I slowly returned to my seat as he made his way through his bout of coughing. Ilythia took note of this and returned to her seat as well. Whether it was out of simple mimicry or something else I didn't know. We both watched him as the coughing subsided and Wind slowly rubbed his back with a wide palm. Ilythia's eyes were wide and uncomprehending and I thought of how I would have reacted had I shared her position.

Before too long he returned to his normal self. He cracked a couple of jokes about how he wasn't used to drinking things that didn't burn as they went down. It was in poor taste, but everyone laughed regardless.

When Wind was satisfied Aeolus wouldn't relapse into another fit he allowed a card game to start. I found myself very distracted at the sounds that apparently only I had managed to detect. But I didn't dare mention it, especially in the presence of Wind. I wondered at how much I had dismissed her influence on the physical world and whether or not she had done something vicariously through the drunk that now rotted in the town's jail.

The metallic rasp that had escaped Aeolus' mouth as he hacked and gagged and the mysterious infection that coursed through his veins seemed oddly connected and I grew suspicious that he had been poisoned or otherwise infected with some strange agent.

I wondered if there was something more to the man. I had thought him a hapless bystander drawn into a conflict far beyond his wildest imagination. But from what I knew of Altima and her dark magic, nothing about her was random or done on a whim. Every action she had performed to date had an explicit function in some grand plan that I was only a squeaky cog inside.

Of course my wandering mind only served to worsen my already amateur card playing skills. Ilythia too performed exceptionally poorly. Whether it was because her own mind was occupied in an unconscious battle with Altima or she was simply distracted by some unknown thought process eluded me.

The card game quickly evolved into a contest between the boys of whose wits were the sharpest. Wind seemed to get the upper hand more often than not, but Aeolus surprisingly held his own. Things were at a head when Aeolus unwittingly yawned. This signaled the end of the game and despite his protests, Wind shut everything down. Ilythia and I gratefully accepted his verdict with silence.

I said my farewells, kissed Aeolus softly on his forehead and escaped into the cool spring air. As I left he lapsed into another coughing fit, but I didn't care to hear the sickening but subtle rasp that he had taken on. I quickly departed, trying to focus more on the sound of my shoes on the concrete floor than whatever terrible thing was growing inside of him.

I was glad to have escaped the place. Oddly enough, I didn't feel guilty.

My route home was long and meandering. I was happy to be by myself and not have to deal with the social minutia that came with her madness. I forced myself to ignore the thoughts that swam in the back of my mind relating to Aeolus, the boys and the poor girl I had just deliberately infected. Infected, perhaps like Aeolus had been by the stranger in the bar. I shied away from the obvious metaphors and the train wreck that awaited my logic.

The boys were already asleep when I arrived home from my visit. Hanz was resting in his favorite over stuffed arm chair with a good old science fiction book open on his chest. Gerald was lost in a tangle of bedsheets and blankets. I undressed and climbed into the bed, trying not to wake anyone. Gerald stirred slightly, but smiled and slipped an arm over me.

I enjoyed his warmth and soon unconsciousness took me.

The next morning I showered and applied my make up. I wore my hair up in a loose bun, Gerald often told me how sexy it looked, so I made sure to only leave a couple of carefully sculpted strands to draw attention to the bare skin. The boys had left earlier in the morning for locations unknown. I assumed the library, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

I dressed conservatively, but added feminine flare with a couple of unfastened buttons and a splash of perfume. When I was satisfied I abandoned the tiny dorm and my morning lecture. I was on a mission.

As I walked down the cobbled road toward the town's tiny prison I thought of how different this new Wendy was. Altima's madness had turned inward and caused an already studious reclusive into a borderline antisocial hermit and unwitting murderer. Gerald, a life long atheist heterosexual was flirting with theism and now had eyes that wandered toward the rears of his male classmates.

I was often the social outcast, the quiet bookish girl who never quite managed to fit in. Always the not so stunning best friend dragged along to parties. But I had undergone a transformation. I didn't know what I had become. I tried to grope around in my mind for a couple of words. Seductress didn't quite fit. Neither did authoritarian. But those were as good as any.

As I entered the village center, squaring my shoulders I shuddered to think of what Ilythia would become. Moreover, how would the strange beast which fed on her change?

I strolled into the prison like a constable and approached the clerk. He was a tired looking gentleman with a world weary expression smeared across his weathered face. Officer Gables or something, pleased to meet you.

I smiled and refused to play to the stereotype portrayed in the nickelodeons, the faux flirty secretary type with exaggerated legs and enormous breasts. As I spoke to the clerk, providing a fictitious name I trawled the mind ether that existed between us. What little of his thoughts that I managed to glean were gray and boring. The cuffs matched the collar.

It didn't take much to convince him that I was there to see my boyfriend, who had been arresting for a "bar brawl with a soldier." I thought it best not to remind him about the charges of assault with a deadly weapon.

"Ah yes, Mitchel's lady." He said with a sly grin. "He's been talking about you."

He stared at me hungrily for a couple of moments before leading me downstairs, into the cell block. I was left wondering what exactly was being said about me. A burly female guard below took my purse and patted me down. Then she repeated the process.

"For good measure." She had croaked with a voice that sounded like she enjoyed too many fine cigars. The clerk stared at the both of us with a sly half-smile. If I hadn't known better I would have thought they too were slaves of Altima. But no, as I groped in the ether I didn't find her maddening clockwork heart or her predatory glare. I just found two incredibly vile human minds thinking things that left me feeling filthy and violated.

Go figure.

I was shown to a metal folding chair in front of Mitchel's cell. I was told by the burly female guard that they'd be right outside. If I needed anything from her. I smiled politely.

He was sitting on one of the two cots the cell offered. The remaining one was bare. He was a gaunt looking man who tried to clasp his hands together despite the fact that one arm had been ruined by Aeolus.

"So, you're here." Mitchel said solemnly, looking at the floor.

"You know who I am, then. Please to meet you, Mitch. Can I call you that?"

"Mitchel is my last name. You're not a cop. You don't get to use my last name."

I hadn't known. I swallowed hard and sat up a little straighter.

"Your first name?"

"Shepherd. Some people call me Shepp. If it makes you more comfortable you can too, I guess." He looked up for a brief moment. His eyes were puffy and blood shot. He had either been crying or sleeping poorly. Considering his tough guy demeanor I assumed the ladder.

"Okay. Shepp it is. Please to meet you. Sorry it had to be under these circumstances." I offered a smile. He refused to take it and instead opted to itch his armpit.

"Pleasure, dear. I assume you're not here to spring me. Are you?"

"No. I'm afraid not."

There was a couple of heart beats where he drilled his icy blue eyes into mine. I stared back at him, solid as a rock. But instead I was jerking like a nervous bird.

"I need to know why she picked you."

Shepp laughed. "Picked me? Oh my, sweet heart. You really can't be that ignorant. She didn't pick me. I picked her."

"I don't understand."

"Let me guess, Wendy." He spat my name out like it was bad milk. "You're not quite what you seem, are you? You have a little creature living in the back of your head? Some thing that fancies calling herself Altima. Something that has a hard on for black leather, kinky sex and Progenitors."

"Not exactly, but you have the jist of it."

He narrowed his eyes and stood up, walking toward the cell bars. Shepp looked at me differently than anyone had prior. There was no lust or admiration. There wasn't pity or loathing. His gaze seemed to pierce right through me. It was if I was nothing to him.

He told me that he was a physician and he had met Altima on a stormy night in the southern seas. He had been on a medical research team assigned to a desolate little stretch of rock which housed a military research outpost.

I asked what they researched. He stared at me with a ghostly slack face that had seen too much to tell.

"The plague, of course. Altima's plague."

Shepp told me about how he had been responsible for rather menial tasks, such as making sure the engineers that toiled beneath the barren soil were eating properly and not blinding themselves with home made moonshine. Royal Engineers, he said, were especially adept at making anything make any kind of liquor. Apple Cider from a gunblade? Triple distilled vodka out of a tin can and a toothbrush? You got it, chief.

His story was long and disturbing, especially when he elaborated on the "test" subjects the emperor had deemed the islands newest natives. Little more than the walking dead, they had been herded and corralled on the surface like cattle. That was where they had eventually become what was literally the walking dead.

Partly mechanized by a dark magic that was woven into their flesh those afflicted with the plague had become terrible, mindless things.

"Of course their study wasn't my specialty. I was strictly assigned to the living. Ever see a Royal Engineer scared, Wendy?"

"No, I can't say that I've ever seen one at all."

He muttered something about backwaters.

"Royal Engineers, they're a curious lot. These are guys and gals are bright. Not just smart, but the best minds Isyr has to offer. You take this group of young, smart, affluent individuals and you seep them in a patriotic fervor. And you run them through boot camp four or five times.

"They're not the type to be scared of anything. They're either too jacked or too smart for their own good. But I'll tell you, they were terrified. Every single one of them. Even with a quarter mile of rock between them and the installations on the surface, those guys lost sleep. My biggest prescribed drugs were sleeping pills. Lots of them. Enough to take care of rhinos. Most of them complained about nightmares. Some went mad and needed to be shipped out."

"Why were engineers stationed on the island?"

"It was a Progenitor Heritage Site. They were digging up all sorts of things in those days. Mostly bricka-brak. But Progenitors aren't exactly known for their kind attitude to posterity. A lot of it was booby trapped. You needed some pretty smart folks down there when you're sitting on a nuclear landmine."

He paused and messaged his neck with his good hand. Shepp's eyes took on a wistful appearance.

"Shepp, you said you picked her."

Her offered me a smile. His teeth were tiny and square.

"When they needed to go to sleep or stay awake they came to me. I was a little lax in protocol. They liked that. Mental illness is a big taboo in the army. No one wants to admit they're weak, you know? I found they they were all looking for an escape from something."

"What was it?"

"A woman. They all dreamt about a woman. Sometimes she'd be a manipulative former girlfriend. Sometimes they'd be an over bearing mother. Or a friend that had died in combat. But man and woman alike, they all had nightmares about her. They all tried to escape in their own ways. Some self medicated themselves into dreamless stupor. Some tried to avoid sleep altogether."

"And you?"

He stood before me and placed his hands on the bars of his cell.

"I chose not to medicate myself. Probably the only damn one on the island. I knew what I was getting into. I picked her."


He shrugged and looked away. I knew there was more to it than that. Maybe he had wanted to revisit a woman lost in his life, if only in dream. Maybe he just was mentally ill and lacked the emotion of fear.

"Shepp, you poisoned Aeolus. Didn't you? When you stabbed him." I asked, already knowing the answer.

He didn't reply, but he instead stared through me.

"I'm going to die here. Aren't I. In this cell." Shepp said to himself as his knuckles whitened.

"Shepp. What did you poison Aeolus with?"

He locked eyes with mine for a brief moment and I thought he was going to spill the beans. But instead he smiled and made for his cot. He eased himself down and looked at the ceiling.

"My dear, you should probably leave this terrible place."


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