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The man looked up one last time, the life draining from his body, and beheld his killer. His final thought before the darkness closed in was not of revenge or of anger, but of how his daughter would grow up without a father and how, in the absence of her already deceased mother, she would spend the remainder of her life as an orphan.

Katie, he thought as if he had the power to call her with his mind. Then consciousness tapered, and the man, defeated, plunged head-first into the eternal void.

* * *

“Katie!” the convict cried, recoiling backward, and if not for the guards who held him by his arms, he would have smacked right into a broad stone wall. The abrupt change in perspective jarred him, and for a while the man just hung there, muscles suddenly limp, staring at the flickering torches on the high marble ceiling.

“Samuel, aged thirty-five, father of one, murdered this twenty-first of May, 2020.”

That voice. The convict had heard it before. But where?

He heard typing, followed by another voice, equally familiar.

“Let the record show that Gerald Miller has completed his third iteration and will be allowed a five-minute rest before the execution of his sentence continues.”

Memories of another man’s life flashed before the convict’s eyes. The guards helped him to his feet, and then, when they were satisfied he could stand, they let him go.

“Where am I?”

Before the convict stood a dark ebony bench seven feet high, occupied by an elderly man in a white powdered wig. He gazed down, stared at the convict through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, and announced, “You stand before the court today convicted of murder.”


And then, just like that, the convict remembered. Gerald. His name was Gerald, and he most certainly was not dead. He’d been found by the police, standing over the man’s body with a knife in his hand. He could still remember slitting the man’s throat, could still remember how the man had looked up at him as he bled out onto the cold, wet asphalt.

It had been raining. Gerald had been hiding in the alley behind a dumpster, searching for an easy mark, and when the man walked by, umbrella in hand, Gerald had leaped from the shadows to demand his wallet or his life.

“No,” Gerald whispered. “No, I couldn’t have done that.”

He was a lot of things—a thief, a conman, a low-life—but certainly not a murderer.

But I did do it. I remember. Oh, God.

“I didn’t mean to kill him.”

“Mr. Miller,” said the judge, leaning over a stack of legal documents, “I’m afraid you misunderstand your position. You are no longer on trial. You have already been found guilty and stand before the court today to satisfy your sentence.”

No, this couldn’t be happening. Gerald had intended to let the man go. All he’d wanted was his money, and then Gerald would have sent him on his way. Streetlife was tough, and he was guilty of many crimes, but he’d never thought murder could be one of them.

Then the man had done something unexpected. He’d gazed upon Gerald not with anger or contempt, as so many of his other victims had, but with genuine pity and concern. The compassion that flickered in the man’s frightened eyes had reminded him of all the qualities his abusive father had lacked in abundance. The look had triggered a terrible rage, a blinding, white-hot jealousy, and before he knew what he was doing, he was stabbing the man with his knife, first in the side, then in the chest, then finally in the neck.

Now, tears filled Gerald’s eyes and he fell to his knees before the judge in supplication. “Please,” he whispered, “don’t make me do it again.”

To have to relive the horror of what he’d done, over and over again, to have to play the part of his victim, to feel the knife enter his body, to feel the despair that came with knowing that the man’s daughter would grow up without either of her parents, it was too much, and it would surely drive him mad.

The judge peered down at him, and not without compassion, said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Miller, but I do not have that power.”

Gerald collapsed then in a frenzy of tears and snot. The guards rushed to his side and, picking him up, escorted him back to the other end of the room where he would once more experience the final agonizing moments of the man’s life.

“The court is aware of your upbringing,” the judge said, “as well as the circumstances leading to your abhorrent actions. The court believes you capable of redemption, which is why your sentence is not permanent.”

Gerald looked up then, wiping his nose with his sleeve. “You mean I won’t have to do this forever?”

“No,” said the judge.

“Then for how long?”

“As long as it takes for you to understand the severity of your crime, and for the evil in your heart to be expunged. At such a time as the court sees fit, your condition will be assessed, and when it’s determined that you’ve been reformed, you will receive a second chance to lead a proper life.”

A flash of hope seized Gerald, only to be replaced by abject terror when the judge glanced down at his watch and announced, “Your rest time is over. Guards, take him into position.”

“No,” Gerald cried, “No!”

Gerald struggled for freedom, but the guards maintained an iron grip. The judge lifted his right arm, trembling with age, and with a flaccid flick of the wrist, fired a searing mote of energy in Gerald’s direction.

“Let the record show,” he said, just as that incredible power slammed into Gerald’s chest, “that Gerald Miller has begun his fourth iteration…”

Light burst behind his eyes like the flash of a dying star. Gerald detached from his body once more, and then—

* * *

The man looked up one last time, the life draining from his body, and beheld his killer.

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The Price of Rebellion

Barandash Karandashich/

This post was originally published through Patreon on January 22, 2019.

Derrick gasped and the nightmare dissolved. He lay on his back beneath the light of the full moon, drenched in sweat, and loosed a hellish, world-shattering scream. A message. The dream had been a message, and its meaning was clear.

Derick’s family was dead.

He’d tried to protect them. He’d sent them to a place where no one could find them…or so he’d thought. He could still smell their incinerated bodies—singed hair, charred skin, smoldering flesh—a tainted, unholy perfume that would fester in his memory for the rest of his life.

It was the price of rebellion, a debt his family had paid in full.

How does it feel? The soundless words rippled through the world like the wind, an aftereffect of the dream. Was it worth it, Derrick? Was the cost of disobedience worth it?

Grief twisted his stomach into a series of progressively tighter knots. Whenever he closed his eyes, he could see his wife’s and childrens’ bloody faces: burned, angled toward the sky, eyes glazed and unseeing.

I could have done more, he thought. I could have stayed with them until I was certain they were safe, that the danger had passed.

Self-loathing battled with a searing, white-hot hatred for the men and women who’d murdered his entire family.

They died because of my carelessness.

And yet, deep in the recesses of his poisoned heart, he understood the truth: He hadn’t killed his family. They had.

And they would regret it.

Derrick scrambled to his feet, too disoriented by grief to do anything but stand while the sounds of the night cried out like a funeral dirge. He kicked the sleeping bag at his feet aside and heaved, wide-eyed, as one bone-rattling sob burst free from him after another.

“Awful, isn’t it?”

The voice came from behind—a man, judging by the tone—and Derrick spun.

“The magnitude of your grief must be incalculable.”

At that moment, all his rage surged out of him like a flash flood.

“Are you one of those murders?”

Derrick reached for the blade he always kept at his side, even when he was sleeping…only to realize it was gone.

When Derrick turned, he saw the man brandishing the curved sword as if it were his own, cold steel flashing in the monochromatic light of the moon.

“A precaution, you understand. I’ll give it back to you once you’ve heard me out.”

“My family!”

Derrick rushed to meet him, sword or no sword. If it was his fate to die this night, then at least he would return to his family. One step. Two steps. Three. Derrick was almost upon him when the man disappeared.

“I didn’t kill them, you ravenous idiot.”

This time, the voice came from where Derrick had been standing only moments before.

He spun again, sick with terror and blind, unfocused fury. The two emotions danced a lunatic jig in the dark, sweeping Derrick away, perilously close to the edge of insanity.

“You want revenge, don’t you? I can give it to you. I know who killed your family, and if you do as I say, I’ll deliver them to you.”

The Earth stopped spinning, and a deep, otherworldly stillness seized Derrick’s suddenly frozen heart.

“Yes,” the man said. “I see that got your attention.”

Time stilled, and it was a few moments before Derrick could speak again.


A shrewd clarity began to take root in Derrick’s heart, and his blood, boiling only moments ago, was already turning to ice.

“Why?” the man echoed. “Because your enemy is my enemy, and in a way, that makes us friends.”

“So,” said Derrick, “now we’re friends?”

The man shrugged.

“I have something you want, and you have something I want. If we can’t be friends, then let us be partners in a joint venture that will benefit both of us.”

Derrick’s skin prickled with alarm. Somewhere beyond the grief, in a part of himself that felt a thousand miles away, a sense of wrongness blossomed, along with a desperate warning to turn away before it was too late.

But if this man really knew who’d killed his family, and if he could help Derrick find them…

“What do you want?”

No, that distant part of Derrick cried. Don’t listen to him! But Derrick had already brushed the warning away.

The man smiled, and the horrendous, razor-sharp grin was so terrifying that Derrick took an involuntary step back.

“For now, just the promise that when I have need of you, you’ll come. Your skill with a blade is very useful, and I might require it later.”

“Then it’s killing you’re after?”

Derrick thought of those who’d killed his family. Would he now be asked to do the same to someone else?

“Does it matter?”

Derrick hesitated. His grief was still fresh, and paired with a conscience that found such an atrocity revolting, he was hard-pressed to offer this man his service. But his hunger for retribution at any cost was growing, further dulling an already withered heart, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to turn the man away.

“I could hire someone else if you’d like.”

“No!” The word sprang out of Derrick’s mouth before he could stop it.

What about your family? an interior voice asked. Would they approve?

The thought made Derrick hesitate again. This time, however, it was only long enough for him to quash the renegade voice of his conscience for good. The thirst for vengeance was too potent, too overpowering, too irresistible to ignore, and after a final futile struggle to reclaim his broken heart, Derrick gave himself over to the darkness.

“No,” Derrick continued. “That won’t be necessary. If you require a promise, then I’ll give it. As long as you promise to hand over my family’s killers.”

The man stepped forward and placed a hand over Derrick’s shoulder. The touch was a blast of arctic ice, almost painful, and Derrick recoiled. But his decision was made, and so he steeled himself and stood alongside his mysterious visitor while his soul necrotized like his childrens’ immolated corpses.

“Come with me before you go on your way,” the man said. “I would discuss our partnership further.”

He snapped his fingers, and the two of them were swallowed by the dark.

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