A man said to the Universe: "Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the Universe, "the fact has not created in me a sense of obligation." - Stephen Crane
Prologue - May 7, 1986
Brent Cowan opened the door of his New York apartment and looked around, wondering for the third time that day where Anna was. As he set his luggage down by the door and walked into the darkened living room, his eyes missed the blinking light on the answering machine. "Anna? Are you in here?" There was no reply, which made the man nervous. Brent set down his keys and went into the kitchen to get a cup of milk to help settle his stomach, an old post-flight ritual he had begun not long after being hired by BSE. Beaumont Systems Engineering was a very highly-rated engineering and development firm that worked at the cutting edge of computers and several other fields, and he had been lucky to get a job there. Unfortunately for the twenty-nine year-old engineer, that meant that he was away from home for a third of every year.
Anna did not seem to mind, though. Anna Mayhew (soon to be Cowan) was twenty-six, vivacious, and independent to a fault. She and Brent had been seeing each other for almost four years, and had just gone to California to spend some time together while he finished up a major job out in Sacramento. She was supposed to have arrived back in the Big Apple by noon (she had taken an earlier flight, complaining of feeling ill and wanting to be fully rested for work the next day), while he had given a summary report and caught the redeye. Now it was almost two in the morning, and Anna was nowhere to be found.
Brent searched every room in the apartment and found no signs of Anna having returned after her flight. Relax. She probably got stuck in Chicago or Toledo or somewhere else with engine trouble, he thought as he walked toward the telephone to call the airline. As he approached, he saw the blinking red light on the machine... and a chill gripped his heart with icy fingers. He pressed the play button and listened.
"Mister Cowan, my name is Darryl Simms and I work for Trans-America Lines. Please call me as soon as you hear this. I must speak with you regarding your fiancee..."
In the years that followed, Brent could never remember the rest of the message, nor the details of his conversation with that very same Mr. Simms an hour after he heard it. Anna Mayhew, who had taken an afternoon flight in order to come home and rest, had died halfway between Sacramento and Denver. Tests eventually showed that Anna's heart had been damaged by the particularly tough strain of the flu she had been suffering from; the virus had eaten through the pericardium and caused her heart to fail while she slept. It had been peaceful, he had been told; she probably had not felt any pain.
But, for Brent Cowan, the pain had only begun.
Joan Kelleigh had always enjoyed playing poker... until she played Jack Marshak. She had thought herself a reasonably competent player, and had bested Johnny and Micki several times over her three months working with them. Now she was in the middle of a game with Jack... and he was beating her socks off. She squinted at her cards again (two pair, jacks over sevens), then back at the substantial pile of chips in the pot. Finally, regret heavy in her voice, she said, "I fold."
Jack grinned that innocent smile of his - the one he used when he knew he'd pulled one over on someone - and turned over his cards: a pair of tens was all he had. "You can be a real bastard, Jack," she said as she lit up another cigarette.
"Yes, well, I did warn you that I was rather good in my youth." He began stacking the chips back in the antique holder and walked over to place it back on its shelf. He and Joan were working the store alone today; Johnny and Micki were both out trying to follow up a lead on a cursed barber pole. "I thought I'd be rustier."
"Yeah, you and Micki both. There are words for people like you," Joan said as she took a deep drag. But before she and Jack could exchange another word, the front door of Curious Goods swung open and a man walked in, a small trail of snow ringing his footsteps. He was maybe in his early sixties, but his hair had gone completely white. His eyes, once blue, had taken on a gray cast and were ringed by deep wrinkles. With his shabby overcoat and tattered pants he looked much like a bum that had come in to get warm, which Joan and Jack had no problem with having obliged a few others over the winter.
Then he pulled the shotgun out from under his coat and all hell broke loose.
His first shot went wide, smashing the various china items the store had in stock to the left of where Jack and Joan were standing. Joan barely had time to realize that she was in danger before Jack was pulling her toward the back of the store. The man racked the slide of the gun, chambering another shell, and took more careful aim at the two scampering figures before squeezing the trigger. A second thundering boom filled the store as one of the glass display cases shattered, sending a dozen different items crashing to the floor. Jack pushed Joan ahead of him and managed to turn the corner leading to the basement stairs just before a third shot tore through where his body had been. The two scrambled down the steps and Joan ran toward the darkest for corner of the perpetually-darkened room, praying that she could not be seen.
Jack, on the other hand, had no intention of running. As the man ran down the steps, Jack tackled him and wrestled him to the floor, getting a firm hold on the shotgun and refusing to let go. He might have been almost seventy years old, but he was in very good shape and still resembled the football player he had been in his youth, while the assailant was thin and scrawny, with barely enough strength to keep a hold on the gun. Jack drew a fist back and slugged the man, then pulled the gun away while he was stunned for a moment. Aiming the shotgun at the man, Jack said, "Who the hell are you?"
Touching the trickle of blood running from his mouth, the man said, "I'm nobody... can't you see that? Don't you know? Didn't you make me?" The man's voice was pleading as he lay there on the concrete, waiting for Jack to pull the trigger and finish the job. "Please... no more... I'll do whatever you want, but no more..."
And then the man's body went limp as he lost consciousness.
"Are you okay?" Jack said as he raced over to Joan, checking her to make sure she had not been struck by an errant pellet. Finding nothing, he quickly looked himself over and was relieved to see no blood. Joan could only nod numbly as Jack led her to his bed and sat her down before returning to the man's body. "W - Why do you think he tried to kill us?" Joan asked as Jack searched the man's pockets, desperate for any answers he could find. "Is he c - crazy?"
"Crazy people can't get police-issue shotguns, not even on the street. It's an entry model, a good four inches shorter than the legal length." Jack had pumped the action two more times, emptying the weapon, and then put the shells into his pocket along with the reloads the man had in his coat. "Ivanovich used to have one like it, back in the war." Jack pulled a battered wallet from the man's pocket and looked inside: three dollars and seventy-one cents, along with several expired ID cards. "Brent Cowan, 141 East 6th Street, New York..."
"Should I call the cops?"
"No, Joan, not yet. I want to talk to him first." Jack reached into the coat's inner pocket and pulled out a small spiral notebook crammed with newspaper clippings and scribbled notes. Jack shoved it into her hands along with the shotgun, then draped the man over his shoulder to take him upstairs. While Joan went upstairs to make a pot of coffee, Jack sat a chair next to the couch and waited for the man to regain consciousness, all the while looking through the battered notebook.
After a few minutes Joan returned and set a pot on the desk. She was barely able to keep from dropping the pot as she poured a cup, and the cup itself tipped over and spilled its contents acoss the desk as Joan began shaking so badly that she fell to her knees. Jack was beside her a moment later, holding her as the tears of rage and terror came boiling to the surface. After a few minutes, Joan pushed away from him and looked into his eyes. "Oh, Jesus, Jack, I'm scared. It wasn't real before, nobody's ever tried to kill me -"
"I know, Joan. It's hard when you know it's coming... it's impossible to deal with when you're not ready for it." Jack stood up and got Joan into a chair, then poured her a cup of coffee and helped her keep it steady. "You're okay. He didn't hurt you... and he won't ever get the chance. I'll make sure of that." Jack picked the shotgun and slipped four shells into the magazine, the most it would hold, before going back to sit beside the man.
It was almost an hour later before the man bgan to stir. Jack waited for him to open his eyes, then slowly and deliberately racked the slide to chamber a round. He got the desired effect; the man stopped moving immediately and looked at Jack. "Why didn't you kill me, you bastard?" he asked flatly.
"I have a problem with not knowing the answers... like why you tried to kill us."
The man shook his head and laughed sadly. "I thought killing you would set me free, or at least give me my life back. But I failed, and now you'll keep on helping him make more... just like me."
"I assure you, I have no idea what you're talking about. I've never seen you before."
The man looked into Jack's eyes... and then into the shotgun muzzle, which was still pointed at him. "You know, I believe it when you say that. Are you the man who helped him create me? Are you Lewis Vendredi?"
"Lewis?" Now it was all starting to make a little sense. "No, my name is Jack Marshak... and if you came here to kill Lewis, you're four years too late."
The man visibly paled and seemed to shrink a little. "No... no, he can't be dead... that was my last chance..."
Joan came a few steps closer to look at the man. His white hair was thinning, and his face and hands were deeply lined with age. He looked like he hadn't eaten in weeks. "Who are you?"
"I... I don't think I'm anybody. But you can call me Brent."
"Well, Brent, as I told you, my name is Jack, and this is Joan." She managed a weak wave as the man turned his attention to her for the briefest of moments. "Now, would you care to tell me what all this is about?"
"I can't get to him... so I thought if I killed the source of his power, I could stop him."
"And Lewis gave him this 'power', whatever it is?" Jack lowered the gun and listened in earnest as the man nodded.
"Yeah, he must have. I mean, he was nothing but a hack writer until he ran into Vendredi on a business trip in Newark. Then he starts putting out novels that shoot to the top of every bestseller list in the space of three short months."
"You're talking about Gregory Morcos, aren't you?" Joan said. When Jack looked at her in confusion, she said, "He's been the most popular horror author of the past four or five years. Sight Unseen, All My Pretty Ones, The Longest Night... Jack, he's put out twelve books since 1986." After an awkward moment, she continued with, "He's one of my favorite authors... or, at least, he used to be."
"He's everyone's favorite. That's part of his power." Brent looked over at a clock hanging on a wall. "How long was I out?"
"Less than an hour."
"Dammit." He stood up and began backing away from Jack, who had raised the shotgun again. "I've got to go, I'm endangering you just by being here." He started to turn, but the ring of the telephone made him look at the desk with a look of horror on his face.
Jack gestured at Joan to answer it. "Hello?" she said after raising the handset to her ear. After a moment, she looked at Brent. "It's for you."
Brent walked over and took the set from her, then raised it to his ear. "I'm here, you bastard."
"Ah, such a poor attitude... and from one of my favorite players! I thought we'd gotten over this long ago." The voice was tinged with sarcasm and menace, and Brent knew it very well. "I know what you're trying to do, and it won't work. You can't stop me, Brent."
"Yeah? Well, fuck you, too," he spat, but there was no real feeling in the epithet. "I'm damn well going to try."
"Do you really want to enter the game again, after all you went through to escape? No, you're going to make whatever existence you can with what little I gave you. Leave it be." And then there was silence on the line.
Brent let the phone slip from his hand. "He knows I'm here. I should leave before he decides to punish me, and you as well."
"You're not going anywhere," Jack said as he stepped in front of the man. "Not until you tell me what the hell is going on."
Brent looked into Jack's eyes, then into Joan's. "All right. What the hell, it's your lives." The man trudged back to the couch and sat down, taking a deep breath before speaking again. "My name was Brent James Cowan... but I don't know who I really am. Maybe I was conjured out of thin air. I am now thirty-four years old, and I have no past... and no future.
"I was engaged to a beautiful young woman, but she died... and I fell apart. I quit my job with an engineering firm and ended up in New Orleans, where I ran into something that I'm sure I'll never forget. Have either of you seen a demon? I mean a real demon, called up from Hell? Well, I have. Slimy red skin, black, razor-sharp horns, eyes like ebony pearls... I've seen more of those than I care to remember -"
"That's crazy. You can't be him," Joan scoffed, a incredulous expression passing over her face.
"Can't be who?" Jack asked.
"He thinks he's Brent Cowan." At Jack's blank look, she said, "Brent Cowan, the Demon Hunter? Star of six novels and an upcoming movie?"
"I do not think I'm him, I am him!" Brent almost shouted, his face flushed a bright crimson. "Jesus, I lived through everything you people just read about! I fought the Cult of Al'Cazzir underneath the sewers of New Orleans, I battled the Spawn of Malkur out on Cape Hatteras. Every word you read about, he made happen to me... or to somebody else. I don't know how he does it, but he creates people out of thin air... just to kill them in his books. Like he almost killed me.
"He left me dying, and when I woke up I was lying on a beach in Oregon with nothing but the clothes on my back. I was walking by a telephone when it rang... and when I picked up, he told me that I'd won my freedom." He laughed, a short, barklike, bitter noise. "Freedom. What freedom? I don't exist anymore, I have no past thanks to Gregory Morcos. He took Anna, then he took any semblance of my life... and for my reward, he took everything from me. But I didn't know that at the time.
"I have no fingerprints on record, no driver's license, no Social Security number, nothing that ever says that I existed. There is not a scrap of paper to be found to document my existence. Nobody knows me; my family and friends, all gone. I'm nothing, I can't even get a job without getting a fake ID. I scraped along for almost a year before I ran across a book called All Fall Down... which was the book I was dying in."
When Brent looked away, unable to continue, Joan picked up the story. "Morcos wrote that he felt the saga of Brent Cowan had come to an end, and that he wasn't going to write any more novels featuring him."
"He's keeping me, saving me for a rainy day, just in case the sales go down. That way he can 'resurrect' me, like Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes. Oh, he'll claim it's popular demand... but it's really because I'm his favorite creation." Brent looked at them, a dour expression on his face. "I know you don't believe this. Hell, nobody else did."
"You might be surprised what we'd believe," Jack replied softly. "Why don't we find you some clothes and get some food into you. Then we can talk."
And, for the first time in many years, Brent Cowan felt something close to relief.
Later that afternoon, the front door opened again and two people came rushing through. Micki peeled off her coat as Johnny let a heavy-looking barber pole thump down on the desk. "Okay, Mick... next time, you get to carry it." As he hung his coat on the rack, he looked up to see Joan coming down the stairs. "Hey, what's up?"
"You'd be surprised what can happen in a few hours' time," she replied as she walked over to the desk. "Is this it?"
"Yeah, and it wasn't cheap to get back. At least it only cost money, though; we don't think the guy ever used it." Johnny picked up the object and started lugging it toward the basement steps. "Is Jack around?"
"Yeah, he's upstairs... with company."
Johnny stopped and Micki looked up from the newspaper at the tone of Joan's voice. "What's going on?" Micki asked.
"I'd better let Jack tell you." A few minutes later Jack walked down the steps, followed by a middle-aged man who Johnny realized was wearing his favorite sweater. Johnny set the pole down and walked up to him, then turned to Jack. "What the hell is this?" he asked.
"Brent needed some clothes, and I thought yours would do until we could get him some of his own." Jack brushed past Johnny and opened the Manifest, quickly scanning through the pages.
"His own? Who is this guy, Jack, and why the hell are we buying him clothes?"
"His name is Brent Cowan, and he can help us get back one of the objects." Jack turned the Manifest around for Johnny and Micki to look at. "We're going after this."
"Roll-cover writing desk, 17th century... owned by Edgar Allen Poe," Micki said. "Jack, we've never had so much as a response about this one."
"We now have a new source of information. The desk is owned by one Gregory Morcos, a novelist of some fame, I've been informed. And Brent is going to help us get it back."
"How? Jack, does he know what it is? Does he know what it might do?" Johnny blurted, glancing over at the frail-looking man in his blue sweater.
He was surprised to hear a clear, strong voice say, "I'm more aware than any of you." When Johnny and Micki looked at Brent he said simply, "It created me."
The gears were moving in Johnny's mind, turning until the right pieces of information were lined up. "You're that Brent Cowan?" he asked incredulously. "The one from the books?"
"Yes, and I'd rather you didn't remind me of it." He looked over at Jack as Joan quickly explained to Micki where Cowan had come from. "Now, what can we do?"
"I've already dug through the research files, and it looks like Lewis made several sales to Morcos over a period of three years. That's the paper trail you picked up, Brent, the one that led you here."
"Why didn't we see his name in the Manifest?" asked Johnny.
"Because the desk was purchased under his original name - Michael Eglund. And the rest were purchased by people he... created using the desk, for use in his books. We've gotten most of those back over the years, but there are a few that Morcos might have in his possession." Jack closed the book and stood up. "We also know where his residence is - Denver."
"I also have skills that will probably be helpful in getting to Morcos," Brent said. "After all, I am the world's premier demon hunter... and I know how the man thinks. I know how he'll try to manipulate the situation, especially as we get close to him. I can come up with ways around his obstacles." He hefted a large duffel bag and several gentle clanks came from inside. "I'm also well-equipped." He looked around at the people gathered in the room. "You know, I haven't felt like this in a long time. It feels like I'm part of something important again, something worth doing. Plus, you're the only people who believe me."
After a few moments, Johnny looked at Jack. "Okay, when do we leave?"
"As soon as you're both ready. We've got a long trip ahead of us."
As soon as they turned the Suburban up the road that led to Morcos' house, Brent knew that they were in for a long night. It had taken two days of travel to reach Denver from Chicago, and the rented Suburban - while comfortable - was beginning to get boring. He had heard all about the cursed objects of Lewis Vendredi, all about Ryan Dallion and Jack's career as a stage magician. He had even given Johnny several pointers on how to improve his writing, especially in the area of depicting combat. Despite the pain that had been inflicted in creating them, Brent had to admit that Morcos' novels were incredibly descriptive... after all, he had imagined them and they had come true thanks to the desk.
That cursed desk. Brent was not surprised that the Devil was directly involved; he'd always suspected as much, although he'd never found any proof. Not that it mattered now; he and his newfound associates were going to put an end to the man, come hell or high water. As they turned onto the darkened drive that led the half-mile up to Morcos' estate, Brent was unsurprised to see a dark mist covering the road, at least two feet thick. "Heads up for anything, people. We're not in Kansas anymore."
Behind him, Joan gasped in shock as she looked at the mist. She could see dark tendrils moving through it, unseen by normal eyes, coiling like wisps of smoke. "Is there any other way in?" she managed to say.
"Not unless you're all willing to consider an air drop. No, this is it." He pulled a heavy, black pistol from his bag and checked it over. "Make sure your gear is ready."
Jack was behind the wheel, and had already checked over the weapons that Brent had given him. He had killed before, back in the Second World War, but that had been a long time ago... and then he had been leading soldiers. Now, he was going in with friends... so there was far more to be lost. Johnny and Micki gingerly checked their weapons; neither had wanted to go in armed at first, but Brent had assured them that Morcos would populate his estate with evil creatures that were tough enough to tear most men apart. Joan would stay in the middle of their formation once they exited the vehicle because she was their eyes; if she could see evil like Jack and the others had claimed, that would give them a substantial edge. Johnny and Micki would be her defenders, and Jack would bring up the rear, leaving Brent on point. They were all dressed in black fatigues courtesy of an army/navy surplus store, making them almost invisible in the dark confines of the vehicle.
Jack drove up the road for almost a quarter of a mile before coming to a stop. "Tree," he said, and everyone looked out to see a thick pine tree blocking their path.
"Okay, people. We walk from here. Remember what I told you: short, controlled bursts. Aim for the eyes if you can. Johnny and Micki, do not leave Joan's side. And one more thing... if I start to attack you, don't hesitate to bring me down. Kill me. That's the only way you can save yourselves. Since I'm the only one he created with the desk, I'm the only one of us he can affect that way." He holstered the pistol and raised the shotgun he had been keeping on his lap. "Let's do it," he said, echoing what he had always used to tell his old teams.
They all got out of the truck, cautiously moving around the tree and down the road toward the house. Jack was armed with a shotgun, and Micki and Johnny were both carrying sub-machine guns uncertainly. Jack thought, I wish we would have had more time to get them used to the guns. At least I had boot camp. But then Brent gave the signal to move faster, and he turned his thoughts to making sure that nothing attacked them from behind.
Joan held the pistol in her right hand gingerly; she had never held a gun before, and was not looking forward to having to use it. It was a black plastic and metal weapon, a 10-millimeter Glock that Brent had said was very potent. As the group moved away from the headlights, Joan looked back at the vehicle one last time.
Then it was swallowed by the mist.
Joan had just enough time to turn around before she saw a huge mass moving toward Brent from his left. "Brent!"
And in a fluid, practiced motion, he turned and fired a blast from the shotgun itno the beast's skull, dropping it immediately. "Thanks" he said. Joan nodded silently as they shuffled past the creature's remains.
"What are they?" Micki asked.
"They never really had a name," Johnny said. "They were just called the Servitors in the books."
"Expect more of them," Brent said darkly. True to his word, by the time they reached the main gate they had encountered six more of the creatures, but they had been easily dispatched. "All right, now the hard part. I'll climb over first -"
The iron gate creaked as it swung outward, driven by some invisible force. "Like I was saying... let's go right on in." Once inside the wall, the grounds appeared tp be a perfectly normal place; flowers, hedges, stone benches lining a pond. Brent carefully led the way up to the mansion, which had no lights showing through its windows. "I don't like it. It's too quiet."
"I agree," Jack replied, looking around in a slow circle. He barely had time to look back at the mansion before a tendril slipped silently out of the water and wrapped itself around his throat, dragging him to the edge of the pool before Johnny and Joan managed to get a grip on him. As the plant-like thing squeezed the breath from him, Jack wondered if this was finally going to be his death... and then there was the sound of several shots, followed by a loosening of the pressure around his neck. He looked up to see Micki holding her gun out, its barrel still smoking in the chill night air.
"You okay?" Brent asked as he knelt beside Jack, peeling the tendril from the other man's throat.
"Yeah... what was that?"
"One of the Spawn of Malkur... nasty sons-of-bitches that live in the water." He looked up as Jack got to his feet, and realized that he felt years younger. "Oh, shit," he muttered.
"What?" came the response of Micki, Johnny and Joan; Jack was already ready to fire at whatever might be coming at them.
"I think... I think he's writing for me again. He's remaking me, turning me young again... he could have control any minute. Watch me closely." And then he walked up to the door and swung it open.
There were no lights inside the house; everything looked like it had been readied for storage decades ago. The furniture was all under white sheets, and the kitchen was full of unpacked boxes. Walking toward the stairs by the front door, Jack looked up into the shadows, saw nothing... and turned back just in time to see Johnny carefully aim at Brent's leg and fire a single shot into his calf. The 9-millimeter round punched through the skin and muscle with little effort, travelling out the other side and into the carpet, and Brent collapsed as his leg went out from under him.
Johnny turned to Jack, and the older man realized what he had to do. He tried to raise the shotgun, but Johnny already had a gun on him; he had no chance. So it was something of a surprise when Johnny collapsed as Joan clubbed him over the head with her pistol. Jack knelt beside Brent as Joan pulled the cord off one of the bulbless lamps and began tying Johnny's hands together at the wrists. Micki bound Johnny's feet, muttering, "What the hell is happening?"
"I think I know..." Brent said as Jack bandaged up his leg. The wound was minor, no bones or blood vessels hit... he would heal just fine, provided he survived the encounter at all. "Morcos must have thought that someone might try and backtrack to his supplier... he wanted somebody there just in case, someone he could use to stay safe."
"Johnny?" Micki whispered.
Brent nodded. "Morcos must have placed him just before he let me go, sometime back in '89, right? He's been there waiting for me... and he didn't even know it."
Jack helped Brent to his feet, and the four moved upstairs. "We should kill him. He's a liability."
Micki looked at him coldly. "I won't do that."
Brent sighed and leaned a little more against Jack. "Okay, have it your way." He had dropped his shotgun and was now wielding a large .45-caliber automatic, while Jack held his aging Webley revolver. Brent had scoffed at the ancient weapon, but he knew that it had carried the old soldier through many battles... so why not let him use it? As they reached the second floor, all four carefully looked around before noticing the same thing:
There was a light on at the end of the hallway.
They were halfway to it when they heard the voice echoing up the hallway to them. "Ah, Brent... you've come to visit at last. The prodigal son returns."
"You know what I've come for... what we've come for," he amended.
"If you think you are able, then come and take it." Brent and Jack lurched forward, with Joan and Micki following closely behind; everyone had their gun raised as they burst into the room.
And Brent realized that he had made a very large mistake... far too late.
By the time the dozen Servitors had taken their weapons away, the four had mostly returned to their senses. They were now bound to large wooden racks with leather straps and manacles holding their extremities in place, surrounded by chittering imps that poked and prodded at the clothes and bare skin. Brent tried to pull away from the restraints, but he knew that it was no use... Morcos could make the bonds indestructible and inescapable here, in his own little domain.
Gregory Morcos was sitting behind the writing desk, upon an intricately carved wooden dais that hovered above his hundreds of minions as they performed their infernal work. This chamber - impossibly large, too large to fit even on the entire Denver estate - was filled with the cries of the damned and their tormentors. It was as close to Hell as Brent had ever seen.
Morcos turned to his captives slowly, relishing the terror in their eyes. "Hello again," he said to Brent. "You've come a long way since I freed you."
"You never freed me," he spat in return. "You took away everything - my life, my identity... Anna..."
"You needed the proper motivation. That's the problem with portraying characters correctly; all too often, they lack the proper motivation to accomplish the deeds they must." He leaned back and picked up a quill pen. "Like you must learn to relish the darkness within your soul." He scribbled something on a sheet of paper lying on the desk, and Brent's bonds fell away. "I'll give you back everything I took away, and more. You can have Anna back... have children, if you wish. All you have to do is kill them. You've had so much practice... what are a few more bodies?"
"You can't give me back Anna... she was real. I know she was."
"She was a puppet, just like you... only she was insignificant. You, you were necessary - I had to train you, to give you the experience you needed to help me in my conquest." Morcos' eyes glowed a bright red as his voice rose to almost a shout.
"To take over the world? Is that what you want?"
"Hardly; the world is so insignificant. No, I want something far greater. The world is but a rough sketch... the real masterpiece is to be found in Hell itself."
"My God... you're insane." Brent started to back away, but two servitors held him in place.
"No, I am not insane... but I am your God." Morcos began to write again, and a sword appeared in Brent's hand. "Strike them down, and lead my armies to take Hell from its Master."
"No, I will not -" Another few scratches by Morcos, and Brent found himself saying, "Yes, my Lord. I will do so."
"Excellent. The armies of Hell shall fall -"
The shotgun blast took him entirely by surprise as Johnny rushed into the chamber, hitting him squarely in the chest as he ran up to his friends. With expert precision he took out five Servitors, then blasted the iron locks that held the chains in place. "No..." Morcos gasped as he gripped the quill and began to write again... but there was no healing, and none of the Servitors rushed to protect him and destroy the intruders. "Why has this happened? Why has it not worked?"
"You're a fool, Morcos. You think the Devil would actually let you try and take over Hell? He gave you the power you wield, he gave you the ability to shape the world in your image... and now he takes it back." Brent helped Jack to his feet as Johnny ushered Joan and Micki from the chamber, which had started to rumble threateningly. Morcos stood and grabbed at the edge of the desk, trying to steady himself... but then the ground opened underneath him and he was pulled down by a thousand sucking, biting mouths that were hungry especially for him. Blood sprayed everywhere as Morcos struggled to free himself, and then was gone as he was pulled out of sight.
Brent leaned against Jack as the chamber seemed to fold in upon itself, squeezing itself out of existence until all that remained was a small library... and the writing desk; then he and everyone else collapsed to the floor. The room was eerily silent except for the heavy, ragged breathing of everyone who had made it out. A few minutes later, Jack noticed light starting to build outside the windows. "Is everyone okay?" he wheezed, the entire ordeal making itself felt throughout his body now.
One by one they answered in the affirmative, until only Brent was left... and he said not a word. Jack crawled over to him, placed a hand against his neck, and found no pulse. Brent's eyes were wide open, and Jack gently ran his hand over them. "I hope you find her," was all he said.
It was a simple matter of getting the desk taken apart and into the Suburban, simple matter of burying the man who never really existed deep in the Colorado woods where, one day a decade or two from now, the skeleton would eventually be found. All four of them knew that there would be no satisfactory explanation of the body... but none of them cared at that point.
Micki left the small pile of dirt first, making her way back to the vehicle in the growing pre-dawn light, hoping that her tears would not be seen. As she waited for her friends, all her thoughts were focused on Johnny - whoever he turned out to be, now that his creator was dead. All this time, and nobody ever knew... not even him, she thought, pulling the bottle out of her pocket and uncapping it. For months now - almost longer than she seemed to remember - it had been her companion, her friend. It comforted her, made the dreams less intense, less real somehow, and made the chore of everyday life bearable.
And she knew that she could no longer afford that luxury.
Joan and Jack left Johnny at the graveside a few minutes later. Jack had said a few words, something about how every good person finds their reward in the afterlife, but even to him the words seemed to ring hollow. In a way, he was no more real than Cowan had been... or Johnny was. But he was real, he was a living, breathing being who had to live with whatever the consequences of his actions were. He - or some aspect of him - had chosen the right path, despite his own selfish motivations. And now he had to see it through... consequences be damned.
Joan spoke quietly a few minutes later. "What do you think will happen to him?"
"I don't know. I imagine that he'll be the same person we've always known. He won't cease to exist... not unless somebody writes him out of life itself. And no one will ever get that chance." Jack felt the younger woman's head come to rest on his shoulder, felt the gentle shudder as a sob surfaced. And there, alone in the twilight woods, Jack knew what she did - what he had known all along, in fact. "Just like you."
Joan backed away from Jack, the sheen of tears showing on her chalk-white face. "You knew?" she whispered, remembering the feeling that had gripped her when she had first seen the Servitor - utter terror, but a kind of passing familiarity, like she had seen the beast not just in her mind from the books but from her dreams as well. She could feel unbidden thoughts filling her mind as they had moved toward the house; no doubt Morcos probing to see whether she or Johnny would be more fitting to kill Cowan when the time came.
"I suspected. Of course, there was no way to prove it... you're as real as anyone else because of that desk. But the timing was too perfect; it was too coincidental that you came to us just when we needed you. Morcos used you to get to us, he wanted you to find us beacuse he knew that Cowan was getting close. But he could only control one character at a time." Jack put a hand on her cheek, running his callused fingers over her flawless skin. "I think that you'd have made a fine protagonist for a novel or two," he said, a glint of humor in his eye... and a glint of sympathy.
"I much prefer my life the way it is now. I get to make the choices."
And back at the grave, Johnny knelt by the shallow hump of earth and ran his hand across it. "How did you deal with it? What am I supposed to do now? I mean, Pop... Mikey Connant... Mrs. Gravetti... everyone I knew before I got involved with Jack and Micki... none of them are real, are they?
"Who am I? What am I?" he hissed at the earth, as if the ground or the body it sheltered could somehow provide an answer. When none came, Johnny stood up and stepped away from the grave and, finding himself with nothing else to say, began walking back toward the Suburban parked a mile away.
He caught up with Jack and Joan after a few minutes, and the three of them made their way back to the vehicle in silence. They were just in time to see Micki fling a small glass bottle deep into the woods, where it shattered with a hearty tinkle - a sound that was eminently satisfying to Micki as she made her way over to the others. "Are we ready?" she asked as she brushed a strand of hair from her face.
"I suppose so," Jack said, and the four people began the long trip back to Chicago.
Johnny was sitting alone at the desk when he heard footsteps behind him. "Hello, Jack."
"Johnny," Jack said in return as he sat down across from the young man. It had been four days since that night at the mansion, but Johnny still seemed to be in a daze over the whole incident; Jack had no intention of telling either him or Micki about Joan's similar background, not until they had managed to heal somewhat. "How are you feeling?"
"How do you think? My life, my family, my memories... none of them are real, Jack. They're all bullshit, created by a madman. I'm not real."
"Now you know how I felt after I found out about the original deal I made with the devil. It's not fair, Johnny. It's not fair that this had to happen to us, any of us." Jack sipped at the cup of tea he had been carrying, grimacing at the strong taste of the Earl Grey, but glad that he no longer felt it necessary to add a healthy shot of bourbon to it as well. "But I came to a realization: I'm alive, and under nobody's control now. And so are you."
"I wish I could believe that... but we'll never be sure, will we? I'll never be sure." Johnny moved slightly, and Jack could see the open phone book still in front of him.
"Planning a trip?" Jack asked when he saw the entry the book was opened to: Travel Agencies.
"I... I don't know, Jack. I don't know anything anymore. I don't know if I should stay here or just run, try and vanish somewhere so the Devil can't get at you or Micki or Joan through me. All my life, I've known who I was and what I believed in... but now that I need to the most, I don't know anything for certain."
"Well, I do, Johnny... and that is that we need you, now more than ever. Hold onto that, because it will never change... and if you still want to leave, I won't stop you." Jack placed a hand on his friend's shoulder and got up to head back to his bed when a thought struck him. "Would you like to play some poker?"
"What, now? It's almost three in the morning."
"There's no time like the present, then." Jack pulled the deck of cards from his robe pocket and began to shuffle them. "Life's too short."
"Yeah. Jack, do you think he found her? I mean... do you think he went to Heaven? Do you think he had a soul?" Do I have a soul? he wanted to say, but kept the words inside.
"I don't know, Johnny. I think that, even if he was created by an evil man, he was just as human as me... and you. The desk makes perfect characters, Johnny, real people... sometimes too real. And when you play at being God, there are always consequences... good, and bad." With that, Jack started dealing the cards and the men played well into the morning, each realizing that they now understood the other better than before... and that, given time, it could make all the difference.
And, somewhere far away, the Devil thought, Time has a way of running out when one least suspects it.
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This page was created on September 1, 2000.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.