Speaking With Your Demons
18: Crossing the Line
Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul
and sings the tune without the words
and never stops at all.
“Meg, I can’t believe how well you handled that!” Emma raved. “If I knew it was that easy, we wouldn’t have wasted so much time over the past year. We never guessed we could negotiate with demons, and you make it look so simple.”
“No, shit!” her brother Ethan added. “I never expected to get my own demon and devil out of the deal either. What’s more, my demon is here to help, not torment me like they did before. It’s the difference between night and day. Now we know how to proceed in the future, and will know when the various creatures are listening and when they’re not.”
“Believe me,” Meg warned, “it’s not so simple. They can turn on you in a moment. That’s why attitude is so important. You have to grab and hold on to their attention before you can make the rational arguments. If you lose them anywhere along the way, they’ll never listen to you.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourselves,” Phil cautioned. “This is only the first step in a very long journey. We’ve learned a lot in a very short time. As for your new aides, we have so many it helps to offload a few. Even with so many returning home for good behavior, we’re adding at least two new ones each day. Soon, every psychiatrist will walk around with an entire mythological collective circling their pretty little heads.”
“Well, hopefully not every psychiatrist,” Tracy corrected, “just those who graduate from UW.”
“Even that’s just a first step. Once you start training new psychiatrists, they’ll move on, getting jobs in other universities and furthering our studies into better techniques. Not only that, but if we get the creatures themselves focusing on results, rather than acting out of frustrations with humans, hopefully something similar will happen on their worlds. We don’t want to limit this research to only a small cadre of psychiatrists. We want it to spread across the entire globe.”
“That’s a pretty tall order for one little girl,” Meg complained. “Now, I’m focusing on getting by one day at a time. If I consider what comes next, I’d have trouble climbing out of bed in the morning.”
“There is that,” Phil admitted. “Sometimes, when I think about what lies in front of us, it intimidates me. But as Meg points out, you have to deal with these issues a single patient at a time, rather than everyone at once. It’s like cutting each tree, instead of clearing an entire jungle. As long as you work on it one at a time, you make steady progress, even if you have to bypass certain ones.”
“This is a lot to take in, but believe me, I’ll be back tomorrow,” Emma said. “Toni and the others will be so pleased when we get back and we can start applying this on a daily basis.”
“Please,” Phil cautioned. “I hate being persnickety, but for now, let’s keep this restricted to our essential personal, namely you, Ethan and Toni. Otherwise word will leak out before we’re ready. If we make a big deal about this too soon, we’ll be attacked on a variety of fronts. If we wait until the university releases their results, we won’t be such easy targets for ridicule.”
“Excuse me,” Abe interjected, “but aren’t you doing the same thing, admitting virtually everything upfront? What about the whole ‘we’re safe as long as I’m under attack’ argument?”
“That works, but only for so long. It shields attacks on me personally, since the medical community won’t risk the nation’s ire for attacking me as long as there’s a chance I may be killed any day. But that won’t extend to the rest of you. If the Walker Institute starts saying the same things, then all bets are off. They’ll ignore me and attack you. In this instance, let me take the heat, so you—like me—can develop your skills and repertoire in isolation, before you’re forced to confront the critics.”
“I’ll admit, as much as we dislike your playing fast and loose with the truth, when you’re right, you’re right. If you hadn’t kept everything so close to your chest for so long, we wouldn’t have the insights—or our own personal aides—we do now.”
Ethan slapped Emma on the back. “Amen to that, sister!”
“Speaking of which,” Tracy said, grinning. “I’ve got a suggestion, assuming you’re sticking around until the weekend. Abe and I would like to invite you to my church. Don’t worry, it’s not—”
“Before we get into that,” Phil cautioned, “I want to remind everyone what we may face outside. There’s no sign that anyone has tracked us here, but Desttr is familiar with the campus. I’m calling Paul to pick us up. He’ll honk once he arrives to signal the all-clear, but when we exit the building, keep your eyes open. I’ll check the sky around us for any signs of an ambush, as will our dragons, but in either case, we can’t dawdle. Get in the cab and let’s get out of here. They may be watching, so we don’t want to give them time to launch an attack.”
“Got it chief,” Abe said. “We all got that memo the last couple times you were attacked. Now, someone has something to finish saying.”
“Wait,” Ethan said, not giving Tracy the chance to complete her initial thought, “when you say, ‘Abe and I’, does that mean you’re dating?”
“Sometimes, like most men, you can be a little slow on the uptake,” Emma told her brother, hitting him lightly with her shoulder.
Tracy wrapped her arm through Abe’s and smiled at him. “Yes, and we got to know each other while visiting my church, which is especially welcoming. Meg loves it too.”
“I sure do. They let you dance in the aisles, sing as loud as you want, and talk back to the preacher!”
A car horn honked outside.
“I just talked to Paul, he’s already here. We can finish the recruitment speech in the cab.” Phil hefted his cane in his left hand, holding his right in his ever-present pouch. “Could someone kindly get the door?”
Meg opened it, allowing Zukr to fly out, searching above for any unknown dragons in the vicinity. Phil followed, accompanied by Abe, scanning the skies, as his dragons joined Zukr in the air.
“Serker!” Wakko shouted from near Phil’s ear.
Phil spun as he felt something behind him yanking on his shirt. He heard the sound of tearing cloth. Twisting in the other direction, he noticed his shirt gaping, the flap striking his back. One berserker tried to stab him, missing as Phil shifted to the side. The other recovered, turning to confront him.
Before Phil could plan his next move, they both raced toward him, aiming their swords like stingers at his heart. He jumped back, twisting as he did. The one who’d sliced his shirt missed him completely, while the first stabbed Phil in the side, under his arm, instead of their intended target.
Two unfamiliar dragons screeched, the sound indicating they were diving fast. Zukr and Sml returned the challenging scream. The berserkers, leaving their dirty work to their larger companions, took off, flying in different directions to regroup.
“Get the berserkers! I’ll deal with th—”
The two incoming dragons struck, one digging its claws into his scalp, the other attacking his shoulder, scattering Lutin and Wakko. Phil grimaced, dropping his cane, but reached up as he ducked his head, grabbing the first dragon by its wings. Meg blew her whistle as Tristan and Despik attacked the second dragon on his shoulder. Twisting, Phil yanked the dragon attacking him, prying it from his head. It dug in, tightening its grip, but Phil jerked so hard he ripped one wing completely off. It shrieked and released him, it’s blood splattering over everyone. Phil threw it to the ground, grabbing for the one tearing his shoulder.
As it was distracted by the others, Phil grabbed it by the chest and pressed his thumbs into its flesh, pressuring its lungs, even as Phil found himself gasping, a whistling sound coming with each breath.
The dragon wheezed, releasing his shoulder, trying to fly away, but couldn’t escape, even as the other creatures attacked it. Phil yanked it away, staring at it.
“Do I ... kill you now, or will you ... promise to ... surrender?” With each pause, Phil gasped, a quiet whistle sounding as a thin stream of fluid soaked into his shirt.
“Never surrender, human!” Despite its defiant words and Phil’s thumbs pressing against its lungs, it sounded better than Phil.
“Just as well,” Phil answered, squeezing hard, watching as its eyes bugged out. Rather than wasting time, when it quit fighting, he grabbed it by the legs and swung it with both hands, slamming it into the concrete building. It vanished, and Phil spun around, clutching his side, his hand coming away sticky with more than just blood, since there wasn’t much.
Smurttle approached, hovering before him with one berserker held immobile in his mouth. It was missing an arm. “Other flee,” Zukr explained. “This one fight.” Without answering, Phil made a motion with his hand against his throat, and Smurttle crushed it in his jaws. Phil advanced on the other dragon.
“Zurrender! Zurrender!” it cried. Phil paused, but didn’t seem sympathetic.
“We have no vets and there’s no way I can sew your wing back on.” With that he stepped on the dragon’s head, grinding it underfoot. His foot gave way, almost causing him to topple when the dragon vanished, he applied so much pressure.
“Is that all of them?” he demanded, spinning. A deafening wall of silence answered him. “Are there any others?” he repeated, raising his voice.
Smurttle and Schog squawked “No!” while the other creatures shook their heads, not speaking aloud and glancing down. “Other ‘serker flee,” Zukr said again, pointing back to the sky with her wing.
“Then get him!” Phil shouted. “This ends now! Every day Desttr remains free, he’ll recruit more dragons to kill me!”
Smurttle and Schog took off, but Zukr remained. “What if no catch?”
Phil’s voice dropped, his eyes thinning as he squinted. “Then search the city, locate every berserker you find with any other creature, and kill them! If you still don’t find them, then seek out each dragon and ask whether they’ve been contacted. Explain what’s at stake, why backing him is a bad choice, but find him!” He paused a moment, considering the other creatures. “If they hesitate, or argue with you, slaughter them, too.”
Zukr glanced at Lutin, who was scowling.
“What?” Phil demanded. “You don’t expect me to stand for this, do you?”
“No, but not easy decision.”
“Then go with them. If any berserkers or dragons agree to my terms, they live. If not, they die!” Phil clutched his chest, pausing as he struggled to breathe. “If any flee, I want you to follow them, locating their hideouts. If any other creatures ... are in league with ... the berserkers, kill them all. The gloves are off. This ends now!”
Both Zukr and Lutin took off without glancing back, but the small dragon was much faster, leaving Lutin struggling to catch up.
“What the hell happened?” Emma asked.
“I thought you were searching for attacking dragons!” Abe demanded.
“We were! They didn’t strike from the sky,” Phil said, wincing as he pointed at the top of the Psychology building. “They were hiding ... under the research center’s eaves, observing as everyone left.” He clutched his side, lowering his arm as he bent to retrieve his cane. “It’s not a ... typical dragon attack. The berserkers ... planned it.”
“You don’t look good,” Meg observed.
“He’s got a punctured lung,” Tracy said. “Let’s get you back inside so you can lie down.”
“No,” he insisted, leaning on his cane, clutching his chest as he struggled to breathe. “It helps holding ... the wound ... closed. Paul can drive us to ... the emergency room.”
“Before you urged caution, trying to reason with those attacking you,” Abe argued. “Why the radical change in tactics?”
Phil limped towards the waiting cab, grasping his side. “That was before. The situation is growing more ... intense every day. If Desttr is allowed to recruit, unimpeded, every dragon in the state will ... be hunting me down while ... he heads to the next community, searching for more. Before I knew ... how to defend myself. Now, I no longer know where to expect attacks. All bets are off. Now it’s a fight to the death for us all.”
“You’ll do better lying in the back seat so there’s less pressure on your lung,” Emma said. “We’ll borrow a car and meet your there. The longer you wait, the worse you’ll get.” She glanced around. “I don’t see anyone else, so I’ll go with you to explain what happened to the physician.”
“I’ll go,” Tracy volunteered, tossing Abe her car keys. “You bring the others in my car.”
Instead of heading for the cab, as he’d urged everyone to do before the attack, Phil focused on the creatures silently staring, hovering before him. “What do you want? They attacked me. There wasn’t anything else I could do!”
“We were trying to correct the others behavior before,” Tristan argued. “Now you’re willing to slaughter any who don’t line up behind you.”
“I don’t have time to pussyfoot around,” he snarled, stopping to cough, hacking up blood. “He’s ... undermining everything we’re ... working for. I can take it slow once I know Desttr is no longer a threat. Until then, I can’t risk it.”
Not waiting for a response, Phil clutched his chest and continued, stumbling towards the cab, where Paul held the door open for him.
“Quit yelling and lie down,” Emma ordered. “You’re going to kill yourself. Take it easy. Now that you’ve sent your dragons off, you no longer have much protection if you’re attacked.”
A veteran was heading across the street when something just didn’t feel right. Pulling back, he took in everything surrounding him. This was like those times, during patrols, when everything felt too quiet and you just knew something was afoot. Yet strangely, his ever-present paranoia whenever something surprised him was absent. He instead felt more peaceful than he had in years—which also made him suspicious. Something was up. Still, seeing nothing amiss, he shrugged and proceeded across the street. He got five feet across the road when a single thought flashed through his mind. “Tony.” He paused, wondering what triggered him to think of his name out of the blue. “Lutin” was his next thought, a word he’d never heard before. “What’s a ‘lutin’?” he asked aloud.
“Berserker,” he thought, and his head snapped up, his eyes widening, even as a car approached, honking its horn. But Tony wasn’t done yet. “They’re those things that Mr. Walker keeps insisting causes PTSD, aren’t they?” he asked himself, out loud, somehow expecting an answer. “I’ve always suspected he was onto something.” He’d never spoken to himself before, but it seemed oddly appropriate.
He got the sudden notion to write something. “Hold on, let me get somewhere I can jot it down.” He continued across the street, even as the driver leaned out the window, yelling “Get out of the road, you moron!” But again, he felt strangely dispassionate about someone swearing at him. Only moments before, a situation like that would have him ready to punch someone out.
Like many, he was familiar with Mr. Walker’s claims, especially when he started talking about PTSD victims in particular. As such, he realized what was happening now was what Mr. Walker had described about how those creatures communicated with him.