Chapter Fifty One
Pilot, then Eden, by rhetoric
Word Count: 2,354
The foolish woman had actually returned to the alley. He attempted to understand why as she spoke to him, cautiously, her scent perforating the air.
He could find no good reason at all.
“Yes, well,” he said, nodding at her in departure, “I ought to be going. Have a pleasant evening.” He needed to get to the hotel; he could already feel the drain on his body. The taste of raw liver hung in the back of his throat.
He tossed one final glance at the bodies and continued on. The rest of the walk was not as easy as the first half had been. He climbed the stairs in the hotel, too uncertain of his condition to take the elevator and risk being trapped inside with another living being, and his body cried in protest. Everything hurt and he was beginning to feel the cold fire spread over his skin. The dawn was beginning to creep its fingers along the horizon.
Eden was waiting for him, and he smiled as he collapsed into her open arms. She was his sanctuary; the one thing he knew was real when everything else seemed out of place. The feel of her soft skin was soothing; her heartbeat against his chest lulled him into a sense of peace that drowned out the uproar of anguish that had begun a slow take-over of his body.
She could feel the chill in his bones as ice beneath his flesh. She cradled him against her, wanting desperately to ask what had set him off. She knew the symptoms she saw before her; he was pallid and clammy, his virid eyes glazed over, his lips chapped and raw. She kissed his head and wiped the sweat-soaked hair from his forehead. She knew he was asleep when his heartbeat dropped to fewer than a dozen beats per minute.
This had been her life for the better part of seventy years. Cradling her husband as his body struggled to, simultaneously, kill him and heal him.
For the first year or two, she’d spent the hour-less nights praying to any god that would lend her their ear. She’d sobbed into his skin until she could no longer keep her eyes open, and then she clung to him in her sleep; convinced that if she were to stop touching him, even for a moment, he would be gone when she opened her eyes.
After that, she learned to handle the situation on her own. No god had ever come to her aid, no hero or savior had knocked on her door. None had answered her pleas when she frantically dragged him from mystic to witch doctor to prophet.
It seemed there was no one on the whole of the planet that could explain what was happening to him; but that had been seventy years ago. On this day, she was rather used to it; her questions had been answered by the silence of time, she’d learned how to manage the symptoms and bring him around and, in the end, it was all she needed.
So it was all she sought.
He shifted in his sleep, nestling the side of his face against her collarbone. Her back was pressed firmly against the carved wood headboard of the hotel bed. His breath was a winter breeze against her skin but the goose-bumps were a constant reminder that he was breathing. She turned on the television.
It was not the time for questions. She would ask for details when he woke; until then, she would simply keep him alive.
It was the same dream every time.
He opened his eyes to darkness. He struggled to wait for his eyes to adjust, even though it was a matter of milliseconds.
Stretching out before him was the Styx River; it was nothing like anyone had ever described to him. It moved swiftly – and this small detail had always struck him, because it was rather odd for something so dense to move so quickly.
The Styx River was less of a river than one would imagine, and more of a disturbing drainage system.
Organs floated in blood so thick and dark he could only recognize it as such by the odor. Lungs mingled with congealed sanguine fluid; hearts, some still beating, rolled over and over atop the river – resting on the surface like autumn leaves. He could make out the shapes of spleens and livers as they washed up along the shore of eroded skeletons. Intestines twisted beneath the photic depths and he watched them travel down stream.
His stomach turned at the sight, as it always did.
The Ferry Keeper came to stand beside him on the platform; his cloak the same shade of shadows as every other trip, his sneer the same familiarly petrifying pull and twist of limp and rotting flesh and decaying teeth as Pilot remembered it being.
“Ah, it is you again, Dealer,” said the Ferry Keeper. His voice was nothing more than a rattling whisper of pebbles inside a dried skull. Pilot’s skin crawled.
“Evening, Ferry Keeper.”
“You hold up the line, you know,” said his companion, a cloud of steam slithered from beneath his cowl.
“Then put me in the boat,” Pilot responded.
It was always the same conversation.
“How long was I asleep?” He hated asking that question; it made him feel helpless and out of control. He could still feel the trembling echoes of his inheritance in his veins.
“Roughly 29 hours.”
He sighed into the thickening silence. His head hurt.
“So,” she said, her tone light but her eyes dark with concern. She sipped her coffee during a pointed pause, “want to tell me why I found myself stitching up your circuits last night, soldier?”
He rolled his shoulders and lifted his own mug from the tray she’d placed on the bed. His breakfast was getting cold, but he wasn’t hungry. He slurped down a mouthful of coffee; it was just how he liked it, one and a half sugars and no cream. “Three dogs were attacking a girl,” he said, taking another sip. The acid swam about in his stomach and he eyed a piece of toast. “I was unarmed, what else was I going to do?”
She frowned over her coffee mug and took a seat at the end of the bed, careful not to upset the tray’s balance. Her hand, warm from the cup, rubbed at his leg over the covers. “I’m glad you’re okay,” she said; the light had returned to her eyes.
Something else flickered behind those murky champagne eyes, he noticed, and he dropped his gaze. “What is it?”
“You did some chattering in your sleep,” she was careful to keep her tone in check, he could hear it. She was more than just inquisitive about something.
“Oh?” He met her gaze again, curious himself. “About what?”
“You said you knew the truth.” There it was again, he thought; that flutter behind the curtain of her irises. She continued, “Specifically, you said you knew the truth about me.”
Elseron was the first living thing Pilot came in contact with once he reached the mansion. The Guardian stood as an immovable mountain in front of the front door; feet firmly planted, axe swinging at his hip, traces of a scowl still tugging at his mouth.
He had clearly seen Pilot coming.
Elseron crossed his arms, the shallow blues of his eyes scrutinizing and cold, and said, “How nice of you to show up, Mr. Gallo.”
“Sir,” Pilot said, smoothly moving from mid-stride to stand at attention. “My absence was of a personal nature. You have my apology.”
The suspiciousness in Elseron’s eyes did not lift, but the older man dropped his arms to his sides. “Melody has been waiting; perhaps she is the one in need of an apology.”
Pilot nodded in understanding, bowed swiftly, and made his way down the hall.
Phaedos stopped him just outside of the training room. “Where have you been? We couldn’t reach you.”
“I’m here now,” Pilot said, confident he did not need to have this conversation to complete his day.
“What good did that do us yesterday, when you were supposed to be here?”
Pilot rolled his eyes, and shrugged. “None, Phaedos, but this conversation serves only to prevent me from working with Melody now that I am here.” He shoved Phaedos aside and walked into the room. Already, it had been mostly repaired; the only remaining damage was the furniture that had been destroyed and the walls that had yet to be re-plastered. Melody was stretching on a yoga mat against the far wall. Music played at low volume from a small portable player.
“I’m sorry if you were waiting long yesterday,” he said, unzipping his coat. He’d worn simpler attire; a casual leather jacket and thin dusty blue sweater with comfortable jeans. Delicate shadows lingered in the deep hollows beneath his eyes, as if he were not well rested. “Something came up. I will leave my number here with you before I leave tonight so you may reach me.”
Her eyes met his across the room and, though she held herself with an air of righteous anger, she said, “All right.”
He considered asking her another round of questions but decided against it. It would benefit them both to simply get things moving along.
“What do you say we go hunting?”
Her blue eyes moved over his face curiously. He couldn’t distinguish her reaction. “If that’s where you think we should start.”
He smiled at her and, though it was unintentional, it was the smile of a predator. “You should learn to fend for yourself, Melody.”
She did not respond; she simply stared at him from across the room. She grabbed her own jacket and slid on a pair of boots.
He led her out of the room, down the labyrinthine hallways, to a set of guarded French doors that led out into the wild untamed woods surrounding the mansion.
Two Atlantean guards, who looked as if they had spent as much time in Atlantis as Pilot had, stood at attention with their gleaming long-swords point-down against the hardwood floor. They glared at the two vampires as if they were being paid to.
“We are having our lesson outdoors today,” Pilot said, his voice flat, “Please let us pass.”
The guards did not move. They did not speak. He sighed as if they were the cause of all of his troubles. “Gentlemen, I am not the kind of man that repeats himself. Step aside or I will assist you.”
Melody shifted her weight on the balls of her feet, and Pilot wondered if she was nervous.
The guards risked a peripheral glance at each other but nothing more.
“As you wish, gentlemen,” he began, to Melody he said, “Would you like to skip the hunting lesson today, Melody, and practice your control on these fine donors?”
With the gracious gesture of a King, he swept his hand over the guards. The movement continued until his hand was at the back of the neck of the nearest guard. He gave the man no time to react – he moved behind him and shoved him, hard, down onto his knees. The sword snapped in half under the weight of the brief struggle.
He relinquished his grip the moment he heard the crack of kneecaps against the floor. Turning to the second guard, he grinned menacingly, and said, “Something I can help you with or do you have somewhere else to be?”
Catching the hint, the guard lunged across the room for the door, his strides panicked and unsteady. Off to tell Elseron, no doubt, Pilot thought; the Atlantean guards were just a flock of sheep. No wonder Elseron looked so fatigued all the time. There were nowhere near enough assets protecting his Queen – all she had were body bags blocking the way.
For the briefest moment, Pilot allowed himself to think how he would feel if that was all that stood between his own Queen and probable death. He would need to speak with Elseron, he told himself.
He moved his eyes to Melody and gave her a welcoming grin. “Practice has begun, Melody. Drink up.”
He met Elseron in the hallway. He could smell him coming the instant the Guardian turned to enter the corridor. “Your guard is fine,” Pilot said, casually, as Elseron flew past him and into the training room.
Pilot had already sent Melody to her quarters, the guard to the medic, and cleaned the mess from the floor. It had been a rather quick practice session – but it was for the best; Melody’s control would only lessen the longer she drank. It would be easier to show her she could stop before showing her the limits to when.
Pilot dried the blood from his hands on a towel and watched the back of Elseron’s shoulders rise and fall with his deliberately steady breathing. Fury rolled off the Guardian in waves that thickened the air in the room. Pilot ignored it. “Your guards are not good enough, Elseron,” he said, doing away with pretenses.
This was a frank conversation, and he would not have a frank conversation with a man while still calling him ‘Sir.’ He moved calmly into the room to stand slightly to the left of Elseron, his posture regal but comfortable. He moved as if he were used to the burden of royalty, the pressures of etiquette and stature and demands, the fatigue of battle, the restless paranoia of post-war. He moved easily beneath the burden of it all; with the graceful elegance of a man that had balanced the whole Earth upon his shoulders.
“I can help,” he added, tossing the towel to a nearby table and letting his eyes move to meet Elseron’s gaze slowly, as if it did not matter to him whether Elseron agreed or not; his demeanor making it clear that, whatever the outcome, it would not be Pilot’s loss to walk out of the door and leave Atlas with one less helping hand.
Author Note: So, it would really mean a lot to me if you guys left your opinions on this chapter. I think it is one of the chapters I'm most proud of in this story, thus far. (Easily the top 5). I'd just like specific opinions if you have them :)