** Author’s Note** — To my esteemed readers:  The following chapters carry scenes of extreme violence that may possibly be of a disturbing nature.  I warn you of this for two reasons:  one, thus far in the story there has been very little of what I might call “mature content,” save perhaps Daniel’s language from time to time.  I would not recommend sharing these chapters with your kids until you’ve read them first.  Second:  I don’t recommend eating while reading this chapter and tomorrow’s post.  Just a word of warning. 

 Owen got down from his carriage and told the driver to be back in a half hour.  He held up the hem of his robes, trying to keep the mud of the street off their fine fabric.  Gingerly, he walked towards the nearby shop, pushing aside a small child with his girth to get through the doorway.  He hardly noticed, and barely heard the child’s indignant cry.  He had more important things to do.

            “Greetings, Lord Owen!  And how are things at the Citadel today?”  The shopkeeper said, coming around his wooden counter to pump Owen’s hand in a hearty handshake.  He was a weasel of a little man, whippet thin.  The man’s thin fingers almost disappeared within the grip of Owen’s chubby hands.  When the man let go, Owen pulled a kerchief out of his pocket and cleaned his palm.

            “Things are fine, Gus.  Now, how are things here?”  He said, eager to get this dirty business done with so he could return to the clean Citadel.  It seemed the village got dingier every time he visited.

            “Oh quite well, quite well.  Your lordship’s shipment arrived early this morning.  We’ve got big chickens, pigs, some good vegetables, everything you ordered.”

            “Good.  I trust there was no trouble getting it in?”

            “None at all, sir.  Lord Evan made sure I had enough to bribe the right border guards, and Daniel’s men arranged safe passage, just like we discussed.  It’s been a profitable partnership, I must say.  I get more business then all my competitors, and it sure is nice to pay no tax…”

            The child who had entered behind Owen was standing by the counter, eyeing the pile of fruit there.  The West Coast allowed for the growth of many varieties, in the Okanogan valley, but they were rarely seen by the common people of the region now.  Only the farmers that grew them, protected by the Citadel’s army, and the lords themselves ever saw fresh fruit, unless someone saved up enough to buy from this specific shop.  The boy had been sent by his mother to buy a loaf of bread, the family’s only food this week, but he had planned a surprise.  The dirty little urchin had spent weeks begging and working odd jobs to save up, and he had just enough for a single apple, the cheapest fruit the shop carried.  He almost drooled, thinking about what it would taste like.  His mother would be so happy to get this present, and share it with her children.  He knew it would make her smile for the first time in weeks.

            “Watch what you say, Gus.  We have company.”  Owen said, nodding towards the child.

            “Sorry my lord, sorry!”  The shopkeeper said.  “Buster, get away from there!”  He yelled at the boy, shushing him away.  The boy shuffled off to find the bread his mother wanted, disgruntled by Gus’s attitude.   He wasn’t a thief!

            Owen stepped up to the counter and passed Gus a silk bag containing coins, and the greasy little man smiled, showing his missing teeth.  “Thank you, sir, thank you.  I’ll have the boys bring your shipment tonight, sure enough.”

            “Thank you, Gus.  I look forward to it.” Owen looked at the small pile of apples on the counter.  “I’ll take these now, to tide me over in the meantime.”

            “Perfect sir, perfect!”  Gus said enthusiastically, putting the fruit in the bag.  Owen took the fruit and left with a nod, heading back outside to await his carriage.

            A few moments later, he felt a gentle tug at his robe.  He looked down to see a grubby little child pulling his clothing to get his attention.  It seemed to be a boy, with its short unkempt hair, but the child was so dirty he could not tell.  Many parents cut their children’s hair short, lice was a common problem in the villages.

            “Mister, I don’t want to bother you… but can I have one of those apples?  For my mother?”  The child asked quietly.  He was ordinarily very shy, but it was very important to him.  Buster had seen that the fruit was all gone, and figured it could not hurt to ask the man for one, since he had taken them all.

            “Get away from me, you filthy thing!” Owen snapped, pushing the child back hard enough that he sprawled in the mud.  The richly dressed obese man tried to wipe away the smudge left by the child’s hand on his robe.  As his carriage drove up, he hardly acknowledged the driver, intent on cleaning off the dirt as he got in.

            After a few moments, he looked out the window, giving up on the clothes.  He noticed that they were on the outskirts of town, instead of heading towards the centre and the Citadel.

            “Hey, turn around, you’re going the wrong way!”  He shouted.  Owen received no response from the driver, and he got even angrier when the carriage pulled in and parked by a decrepit shack far from the rest of town.  The driver, dressed in a cloak and hat, got off the front of the carriage and walked into the little building.  Owen swore under his breath and kicked his door open, plopping down into the mud of the shack’s yard as he exited.  He swore louder as the mud spattered his nice robes.  He hurried towards the building as fast as his fat legs could carry him through the thick mud, intent on giving the driver a piece of his mind.

            “Where are you, you incompetent buffoon!” He yelled as he banged through the door of the building.  The room was dark before him, the only light seeping in through the gaps between boards.  He saw a table in the centre of the room, covered with food, and the driver was sitting in one of the two chairs, his back to Owen.

            A little breathless from his short run across the muddied yard, Owen puffed his way over to the second chair and sat down gratefully, feeling the chair creek under his weight.  He then looked at the driver, glaring.

            “How dare you…” Owen began his tirade, and then stopped short.  The driver’s head was tilted back, a detail hidden from the doorway by his hat.  His throat had been cut, apparently long enough ago that the blood had gone cold.  In the hour that had passed since Owen had left his carriage, someone had taken his chauffeur out to this abandoned hutch and murdered him.  The fat man gulped, sweat beading on his brow.  Who the Hell had driven him out here, then?

            He got his answer as a rope crossed around his chest, tying him to the chair.  Someone had approached from the shadows behind him, and now he was trapped. 

            “Finally, our honoured guest has arrived.”  A voice breathed in his ear, sending Owen’s heart into overdrive, his pulse pounding.  His eyes bugged out of his head:  that voice sounded like the wind rustling over dead leaves, or like a cold winter’s night.  It sounded like Death.

            A dark figure kicked the driver’s body out of the other chair, and then sat down.  In the shadows most details were lost on Owen, but the man seemed to be dressed all in black, even down to the gloves on his hands.  He leaned forward, staring at Owen’s disgruntled face, and Owen felt his fear grow.  The man was masked in black, hiding his face and hair, yet his gaze brought fear to Owen’s heart.  The mask’s only decorations were white slashes around each eye, absurdly reminding him of comic book characters from his childhood, like Spider-man’s nemesis Venom, or Spawn.

            He gulped for air, straining against the ropes but finding no give.  “What do you want?” Owen managed to say, his voice as meek as a mouse.

            “Just to serve you dinner.”  The masked man said, gesturing at the table.  Owen looked, and realized that the food before him, though large in quantity, certainly lacked in quality.  The bread was covered in mould, the meat crawling with maggots, the fruit bruised and rotten.  He gagged, holding back vomit as he finally caught the smell.

            “Wh-wh-who are you?” He moaned.

            The man smiled.  Owen could not see his face, but he could almost sense it, and saw his mouth move under the mask.  The dark man before him pulled a knife from his belt, wickedly curved and deadly sharp.

            “I am your host.”  He said, laughter in his voice.  “I know how much you love food, pushing around even small children to feed your appetites.  So I decided to give you a fine last meal.”  He stabbed a rotten piece of meat and held it before Owen’s mouth.  “So be a good boy and eat every bite.”

            Owen gagged again.  “I’m not eating that.” He said, somehow finding the strength to refuse, despite his terror. 

            “Good boys always clean their plates.”  The man said, his good humour ludicrous.  “That’s the only way they stay healthy.”  The emphasis on that last word made it evident to Owen that his only hope of survival was to do what this man demanded.  Pushing down his disgust, wrinkling his nose to keep away as much of the smell as possible, Owen found the tenacity to bite off a chunk of the meat and start to chew.  He fought away his need to puke and swallowed.

            The ordeal lasted past sunset.  Owen gulped and gagged but managed to eat all the meat and bread.  The man lit a candle, and the moment seemed surreal to Owen.  He giggled, knowing that his fear was beginning to make him hysterical.  But it was still absurdly funny, a candlelit dinner with the Grim Reaper.  The man in black chuckled as well, as if he shared in Owen’s joke.

            “You’re doing so well!”  He enthused, picking up a rotten apple turned brown in its decay.  He held it up to Owen.  “Now, dessert.  I know how much you love apples.”

            Owen choked back his bile and bit into the fruit, swallowing quickly.  He felt his stomach lurching from the punishment of this unbearable meal.  When he looked at the apple before taking a second bite and saw it crawling with worms, his stomach decided he’d finally had enough.  He vomited, covering his robes and the table with half-digested refuse.  The dark man alone remained unscathed, moving back from the table with almost cat-like reflexes.

            “That was very bad manners!”  The man said tersely, and Owen felt his fear double.  The dark figure’s voice was quiet, but so filled with anger and deadly menace that Owen added to the disgusting smells in the room by wetting his pants and crapping himself.  The black silhouette before him leaned in close.

            “That was very ungrateful, very rude.”

            “I ate everything you asked.”  Owen said, making a last attempt for survival, begging.  “Please untie me, please.  I’ll do whatever you want.”

            “You already have.”  The man said, stepping back.  Owen breathed a sigh of relief.  The man’s presence was terrifying, he seemed to exude an aura of cold darkness.  “We’re finished here.  I think you’ve learned your lesson.  It certainly smells like it.”

            “Oh, I have, I have!”  Owen nodded, almost giddy.  It seemed like the ordeal might be over at last, the man appeared to only want to put the fear of God in him.  “I’ll never do it again.”

            “No, you won’t.”  The dark figure agreed.  “You won’t live long enough.”

            “What?”  Owen shrieked, his voice hitting the soprano register as his fear returned like a cold wind.  “I did what you said.”

            “And I said it was your last meal.  Did you think I was kidding?”

            He leapt forward with a speed that Owen could barely register, and he didn’t realize that the knife had split him open until the man stepped back and he felt solid waste hitting his shoes.  Owen looked down and saw that the dark masked man had ruptured his stomach and the disgusting meal was spilling out of his guts.

            “Look at that,” the man laughed devilishly.  “Now we have to start over.”

            He sat back in the chair and speared a piece of meat off the floor, covered in mud and bile, holding it before Owen’s lips.  Shaking, knowing he was already dead, Owen ate.  He could have stopped, there was nothing he could do to save himself, and yet somehow this dark demon demanded obedience.  He ate and ate, as his life slipped away.  Even when the dark figure removed his mask, Owen continued to eat, past caring.

            “When you get to Hell, remember to tell them who sent you.”  His host giggled.

            “Yes, sir,” was all Owen could say, chewing on rotten bread.

            When the guards found his body two days later, Owen had been untied.  At the end, he had taken a knife and fork and fed himself willingly, sitting in his own shit.  The only sign of the other man’s presence were words written on the wall of the shack in blood.

            “Donovan Reza was here.  It begins now.”

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