AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wrote this piece for the Second AW Flash Fiction Carnival, for which the theme is "madness." I also wrote it in honor of the Halloween season. In this story, Will and Diana find that delivering messages isn't as safe an assignment as they've been led to believe.
Their horses picked their way along the cracked and overgrown road. “I bet that’s it up there,” Diana said, indicating the collapsing concrete façade of a building just visible through the trees.
Will squinted as they drew near, taking in the sullen teenagers armed with a motley assortment of weapons as they leaned against the walls and lounged on broken curbs. “If this is school, I’m glad I never went.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t like this in Auntie’s day.”
“That Kalashkinov over there is what it would’ve taken to keep me in a building like that, learning. . . what is it? Factions?”
“Fractions.” Diana was about to elaborate, but one of the guards had noticed them and was now ambling across the parking lot.
Will and Diana reined in and saluted smartly.
The guard stared, glassy-eyed. “What’d ya want?”
“Message for Leland Brierson,” Will said. “Magister.”
The guard grunted and waved his weapon in desultory fashion. “That door.”
“That door” led to a tiled hallway reeking of trash and urine, the only light from flickering lanterns hung from ceiling supports. The sound of their boots rang on the floor, echoed by tapping and scratching from behind the doors they passed.
“Where are we supposed to go?” Diana asked, scanning the walls as if the half-century old graffiti might hold clues.
The stench grew stronger, the tapping more insistent. Curious, Diana gave a return tap.
A door erupted in a flurry of knocks and a voice rasped, “We’ve got three dead. Take them out. Please.”
Will jerked Diana away. “This is bullshit.” He pulled her down another corridor, darker than the one before, but it didn’t lead to an exit, only to other hallways and past rooms where men beat on the walls and screamed.
They finally emerged into a cavern of a room. There were guards all around but they looked no more alert than the ones outside and one was busy injecting himself with something. At the far end was a stage where a man in black sat surrounded by torches and simpering women who pulled veils across their faces and disappeared into the shadows. The man regarded Will and Diana silently, through heavy-lidded eyes.
Will saluted. “Message from Unitas, sir.”
Magister waved a hand and a guard wandered over to take the piece of paper from Will’s hand. Magister read it and frowned. “But Vanter is my favorite prisoner.”
“New allies. They’re asking for his release.”
Magister spoke to a guard, then lolled back in his upholstered chair and sipped something dark and viscous from a glass. “So where are you kids from? Before the wars?”
Will and Diana exchanged glances. “Valle Redondo.”
This made Magister sit up. “Really? So you’ve made the acquaintance of Strecker.”
“He killed my family!” Diana spat.
Magister’s eyes widened mockingly. “How very sad for you. Come closer and let me see your pretty face.”
Will moved so that his body blocked Magister’s view. “We’ll wait here for Vanter.”
“As you wish.” Magister leaned back again, staring at them without blinking. At the sound of footsteps, though, he sat up with renewed interest. “Bring him up here, Aspergillus.”
The guard dragged a bound and stumbling man up the stairs and forced him to his knees. The prisoner was pale, with patchy rings of fungus on his shaved scalp and skeletal limbs. He trembled from fear and cold.
Magister stood up. “Is this your man?”
“We’ve never seen Vanter, so we can’t say.”
“What a shame.” He took a knife from somewhere among the folds of his black clothes. There was a sudden flailing of waxen limbs, a shriek and flash of blade. Blood pooled across the floor and trickled off the edge of the stage.
Magister wiped the knife on his robe. “You can have him, and you’ll find him much easier to deal with than I did.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Will said softly. He took Diana’s arm and began backing away.
“Don’t go. I’m short a prisoner now.” He looked from Will to Diana. “And a pretty girl would be a welcome addition to my family.”
Will reached for his gun and at the same time the desultory guards raised their own weapons. “Go ahead,” Will told Magister. “Give them the order. I can shoot you faster they can shoot me.”
Diana slipped her gun out of its holster and moved to Will’s side. “They’ll have to kill me, too.”
Magister looked from one to the other of them, then suddenly threw back his head and laughed. He howled like a mad dog and shrieked until tears streaked his cheeks. From the shadows behind his high seat, one of the veiled women emerged with a tray and Magister stopped to breathe something from a vial and chase it with several gulps from a wine glass. Then while the woman scurried away, he began laughing again, finally collapsing in wheezing convulsions.
“Come on,” a guard said, jerking his gun at Will and Diana. When they hesitated, he added, “This’ll probably be the only chance you get.”
They followed the young man through the winding halls, the tapping on the doors echoing after them.
“He’s lost it, you know,” the guard said. “This crazy world would do it to anyone.”
“Didn’t do it to most folks,” Will said. “Our commander said Magister was always a little. . .”
“Unstable.” Diana finished for him.
The guard waved a hand. “He was okay before. But ever since he allied with the drug runners out of Sonora. . .”
Diana blinked as they emerged into daylight. “You want to come with us?”
“This is no place for a sane person,” Will added.
“No,” the guard said. “I’ve got everything I need here, thanks to the Sonora guys.” Without even glancing at the bright blue sky and the aspen leaves shimmering in the crisp afternoon, he added, “I don't think this world has a future.”