THE TOWER AT DOG'S TONGUE
(Variant 02 - Draft - 4/17/2014)
“Did you see the eyes?”
Steph was a million miles away, thinking about the man in cell number six.
Why was he here, she wondered. Why had he come, here, to Dog's Tongue? He could have slipped right past the place, unnoticed, but he chose to come here, to flaunt his crime. Was it his goal to be arrested? Surely he has come here for a reason.
She felt a sense of purpose, of pride, looking at the little piece of red string tied around her left littlest finger. It was a reminder to add the man in cell number six to her nightly prayers. If anyone can help you, here, it will be me, she thought.
“Steph,” repeated Peter, “hey, Steph.” He touched her hand with his. A subtle thing. Warm, connecting.
“Huh? What?” She snapped out of her daze and returned to the dining room table with her fellow guards. To her right was Peter, the commander of the tower at Dog’s Tongue. To his right was Rudyard, the captain of the night guard.
“The eyes. Did you see them?” Peter asked, taking a sip of stale coffee, both hands on the mug.
“Eyes,” he corrected her. “This morning. There were a bunch of eyes drawn on the east side of the tower.”
“East side of the tower?” Steph repeated, distant, concerned.
The world had changed, but the tower at Dog's Tongue still stood. It was a relic, a stone watchtower at the edge of the world. A sentinel, standing alone, on a vast flatness of brown, green and white. This was the last of the towers in what was long ago called The Row, a line of towers, stretching from sea to sea, marking the border between two long forgotten kingdoms. Sometimes The Row had served as a welcoming doorstep, sometimes a barring defense. There were no more kingdoms to come from or go to.
After The Collapse, the world had grown small. The majority of civilization had consolidated to a single territory. The wilderness to the east was what the changing climates had left behind; hostile, desolate, uninhabitable. To the west, what remained of civilization, huddled together, paranoid, isolated.
The tower at Dog's Tongue was a remnant of a very different time. A reminder that there were things worth caring for.
The tower was the last outpost as one traveled east. The next closest outpost was a small village, Dayton, a hundred miles to the west. Once truly a watchtower, a sentinel, with purpose, the tower now stood occupied more out of tradition than anything else. No one passed by from the east. Only suicides passed by from the west.
“Yep. The east, facing the wilderness,” Peter confirmed.
“Probably just the night guards having some fun,” she shrugged, picking at the little red string, anxiously.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Except Rudyard, here, was with the night guard and assures me they didn’t do it. Right Ruddy?” He took a friendly, but authoritative tone.
“Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. Must have been a couple hundred of them,” Rudyard added his mouth full of greasy meat. “Weird looking things, too, like a symbol or whatcha call a hieroglyph. An eye, shaped like an almond, with three lines above and below, drawn over and over again, stretching ten, maybe twenty feet up.”
“Chalk,” Steph said. “Where would someone get chalk?”
“Right?” Peter agreed. “Expensive stuff. I doubt anyone here could afford it.”
“It was like the whole tower was looking east, looking for something,” Rudyard added. “Gives me the creeps.”
Just then, there was a commotion at the far end of the dining hall. A large man was shoving a smaller man. It wasn’t apparent what they were arguing about.
“Dammit, Griswold,” Peter grumbled.
“It’s a daily occurrence with this guy,” Steph commented.
“He’s a bully,” Rudyard said, his mouth still full of food.
“Excuse me. I’ve gotta take care of this before he puts another one in the infirmary,” Peter said and stood. He pulled his uniform tight, brushed himself off and made his way across the room.
The man in cell number six had arrived nearly a week ago. The morning guard saw him approaching, dirty and bearded and dragging an old corpse, leathery and covered with tattoos, by a length of rope wound round its neck.
With a casual authority, the four guards approached the man. They were surprised to have a visitor, more surprised to see what he was dragging. He was small, but he had a confidence about him. He seemed fully committed to the moment.
“I’ve come prepared,” he said. “I’ve brought a gift.”
He seemed resolved to be arrested, but he did not go quietly. He was small; his violence was anything but.
Finally, she would have a moment with the man in cell number six.
Steph glanced proudly at the small bit of red string still tied around her finger. She’d kept her promise; she’d prayed for the man every night since his arrival. Surely it would make a difference.
He’s here for a reason, she thought, but why? This must be a test. I’m being tested. He’s here to test me, to test my faith. No. No. Not him, he’s not testing me. He is the test.
She slipped her hand into her pocket and felt the little book that she kept there, always. In it were the words and guidance and the strength that she needed.
Lead him toward a confession. Save him and you save yourself.
“Did you see it?” The man asked. Steph had barely come into view of the cell’s barred entrance. It was as if he’d been waiting for her.
“Excuse me?” She said, startled.
“Did you see it?”
“The eye. Did you see the eye?”
There was an impatience in his asking. He was digging for something beyond the obvious.
“The vandalism? Outside on the tower? No, sorry, I didn’t. The night guards had cleaned it all off before I even heard about it,” she said, trying to settle her nerves, trying to be friendly. This is the test, she reminded herself.
“A shame. How many are in the night guard? Did they all see it? Did they all see the eye?”
She had the feeling of being caught in an illusionist’s trick. “There are four guards in the night guard. And, to my knowledge they all saw it,” she said.
“Good. Good. That’s very good.”
“Aren’t you curious why I’m here?” Steph asked, purposefully, positively, changing the subject. Take control, she told herself. Push him to where he needs to go.
The man was wringing his hands, slowly, his gaze focused, concentrating. He did not answer her.
“I’ll tell you,” she said, timidly, boldly. He wants to tell you what he’s done. Be comfort, be a shepherd, lead him. It is not too late. Prove yourself, Steph. She slipped her hand back into her pocket to touch the little book. It was reassurance. “I’ve come to help you, to guide you to the good path.”
He scoffed without even looking at her.
“Confess your sins. There is still hope for you,” she said, uncomfortable with how awkward her words sounded.
He shot her a nasty condescending glance. She was trying to manipulate him and he would have none of it.
“Tell me about the corpse,” she said, adopting a mother’s soothing tone.
“The corpse you brought with you. Did you hurt that person? Why did you do it? Was it someone you knew?”
“Ha! Corpse. Yes,” he responded. “A corpse!”
“Was it someone you loved?”
He lunged at her, grabbing two bars and pressing his face between them. Spit flew from his mouth as he shouted,” HE IS COMING! He is coming and when he gets here, you’ll wish you’d prepared as I have.”
Later that evening, there were screams. A guard was found murdered. Near the bloody mess, scrolled neatly in white chalk, was the same eye as was found drawn outside.
“We found Rudyard this morning,” Peter said to Steph as they walked the hall to the dining room.
“He was the last, right? The last of the night guard,” she asked, slipping her small hand into his.
Their postures, their steps, their words were heavy with the emotions of unexpected tragedies. And fear. Over the last four days, they’d found each of the four night guards murdered.
Dog's Tongue was a small outpost. There were sixteen guards assigned to the post. Losing a quarter of their cohort was a difficult reality.
“Yes,” Peter answered. “He was the last of the night guard. I’ve been reassigning guards from other shifts, other duties, to cover the gaps.”
“Have you telegraphed Home Office?”
He sighed, not wanting to share his next words. “I haven’t told anyone; the lines must be down somewhere between us and the Dayton outpost. I’ve been tapping out messages for days now without a single response.”
“So, we’re alone on this?”
“Looks that way.”
“Do we have any clues? Any idea who might be doing this or how they would have gotten inside the tower?”
“No. Not really,” he started. “The only clue we have is that strange eye. The symbol that Rudyard talked about, outside, four nights ago. We found it near each of the murdered guards, drawn with chalk.”
“Any idea what it might mean?” She was nervous, anxious. She slipped her hand into her pocket and ran her fingers across the compacted, closed pages of her little book. The texture was course. The pages were old and unevenly cut. I’m not alone, she told herself. She didn’t need to be so afraid. This is just part of the test.
“No idea,” Peter said, deep in thought. It was clear, he hadn’t slept well the past few nights. “What I do know is that we are posted at the edge of the world. We have tough men and women guarding this place. The toughest men and women. And, four of them are dead. We’re in the middle of nowhere. I have to assume the murderer is a guard.”
“What?” she said, startled, frightened.
“I know, Steph. I just don’t know what else to think.”
She tugged at his hand, stopped him and turned him to face her. She looked up at him with grave, serious eyes. “Who, Peter, who do you suspect?”
“Honestly, the only one who comes to mind is Griswold,” he said, clearly not wanting to admit his suspicion, even to himself. He looked past her, to the floor, unable to make eye contact.
“Griswold,” she said his name, sounding more convinced than Peter did. “Are you sure? Why him?”
“I don’t know. He found the first body. He’s violent with the other guards. And, I took a hard look at his file this morning. Seems he comes from a well-to-do family back in the capital.”
“Well-to-do? What’s the significance of that?”
“He could afford chalk.”
“Have you seen it?” The man in cell number six asked.
“I told you, it had been cleaned up before I could,” Steph responded. She was sitting on a small wooden stool a few feet in front of the cell, sipping coffee and nibbling on a piece of sweet bread.
“Not those,” he said, enjoying the moment. “It moves. It multiplies. Does it not?”
Steph leaned forward, intrigued. This man had been locked up since before the murders, since before the eye was found outside. She thought about the little book. She could feel its slight weight tugging at her pocket. “Who told you about that?”
“I don’t need be told anything. I told you that I came prepared. You didn’t listen,” he was smiling, pleased with himself. “Not that it would have mattered. You are helpless, unprepared. I have cleared the way and I will be rewarded.”
“Tell me what you’ve done. Tell me now. RIGHT NOW!” Steph stood, shouting. She could no longer restrain her frustration.
The man put his back against the cold stone wall, slid, smugly, to the floor and crossed his arms. He stared at her. He did not respond.
“How many have we lost?” Steph asked.
“The four from the original night guard, one yesterday, two the day before, another this morning. Eight total,” Peter responded.
He was getting dressed. It was late afternoon. The air was cold. The light was dim.
“What are you going to do?” Steph asked sitting on the bed and sipping hot tea.
“I think this has gone on long enough,” he started, as he strapped on his leather riot armor. It wouldn’t stop a bullet, but it would make taking punches a little easier. “I’m going to lock up Griswold.”
He looked back at Steph. She could see uncertainty in his eyes. He’d be going alone. That was his way. She worried about him. He was strong, determined, able. But, so was his enemy.
“I love you, Peter,” she said. Her words hung honestly, nakedly in the space between them.
“I know,” he looked away, snugging a strap, securing his armor.
“This won’t end well,” she told him.
“I know,” he said.
“What are you doing?” The man in cell number six was startled, but not actually concerned. She was acting tough, but surely, she didn’t have it in her to hurt him.
“I’m tired of playing games,” Steph said, her sidearm in hand. She broke open the cylinder to confirm the weapon was loaded and snapped it back into place with a menacing elegance. “Six bullets. You’re going to tell me what’s happening or I’m going to put these through you.”
She reached into her pocket, with one hand, to feel the little book. It was confidence. With the other hand, she aimed her weapon.
Peter, electric with adrenaline, climbed the steps to the third floor. He reached the landing. Through this door, he’d be in the third floor hallway. One more door and he’d be dealing with Griswold.
He was alone in the stairwell.
Or so he had assumed.
He froze. The voice startled him. It was unfamiliar, but at the same time non-threatening, friendly. His eyes darted around the cramped space, searching. There, to his right, on the landing. How could he have missed it? A small dog.
Not a dog.
It had hands where its front paws should have been.
“What?” Peter was understandably confused.
“Peter,” said the dog. “My name is Jeb.”
“This isn’t happening,” Peter said, feeling panicked.
“I haven’t much time and neither do you. I need you to listen to me. Something very bad is going to happen.”
“It’s already happening. And apparently I’m going crazy to boot.”
“You’re not crazy,” Jeb the dog said. “I’m here to warn you.”
“Warn me? Warn me about what?” He stopped, calming himself. I’m talking to a dog. This isn’t real.
“You’re kidding.” I’m losing it. This isn’t real. This isn’t happening.
“I’m sorry, Peter, but it’s the only way.”
“Ridiculous,” Peter said as he opened the door and walked away from the talking dog. Get yourself together, man. Breathe. Breathe.
Griswold’s room was just around the corner and down the hall a short distance.
There was no way Griswold would go easily, voluntarily. Peter was preparing himself, mentally, emotionally for this confrontation. He’d had to pull Griswold off of other guards in the past, but he always had back-up for when things got out of control. Why did I come alone? This was a stupid idea, he scolded himself. No turning back now. Keep it together, Peter, just a little longer.
He pulled his sidearm, broke open the cylinder and confirmed it was loaded, then slid it back into the holster. He left the retaining strap, dangling, unsecured, in case he had to pull the weapon with speed.
Peter paused before the corner and took a deep breath to still his nerves. He was committed. He was ready. He turned the corner.
Peter’s heart sank.
Midway down the hall was Griswold.
Standing over Griswold’s massacred body was the corpse, the thing the prisoner had dragged to the watchtower. On a length of leather, dangling from its neck, was a piece of chalk.
Oh no, I’m still hallucinating, Peter thought.
“Hey!” Peter shouted, indulging his hope, his fear, that what he was seeing was real.
The corpse turned to see Peter and leapt at him with an animal’s furocity. Before he could react, the thing had knocked him to the ground and was on top of him.
Not a hallucination, Peter thought. This hurts.
Peter’s world became small and chaos. The creature had him pinned the way a cat pinned a mouse. The thing was absurdly strong for how rail thin it was. To look at it one would assume it frail, brittle, weak. Looks could be deceiving.
Peter pressed his forearm against its throat, just barely keeping its snapping jaws from his exposed face. Thick globs of spit and foul, putrid breath threatened to overwhelm him. He struggled through the maelstrom to slip his revolver from its holster at his hip.
“It’s too late,” the man in cell number six said. “There’s nothing you can do now.”
This is still a test. You still have time. It’s not too late. But you do need to hurry. Steph let loose a frustrated scream and fired her weapon. The shot buried itself in the stone just beside the man’s head. A warning shot. Control.
He was shocked, frozen with fear. He didn’t want to die locked in a cell when he was so very near to the end. He had prepared. He was prepared. He just needed to survive this stupid, simple girl.
“It’s the eye,” he said, quietly. “Once you see it, you’re marked.”
“Marked?” Steph lowered the weapon.
“It leaves a stain behind that the shadow sees.”
“You people saw a corpse, because I needed you to see a corpse. But, it’s not a corpse.”
In the room at the top of the east tower, the man from cell number six looked out through the window onto the narrow land bridge that was barely visible under the soft glow of the moon. He saw something. He looked back across the room to see Peter and Steph talking to one another; he couldn’t tell what about. They didn’t see what he saw. He returned his gaze to the window, through the window. From the wilderness, someone was approaching.
“He’s here,” the man said, quietly, in wonderment. A smile was spreading across his face. It was finally happening. Soon enough, he would be rewarded for his efforts.
“What is he saying?” Peter snapped.
“I didn’t hear,” Steph said, nervously. She reached into her pocket to feel the little book, to make sure it was still there. It was confidence, patience, affirmation. She would make it through this. She had faith.
“How do we stop this thing?” Peter yelled at the man. “Hey! HEY! You! Are you listening to me? How do we stop this thing?”
The man ignored him. The someone disappeared into an archway, below, into the tower. “He’s here. He’s finally here,” he muttered.
Wrath. Peter flung his empty sidearm at the man, as hard as he could, bouncing the heavy metal thing off his head. The weapon hit the floor, loudly, clanging, and slid across the room. Like a marionette whose strings had been cut, the man collapsed onto the hard stone floor.
“Peter!” Shouted Steph.
“Not like I need it. I emptied six shots into that thing and nothing,” Peter said, broken. He walked over, picked up the weapon and jammed it back into its holster.
The man from cell number six staggered back to his feet. Blood leaked from his head and dripped from his beard. “He’s… here.”
“Footsteps,” Steph said. “I hear footsteps.”
The three grew silent, listening, waiting. Someone, or something, was ascending the stone steps to the room at the top of the tower.
There was an assertive knock at the door.
Steph positioned herself behind Peter. Both pulled their knives. The man from cell number six smiled, excitedly.
“I’ve waited so long for this,” the man said, easing slowly to his knees.
The knocking turned to violent pounding. The wooden door flexed in protest. They could hear it popping and cracking and failing. The old metal lock struggled to keep its hold.
“It’s going to get in,” Peter said, preparing himself to die.
“I know,” Steph said, in a neutral tone.
The lock gave out and the door burst open, spraying the room with splintering wood. A chunk of the metal lock flew across the room, bouncing, clattering.
Then there was silence.
There, in the doorway, stood not a corpse-monster, but a person, dressed thickly with animal furs.
“Who is that?” Peter blurted, becoming absolute panic.
The man from cell number six turned a gloating, knowing glance toward Steph and Peter. “You should have prepared as I have. The moment of reckoning is…”
He froze puzzled.
Steph reached out and pulled Peter close, his back pressing against her.
Strange, Peter thought. Her breath was calming on his neck. Her body was warm against his. In this moment of confusion, he felt safe, loved.
She kissed him, just behind the ear, where he liked it most and whispered, “Goodbye, Peter.”
Fluidly, as if rehearsed a thousand times, she cut open his throat. Blood burst from the severed arteries, spraying across the room. She released him. Peter’s lifeless, gurgling body dropped to the floor. A mist of blood hung in the air.
The prisoner looked at Steph then to the body then back to Steph. “I don’t understand,” he said.
“This is not our way,” said the person standing in the doorway. He tossed the corpse creature, limp and inanimate, onto the floor.
Steph moved toward the man from cell number six. “I’ve been here, waiting, for so long. Alone. When you arrived, I wanted to believe you. You told me you were prepared, but you weren’t. I tried so hard.”
“I was… I tried… I…,” he blurted. He tried scrambling to his feet. He tried to back away from her. She was a reptile, a coiled snake, spring-loaded, hiding in the dark, waiting to strike. He hadn’t seen her hiding, waiting. He admired her stealth, her patience, her discipline… her faith.
She’d seen him for what he was even before he’d arrived.
He was frozen before her.
She slipped the knife slowly into his heart and twisted it slowly before pulling it back out. He dropped to the floor, tears running down his cheeks.
Steph knelt to wipe the knife clean on the man’s shirt. The murderous weapon slipped, with a whisper, back into its sheath, at her belt.
Delicately, she pulled at the little red piece of string, still tied around her little finger. The knot came undone. She examined it, dangling from her pinching fingertips. “I did for you what I could do,” she said, before dropping it onto the man’s sticky, bloody body.
She stood and turned to the person in the doorway. “Welcome. You’ve crossed the threshold. I am Stephanie, a Witness to the Architect. I understand we have work to do.”
“Yes we do, Stephanie,” Coyote confirmed. “A lot of work. I understand you have something very important. Do you have it? Do you have it with you?”
Steph pulled the little book from her pocket. She looked down at it, lovingly, tracing the symbol embossed on its old leather cover. An eye, almond-shaped, with three lines radiating from the top and three lines radiating from the bottom.
“Of course,” she said.