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October 3, 2013

I Hraet You (97)

Beat 97: The Last Face You’ll Never See

The blast’s force blew Lloyd onto his back.  Clouds of dust and chunks of debris swept over him, with shards of stone and wood slashing and crashing against his body.  Yet he counted himself lucky; only a few embers from the explosion seared his skin.  He knew it could have been much worse.

He knew, because he sat up a half-minute after the blast.  He didn’t get to see the balls of fire that had destroyed the house, but columns of flame twisted in the wake.  A tower of black smoke rose from the foundation’s center, disturbed only occasionally by the night breeze.  As for the rest?  Nothing but smoking, crackling wreckage -- and even what little remained of the house crumbled and tumbled, preparing itself for the fire’s feast.

Lloyd just sat there, eyes so wide he nearly tore the muscles within.  He couldn’t feel the blaze’s heat; if anything, he felt as if he’d leapt inside a freezer.  He couldn’t get his mouth to work; he couldn’t get his body to work.  But in spite of everything, his mind remained in full working order.

He’d watched the O’Leary house explode before his eyes.

The same house that Sheila had just entered.

“Sheila…”  Lloyd squeaked.  He raised a trembling hand, as if hoping someone would come and take it -- as if someone would help him stand up.  “Sheila…!”

But nobody came.  Nobody.

And that meant just one thing.

Lloyd stumbled to his feet, and stared at the blooming blaze.  He kept his hand held out, still trembling, still expecting -- hoping -- praying that someone would come and take it.  But nobody came.  He could only expect a wisp of flame to lash at his hand.  He had lost her.  He had to accept it.

But he didn’t have to be graceful about it.


Lloyd started for the house’s remains, but he didn’t even have the strength to take a step -- or even stay on his feet.  He tumbled and fell on all fours, forced to stare at the ash-riddled street.  His vision blurred, and his breaths sharpened; somehow, in spite of himself, he found just enough strength to rest on one knee.  And once more, he reached for the house.

But this time, he noticed something.  A discoloration -- a shadow atop his arm that shouldn’t have been.  A shadow that kept moving.  Rustling.  Drawing his eyes to its skyward source.

And he found it.

“Ku fu fu…my, you are a slow one.  I was wondering when you’d notice me.”

A tall, nightmarishly gaunt frame.  A dark jacket and slacks, laced with white frills, but only highlighting the fabrics’ hue of dried blood .  A fluttering black cape, draped over his razor-sharp shoulders.  A top hat that, in spite of its tilt, did nothing to hide the face -- the white mask that stared down at Lloyd, eagerly displaying a sinister red smile.  And as always, the long knife lodged deep into his heart.  Deep enough to kill a man several times over. 

Gaston Leroux, floating through the moonlit night.  Smiling forever more.

“It’s been so long since last we met, Lloyd,” he began, his gloved hands wafting through the air like a grand maestro.  “Quite frankly, I’m surprised you could be so cruel.  Never calling, never writing…it’s as if you’ve completely forgotten I exist.  Is that any way to treat your dearest friend?”  But before he could get an answer, he clapped a hand over his mask and chuckled.  “Listen to me, telling such ridiculous lies.  You and I, friends?  There mere thought makes me sick to my core.”

He glared at Lloyd, his mask letting loose a crimson glow.  “I despise you.  And I want nothing more than to see you suffer -- to see you fall prey to the deepest, darkest despair a man could ever know.”  He spread his arms wide, as if eager to embrace the moon.  “Crying…screaming…wailing…clawing at the walls of the abyss…to impart that absolute anguish upon you is very nearly the reason for my being.  To break you -- and to command this world as I see fit, in contradiction to your ‘world of love’ -- is my birthright.  A reality to soon be realized by my hand.”

Lloyd couldn’t say a word.  He could only stare at Gaston, his gaze hollower than a broken doll’s.

“I was hoping for more of a response than that,” Gaston said with a sigh.  He shook his head slowly.  “What, don’t tell me you’re still grieving over your loss?  Please.  It’s only a death.  Get over it.  After all, if you focus too heavily on the past, you’ll never see the majesty of the present.”  He snapped his fingers.

Lloyd gasped at the sight; at least two dozen torches appeared in the night, slinking out from behind fences and houses and taking formation at the cul-de-sac’s mouth.  Except they weren’t torches -- they were flames, burning quickly across moistened rags and making their way into glass bottles.  And they weren’t floating alone.  Each one of them lay in the hands of their master -- a cadre of snake-masked soldiers.

Gaston waved a hand.  At his command, the snake-men flung their salvos through the air, and into the neighborhood at large.  Bottle after bottle crashed into buildings and lawns; it didn’t even take half a minute for each assaulted area to have flames devour it entirely. 

Lloyd choked, and not just because of the flames.  One end of the street turned into a wall of flames that had long since surrounded him.  The other end held a wall of flesh and muscle -- soldiers that would sooner break Lloyd in two than give him a moment to breathe.

“Welcome to hell,” said Gaston.  He dropped down to the street and walked toward Lloyd.  “Do you feel that?  Do you feel your hope and dreams dwindling away?  Remember that feeling -- because I assure you, it only gets worse from here on.  Just the way I want it.”  He glanced at the crowd of Vipers.  “You.  And you, and you, and you.  Come here.”

The four Vipers stepped forward without a sound, and came to a halt at Gaston’s command.  “You.  Hold him.  You two, leave him battered.  And you…you, get on your hands and knees.  I’m in the mood to have myself a little sit.”

Lloyd didn’t even get a chance to resist.  One of the Vipers slipped behind him before he could even think of throwing a punch, and found himself propped up.  He lost control of his arms, and the Viper’s hold threatened to crush his upper arms.  But his arms quickly became the least of his concerns; the other two went to work on his face and torso, pounding him in turn with fists that threatened to break the speed limit.

“Ku fu fu…I must admit, I rather enjoy having these Vipers at my beck and call,” said Gaston.  He crossed his legs as he sat atop the fourth Viper, and cradled his chin in one hand.  “Brute force has never been my specialty, but I can certainly appreciate it when those with the proper aptitude get to -- oh, how does the phrase go?  Ah, yes, of course.  Cut loose.”

Lloyd would have made a sound if he could -- but he ate a haymaker instead.

“What I don’t enjoy, mon boffon, is you.  You are an irksome, irritating, insufferable person.  Looking at you, listening to you, knowing that you can still laugh and smile on a whim makes me wretch.  And yet…and yet, in spite of all that, your pain and suffering amuses me in a way your foolishness -- your death -- never will.”

One of the Vipers hammered Lloyd in the gut.

“Of course, that doesn’t mean that the people closest to you are safe -- as you can clearly see.”  Gaston gestured to the wreckage behind Lloyd.  “How does it feel, knowing that I have no issue with taking the people you care about away from you?  How does it feel, knowing that I’m going to keep on taking people away from you?  Do you earnestly believe that you can protect them all from me?  Clearly you underestimate…you there, don’t forget to knock his legs around for a bit.  His lower half could use a sound thrashing.”

The Viper gave his boss a thumbs-up, and planted a foot into Lloyd’s legs -- repeatedly.

“Bravo.  Bravo.  Oooh, excellent use of the knee; I hardly knew one could do so much harm to the thigh.  Then again, I suppose one truly does learn something new every day.  Ah, c’est la vie.”  Gaston laughed to himself, and sighed in relief.  “I wonder what’s going through your head right now?  Could you be wondering where your friends are?  Wondering if I’ve brainwashed them into staying away from you?  Wondering if I’m going to strike at them next?  Wondering how I could have taken such perfect aim at your heart?”

He stood up, and dismissed his impromptu bench with a wave.  “It doesn’t matter what you do.  I will always know your next move, and how to counter it.  Always.  I have all the tools I need to tear your heart asunder -- and as you can see, I have no problems taking the proper steps to do so.”  He snapped his fingers, and the other Vipers stepped back; Lloyd fell to his knees, bruised and bloody, and unable to lift his foggy gaze from the asphalt.

But Gaston gladly lent a hand.  He took hold of Lloyd’s chin like a goblet, and forced him to stare at the red-eyed mask.  “I’ve already taken one friend away from you.  And I’ve just taken another.  The question is…who’s next?  Your father?  Your brother?  The dear mademoiselle?  The answer is that it could be anyone.  Anyone who gets near you is a target…anyone who gets near you is a candidate for the grave.”  He seized Lloyd by the throat and pulled him closer.  “The world will become my stage.  And nothing you can do will stop my brilliant performance.”

He let go of Lloyd, allowing him to flop back-first onto the ground.  “Ku fu fu…I would have preferred to see you on your knees and wailing for parley, but I suppose that look suits you just as well.  A fool from start to finish.  The worst, most despicable sort of person, sprawled out as the crushing weight of the truth, of unlimited despa-”

“You’re exactly right.”

Gaston’s arms froze in mid-gesture.

“You are…exactly right.  I failed.  I failed her…in a way that prevents me from ever being forgiven.”  Lloyd sputtered and coughed, but somehow he found the strength to sit up.  “But even so…even if I led her into this abhorrent fate…I cannot shoulder the blame alone.”  He forced his arms to start working.  “You, and your Vipers…you are the ones who would dare to take a life.  Your crimes…your mere intentions…I cannot forgive them.”

Gaston chuckled.  “I fail to recall ever asking for your forgiveness.”

“I never offered it.  And I never shall.”  Lloyd tumbled onto his knees.  “I cannot forgive you.  And I cannot forgive myself.  But with the foe before me -- with the friend behind me -- I’m not allowed to stop.  Even if I cannot beat you, there are countless others in this world, in this very town, who can.  And as their would-be prince, I will give them the strength they need to ruse up.  To find their own, dormant power…and use it to crush you.”

“How cute.  You act as if you have a future.”

Lloyd glared at Gaston, his eyes even hotter than the flames around them.  “You act as if you can stop me.”

“Ku fu fuf…Keh heh heh…keh HA HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!  Oh, this is simply delightful!  Simply marvelous!  Even after all you’ve been through, even with a broken body, you STILL manage to find just enough spirit to make such bold proclamations!  Oh, this is truly a treat!  Simply, truly a delight!”  Gaston looked down at Lloyd, and for a moment it looked as if his crescent-moon smile stretched even wider.  “Excellent!  Now I get to break you all over AGAIN!”

He planted a foot into Lloyd’s chest, knocking him over and forcing him to reel in pain.  But a moment later, Gaston brought his foot back down; he stepped on Lloyd’s heart, eagerly letting his weight press down on his prey.  “Fine, then.  I’ll break you.  And I’ll keep on breaking you, as many times as it takes.  I sincerely hope you enjoyed these seventeen years of having a heart -- because rest assured, when I’m done with you, you won’t even be able to remember what a heart is.”

“That’s what you think,” said Lloyd.

“No.  That’s what I know.”  He lifted his foot off Lloyd.  “You’d best prepare yourself.  You’re about to have the time of your life.”

He stomped on Lloyd’s face.

And after that, everything went black.

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