Overbeck staggers out of his house with a canvas bag still trying to process the last few hours of his life. Everything's a blur, nothing makes sense, and his veins are still pumping with a tingling concoction of anesthesia and adrenalin. Feels like Nam all over again. One minute you're drifting off to some faraway dreamland, the next you're fighting off the surgeon in a strange, foggy, half-nightmare. He remembers seeing the nurse, twitching, convulsing, changing. Changing into something he didn't quite understand and still doesn't even though they're everywhere. He remembers sensing something was off. Way off. He remembers his gut churning, twisting, fighting against the weight of his eyelids, trying his best to keep them open as bloody hell erupted all around him. He remembers falling to the ground with the nurse, the tray clattering, the knives and tools scattering. He wanted to sleep, just sleep, but he ordered his eyes to stay open and spotted the syringe rolling over the antiseptic floor. He remembers jerking his arm out, grabbing the syringe and smashing it into his heart. Or was it his arm? Or maybe both? He doesn't remember anymore. Doesn't matter. All that matters is he made it out of that hell alive. He shakes his throbbing head and clambers over a barricade blocking an alley. Winds his way through the burning city toward the market. Most of the city has been reduced to shit. Smoke and fumes seep through the streets. The air reeks of burning civilization. Burning humanity. He recognizes the smell. Brings him back to places he'd rather forget. Emergency sirens keen endlessly over the echoing shrieks of the infected. Flames erupt from the ruins and barricades making Philly look like a smoldering wasteland of death and destruction. He had read articles about the so-called green flu. It had only been a few days and it already felt like it was bringing us all back to the goddamn Stone Age. This is worse than Nam. Way worse. Philly in chaos and overrun by the infected. It was more than a common flu. No kidding. Dozens of conspiracy theories and now it doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter. All that matters is surviving. Been here before. Many times. He hears someone shout out a curse and spots a young woman clobbering an infected hoard by the market entrance with a rake. Impressive. Up and at em, soldier! Mind if I cut in. They slash through the infected until all that's left is writhing flesh and gore. He stares at her. She approaches him. Not bad, old man. Name's Zoey, last woman on Earth. Not really but it feels like it. She laughs and wipes chunks of putrid flesh off her arm. She reminds him of a kid he knew in Nam. Strong smile and beaucoup funny… beaucoup fierce… just like her.
Hello! Anyone out there! I need a hand over here! Bill hears the cries for help above the agonizing groans of the infected. He spots a cage in the middle of all the chaos surrounded by the infected. He grabs his rifle and fires, splitting infected heads like watermelons. He approaches the cage with Zoey where he sees a man covered in blood. Out of the frying pan and into the cage. He laughs to himself. How'd you end up in this shit hole of a thing? The man sighs. Quit yapping and get me out. Zoey looks around. Something ain't right about this. She's got good instinct. Bill's feeling the same knot in his belly. The man smashes the cage. Just get me out of here before they come back! Bill lifts the butt of his rifle and smashes the padlock off the latch with a mighty clang. Merry Christmas, kid. The man smirks. I like that one, gramps, and I ain't a kid. Call me Francis. Francis steps out of the cage repeating... Merry Christmas... Merry bloody Christmas… Bill spits over an infected corpse sprawled over the rubble. That's my line. Find your own. Francis' smile grows. No copyright on a line like that. Bill knows what he's doing. They're kind of a pack and this ain't about a line. This is about who's calling the shots. A lot of brass for a civilian. Truth is no one is really in charge in this shitstorm and we all gotta take the lead in some way or another and he's too stupid to understand. He oughtta break him now before things get stupid. Set him straight. He inches closer to the man. Zoey sighs. Boys… it's just a goddamn line. A sudden clicking sound behind them and Bill senses they're screwed. They turn to face three men with guns trained on them. Out of the cage and into the blazing, goddamn fire. Francis sighs. Shit... Canadians. Bill looks'em over. A group of men in make-shift hazmat suits and rifles. We ain't Canadians, now move! Bill looks to Zoey and Francis and goes sotto-voce. They're survivalists. Francis scrunches his face. So what are you saying... you saying they're worse than Canadians? Bill doesn't know how to respond to this. He fought with Canadians. Damn good soldiers. What's your beef with Canadians? Francis shrugs. What isn't?
An idiot prods Bill into a room with some kind of make-shift electric poker. Watch that thing CEDA! The idiot prods him. We ain't CEDA. He pushes Bill into the corner with Francis and Zoey. He sees they got a geek on a computer. They're telling him to hack into the machine but he's telling them he can't. He's tech-savvy but he ain't no hacker. After a few tries they push him aside. They call him boy. He says his name is Louis, not boy and that gets him a gun shoved in his face. Geek has spunk and attitude. The survivalists talk amongst themselves. One of them sits in front of the laptop and hacks his way in. Bill overhears bits and parts. Search the computer for the locations of the safehouses. The flu took hold faster than anyone expected. Those who prepared the safehouses turned before they could use them. These assholes are mapping a path through the city using the safehouses as checkpoints like the old underground railway. Fitting for Philadelphia. They probably got hundreds of ideas on how they're going to use us. One of them grabs Zoey and has his own idea. Bill jackknifes to her side despite his restraints. Get your filthy mitts off her. The brute inches up to her and she gives him a kick he ain't ever gonna forget. Bill didn't think anyone could scream like that. He stares at Zoey with wide approving eyes. The brute continues to scream something terrible and collapses to his knees holding his gonads. His buddy rushes to his aid. Helps the screaming man up but… he looks different… real different... something in his eyes. Or rather something lacking in his eyes. Shit. Louis leaps back from the man like he were the plague. Francis panics. Get us out of this. Louis grabs a knife from the floor and frees Bill as the survivalists turn pale. Screams and yells echo around them as Bill frees Zoey and Louis frees Francis. They step back. Zoey gasps. What do we do? Bill shrugs and sighs. Nothing we can do for them. An infected suddenly charges Zoey. Francis clubs its head off. Merry Christmas! He looks to Bill for a reaction. Bill shakes his head and seems unimpressed. Find your own line, kid, if you've got the grey matter to do so. Francis scoffs. Louis adjusts his tie. Francis makes a face and nudges Louis. Lose the tie… Lose the god damn tie. Louis ignores him. Zoey motions for the boys to shut the hell up and follow her. Let's find an Island where we can rot on and then fight over ties. Bill raises an inspired eyebrow. That sounds like a plan. He actually likes the idea of rotting an island while the world goes to hell. Kid's right! Grab some gear and let's get outta here!
Bill leads the ragtags as he calls them through a city he doesn't recognize anymore. It's crazy how fast the flu changed everything. Change. It's the one thing that never surprised him. The one constant in his life. Change and surviving in the new normal. But this new normal… could take some getting used to. Ain't like they're gonna tear each other apart, apologize, then be friends again. He stares into the gloom and goes over the last few hours of his life in his mind. He didn't catch anything. They didn't catch anything and by all accounts they should have. Then it dawns on him… they're immune… they're asymptomatic. Ticking bombs just waiting to spread the flu. I brought the flu to them. Poor bastards. Louis steps up beside Bill. What now, Pops? Bill contorts his face. Don't call me pops. Old Man I don't mind, but not Pops. Bill marches on. I tell you 'what now'… Now we find a safehouse and get some rest. But not before you punch Francis in the mouth for talking more shit than a sewer. Bill laughs. I'm messing, kid, but I see you getting pissed with all the tie jokes. Don't let him get to you. His way to cope with all this shit. I knew guys like him in Nam. They're just scared to die and distracting themselves by messin' around with others. But what really gets me is he stole my goddamn line. Louis laughs. Bill doesn't find it very funny. I know, I know… Imitation is the sincerest form of compliment. But that civilian using my line. That just ain't right to me.
Safehouses are abandoned but they're still treasure troves of supplies. This beast of a flu hit fast and took no prisoners. Bill sighs and doubts evacuations are still running counter to Zoey's belief that the government actually still gives a shit. World has gone to hell and the government don't care but he ain't saying anything. Last thing he'll do is rob them of hope as they creep through the bowels of the fallen city. He liked Zoey's other idea about finding an island to rot on. That was a good idea. If you're gonna rot anywhere, an island, any island, ain't half a bad idea. Especially one with coconuts. But if she wants to hope for the government she can go right ahead. He ain't gonna take away her hope. Even if he knows enough about the government to know they ain't worth a second thought let alone a second chance. But he'll shut up for a civilian that still believes in the system… a system that was broken long before the flu spread. Besides, while she hopes for the government he'll figure something out. He always does. Zoey regards him. There's gotta be more like us... areas that have be protected… quarantined. It can't be that all cities are like this. Bill supresses a cynical remark. There's something in Zoey he respects. She reminds him of someone he used to know. Someone he used to be. Someone who had all kinds of ideas and ideals before he had seen the true face of governments… of humanity… it's nice to see that in her. Real nice. He hopes it lasts and this hell doesn't stamp it out of her. A heavy wind moans dreadfully and carries with it an all too familiar smell... the smell of rot... the smell of filth... the smell of death. The infected. Dozens of them. Maybe hundreds. Bill acts on instinct. Eyes open! Guns ready! Before he can say another word the infected close in on them. Gunshots clap through the dead city. Heads crack open like rotten, festering melons and the infected lay strewn all around them. One lashes out of the shadows toward Bill. Without hesitation Francis blows its face off and turns to him. Merry Christmas! Bill sighs deeply. Bastard saved my life and now he's trying to rub it in my face. He gives Francis a stern, grizzled look. Alright… the line's yours, now shut the hell up and shoot! Bill curses under his breath and continues to shoot dark silhouettes charging through the deep, orange dusk. Damn, I missed this.
Spent the entire day doing unnecessary, mundane tasks like sweeping the floor, dusting statues and furniture, and polishing silverware all in a fairly successful attempt to keep my mind busy. I imagine once I have the Auris working as it should be, I'll be able to keep myself distracted with was seems to be dreaming black fog. Toward the evening, I tinkered with the Auris, and when this proved frustrating, I worked out mathematical equations and theories while talking to myself and engaging in stimulating debate and what I believed to be meaningful discourse. One of the lessons of those on assignment within the boundaries of an Ancient is to keep to a rigorous routine of writing, reading and self-talk to not let the pillars of the intellect crumble under the weight of laziness, alienation and boredom. Thinking and speaking are skills, and like any skill, they can decay and wither away if not practiced regularly.
Stories and journals are scattered everywhere. So much to read… and yet I find myself drawn to the scribblings and renditions of the unknown creator I'm calling the Mad Designer. Journals filled with the wild sketches and musings of people I imagine are caught in other parts of this living dimension--people juxtaposed with other Terra worlds and timelines that make little or no sense to who they are or where they come from. The illustrations and notes are foolish, absurd and quite contradictory, and yet they bring moments of levity to my life which does the soul good. I suppose it's a form of absurd escapism I turn to when I'm not reading the more traditional stories. Interestingly enough, I found seventeen versions of a story featuring a killer named Evan written by seventeen versions of the same author from the omniverse. Seventeen similar stories with sometimes subtle, sometimes significant differences. What I find particularly interesting is how the stories are written as fiction in one world and non-fiction in another. It reminds me of Universus Alveo… a theory that suggests that the human mind might very well be equipped with a powerful networking mechanism that reaches out to other worlds for wisdom and knowledge from our other-selves. Some can use their minds in this way and others can't. The theory suggests that those who have experienced trauma in their formative years detach from their reality, allowing them to explore other realities and worlds with relative ease. Artists like magicians and shamans see small things in the big, unexplainable endless dream that is the omniverse and they bring these ideas or insights back to entertain, enlighten and inspire the world. Fiction in one world, non-fiction in another. Everything is real, or nothing is. And here in the Chamber of Blood there are countless horror stories of every variety. So many that it seems to me that one of the unknown prisoners was collecting these stories as a way to discover more about their imprisonment, the Entity and the terrible screams coming from the surrounding abyss. Whether this true or not, I'm not sure, but what I do know is I spent the whole night reading my favorite stories out loud like my father used to do by the fireplace. And the entire time I couldn't help but wonder… How? How could anyone have accessed and assembled such a rich collection of notes, journals and stories? I have no immediate answer, but I suspect by the texture and density of the fog that I may be in a place as complex, mysterious and misunderstood as a black hole—a living, breathing, all-consuming black hole, the serpent of infinity that gorges on its tail, that eats itself endlessly as it spirals downward into the cosmic, Fibonacci stew that is life incomprehensible.
Dozens of severed heads in the den and I'm not sure how they got there. I stared at them all day, recognizing a few of them from the last few memories I've been exploring. It took me all night but I made a cairn with the heads outside the door. When I was done they began to talk and argue and bicker with each other over pedestrian nonsense. I squeezed my eyes shut until silence returned. When I opened my eyes again, they were gone. I then returned inside and retired to the Chamber of Blood where I read stories aloud and went through the absurd creations of the mad designer.
Chamber of Blood. Most Brutal Murder in Sunny Lake History.
A young woman is on trial for first degree murder in the decapitation of her husband's mother whose charred remains were found in mason jars in the suspect's solarium while her head was found mangled in a broken blender in the kitchen. Samara Dwenlis, 33, is charged with first degree murder in the June 2037 killing of Kirsty Hartz, 67. The trial commenced on Thursday. Prosecutors said they would not entertain a plea of insanity despite the 911 call the suspect made claiming her mother-in-law was a vampire. The 911 call describes an ancient conspiracy with vampires who live among us and draw their powers from another dimension.
The tower is alive. I have memories of what the tower was the night before and it changes the next day. It changes in ways that defy reason or anything we've come to know about the ontology of these Ancients back home. It's entirely possible that if you were to understand all that this place is that you would go insane. I opened the door to what I thought would be an empty room covered in dust, only to discover an entire city with skyscrapers and ancient pagodas. Bewildered, I stared among the ruins of the street at a group of teenagers cutting down massive, mutant bug-like creatures with deadly samurai swords. I quickly closed the door and opened it again to find the city was gone. It had completely disappeared. Nothing there but a small dusty room with a strange-looking spider crawling toward me. I crushed the spider under the heel of my boot and didn't even attempt to understand what had just transpired.
Chamber of Blood. Harbinger of Hell. Beneath the Ruins 1.
Stefan sipped his cold Turkish coffee as he read over his early-morning efforts toward a short story he hoped to share on his blog. He read the opening lines and decided they could be stronger. With a sigh, he tore the yellow page from the legal pad, crumpled it into a ball and tossed it into a growing pile of false-starts in the middle of the opulent, black and burgundy hotel room. He slammed the desk, frustrated, and wanted to write something fun and original for his blog, yet nothing came to him. The latest episode sponsored by their mysterious benefactor had his production team investigate ancient tombs in South-West, Turkey. Not so much him. But his niece and nephew, who had tougher nerves for the macabre.
Stefan much preferred a safe and cozy hotel room where he could raid the mini-bar and see to the logistics of the show. It wasn't that he didn't like adventure. It was more that he didn't like graves, tombs or places that felt dark, creepy and dangerous. Haddie had once suggested that he wrote horror stories as a kind of therapy to work out his fears and anxieties of the unknown. She was half right. The other half was that he simply liked to be alone—alone with all the characters and voices chattering in his head, voices that demanded to be heard and set to paper.
Now the voices were compelling him to write a vampire story. Their benefactor claimed that there had been a village of real vampires in ancient Anatolia that had been hidden from the rest of the world. According to the intelligence provided, vampires weren't fictional monsters but actual intra-dimensional creatures that had once tried to overrun the world. They had been defeated by an unknown group of mystical warriors. Somehow the few creatures that had survived managed to erase themselves from history by warping and weaving whatever memory of them was left into exaggerated myths and legends.
Stefan found this theory of myths and legends and parallel worlds interesting if not intriguing.
Nothing like the movies, but real nevertheless.
One theory he had just finished reading online suggested that everything created or imagined existed somewhere in the 'Garden of Infinity.' In other words, stories and characters came from a real place in the infinite landscape that was the omniverse.
The theory went on to suggest that artists had somehow unlocked their third eye and were able to see into other realities. An idea, a vision, or a dream, according to the theory, was the pineal gland seeing into the infinite for truth, wisdom, inspiration. The brain, then, was a quantum computer that could network with the infinite. It was a nice idea. It meant that his most cherished characters from his favorite books… were somehow… somewhere… real. A sudden knock at the door startled him out of his quantum musings.
"Mr. Roi… Your lunch is ready."
Lunchtime already and Stefan still didn't have his story. He rose lazily in his bathrobe, hoping Jordan and Haddie had better luck finding the unmarked graves they had set out to find. He imagined his niece and nephew were enjoying the sun while filming the ruins and enjoying the peanut butter and banana sandwiches he had prepared for them.
Chamber of Blood. Harbinger of Hell. Beneath the Ruins 2.
"Move away from the casket!" A middle-aged woman with blonde hair and blue eyes dressed in a black suit pointed a revolver at Haddie and Jordan. Haddie dropped her shovel, sighed, exchange a look with her brother and stepped away from the bolted casket.
"Who do you work for?" Haddie asked, eying the woman.
"That, my dear, does not concern you."
Jordan shook his head. "I don't think you should open it."
"My brother's right." Haddie pointed at the symbols etched all in the rotten wood of the casket. "It's a warning of some kind… whatever's in there… is meant to stay in there." She scrutinized the half-crescent and three dots and wondered what they meant. They didn't resemble any of the other symbols she had come across in the last few months.
"Superstitious nonsense!" The woman yelled, aimed the revolver at the bolt and pulled the trigger. A report echoed through the ruins and the surrounding forest.
Haddie wondered if their guide and translator had heard them. He probably didn't even take notice or didn't care. He refused to follow them near the tombs, called them ignorant tourists, and said he would stay by the car texting his friends until they returned. The woman pulled the trigger repeatedly until the bolt clanged off and hit the ground with a thud.
"I hope he calls the police," Jordan whispered to Haddie.
"I wouldn't count on it…"
The woman examined the casket carefully. Haddie and Jordan inched backward as she struggled to yank the lid open. As Haddie cautiously backed away, she figured the woman worked for the same secret society that had now interfered with several of her investigations.
She didn't know much about them, but from what she had gathered by overhearing a few of their goons in Egypt was that they were searching for hidden knowledge—knowledge they believed would help humanity transcend to another plane of existence.
"Please…" Haddie cautioned. "Don't open it until we know what the symbol means."
The goon scoffed and, with a labored scream, yanked the lid open to reveal—
Nothing but a strange black mist.
"I don't understand," she said. "It's supposed to be here… the book…"
The goon's eyes narrowed. Frustration creased her face as black mist suddenly rose and spiralled into her mouth and nose as though it were alive.
Haddie and Jordan stepped out of the grave.
The woman gagged, coughed and collapsed. There in the dirt, she jerked and twitched in all kinds of unnatural directions, screaming and shrieking as the mist reshaped her body into something indescribably grotesque. Her veins stood out thick and black in her neck. Her hands smashed the ground, and she went into hysteric convulsions as though being burned alive. Then, with a blood-curdling scream, her body went limp and silent.
Haddie repressed a cry of horror. She felt a cold prickle run down her spine as she stared at the scene in disbelief. What was going on? What strange mist could do such a thing to a person? Was it some kind of ancient poison… some kind of toxic vapor… or was it something worse…
"Well… you don't see that every day, do you?" Jordan said flatly. "I seriously wish I got that on my phone."
Haddie sighed. "Is she dead?"
"Dead as a tomb."
Haddie didn't find him funny. Not in the least. He was scared. She could tell by his desperate attempt to use humor to hide his fear. He was just about to crack another joke when the creature suddenly twitched back to life.
Startled, Haddie gasped and pulled at Jordan's t-shirt, saying, "We need to get out of here." But just as she stepped back, the creature turned to face them with blood-red eyes and a jaw protruding like a snout with teeth that seemed to be growing underneath stretched skin.
"Oh shit!" Haddie blurted. She lost her footing, and fell to the ground with her brother. The creature that had once been a woman roared at them, revealing two massive fangs like carving knives.
Chamber of Blood. Harbinger of Hell. Beneath the Ruins 3.
"This way!" Haddie yelled, leading Jordan through the shadow and light spilling through the forest canopy. She could hear the creature shrieking as it hunted them with unnatural speed and resolve. Spotting an outcrop of jagged rocks, she quickly yanked her brother into hiding.
"Aren't vampires supposed to explode in sunlight?" Jordan asked. "I mean, isn't that what's supposed to happen!? Doesn't it know it's supposed to be dead?"
Haddie instantly placed a finger by his quivering lips as she heard footfalls approaching. She repressed an urge to look at the creature. Instead, she listened. She could hear the clattering and hissing coming from its hungry jaws. She could hear the crunch of stones and the distinct snap of twigs as the creature searched for them. Then the footfalls seemed to change direction, growing fainter and fainter until all she heard was the chirping of insects.
Haddie heaved a shuddering breath.
Jordan gulped and swallowed a lump in his throat, saying, "We should have respected the warning."
"If that's what it was… a warning…"
"What else could it be?"
"I don't know… What I do know is… we've released something foul into the world."
"And by foul you mean the vampire and not gas," Jordan said with a smirk. "Just clarifying."
"A little funny."
"No. Not even a little."
Haddie risked moving beyond the rocks. She glanced apprehensively, half expecting the creature to hurl itself at them. When nothing happened, she stood and, slowly and quietly, led Jordan back toward their guide.
As she pushed her way through the woods, she couldn't help but notice the similarities between all the symbols she had seen at the last few investigation sites. They were unlike anything she had ever seen before and she had discovered them in completely different parts of the world. India. Africa. Portugal. England. Paris. And now… Turkey.
Haddie couldn't help but feel something was amiss. She broke the silence, saying, "We're being pulled into something far more complex than we've been led to believe. Almost like… we're being used…"
"Used? For what? Who cares about a bunch of bozos from Montreal who release foul things into the world?"
Haddie shook her head, gave him a grave look and answered, "I don't know. But I think it's about time we meet our mysterious—"
A twig snapped, startling the siblings.
Before Haddie could finish her thought, the creature stood framed between two trees, dappled in sunlight.
Jordan screamed in terror as the creature lunged at him, grabbing his arm and sinking its boney claws into his skin. With a mighty roar, the creature hurled him against a tree with a thud. Groaning, he sagged to the ground as inky blackness seeped down over his vision.
Haddie thought quickly, spotting a fallen branch on the ground.
The creature inched closer to Jordan, staring at him as though he were a steak. It kneeled before him and prepared to sink its fangs into Jordan's neck to satiate its red thirst. Just as it opened its gaping mouth, a resounding yell interrupted it.
The creature hissed and turned just in time to receive a branch across the face. It fell to the side, then scrambled to its feet, locking eyes with Haddie.
Haddie backed away slowly, glad she had saved her brother from certain doom, but unsure what would happen next. Then, inspired by the vampire films she had seen with her uncle Stefan, she turned the sharp side of the branch to face the creature just as it pounced on her like a lion.
The make-shift stake hit its mark, skewering the creature straight through its monstrous heart.
The creature shrieked something awful and collapsed to its knees, holding the stake. Wiping her brow, Haddie stepped away from the creature and approached her brother. But a sudden squelching sound froze her to the core. Slowly, she turned to watch the creature pull out the stake with the pulpy, dead heart still attached.
The creature tossed the heart to the side with a mangled smile. An instant later, it pounced over Haddie, taking her to the ground. Haddie pushed and jerked under its powerful grip as it salivated and peered hungrily at the thick arterial vein pumping in her neck.
Saliva dripped down Haddie's neck slow, warm and slimy like a slug. She screamed, and then had no breath to scream and began to see not stars but…geometry… symbols… symbols she had previously discovered in The Overlap as she often called it. She didn't know what else to call what she understood to be a Venn intersection of worlds where she could see and access knowledge and memories no one else could.
Haddie closed her eyes and saw the twisted triangle symbol she had just uncovered in an ancient temple. Then she saw the strange circle slashed in half with a line that she had discovered all over the walls and floor of an abandoned asylum as though someone or something was conducting dark experiments in The Overlap on the patients. It was all very bizarre and new to her.
Now, as the creature prepared to feast on her blood, Haddie wasn't seeing memories pass before her eyes but all these strange and arcane symbols that felt older than life itself—as though someone or something were trying to send her a message from The Overlap.
Chamber of Blood. Harbinger of Hell. Beneath the Ruins 4.
As the creature prepared to quench its thirst, Haddie felt the end coming. Desperate hands fumbled over dirt and twigs, searching for something, anything. Then, just as the creature prepared to puncture her neck, she grabbed a rock the size of a baseball and smashed it straight through its mouth, shattering its deadly fangs.
The creature jolted to its feet with mad agony. Pieces of bone and tooth dropped into a thick puddle of blood and saliva. Haddie turned to see Jordan moaning. He was alive, barely, nevertheless alive. Relieved, she scrambled to her feet, trying to think of a way to destroy this ancient evil once and for all. Then she saw it—
Hanging from the belt!
Without hesitation, she rushed up to the creature as two new white fangs pushed out the bloody remnants of the old. Before it realized what was happening, she snatched the revolver and shot the creature point-blank in the face.
The creature fell head over heels as Haddie unloaded the revolver into its face and body. But bullets were futile against this otherworldly apparition. Within moments the creature was clambering to its feet the whole while staring at Haddie with blood-red eyes. Nervously, she inched backward, not knowing where to go or what to do. There was nowhere to go. Nothing she could do. This was the end.
With incredible speed and strength, the creature pounced and took Haddie to the ground. Gleaming white fangs approached her neck with malice. She jerked and kicked and screamed under its weight. She felt its warm breath inches away from the nape of her neck. Then, in her mind's eye she saw them again.
All of them.
They swirled and flashed and then coalesced into one symbol—the symbol she had seen etched in the casket. With dawning realization, she understood. The symbol wasn't a warning but a seal—a seal to imprison this unfathomable, indescribable creature.
As the creature prepared to gorge on her life, she managed to grab something sharp off the ground—
Its broken fang!
And with the last of her strength, she managed to etch the crescent and the three dots deep into its cheek.
Suddenly, the creature's eyes widened into great big pools of disbelief. It looked at Haddie in abject terror as it stumbled backward, desperately trying to scratch the symbol off its ghastly face.
But it was too late.
Black mist like acid bubbled and burned through the creature's skin. The percolating mist filled its lungs, chest and neck. The belly and chest ballooned as pressure bludgeoned the creature from within. Then, with an agonized shriek, it exploded like a cherry bomb.
Covered in gore, Haddie dragged herself beside her rousing brother.
"What did I miss?" he groaned and sat up, leaning against the tree. He narrowed his gaze and peered through the thin red mist of blood that hung heavy in the air. "Where's the—"
His voice trailed away as he noticed the shards of bone and chunks of flesh covering his clothes. In silence, they picked off bits and pieces of the creature. Then Jordan broke the silence, saying, "Well… this was pleasant… pleasant as a funeral."
Haddie didn't respond to his stupidity. She was thinking about the symbols they had come across in their investigations. She wondered what they meant, where they came from, and if there was something connecting all these paranormal sites they were being sent to investigate. Moreover, she wondered if their benefactor was using them in some kind of chess game against forces unknown.
This is the story the tour guide told us after showing us around the old Mad Canyon Distillery in Moonlight Bay. She offered the adults a taste of Ole Bloody, a recipe that had been infamous during prohibition. While we tasted the bathtub gin, no one spoke as the firewater burned down our throats. The tour guide talked about the abandoned distillery we were walking through, telling us about how the first gang had all but disappeared before the legendary Al Capone got his hands on the operation. She must have told the story often as she spoke fluidly and made gestures and pauses at all the right moments.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm not one for tall tales but what we know of the disappearance of the Maddy Hatter Gang is very much a vampire story if ever I heard one. The Maddy Hatter Gang was mostly made up of the Maddock family led by the father Hank who had a thing about collecting hats from the rival gang members he butchered. He must have stolen the wrong hat because that bloodlust came back to haunt him in the fall of 1921 when his gang disappeared with only the youngest of the family left to tell the tale of what had befallen them. And what had befallen them was indeed a great mystery. A mystery people to this day bicker about and dismiss as an urban legend. But I swear it's no legend and all of it is the truth.
"The twins Candice and Coddy, while returning with some equipment they had picked up in Ontario, drove into the valley and then carried the copper tubing and flasks into the caves where the gang prepared their white lightning. But when they arrived they found nothing but blood. Blood on the floor. Blood on the walls. Blood, if you'll believe it, running through the tubes and coils of the still. At first, they thought it may have been a rival gang. But there was no sign of bullets or bodies or even a struggle—just blood and an uncanny fog that hung low and heavy in the air.
"The twins instantly resolved to find whoever had done this to their gang and moreover they wanted to give their siblings, cousins and parents a proper burial. So they grabbed a lantern and plunged into the twisting bowels of the mountain, following a trail of blood. They searched deep into the night with no result. Coddy shone the lantern and was just about to tell his sister he was beaten when he heard the crunch of stone in the distance. He charged ahead, and she chased after him, stumbling over a boulder, hitting her head against the ground and losing consciousness.
"When Candice roused, she sprang to her feet and rushed toward the flickering lantern light, screaming her brother's name. Through dancing shadow and light, she approached her pale brother sprawled over the ground with two small puncture wounds in his neck. She felt his chest for a pulse and gasped when she realized he was dead. She shuddered, then screamed, and moved by an unknown force, she grabbed the lantern and charged forward. Then, without realizing it, she entered a massive cavern, feeling the ground beneath her feet turn to mush.
"She shone her lantern around, revealing piles of human skulls amidst thousands of beetles moving through a thick sludge. At her feet, she saw a few beetles devouring a sick bat. She tensed and looked upward to see thousands of bats sleeping. A few beetles scurried over her foot with morsels of rotting flesh and she kicked them away. She swallowed her fear, realizing that if she woke the bats, they would strip her flesh clean in a matter of minutes. Then she glanced at familiar barrels in the corner by a pile of animal bones.
"Silently and carefully, she made her way past the bones. Opening the barrel, she cringed as a horrible stench assaulted her nose. She peered at the dark brew and wasn't sure what she was looking at. Then she realized she was staring at fermenting lumps of flesh in thick, putrid blood. She was in the vampire's lair. But before she could continue her search, a roar suddenly startled her.
"Candice turned and found herself staring at a demon with fangs with a swirling black fog rising at its feet. Through the fog, she saw it was wearing her father's hat. She gave a shout of revenge like thunder. The vampire twisted its ugly head in startled disbelief. Fearlessly, Candice threw herself at the vampire. She didn't care what this thing was or where it came from. She just wanted it dead, and she wanted to do her family proud. The vampire meant to kill her by sinking its fangs in her neck. But she felt strong enough to bring down a mountain.
"And so she jerked and kicked and pushed its snarling face. With a snarl of her own, she bit back at the vampire, tearing pale flesh off its neck with teeth and jaws strong enough to crush rock. Before the vampire realized what was happening, she gouged its eye with her thumb, ramming it deeper and deeper as it desperately clawed flesh off her arms and face. But she didn't care. She would not be denied, and within moments she felt the delicate brain matter like warm mud and smiled. Then she curled her finger and yanked as hard as she could with a mad laugh.
"With a shriek, the vampire convulsed violently, then stopped all at once, its jaws frozen in a twisted, agonized howl. Unable to control her growing laughter, she took back her father's hat and stood proudly as open wounds leaked and sputtered blood. Then the fog rolled over the vampire and somehow made it all disappear. The vampire. The bats. The beetles. The blood. Everything.
"Needless to say, no one believed Candice and she was put into an asylum to shut-up and wither away. But eventually, some rich philanthropist took charge of her, and she was never seen again."
Everyone was silent. Someone laughed and said, "That's not really a vampire story, is it?"
The tour guide replied, "Not like we're used to, no. But that's her story and I swear I told it like I heard it."
Then a young woman, in a concerned voice, added, "I hope that girl ended up all right."
May your voice reach the beyond; may your voice reach the beyond; may your voice... Adiris speaks this line until it becomes a single word, babbled in harmony with her fellow emissaries in faith. Ma-ya-voy-rethebe'on... Ma-ya-voy-rethebe'on... Thirteen women stand in a circle around a stone altar. Adiris' chant falters as time passes, her raw throat the only indication she contributes. Each enunciation, agony. She's nearly forgotten the naked man writhing face down on the altar, leather straps binding him.
The high priest Haban raises a hand. Adiris, along with each of the emissaries, stops, bows her head. She reminds herself: Cherish the pain, a sacrifice to the sea goat, the God of Water and Creation. The emissaries disperse, and Adiris wanders to the man on the altar. Tears stream from his bloodshot eyes. She wants to lend comfort, assure him the gods love him, perhaps even pull him from the altar, away from the coming pain. She smiles at him as she would a child. If only you understood the importance of your sacrifice, you would laugh with joy. Tenderly, lovingly, she kisses his forehead.
May your voice reach the beyond.
The Invokist comes forward: small, wrinkled man, buried under a scarlet—no, white but bloody—cloak. Adiris bows her head, joins the whispers around her. May you swim through sea and stars. The Invokist stands over the man bound to the altar. Nods. Pulls a sleeve back. Reveals a spear gripped in hand. Raises the weapon and... plunges! The tip pierces the bound man's lower back. He arches upwards and screams, shakes, convulses, lower body remaining immobile, bladder emptying onto the altar. The Invokist hefts his leg onto the stone slab, pushes the spear until—a gruesome snap. Shrieking... howling... pleading? Something beyond that—indescribable. A vertebrae bursts from the gaping wound. Blood gushes.
Bile rises in Adiris’ throat as she turns away to stop herself from retching. Her fellow emissaries look upwards. Praise! Glory to the gods! Nothing is heard over the screams of the man. His voice will surely reach the beyond. Adiris composes herself, recites sacred text in her mind: The plans of the gods shall not be questioned, for they know beauty the human eye cannot perceive. The plans of the gods shall not be questioned, for they know...
Trust in them, Adiris, trust in them! She relents to her faith, joining the others to celebrate, but notices—Haban. He covers his face too late and she sees it: a tear spilling from his eye. A face that seems... heartbroken.
Adiris splashes water over the altar and scrubs. Red circle, swirling, bright... like the sun the day she was left at the temple door. Stifling heat, painful steps on burning sand. Mother and father... a missing piece in the memory, unfocused, replaced by... Haban. A crowd of imposing high priests, and only he peers warmly. She cries so he lifts her, removes his hood. In the courtyard he lets her touch the statues of the gods—Rishan, keeper of the stars; Ortares, sentry of the desert; Atil-Alara, mother of humanity—deities who would watch over and protect her. Haban becomes teacher. Father. He tells of their religion: formed by exiles who believed other faiths had become corrupted by politics. They brought new insights to the afterlife and unified all gods beneath the great creator, the sea goat.
She finds guidance in his teachings, meaning in servitude, comfort in knowing suffering is love. She may shudder at connecting compassion to bloody sacrifice, but she works continually to overcome her doubts. Yet, over the years, as her faith grows, Haban changes in a different way. She sees heaviness in his walk. Hears his voice trail off when he reads the sacred texts. While he once stood energized by generous sacrifices to the gods, today he shows anguish.
What darkness could snuff the desert sun?
Adiris sits in the courtyard, Haban seated across from her. Eyes are fixed on a game board between them. She rolls a wooden die, moves a black disc over the board's squares, lands on Haban's piece, places it to the side. No reaction from Haban. Adiris looks to him, sweet expression of concern. A joyous sacrifice this morning, would you say? The gods rejoice, praise be. Haban hardly lifts an eye. Mhmm... praise be. A cool breeze, birds chirp, unseen. Haban seems to scan the courtyard. Upon seeing no other occupants, looks Adiris in the eyes. He was a good man. A friend. And the world is darker without—
Adiris wonders if she’s being tested. She knows what to say, interrupts him with the line that’s been delivered to her thousands of times before: It was commanded by the gods; he swims in the wake of the sea goat now. Haban turns his attention to the game board, flicks away Adiris' disc and positions his at the end. It seems I have won... as was commanded by the gods. Adiris pushes her chair back, objecting. Haban sweeps the board off the table. I shall write the rules of Ur anew. I shall include decrees, punishment, theft, and sacrifice. And should anyone object, I shall preach those momentous words: It was commanded by the bloody sea goat and his damned gods. Adiris shakes her head, the shock of words she never thought she’d hear rattling painfully in her mind. This is... blasphemy! Deep bags under Haban's eyes seem to swell. Yes, the truth often is.
The Day of Virtue arrives, a monthly ceremony to purify the congregation of dire sins. A bell tolls. Adiris and the rest of the temple's crowd drop to their knees. Forehead touches cold stone. She peeks up, sees the Maiden Guard arrive, stepping through the crowd, guided by faith to seek out sinners. She waits, counts the scratches in the floor until—a scream. A woman pleads and... coughing, choking. Adiris looks up, sees a commoner dragged from the temple by her throat. She hardly notices two olive-brown feet step in front of her. Rise. Rise! Adiris shrinks under the Maiden's gaze, notices the hint of ripened dates from her open mouth. Under the eyes of the sea goat, speak of the evil you have witnessed. Deliver us thieves, adulterers, and blasphemers, so we may purge them. Shoulders stiffen. Adiris sees the face of Haban, the face of the man who raised her. She hears his gentle voice... and the agitated voice of a blasphemer. Indecision knots in her chest, tightening, twisting.
I have witnessed... no evil. By the gods, my eyes are pure. The Maiden examines Adiris. Seconds trickle by, ever-slowing, stretching reality to its seams, until—the Maiden nods. May you swim through sea and stars. She turns away, and Adiris summons every bit of strength to keep herself from collapsing.
Adiris sweeps dust from the altar floors. A set of hurried footsteps click along the stone, marching closer. She turns to see Haban, gentle face tensing. He hushes her. My daughter, curse the man I once was. I took you as a child and tainted you with notions of divine judgment and punishment. Now I see you struggle, as these thoughts nearly take hold. I beg you, cast my teachings aside and see the blood spilled in this temple. No cleansing can purify the horror perpetrated here.
The doctrine overflows in her mind: The will of the gods is law. No man shall question the divine. He who battles the tides will perish. But she surprises herself by remaining silent, and Haban seizes the moment. I am old and have wasted this life, but I cannot bear to destroy yours. Meet me here at nightfall in a fortnight's time, and we shall escape the clutches of deceit. If you have doubts, I ask you to consult with your gods. My daughter, may their silence be your answer.
Though Adiris' heart beats, she feels emptiness where it should reside, a hollow space dripping acid into her churning stomach. Knees bruised, she prays to the gods, pleading, silently screaming for an answer. Nothing. The wind remains calm. She is alone, surrounded by stone, looked down upon by statues of gods unmoved. Dust floats through the air, settles on her skin, more real than anything she ever believed. A lifetime of faith, security, crumbles. She feels unsteady, the only certainty in her mind that she must leave this place. She rises to her feet, turns her back to the temple, only then—
The hushed chitter in her head is unclear, inarticulate words passed through a forked tongue. But she feels it, understands a remarkable truth: she will never be alone. Ever.
Shame washes over Adiris as she retreats to her room. She dared doubt the gods. Within their chaotic whispers: pain, anger, bloodlust. ATONE! She removes her robe, reaches for the lash, a crude whip of thorns and bronze spikes. ATONE! She swings with great force. Spikes pierce her back, hooking into flesh as she pulls away. Through gritted teeth, she screams, keeping the sound in the base of her throat so no one can hear. ATONE! She swings, droplets of blood sprinkling to the floor. Spasms of pain, as skin tears off, hanging on pale threads. Braces herself and whips again, again, till the crimson pools. ATONE! How much blood is enough? Her body screams in agony. She thinks to drop the lash, run from these walls, but remembers the doctrine Haban taught her: Suffering is the heart of love. She tightens her grip and swings again.
Sweat weeps from Adiris' pores onto her bedsheets. Thick scabs tear from her flesh as she shifts. With great effort, she lifts her head, looking to the sound behind her. Haban. He kneels over her, wet cloth in hand. She's too feeble to speak, but the whisper does it for her, hissing, thrashing, communicating a hurried feeling in her mind. BLASPHEMER! He washes the blood from her back, bringing his mouth to her ear. Is this the doing of the Maiden Guard? What has their blind faith wrought?
She slips between consciousness, as the blasphemer takes her hand. I have failed you, my daughter. But no more. Have strength, and we shall soon escape.
Though Adiris' movements are met with pain, she lifts her head to the sky, thanking the gods for their guidance. Their whisper remains, further away, dissipating, yet still commanding, influencing. She opens her heart, allows the whisper to seize her body. She strides to the quarters of the Maiden's Guard and takes a uniform, confident no one will discover the violation, knowing the gods are on her side. A censer of sweet frankincense sits atop a table, compelling her to it. She allows her hands to move as they will, filling the censer with oil and glowing embers. She does not question the will of the gods, knowing all threads shall be woven and someday the tapestry complete. Trust in them, Adiris!
She steps into the moonlight. Nightfall. Smoke dances around her body. Bare feet carry her along a stone path to the mouth of the temple. As she peers inside, she sees through the shadows to the slight, shivering figure of the high priest Haban—the mentor, the father, the blasphemer.
May his voice reach the beyond.