He opens his eyes and finds himself still on the floor. There on the floor he stays, staring at his sideways room. Even through his blurry vision he could see it was another cloudy day. Slowly, his vision begins to clear as the room, too, seems to have corrected itself. As he ponders the sudden change in orientation, he notices his vision elevating. He is quickly turned around and faced towards a mirror. There, he saw his body, still dressed in the same clothes as last night. Suddenly, the reflection crouches at the same time his own vision lowers. He is brought closer to the reflection, and as he tries to command his legs to stop they continue stepping forward. He is now inches from the mirror, staring into his own vile eyes, his breath fogging the mirror.
“I gave you your day.” His reflection speaks. “Now I get mine.” His voice growls the words his reflection’s mouth speaks. He stares into his reflection; into those twisted, wicked eyes.
Slowly, Diego looks down at his feet. His soul goes cold as he witnesses no floor beneath him. Bringing his head back up, the whole room seems to have gone as well. He was back in that vast emptiness. At that moment, the golden shackles on his wrists caught his attention; their chains glittering far into the infinite void that wraps around his feet like a root. Footsteps so silent were heard and the demon emerged from the cloak of the empty. Seemingly floating, with the wings covering its feet, it makes its way to Diego and lowers itself to meet his eyes. It responds to his stone cold expression with a deviously playful smile. Its numerous rows of fangs are stained in its arrogance.
During this moment, their faces began to change; their expressions swapped entirely. The newfound smile on Diego’s face catalyzes the frustration on the creature’s. It tugs its arms upwards and they stop after just barely an inch of movement. It takes a deep breath.
“This new trick of yours is proving to be quite the thorn in my side.” It tries once more to break free of its own handcuffs: two thorny wreaths of forget-me-nots with a thick, thorny vine that also descends into the darkness. “You know once I figure out how you do this,” It tugs at the binds some more, “It’ll never work on me again.” It looks at Diego’s smug smile. “What? You can’t hold this forever. I know you can’t, I always break out eventually.” Awaiting a response, its expression hardens with each silent second. “Even if you could, how long can you really keep us like this?” Its voice seems to speed up. “You realize neither of us can move the body like this? We won’t survive past a week!”
Diego raises his eyes as he plays that last sentence back in his head and ponders for a moment. As carefully as he can with both hands tied, he sits on the assumed floor. “Answer me some questions, will you?” He groans as he attempts to get in a comfortable position. “Can you hold this forever?” Diego tugs his own chains.
Its eye twitches and it forces out a chuckle. “Give me the body.” It demands as it looks down at him.
“I’ll take that as a no. Question two: If I die,” He looks up into its eyes, with an expression so hard and confident, the being seemed to rear back an inch, “Do you?” A moment of eternity passes as they both stare deep into the eyes of each other’s souls. Something rapidly compresses around them. It weighs on their bones and teeth; it fills their ears and nostrils; it boils their veins. The longer they look at each other, the stronger it gets. “Yea.” Diego smiles. “I don’t know either.”
“GIVE ME THE BODY!” It shouts as it pulls the binds over and over.
“Question three: Do you know why you can’t break those vines?” Diego waits for it to stop thrashing around and look at him again. When it does, Diego makes a motion with his head to come down to him. Another moment of silent eye contact before it rolls its eyes and complies. After reaching eye level, Diego leans closer to it. “It’s my body.” He growls through anger coated teeth. “And I refuse to let you use it to hurt anyone, especially Jessica, again.” He begins to stand up with no resistance.
“You insolent--” It gets interrupted as it tries to stand up after Diego by the vine pulling back it down to the ground. It stares at its binds with bulging, bloodshot eyes. “YOUR BODY IS MINE! AND I WILL DO WITH IT WHATEVER I PLEASE! HOW DARE YOU DEFY ME, THE SON--”
“Yea yea, son of Pride blah blah. Question four, why didn’t you just fully take me over? You said my heart is your domain, but like why not everything?” He looks down and slyly smiles. “See, twenty something years in the passenger seat left me with not much to do except a lot of thinking. And my main question was always: Why keep me around? I mean if you want the body, why keep the competition sticking around? Now granted, I don’t know how demon magic works. Maybe you’re waiting for something, maybe this is step one of some weird ritual, maybe you were just born twisted and evil; really leaning toward that one. I don’t know. Or maybe,” He points down, “You messed something up, and now you’re stuck. You have no idea what you can or can’t control here, do you?”
It listens to every word through the sound of its blood pumping through the bulging veins on his temples, teeth clenched so tight they begin to crack and bleed, breath so hot it comes out as steam. It looks up at Diego, then at the chain that binds him. With a swift flick of the eyes, the chain is rapidly pulled downward and Diego is yanked down to the floor. Looking into his eyes, it says, “A contest of endurance, then?”
“Come, I have a surprise for you.” Diego’s voice calls out. Jessica feels his hand grab hers and with a rough tug, she’s pulled along.
Dark shades of green and brown and blue begin to come into view and swirl around and through each other until they settle into a clear picture: A forest clearing. The tree trunks and leaves are healthy and vibrant. The tree canopies above are so wide, it provides an adequate roof from any rain. Even in the middle of the day, with the already dark sky and the shade from the trees, it is enough to mistake it for night. The clearing, however, is illuminated by four candles carefully placed on each corner of a large mat. In the center is a woven basket.
“I remember you saying you’ve never been to a picnic before, and I know we live in some pretty shitty picnic weather, but,” His hand squeezes hers, causing the surrounding area to shiver. “Why let that stop us?” He pulls her to the area. One of the candles has gone out.
The colors swirl and the picture changes once more as she gets closer. She is now lower to the ground, sitting on the mat. She can feel Diego sitting behind her, arms wrapped around her.
“You know I love you, right?” His hands grab hers and squeeze slightly. A breeze passes by them and blows out another candle. The trees surrounding them have begun to wither and shed their leaves. “I’m always here to protect you, you know that right?” His hand squeezes tighter. The third candle erupts into a massive flame and quickly dies out. A massive gust of wind blows past and smudges all the colors. The trees are bent and twisted, and whatever leaves that remain have all been painted over with coats of gray and black. “You don’t need to rely on anyone else, okay?” His hand keeps squeezing harder to the point of uncomfort and the colors have begun to melt and sink into the everlasting nothing. They are now sitting in darkness, alight by a single candle. “So don’t think about ever going to someone else. Okay?” His hand gives one more strong squeeze and right as a crack could be heard and the last candle shatters, Jessica wakes up, sitting upright in her bed.
Covered in sweat, she takes deep breaths as she looks around the room. In the midst of the rapidfire earthquakes in her heart, she felt her eyes fill up as her vision became blurry. She wipes them as best she can, but they fill up faster each time. Through the small glimpses of clear vision, she managed to assess that this was in fact still her room.
Just as her heart stopped racing and her breathing slowed, a hand was placed on top of hers. With one sharp inhale, she thrashes her arms around, “GET YOUR FUCKING HANDS OFF OF ME!” She screams at the top of her lungs. Her flailing causes her to fall off the bed and she backs up to the wall and stares at the other person on the bed. A blurry vision of Diego at first quickly corrected itself. “I’m so sorry.” She says as soon as she sees the tan blonde man, staring dumbfounded at her. “I didn’t mean it, baby, I’m sorry. I--”
“It’s okay.” His hoarse morning voice spoke. “I startled you, I’m sorry. You had a nightmare right?” He clears his throat as he moves over to her side of the bed and gets off to sit on the floor across from her instead. “Want to talk about it?”
“I--” She closes her mouth as words begin to fail her. Tears begin forming in her eyes and she just shakes her head while looking at the ground.
“That’s okay. We can just hang out on the floor. As long as you need, okay?”
Jessica tearfully nods and holds her head in her hands as she watches her tears fall to the floor.
The world slowly returns to her as the minutes pass. As the breathing and heartbeat return to normal yet again, her thoughts become audible. She looks up to see the same man still sitting across from her. Seeing him smile, she feels a soothing wave pass through her; immediately followed by a shiver as she runs through her memories and gathers her thoughts.
“You know,” Jessica spoke up while looking again at the ground. “He’s only allowed to leave one day a year. He always spends it in that cemetery.” Through quivering lips and a shaky voice, she manages to bring out barely a whisper, “I see him there every fucking year.”
The man keeps his eyes on her through every word. He furrows his brow, and tilts his head slightly. “You- your ex? You see him there? You never told me that.” He leans forward to make his way to her, but sits back when Jessica flinches in response. He takes a breath. “Are you-”
“He never sees me.” She interrupted. “I always wait ‘til he leaves to go in. ‘Cept this time…” Her voice trails off.
“Did he do something to you yesterday?”
Jessica shakes her head and takes a deep breath. She looks up at him, her eyes puffy and nose still red. “He was crying.” There’s a pause as she lowers her head while struggling to continue looking into his eyes. “And I spoke to him.”
“Jess…” The single word carried with it a trail of disapproval as it snakes its way inside Jessica’s ears.
“I know, I know. I’m sorry.” She swept her hair back and sat on her knees. She inhales sharply and looks at the man in the eyes. “But remember what my therapist said? About people changing?”
“Alvarez, he’s never cried for anything. He didn’t cry at his parents’ funeral. He didn’t cry at my dad’s funeral, was basically a second father to him. I mean, I don’t know, what if--”
“Jess, she also said that your ex had the tendencies of a sociopath, and personally I agree. Look,” Alvarez looks her over as he takes a deep breath. “Wanting to see the best in people is such an admirable trait, and you should never get rid of it. But you also need to be on the side of realism. People like him, they don’t change.”
“Right…” Jessica’s voice trails off as she lowers her gaze back to the floor. “I shouldn’t have said anything, I'm sorry.” She shifts on the floor and hugs her knees to her chest and buries her face in her own arms.
Alvarez sighs. “Hey, remember what we talked about? It’s okay to disagree with me.” Watching unsatisfyingly as Jessica simply nods in response, Alvarez sits upright. “I’m gonna come closer.” He states.
Jessica hesitantly and silently nods and, shortly after, hears the shuffling of the floorboards and feels the massive presence towering over her. For a second, everything stops; her breathing, her thinking, she even felt her heart go out for a beat. “I’m sorry.” She keeps silently repeating the phrase. She goes into shivers from the chilling breeze of the aura in front of her. Hands enter her field of vision and after her heart skips two and a half beats and her soul rears back, the hands clasp unto hers. Her blood immediately freezes and time once again grinds to a shrieking halt. Through the eternal moment, her vision begins to fail her; spots of black flash across her eyes and the room feels as if it is rotating. The hands gently place themselves under hers so their palms are touching.
The hands are warm. She still isn’t used to it. The warmth spreads from her hands to her body and her blood thaws and begins to flow. With it, time resolves itself, as well as her breathing and vision. The presence in front of her that was cold and hard, is now kind and soft. She finally lifts her head up and stares into the verdant fields staring into her, listening intently at the words he speaks so softly to her:
“I’m not him.”
Those three words tear down the dam in her eyes; rivers of tears stream down her face and around the corners of her mouth that spread in a grateful smile.
“I’m sorry.” She cried out as she leapt on him and buried her head into his chest, squeezing him with both arms around him.
“You have absolutely nothing to apologize for.” He says as he places a hand on her head and holds her close to him with the other.
“Do you remember the night you first defied me?” It spoke low, while solemnly staring into the palms of its still confined hands that sat above its wing covered lap. “Never had I been bound before. Well, not with binds like these at least.” He sighed. “We had a perfect plan. We could have had such a pleasant life. Out there, with the noble and rich participants of society. Not picking for scraps with the dregs instead.”
“Are you kidding me?” Diego’s voice tore through the foundations of the zone of self pity and resentment laid out by Zyth with such primal animosity. The demon did not have to look up to feel the holes boring into him by Diego’s searing gaze. Look up it did, however, and ever so slightly did it flinch upon meeting his eyes. “A pleasant life? That was never an option for us. You made sure of that the moment we were born.”
“What I made sure of,” It jolts up and trips as the vine pulls him back down and growls as it sits again, “Was to try and acquire us a life of pleasures and luxury.”
“No price too high, right?” Diego snapped at it, tugging his chain as he too attempted with no avail to get up from his sitting position. “All those people, pocket change for you. Xerena, that poor girl. Whether you tainted her, or she was always twisted, it hardly matters anymore. And Jess…,” His voice trails off as he closes his eyes and inhales deeply. “Well, I think you know more than anyone what I have to say about that.” He shakes his head as he stares into its eyes. “You’ve ruined too many people. Your path to luxury left behind a trail of misery. That’s all you assured us.” His face can’t help but flare and fester the longer he stares at the being’s monotone expression. The small chuckle was all it took to boil his blood. “What is so funny?”
“Just that after two whole decades, you still have not a clue how we function.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Are you aware of how souls work?” It awaits an answer, but sighs when Diego simply furrows his brow in confusion. “Of course you’re not. Souls are composed of two very simple components: The heart and the mind; both formed and fused upon the moment of birth. The soul is guided by both the primal, instinctual emotions of the heart, and the rational, more composed reasoning of the mind. In a regular soul, as often at odds as the two are, the heart always dominates the mind in the end.” It raises its binds closer to its face. A subtle whimpering sigh escapes its lips and its expression seems to melt for only a moment. Another small chuckle and the familiar smug smirk reappears as quickly as it left. “But we are no regular soul,” It looks at him, meeting their eyes. “And regular rules don’t apply to us. You’re right. It’s your body. I can’t make you do anything. All I do is offer up our options, then nudge you in the direction I believe benefits us most.” The smirk slowly morphs into a twisted smile as it watches its words transform Diego’s face into one of horrid realization. “The final decision of everything we’ve done has, and always will be, entirely up to you. So if you want to waste time pointing fingers and passing blame for ‘ruining people’, it would best suit you to do so in front of a mirror.” Standing up, the thorny vine raises with it, no longer pulling it back down. It stares down at the feeble boy, seeing him shake. Its smile widens even further, seemingly becoming larger than its own face, revealing its rows of jagged fangs. “Now give me the body.”
A moment passes. Then another. And another. The more moments that pass, the more its smile diminishes. The boy had stopped shaking and has since been still, akin to a statue; more like a gargoyle, perhaps. It slowly descends itself back to eye level with him.
“How long can you keep this up?” The question subtly escapes its lips, as if rhetorically whispered to itself, as it descends. “Why do you insist on continuing as you are?” Halfway through its crouch, it opts instead to simply fall forward and land sitting on its shins and knees, staring at its human counterpart, a feeling it could only best attribute as ‘apathy’ smeared across his whole being.
They hear a knock at the door.
A seemingly infinite hallway is dimly lit with loudly buzzing fluorescent lights. The faint, slightly green glow of the cracked bulbs overheads barely illuminate anything past the space just below them, leaving segments of pitch black darkness in this windowless space. Whatever pattern might have been on the wallpaper is now covered and caked in dirt and some form of mold, only in the sections that haven’t been completely torn off the wall already. Piles of dust accumulate along the edges of the splintering, rotten wood of the floor and doors dotting the walls of the hallway.
One such door happens to be the cause of a ruckus early in the morning, as a young, tan, ink-covered woman bangs on the door with her fist; the other on her hip, tapping her fingers in impatience.
“D, we should have left like twenty minutes ago, come on dude!” She shouts in a raspy but energetic voice. Her thick accent forces its way through every word. She sucks her teeth as another moment passes in silence. “Bro, you know I can pick a lock. Don’t test me, dude.”
A loud creak echoes across the hall as a nearby door is pried open from the inside. A much older man comes out wrapped in a blanket that drags across the floor, yawning.
“Quiet down, ‘Rena. It’s too early for all that racket.” He spoke in a voice as loud as his feeble self could muster. Within confines such as these, however, it comes across just fine.
“Not all of us were born in the 14th century, Marvin!” The woman snaps at the old man. “Some of us can actually still work, and have to! Now fuck off back inside and mind your business!” She watches as the old man rears back at her outburst and grumbles to himself as he waddles back inside and shuts the door with another deafening creak. She starts banging on the door again. “Fine,” Her voice lowers to a self appointed whisper, “Have it your way.” She reaches into her hair and pulls out a bobby pin. As she begins to bend it and lowers herself to the lock level, she pauses. “No, you know what?” She shouts at the door again, “I’ll just kick the fucking thing down!” She stands back up and puts the pin back in her hair. She faces the door and begins slightly hopping in anticipation and preparation. With one deep, but sharp inhale she lifts her leg up; the runic tattoos covering the limb glittering slightly when exposed to the dim light. Just as she thrusts out the tall, thick sole of her boot, the door swings open. The momentum pulls her forward and she hops on one leg for two steps before regaining her balance and landing her lifted leg.
“Marvin’s right, Xerena.” Diego’s voice speaks up as his crimson-gold eyes meet her lavender-orange ones. “You should be quieter in the mornings.” He begins walking past her, out the door.
“Yea, well, you should wake up earlier.” Xerena responds as she closes the door behind, catching up to him, talking as they walk through the vast hallway. “You already have four strikes, dude. And Georgie’s already got beef with us. He might give you a fifth one if you’re late again. Do you know what happens at five, D?”
“You lose your housing permit.” He calls out with an exasperated sigh.
“You lose your housing permit!” She calls out at the same exact time. “We’re lucky they allowed us rooms in The Edge.”
“Us? If I remember correctly, you’ve already lost your permit. Aren’t you on your ninth strike? Do you know what happens at ten, Xe?” The question escapes his lips smothered in a mocking tone.
“You get kicked out of the Oasis.” She groans, rolling her eyes.
“You get kicked out of the Oasis.” He repeats in unison.
“That’s why I’d like to not be late again.” They stop in front of a door unlike the others; this one is larger and made of metallic material.
Xerena takes out a laminated card attached to a thin chain necklace from her jacket pocket and places it around her neck before rolling up the left sleeve of her black jacket to reveal an electronic bracelet and more runic tattoos all the way to the palm and fingertips. Diego rolls up his own left red sleeve to reveal the same bracelet on his arm as well. They both hover their bracelets in front of a small screen next to the door. After a short delay, a circular light flickers for a while before steadily glowing white. A voice meshed in static is heard through the light,
“Well, well. If it ain’t the Magic freaks.” A slow, gravely voice trudges its way out of the speaker to form its sentence.
“He’s not Magic, racist fuck.” Xerena speaks up, stepping in front of Diego to stick her face into the light.
“Good morning to you too, ‘Rena. Got your visitor pass?”
“I always have my visitor pass, dipshit.” She backs up and holds up the laminated card in front of the light. “I’m here every morning. You let me in like five minutes ago”
“Yeah, yeah. Talk my ear off, why don’t you.” A beep is heard through the light and the metallic door begins descending; wind roars and whistles as it seeps through the opening, following the line of dim gray sunlight flooding into the hall. “Don’t hurry back.”
Stepping outside, Diego turns around to watch the door rise back up. He raises his head to trace his gaze along the wall of the Edge that extends up to the clouds that plague the City’s sky. Turning back around, his gaze runs past Xerena and the uncountable open air markets filling the space between the Edge and the just-as-massive gate that marks the border to the Center of the Oasis.
“Are you listening to me?” Xerena calls out, bringing Diego’s attention back to her.
“That’s new.” He points at the blonde tips at the end of her long, dark hair.
“Oh, right! I got it done the other day. What do you think?” She gives a twirl as she asks the question; her hair forms a golden ring that traps her inside a dark circle as she spins.
Diego smiles after looking it over. “I like it.”
“I knew you would.” Xerena says in a singsong manner. She then hardened her expression and tugged Diego’s sleeve. “Now let’s go.” She gives him a hard tug and they head to the gate.
The markets that flood the open space between the Edge and the Center offer a vast variety of wares and spares; anything from fresh fruit to baked pastries to clothes and fabrics to live animals in cages. Blending with the walls formed by the lines of people and set up with seemingly no pattern or reason, the shops present less of a path and more of a maze to get to the gate.
As they navigate the way, Diego’s attention gets grabbed by someone calling out his name. He promptly reaches a hand in his pocket and pulls out a golden coin that he tosses across the stores. The empty space in his hand is replaced with a large and firm apple. He nods at the stall owner who nods back as they pocket the coin.
“Speaking of new,” Xerena’s voice peeks through the loud bustle of the morning crowd, “What’s that about?” She points at the flowery, thorny vine coiling around Diego’s right wrist and arm.
“Oh.” A moment of silence triggers as he drops his gaze upon the vine. The petals dancing in the wind deliver into his ears a pleading song and paint the slightest hint of a smile on his face. “I’m trying something new.”
“Yeah..” Xerena pauses her trek to scan Diego with her eyes. “You sure are…”
“Hey!” Diego snaps his fingers. “I told you not to do your Hocus Pocus shit on me.”
“Holy shit, I’m not, dude! Jeez.” She turns back around and continues to guide them to the gate. “Also, Hocus Pocus is a gross misrepresentation of Magic.” She immediately stops and pivots back towards Diego to point her finger in his face. “We’re still watching it on Halloween though, don’t forget.”
“How could I? You’ve only been reminding me every single day.” He places his hands on her shoulders and gently turns her around.
With a gentle nudge from Diego, Xerena continues leading them through the crowd; with the help of passably amicable greetings and pleasantries, they wedge their way toward the gate.
The gate to the Center of the Oasis is an amalgamation of various methods meant to provide a strict divide between the two sections of the Oasis. Barbed wire, live electrical wires, jagged sheets of metal and otherwise unrecognizable, yet just as dangerous, machinations haphazardly intertwine between and within each other to erect the gigantic barrier known as the gate. In a way, it reminds Diego a lot of himself as a whole.
Along several points at the base of the gate are sealed doors, akin to the one from which Xerena and Diego emerged. Upon arriving, they again scan their bracelets. After waiting for a few seconds, a beep is heard and the door sinks into the ground.
Immediately they are assaulted with the stench of the air. The thick smog pouring out quickly embeds them as they step in, and once the door closes back up, they could no longer see past a mere couple of yards. Their peaceful morning stroll was quickly dispatched by the uproarious noises of the Center’s amenities. The high pitch buzzing of the power plants and electrical towers ring and echo in their ears, the low rumbling stemming from the factories and forges rattle their bones, the constant and tedious bustle of the denizens is, as always, a continuous annoyance. Such is the average welcome provided by the Center of the Oasis.
“Alright then!” Xerena claps her hands, “To Georgie!”