robertasher-worldwithin

The World Within
by Adam Casalino

“You’re doing it all wrong.  You need to focus.”

“Stop telling me what to do.”

“Somebody needs to.  How else are you going to pierce the astral plane and gain a higher level of consciousness?”

“That’s not what I’m trying to do.”

“Clearly.  You’re not doing anything.”

Robert Asher sat on a park bench.  He was uncomfortable.  His acquaintance, Phillip Pettigrew, stood a few feet away.  Pettigrew watched him, arms folded across his chest.  Although his eyes were closed, Asher could feel Pettigrew’s stare.  It was like a drill boring into his skull.

“You know, I’m starting to wonder why I asked you for help,” Asher said.

“Because you have excellent taste,” Pettigrew said.  “And–as one of the precious few who understands your abilities–I can help you.  That is, of course, if you bother to listen to me.”

“It’s too cold,” Asher said.  “I can’t concentrate.”

“That’s part of the lesson,” Pettigrew said.  “Ignore the cold.”

“It’s snowing, Phil.”

“Is it?”  Pettigrew looked around, noticing for the first time the snowflakes that were falling to the ground.

“I’m not sure you really can help me,” Asher said.

“That’s because you’re not focusing!”

Asher grumbled.  This was becoming difficult.  He was not used to things being difficult.  At least, a thing as second-nature to him as this.  Since he was a boy, he had the power to sense the presence of the dead.  Specifically, he could read the thoughts and feelings of ghosts as well as detect traces of their presence.  With this power, he worked as an occult detective, solving cases the police off as impossible.  It was there that he found, the real challenges.

Once in a while, when he pushed himself, he was able to use his telepathy to touch the mind of a living person.  In extreme cases, it had been necessary.  But that ability was inconsistent and left him drained.  Asher was determined to overcome this limitation.

It wasn’t going well.

“I don’t understand what you want me to do,” Asher said to Pettigrew.

“It’s simple,” the man said, taking a stride toward the bench.  “You are able to read the mind of someone with whom you come in physical contact.  Albeit briefly.  I am trying to show you how to enter anyone’s mind, from anywhere.”

“Why do I need to learn how to do this?” Asher said.

“You don’t need to do anything, Robert,” Pettigrew said, “but it’s nice to know you can.”

“Can you explain a little better?”

Pettigrew sighed sat beside him.  “I know you see your power as a burden.”

“Not a burden,” Asher said.  “A responsibility.”

“Same thing,” Pettigrew said.  “You have a remarkable gift.  In my opinion, you’re wasting it helping these unwashed masses.  But, for whatever reason, you want to serve mankind.”

“Not much of a pep talk, pal.”

“I’m willing to aid you in your cause,” he said.  “But understand this: there is a part of you holding back.  You have limitations in your power, because are unwilling to embrace what you really are.”

“I just don’t feel comfortable reading someone’s thoughts,” Asher said.  “It’s creepy.”

“Robert if you’re ever going to grow, you’re going to have to do things that are not comfortable,” Pettigrew said.  “You have to realize you are more than human.  The old rules no longer apply.”

“You mean like right and wrong?” Asher said.

“Now you’re getting it.”

“I don’t like that kind of thinking,” Asher said.

“Of course you don’t,” Pettigrew said.

“If I’m not human, what does that make you?”  Asher said.

“You don’t want to know what I had to become to get my power,” he said to Asher.  “Unlike you, it wasn’t an accident.”

“How powerful are you?” Asher said.

“How can one measure such things?” Pettigrew said.

“Geez, that powerful?”

“Despite my immeasurable power, it seems the one thing I can’t do is to get you focused on this training.”

“I told you, I don’t like snooping on strangers,” Asher said.

“You’re not snooping,” Pettigrew said.  “This exercise will raise your psychic resistance.  You are physically strong, Robert.  Like an ox.  But in the arena of the mind, you are a lightweight.”

“I’ve done alright so far,” Asher said.

“Trust me, what you’ve encountered on your little cases pales in comparison with what’s out there.”

“I’ve fought werewolves, Phil,” Asher said.

“So could anyone with a silver letter opener.”

“Fine,” Asher said.  “Tell me it again.”

“Close your eyes,” Pettigrew said.  “Reach out with your sixth sense.  See the minds around you.”

Asher did as he said.  He cast out his psychic net, a field that stretched out in all directions.  The thoughts of the people around him disturbed the net, like ripples on the surface of water.

“Okay,” Asher said.  “I can feel someone nearby.”

“Focus in on him.”

“Why can’t I sense you?” Asher said.

“Never mind that.  Tune in on that unguarded mind.”

The street was bustling.  There were at least a dozen minds Asher could feel.  He focused on the loudest one.  Blocking out everything else, he concentrated.  A shape formed in his mind.  Asher almost saw the man standing at the corner.  The sound of his thoughts was like static on a radio.

“He’s coming in fuzzy,” Asher said.

“Press in,” Pettigrew said.  “Don’t just listen, step into his mental sphere.”

The man crossed the street and his image started to fade.  Asher pushed harder to enter his mind.  His thoughts grew louder.  He was thinking about his son, his wife, his pressures at work.  Asher felt the man’s apprehensions: a fear welling up inside.  Something was wrong.  It was Angela.  She was going to leave him, he knew it.  If only she would listen.  He would make her listen.  No one would stop him from convincing her to stay.  No one.

“I can’t do this.”  Asher stood up.  He paced, shaking out the numbness in his legs.

“You can’t because you won’t focus,” Pettigrew said.

“No, Phil.  I won’t spy on a stranger,” he said.  “You don’t know what it’s like to feel what they feel.  To know things you’re just not supposed to know.”

“Oh, Robert.”  Pettigrew stood up, unfurling his umbrella.  “If you really want to do extraordinary things, you’re going to have to let go of that baggage.”

“No deal, coach.”

Pettigrew let out a breath.  “Then I’m afraid I cannot teach you.”

###

Pettigrew sat in an armchair.  He was waiting.  He did not like it.  Not used to experiencing anything unpleasant, he found he couldn’t concentrate.  He wanted to stand up.  He wanted to leave.  The chair creaked as he adjusted his legs, rolling his umbrella between his hands and lap.  The other people in the room looked at him.  It was then that he realized he hadn’t been listening.

“Forgive me,” he said.  “I wasn’t listening.”

Asher cleared his throat.  “Mr. and Mrs. Brumder were telling us about Sterling, their five-year-old.”

Pettigrew examined the couple who sat on the couch across from him.  They were no more than twenty, but worn for their age.  Clearly, they both worked long hours.  Their clothes were worn and patched.  They stared at Pettigrew, their eyes filled with hope and sorrow.  To his surprise, he felt a twinge of pity.

“Yes,” he said.  “How is the boy?”

“Not well,” Mr. Brumder said.

“He has terrible nightmares,” the mother said.  “Every night he wakes screaming.”

“Has this been going on for long?” Pettigrew said.

“Three or four weeks,” Mr. Brumder said.  “We fear it’s only getting worse.”

“You haven’t consulted a doctor?”

“The Brumder’s can’t afford to take Sterling to a doctor,” Asher said.

“They do realize you don’t run a charity?” Pettigrew said.

“I agreed to lower my rate,” Asher said.  “For Sterling’s sake.”

Pettigrew leaned over to Asher.  “How do you expect to make a living, Robert?”

“Not everything’s about money, Phil,” Asher said.

“Why are we friends again?”  Pettigrew leaned back and looked at the Brumder’s.  “Perhaps the boy is suffering from a dread wraith.  Terrible creature, feeds off the psychic energy released from fearful emotions.  But it’s a simple remedy.”

Mrs. Brumder shook her head.  “We’ve spoken with our priest.  He said no spirit is troubling Sterling.”

“Oh, of course!  If a priest said that, it must be true.  It’s not as if you have two experts in the occult right here to consult.”

Asher looked at him.  “Do you sense a spirit in the house?”

Pettigrew paused.  “No.”

“Then maybe the priest was right,” Asher said.

“Night terrors, then,” Pettigrew said.  “Those pass in time.  Get him absorbent sheets and he should be fine.”

Asher stood up from his chair.  “Might as well go talk to the boy.  We came all this way.”

Mr. and Mrs. Brumder stood in the hall as Asher and Pettigrew went in to see Sterling.  The boy sat on his bed, his feet pulled up under him.  Asher knelt down to see him face to face.  Pettigrew stood up, leaning on a dresser.  Sterling watched them.  Asher tried to comfort him with a smile.  It only emphasized the scars on his face.

“Hey, Sterling,” Asher said.  “My name’s Robert.  Your parents tell me you’ve been having bad dreams.”

The boy looked from Asher to the stranger lurking in the corner of his room.  Pettigrew stopped inspecting his fingernails and regarded the boy.  His smile was sarcastic.

“Don’t worry, son.  We’re the good guys.”

Sterling looked back at Asher.  “Yes.  I have bad dreams.”

“Can you tell me about them?” Asher said.

“I’m floating,” Sterling said, “in a dark, cold place.  There are voices echoing at me.”

“What do they say?” Asher said.

“They ask me to help them,” Sterling said.

“Help them?” Pettigrew said.  “Help them with what?”

“They need a home,” the boy said.  “I can help them come and live here.”

Here?” Pettigrew said.

“Our world.”

“Do you agree to help them?” Asher said.

“No.  They’re scary voices, like monsters.  They shout at me and I try to run away.  That’s when I wake up.”

“You tell them no, so they keep coming back each night to ask you again.”  Asher stood up and moved over to Pettigrew.  “These are more than just nightmares.”

“Rings a few bells, I guess.  Perhaps it’s–”  Pettigrew looked at the parents, only a foot away.  “We need a minute to confer.”

Asher and Pettigrew walked down the hall, out of earshot of the Brumder’s.

“Voices in the dark, wanting to come into our world,” Asher said.  “Not good.”

“Please tell me you don’t think what I think you’re thinking,” Pettigrew said.

“I… what?”

“Don’t tell me you think there are other-worldly beings talking to that boy in his sleep,” Pettigrew said.

“I don’t know what where they’ve come from, but they’re out to get him,” Asher said.

“Or it’s a figment of his imagination,” Pettigrew said.  “Children have nightmares.  He probably read a scary book or listened to one of those god-awful radio plays.”

“Not every night for weeks,” Asher said.  “I know it’s been a long time since you were a kid, but that doesn’t happen.”

“I grant you there are foul things out there, things you wouldn’t believe,” Pettigrew said.  “But I refuse to believe some of them are trying to enter our world through a little boy.”

“They may not know he’s a little boy,” Asher said.  “They just picked up on his mind.  I know you sensed it in there.  The kid’s got something.”

“I concede Sterling has strong, extrasensory perception,” Pettigrew said.

“Then it’s possible something’s trying to get through from some other dimension.”

Pettigrew smiled.  “Not possible. The kind of power needed to open a door between realities on that scale–it just doesn’t exist.  Not anymore, at least.”

“You’re the one who told me the human mind is a source of limitless power,” Asher said.

That you remember?  Still, it would require abilities far beyond that of a child.  I couldn’t even do it.”

“But they don’t know that,” Asher said.  “And they’ll keep harassing this kid until they get what they want.  Who knows what kind damage they’ll do to his head?”

“Yes, that would leave a mark,” Pettigrew said.

“So how do we fix it?”

“Ideally, you’d seal off his ESP,” Pettigrew said.  “That’d plug the hole, so to speak.  Maybe one day–when he’s much older–he’ll rediscover his power.  Become a palm reader, or something.  They’re German, that’s their sort of thing, right?”

“Uh, I think that’s Gypsies,” Asher said.

“Whatever.  That should do the trick.”

“Fine,” Asher said.  “I’ll just pop inside his head and ‘plug the hole.’  Doesn’t sound complicated.”

Pettigrew stopped the man with his hand.  “Hold on.  Aren’t we forgetting our failure at the park?”

“This is different,” Asher said.  “I’m not trying to read his thoughts.  I’m helping him.”

“You’re not ready for the kind of demand this will put on your mind,” Pettigrew said.  “For all we know, you’ll end up a drooling idiot.  More so than usual.”

“Listen, Mother Superior, this is what I do,” Asher said.  “I help people, whatever the cost.”

“The cost could be your sanity,” Pettigrew said.

“So be it,” Asher said.

“I really must protest.”

Asher grunted.  “How are we going to fix the kid, then?  Are you going to do it?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.  I prize my mind more than yours.  But I hear they are doing wonderful things with psychoactive drugs these days.  I even know a chemist; could give them a discount.”

Asher pushed passed Pettigrew and returned to Sterling’s bedroom.  His parents rose from beside their child to watch him.

“Folks, we believe beings from another dimension are contacting your son while he’s asleep,” he said.

The color drained from the Brumder’s faces.  “I don’t understand,” the father said.  “What do you mean, dimension?”

“Eh, it’s hard to explain,” Asher said.  “Let’s just say they’re not from our world.”

“You mean, demons?”

“No,” Asher said.  “Well, not in the sense you’re thinking.”

“Why are they contacting Sterling?” Mrs. Brumder said.

“You’re boy’s very special,” Asher said.  “He has what’s called ESP.  When he sleeps, he is able to reach out with his mind.  These beings think he can help them leave their world and enter ours.”

“Can you stop this?” Mr. Brumder said.

Asher looked back at Pettigrew.  The man scoffed and rolled his eyes.

“With your permission,” Asher said, “I can shut off Sterling’s ESP.  The beings won’t bother him anymore.  I’ll have to enter his mind to do it.”

“You can do that?” Mrs. Brumder said.

Asher nodded.  “Sort of a specialty.”

“Will it hurt Sterling?” she said.

“No.”

Mr. and Mrs. Brumder looked at each other, then stepped away from the bedroom door.  Sterling sat on the edge of his bed, watching the grownups.  Pettigrew followed Asher into the room.

“What’s your plan?” he asked the detective.

“I’m going to do exactly what you said,” Asher said.  “Seal off his ability.”

“It’s not like closing a Mayonnaise jar,” Pettigrew said.  “You can’t root around in his mind until you find the problem.  Your endurance will only last for so long before you lose your connection.”

“What should I look for, then?”

“The access point by which these beings are contacting Sterling,” Pettigrew said.

“Oh, simple.  Care to describe what that’ll look like?” Asher said.

“It could look like anything,” Pettigrew said.  “The mind is a malleable realm.  But since this is a child, look for something obvious: a door, bridge, or window.”

Asher nodded and turned to Sterling.  He smiled again, this time less intensely.

“Sterling, I’m going to do something that will stop the bad dreams,” he said.  “Okay?”

The boy nodded.

“You’re going to fall asleep.  Don’t be afraid.  We’ll all be here watching over you.”

Sterling looked at his parents, at Asher, and at the man beside him.

“Close your eyes,” Asher said.

Curled up in his bed, Sterling closed his eyes.  Asher held one of the boy’s hands and placed the other on his forehead.

Silence grew in the room.  Pettigrew watched Asher’s eyes as they moved beneath his lids.  The detective’s face contorted.  Sweat beaded across his forehead.  He looked like he was in pain.  A knot was forming in Pettigrew’s stomach.  Something was wrong.  Before he could break Asher’s connection, it happened.  The detective let go of the boy and was thrown against the wall.  The force of his collision shook the tiny room.

Pettigrew knelt over his friend and checked for a pulse.  Asher was alive, but unconscious.  He slapped him several times.

“Wake up, you idiot.”

Asher wouldn’t stir.  Pettigrew stood up and regarded the boy.  “What did you do to him?”

Sterling was sitting up in his bed.  He stared at Pettigrew.

“The one called Robert Asher tried to go where he didn’t belong.”  It was the boy’s voice, but it carried an unnatural weightiness.

“Is that so?” Pettigrew said.  “And who might you be?”

“We are Aklaxus,” he said.

Mrs. Brumder whimpered and ran to her son.  “Sterling, what’s wrong with you?”

Sterling tapped the woman on the forehead.  She collapsed.  Her husband scooped her up in his arms.

“You’ve made greater inroads than I assumed,” Pettigrew said to Aklaxus.  “I didn’t think you could control the boy.”

“He is stronger than you estimate,” Aklaxus said.

“What do you intend to do with him?” Pettigrew said.

“We mean him no harm,” Aklaxus said.  “He is merely our proxy.  Once he serves our purpose, we will let him go.”

“Somehow I doubt that,” Pettigrew said.  “What is your purpose?”

“We needed a way into your world,” Aklaxus said.  “Sterling will give us one.”

“The amount of power needed to open a door between our dimensions does not exist on this planet,” Pettigrew said.  “That kind of magic died long ago.  Not even Sterling can open a way for you.”

“We have our own methods,” Aklaxus said with a smile.

Pettigrew sighed.  “I’m afraid I cannot allow that to happen.”

“You have no say in the matter,” Aklaxus said.

“Yes I do,” Pettigrew said.  “This is my world.  I’m quite comfortable in it and don’t like the idea of strangers ruining it.  It would interfere with my drinking regimen.”

“But our world is dying,” Aklaxus said.  “Would you really refuse us this chance to survive?”

“Gladly.”

Pettigrew swung his umbrella at Sterling, rapping him on the side of the head.  Using the distraction, he entered the boy’s mind.  Pettigrew was falling through an atmosphere.  After a long space, he landed in a valley of rolling hills.  Pulling himself up, he looked around.  Far away, nestled between two mountains, was a storybook town.  A storm cloud brooded over it.

“I suppose I should go that way,” he said to himself.

When he reached the town, he discovered a writhing mass of tentacles extending from the cloud.  The limbs embedded themselves into every corner of Sterling’s storybook mind, gradually sinking deeper.

“Well, that is disgusting.”

Launching from the ground, Pettigrew flew at the center of the cloud.  He struck it like a thunderbolt.  Aklaxus retracted some of its limbs to defend itself.  Pettigrew pulled back and focused his thoughts around the creature.  He imagined a net that contracted around the cloud.  Aklaxus squirmed.  It pulled more of its tentacles from the town to break free.

Pettigrew pressed harder and the monster was forced to flee.  It shot away from the epicenter of Sterling’s mind, into the atmosphere.  The man followed it.  As the hills fell away, a ball of light bloomed over them.  Aklaxus reached for it with its tentacles; it disappeared into the light.  Pettigrew carried his astral form after it.

The brilliant light gave way to darkness.  Pettigrew was assaulted by stimuli so powerful, it left him deaf and blind.  He felt himself spinning end over end.  Pain blistered through is consciousness.  Forcing himself to gain control, he crashed against what felt like stone.

Everything was still.  Pettigrew felt a presence slip away from him.  Aklaxus was retreating.  There was no up or down, but Pettigrew adjusted himself so he was standing on the stone-like surface.  He struggled to regain his senses.

“This is a new reality,” he told himself.  “I just need to shift my perception.”

Darkness slowly melted into blurs of gray.  Pettigrew saw large objects floating in the space around him.  Light flared up for a moment, then faded.  Eventually he could make out a field of debris stretched out before of him.  In the distance there was a steady glow of light.

“Always move towards the light,” he said.

Pushing off from the island of stone, he moved towards the glow.  He paused, a glint of silver catching his peripheral vision.  Turning around he discovered the ball of light.

“Is that the door I passed through?” he said.  “Much smaller on this side.”  He picked up the light and tucked it into one of his pockets.

He turned back to the distant glow.  Plinths of stone rocked back and forth in the vacuum of space.  A cloud of dust moved among them.  It glittered with particles.  Twice Pettigrew saw balls of fire hurtle above him, the dying embers of some apocalypse.

“There most certainly was a world here,” Pettigrew said.  “Aklaxus was right about that.”

As he drew nearer, Pettigrew made out a darker bulk of stone.  It was far too small to be a planet, but it was the largest piece of it left.  Surrounding it were small chunks of rock, still large enough to serve as asteroids.  Held by the lingering gravity, they would soon be cast off into space.  Pettigrew floated to one of them.

What had looked like bumps on the rock’s surface turned out to be structures.  They varied in size, but all had the appearance of half domes.  Their walls and roofs were cracked like so many eggs.  Pettigrew walked through this graveyard, searching for clues.  A flicker of light caught his eye.  He entered one of the houses to find a fire burning in a brazier.  Huddled beside it was an emaciated figure, long dead.

Its skin was gray and covered in lesions; Pettigrew assumed that was brought on after death.  He drew close to the creature, running a finger over its face.

“I wonder what you know about Aklaxus.”

Placing his fingers on the corpse’s forehead, he searched for memories still trapped inside its brain.  The dead tissue was cold.  Pushing deeper he found a fragment of a thought, a trace of chemical that had yet to rot away.  Pettigrew unfolded it like a letter.

A flood of emotion knocked him to the ground.  Pettigrew saw a living world.  He saw the egg houses, interconnected like a hive.  He saw countless people, much like the one beside the fire.  There were mothers and fathers and many children.  He saw the sky tear apart as black tendrils reached down into the world.  He saw Aklaxus crack the planet open, sucking life from its core.  The inhabitants were helpless to stop it.  They were cast into the unforgiving emptiness of space as their world died.

The vision lifted and Pettigrew regained his senses.  He found himself angrier than he had been in a long time.  Leaving the rock, he pushed toward the largest chunk of the planet.  It was the core.  Wisps of orange energy rippled like solar flares, the few traces not devoured by the monster.  Pettigrew sunk through the layers of rock toward the heart of the planet.  He discovered a chasm.  Churning inside was a basket of fire.  Tangled in it was Aklaxus, writhing in the last of the planet’s life.

“You are a leech,” Pettigrew said.  “Imagine my surprise.”

“It is what we must do to survive,” Aklaxus said.

“Survive?  You murdered countless souls to suck the marrow from their world.  I can’t even think of a word for what you are.”

“It is what we have done for eons,” Aklaxus said.  “We search the galaxies for suitable sustenance.  When we find it, we must feed.”

“This is what you wanted to do to Earth?” Pettigrew said.

“No.  We could not reach it in our present form,” Aklaxus said.  “Tragically, we would never be able to draw power from its core.”

“I’m heartbroken.  But you were using Sterling.”

“His voice reached us in the void between dimensions,” the monster said.  “We knew that through him, we could enter your dimension and find new sources of sustenance.”

“How?” Pettigrew said.  “If you can’t go there physically?”

“We would evolve,” Aklaxus said.  “The boy would only be the first.  Using him, we’d find more with his gift.  We would share our consciousness across a host of new vessels–one mind sharing countless bodies.”

“I can’t imagine anything more horrible,” Pettigrew said.

“In our new forms, we would use the resources of your world to build transportation and explore your universe.  We would find lasting sustenance.”

“You’d use humanity as a puppet,” Pettigrew said, “to plunder the rest of existence.”

“Your kind would have explored the furthest reaches of the heavens,” Aklaxus said.  “Colonize new worlds.  Learn things beyond your reckoning.”

“As husks,” Pettigrew said.  “Slaves to you.”

“What other hope do you have?” Aklaxus said.  “I saw through the boy’s eyes.  You are weak.  Driven by frailty.  Not in a thousand millennia will you escape your doomed planet.”

“You’re probably right,” Pettigrew said.  “I guess we’ll have to figure that out on our own.”

“Do you mean to destroy us, human?” Aklaxus said.

“I can’t very well let you try to find another way to Earth,” he said.  “You’ve put me in a very difficult position.”

“But I no longer pose a threat,” Aklaxus said.  “If you spare me, I vow to leave your world alone.  Just let me dwell in my realm, to suffer my eternal hunger.”

“It’s a tempting offer,” Pettigrew said.  “But there is this planet to deal with.  You destroyed it.”

“What’s done is done.”

“Yes, I guess that’s true,” he said.  “Tell you what, I’ll leave you alone, if you can tell me the name of this planet.  Surely, you know that.”

Aklaxus was slow to speak.  “We do not.”

“Just as I thought.”

“You deem yourself our judge?” Aklaxus said.  “You have no power over us here.”

“Never underestimate a self-righteous scoundrel.”

Aklaxus attacked Pettigrew with a flurry of his tentacles.  Pettigrew pushed off from the ground and dodged the blow.  With a wave of his hands, a cluster of the creature’s arms withered away.  Spreading out his hands, the man conjured a white blade.  He threw the sword at the center of Aklaxus.  It struck with a burst of light.  The monster roared as it untangled itself from the planet core.

It rose over Pettigrew.  Unfurling its tentacles, it revealed it’s black center.  Rivulets of fire ran across a scarred shell.  The tendrils spread out like a curtain of shadow.

“You cannot overcome us,” Aklaxus said.  “Not while we draw life from this planet.”

“Good point.”  Pettigrew looked down at the planet’s heart.  “Sorry about this.”

Pettigrew focused his thoughts on the core.  He envisioned a door opening in the center of it.  Space parted and the door appeared.  Darkness escaped it like smoke.  Fingers enveloped the basket of fire, drawing it through the door.  The orange light faded.  In an instant the planet’s life was snuffed out.

The impossible fingers kept spreading.  They rose towards Aklaxus.  They latched onto its husk.  The creature shrieked as its body was cracked open.  Aklaxus’ tried to fight back, but its power was gone.  The fingers retracted, pulling the monster through the door.  The cries of agony from the world-devourer were silenced as it entered a prison from which it would never return.

Pettigrew regarded the door.  A sound, close to a voice, spoke from it.  He nodded, not looking directly at the darkness.

“Very good, as usual,” he said.  “Your job is done.”

Space closed and the door was gone.  Pettigrew felt tired.  He looked over what was left of the planet.  Without the core, the rocks were already breaking off into the void.  Pettigrew could almost see the myriad souls, lost forever to space.

“For what it’s worth,” he said to the dead, “I’m sorry.”

From within his coat, he drew the portal back to Sterling’s mind.

“Alright, child, let’s put you back together.”

###

“You mean to tell me you don’t remember what happened?”

Phillip Pettigrew slowly sipped his coffee.  “I told you to focus.”

“We’re not doing that right now,” Asher said.  “You went into Sterling’s mind and fought whatever was in there.  You can’t tell me you don’t remember.”

“The mind is a complex organism,” Pettigrew said.

“What does that mean?”

“It means that some things are better left forgotten.”

“Are we sure the kid’s fixed?” Asher said.

“Have the Brumder’s called you since our visit?” Pettigrew said.

“No.”

“Then I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“If I had gone in there–”

“You tried,” Pettigrew said.  “And you were out for six hours.  I was about to call the undertaker when you roused.  Just be happy I wasn’t so fragile.”

Asher stared at his friend for a minute.  “I think you remember everything.  You just don’t want to tell me.”

“Perhaps,” Pettigrew said.  “Perhaps there are things I like to keep to myself.  Perhaps there are things I will tell you, one day, when I feel like it.  Or perhaps I like knowing something you don’t because it gives me pleasure.”

“You’re a sadist, you know that?” Asher said.

“Clearly.  But be grateful I’m sitting here, drinking burnt coffee, instead of applejack at home in order to help you.  Now, for the last time, focus!”