Riyad hadn’t been trapped for long but it felt like forever. The elevator’s claustrophobic shape reminded him of the crossing in a likeness that was never a good thing for his mental state. He huddled in one corner with his phone out to provide a little light as he focused on thinking about something else and on breathing evenly.
As a distraction, he looked through the pictures he’d taken with his phone, laughing at some and biting back tears at others. They weren’t high quality images, but they captured his memories regardless. The ones at the beginning were mostly of him and Ath’ran pressing close together, taken while holding the phone backwards at arm’s length. Their faces were only half in the frame, but it was still them being goofy and having fun together. There was a series of pictures Jin had taken once after stealing his phone, his favorite of which was of Du’shan glaring in disapproval with Nyr laughing beside him. The other pictures from the Jin series that he’d kept were simpler: a candid one of Ath’ran at his desk and another of Riyad asleep at his workbench with writing on his face, which explained how Jin had gotten possession of the phone in the first place.
The rest of the pictures stored on the phone were a collection of things he’d seen on the street that had been funny or interesting enough to capture and show to the others. There was another one of Nyr and Du’shan, and one of Nyr asleep on Riyad’s shoulder that he’d taken to tease him with the next time he prefaced an all night movie fest with “I’m not tired.” Never mind that Riyad had only realized Nyr had fallen asleep after he had woken up himself to find the movie over and Du’shan, the unlikely mother hen he could sometimes be, coming to see if they were really going to sleep sitting up all night.
They were boring pictures, and not really worth showing off, but now they were all he had left of them. They were as much a light in the darkness as the phone itself was.
He pulled the phone to his chest and shielded it under his chin as another tremor shook the elevator. Before the crossing, he’d read about what had created the huge divide between landmasses. It was “tectonic activity”, which meant that the planet was alive and boiling inside, pushing outward and causing things called volcanoes and earthquakes. Riyad didn’t think the demons could make earthquakes, but the building was trembling in ways that made him fearful. Buildings weren’t made to vibrate against the earth. If it collapsed, would he be crushed or buried alive?
The rumbling passed and he pulled the phone back out, pausing as he scrolled through the pictures again. The clock on the screen ticked off another hour. That was how he knew that only a few hours had passed when the door was pulled open again.
The lobby lights were surprisingly bright in contrast to his dark cell. Riyad slipped his phone into his pocket as he stood, sliding up the polished wall as he squinted at the demon that had put him there in the first place. He assumed it was the same one, anyway; it had the same long tail, large hands, and towering build. In his mind, he called it Srudvara to distinguish it from the other nameless monsters. It was a fitting name in his native Arcadian. Srudvara was more calculating than its brutal comrades, which frightened Riyad as much as it gave him hope. The way it cocked its head at him gave Riyad the uneasy feeling that his thoughts weren’t private, though, and he abandoned ideas of escape for the time being, even though the first obstacle, the elevator doors, had been eliminated.
“You are to be set free,” Srudvara announced with an almost gleeful tone to its harsh voice. It’s obsidian eyes gave off an internal, sickening light.
Riyad said nothing at first. He waited for it to continue, to laugh and close the door again or bend the words and dash any hope they had given. The demon did not continue though, leaving Riyad little choice but to rise to the bait.
“Under what circumstances?” he asked. His throat was dry from sitting in silence for so long and his words came out in a croak that was as unpleasant as the demon’s voice had been.
Srudvara gave a throaty chuckle and stood aside for Riyad to pass by. “You know well that freedom comes at a price. This is good. Do not consider that you may decline this offer by refusal of our terms, though. We do not negotiate. Follow. If you run, they die.” It stood still for a moment and then walked past once it was clear that Riyad had no intention of walking beside it. He did as ordered, though, and crept out into the lobby in its wake. The few things he was certain of were enough to make it worth complying; Srudvara made a convincing case.
There were more demons in the lobby than Riyad remembered there being. They were rowdy and anxious, gathered in a circle that closed up behind him as Riyad passed into the center. He held his head high at the thought of being part of some sort of spectacle. They couldn’t hurt him. If they wanted to break him for sport they would have to do much better than intimidate him with their numbers.
He tried to imagine the sort of things that might call for such a large crowd. Would they all throw rubble at him to see if it bounced off like they did? Would they try, one at a time, to see if anyone among them had the ability to cause him pain? Whatever it was, he was going to be allowed to leave once it was over. That was worth whatever suffering they could inflict. He still had a job to do.
Srudvara raised its hands up and let out a powerful roar. Riyad’s hands flinched towards his ears to protect them from the low, guttural boom from its throat, but fell to his sides as the sound stopped. The room instantly fell into a deeper silence than Riyad would have thought possible with so many bodies packed into one space. He craned his neck to look around at them, not yet willing to turn his back on any demon he wasn’t already neglecting. He and Srudvara had the undivided attention of all of them. His chin dropped slightly; he was no longer feeling as brave as he had been.
Riyad felt the presence but not the pressure of Srudvara’s hand on his shoulder. He looked up at the demon, surprised by how wide its smile was. A shiver ran down his spine.
“The hoards have brought you gifts from their travels. Two humans that we would be glad to slaughter have been put aside just for you.”
“I’m not going to--”
“You jump to conclusions,” Srudvara said in a warning tone. “I don’t expect you to bloody your hands by the deed, just your conscience. Two lives will be put in your hands, Riyad Shihar D’sen. And you will choose which of them lives and which dies. Decline to choose one or the other and they both die.”
Riyad swallowed hard, trying to wrap his gut around the task before him. Choosing who would die was hard to conceive of, but if he considered it the task of choosing which one he could spare and make it an act of mercy, it sat better with him. Srudvara had been honest when it had said that this was not something he could decline. Only by doing nothing would he really be responsible for death. If he remained logical about it, he was certain he could make a fair choice. Though Srudvara hadn’t asked for him to respond, Riyad gave it a nod to show he understood.
Srudvara’s smile stretched even further, wrapping around the sides of its head so that Riyad wasn’t sure it didn’t somehow possess teeth all the way around its skull. “One more thing. You may not speak to them. You cannot explain your decision or offer condolences--no words spoken or mouthed. From this point, the only thing you may say is which one you would prefer we kill. If you attempt to circumvent this, they will both die.”
Riyad nodded again, ready to get it over with. Srudvara raised its arms toward the crowd, a signal Riyad supposed for the poor pawns to be brought to the center. He watched the hoard part the first of the humans was brought forward by a demon with six arms, which strapped the helpless man to its torso. He was bleeding from several wounds but they didn’t look life threatening to Riyad. He was conscious but limp in the demon’s grasp, his head bowed until the demon pulled on his hair with its top most right arm to expose his face. Blood trickled down from his hairline over one, dull eye, but Riyad lost track of these details when he recognized the man as Nyr.
Riyad clapped his hand over his mouth to keep an elated cry to himself, nearly stumbling forward in the need to touch Nyr and know that he wasn’t an illusion. Nyr was alive. He didn’t look quite right but he would heal. Time would make things better. All that mattered was he was alive.
And of course Riyad would choose him to be the one to live. It was obvious. Nyr was an exceptionally good person, the kind that Solace would need when--not if but when--the demons had been pushed back and it was time to rebuild. Riyad could look at it on a purely selfless level and list tons of things that Nyr had to offer the world. Selfishly, it was his chance to apologize and make right what had happened in the alley. He wasn’t going anywhere without Nyr. Not this time. His heart felt lighter, the chance to do it over again washing away his guilt.
The second demon arrived in the center, also with prey at hand and the happiness welling up in Riyad did more than fade--it plummeted. The world shrank to the size of the overcrowded lobby, and there was no room there for hope or joy. Unharmed except for the puncture wounds from the creature’s nails as it grasped his shoulders tightly, while its snake-like tail coiled around his legs and waist, and looking as though this were just another business meeting came Ephrim D’sen. Riyad’s father.
He showed no fear, and Riyad found himself dumbstruck in the presence of his audacity. He was so uncompromising in his authority that not even hoards of demons could take his pride from him. Seeing him made Riyad stand a little straighter and hold his head a little higher; there were no circumstances grave enough to make him do anything that would gain the man’s disapproval. Not in person, anyway, when he could see and know the rise and fall of his father’s opinion of him. Their eyes met, and in that glance they exchanged everything and nothing; it had been a long time since either of them had seen or been seen by the other. It was good to see how well his father looked, even under the circumstances.
Now was the time to make his choice. Riyad stood paralyzed.
He’d already made his decision, but committing to it was another thing entirely. That was his father standing tall in the demon’s grasp of the: his family, his blood. He had wives, children, and a bond-family who needed him and would suffer in his absence.
Nyr had no one.
In his father’s long life, he had built connections to the community and had resources enough to help the city in rebuilding projects.
Nyr had only just started to make a life for himself.
If they had his father, did that mean they’d attacked his family home? Were all the others dead? He couldn’t ask his father, but there was a chance that they were the only D’sen left in Solace.
Nyr was already an orphan.
Riyad looked to Srudvara with contempt. No, of course it hadn’t been as easy as picking someone kind over someone cruel, someone young over someone aged, someone healthy over someone sick. It was far from a coincidence that the two people he had to choose from were those close to his heart. They wanted to hurt him and they had. If it would have ended the sick game, he’d have applauded their success and admitted defeat, but he doubted it was their pride he was feeding. Around him the masses were drooling, eyes back in their heads in a state of euphoric bliss. Riyad remembered what Srudvara had said in the office off the lobby: demons fed on pain. Through some sick, twisted empathy, his audience was gorging on his conflicted emotions. It made sense to him now why there were so many of them. No one would dare miss out on a feast like this.
The demons closest to Nyr were pawing at the ground, restless in their enjoyment of whatever emotions rolled off of him into the crowd. He kept his head bowed but he was looking back at Riyad through his bangs with hollow, bottomless eyes. He lifted his head just slightly when Riyad held his gaze, and the corners of his lips quirked in a sad, regretful smile. He knew. It made Riyad’s heart break to know what the emptiness in his eyes was: he’d given up hope. He’d accepted his death and was waiting for it. The night had destroyed something beautiful inside him and Riyad was afraid he’d played a part in that death when he’d run away. But Nyr still smiled, letting him know it was okay.
It wasn’t okay, though. It was far from okay. Riyad wanted to call out to him, tell him how sorry he was to have left him, how happy he had felt to know he was still alive, how hard it was to choose even if it seemed like an obvious choice, and how much he was going to miss him. But Srudvara had forbidden it. The pain of sending Nyr to his death without any kind words made one demon standing behind Riyad croon with delight. The fact that he was indulging them by drawing it out further made Riyad sick. It was time.
He cast a last glance back at his father, wanting to see something there to let him know he approved. The man’s was still as blank as he had been when he had first appeared. Even the demons around him seemed less satisfied than those closer to Nyr and Riyad. Ephrim D’sen was the master of his own thoughts and feelings and Riyad was more proud of him than he had words to express. He was the son of one of the strongest men in all Solace or New Arcadia and with that strength running through his veins, he could do what had to be done.
“You have chosen,” Srudvara stated more than asked. “Speak the name of the man you would prefer us to kill.”
Riyad took a deep, shuddering breath, and spoke. “I choose Nyr.... Kill Nyr.”
And it was done. Riyad had never heard his father scream before and though he knew the sound was coming from his wide-open jaws, the sound was inhuman, as though it came from the monsters that descended upon him rather than from the man. His intestines were strewn across the floor, and his blood and organs pooled more slowly at the man’s feet, spreading in a puddle over the floor. A long-fingered hand searched and groped through the newly emptied abdominal cavity while another hand plucked the eyes from his skull and caressed his graying temples with them. His screams were a sickening, obscene song like nothing Riyad had ever imagined.
He sank to his knees, trembling, as his father’s body was torn to shreds in an almost sensual display of vulgarity. With an icy, numb feeling spreading in his gut, he turned his head to see what had become of Nyr. He was kneeling on the ground with eyes fixed on the spot where Riyad’s father had been. There wasn’t a single scratch on him that hadn’t been there when he’d first appeared. No more harm had come to him.
Riyad glared up at Srudvara, trying to mask the pain with anger. Both emotions seemed to please it, though. “You lied to me!”
Srudvara shook its head, pointing towards Nyr as it spoke. “Not once did I say that the one you chose would be the one we’d kill. I asked only for which one you would prefer we destroy. You chose your father to live because he meant more to you and therefore you would feel more pain with his loss. So we took him and left you with the one you could live without. And with that, your freedom is bought. Leave before we decide we’ve been too merciful.”
Riyad stumbled back to his feet, not trusting anything the monsters said and wanting only to get away as fast as he could before the next trick was unveiled. He tripped towards Nyr and pulled him up, ushering him to hurry and stay close as the demons parted for them with hunger in their eyes. Hand in hand, they dashed through the rubble-choked entrance and into the street, running behind an abandoned bus a few blocks away to catch their breath and be sure they weren’t being followed.
Riyad could see one or two of the gray-skinned beasts pacing at the far end of a street. Overhead, he could hear the whistle of wind passing over leathery wings. If the monsters noticed them, they showed no interest and that was good enough for Riyad. He took Nyr’s hand again and started for Ath’ran’s apartment. There were a million things he wanted to say to Nyr, and looking at him, he could see that he had things to say as well. This wasn’t the time or place, though; words would make them clumsy and tired with emotion. It had to wait. Their feet would save them faster than words or apologies could.
As they progressed, they frequently ducked out of the street, pausing for breath inside an abandoned store, where the news was playing on a terminal that had been left on. It was somehow surprising to see that there were still people in the city who were doing more than just trying to survive. There was a simple overhead map of the city, segmented and layered in rings from Core to Fringe. The Core was a deep warning red that spread out through the middle sections of the city, with the color fill lightening as and disappearing toward the Fringe. A live video feed showed the military police attempting to keep the upper Core levels and the political center of the city safe from attack. Things were being done. For the time being, it was comforting to know that there were people fighting to fix this.
They kept silent as they moved; Riyad wasn’t afraid for himself, but knew just by looking at him that Nyr didn’t share his supernatural protection. They hid frequently, and took a long, winding route to avoid troubled areas until they reached their destination.
The building was intact but bloodied. Despite some initial trepidation, Riyad had a feeling that Nyr wouldn’t make it up all the flights of stairs between them and Ath’ran’s floor, and insisted that they take the elevator as long as it was functioning. They rode up to Ath’ran’s floor without incident. The building felt abandoned; doors had been left open as though forgotten in the tenants’ hurry to flee.
Ath’ran’s door was not one of these. Riyad knocked and held his breath, but there was no answer.
He looked over his shoulder at Nyr, and then pulled out his wallet and brandished the key card he’d been given in case of emergency.
“Now we go inside,” he answered, slipping it through the card reader and standing back as the door slid to the side.
There were no signs of a struggle or a rush to leave. Everything was tidy and smelled clean; the children’s shoes lined up inside the doorway hadn’t even been disturbed. Riyad stepped inside with Nyr, pressing the control panel inside to close and lock the door behind them. The only sound in the place was a steady beep coming from the answering machine.
“Hello? Lisa? Kids?” Riyad took a step towards the hallway and the bedrooms, and then turned back to Nyr, who was standing still in the entryway like an uneasy guest. “Nyr, can you get the machine to stop beeping? It’s in the kitchen.”
Nyr nodded and walked towards it. Riyad heard the whisper of the message he’d left what felt like a lifetime ago as he walked down the hall, looking into the bedrooms with less nerve than he had had a moment before. The prospect of seeing Ath’ran’s dead body was wearing on him even though he needed to see it for himself in order to confirm it.
There was no one, living or dead, in the house though other than himself and Nyr. The rooms were tidy and clean, indicating that the Mukshahs had not been home when the attacks had started. Ath’ran’s body and family were not here. Riyad slumped against the wall with his face in his hands. There were so many more places to look, and he couldn’t risk dragging Nyr back out in the open again to find them. And he couldn’t leave Nyr again.
The shout surprised Riyad as much as it frightened him. Something was wrong. Something in the kitchen. Where Nyr was.
Riyad bolted down the hall back to the main rooms and hurdled the couch to get to the kitchen to see what the matter was. Nyr was there, alone, the bloodied rag he’d been wiping his face with in his hand. His wide gold-brown eyes were staring at the answering machine. The message that was playing wasn’t the one he’d left for Lisa and the kids. The voice was very familiar, but it took Riyad more than a second to take in the significance that had made Nyr yell for him.
“--okay but scared. They’re safe, though. And if you’re listening to this, then you’re a damn fool, Riyad Shihar.”
It was Ath’ran’s voice. Riyad grabbed the counter top for stability.
“Why would you go outside in all this? And why call Lisa and not me? I thought you were home and safe, but now I’ve got to worry about you running around with those things out there? I swear if you die, I am going to change Riyad’s name to Du’shan. I’m not kidding....
“Look, you need to call me if you hear this. I tried to call your cell, but I guess you turned it off or something because I never got through. You really, really, have to call me. I’ve got my phone, so don’t call Lisa’s this time. I hope...well, call me.”
Riyad had already dialed Ath’ran’s number and had his phone pressed to his ear before the message was fully over. It took less than two rings for someone to answer.
It was Ath’ran. Alive.
A loud and sudden noise that wasn’t quite a laugh or a sob burst out of him. He clapped his hand over his mouth to keep further outbursts in check, wanting to speak to his friend so much more than he needed to scream in delight.
“Yes! Ath’ran! You’re alive!” Riyad closed his eyes and let the happiness run through him with an almost foreign high.
Ath’ran couldn’t talk long, though; his phone was dying. He wanted to know where Riyad was. Who he was with. Were they safe.
“Just stay there, okay?” Ath’ran said, though it was less a suggestion than an order to save his own sanity from the worry that had plagued. “These things took us off guard, but the Military Police are fighting against them. We’ll see if there’s a chance of us meeting up somewhere tomorrow. Just make yourselves at home for now.”
“We will. Ath’ran...well, I love you. You’re family to me and--”
“You are loved by me as well, Riyad Shihar. My phone’s going to go in a minute. If anything changes, leave me a message. We will survive this.”
Riyad nodded, feeling better all the same that he had gotten the chance to say it should the worst happen. “Yeah. Tomorrow then. Be safe.”
“You as well. Until then.”
Goodbye had never felt like a more permanent thing. Neither of them said it. Riyad hung up and placed the phone on the counter, looking at the linoleum floor with dumb fascination. He couldn’t tell Ath’ran that Du’shan was dead. There were too many questions, his included, that would accompany that statement, and it was too much to take in over whatever distance separated them. He couldn’t mention Jin. Or his father.
There were so many dead, and already too many of them were faces he longed to see again. With the demons no longer haunting him and no destination to scramble to, it was finally okay to think of them.
Tears came easily. One instant he was awash with a feeling of supreme joy and relief, and the next a cloak of mourning had stolen it all away. He didn’t miss the joy, though. It was still there--a little reminder that sadness didn’t need to become despair. It was time to feel for the dead. He needed to. And when he was done, the joy would still be there.
Nyr’s arms wrapped hesitantly around him, pulling him away from the counter and against his body. Riyad hid his face in the dip of Nyr’s neck and shoulder; he could feel Nyr’s breath on his hair, the beat of another living heart, and the warmth of human touch as Nyr’s hands stroked his back in comforting circles. Nyr, at least, did not need to be told. He’d been there. He knew. He’d lost them as well. He didn’t cry, though. His energy seemed reserved for keeping Riyad upright while he sobbed, hands clutching at Nyr’s torn shirt as though he lacked the strength to stand on own.
“I’m so sorry,” Nyr whispered.
Riyad shook his head but could say nothing. They walked awkwardly down the hallway, Riyad still clutching at Nyr as he led him to Ath’ran’s bedroom.
Riyad stood aside as Nyr pulled back the sheets and blanket. He was exhausted. His mind was tired of thinking, his heart of feeling, and his body of moving. He crawled onto the bed without instruction. Sleep wouldn’t fix everything, but it could fix enough things to make tomorrow better than today.
Nyr sat beside him on the bed, stroking his hair as Riyad continued to cry. He took Nyr’s hand and pulled on it, too tired to argue or be eloquent enough to express himself.
“We need to sleep,” was all he managed to say, holding Nyr’s hand tight.
Nyr didn’t protest. Slowly, as though waiting to be told to find another bed, he laid down beside Riyad. Riyad bridged the distance he had left between them as soon as Nyr was settled, nestling against his body, wrapping around Nyr to keep himself sane. Selfishly, he needed Nyr’s arms wrapped around him; he couldn’t let himself think about Nyr yet. He had a whole extra store of tears reserved for the guilt, remorse and self-pity he felt at the pain he’d caused his friend. As long as they were both alive, he would have time for that later. He’d have time to say all the million things that needed to be said to make things right.
Srudvara: Monster, wraith, cannibal (can be used to refer to any creature or person, but has the connotation of the creature or person being evil in origin or nature) (Arcadian)