The story begins with Masked – The Fortress (1). To access installments in narrative sequence, click on an entry title, then click on “Next” at the end of that installment.
The beetle held preternaturally still. It did not even wave its antennae. John fancied that it had paused to weigh an arcane internal calculation, but the pause grew to an awkward length. When the bleeding stopped, the beetle crawled across the slope of John’s belly to wait expectantly on his bed.
“What do you want?” John snapped. “I’m not cutting myself any deeper than this!” Annoyed, he left his room to clean off his side in the bathroom and rub something antibacterial into the cut, which he could not bandage effectively. He grunted, returned to his bedroom, and put on a T-shirt.
The beetle had climbed off his bed onto his computer desk, and had started to meander around the base of his mouse cage. As before, the panicked mice huddled as far from the beetle as possible. John remembered how the beetle had circled them earlier. Might they know something he didn’t?
Another thought occurred to him. He liked it even less than he had liked the idea of cutting himself. Sacrifice. A lot of ancient cultures had incorporated animal sacrifice into their rituals. Pain. He had always taken better care of his pets than himself. He opened the cage and reached for the mouse pile. He needed to resolve which of the mice would be enough for the awful beetle, or whether it would demand all three of them. Steeling himself, he reached for Ruby. If he were to offer the beetle his best first, perhaps he would be allowed to keep the other two.
Ruby’s fear of the beetle had paralyzed her. She did not run from John’s hand. He picked up the best combination of ‘heavy’ and ‘precise’ that he could find easily, which happened to be a padlock he had recently purchased, and held Ruby down. The first blow dazed her. The second didn’t make any visible difference, so he attacked her again, and then a fourth time. The strikes continued to appear ineffective, so he pressed down as hard as he could with the lock and heard her skull splinter. For the second time that night, he cried.
The beetle crossed John’s computer desk to find Ruby’s warm corpse.
“This had better be good enough for you,” John hissed. “This is the best that I have.”
It crawled onto Ruby and then held still again, like it had on John’s wound. This time, John saw a light warming inside the transparent beetle’s innards. It reminded him of the pale stalactites in Bloodwater’s cavern, except the beetle’s light glowed red. The light fluctuated in time with John’s pulse, which he could feel at the back of his throat. John had just enough time to wonder whether there was a special place in hell for pet owners like him before the beetle’s power activated.
Thank you for reading! In the next installment, John discovers how Bloodwater intends for him to rendezvous with Amica.
Previous Aum stories include Globe Without Goodbye.
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