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Birth, Breath, Life, Death
An Idolwood story
Start at the beginning of the Idolwood series
The Hanged Man watched the room, panting as the fire in his knees turned to sharp and stabbing waves of pain and numbness, shocked by the blood which trickled toward the drain beneath his chair.
His children dangled from every corner of the basement, armless and legless, nothing more than swaddled torsos topped with scarred heads and broken faces. Black and blue and white and grey, they hung from cotton clotheslines, blanketed in thick sheets of fleece and skin. Four guardians of his domain and witnesses to all which passed, eight eyes through which he could see at any time.
The covenant of three?the woman he had scorned, with her petty magic tricks and minor visions, obsessed by numbers and upset by signs of the power of death. She was small, and weak, all but invisible in the Hanged Man's eyes. The Strong Man, who was single but childless, powerful but solitary, no threat till now?now they had reined him in and trained him to the lash.
I should have done so, he thought. I should have taken him, long ago. He and I and Gamine. He would have known what to do. He would not have turned once bent to stronger wills.
The Traitor. In his own home, in his sanctum, his workshop. The Traitor, here, with blood in those once-dead eyes and sharpness in his tongue.
"You can't think for a minute he's going to walk out of this. Even if we just left, Alex, he'd bleed to death down here." Grey's voice was shaking. "Even if we just left and walked away. Think about that for a minute."
"Did." Alex nodded. "I... get it, Grey. I get that."
"So what's the big difference in giving him an actual taste of his own medicine?"
"You can't be serious." Edie stepped forward. "Grey, listen to me. If you kill him, then you're the one going to jail. You're a father. You have a child to support and protect."
"That's just why I want to see this... this bastard dead," Grey thrust a finger at the Hanged Man. "He thought he was killing my son! Didn't you? Didn't you, you sick son of a bitch?"
"No," the Hanged Man said, lowering his voice. "She brought this boy. I knew it wasn't one of yours. You didn't care much for this one, either? Did you?"
Grey's head reared back. "What did you say?"
"You didn't like this boy." The hoarseness of pain did nothing to lessen the rich baritone of the Hanged Man's voice. It remained clear, throatier than with Gamine, but thick with unspoken promises. "You thought he was a bad influence. You were right, and now he's gone. He is no threat to your boy or your home any longer."
"Quiet," said Alex under his breath. "You stay still."
For the first time, Grey looked close at the figure on the floor. He was grotesque, a sodden mass of pale flesh and fine hair, as though he were cocooned in gossamer spider webs from head to toe. The blood was clotting about his knees, deep crimson turning black from exposure to the damp air of the cellar. His eyes, though... they held something, despite the jaundiced whites, the heavy flesh sagging about their corners.
"Why'd you do this? Why me? Why us?"
"Grey." Edie took another step and placed a hand on his arm. "Don't listen to him. Don't let him get under you."
"Why us?" Grey repeated, and the Hanged Man cast his eyes toward the corner of his room, toward the black-faced doll hanging from the rafters.
"You don't know," he said. "You don't know what it is to create life. To bear something inside you, to open yourself up and take it in. You have no clue how to nurture and bear and waken it.
"My hands form their flesh, their organs, their bones, their eyes. My life wakes their soul?the true essence of life, not the poor green world bound to time and tide, not the weakness of water and soil. The endless renewal of life within. The blood, the seed, the tears. Endless and eternal, the fluid of the form."
Alex tightened his lips. "Not interested. I'll check the door." He moved to the stairs, ignoring Edie's glare. She tightened her grip on Grey's arm.
"Grey, listen to me. We need to call the police."
"Let him talk," said Grey. One corner of his mouth was stuck between his teeth, sucked inward as he listened to the Hanged Man's words.
"I. I alone create and raise and train these children. Do you understand?" The world was swimming before his eyes, Grey and Edie's forms listing to the side. He took a deep breath, raised his head again. "I am father and mother, staff and womb. I, alone."
Grey's hand formed a fist. "All of this ... you wanted to kill someone just because I'm raising a boy? That's all?"
"You are no family. You have nothing." His breath was coming in gasps now. "You are nothing but a Traitor. You are a false androgyne, seeking the sacred marriage... without knowledge. A Traitor and a Fool to my God and King, a lone child named for the sacrifice to the great nation of my own ..."
His voice trailed away as the great bullet-shaped head slumped against his chest, rising and falling with the effort of remaining alive.
"He's insane... broken." Grey's face turned hard. "You were right, Edie. You can't get involved in any of this magic without getting shattered."
Alex looked around the room at the top of the stairs. The door hung off its hinges, spots of his blood splattered against the hardwood floor and rag-weave rug. A mirror, askew from where his body had hit the wall, with hooks below it for keys or other items.
Having seen the basement, he couldn't help thinking what other use those hooks might have been put to, and he shuddered.
The number on the door read 18. The street outside was still quiet, no sign of alarm, no curious neighbors. Grey might have been right. There was something thick around the entire house, a heaviness that hung about it like the blankets around the basement fetishes.
He lifted his nose and sniffed at the air, tensing the muscles of his neck. It was still unclean, the lair of something venomous and unnatural. He closed his eyes and dropped to the floor, hands outstretched to catch himself in a push-up position. He could be quiet, here, but build that power once more?the power he'd felt outside, tracking the Hanged Man, seeing what his eyes could not.
One. Two. Three ... eighteen, nineteen, twenty.
Their doors were closed.
Isaac stood at the window, cell phone in his hand, watching the streets.
Scared but unhurt. No sign of the town car, no sign of the woman.
No strange fetishes, no dolls save Edie's.
The nearest station. The policeman with the thinning hair, the bad skin. Porter.
The blood on the floor and the rug. His blood.
No trace of Grey or Edie. Only him, his blood, in the house where two bodies would lay.
Three more guns in the bedroom closet. Ropes. Knives.
Alex opened his eyes, forehead damp with sweat than had little to do with his exertion.
"Listen to me, Grey." Edie's voice was soft. "You don't have to do this, any of it. Just call the police and you'll protect your son. You can defend your family the way you're meant to?like a normal father in a terrible place."
"Sure," said Grey. "Or I could finish the job right now, and walk away clear and clean."
"Grey, have you ever killed anyone? Have you ever killed anything? You're nothing like a murderer."
"I know how the police work, though." His voice was soft. "At least, I know how the law works, and I know what it's done. It took my house, my furniture. It takes half my goddamn paycheck, when I had a check to take. It hasn't done a thing for me, Edie; and it doesn't do a thing for anyone.
"How long do you think he'd spend in jail?"
"I... I don't know."
"They'd fix his knees and heal him, at my expense, with my taxes. They'd feed him and clothe him. Listen to him, Edie. Listen to him talk and tell me he couldn't sway some jury."
"It doesn't matter..."
"It's not your family, Edie. And if he gets out, who do you think he'd come for first? Me and Isaac, knowing I'll be watching for his release? Alex? Alex could pound him into the pavement. No, Edie, it'd be you. It'd be you, living alone, with no routine and nobody looking in on you. You'd be the very first he came after."
She pulled away from him, shaking her head. "I don't believe this. You're trying to scare me into letting you kill him?"
"I'm telling the truth."
"You... complete asshole, Grey. You want to kill him? You want his blood on your hands? What makes you think I wouldn't report you both to the police then? I swear to God, it's like I've been babysitting you for the last two weeks, and you really think you're in control here, don't you? Don't you? As if you're some kind of god-damned Clint Eastwood character."
The Hanged Man's eyes were slits. It was an effort not to smile, listening to the discord as he faked unconsciousness. The Covenant would not survive the night. He cast his mind upstairs, leaping from eye to eye until he came to the dolls of his bedroom.
The Strong Man was taking a bandana from the pocket of his workout pants, wrapping it tight around his right hand.
No fingerprints, that was the most important thing. His blood was in the foyer, and that was bad enough; but he hadn't touched a thing with his hands. So far, only the blood and the prints of his shoes gave any sign he'd been involved.
Alex opened the closet and looked at the guns, the floggers, the leather straps and the thin length of piano wire dangling from a clothes hook. They hung there, incongruous alongside shapeless cotton dresses, skinny jeans and tank tops that would have fit a child.
He took one of the guns and weighed it in his hand. He'd never held one, not a real gun. It was lighter than he'd expected.
The closet smelled of oil and jasmine, the perfume waking visions of the woman in his mind once more as he walked back to the basement steps.
"Problem," said Alex as he descended the stairs, holding the gun. "That woman."
"She's back?" Grey spun around, but Alex shook his head.
"No. She's gone. And you know he'll say she did it."
"Like he told us," nodded Edie, closing her eyes. "Oh, hell."
Grey's face twisted. "You see, Edie? I told you so."
"Yes, Grey. You're very smart. Now shut up for five seconds." She rubbed at her temples. "Alexei, how much of what's under that layer of blubber is muscle?"
"Him?" Alexei cast an eye over the Hanged Man. "Legs for sure. Carrying that weight. Arms, if he's strangling someone. Got to be."
"But if he survived prison, and he came after one of us... he's nothing like you, not as powerful as you are."
Alex laughed. "No, no. No."
The Hanged Man's eyes flashed open in anger, his act forgotten?his wish to tear them apart forgotten. "Don't you mock me, ape! Don't you ever mock me!"
Grey turned back, too quick for Edie to stop him, and ground his wing-tip shoe into the Hanged Man's left knee.
The shriek was incredible, his mouth distending into a horrible O of terror and pain. Bone ground against bone as Grey shifted his weight, his own lips parting in a smile.
"Nobody hears," he whispered. "Nobody hears a thing."
Alex darted forward, grabbed his arm and pulled him back. He whipped Grey around to face him, seized his face in his hand, and whispered, "Isaac will. Because we'll tell him."
"Maybe show him. Edie could do it. Easy. Replay everything, right?"
Her voice rose above the keening wail of the Hanged Man. "I could."
"So here, Grey. Here and now. Your call. You can kill him. And we'll tell Isaac. Or we can get our stories straight, call the police, and get him put away."
"He'll get out..."
"Maybe, one day. We'll know about it."
"He'll come back."
"No," sobbed the Hanged Man, tears and mucus mingling along his heavy lips. "No. This place... no. Never again. On my children, never again."
"On his children, Grey." Alex released him, placed one hand in the center of his chest, and thrust the gun forward in his swaddled hand. "So what about yours?"
Grey looked at the gun, listening to the whimpers from the floor. He looked up, saw Alex's blue eyes turning the color of steel?turned to Edie, who watched him with her arms crossed over her chest. The smoke-ring throbbed around his wrist, and he smelled the fresh urine spreading across the Hanged Man's shorts, sickening and sweet, rising from the floor like some unwelcome spirit.
He shook his head. "You're making a big mistake. Both of you are making a terrible mistake."
"I don't have all day." Alex's hand was steady with the gun, its barrel in his hand, the stock toward Grey.
Grey took the stock of the pistol and turned, tongue darting out to moisten his lips. He looked beyond the Hanged Man to where Brandon's crumpled form lay across the floor, a lifeless doll splayed upon concrete. His neck was still pink from the pressure of strangulation, his sightless eyes open, his cheek pale and damp from tears.
"He was just a kid," whispered Grey. "He didn't do a goddamn thing to you. We never did anything except move in, and you killed him. Without a thought.
"So go ahead and show him. Show Isaac what I've done and let him know that he's going to be safe in our own home, no matter what."
Edie jumped as the pistol's report cracked against the walls, sending a final spray of blood across Brandon's unblinking features.
Grey turned, his eyes cold as the smoke-ring slowly evaporated from around his wrist. "Now give me that handkerchief. We've got work to do."
Story by Ivan Ewert, Copyright 2011
Image by Amber Clark, Stopped Motion Photography, Copyright 2011