~~~

This is not lookin’ good, boss. She knows your name. What else does she know?

That was a good question.

Russell carefully swung his legs back on the bed and remained sitting upright. He lifted his hands and said, “You are clearly in control here, Alysa. What do you want from me?”

“Straight to the point. I love that about you. You cede control immediately, hoping that I’ll keep talking while you continue to scheme, and then hit upon the only intriguing question of relevance to keep me talking. Bravo. You play this game very well, Russell.”

“Don’t call me that. Whatever you think you know about that name and who it belongs to, you would be wise to forget it if you value your pathetic existence.”

“Threats… really? Okay, Russell. Let’s talk about the question then: ‘What do I want from you?’ Here are some answers: Maybe I’m like the mugger who, after you’ve given me your wallet, car keys, and the clothes off your back, I’m still standing there with a gun in your face expecting more. And you’re the victim who stares back at me in horror when you realize that I wanted none of these material things because all you’ve left to give me is your life. Maybe I already stole everything I wanted from you and now I intend you kill you in some slow demeaning way that gives me some sick perverse pleasure. Or, maybe I want to turn you into my sex slave. Or, maybe I just want you to keep this crazy woman company by forcing you to stay in that bed for the rest of your days. Maybe I want to know where the rest of your friends are hiding so I can go murder every one of them while you remain helpless on that bed to do anything about it. Maybe you and I are already dead and I’m the fucking ghost sent here to torment you for all your past sins… the list goes on and on… pick any answer you want. Hell, make up your own, I don’t care. But your question is a good one.”

Maybe we could slit the cunt’s throat, rip out her fuckin’ tongue, and then throw it in the fire. What do you say to that answer, boss?

Russell stared into Alysa’s eyes and found no vulnerability in them. She could clearly kill him and not think twice about it afterwards. He frowned and said, “Who are you? This is all obviously an elaborate farce. I just don’t understand why you’ve gone to all the trouble to deceive me, Alysa… if that’s even your real name.”

She stepped closer and smiled. “What I can’t figure out, Russell, is what you’re hiding behind all those walls of darkness you’ve erected. Clearly you’re a killer, but even a murderer needs a motive… a mission.”

Russell’s eyebrows shot up. What have I told this psycho? No matter what she knows, I need to misdirect her attention away from Gina… everything else is irrelevant.

“Your fixation… your obsession with the red-headed leader of your group seems to be the key to everything, but I can’t figure out why.” Alysa started pacing. “What makes her so special? It’s certainly not love or lust or anything else like that… no… you’ve already proven to me that a woman’s flesh is meaningless to you without the cause.”

Well hell, so much for that, boss.

Russell gave her a hard look. “I don’t know what you expect to accomplish here. Are you trying to break me? Crack my head open and analyze me? You’re wasting your time. I’m not like the rest of you who still play by the rules of an obsolete world. In fact, my world… my cause… is beyond you. I’ve been hiding in the shadows of your pathetic world waiting for this moment… waiting for Death to finally come out and reveal all. You are not worthy of my words or my time. So if it’s my death that you require… then have at it already. You don’t know me or who I serve, witch. And I do not fear anything you can do. I’ve been prepared to face Death before you were born!”

Alysa’s eyes lit up. “That’s it, isn’t it? You consider yourself called to a higher purpose! You’ve always believed this, and now, now that the world has changed, you can feel Death’s call upon your heart more clearly than you’ve ever felt it before.”

Russell ignored her.

Alysa shook her head and laughed. “Oh, Russell, your silence doesn’t matter now. You’ve told me your whole story several times. And each time you’ve told it, you’ve made it clear who is at the center of it all. Gina Melborn, the ultimate quest. You don’t love her like a man loves a woman, but you love her nonetheless. You love the idea of what she represents to you. Does that make her your goddess?”

Russell murdered the woman with his eyes.

“No… she’s much more than that, isn’t she? She has to be.” Alysa stopped and pointed at him. “Gina is the validation of your existence. Without her, your life’s as meaningless as you keep claiming my life is.”

“I don’t know what your end game is, bitch, but know this: When you lower your guard… and you will… I will take great pleasure in removing you from this life.”

Alysa laughed. “Threats… promises of death… glaring looks… is that all you have to offer?” She stepped in closer and met his gaze with stone. “Do you really believe I fear anything you could do to me that hasn’t already been done? Are you really that naïve?”

“I know that you’re afraid,” Russell said. “All of you are afraid. You can’t help it. Fear has been your master since birth and you know nothing else.”

She flashed him a wicked smile. “Fear, my master? Well, that’s very interesting, Russell. Your arrogance in believing that you are the only one capable of seeing beyond the veil of lies created by our now dead society is your undoing. Could it be possible that you are not the only one on a mission? Or does your calling prevent you from seeing the bigger picture?”

“And what mission might that be?” he fished.

She pretended to speak and then put a finger over her mouth. “You’re not ready to hear what I know, Russell. You’re close… but still broken like the rest of these animals roaming the world.”

“And you fill the air with empty words while you hide from the world. You make me sick. When Death comes to cleanse this place… and she will… you, and the others like you, will have no place by her side. She will leave you here to rot and wallow in your pointless existence.”

Alysa said nothing.

“Now let’s get on with this. Kill me or let me go. Either way, just shut your fucking mouth because I’m done hearing your worthless words.”

She squatted down near the bed and looked up at him. “And where would you go? Back to your precious Gina? Back to your fruitless cause?”

Russell looked away.

Alysa smiled. “Of course you would. Assuming she isn’t already dead.” She stood up and sighed. “And I had so hoped we would have more time to talk. There is still so much more you need to learn.”

Russell laughed but refused to look at her. “And what would you teach me, cunt? How to manipulate, seduce and torture? Do you really think any of this matters? You’ve kept me here, poked into my mind, tried to fuck me in more ways than one, and still you miss the entire point.”

“And that is?”

He turned to her, his eyes ablaze. “That Death is coming to take her rightful place. And only those who have proven themselves worthy of her call will matter in the end. You demean others, strip them down and reduce them to nothing in order to elevate yourself. You pride yourself in your abilities to rise above your victims, look down upon them with your haughty tongue and clever wiles, but in the end you are still right back where you started. You are nothing. Nothing can’t be made into something, no matter how hard you try to become valuable in my eyes… and that’s the only way the illusion you’ve created has any life. But you are nothing to me… and so nothing you will remain.”

Alysa looked like she wanted to pounce on top of him and rip his eyes out. But she maintained her calm exterior.

Nice try, boss. Anyone else would have taken the bait and attacked. This one’s a cautious piggy.

Indeed, he had hoped she would lash out and give in to anger. Anger he understood. Anger was a weakness he could exploit.

She looked down at the floor, smiled, and then shook her head. “Russell, you are an interesting man if nothing else. But in the end, you’re still just a stupid man.”

“Sticks and stones, bitch,” he said with a smile. “And round and round we go.”

Alysa laughed and then got up and walked back toward the window. “I could kill her, you know. You’ve told me about your compound in the burnt wilderness preserve. I could eventually find it and worm my way into your little community. Then I could win her trust, get close to her, and simply kill your precious Gina while she slept. And then you would also be nothing.”

“And then the hunt for your end would become my purpose,” he added.

She turned. “Relax. I would not dare reduce your existence to something as petty as revenge. I would never be able to forgive myself.”

Russell simply stared at her.

Alysa walked toward the fire. “I hate the winter. No matter what I do-”

“No matter what you do you can’t shake the cold from your bones,” Russell finished. “It gets inside of you and then never lets go.”

She smiled at him. “Yes. On that we can certainly agree.” She moved over to the fireplace and squatted down near a pile of wood. She started placing logs on the fire. “There’s no explosives beneath the bed. You’re free to leave. You’re wounds have healed enough to travel, just be mindful of the sprained foot. Try to keep pressure off it as much as possible. The hounds don’t hunt during the day so you should be able to make it out of the woods before dark. Just head north and you’ll find a road. From there, you’ll be able to make it back to your precious Gina.”

Russell waited for more but Alysa offered no catch.

“You clothes and gear are beneath the bed,” she added. “Now get the fuck out of here before I change my mind.”

He continued to stare at the back of the strange woman. She was now stirring her pot of soup.

You know she’s full of shit, boss. There’s no way in hell she lets you just stroll on out of here. This is just more fuckin’ foreplay.

Perhaps. He had to know more. “What you told me about Michael, was it the truth, or just more lies?”

Alysa refused to look at him. “What you’ve done, what I’ve done… what does it matter now? The Past is a persistent enemy who is always trying to meddle and remain where it doesn’t belong.”

Fuck this Yoda bullshit, boss. I say, call her bluff. She don’t mind you getting’ off the bed… it’s getting’ to the door that’s gonna be the problem.

Russell agreed. He moved slowly toward the edge of the bed, managed to get his good foot on the ground, and then committed to standing up, using the nightstand to support himself.

The bed did not explode.

He looked over toward Alysa. She still ignored him. She was now sitting cross-legged in front of the fire in what appeared to be a meditative posture. He wasn’t certain, but it looked like she was moving her lips and … praying?

Fuck it, he thought. Russell felt dizzy and weak from lying prone for so long. He ignored his discomfort and put a little weight on the heel of his bad foot. The pain was immediate as it shot up his leg. He grimaced and then leaned forward on the toes of the foot and the pain was bearable. Yes, he could hobble his way out of here, but it would take time. He carefully moved down to his knees, keeping his bad foot elevated, and looked beneath the bed. There was a pile of neatly folded clothes placed on top of his small pack. What surprised him was finding his machete still attached to the pack.

Russell concentrated on getting dressed. If the woman was watching him or planning on moving in to take advantage of his vulnerable state, he could still retrieve the weapon and catch her by surprise. But nothing happened.

After dressing and putting on his coat and pack, Russell pulled himself back upright, the cold handle of the machete in his hand, and he moved toward the closest wall that would lead him to the front door, opposite the fireplace.

Alysa continued to drift off into the fire. It was as if she’d completely forgotten that Russell was in the room.

The stupid bitch wants to die, boss. I say we accommodate and then throw her fuckin’ body in the fire.

Russell started moving along the wall, feigning more effort than it required to gain her attention and offer her an opportunity to get up and stop him. She continued to stare into the fire. When he reached the front door, he reached for the door knob, expecting it to be locked. It wasn’t. Russell opened the door and let in the daylight. It stung his eyes but he quickly adjusted. Instead of exiting, he leaned up against the wall and stared at Alysa’s back.

The woman appeared to stop praying and tossed another log into the fire. “What is it… are you afraid you’ll miss me when you’re gone?” she teased. “No tricks. I said you’re free to go and I meant it. Just shut that fucking door on your way out. You’re letting in all the cold.”

“Why?” he asked.

Alysa smiled but refused to turn around. “‘Why’ did I do all of this… or… ‘why’ am I letting you go now? Does it really matter? I have my reasons. Let’s just say that I’m a sucker for a man with a cause… even if it’s misguided.”

Russell stared at the woman’s back, irritated that he couldn’t look into her cold eyes once more. She had to know that it bothered him, which just meant that he had told this witch far too much about himself.

You know ya’ can’t leave this bitch alive, boss. She’s either fuckin’ with you right here and now, or she gave you bullshit directions and she intends to take you outside.

Russell had already considered this and ruled it out. No. Alysa was a clever woman. She had to know that if she provoked him or tried to corner him, he would strike back with all he possessed. She had to know how foolish and dangerous that was. She already knew he was a dangerous man.

Just kill the fuckin’ cunt and be done with it! The other one was showing his usual impatience. Always a slave to the bloodlust, the savage could never see the bigger picture. He just wanted his brutality satisfied and Alysa’s blood all over the walls of this hellish cabin. But Russell could clearly see that there was more going on in this moment, enough to recognize that he had to be extremely careful with his next decision.

“Why would you turn your back after discovering who I really am?” he finally asked.

“Ah… that persistent ‘Why’ again. Doesn’t matter. I still have the advantage.”

“How so?”

She laughed. “Who am I, Russell?” she countered.

Russell gripped the machete handle tightly in his non-bandaged hand. He desired her death, almost as much as the savage, but he hesitated. “You are someone who has seen my true face. You may not understand what you’ve seen… but you’ve seen it. You must have known what that meant when you let me get this far… and what I must do now?”

Alysa laughed lightly. “Yes… I know your secrets. I know who you really are… in part, at least. But I also know that you value this new opportunity our present world now affords.”

“And what’s that?”

“A chance to finally be known. No more secrets. No more shadows. No more masks and deception. You must admit, Russell, a part of you has to be a little relieved for someone to finally see you… the real you… and to find someone who is not afraid of you.”

Russell had no response.

Kill her now, boss! NOW!

“We are more alike than you know, Russell,” she continued. “Different… but not so different. I think a better part of you longs for acceptance. With me, you have that. I don’t choose to let a killer loose on the world. I choose to let a misunderstood man free to find his way in a new world where the lines between Man and Monster are just as misunderstood.”

Russell had already closed the gap between them while she spoke. He raised the machete for the blow that would remove the witch’s head from her shoulders. But still, he hesitated.

It’s more poison, boss! It’s in the water, in the soup, and pouring out of her fuckin’ mouth to infect your ears! End this bitch! She is dangerous.

Of that he was certain. But he needed to know, needed to look once more into Alysa’s eyes and discover the truth before he hacked her to pieces. “I was wrong about you in only one regard,” Russell whispered, expecting her to turn now that she knew how close her death was.

Alysa did not turn. She continued to stare into the fire. She smiled and said, “I’m touched, Russell. To have started from nothing to at least being worth saving in your eyes is humbling. But like you, it is not my time yet. Death has given both of us purpose, and she will see us both to the end.”

Russell was thrown off-guard by her words. His hand shook. The machete felt surprisingly heavy. Almost every part of him boiled for her blood. He wanted to commit such savagery on her flesh and make her scream until she choked on the blood of her words. And yet, he continued to pause. She’d struck a chord with him that he couldn’t deny. No one had ever come this close to seeing him, to truly seeing him for what he was… what he was destined to be.

KILL THIS FUCKING DEMON, BOSS! RAPE HER WITH THAT FUCKING BLADE!

“There is nothing more to be said, Russell,” the witch continued. “You’ve a choice to make. Either kill me and wound yourself, or leave… and return to Gina. I could’ve killed you many times, but chose to heed to the one who calls us both. Regardless, we who do not fear Death, wait to embrace the Lady who comes to take this world. What happens now, is entirely up to her.”

Russell lowered the machete and slowly backed away.

She’s playin’ you, boss! Distorting things you’ve told her in your fucked-up drug-induced state! Just kill her and be done with it!

No. He couldn’t… wouldn’t risk it. He would have to consider Alysa’s words, but for now, he had to survive and get back to Gina. He focused on that and he turned and headed for the door.

You’re a damn fool, boss. You leave this snake alive and I guarantee you, she’ll come back to bite you!

Russell could not deny the savage’s wisdom. But he couldn’t take the chance and kill this woman if anything Alysa said was true. What if the Lady, herself, had orchestrated this meeting? He trembled at that thought.

The other one laughed inside his head.

Before he exited the cabin, Alysa spoke once more, causing him to pause in the doorway. “When you get back to your people… to Gina… you need to warn them. The ones you call the Shadow Dead will be coming for them now that the winter has passed. If you can’t talk her into leaving… there will be more death.”

Russell didn’t bother turning back. He faced north and departed the cabin, entering the unfamiliar woods.

For a long time he refused to stop as he continued to press on through the forest, oblivious of all threats around him, unconcerned about the stress he was putting on his weakened body. He needed as much distance as he could manage between himself and the strange woman in the woods. Russell believed that if he stopped and turned back to track his progress, he would see the cabin and discover Alysa staring at him from the doorway, as if trapped there no matter how hard he tried to get away.

Give it a rest, boss. The bitch is long gone. She ‘ain’t following us. She’s probably sitting exactly where we left her in front of the fuckin’ fireplace.

Russell finally gave in and stopped for a brief rest and to take the stress off his sprained ankle. He sat down, his back against a large tree, and stared at his bandaged hand that started to throb again. She said I burned myself on the lantern. But his drug-induced memory or hallucination said otherwise.

I wasn’t there for that party, boss. You said she branded you. Are you sure the bitch wasn’t lying? It couldn’t have all been a fucked-up dream.

Russell stared at his hand as he remembered something. “‘You’re mine now’… that’s what she said after branding me.”

He suddenly needed the bandage gone. Russell slowly removed the gauze from around his palm until his hand was free. He stared at his burned palm for a long while and started calculating again.

Well isn’t that a sonofabitch, the other one remarked.

Branded into his flesh was a three-pronged symbol with a large eye at the top.

~~~

After Russell Bower departed, Alysa let out a deep breath and let her tense shoulders slump. That had been close to ending very badly, she thought. She raised the serial killer’s utility knife she had kept hidden in her hand and watched the firelight flicker off the small blade. She slowly got up, walked over to the door, and closed it. Alysa remained by the door and stared around at the safe house she had stayed at for most of the winter.

“Goodbye,” she announced to the gloomy cabin with a smile. Her work was done here. When she departed the next morning, she would burn it all to the ground and never look back.

Alysa walked over to a large chest in the corner of the cabin, to the left of the large fireplace, and opened it. She stared once more at Russell’s small blade, the one she’d found fastened to his forearm when she’d first found him and stripped him. The things we hold on to, she thought with a smile.

Alysa started having second thoughts about letting Russell go. He could decide to return this evening, using the darkness to catch her unprepared and kill her in her sleep. She knew she could leave now, hunt the man down, and finish this. She shook her head and smiled. “No. We will meet again, but not like that.”

She removed her large cloak from the top of the chest, revealing several strange items which once held special significance in her life. She then tossed the utility knife into the chest. It landed between a black longbow and a black quiver full of arrows. Beneath the bow was a dark metallic suit full of various electronics, two gauntlets with razors for fingers, and a large cow-skull looking helmet.

~~~

Next Episode 38-1

Previous Episode 37-14

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 37-15: Through the Eyes of a Devil” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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