Acrimony Grout

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Acrimony Grout

Jay Caselberg

. . . had a well-developed sense of his place in the cosmos. From his magnificent tick-tock spire overlooking the city he would scan the surrounds, peering out from his narrow slit-window and occasionally reach up to pat down the lank remaining strands of his buttercup-tinged hair across his balding moon-like pate.  This ritual occurred daily, if not more frequently.  Of course, his ministrations were unconscious: Acrimony Grout was barely aware of it, if at all.

The tick-tock spire was an admirable vantage point for surveying the locale.  All around, narrow, cobbled streets wound up through the city to his lofty residence. Life-sounds– sometimes odours–would drift up to him through the airy spaces, inserting themselves between the clanks and whirs of his domiciliary space, on the odd occasion, distracting him.  From time to time, especially now, these distractions were more than welcome.

Despite his elevated position, Acrimony Grout himself was adequately conversant with the ways of the Technologues and he was not averse to dipping into the information stream to sample the back and forths of the excessively mundane—The Babble as he liked to think of it.  It did not hurt his mainstream occupation, as, from time to time, there was a sense of a direction, a gathering of energies that he could glean from such chatter.  For, you see, sigils and symbols and portents and signs were Acrimony Grout’s stock-in-trade and any such gathering of power was a sign in and of itself.  Such indicators often proved useful.  Particularly as his current project was to take over the world.  As simple as that.

He allowed himself to form a fleshy, self-satisfied pout at the thought and waddled over to the narrow window again to peer down on his domain, resting one pallid hand upon the narrow metallic sill.  He was well-equipped for the position he sought and, in the end, only one or two might stand in his way.  Of course, there were the other rivals, but really, not one of them was a truly serious contender.

Right now, Acrimony Grout was sensing a nexus and, surely, the others must sense it too.  He considered.  Should he venture back into the social media stream or wander down into the city proper to sample and sup? It was an exercise that had served him well in the past.  It was his polymath nature that put him in such good stead, absorbing the energy signs, processing them and forming their spiralling structures, where others might not.  Many of his rivals were one-dimensional, some by choice, others by sheer lack of capability, but Acrimony Grout’s multiple pursuits opened up sources that the others may not, perhaps could not be aware of.  Consider Farcingdale Bent, Maglow Light; neither of them took any notice of the Technologue tools.  Why, Acrimony Grout seriously wondered if they even possessed a comptor between them.

He turned from the window, a more resolute expression forming on his face.  The time was surely approaching, the time to make his move.  And from other tick-tock spires in other cities, the other contenders would be preparing, gathering their strength.

But despite all his certainty and self-confidence, there was still the tiniest something, a nagging sense of unease, a doubt, niggling at the back of his consciousness, as if he was forgetting something.  Something important.

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Bandasnit was a small child, a tiny lad, a scarecrow patchwork of put-together, scrawny as a stray dog.  He and his friends would gather and dash, a ragtag bunch, tripping in and out of the alleyways and the small cafes and eateries that made the city famous, through shadows and catcalls and market stalls.  Bandasnit was special, but he actually did not know it, because he was one of the bunch.  He noticed things, a particular talent.  Like many such talents, it could exist without recognition, without anyone clearly aware of its existence.  One might be fast on his or her feet, or deft with the touch, or sharp of eye.  When played against a broader landscape of skills and behaviours, especially within the multi-limbed entity such as Bandasnit’s group, then it was easy for such things to be absorbed as a simple part of the greater noise.  That was the way things worked.

Of course, others within the group knew that if they needed a lookout, then Bandasnit was the one, in just the same way that Panatone would be the one you could not catch, the one who would most likely escape a hot pursuit.  Collectively,  as with any group, it was aware of its own strengths and shortcomings, a knowledge that had grown over time as its membership had gathered together or shifted and aged, or even simply drifted away.

The bunch was an entity, but an entity that changed, that learned new things and even, on occasion, forgot them. Bandasnit’s particular talent, in the end, was simply just another attribute of that group.

Bandasnit, or more formally, Bandasnit Frule, was the youngest son of an honest, working couple.  His parents owned and ran Frule’s Patisserie, a bakery and coffeehouse, quite well-renowned throughout that particular section of the city for its intricate and delicate pastries.  This heritage, in fact, was one of the reasons that Bandasnit himself appeared coated in flour, because as it happened, he actually was.  Bandasnit’s older brother, Adimus, who also habitually bore ghostly white handprints and streaks upon his clothing, worked diligently alongside their parents in the small establishment.

Bandasnit, of course helped out, but he was deemed yet too young to work full time, for the hours were long. His parents felt that a young boy needed to get out and experience, if not the world then at least the city, outside of the hours spent with the community lector and the various other occupations.

But enough of Bandasnit Frule.  His true part comes later.

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Acrimony Grout fussed about in the confines of his tick-tock spire, though the confines were hardly confined.  His mess of papers and stacks of books, from small dog-eared, yellowing pamphlets to massive tomes, often made it hard to find exactly what he was looking for at any one time.  An excursion into the town would be pointless unless he could carry with him his wafer-thin, light-as-a-feather notepad.  Slick as any of the latest Technologue devices, its slim design meant that it was quite easy to mislay in the chaotic trove that served as his main living space.

After much cursing and shoving aside of various piles, he finally noticed a thin duck-egg blue corner peering out from beneath a sheaf of computations he had been playing with the previous evening.  He grasped the corner between thumb and forefinger and wriggled it back and forth to free it, loath to disturb the carefully stacked pile of his workings.  He had them in a particular order and it was best that they stayed that way.  With a smack of his lips and a deep intake of breath, he peered around the chamber, wondering now where his outer cloak with its many fine pockets might lie.

Far larger, of course, than the notepad, it was easier to spot, bundled on top of the deep, padded bath chair that he liked to sit in, contained, to ponder and allow his thoughts to rove across the various universal patterns.  He stepped across to the chair and, first placing the notepad gently down in plain sight, lest he forget it again, reached for the cloak to shake it out.  This was a wise move on Acrimony Grout’s part, because despite his great mental facility, he had, of late, become somewhat absent-minded.  This was a cause for concern to Acrimony.  It simply would not do to forget something or perhaps not notice an important indicator during a crucial juncture such as this, even the smallest thing.

With the ivory cloak settled about his shoulders, he reached for the notepad and slipped it into one of the deep inner pockets for easy reach.  Patting the rest of the pockets to make sure he had not forgotten anything else, he tapped his right cheek a few times, thinking.  Ah, money.  He reached for the pile of loose coins on the table and slipped a handful into another pocket.  It was all well and good going for a wander in the town, but he would doubtless become hungry or thirsty, and he needed coin.  It would be nice to stop somewhere for a cup of thick, spiced coffee and watch the passing citizens.

Significant times, he thought to himself as he stepped into the square brass elevator and pulled the door shut with a screech of metallic protest and a crash.  Significant times.  He bounced up and down on the balls of his feet, all the way down, his hands clasped behind his back as he savoured the thought.

Today was a good day for such an expedition, he thought, as he entered the narrow, winding cobbled lane that led to the sole door to his metallic spire.  High walls rode either side of the laneway keeping it mostly in shadow, but illuminated at night by the two streetlamps, one at either end.  Though he ventured out rarely at night, there was no fear in doing so.  The city was generally a safe place, not known for criminal doings.  In a time such as this, with the gathering of energies so apparent, Acrimony Grout might just chance upon a snippet of knowledge, of accumulated trends.  Absorbing everything in his surroundings was just as much a key to his talents and his success as anything else.

He wound down the hill, through small residential streets, painted shutters and window boxes full of scented blooms that lent a sweetness to the air, lightening his mood even further.  Resolute and in good spirits; it was a fine combination.  He was even enjoying the slap of his sandals on stonework echoing from the surrounding walls.

At one point, a dog started following him, a mangy looking thing, bristly and grey.  To be fair, Acrimony Grout was a little afraid of dogs.  One was okay, but if there had been a group….  It was probably because he didn’t move very quickly and their speed and guile worried him.  If ever a group of dogs should decide to…but no, on a day such as today, it was best not to let his mind stray to such thoughts.

He swallowed and quickened his pace a little, glancing nervously back over his shoulder as the beast issued a low noise in its throat and fixed him with a hungry eye.  It was not only the stray animal that had him in its sights today and he knew it.  Perhaps it was a portent! He could feel it from afar, the others, all of them making their own preparations. With an effort, he dragged his gaze away and back to his destination.  He would not read it as a sign. He could not!

Before long, Acrimony Grout reached the outer districts where vendors and stores plied their commerce.  He paid little mind to the awnings or shops, the barrows and the stalls piled high with fruit and vegetables, the calls, encouraging him to buy.  His destination was deeper into the centre where the main crowds would gather, where he could immerse himself in the noise and the ebb and flow, catching snippets of conversation, whispers between huddled heads, words inked on flyers.  He would gather all of these as a whale gathers krill, absorbing and digesting, letting them flow through the streams of his deeper senses, nourishing his awareness and prompting, perhaps, a spark of knowing that would, in turn, allow the formulation of his next steps, and he needed it.  Now, right now, he had no real idea of what those next steps might be and the incident with the dog had unsettled him.

He was relieved to spy an empty chair and table outside one of his favoured cafés (unusual at this time of day) and he headed straight for it, settling himself, draping his cloak around its companion chair as he sat and the wicker creaked in protest.  A short time later, the slim, dark girl who usually served appeared in front of him, a small pad in hand.  Though he drank here regularly, there was little sign of recognition.

“A Julad coffee, please,” he said. It was what he always ordered.

She wandered off again, not even bothering to write it down.  She probably knew from previous experience that he would take his time, sipping carefully, watching and observing, listening.  He might order another, depending on how he felt.

While he waited for his order, he dug out the notepad and placed it in front of him on the glossy black table’s round, compact surface.  As he wiped one finger down the length of the notepad’s face he peered down at the text revealed. The pad’s topmost side changed to parchment yellow.  He flicked the page away and looked for another, scanning his notes.  Everything was gathered here.  He had the positions of the heavens, the current population density, the ambient temperature, local humidity, the state of the current trade embargoes, the dynastic succession.  He also had notes on the popularity of some current public figures.  A local actor was rumoured to be seeing a certain heiress.  That he had picked up on his trawls through the chatter.  Could he discern any influential trend, any gathering of focus, from that particular happening?  Perhaps not for now.

He shook his head, looked up from the page and scanned the surrounding streets.  He liked the vantage this location provided; it sat right at one of the busiest intersections of the main commercial district.  During the day, particularly in the afternoon, the flow of people continued unabated, a stream into which he could dip and withdraw as the fancy took him.

He cleared the page, prepared to take notes as needed. His index finger had a specifically sharpened nail ready should he need to jot something down.  He never bothered with a stylus.  He’d only mislay the damned thing, anyway.

His coffee had arrived.

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Being of an observant nature, Bandasnit Frule spent time watching and studying the habits of others within the great city.  He noted passers-by, absorbed their appearance, their carriage, the expressions and the hand gestures they used to convey their presence to the world, the garb and accoutrements carried and worn, the tics and mannerisms. All this he did automatically, without having to think about it. Inside Bandasnit’s head was a veritable encyclopaedic catalogue of city denizens and characteristics.  This, however, was but a mere facet of his wider talent, the placement of such things within a broader whole.  Bandasnit’s mind was attuned to the gestalt of a thing where others may simply perceive oddments.  If a thing stood out, then Bandasnit was attuned to the standing-outness of the thing, whether others were aware of it or not.

The other thing that helped this talent was Bandasnit’s almost perfect memory, both of the normal pattern of things, and those which stood out.  From time to time a certain waddling figure with thinning yellowish hair and voluminous robes had caught his eye.  Certainly, the rotund little figure with its splay-footed walk and the particular clothing style stood out, but Bandasnit had been struck by something else, some sense of otherness imbuing the creature with a presence that lodged in the back of his mind.  On each occasion when he had happened to spy this person, his metaphysical hairs had pricked up.  Bandasnit was not sure what it was, but it was definitely something.

On this particular day, the bunch was engaged in a habitual trawl through the restaurant and bar district, looking for whatever they could find to amuse their collective minds.  As was quite usual, it was Bandasnit who first noticed the patron of the crossroads café, sipping cautiously from a demitasse and poring over a notepad sitting on the small round table in front of him.  Bandasnit thrust out a hand, stopping Panatone in his tracks.

“Wait,” he said.

“What?” said another of the bunch.

“Just…”

Bandasnit narrowed his eyes, frowned, and leaned back against the nearby wall, watching.  There was something . . .

“What is it?” said Panatone, frowning himself and looking at Bandasnit with a quizzical tilt of his head.  “Is this another of your . . .?”

Bandasnit held up a hand to still him.  “Give me a moment,” he said.

He pushed himself from the wall and withdrew a little around the corner, beckoning for the bunch to follow.  He ducked his head around the edge of the wall, and looked.  The rotund, balding figure had not noticed them.  There was something, something, working in Bandasnit’s head, like a buzzing, a sense of expectation that he could not quite explain.  He took a deep breath, withdrawing as he did so.

“Be careful,” he said to Panatone.  “Have a look at the café over there.”

Panatone leaned forward and also popped his head around the corner.  “What about it?”

“What do you see?”

“A few people having drinks.  What of it?”

“Nothing special?”

Panatone stepped back, looking at Bandasnit with another slight frown.  “No, what is it?”

“I don’t know…” said Bandasnit. He could feel the tension growing inside him and he shook his head in a vain attempt to clear it.

Panatone ducked his head around the edge and then came back with a grin.  “I’ve got an idea,” he said.  The rest of the bunch looked at him expectantly.

“He’s got some sort of notepad in front of him.  Let’s see if we can get it without him noticing.  I’ve always wanted one of those.”

Little Bugwart nodded his head up and down enthusiastically.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Let’s do it.”

Bandasnit was not sure.  For a moment he said nothing.  Too late, because things were already in motion.  Panatone was leaning down, directing, giving instructions with the rest of the bunch listening attentively.

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The tick-tock spires were a legacy, a thorn-like half-memory of times long past, a tradition.  And though they nestled in the consciousness of the city’s general population, they were there as an afterthought, a half-awareness that lived insubstantial in their direct sight.  As the spires, so their inhabitants.

Acrimony Grout and numbers of his kind existed, pursued their ill-understood trade, and were basically ignored by the massed peoples of the land—ignored because nobody really comprehended what it was they did.  It was a talent, passed down through generations or, as was the case with Acrimony Grout, not inherited but rather acquired by a combination of natural tendency and the shaping of realisation and will.

It was Acrimony Grout’s will that truly set him apart.  Brought up within the outer reaches of the city slums, he had been left to fend for himself amongst the squalor and the dirt, and so had grown his will.  With no clear means of advancement or escape, he had turned his mind to study, to learn the ways of things, and thus gain a path to crawl from the midden that marked the boundaries and the reality of his life.

Acrimony Grout, the awkward fat child in pauper’s robes, had become a ghost of the city library, wandering the shelves and the files, the recordings and the cubes, alone and unfulfilled, despite the sidelong looks he earned on each of his daily appearances.  These eventually passed, as he became a familiar figure in the entry portico, waiting impatiently for the vast bronze doors to swing wide.  As time wore on, he would receive the nod of recognition, or even a bare half-smile (more of an acknowledgment of curious amusement, rather than friendliness) as he made his daily appearances.

Easily bored by the more practical subjects, he was soon drawn to the esoterica, the rarely used holdings of the library’s sweeping collection. Here, he found what he truly sought.  He studied and read, observed and assessed and, before long, he was taking notes on crumpled sheets of paper that he could beg or borrow wherever he found them.

This habit had continued into his later life, finally manifesting itself in the treasured notepad, which had become an invaluable aid to organising his thoughts and directing the shape of his will as he gathered and sculpted it during times of acquisition and conquest.  Though it was not conquest in the visible, observable sense of the mundane world, it was conquest all the same.  Others had their own particular devices, but Acrimony Grout’s notepad was his special inanimate companion and he relied on it in a way he could never rely upon a person, apart from his solitary self.

Now, as he sipped his coffee, he peered down at his latest notes, one ear open for the passing conversations, from time to time glancing up at the passing crowd.  It would be tomorrow, he had ascertained.  All the signs pointed to a true nexus.  The positions of the heavens were right.  The collective unconscious pack mind of the general population was focused, but, most of all, Acrimony Grout could feel it.  The inner senses sensed.  It was like a knotting inside his awareness, and all he had to do was slice his will so that the interweaving strands fell asunder and streamed away across the underpinnings of creation like strings.

The couple at the next table were discussing the latest economic downturn and Acrimony Grout listened with half an ear.  It was another sign.  If he could tweak the energies in a certain way, things would recover and he would be the architect of that change.  All of the others would know who had done it.  He nodded and smirked to himself and then using the sharpened nail on his forefinger, he scribbled a hasty note.  He licked his lips and looked up at the street, watching the flow, unconsciously reaching up to smooth the strands of hair lying plastered across the top of his head.

A sudden noise directly beside and behind him startled him out of his self-satisfied reverie.

“Hey, fat man.”  Someone poked him in the shoulder from behind.

Awkwardly, Acrimony Grout tried to turn.  Who would dare?

“Hey, you awake?” Another voice.  Another poke.  It was children.  He swung his bulk around in the chair.

He barely saw the flash of motion from the corner of his eye as he fixed his attention on a small group of girls and boys, surrounding his sitting position in a semi-circle.  He was struggling, confused.  What was going on?

He turned back to see a small rangy youth dashing away from his table, darting across the intersection, and then disappearing up an adjoining street.  He swung around again, but the children were scattering, disappearing through gaps between the passing shoppers.  He shook his head, confused.  What could have prompted such an assault?  Something more to note.  Slightly ruffled, he turned back to the table.

His notepad was gone!

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At the pre-agreed gathering place, the bunch congregated, panting and grinning, Panatone with the biggest smile on his face, clutching his prize to his chest.

Bandasnit felt uneasy.  It was rarely that the bunch would engage in something like this.  His parents had brought him up to honesty, to fairness, and somehow what they had all done did not seem right.  There was something else though, something he could not quite put his finger on. “What now?” he said.

Panatone held out the fat man’s notepad at arm’s length, looking down at it, a satisfied look on his face. “Nice,” he grinned. He held the gaze for a second or two more and then looked up at Bandasnit.

“We’d better split up,” Bandasnit decided.  “Just in case.”  He looked around the other faces.

“Right,” Panatone agreed. “I can’t take this,” he told them all. “I’m going to be the first place anyone looks.  Here,” he said shoving the notepad into Bandasnit’s hands. “You take it.  Keep it safe.  They won’t look at your place.”

“But…”

“Just do it.  Now, let’s go.”

A couple of nods and, still panting and flushed from their exploits, they started to drift away, a glance here, a grin there.  They would meet again tomorrow, to be sure, and by then, they’d know if anything had happened.  Bandasnit could bring their prize back with him.

Not feeling at all good about it, Bandasnit slipped the notepad inside his clothes, out of sight, and made his own way home.  For now, he was annoyed with Panatone – and his own sense of guilt was following him like a buzzing insect.  He quickly walked the narrow and winding streets feeling as if, at any moment, a heavy hand was going to fall upon his shoulder and stop him in his tracks.  He kept swallowing back the feeling and glancing behind, just to make sure.

Once back at his home, he stepped into his room, closed the door and leaned back heavily against it. Finally drawing out the stolen object and holding it at arm’s length, he regarded it.  As he thought, as he considered their actions and the potential consequences, something else grew and his expression slowly changed.  That something else was Bandasnit’s native curiosity.  Thoughts of what they had done, whether it was right or wrong, dissipated as he drifted towards his bed. Sitting, he placed the notepad on his lap and flicked the screen to life.

For hours he sat like that, his head bent, marks of concentration etched upon his face as page after page of notes and diagrams flickered past his gaze.  His eyes grew wider.  He did not read the pages so much as absorb them, as if by some osmosis, and they drifted into his consciousness and formed and shaped.

In the early hours of the morning he had finished everything, only pausing to sup with his parents and then race back up to his room.  His parents had remarked that he seemed distant, had asked if there was anything troubling him, but Bandasnit merely made excuses, eager to be back to his process of mental archaeology.

By the time he finally sat back, the last page of notes consumed, staring up at the thick ceiling beams, Bandasnit’s head was brimming, but he knew what he had to do.  He knew who this man was and where he lived.  He would grab a few hours’ sleep and then, in the morning, he would make his way up the hill to the dull yet shining spire and return the man’s property.  He did not mind the consequence; it was the right thing to do.

As he drifted to sleep, curled up around the notepad, Bandasnit’s world was starting to change, and–though he couldn’t feel it yet–by dawn’s light he would know it within, without even being consciously aware of it.

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It did not matter what Panatone was likely to say.  What Bandasnit intended was the right thing, but as he drew on his clothes that morning, he felt somehow different.  There was a prickling sense of tension, a cording of the air around him, or so it seemed.  He tried to shake it away, splashing water on his face, but it would not leave, straining and throbbing like the whole city had a metallic heartbeat.  Perhaps, when he had done what he was going to, the uncomfortable feeling would leave.  Perhaps, it was truly just his sense of guilt, after all.

Secreting the notepad inside his clothes and out of sight, he made his way downstairs.  His parents and his brother were long gone to the early morning labours in preparation for the breakfast rush. He grabbed a cheese baguette from the table before stepping out into the street, tearing off a chunk and chewing thoughtfully as he walked.  The smell of the family ovens was strong in the small street, beckoning, but he had more important things to do.

It did not take him long to make his way up to the small laneway leading to the tick-tock spire.  At the entrance to the path, he hesitated.  Was he doing the right thing after all?  He almost turned and left then, but the buzzing in his consciousness was louder, more insistent, and it forced him back upon his path.  One step after the other he climbed the lane, as if moving through an invisible soup, everything seeming to slow around him.

He reached the door, grabbed the chain and tugged.  Far above, he could hear the sound of a chime.  There was nothing.  Again, he grasped the chain and pulled.

“Yes, what is it?” came a voice from the nearby speaking tube, sounding bleary and confused.

“I…I…think I may have something that belongs to you,” said Bandasnit.

There was a moment or two of silence, and then the voice came again.  “Come up,” it said.  “Come up.”  The bleariness in the voice had gone.

Bandasnit stepped through the narrow doorway, eventually worked out that the elevator was in fact an elevator and made his way towards it.

“The top floor,” a voice called down from above.

The elevator shuddered and creaked all the way to the top.  As it jounced to a stop, the fat man was already reaching for the door, eagerness striped across his face between the bars of the metal cage.  He was almost panting.

The door crashed open.

“My notepad.  Have you got my notepad?”

Bandasnit reached inside his clothes and pulled it forth, proffering it without a word.

The fat man reached, grabbed his notepad, stroked it, and turned the machine on.

“Oh thank the heavens,” he said.  “We are just in time.”

“For what?” Bandasnit asked with a frown.

“It is here.”

“What is here?” said Bandasnit.

The little fat man looked up at him.  “The nexus.  Of course, you couldn’t know that.  You couldn’t feel it,” he said with a smirk and a shake of his head.

Bandasnit concentrated.  He could feel that presence, that energy, drawing tight around him.  He felt it bunching, knotting and then…

Acrimony Grout looked at him, his eyes wide.  “No!” he said.  “It cannot be!”

Bandasnit felt the tension, like a pain blossoming deep within his mind.  It was overwhelming, all-consuming, pressing in and around him.  He reached for it with his senses, understood how everything must sit, and knew, then and there, the gestalt of the thing.  That belongs…there.

“No!” cried Acrimony Grout.

The tension was gone.  In its place, Bandasnit felt a sense of rightness, of order.  Bandasnit let out a slow breath of relief.

The fat man stared at him aghast.

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Acrimony Grout gazed wistfully up at the tick-tock spire and plucked at his bottom lip.  There was where he belonged, not here.  All his planning and plotting, his observations, all for nothing. A mere boy. The right place at the right time.  The tick-tock spire.  He still could not believe it, but how could he have known?

He traced his finger back and forth across the blank surface of his notepad and looked back down into his cup of Julad coffee, watching reflections waver across the dark and shining surface.  Things flowed, the shape of things changed.  From the peaks to the depths, and here he now was, master of everything and then, simple as that—nothing.

It was not a cycle, exactly, not quite, but he knew an opportunity must come again.  Surely, it must come again.  Perhaps it would be sooner rather than later… if he planned it well enough.

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Jay Caselberg  is an Australian author based in Europe. His work has appeared in multiple venues around the world including such places as Polyphony, Interzone, Abyss & Apex, and The Third Alternative as well as a number of novels. He has been translated into a number of languages. More can be found at jaycaselberg.com and he can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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