Styx took his sweet time, surveying the room, looking over everything and everyone. His arms were outstretched, as if he was presenting the scene that he saw before him. He studied every face, observing every detail he could soak in.
Then his eyes fell on D, and then me.
Wide, widening I saw more the whites of his eyes than the pupils. He was still beaming, harder than ever, and his fingers twitched. He balled up his hands, releasing, balling them up again. Releasing. Like electricity coursed through his body. He shuddered.
His eyes were still trained on me.
He looked nearly frantic, like he couldn’t contain himself. Excited.
“Remain calm,” Styx said, looking anything but. “I only plan to do… whatever I want.”
‘En garde,’ and then ‘remain calm?’ Was he aware that he was inherently contradicting himself?
No one moved, no one made a sound. Nothing was stopping me from doing anything, I had the weight and the power to throw around, but…
Something was compelling me to fall in line. To listen, just like everyone else. Being brought down to their level. And to concede this moment to Styx.
I hated that I didn’t have that control.
But, it was either that, or pulling something that might put D at risk. We were surrounded before, and now those numbers, and the amount of threats, had swelled. Trying anything now would, more likely than not, lead to a disaster, especially when I was down and I had to get myself up. To the higher ground. D’Angelo’s words.
I can’t even circle about, here.
I lowered my head more. My hood should have obscured my face from everyone else but D and Styx. For Styx’s eyes only, I gave him a heated glare.
That seemed to make him beam even more.
“Hi,” he said.
I refused to grace him with a greeting back.
He didn’t drop his expression as he broke his gaze, letting it wander again, getting one more look over.
Everyone – that wasn’t with Styx – was frozen, unsure of what to do next, or what was about to happen. Dong-Yul’s men were petrified, still reeling from the attack in the dark, and now seeing their boss, and their plans, compromised. Nobody dared to move.
Seemingly satisfied, Styx turned around and motioned to the men behind him. To Lawrence and Dong-Yul.
They were still holding hands.
Styx motioned with his hands. A number of his men took their backs off the wall to join him. He motioned again.
Following Styx’s orders, his Ferrymen pushed Lawrence and Dong-Yul forward. Styx stepped to the side, letting them take center stage.
Styx still had command of the room, though.
“See? We all can get along!”
His face must have hurt by now, smiling as much as he was. Yet he kept at it. I would have been impressed if it weren’t so sickening.
“Isn’t it beautiful?”
Clearly he was enjoying himself.
There was movement as Lawrence took a step to Styx, and his Ferrymen bristled. They all tensed, ready to pounce on anyone who would dare touch their master, let alone speak against him. That was how I interpreted it, anyways.
“Dammit, Styx, quit fucking around and quit fucking with us!”
There wasn’t even a moment to react or process. Lawrence was on the ground, curled up arms covering his face and head, and Styx was pounding on him, stomping at him with heavy steel-toed boots. Dong-Yul had tripped over, on his knees, after whatever force sent Lawrence down hard.
“Do. Not. Fuck. King. Speak. While. I. Am. Feeling it!”
Styx punctuated every word, every syllable, with a kick to Lawrence’s side or arm. With the way Lawrence’s head jolted back, Styx probably got a good hit there, too.
I winced, feeling for Lawrence, feeling terrible. He couldn’t seem to catch a break.
D stirred, then she bursted out of my arms.
I tried to grab her and pull her back, but she was running hard, running fast. She pushed past some of the men in suits, and some of the Ferrymen who hadn’t gotten into position around the walls.
They didn’t stop her, giving D a straight line to Styx. Would they have stopped me if I ran, instead?
D jumped at Styx, her arms wrapping around his shoulders, her feet off the ground as she secured a hold. Styx didn’t look all that muscular, maybe closer to being spindly, but he stayed his ground while D was swinging, trying to throw her weight around. It didn’t work, he hardly budged, still kicking down Lawrence.
D kept at it all the same.
“Dummy! Stop it! You jerk!”
Bless her, she tried, but she couldn’t get Styx to stop, or ever falter. Even with the floor being wet. He only did because of his own volition.
Styx rolled his shoulders, forcing D to drop back down. He turned to face her.
D punched him in the arm.
“Dummy!” she shouted again.
I watched for the reactions of the Ferrymen. None of them budged.
“Are you done?” he asked, in a casual manner that stood out to me. That tone, that response to a kid. It wasn’t really in that patronizing manner that one would use when talking to someone younger. It went deeper than that, an implication of some familiarity, and, at least on some level, respect.
Lawrence had mentioned that Styx and D went way back, but to see it with my own eyes, with D yelling at Styx, hitting him to get him to stop, and with him addressing her in that casual manner…
Even seeing it with my own eyes, it was still hard to believe.
D crossed her arms, and stomped her foot. I could only see the back of her head, but she looked indignant.
She was talking back to Styx, of all people. And he was letting her.
“I am now,” Styx said, dismissive. He shifted his balance, so he wasn’t standing over Lawrence, with his foot still hovering above him.
“Get off!” D shouted, shoving Styx away. One last try at getting him to fall. It still didn’t pan out.
Styx rolled with it, stepping over Lawrence before catching himself, smooth. He fixed his jacket with a hard tug.
“There,” he said, “Happy?”
D didn’t answer, instead kneeling over Lawrence, tending to him. As she worked, her back to me, I stole another glance ahead.
Styx was standing still, without the energy from before, almost deflated after D rudely interrupted him. Dong-Yul was picking himself back up, careful, as if to not set off Styx again.
He tried to get his bearings as well, looking over the whole lounge, and then his eyes fell onto me.
“Styx, what the fuck is all of this? Who the fuck are you?”
He was asking about me.
I stayed still, crouched low, refusing to acknowledge him, ignoring his questions.
Styx addressed him instead.
“You are not allowed to talk here, Donnie.”
He recoiled, flinching at the admonishment. To Dong-Yul, Styx was speaking to him like he would a child.
Dong-Yul didn’t look at all happy about it, but he had no choice. He went silent.
“Good,” Styx said, “Now where was I?”
Again, he took back control of the room. The situation.
“Ah yes, getting along. It’s as beautiful as I was told it would be.”
He clapped his hands together.
“It’s like a white canvas. Can’t say it’s my thing, personally, but that is what tastes are, and I’d like to think I’m the kind of person who tries to acquire as much as I can. White, though. For me, I’d much prefer a splash of red. But I digress.”
I had no idea what he was talking about.
He continued to address the room. Or more like he was talking just to talk.
“Some people can be so blind. Seeing only what they want to see, liking only the colors they like. They never see what else is out there for them. Sometimes, it’s better than what they were looking at and searching for. Other times… you should be aware of your surroundings.”
His wide, too-white eyes landed on me again.
“Gonnelli! Can you see the scene you sculpted with your very fingers?”
I thought he was talking about painting. Now sculpting?
Now I was officially and totally lost.
What was Styx doing here to begin with? Why did he have Lawrence and Dong-Yul? What the fuck was he talking about?
Too many questions, and I wasn’t really in a position to ask.
But, he was talking to me, directly. Styx. It would be wrong to ignore him.
“I didn’t know you were a fan of my work,” I said, playing along. I tried deepening my voice, masking that as well.
“It still needs some refining, but I do think you’re onto something. Experimenting and seeing other methods to craft your art, will make for much more dynamic pieces in the future. I’m looking forward to it.”
He beamed again.
Yeah. Officially lost.
I wasn’t sure how to go about dealing with a guy like Styx. He seemed like he could snap at any second. He certainly snapped at Lawrence after just talking out of line. It wasn’t like he could beat me up, I wasn’t in his reach, and he didn’t have that kind of strength, but he did have the command of his men, and the room, and the situation. If he so desired, he could fill this place with more holes and lead than people.
He seemed to be keen to madness. I’d have to lean into that, appeal to that side of him. Appeal to that side of myself.
If I want to sell it properly and get out of this with everyone intact.
“I’ll look into it,” I said, “Art is ever-evolving, anyways.”
“Yes, it is.”
Where the hell is this conversation going?
“Now, Styx,” I said, cautious, “If I may be so bold as to steer this talk a little bit…”
I trailed out at the end, to test Styx in a way, to gauge his reaction. Would just that much be enough to make him flip?
I watched for the slightest of movements, any sign, however subtle. I couldn’t catch a thing.
Damn, it was so hard to get a read on the guy.
It was only when Styx spoke did I get any indication.
“Enough with the posturing, get on with it.”
I was more envious of D’s ability to smack Styx without repercussions than I was perplexed. And it made me unsure of what my next move should be. If I should even have a next move.
Styx jumped to whatever was next on his twisted agenda.
“Get him up.”
Some of Styx’s Ferrymen moved, going to D and Lawrence. She was still taking care of him, making sure he was okay.
D noticed that they were approaching. She didn’t like it.
“Get away! Back off!”
“I said get back! Or I pinky promise I’ll do something! I’ll spill rats down a wire cage attached to your faces! I’ll steal all of your personal info and passwords and upload them online! I’ll tape papers with bad words on them to your backs!”
Despite the warnings from a little girl, they continued. They worked together to split the pair apart.
One of them went for D, and she struck, swinging her fist to hit them across the temple. It connected.
He didn’t keep his balance like Styx did, but he didn’t completely fall to the ground. He wobbled, but he was still able to sweep D up with his arms, more prepared to hold her back when she kicked and hollered. It was the helmet that he was wearing that softened the blow.
I’ve seen that helmet before.
It was the same Ferryman that had given me the keys to the Lunar, the fake IDs.
I searched around. I didn’t have to look far.
The other Ferryman. The one I’d encountered during our burning of East Stephenville. The biker with long brown hair, tied back, looking almost as crazy as his boss. He was working on getting Lawrence back to his feet, propping him up when Lawrence was unable to stand straight on his own. Parts of his face and clothes had gotten wet from being in contact with the slippery floor.
So badly did I want to fly across the room and break them apart. To get Styx’s people away from mine. But they were already too tangled up, and Styx was so unpredictable that I couldn’t plan for any possible reaction on his part to counter. I didn’t want to make a move that I couldn’t follow up on, if I couldn’t guess what the opponent’s counter would be. It was all a gamble with Styx. And unless the odds were stacked in my favor by a large, large margin, I hated gambles.
“Grab El, he is to hold hands with-”
“Styx, god dammit, stop fucking around and explain yourself-”
Stepping forward, interrupting Styx. Dong-Yul was willing to make that gamble. It didn’t work out for him.
He crashed into a table, toppling over with him. Styx ran and tackled him with such an intensity and disregard for his own body and safety that bordered on manic.
Styx got up first, and Dong-Yul followed, as Styx lifted him with straps and latches that made up his jacket. A certain number of Ferrymen sprung to action without an order from their boss, running from their different positions at the perimeter, fixing the table and holding it down.
He slammed Dong-Yul back down to the table. It didn’t topple this time.
Not kicks, but fists. Styx laid into Dong-Yul with every word echoing.
“What. The. Fuck. Did. I. Tell you!”
Each fist was made more red as Styx pulled out from his face, thin trails of blood following the knuckles, connecting the two of them like threads. Deeper, more red, the color darkening.
I looked away.
“Tell me, what the fuck did I say?”
“The fuck did I say! Tell me!”
Punch. Punch. Squelch.
“Tell me! Tell me! Tell me!”
Squelch. Squelch. Squelch.
It was like the sound of raw meat slapping against a marble slab. It nauseated. And was what worse was the sweet smell that began to waft from that direction.
I heard more noises, more movement. Like something cutting through air, and then another crash. I could only use my imagination, and I didn’t really want to.
He must have flipped him to the other table, the Ferrymen holding that one, too.
More punches, more squelching.
Styx and Dong-Yul went silent, both for very different reasons.
The silence stayed for some time.
“Clean this up.”
More sounds of activity. None of the wet noises from before.
I chanced a look.
The Ferrymen were working on cleaning ‘this’ up. They each were taking out rags from their leather jackets, setting the tables back to where they belonged, cleaning the surfaces and spraying away the blood with water. They kept pulling supplies from their jackets, sharing with one another whenever any of them needed something. One group of Ferrymen would spray the tables, another would wipe and dry, and another was setting Dong-Yul down to do whatever it was they were going to do with him.
A final pair of Ferrymen had towels, washing Styx’s hands as he talked once more.
“Now I hope you’ve learned the lessons you needed to learn. Do take Donnie here as another lesson as to what happens if you don’t get the simple things through your skulls. It’s so simple.”
I couldn’t make sense of anything that was happening, or what had happened leading up to this. Something about a fight in the dark? It wasn’t even anything directly involving me, yet, somehow, Styx created a situation so twisted and illogical and wrong that I couldn’t keep up. I tried to keep up, but it he was seemingly on another plane of existence.
I was discombobulated.
I watched Styx as he continued. It was all I could really do.
“I know all of your faces, and if I need to, I can learn all of your names. Your little crusade ends here. This war you think you were preparing for, it’s over. Your army has been stripped away and dismantled. You no longer are allowed access to those uniforms. And if you so much as look at a shirt with buttons on it… I’ve given you several examples.”
Gesturing behind him, to Dong-Yul. I realized that Styx was looking at each and every one of Dong-Yul’s men in the face.
He gestured again.
“There’s two elevators. If I may be so bold as to ask you all to take your leave, it would be much appreciated.”
Using my words, or some of them. Posturing. He really was just doing whatever the fuck he wanted.
After everything that just happened, everything Styx had done, I couldn’t blame anyone for taking long to start moving. Realizing they were allowed to, given that privilege by someone above them.
Dong-Yul’s men started walking. Slow, going together, filling the elevators that a Ferryman called for them. Most of them stared me down as they passed. For them, I was right there, like how Styx was right there, but they were powerless to do anything about it.
It took minutes, to get everyone in and out of the lounge, with Dong-Yul getting his own elevator to himself. Two Ferrymen carried him by the arms and legs, moving him with the utmost care so he wouldn’t bump into anything. Where Styx was capable of such violence, his men knew how to counter that.
I couldn’t see Dong-Yul’s face. His dyed hair was stained red.
Then, and only then, when the doors closed and what was left of Dong-Yul was out of sight, did I realize that Lawrence, D, and I were still stuck in a room with this biker psychopath and his merry band of other psycho bikers.
My heart started beating so hard I felt my body ache.
It was just me, Lawrence, D, and Styx’s Gang now.
Fuck me. Fuck us. Fuck all of this.
Styx clapped one more time, his hands now clean and dry. One of his men started collecting the red, soddened rags into a plastic bag.
“Onto the next one,” he said, somehow sounding bored.
We’re next, I thought.
With more gestures and motions, he ordered his men to come closer. The ones were still standing around the room began to walk forward, in unison, making the perimeter smaller.
They were closing in on us.
I wanted to avoid them, didn’t want them to touch me. I didn’t even want them to be near me, but I had no choice in that regard.
I walked over to the center of the lounge, the center of the perimeter Styx’s men were making.
I met D there, she’d been released by the helmeted Ferryman. Lawrence was now being supported by him and the other Ferryman I had met before.
D went to my side, hugging me. I put an arm around her.
Lawrence… wasn’t looking too hot. He was better than Dong-Yul by miles, but he was still taken up to a threshold of pain that certainly was not comfortable. He was hunched, cradling an arm, more bandages on his face. His expression was one of hurt. It hurt to look at him.
I couldn’t bear it anymore.
“Styx,” I said, facing him head on. The whole front of my body was pointed in his direction. Shoulders straight and square. Head held high. He was much taller than me.
“What?” he asked, with that disinterested demeanor. It was like all the fight in him had left his body, and he was the only one doing the fighting.
This was him. Styx. I was face to face with the man who was connected to the Solace conspiracy, how Benny fit into all of that, and Mister.
He had been active in trying to take Blank Face out, and had a hand in Hleuco’s disappearance. That, I would never be able to forget.
And yet he was also the man who pulled strings to get us into the Lunar Tower, giving us a direct line to Granon in order to stop his group.
So many contradictions.
There was so much I wanted to ask him about, to interrogate or even beat that information out of him if I could. But, I wasn’t holding the reigns, here, and I’d have to start from the most pressing matter, first.
I readied myself.
“You better seriously fucking explain yourself with this. I, we, were in the middle of something, and you went ahead and… you didn’t throw a wrench in it, you broke the whole fucking machine.”
Styx leaned his head one way, with a soft grin. “Ah thank you.”
I clenched my hands. If I didn’t have my gloves on, my fingernails would have punctured the skin of my palms.
Styx fixed his jacket again, stroking his beard, straightening wiry hairs.
“Seriously? Seriously. If fucking anything, I was the one in the middle of something, and you meddling kids and your little bitch came in with the wrench to throw. But actually, you are right, I was the one to break the machine, so thank you again for the opportunity. I managed to salvage some fun out of it.”
“You knew about Dong-Yul and his volunteers?”
Styx looked legitimately offended, which was not a good thing.
“Bitch, I have been knowing. I’ve been following Donnie’s movements ever since his brother got offed and he took over, watching as he formed his army and tried to start his new cause. I was going to wait for the moment he was going to try something with them, I even knew what he had planned and where he had in mind. And you came and got ahead of me. I’ll have to keep a note of that, your enthusiasm. It would be impressive if it hadn’t gotten in my way.”
“You didn’t have to do that to Lawrence, you jerk.”
D spoke up, popping her head out from under my poncho.
“I had to set an example for Donnie and his boys, otherwise they wouldn’t get the message. Relax, D, I didn’t go for anything vital, and I know I didn’t break anything. I have self-control. You know that more than anyone here.”
“So that was just for show?” I asked, “All of it?”
“Not all of it. I do get enjoyment out of my work, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. But, I did have to deter them from their original course of action. I can’t have them conducting business in a way that interferes with my business, because my business is everyone’s business.”
“If Donnie started up trouble with tensions being what they are, it would make things even more complicated for this city, and everyone in it.”
“Effects ripple, leading to unforeseen circumstances. As fun as those can be, it allows room for disaster if you’re not careful, being blindsided. I detest that.”
He said those last three word with such clarity, it resonated within me. Because I was much the same way.
“I…” I started. “That can be a hassle.”
“Mass hysteria, something you seem to have a knack for causing.”
I couldn’t tell if Styx was criticizing me or commending me. Or maybe a little bit of both?
Then Styx directed himself to me. Like how I did to him.
“Hi,” he said again.
My response was the same as before.
“You’re looking much better than the last time I saw you. You were positively vibrating, then. If there’s more where that came from, I can dig this update very much.”
My response was the same as before. Mostly because I had no idea how to begin to touch that.
“What do they call you, back at home base?” Styx asked. “Voss?”
I was glad that I still had my mask on, and that my skin had turned so white, over the months of having powers. He couldn’t see my expression change to dread and shock, and there was no color left to drain from my face.
I felt D tug tighter around the fabric of my poncho.
“So you do know,” I said, doing my best to drum up the confidence. To not look shaken. Fake it if I had to. And I had to. “Did D give you my warning?”
“She did. I considered it, as the courtesy as it was, but I’ll be riding on King of Pentacles long after everything’s said and done. I’m not sweating it.”
“Eh.” Styx shrugged. “Death’s been waiting for me with a rope in hand, but she knows I can’t leave just yet. Too many people are standing on my shoulders. If I ever fall into a casket…”
“Unforeseen circumstances?” I asked.
Styx smiled in response. It made my skin crawl.
“You catch on quick. That’s funny.”
“But you’re still the fool I remember from back then.”
That word, I repeated back to Styx.
“You don’t remember? It was the first time we met. I can still see it in my mind’s eye, that image of you flailing with a chain around your neck. And what did I call you then. Oh yeah, the Blueballs.”
Several images flickered, as if someone had shined a strobe light into my eyes. I shook my head.
“Oh yeah, and I believe I had broken both your arms then, too. Yet here you are, as if it never happened. It’s not a good look for me, you know, when people think I can’t finish what I start. I have a reputation to keep.”
I tried to breathe, but it hitched.
Even if I couldn’t remember that exactly, I could feel a intense pressure begin to coil around my neck. Hard to breathe, hard to stay composed. Connections trying to come back online, after I had already put them down and laid them to rest.
I felt the beginnings of a headache.
It physically hurt to regain an equilibrium, and I had to do it while standing my ground here with Styx, and not giving any tells. Shit.
I hadn’t felt something like that since I left that old life behind.
“That was so long ago,” I said, voice sounding more dry than I wanted it to. “I’d like to think I’ve gotten better since then.”
“Or you could have just gotten better at hiding your flaws. From everyone and yourself. As foolish as ever.”
“You’re off the mark,” I said, but I was unsure if I was saying that more for him or for myself. “Totally off the mark.”
“I admit I could be, our interactions have been very limited. But, I seen crazy shit, man, seen crazy shit, and I know how to call it when I see it. And I can see-”
He raised a hand, wagging a finger, as if accusatory.
“-what you refuse to.”
The playing yet warning tone, the toothy sneer that came with it. He was toying with me.
D tugged even tighter. She’d crinkle the material if she kept that up.
“Lo, little Dolly,” Styx said. He was talking to her now. “It’s been fun seeing this side of you, thirsting so desperately for blood when all you need is water. I’m sorry to say, but you won’t be finding it in these two. They’re the dummies, and you’re grasping for straws, and stuffing them with it. I thought you grew out of this, already?”
“Hush, Styx, I don’t have to explain myself to you. Not anymore.”
“Of course you don’t. And I will respect that.”
Dolly. I hadn’t heard that one. That wasn’t the name she told me. A nickname?
Lawrence had mentioned that D and Styx went way back.
“What is this, really?” I questioned. The question ended up being more universal than specific. “Between you two. It bothers me, with you being so familiar.”
“Does it? Do I sense of hint of jealousy?”
“Curiosity, is all.”
“I… don’t even think I want to hear it.”
Lawrence. He struggled to get out his piece in this stilted conversation.
“There’s a legit chance it might be worse than anything I want to guess.”
I looked at D and Styx again.
“You two… You couldn’t have possibly…”
I didn’t finish the thought, not out loud. I wasn’t even sure if that was a thought I wanted to finish.
D didn’t say anything. Styx did.
“I am not a vain and cruel wretch, nor am I a hateful person. I chose to see past what she reduced herself to. Past the letter.”
He didn’t confirm or deny. Confirm or deny what, though? I had never finished the thought.
Maybe I didn’t want to know. I was with Lawrence on this one.
“Anyways,” I said, feeling more tired from just a conversation, ignoring the fight I had just gotten into earlier. “What else are you here for, Styx? We inadvertently got ahead of your plans, sure, but you couldn’t have come here just to give us a warning, too. We aren’t like Dong-Yul’s gang, and I think on some level you know that.”
Styx laughed, too hard for whatever he found funny.
“Actually, I did come here to do exactly that. But it’s two-fold. I really did want to see El and Donnie holding hands, getting along. Because, for humans, peace is an acquired taste, and they have to force themselves into it. It’s important to be reminded of that for my job, and I cannot ever slack, and the moment I slip up, even for a second, it all falls apart, and that’s on me. It’s weight on my shoulders, that only I can carry.”
I really fucking hated how much I got that.
Styx moved over to one of the tables. He pointed to some of the men at the perimeter, and they broke formation to prepare chairs.
“Come, sit,” he said. “Watch, speak, listen.”
I detested how hard it was to get my bearings with Styx. Every other minute, it seemed, he would do or say something that caused me to step back and try to understand it, only for everything to stack and I’d end up falling behind. It was so unfocused, scatterbrained, but not like how Dong-Yul and his gang’s structure was. This was… This had to be deliberate. This had to be a tactic. To keep himself ahead of everyone else, to maintain power and control.
Not a bad tactic, but I didn’t have to like it when it was used against me.
We went to the table, silent. D helped Lawrence settle into a chair, taking the chair between us when she finished. The helmeted and the brown-haired Ferrymen didn’t take seats beside their boss, rather they stood right behind him, one to his left and right. Were they his lieutenants, or something to that effect?
This was the worst reunion ever.
More seconds of silence. We had to wait for Styx to start.
“I came here to stop Donnie, he was prime to cause a fuckton of trouble, but the truth is, you all are much worse. With the three of you working together, with the capabilities you each bring to the table, your gang is liable to leave a much bigger and far wider impact than any gang in Stephenville. That can either be a good thing, or the destruction of everything I worked to build. Both ways sound entertaining, but I’m not ready for a grand finale, not yet.”
Sweat began to form around the back of my neck. How much did he really know?
“So, it’s up to me to steer you in the right direction. Which was one of the many, many reasons why I elected to help D the three times she came to me about this.”
The third favor that D refused to talk about.
“Of course, I have to have my own fun with it.”
Styx beamed again. Seeing it so wide and free, it filled me with disgust.
“So you’re here to…” I started, but Styx interrupted.
“You do catch on quick. Very good! Yes, I’m here to cash in my first favor.”
One out of three. It had already begun. We stuck to our original plan, and Styx had showed himself, and it was up in the air how ready we really were.