Imposed Will

“Remind me to never again disagree with Beth when she says I’m too drunk to go out,” William said to no one in particular, his head sunk all the way down to his shoulder, his back pressed against the hard stone wall.

“I’ll be sure to do that,” a voice unexpectedly replied from the shadows. Startled, Will snapped his head to the sound’s source, but winced at the sudden movement. “Careful there,” the voice scolded. “That looks like a nasty cut on your head, don’t want to aggravate it.” The voice was female and educated, two qualities which individually would be unexpected enough in these dungeons, let alone when combined together.

“No,” William agreed, “I don’t.”

“You made quite the ruckus when they brought you in here…” the voice trailed off, inviting a response. It wasn’t strange for the comers and goers at the jail to strike up conversation with one another, but William was still surprised with the unique qualities of his companion here. It wasn’t just the oddity of a voice so silky and smooth where one usually encountered a rough scratch. More so it was that her tone was entirely at ease, as if entirely unperturbed about being held in such a filthy cell. He tried to peer again through the darkness to catch a glimpse of the speaker, but to no avail. The only torch in the room was directly above his head, and as a result left the rest of the room in darkest contrast.

“I was resisting their injustice,” he finally decided to respond. “They grabbed the wrong man.”

“They said something about a fight?”

“Yes, well I had to start a fight. There was another bloke who I was playing cards with until I decided I hated him. You see, he only managed to beat me because he was cheating.”

“You mean he beat you because he was cheating better than you were?” the voice countered dryly.

“And there’s no better reason for hating a man,” he said, then chuckled just as dryly. He let his head slump down again, trying to find a position that was comfortable. It was no easy task given that his hands, chained above his head, required him to be in a constant sitting position. “They tell me ‘sleep off your alcohol’,” he muttered, then turned to the heavy oak door and shouted to any guards present in the adjoining hallway “BUT HOW IS A MAN TO SLEEP IN THESE CONDITIONS?!” The muffled thud of a rifle butt slamming the door was his only response. “Ohhh, poor William,” he sighed in mock-pity. “Such potential, yet you’ve squandered it for naught.”

“That’s a rare stroke of honesty in you,” the voice chimed in again. “But can you go a step further and admit the reasons why?”

William’s earlier amusement was replaced with irritation now. This was one too many jabs at his expense. “Listen here, lady,” he stressed the term sarcastically. “I do not care for your prying. Or would you have me asking how such a posh aristocrat got herself condemned to a paupers’ prison?”

“Ask away, I have no shame to hide. Unlike you, I’m here by choice.”

“By choice?” he laughed spitefully. “You enjoy the squalor, do you?”

“No. But it is worth it to finally meet you, William Ballows.”

The use of his full name brought a full stop to the laughter still on his lips. “Who are you?”

“Come and see. Your chains aren’t on your arms anymore.”

Dumbfounded William glanced upwards and found that the statement was true. The shackles lay open around his wrists, the awkward position he had been maintaining entirely unnecessary. He slowly lowered his hands, but did not yet rise to investigate the shadows. “But they were chained. I know they were, I tugged on them when the guards left.”

“Yes, and in so doing confirmed to your mind that reality. But when I told you that they were not, I introduced a new possibility to your imagination. And to your credit, you opened yourself enough to the idea that the change took effect.”

William shook his head, apparently not composed enough to wrestle with the strange statements. “No riddles, please. I’m in no mood.” He slowly stood and took a few cautious steps towards the edge of the circle of light, clearly a little unnerved.

“It’s simple,” the voice tutted. “I decreed that they would be open, you did not outright refuse the possibility, and so, like magic, that reality manifested itself.”

“I don’t believe in that magic nonsense,” he stated flatly.

“Oh no? Then how have you disregarded the ball and chain? They put it on you after you kicked at them, remember?”

In an instant, William suddenly felt the return of the weight he had forgotten, tugging powerfully against his ankle and pulling him down horizontally on the hard, stone floor. He cried out in pain and tasted blood, his already reeling mind now aching even more. He cradled his skull and remain motionless. For the time being it was best not to think at all, not to try and move. Just let the throbbing subside and the world stop spinning. Wait for numbness, that was the ticket.

“I know you think I am mocking you, but I’m not,” the woman’s voice echoed from the walls again, and there was a sincere sympathy to it. “I want to help you, I want to give you a gift.”

William swallowed the blood down, his eyes streaming angry tears as he pushed himself once again to his feet. “Listen, you,” he breathed out threateningly as he began walking forward, now taking halting half-steps as he waited for the heavy iron ball to follow after him. “I am finished with your games. I will tell you politely only once more, I am in a foul mood and I want to be left alone!” Up until the final word he had maintained a constant, seething tone of rage. But then, on the last syllable, all emotion evaporated from his voice as he came into full view of the dark wall and saw…nothing. No one was there whatsoever. His shock subsided as he realized he must have been hallucinating. Cupping his calloused palms to his forehead, he sank down to his knees. “My mind is unraveling!” he wailed.

“Then weave it into something new.”

His hands shot down from his eyes, and before him he saw a woman’s face, seemingly etched into the very stone in front of him. Etched, except for the fact that the expressions of its eyes and mouth were as freely moving as his own, like a living sculpture. There was no hair or neck, only the front of the face, where the tall forehead stood as a featureless sheet over eyes that were haughty and a thin nose and mouth that were curved to one side in a smirk.

“I know, very strange, of course,” the voice understated, its mouth forming the words in perfect time to the sounds emanating from it.

Though he had recoiled in horror, William did not dare turn away or even blink his eyes. He swallowed hard, as if trying to plunge his throat down far enough to find his voice. It seemed to have succeeded somewhat because after it returned he was able to hoarsely whisper “Are—are you a ghost?”

“Hardly,” she scoffed. “Although, I suppose if it helps you make sense of things, that’s not the worst analogy. Think of me as the ghost of a still-living being, as though my body pushed out its essence into these walls to speak with you.”

“You do have a body then? You are, in fact, a person?”

Her eyes glanced towards a barred window in the wall. “Have a look for yourself.”

He still didn’t dare take his eyes off of the disembodied face as he stood and took his weighted half-steps over to the window. Gripping the bars with his hands for support he peered down to the cobblestone bridge that flowed from the prison’s main level. There, at the bottom of a gas-lamp, stood a hooded figure, barely visible against the black of night. The figure raised a single hand in salutation to him.

“That’s you?” he snapped his head back over to the inner wall, again regretting having moved his neck too quickly.

“Yes, as I said. And really, why don’t we take care of that pain in your head? Feel that soothing warmth?”

“What–” he started to say, but then paused as the most pleasant low heat settled on his forehead, seeming to melt away every twinge of pain, inside and out. He touched his hand to his head but could feel no source for the heat, nor indeed could he any longer feel the cut on his brow, it had been replaced by smooth, unbroken skin. Even the hangover had subsided.

“And there’s no need for that chain and ball, either. Really, I am sorry about that,” she said sweetly.

He hardly was surprised anymore when, glancing down, the clasp around his ankle was open. Using his newfound freedom he began pacing the floor while muttering to himself like a nervous animal. He was, in a word, dumbfounded. In two words he was dumbfounded and speechless. Try as he might, he could not form a single sentence to say to the specter, though a great number of questions were teeming in his mind. Every time he thought he must say something, another part of him—the part that recalled his 32 years of life upon this earth with varied and numerous experiences, but never a one that compared to this most singular occurrence—that part was insisting there was no room to accept the reality of this moment. Either it was a dream or a hallucination, in either case any continued interaction with the fantasy could only do harm.

“Don’t,” the voice said in a sudden, cautionary tone.

“Don’t what?” he asked, his curiosity instantly getting the better of himself.

“Don’t write this off as a mere delusion. If you don’t accept it then it won’t be real anymore, and you’ll be snapped back into those chains, an iron ball clasped to your foot, and your head streaming blood.”

“Maybe—maybe it’s better that way.” The skeptical side of him decided to speak the words, but the curious side of him provided the uncertainty to his tone.

She grinned. “If that’s truly the reality you prefer, then you may have it, but I seriously doubt that’s the option for you.”

“Well…and just what other options are there, then?” his curiosity now had the reigns of his words, but the skeptical side still kept the tone uncertain.

“I offer a world just like my very own, complete with all the power you have been witnessing. A world where walls cannot keep you in…or out. A world where other men cannot put you in chains against your will. Where they cannot cheat you in cards and steal your paltry pay. Where they cannot pay you less than they promised after a hard day’s work.”

He smiled ruefully, impressed at how accurately she had recounted his day’s events in reverse. “It seems you know me very well.”

She smiled.

He sighed, glanced down at his hands, then back up to her, self-doubt scrawled across his face. “Then you know what I am. I’m no hidden gem with deeper depths to reveal, I truly am the human debris every passerby on the street judges me as. I may get angry and loud and fight them, but I only do it because I know they are right.”

The unspoken question was obvious, why would she waste her time with one such as him? She did not say anything for a long while, only staring coolly at him, as if to allow her next words to carry the added weight of all the preceding silence. Then, finally, “But you do fight them, nonetheless, and that’s why I have come to you. The fact is you’re one that believes his reality, yet fights against it anyway with all his strength. That’s just the sort of brash stubbornness that can share my secrets.”

He gave a wry, distrustful smile. “Why? What’s in it for you?”

“Oh yes, I won’t deny it. I have personal gain in this, absolutely. And I will gladly discuss that point, once we get you out of here.”

He looked away towards the heavy, oak door. His furrowed brow seemed to reflect the dividing indecision that stood in his mind right now.

“I understand. You don’t fully know what you can gain from this, or even if you believe any of it. But as you yourself have suggested, you are nothing. You have nothing, and therefore have nothing to lose. What reason is there not to let me help you?”

The brow smoothed and he turned back to the face. “Alright.”

She smiled and nodded approvingly. “Good, welcome to all the world has to offer. And more.”

He nodded too, as if to convince himself of his own consent. “Well…for the time being I think I’d be satisfied if you just break me out of jail.”

“No, I am going to instruct you until you are able to break yourself out of jail,” she corrected.

“Right…and do so in a way that—what was it—alters reality?” the words sounded ridiculous in his mouth and he felt a fresh wave of doubt flood over him. Of course, he reminded himself, he was still talking to a face in the wall, ridiculous was the order of the night. Whether she sensed his hesitations she did not say, she just continued on.

“We might as well get started, but I should warn you, what I have to teach is terribly simple and that is what makes it so dreadfully difficult. It can be summed up in a single sentence… When you convince yourself of a new reality, the world will realign itself to accommodate it.”

He waited for more but there was none. “Could you…could you just repeat that?”

“When you convince yourself of a new reality, the world will realign itself to accommodate it.”

“Oh…” he said blandly, not feeling any clearer about it. He understood the words of course, but they were simply unacceptable.

“When you convince yourself of a new reality, the world—”

“Yes, yes, yes. I understand,” he interrupted. “But…I just…well…why? And how?”

“No. We’re dealing with very fundamental concepts here, ones which you likely carry ingrained opposition to. We can’t challenge those objections unless you are able to fully voice them. ‘Why’ and ‘how’ aren’t enough, you need to identify what your barrier is precisely and explain it to me.”

That was no trouble. He indeed felt no shortage of disagreement with the idea she was proposing. “Why would the world realign itself, then? The world doesn’t work that way. And how exactly would I change my own reality? I do not possess that ability.”

“That’s not how the world works? How does it work then?”

He felt a little flustered, being asked to explain the most basic of things. “Well…I mean, clearly…” he was surprised at how hard it was to vocalize something so simple. “The world… it just is what it is, it doesn’t change. I believe the word is immutable?”

She nodded.

“So you can’t realign it. The way it works is that the world defines our reality and the rest of us live according to it. Not the other way around.”

A bright smile washed over her face, apparently not at all upset by his conclusions. “So you do admit that there is the ability for one reality to define others, then? Just you see it as one-way, the world defining our own?”

“I suppose so.”

“Well you’re already halfway there then! You just have to let go of that notion about the world being immutable. You change its course all the time, and don’t even think about it as you do.”

Without warning, one of the pebbles encased in the mortar next to her head started to vibrate. She glanced to it and the stone broke free and was sent propelling directly at his face. Fast as it was, he managed to instinctively swat it away.

“You see!” She said gleefully. “I imposed my will on the world, the world accepted it and sent a rock at your head. You imposed your opposing will and the world accepted it and let the rock fall to the ground.”

His mouth was agape from the shock of the strange assault and he stammered for a moment. Finally he spoke. “That’s hardly the same. Swinging my arm isn’t hurtling a rock with my mind!”

“Hmm, don’t think of it as my mind. It’s more that I’m projecting my will.”

“I don’t see that that makes a difference.”

“Oh but it does! Because people project their will all the time. Some do it by physically moving their limbs, as you did, but you know of others that don’t. Kings on their thrones, inventors with their machinations. They do not physically perform their will, they merely dictate it and the work is done.”

“Well I’m no king or inventor,” he said brusquely, still a bit offended by the rock.

“I know, William,” she said sympathetically. “That’s why this is going to be the hardest part for you. You’ve been so used to having others’ wills imposed on you and never the other way around. You have not been an actor, only a receiver. Not only does the world dictate your actions, you even presuppose what that dictation will be and rush to fulfill it early. You feel it mandates that you never amount to anything, so you self-fulfill that prophecy.”

He looked down bitterly. “Go softly,” he whispered.

“I mean no harm. But you must be satisfied that I understand, or else you won’t trust that I know the course you must follow.”

A pause. “I’m satisfied.”

“Well now is the time to let go of that way of thinking. As I said, when you convince yourself of a new reality, the world will realign itself to accommodate it, doesn’t matter if you’re a king or commoner. You’d like the door to the cell here to be unlocked, wouldn’t you? Yes, I expected so. Well convince yourself that it is and you will have the power over it.”

He raised an eyebrow. “So, to be sure I understand, I just persuade myself the door is unlocked, I make that my will and all that, and then I can just open it and leave?”

“Essentially…” she said, but there was a hesitation in her voice, suggesting she felt he was still missing something.

He stood up, strode over to the door, tugged on the iron ring and heard the deep thud of the bolt catching in the lock, refusing to budge an inch. He turned back to her and shrugged his shoulders with a disappointed-though-not-surprised expression on his face. “It didn’t work.”

She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them confidently. “Try it now.”

He gripped the handle again and pulled, the door swung easily and gently, far more so than its weight and rusty hinges should have allowed. Before he could react, the handle tugged out of his grip as the door slammed back closed with a bang, followed by the click of the bolt sliding back into its lock.

“SHHHH!” he gesticulated wildly to the face. “The guard will hear!”

For a moment her left eye sunk back into the wall, the rest of her face remaining motionless. The organ returned and she said “No worries, he is on his patrol elsewhere, we’re quite safe.”

He shuddered at the sight and slowly walked back to the wall she occupied. “So what did I do wrong, then? Why can’t I open it but you can?”

“How do you know you didn’t open it?”

He was annoyed at the question, it was stupid. “I know I didn’t open it because it didn’t open! What do you mean how did I know? It was self-evident!”

“You exerted a force and somehow had an understanding of what the result of it was. How? Your senses I would assume?”

“Of course,” he said shortly. “I saw that the door didn’t move. I felt the lock catch. Is that what you’re looking for?”

She proceeded as though not noticing the derision in his voice. “Whenever you are trying to exert your will on the world, it will try to resist it. Like friction. You cannot let its resistance convince you, though, then it wins. You pulled that handle like you were asking a question: ‘world, is this door open?’ and the world responded ‘no’ and you accepted it. You have to pull that handle like you’re making a statement: ‘world, this door is open’ and then reject any sense or experience that suggests otherwise.”

“Reject my senses?”

“Of course. You’ve given control of them over to the world long ago and are going to have to work to wrest them back. Don’t let them tell you what your reality is, you tell them what the reality they should be sensing is instead.”

“That’s insanity!” He exclaimed. “Raving about things that don’t exist and ignoring things that do.”

“It might be insanity. For myself personally I do not think so because I tell myself my face is peering through this wall and I see you, another individual, reacting to it accordingly. Of course you might just be a figment of my imagination, or I suppose from your perspective I might just be a figment of yours, in which case you’re already insane, darling.” She smiled broadly.

“Maybe I am,” he agreed, unable to resist a small smile himself. “It’s definitely the most logical explanation for all this, really.” Despite the skeptical words, he couldn’t help but feel that she was right. There was no denying that she had projected her face into this room, released his shackles, healed his head, and unlocked then relocked the door. Either he was already crazy, or else she was doing just as she said. Somehow he found the first option more difficult to accept than the second.

“Go and try the door again,” she encouraged. “But this time you’re the one defining what will happen.”

He nodded. He strode back to the door and gripped its handle, the iron cold and smooth on his palm, so hard and real. He closed his eyes and urged his hand to forget that feel of physical reality, to stop sensing the touch of it. His fingers seemed numb and a strange floating sensation came over him. Almost in a thoughtless haze he pulled the door, imagining in his mind’s eye how it was swinging out to him, how his arm was experiencing the sensation of it opening. His eyes fluttered open and he was looking into the outer hallway, the open door still gripped in his hand.

William paused, staring down the vacant hallway, still numb from the shock of what he’d just done. The lady’s face in the wall behind him faded back into the stone, only to reform a few feet down the passage ahead of him.

“Let’s go,” she said, darting her eyes to the right to indicate the exit’s direction.

Swallowing purposefully he stepped out into the hall, closing the heavy door behind him, then shuffled after her, creeping along as quietly as possible. The passage was low and dark, only illuminated by the occasional torch, all of which flickered from a draft rolling down from the upper levels of the prison. As he followed the curving path his body-less companion kept pace alongside him, gliding through the cobblestones as effortlessly as a hand through water. Each feature of the rough stone would pass through her face as she moved past it, creating the sensation of textured shadows constantly flitting across her brow. The curve they were following prevented William from seeing very far ahead, and so it was that he abruptly happened upon a staircase, unable to duck back out of view before a guard descending down the steps had spotted him.

“Get him!” the lady’s face hissed, but William froze, his hands instinctively raising in surrender as the equally startled guard raised his rifle level with William’s chest. The lady moaned in frustration, her face sinking back out of view, only to reappear on the stretch of wall behind the guard. Her face was now joined by two arms stretching outwards, feeling for the oblivious guard. Before William could cry out in surprise her hands had wrapped around the man, pulling him backwards to the wall with a dull crack, then dropping his limp body to tumble down the steps to William’s feet. William sprang down and checked for the man’s pulse. He was unconscious.

Her face popped back down next to him, a disappointed scowl carved across her brow. “You were surrendering,” she accused.

“I—I know,” he said, his face still flushed and his heart pounding. “Look, all this reality-bending stuff is still new to me. I’m not going to be much good at it in the spur of the moment.”

“Obviously,” she scoffed. “I wouldn’t expect otherwise. But I do expect you to at least try!”

“Fine, fine,” he said, rising from his crouch and starting up the steps. “Do you have any advice for when facing another guard? I mean, it just seems like changing realities on an actual person is a whole lot more imposing than on a dumb door.”

“Yes, sentient beings have more capacity to resist the change,” she admitted. “If they have the presence of mind to fight back, that is. But in those moments it is just a matter of the stronger will winning out.”

“And how do you—” he paused in the middle of the question as his feet skid to a halt. He was nearing the top of the stairs, and at the summit he could now see an open doorway, light and voices spilling out into the hallway that ran past it. Edging over to the other side of the stairs he was able to glimpse across a wider angle of the room, spotting a group of six men sitting around a table laden with their tankards, all engaged in a relaxed reverie. Behind them was another door, likely belonging to some sort of closet, judging by its small size. The men appeared to be well engaged in their mirth, but they were in full view of the doorway and couldn’t fail to notice anyone who might walk by.

William quickly ducked back to the hidden side of the wall. “There’s six of them,” he whispered to the lady. “No way to sneak past.”

She nodded. “So what are you going to do?”

“I—I was hoping you might have an idea,” he said sheepishly.

She looked at him darkly, appearing very disinterested in solving the problem for him. Suddenly, her expression brightened, and she launched into a barrage of sarcastic offers. “Why don’t you just dissolve their eyeballs? Or shrink the room down to fit into your pocket? Or extend your legs out so you can step over the entire doorway? Or—”

“Alright, alright” he interrupted, taking the hint that he needed to find a solution on his own. He wouldn’t dare attempt any of what she had suggested, though he was half tempted to ask if all that was really possible.

What could he do? The only thing that he felt comfortable with was opening locked doors after doing the one in his cell. He could find a door and make it open into the closet he had seen behind the men. But how would that help? Maybe there was some other useful way to use that room though? He asked the lady if she knew what was behind the door.

“Could be anything. Literally. You haven’t seen it, and so it remains open to interpretation. Course you could always change a room even after seeing it, but it’s always easier to influence the world when you aren’t fighting your senses.”

He nodded, his mind forming the beginnings of a plan. “It might be a closet stacked with barrels, then,” he mused aloud, “Barrels filled with ales like what they’re drinking now.”

“A perfectly reasonable determination,” she encouraged.

“And those barrels might not be stacked securely, prone to falling over.”

“More than likely, I would say, given they’re such a careless, drunken lot. I can almost hear them crashing to the ground now…can you?”

Could he? Slowly inching up the last steps towards the door he stretched his imagination out towards the closet, projecting the sound of creaking wood and sloshing ale muffled behind the men’s voices. He felt a strange, crescendoing premonition in him, the hairs on his arm raising in knowing anticipation…

WHAM! The thunderous crash from the closet made him leap in surprise, but then, catching his wits, he dashed silently past the doorway. As he passed its open frame he had a glimpse of all the men rushing towards the closet, amber liquid pooling out on the ground at its base. He continued silently sprinting away in case any of them were to emerge, but no one did. There were another three empty rooms connecting off from the hallway, and he slowly approached, peered into, and then passed each one. Just ahead of him he could see the back exit to the complex and he sped up his pace, anxious to emerge.

He strode down a short flight of steps to the great, wooden door and clapped his hand on the iron ring as, in unison, a large, rough hand clapped down on his shoulder. He was forcefully spun around and there met a large, burly face. He realized that in his hurry he had failed to notice the small guard’s booth off to the side of the door. The man was quite larger than he was, and the grip on William’s shoulder spoke of considerably greater strength than he himself possessed.

Not wanting to be in range of the guard’s fists William instinctively flung himself forward to the man’s chest, grappling him in a tight embrace. The man stumbled back awkwardly, but found his footing and then pivoted, swinging William into the hard wall with a bone-shaking smack. William maintained his grip, but felt dazed and would not last another blow like that. His clasped hands were getting clammy and his knees were wobbling with the desire to run. All rational thought processes seemed to have been muted by his panic. As the man twisted his waist, pulling back for another swing into the stone, the hard, wooden handle of his pistol knocked against William’s forearm. Without thinking, William relaxed his grip on the man and kicked out against the offending wall, propelling himself backward. As he did so he flung out his hand to catch the man’s pistol, which of its own accord was moving as if by invisible strings, sliding out of its holster, up the fellow’s body, and through the air towards William’s grasp. William’s finger was already in the motion of pulling the trigger as the handle slid smoothly into his palm. A single shot rang out, catching the guard full in the chest and crumpling him down to the ground.

The expression of triumph remained on William’s face for less than a second before the horror of what he’d just done sunk in. He glanced in utter bewilderment down at the gun in his hand, its muzzle still guiltily puffing smoke, then over to the mound of clothes and flesh in front him. He turned to the lady’s face in the wall, her expression was one of surprise but not of disapproval.

“Help him!” he whimpered to her, the fear in his voice surpassing that which he had felt when in the thick of battle.

She squinted at him, then said decisively “No. We’re wasting time as it is.”

“Wasting time?! His life is at stake!”

“If that’s so important to you, then take care of it, but be quick about it. There is nothing I can do for him which you cannot do yourself.”

There was a finality in her tone that made it clear she had nothing more to say on the matter. Pushing down the fresh rage that was bubbling up he closed his eyes and tried to calm his beating heart, willing his mind to work out a solution. What could he do? Make it so that he had missed? But he knew he hadn’t and he still struggled to know how he could convince himself otherwise. Where had he hit him? The chest? That wasn’t good. However he hadn’t actually seen the wound, nor indeed any blood pooling on the ground yet. Keeping his eyes closed he pressed his hand to the floor, telling himself that the ground was still dry around the body. Indeed it still was. Well then, it must have just been a surface blow. Perhaps it got caught on something? Yes, that was it. But what? It didn’t matter, anything would do.

Opening his eyes he reached around the man, and rolled him onto his back. William reached through the folds of the uniform on the man’s chest feeling for a shallow strike mark that he insisted must be there. It was as if his fingers knew instinctively where to go, they smoothed out a bend in the cloth to reveal one of the brass buttons, warped and welded by a ball of lead, the fabric around it scorched off. He pinched the ball, still hot from the firing, and pulled it and the button away, revealing a slight depression and welt in the man’s chest, but certainly nothing fatal. Of a sudden, the man’s chest began heaving with new breath and his eyes snapped open, locking on William’s with a wild and astounded expression. He remained silent, frozen in mute terror, as if he had just been reclaimed from the dead.

William slid the pistol back into the man’s holster. It was already discharged, after all, and somehow he knew this man would not emerge from his shocked paralysis until long after he was gone. Standing up he felt a warm rush, a calmness that belied the tense moments that had immediately preceded. He gripped the iron ring of the door, pulled it open, and stepped out to finally and properly meet his liberator.