1. THE EYE
“Did you see the eye?”
Steph was a million miles away, thinking about the man in cell number six.
What would lead a person out here, to Border Crossing, at the edge of the world, practically begging to be locked up, to be forgotten?
She felt a sense of boldness, of pride, looking at the little piece of red string she’d tied around her left littlest finger. It was a reminder to add the prisoner to her nightly prayers.
“Steph,” repeated Peter, “hey, Steph.”
“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 highest ranking guard at Border Crossing. To his right was Rudyard, the captain of the night guard.
“The eye. Did you see it?” Peter asked, taking a sip of coffee.
“This morning. There was a giant eye painted on the gate. Rudyard saw it.”
“There was an eye painted on the gate? Which side?”
The world had changed, but Border Crossing still stood. It was a relic, a watchtower at the edge of the world. Like the entrance to the saloon of the gods, a massive iron gate was positioned between two stone towers. The structure stood at the center of the long and narrow land bridge that connected the wilderness to the mainland. The flanking seas were hostile, violent with constant movement and packed with enormous chunks of ice that would crush any fool brave enough to try swimming around Border Crossing.
Beyond the gate, the wilderness was barely known, rumored to be every bit as hostile as the waters that flanked the bridge. Every guard had heard the stories of a vast sea of snow, just out beyond the horizon, where men and women were sent to die. Somewhere, out there, was statue garden of frozen people, forever trying to make it across.
No one passed through Border Crossing anymore and certainly not from the side of the wilderness.
“Which side of the gate,” Steph repeated, concerned.
“Facing out, toward the wilderness.”
“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 working the overnight crew 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 ten feet tall. Scrolled out with blood,” Rudyard added his mouth full of greasy meat. “Weird looking thing, too, like a symbol or whatcha call a hieroglyph. An eye, shaped like an almond, with three lines above and below.”
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. 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.
2. THE PRISONER
The prisoner had arrived nearly a week ago. The morning guard saw him approaching, dirty and bearded and dragging a leathery old corpse 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 resolved to be arrested.
“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 prisoner.
Steph glanced proudly at the small bit of red string still tied around her finger. She had prayed about the prisoner every night since his arrival. As she made her way down the hall to his cell, she knew she was prepared.
Steph was certain she could guide him to a confession and then toward absolution.
Still, she was anxious, nervous, afraid. This was a dangerous man. She would need to be strong and trust in her faith. 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.
“Did you see it?” The prisoner 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 question. He was digging for something beyond the obvious.
“The mess on the gate? No, sorry, I didn’t. The night guard had cleaned it off before I even heard about it,” she said, trying to settle her nerves, trying to be friendly.
“A shame. How many are in the night guard? Did they all see it? Did they all see the eye?”
She felt 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.
The prisoner was wringing his hands slowly, his gaze focused, concentrating. He did not answer her.
“I’ll tell you,” she said, feeling bold. She slipped her hand back into her pocket to touch the little book. It was reassurance. “I’ve come to help you back onto the good path.”
He scoffed without even looking at her.
“Confess your sins. There is still hope for your soul,” she said.
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. “So narrowminded. 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 in the east tower. A guard was found murdered. Near the bloody mess, scrolled neatly in white chalk, was the same eye as was found on the gate.
3. THE SHADOW
“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, her head down, unable to make eye contact.
Their postures, their steps, their words were heavy with sorrow. And, a tinge of fear. Over the last four days, they’d found each of the four night guards murdered.
Border Crossing was a small operation to start with. There were sixteen guards originally assigned to the post. Losing a quarter of their cohort was a difficult reality to accept.
“Yes,” Peter answered. “He was the last of the night guard. I’ve been reassigning guards from other shifts to cover the gaps.”
“Do you have any clues? Any idea who might be doing this or how they would have gotten inside the towers?”
“No. Not really,” he started. “The only clue we have is that strange eye. The symbol that Rudyard talked about, on the gate, 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.
“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 stationed at the edge of the world. We have tough men and women guarding this post. 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.”
“That’s crazy, Peter,” she said, frightened.
“I know, Steph. I just don’t know what else to think.”
She grabbed 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’s a jerk, but… no… do you really think he’s capable of this?”
“I don’t know. He found the first body. He’s violent with the other guards. I have a very bad feeling about this.”
“Have you seen it?” The prisoner asked.
“I told you, it had been cleaned from the gate 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 that one,” he said, enjoying the moment. “It multiplies; does it not?”
Steph leaned forward, intrigued. This man had been locked up since before the murders, since before the eye on the gate. “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.
The prisoner 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 some punches a little easier. “I’m going to lock up Griswold.”
“You still don’t know that he’s the one,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Who else is there?” He said, half pleading, still not totally convinced, himself. “I have to do something.”
“What are you doing?” The prisoner was a little 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, reached the third floor of the east tower. Griswold’s room was just around the corner and down the hall a little ways.
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 had he come here alone? This was a stupid idea. No turning back now.
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 Border Crossing. On a length of leather, dangling from its neck, was a piece of chalk.
“Hey!” Peter shouted. He pulled his weapon and pointed it at the corpse-monster.
“It’s too late,” the prisoner said. “There’s nothing you can do now.”
Steph screamed in frustration and fired her weapon. The shot buried itself in the stone just beside the prisoner’s head. A warning shot.
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 see a corpse, because I needed a way in. But, it’s not a corpse.”
4. THE ROOM
In the room at the top of the east tower, the prisoner 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 prisoner 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 prisoner. “Hey! HEY! You! Are you listening to me? How do we stop this thing?”
The prisoner 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 prisoner, 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 prisoner collapsed onto the hard stone floor.
“Peter!” Shouted Steph.
“Not like I need it. I emptied six shots into that corpse and nothing,” Peter said, broken. He walked over, picked up the weapon and jammed it back into its holster.
The prisoner 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 was ascending the stone steps to the room at the top of the tower, the room Peter and Steph had claimed for their last stand.
There was an assertive knock at the door.
Steph positioned herself behind Peter. Both pulled their knives. The prisoner smiled, excitedly.
“I’ve waited so long for this,” the prisoner 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 man, dressed thickly with animal furs.
“Who is that?” Peter blurted, becoming absolute panic.
The prisoner turned a gloating, knowing glance toward Steph and Peter. “You should have prepared as I have. The moment of reckoning is…”
He froze in puzzled horror.
In a harmonious dance of movements, Steph reached out, grabbing Peter by the chin. She pulled him close to 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.”
Her arm was a blur as she cut open his throat. Blood burst from the severed arteries, spraying across the room. She released him. The 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 man standing in the doorway. He tossed the prisoner’s corpse-monster, limp and inanimate, onto the floor.
Steph walked purposefully, differently, toward the prisoner. “What were you saying about prepared?”
“But… but… but,” he said, unable to comprehend the unfolding situation. 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. He was frozen, half-standing before her.
“Tourist,” she said, driving the knife slowly into his heart. She gave it a sharp twist before pulling it back out. He dropped to the floor, tears running down his cheeks.
Steph knelt to wipe the knife clean on the prisoner’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 tried,” she said, before dropping it onto the prisoner’s sticky, bloody body.
She stood and turned to the man in the doorway. “I am Stephanie. I am a Witness to the Architect. I am ready to help you.”
“Do you have it?” Coyote asked.
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.