I dreamed. It was a better way of living.
— — —
My hands tingled. I felt powerful.
“You’re not ready to fight,” Val told me, as he drove the car down the road. The two of us had just left Jewell’s. We were on our way to Demersi’s. “What I need is for you to look as menacing as possible. Do you understand?”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking of how beautiful my sword looked. It was in the trunk, but I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it again.
We parked outside of Demersi’s Sins.
It seemed pretty quiet, since not many cars were parked here. It was a bit early to be gambling — the Sun was still high in the sky.
Val and I got out of the car. Made our way to the back. Val slipped the key in and opened the trunk.
The trunk looked more like an arsenal. I counted three swords, four guns, a mace, a garotte, and a couple of weapons I didn’t even recognize.
“You want a gun?” Val asked me.
I almost blurted, “No.” There were several times in my life when I’d thought about carrying a gun. Every time I’d wanted to use it on myself, not somebody else.
I figured it would’ve been nice to want to use it on somebody else. I wished I had it in me to shoot at another living being.
I took a breath and spoke calmly, “No.”
Val didn’t seem to care how long it took me to come up with my answer. He took the garotte and slipped it into his pocket. Lifted up his pants leg and slipped a gun into the ankle holster. Then he took the Godkiller. Smiled, as it gleamed in the light of midday.
“Damn fine weapon,” he said, laughing.
“Damn fine,” I said. For some reason, I didn’t feel jealousy. No, I took my own sword out of the trunk and felt a sense of pride.
This is mine. I helped make this, with my own hands.
Smiled, slipping it into my scabbard.
As we walked towards the casino, I felt a sense of uncontrollable pride. I’d seen a lot of shit in my life. I’d been plenty ashamed and plenty horrified. Val had needed to drag me kicking and screaming into this prophesied quest.
Now that I was here — now that I was committed — that all changed.
I had a mission. The mission made me unstoppable.
“Mind if I do the honors?” I asked, standing in front of the big oak doors that led into the casino.
He smiled, nodding at me. It was a smile of warmth, of friendship. It was the sort of smile I’d needed to see. I grabbed the copper door handles. They were thick bars, made to look like they had vines spiraling down them. I pulled, opening the doors.
There were eight guys in the casino: three at the craps table, three at the blackjack table, one at the bar, and one at the roulette wheel. Four of them were workers dressed in formal attire: white button-down shirts with black bow ties and dress pants. The four customers at the craps and blackjack tables were varying levels of casual, with one of them wearing a floral shirt, khakis, and sandals.
“I’d like to see Demersi,” Val yelled. “Who will take me to him?”
The bartender, who was closest to us, looked at the guy in charge of the roulette wheel.
After a brief glance, the bartender said, “He’s not here right now. You can gamble without him.”
“I wouldn’t mind making a bet,” Val said, walking towards the bartender.
“I make drinks, not bets,” the bartender said.
“I bet Demersi’s here,” Val said. “I’d bet your life you’re wrong. Lying, even.”
The bartender coughed, looking down at the floor, then straight back at Val. “You’d bet my life?”
“If you’re right, I’d let you live,” Val said. “If you were wrong, I’d kill you.”
Everything grew quiet. The guys at the craps and blackjack tables stopped talking. All eyes were one Val and the bartender.
“I don’t want thing to get rough, so–”
“I don’t care how rough things get,” Val said.
“Lemme pour you a drink,” the bartender said, “on the house.” He turned towards the bottles, only to have Val grab him by the shoulder.
The bartender grabbed a tall green bottle and swung around, swiping at Val with it.
Val ducked, unsheathed his sword, and slashed the guy’s neck open.
Murmurs in the casino.
No one yelled, but the three workers all moved towards Val.
Val bent over, taking the gun out of his holster and pointing it at the workers.
“Freeze, you spineless shit-eating sycophants!” Vall roared. “You will take me to see Demersi, or I will kill you.”
My head was buzzing, but in a good way.
I knew I should be horrified. Val was doing a terrible thing — killing people, for barely any reason at all. But there was a sense of power. They were in his way, and he could kill them. He had a destiny to fulfill, so he felt the world would do its best to keep him alive. So why not go mad? Why not vent all the anger and frustration and hurt onto fellow man?
Val shot someone.
He slammed his hand against the bar’s countertop, vaulting over it.
I was frozen. Terrified. This wasn’t how life was supposed to work.
One of the dealers grabbed my arm. His hand felt cold.
The barrel of the gun felt colder against my head.
I wanted to say something, anything. But I couldn’t. My body felt so damn cold.
“I’ve got your friend!” the dealer holding me yelled. “Come out with–”
Blood on my shirt. The dealer let go of me.
Val had popped out from behind the bar and shot the dealer.
I turned to look at the last dealer. He had both his hands up — no gun in them. The other dealer — the first one Val had shot — still had a gun in his limp hand.
The living dealer said, “I’ll take you to see Demersi.”
Val hopped back over the counter. “That’s all I wanted.”
Val followed the dealer and I followed Val through a door into a hallway which led to another door. The dealer opened it and Val entered.
Inside, Demersi sat at a desk. He wore his astronaut suit. The desk matched the walls — mahogany. Stellavia sat on the corner of the desk, stars twinkling all across her body. The man stared at us, his helmet sitting on his desk, his eyes focused.
“Sir, he–” the dealer began, but Demersi waved him off.
“I heard the gunshots,” he said, eyeing the gun in Val’s hand. “You can go.”
The dealer nodded his head and left the room.
“How do I find Hostem?” Val asked.
“Everyone knows where he is,” Demersi said, his accent carrying a hint of poshness. “He can be found in the house that stands next to the Celestial Wall.”
“How do I summon him?” Val asked.
“We need to talk, first.”
“We’re talking,” Val said.
Demersi smiled, as if he was talking to a child. He leaned forward. “We need to discuss other things.”
Val pointed the gun at Demersi. “No, we don’t.”
“You know the suit stops that sort of thing. It’d take a very special weapon–”
“You don’t have your helmet on,” Val said.
“I don’t need my helmet.”
Demersi opened his fist, which in the blink of the eye had moved to protect his face. A used bullet *clinked* onto the desk.
“As I was saying, we need to talk about some other things first. Here, please, have a seat.” Demersi gestured towards the two chairs sitting in front of him.
Val took one. I sheepishly took the other.
“Hasn’t there been enough blood?” Demersi asked. “The Hero already killed all of Hostem’s children. Can’t we leave one god to run the world?”
“Clearly not,” Val said. “That maniac is looking to kill himself, and he wants to take the rest of the world with him.”
“I’ve been talking to him,” Demersi said.
“But that’s all it’s been, isn’t that right? Talk?”
“All his children are dead,” Demersi said. “He’s angry. These wounds will take a long time to heal.”
“I don’t need his wounds to heal,” Val said. “I need his psychological wounds to be replaced by physical ones.”
“Do you think we can do better than Hostem? He and his kin kept this world right for a lot of years.”
“Maybe if your idea of ‘right’ is genocide,” Val said. “Every year the gods killed people.”
“They felt they needed to.”
“They shouldn’t have.”
“Sentience is a dangerous thing,” Demersi said. “The gods had to make sure–”
“–that we didn’t grow too quickly. They had to make sure we didn’t put too much of a strain on the world’s resources.”
“Fuck the world.”
“You heard me perfectly well,” Val said. “I’m telling the world to go fuck itself.”
“The gods killed my mother when I was seven.”
“Is there a good explanation for that?” Val asked. “Are you truly arrogant enough to sit there and tell me that was for a good cause?”
Demersi took a deep breath. “In a word? Yes.”
“One of the men I’m guessing you just killed was a father.”
“I don’t give a shit!”
“You don’t think that makes you the same as–”
“I didn’t come here for psychoanalysis,” Val said. “I came here for the answer to a simple question.”
“What makes you think you’re any different than–”
“I don’t give a shit,” Val yelled, standing up. He leaned in, just an inch from Demersi’s face. “That belligerent dilettante of a bartender you’ve got out there should’ve listened when I asked him to take me to you. He shouldn’t have given me a hard time. He didn’t have to give me a hard time. And quite frankly, I don’t give a shit about him, or any of the guys I’ve killed. I don’t give a shit about him and all the weaklings who are moronic enough to get in my way. You want to know what separates me from the gods? I have power. I’m more godly than those effete fucks could ever have dreamed of being. Hate to break it to you, but I’m the new god in town. The old gods are nothing more than dry bones.”
“Except for Hostem,” Demersi said.
“Who’ll be dead soon enough,” Val said.
Demersi turned to look at me, reminding me I existed: “It would seem that of the two of you, you’re more likely to be my friend.”
I looked over at Val. “Yeah.”
“As my friend,” Demersi said, “would you speak to your friend?”
“It wouldn’t matter what I said,” I explained, thinking back on how Val had beat me on my own porch.
“How do I summon him?” Val said. “How do I summon Hostem?”
Demersi sighed. “In the house next to the Celestial Wall, there’s only one room. It’s got stone floor, with a big crack in the center. Throw three seeds into the crack.”
Val nodded his head, turning to leave.
Stellavia spoke up first: “If you succeed, come back here.”
Demersi looked surprised at that.
Val, somehow, didn’t. He walked towards Demersi, a lusty smile stretching across his face. He leaned in, merely an inch from her face: “You can come with me anytime.”
She flashed a condescending smile — exactly the sort of smile he deserved. Put her hand on his chest and pushed him back.
“Sorry,” she said. “That’s not exactly what I meant.”
Val turned and stormed out the room. I didn’t follow, at least not immediately.
“I hope you’ll keep a leash on him,” Demersi said. “You’ll need to, if the world’s going to survive.”
“Can’t put a leash on a freight train,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
I turned to leave.
As I left, he said, “Just be a friend of the world’s. Do what’s best for it.”
I stood there, my hand on the door handle.
“I’ll try,” I said. “That’s all I ever do.”
I left the room, left the building, and ended up finding Val in the car.
“Took you a minute,” he said.
“Had to make sure we had all the information we needed,” I said.
“You’re right,” I said. “You always are. I just wasn’t confident enough, is all.”
He drove the car out of the parking lot. “We have to work on your confidence.”
“Maybe killing a god’ll make me confident,” I said, brushing my hair out of my face, letting out a laugh. It sounded strained, even to my ears.
He didn’t respond. I figured he didn’t feel the need to.
The two of us drove like that for a while, passing through a long stretch of trees. A car was behind us, but I didn’t think much of it.
I felt a little lightheaded, my mind buzzing with everything that had happened — Val beating the shit out of me, the two of us getting the Godkiller and my own sword, him killing all those dealers and then Demersi talking to us in his office.
It was Stellavia who really stuck in my head, though. I hadn’t thought about it when I was standing next to her — I’d been too afraid at the time. But she was beautiful. She might’ve been the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen, with those stars moving across her body.
I noticed the same car in the rear-view mirror. It was unmistakable: a bright baby blue Chevrolet Bel Air. In fact, I thought it might have been following us ever since we’d left Demersi’s.
“Don’t look back,” I told Val.
“That’s right,” he said. “Don’t feel so many regrets.”
“No,” I said. “Literally. Don’t look behind you.”
“Why?” he barked. “What the fu–”
“Somebody following us.”
“I think,” I said. “I’m never sure about anything.”
Val laughed, shaking his head.
“Least I’m honest,” I said, feeling fear roll its way up my spine. There was no time for self doubt. I felt like I might die.
“The car behind us?” he asked.
“Told you not to look back.”
“It’s not abnormal to look through the rear-view mirror,” he said. “There’s no reason to–”
The car swerved. I screamed. We hit a tree.