Yet, despite the nightmarish driving conditions, Brook rides on, fast and unfettered. Instincts take off, and rational thought slides into some unused, unneeded corner of his mind. These are his woods after all. His home. His territory. Some atavistic will guides him in the dark. The primeval power, however, has a cost, as somewhere in chiaroscuro cacophony, Brook’s hold on the present washes away like the rain-water down the ride.
One moment, he’s riding white–knuckled down Ksah-koom-aukie’s Breast, and the next, he’s rousing from his dark dissociation, his bike still gunning through the nigh–hidden, person–wide entrance into Scratch’s Corral.
Brook: Once again, the young hunter’s forest feels as though it can swallow him alive or push him safely into what he seeks. It chooses. Brook’s mind goes blank as he pushes forward, if anything traveling faster and faster as his heart rate rises. Right up until he bursts through the entrance into the box canyon. Scratch’s Corral, the stage. Either for his death or his successful hunt is yet to be seen. He barrels through on his bike as the world comes back into focus, making his teeth grit and his chest quiver. He still doesn’t slow much. He begins his search, his hunt, racking his brain for places the rain won’t reach. Where he can find a rat.
GM: Brook’s mind doesn’t have to rake long. Only two years ago–in the wake of Ms. Littlebeaver’s shocking suicide–Danny and Brook had camped out in Scratch’s Corral, attempting a desperate teenage vision quest in the hopes of contacting Danny’s ancestors. During that troubled trip, the boys had found an old cave formerly used by rustlers, grizzles, and most recently by militant secessionists, who employed the natural bunker as an arms and ammo depot and locale of their last, lethal stand against the joint task force of ATF, NPS, and FBI in the ‘70s. Other than the cave of the box canyon–which was cleared out by the federal forces–there are thick copses fed by vein-like waterfalls and Auld Coot’s Creek.
Brook: Brook doesn’t wait for a better place to come into his head. He heads for the cave and slows his pace. His original plan of running down the psycho with his bike is out the window, but this place is at least a start. Soon the hunter calms his war ride, slowing to a stop and sliding off his bike a few meters from the mouth of the cave. He takes the keys and slides them into a pocket inside of his vest to keep them silent, and hefts his bow, notching an arrow as he keeps low and makes his approach. Tracks will tell him what he needs, the cave at least not in the washing rain.
GM: As Brook stalks toward the cave, a forked lightning bolt rips through the sky like Uktena’s tongue. For a brief, terrible moment, the young man is once again struck both blind and deaf. Absent those senses, Brook’s mind looks back to the past, when he and his best friend first visited Scratch’s Corral.
July 2, 1996. It’s hot as hell. The circumstances spurring the boy’s camp-out and desperate vision quest were already grueling, but the heat makes everything worse. And it’s only getting worse.
When they had arrived two days prior, it was unseasonably warm and dry. When Mary dropped them off at the entrance with all their supplies, there had at least been a little mountain breeze to wick off the sweat. However, once the boys descended into the box canyon, that wind suffocated like a cat trapped inside a shrink-wrapped shoebox.
At first, the mind-numbing heat, sweat, and exertion of hauling their supplies and setting up camp had been good. Danny hadn’t wanted to speak, and honestly Brook wasn’t sure what to say. How do you comfort your best friend right after his mother jumped out of a third-story hospital window and left him and all his siblings de facto orphans? So the stifling heat seemed like a blessing. But the blessing soon turned into a curse. It was like the box canyon was a giant cauldron and someone kept adding more timber to the fire.
The second day, the temperature climbed. Brook and Danny had tried to sweat it out, to use the pain and discomfort as a cleansing experience to guide them in their search for peace or at least answers. But the brutal sun just baked them and scorched any chance of spiritual solace. Danny especially suffered. Unlike the atypically tall, muscular ranger cadet who lives and works in this unforgiving wilderness, the comparatively short, scrawny pre-teen spends more time inside playing Duke Nukem, Zork, and his most recent favorite, Quake.
Seeing his friend endure the brutal weather so much better than he could certainly didn’t improve Danny’s mood or already tormented emotional focus. Today has been little better. Actually, it’s been a hell of a lot worse. As Brook checks his NPS
thermometer–not for the first time–he sees the red mercury top 102 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s literally boiling.
After hearing Red Aspen’s forecast for today from Brook’s walkie-talkie, Danny had declared that he was done with the “crackpot sweat-lodge”. At the same time, he hadn’t wanted to run home crying, either. After all, home didn’t really exist for him any more. Not like it had. Going back would simply mean confronting harsh realities.
So Danny had decided to stay in the cave, hiding from the sun and its cruel heat. Brook isn’t sure whether the darkness has improved his best friend’s black mood.
While he can’t match it to his best friends, it has been a painful year for the young man. After the incident he’s not allowed to speak of, his body has been changing. He wakes up in pain, his body screaming at him for no reason. His temper flaring at odder and odder times despite his promise to reign himself in. His dreams changing to worse and stranger motifs, much to his awkwardness seeing the girls they involve the next day. He’s grown too, his arms bulging, his appetite demanding much from him.
Danny has been here for him though, the entire time. It’s only common sense once his mother fell to her death, that he reveal what he’s been studying. What they can try to find his ancestors for answers, like his bigger friend is looking for in the waters of the Green Lady. But it’s not going how they want. Brook of course follows his friend I to the cave, taking off his boonie hat and siting beside Danny in the dark awhile. “Are you okay? Do you need more water?” It’s all Brook can think to say. It’s painfully awkward, but it’s better than wallowing in the dark.
Danny doesn’t reply–at least not in a way Brook can see. In the harsh sunlight that reaches but fails to grasp the back of the cave, the ranger cadet can barely make out his friend’s silhouette. Even so, he can tell the silhouette is wrong. But not why.
His friend’s aberrant silhouette moves. There’s a soft movement of stones, then a ‘whiiiish’, followed by the echoing clatter of stone ricocheting against stone. When the echoes die, Danny speaks in a drone-like voice: “…the mouth of Vaults of Zin, and the vindictive ghasts are always on watch there for those denizens of the upper abyss…”
There’s another scrape, whiiish, and distant clatter.
Brook freezes as soon as he realizes something is wrong. Like a dying biker in the snow, he just listens. Only this time, there’s something in the dark, even as Danny suddenly speaks of mouths and vaults. And another skitter sounds in the darkness. Despite all of it, the young ranger realizes this had to be what they were waiting for. Something is speaking through Danny. Making only very slow motions, Brook removes his hat and puts it down beside him, speaking quietly and carefully. There’s not exactly a script, but he speaks like the people in Mary’s stories, looking at the shadow. “I am Brook. Son of Madcatcher and The Green Lady.”
The strange silhouette turns slowly to face Brook. Danny’s voice speaks:
“Son of two lesbos, eh? That explains a lot.”
Pre-teen snickering echoes in the cave.
Something is happening. Brooks doesn’t know what but it’s probably what they’ve been working towards. His hair. It’s not how it was. “Close your eyes Danny. I think it’s working finally. You said some…weird stuff.”
“Brooks, I think the sun’s cooked your brains. Not that there was much to cook, after all.” Brook can’t see but can imagine his friend grinning. “Nah, that’s just a line from some Lovecraft. White-ass racist, but he could write some creepy shit. It’s like the base for Quake. Base, inspiration, whatever. Vaults of Zin, my favorite level.” He picks up another rock and wings it, causing another staccato echo of skipping stone on stone. “Those ghasts or fiends, man… scary hard.”
“Dude. Your hair is gone in your shadow. It’s wrong looking. Focus. We can do this. Your ancestors are here.”
Danny stops, and his voice changes, but not in a good or inhuman way. It’s angry, bitter, and raw in a way that only a hurt human can sound. “No. They’re not. I
cut my hair. I don’t want my braids or sweetgrass or smudging or any of the wigwam-crybaby crap.” Brook feels his friend toss a pebble in his lap. “Let’s see how many you can skip, Green Lady baby.”
Brook frowns. It’s a reverse now. He was always so dismissive of the ways of the who he’d been adamant were not his people. But what he realized was that they don’t have to be his people for the spirits of things to reach him, or vice versa. But now here was Danny, throwing down his hand in pure sorrow and frustration. And now the sun and their hats have made the boy feel like a little bit of a fool, taking a rock.
“I think I’m ready to tell you what happened that week I missed school last year. The last time I gave Nelson a black eye.” Brook throws the rock, hoping to skip it well.
The stone goes spinning away into the darkness, where it skips off the cave-rock repeatedly. Six
times to be precise, a number painfully higher than any of Danny’s throws. Both boys cannot help but listen to the echoing stone strikes.
Perhaps the stone skips further in the dark, but the sixth strike drowns them out, both by its volume and strange tone. The two boys instinctively look at each as they recognize it as the sound of stone striking, not stone, but metal.
“Wh-,” Danny begins to ask, but then clicks on the flashlight clipped to his belt. Its sudden light causes both preteens to reflexively squint. As their eyes adjust, Danny peers into the flashlight’s beam and the distant cave-rock it illuminates.
oth boys once again turn to another after simultaneously spotting something metallic jutting from the cave-rock. “Wha–,” begins Danny again, before walking towards the object, “I thought you said the Feds or Rangers cleared out the bunker?”
The flashlight’s beam shakes and wobbles as the light is brought closer to the metallic object. “Dude, maybe a camper left it since then?”
Brook is about to spill beans even as the rock skips, until they hear the clang of iron. Neither of them can resist the impulse to check it out, and the taller of the youths walking over to the jutting something after adjusting to the flood of light. It’s strange, was his mother still in charge of the Rangers back when this happened? He’s forgotten the exact date they’ve told everyone those wackos came through. “Well… here, hold the light steady. Let’s see what it is first.” Reaching out, the young preteen carefully bringing his hands around it, seeing which way it’d let him move it without breaking it. Hoping his gloves will keep him safe from any cuts.
Together, they identify the metallic object as a rusted locker box, likely of military origin. The box had been stowed in a cunning artificial alcove in the cave-rock. Someone had chiseled a roughly cubed hole into the rock wall, stored the lock box inside, and then used cement and paint to hide the alcove. In the dark, it would have been all but impossible to miss. However, the decades have not been kind to the painted concrete, and the repeated barrage of hard-thrown stones broke a hole in inch-deep cheap cement covering the box.
Danny excitedly grabs some of their gear, including a hammer and shovel. He sets down the flashlight and begins bashing and scraping away the lockbox. In the long-shadowed light, Danny smiles, almost shouts between grunts, “It’s like real buried treasure!” It’s the first time Brook has seen his best friend smile since his mother’s suicide.
It’s dangerous, but how can he tell Danny no to this? That smile. Maybe this is the answer, just doing things together. Brook stays in the cave with the flashlight, tapping away with a rock before Danny comes in. Brook lets his smaller friend hammer away at the cement, sweeping debris away with his boot while they uncover the treasure.
Cement dust coats Danny’s grin and knife-shorn locks, making the youth look maniacally happy, but happy all the same. The image reminds Brook of being younger, when he and Danny made mud balls, built forts out of broken car parts and trash, and played ball amid dustbowl gardens. “Together,” Danny says, still grinning, as he makes way for Brook to help him slide the box out of the hole and move it to the ground.
Brook remembers. All too well. It’s sad, but he doesn’t know if they can ever go back to those care-free days. For now though? He’s willing to ignore the world for Danny, grinning as he helps the boy pull the box out of the wall and down to the ground, very slowly, muttering to Danny they could be explosives and so to put it down carefully as possible. “These people were dangerous, weren’t they? The ones who took over this cave?”
Brook’s comment about explosives does nothing to deflate his friend’s exuberance. He does, however, follow his advice. He stares at the box, then up at Brook. “Dude… dude!” He puts his finger on the lock-switches, then pauses. His voice drops low, more conspiratorial than calm, “What… what do you think is inside?”
Brook looks up at the wall, seeing how sealed up it was. “Something important. They went through a lot of trouble. Can you get it open?”
He nods for Brook to hand him his multi-tool, then gets to work. It doesn’t take him long to spring the two locks. “Magic fingers,” he says, clearly pleased with himself. Cracking those fingers, he places his fingers on the lid like a magician about to do a great reveal. Only the tiny furrow in his brow seems to convey the worry that the box might blow up–or worse, be empty.
The old metal lid creaks open. Both boys peer inside as the echoes bounce like bats around them. It’s hard to say what they see first. Most of the box is filled by two matching humidors. Then there’s a gun, a swatch of silver cloth stuck inside a chaplain’s bible, and a key. Surrounding all these artifacts is money. Lots of money.
As Danny pulls out the cash, both boys note that the bone-crisp money includes several denominations, but one dollar bills are the most common. What’s uncommon, however, is what’s been done to the money. Each and every one has been burnt.
Inspecting them by flashlight, Danny and Brook can see that the burn marks are relatively similar and roughly the size of a nickel. “Aw shit,” Danny says as he realizes the money is ruined. “Why… why would somebody… burn money?” His smile slips.
As Brook rifles through several ones, tens, fifties, and even some rare two-dollar bills, the ranger cadet notes how the circular, similarly sized marks resemble cigarette burns, but only slightly larger. Looking over defaced money, Brook vaguely remembers a time, nearly a decade ago, when Mary had to attend a week long NPS
training in Seattle. She had left the then-six year old boy in the care of several distant relatives. He dimly remembers the hugely muscled Sampson Bird-Rattle pulling out a dollar bill and burning it with his cigarette. Though young, Brook was old enough then to understand that money bought things and fire destroyed them, so he had asked Sampson about it.
“Blinds the Black Men,” he had said, not elaborating.
“Blinds the Black Men,” Brook repeats, though more to himself than Danny as he looks over each little bill. But he doesn’t dwell too much, he takes them all out and piles them infront of Danny, before he picks up the gun. The only of the two of them to know how to safely handle one, the young Ranger doesn’t want Danny picking up an old loaded gun just to hurt himself, Brook looking the antique over.
“I don’t know what it means, but I’ve seen someone do that to a bill before. One of my mom’s cousins or something? He did these to his bills.”
Danny nods. “Yeah.. I think I saw ‘Lij and some his friends playing poker. I can’t remember, but maybe some of the money had marks like these. Maybe not.” His attention, like Brook’s, shifts to the gun, though only the latter physically inspects it. And only the latter recognizes it immediately. It’s a .22 caliber Ruger target pistol fitted with an integrated silencer. Its serial number has been filed off and replaced with three tiny words likely etched by a hunting knife or razor blade:
Consistent with Brook’s worry, the gun is indeed loaded, but with only a single bullet. Danny meanwhile pulls out the bible with the silver swatch. The former he plops down by the money and holds the latter closer to the flashlight. He then shows Brook how the fabric, which is about the size of a hand, is all monochrome silver weave save for a single sewn letter in its middle. A crimson L
“Dude, this is… it’s like Sesame Street on angel dust,” the pre-teen says, shrugging in puzzlement as to what the swatch or letter might mean.
Brook grabs the multi-tool and carefully gets into the gun’s works, pulling out the target pistol’s pin pocketing it, putting it back down beside the case. Even if Danny wants to handle it, now, it’s safe. But his attention turns back to Danny as he pulls the bible out, brow furrowing at the cloth and the single initial on it.
“L? Was it like… on a certain page in that bible? Gun with one bullet, bible, money. I bet this was like… for those bad guys to grab and run, and pop themselves if the cops caught them.” Leaving the bible investigation to Danny, Brook pulls out the Key to inspect, hoping it’s for something cool.
Left to inspect the bible, Danny picks up the still open book, only to set it back down. “Yeah… uhh, I don’t think this is red ink like Mrs. Scheingart uses.” He nudges Brook to show him the page, which has been splattered with what Brook recognizes as dried blood splatter. Someone has used said blood, when it was fresh, to repeatedly paint the words: Brothers Keep Silent
The sanguine defacement covers both pages save for a single verse. Jeremiah 51:20. Danny reads it aloud, “Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms.”
He looks up at his friend. “Not your normal Jesus Saves bumpersticker.”
Brook leans over to take a look soon as his friend nudges him, still holding the key as he looks over the bloody messages. It’s more than clear that these people were some kind of crazy cult. The quote however sends a chill up the young man’s spine. They really had been ready to go to all-out war for their god.
“Nope… I guess they were more than just a little culty and nuts. What about this key? You think there’s even more treasure? Shine the light on it.”
Danny obliges. The key itself appears rather nondescript. It’s attached to a large keychain, though, which is in the crude outline of a leg-bone. Its material, however, is too porous and rough, which gives the keychain the appearance of a dog biscuit–an item most Falls’ natives have not seen, but which the ranger cadet nonetheless recognizes.
“Maybe the key unlocks one of these boxes?” Danny says, pointing to the two humidors still inside the lockbox. “Or well, that wouldn’t make sense,” he remarks in afterthought. “Cause… you know… anyone who’d have the box would… have the key,” he explains, rather lamely.
He shrugs and moves on to the two humidors. Hefting the first one, he angles it into the light, then jolts in alarm, nearly dropping the case. “Shit!” he exclaims with a subsequent laugh that tries to cover his anxiety. Despite his forced bravado, he doesn’t open the humidor. Instead, he angles his flashlight through the top’s glass display.
“Looks like, uh, this box is for you, Brooks,” he says half-jokingly as he slides over the humidor. Inside the humidity-controlled container are two well-preserved corpses. Tiny corpses, but corpses nonetheless. The first is a bat. The second, a snake. Both are as black as they are dead.
So preserved in the humidor, the two creatures look like they are merely sleeping, despite being dead for potentially decades. Brook, being learned in wildcraft, quickly identifies both species. The first is a western small-footed myotis, one of Idaho’s most common chiropterans. The second is a timber rattlesnake. Both are afflicted with melanism, a not common but known condition that gives them their shadowy hue.
Danny, meanwhile, moves on to the next and last item, or at least last box within a box. “A bunch of papers,” he says to Brook as he begins to inspect the pile of papers. After rifling through the stack, Danny shakes his head. He passes the papers to Brook, then says, “I can’t really make heads or tails of these. Sounds, uh, lawyer-y.”
The other pre-teen has similar luck, or lack thereof, after perusing the typewriter-printed documents. Danny meanwhile has begun to nimbly pick at the humidor’s inside. “Ah, yes!” he exclaims as he lifts up a false bottom. He excitedly shows Brook’s the twice hidden item inside. A scroll. And by the look of it, old and fragile.
“Best not touch, Brooks, and leave it to Mr. Magic Fingers,” he remarks smiling. Despite his words, Danny hesitates. “What do you think it is? A secret name for a chthonic demon? A recipe for applesauce? Directions to… dude, I don’t even know with… whoever left this.”
Brook just watches, looking over the two boxes and wondering what the hell is going on with whoever had these boxes packed. The first was disturbing, two melonistic animals pinned up in a box display to mummify or something. It’s impossible to know what these wackos thought as they stashed this here. But he’s going to take it. Get rid of it, or bury it somewhere safe.
The papers are equally troubling, as the young boy can’t figure them out, not even the smart one of the two can. Brook rolls the papers up after getting them nice and squared and he stuffs them in his pocket, planning on taking a dictionary and these papers into the library.
That’s when the scroll comes in, it’s a straight mystery to them both, and his chest clenches. “Use gloves,” he warns, looking to Danny. “I bet it’ll be some secret future ‘god is coming’ prophecy junk. But be super fucking careful when you open it. I know I’ll mess it up, so… just careful.”
Danny nods, and goes to get a pair of gloves. His movements and bobbing flashlight create strange shadows on the cave-walls. Brook could almost swear he sees one of the animal corpses twitch inside the humidor.
Brook hefts the papers up and carefully turns, putting the papers in a bag so he can slap them back in the humidor they came from before they leave.
His now-gloved friend returns, however, before Brook can check. “Okay, let’s go for the applesauce,” he says grinning. He turns to Brook. “You know, part of me wondered if you planned or staged all… this,” he says motioning to the lockbox and all. “I wouldn’t even put the bloody bible and animal mummies past you. But all that writing? What was the gun, by the way? Looks weird but wicked cool.”
Brook still feels silly about Danny so easily tricking him earlier, with him forgetting about the hair and the stone skipping sounding like… something bad in the dark. But when he leaves, there’s no one to trick him, and as the humidor’s animals seem to twitch, the young ranger slowly puts a hand over the case, trying to feel for movement instead of relying on his eyes. But Danny comes back too soon, making him jump and sigh before shaking his head.
“I don’t really know how to put up cement either… the gun though? It’s a sport .22, it’s even got a silencer. I think’s for like… suicide, dude. Here, I took the pin out, check it out.” Brook grabs the gun again, carefully ejecting the round inside and picking it up, handing the gun to Danny and taking his own flashlight to check the bullet, to see if it was anything special.
Brook recognizes the bullet as a .22 conical ball cap, or CB. Its long muzzle velocity, combined with the built in suppressor, would make the shot virtually silent.
Virtually, unlike Daniel who has become truly silent. He makes no movement to take the offered gun. When Brook turns his eyes from the single bullet to his best friend’s face, he sees the pain. Pain deeper than any gunshot. And that’s when the preteen just realizes what he’s said.
Brook pales a little in the dark, dropping the gun on the ground as he realizes what he’s said. Danny truly is the smarter of the two if the half breed can say something so horrible without realizing until afterwards.
“Danny, I-I didn’t mean. Fuck, I am so sorry. I-I just—you’re like the closest thing to family I can get, dude, I’d never mean it like that. That came out so wrong, please believe me.”
Daniel sags like a string-cut marionette. His chin starts to quiver in the flashlight cave. Brook’s words seem to deflate any anger, but that just leaves his best friend with an imploding misery.
The fragile, raw question slips out between a pair of wet teardrops hitting the lockbox. “Why did she do it, Brooks? I-I know she had it hard… ever since my d… he left. But were we r-really that bad?”
Brook feels his heart twist and ache, and it demands his body to move. He grabs Danny and pulls him in as tight as he can, feeling the question digging into him, into things he can relate with, and into the parts of him that hold Danny up in such high regard. How can someone so good to him suffer so badly? How can someone drop a child in a sack into a river? Why? Thoughts of the coyotes, the river of blood, pills, and water, what they’ve just found, all flash.
“No. No they weren’t, Danny. I just… it’s… it has to be this place. The Rez, the town, even the lands around it. It-it’s like poison, Danny… I’m so sorry. I’m so, so, sorry. She loved you, it wasn’t your fault.”
Danny sobs. He doesn’t fight the platonic embrace, but all he can give in return is a weak clutch of Brook’s shoulders that slides off as he balls his fists. The darkness covers the boys. It hides their mutual parental pains, their heart-wrenching question, and their unresolved regrets and resentments. But it does not heal them. Not today at least. Perhaps these are wounds that never truly heal. They just scab.
And as Danny finally pulls away, wiping his snotty and tearful face on his shirt, he decides that he’s done picking at that scab. For now. He stares at all the… things they’ve uncovered. And eventually his eyes return to the one thing untouched. Sniffling, he looks at his gloved hands then back to the scroll. “Okay, we’ve… come this far,” Danny remarks ambiguously, then adds, “Might as well keep… going.”
Like a diver, he takes a deep breath and dives in. He slowly unrolls the scroll, which reveals itself as a two-page letter. Unlike the stack of bleached papers with typewriting, this letter is old, really
old. Small cracks appear as it’s unrolled, requiring Danny’s utmost nimbleness.
As Danny tenderly smooths out the pages and reads the first two lines out loud, the boys discover just how old the letter is.
" Edward Rutledge
Philadelphia, June 1776."
Danny turns to Brook. “What the fu–, no, this…”
Curiosity gets the better of him and he resumes reading. A bit faster now. Angling the flashlight, Brook can see the letter’s handwriting is antiquated, a scrolling quill-penned penmanship. Frankly, it’s amazing Danny’s able to read it as well as he can.
“Dear Representative Adams,”
“No doubt it will alarm you to read words penned by someone, who has these last several months argued so fervently for Reconciliation with the British Crown in the face of your own stance in favor of, Independence for these colonies of America. But in these times the world moves around us and we shall find ourselves left behind like rocks in a rushing stream.”
“I have myself received a revelation. I will not say it is religious in nature, for I feel it concerns our own world and not a higher realm. Our own lives, the lives of men the world over, these are the subjects of the knowledge imparted to me.”
“Many nights I have been haunted by dreams of the serpent. Is this the same beast that tempted the fairer sex in the Garden of Eden? Whatever the case may be, it leers at me and threatens with a snap of its jaws, the consequences of capitulation to the revolutionaries amongst us, and I believed it an extension of my own distaste for Independence. But as I write this, I am exhausted and sleepless, and labor by the light of a candle, for this very night the Serpent visited me. It was no dream, for its scales gleamed as the brass of the candlestick or the wetness of this ink and the death that reeked from it was as powerful a stench as I have ever encountered. It wore upon its brow a crown that shone, but the Light could not hide its ugliness. It opened its jaws and between it held the whole world, and worlds in the Heavens yet to be named.”
“This the Serpent spoke to me. It told me of the future that I must help bring about. In this world, men writhed blindly through darkness, and ruled one another by cunning and subterfuge alone. Deceit became the coin of kings, and the most cunning ruled not by Law but by the vagaries of their own will. The Americas, this new world still so virgin and unexplored, was fodder for the Serpent which would wax strong in the politicking and two-facedness of an America ruled by petty despots and governors lying both to the people of our colonies and to the British Crown who appointed them. This was the world the Serpent desired, and everywhere its brethren snakes would slither, pouring poisoned honey into every ear.”
Danny spares Brook another unsure look, then continues:
“And then I heard a storm as if from the beating of great wings. A shadow passed over an, and I espied the Eagle above me. In one claw it held a lightning bolt, and in the other a scroll, and written upon the scroll was a Code of Laws all men must obey. The serpent recoiled and the Eagle alighted upon a mountain there to rule. Its wings embraced a new world, a new world order in which the laws set apart the best and highest-minded men that they might rule the rest. In this world, law would rule and majesty and conquest along would be the makers of kings. Cunning would win only scorn. By strength and law would one man attain lordship over another.”
“The Eagle spoke to me as the Serpent had, but its words did not fall on horrified ears as the Serpent’s did. It promised me the world of justice, where Right would come to pass, and that the history we few fortunate men were making would bring it about. But only if the Colonies broke from the Crown could the Eagle be free to build this world. I saw its wings were afire and its eyes were of gold, its beak the gleaming steel of a soldier’s bayonet! It was wreathed in rifle smoke and its pinions were purest light that could illumine every corner of our world!”
There’s a delicate rustle of paper as he moves on the second, partial-filled paper.
“Then the Eagle carried away the Serpent and cast it away into the west, so it watched over our new world alone. And so I understand now that I served the Serpent, that subtle and deceitful beast, but now my eyes have been opened and I seek to do the work of the Eagle. It is to this end that I have resolved to sign the Declaration that you and Jefferson and the others are drafting. Outwardly, I shall suggest that this decision is prompted by a desire for unity among the colonies, but to you I profess the truth behind my decision in the hope that you will yourself understand the greater conflict being expressed through the process of Independence.”
“I hope that I can count on you as a brother in this matter, and that you can in turn bring others into the fold of understanding regarding the victory of the Eagle over the Serpent. I am certain tat I am not alone in my revelation, and I am already seeking out certain persons who have revealed themselves to be followers of the Eagle and all it stands for.”
“I shall speak to you soon, and rest assured that my quill shall be in hand as it is now.”
Danny pauses a moment before reading the next and final two lines:
“Yours in liberty,
Edward Rutledge, Representative for South Carolina.”
Danny’s eyes squint, and not just because of the dim flashlight.
Brook hangs on to his friend tightly in the dark, even if this is a wound that will never truly heal for either of them for Danny, his friend is there for him. They’re there for each other. Before this, he remembers days Danny was his only source of calm, the only person in his life not pushing him to be, or pushing him into danger. Even with high school coming up so soon, with them out of the rez, he wonders if that situation will change. But for now, Brook just knows that he can share this wound, and that he and Danny will heal and scar over one day. One day.
But for now, it’s a good idea for them to distract themselves. Pulling away from each other, they get to reading… whatever this is. It’s a stunned silence as Brook listens, sitting perfectly still as Denny reads out the ancient letter and the worries and triumph of a man long dead all come to light at the same time. He remembers his mother’s words on snakes, about what they are and where they come from. But it’s no real comfort, it just puts strange context on so many questions.
“I, uh… um. I have… fucking tap dancing Jesus in a birch bark canoe, what the fuck was that? Let’s… put it back, with the papers, it’s super old…”
Brook rubs his forehead, he has a lot of his own meaning to take from this. But what meaning can he take from this? Snakes with worlds in their mouths and crowns on their heads. Then eagles with lightning in their claws? Somehow it seems like an Indian nightmare, a thunder bird banishing a snake king, to make way for what sounds like the American Revolution.
“Fuck, Danny… do you think this guy seriously saw all this?”
Danny’s face tightens in hard concentration, his jaw churning and clenching. “It… can’t be real, I mean… it’s so old. Why would it be here
? Crazy white-ass people…” He frowns. A hand drifts to his braids. But they’re gone. “But…”
Brook slowly lets the lights go on his head one by one, until the light bulb pops into his brain. “Ukenta. The snake with the blinding crown. Eagle with a lightning bolt, warring with Ukenta, the Thunderbirds,” he mutters, gently nudging Danny. “And these people who put this thing here. You think these are like…a cult the dude in the letter made, after he saw this? To try fighting Ukenta?”
Brook’s words seem to turn on an equal if not greater storm of light bulbs in Daniel’s mind. “Right! Yes, exactly, or… maybe not at all. Maybe it’s…” He looks back to the line.
“Uktena. My grandfather taught me about those. Remember we had to do that project back in… like fourth grade? You did the bitching art, but I did the reading man. Serpents in native mythology. It’s all over the place. But it’s all backwards.”
He continues, clearly excited, as if he’s lost of temporarily forgotten his still damp cheeks and chin. “Crazy white-ass people, dude.” He waves at the pile of items. “White people, to them, snakes are like evil. The devil in the garden and all that stuff, right?”
“But to us,” he begins then looks down a bit awkwardly at his biracial friend, “Or well to most natives, serpents are sources of wisdom, even magic. Like Quetzalcoatl with the Aztecs, Kukulkan with the Mayas. And you’re right, it’s like a spot on description of the Uktena, here, except like it’s described through a white dude’s eyes. The blinding crown, my grandfather says it’s like a jewel or diamond, the Ulu-something or other, which is all like sorcerous or magic granting.”
“And the stench? Like the Uktena was said to have breath that smelled so bad that no living creature could survive if they happened to inhale even the tiniest bit. I had that all written in our report. It’s called tons of different names in different tribes. The Sioux for example had the legends of the it, don’t ask me what they called it, horned serpent or something, but they had the legends about them fighting the thunderbirds.”
He flicks his hand up his chopped hair. “What if this old white dude had it wrong, like what if… we’re the Serpent people?” He sets the letter gently down, but then picks up the burnt money. “Okay, remember the first flag of the 13 colonies? Remember the creature on it?”
Brook’s eyes go wide, following along with Danny’s thought process the whole way, keeping up at least enough to know where he was going as he nods at the smaller boy’s questions, a huge grin breaking on his face at being able to take the realization even further, keeping up with Danny.
“The rattlesnake! But like, just a while after this letter was written they changed the symbol to the eagle. I just remembered a bunch of shit too. Fuck. Okay, go on, I’m following.”
Daniel smiles, “You know, you listen pretty well for a guy who sleeps through most of his classes.”He then turns the flashlight to the interior lid of the lockbox. The light illuminates three stickers or decals:
The first says DEATH TO ZOG
, the second reads, NORTHWEST TERRITORY IMPERATIVE
, and the third is a picture of the Gadsden Revolutionary flag depicting the rattlesnake and motto, DON’T TREAD ON ME.
“Don’t ask me what the fuck is Zog save the awesome name of a troll or metal band. But shit, Brooks, I mean, you’re right about the eagle. Like…” He looks around and then picks up a fistful of burnt cash. Holding up a dollar bill, he asks, “Look, dude, where’s the eagle?”
Brook sees none. Because the place where the Eagle-centered Seal of the United States should be is burnt away.
Brook’s entire train of thought crashes at the station as his friend points out the eagle being the thing burned out. He realizes his first thought is wrong, and that-…he slowly puts the pieces together, a frown slowly creeping over his face as he smooths his thumb over the wood of the case of mummified animals. What if? If it was…oh no.
“Blinds the Black Man… what if the ‘eagles’ are the government, not the snakes. Like that old senator guy reached out to other senators? What if that senator HEARD
cunning, like a white fuck would, but Ukenta appeared to him to say that he had to make a land of wisdom? Does that mean the secessionist guys here were ‘snakes’? Is that why they had this letter? Trying to follow Ukenta’s words? I mean… fuck, dude.”
“Fuck, dude, yeah… like it’s a conspiracy within a conspiracy. Weird shit.” He scratches his scalp. “But weren’t those secessionists like a bunch of white racist psychoids? Or is that just want ‘The Man’ has made us believe?” He drops his hand and shakes his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to think… or do with all this stuff. Well, besides the cash.”
Brook nods at the thought of their conspiracy getting deep. They aren’t sure of anything, and that takes a lot of the meaning out of all this. “You can take the cash. But… Danny, can I tell you something important? Something you have to take to your grave, even?”
In the darkness, Daniel’s face crinkles with worry, excitement, doubt, and curiosity. “Uh yeah, yes, of course. We’re best friends.” He takes off a glove and holds up to show the scar on his thumb where as young kids they cut their thumbs and pressed them together. “Blood brothers forever. No matter what.”
He gives his friend a weak smile and takes off his own glove, showing the scar on his own thumb, but he hesitates for a moment. “That week I missed school last year, and when I stopped cutting my hair. I had an… experience, Danny. I…” Brook fishes out the pendant, looking down at the red jewel and steel heart he was gifted.
“The moon saved me from a pack of something wrong… I carried someone hurt out of the woods, a big guy. Back before I was so big. And the moon, she—I sound nuts. But I heard drums, and the moon felt like it was spurring me on. I should have died trying to carry that person.”
Danny listens, attentively in the dark, despite a war of emotions and thoughts waging on his flashlight-lit expression. He looks to Brook, down to the pendant, to the strewn cache, and back to his friend. He makes a motion as if to hold the pendant, but his hand falters. Maybe even shakes. “W-hat… dude, I don’t understand… you like carried a guy, rescued him?”
“Okay, that’s really freaking cool, but what does that have to do with the… moon, and drums you say? And that necklace? I’ve never seen you take it off, but never seen you take it out either. Dude, what the fuck is that?”
Brook looks concerned for a moment, looking to the lip of the cave and out into the blinding light for a moment, quickly stuffing the pendant back into is shirt. He starts the story, telling Danny he’s omitting certain things before he even starts. He leaves out that the man is, or was, a Mooner, that the coyote wasn’t breathing and is probably stumbling blindly out there, all until he gets near the end of his story.
“…after Mary told me those stories, she warned me of snakes, and that they were dangerous, and that this man was one of them. So were the things after me. But when she went inside to call an ambulance he woke up. I could barely understand him, but he thanked me, told me to pick one of his necklaces as a thank you. I picked this one. And he told me to come closer. He warned me about ‘the darkness in me’ and not to be afraid, and…everything went black. I had a vision. And when I woke up, I-…he was gone. I realized the spirits aren’t made up things. Even if I’m not Kainai, the moon gave me the power to pull that man out.”
“That’s… heavy…” is all the boy can reply. Other thoughts and feelings seem to flicker in his eyes and face, but they are like flitting bats in a dark cave: neither youth can identify–much less capture–them. However, Brook knows his friend well enough to be be sure of one thing. For good or ill, Danny believes him.
Brook slowly reaches out and grabs his friend’s wrist, trying to bring this point home. “Please. Never go off alone looking for this kind of stuff. What I saw? The parts I can’t tell you? You shouldn’t have to face them alone. I’d prefer not at all, but… you live here too.”
With his tale told, he puts the scroll gently back into it’s hidden space, and puts the stack of papers over it, sealing the humidor and putting it side by side with the other one. He loads the bullet back into the now unfireable gun and puts it back in the lockbox. He pockets the key as well, resolving to one day find the lock it goes to.
“We should bury this stuff somewhere. You can keep the cash, I’ll keep the key. But if these guys ever come back? I kinda feel we should let them have their stuff back.”
Danny’s reply lacks confidence and finality, but he eventually nods slowly, deferring to his best friend. “Okay…” He looks around. “So, like, you wanna put back in that hole or like bury, uhh, outside?”
Brook looks over Danny for a moment, and just sighs at himself. “Danny, If I lost you? I don’t know what I’d do with myself. So I’m just saying… the forest is dangerous. Take me with you if you ever follow the scent of Ukenta. Okay? You’re my brother.”
Taking his backpack, the half breed carefully pulls everything out of it, wraps the humidors in a plastic bag, and and zips the backpack closed with them both inside, sighing in relief t have them fit. He adds the key in his pocket to the chain of the necklace around his neck, two mysteries hanging from his shoulders, and picks the bible and gun back up. They go back in the lockbox, the young man closing it and hefting it back up to fit in the space in the cave wall they’ve pulled it from, getting Danny’s help to cover it back up with a bit of the concrete rubble. He looks drained, shoulders slack, and he feels relieved to finally tell someone at least part of his story. At least part of something that’s been eating him.
“I get it now, by the way. The snake in the humidor could be Ukenta. The bat might be a Thunderbird. if we’re following a theme.”Despite saying that, the bigger young man grabs the bag and strides into the dark, carefully finding the small alcove he knows will keep it a secret, and hiding the bag there best he can. They can come back or it. Sooner or later.
Daniel holds the big flashlight so Brook can see as he toils. There are a couple times when Brook thinks his friend is about to say something, but the cave’s darkness and echoes make his senses untrustworthy. Yet, when the deed is done, Daniel looks out at the cave-mouth which still radiates oven–like heat. “Still hot as the House of Cthon out there.”
Brook finishes quickly, and once the deed is indeed done, he looks back out at the sunbaked box canyon. It’s been awhile since they got here, and this adventure in finding treasure has been the only interesting part about it. The young man wonders if maybe he’s not capable yet of contacting Danny’s ancestors, but he knows he can just be there for him. “Want to pack up and get out of here? We could go swimming, and then hit up the store for some freezies.”
Daniel looks between the blinding, burning sunlight and the cooler darkness. His flashlight hands low in his hand, idly illuminating a shorn braid. In the chiaroscuro shadows, it resemble a black serpent coiling around the orphan’s heel.
Clicking off the light, Danny tags his best friend on the shoulder, “Life, Brooks. It’s some messed up shit, dude. One moment you’re babysitting for a paycheck, and the next, somebody’s summoning up Hell. So here’s the morale to the story, Space Marine: let’s skip the swimming and go straight for the freezies.”
A few minutes later, after the pair pack up and exit the cave, Brook is struck blind by the sweltering summer sun. He blinks reflexively, squinting away the burning after-images. When they finally fade, it is October, 1998. The black night sky is sliced open by lightning. Thunder roars inside the box-canyon of Scratch’s Corral. Rain pounds down on the muddy ground and wind-blown pines.
For a moment, Brook thinks he hears the rumble of motorcycles, but the sound–if it exists outside his mind–is swallowed by the storm’s cacophony. Ahead, Auld Coot’s Creek slakes itself on the canyon’s run-off. The cave beyond it awaits.
Brook feels the sound move through his chest cavity but he doesn’t blink. If his theory is correct, that this is one of those Ukenta secessionist cult people from way yonder long ago, then… maybe this can end without too much bloodshed. Once the youth spots the cave, he gets low, bow at the ready to fire a piece of wood and steel into the darkness. He slinks in from the rain, stilling his breathing as he carefully watches the dark. Despite his reminiscing about the secrets he has stowed in this area, his heart is still beating a mile a minute. Moses is here, he can almost feel it in his bones, and he’s going to stop this once and for all, ease the burden on his mother and co-workers.
The cave’s interior is dark, but the smell of blood hits the ranger cadet like one of the Britter’s sledgehammers. Fresh blood. In the pitch blackness, Brook’s boot touches something. It wobbles, then tumbles over. Its carrion smell is familiar to the adolescent hunter.
Brook’s entire body goes rigid as the smell hits and sets him on edge. But he’s swallowed a river of blood, it’s not going to stop him now. Even if it seems just the right twinge for him to knock something over in the dark.
The slight sound causes another to awaken. “W-what do you w-want!?” comes a masculine, if thoroughly terrified voice in the darkness. A familiar voice. It’s a voice that’s haunted his childhood. Normally, its tone is one of over-weaned confidence, petty cruelty, and blind bigotry. But the thread of fear has always been there. Deep down in a dark closet.
Amidst the echo of his terrified shout comes the rattle of what sounds like bones, scraped stone, and the ripped strain of duct tape.
Brook’s bow raises up towards the voice, cord tightening until the part of his brain not committed to animal instinct finally connects the dots. Is that? No. Oh no. Nelson. Brook swallows and tries to steady himself. It’s like those war movies, they injure someone out in the open as a trap. Or a bear follows a pack of wolves to take what’s left of a fresh kill.
Brook slowly kneels instead, reaching back into his bag and carefully pulling out two of the thick road flares from his kit. He needs light. But being stealthy isn’t a possibility anymore either, Nelson has heard him and has likely alerted Moses. Speaking loud and clear, he starts reciting years old memories.
“Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms.”
Yanking the cap off of one of the flares, the young hunter quickly strikes the match head of the flare and lights it up in the cave, flooding it with bright red light, revealing the young hunter drawing back the bowstring once again.
In the red phosphorescence glow, the cave looks hellish. Its ‘decor’ only enhances the disturbing effect. The cave walls have been painted in blood. Crude hand-prints, pentagrams, as well as increasingly schizophrenic letters spell out again and again a familiar refrain:
GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE
The ‘object’ that Brook knocked over is revealed to be the head of a mountain-ram that was previously propped up on a rock like an atavistic idol. And in the back of the cave, beside some survival gear and the torn shreds of a soiled straight-jacket, there’s a cage.
It’s made of ram-bones and bent pine-saplings, woven together and further secured with duct tape. Inside the savage, anachronistic prison hangs Nelson. He’s been stripped down to his underwear, his arms and legs hyper-extended and tapped in cocoons of the same duct tape, like a primitive but still painful wrack. The bloody pelt of the mountain ram is wrapped around his shoulders, painting his body is rivulets of gore and fear-sweat.
The boy’s blue eyes squint at the sudden exposure to light, but when he opens them, alarmed shock replaces horror on his face. “Brook! B-Brook!” He gives a short gasp of pain as his exclamation twist his stretched limbs. In the red glow, Brook can see a number of painful bruises covering the nearly naked Nelson.
Brook slowly looks around the cave and scowls, quickly putting his arrow back in its quiver and and putting his bow around his shoulder as he pulls up the shotgun, unafraid of being loud now that he’s turned the lights on. The cave is disgusting, as is the condition that Nelson is in, but this is no time to enjoy seeing him scared and in pain. Quickly and quietly, shotgun aimed at every shadow, the ranger cadet walks along the wall to the cage.
Things slowly set in as he just stands there for a moment. This isn’t how he’s ever pictured his life as a ranger, baring teeth at the dark for a person who’s put him down his entire life. But this isn’t high school, and the realization hits the young man like a wave. This disgusting scene does not belong here. It boils down to this; these are his lands, his wood, and his people. This sick one handed goat fister Moses is fucking with the wrong someone’s flock, and their guardian predator cub isn’t having it, snarling all business at Nelson.
“Shut up. Where is he? Did he leave the cave?”
Brook’s rebuke seems to sting Nelson, but he grows silent. As Brook looks around, he identifies the contents beside the cage: a large backpack and outdoor gear that looks like it was stripped from an unfortunate hiker. But no traps, and no Moses MacDonald. Thunder rumbles outside the cave.
Brook slowly slinks over to the bag, looking up at the mouth of the cave before he opens and starts to go through the bag. If there’s anything he can hold as blackmail or to help them leave, he needs it. “We’re getting you out of here, Nelson. Just like the cabin, do everything I say. Keep an eye on the mouth of the cave, and tell me… how long has he been gone?”
As Brook glances up at Nelson, the ranger cadet sees an expression he’s never witnessed on the jock’s face. Concern. Care. “B-brook!” he blurts out, then swallows hard. “Y-you have to go, g–get out of here. Now! H-he’ll come b-back! He’s… he’s not hu–,” he shakes his head, tears starting to well over his bruised eyes. “He’s… go, s-save yourself… p-please… please!”
Brook looks up at the boy and just pauses a moment, looking back at the cave entrance. This isn’t good, Nelson’s head isn’t right. Not hu… hurt? Human? That would explain a few things. But he needs to calm Nelson down, needs to remind him who he’s talking to.
“Nelson. It’s okay. I’m everywhere, remember? There’s a snake with a blinding crown and the stench of death with me, and I will not become a slave to fear thanks to it. You helped me become this person too, Nelson. Now breathe, and trust me.” Turning the bag up-side down, he carefully empties out the contents.
The upturned bag spills out various outdoor supplies. Maps, compass, MREs, some accelerants, and more. As Brook starts sorting through the items, he glances up to see Nelson suck in a breath. A hot tear rolls down his bruised, grimy jaw, but he takes another breath, and then a third.
Brook spots a few things that can help him here, the accelerants mostly. He’s got more than enough of what he needs to start a fire. Nelson worries him though. Even if he’s finally breathing, he’s still shitting his pants more and more.
“Brook,” he says again, this time no longer in full panic or pleading despair, “He’s crazy. Get me out. Please. We have to get away. We have to run. We ca–”
Nelson’s voice dies amidst a blinding flash of light that frames the cave’s mouth in piercing white. The dreadful radiance frames a man. Or at least something that wears its shape.
Moses Ezekiel MacDonald has a thin, gray mane streaked with disheveled white and balding spots. An equally slovenly, savage beard frames stained teeth whose smile looks equally suited to gnashing throats or feces. Warts and moles litter the oddly plump skin around his deep–shadowed and –creased eyes: manic, psychopathic orbs that bulge with thoughts that no man, living or dead, should imagine.
His unbuttoned shirt and pants hang loosely over his flesh, as if the trappings of civilization will and can never fit. His left sleeve hangs limp and empty as a ghost’s shroud. Dog tags hang from his chest, their aged metal resembling the old shrapnel clearly buried beneath his skin. Rain drips from his mangy locks, clothes, and the lumber axe which hangs from his muscular hand.
Thunder rattles the sky like bone-snapping laughter. Moses’ own teeth chitter and snap in eerie echo.
As the thunder subsides, the psychopath that looks far too young to be a WWII
vet hurls his lumber axe with the casual ease of a man flushing a toilet. Whipping through the air, the deadly sharp tool embeds itself into the barrel of Brook’s shotgun. The sudden force rips the firearm from the ranger cadet’s hands, causing both instruments of death to clatter against the cave wall.
This is him. Moses MacDonald. Mo. Brook stands tall, the brim of his hat keeping the light out of his eyes as he stands up, looking the man over. His heart begins to race again, predator facing predator. But one of them has to take the first flash of teeth, and it’s Moses. The younger man braces as the axe comes in, only to feel the great force of it snap the metal rungs keeping it on the sling over his shoulder, sending it all flying down to the ground. Brook’s only reaction is to put up his fists before…
Moses slowly turns his head, and stares at a spot a foot to the left of Brook’s eyes.
“How old is you, boy?” he asks.
Darkness once again descends upon the canyon, leaving only the blood-red light of the flares. Brook hears his cage–bound peer begin to hyperventilate.
Good, he’s talking. Slowly, the ranger pulls the bow off his shoulders and tosses it down to the pile now being made of their weapons, taking off his hat and tossing it into the pile as well. “Fifteen, Mr. MacDonald. I got your message in that outhouse… I came to talk and get my friend back, maybe trade for something that’s missing if I’m right about the snake and the eagle, and whose side you’re on.” He only hopes he isn’t spouting gibberish at this man. Prays to the absent moon.
“Fifteen…” Moses repeats, still staring at the vacant space with a quasi-vacant gaze. “I was once fifteen, long time ago. Too long by half, I reckon. But once, once I was fifteen. Too young to join the Army and spit in the Führer’s face.” His eyes bulge a bit. “Boy, you ever spit in a man’s face? You ever put your spit in a man’s mouth?”
He doesn’t wait for Brook to answer–if he’s even talking to him: “So there was me, fifteen, walking in them woods one day when I met the Devil, or at least somebody about the right height. Now me, I wasn’t afraid of nobody, German or Devil, so we got right to talking.”
The rain continues to pound against the man’s back and pour down his pants and arm-less sleeve. Moses licks a finger, ‘“Devil,’ said me, ‘How am I gonna get in the Army? ’Lie,’ said the Devil, ’It’s what I’d do.’ ‘Devil,’ said me, ‘I can’t even grow a beard. Give you my soul if you’ll help me out.’"
Moses moves forward, more a stagger than a step, but he continues staring and sharing his tale. “But the Devil said, him, ’I’ve go a lot of souls, but I’m sure I can think of something else. Tell you what, you go to town and you sign up for the Army, and I’ll make sure you get in, and I’ll make sure you see action.’”
Another step closer. “So I shook the Devil’s hand, me, and went down to town. Sure enough, they took me, and a year later, I was starving in a foxhole somewhere in France. Then one day, I step on a landmine. So I’m here bleeding, and who do I see? The Devil himself, come round again. ‘You here for my soul, Devil?’ said me.”
Moses takes another shuffle closer. “But the Devil, he shook his head, ‘I told you, son, I don’t need souls. I’m starving out here, though. All the meat is mangled and charred. I don’t suppose you need that hand?’”
Another step. “Now me, I started to argue, but I knew the rest of me was all torn up and my left arm was the only part halfway decent. A deal is a deal, so I let the Devil gnaw off my hand, and because he was really hungry he ate off a bit more, see?”
Moses twists his torso, causing the armless sleeve to slap wetly against his bare chest. “’You’re a plain dealer,’ said the Devil, ‘And I don’t need one of those in Hell. Kill one more man for me when you get home, and I’ll make sure you live a good long time.’”
Another step. Nearly an arm’s length away now, Moses adds, “Sure enough, some Frenchie found me within the hour and got me shipped back home. I killed my brother–in–law not a day after I got off the boat.”
Moses’ bulging eyes suddenly slide to lock hold of Brook’s. “A deal’s a deal, boy. Fifteen…”
Brook doesn’t move, but he feels his heart going faster and faster the closer the man gets to them, and things slowly start to click into place. Isn’t human. This man isn’t human, is that what Nelson was trying to say? And here it is, a man who claims he’s been alive since WWII
, with the Devil following him. It’s a lot to take in, but the young man stands his ground where he is, never once looking away or giving the man an opening of weakness. And finally, it’s the eye contact he’s been waiting for. He looks Moses right back in the eye. There isn’t a doubt in his mind this man is who and what he says he is. Btween ghost riders and shadow beasts with tits, Brook is ready to believe anything.
“That’s what ‘give the Devil his due’ means, then. I believe you, Moses. I met the Devil once too, and I’ve seen his devils and wandering souls a plenty. But I’m not like you were. I’m scared, for these people in these lands, I’ve sworn to the one who pulled me from a sack in a river that I’d protect them from what wanders these woods. The Devil told me though, not to deny what I am, and to stare down my darkness, lest I become a slave to fear.”
Searching in the madman’s eyes, he hopes he can find a glimmer of hope for himself. “You’re a plain dealer, Moses. I might have something I can trade with you.”
Moses cocks like a mongrel hearing a strange noise–or perhaps an old familiar one. He then lurches forward, the smell of fecal parasites and strange chemicals pungent on his breath and radiating from his rain-slick pores.
Nelson chokes back a cry of fear or protest.
Brook wills himself not to flinch, but his eyes trail over to the caves secret alcove, and back to Moses. This is a long shot, but if Moses is interested in affirmation…? It can work.
“The Devil sent a snake to Eden to tempt Eve, and I have a letter from a man that snake once again appeared to. Representative of South Carolina, Edward Rutledge. A letter proclaiming God’s dominion over the lands of my people long ago. This is Witiko Falls, the Devil has his fill of death and flesh here. But I can give you this letter, and you can burn it in his name. Burn the lies of the man who put the eagles that watch you on dollar bills, in the name of God.”
The sky growls in a low pitch that shakes the earth. Moses sniffs the air. “Let’s see this toilet paper, you.” The asylum escapee doesn’t move to make it easier for Brook to disentangle himself to get the alleged colonial letter. But Moses waits as the teenager heads to the cave’s alcove. Brook catches a terrified, confused look from Nelson, as he glances back.
But as Brook moves the rocks aside from the tall ledge, it’s his own face that must choke back terror, or at least confusion. The backpack. It’s gone.
Brook winces and feels a tremble of everything ring through his body. Fear, frustration, impotence. The thought to sneak around the corner and blast the lunatic’s head off his shoulders comes up into mind, as does the hard knuckles of his gloves and how much damage he’s sure they could do against him. But if he’s not even human what can the boy do to affect him? Thoughts of the Irishman pop up again, the blood, the missing body, the need to throw all that up. The thought that he’d eaten a human being. All too late. Thirteen-year-old naiveté has made this a dangerous situation.
Brook walks out the alcove empty-handed. “I’m sorry. It’s been taken. I… thought it would be safe. Thirteen-year-old me wasn’t thinking. If you give me a few days maybe I can find it.”
Moses’ eyes squint and roll. His teeth chitter as if chewing on Brook’s words.
And then, just as suddenly, his eyes fly open, bulging with rage as he races towards Brook, gnarled fingers raised like bayonets. His raw screams oil the cave, “Lying to me?! LYING
TO ME?! ALWAYS LYING
, ALWAYS WATCHING
ME, ME, ME, MEHE
Nelson screams a vain warning as Moses leaps down upon Brook, his one hand clutching hold of Brook’s jacket, breaking the zipper.
Another distant lightning-bolt sunders the night.
Brook watches Moses closely as he does that chewing, feeling the leather of his gloves tighten as he clenches his fists. This is the moment, whether his words reach the man or a monster descends on him. There’s an instant he looks over at Nelson, just before the screaming starts. Synapses fire in his brain all at once, the young man’s body tensing and a deep fear rising in his gut as he’s grabbed by the jacket.
The lightning hits, and it feels like it hits in the teen’s chest. Words have failed him, and he remembers flashes of voices as a primal violence wells up like bile in his throat.
w h a t e v e r y o u h a v e t o
y o u w a n t t o b e f r e e
Brook’s body reacts on it’s own as those voices echo in his head, a foot sliding back in the same moment Moses grabs him. Nelson sees something he’s never seen on Brook’s face before, a kind of bestial snarl, teeth borne, screaming in murderous effort, and eyes wider than what looks possible, as his classmate’s fist suddenly comes up from in between the two of them, slamming hard as rocks into the psychopath’s jaw in a bone shattering uppercut. His gloves push the impact all through them, he barely feels a thing, but the steel on his knuckles makes sure Moses can feel it.
Moses’ jaw caves in like over-ripe melon rind. Blood and teeth spew from his mangled mouth, sticking in his now-shredded beard. The bone-crushing blow knocks Moe backwards, crashing into the nearby cage of ram skeleton and pine sapling. The structure snaps, twisting the still duct-taped Nelson into a painful contortion. As the prison implodes, Nelson goes down hard on the cave-rock floor. Brook lamely feels Moe’s hand clutching for his throat, but the enraged teen beats him off.
Brook is losing the plot, fear mixing with rage and pent-up feelings as he feels the man’s bones give way to his savage uppercut, sending them both into the cage and into Nelson before the struggling pair rolls on their own backs to the side. Brook brushes off the man’s attempt at a strangle-hold and roars spit into his face, before…
As the trio of bodies roll over each other and the tangle of bones and branches, Moses and Brook finally break away from the ensnaring morass. When they do so, the taller teen sees that the grisly goat-pelt is twisted around Moses’ head, exposing only his lower jaw. A jaw that inexplicably begins to resew itself back together before Brook’s eyes. New teeth bursting from scabbing over gums, bones re-popping into place. The madman smiles wickedly and spits into Brook’s face, his blood and broken teeth-shards speckling the young man’s face. His laughter is the sound of insanity.
Oh no. It’s happening again. Just like the coyote in the woods, the man’s head just wills itself back into existence and sends a shiver down the teenager’s spine. But the words echo in his head and he will fight. Brook shifts his focus, rearing back his arm and aiming for the madman’s chest, slamming his arm down into it as hard as he can.
“You think you’re special, shit-fingers!? Coyotes round these parts got the same kinda tricks!! I’ll eat your fucking heart!!!”
Moses laughs. A few feet away, Nelson lays flat on his back, his neck at an odd angle against a rock outcropping, his limbs still trapped in duct-tape, but at least no longer pulled taut.
As Brook rears back his fist, Moses feints with his own fist, only to cunningly wrap a leg around Brook’s off-balance arm. The ranger cadet is flipped painfully onto his stomach. No sooner does he slam into the bones, saplings, and stone does Moses snatch Brook by the hair and bash his face into the strewn cave floor. “You ain’t listening, boy! Devil don’t want my heart, but he’s still plenty hungry!! HahahahaheehaheHEHAHAahAHEEheeHA!!!”
The head blow leaves Brook stunned, with rock and lunatic laughter ringing in his ears. He’s only dimly aware of his arms being pulled back and bound amid the tell-tale sound of unrolled duct tape.
Brook’s trained eyes flick over to the young bully for just a moment before affirming that he’s most likely still breathing. But it’s quickly the last thing on his mind as he turns back and everything goes wrong. His hand is caught, pulled around and onto his stomach by the military monster suddenly above him. It’s a terrifying moment and the young man’s least favorite, the restrictions of bonds pulling on his arms as he’s locked into a grapple, hurting his arm as he screams into the stone, aching and burning from the rough treatment, until he feels his hair yanked and head slammed into the floor.
The sound of Moses’ laughter stops when the madman suddenly goes stiff and sniffs the air. “Candyman….” he whispers with a low hiss.
Brook, however, smells nothing but Moses’ fecal odor and the still cloying smell of blood, both animal and otherwise. But the rousing teen does hear what could be footsteps approaching the cave, the sound of multiple people crossing the creek. Perhaps it’s a trick of the cave echoes, or perhaps he’s become infected a touch of Moses’ madness. Or perhaps not.
There’s a moment of stunned silence from the boy, a breath and reevaluation as he feels his bonds get even tighter. It seems this maniac doesn’t understand as well, but before Brook can say anything, there’s a silent moment of recognition. Smoke from his flare at the mouth of the cave, hopefully a moment of checkmate, as renewed vigor and a wide crooked grin crosses the young ranger’s face.
“There are older things than your Devil, fuck-face. Hungrier things! I didn’t say he’d eat your heart, I said I would. THIS
IS THE PIT
AT THE CENTER
OF MY FUCKING BEING
, I’LL DIVE
IN AND FUCKING STARE
! I WILL FIGHT
! I WILL NOT BECOME
Brook takes a sharp breath and screams his rage at the top of his lungs, an atavistic howl of effort and victory that’s become a recurring theme in his life as his arms bulge and strain, twisting madly, like a coyote caught in a trap. It hurts, it pops joints and threatens to pull muscles, a stinging throb through his arms before there’s a rip, a snap, and finally he tears his arms free, bashing his knuckles together and letting out another animalistic howling scream at the man, his mind slipping beyond words as he announces his entrance back into the fight.
Moses’ steps back from Brook’s preternatural strength and feral rage. Slack jawed, eyes bulging, he glances to the cave’s exit and the sounds of the approaching figures, then back to the youth whose dual hearts of iron and flesh fill the cavern with the echoes of pounding hot blood and the pungent odor of predators and primal fears. Moses seems to shrink, back and away.
Brook sees that look and knows already that he’s faced down a demon and isn’t the the one who flinched. Like any predator, this hesitation is blood in the water. The half-feral teen advances an ominous step, crouched to pounce with seething heavy breaths, littering the cave floor with spittle and what blood Moses has managed to get onto the boy’s lip when his head was caved in like a melon. All the boy can think about is collapsing his chest cavity, rending his limbs, holding him down and hog-tying him to beat him with steel knuckles until backup comes.
Then Nelson groans and starts to shift. The sound snatches the attention of both predators, but Moses’ reflexives prove faster. He draws a large hunting knife from behind his back and hoists up the semi-conscious jock by his neck, the knife’s blade pressed against the youth’s throat. “I’ll give you credit, boy,” Moses says with a dark smile, “But give the Devil his due.”
Nelson rouses as the cold knifepoint pricks his skin. Disoriented, the concussed youth starts to yell, but only manages a choking vomit.
Then it’s Nelson. Rage takes a sudden back seat to caution as an area around the madman is set like an electric fence, just with a knife against his classmate’s neck. Nelson is in danger, and a lot of it at that. There’s little even doctors can do for a half-severed head.
A peal of thunder cracks outside. The accompanying flash of lightning starkly illuminates three figures.
His trench coat is drenched with rain and muck, his receding wind-tossed hair is blown every which way, and water drips from his face like effusively pouring sweat. The broken bits of twig, leaves, and moss scattered over his shoulders only further add to his feral mien. He is accompanied by two more Kevlar-clad figures, a man and woman with darker skin and equally soaked, muck-smeared clothing. Their leader’s countenance is grimly resolute: that of an arbiter of civilization tasked with upholding it in a wild land that knows it not. Yet the Marshal’s belt-clipped golden star, the same one worn by generations of lawmen who brought order to the Wild West, is no stranger to such places. Its five burnished points stand in eerily inverted synchrony to the feces-painted pentagram Brook encountered yesterday, and the dark cave’s hellish red light only serves to further blur the boundaries of the rain-drenched, wild-eyed figures staring one another down. Cop and criminal, lawman and murderer, man and monster.
Three guns train towards the center of Moe’s chest as Hudson takes in the situation–and the knife pressed to Nelson Judd’s throat.
Then the Marshal’s expression relaxes. It’s not quite a smile. The circumstances are too grim. The man bearing it too disheveled. But it’s something that tugs at Hudson’s lips and creases his eyelids.
“Moses. Looks like we’re just in time to see the Devil get his due.”
GM: Roughly an hour after Red Aspen failed to come in over radio, Hudson and Deputy Marshals Porter and Matlock followed Brook’s dirt bike trail into the box–canyon named Scratch’s Corral. After contacting the only in-range NPS ranger and waiting for multiple relays on the static-warbled radios, Hudson had waited only long enough for Curtis and Matthew to arrive with the three heavy-duty state police motorcycles, before leaving the Britter’s and their Blue Mooncalf dairy farm to investigate Red Aspen’s radio silence. There, the law officers had confirmed the rangers’ suspicion that lightning had fried the tower, but they had also found several other disconcerting clues.
Namely, Brook Barnes was missing, with no signs of forced entry, and a dirt bike track started from the station’s shed and lead away into dark storm-hammered paths. Deputy Lowder was left to man the station and await Mary Madcatcher’s inevitable arrival, while Hodges and Hensler returned to the Britter’s.
Hudson: To say the US Marshal was red in the face would be an understatement. Hudson’s teeth clenched and his eyes bulged as if the candy-gorging man were finally having his long-overdue heart attack. The radio in the kid’s truck was working just fine. Brook could have contacted them over that. Now, Hudson found himself having to redivert key personnel when manpower was already stretched thin, putting god knows how many peoples’ lives in danger on account of one stupid kid.
GM: It had been an ugly, rough ride from Red Aspen to Scratch’s Corral. The heavy bikes constantly threatened to slip or slide off the muddy unpaved park trails, all of which were utterly unfamiliar to the three town foreigners who were trying their utmost to simultaneously maintain control of their vehicles, follow the dirt bike tracks amid lightning and pounding rain, and somehow go as fast as possible to catch up before… before things only went to hell. More than they already were.
Now, at the entrance to the canyon, all three federal agents are drenched in rain and mud and likely unkind thoughts towards the ranger cadet who’s dragged them out here. With the help of their motorcycle’s police-grade headlamps, Hudson quickly spots the red glow of road flares silhouetting the cave-mouth. As Curtis finally catches up to the others, Cassidy nudges her boss and points up. Against the backdrop of lightning, rain, and night-black storm clouds, dozens of headlamps rim the towering canyon walls.
“We got company, boss-man,” says the Mississippi Marshal.
From this distance, Hudson can tell the headlamps belong to other motorcycles, but little else. They, unlike the cave at the back of the canyon and the creek between them, are out of reach. The arm of the law may be long, but it has its limits. Yet, despite the disconcerting and presently unreachable ring of motorbikes above the canyon, it’s the hellish-red cave light that has his ‘Little Man’ finally wake up and start yelling FIRE!
Hudson: Hudson kills his motorbike’s engine and clambers off, his already mud-soaked shoes squelching as they press into the muck. Then again, he also wishes there wasn’t a boy missing with a serial killer on the loose. The Marshal’s once-livid fury has subsided into grim determination under the storm’s relentless downpour–and has set his little man increasingly on edge. Now he’s awake and screaming his head off. Road flares. If there’s anyone who had access to those, it’s that damn kid. Hudson has a terrible, gut-wrenching sense of what he’s going to find in that cave. The motorbikes do little to set him at ease. His little man might not be screaming over those, but he’s giving a good hard frown. It’s also as Cassidy says–no time.
Never enough time.
Hudson grabs his radio with gloved but still-rain-soaked fingers and growls his latest–and potentially final–communication to Lowder. “Schofeld to Red Aspen. 10-97. 10-78. Repeat, 10-78. Send immediate backup. Kid and maybe Moses in cave. Unknown motorcycles by canyon walls. Dozens of them. Schofeld out. Schofeld out.”
GM: There’s a crackled reply on the rain-splattered police radio. The thunderstorm renders Lowder’s or some other person’s voice a static gargle, but one which Hudson’s believes acknowledges his request for back-up. “C..p.. tha…, …ho…ld…”
Hudson: The safety clicks off Hudson’s .40 S&W as the lead Marshal’s countenance settles into a grimly certain look the younger feds know all-too well. Two chunk-chunks sound from the 12-gauge Remington 870s as the three Marshals stalk towards the cave’s entrance.
GM: As Cassidy and Curtis makes visual sweeps behind their superior, the latter asks, “Mission objectives, sir?”
Hudson: Hudson stows the radio and pats the bag full of possibly futile prisoner restraints clipped to his belt. “Get the kid out safe and back to Red Aspen. Take Moses into custody, if that’s him my little man is throwing a screaming fit over. Put him down if he doesn’t come quietly.”
GM: “Yes, sir,” Curtis replies with the eager expression of a soldier ready for war.
Cassidy may or may not roll her eyes as she mutters something about ‘Rambo Commando’.
Both deputies, however, fall silent as the trio of marshals stalks stealthily across the copse and creek, stepping over downed logs while making sure they aren’t being trailed. By the time they reach the dead end of Auld Coot’s Creek, all three marshals hear the shouting. Hudson instantly identifies one of the voices as Moses’.
“Lying to me?! LYING TO ME?! ALWAYS LYING, ALWAYS WATCHING, WATCHING ME, ME, ME, MEHE, HEHEHAHAHAHAHEEHEE!!!”
The second voice is younger, less familiar, but not wholly unfamiliar either. “You think you’re special, shit-fingers!? Coyotes round these parts got the same kinda tricks!! I’ll eat your fucking heart!!!”
“You ain’t listening, boy! Devil don’t want my heart, but he’s still plenty hungry!! HahahahaheehaheHEHAHAahAHEEheeHA!!!”
“I didn’t say he’d eat your heart, I said I would. THIS IS THE PIT AT THE CENTER OF MY FUCKING BEING, I’LL DIVE IN AND FUCKING STARE IT DOWN! I WILL FIGHT! I WILL NOT BECOME A SLAVE TO FEAR!”
The violent words are matched by sounds of a physical altercation equally mad and bloodthirsty.
Hudson: That’s all Hudson needs to hear. Thunder cracks as a bolt of lightning strikes overheard—and so do the U.S. Marshals.
Hudson: Three guns train towards the center of Moe’s chest as Hudson takes in the situation–and the knife pressed to Nelson Judd’s throat.
Then the Marshal’s expression relaxes. It’s not quite a smile. The circumstances are too grim. The man bearing it too disheveled. But it’s something that tugs at Hudson’s lips and creases his eyelids.
“Moses. Looks like we’re just in time to see the Devil get his due.”
GM: Moses barks out a wild babble of laughter. With his back to the cave rock, he glances outward to the three still distant marshals. With blood and teeth streaking his beard, a gory ram-pelt wrapped haphazardly over his head, and red road-flare fog swirling around his legs, the fugitive looks nothing short of demonic.
“Candyman! Smelled you, I did!” There’s another bark of laughter. “Back away, piggies, or I gut this boy!” The knife presses harder against Nelson’s neck.
Brook: It’s the cavalry. Brook peeks over his shoulder to see the three figures, two of whom he’s very glad to see, and a third he’s… oh. Is that how it is? The dark-haired and manic-looking teen wonders for a moment if sending the rangers out everywhere but here has been the fat man’s plan, but it doesn’t matter now. He stays on guard and doesn’t say a word, waiting for an opening or a signal from the fed who’s just walked into the scene.
GM: Moses herds his knifepoint hostage out of the cave. “SQUEAL!!!! SQUEHEHAHEHAHEHEEEHAHAEAL!!”
Nelson involuntarily obliges. He tries to call out, to shout back a curse, but the knife in his neck hurts so keenly.
“I’ve got the shot, sir,” Curtis whispers to his superior, his eyes never leaving the madman.
The rain continues to pour down.
Hudson: Gears turn in the fat man’s rain-soaked head. Moses Ezekiel MacDonald is 100% certifiably and quantifiably batshit, even by Bedlam’s standards. And most Satanists’. The blood, the feces, the absence of any named demons in his ‘paintings’, the brutal murderers that lack any ritual component or identifiable religious symbolism… Moses is a being of seemingly pure, sadistic id, and it’s a wonder that he’s even capable of venerating a force beyond his own immediate, murderous gratification. There’s no reason to his actions, but there is a rhyme to them, however twisted.
It might be the only thing that has a shot of saving poor Mr. Judd’s life.
“We know you’re just going to kill him anyway, Moses,” Hudson calls out over the rain, his Glock still raised.
He meets the fugitive’s maddened eyes, then continues, “That’s what you need, someone to kill for your ritual. And you can’t do it right here, or you’d have opened Mr. Judd’s throat already. You’ve had plenty time to do that too, judging by the state he’s in. No, there’s a place you need to kill him.”
“But if you do open his throat, Moses,” Hudson continues, the rainfall steadily plunking against his leveled gun, “that’s the end. Perhaps we’ll gun you down, or perhaps we’ll haul you back to the loony bin, where you’ll get slapped in a straitjacket, thrown into a padded room, and doped up on so many meds that you’ll forget why you even wanted to come out here. Either way, that’ll be the sad end of the road for Moses Ezekiel MacDonald. No sacrifice. No ritual. Zilch.”
Hudson genuinely isn’t sure how much of what he’s saying is getting through to the lunatic, so he reiterates, “Take another step and we’ll shoot, because we know Mr. Judd won’t be coming back with you.”
“Or,” the Marshal continues, another tight almost-smile stealing across his features, “The two of us can strike a deal. Just like the one you struck with the Devil, all those years ago.”
“I’d listen to the boss-man if I were you,” Cassidy chips in, her Remington remaining fixed at Moses’ head. “It’s pretty much a no-brainer to shoot you if you’re just gonna kill the kid anyway. But maybe we can work something out.”
Curtis doesn’t spare so much as a grunt, which would be inaudible in any case over the rain, as he calmly states, “Got you right in my sights. Talk or eat lead. Your call.”
Brook: Brook listens, words slowly starting to hold meaning again for him after his slight breakdown of personality. This is too important to be selfishly angry, and the teen slowly forms a plan in his head on how he can help. Besides running the man down, which ultimately means a dead Nelson.
GM: Moses pauses against the collective words. He halts his captive roughly just outside the cave, ducking his head, so only one eye peaks out at the night-shrouded marshals. The rain spatters over them all, save for the ranger cadet still within the cave. The downpour plinks and crashes off trees, stone, and the swelling creek, occasionally swallowed up by rattling thunder.
Moses doesn’t even bother with counter threats, but instead shouts back as plain, severe, and sincere as a bullet in the brain, “Murder me, Candyman.”
“Swear on that star and your last candy bar, that you’ll let me walk a good stone’s throw, and then murder me. Do that, and I’ll plain as day let this boy go.”
Hudson: If something sounds too good to be true, it is.
Hudson’s hackles immediately rise at the offer. Even for someone as crazy as Moses Ezekiel MacDonald, it’s wholly inconsistent with his behavior until this point. No one suddenly just decides they want to die. No, Moses thinks he’ll be the sacrifice. If he dies at the same spot he means to kill Nelson Judd, he thinks that death will have lasting meaning. Revenge on the people who’ve wronged him. God only knows how, but the lunatic seems absolutely certain of it.
The only question is, is he right?
The lawman’s every instinct screams at him. This would be giving the criminal exactly what he wants, not to mention a hundred different kinds of illegal. Hudson has seen some pretty disturbing things in this town, things that make reluctant to simply scoff off Moses. But this is a boy’s life in front of him.
The rain pours down, and with a horrid feeling in his gut that such would be making his own devil’s bargain, the Marshal answers,
“I swear by my badge as a United States Marshal, and by the wet Three Musketeers bar I have in the bottom of my pocket, that I will let you walk a stone’s throw and shoot you dead if you release Mr. Judd.”
Brook: Brook narrows his eyes at the lunatic. He has no idea what Moses hopes to achieve here or what’s going on in his head, but he echoes the thoughts of the Marshal. But he reaches into his jacket and pulls the hand cannon out into view, preparing himself to see a man die. If that’s what he wants. As long as Nelson is safe, that’s all that matters right now. The boy’s hand goes steady while his heart pumps a million miles an hour at the prospect of finishing this here and now. He doesn’t say a word, but simply points his weapon at the madman’s heart, waiting for the moment Moses tries to pull himself back together to try escaping them. He remembers all-too well what’s already happened.
GM: Cassidy’s aim and arm don’t waver, but her whisper shakes, “Boss? What are you doing?”
Hudson: “Whatever it takes to save the kid,” Hudson grimly answers. “Now play along.”
GM: Her brow furrows, relaxes in relief, and then sets back into poker-face determination. “You got it, boss-man.”
Hudson: “Release Judd and we’ll shoot you dead. Glad to,” Curtis calls back.
“Fine. You’re crazy enough to die, we’ll be happy to oblige you,” Cassidy echoes.
Hudson levels a glare at Brook’s pointed weapon and loudly calls out, “Put that away, Mr. Barnes. You’re in enough trouble as it is.”
GM: “LIARS!!!” shouts Moses, “AIN’T NOBODY ROUND HERE A PLAIN DEALING MAN?!!”
He forces Nelson to walk forward, using the boy as a human shield. “Kraut-licking, sonavabitch, Candyman! You think I don’t know what a face looks like when it’s squared up to murder?! Me?!”
Hudson: Hudson grimaces as the lunatic sees through him. So much for that tactic. Moses is set on blood. His or anyone’s. The Marshals can try to shoot him dead, in which case it’s entirely possible they might hit Judd or Moses will slit his throat. Or…
“Take me instead, Moses,” he calls. “I’m facing mandatory retirement in three years. One sacrifice is good as another, right?”
Both of the other Marshals offer the boss their best stunned looks.
“Boss, you’re crazy!”
GM: Moses keeps walking forward with Nelson held at knifepoint, driving through the rain and muck. “Too old, too fat,” the lunatic yells, one bulging eye sweeping the night-shrouded Marshals. “Gimme the negro girl, Candyman!”
“The what?!” Cassidy shouts, unable to control herself.
Hudson: Well, Moses is right on those first two counts. Hudson might even laugh if a boy’s life wasn’t on the line.
“That’s up to her, Moses, though I’ll kindly ask you not to call Marshal Porter names,” the fat fed calls back.
“You’ll be the one who’s laughing when we have him in cuffs,” the Marshal quietly tells his subordinate.
GM: Moses seems confused.
Brook: Brook knows that the triple-crossed madman is just a ticking time bomb. But this is good. They have one thing over him, and that’s numbers. Hudson can sit on him if he likes. When he’s called out, he sheathes the weapon back in his coat. Then the focus is away from him. These are cops and soldiers, and the thought puts an idea in the young man’s head. It’s stupid stupid idea, but the only one that sounds as though it’s going to work as he watches Moses scream at the cops in front of him. Hunters have something even more important. They have patience. They have stealth.
The crouching young ranger uses the cover of the rain to creep to the lunatic, evading everyone’s notice before it’s time to strike. The adults are yelling about sacrificing themselves and who will go. It’s time.
Brook’s hands dart up out of blackness. One grabs Moses’ knife arm. The other wraps around his neck, getting a solid grip on lunatic in the rain. Brook just hopes his gloves don’t fail him.
GM: Brook could almost swear he sees a bat soar past him just he grabs hold of the homicidal maniac. Moses gives a strangled scream, and in the storm, the lunatic, the concussed jock, and the ranger cadet all find themselves tangled together, a lightning-lit knot of limbs wherein lurks a deadly sharp knife.
For the federal agents still several yards away, it’s almost impossible to see what is happening. Only the smoky road flare light catches them in frenetic, pugilistic silhouette.
Hudson: Even dim as that light is, and miserable as the conditions are, the Marshals’ aim is trained at Georgia’s Federal Law Enforcement Training Center for 21 weeks, and true as their starred badges’ golden gleam. A single silhouette is yet distinct. The one with but a single arm.
The Marshals don’t waste a second. Three deafeningly loud roars split the air like thunderbolts.
Brook: Brook looks up just in time to see raising guns. Now it’s up to his luck and the skill of these people. He closes his eyes a moment before three cracks of lightning hit something very close to him, and very near him.
GM: The bullseye precise salvo manages not only to avoid the innocent teens, but squarely strike Moses’ sole arm as it tries to raise up its knife to plunge into one of the boys.
But he never has the chance. The three shots eviscerate Moe’s one arm, tearing it off the shoulder and rending its length into a pulp that showers the grapplers. Moses’ cries cut the sky like lightning, nearly blinding in their pain.
Nelson half-drops, half–falls away, shouting and skidding back away as fast as he can, even as droplets of flesh and blood mingle with the rain and fall over and into Brook’s eyes and mouth and body.
Moses collapses hard.
Brook: Brook’s eyes open just in time to see everything, red tinted or not, as what’s left of the arm comes flying off in horrific fashion and hits the wet floor of Scratch’s Corral. There’s a sudden weight and sickening churn in his stomach, but he ignores it as bodies start sliding. First Nelson. Then Moses. It looks like it’s over, but… it’s not.
His anger returns, not near as much as it once was, but it’s there. Brook pulls out and tosses his revolver over towards the Marshals just in case the arm grows back too fast. Moses has seen it, after all. But after that, the teen descends on the inmate, wrapping his arms tight around him before he can recover. They have to dog-pile him! Cuff him and wrap him up! Arm or no, the teen bear-hugs Moses to the ground and yells,
“MARSHAL HUDSON! QUICKLY!! HE’LL GROW IT BACK, COME HELP ME TIE HIM UP!”
GM: “Kid’s in shock,” Curtis replies to his boss.
Hudson: Hudson nods absently in agreement and picks up his radio as the three Marshals briskly stride over. “Schofeld to Red Aspen. 10-95. Repeat, 10-95. Over.” Whatever state Brook may be in, Moe’s going to need immediate first aid if he’s to have any hope of surviving–assuming he isn’t dead already.
GM: Cassidy strides over, shotgun in hand, and checks on the downed asylum escapee. “He ain’t going anywhere in his condition, kid, except the morgue.”
Hudson: Hudson kneels down and feels Moses’ neck for a pulse.
GM: It’s difficult with the manic teen still trying to hold down the dying, armless man. The ground is slick with blood, which continues to pour from Moses’ arm… hole.
Hudson: “Mr. Barnes, get off him,” Hudson snaps. The Marshal rips a strip of fabric off his soaked longcoat and tightly wraps it around Moses’ arm-hole to staunch the bleeding. The improvised tourniquet is quite crude, and utterly insufficient, but it’s a start.
GM: In Brook’s unhinged state, with the taste of blood and human flesh still on his lips, he feels the jerks of Moses’ death throes. Each time, he expects to see the man rise, to inexplicably start growing a new arm and try to murder than all… but none of that happens. After repeated prodding by the adult federal agents, the teen slowly realizes that he’s bear-hugging an old, armless, dying man in the bloodied, rain-drenched grass and rubble.
Brook: Brook slowly releases his grip on the man as the others come around him. He spits to the side and looks Moses over. It’s not growing back. Of course. Maybe it’s… maybe he turned whatever it was off, after saying he was going to die? Maybe it was voluntary. The teen knows that he isn’t insane, this is a ploy to get out alive, and the three cops are falling for it. That’s fine. That’s okay. Brook sits up on the escapee’s lower body and reaches over his shoulder, rips out the medkit he’d packed and puts it down on Moses’ chest, so that the Marshals can work with something other than nothing.
“Are you all certified? I can help!”
Hudson: “Oh, you’ve helped MORE than enough already, Mr. Barnes!” the fat Marshal barks in a tone that does not sound at all complimentary as he frantically works to save the dying man’s life.
Brook: Brook is off the man the moment the fat white Marshal insults him. This is where the young man curses that first part, treated like a burden despite the fact he was here defending Nelson before they ever showed up! And he even got here by himself, no partner and no city police training. He leaves them the medical kit and goes over to Nelson as he wakes up.
GM: The police radio crackles to life. This time it’s a male voice and one less warbled by static, “Schofeld, th..s…Red As…n. Skinny Chet’s… the com. 10-4 on 10…, will 10-5. Confirm… 10-52. Repeat… 10-52? Madcatcher and…. are 10-76 to… but please give me a 10-20. Repeat… 10-20, Over.”
Hudson: Hudson snatches back up the radio. “Schofeld to Red Aspen. We are at Scratch’s Corral and imminently en route back to station. Prisoner in critical condition. 10-52. Repeat, 10-52. Over.”
GM: The radio reply is quick. “10-4, Scho…, will 10-5, Out.”
Meanwhile, Curtis looks over Nelson with a penlight.
“Wh-where am I? Wh-what the fuck?!”
Nelson’s blue, asymmetrically sized eyes find Brook in the darkness, “Br-brooks? Is that you, man?”
Brook: Brook shows his face in the dark and nods. “Backup is here, Nelson. Hang in there, this guy will take care of you!”
Hudson: Good enough. Hudson glances at the teen and lets Curtis take care of that. He motions to Cassidy, and the two frantically, desperately spend the next five minutes yanking Moses MacDonald back from the jaws of death. The night tries to hide the worst of the blood, pain, and sweat, and the rain does its best to wash away the stains. But some memories are no so easily rinsed from one’s mind.
Brook: It’s a tense next few minutes, Brook rushes out to get his Dirt bike, hoping they can use it to help, but other than that…he just watches. Half of his hopes they save him, the part he wants to listen to. Another part reminds him what happened, what his head was like, and how this has to be a ruse. He knows they’ll all rescue him.
GM: “Let’s not do… that again,” Cassidy eventually says to Hudson when they finally stabilize the now twice-amputated fugitive.
Hudson: “If it’s never again, Cassidy, that’ll be too soon,” the lead Marshal agrees as the two gingerly move the bandaged, dying, but at least stabilized Moses towards the parked motorcycles. He sharply motions for the others to follow.
GM: “I think the white kid’s got a concussion or TBI, sir,” Curtis says to his superior as he and Brook help Nelson limp across the rough terrain.
Hudson: Hudson pulls out the belly chain he’d intended to restrain Moses with. “All right. Cassidy, tie him to your waist. Curtis, let’s tie Moe to yours. He’s in no condition to make that kind of ride in this kind of shape, but I don’t see much other choice.”
GM: Nelson’s speech is slurred, but he protests and says he wants to ride with Brook. Indeed, ever since coming to, the disoriented youth hasn’t wanted the ranger cadet out of his sight. He repeatedly asks where they are, why everyone’s here, and what is going on, but it’s one particular passing remark that strikes Brook the most oddly.
It’s after Nelson realizes that both he and Brook are splattered with blood, that he jokes about how the pair “really are blood brothers,” and holds up his knife-scarred thumb. And Brook realizes that he’s not joking.
Hudson: Hudson shakes his head as he finishes tying the belly chain between Curtis and the newly arm-less Moses. “Can’t do, Mr. Judd. You’ll get to see him back at Red Aspen.”
GM: With the trooper headlamps on, Brook shockingly notes that Nelson’s thumb-scar eerily resembles his own, a self-inflicted injury dating back to late elementary school.
Hudson, and his retinue, meanwhile note that the thunderstorm is passing, and with it, the ring of biker-lights above the canyon pull away, one by one, the roar of their engines creating one last peal of thunder.
Brook: Brook keeps near Nelson, knowing that he’s having a hard time. Just going through all that, at least he’s alive. Covered in blood, bruised, battered, almost nude, and… scarred? The young Indian’s eyes widen as he sees the thumb scar, and worse yet, Nelson knows what it means. Only him and Danny did this together, how could their life-long bully know about it? Let alone have it!?
He doesn’t say anything and pats Nelson’s shoulder for his denied request. He finds his revolver on the ground, puts it in its holster, and mounts up on his dirt bike. He’s ready to go. Ready to get the fuck out of here.
Hazel: Attila Awakens
GM: Such wildering scenes, such flitting shapes
As feverish dreams display:
What if those fancies still increase
And reason quite decay?
GM: Our life is twofold; Sleep hath its own world,
A boundary between the things misnamed
Death and existence: Sleep hath its own world,
And a wide realm of wild reality,
And dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures, and the touch of joy;
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts,
They take a weight from off waking toils,
They do divide our being; they become
A portion of ourselves as of our time,
And look like heralds of eternity;
They pass like spirits of the past—they speak
Like sibyls of the future; they have power—
The tyranny of pleasure and of pain;
They make us what we were not—what they will,
And shake us with the vision that’s gone by,
The dread of vanished shadows—Are they so?
Is not the past all shadow?—What are they?
Creations of the mind?—The mind can make
Substances, and people planets of its own
With beings brighter than have been, and give
A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh.
A slumbering thought, is capable of years,
And curdles a long life into one hour.
GM: Awareness is the enemy of sanity,
For once you hear the screaming, it never stops.
Day ?, Month ?, Year?
The prison of her body cannot contain the madness of her mind. It blots out reality, casting her in the blackness of sanity eclipsed. Yet, in the darkness, there is sound. It fills the abyss: a terrible static. Endless, eternal, evermore.
But something else emerges from the static insanity: a signal.
Its piercing tone makes her ravaged psyche bleed, but it is all she has–all she has save the dark static of her soul.
Following, clinging to the tone, her psyche hears the signal transform. As it does, the static recedes. Not away from her, but deeper inside her. But it is quieter. The other sound breaks free of its tonal chrysalis. It unfurls its audial wings and alights upon Hazel’s senses. The echo of its resonant wings becomes a mechanical voice:
“You have a collect call from–”
Another flutter of audial wings changes the tone to something more organic, yet still alien:
“–The colors of the future.”
Another echo, and the return of the mechanical voice:
“Will you accept the charges?”
“Charges? Color? What charge–” It’s dark. Dark, like her hair is dark. Her hair is dark and black, and it’s good that it is, that she can’t see the hand that’s running over it, that’s running over her face, giggling, but there isn’t supposed to be a hand there, and she knows why, if she could just see if it wasn’t dark, she’d see–
“I accept! I accept! I accept!”
There is a click as the noise-moth dies. It plummets through the abyss, descending in a resonant spiral. Around and around. But its death-throes create an audial pathway for Hazel’s psyche to follow in the maelstrom of black madness. It leads her to a keyhole.
Inside is another abyss, black and lightless. But its darkness is not inviolate. As her mind presses to view inside its recesses, she becomes aware of numbers falling.
Their light cracks the stygian insanity. Ones and zeros. 1s and 0s. Streaming like green rain. A dichotomy upon which the universe can be expressed and programmed. But then the numbers shatter. Euclidean time-space fractures as the illuminated numbers disintegrate and transmogrify. They bend and break, shift and shuffle, merge and meld. And as the semiotic alchemy proceeds, Hazel senses new patterns. Sacred geometry. It burns like the kiss of the seraphim. Circles. Spheres. Nine and one. Ten. One and zero. One.
The images flicker like the closing and opening of the inner eye.
Numbers. There’s logic in numbers, the universal language everything is built off of, but it’s not the language she speaks. She’s never spoken the same language as the rest of the universe, never been tuned into the same frequency. The spheres, the letters. Symbols and visual aids she understands. They are her own her own order, her own 1s and 0s.
The flickering stream of numbers disappears. There is only the kaleidoscope-like spinning and rotating of the geometric patterns, whose depths she already seeks to plumb and configure.
And with that choice, her inner eye opens with white-fire burning away the blackness! Its gnostic flame illuminates the symbolism of the spheres: a sacred geometry. As the apocalyptic forms and geometric ratios unfold in her mind’s eye, her understanding of the secret universe unfolds, enlarges, alters, and awakens.
She beholds the Tree. The Tree, map of Transcendental Existence, unfolding from the Primordial Unity to the Infinite diversity of Manifested Reality, expressed according to a mathematical progression based upon the square root of three, the Metaphysical Trinity: Dynamism, Stasis, and Entropy. The Fruit of the Tree, its sephira or spheres are nine and one. The crown of Prime, the foot of Matter, and the other sacred seven between them: Life, Spirit, Mind, Force, Space, Time, Fate, and the tenth transcendental fruit that remains untasted, unknown, but not forbidden. This last fruit of Consciousness is the key to Superconsciousness to which all existence seeks to ascend.
But it awaits the one who walks within the Vesica Piscis–which signifies the mediation of two distinct entities; the complementariness of polar opposites, as when two extremes complete and depend upon one another to Exist: the Dialectic Monism. One circle may signify the Masculine, the other the Feminine. The Sleeper and the Awakened. The Sound and the Silence. The One and the Null, that in Grand Unity is the Womb of Quintessence and the Child of Ascension. In those gnostic-lit circles and its supernal mandorla, both Sleeper and Awakened perceive themselves
for the first time.
are the Key. Ascension awaits Them
As the door unlocks, the black abyss is replaced by a white one. Static returns, but it is silent. Outside it is snowing. Voices, male and female, break the white static’s silence.
“Slow down. You’re going too fast.”
“I’m ten under the speed limit.”
“I know. It’s just–”
Time and space fold into a singularity whose violent dissolution creates echoes that tear through their lives, taking, altering, transforming. Gravity lets go first. And they fly. The stoplight changes without warning, turning from its faint, safe green to a lurid black that devours the wintry light. Lydia slams on the brakes as another vehicle tears through the intersection. But the brakes have nothing to grip in the icy blizzard-rimmed roads of Witiko Falls. Their car slips and begins to spin. Around and around, like a reverse Flower of Life whose sudden, violent terminus is inevitably death.
The final impact causes the car to wrap around an old black-iron light-pole that bends, half-ripping from the ground. It crashes into a power-line. The cable snaps, showering the vehicle with its sparks that instantly evaporate the falling snow. One end writhes like a black dragon, spitting electric flame from its frayed mouth. Sound finally catches up like thunder after lightning. Glass breaks, tires screech. Metal groans as it painfully contorts in ways it never should. A family screams. And then there’s the deafening car horn that will not stop. That will not ever
Hazel’s mother does not move. The airbag cradles her unconscious face, spatters of blood and glass shards riddling her clothes and long black hair.
Hazel knows how this plays out. Knows her mother survives. She’s heard the story, in some form or other, a million times. But hearing isn’t seeing. And her mom. Who’s unconscious. Hazel always thought…
Where’s her dad? Her other
She knows there’s nothing she can do. But this is her first chance to see
him for herself. Did he have any… last moment with her? How did he die? And who was in that other car?
It’s his voice–a voice she’s since repressed. Its familiarity is reminiscent of a childhood blanket rediscovered in an old attic. But the pain in his voice is also all-too naked. He tries to swallow it. Without an airbag, her father’s face struck the glovebox in the impact, shattering his constantly worn sunglasses. As the shards fall away, they reveal a man with sallow–pale skin, short–cropped hair prematurely marked with white around his temples and forelock like stray microcosmic lightning through midnight. His features are a mix of oriental and occidental. But his facial appearance is most strongly defined by what it lacks: eyes. Born with the rare congenital defect known as anophtalmia, Hazel’s father turns to her with his eyeless face. A small rivulet of blood runs down his cheek like a tear he cannot cry. “It’s okay… to be afraid.”
He was… blind? Mom never mentioned that. He’s almost surely accustomed to it and has far graver concerns right now, so it seems almost pointless, but… Hazel feels sorry for how he can’t see. No, it’s not pointless. It’s as Mom said. Being only human.
He reaches a hand to his wife. Touching her in a way that is tender but otherworldly, as if his haptics transcend mere touch.
It’s such a comparatively minor thing, though, against what is to come. Why is it what’s making her cry? Would be making her cry, if she had eyes to weep with? I’m sorry. I…
The crushed passenger door is bent around and through her father. He coughs, and something red and bubbling flecks his lips. “Are you okay… Hazel?” He turns, painfully, and reaches for her.
Hazel: Yes, yes, I’m fine, I know I survive, it’s YOU who’s dying! It’s you you should be worrying about! Damn it all, where’s the police, where’s–where’s Dad–my other da… where!?
His fingers stretch as if to feel her face, her hands.
Her mind blinks away imagined tears. Why couldn’t he have gotten here FASTER!?
The horn keeps screaming. Sparks snake and sizzle the air, evaporating the blizzard in gouts of white vapor like the breath of a demon. Above, the baleful stoplight keeps ‘shining’ black, drinking in the pale wintry light. “Hazel… Daddy needs your help… can you… reach me?”
Hazel: I’m here, I’m here, I’m…
A long pause. Is he addressing… her?
His fingers plead and struggle to find her.
Hazel: No, it can’t be, he’s addressing the three-year-old who… where even is she?
realize that she is them, and they are she, at least in part. Hazel is witnessing these events from her three–year–old eyes, experiencing the tortured emotions of her old selves and new.
Hazel’s only three, she was always clumsy, but… now is not
the time to fall back on her disabilities. She’s comparatively uninjured by the crash, thanks to sitting in the back and in a booster seat. Her tiny, trembling fingers hit the release. She leans forward, her hands seeking out her father’s.
As the click echoes like another key turning in her mind, there is another sound that both she and her father hear.
Tears run down her youthful features as her mouth soundlessly moves. It’s still a little while before she utters her first words. No… this isn’t just her, this is me. SAY SOMETHING, you little shit! SAY SOMETHING!
The black car that almost hit them, that made them mortally swerve and crash, catches on fire. Its front is smashed into a local downtown antique shop–its driver lays impaled on the broken shards of the shattered windshield. As the flames lick up from the hood, the figure starts to scream. Hazel notes that the figure does not bleed–It leaks. Something oily and black rather than red issues from its torn frame. Its black suit, white dress shirt, and tie are torn, revealing something wrong
inside its chest cavity. Gears, pistons, cogs, and strange inhuman apparatus. A gust of white wind rips off its black hat, exposing similarly bizarre elements. The man-mockery screams again: but only deafening static comes out of its pipe-throat.
Her father looks up at the unsound
. Fear might wash over his eyes if he had any, but his jaw clenches. “Hazel… close your eyes… don’t… watch…”
Somehow, she always knew that it wasn’t natural. What happened that night. On another occasion, she might investigate the other driver more closely. No, she will
still investigate him. It.
But that doesn’t matter, not right now. She looks up at the brave, blind, and doomed man who was her first father through blurred eyes.
SAY SOMETHING! Just… just SAY SOMETHING!
She can feel the words, tries to make them well up in her younger self’s throat. She’s physically capable of speech! She’s…
This is just a mental block, like the anxiety attacks! Say something, you stupid little aspie! SAY SOMETHING!!!!
lifts its body from the burning car, its oil-blood leaking down its torn open chest. Its clothes catch fire, but it stalks uncaring to the Calloways’ car–and its occupants. To Hazel.
“Close your eyes!” her father shouts.
Hazel pulls at her younger self’s jaw with a set of metaphysical pliers. She knows what happens to her father, even if she’s no longer sure how
it happens. But there’s something she can give him before he dies. Maybe it’ll grant him some measure of happiness, however briefly, before he… NOW!!!!
Her eyes clamp shut. But her mouth forces open.
Although her physical eyes shut and block out the horror of the approaching thing
, her immaterial, awakened eyes remain open. They watch as her father’s fingers click and shift in prolix patterns like a programmer performing a yantra-esque hack into something
. His shape begins to transform. The light around him dims like a reserve halo. Then, he is illuminated by a field of tiny lights as if his features are cast in the glow of a giant monitor.
As the transformation continues, a mask appears over his face, its ancient features resembling a Japanese Noh mask. Her awakened eyes can taste the digital magic, the fruit of the Tree, as her father reaches for those lights. He grunts from the strain, blood beginning to leak from the painted nostril of his Noh mask.
reaches the car. It rips off Hazel’s door like wet tissue paper.
Hazel: Damn it, I can help, I can help, I can see the Tree too…!
Bound by father–daughter bonds she will later forget, the three–year–old keeps her eyes shut, blocking out the sight of the thing as it goes to reach for her.
That’s when the snapped power-line comes alive
and whips around the unman’s
ankles, dragging it back away from the car. Her father’s mask and lights flash brightly, his fingers flickering as he grunts and coughs. The frayed, sparking ends of the power-line rear up like a snake. It fangs the unman’s
exposed clockwork heart, pouring a million volts of electric venom into Hazel’s would-be attacker. The massive discharge causes the downtown’s electric boxes and electric network to spark and black out. The unman
writhes, its gaping mouth-pipe screaming static so loud that it breaks windows.
Hazel: He saved me. He died saving me. He…
The stoplight fries. Its blacklight dies. The writhing stops. The static recedes. The car horn becomes silent. Unconsoled, but silent. In the stark quiet that follows, Hazel can hear the snowflakes fall from the heavens. With her window ripped off, she feels their icy touch and the biting cold wind.
“Hazel…” Her father coughs, badly, painfully, and there is the sound of movement. Maybe something tearing. His fingers brush her face. “My dream… Hazel… can you… do something… for Daddy?” His fingers gently touch her face, as if to read her gestures.
Her tiny hands brush back. Yes, yes, anything, while there’s still time…
“We’re going to… play a… game…” There’s a wet, ragged cough, followed by a wheezing sucking sound. “Hide… and… seek… just keep… your eyes… closed…”
A game? This isn’t any time for games! He needs help, NOW
“I… have to… go… away…” Another shudder, cough, and visceral sucking sound. “But… you’ll… find me… you were… a…ways… be…t… at… se…k…ng.” His fingers touch her lips, pushing gently at a corner to ‘feel’ her smile. “Jus… list…n… lis…n… for… the col…rs…” Hazel’s awakened, wide-open inner eye watches as the reflective transphysical lights return. They flicker soft and dim like digital fireflies.
This word doesn’t take any great effort to coax forth in her younger self. “No!” A new wave of tears runs past her still-closed eyes as she sniffles, “No… Da… no! Don’t go! No! Don’t go!” He can’t go. Please, no.
“Th… c…l…rs… of… th… f…tur…” His hand falls away from her tear-wet face. The lights die. All save one. Its tiny, fragile light leaps like microcosmic lighting, disappearing into the wiring of the nearby payphone.
Her father breathes no more. Little Hazel sees none of it. There’s only the terrible absence. The silence of his voice. The abyss that will forever remain between her and his loving touch.
No! It’s not… if he had the power to, WHY
did he… could he let… they could’ve made this right! They could’ve fixed this! Somehow! Did he… did he even get to hear her? Or was it all something she imagined up, in hopes of granting some measure of last happiness to a tragically doomed man?
Hazel’s only answer is the silent, white-snow static that falls from the sky.
Hazel: Find me.
Yes, yes, he’s right, she’s always been good at finding things, at picking up patterns, she can find this… these….. colors? She can find them, whatever they are. Wherever they are. She just… has… to… wake up! AGAIN
As the three-year old Hazel cries and shivers, the colors of the past and present bleed together in flashing reds and blue. But the white-cold static washes out all shades and sounds.
The TV buzzes with flickering snow-like static. Secured to the upper corner of her private hospital room, the TV stares down at Hazel with its incoherent blur and mechanical hiss. Other medical apparatus beep and chirp like a broken electronic symphony. The walls and floor are an antiseptic white, broken only by the golden sunlight that filters through a curtained window.
Patterns. Patterns everywhere. In the thread of the sheets, the wiring of the lights, even the static blaring down from the television set.
Patterns. Patterns everywhere.
The underlying laws and logic to the cosmos, laid bare at least. Hazel cannot articulate them–not so soon, not when she’s never been the best at putting thoughts into words–but she knows
them. They wind through reality like the threads of a grand tapestry. Threads that she might gather up in her fingers, spin, snip, re-weave into new designs and patterns. Her tapestry. Her
reality. Reality is soft clay, malleable in her hands, and she has just learned how to sculpt. She’s had the blindfold removed. For the first time in her life, the universe makes sense
. Perfect and complete sense.
Attila has Awakened.
She feels the scream–of elation, triumph, anticipation, and a maelstrom of so many other emotions, welling in her chest like a hurricane about to make landfall. It’s all she can do to keep her mouth closed. She clenches her fists and smacks her bedding, rocking back and forth, giddy with… no. ‘Giddy’ is far too limiting a phrase. This is exaltation
, soul-deep and unlimited, infinite, all-encompassing. She is Awake!
It all makes sense!_
She calms after a moment, the grin disappearing from her features. A long-honed investigator’s eye apprises her surroundings. So. Her own private room. Mom likely paying for things, as expected. She’s not handcuffed to the bed. Nothing’s been proven. Nothing…
Dread sinks her stomach like a cannonball chucked into a bathtub.I killed them. The Sweeneys. I’m a murderer. No. No. No. That’s impossible, they never did anything to me, they…
The severed limbs flash across her newly-aware mind. The limbs. In her house. Hazel clenches her blankets and begins rubbing her hands against them, back and forth, back and forth. Concentrating on the sensation. They’re relatively soft, for a hospital bed’s. Nice to know she’s… the thought disappears as her mind plumbs for answers.
There might not be much time, and there’s so much at stake. She needs to act, and fast.
Her manic, fractured psyche reaches out for the spiral staircase, but she finds the handrails are gone. Only static remains. The TV buzzes, then abruptly changes its own channel. An image appears on the screen which rests on the squat side-table shoved in the other corner. Was it ever hovering above her in the other corner? Is space an illusion? A mutable phenomenon full of caprice and bereft of moorings–like her mind?
Another table sits beside the TV’s stand–although now Hazel cannot help but question what ‘beside’ means. Does it mean anything at all? Did it ever mean anything at all? Does anything anymore? But no, there is a glass table, a circle–in which she sees other circles, creating the vesicle piscis repeat again and again, around and around, to create the Flower of Life, just like how her family’s car swerved and spun, around and around, again and again. Now the circles are an illusion. Or are they? Is the table an illusion? She doesn’t know. Her eyes close, perhaps reflexively to shut out the madness.
But the madness is within. The static. She smells wine. Red. Red like the blood of Elouise Sweeney as it spurted on her husband’s face. It’s Barbaresco. She opens her eyes to see the lipstick imprint on the all but drained glass. The TV warbles into ‘focus’.
A face emerges on it. It’s eyes vacant save for an insatiable thirst and frenzied terror. The feminine thing howls and shrieks with an inhuman intensity that causes the video feed to crackle and distort. Points. Lines. Angles. That’s all it is. That’s all everything is.
But Hazel’s psyche sees the lines, points, and angles of the creature’s mouth. Teeth. Fangs. The shot pans out, revealing the seemingly possessed monster in a kevlar and chain-reinforced straightjacket shackled to a barren room. White-walled room. The mad woman-thing thrashes, but in vain. Two Spooks emerge in the far corners of the shot. Their plastic features obscured by their identical black hats, black glasses, and suits.
By virtue of some off–screen cue, the pair retracts a room divider, revealing the other side of the room–and most prominently a sunrise–capturing window. As the solar illumination fills the room, the fettered woman begins to smolder. Her skin blackens like burnt paper in a bonfire. As the paranormal immolation hideously consumes the frenzying monster, the audio feed of her screams is muted and another feed comes on playing the national anthem. A male voice-over joins it:
“REALITY DEVIANTS ARE EVERYWHERE! YOUR GOVERNMENT NEEDS YOU! JOIN THE CONSENSUS!”
Hazel can’t say she’s sorry to see the vampire
go up in flames. Far from the tragically misunderstood antiheroes of certain novels, all of her research–and the one she’s actually seen
with her own eyes–indicate they are nothing but monstrous parasites upon humanity.
But she’s not sure she trusts the men–the Spooks–who delivered the thing to its destruction (‘death’ seems inaccurate) either. She’s seen their methods up close and personal too. She’ll hold off on any joining until she’s done a lot
more research. Like what happened to her predecessor.
The TV shot zooms in as the government agents walk in eerie symmetry towards the now-empty straightjacket and chains. As the anthem ends, the male voiceover continues:
“WE CAN SET YOU FREE! JOIN TODAY! THERE IS SAFETY IN CONSENSUS!”
Even deranged as Hazel is, she picks up the not so subtle undertones of what might happen to those who don’t ‘join the consensus’.
The video is swallowed by static. One eye-blink later, the TV stares down at her again from the top of the other corner. There is no TV on a squat table. There never was. Distance is lie. So is sanity. A nurse walks into the illusion that her mind once recognized as a ‘room’.
Hazel sits up and regards the woman. “Hello. How long a duration have I been insensate for?”
The woman checks her ticking watch. Unlike her scrubs which bear Mount Pelion’s seal of Eris’ golden apple of Discord, her leather watch-band has the tooled shape of Proteus, the ever-changing one. “It’s Friday, October 10th, 1998… at 6:06 pm.” The nurse looks up and offers a smile that doesn’t yet reach her eyes.
The evening light casts sharp shadows across her face, but her features are still clear enough for Hazel to identify the nurse. It’s Mackenzie Snakewater, formerly Mackenzie Pinkston–her old queen-bee social tormentor in middle school. “Hello, Hazel,” her old school-mate says with a half-swallowed smirk. She looks over Hazel’s chart and then inspects the sling over Hazel’s arm and the splint on her thigh.
Hazel: Well, look who now wipes people’s asses for a living.
“Hello, Mackenzie. Please see to it that my parents are informed I am conscious and in such a state as to receive visitors.” Attila is prepared to be civil if her ire is not tempted.
“That will be up to the doctors to decide,” the dark-haired nurse says.
“Such is not within your power. I see. Please inform my assigned doctor that I am conscious and in such a state as to discuss whether I am able to receive visitors.”
“Speaking of doctors’ orders,” Mackenzie adds, pulling out a pill bottle with Hazel’s name printed on it, “You’re to take these. For the pain.” She lays out the nine pills in a shape that eerily resembles the nine fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
Nurse Pinkston then leaves.
“Nurse Pinkston!” Hazel’s voice sharply rings through the hospital room.
Already out the door, Mackenzie’s head pops back in. “Yes, Hazel?”
“What are you going to do when you have left my room, Nurse Pink–Snakewater.” Hazel’s tone is not one of someone asking a question. It is a reminder, sharp and pointed as a hospital scalpel.
“Follow my orders,” she says with a winsome smile. “As you should yours,” she says with a motioning gesture to the pills. “Best take a big drink first.”
Attila smiles back. “Repeat them for me, Nurse Snakewater, so I am certain they will be followed.” They are her
Likely to Hazel’s infuriation, Mackenzie laughs. Her voice is still pearly. “You know, Hazel, people change all the time. They really do. You should give it a try sometime. Maybe start by being less of a bitch. But if you want to cause a scene, I’ll just call some orderlies to sedate you.” She flashes Hazel another class-winning smile, then closes the door. It locks.
Hazel’s clear voice smugly sounds through the door. “Sedatives can take mere hours to wear off, Mackenzie. Evidence of infidelity with men twice one’s age, however, can permanently destroy a marriage.”
Her words refer Hazel’s pre-employment snooping on her old rivals. Mackenzie’s skeletons were perhaps the most surprising. Not only does Hazel know that Mackenzie married Hiram Snakewater, a half-blooded Kainai from the reservation–which was unexpected given Mackenzie’s racist predictions in grade school–but Hazel also followed Mackenzie on several late afternoon trysts to another man’s house. Each time, she arrived gussied up, and each time she left fatigued and disheveled, but clearly very, very satisfied. That the old queen bee would be so treacherous does not shock Hazel. Instead, it’s the identity of the ‘other man’ that still perplexes the bedridden librarian. Mackenzie Snakewater, her old classmate, is having an affair with her uncle, Leopold Schoening.
But despite that knowledge and her threat, the door remains locked. Perhaps Leo’s Lustprinzip
is just that good.
So be it. Attila does not threaten–only promise. Mr. Snakewater will be receiving some very
Locked inside with prescribed pills she knows nothing about, the hospital room takes on the menacing overtures of an asylum. One where she as the patient has no power. Yet, as Leo often reminds her, scientia potentia est
. Knowledge is power. And as she inspects the nine pills and their bottle, she gains power.
Besides which, the door could well be within her power to deal with. It wouldn’t be the first lock she’s picked. Some store merchandise, after all, is locked inside those pesky cases.
Beside the large glass of water, Hazel finds the pill bottle placed right where the tenth sephirot or fruit should be. The pill bottle’s overall appearance resembles that of all prescription bottles, save for the print that describes the medicine itself. Rather than a list of its name, dosage, and route, there is a passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost
In vain, though by their powerful Art they bind
Volatile Hermes, and call up unbound
In various shapes old Proteus from the Sea,
Drain’d through a Limbec to his native form.
Hazel knows that Milton’s passage signifies the association of Proteus with the Hermetic art of alchemy, and of those alchemists who sought the philosopher’s stone. More specifically, she recalls writings of the German mystical alchemist Heinrich Khunrath, who said that the shape–changing sea–god was, because of his relationship to the sea, both a symbol of the unconscious as well as the perfection of the Art. Alluding to the scintilla
, the spark from ‘the light of nature’ which may signify the awakening as well as the symbol of the anima mundi
, which may signify the tenth fruit which unifies them all, Khunrath in Gnostic vein stated of the Protean element Mercury: our Catholick Mercury, by virtue of his universal fiery spark of the light of nature, is beyond doubt Proteus, the sea god of the ancient pagan sages, who hath the key to the sea and… power over all things.
In more modern times, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung defined the mythological figure of Proteus as the personification of the sleeping unconsciousness, who is vast and pulled by tides both deep and strong, but is mutable nonetheless. Surrounding the pill bottle, which Hazel notes is now empty, are the nine pills. Each one has a single letter on it. For one who had not seen what her inner mind had seen, it would be almost impossible to know where to begin the ‘reading’. But the reference to the Hermitic arts of alchemy provide the clue: one must begin with the basest of matter. Matter. As Above, so Below.
Her mind summons up the tree and the base fruit of Matter, then follows the connections, reading each engraved pill-letter. V.I.T.R.I.O.L.V.M.
Even now, the message would be undecipherable to most, but Hazel has the key of knowledge, its edges honed through years of occult study. And so, she recognizes the meaning of the nine letters: Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem Veram Medicinam.
And its translation into her tongue: Visit the interior of the Earth; by rectification thou shalt find the hidden stone.
Moreover, she recalls the acronym has another hidden meaning, its letters signifying a green lion. Just like the one in Mrs. Griswold’s diary. Just as the green lion of vitriol dissolves all metals save the noble gold, the expression amongst Freemasony, Rosicrucianism, and Heremetism is a motto commonly found in the physically symbolic “Chamber of Reflection,” wherein the awakening initiate contemplates and reflects on the nature of death or dissolution of impurities in order to achieve internal, spiritual purification.
Interesting. Hazel sets the pills down–and as she does, she notices slashes on the bottle’s bottom. Two of them, in the form of the cross. Holding the orange plastic up to the light, the cross looks rose-colored.
So. Another present from Leo.
That alleviates some of her concern. There’s someone out there trying to help her. It even fits with how Mackenzie is her nurse: the former queen bee’s connection to Leo likely made it all the easier for him to discretely get the pills in.
But how does he know about the tree and its nine fruits? How does he know she can now taste them? Is he… like she now is? Awake?
Those aren’t questions she can answer now, but she’ll trust him–if you can’t trust family, who can you trust–and take the pills. The sole remaining question she can
answer is whether she should do that now or later. It’s possible she’s been involuntarily committed, for Mackenzie to actually lock her in. If that’s the case, the 24 hours she can be detained without a preliminary court hearing aren’t up yet. But there is a sure way to find out whether she’s being detained. She sets down the pills and waits for a moment, looking about the room.
She could try to escape. She could pick the lock, maybe exit through the window. If she’s not been taken into emergency custody, it’s her legal right to refuse medical treatment and leave the hospital at any time, even if it’s against her doctor’s advice. But even if she isn’t being detained, it’ll look suspicious as hell right now. The police–her dad among them–are most likely puzzling over the collection of dismembered body parts they found in her house.
The ones she
was responsible for.
That she now remembers.
She’s a murderer.
She brushes away the dampness in her eyes. Why? Dear god, why?!
What did the Sweeneys ever do to her? How could she–why did she–but she did.
There is blood on her hands. She doesn’t even know how it got there. I… I didn’t want to. I didn’t mean to. Please, I….. I didn’t!
she pleads, as if beset by the dead couple’s accusing faces. But she said it herself, to her dad in the car. Intentions count for little. Actions
are what matter. She was always a determinist. A utilitarianist. She buries her face in her hands, stifling a sob. I… I have to make up for this! I have to atone! Right my wrong, balance the figurative scales of justice–
But they’re dead.
She can’t bring them back. What can possibly atone for this, for the blood of two lives on her hands? Blood that she didn’t even remember
Marilyn. There’s Marilyn, their daughter. Their ghost. I… I must help her pass on. That’s what they would have wanted. I’m the only one who knows Marilyn’s story, I’m the only one who can do it! I can’t go to jail, I can’t–
Her face flushes with shame. She’s not facing reality. First, is that what Albert and Elouise would even want? Their killer to walk free, try to assist their daughter’s soul in finding rest? She doesn’t know. She’s never been much good at reading people. They’d probably want Marilyn to know peace, but at her
hands? Their murderer’s? Hazel scrambles for answers. What if they left behind shades of their own? She could seek them out, submit herself to whatever grim justice the restless dead might have in mind…
It’s poetic, certainly. Grand and noble. Let her victims decide her fate. After helping their daughter pass on. But it ignores a very real and very
pressing issue: she doesn’t know why she did it. She hardly remembers doing it. And until she does–_if_ she ever does–she is a danger to others. What’s to stop her from cutting up some other poor innocent couple and squatting in their house? And sending postcards. Postcards.
Good god, the lengths to which she went to deceive herself…
The hard and brutal truth is, she can’t be allowed to walk free. She can’t risk killing again. Not so she can ease her own poor conscience. Maybe institutionalization really is the best fate for her, if one is to consider the greatest good for the greatest possible number.
A mental institution. It’s what she’s always feared, since she first started researching what her ASD
meant. Since she found out about all the people who had it so much worse than she did. She thought she’d escaped their fate. But maybe not.
It’s too much to bear.
She downs the pills, tosses back a tall drink of water, and blissfully falls into oblivion.