Chapter 17 — Carl
"We've got no leads beyond two kids we can't find, and no evidence to speak of anywhere. What are we supposed to do?"
"We go back to work. Hope for a break somewhere, or to find them. We'll go back to their houses every day if we have to."
"That shit's gonna get exhausting."
"It's the job. Do you have anything better to do?"
"Good. Now what's for dinner? It's late."
"Wait a sec."
"It's your turn to pick, isn't it?"
"Do you see me on the phone? Shut up... Holy shit."
This is the story of the last day of my life.
Yeah, it sounds melodramatic, but it’s true enough. I was in mental freefall through memories while I went through the motions of preparing myself for my final day on this planet. The sun was already dropping on the horizon as I worked, casting ever-longer shadows through the windows. I didn’t dare turn on a single light, even as I carefully picked up the shattered glass on the floor near the rear window I’d broken. I had to get it all before I lost the light entirely. It wouldn’t be good for my plans to get screwed up by something as simple as a cut to the foot by a wayward shard.
I’d tried to get Matt on board. I even went out of my way, wasting precious time to visit him at work, and he rejected me out of hand. I was disappointed, but I knew Matt too well to resent him. He needed more evidence before he’d commit to the plan. I could accept that. I’d bring him the proof tonight, and I’d bring him our way out. I wasn’t going to hold a grudge. Matt could come back with me.
Would Jen, though?
That thought really terrified me. I had to convince myself by the hour that Jen couldn’t possibly turn me down. I couldn’t bear to live in a world apart from her. Even if she rejected me, even if we never saw each other again, I’d just be happy knowing she’d come home. I could accept anything as long as she was back where she was meant to be.
Was that too presumptuous? For me to claim I knew where Jen belonged, I felt like I was also claiming I knew her better than she knew herself. It felt awkward. I didn’t know what to make of it. My gut feeling—overwhelmingly so, like a churning cauldron in my stomach—insisted that Jen must return to Cyraveil. I always trusted my instincts, no matter my doubts. They’d kept me alive through countless dangers and trials. This would be no different.
I continued to go over every inch of the small condominium. It was surrounded by thick greenery, which I assumed was maintained by a gardener based on how well kept it was. The interior of the place wasn’t nearly as neat and orderly. The garden also helped to muffle and shade the house from the outside world, in a perfect insulating effect. It almost felt like its own little private island, completely detached from the outside world once the doors were firmly shut.
I glanced at the clock. Time was running out. Had I set up the room? Was the door properly locked? Yes. Everything was ready.
After I got separated from Matt and Blake, and long before I met Reynir, I’d joined—and subsequently clawed my way to the top of—a small guild of thieves and mercenaries. We operated on a strict code of rules that kept us out of the public eye whenever the city guard came knocking. There were no signatures, no calling cards. Violence was avoided at all costs. We were as ghosts, taking only what we’d been hired for, and vanishing without a trace.
By keeping to the code for years, we amassed so much wealth that we became richer than the nominal lords of the city. With my newfound capital, I was actually able to apply some of my knowledge from Earth, working the market to manipulate traders and merchants little by little, until soon I had the entire economy dancing on my strings. My guildmates watched in awe as our investments doubled, then tripled. We ended up buying out the whole city, district by district, until we finally declared ourselves openly as the Lords of Candir.
This drew Reynir Cellman’s attention, of course, and his soldiers. Having your second largest city bought out from under your lackey’s thumb would be pretty shocking to most Emperors. I was fully prepared for him to send out his personal guard to kill the lot of us, but he surprised me that day. He came out to meet us himself, with only a single guard at his side, and made me an offer.
The rest is history. My history, as soon as I finished up here.
Was the line in place? Crudely, and without much subtlety, but I wasn’t exactly expecting resistance. Surprise was key. Surprise, and application of technology.
My mentor would have looked down on this. Old Fredrik always preferred using as few tools as necessary. If you relied solely on your own physical abilities and knew them perfectly, there were far less possible points of failure. How could you ever know the true capabilities of a sword, or a crossbow trap—tools that would weaken over time and with repeated use? He preferred the body as the ultimate tool, flexible enough for almost any situation. Fredrik could get in and out of any target with just a single lockpick and the clothes on his back, no matter how many people he might be forced to subdue inside.
I admired that philosophy, but I had to apologize to him in spirit this time. I didn’t have the physical ability anymore, nor even the muscle memory or training for what I needed to get done. I had to make up for it with my knowledge and my access to machinery he couldn’t even have dreamed of. Fredrik didn’t even believe in magic, not until I’d returned with Jen. He’d always assumed the rumors from the frontlines were straight bullshit.
I swear, his moustache practically fell off when he saw Jen lighting candles with a snap of her fingers, or lazily floating food across the table to herself.
I grinned at the memory. I looked forward to seeing the old fart again, and hearing his endless grumblings on the state of affairs in the Empire—err, the Kingdom, or maybe it was the Republic now. We hadn’t really settled yet. I wondered how Fredrik was getting on though, after the Cellmans were deposed. We hadn’t had the chance to meet up after I sent my guild out of the city.
Fredrik’s little cottage on the outskirts of Candir. That was the very first place I was going to visit when I returned. I’d bring him as much sylvandine as I could carry, every single drop I found along the way.
The sun had set completely by now. I was just inside the front door, sitting in a little side closet. I wasn’t sure when I needed to be ready, but I’d rested as much as I could during the afternoon. Now I was stuck waiting, but I could handle it. I’d learned patience.
I spun a pen idly in my hand, flipping it around my thumb in neat quick circles. It was nice to see I hadn’t lost all my dexterity. I wish still had the strength and endurance I’d built up over the years. I’d worked hard for it, and Earth had taken it all away again.
This was why I was so furious at Matt, at his blasé attitude to the possibility of return. We’d earned our lives there, through work, blood and sacrifice. Didn’t we deserve to keep them? Or at least be offered the damn choice?
More importantly, who wouldn’t want to live in a world with magic? Magic, Matt. Earth felt so boring and empty by comparison. Hell, we still hadn’t even found a single piece of evidence of other sentient life anywhere in the known universe. It was just so limited and painful and small. Meanwhile, a beautiful world full of opportunity and mystery and wonder waited for us, a step away if only we could find the door.
I ranted at him in my head, over and over, the words I wished I could have said but never worked up the courage to voice. I didn’t want to just persuade Matt, I wanted him to see the merits for himself. I wanted him to agree with me. I wanted us on the same page, without having to drag him there. If I had to talk him into it, I could never truly believe it was his honest desire, and without that, I’d always feel a twinge of guilt about possibly tearing him away from the life he truly wanted.
I didn’t want that. If Matt really wanted to stay, it wasn’t my place to interfere.
At the same time, it certainly wasn’t his to prevent my own crossing of the dimensional line once again. Matt had to make a choice. I didn’t want to, but I sure as hell would force him to choose if it came down to sides.
Jen and I could return without him, if we had to.
I heard a car door slam. I tensed, as I had for every other car door. I couldn’t afford to relax for a single one. Only one opportunity, I reminded myself. Don’t miss it.
Footsteps. Those were footsteps, weren’t they?
Was I really this bad at recognizing footsteps now?
My heart was racing. Somehow, I knew this was the moment. I felt my adrenaline surge. My vision pulsed with the blood pounding through my skull. I felt every muscle in my body loaded with anticipation, waiting to strike. I was a coiled spring held tight against the floor, a snake about to hurl itself at its prey.
The door handle twisted. The room was pitch black, the sun completely gone, and the moon along with it. He hadn’t noticed the street light behind him covered up in black tape.
There was no light to help him.
The door swung open, and Daniel Whitman stepped inside.
I tensed up. Every millisecond suddenly felt like hours.
He took another step forward. In the near-total darkness, his eyes hadn’t yet adjusted, while mine were as good as could be. He didn’t expect anything. He walked forward, to where he knew the light switch would be. Not a care in the world. Just an ordinary night for him.
His foot caught the taut fishing wire.
I watched him fall, and I made my move. His hands obeyed his instincts and flew forward to catch himself, and I struck. I took out the object I’d been saving for this very moment.
The buttons squeezed in and the stun-gun crackled to life. In an instant, the contacts found Whitman’s falling neck.
His body spasmed. It was mesmerizing to watch as he slumped to the floor and began twitching. This sort of power, in my hands at the touch of a button, was beyond anything short of magic I could ever accomplish, even in Cyraveil. I held it on him as long as I could while he fell, trying to ensure he was completely incapacitated. Seconds later, he was groaning on the floor, still twitching uncontrollably.
Might not be as clean as you like, Fredrik, but you can’t deny it’s effective.
I dragged Whitman through to the back room, which he happened to have already lined with blackout curtains. A sort of low-budget home theater setup. I’d made a few modifications to block out sound as well, and rearranged the furniture a bit. I hoisted his limp body onto the chair, and quickly wrapped his wrists and ankles with plastic zip-ties.
This was all precautionary, of course. I didn’t actually intend to harm him. Well, nothing more than the stun-gun, but as I understood it, the voltage was low enough that there shouldn’t have been any permanent damage. Barring a medical condition I couldn’t know about, he’d be just fine. I knew everything I possibly could about Daniel Whitman. I was confident he’d end the night in perfect health, except for the scrape he’d gotten from the floor as I dragged him in.
Now, I just needed to wait for him to recover.
He’d know what I needed to do. He’d practically confessed to it. Out of all the people on the internet, a man who happened to live close enough that I could reach him by bus had shown some actual knowledge of my world. Of Cyraveil. But through whatever reluctance or paranoia, he’d decided he didn’t trust me. He wouldn’t reveal the details I knew he must be concealing.
Whitman had to talk.
Is this wrong? A voice had popped up in the back of my mind. I’d forced my way into his home. I’d assaulted him. I’d crossed a line here, and it was one I couldn’t easily walk back from, if I didn’t get the information I needed tonight.
The thought only redoubled my determination. I had to get results. There was no turning back.
I’d expected it to take Whitman ten minutes or so to recover, but he was still out of it after twenty. Was his constitution really that weak? Or maybe I’d misjudged the strength of the shock? I was beginning to worry I might have caused some permanent damage.
To my relief, he started to move more deliberately. He was getting control of his body again. Time to start the real work.
“Daniel Whitman.” I stood behind him, while his chair faced the television, tuned to a dead channel. The dancing snow of signal noise on the screen played out on the walls as a flickering light show around us. It was all a show, all an act, but one I could play well.
Whitman tried to twist his head around to spot me, but he couldn’t quite turn far enough.
“The fuck is going on?” His voice was surprisingly low pitched. A deep baritone that might have worked wonders on a radio show or a podcast.
I wanted to intimidate him. I wanted to get the information I’d come for, and nothing more. I wasn’t trying to make an ally, I wasn’t trying to create a new resource or contact. Under normal circumstances, this was usually among my very last options, but in this case, I didn’t much care what happened to Whitman in the end.
“You live alone. Probably a poor choice.”
“Uhh, okay?” He continued to struggle in his chair. I stayed calm behind him. I was confident in the restraints, at least for the length of time I needed. He wasn’t going anywhere soon.
“It’s time for you to start talking, Daniel.”
“About what?” He sounded less confident now. Good. He was wearing down.
“You’ve been emailing with someone lately.”
“I email a lot of people. That supposed to mean something?”
“About a certain fantasy world named Cyraveil.”
Whitman stopped struggling. “Wait, you’re that guy?”
“Yes. So start talking.”
“Dude, what the fuck is this? Some kind of hardcore RP shit?”
“You think this is roleplaying?” I snapped. I felt my temper flare. My chest got hot, my face burned. I didn’t move on him yet, but I thought about it.
“Wait wait wait. Don’t tell me you actually believed all that?” Whitman said, his voice uneasy. “Okay, kid, listen. None of that was real, all right? I was just messing with you. Ha ha, good times. Now, untie me, okay?”
“Tol deka danedek so vei!” I roared. I’m sure I got the pronunciation a bit wrong, but it wasn’t like Jen was around to correct me.
“Don’t you fucking lie to me.” I punched him in the back of the head. Not too hard, but enough to cause some pain.
“All right, kid,” Whitman snarled, recovering faster than I expected. “Soon as I get out of this, you’re in a world of pain.”
“Whatever you say. Now, talk to me about Cyraveil.”
“It doesn’t exist, you idiot.” His head twisted back and forth, but he still couldn’t turn far enough to see me.
He was lying. He had to be lying. My mind would accept any other conclusion.
We could be here a while.
It went on for an hour at least. I would ask him to elaborate on some part of Cyraveil, reveal more of his knowledge. He’d claim ignorance, or spit some insult, or after a while, he just stayed silent. I didn’t threaten him physically, or attack him again after the first strike. I hadn’t intended that. I wished I hadn’t escalated so quickly. I might have gotten what I needed much faster, with much more cooperation, if I hadn’t been so reckless.
I knew if I could just outlast his patience, I would win out. I wouldn’t allow Whitman any sleep, or any respite whatsoever from the questioning. I’d done this before, more than once. Sooner or later, he’d have to give in and answer my questions, and I’d be on my way home.
“Did you ever come across any of Feindorf’s Tablets?”
“When you crossed, did you end up in Caladi or Laodrannen?”
“Crossed what, the Willamette?”
“Did you ever meet up with any Sylves? Maybe get invited to their forests?”
“Depends, were they cute?”
It continued like this, flippant responses that irritated me, but didn’t set me off. I had interrogated men before, and I had the patience necessary for this kind of work. Men always broke, given enough time. Some men required far more work than others, but it always came down to finding the one thing they couldn’t live without. Could be physical, could be emotional, but every man without exception had a weakness. I just had to uncover it, through sheer force of will.
Jen and Matt could never know, but I’d engaged in some less… noble tactics while we were campaigning, both on Reynir’s side and on theirs. It was a fucking war, okay? For all Matt’s sentimentality and righteousness, he was a fool when it came to gathering intelligence. Sure, he might win the hearts and minds of the people as we “liberated” villages, but it was thanks to my men and my network that we weren’t ambushed in the ass at every turn. Reynir and I played the same games. Hell, he basically taught me how to wage war. Fight smarter, not harder; that was my shamelessly stolen catchphrase.
Smarter was the key, and getting intelligence came down to two simple steps: Find the person who knows what you need to know, and get them to tell you. Could be anyone, and here’s where most people screw up: it could be absolutely anyone. Nobody’s out of bounds. The hooker hanging out by the tavern, the kid playing on the street corner, the old hag who rarely leaves her front porch. Any of them could be valuable, and I couldn’t afford to have reservations about who we picked up and… questioned.
I wasn’t needlessly cruel. Most of them got off pretty light, unless I had reason to suspect they knew more than they were letting on. Even the ones we had to slap around a bit were returned to their lives as if nothing happened. No, it was the small few, the true loyalists to the Cellmans near the end of the campaign, who brought out the worst in me.
I’m not proud of it, but it got results. It probably shortened the war by weeks, if not months. It was worth it. I saved lives, sent men home to their wives and families sooner, prevented pain and tragedy. I don’t regret what I had to do. One of those interrogations led me to Jen, deep in the Pit at Vennenport. I’d rescued her against all odds, on a longshot hunch and the mumbled confession of a man who’d just lost every single one of his teeth.
I’d never regret that man’s death. I couldn’t forgive myself for not moving on him sooner.
I was beginning to get impatient with Whitman, even as I continued to ask him question after question about Cyraveil.
“What’s the best place to get sylvandine in the Saenvalands?”
“Is that a Sylf thing?”
Yes! I’d caught him in a lie. “You know about Sylves. You’ve been lying this whole time.”
“Man, you mentioned them earlier!” he protested.
“Wrong!” I cried. I pulled out my phone, shoving it eagerly in front of his eyes. “Not once.” I scrolled through every message we’d sent, one by one. “I’ve never used Sylf, not one time. I only called them elves. Where did you hear that term?”
“You said it yourself!” Whitman shouted. “Like an hour ago!”
“Stop lying to me, Daniel.” I walked around and crouched down in front of him. Some vulnerability now, since I’d caught him in a lie. I would play off this anxiety, this fear, and offer him a way out. A friendly gesture. “Just get it over with. Tell me what I need to know.”
“Holy shit, you’re young.” I suddenly realized I hadn’t actually shown myself until now. Was that my intention? Did I just make a mistake?
No, of course not. I was an expert at this. I didn’t make mistakes.
“I can be a friend, Daniel. You remember Cyraveil. You remember what sort of place it is. Tell me you wouldn’t want to go back there.”
“You’re fucking insane.” Daniel resumed trying to rock his chair back and forth, but it was surprisingly sturdy, and I’d reinforced the sides a bit too. He didn’t move more than an inch.
“Once you tell me, I disappear, and your life goes back to whatever you want it to be. This doesn’t have to be hard.”
“I told you already, I made all that shit up. I was bored, and it was better than just trolling some random image board.” One particularly hard shove, and he began to tilt off to one side. I reached out and caught him, righting him before the chair started to tip over completely.
He couldn’t be lying. I needed the truth. I needed my way back.
“You weren’t lying. Tell me how to go back.”
“I don’t fucking know!”
I slapped him across the face. Hard.
“I don’t know!” he cried. Tears were forming in his eyes. I felt awful, sick to my core. I didn’t want this, any of it, but I’d burned every bridge. I knew I couldn’t continue on living like this. I couldn’t face my parents again, I couldn’t face my friends. I certainly couldn’t face Jen again. Not without a way back. I had to keep going.
My foot slammed into his chest. The chair tilted over backward. With a sickening thud, his head smacked into the floor. My heart was racing.
Instantly, I was at his side, checking for bleeding. Thankfully, my hand came back dry. What was I thinking? Why did I actually attack him? He groaned underneath me, his feet still tied to the legs of the chair.
“Please, let me go,” he moaned. “I won’t tell anyone. Promise.”
I couldn’t believe that. He’d seen my face. There was no reason for him not to tell the police, tell anyone who I was and what I’d done. They’d lock me up. They’d put me in a mental ward. I had to leave this world, tonight.
“You know what I want,” I said slowly. I hated myself.
I hated everything about this.
It had to be done.
“I don’t know what you want. I’m sorry. Fuck.” He’d tried to reach up to cradle his own skull, no doubt throbbing in pain, and the plastic cuffs scraped hard against his wrist.
“Just tell me how to go back.”
“So go back, you fucking psycho!” he screamed at me. His eyes flew open wide. “Go back!”
“Tell me how!” I roared. “Quid pro fucking quo, Daniel!”
I was losing control. Worst of all, I could feel myself losing control. It was like I was watching myself on video, as another me took charge of my body. This new me stood up, and his foot dropped onto Whitman’s chest with a thud.
What if he really knows nothing? the old, reluctant me cried out.
He has to know! this new, vicious me snarled in response.
I watched as my body began to beat Daniel Whitman savagely, and I felt helpless to stop. He tried to roll away, but the restraints kept him anchored to the spot.
I saw blood. Why? Why couldn’t I stop?
A banging sound. Raised voices.
Was I imagining them? Whitman hadn’t yet answered me. I had to keep going.
Had to keep going.
Had to force him to answer me.
It was best for everyone. Once he told me the truth, I could return home, and be gone from this world. No more trouble to anyone. A quickly fading memory.
My foot swung for his face. He twisted away, trying to avoid the blow, which I’d telegraphed too much. It never landed.
I was tackled to the floor. A man in a plain suit, with a rough face and beady eyes.
I knew this man, didn’t I?
He was shouting something, but I couldn’t hear him. My mind was still transfixed by the sight of Daniel Whitman, battered and bruised, bleeding all over the floor. My eyes were pulled wide, as if a sheet of fog had suddenly lifted away. I saw him moaning, saw his beaten face and terrified expression.
As I was dragged to my feet, handcuffed and restrained, I remembered—I had mentioned Sylves to him. It sprung to my mind as I was manhandled out the front door. I’d screwed up. Whitman was just an innocent bystander, whom I’d brutally assaulted out of some insane fixation on an impossible quest. Blake would hate me if he saw what I’d become. What I’d just done.
“I’m sorry,” I cried out. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I needed Whitman to hear me. I wanted to give him something, anything to show I regretted what I’d done. That he hadn’t deserved it. What I’d done was unforgivable, and he’d paid the price.
I barely heard a single word from the uniformed officers.
The back of the cruiser was hard plastic, with a small space for my handcuffed wrists. They transported me through the dead of night, with the rain coming down hard and creating sheets of distorted light as we passed through the empty streets. I watched each flash of color as we rolled along, felt every bump in the road as shockwaves through my throbbing skull. My head was pounding, reliving every moment of what had just happened over and over again, searching desperately for answers on how I’d sunk so low.
I’d known it was coming all along, though. At some distant corner of my mind, I’d known I wasn’t long for this world one way or another. Either I’d manage to escape, or I’d burn out trying. I could never coexist with these people, knowing what I knew, seeing what I’d seen. In the last few days, at some point I’d just given up hope on ever living here again. I’d always assumed my life would end soon. I had just hoped it wouldn’t be like this.
Never like this.
We reached the station, and I was processed. My body felt numb to the touch. I could barely comprehend the situation unfolding around me, even as they tried to explain a half-dozen times. I think they assumed I was insane, the way they were handling me so gently. Maybe I was insane. I couldn’t exactly disagree. I was surrounded by tall, faceless shapes in vaguely defined uniforms, with deep booming voices that only allowed every third word or so to be understood. I had to string together sentences from the scant clues context could afford me.
I was taken to a smaller room, completely isolated, and given a cup of water. They left me alone. At first, I assumed they’d gone to fetch a parent or guardian, but then I remembered: I wasn’t a minor anymore. They could do whatever the hell they liked with me.
There was no doubt I was being watched. I tried to find the camera, but all I could see were thick stone walls, rising up as the first of no doubt endless cells I’d be thrown in. Ah, Reynir. I’ll be doing your family proud. I’d end up in a cell just like his great-grandfather—but unlike the Cellman patriarch, I doubted I’d be breaking out any time soon, much less conquering a whole kingdom as I went. Not much to conquer out here in the middle of suburbia, Oregon.
A man came back into the room, wearing a plain suit. Perhaps they were afraid to leave me alone for too long. I couldn’t blame them. He looked kind enough, but I was in no mood for games. I didn’t acknowledge him at all. My eyes were fixed on the upper corner of the room, unmoving. I had a vague sense that talking to the police would only make things worse for me in the long term. I didn’t see how much worse things could get, but for now at least, I was determined to remain silent.
I heard him droning on, but I stayed resolute. I wouldn’t be broken again. I’d hold out.
So, of course, he played a trump card.
“...recommend you be committed.”
How could he have known? My deepest fear, and he struck right at it, sending the whole of my being into cold shivers. I felt like my body had seized up just as the words, much less the terrifying images that accompanied them to my mind. I snapped back into focus, and looked him straight in the eye.
“Can I make a phone call?”
“Well, we’ve already attempted your father, and his listed legal counsel. Until we can make contact, unless you have another form of legal counsel—”
“Then I suggest you keep silent, kid.” He looked sympathetic. I didn’t need sympathy though, I needed my exit. I needed to make sure I did not end up in that hellish place.
I needed someone to vouch for me. Vouch for my story. Make me credible.
I needed someone nobody would ever doubt.
I’d get him here. I’d use this cop’s sympathy to my advantage. No matter what it took, he’d come and he’d find a way out of this mess. Like he always did.
Matt would know what to do.