I clung to one fact: I was still alive. With that realization, a semblance of sense returned to me. I could not move, and all was dark.
Someone was chanting nearby in a low, resonant baritone. The words were alien to me, but their tantalizing meanings almost recognizable if I forced myself not to listen too hard. When I focused on the voice, the essence of what was being said slipped away from me, and the more I strained, the less I understood.
A low drone accompanied the chanting. It rolled through my head, composed of thousands upon thousands of voices. Male and female and some of indistinguishable timbre, the voices were twisted into pained whispers. An occasional hoarse cry punctuated the sibilant chorus. I could make out words, but not sentences. The drone began to crest, rising in a wave of unsullied horror, and I could hear them calling to me, drowning me in their agony.
Tears poured down my face, fleeing my unseeing eyes. The droplets burned as they trickled through the holes in my flesh, commingling with sweat and drying blood. My back arched. Tortured muscles and wrecked bones spasmed. I felt like a broken piano, all the keys wracked by painful jangling. Still, the warm light was there.
"...please help... never... again..."
The light receded for a moment, and a menacing chill crept into my bones in its place. Goose pimples rose across my arms. I could have sworn for a moment that I saw Danny's face, his pale green eyes wide with horror. The Accident gaped wide in my mind for a moment, but I forced it down into the dark place where it belonged. I marveled that I had the strength to do that.
"...so sorry... didn't know..."
Phantom, vice-like fingers grasped at me from below, and a roar of heat flushed in to me. There was nothing comforting about the light as it penetrated me. It scrabbled at me with fingers of fire, pushing in to me. The waves of its presence as it thrust into my being left me feeling soiled, darker, as if I could never be clean again.
"Eternity... aeons of..."
A shriek rose out of the press of tearful cries. One by one, they fell away, until only that rasping cry was left behind. It was only when I forced myself to draw a long, shuddering breath that I realized that the scream was mine.
"Johnny," a voice rasped from in front of my face. I felt firm hands shaking me. "Johnny, you're having a nightmare. Wake up."
My eyes cracked open. They met some resistance. I scrubbed at them. My face was still covered over with a crusting of blood and other dried fluids. The skin burned as I scraped the foul stuff away, but surprise bubbled up inside me. I didn't hurt. Not only did my face feel unharmed, I could breathe without pain. Except for a few muscles sore from lying on the floor, I was okay.
The old man perched next to me. His flexibility surprised me, as both times I had seen him, he seemed ready to crumble and blow away given the passing of a stiff breeze.
I sat up, and he rewarded my efforts with a yellow grin. My gaze twitched away from his smile, which was stained by more than years. I didn't smell cigarettes on his breath. There was a faint scent of rot, but nothing truly appalling.
"How..." I started, but I couldn't quite frame the question in my head, much less my lips.
"You stumbled in here some time last night." He rose to his feet in a fluid motion.
"I remember." I gave an uncertain nod. Everything from the night before still felt hazy and unclear.
"Welcome back to the world of the living," he told me.
The old man extended an arm toward me. His grip was firmer than I expected. As he helped me up, I swayed and almost blacked out as blood rushed away from my head.
"Stood up a bit too fast," I said, waving away his hand as he sought to steady me.
"It's more than that, you know. Getting fixed like that when you're all broken up, it takes something out of the whole to feed the all of the little chips and rents."
I used the counter to steady myself against another wave of dizziness. "I don't know what you're talking about. How am I... what happened to--how am I not hurt?"
"We fixed you," he said. I waited for more, but he didn't offer any elaboration.
"I don't get it."
"Sure you do." Again moving like an old man ought to, he hobbled behind the counter and settled himself in his seat. Heedless of my silence, the old man started reading his paper again. Unless my memory was totally off, he hadn't changed the page since my arrival the previous evening.
"No, I mean, I understand that... that I was really beaten up, and now I'm better, but are you trying to tell me that you did some sort of magic on me and just healed me?"
The old man put down the paper. He looked at me as if I were an especially slow child with whom he'd lost his last shred of patience. "You're in a magic shop," he reminded me.
He had a point.
I bit my lip. He kept staring at me. I thought. I had a philosophy teacher back in freshman year who propounded that human beings always look for the least obvious solution to problems, thinking that life is constantly trying to trick us. Because of the strength of our beliefs, he'd insisted, we frequently ignore the simple--an often correct--answer.
I'd been on the verge of death. That was a fact. I was well. I was alive. The old man told me he'd healed me, and he looked serious about the assertion. And I was in a magic shop. So he'd healed me. I felt impossibly stupid, as if I were missing something right in front of my eyes. For now, though, he'd healed me.
The old man cocked his head, looking curious as he inspected me.
"Sir," I began, fighting the urge to squirm under his gaze. "I couldn't help but notice that you knew my name."
The old man held up a brutalized piece of leather. It had once been my wallet.
"I don't sell wallets," he chuckled. I let myself laugh, too, as he handed it back to me. "This one's a mess."
"What should I call you, sir?" I asked.
"Call me Applegate," he said, and smirked. The name sounded vaguely familiar.
I glanced down at my clothing. My body might not have borne the scars of my unfortunate encounter with Reagan--and Brent, I reminded myself absently--but swathes of pale flesh shone through tears and holes in my shirt and jeans. My favorite jacket was probably long gone, recovered by some Santo's customer or employee. My fists clenched so hard that my nails gouged bloody white crescents of flesh into my palm.
Mr. Applegate's face turned suddenly serious. "You remember what you said last night?"
My teeth worried my lower lip as a fit of nerves swept through me. Maybe I was still weak from my supposed healing, I joked with myself, but I couldn't find much humor in that. There was something burning inside me.
"I don't think you're ready for vengeance."
I speared the old man with my gaze. My hands found the edge of the counter. "They fucking... tried... to kill me."
Suddenly, I was being strangled by the memory. Breaths came too short, and a wave of red and black crossed my vision.
Bleeding, alone on the pavement...
...please, let me die...
...cold, so cold... so alone...
A cracking sound broke me out of my reverie. The glass of the case in front of me had a crack in it. Had I done that with my hands? I looked up at Mr. Applegate. His eyes were narrowed. He didn't look frightened by my display of fury.
"I-I'm sorry," I stuttered, backing away. The charm display tinkled as I backed into it.
"Don't be," he said. Approval colored his voice. "I underestimated you. You might just be ready for it."
He looked past me. My gaze followed his to the dusty little box I had noticed during my first visit.
"Bring it here," Applegate commanded.
I stood there, trapped in a moment of uncertainty. I felt like I was perched over the fulcrum of a seesaw, desperately balancing. One wrong step, and I would start on a path whose end would become inexorable. Cold welled up in me, in my very bones, a veritable blizzard howling through my veins.
I took one step toward the box. The second was easier, and with each succeeding step afterward, that cold feeling of doubt ebbed. My hands closed around the box.
Nothing happened. I let out a sigh of relief and took it back to the counter.
Mr. Applegate was ready with a tiny key for the box's lock. It, like the lock, was crafted from iron. The key was ornate where the lock was simple, but both were scabbed with trails of rust. He inserted the key and twisted it between his gnarled fingers.
With a soft *snick*, the lock came away.
"Would you do the honors?" Mr. Applegate asked.
I reached down with trembling hands. The top of the box was fastened with rusted iron hinges. I flipped it open, taking unnecessary care.
"What... what is it?"
A pool of twisting, semitransparent shadows coiled in the bottom of the box, lit from within by a dull violet glow. Its movements were sluggish, almost drowsy, but there was no question about it. Whatever lurked within the box was moving.
"The old writings call it Shi'iaf't'hashalum." The name rolled off of Applegate's tongue, strange and sibilant, as if it were a word not meant for a human tongue. He spoke with reverence, a feverish light in his eyes. "The Poison in the High Temple, Devourer of the Faith, the Taint of Sodom... He is known by many names."
"'He'? What is it?"
"A demon of the ancient world, one who straddled the boundaries between Heaven and Hell and who is beloved of neither. He is the father of succubi. He is the first succubus--"
"You mean 'incubus,' right?" My face colored as the old man looked at me. "Succubi are female. Incubi are male. I read this book--"
"Forget your modern books, boy. Incubi are filthy, vile things, repulsive to sight. They're dead men's spirits who thirst for flesh. Succubi kill their male young, and the females are but pale shadows of the former beauty of Shi'iaf't'hashalum before the Fall. He thrives on life, on the pulse of sex on a humid night, on thirst... and the only lust that can match what you feel for the boys who beat you is the thirst you hold for vengeance." He smiled.
As he spoke the word, the pool of shadows trembled slightly, like a lover at the point of orgasm. I didn't bother asking how he knew about my feelings for Reagan and Brent, how desperately I longed for them even as I wanted to destroy them. I didn't need to know.
"How much do you want for it?" The question came out coarse and lewd-sounding, as if I were dealing in human flesh.
"He's priceless." My heart sank, but Mr. Applegate gave me a warm smile, as if we were discussing candy or violets. He patted me on the shoulder and said, "But I will loan him to you in return for a favor. Consider it a gift."
"Done," I breathed. "How do I use it?"
"When the time is right, the demon will tell you what you need to do."
"Its name's hard for me to pronounce."
"Then call it what you want. Smart creatures, demons."
I peered into the box. A sudden urge compelled me to reach in with one hand. I cupped some of the twisting shadows. They sifted through my fingers, and sparks of invisible warmth trickled over my palm.
"Shi'iaf't'hashalum," I forced myself to say the name properly. It left my tongue feeling all twisted. I opted for simplicity.
"How about a nickname?" I asked the demon. "Why don't I call you... 'Shift'?"