Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Bad Moon Rising"
From the audio journal of Ryan Dallion
Every journey into the darkness begins with trusting someone.
When we started down this path so long ago, we had no idea of the actions that had led us all to Curious Goods... or of the ultimate stakes. We thought we were making a difference in the world, that our actions had some meaning in the big picture.
As it turns out, all we ever did was play out the parts written for us. We read the lines, acted out the song-and-dance set down by some cosmic author. Was it God? The Devil? I don't know; maybe I never did. Either way, it doesn't matter now.
The world be damned for all I care.
1:14 AM CST
"I have to go back in."
For a long moment Nate sat utterly still, his fingers motionless on the large pistol Ellis had shown him how to use, not even breathing as his mind tried to wrap itself around the words Ryan had spoken. They were in the living area, Ryan still lying on the thin mattress that had very nearly become his deathbed a few hours before; a plastic tube still fed fresh blood into his arm to replace the quantity he had lost in the White Room. Finally he said, "You're fucking crazy."
"You're probably right," Ryan replied as he reached over and pulled the IV needle from his arm, letting the bag's contents drain as he held his fingers over the tiny puncture in his flesh. "It doesn't matter. Help me up."
The bandages were spotted with drying blood but showed no signs of fresh wounds as Ryan gingerly got to his feet, putting most of his weight on Nate. "You okay?" Nate asked as they took a few tentative steps.
Ryan gritted his teeth with each step as they made their way to the War Room; the shredded flesh of his feet and knees only magnified the deep ache that had bored its way into his body. Just a few more... just a few more... he thought each time he put his foot down. He looked up to see the motley crew gathered around the center table, most readying weapons and looking at a map of the area near the Gateway Arch, Hanley peering at a dataflat and his charcoal tracing of the artifact. None paid the slightest attention to them.
Ryan and Nate were halfway to the White Room when Ivan finally looked up. "Ryan?" he called out.
"Keep going," Ryan said to Nate, wincing as he ripped open one of the slashes on his feet.
Ivan caught up with them easily, well before they reached the sliding doors. "Where the hell do you think you're going?" he asked, putting himself in Ryan's way.
"I have to go back in there, Ivan. That's where the answers are."
"And we pay a terrible price for them, Ryan. You're lucky you're not dead."
Ryan looked his old friend in the eye, more tired than he could ever remember being in his whole life. "But I am, Ivan. Can't you see that?" Ryan leaned against Nate even more, the searing pain in his feet and knees starting to crawl up his legs. "I've been dying ever since I found her lying in her garden, and I die a little more each day. I've been dreaming about someplace dark... someplace dead, every few nights since she died. When I was in the White Room... I was there. I saw her, Ivan, as clearly as I see you, exactly the same as the last time I saw her alive... except for the burn on her forehead. The burn from the coin, fresh as that night we found her lying dead on the pavement."
Ivan's eyes opened wide in surprise. "Ryan, that was almost forty years ago."
"And it has something to do with all this, Jack." Ryan laid his hand on Ivan's shoulder and pushed him aside gently. "Let me find out."
"Damn you, Ryan," Ivan whispered after a long moment. "Then let me help."
"Gladly," Ryan gasped as a lance of pain shot up his left leg. He draped his free arm over Ivan's shoulder and limped to the White Room door. "Open it."
Ivan pulled the handle and the door slid aside, then helped them to the inner door. He looked at his friend, a thousand things to say crowding his mind. I'm sorry... Good luck... What the hell are you doing? were but a few that he could sort out. All those thoughts... but in the end he said nothing, just pulled the door open.
They helped Ryan inside and carefully laid him on the floor, then turned back toward the exit. "Come on," Ivan said to Nate as he grasped the door handle.
Nate looked at him strangely, sad yet determined at the same time. "Sorry, man," was all he said as he yanked the door closed, sealing himself inside with Ryan.
Ivan staggered backward, already feeling the effects tearing at his body. He managed to crawl to the threshold and slam the outer door closed before his strength abandoned him, leaving him gasping as Gina and Ellis and Hanley came running up to him. As they picked him up, Ivan's last thought before surrendering to the darkness was simply Good luck.
Ryan kept his eyes closed tight and gritted his teeth, trying like hell not to scream. The pain was different this time, tiny needles shredding his body, passing through flesh and hair and bone and blood with equal efficiency. He was lost in a vortex of needles, spinning as his body was torn apart, and in the end his mouth opened in a soundless cry of agony.Time passed before Ryan noticed the pain was gone; how much, he had no idea. He slowly opened his eyes and tried to focus but the light was too dim for him to make out much detail. He opened his mouth to call out, took a deep breath, then gagged on it and retched, the overpowering stench of rotting meat and burnt flowers and death filling his nostrils and lungs. "Please... help me..." he gasped, the air in his chest burning more with each second that passed.
"Why?" came a voice from the darkness, chilling Ryan to the bone because that voice was so very familiar. He turned his head and saw a shape coalesce from the darkness, someone sitting atop a huge ornate throne. "Why should I want to?"
"Micki..." he whispered and the figure leaned forward, close enough to make out a few features: long, luxurious red hair, the face he loved so much... the eyes blacker than night. She smiled as she spoke.
"You're perfect just the way you are."
"What the hell are we doing out here, Johnny? We could look for weeks and not find him." Joan had endured a lot in her decades living with Johnny Ventura, but this was too much for even her to bear. She resumed her pacing in front of the Cadillac as Johnny glanced up at her, trying to keep his own frustration in check. Alex sat silently in the car, sucking on one of the peppermints they had picked up along with the map.
Johnny leaned back over the detailed map of East St. Louis they had bought that afternoon. Since shortly after waking up, Johnny, Joan and Alex had driven the nearly deserted streets of the city, cruising between the condemned factories and warehouses time and again over the past ten hours. It all looked the same, and the blurred image of Ivan gave them precious little to work with. "Maybe we missed something in her notes, on the laptop -"
"Wake up, Johnny!" Joan shouted, her voice echoing off the high brick walls everywhere around them. "There's nobody here!"
"The hell there isn't," Johnny said, shoving the map away. "Micki knew there was, she knew that this 'Ivan' was important somehow."
"She didn't even know she was crazy! She's sent us off on some wild goose chase from beyond the grave, tracking down someone who probably isn't even real!" Joan grabbed the photo from Johnny's pocket and tore it in half, throwing it to the ground. Johnny picked up the pieces and shoved them in his pocket as she yelled, "What happened to her at Curious Goods was terrible; it was terrible for all of us. But it's over, Johnny, it's supposed to be over, I just want it to be over...
Joan fell to the dirty sidewalk as she broke down, pounding her hands against the cracked concrete as she wept. "I just want it to be over... I just want it to be over..." she sobbed as Johnny knelt beside her and took her in his arms. She closed her eyes as he whispered to her, reassuring her that she was okay, and she felt to warm in his embrace, so safe. The darkness drew back, replaced by the brightest, most pure light she had ever seen, even when she closed her eyes -
She looked up at the shaft of whiteness that lanced straight up from the ground. It passed the streetlights and the buildings, the clouds and the moon, up and away from the earth, never dispersing, never fading for as far as she could see. "It's beautiful..."
Johnny looked down at her and saw only whiteness where her eyes had been. "Oh, God, Joan? Joan?" he cried, shaking her shoulders. "Come on, Joan, snap out if it!"
"She's okay, Johnny," came a soft voice from behind him. Johnny turned to see Alex standing close by, her head turned toward the sky, her arms spread wide. "She sees."
"See what? What the hell is happening?"
"The power and the glory, Johnny, for ever and ever, amen," she said. "She sees Him."
Rachel gasped as she felt the energy ripple through the air and the ground; every atom of her body knew that sensation from so long ago. Her fingers grasped the armrest and dug in deep, tearing leather and foam, melting plastic and warping metal as her hands began to glow with energy. "They're close," she hissed.
Simone watched the trio from a block away, her vision now easily able to see the trio as if they were a few feet from her. She saw as the woman on the ground slowly got to her feet and pointed at one of the factories half a mile away. "Take them out now?" she asked as they got back into the Cadillac.
"No... we wait..." Rachel said, pulling her charred hand from the remains of the armrest. She concentrated on it for a moment and the burnt skin and muscle faded, replaced by healthy flesh. She flexed her hand and allowed herself a small smile.
"We have to be sure."
"Are you sure they'll be okay?" Gina finished checking her gear and began strapping on her shoulder holster. "There's never been two in the White Room before."
"I know. I didn't have a choice." Ivan took a deep breath and exhaled, trying to rally his thoughts after the latest drain from the White Room. He looked down at his dataflat, where a computer model of the Gateway Arch was slowly rotating. "The ritual will most likely take place at the center of the Arch, right in the middle of the rededication ceremony. How the hell didn't we see it? Thousands of potential victims at the largest landmark for hundreds of miles, all attending a ceremony funded by Orton Industries."
"Orton covered his tracks well. We don't know everything, Ivan. All we can do is act on what we do know," Gina replied. "Where should we set up?"
Ivan touched the dataflat, and on the far side of the table Ellis looked at his own; the linked devices both zoomed in on a structure some four hundred yards across the river from the Arch. "Gina, you set up here; Ellis and I will be in the crowd. You can take down Orton with one shot, at least long enough for us to make our move." The image zoomed again, showing the ground detail beneath the center of the Arch. "We'll get the Artifact."
"Why don't you just destroy it?" Hanley asked, looking over Gina's shoulder.
"Most likely it won't do any good; the Artifact is probably indestructible," Ivan replied. "Things like it usually are. If we try, all we'll do is tip our hand. No, we need to get our hands on it and get it the hell away from here."
"There will be a lot of security. We'll need area-effect weapons, shotguns, grenades -" Ellis fell silent and slowly craned his neck to look at the door behind him. "Someone's coming."
Ivan looked up from the table to check the bank of monitor screens. "Are you sure?"
Ellis never bothered to reply as he picked up an assault rifle and strode toward the door, followed closely by Gina and Ivan. "Where are you going?" Hanley asked, running to catch up with them.
"Stay here," Ivan said, checking his own weapon. "You'll be safer."
"Is it those nuts from New York? No way, I'm safer with him," Hanley replied, pointing at Ellis.
"Then stay out of the way." Ivan pulled his backup pistol and handed it to him. "Use this if you have to."
Hanley nodded and moved off to the side, keeping clear of the other three as they moved through the darkened loading dock toward the overhead doors. Ellis took a quick look through one of the Plexiglas windows set into the door as headlights swung across it. "One vehicle, three occupants. I can take them out before they set foot outside the car."
"No! If it's the Order, there will be more of them. We hold until we know for sure."
Gina peered out another window and raised the rifle she was holding. "Here they come. One male, two female... no apparent weapons..." She watched as the trio looked into the car she had stolen a day before. "Ivan, I don't think they're with the Order."
Ivan walked up to a window and took a quick look out, seeing a heavyset older man and two women, one about the same age as the man, the other in her thirties. "I agree, but who the hell..."
His voice faded as he got a closer look at the man. "Open the door."
"Who is it?" Gina asked, keeping the man's head in her sights as he peered into the car, oblivious to the weapon trained on him.
Ivan kept his weapon at hip level while Ellis pulled the chain that raised the door. "Someone else that I hoped never to see again."
Johnny pulled to a stop before the loading dock next to an aging Chevy. "This must be the place." He and Alex quickly got out of the car and looked up at the aging metal-and-stone structure; Joan, still lost in her reverie, stayed curled up in the passenger seat. Johnny leaned down and peered inside the Chevy, seeing nothing but empty wrappers and soda bottles. "It hasn't been here long. They must be somewhere inside."
Alex leaned back into the Cadillac to retrieve a flashlight, but before she could switch it on there was a clank of metal-on-metal as one of the large cargo doors began to slide rapidly up its track. Johnny grabbed at his pistol as a man stepped from the darkness, aiming it at the man's chest before he noticed that a machine gun was pointed at his own. As the man stepped closer, Johnny began to make out a few features; the man was in his thirties, short, dark hair... just like the picture. "Ivan?"
"Johnny?" the man said, and Johnny had just enough time to recognize that voice, to realize who Ivan really was...
Then all hell broke loose.
Her words chilled Ryan to his very soul as they passed the lips of the woman sitting on the black throne that towered over him. It was not the words themselves, but the voice that had spoken them, the face that looked on in pleasure as Ryan struggled to draw a single breath of the foul air. It was the voice that had comforted him for nearly forty years, the voice that had whispered to him in the dark as she lay beside him, the voice that had teased and angered and loved him for most of his adult life. It was Micki's voice, and it had Micki's face... but Ryan could not let himself believe that the woman looking down at him could possibly be his wife. Please, God, don't let this be real... he prayed, barely able to form the thought.
She laughed, a harsh sound that seemed to echo for eternity. "Go ahead, pray to Him... it will do you no good. He no longer listens."
Ryan rolled on to his side and tried to get to his feet, but already the edges of his vision had grown blurry and his limbs were like rubber. He lay gasping, unable to move as she stood and stepped toward him. "His power faded long ago, but ours grows stronger with each passing moment. Soon, even He will be unable to stop us... that is, if He were willing at all." She smiled as she knelt by his head, gently touching his face with her fingertips. "You must love her so very much to give your life for her..." she whispered.
For just a moment the blackness in her eyes faded, but it was long enough for everything to change. The ground became softer, rocky soil instead of smooth stone; the cacophony fell silent; the hot, unbreathable atmosphere became cold, stale air that he gulped down greedily. As his vision cleared and strength returned, Ryan gingerly rolled over and looked around slowly.
Despite the darkness (or perhaps because of it), Ryan recognized this place. It was dark and dead, flat except for the sheer drop into nothingness just a few feet to his left. It was the place he had seen in his dreams... and his first vision. He stood and moved a few steps away from the edge, careful not to touch any of the scattered glass shards that had injured him before. "Micki?" he called out, his voice hoarse.
There was no answer. He turned around in a slow circle, the minimal light unable to reveal any details of his surroundings. "Micki?" he called again, cupping his hands around his mouth. "Where are you?"
A sound came from somewhere in the darkness, something between a sob and a giggle. "Ryan..." whispered a familiar voice, and his heart began to race. He limped ahead into the darkness like a man possessed, calling out her name as he tried to run. "I'm so cold, Ryan," she moaned as he felt his injuries tearing open again, sending trails of hot blood flowing down his legs.
"Keep talking, Micki, I'll find you..." he said, moving off in the direction he thought her voice came from. After a few more steps he saw a tiny flickering flame pop up from the ground maybe ten feet from him. Beyond it sat a figure, but the light was still too faint to make out any features. "Micki?"
The figure looked up and an unfamiliar female voice answered him dreamily. "She's not here."
Ryan hobbled around the fire and fell to his knees a few feet from the woman. Her face was young, yet it seemed as if she had seen far too much... not surprising, really, considering just where he was and what he was doing. "Where is she?"
"The Voice won't let her come out."
"The Voice? Who's the Voice?"
"The part of her that is chained to this place... the part she calls the Voice." The woman's voice grew very soft. "The part that has damned both of them to remain here... always, eternal, forever as one."
"What is this place?" Ryan asked, the answer already formed in his mind. "Is this Hell?"
"Yes, it is... but it was meant only for her. Your presence was not anticipated." The woman looked at Ryan for the first time, her eyes a cloudy white. "You must not stay."
Ryan shook his head, refusing to believe whoever or whatever was speaking to him. "I'm not leaving without Micki."
"Micki's dead. If you stay, you'll die as well."
Ryan crawled over to the woman and grabbed her arm. "I'm dead anyway," he said. "I won't leave her here alone."
"You have no choice. The Voice will allow nothing else for her."
"Goddamnit, who is the Voice?" Ryan screamed, pulling the woman's fact within an inch of his own. The fire grew suddenly, its heat exploding around him, and he raised his arms to his face to shield himself from the flames. The heat faded in moments, but Ryan knew already that he was somewhere else, like what had gotten him away from the creature wearing Micki's image in the first place. The sounds were different, harsh echoes off of stone walls; a cave, maybe? There were different smells here as well, metallic odors, the smell of incense mixed with faint remnants of bleach and sweat and urine. He lowered his arms, knowing he was somewhere different than he had just been... but he was shocked when he realized just where and when he was.
He was standing among a group of people, all of them clad in hooded cloaks, all kneeling. In the center of the cavernous room was a stone altar which the group stood before; a huge pentagram was suspended from the high ceiling over them all, fires burning at its corners. At the altar were two men, one horribly decayed and wearing some kind of ancient suit, the other dressed in ceremonial robes with white hair and beard. Ryan's heart skipped a beat as he remembered the face of Sylvan Winters from so long ago.
Something clanged in the darkness behind him, and Winters pointed, shouting, "Over there! Stop them! They must not escape!" The crowd charged into the dark, chasing two figures down long torchlit tunnels, one a burly older man - Jack, Ryan thought - the other a young woman with flowing red hair. Most of the crowd went after Jack, but Winters and the zombie moved in the other direction. He ran after them, catching up just as Winters turned a corner and saw Micki, trapped in a dead-end by a locked door. "So... another visitor," he said, a gold coin held between the first two fingers of his right hand. Ryan could see the ram's head imprinted on one side; The Coin of Zaecles, he thought.
"I didn't see anything," Micki said, taking a few steps back, knowing she had nowhere to go. "I didn't see anything!"
"No? Then perhaps you'd like a closer look," Winters said, and Ryan screamed as he tossed the coin. It struck the concrete and bounced, landing heads-up as sickly yellow-orange energy began to swirl over the ram's head. It swirled again, stronger this time, then shot out and drove straight into Micki's forehead, driving her back against the wall as it took her life. She fell to the floor, one arm stretched toward Ryan as if she knew he was there, as if she were begging for his help...
Everything went black; Ryan felt motion, as if he were moving at some tremendous speed through the blackness. When his vision returned he was back in the chamber, once again among the cultists as Winters chanted over a figure shrouded in robes. "As thy were, so mote it be!" he said, placing the Coin of Zaecles on the shriveled, black forehead of the figure. The sickly light flashed again, the coin vanished, and the figure began to rise... but halfway to a sitting position its face broke away, revealing the long red hair of Micki Foster beneath, the circular ram's head burn now healed by the very coin that had inflicted it. Winters face filled with terror as he shouted "No!" and the chamber began to collapse. Huge chunks of concrete and steel rained down upon the cultists, crushing them beneath as Ryan saw Jack and a much younger version of himself rush forward and get the barely-conscious Micki off the altar and out of danger.
Then blackness again, but this time he was at Curious Goods when light returned. Micki, Jack and an older man he did not recognize were standing before a makeshift altar, five red candles surrounded by a circle of ten white ones. At its center burned a single white candle, taller than the others. Micki wore a sheer white wrap around her head and was holding a worn leather-bound book, saying, "Here I place a circle of protection around the spirit of Ryan Dallion. Within this circle is a circle of strength. May he be protected from evil."
Circle of protection... Ryan thought, and then it came back to him: that night with Liza Redding and the reconstituted cult begun by Lewis Vendredi. The night his friend Danny was murdered. The witches' ladder. Micki saved me, she broke through the power Liza had over me, he thought as Micki began chanting again. "Here is found the strength to overcome all evil... As burn these candles, so burns the truth in the heart of Ryan Dallion."
Blackness and motion again, and this time the other man was gone when Ryan returned. Jack was bleeding from a wound over his left eye and Micki was looking worried as she continued reading. "Arch-sorceress, who attacks the right-hand path, your spell shall be reversed, your curse returned to you a thousand-fold."
Ryan watched as the vision played out before him, someone's memory of events that had taken place some thirty-six years before. Micki continued chanting, her voice becoming firmer, more confident, and for just a moment Ryan's hair stood on end. I know that voice, he thought. I just heard that voice. At the same time, even as Jack looked on in concern, Ryan could see her eyes turn completely black. As she spoke again, he heard other words emerge, barely whispers but filled with power. Tendrils of blackness coalesced around Micki's hands and flowed into her mouth, sliding over her like a thousand invisible snakes. Darkness flashed over her face and for just an instant, Ryan found himself looking into the rotting face of an ancient corpse...
Blackness and motion again, and this time he knew exactly where he was without even thinking: their home in the hills of California, on a spring night. He was standing in their bedroom, watching as a (just slightly) younger version of himself walked out onto the deck as Micki looked up at the stars. "Micki?" he heard his own voice say.
"I'm... okay," she replied, but there was something in her voice, a tremble he had barely noticed that last night they had spent together. "Can't sleep. Go back to bed. I'll be in soon enough."
Ryan walked over and stood by Micki as his past self said, "You sure?"
Micki was weeping bloody tears, her eyes wide open and blacker than the night as she replied, "I'm sure, Ryan. Good night."
"Oh my God..." Ryan whispered.
She turned to look at him, not his past self retreating back into the house but him, invisible as he stood beside her. "Not yet... but soon," she said in that voice... the Voice. She raised her hand to her face and wiped at the blood, coating her fingers. "We shall take back what you denied us..." she said, raising her hand, index and little finger spread far apart in the sign of the Devil, and Ryan could see the unholy energies start to glow. "And you will die for my sins."
Ryan closed his eyes, knowing what was coming. Then he was flying backward, something pulling him away from her as she faded into darkness. The last thought that passed through his mind before his consciousness fled was a single name:
There was a sharp pain in his back and the sound of glass shattering came from behind him. Blood sprayed as a gaping wound opened up in his chest; the bullet gouged a deep hole in the concrete of the loading dock, bits of bone and soft tissue impacting around the crater. Jack, what the hell are you doing here? he thought in confusion as his knees folded and he fell to the asphalt. Aren't you dead?
Even before Johnny fell Ellis had opened fire, spraying the approximate area the shot had come from, a structure maybe three hundred yards away. "Get inside!" he shouted, firing the assault rifle with one hand as his other grabbed a fresh magazine. After a few seconds the rifle ran dry and he dropped the empty magazine, slamming the fresh one home in less than a second. He raised the rifle to his shoulder and took more careful aim through the compact light-amplification sight mounted above the receiver; through its lens he could see two figures moving, one away from them at an angle... the other running right toward them. He pulled the trigger, emptying the clip again; his aim improved with each step the figure took in their direction.
Not a single shot seemed to have any effect.
Joan was screaming, her reverie dispelled by a high-powered bullet flying six inches from her head, through the windshield and into her husband's back. Gina and Ivan jumped down from the dock; Ivan hefted Johnny onto his shoulder, abandoning his weapon on the ground as Gina pulled open the Cadillac door and dragged Joan out, ignoring her screams as she pushed the woman up the concrete steps and into the relative safety of the factory, followed closely by Alex. Hanley grabbed an arm and helped carry Johnny's bleeding body as Ivan made it through the door, followed closely by Ellis as he emptied his third clip. By now he could see the woman clearly - a blond woman, her clothes torn to shreds by at least a score of bullet impacts, soaked in blood. He dropped the rifle and pulled on the chain, dropping the overhead door. He grabbed the short shotgun from its holster on his right thigh. "Back to the War Room," he said, checking the chamber.
Through the window he saw a silhouette look through, her glowing red eyes the only detail. With one hand he pointed the gun and fired, the seven razor-sharp darts spreading minimally as they shattered the Plexiglas and drove into the woman's head, knocking her back a step... but only a step. Huge dents appeared in the door as they retreated across the shipping area, and Ellis fired at the door as each appeared. When the shotgun ran dry he dropped it and pulled the slim machine pistol from the belt holster at the small of his back, firing it one-handed as the group managed to get onto the factory floor. "Gina, shotguns!" he said, taking a knee and grasping the pistol with both hands. He sighted down the barrel as the door gave way, the heavy aluminum tearing like tissue paper as the woman punched through. He carefully squeezed off a three-round burst, catching her in the upper chest but hardly slowing her down. He lowered his aim and fired another three rounds at the middle of her leg; one of them caught her knee and she staggered... but did not fall.
Shit, he thought, and slammed a fresh clip into the weapon. Gina nodded and ran for the War Room door, her hands trembling as she punched in the code. Joan was still screaming as the door rolled open, oblivious to Gina as she ran into the room and picked up heavy black shotguns from the table and belts of red-hulled 12-gauge ammunition. She ran back toward Ellis, past Ivan and Hanley and Alex as they dragged Johnny into the room and toward the makeshift sickbay, and handed him one of the street-sweeper style guns, compact assault weapons that had been outlawed in the early years of the twenty-first century because of their favored users: gangbangers, militias, criminals of all sorts. They were very much like gigantic revolvers, twelve 12-gauge rounds delivered as fast as one could pull the trigger... and Ellis could pull it very fast.
He dropped the pistol and grabbed the shotgun, barely taking the time to aim as the woman quickly closed the distance between them. Gina did the same, and the air was filled with lead as the sound of twin shotguns echoed through the factory. The woman collapsed under the pounds of lead and copper and steel that struck her at supersonic velocity, tearing her to pieces. Ellis handed his weapon to Gina and reloaded his pistol, keeping it trained on the woman as she ejected the shotgun shells and replaced them with fresh ones. "Leave me both guns," he said, never taking his eyes off the woman. "There's another one coming."
Gina hurried and finished loading the weapons, not even bothering to answer as she sprinted back toward the War Room; if there was a second attacker, Ivan and the others were already in danger. She got through the door and slammed it closed, running for the center table and the weapons upon it. Nearby, Joan's screams had tapered off as her gaze had found the entrance to the White Room... and the pure energy that lay beyond. Oh, God... so beautiful... she thought, falling to her knees, all thoughts of Johnny and everything else fading in the light.
Neither she nor Gina noticed one of the metal roof plates move over enough to allow someone to enter; the state-of-the-art motion sensors never so much as grumbled as a dark, lithe figure slid through the opening and onto one of the steel rafters high above the floor. Simone smiled as she looked down at the figures below; one was picking up an assault rifle, the other was on her knees... as if she knew what was about to happen. Pity... Simone thought. No challenge at all.
Then she raised the high-powered sniper rifle to her shoulder and shot.
The slug took Joan in her upper back, smashing through her lung and into her stomach, finally exiting through her belly before driving itself deep into the floor. Joan barely felt any pain; her mind was consumed by the light before her, shielded though it was. She slumped backward, falling onto her back, her eyes still following the light as it traveled up and away from the factory, into the starry night. Beautiful...
Gina looked up at the sound of the shot, raising the rifle even as Simone moved her own into a firing position. She looked down the sight, down the scope of the other weapon, into the eye of the girl aiming a weapon at her. She would not miss.
Then she saw the weapon's second barrel. Gina's left hand pulled a trigger near the front of the weapon, and a huge 40mm grenade shot at Simone. The weapon was not particularly accurate, but the ceiling was barely fifty feet above the floor; the shot barely had to be in the room to be effective. The shell detonated three feet from Simone; hundreds of ceramic shards shredded flesh and steel alike, blowing a hole in the roof six feet across. Gina shielded her eyes from the blast as tons of debris rained down, barely missing Joan's fallen body.
Inside the medical area, Hanley dropped to the floor when he heard the explosion. "What the hell was that?" he shrieked, covering his head with his arms. In a far corner, Alex was curled into a ball, the blood around her all too familiar.
"Grenade launcher," Ivan said, peeling open Johnny's shirt and examining the exit wound in his chest. I'm sorry, Johnny, he thought, looking silently at the six-inch hole that had been punched through his ribcage. Blood spurted from a half-dozen severed arteries, creating a rapidly widening pool on the floor. God damn it, I'm so sorry... He pressed his hands over the wound as blood flowed from the edges of Johnny's mouth, opening and closing as he tried to speak. "C... car... box..." he choked.
"Don't talk, Johnny." Ivan looked around for something to pack the wound, but he knew there was no use; he'd seen far too many of these wounds in World War Two. Even if he rushed Johnny to a hospital, the best trained and equipped staff would have no chance to save him. "It's... going to be all right."
Johnny grasped his hands, looking straight into Ivan's eyes. "Ryan... give him... box... in car..." he whispered. "Jack... please..."
"The box in the car," Ivan said gently as Johnny's head fell back against the bed and his eyes lost focus. "I will."
The door flew open and Gina pulled Joan into the room, a trail of her blood mixing with Johnny's. She laid Joan on a second bed and rushed to the surgical kit, but Ivan knew with a single look that her wound was fatal as well. She looked over at Johnny, the light finally cleared from her vision, and a single tear fell from her eye. "Leave it. Where's Ellis?" Ivan said.
"With the other one. He thinks she's going to get back up; it took enough to bring her down." Gina looked down at Joan, whose chest rose and fell once... then was still. "Who -"
"Later. Get back to Ellis and help him. I'll be out soon." Gina looked at the bodies, then back at Ivan as tears began to fall. "Go on now," he said quietly. She nodded and retreated out the door, leaving him with the remains of his old friends. "Hanley, get her out of here. Start packing up whatever gear is left and wait for me." Hanley carefully got up and led Alex from the room, talking softly to her as they walked away.
After a few moments he fell to his knees and wept.
It's all going to Hell, he thought, and not in the manner I intended.
Douglas Orton watched from the back of the luxury sedan as a throng of laborers scurried about the rededication site, tearing up scaffolding, digging new pits, setting in place a large stone pillar with intricately etched symbols covering its surface: the altar that he would use to finally bring this chaotic world a proper master, its one true God. Me.
He had spent decades in this shell of flesh making the final preparations, bringing to a conclusion actions begun millennia before. Sometimes he could almost remember the power he had once held, godlike compared even to that which he wielded now. But, strong as he might be, his powers were of no use now - two of his elite teams, highly trained, highly motivated, without fear or mercy or pity, had been torn to pieces, and Simone had vanished altogether. He should have been able to sense her, alive or dead... but there was nothing. Damn her, he thought. She's too good to have been killed by an old man and a girl and a John Doe.
He had found her fourteen years before, barely more than an animal living on the streets of San Diego. She had talent even then, even addicted to drugs and horribly scarred by an attacker's knife. She sold her body for money, then often killed her companion afterward and took everything he (or, just as often, she) owned and cared for. Simone had burglarized homes, drained bank accounts, raped and killed entire families for the sheer joy of it. Her victims ranged over such a wide area that the overworked police forces never had a clue that these hundreds of crimes were connected.
But he knew. He could always smell potential; that's why he had sought out Marshak and Vendredi in the original timeline, why he had formed the Order of Thirteen in the first place, why he was so powerful now. He knew that with a little refinement, a little strategic surgery, Simone could serve him in many capacities. And so, she had become the perfect killer, a soldier for his cause without pity or remorse or even failure.
A matter of hours until the ritual and Simone was gone, leaving nothing but the Order's devoted personnel in her wake. The girl must have help, someone smart, someone powerful...
Across the river a flash lit up the sky, followed a moment later by a deep rumble. Orton's eyes widened as he saw a fireball rise from the roof of one of the many long-abandoned factories that lined the eastern shore of the Mississippi River A scream echoed in his mind as the life of someone close to him was snuffed out, a familiar voice uttering its final thought - Simone.
He raised his Vox without hesitation. "All teams, converge on that explosion immediately. Full battle gear. Be ready for anything." He dropped the Vox and thumbed the intercom to his driver. "Follow the teams to that explosion," he said, his left hand unconsciously stroking the smooth surface of the Artifact. Even in death, you still obeyed me, he thought. I may have to repay that.
Ellis was in precisely the same position when Gina got back, one of the shotguns cradled in his arms. "Anything?"
"Not yet. Did you get her?"
"Yeah... but not before she got the someone else. The older woman." Gina reloaded the grenade launcher and trained it on the body. "Ivan's on his way."
"What about Ryan and the boy?"
"They're still in the White Room."
Ellis stood, backing away from the body. "Hanley and the other woman are okay?"
"Looks like it."
A shadow of relief crossed Ellis' face, something which surprised Gina. "Get them ready. Give me your weapon and ammo." He checked the launcher for himself and aimed it at the body. "I'll stay here -"
His words trailed off as he looked up and saw that the body had vanished. Even the blood, the splattered bits of bone and gore, were gone. "Go!" Ellis hissed, stepping forward and looking at the area the woman had been. Gina backed away and ran for the security door, her hands shaking as she typed in the code. "Access Gina," she said.
Nothing. "Access Gina!" she said, pulling on the handle.
A woman's voice emerged from the speaker, tinny and distorted by static. "Not just yet," she said, and laughed.
"I think I'll have a little fun first."
Ryan slowly opened his eyes and saw a small fire burning a few feet away. Sitting on the far side was Nate, his hair matted with leaves and dirt, absently flicking pebbles and twigs at the flames; a few feet behind him rose a small mound of dirt, covered with dead flowers. "Nate?" he whispered, his voice catching in his parched throat.
"We've known each other... what, three years now? Four? Never thought we'd ever end up here," Nate spoke softly, poking a dry twig into the fire. "All those times in the shop, looking at comics, and I was just, like wow - a real comic artist hanging out at my place."
"Where are we?" Ryan asked, looking around. They were somewhere dim, but not totally black; every few feet there was a shrub, irregularly placed all around them. Everything was gray in what looked like pre-dawn light.
"I'm not sure. Feels like I've been here forever." He looked away from Ryan, turning his face toward the gray clouds above. "This isn't exactly what I planned, you know. All the work... all the sacrifices... and in the end, it didn't get me a goddamned thing. Except sent to Hell, of course." Nate raised his hands and looked at them closely, first the palms, then the backs. "I've never done anything, though, have I? Not a day of real work in my life. I could always fall back on Mom and Dad when things got rough. I blew off high school, flunked out of college, wrapped my Mustang around a tree when I was nineteen... all those screw-ups, and they always bailed me out. And they would have again if I'd just asked.
He looked over at Ryan and an odd little half-smile crept onto his face. "But then I wouldn't be here with you, would I? Yeah, it's like I always say... things have a way of working out."
A chill grew at the base of Ryan's skull and crept down his back, finally settling in his belly like a tiny lump of ice. Nate's voice - headstrong, carefree, generally guileless - was thick with emotions Ryan had never heard there before. Bitterness. Arrogance. Hatred, Ryan thought. He stood up slowly, the pain in his legs seeming to fade as he looked at his friend's face. "Who are you?" he asked, slowly circling the fire.
"I'm your friend, Nathan Ackley... but, then again, I'm also your uncle. Maybe you should just call me Lewis."
Ryan's legs went out from under him, but the fresh pain did not even register on his consciousness. "No... oh, God, no..." he moaned. "You sonuvabitch, don't do this... please, not him..."
"I'd say that I'm sorry, Ryan... but I'm not. The boy made his own choice. He could have stayed out of it -"
Ryan's hand lashed out and grabbed Nate's throat. "Get away from him," he cried into Nate's face.
Nate laughed in reply. "What are you going to do, Ryan? Kill me? Go ahead and squeeze; do it, and your young friend dies as well."
Ryan's hand pressed harder against Nate's throat, fury raging through him, and he spoke the words Jack Marshak had spoken decades earlier: "No deal, Lewis, now or ever." Ryan saw the glint in his friend's eyes, that trace of a Southern accent in his voice, the hint of arrogance Lewis could never quite conceal. "I'll gladly kill us both to keep you in Hell."
"You... need... me..." Nate/Lewis wheezed, trying to pry Ryan's hand off his throat with no luck.
"For what? To fuck us over again? Too late, Lewis. I learned my lesson with you." Nate/Lewis began to turn purple as Ryan pressed down harder.
Ryan's eyes widened; a moment later, his hand seemed to come away on its own. "What about the tablet?"
Nate/Lewis grinned and licked his lips. "That's more like it, Ryan. Damn fine of you -"
Ryan shoved his forearm against Nate's throat. "What about the tablet?" he snarled.
"Not... what you think..." Nate/Lewis smiled again, and Ryan balled his left hand into a fist and punched him.
"Goddammit! Tell me!" Ryan roared. Nate/Lewis looked up at him, that glint fading from his eyes, and then nodded.
Ryan lifted his arm away and Nate/Lewis crawled backward a foot or two. "If I learned... anything... from all I've done... it's to keep something... up my sleeve," he wheezed, rubbing his bruised neck. "It's... the perfect flaw. This time... a little bit of knowledge... should do nicely."
"The tablet," Ryan said again.
"Heh... thought nobody could read it except their own kind. Arrogant - but then, most of them never met me, did they?" Nate/Lewis wiped his forehead and sat up, looking Ryan in the eye. "You're still scared of me, aren't you? Even though I died."
"You dropped by to visit a few times too often. It's hard to forget what you did to us, what we went through because of you -"
Lewis burst into laughter, and for a moment Ryan almost reached over to finish what he started a minute before. "What the hell is so funny?"
"'Hard to forget,' you said... you don't know... decades and you still have no idea..."
"Micki," Ryan said, and her name hung in the still air.
The laughter trailed off, leaving Nate/Lewis with a look of amusement on his face. "So you have some idea after all," he said.
"All I know is that she's trapped here... because of you."
"Have you any concept what you interrupted when you swapped her body with that of the witch? The consequences of your actions? I may have helped it along... but the blame for Micki's current state lies with you." Lewis - and by now Ryan was sure that the one in control of Nate's body was Lewis - reached down and drew a crude image in the dirt. "Anyone with a little appropriate knowledge can return a body to life; to bring a person back takes great skill and power."
He drew a stick figure, then traced a line going away from it. "When you die, you're left in two parts. One is the body, now just an empty shell that contains the memories and experiences that you acquired, stored in biochemical form just like any other animal. The other is the soul, that part which makes you more than just an animal, that makes you human. The coin trapped the soul of the life it took and used it to fuel the next resurrection... but unless the soul and body were parts of the same whole, you'd never end up with a true person, just a mismatch of one soul with another's body and memories. That is what the ritual was for, to summon Hiberia's soul from the depths of Hell... and exchange it for another."
Nate/Lewis drew a circle on either side of the stick figure. "When you switched their bodies, you brought about something... unique. The ritual prepared the body to receive Hiberia's soul... but that body was the rightful place of Micki's, trapped within the coin." He drew a line, connecting the circles across the stick figure. "And so... she received both souls; one innocent, one blacker than the deepest pits of Hell... chained for all eternity. The perfect flaw for them both."
He scratched out the figure and looked up at Ryan, that half-smile creeping back into his expression. "You think Micki's newfound power was coincidence, that night with Liza and the witches' ladder? Micki had power because Hiberia had power."
"You lie -"
"And you're blind. Look at this place, Ryan; we don't get to choose our own Hell down here. Hell is chosen for the damned... except for Micki." Nate/Lewis swept his arm around in a wide circle, then pointed at the mound of dirt. "That is her Hell."
Ryan looked at the mound and at the rotten trunk of the tree standing next to it, and for just an instant he could see Micki bent down, tending the flowers in her garden, the terraced mound of earth her pride and joy. "It's not true," he said, the bile rising in his throat. "Oh, Christ, it's not true... it can't be true..." He squeezed his eyes shut but still the images flooded into his mind, unbidden, chaotic. Micki screaming, blood soaking the sheets. Tearing the pictures off the walls and smashing them, trying to drown out the Voice in her head. Locked in a padded cell, throwing herself at the walls, screeching like a banshee as the Voice taunted her. Exploring some ancient city, searching for some ancient bit of knowledge. Shutting herself in some sort of chamber... her own White Room, Ryan realized.
Ryan fell to his knees, sinking his hands into the dusty soil, weeping as he clenched his fists. An eternity of memories passed - their life together, their love, the sickness, the funeral, some fond, most terrible - before he finally whispered, "Why?"
"As the saying goes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions... but if you're looking for some divine reason for Micki's circumstance, I have none to offer." Nate/Lewis fell silent as Ryan lifted his hands and looked over at him, the dust slipping between his fingers.
"Tell me what you know," was all Ryan said.
"The tablet is the key -"
The venom in Ryan's voice shocked even the spirit of Lewis Vendredi. "I don't give a damn about the tablet. Tell me about Micki," Ryan hissed through clenched teeth.
Nate/Lewis was silent for a moment, as if choosing his words very carefully. "As you wish. You learned who Hiberia was, I take it?"
"Satan's lover," Ryan said, his memory returning to that awful night of Micki's first death.
"As you can well imagine, the Master was... displeased with that turn of events. Not only was his opportunity to be raised snatched from him by mere mortals, the soul of his lover was trapped in the living body of a mortal who was actively fighting his work." Nate/Lewis laughed, a hollow, sad noise. "Her present state... the Master considers it a fitting punishment."
"A fitting punishment," Ryan breathed, his thoughts blinded by rage. He could see Micki in his mind's eye, back in that dark place of his dreams, lying on the ground, utterly alone for all eternity.
"What better way to punish the ones who succeeded in ending his curse, both in life and afterlife?" Lewis continued. "What better way to punish the Almighty than to damn a soul worthy of paradise, especially when that soul fought so hard to end such evil? It's a unique situation, Ryan... and the Master has taken full advantage of it. He excels at that."
A gust of wind kicked up the dry soil, throwing a small cloud of grit into the air. "Why now?" Ryan said. "Why did he wait so long?"
Nate/Lewis gazed down at the fire. "He couldn't affect Micki while she was alive... but he didn't need to. Hiberia could, and she did." His voice grew soft, almost mournful and for a moment Ryan almost forgot just who he was talking to.
"What did she do? What the hell did she do to Micki?
"That's a good question, Ryan, but not the correct one. What you should be asking is: what the hell did Micki do to you?" Before Ryan could utter a reply, Nate/Lewis continued: "Your memories are hazy, almost dreamlike, especially those of the early years of your marriage. In your mind they were good years, happy years."
Nate/Lewis leaned forward and the firelight cast an orange glow over his features, giving him a sinister appearance. "The only problem is that those years, as you remember them... they weren't real. Micki built you a dream life, weaved from whole cloth with the power she shared with Hiberia. She tried to protect you, Ryan, to shield you from the darkness within her, from the Voice, from Hiberia... and the price she paid was terrible. You don't remember the pain she endured, the madness that took her for a time. She gave you the memory of a happy life because she knew you deserved one."
Ryan was shaking his head faster and faster, as if the motion could drive his long-dead uncle's words out of his brain. "Micki!" he screamed at the top of his lungs, climbing to his feet. "Micki, where are you?"
"She can't hear you, Ryan."
Ryan ignored him and shouted until his voice gave out, his throat raw, what little sound he could make no more than an anguished squeak. "Micki... "
The only sound was the wind blowing across the dying landscape and the gentle footfalls of Nate/Lewis coming up behind Ryan. "She won't hear you. She could be a foot away from salvation, and even if she knew it was there she'd never see it. That's why it's Hell -"
The voice trailed off, and behind them Ryan could hear other sounds: dry leaves crunching, digging in the dirt. Ryan and Nate/Lewis slowly turned around and saw a woman kneeling on the mound, her back to them. A long, tattered gray ponytail hung limply down her back, crossing the dozens of bloody rips that crisscrossed her filthy blouse. Ryan slowly circled the mound until he could see her face.
"Micki?" he whispered.
Like Omar, he thought sadly as he stuffed another heavy curved magazine into the large nylon duffel bag he was holding. The bag's contents were piled atop each other; three pistols, a short-barreled shotgun, a few smooth, spherical grenades, a dataflat, many clips of ammunition of varying shapes and sizes. Another full bag was already on the table, zipped up and ready to go. One corner of the folded sheet of tracing paper stuck out of his shirt pocket, its edges smudged with charcoal from the impression he'd made of the Artifact.
Hanley looked over the table's chaotic surface, making sure he hadn't forgotten anything they could use. After a moment he looked up and saw Alex sitting listlessly in a chair on the far side of the table. "Did... did you know them well?" he asked as he sipped the bag closed.
Alex looked up at him, her eyes wide and vacant. "Not really," she said around the fingernail she was gnawing at ferociously. "Just met a couple days ago."
Hanley tried to smile, to say something comforting to the young woman, but after a moment he realized that nothing of the sort existed within himself. I'm sorry, was all he could think to say, and that was a piss-poor reassurance.
"Of course you're sorry," a familiar voice said somewhere behind him. "You're always sorry."
Hanley slowly turned around, his pulse starting to race as he placed the voice. "You can't be here," he told Omar. "You're dead."
"Death is a relative state, Professor," Omar replied, the horrific wound in his chest oozing fresh blood. "In a purely physical sense, I am indeed dead... but from a more spiritual perspective, I have never been more alive." Omar raised his hands, the wickedly curved dagger held tight in his grasp. "Please, Professor, she holds such knowledge... and she so wants to share it with you..."
Hanley pulled one of the pistols from his bag, fumbling with the safety as he pointed it toward the dead man standing before him. He thumbed back the hammer and leveled the weapon at Omar's chest. "I don't want it, not anymore."
"You're lying. Your whole academic career, your entire life, has centered around finding the proof of some ancient, advanced civilization, the predecessor of Atlantis and Lemuria. You've sacrificed friends and reputation, love and family, all in your relentless pursuit of that proof." Omar stepped forward and spread his arms wide. "Embrace her, and she'll gladly show you all the proof you desire."
"Alex, get out of here," Hanley said as something stirred at the edges of his vision, like heat shimmers rising from an Arizona highway. He tried to shout, to tighten his finger on the trigger, but it moved so goddamned fast -
"All the proof you need..." Omar murmured as he turned to face Alex, who sat wide-eyed and pale. His features softened, melted away like candle wax before reforming as a larger figure, muscular, dressed in an old-style polo shirt and tan cargo pants. He knelt before Alex as she froze, her mind locked in panic as the face before her floated up like a ghost from that deep, dark place in her memory where she'd locked it away. "Hi, sweetie," said the voice of her father.
"I think it's about time we talked."
Ivan raised his head at the sound of the cut-off scream, instinctively reaching for his pistol as he looked toward the hallway door. The sound had come from a woman, and he was sure Gina would never scream... which meant that it was Alex. Damn, he thought as he stepped into the hallway, ready to face whoever - whatever - lay in wait in the War Room. The hallway was empty, the door that led to the War Room still wide open. Ivan carefully stepped forward, both hands tight on the pistol as he moved up close against the left wall. The doorway was three feet away... then two... then one.
He pivoted out the door and quickly scanned the wreckage of the War Room. Burning tar paper from the roof, twisted bits of metal, chunks of brick and countless shards of glass covered the floor, each crunching as Ivan took another step into the room. There was no sigh of Hanley or Alex.
A large duffel bag was lying on the floor next to the round table, its contents of weapons and ammunition scattered across the floor. Ivan stepped over it and made his way to the security door, taking his left hand from the pistol to type in the override code. The keypad beeped happily but the door did not move. Come on, he thought as he tried the code again and waited, his eyes darting around the room as he backed against the wall. After a moment a tinny voice emerged from the speaker: "You can't leave yet. I'm not finished."
Speaker and keypad erupted in a shower of flame and shrapnel, blowing Ivan off his feet. He rolled as he hit the floor, somehow keeping hold of the pistol as a razor-sharp bit of metal cut a deep slice across the back of his hand. As he raised the weapon the voice came again, this time as if it were coming from the middle of his skull. It resonated off flesh and bone, everywhere at once, unbearably loud even as it whispered to him: "You have something I want."
Ivan dropped the pistol as the edges of his vision began to shimmer. Blood began to drip from his nostrils, his ears, even the corners of his eyes, as if he were weeping blood instead of tears. "No," he managed to gasp.
"I was hoping you'd say that," she said, and Ivan felt a bolt of pain rip into his mind. "I guess I'll just have to find it myself."
Ivan managed to keep from screaming for the first second, and the second, and even the third, but as the shimmer covered him and he faded from sight his mouth opened in a final tortured cry:
Gina was still yanking on the handle when Ellis shouted from behind her, "Fire in the hole!" She instinctively dove to the side and pressed her body as far into the floor as she could, knowing exactly what Ellis was about to do. A moment later there was a heavy thoomp, followed an instant after by a huge, echoing explosion as the high-explosive charge in the grenade detonated. The blast blew the door off its track, filling the War Room with debris as the blast threw metal and stone shrapnel in every direction. Gina had barely lifted her head when she heard a dull clank, the sound of a spent 40mm round hitting the cement floor. Ellis immediately slid a replacement into the weapon, slid the action closed and raised it to his shoulder.
Gina was immediately on her feet, the heavy shotgun held tightly as she swept her aim from one side of the hole to the other and back again. Ellis gestured with his right hand: I'll take the left, you go right. Gina nodded and they stepped into the War Room together, carefully checking each shadow, every chunk of debris that could possibly conceal someone. Foot by foot they made their way across the room, finally ending up at the door that led to the medical room. Ellis knelt down on the left side of the door, his hand raised in a fist; Gina stood on the right.
Just as Ellis motioned for them to move the shadows in the hallway rippled, flowed outward in an unholy tide that swept over both faster than anything either had ever seen before. The shadows swept into the War Room, crawling over table and shelves, past the wreckage and forgotten duffel bag upended on the floor, finally stopping near the greatest concentration of rubble, directly beneath the hole Gina had blown in the roof. There the darkness gathered, took on form, became solid; after a moment a nude blonde woman stood before the tangle of metal.
Rachel knelt down and touched the twisted wreckage; instantly it pulled back, separating as if by magic... which, she supposed, was exactly what it was. Beneath the metal was a charred hand, ripped away from the rest of Simone by the force of the grenade. Rachel reached down and whispered, "I'm not done with you yet," stroking a finger across the blackened flesh.
The hand twitched, its fingers clenching as the skin began to ripple. Bits of charred tissue fell away, replaced by baby-pink new skin, the fine hairs poking up from the pores like wheat in an Indiana field. From beneath the debris came a strange sound, like air moving unsteadily through a water-filled garden hose, a heavy coughing noise. Rachel flicked a finger and the air in front of her began to distort like waves on a pond. The ripples tapered into a wedge shape and pushed away from her, shoving the debris aside, leaving only charred body parts - most of a torso, an arm, both legs from mid-thigh on down, hundreds of other unidentifiable bits. The chest heaved once, twice, that thick coughing noise again as it tried to breathe without a mouth or windpipe or brain to guide it.
The ripple spread over Simone's remains, stripping the charred flesh away and leaving only new. A few feet in front of Rachel the pieces were brought together; the legs and arm sprouted blood vessels and fresh white bone and plunged into their customary sockets, the various regrown tissues and blood and eyes settling into their proper place within the reforming body. the last rips in the flesh sealed silently, and for a moment everything was silent as Rachel stood before an equally nude Simone.
Then Simone's eyes opened and she screamed, dropping to the floor as she clawed at her chest. Rachel went to her and knelt at her side, brushing a long strand of black hair away from her face. "We still have much to do," she said, then looked up at the closed door leading to the White Room.
"And our time grows short."
The moment seemed to stretch out, the flow of time becoming the crawl of maple syrup on a cold November morning. Ryan tried to move, to draw a breath, but his body refused to obey even the simplest of mental commands. All he could do was stare at the sight which lay before him: Micki Foster-Dallion, his lover, his friend, his wife, kneeling atop a hideous, dead parody of her garden, her filthy body covered in festering wounds. She plunged her hands into the loose, dusty soil and pulled up the long-dead remains of what looked like a tulip. With infinite care she scooped a tiny hollow in the soil and stood the stem up straight, then pushed in enough soil to fill the hole and gently patted it down. "There you are," she said dreamily, her voice ragged and hoarse. "All better now."
Then she pulled up the flower, dug a new hole and did it all again, right down to the tone of her voice as she said, "There you are. All better now."
Ryan slowly knelt before her, the fire in his legs forgotten at the sight of the spirit before him. Her face, once so bright and beautiful, was crusted with soot and dirt and dried blood; a broken boil the size of a fingernail dribbled blood-streaked pus down her left cheek. Every few seconds her shoulders trembled, a sure sign of the terrible back spasms that had wracked her in her final years. "Micki... " Ryan whispered. "What the hell have they done to you?"
"Every torment you've ever dreamt of, imagined, had nightmares about... and, oh, so much more," Nate/Lewis said quietly from the far side of the mound. "We should go. If Micki's here - "
"So is Hiberia," Ryan finished. "I don't care." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled handkerchief, carefully wiping away the dirt and blood and pus as best he could. Micki didn't even react to his touch. "Micki, it's me... it's Ryan... I'm here now..." he said, gently stroking her hair.
Micki's head jerked up and she looked right at him, her eyes filled with blood. "Who are you? you're not Ryan, Ryan would never come here... it's too dirty, too filthy. He'd never come here." She clawed at the dirt again, this time flinging the tulip to the side. "It's ruined now, I have to make it grow..."
"I am here, please, just look at me, listen to me," Ryan pleaded, taking her face in both hands and looking her in the eye. She squeezed her eyes shut and struggled to pull away from him but she had no strength. It was like holding on to a squirming infant. "I'm with you, I'm here now - "
"Only she is with me, only the Voice," Micki said softly, sadly. "She is the dark, her choirs vast... her shadow has risen to cover the land... what was asunder has been made whole... all destiny lies within her hands. She speaks to me, and it's always the same. You... you're just a dream, that's all... and she doesn't let me dream anymore." Micki opened her eyes and returned his gaze. "You'd better go before she finds you."
"I can't... i won't leave you here, Micki. You've got to fight her, you're stronger than she is - "
Ryan heard laughter echo from the far side of the mound. "A pep talk?" Nate/Lewis said. "That's the best you can come up with?" He strode up behind Micki and knelt down, then grabbed a handful of her hair and twisted her head back viciously. "You have no idea, do you, nephew? She's broken. Satan and Hiberia and countless minions of Hell have taken whatever remained of her spirit when she died and shattered it. All she knows now is pain and fear... and in her soul, she knows it's deserved." He released her hair and Micki's head flopped down. "She's not Micki anymore, not in any way that matters."
Ryan's voice was devoid of emotion when he finally spoke. "How would you know?"
"Because I've been in her place... but my torment was for more deserved than hers. Time doesn't exist in Hell, Ryan, only misery in infinite flavors... which means she's already been here for eternity. Or longer." Nate/Lewis stood and took a few steps away from the mound. "It's too late to save her, Ryan."
"You remember your garden," Ryan said softly. "You were always so proud of it; that's why you're here now. When we moved to Santa Marta you were so happy you could garden all year long, not like that tiny planter you managed to keep going on the balcony back at Curious Goods. I'd be sitting on that rickety bench, just watching as you watered the lilies and tulips and little baby tomato plants, and I'd think to myself, How on earth could anyone married to me ever be that good with something alive? I mean, Jesus, I can't even keep a goldfish alive for a week." He gently took her hand and was surprised when she offered no resistance. "You were always so careful... so gentle... so loving, even with your flowers. I don't think I ever truly understood why until just now.
"You were terrified of her, of the Voice inside you, trying to change you. She lied to you, laughed at you, hurt your body and tried to poison your mind, but in the end... you still chose to protect me. You shielded me from what you carried within, something so terrible that if given an opportunity it would destroy you and everything else. You chose to protect me, even at the cost of your life, your very soul. I understand now... so it doesn't matter why."
Micki looked up, her eyes darker than the blackest night. "You understand nothing," the Voice said, and Ryan felt himself picked up by some tremendous invisible force and flung backward. The light faded before he hit the ground; he skidded backward, seeing just enough to know that Micki's garden was gone, that he was back in the dead place of his visions. shards of glass ripped across his back as he began to slow down, but then even that horrible sensation was gone, replaced with nothingness as Ryan realized just where he was and grabbed desperately for a handhold, anything to keep him from falling -
A hand closed tightly around his wrist and he felt something snap. He yelped in pain as he looked up to see Micki - but not Micki - holding him effortlessly by one hand. "She's mine," was all Hiberia said.
Then she let go, and Ryan vanished into the nothingness.
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This page was created on April 22, 2004.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.