Ryle blinked as the room’s harsh tones of fitful sleep suddenly stopped. In their case place, the soft-rhythmic swish of a hundred breaths, inhaling and exhaling in quiet inexplicable unison, washed over Ryle. He would have sworn that he even felt his own heartbeat adjusting to match the cadence of the great hall’s breathing.
Ten white-cloaked figures stepped out into view from the Great Hall’s marble columns behind which they’d been hiding in silence since the day prior. Faces obscured by their opaque white hoods, the cloaked figures filed past Ryle without so much as an acknowledgement he was in the room, and surrounded the Steward’s body.
Like every time before, Ryle felt an almost irresistible urge from somewhere deep inside himself to break up this wordless ritual and keep these...beings from the Steward’s body.
By now Ryle had experienced this whole cycle of events thousands of times before.
The knife to the heart.
The silent circle around the body.
And this primal urge—some tiny small ember of ancient animal instinct still flickering inside of him—to get the body of the man he’d just killed into a proper grave, far, far away from the cloaked creatures’ ceremony.
If there was some meaning behind this inner primeval feeling of horror, Ryle couldn’t discern it.
He’d never had enough time to explore the feeling further.
Because every time he’d felt it rise up from the core of his being, merely a blink of an eye later—a fraction of a barely existent infinitesimal moment—the cloaked figures stepped back away from the Steward’s body
And with the dissipation of their circle, the scream emanating from some unfathomable depth inside Ryle disappeared.
He looked down at the body. As always, it looked as it did moments before. No marks. No scars. No symbols. No discernible changes of any kind.
Yet something was different.
No Ryle thought. Not just something different.
Ryle could feel it. It was somehow a lack of...essentiality.
The cloaked men grabbed the body and began dragging it along the floor up towards the entrance of the great hall.
When they reached the front of the great hall, as had been the case every other time, one of the cloaked figures slowly turned around and began back into the hall. It stopped next to the body of a passed out party-goer. Ryle saw that it was one of the girls snuggled into the arms of the hairy fat man.
The creature bent down and placed what Ryle assumed was a hand—still concealed under the thick cloak—on the girl’s forehead. She woke up immediately and smiled immediately at the being hovering above her
“Of course I will,” she told it.
The girl stood up and practically glided across the marble floor towards Ryle. Her eyes gleamed with the happiness of someone who’d just been woken from dreams of flying across the world with loved ones passed on.
When she stood in front of Ryle, she grabbed his hand with one of hers, and reached up with the other to caress his cheek.
Ryle knew what came next.
It always came next.
The girl lifted herself up onto her toes to bring her mouth right beneath Ryle’s ear. He felt her lip graze gently against his earlobe.
The girl sighed—an incongruous sound of love and contentment.
“They wanted to remind you,” she said, “that you can’t watch them leave. Wait twelve dozen heart-beats after they’ve gone. Do you remember why?”
“No,” the girl said. She sighed again. “You really don’t.”
And with that, the girl abruptly turned and walked towards the Great Hall’s entrance, waiting to exit until after the last cloaked figure had made its way out into the antechamber.
The girl spun around one last time and frowned at Ryle with...was it pity? Ryle couldn’t be certain. But before he could search her face further, she was pulling the giant oak door closed behind her.
At the thud of the door’s closer Ryle closed his eyes.
And he counted.
Squeezing his eyelids tightly and holding his breath, Ryle hoped—perhaps he even prayed to something he’d lost faith in years ago—that this time he could somehow avoid the last part of all this.
The worst part.
At one hundred and forty forty heart-beats, Ryle knew that this wouldn’t be that time.
He felt his retinas melt into his irises as they absorbed the blinding flash from which he couldn’t turn away.
His eardrums rang, cracked, and exploded all in a single moment inside the piercing thunderous roar.
He felt his brain collapse in on itself before the contents of his mind drained out and were replaced with a complete saturation of pure, unrelenting pain.
Before the pain sent Ryle into blissful unconsciousness, the very last and only thought to fight its way up through the pain and into his vanishing ego, was how nice it would be, if whoever was doing all of this to him, would just finally—as a show of small mercy—let him die.