Prompt/inspiration: “This had been the end of someone else’s journey.” Till the serial killer.
This, right here, had been the end of someone else’s journey. Till eyed the bundle of rags and the skeleton beneath and a sadness suffused him. It made him think of where his journey would end–under which sun and at whose hands? Jack had called him a killer and Till had leaned into the word, embracing it, wrapping himself around it although it felt sharp and honed as a blade.
Jack, laughing, had called Till a killer. And now, lost in the desert with someone else’s end at his feet, Till knew he was.
When he lifted his eyes, blinking at the glare of the sun off the sand, a man in grey robes stood before him. The man stood with miles of footprints behind him, and Till wondered how long he’d been engrossed with the corpse, to miss his oncoming and arrival. The sun behind him, dirt running down his face in a sheen of sweat, Till felt gritty and violent and mean. With his clothes torn and his burned flesh exposed, he felt pagan and ancient and righteous. He did not feel afraid.
Beside the the man stood a demon–not a demon due to twisted horns or goat eyes or sulfur, but because Till’s hostile gaze found the broad, massive creature and his brain called it a demon. Something in him knew. The demon wore a leather cuirass and a dead, leaden stare above no expression. The other, thin and grey, stared at Till with eyes too bright, too cogent, for his hollow face.
“Awful lot of desert for us to be running across each other,” Till said.
“You ran across him,” the stranger said, pointing at the bones with a long finger.
Till, dirty and mean and pagan, considered for a long moment. He knew the implication.
“The man is a skeleton,” he said. “Clearly I didn’t kill him.”
Killer, Jack laughed in the back of his head.
“Then what did? The journey? What was the traveler’s folly?” A pause. “Time passes differently in the desert. A man killed turns to dust in ten minutes, or two days, or five years.”
“Who are you?” Till crossed his arms and flicked his eyes from one to the other, less unnerved by the demon than he thought he should be.
“I am the Starving Man,” the stranger said.
“And who is he?”
“The demon Brother.” The demon did not move, or breathe, to signify he’d heard his name.
“Why are you here?”
The sun felt a little hotter, Till thought. Sweat ran down his body and he felt it, every inch of it.
“To prove you killed the traveler.”
They sat around a fire Brother had created in his hands and they did not eat or drink. Till abstained because the others had produced nothing in the way of food or water, and Till knew the desert and guarded his resources jealously. The sun which had been overhead had slipped beneath the horizon as though chased–time passes differently in the desert, a voice said in Till’s mind, and Till thought that lately he heard too many voices in his head, too few of them his own.
This desert fell into a silent darkness, still and thoughtful, biding its time. Till found himself holding his breath along with it.
“Till, born Matilda of Herald’s Forge, at the base of the snowbound mountains. Silesia-born. Loved Lilly and then Jack.”
“Is that a question?” Till asked, truculent because he no longer felt mean now that night had fallen. The uneasy firelight threw erratic shadow and illumination into the Starving Man’s sharp, canny eyes.
“No,” the Starving Man said. “You killed your first victim when you were fifteen. Followed him home and pushed him down a flight of stairs. Threw up at the sound of his body breaking.”
Till’s muscles tensed but his–killer’s–calm kept this eyes steady on the man and the demon.
“Your third-to-last victim, you were twenty-two and you stabbed a woman in a cornfield after setting it on fire to lure her out.”
“No,” Till said, his throat dry, his voice cracking. “No.”
“Your penultimate victim,” the Starving Man said, “Lilly. A strange circumstance. Jack bashed her head against a wall in your name. You infected him.”
“No,” Till said, but it sounded like a plea.
“Your final victim,” the Starving Man said.
“No!” Till lunged to his feet and Brother rose in unison with him. Till dodged around the fire, his brief flash of rage quickly extinguished but his resentment and self-pity demanding he harm the Starving Man. Brother met him and abruptly the demon, broad-shouldered and mighty, loomed over him. Fierce Till, made tough and remorseless after his days in the desert, inhaled sharply and stepped back.
Killer, Jack tittered. Till felt the familiar, worn handle of one of his knives clenched in his palm. Instantly he hated how easy it felt, how little he’d thought about the prospect of driving the blade into the Starving Man. Watching with inveterate patience, the Starving Man lifted a finger to point again at the traveler’s corpse. Till shouldn’t have been surprised when he looked at the bones and saw Jack’s cloak wrapped around them.
The shock rippled through him and Till stood steady.
“I didn’t do this,” Till said. “That isn’t Jack.”
“A killer cannot simply change,” the Starving Man said.
“Do you not miss the fear of the woman in the cornfield? The sense of closure? Of revenge on a world too cruel for too long?”
Till gritted his teeth. Two birthdays traveling with Jack since he’d slain the woman in the cornfield. Two years of slow withdrawal, hot and shaking, using knives stained with human blood to cut firewood. Two years.
“No.” He bit out the word, malice returning to him. Around them, the night endured.
“A killer cannot simply change,” the man said again, contemplative this time, so Till did not answer. Hot rage boiled in his gut but he sat down anyway, folding his legs and lowering himself back into his place across the fire from the man and his demon.
“Do you hate yourself, then?”
Till clenched his hands at his sides, then scraped his fingers into the sand to hide his tension. He hated the way his heart pounded, hated the way the color ran into his face. Hated the sheen of sweat he felt across his forehead. He said nothing.
“No court on this plane will learn of your crimes,” the Starving Man said. “So do you suffer in the court of your own making?”
Till said nothing.
“You walk this path and even in company you are alone. This is the punishment you have given yourself. You are still a killer.”
Finally he shook his head, thinking of the months he had endured with nightmares of killing, so vivid they filled him up and poured out into his waking thoughts. Months of drowning in blood in his dreams and waking up to carve lines into his thighs, his stomach, his hips, where years of faded scars reminded him that this body would never be right. Not for him.
“Who was the last person you killed?”
“The woman in the cornfield.”
“Not the traveler?”
“Not the traveler.”
The Starving Man stood and the sun rose behind him, not glorious but dull and dead. The sand reflected its light with a lackluster sheen that waxed into a blinding sea of white. Till closed his eyes against the headache he felt growing between his temples.
Sweat prickled at the back of his neck and tears prickled in the corners of his eyes.
“Does the traveler’s death trouble you?”
Till opened his eyes and stared balefully up at the Starving Man. The man stared back and he’d grown a rusty salt and pepper beard in the time it’d taken for the night to pass. Glancing away, Till looked at his hands, folded atop his knees. A killer’s composure.
“He died alone,” Till said. It made him think of the safety of his life in Herald’s Forge. The ability to take jobs killing people and make enough money to live a simple, if unextraordinary, life. And somehow he’d ended up out here, trudging through a desert, as utterly alone as the traveler himself.
“You died alone,” the Starving Man said, his voice going soft. Till looked up and he shook his head.
“Aren’t you cold?” the Starving Man said.
Till’s brow furrowed and the sun baked down upon them from high overhead. He remembered–having a cloak. Jack had asked him that–aren’t you cold?–and he’d given Till his cloak.
A sharp inhalation.
“Tell me who my last victim was,” he said. He felt ready to hear it.
The Starving Man’s eyes peered at him, sharp and curious and sympathetic.
“Your final victim was Till of Herald’s Forge.”
“How did I kill him?”
“You denied him,” the Starving Man said. “He knew neither food nor water, neither empathy nor compassion. He died alone.”
Till staggered to his feet and the heat felt like something alive inside him. He stepped forward and fell against the Starving Man, beat his fists into the gaunt frame. He did not see Brother twitch, the demon coming to furious life. He did not see the Starving Man stay the demon with a palm held flat toward him. The demon’s face lost its snarl, the eyes becoming hard and lifeless, flat pools to reflect the sun.
Till, his fists wrapped in the torn fabric of a stranger’s cloak, fell to his knees and came awake. He knelt in a heap of desiccated bones. Blinking, he felt the sweat dripping down his skin, felt the sun at its zenith beating down upon him.
Killer, Jack’s voice taunted at the back of his mind.
“I didn’t kill the traveler,” Till said aloud, his voice dry and crackling.
Silently he gathered his things and moved on, following the traveler’s footsteps toward the edge of the desert.