Training

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John hears a sound. Turns.

Click, click.

It’s coming. He wheels around and takes off through the tunnel. He can still hear it as it closes in. He doesn’t dare look back again. Looking back means slowing down, and slowing down means dying.

Click, click.

He hardly registers the fowl miasma that hangs over the dungeon, a putrid sulfuric rot, though it took him aback when he first entered the place.

When was that?

He tries to remember, but whenever he reaches back in time it’s like slamming into an iron curtain. All he knows is that he’s being pursued and he has to get away.

There are brief flashes in the dim surroundings like a strobe, flickers of a life before the dungeon. Colors and lights. Flowers and trees. A family. Kids. But none of these ever resolve into the fully-clothed specters of memory.

CLICK, CLICK.

It’s almost on top of him now. Perhaps thirty yards, maybe twenty. John’s heart jackhammers. He can feel a power blossoming inside, strangely familiar, a latent ability to do…something, an ability that only expresses itself when he’s in danger. That power is important. He knows it as a matter of instinct. There’s something he has to remember, something crucial. He has to—

Claws clamp down into his back, an impossible weight that sends him tumbling to the ground. The foul water that was at his feet splashes into his nostrils, so that he feels for a moment like he’s drowning.

Meanwhile, he can feel the creature on top of him, pushing, tearing, lacerating his upper back, shredding it to blood-soaked ribbons. John screams, the sound bouncing off the walls in an endless cascade of agony.

Every nerve has come alive, high tension wires that send thousands of volts coursing through his body. He can feel the power within, pulsing, waiting for him to take hold. Yet he does not know how, and with each feeble reach it fumbles away from his grasp, bounding off into the dark. And then the creature’s humid maw has opened wide above him, breathing its stink over the back of his neck. John screams again.

More pain. Then darkness.

* * *

John surges into consciousness, crying out as the final drops of world-shattering torment drain out of him.

When it’s over he stops. Rises. Looks around.

He now finds himself in a tiny stone chamber, surrounded by brightly burning candles. Beside him, eyes closed, kneels an old woman, her face obscured by harsh lines and shadows.

“Where am I?”

The woman answers without opening her eyes. “Give it a moment to come back.”

And as if her words were a command, the iron curtain in his head parts.

“Oh no,” he says, and he drops his head into his hands. “I failed again.”

“Stuff and nonsense,” says the old woman. “You still have a ways to go, it’s true, but you’re not a failure.”

“I still couldn’t do it. The power, I felt it inside of me, but I couldn’t figure out how to handle it.”

“Perhaps not,” she agrees, “But you sensed it, and that’s a start. We’ve been through this exercise a thousand times before. Until today, you’d never even realized it was there. Something changed this iteration. You sensed it, waiting, and you knew you had to reach for it.  You’ve improved very much.”

“What use is it if I can only sense it?”

“You have to sense it before you can use it.”

John looks up, stares at the old woman beside him. She’s now opened her eyes. “I’m scared.”

“We all are,” she says. “These are dark times. But you’re learning. Sooner or later, you’ll master it. Sooner or later, you’ll reach for it without thinking, and that’s very important, because when the peril is real, when the Chancellor steals your memory in earnest and throws you into his pit to play his game, the power will be your only advantage.”

“I want to go again. Please,” he says, “Let me go again.”

“You need rest.”

“Just one more time.”

She stares into his eyes, and she must see something burning in their gaze, for when she speaks again she gives her reluctant assent.

“Just once more. Then off to bed.”

John nods, relieved. His contest is a month away. If he can survive, if he can beat the Chancellor’s game, perhaps the man will grant him an audience. It would be the first time the Chancellor has allowed it in fifteen hundred years. And then, well, anything is possible.

“Close your eyes,” says the old woman, not unkindly, and he does as he’s told.

Once more, a fog settles over his mind, and the neurons in his head realign. The iron curtain closes. And then he’s in the dungeon, running, trying to get away.

Click, click.

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Last Man Standing

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Amos sat in front of a plate of sizzling sisig. He gazed out the window of a tiny hole-in-the-wall resto, watched the erratic traffic patterns of the Philippines that were still so foreign to him even after all these years.

He sighed. It was a heavy, dusty sigh. A sigh of resignation. A sigh of loss.

Forced into hiding by a life-long enemy, he’d fled all the way to the other side of the world. He was all that was left of his line; the rest of his family was dead. A decade ago, he’d spent what was left of his life’s savings on a plane ticket, entered the country on a tourist visa and hadn’t been able to afford an extension. Now he was an illegal alien. If he tried to leave the country for some place new, the BI would detain him, fine him and deport him back to the States, where his life would be endangered again.

A shadow passed over his table, and he looked up. A figure stood at the entrance, a silhouette against the bloated late-afternoon sun. A man. Something about him tickled the periphery of Amos’s memory, but he couldn’t have said why. The man walked in, ordered the tapsilog and sat down at an empty table across from him.

Every now and then, Amos saw him casting furtive glances in his direction. It wasn’t unusual for foreigners in small towns to draw attention, so why did the man’s looks cause him so much anxiety?

As if replying to the unspoken question, a thought that was not his own hit him in the head like a dart.

He’s coming.

The man looked up once, peered into Amos’s eyes, held his gaze. Amos caught sight of the tattoo on his right upper arm, a coiled snake with its mouth open, baring two sharp fangs. The insignia of his enemy’s inner circle. He was certain the man had meant for him to see it.

Amos’s pulse quickened.

So, he’d been found. Amos wasn’t surprised. In fact, he’d never truly expected to get away, only to buy himself some extra time. He had nowhere to go, nowhere else to hide. It would be a showdown, then. Would he be the last man standing? He didn’t know, but he had nothing left to lose. What kind of life had he managed to enjoy, so far from home with none of his kith or kin, anyway?

Amos finished his sisig, pushed the metal plate aside and walked out into the humid afternoon.

It was time to prepare.

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