Lightning flashed across the sky.
I held my head in my hand, and raised my surprisingly heavy body off the ground. My clothes were caked with mud, and the rain had soaked every inch of my skin. The mound of mud that had once been Villa Serenity lay around me, parts of it washing away with streams of murky water, while others were raised in tiny hills.
One of those hills moved, and dirty red hair peeked out from underneath. Ben appeared from the mud, followed closely by Jerome, who was still working on a black box. Sally helped Elenor to her feet, but Elenor let go of her hand even though she had no stick to lean on.
Skinner’s blurry figure stood on the other end of the mound of mud, the robes and remains of the black-haired woman lying next to his feet. When he turned his gaze towards us, my vision went a little blurry. Or rather, my image of him blurred when my gaze met the whirlpool in his eyes.
Grey smoke swirled around him as he smirked at us. Crushing that Soul Orb had apparently fixed all his wounds too, because there wasn’t a scratch on him. His hand was still outstretched, even though the entire building had collapsed, and an orb materialized in front of his palm.
He gripped it. It was smaller than the Soul Orb he had crushed, but the swirling shapes inside were just as hypnotic, and the malevolent air around, just as insidious.
“Guess I’ll have to leave this dump, after all,” said Skinner in a calm voice. As if he wasn’t addressing anyone. He walked over to the remains of the black-haired woman and kicked them. Clinking noises came from the woman’s pockets.
Skinner bent over and began collecting the coins, showing me his back.
I frowned. What was going on?
I glanced at Sally and held my breath.
Her mouth was frozen open, with the cloth on her arm slowly reddening. Elenor stood beside her, her figure still, not even her chest rose to indicate breathing. I turned to Ben, and saw him glaring at Skinner’s back, unblinking. Jerome had a hand inside his black box, but wasn’t tinkering with it.
They weren’t moving and their eyes showed no sign of recognition. I looked at my hands, and apart from a slight wooziness that I had been feeling ever since I’d met Skinner’s swirling eyes, I felt fine.
“Right, this one had nothing good on her,” said Skinner as he turned around. “I’ll need some inketts to get to Clef before they send more goons after me.”
I met his gaze but didn’t move. He began walking towards us and raised his hand the way he had done before he’d sucked the life out of the black-haired woman.
“Maybe I should go to the Broken Woods instead. Lay low for a couple of years, make some more orbs with kids from Sett,” muttered Skinner. Grey smoke began appearing around his hand.
I pounced. The Tempest’s pages fluttered rapidly towards the front cover inside my head, as I felt my mind heat up.
“What the –” Skinner stumbled backwards and the grey smoke disappeared.
I’d caught him by surprise but defeating him on my own would be a challenge. Luckily, the character I was playing, relished challenges.
I charged at him as he raised his metal fist in my face. However, before my teeth could be knocked out of my skull, I dropped to my knees and repeated the sliding tackle I’d hit him with before.
It was just as ineffective, only this time, touching his skin made me feel like the air was being sucked out of my lungs. I saw grey smoke leave my body, but I clung on. He kicked and sent me sliding across the slippery, muddy ground.
“Why are you not frozen?” he asked.
I coughed. There was an acute pain in my chest that made breathing incredibly difficult. “It’s too warm out,” I quipped, my voice barely escaping throat.
I propped myself up with an arm and met Skinner’s gaze. For some reason, he hadn’t finished me off even though I was lying prone and defenseless. Had he realized I was waiting for him to approach? No, that wasn’t it. He was staring at me intently, wondering something. Then, he approached.
In the movies, the bad guys always came running at the heroes while shouting goofy phrases and insults. Even monsters would howl, or screech, or declare their evilness while barreling towards the protagonists in an exaggerated manner. But this was different, and I took the time to appreciate the cinematic setting.
Under flashing lightning and rumbling thunder, a man walked towards me with a steady gait, his cold, metal fist glimmering under the feeble rays of moonlight that filtered through the dark storm-clouds blanketing the sky, while swirling grey smoke whistled past my ear. He left heavy footprints in the muddy ground, although the incessant rain would wipe them away as surely as this man wished to wipe away my life.
His angry, yet curious gaze met mine as he reached striking distance. Even through the scent of rain and mud, I could smell the rancid odor that came from his body, as if he was a walking, rotting corpse.
“Who are you?” he said as he focused his gaze at me.
I gasped as I felt something probing my head. It was an invasive force that drilled into my mind, heading straight towards my shelf.
I panicked. I couldn’t resist the force. It was going to take everything! My books, my memories, my thoughts, my mind, everything!
My ears buzzed and the force was gone. I heard a scream as my vision returned from the battlefield inside my head, to the one outside.
Skinner lay on the ground by my feet, shouting in agony and holding his head with his hands. He was shaking, and the grey smoke around him was gone. Muffled gasps came from his mouth, and his eyes bulged as if they wanted to pop out of his skull.
He’d tried to read me, I realized as the scene played out before me. His reaction reminded me of Elenor’s from when she had tried to read me, although Skinner’s was much more severe, probably because he had been more forceful.
The Tempest still fluttered in the back of my mind and thunder still rumbled overhead. A thought came to me, and as I stared at Skinner’s writhing, squirming body, I convinced myself that the idea was a good one.
I could already feel the others begin to move behind me but I didn’t move to help them or ask them if they were alright. Instead, I focused on Skinner the way he had focused on me, and tried to read him.
I shuddered and my eyes widened.
A flood of information began filing into my head. Information about Skinner.
His name was Jukas Skinner Tamp, and he was an ex-member of the Fighter’s Guild who left the guild to take over his aunt’s rest-stop inn, after he lost his arm to an Inline operative during a raid on a bandit’s lair.
But running the inn was difficult and tedious, so Jukas spent all his time drinking and messing around, and left all the work to his daughter, Melissa. Jukas had slept around with many women during his life, but Melissa was the only child he knew he’d had, so he’d taken her in after her mother died.
Melissa worked at the inn all alone for a long time, trying to get her father to stop drinking and spending all their money gambling. He raked in a ton of debt, and pissed off a lot of powerful people in Devel. Soon, they came knocking on the door of Villa Serenity, demanding money and apologies.
Jukas watched from the stairway, pretending to be away, so they crowded around Melissa. She managed to calm them down, and promised them she’d have the money for them in a month.
That night, Melissa scolded Jukas, and threw away all his alcohol. It was only then that Jukas sobered up a little and realized the predicament he was in. He tried borrowing money from acquaintances in the guild, but no one trusted an old, crippled drunkard like him. He even tried begging on the streets, but only got some chump change.
With the deadline approaching, Jukas sat in an alleyway with his head between his hands, sobbing. He didn’t want his daughter’s life to be ruined any further because of his actions. He wanted a way to make money appear, as if by magic.
Magic, he’d thought to himself. That was it!
And so, he burned a book on his shelf, a science-fiction story about the inevitable reaction of human society to the crisis of overpopulation. He fainted as the book reached the front cover, and his shelf burned.
It was night when he awoke. Jukas looked at his hands, and saw grey smoke flying out of them. He didn’t know what his new power was, but he noticed the smoke was blowing to the left. He turned and saw a rat rummaging through the garbage in the alley.
The smoke was leading him to the rat, and he instinctively grabbed it. As soon as it was in his grasp, the rat withered and died, and a tiny black ball appeared in the air. He grabbed it, crushed it, and felt the power coursing through his veins.
He could sell this, and he knew just who he could sell it to.
He returned to the inn and told Melissa he had done it, he had figured out a way to pay back his debt! Melissa didn’t believe him, but he insisted it was true. Melissa was overjoyed.
“You did it dad!” she said as she ran over to hug him.
He embraced her too. “Don’t you worry, I’ve got it all under control.”
Then something happened. There was a wall in Skinner’s memories, a wall around what happened next. I felt angry. What was he hiding? How did the story proceed? I needed to know, I wanted to read. Read, I wanted to read more!
The wall burst and the memory continued.
Melissa sniffed. “You smell funny, dad.”
“Sorry,” said Jukas, still holding his daughter to his chest. “I tripped and fell into some garbage, but it’s alright now.”
“You tripped, huh?” Melissa whispered. “I’m glad to hear, you’re back on your feet.”
Jukas smiled. “Yes, yes I am!” He let Melissa out of his embrace and put her at arm’s length.
Her smile was frozen, her lips chapped. Her cheeks had sunken in and there were wrinkles on her forehead.
I heard a scream.
“No!” shouted Skinner. “No! It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault!”
He stood up, and glared at me, veins bulging on his neck. His thin eyebrows were furrowed, and his nostrils flared. However, his eyes glistened in the weak moonlight.
“I don’t care who you are anymore. Die!” He punched at me with his metal fist.
He was too close, I wouldn’t be able to dodge.
A fist collided into the back of his arm, making it miss me by a mile. Then another fist smashed into his face and he toppled over. A shockwave rippled across the muddy mound, sending Skinner’s body hurtling across the ground. Then a black box flew through the air and exploded right next to him.
“Val, are you alright?” asked Ben as the others attacked Skinner.
I let go of the breath I was holding. “Yeah, thanks.”
“I couldn’t move but I saw everything,” said Sally. “It’s a good thing you have such powerful anti-reading measures. As expected of the Broken Witch’s apprentice.”
“Yeah,” I said, looking at Skinner’s body. “Is he down?”
“He should be,” said Jerome. “That was my strongest exploding box. That thing can take down a herd of flopflappers.”
“I think he’s tougher than flopflappers, Jerome,” said Sally.
“But is he tougher than a herd of flopflappers?” said Jerome.
“Doesn’t matter, what matters is that –”
Sally froze in the middle of her sentence. The others were frozen as well. I looked up, and saw Skinner glaring at me from across the field.
Thunder rumbled and lightning flashed across the sky. A familiar scene replayed itself as Skinner stalked over to me.
“I don’t know who you are,” said Skinner, enunciating each syllable separately. “Or what you did to me. But you dared to look inside my head. Killing you won’t be enough. I’m going to rip your soul from your body, slowly, then stuff it back in and do it again.”
I smelled the odor of rot and decay that surrounded him.
“I’m going to listen to your screams as I rip every toenail off your foot, chop your limbs off, and skin you alive.”
I fell to my knees. Skinner chuckled. “That’s right, beg for mercy and I’ll let you die faster.”
The Tempest was getting dangerously close to the front cover but I wasn’t worried. My character flourished in the face of adversity, he was always at his best when things looked the grimmest. Determined, confident, and resourceful; that was the kind of person Demetrius was.
Skinner brought his fist back, his eyes locked onto my face. I pulled out the thing Jerome had given me, and raised it in front of Skinner’s face.
The air around me heated up, and my hair began to float. My vision was submerged in a sea of whiteness that withered away almost immediately. The fleeting flash of whiteness left behind a charred corpse with a half-melted metal fist, and a metal coil that still had sparks dancing on it.
I let The Tempest fall onto my shelf, just as the tempest subsided.