The night sky was clear, and the stars shone bright. The sea below was raging, and yet, the light of the full moon set it to sparkling, as though a living, dancing reflection of the night sky above. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen – if there was a heaven, this was what I wanted it to be.
I walked on soft sand to a rocky promontory and sat at the point as I gazed out at the ocean. I then observed in awe as a luminous being drifted down softly from the stars to the water in the distance. As it came closer, I recognized her as the Midnight Haired Woman. She walked on the swirling currents of the sea as though it were solid, and she was walking to me.
“Hello, Michael,” she said in her ethereal voice. “Do you know me?”
“I want to,” I said.
She smiled her beautiful smile in reply. “Time continues its inexorable march. One day, we will meet.”
“When?” I asked.
She only smiled. Then I woke up.
My room was cold, and it felt somehow gray and lifeless, despite it being as opulent as any other part of Simon's mansion. To my side lay the ghost cat, purring and gazing up at me with eyes that seemed questioning, but somehow also understanding. I realized that the cat had become almost like a pet to me, but I knew no name for it. I gazed into her green eyes, and I thought back to the Midnight Haired Woman.
“Midnight?” I said then.
The cat closed its eyes, then slowly opened them again, seemingly in approval. I looked at the time – a little before three in the morning. Feeling restless, I got up and began to wander the mansion. Everything looked surreal and calm with the light of the full moon flooding in through the windows in the quiet of the night. I eventually found myself in the foyer – one grand enough that it may have been called a ballroom in another era.
About halfway between the center of the room and the wall was a grand piano, sitting invitingly in a pillar of moonlight. I'd never took much note of it before – I'd never heard Simon play it, and I spent most of my waking time in his library, as did Simon.
Without really thinking about it, I sat on the bench and gently folded back the cover over the keys. I pressed a single key, and the resonating tone from it rather than interrupting the silence seemed to be almost embraced by it. I played a couple more chords, finding the tone soothing. It had been years since I had sat at a piano.
Falteringly at first, then more confidently, I began playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. The music resonated beautifully through the room, seeming to almost illuminate the night.
At some point, Simon had come quietly down the stairs and stood listening. When I finished the sonata, I was startled by his clapping.
“Oh, I didn't mean to wake you,” I said.
“Quite alright, Michael,” he said. “I'm an extraordinarily light sleeper. And I begin to wonder what other talents you are hiding from me.”
“I'd almost forgotten I could play,” I said. “It's been years.”
“Where did you learn?”
“Remember that uncle I mentioned?”
“Ah... the one who took the inappropriate liberties?” Simon asked.
“That's the one,” I confirmed.
“Interesting,” he murmured. “Well, I believe I will go back to bed now, but feel free to continue playing, if you like. It doesn't disturb me.”
Simon returned to his room upstairs, and I continued playing, noticing I still had an audience sitting in the window in the form of the black cat I now called Midnight. Eventually, I did again feel drowsy and went back to my own bedroom and went to sleep, Midnight curled up by my side.
My thoughts still centered heavily around Maya. I would often find myself downtown looking for signs of Aditya's curiosities shop, but finding nothing. A blank wall where I remembered there being a door. On occasion, I would see a doddering old man walking in the area who looked very much like Aditya, although he wore his years much harder with a stooped walk and clouded eyes. I had tried approaching him once. Any grasp of English he might have had slipped away years ago. The old man spoke in a whiny, raspy voice. I also would occasionally go by Maya's apartment, which was somewhat easier to find. However, there were no signs of it being occupied, and it did not appear as though it had been occupied in quite a long while.
I did not speak to Simon of my search, and if he knew, he said nothing. As it was, he was occupied with his own search for the demon that had, as of late, been making our lives interesting, starting with helping Joshua in raising another demon and more recently by trying to drown me in elemental scavenger spirits.
Midnight, strange though it may seem, appeared to be watching me very carefully. She followed me frequently, seeming to analyze my every move. I found myself feeling a peculiar form of stage fright from this.
One day when I came back from wandering downtown in idle hopes of finding some sign of Maya, Simon was nowhere to be found. In his library, I found a note. “Michael,” it started, “something of an emergency has come up. I ask that you join me at once. Bring your sword.” He included GPS coordinates for me to find him.
Immediately, I jumped back into my Firebird and went north. With a focus on getting there fast, I found myself going in excess of ninety miles per hour. Of course, it did not take long for a cop to also find me going in excess of ninety miles per hour. I cursed under my breath as I watched the flashing lights getting closer in my rear view mirror.
Time for a few items from my own bag of tricks. First, I blurred the light around my license plate, so as to make it unreadable. I then accelerated with pedal to the floor until the cop had fallen behind significantly. It was inevitable however that he would catch up again and only be more pissed off, so I had to do something a bit more tricky. I concentrated on bending reality, such that the Firebird had smoothly reversed directions in such a way that it appeared I had always been going my now current direction. I was now headed straight toward the cop.
The police cruiser came to a screeching stop as I blew past it. After a momentary hesitation, it turned around and chased me in the other direction. I tried to accelerate like before to put some distance between myself and him, but this time, he would have none of it. This was going to be more difficult.
As before, I bent reality to reverse the direction the Firebird was traveling, feeling the peculiar sensation of my own atoms shifting, then guided the atoms directly through the police cruiser to manifest again safely on the other side. I punched the accelerator, and this time, the cop did not turn to pursue. Indeed, he seemed to have sped up in going the opposite direction that I was. I'll admit to a sense of smug self-satisfaction as I tried to catch my breath from the exertion.
The GPS coordinates took me to a small village somewhat to the north of Santa Fe. A sense of very real dread came over me. It was a place I had always been uneasy in, as it was where child-molesting uncle Joey had lived. In addition to that, my senses were telling me that this place was a cesspool of spiritual energy. How could people stand to even live here? It was as if the echoes of a legion of angry spirits was carried on each errant breeze.
I had to work hard to suppress a strong sense of anxiety. I kept reminding myself that uncle Joey was dead, but that didn't seem to address the problem. There was something else here... a lot of something else.
The GPS led me through a labyrinth of mostly unmarked dirt roads going every which way, leading me to an even smaller village, except this one seemed deserted. I spotted Simon's Cadillac parked outside a small, crumbling church. I stepped out of the car into a cold, unwelcoming breeze under a gray sky. In front of me, a small dust devil materialized, then scattered to the wind. In the distance, the sound of wind chimes. This place felt truly dead in every sense. Warily, I walked up to the church and pulled the door open.
The contrast was startling. The church was relatively dark, but illuminated with candle light and full of color. It had a much safer, more peaceful feel to it. Simon and a priest in a monk's robe sat idly chatting near the altar.
“Michael, so glad you could make it,” Simon said. “I'd like you to meet Father Gomez.”
“Welcome, Michael,” the old Padre said. “Simon speaks highly of you, and the echoes of your reputation have reached me even here.”
Through the stained glass windows, it quite suddenly became noticeably darker outside.
“I had initially planned on setting you up in one of the vacant houses,” the Padre said. “I think, however, it would be safest for you to stay here.”
Simon gave a questioning look, but it went unacknowledged.
Simon and I remained in the basilica that night after Father Gomez had retired to his rectory. Outside, the wind blew, and it was the kind of weather one would associate with a coming storm. But the storm didn't come – everything remained in that strange state of false anticipation. Simon and I did briefly step outside before the light had gone completely for the night. It felt like a whole different world outside the church, and there was a strong sense of foreboding. Neither of us spoke of it while we stood outside, not even daring to stray from the church as far as our cars. It was obvious, however, that Simon felt it as strongly as I did. That this was making him apprehensive was that much more impressive.
“So, what's this all about?” I asked Simon when we had more or less settled in.
“The Padre hasn't told me yet,” Simon answered. “But, it's something rather major. With a Gate Keeper, it always is.”
“What's a Gate Keeper?” I asked then.
“Gate Keepers are very powerful individuals who station themselves at what you might call vortexes,” he said. “They exert some control over what gets through the gate. Without them, the world would be very different, noticeably so even for those without our particular talents. A gate going untended has usually disastrous consequences for those in proximity.”
“How powerful is he? I asked.
“More so than either or both of us,” Simon said. “He's been more or less on this very spot for over two hundred years. The limitation, however, is that he loses his power if he abandons the gate.”
“Why would he need us?”
“That's what has me more than a little concerned,” Simon admitted. “If he's losing his hold on the gate, it will be disastrous.”
“Could it be that he wants you to take over?” I asked.
Simon considered it. “No,” he said. “I'm too ambitious. That would, in truth, make me a poor choice as such, and the Padre would know that.”
I slept fitfully that night, and my dreams were a confused jumble, as though half a dozen people were trying to talk to me all at once.
“So, I think it's time you tell us what this is all about,” Simon told the Padre over breakfast.
“I'll tell you what I know,” the Padre agreed. “About two weeks ago, I began to see a traveler. He would never come onto the actual church grounds, nor would he speak, even when I would question him. If I approached him, he would walk away. This traveler had a bad air about him.
“Before long, I stopped seeing him. I began seeing other disturbing things. Things that do not belong on this side of the Gate.”
“Does that have anything to do with the feeling in that other town on the way here?” I asked.
“No,” the Padre shook his head. “For that town, such a feeling is normal. It's normal around any Gate. It's balanced by an area of hallowed ground and good energy surrounding it. Normally, on arriving here, you would be overcome by a sense of peace. You would likely suddenly feel the urge to create. That's why there are so many artists around here, I think. Presently, that balance has been corrupted.”
“Tell me more about the traveler,” Simon said.
“I'm afraid there's not much more to tell you,” Father Gomez said.
“It would seem to me that he was trying to get your attention,” Simon mused. “You said things got strange after he stopped showing himself?”
The Padre nodded.
“We may have to go to a cemetery and have a chat with some of its residents,” Simon said.
“You may not have to go that far,” the Padre said then, a faint grin pulling at his lips.
Simon looked up. “Just how 'strange' have things gotten here?”
“Enough so that the dead are walking on their own, Magus,” the Padre said.
“Zombies?” I said, idly wondering which campy horror movie came the closest to reality.
The Padre looked at me speculatively. “I suppose they are, at that,” he said. “They aren't the slow, lumbering, mindless creatures from popular fiction, though. These are lucid creatures, with at least some memory and understanding of their lifetimes, although their perceptions seem rather skewed.”
“Death tends to do that to a person,” Simon noted drily.
“So, are they just walking around and talking, then?” I asked.
“No,” the Padre said firmly. “I mentioned that their perceptions are skewed. That may have been an understatement. They were brought by a distinctly evil force, and I have little doubt that the traveler is involved. If someone crosses paths with one of these... 'zombies,' that person will likely meet a very painful demise.”
“Michael, did you bring your sword?” Simon asked.
I nodded, flashing him the hilt under my jacket, noting an expression of mild disapproval from the old Padre.
“I think we're going to do some exploring,” Simon said. “I feel I need to get a better idea of what we're dealing with.”
There were no fires, nor explosions... no smoke, nor charring. Indeed, as I mentioned before, this was a quiet little ghost town. Most of the buildings were in ruins, but only from age. Yet, it felt as though Simon and I were touring the front lines of an active war zone. I anxiously kept my hand near the hilt of my sword.
“Do you think the traveler Father Gomez mentioned is our demon?” I asked.
“I'm damned near certain of it,” Simon answered, carefully scanning the area as he walked.
“That would explain how it's raising the dead,” I said.
“Not quite,” Simon disagreed. “One of the things a Gate Keeper does is limit the power that beings from the other side can bring with them. The power to raise the dead is one of the more significant ones... for our so-called demon to bring that through would suggest that the gates have been destroyed.”
Simon and I then both snapped our heads around when we heard a scuffling, scraping sound... and a more disturbing sound not unlike the breaking of dry twigs. Immediately, I began to draw my sword, but was stopped by Simon's hand on my wrist.
“Not yet,” he said. “Good morning,” he then pleasantly said to the figure that seemed to be unfolding itself near one of the buildings.
The figure responded with a gasping moan, and its movement was halting, making it look much like something from an old stop-motion film, barely recognizable as a female adolescent.
“Who are you?” it asked in a dusty voice.
“My name is Simon, and this is my friend, Michael,” he said.
“G'morning,” I said nervously. This figure was not at all like something I'd seen in any of the zombie movies. It seemed to have a barely-perceptible shadow covering it as it moved.
“What brings you here?” Simon asked.
The corpse cocked its head with a grotesque popping sound. “I seem to have fallen asleep,” it mumbled.
“Indeed you have,” Simon murmured. “What woke you?”
The corpse cocked its head again with another grotesque pop, as though listening for something.
“I ask again, what woke you?” Simon said.
“Do you hear it?” the corpse asked.
“What am I supposed to be hearing?” Simon asked.
The corpse barked out a shrill laugh. “That wouldn't be nice at all,” she said with a fiendish grin, as though responding to a voice we could not hear. “No, not nice at all!”
For a brief moment, I thought I'd heard whispers. If Simon heard them, he gave no indication.
“What do you refer to?” Simon asked. “What's 'not nice at all'?”
“It's a secret,” the corpse said with a girlish giggle.
“My dear, secrets are my specialty,” Simon told her with a friendly smile.
The corpse looked to either side in an almost playful manner, as though to make sure no one else was watching. “Okay, but you must come closer.”
Simon stepped closer, in the manner of an adult playing along in a child's game.
“Closer!” the corpse urged.
Simon stepped still closer as I stayed close by his side.
Suddenly, the corpses countenance and energy changed into pure malevolence as it lunged at Simon. My instincts took over at that time. I tore my sword from its scabbard in a smooth motion, as I'd never done prior. I thrusted forward directly, piercing the chest of the corpse, who then let out the most horrible scream I'd ever heard.
As I write this in the relative safety of my study, I find myself shaking, and in need of more whiskey. There was something about that scream that I still cannot quite describe. It spoke to something in my subconscious. Maybe it somehow communicated what was yet to come in that case. I still hear that scream piercing the placid silence of my nightmares.
The corpse pushed itself up to the hilt of my sword, arms reaching for me. I quickly kicked it off my blade, spun, and smoothly beheaded it. I had never used my sword in such away previously. Although the corpse was not alive in the technical sense, I vividly remember the sickening feeling as the blade cut through dried sinew and bone.
The head fell to the ground, and the corpse stumbled. We began to walk away.
“Wait!” we heard its voice rattle. “I haven't told you my secret yet.” It laughed a coarse, ugly laugh.
Simon gestured briefly, and head and corpse alike burst into flames. “Thank you, Michael,” he said then. “I'm not entirely sure I could have reacted on time.”
I nodded, leaning down, hands on knees as I tried to catch my breath and get the sound of the scream out of my head.
“Are you okay to go on?” he asked in an odd show of compassion.
“Yeah,” I nodded. “Let's just get the hell away from here.”
We continued walking and exploring the ghost town, avoiding the re-animated corpses. It seemed they mostly preferred keeping to the shadows. At some point, we left the ghost town behind, following an old trail. After some time, I began to have a sense of déjà vu. It grew stronger as we walked. I quickened my pace, morbidly eager to see what would be beyond the next hill. I saw a corner of a wire fence, and I somehow knew that was what I was looking for.
I ran. I was dimly aware that Simon had wordlessly began running as well to keep up with me, driven by his own curiosity. I was very nearly at the fence before I realized precisely where I was. I looked in horror at what lay in front of me, then fell to my hands and knees, retching violently.
The day was cold and gray. I was in my early adolescence. I stood in front of the simple casket with assorted others, who glanced often at me with open hostility. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. In my ear hissed a harshly accusatory whisper, “YOU did this!”
The casket was lowered into the hole. A rough hand on the back of my neck forced me closer to the hole to look down at the casket, nearly making me fall in the hole myself. “He loved you!” my mother's harsh whisper said. “This is what you give him in return?”
I dimly became aware that the rough hand I felt on the back of my neck was Simon's. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Not really,” I said weakly. “Please, let's go away from here. I can't do this.”
Simon nodded. “It's getting close to sunset anyway. We should get back to the church.”
Simon and the Padre sat near the altar, I sat somewhat further back. Their conversation was lost on my ears as I sat gazing blankly at one of the stained glass windows. Outside, a cold wind blew – one that carried the smell of snow on it. Snow that threatened to keep us trapped there. Simon and the Padre may have been okay with that idea, but I was not. Nonetheless, I had little choice.
I adjusted the cushions under me, and pulled the blankets over me, idly staring into the lit prayer candles. The church was largely abandoned aside from the old Padre, which left me passing curious as to who had lit them. At some point in my reflections, Simon had gone back into the rectory to browse through Father Gomez's book collection.
“I lit them,” the Padre's gentle voice startled me.
“Keeping tradition alive?” I asked.
“I guess you could say that,” he said with a shrug. “When you have lived as long as I have, however, you come to know a lot of people, and they move on to the next world without you.”
“I imagine it's lonely,” I said without thinking.
The old Padre nodded. “It often is,” he admitted.
“Do you get used to it?” I asked.
“Only a little,” he said. He looked at me more directly then. “You know, I am a priest. Well, if the church realized I was still around, anyway. Nonetheless however, the fact remains. That means that I'm used to listening and giving counsel. Or even hearing confessions, if you feel it's necessary.”
“No offense intended, Padre, but I've not called myself Christian in over a decade,” I said.
“What do you call yourself, then?” he asked.
I thought about it. As little as six months ago, I might have automatically answered that I was pagan. Perhaps it was the Padre's gentle nature and pointed way of asking such things that made me actually think about things. “I... really don't know,” I answered. “I'd been calling myself pagan, but I really don't know.”
He nodded with his gentle smile. “I personally think we put entirely too much focus on attaching names to beliefs. I find it helps, however, to believe that there is something more out there... something ultimately benevolent.”
“Benevolent?” I nearly choked on the word. “People are starving. Pointless wars are being fought. Where's the benevolence?”
“That's unfortunately the free will of people,” the old Padre said sadly.
“Where the fuck was god when I was molested?” I demanded. “Where was he when my parents beat me? Where was he when they called me a worthless embarrassment? Where was he when they blamed my uncle's suicide on me? Where was he when the cops put me back with them after I tried to run away? Where the FUCK was he?”
The Padre gently and silently held me as I broke down into sobs.
I'd fallen asleep on the pew. Something woke me, but I had no way of knowing what. The church was completely silent. Then I began to hear a strangle snuffling. I forced my eyes open. Leaning over me in the dim candlelight was a dark figure. There was something very familiar about this figure. I then heard a prolonged death rattle emanating from it.
“It... was... our... SECRET!” it hissed.
I woke up suddenly, sitting up bolt-straight, and reached for my sword. The church was perfectly still, save for the snow storm outside. Many of the prayer candles were still burning peacefully, and it felt... safe. I felt something beckoning for me, though. Something outside.
All logic shrieked against going outside. The Padre had said it was dangerous. I knew it was dangerous, half-knowing what I was to expect out there, aside from the blizzard. I was too restless, though. I had no hope of going back to sleep, and even sitting and waiting for the morning seemed out of the question. Quietly, to avoid waking the others, I pulled on my woolen overcoat and tucked my sword under my belt.
The clouds glowed a sullen orange from the lights of nearby cities, and the snow itself seemed to carry a faint luminosity. I walked with the wind to my back, hands jammed into my coat pockets, following the beckoning.
I had been walking for perhaps ten minutes when I heard the death-rattle sound, not unlike what I'd heard in the dream earlier that night.
“Look at you... all grown up now... hruh hruh...” I heard a rough voice say.
I turned to face it. I'm not sure why I didn't immediately reach for my sword. “Uncle Joey,” I acknowledged the figure, a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. “What the fuck did you want now?”
“We had some good times, didn't we?” he said in an almost pleading voice. “I taught you music, I took you to the art galleries and science museums. I even took you to the symphony and the opera. Why did you have to tell anyone that other stuff?”
“I was a kid,” I pointed out numbly. “I didn't have a choice, did I?”
“I loved you more than your parents did!” he said. “I did the things for you that they should have! Isn't it natural to want something back?”
“You took advantage of me,” I said. “You could have gotten me away from them, or at least given me a safe place to retreat to every once in awhile.”
He grunted and looked away.
“You know what happened after you killed yourself?” I grated out. “They blamed me. I was beaten. I was called a liar. No one trusted me ever again. Because I told the fucking truth. I tried to run away. The police caught me and put me back with my parents. You wanna guess what that was like?”
He wouldn't look at me.
“So what the hell brings you here?” I said. “Certainly you weren't hoping to get one last romp with me for old times' sake.”
“The stone,” he murmured.
“It's the accursed stone!” he exclaimed. “Its call is waking up the restless dead.”
“And turning them homicidal?” I said.
“What? No,” my uncle's corpse said. “As I mentioned, the dead that are rising are restless for one reason or another. Combine that with their being dead, and it tends to change their perceptions. I'm sure you can guess why I'm restless after what you did to me.”
“You seem to be leaving out the part about what you did to me,” I said. “Where is the stone?”
“You keep talking about what you've been through!” he snarled. “Would you like to know about me? About what I've been through? You know what it's like to grow up gay in my generation? It's a fucking death warrant! And don't get me started on my parents!”
“One fucking question, then,” I snarled back, hand on the hilt of my sword. “How is any of what you went through my fault?”
He shrunk back. “You weren't supposed to tell anyone.”
“Where is the fucking stone?” I asked again.
“It's under the cemetery,” he answered, starting to walk away. “For what it's worth, I really did love you.”
“Fuck,” I muttered under my breath when his silhouette had disappeared in the blizzard.
I made my way back to the church and quietly went inside. When I got in, the Padre was waiting for me.
“Michael, I warned you not to go outside by yourself!” he admonished me. “Even I don't go outside after dark. It's not safe!”
I hesitated for a moment. “I was safe,” I said.
The Padre looked at me strangely for a moment. “I beg your pardon Michael, but you are wrong. There's more out there than the restless dead. Something out there has torn a hole in the veil between worlds. The dark is its time.”
“I didn't know,” I said.
“What happened out there?” he asked me.
“Someone wanted to talk to me,” I said.
“Would you mind telling me who 'someone' is?” he asked pointedly.
“Yes, I would mind,” I said.
“Sometimes you're as bad as Simon!” he exclaimed, walking hurriedly back to the rectory.
When Simon had awoken the next day, I told him about the stone. He asked how I found out, and I reluctantly told him that I'd heard about it from uncle Joey's corpse. Thankfully, he didn't seem interested in the details. Overall, he seemed very happy... which to me seemed just a little inappropriate, all things considered. I found myself wishing that he'd pressed me for details just a little. Maybe to show he gave a rat's ass. Giving a rat's ass about my traumatic childhood wasn't Simon's job, though.
While I still often thought of Simon as a friend, even a father-figure, it was times like these that I felt myself slowly sawing through the emotional connection I felt with him. Was it me? Was I that damaged and fragile that I would always start to disconnect at the first sign of trouble?
There was no sign of the Padre when we left that cold, gray morning to again find that dreaded cemetery.
Perhaps it was only in my mind, but everything seemed darker than it should have that morning. The light never got to be much more than a steely gray, if even that. We saw some of the restless dead as we walked, but they did not attack or impede us in any way. Rather, they watched us silently with eyes shining much like those of cats.
I actually found myself wishing that some of them would attack just to break the tension. As we continued, it seemed that the restless dead became more abundant, and some of them even began walking with us at a distance as they watched us. Still, they made no move to attack. If they bothered Simon, he didn't show it. He walked with the single-minded determination of a man going to claim his prize. I felt, however, as though he was happily leading us into the jaws of a deadly trap.
When we arrived at the cemetery, there were several more of the restless dead waiting for us, all watching us with unnerving shining eyes. Silently, they began to walk ahead of us, leading us. We arrived at a concealed, boarded-over mineshaft that appeared to go under the cemetery.
“Return us to the ground,” I heard one rasp. “Do this, and you will live. Fail, and we will disembowel you both as you watch. You will choke on your own flesh. Do you understand?”
“Quite,” Simon said with a nod.
“We did not ask for this,” the corpse said. “Your games have caused much trouble.”
“They'll be over soon enough,” Simon said.
The restless dead quickly pulled off the boards covering the opening to the mine shaft. “No tricks,” we were warned. After we entered, several sets of shining eyes watched us from the opening.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“The difference between the restless dead and say, movie zombies, is that the restless dead remember their lives,” he explained. “They remember their pain, they remember their shame. In some cases, they are suicides... and they remember their suicides and the reasoning for it as though it were yesterday.”
“If they did attack, we'd be able to fight them off, right?”
“For awhile,” Simon said with a shrug. “But not very effectively. Not this many, and not this close to the stone.”
“That's comforting,” I said drily.
Simon simply chuckled.
Even with our lights casting an eerie red glow around us, the darkness seemed thick, and I realized that my muscles were tensed, as though ready to sprint.
“Michael...” I heard a zephyr-like whisper that made all my hairs stand on end. Simon froze.
“Micheal,” I heard my name again. “Go no further.”
I began scanning in all directions, looking for the source of the voice until feeling a breath on the back of my neck. I spun around to see the glazed-over eyes of my uncle staring directly at me in the sullen red glow of the light Simon and I produced.
“You're hardly in a position to tell me what to do or not to do,” I grated between clenched teeth.
“You're not ready for what's down there,” uncle Joey said. “No one is.”
“You mean the stone, of course,” I said. “Your friends up there seem to want pretty badly for us to find it.”
“Make things as they should be, but leave it be!” he said. “There are worse things to contend with than the restless dead, and you will find them if you continue on your path.”
“Uncle Joey, I believe,” Simon said then. “I understand you have a hard time accepting 'no' as an answer, but we have things to do, and you are in the dangerous position of being between us and the stone.”
“Silence, you scum!” uncle Joey uncharacteristically roared at Simon, advancing on him. “You know nothing! You are... nothing!”
I could sense that Simon was building up an attack, but I beat him to it. After all that had happened, I wanted what was left of Joey to be destroyed by my own hand. Seemed only fitting with how my childhood was destroyed around him.
“Uncle Joey,” I said. “You betrayed me.”
It started with a single red spark in his chest. The spark quickly spread to engulf him. The last sound to come from the corpse of my Uncle Joey sounded almost like a sigh of relief.
We continued walking down the seemingly endless tunnels, going deeper and deeper into the earth. As we walked, there came to be a stronger sense of presences all around me. There was always a vague sense of movement in the shadows, always just at the edge of the reach of our light.
We came across a dog figure that seemed to be made of shadow standing in our path. I'm not sure how, but I got the impression that it was a coyote.
“Guardian,” Simon murmured. “Let me handle this.” Simon advanced on the coyote, who took an aggressive posture, letting out a low growl.
“No,” I heard a whisper through the growl. “Not you. Him.”
Simon didn't say a word, but I sensed a chill in the air as he drew in energy to challenge the Guardian. Then Simon quite suddenly fell to the ground with sooty red lightning coursing through his body.
“Only him!” I heard the whisper again.
“Michael, I'm afraid you'll have to go on ahead on your own,” he said.
I wordlessly nodded and went ahead, the coyote seeming to fade into the shadows as I walked by.
“Oh, and Michael,” Simon called from behind me. “Remember, you're at the edge of the map.”
I nodded and continued. “Here be dragons,” I muttered to myself.
As I continued deeper, the shadows began to have more substance, as did the darkness itself. I saw glimpses of a number of shadowy skeletons and animals that I had never seen in the outside world, but they stood aside as I passed. I clearly sensed their brooding, their resentment, their anger. Somehow, I felt as though much of it was directed at me.
Before long, I became aware of a sickly green glow. It was the phosphorescent glow of decay that one generally only sees in the movies. I continued walking, using the glow as my beacon. It was coming from a stone in a somewhat larger chamber being guarded by a very tall shadowy figure. Although the ceiling in this chamber was high, the figure stood hunched over.
“Take it,” it said in a whisper. “Take it and leave us in peace.”
I took the stone. Although it had a green glow in this room, it looked fairly plain up close. It was slightly smaller than my fist, and looked like an ordinary volcanic rock, heavy with iron.
“Use it,” I heard the whisper. “Return us.”
I had never done such a thing, nor did I know how the stone worked. Nonetheless, I focused my will into the stone, intent on returning the restless dead to their side.
“Thank you...” I heard a fading whisper.
I stood there for a moment, thinking about all that had happened, especially in regards to my undead uncle. I collapsed onto my knees, breathing heavily in choked sobs.
I walked back to Simon and wordlessly handed him his prize. I'm not sure what I wanted or expected, but I just wanted to be away from there. I wanted to be away from everywhere and everyone. My frustration was so thick, I felt ready to explode. If Simon noticed, he remained silent. Thus we walked out of the mineshaft.
Father Gomez was waiting for us with a hard face, holding out his hand. “The stone,” he said in a firm voice. “Now.”
Simon fixed a calm gaze on the Padre. “I am taking over guardianship of the stone,” Simon said. “In allowing this to happen, you have proven yourself inept.”
“Are you barking mad?” the Padre demanded in a deadly tone. “You know what's going on. You know who, or rather what, the Traveler is!”
“Indeed I do,” Simon said. “Which is why I think your time here has passed.”
The Padre's expression did not change, but the air quite suddenly felt electric.
“Will you challenge me then, old man?” Simon said in a deadly tone. “Will this be the time?” His words seemed to hang in the air for what seemed an eternity.
The air seemed to relax, although no less thick. “You will leave. Immediately. Your welcomes are revoked, and you are no longer under my protection.” He then vanished. In my mind, I felt as though I heard a lingering invitation from the old Padre. Simon seemed to hear it as well, and the expression he leveled at me seemed to be one of a challenge.
“Well?” was all he said.
“Let's go home,” I said.
It was then that I heard laughter. I looked in the direction of the laughter and saw the demon sitting on a rock, howling in helpless mirth. I didn't think; I don't think I even completed shape-shifting into my raven form. I shot at the demon like a bullet, slamming him against a boulder and pinning him.
“You did this!” I screamed. “You deliberately resurrected my uncle just to fuck with me!”
“Your doom is set,” he said. “The pieces are coming together, and your master's arrogance will fuse them. And he'd never have been able to do anything more than blundering around like a half-wit street magician without you!”
In a smooth movement, my sword hissed out of its sheath. I drove it downward to the demon's chest. Just before the blade slid home, his expression changed to a very human one. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a movement – that of a shadow darting away.
“Wha... wait! No!” he screamed.
It was too late.
All I felt was a sense of resignation and numbness. It was as though I were on a path that no longer had any branches. While seeming gloomy, it came with a small sense of satisfaction at no longer having to make choices. At having part of my life figured out. There were no more choices to make – just to keep following this path, for better or for worse.
The road out had somehow been cleared of snow while we were gone. It was even relatively dry – dry enough, at any rate, that we wouldn't have fear of getting stuck in mud. And the cleared road itself led only one way – out.
I was idly walking around downtown when I saw her. At this point, I had no expectation of seeing her, but I think I was still hoping I would. I think this time, perhaps she wanted me to notice her. There, hiding in plain view in the background was Maya.
She wore plain clothes that wouldn't encourage a second glance. Still lovely, but in a plain way. One who didn't know her might describe her as “pretty” with a shrug and not give her a second thought. She was not projecting the air of a goddess as she had the other times I had met her.
“Hi, Michael,” she said with a smile that might almost be described as girlish.
“I realize now that I was unfair to you,” she said. “There's just something about you that makes me feel safe, like I can open up to you and be honest. When I realized that, I was scared. I... just felt vulnerable. I don't like that feeling.”
“I never meant to upset you,” I said.
“I know,” she said. Then she laughed. “You are the only person I've allowed to see both sides of me – the dressed up side that you met originally, and the scared little girl side you're talking to now.”
“I think I just have the one side,” I said. “I'm still not sure quite how to describe it. I started off as just plain old Michael O'Donnell, but now I'm not even sure who that is.”
“Did something happen?”
I sketched out the story of recent events. “The really fucked up part is that uncle Joey wasn't lying – he actually did love me more than my parents. In the end... in the end, it seemed like he was trying to protect me. From Simon.”
“So Simon finally got his hands on one of the stones,” she said.
“Does that mean something?”
“There's some sort of convoluted process involving them somehow that he can open up some doorway,” she said. “I'm not sure he even knows the details. Oh... and try to not feel bad about the one you killed. You spared him from horrible things. Minor spirits are one thing, but after being possessed by one like the demon you described, the rest of your life is like a waking nightmare. I know a few like that.”
“Simon suddenly was brave enough to challenge the Padre when he had that stone,” I said. “He had said before that the Padre was more powerful than both of us.”
“The stone gives him a certain edge, I think,” Maya said.
“So, what now?” I asked.
“Let's you and I make a pact,” she said. “We are trapped in this, but we are trapped together. Let's promise to look out for each other, no matter what else may happen.”
“As do I,” she said. She then gave me a small kris. “For protection,” she said.
I thanked her and fumbled for something to give her. Then I thought of the pentacle I'd been wearing for years without thinking about it. It somehow seemed right. I gave it to her.
“Thank you,” she said, seeming profoundly grateful for the gift. “We have a hard journey ahead, Michael.”
I often like to travel the highways at night. There's a simplicity about it. Just myself, my thoughts, and the roar of the Firebird's engine as I go down the dark highway, where ever it may lead. I still needed to simply get away, and Simon would be busy with trying to unlock the secrets of the stone.