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"Corruption"
Space Century: 361.98
by J.M.

The young man walked briskly down the lane of Zema. His black hair waved widly in the drafting wind as he carried the water bucket back to his small home. Everday, everday he went through the ritual. Not yet twenty years old, this orphan's face bore the signs of wear and fatigue that only visited men three times his age. What gods above had scuplted the forces that buffeted his life? He would never know.

It was just after dusk, his house was close by. But he had to travel through the alleyway to reach it... the alleyway... always the alleyway.

Please, please don't be there... he thought. The alley stretched a hundred feet before him, its five-foot-wide path shrouded in shadow. He hated the route... but he could not avoid it. The small shack that he took for a home was only accessible through the alleyway.

He stood at the entrance for some time, listening, straining for some sign of them. Nothing. No sounds, no sights. Perhaps this would be a day of respite. There had been so few of those...

Please...

He entered, slowly. With every step, he looked around, searching, finding nothing. He could see the other end; he was half-way there! Just a little longer... and he would be fine.

But then he heard the footsteps behind him. Three sets. He turned around.

"Well well, back again, eh, boy?" Three men, three huge men, stood before him, pounding their fists into their hands. Their faces held malicious grins. Each wore his strength and power as means of intimidation, but none moreso than the speaker. The tallest of the group... his deep blue hair fell into his eyes, which seemed to glow with passion. "How much does it take? How many times do we have to go through this for you to understand that this is OUR territory, eh? When will you ever learn?"

"But I have to..." the young man stuttered, but he could not hold the audience.

"I don't need your excuses, boy... every week we come here, and every week we find you, ruining our turf with your pathetic existence." He turned to his associates. "Some people just have to be taught the hard way, fellas. And let's make sure he remembers us this time, huh?" The speaker and his partners closed in on the boy, menacingly. Dropping the water container, he turned to run, but a large hand grabbed his shirt and slung him against the alley wall. He tasted blood as he slumped to the ground, but they were not finished. Powerful arms lifted him upwards until his face met that of his tormentor, feet leaving the ground.

"It occurs to me," the speaker went on, "that you need what we call a... 'lesson in reality'." He tried feebily to struggle, but was held tightly. "This is OUR area, and YOU... WILL... NOT... COME... HERE... AGAIN!" Each of the words was punctuated by a ramming fist into the boy's gut. Currently, the speaker's hand gripped the neck of the young man, already covered in blood from his mouth. As he choked, the boy's eyes fell back to the man's face; an evil grin greeted him.

"Please..." he coughed through the grip, barely audible. "I haven't done... any..."

"You're finished, boy, do you hear me?!? I'm tired of having to deal with you... tired of having to look at you! It's a shame that my world has to be ruined by a piddling insect like yourself, but I'm willing to take care of this unpleasant situation... and I'm sure that you'll assist me in anyway possible, isn't that right?"

The boy had no answer, as his world was swiftly leaving him.

"Good bye." Those were the last words the boy heard amidst the blackness.

He awoke lying face down. He became aware of two distinct impressions. First, there was an intense pain on the back of his neck. Second, there was something in his mouth. Something gritty.

He lifted his head. There was darkness all around, he was lying in sand... he was in the desert. There, miles in the distance, he could see lights. So far away, Zema, so far away. An electric pain shot through his gut. He rose to his knees, wiping the sand from his face, and began to cry. And scream. He screamed cursors and obscenities into the night.

But he stopped when he heard it. From somewhere. From nowhere. A voice, not aloud, but in his head. He could hear a voice inside his head.

You are a weakling, boy...

"No! I'm not!" he yelled into the night. But there was no one there.

Yes, you are weak. You let the men defeat you... you let them take your pride... you are pitiful.

"...I'm not..." the boy cried, tears streaming down.

Your life is worthless now. Left to yourself, you will forever be a victim of those who you allow to dominate you.

"Who are you?!? You don't know what you're talking about!" he yelled through the sobs.

It doesn't have to be that way, boy. You don't have to be weak. You can be strong.

"...strong..." the boy whispered to himself as the pain began to abate..

Yes, strong. Stronger than anyone. Strong enough to make anyone do whatever you want. You can have the power.

"...power..." His eyes no longer bled tears. They were now glazed over, staring inward, oblivious to the external world.

Power. Power to crush all who oppose you. Take control of your life, boy! Take control of the power! You can be invincible!

"What are you ta..."

You can destroy those fools who have done this to you... or bend them to your every wish...

"How...?" His mind began to glaze, just as his eyes had.

Give yourself to me... give me your life, and I shall grant you all the power you could ever wish for... give me your soul, boy, and become a man. Give me your soul and gain the power...

The boy closed his eyes and bent over, face to the ground. He kneeled there in the sand, silent for endless moments. Until...

"Yes. Give me the power."

It is yours, Zio, it is yours! Somewhere in the night, a demon laughed in ecstasy.

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