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I guess I should probably say thank you to all of you lot that stuck around for my… two month? period of activity.
I pull into the parking lot, driving my truck into an empty space. I throw the gear shifter into park and sit for a minute. The cigarette in my hand that I lit a minute ago still has a few drags on it. I rest my arm on the open window and finish it. It didn’t do anything for or too me, nothing much did anymore. Still I smoked them, perhaps a reminder of a time before… well, just before all of this. It also helped fit in sometimes, you’d be surprised what you can find out in a group of smokers; especially at a place like this.
I finished the last drag of the smoke and tossed it out the window. I hit the cranked the handle that rolled the window up and stepped out, locking the door as I did so. I looked up at the sign, Lucky’s Gentlemen Club. I’d started getting the dreams a few days ago, like usual. There was something preying on the downtrodden of this town and I was apparently the one to put a stop to it.
It was frustrating how often that happened.
So after a couple days of being unable to get a good night’s sleep I packed a bag, threw it in my truck, and headed here; to this small military town.
There’s something you’ve got to understand about military posts. Army bases in particular I guess. I really only had the experience with the Army towns. In a past life I’d had experience with Army bases and their outlying towns. I wouldn’t know for sure about the others but I’d guess it’d probably hold true for the Marines as well. There are a lot of similarities between a Marine and a Soldier, but you’d get a busted jaw for ever suggesting such a thing.
But I digress; I was talking about Army towns. Each base has one. It’s a collection of small shops and business that cater to Soldiers. Soldiers have a high amount of disposable income and a predilection towards the seedier things in life. Drive off an Army base in any direction and the three things you’re sure to hit are strip clubs, car lots, and payday loan places.
I said Soldier’s had a lot of disposable income, I never said they were smart; quite the opposite most times. They like to spend their cash and they like to spend it hard. These kids are usually between the ages of 18-22 and they’ve usually never had much in the way of work experience before. Suddenly they’ve cash and they’re looking to spend it. And they love their strippers.
I sigh as I push open the door, already pretty sure of what I’m going to find when I walk inside. And sure enough, I’m not disappointed. You’ve got your girl up on stage, trying to look interesting but failing more often than not. You’ve got the girls walking around the club floor, talking to the guys.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for strippers. You ever want to see a customer service expert at work, watch a talented stripper. They’ll either walk up to a customer or be approached by one, and they’ll hold their attention like a pro. Smiles that only sometimes don’t seem to reach their eyes, nodding at the right time, touching at the right time; they know how to sell their product. You can see it sometimes though. When the guy looks away and the smile slips for just a second. Sometimes you can see it.
Behind the bar you have a collection of Korean ladies, the middle aged one most likely being Mama, the one that takes care of the girls. A lot of guys come into strip clubs and spend a lot of time trying to get on the good side of the girls, impress them and whatnot. That’s a rookie mistake, it isn’t the girls you need to impress, it’s Mama. And the fastest way to impress Mama is make sure she knows your spending money. Not on the girls necessarily either, she expects that. No, you spend money on the bartenders, giving them tips, more than you really need to.
If a strip club’s Mama likes you, then you’re golden.
Yeah, I was a Soldier, I know my strip clubs.
Then you got your customers. In a strip club in an Army town you got two types of customers and it’s usually pretty easy to spot the difference. You got your locals and you got your Soldiers. The locals have been here forever, and they’ve probably been coming to the club for forever as well. They fit it like a used glove. And they carry themselves differently than Soldiers.
Soldiers are temporary, never going to be a permanent fixture at any place. One day the orders are going to come and they’re going to either deploy, change duty station, or get out of the Army. Any of those three things lead to them not being there anymore. So Soldiers are temporary, and they know it. They flash money, they talk loud, and they talk big.
That’s the other thing about Soldiers; most of them think they’ve got something to prove. Ninety percent of Soldiers don’t come from much. Most of them joined to get away from wherever it was they were and couldn’t see a better way to do it than signing up. They grew up watching their war movies, seeing their GI Joes, and have a preconceived notion of what it means to be a Soldier. You stick a rifle in their hands and make them work out all the time, and that just reinforces that notion. A lot of Soldier’s feel they’ve got to prove they’re the biggest and the baddest and they set about doing it any means necessary.
Locals don’t necessarily like this, which is understandable. What this sometimes leads to is a powder keg waiting to explode. And my senses went into high alert as soon as I entered the club. I handed the guy taking money at the door my two dollars and waited for him to strap the wrist band on my wrist. As soon as that was done with I shifted my body and started producing fear pheromones. Not strong enough to clear the building, but strong enough to keep people well away from me. Should have realized how that was a mistake, but I didn’t, not until later.
I made my way to a corner of the bar and stuck my five on the table. The Korean bartender took it and I ordered a coke, waving the change away. She had a conflicted look on her face, the pheromones I was producing were telling her she didn’t like me, but the money in her hand was telling her that she did. She brought me my coke and left me alone.
I turned and gazed around the club, trying to find what it was that brought me here. My dreams don’t take me places where I’m not needed. My senses don’t lie to me. It just doesn’t happen, much like I don’t get pleasure from nicotine or drunk from alcohol.
My gaze passed over one of the Soldiers and he caught it. His face look conflicted, something was wrong with me and he didn’t know what, just that it scared him. I continued past him, trying to find whatever it was that was feeding off these people. They’re there; you just have to know how to find them, or really, be able to find them. Most people don’t and can’t.
Fortunately for them, I’m not most people.
Unfortunately for me, I forgot one simple thing. Soldiers are trained to push past their fears. Soldiers are trained to confront their fears. Soldiers have something to prove.
Suddenly the guy who caught my gaze is standing in front of me, an angry look on his face.
“You got a problem mister?” he asked.
I shake my head and kick the pheromones up a notch, hoping to drive him away. Instead it has the opposite effect. Probably without even fully understanding why, he takes a swing at me.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been hit and it likely won’t be the last. I remember what it used to be like, being hit. It feels painful, it feels electric, and if you’re someone like I used to be it makes you feel alive. That rush you get when you realize you aren’t invincible.
Unfortunately for the Soldier punching me, that wasn’t necessarily true for me anymore; at least not that I was aware of.
My skin hardened without me even willing it, instinctual now. Keeping the color and texture it became as hard as diamond, the mass of my body increasing so that it wouldn’t even cause my head to move. I heard his hand break as it struck my face, without doing anything to me. The Soldier screamed and dropped to his knee.
There’s another fact about Soldiers at strip clubs, they rarely come alone, and they usually bring their battle buddies. So was the case here, three other Soldiers rose from their table and made their way over to me. I sighed, this wasn’t going well. I stood from my chair and cracked me neck and knuckles. Then I pointed and one of them, my hand making a fake gun, and shot him.
My body displaced the air, creating a sonic shockwave that knocked the Soldier on his ass. The other two stared at him in awe, then back at me. I heard a hiss from the stage. One of the stripper’s heels and all jumped off the stage and took off out an employee exit.
I cursed. Of course it was going to be one of the strippers. Who else would it be. I shifted my body again, reflecting the light in a way that it passed through me, causing a displacement like the Predator but otherwise leaving me mostly invisible and took after her. I busted through the back doors, the girls that were changing yelling in surprise and confusion.
The creature, a succubus likely, was heading out the back. I followed. Pumping muscle, energy, and strength into my legs I picked up to speeds far faster than a human can normally achieve. Unfortunately my quarry wasn’t human either. Still, I got myself going faster and eventually caught up to her. I tackled her from behind.
She hissed at me as I turned her over. Her fangs bit down on my arm and shattered. She screamed in pain. I shook my head and placed my hand on her forehead. Then I shifted it, my hand becoming a flaming spear of Hellfire. It consumed the creature, leaving a charred skeleton in its wake. I sighed and stood up off of the body.
I quickly made my way back to my truck and pulled out, quickly making my way out of town. A couple miles out I ditched it. I didn’t like having to do that, but it was what was needed. They’d be looking for me in it. I shifted my appearance, altering the bone structure of my face, my hair and eye color, my height, and suddenly I wasn’t the same man anymore.
I never was. Not for long at least.
Dammit, I really liked that truck.
I’ve been rather inactive of late. Sorry about that. Life got… tiring. I haven’t been writing much lately. For those of you that know me you know writing isn’t something I’ve been trying to do professionally or even horrendously seriously, more something I’ve been done in my free time to enjoy myself. Lately I just haven’t had the energy.
I know some of you might have been worried about me, I am a rather depressed individual (but aren’t we all) and some of you have sent me your concerns in the past. It’s appreciated and I am still alive and… well, not well but I’m alive.
In a time long past in a land long forgotten there was an old, great forest. The forest was so old that it predated the memories of the locals. Even the old men told tales of their youth of old men telling tales of their youth of old men telling tales of their youth of the forest being old. The forest was great because the trees in the forest were untouched by the hands of man. Every other tree was used to build, but the trees of the forest were off limits. No one knew why the trees were off limits, they merely accepted that they were.
In the center of the forest was a clearing. The clearing was great and expansive, though not nearly as great and expansive as the forest itself. One could stand at one end of the clearing and barely see the tall trees at the other side of the clearing. The animals of the forest did not venture into the clearing, despite the fact that no man hunted them. The clearing stayed free of trees, though no man cleared them. No one knew why the clearing was there, or how it was kept clear, they merely accepted that it was.
In the center of the clearing was a fire pit. There was a great circle of stones with which to contain the fire. The stones were evenly cut and finely placed. The stones could not be found anywhere else in the clearing, or in fact anywhere else in the forest. No one knew how the fire pit came to be, or who created it, they merely accepted that it was there.
The fire pit was a place of reverence for the local people, and used in many of their trials and rituals. It was one of those, perhaps both trial and ritual, that an old and young man took part in. It was in the tradition of the local people that towards the end of their life a man took another that was in the beginning of theirs to the fire pit. It did not matter if the young man was of the old man’s blood, or indeed if the old man even knew the young. It only mattered that the old man took the young man to the fire pit.
It so happened that this old man was the grandfather of this young man. It does not always happen this way, and it is not required, but it was true in this case nonetheless. The young man carried firewood, placing it into the pit while the old man watched. After he had placed the wood into the pit, he lit it, stepping back. The grandfather nodded to his grandson.
“Good,” the grandfather said, “So it begins.”
With that the old man and the young man sat before the fire pit; facing each other.
“I am going to tell you five true things,” the old man told the young, “And you will explain them to me.”
The young man nodded, apprehensive. He knew that this was important, but he was unsure of why, or how.
“The first is simple,” the grandfather said, “One is always better than two, except when it is not.
“The second is simple, but not as simple as the first,” the grandfather continued, “What is obvious is not always best, and what is hidden is not always right.
“The third is not simple, but not complicated,” the grandfather continued, “Things are not always as they appear.
“The fourth is complicated,” the grandfather continued, “Everything is singular and the singular is everything.
“The fifth is complicated, more complicated than all the others, hearing is not everything, but knowing is not either,” the grandfather finished.
The grandfather watched as his grandson mulled over the truths that he had been told.
“Do you understand these truths?” the old man asked after the young man had thought about them.
The young man shook his head, he did not. The old man nodded wisely, looking neither surprised nor angry at the young man’s lack of comprehension.
“Then you must stand,” the old man said, “And go into the forest. There you will learn the truth behind the truth.”
With that the young stood and the old man sat. The young man walked into the forest and the old man watched him. The fire dwindled but did not go out. As the fire turned to embers the young man returned and sat down beside his grandfather.
“… and that is when the big oaf came home, so I scampered out the window and got out of there quick.”
“You are a liar.”
Lucas turned around on his barstool and smiled at the woman standing behind him, calling him out.
“Mary-Anne,” he said, “It is always such a pleasure to see you, please join me.”
He said the last with a wink. Mary-Anne shook her head and sat down on the stool next to him. The man sitting next to Lucas, who he’d been regaling with stories, shook his head and turned forward. Lucas waved to the bartender and he came over.
“What can I get you Mary-Anne?” he asked.
“Dion,” she said, pleasantly, nodding to the bartender, “I’ll have a red wine.”
“Coming right up,” he said, reaching behind him and pouring a glass of wine.
Lucas pushed his empty glass forward.
“I’ll have another stout,” he said, “If you don’t mind.”
“Of course not Lucas,” Dion said, refilling Lucas’ glass.
Lucas took the glass in hand and turned to face Mary-Anne.
“Now,” he said, “I believe you were calling me a liar.”
“Would you argue to the contrary?” she asked him, a slight twinkle in her eye.
“With you Mary-Anne,” he said, sounding somewhat aghast, “Never.”
Mary-Anne nodded her approval to his answer.
“But,” he said, “What in particular do you consider to be a fallacy with the story I was telling?”
“I was with Saffron during the night in question,” she responded, “So I’m fairly certain what you said happened, could not have transpired.”
“Of course you were,” he said, “Can’t ever be that easy. Someone always has to figure out a way to dislodge my tales.”
Mary-Anne shook her head.
“I’ve never understood you Lucas,” she said, “Or your ilk. This pathological need to lie, it’s never made sense to me.”
Lucas grinned what could only be called a wolf’s grin, his teeth very prominent.
“You wouldn’t then, would you,” he said, “But, let me ask you this, what is truth, without something to contend with?”
Mary-Anne cocked her head to the side.
“That is similar to the question of what is good without evil.”
“Similar idea,” he said, “But, you know what a good liar does?”
“Spread chaos and confusion?”
Lucas shook his head, managing to look a little chagrined.
“No,” he said, “That’s what a good liar likes to do, there’s a difference.”
Mary-Anne studied Lucas for a few minutes and then nodded.
“Continue,” she said, “What is it that a good liar does.”
“He makes people examine the truth,” he said, “He makes them question what it is that they know. There are two outcomes for people dealing with liars.”
He paused and Mary-Anne nodded, motioning for him to continue.
“First, they believe the liar and are hoodwinked; that chaos and confusion the liar desires so very much.
“Second, they don’t believe the liar. They question the liar. And in doing so are forced to look at what it is that they believe in, study what it is that it means to them. In being confronted with falsity, they must come to understand the truth.”
Mary-Anne nodded slowly.
“I can accept that,” she said, “But of course you have your zealots.”
Lucas laughed and slapped the bar.
“I was talking about sane people,” he said, “Not idiots.”
Mary-Anne nodded, a smile on her face. Lucas drained the last of the drink in his cup and slammed the glass on the counter.
“Well,” he said, “That is enough for me. I will be leaving now.”
Mary-Anne looked at the empty wine glass in her hand and nodded, setting the glass on the counter.
“I believe it is time for me to return as well,” she said, “It has been a rare pleasure Lucas.”
“Walk you out the door?” he asked.
“Through the door and no further,” she said, “I really must return.”
“I understand,” Lucas said, a slightly disappointed look on his face, “Responsibilities and all that.”
“Yes,” Mary-Anne said, “And all that.”
With that they walked out the door. When they exited they both shifted, touching that otherness that made them more than Lucas and Mary-Anne.
Loki turned and bowed to Ma’at.
“It has been a pleasure madam,” he said, bowing low, “If you ever make it up north, be sure to look me up.”
Ma’at shook her head, the Feather of Truth she wore in her headband waving a little.
“I do not believe that will be happening, Norse god,” she said, “We are very different people.”
“Differences are what makes the world go round, Egyptian goddess,” Loki returned, “Until we meet again.”
Steve threw the bottle against the wall. The empty bottle hit the wall and burst, shattering into hundreds of smaller pieces. Steve watched it shatter in fascination, and then chuckled, shaking his head and turning around.
“What’s so funny?” Emily asked.
“Life,” he answered, “You know, it’s a little like a glass beer bottle.”
Emily narrowed her eyes at him quizzically.
“What exactly do you mean?” she asked.
Steve walked over to the beer and grabbed another bottle. He turned towards her and displayed the bottle prominently.
“See,” he said, “Life starts out here, full of promise, full of tasty possibilities.”
He popped the top and took a swig.
“And then you start living it,” he said, “And it’s wonderful.”
Emily nodded, tracking the conversation but a little worried at her friend’s state of being. Steve started drinking the beer again, tipping the bottle up a little further this time. After a few seconds he brought it back down and grinned at her.
“Then you start to get into it,” he said, “You start to really enjoy it, and it’s still fantastic.”
He started drinking the beer again, not stopping until it was finished.
“Then,” he said, somberly this time, “Then it’s empty. You finished it. It’s done. And it’s a disappointment.”
He turned and threw the new beer bottle at the wall, shattering it against the wall.
“Then it hits a wall and shatters into a thousand different pieces.”
He sighed and stared at the wall. Emily grabbed another beer and walked over to Steve. She popped the top and handed it to him.
“Yeah,” she said, “But you can always get more beer. And if you can’t, then someone else can help you.”
Steve looked at her and put his arm around her shoulder, grabbing the beer. He nodded, looking contemplative.
“I guess you’re right,” he said, “There’s always more beer.”
“We have a brigand following us, my Lord,” the captain of Steven Jularn’s guards told him, “If we were to go through this alley here, we should be able to deal with him.”
Steven had been dealing with brigands his whole life, just one of the issues with being a son of the Jularn Family’s Patriarch. Even a small, mercantile family was sure to draw the attention of those looking to make some fast coin. There also always house struggles to consider, Jularn swore allegiance to the Trashail Family, which meant the Melkors and the Kilorms would always be looking to undermine them. Which is why Steven never went anywhere without a small retinue of guards.
The turned quickly down the alley, the Kilorm frowned upon open killing on the streets of Stephnos; they frowned on all killing within the walls of Stephnos, but could never keep a watch on all the things that happened in dark alleys.
As the party reached halfway through the alley, half dozen archers popped out of windows, picking off the guards. The captain died with an arrow shaft in his neck, gurgling his apologies to Steven as the blood gushed out of the wound.
Steven drew his sword and looked up and around him. The archers had not replaced the arrows in their bow. The man in the black cloak that had been following Steven’s party was approaching. He threw off the cloak and made his identity known; it was Michael Barantz, the eldest son of the Barantz Family’s Patriarch, another minor mercantile house, who also swore allegiance to the Trashail Family.
“What is this about Barantz?” Steven asked Michael as he approached, drawing his sword.
“You know full well what this is about,” Michael said, “This is about what your family did to my sister.”
Steven drew his sword to defend himself, confusion on his face.
“I do not know what you mean,” Steven said, as Michael approached, “Did to your sister?”
Michael didn’t offer any explanation, just attacked. The two traded blows and it quickly became apparent that Michael was the better fighter of the two. His anger also made him underhanded, as Steven blocked one of Michael’s blows; Michael slid a dagger in his chest. He pulled it out quickly, cleaned it off, and spat on Steven as he died. Steven died not knowing why.
Masks. They’re all wearing masks, just not able to tell. Robert could tell. Robert could always tell. The practiced expressions, the blanks stares, eyes that never really moved; Robert could always notice the masks. He wore one himself, but at least he was honest with himself, he knew that he did it. Other people, other people didn’t seem to understand that they had masks on. Couldn’t see the falsity on their own faces.
He walked down the street, working hard to avoid running into other people. It was hard, but he tried. Every once and a while he would bump into someone. More often than not they kept their mask forward, as practiced at ignoring the world around them that they were, but every once and a while they would turn, and Robert would have to face the mask. He feared the latter far more than the former.
His head was bowed and his hands were in his pocket. He slowly and deliberately kept walking, trying hard to make it to his destination without incident. He felt the mask pressed against his face, it felt suffocating, restricting, demanding, but the world around him demanded that he keep it on. God forbid an act of honest emotion or a display of individual expression should ever be displayed.
He reached the square when he heard it, the giggling. He looked up and saw her for the first time. She wore a calf length dress, a pair of stiletto boots, had long, blonde hair, and no mask. She was the most beautiful thing that Robert had ever seen. She was dancing around the square, her mask in her hand, and she was taunting the other people with her open expressions.
Everyone else was either ignoring her or showing the only emotion their masks would ever let them, irritation. They shuffled on and turned their backs on her display, but Robert could not tear himself away. Eventually she noticed him, standing still, watching her. She grinned and started walking towards him.
She reached up and stroked his mask for a few seconds, pulling her hand away. She cocked her head at him, the open curiousness on her face refreshing. He reached up to the seams of the mask, feeling where he could pull it away from his face. A smile flashed across her face, how long had it been since he’d seen an honest smile, and she nodded excitedly. Something took hold of him then and he quickly ripped the mask off, feeling free and naked, all at once. It was exhilarating, it was scary, and it was the most wonderful and honest feeling that Robert had ever felt.
He held the mask in his hand, a smile on his face, looking around him. The people were still much the same, hiding behind their masks, and for once in his life Robert didn’t fear them, no, if anything he was sorry for them. He turned and looked at the woman, who was now beaming at him, the smile on her face the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
She held out her hand and Robert took it. She turned and started quickly walking away, Robert in tow, masks in their hands and not on their faces, ready to face the world as it should be, in truth.
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