull, even though no one had actually said them:
Erin is dead.
“Why?” Henry mumbled. “Why did this happen?”
“It’s complicated,” said Michael. “Your qareen’s been corrupted.”
“Qareen. You can call it a cacodaemon if it helps.”
“I was possessed? By a... cackle-demon?”
“I guess it doesn’t help. No, not exactly. Qareens are like... they’re like shoulder-devils. You know how people in cartoons sometimes have an angel on one shoulder telling them to behave and play nice, and a devil on the other shoulder telling them to cut in line and lie on their taxes? Well that’s a qareen – a little voice in the back of your head that dares you to do mischief.
“Most people are fairly well-balanced. Sometimes the angel wins, and sometimes the devil wins. Maybe one person in a hundred is ruled by their devil all the time, and even then things rarely escalate past bank fraud.
“But you – your devil is something else. You were unlucky enough to bump into something that sent your qareen into overdrive. It’s been mutated enough so it wants to do some very bad things, and your conscience no longer has the strength to stop it.
“And that, in a nutshell, is where we are.”
Henry’s head buzzed. Seared onto his eyes was the image of Erin’s horrified eyes staring up at him from that unnatural angle. Somewhere in the background, someone was yammering about guardian angels, mutant demons, and tax cheaters, but it was all page-two news compared to the big headline. It was impossible to focus on anything other than Erin.
“Stay with me, buddy,” said Michael cautiously. “This next bit’s kinda important.”
“Who are you?” Henry croaked. “What are you doing here...?”
“It’s okay. I’m here to help.”
“Help?” Henry could feel the heat rising again, only this time it was a fire without the smoke. Demon or not, Henry could still get angry on his own terms.
“How can you help?” he demanded. “Can you reverse time? Can you bring back the dead? Can you make it so I never even existed? Three people are dead! My wife is dead! Dead! She’s dead, and I...”
He wobbled and dropped to his knees. “Erin didn’t die – she was killed. By me. I don’t know why it happened, but I know it happened. Nothing I say – and nothing you say – can change that.”
A firm hand seized him by the shoulder. Henry looked up, and Michael’s cool gray gaze seemed to pierce through the fog like a lighthouse.
“You’re right,” said Michael. His tone wasn’t soothing or sympathetic, but it was certain. It was patient. It was an island in a storm. It was the heart of the mountain. A voice like that spoke more than comfort – it spoke truth.
“You’re absolutely right. We can’t change what’s happened. The past can’t be rewritten any more than the sky can be painted green. And I won’t say the past doesn’t matter, either – it obviously does. The good and the bad, the heart-warming and the heart-rending... all of it matters. It matters because without the life you’ve lived, how can you decide what to do with the life you have left? It matters because you now have an impossible choice to make, and you need to consider both options more carefully than anything you’ve ever considered before.”
Even in his stupor, something managed to slip into Henry’s ear. “Choice? What choice?”
The wizard hefted Henry to his feet and guided him toward the living room. He seemed to take his time, as if biding time while he hunted down the right words.
“Do you know why a cancer is so dangerous?” said Michael. “Why it’s so hard to remove? Because it’s really just a bit of you. It begins as a tiny piece of your own body that’s not behaving as it should. It’s fighting the system, it has its own plans, it plays by its own rules. But it’s still a part of you – your body can’t protect itself from itself. And so the cancer has to be removed. That’s not without risks, too, especially if the sickness is deep enough. Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.”
Michael lowered Henry gingerly onto the sofa. “And that, unfortunately, is our dilemma. Your qareen is a part of you. Its presence is a part of your basic human design. Its extraction would be extremely risky and could cause irreparable damage on a soul-ular level. But your qareen is infected. It is cancerous. It will grow stronger and more malevolent, and there’s nothing that can be done to reverse that. It has to be removed.
“I can try to cleanse you of your devil, leaving you alive and with no physical damage whatsoever... but with the possible side-effect of crippling your very soul. The only other option is to destroy the qareen altogether – and you along with it.
“This is the choice I offer to you: live in human form without that which makes you human, or die and risk whatever waits for you in the beyond.”
The house seemed so quiet, and yet so loud at the same time. A little clock tick-tick-ticked away on the mantle. Somewhere upstairs, a window-blind clacked lightly against its frame. Beyond the walls, the neighbor’s terrier was grumbling at some night rodent. Everything that ticked or clacked or grred fed into the maelstrom that poured into Henry’s brain.
He can’t be serious, Henry thought. There’s a demon in my head – no, there’s a demon that’s always been in my head, and he’s sick or something, so he’s making me do bad things, but killing him might kill me... or something. It’s all so ridiculous! Keep it together, Henry! You must be dreaming. Maybe you had a bad piece of fish. Or maybe you’re just hallucinating, yes. This... wizard is clearly crazy. There’s no such thing as a demon, no. It is all madness, yes. But what about the blood? No, do not worry about the blood, no. Just deal with the wizard, yes. Then everything will be–
“Oh God!” Henry blurted. “He’s back! I can hear him again!”
“Really? That’s awfully quick. Well, then, we’re running out of time.”
Henry's eyes were growing heavy. He felt like he could sleep for a hundred–
The wizard gripped Henry by both ears. “Eyes on me, buddy – I need you to focus.”
“Hey! Ow! That hurts!”
“Good. Pain keeps you in the moment! I need an answer, like, really pretty soon.”
You should kill him, yes. Kill the wizard and you will be free, yes.
“I... I don’t...”
He is in your way, yes. They are all in your way, yes.
“It’s a big decision, I know, so no pressure... but he’s not gonna sit by for much longer.”
Henry’s head was spinning. The shadows were creeping in again. Something dark and inexorable was nudging him forward. How was he expected to think in these conditions?
“He’s... in my head,” Henry gasped.
“He’s always in your head – that’s the problem.”
“I know, but he’s You have no business here, wizard!”
“Yech, you again. Vultum claude, bigmouth!”
Henry was floundering in the rising darkness. He was drowning in it. A flash of red cracked through the black. The shadows surged higher, pulling at him like quicksand. Another bolt of red spiked across the dark...
... and a glimmer of blue shone through. The roiling darkness seemed to freeze in place as two spots of brilliant blue flickered across Henry’s mind. The qareen couldn’t hide this from him – not this time.
Erin’s eyes glittered through the night of his memory. They sparkled as she smiled at him over a bowl of instant oatmeal. They twinkled as she laughed at an unexpected downpour. They even seemed to glow as she sleepily stumbled right into a doorframe. Every time the smoke and shadow tried to wipe aside his memories, Erin’s eyes were there. The corrupted qareen could unleash all its wrath – it could invade Henry’s body, steal every moment of his life, drive him to do the unspeakable – but Henry had found something even stronger.
“We are unstoppable, wizard, yes! You cannot possibly Do it!”
Michael hesitated. “Who said to do what?”
“Destroy it!” Henry shouted. “Before it gets control! Destroy it now We shall see you bleed, wizard!”
“Sounds like an answer to me!” Michael replied, springing to his feet.
“You will have agony, yes!” the Red Man screamed as he lunged forward.
Forgive me, Erin! Henry pleaded. A searing whiteness slammed into him, piercing every cell of his body. A rending shriek crackled through his ears... and everything fell to black.
It was a different black than before. Where the darkness had once been seething and ravenous, it was now silent and empty. Nothing had ever existed in this infinite midnight. Even Henry himself felt... insubstantial – like he was everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
There was nothing around him on which to shine, but Henry felt the light all the same. It shyly crept up behind him, warming the body he no longer had. And it spoke, with a familiar female voice: